|Previous Section||Home Page|
The Secretary of State must understand that real and strong arguments have been advanced in respect of small communities in south Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda put a compelling case for the Rhondda. He knows the difficulties in the mid-valleys area of Mid Glamorgan and the concern in towns such as Neath, Port Talbot and Llanelli and in the rural parts of Wales, such as Meirionnydd and Montgomery. If, having made the concession on Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, which I unreservedly welcome, the Secretary of State were prepared to make another concession and allow 24 authorities--I do not suggest that that would be adequate--and if he undertook now to allow the Committee to reflect natural justice, I am sure that he would find it possible to achieve greater agreement on the proposals.
Mr. Roger Evans : The hon. Gentleman told us that his party's policy was to have a Welsh assembly plus a larger number of unitary authorities. Does that mean that Labour policy for Gwent, for example, is that there should be a number of unitary authorities, such as Newport, Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent ?
Mr. Davies : I am not sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. If we had a Welsh assembly and a pattern of between 25 and 30 unitary authorities, we would wish to discuss the details with the local authorities involved. We should really be debating the proposals before us, Madam Deputy Speaker, rather than the Labour party's proposals, but I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman's question.
The hon. Member for Monmouth must understand that, in any pattern of local government for Wales that included between 25 and 30 unitary authorities, there would clearly be unitary authorities in places such as Newport, Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. I have already said at least twice that I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement today that there will be a unitary authority for Blaenau Gwent. I
Column 770assure the hon. Member for Monmouth that, if we had a unitary authority for his part of the world to replace Monmouth district council, it would be called Monmouth, not Monmouthshire.
Mr. Davies : Our policy has been absolutely clear at every stage. I have had discussions with the leaders of Gwent county council. Councillor Graham Powell is a model of moderation, and my colleagues and I have had many warm fraternal discussions with him and with his good friend Harry Jones, the leader of Newport council. On several memorable occasions, we have even met in the same room.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is complete unanimity in Wales. All the Labour leaders of local authorities in Wales--that means all the Labour -held county councils and district councils--have put their names, as has every Labour Member of Parliament, to the document that we issued in February last year, which made clear our proposals for the reform of government in Wales, based on a directly elected assembly and a pattern of between 25 and 30 unitary authorities. Naturally, the existing pattern of district and county councils would then be abolished.
Mr. Davies : With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I must say that, with the exception of the hon. Member for Clwyd, North-West (Mr. Richards), I am happy to take interventions from any hon. Member who I believe has a proper interest in the matter under discussion. I know that the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) had a former-- [Interruption.] There is no need for Conservative Members to chatter at me. I well know who he is, and of his former role in the Association of District Councils. I am concerned with democratic government in Wales, and I am happy to discuss that with anyone who receives a mandate from Wales, who stands for election in Wales or who creates policies that are chosen by the people of Wales. I am sorry, but I do not recognise the hon. Member for Bromsgrove in that context.
I shall now proceed with the rest of my speech.
The central flaw in the Bill is clearly demonstrated in part I. The Secretary of State wants to create unitary authorities, yet if they are large enough to be viable they will be too large to reflect identifiable local communities and historic boundaries. For reasons of dogma and party
Column 771political interest, the right hon. Gentleman cannot accept the solution that is not only logical but commands overwhelming popular support--more unitary authorities with our all-Wales tier of government.
The Secretary of State's response has been to introduce two elements to the Bill, both of which fundamentally weaken it by undermining the principle of unitary authorities. The first is the concept of decentralisation, which was mooted last summer in an attempt to reconcile conflicting interests in Powys and is enshrined in clauses 27 and 28. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) was quick to point out the flaws in the Secretary of State's argument. I was singularly unimpressed by the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that the Committee would have to come up with suggestions on how the proposal could be financed.
If the proposal for decentralisation works, it will undermine the Powys unitary authority. If it does not work, it will fail to meet aspirations for local self-determination, especially those expressed by Montgomery district council. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) christened that the "Powys pudding". The chairman of Montgomery district council, David Jones, wrote to me this week to say that the "Redwood recipe" for the "Powys pudding" was fatally flawed. Indeed, that was the almost universal view in the House of Lords and on all sides in local government in Wales.
Mr. Redwood : Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he thinks that the recipe is so unattractive that no one will wish to mix the ingredients up and eat it ? I suspect that there would be deep resentment in Wales if the enabling power were stripped out, because many local communities would welcome it. Does he agree ?
Mr. Davies : I agree that the provision is included in the Bill to meet an inherent defect, which is especially relevant to a county such as Powys. If the right hon. Gentleman had made the concession demanded by the people of Powys and parliamentarians who represent Wales, there would have been no need for the compromise arrangement. The second element relates to joint boards and joint working arrangements. A properly constructed system of unitary authorities should have no need of those arrangements, which will be an insecure base for the planning and delivery of services in the medium to long term. The compromise in the arrangements will be prone to lowest common denominator services and will lack the consistency and clarity of decision making that a single authority can provide. Even worse, as the number of joint arrangements increases--as it inevitably will if smaller local authorities wish to provide services--the system will come to resemble a two-tier structure, except that there will be the disadvantage that the upper tier will be neither directly elected nor directly accountable.
One way to obviate some of those difficulties would be to allow greater cross-border trading, especially in professional services and sectors of specialist expertise. If the Bill proceeds, clause 25, which gives great power to the Secretary of State, will need close scrutiny. The fear shared by all who care for local government is that the Bill may become a charter for privatisation because of that provision.
In any event, the Bill's assault on the principle of social services committees, the prior removal of mandatory education committees--to which the hon. Member for
Column 772Ceredigion and Pembroke, North referred--and the renewal of compulsory competitive tendering after reorganisation are a further step towards the destruction of publicly delivered services in Wales.
In part II, in addition to clause 25, clauses 19, 20, 23 and 24 confer on the Secretary of State powers over local government. Clauses 27 to 33 in part III confer more such powers on him. Given the demonstrable incompetence and undemocratic nature of the Welsh Office, that centralisation of power is reason enough to oppose the Bill.
Little attention has been given to the interests of the 140,000 local government employees, many of whom face worry, insecurity and possible redundancy. Many have given a lifetime of dedicated public service. I hope that the employment of all those people will be protected by transfer to the new authorities. I welcome the Secretary of State's announcement that he will allow flexibility and consider the options in Committee. I am also grateful that he has announced a compensation scheme in clause 44.
I welcome the establishment of the staff commission. Should the Bill proceed, I trust that the Secretary of State will do all that he can to ease the worry of staff during the transitional period. The Bill heralds turbulent years for local government. The reorganisation that it proposes will be costly and controversial. Much of Wales will be badly served by it. It contains proposals that are badly thought out, undemocratic and deeply flawed. Many Conservative Members, including Ministers, have made clear their intention to oppose the introduction of similar measures for their county councils in England. It is a sad reflection on our democracy that they are asked to vote tonight to enforce on Wales a system that they would reject for Somerset, Hertfordshire or wherever. If the Bill succeeds on that basis, it can proceed only in a Committee packed with compliant Back Benchers without an interest or a mandate in Welsh affairs. If it passes into law, my hon. Friends and I will not regard it as the end of the process ; rather, it will be the start of the process of the reform of Welsh government. That reform will become more radical, more democratic and more relevant to the needs of Wales when the Government are thrown out at the next general election.
Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : I have two interests to declare. The first is pecuniary--I am a consultant with solicitors Dyson Bell Martin, whose clients include local authorities in Wales. The second--an interest in legislation of this type--goes back many years. Ten years or more ago, in my capacity as the leader and subsequently chairman of the Association of District Councils, I held discussions with leaders of Welsh district councils about abolishing the county councils in Wales. They were keen advocates of the introduction of smaller unitary local authorities. Their trust has been let down by the Labour party, which wants to torpedo the legislation that those leaders have been seeking for more than 10 years. Their interests are not being represented by the Labour party.
The Bill represents an opportunity for local government to be a significant force in Wales. It gives a chance for communities to be more closely identified with local government and for councils to be more imaginative and innovative in their approach to community problems. Such
Column 773an approach has been denied to district councils in the past because so many functions have been undertaken by larger county councils.
The Bill represents the chance for a better future for local government in Wales and it should not be cast aside in the dismissive manner proposed by Labour Members.
Mr. Alex Carlile : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving his vision of successful, small unitary authorities. Does he agree that, 10 years ago, when he had those discussions, he envisaged unitary authorities similar to the ancient county of Montgomeryshire ? Will he give an assurance that if he is a member of the Committee he will vote for a unitary authority in Montgomery ?
Mr. Thomason : The size of local government units is critical. I think that the Rowntree Foundation has argued that it is viable to have units of 25,000 people-- [Hon. Members :-- "25,000 ?"] It is argued that units of that size are viable. The local government reforms were introduced in the first place in 1974 to create authorities with proper career structures for officers and with a proper committee structure to deal with important policy issues. Therefore, there is a nice balance to be arrived at between a minimum size for local authorities on the one hand and a proper career and committee structure on the other. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) contended that area offices were not an appropriate way to deal with social services functions. I think that that was the hon. Gentleman's argument. Of course, there is a difference between an area office that is carrying out an administrative role and a fully accountable unit of local government.
I have great sympathy with the arguments advanced by authorities such as Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnor. However tempted one may be by the proposals in the Bill that allow for a decentralisation mechanism to be introduced, which may address those subjects, one must balance the need for creating a properly resourced local authority unit reflecting the needs of a community.
In some instances the community issue will be so strong that it may be appropriate for a smaller authority to be introduced. However, there may be other occasions--the vast majority of local government units will fall into that category--where the size requires something a little larger. With Montgomeryshire and Brecon and Radnor there is the delicate balancing exercise to be made of whether it might be appropriate for them to be individual units.
Mr. Alex Carlile : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He gives us the great advantage of his expertise on such matters. Does he agree that a strong natural community with ancient roots and 57,000 people is a viable basis for a unitary authority ? Can he answer yes or no ?
Mr. Thomason : I consider that it is a viable basis, provided that the community interest is as strong as the hon. and learned Gentleman is inferring. I believe that it is possible to have a unit of that size. However, there is a downside to the argument, and that is that the quality of the staff and their career prospects, and the committee structure for the elected members which may be introduced, may not be as strong as would be the case in a Powys authority with decentralisation. As I have already
Column 774made clear, the argument is a fine one. I have much sympathy with the hon. and learned Gentleman's argument that there is a case for Montgomeryshire being an authority on its own, as for Brecon and Radnor.
Mr. Kinnock : I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman's experience in local government. However, I must say that, in speaking in support of the Local Government (Wales) Bill, he is fulfilling the function of someone who kicks the ball high into the back of the crowd and, without having time added on for injury, wastes a considerable portion of the game. I suppose that by speaking in support of the measure he is talking his way on to the Committee that will deal with the Bill. What strong and repeated representations has he made to the Government in support of a proposition that the Government should impose on England exactly the same sort of measure as is being imposed on Wales ?
Mr. Thomason : I have encouraged the Government to proceed with local government reorganisation in England. I wish that we were debating a smaller measure for England today. I make no apology for saying that. My position is absolutely clear : I want a reorganisation of local government in England based on smaller unitary authorities introduced as quickly as possible because it will serve both the national interests and the interests of local government that much better. I assure the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) that I am making no bid to serve on the Committee that will deal with the Bill. However, I am happy to support the Bill because of the important steps that it makes. I return to what I was saying a few moments ago. The great mistake of the local government reorganisation in 1974 was to abolish many proud county boroughs such as Cardiff--places that had a long tradition, and an understanding of where their people stood and what their problems were--and to impose a county council covering a wider and more remote area. Those reforms were wrong.
Mr. Thomason : The reforms were wrong, whoever introduced them. Attempts by Labour Members to sabotage the Bill today is not a constructive way forward. I understand that some of them have difficulty understanding such matters.
The history of local government is one of continuity, to which this Bill will add. When the 1974 reforms were introduced, the philosophy of the day was that size mattered--the big unit offered opportunities for savings and the organisation, above all, should be
self-sufficient : for example, it could have its own in-house violin or oboe teacher ; it could provide all the services within its own boundaries ; and it could service a mainframe computer and all the staff who went with it. However, those days have changed. There is no need now to talk of self- sufficiency within local government. There is no need to argue the case that big is beautiful because a smaller unit, by contracting out its services and sharing its facilities with other local authorities, is well able to provide the full range of local government services, often more efficiently and effectively than those provided by the previous in-house services.
Column 775tried to discover what would be an ideal size. The hon. Gentleman is constructing an argument on what is a reasonable size and saying that small is beautiful. Can he put a figure on that for an urban area ? I know that the Secretary of State does not want him to do so because of the peculiar way in which the Secretary of State's mind works. Can the hon. Gentleman put a figure on that ? He has much more experience than the Secretary of State.
Although it is clear that an authority with more than 150,000 inhabitants, say, can provide a worthwhile structure, it could be argued--I believe that it is right so to argue--that much smaller authorities are appropriate, depending on the strength of community which attaches to them. One must balance those two aspects. It is a perfectly legitimate and proper process to do that. There may be a strong case for the establishment of an authority such as Montgomeryshire, with 57,000 people, because it has a long tradition.
Equally, one can think of other examples of authorities of about 100,000 people where the strength of identity and traditions may not be sufficient to warrant its independent existence. Those matters must be looked at case by case. It depends on the individual authority--its community identity and traditions. One should avoid making wide generalisations in the way that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) is seeking to do. He is trying to impose a blueprint, a formula, across the whole of Wales. That will not work. He should know and appreciate that Wales has a much richer pattern than that.
Mr. Rogers : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. If he is saying that in the parameters or guidelines that the Secretary of State should adopt--I wish the Secretary of State would listen to some sound advice from his more knowledgeable Back Benchers--there should be a marriage between the size of the authority and its traditions and background, what advice would he give to the Secretary of State with regard to the Rhondda Valley ? That council is the only one that has maintained its boundaries. It is probably the most famous community in Wales, yet the Secretary of State refuses to accept that it could be a unitary authority. It has never been anything other than the Rhondda Valley. Could the hon. Gentleman tell the Secretary of State how, in order to follow his argument, he could gauge the feelings of the people in the community ?
Mr. Thomason : I have already made clear the balancing act that must be undertaken between the considerations of efficiency and size and there is no need for me to repeat the arguments. If the hon. Member for Rhondda could not understand them, I am sure that he will read Hansard and they may be clear to him tomorrow.
I was talking a moment ago about the ability to move away from the requirement of self-sufficiency in local government. Smaller councils have the opportunity of contracting out services which allows them to use the services of a large operator. The operator may be able to provide extensive services in a regional sense, yet the services might be specifically honed, in a contractual arrangement, with that local authority to meet its specific requirements. It follows that size is no longer anywhere near as important, although it has some importance.
Column 776Equally, there are many examples across England and Wales of local authorities which are working together. We need to foster partnership between local authorities, just as there has been a fostering of the partnership between local authorities and the private sector. The Bill creates opportunities for that to be undertaken.
Local government must be close and responsive to its communities in a way that a smaller authority can be--that was the point I was making a few moments ago. An authority that is the right size to allow it to be representative of a community will be more effective. I say that because I believe that the councillors representing that unit will have a much closer relationship with the area.
I give the example of a typical county council. The councillors and officers of the county council cannot have an intimate knowledge of an area which may be 30, 40, 50 or 100 miles away from where they live and work. At that distance, they cannot have the sense of individual community issues and the objectives of that community. It is only by being in close proximity to the local area that they can gauge the temperature of the people of that area and properly reflect their aspirations.
There is a unity of objective to be sought in the local government reorganisation which is proposed today which the Bill gives an opportunity to progress. Some hon. Members suggest that reorganisation will be an expensive exercise. There are different factions which fight over these points and counties and districts have advanced their own figures. One must make a careful judgment as to which is to be considered the more appropriate. However, it is quite clear that local government reorganisation of the type proposed in the Bill can lead to a revenue saving year on year.
There are possibilities, in streamlining the authorities' organisations, to produce a saving over a period of a few years. It has been suggested by the Association of District Councils in Wales that the cost of reorganisation could be recouped within two or three years, but it may be longer. However, an overall saving can be made on the costs of reorganisation. It need not be the call on the public purse to the extent that many have suggested will be the case. The House has heard through parliamentary answers that the cost of the abolition of the metropolitan counties in England produced a revenue saving overall and there is no reason why that cannot be replicated in Wales.
The objective of local government reorganisation should be to invigorate local government. I pay tribute to the councillors and officers in local government in Wales for the work that they do at county and district level. Too few hon. Members speak of that, and it is right that it should be acknowledged. However, they can operate only within the structure that the House has created for them. It is not possible within the present structure for county councillors and officers to represent and seek the sort of partnership with the communities to which I have referred. There are opportunities in the Bill to create a local government that can be much more responsive. One looks to the district councils in England and Wales for some of the leading innovations of local government in the past 15 to 20 years. The district level of local government led the way in economic development opportunities. The counties have done a great deal of work in that field, but the districts led the way and ultimately created a function for local government based upon their
Column 777work. That was something which they saw as necessary because of their close proximity to the communities that they represented.
Mr. Win Griffiths : In the context of Wales, what the hon. Gentleman is saying is a travesty of the truth. The counties, as well as the districts, in Wales have been particularly active in the area to which he refers and there has been a partnership. Let us not talk about one tier providing pioneering work and the other doing nothing. Both tiers have been doing it in Wales and the counties have been very effective.
Mr. Thomason : The hon. Gentleman did not hear me say that the counties have done work in economic development. My contention was that district councils led the way in creating economic development opportunities. They created the opportunity and the counties have come along as well and work has been done by county and district councils. If we look back to the first economic development initiatives in the 1970s, we see that the work was undertaken by the smaller units of local government. That was because they were close to individual towns and groups of villages and could understand the employment prospects. They could seek to generate the jobs that could be directed at specific problems.
Finally, I turn to the question of accountability. The present arrangements of two-tier local government create confused accountability : first, a financial one because the council tax bill arrives in two stages ; and, secondly, a democratic one because people do not know whether to turn to town or to county hall for their services.
The introduction of the proposals in the Bill will lead to a single point of contact and a single authority providing the whole range of local government services. The Bill will provide for a single authority which is raising a single council tax. It follows that people will be able to see clearly what their local authority is doing, what it is costing and to whom they should complain if they feel that the services are not being delivered in the correct way. That will make local government not only responsive, but more aware of its need to react to the people whom it represents. I believe that the blurring of accountability since 1974, and before, has been a great failing in local government which will be strengthened substantially by the proposals. The Bill will introduce into local government an opportunity for invigoration, better accountability, improved partnership, greater value for money and enhanced services. It should be supported.
Mr. Ray Powell : On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I know that this is a United Kingdom Parliament and that all hon. Members in the Chamber can catch your eye. However, I would ask you to use your discretion when Labour or Conservative Members who have been elected to Welsh parliamentary seats wish to catch your eye. Might not they have preference over hon. Members from areas outside Wales on the crucial issue of local government reform ? The issue affects all hon. Members, particularly those from the Labour party, and they would all like to participate in the debate.
The hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) has taken 21 minutes out of a very short debate and some of us will be excluded from participating because of the time
Column 778factor. I ask you to use your discretion to ensure that all Welsh hon. Members are afforded the opportunity to participate in the debate.
Mr. John Morris (Aberavon) : Given the competition to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, the House will be delighted if I promise to make a short speech as an elected Member for a part of Wales. The House listened with a great deal of attention to the Secretary of State's final piece of rhetoric. He expected the Bill to provide a renaissance in local government in Wales. That was putting it a bit high. Moving the chess pieces across the boundaries board will not provide the renaissance. Giving the cash to local government to provide local services will achieve the renaissance.
There is a great deal of unanimity in Wales about the concept of unitary authorities. It is certainly the policy of my party. The argument is about the size and powers of unitary local government. I shall return to that point in a moment. That unanimity in Wales, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) emphasised, hinges on the concept of a Welsh assembly. In England the term "regional authority" is used. I despair when that term is misused in Wales. One thing that we are not is a region. We are a nation. If we were not, the Secretary of State would not have his seat in the Cabinet.
We have debated a Welsh assembly on previous occasions and we shall return to it in the future. I shall not discuss it this evening. As the years have gone by, I have become more and more confident that what I believed in 1974 and earlier was right then and is even more right now. I raise the matter because the concept of unitary local government as we understand it in Wales hinges on its being accompanied by a democratically elected body covering a substantial area--in this case, the whole of Wales. That is the fatal flaw in the Government's proposals. Why ? Many functions could not be performed by small units of local government. The units could not discharge their functions effectively without an assembly. That is the fatal flaw.
I am particularly anxious about the problem that will face us in Wales in recruiting more than 20--now 22--directors of education with the necessary qualifications and the right experience and in paying them properly. Of course, if the Government have their way and every school opts out, there will be less of a problem for local government. But the problem will remain in the case of joint provisioning, about which we heard a little from my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly.
I am equally worried about how we will find people of the right calibre to head social services departments. Of course, if everything that moves is privatised, the local problem will be very much reduced. But what will happen to the remainder of the services that are not privatised ? Society will have to carry the burden one way or the other of meeting those needs. Of course, for those who are Thatcherites--they are an endangered species-- there is no such thing as society. Yet the problem will remain. I am deeply worried about finding people of the right calibre, given the need for so many of them to cover the essential functions in Wales.
Column 779Apart from being fundamentally flawed on the grounds of not including a national dimension
I am deeply worried about whether the numbers envisaged by the Secretary of State are right. The Secretary of State is not lacking in confidence. No one would belittle him for that. However, his high office was thrust upon him. It never crossed his mind in his wildest ambition that he would be called to grace it. Worse than that, I am confident that until he went to the Welsh Office, the problems of local government in Wales had never crossed his mind.
Lord Walker tried his hand in the 1970s. The pattern that he imposed will not be allowed to celebrate even its 25-year anniversary--its silver jubilee. It will not have lasted. It will have been cut down. No one in the House would say that he lacked confidence--certainly not Lord Walker. The present Secretary of State, with his limited experience, puts forward a prospectus with some confidence and tells the House that it will provide the renaissance for Wales. I fear that he will live to regret that particular piece of rhetoric.
I believe that the proposed units--this is not an inconsistent observation- -are too large to reflect adequately the need to preserve local loyalty and a speedy response to people's needs. Yet they are too small effectively to carry out the functions proposed for them. In any event, as for all local government reorganisation, I am confident that the costs, and certainly the transitional costs, will prove much more expensive than envisaged in any of the examples given by the Secretary of State.
I ask the Secretary of State, through the Minister on the Front Bench, to write into the Bill an amendment to ensure that two or three years after the new units of local government come into force and after the first elections, an independent body, for example, the Audit Commission or some other body of that calibre, will examine, assess and publicise the costs of local government reform. That will be a test of the cost estimates given by the Secretary of State. I shall now deal with the problems of my areas. I have had the privilege to represent the borough of Port Talbot for more than 34 years. I have the privilege of being a freeman of the borough. I represent, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), part of the borough of Neath and I have done so for the past 11 years. We in Port Talbot and Neath want to know--if my hon. Friend the Member for Neath catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that he will ask the same question--how we differ from Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent, about which the Secretary of State made an announcement today.
One reason that the Secretary of State gave for his change of heart was the particular unpopularity of putting those boroughs together. I assure the Minister that the unpopularity that was expressed when the first proposals were published remains both in Neath and in Port Talbot. It is stronger now than it was at the beginning. How do we differ in terms of the service that is delivered, our traditions, our civic pride and loyalty and the factor which
Column 780the Secretary of State added, the unpopularity of the proposals ? I expect an answer from the Secretary of State tonight.
What are the local views ? We do not have a commission for local government in Wales because the men in Cathays Park think that they know better. I note with approval the words of Mr. John Banham, the chairman of the English commission. He said :
"The Commission is in a sense the catalyst, seeking to identify a realistic choice, consistent with our guidance that we put before local people. The local people are the jury."
What does the jury say in Neath and Port Talbot ? A ballot was held in Neath. The form of the ballot can easily be criticised, but the result was a pretty strong indication. Of the 6,000 ballot papers returned, only 135 voted for the Secretary of State's solution of joining Neath and Port Talbot together in what was regarded and is still regarded locally as a shotgun marriage. An opinion poll in Port Talbot found that 95 per cent. of people did not want to merge with Neath, and there were 10,000 letters of support from residents and organisations in the borough. I suspect that, in relation to the third leg of the proposal, people in Lliw do not feel especially warm towards the concept of being swamped by either Neath or Port Talbot. Will the Secretary of State answer a question ? Who, in either of those two boroughs or in Lliw, who knows the citizens, their problems and their history, wants the proposal suggested by the Secretary of State ? If he can name an individual or an organisation, let us have their names, which I am sure can be counted on the fingers of one hand, so that we can examine their experience and on what basis they support the Government. I know not of one, and I am confident that my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) has the same experience. I know not of one who wants the shotgun marriage proposed by the Secretary of State. If I can be told differently by the Minister tonight, I will be grateful. I am glad that he is listening and I am sure that he will send out his minions to provide an answer for me by the end of the evening. I look forward to that with great enthusiasm.
The Secretary of State was foolish enough, in the Welsh Grand Committee, to regard the map of Wales as being important. He never understood that the map of Kent, where he was born, is totally different in its geographical components to a land made up of hills and valleys, as is Wales. The bright idea that came from the Welsh Office of looking at a map and finding Neath next door to Port Talbot and using that as an argument for putting them together is sheer idiocy. The Welsh Office fails to understand the nature of our valley communities, and that a common interest does not run across mountains and valleys but runs down valleys. That is why the antipathy was so strong, and is equally strong now.
The Secretary of State and the Government have failed to understand the importance of local loyalties, proud civic traditions and the knowledge and understanding in the locality that the existing machinery--"warts and all"- -provides a responsive and sound service. People know where to go.
It is proposed to combine two main communities between which there is deep- seated rivalry. Let me give the House an illustration. The original proposal for the name of the new borough was West Glamorgan--a misnomer. When the subject was discussed in Neath, it was suggested that it should be Nedd-Neath. If that was an exercise in trying to win friends when there was Port Talbot and Lliw,
Column 781I hope that it does not augur for the future. I was glad that that proposal was not pursued, but it is indicative of something and perhaps I need not pursue it further. I make the argument, for what it is worth. Despite the subservience of the Secretary of State to the map, community affinity runs downhill, not across mountains. I thank the Secretary of State for the one good thing that he has done--as I raised in the Welsh Grand Committee--which is to increase the number of councillors. I regard that as very important. We are losing a tier of local government and simultaneously reducing to 1, 250 the number of councillors in the new authorities. Councillors and their leadership provide an avenue for the community to explore problems. They are the great safety valve. They are very important in the communities. To reduce the numbers is to cause a great loss. That is what is happening and therefore I thank the Secretary of State for his revised provision to increase the numbers. It is important and will be valued.
I could have spoken at much greater length, but I do not propose to do so. Some of the arguments have been ventilated in the other place and I am grateful to noble Lords on the Front Bench and the Back Benches for the way in which they have reported on what they understand to be the lack of affinity between the two boroughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath and I were elected by those two boroughs and I think that we represent as well as anyone can the deep-seated feelings there.
The Secretary of State seemed to be vague and uncertain of himself when he discussed the problems and the provisioning of area committees. I ask him the following questions. First, what type of provision would he expect as regards financial provisioning in a scheme put to him ? What does he expect to come forth in the schemes that he has to consider ? Secondly, bearing in mind the numbers of people referred to in the schedule who can request such a committee, will he be sure to resist any amendment to tilt the balance against those people who request such a committee in a new unit, in favour of the central new unit itself ? If there is to be any purpose--it may be attractive in some parts of Wales--it is important to preserve the interests of the locality that requires it.
I say to the Secretary of State, in accordance with the words of Lord Ferrers, who replied to the debate on Second Reading in another place, I would hope that the door is not shut. The figure has increased from 21 to 22. When the Secretary of State said today that his proposal was
"22--I do not think there could be many more",
I regard that as not closing the door and I hope that he will reconsider.
Mr. Roger Evans (Monmouth) : The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made two points that will be remembered in my constituency and in Gwent generally. Neither of those two points was perhaps quite so clear before he spoke as afterwards. First, we were interested to learn that the policy of the Labour party, in the premise of a Welsh assembly, is to have unitary authorities and more of them. The hon. Member for Caerphilly referred to the fraternal discussions between the socialist leader of Gwent county council and the socialist leader of Newport borough