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Column 782council. It is clear, for the first time, we are told, that Mr. Graham Powell, the leader of Gwent county council, has lost that internal Labour party discussion, and that it is the Labour party's policy to abolish Gwent county council. That will be welcomed in most quarters, but it will be a matter of some surprise, I suspect, to some supporters of the Labour party in Gwent.
The second point that the hon. Member for Caerphilly made--it is a matter that my constituents especially will wish to note--was the suggestion that if he had his way
Mr. Davies : I should like to clarify one point in case the hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. The policy that I outlined to him in our earlier discussion has been the policy of the Labour party in Wales for well over 12 months. It emerged as a result of a detailed consultation exercise. It was made public as early as February last year and the leaders of all the Labour-controlled county councils in Wales have been signatories to that policy statement, so there is nothing new.
Mr. Evans : I hear the hon. Member's protestations. That is not what many of his supporters in Gwent have been saying, whatever the position might happen to be, as a matter of technical constitutional right, in the Labour party's policy-making process. We now know the position and we are grateful to know it.
I go on to the second point that the hon. Gentleman's speech revealed, which will be treated in my constituency as a typical example of the rather curmudgeonly approach of the Labour party : if it had its way, our new authority would be known as Monmouth, not Monmouthshire. "Monmouthshire" is what resonates with my constituents. They do not want the simple title "Monmouth".
Mr. Murphy : And my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock). We would find it deeply offensive not to be called "men of Monmouthshire", even though we do not live in the district of Monmouth. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that his own Monmouth borough council does not want to change the name to Monmouthshire ?
Mr. Evans : When history is torn up, as the noble Lord Walker's proposals tore it up in 1972-74, and when new creations that are not consistent with history are proposed, conflicts of feeling arise. I respect that and understand the point made by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). However an area is renamed, one cannot change the name that it had when one was born or first educated there. We must consider modern reality, which is that a division exists between the urban and rural areas in our part of the world. Local people want to call the area Monmouthshire.
On clause 2, if a council is called a shire, it would be duplex and bad English to call the local council the shire county council. In the case of Monmouthshire, it would be much simpler to call the new council Monmouthshire
Column 783council. That answers the point made by the hon. Member for Torfaen, as it avoids confusion with the pre-1972-74 position.
Clause 14 introduces for the first time a proposal to require consultation with community councils, which receive little attention in the Bill. I do not like the term "community council". Why cannot they be called parish councils ? They may not technically be parishes in the old sense, but it is a much better word. The community councils want the right to be consulted and the Bill recognises that important right.
The worry at unitary authority level is about how the proposed mechanism will work in practice. Unitary authorities must sometimes make speedy decisions and a requirement to consult in all cases may be inconvenient and unnecessary. I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister would clarify that point.
On nomenclature, clause 16 uses another unhappy combination of terms from the 1970s--a "town council" and a "town mayor". In my area, there has been an unfortunate confusion between the community council of Monmouth town, which was an ancient borough until the noble Lord Walker's proposals came into effect, and the mayor of Monmouth borough. To use the present terminology in all cases would be unfortunate and unfair. As Monmouth used to be an ancient borough, I do not understand why the mayor cannot be known as the borough mayor. I am happy to say that, with the creation of a Monmouthshire council, that conflict has been resolved for the unitary authority. I was surprised to hear what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about clause 27. I had assumed that the decentralisation provisions were intended and designed for the problem of Powys. I had not realised that they were intended to be adopted elsewhere in Wales. The clause stipulates that 10 councillors must be connected with an area before it can be decentralised, which means that those provisions will come into operation only in councils of a certain size. I should be grateful for clarification on that.
In pouring scorn on part III of the Bill, the hon. Member for Caerphilly did not do justice to clause 32, which is potentially one of the most useful, helpful and practical provisions in the Bill. Local authorities' present rules on who can delegate decisions to whom and in what circumstances are arcane, legalistic and unhelpful. Clause 32 addresses that difficulty for the first time. I should be grateful for clarification on how it is envisaged that that will be done.
Clause 50 deals with Welsh church funds. I note the proposal simply to apportion the funds among the new unitary authorities. Given the time that has elapsed since the Welsh Church Act 1914 came into force, has not the time come to review the purposes for which those trust funds are held and their whole position ? In the 1990s, there is a powerful argument for those funds to be applied for conservation purposes on a non-denominational basis, rather than for a diffuse mixture of community purposes.
Clause 51 introduces a power to control disposals by councils that are to be abolished from an operative date. When do the Government envisage that operative date ? It would be a much happier matter if it could be the same date on which the Bill is enacted, rather than some uncertain future date. The purpose of clause 51 would be frustrated by a delayed date--if the clause is necessary at all. Clearly,
Column 784my right hon. Friend considered that it was necessary to include it. If it is to be in the Bill, it must be effective and it should be effective from an early date.
Finally, may I raise the ghost of Gwent ? Paragraph 1 of schedule 2 contains a peculiar drafting device to preserve counties of Wales in certain cases and not others for the purposes of the Lord Lieutenancy and the High Shrievalty-- [Interruption.] I notice the ribaldry with which certain Opposition Members greet that comment. It is up to them if they want to humiliate Newport, for example, and say that it should not enjoy the privileges of Bristol. Let them say that to their electors. I should have thought that, in 1994, Cardiff has a strong argument for being a city and a county, as Newport and Monmouthshire have the right to be shire counties in the proper sense.
Under clause 58(2) and clause 59(2), arrangements for the reordering of Lord Lieutenancies and High Shrievalties enable the boundaries of a preserved county to be adjusted, but do not seem to provide for the creation of a new Lord Lieutenancy and High Shrievalty solely for Monmouthshire. If I am wrong about that, I should welcome a correction.
Despite the criticisms that have been made of the Bill, it is popular in my part of the world. I leave other hon. Members to argue their own circumstances. The wording of the amendment is minimally negative. It recognises
"a broad measure of support for the principle of unitary authorities in Wales".
To judge by the temper of the debate, that measure of support has been less broad than the wording of the amendment. The Bill is welcomed and my constituents, in particular, will be grateful to my right hon. Friend.
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Let me start by welcoming the opportunity to debate Welsh local government and to reform Welsh local government. The time has long been due for the existing Welsh local authority structure to be changed.
I have a clear vision of a new local government framework which would be much more democratic and accountable and which, above all, would improve the delivery to the public of the range of services that are the proper responsibility of local councils. Unfortunately, however, the Bill does not provide the framework for changes that would be beneficial to Wales and could be made to last.
A new framework of local government for Wales should include unitary authorities, and, to an extent, the proposed one does. It should also include an important and new elected tier of government at an all-Wales level.
The concept of a Welsh senedd or parliament has become something of a bogey to the Government, although, in my view, it is only a matter of time before we are driven to accept a form of government similar to that which has served so well in modern Germany. I see that structure not as giving rise to separatism or home rule, but as being entirely compatible with a strong United Kingdom. Indeed, I see it as strengthening the wider national interest by confirming the importance of Wales under the Crown and as part of the developing regional structure of the European Union.
In the Bill, no Welsh parliament is on offer. That makes it doubly important that we should ensure that the unitary authorities which are created reflect the best possible solution for local government.
Mr. Jonathan Evans : The hon. and learned Gentleman is expounding a view that he has held for some time and which he certainly held in the 1970s. He well knows that when we held a referendum at that time, there was a substantial vote against. In those circumstances, why should he deprive the people of Wales of the opportunity of a referendum on his proposal on a second occasion ?
Mr. Carlile : I do not believe that I have ever said that I was opposed to giving the people of Wales that opportunity. I am confident that much has changed since 1979 and the result would be different.
To return to this Bill, in which a Welsh parliament is not on offer, it seems to me that two principles must be fulfilled if we are to achieve a worthwhile unitary system.
First, the new system must command sufficient support and consensus to be permanent. To reorganise Welsh local government every 20 years or so is disruptive to too many people and services. It is also very expensive, as the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) was just saying.
It is not fair to people involved in local government, whether as councillors or as servants of local authorities, that they should face a reorganisation every 20 years. It is plain that the proposed reorganisation does not command the type of consensus that would give it 50 or maybe 100 years, as happened with the reorganisation of local government in Wales in the late 1880s. We should be aiming at a new disposition which will not be the subject of acrimonious debate when the Government next changes, particularly as, given only a little more flexibility, considerable consensus could be found through the machinery of the Bill.
Secondly, the new system must prove to be better than the present one in terms of service delivery if it is not to be regarded as change merely for the sake of change.
It is stated at the beginning of chapter 2 of the Government's White Paper :
"Local government is government for local people by local people."
Amen to that ; of course it is a principle which I accept. My constituency, the county constituency of Montgomery, has been a unit of government since 1542. Twenty years after the creation of the new county of Powys in 1974, Montgomeryshire still resists giving up its social cohesion. Whether we talk of the young farmers' club, the women's institute, the cricket team, or many other institutions, we talk naturally of Montgomeryshire, not Powys. Despite the passage of those 20 years, there is no Powys society of exiles in London, yet there is a strong Montgomeryshire society founded upon that strong and historic local tie. The Secretary of State should recognise that 20 years of opportunity have failed to make Powys a community. In another place, the Lord Advocate said in introducing the Bill that few would deny that the changes of the 1970s cost Wales some of its cultural cohesion. He was right. He claimed that Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire still retained distinct identities. He was right. He said that local people identify not with the new county imposed in 1974, but with the historic shires. He was right. No distinction, however, can be drawn intellectually, emotionally or on any grounds between Mongomeryshire and those counties of Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire except that Montgomeryshire is a little smaller in population. As the hon. Member for
Column 786Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), who spoke with great experience of local government, pointed out, if natural ties are strong enough, 57,000 people are more than enough to make a valid and valuable unitary authority, particularly with the opportunities that are now available to purchase services outside the county.
If the Government value the sense of belonging and cultural cohesion which is Montgomeryshire, they have only to take the simple step of accepting the same approach for Montgomeryshire as for the other counties that I have mentioned.
Those who have served in and worked for Powys have done so honourably and with determination, and generally without political rancour, yet all their efforts, honestly made, have failed signally to build in the public mind an identity for Powys which touches hearts and minds as well as pockets. Montgomeryshire is a natural point of contact for both hearts and minds.
What particularly puzzles us in Montgomeryshire is that the Government recognised and accepted that fact as long as three years ago. In their consultation paper in 1991, the Government rightly recognised the importance of a structure of local government founded on natural communities. Montgomeryshire was held as a example of that in the then Secretary of State's preferred solution. He spoke of it in the House.
I hope that we shall be told by the Minister who replies to the debate the answer to this question : why have the Government changed their mind about Montgomeryshire since then ?
The preference for Montgomeryshire as a unitary authority was not just a passing fancy of a transient Secretary of State. In March 1992, just weeks before the last general election and therefore when he well knew the weight that would be attached to his words, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), now the Secretary of State for Employment, announced :
"in the rural areas I want to see local government based on the traditional counties".--[ Official Report , 3 March 1992 ; Vol. 205, c. 171.]
Montgomeryshire was expressly cited with Pembrokeshire at the head of the list of examples. Please will the Minister answer this question, too : why, if the Government had changed their mind, did they not say so then ? Perish the thought that it had anything to do with an impending general election.
The intention to provide unitary status was reaffirmed yet again by the then Secretary of State in dramatic circumstances. During the 1992 general election, he paid a visit to Montgomeryshire. He addressed a meeting in the pretty village of Llanfechain. Ministerial visits there are as rare as memories of what Ministers say are long. He made as explicit an electoral promise as anyone could imagine--that there would be a unitary authority for Montgomeryshire.
Perhaps the Minister will answer these questions. What does he think now of his right hon. Friend's remarks on that occasion ? Was the right hon. Member for Wirral, West--as one would expect of him--being truthful, or was he reckless or negligent ? His statement in Llanfechain was important. It almost certainly confirmed the loyalty of a significant number of usually Conservative voters for whom it was a key issue in their voting intentions. The then Secretary of State knew that. That is why he did not equivocate.
Column 787What has happened since then to persuade the Government that a new unitary authority, perhaps with fewer councillors than the existing Montgomeryshire district council--the Secretary of State knows that I do not quarrel with that proposition--is no longer the natural solution for the historic community that I represent ? Why is history to be treated under one heading for Merthyr and Blaenau Gwent and an entirely different heading for Montgomeryshire ? The suspicion exists strongly in my constituency that Montgomeryshire is being sacrificed to a mistake--the Secretary of State's mistaken belief that what he is currently proposing will serve the interests of his political party--rather than to any valid consideration of the merits. The people of Montgomeryshire, a mere 16 per cent. of whom expressed a preference for a unitary Powys according to an NOP poll taken last summer, want to know why their opinions have been rejected in the face of the clearest possible governmental and electoral commitments. That is not just my view ; it crosses political party lines. Indeed, I pay especial respect to the support that the Campaign for Montgomeryshire has received from the Montgomeryshire Conservative association, the leading members of whom are entirely opposed to the current proposals.
Chief among those Tory opponents is the former chairman of the Development Board for Rural Wales, Mr. Leslie Morgan, CBE. Mr. Morgan, former Tory candidate for Montgomeryshire and president of the local association, is no namby-pamby sentimentalist. He is a hard-headed local business man, head of a now fourth-generation business straddling the English and Welsh heartlands of the county, with a wide grasp of the social and economic structure and needs of the area. He is not only convinced of the merits of the case for a unitary Montgomeryshire, but has also told the Secretary of State, in my presence, and in the clearest possible terms, of the damage that he believes that the current proposals will do to the Conservative party locally.
Nor can that be claimed as the view of only the older members of our community. Recently, I was given the opportunity to make a short film on the issue for BBC Wales. As part of it, I interviewed a young woman called Gillian Plume. She is Welsh speaking and comes from Bont Dolgadfan, near Llanbrynmair. She is articulate, intelligent and successful, working in a responsible position for a significant inward investor in Newtown. Hers is a representative view to be given credence. When I asked her for that view, she revealed that, to her generation, Llandrindod Wells, the county town of Powys, seems remote and irrelevant. When we pondered in detail how often she had been there, it became apparent that her only visits were several years ago for a schoolgirl hockey match. That is but a single illustration- -one of many--of how Powys has failed to become a natural part of community life, even for young people.
In his speech in the House on 3 March 1994, the Secretary of State spoke of his plans for Welsh roads. His strategy can be summarised tidily as taking as its emphasis an east-west-east axis. He was right in relation to Montgomeryshire. The natural swing of communications is not between the north of Montgomeryshire and the south of Breconshire, but between ourselves and Shropshire to the east and Aberystwyth to the west, and, to an extent, north-eastwards towards Wrexham and Chester. Little trade or travel has Powys as its natural sway.
Column 788Of course, the provision of the functions of local government must be sound and efficient in any changed system. There is plenty of evidence that Montgomeryshire could provide good and efficient service. The existing district council has discharged its functions without the need to impose high levels of tax on residents. Naturally, the question has arisen whether it would be able to discharge the heavy burden of administering education--so long as the Government leaves education in the hands of local authorities. All I ask the Secretary of State to do is look at the record of one of the best education authorities that Wales, indeed, I say confidently, the United Kingdom, has ever had--the old Montgomeryshire county council. It provided an estate of schools of which we are still proud. It had at times the highest academic achievements of any education authority. The morale of teachers and the quality of the directors was second to none.
I turn now briefly to the organisation proposed in the Bill for what is currently, and unfortunately in my view, perpetuated under the name of Powys in the amended text. The proposed arrangements for a partly devolved system, in which an attempt is made to perpetuate vestiges of the old county, are simply unsatisfactory. Whether one calls these arrangements "Powys pudding" or a muddle in the middle, one has a clear picture of the view held of them in mid Wales. Even partial devolution would not be guaranteed under the Bill, but would remain at the discretion of the Secretary of State. As the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) pointed out, there would be no real financial independence. It would be less efficient, less accountable, less acceptable than the current two-tier system. If the Secretary of State insists on having a two-tier system and remains convinced that he cannot trust the people of Montgomeryshire to run their affairs, I suggest that he excludes Montgomeryshire, Radnorshire and Breconshire from this reorganisation altogether and avoids the upheaval, uncertainty and expense that is being caused. One of the finest sights in Montgomeryshire is a great avenue of redwood trees. They were planted late in the last century, shortly before the reorganisation that created in its statutory form the efficient Montgomeryshire county council of which I spoke a little earlier. They were planted for a great Montgomeryshire man who became one of the county's Members of Parliament. They stand for the stability, solidity, honesty and determination of our community. It would be an irony if those trees were now to stand as a reminder of the destruction of our community's local government tie by their namesake, especially as they dominate the ground of my noble and learned Friend Lord Hooson, who represented the county for 17 years from 1962 with such distinction.
I ask the Secretary of State to read with great care the speeches of my noble and learned Friend in the debates on the Bill in another place. I tell the Secretary of State sincerely that my noble and learned Friend and I will be the first to praise him if he feels able to respond to our advice. We give it in the authentic voice of our county.
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) : I am pleased to follow the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile)-- [Interruption.] --because I want to make some comments that relate very much to his speech.
Column 789I am sorry to hear sedentary murmurs from the Opposition Benches, perhaps suggesting that it is inappropriate for an hon. Member representing an English constituency to speak in the debate. Hon. Members who have attended debates on the subject will have observed that I have been present for all of them, since the moment when the Bill was first mentioned in the House. It is regrettable that the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) and for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) do not welcome the fact that people from outside Wales show an interest in the legislation. In doing so, they risk unduly fragmenting the House into regional areas. That does no good to the House, and I argue that, ultimately, it does no good to Wales. As I have said, I have attended all the debates on this subject. When the Secretary of State's predecessor first mentioned the Bill, I asked him a few questions about the status of smaller counties such as Montgomeryshire, Breconshire and Radnorshire. Clearly, there is a coincidence of interests between people in those counties--which will be affected by the Welsh local government reorganisation--and myself, representing the ancient county of Rutland. On the basis of that coincidence--but concentrating, of course, on Wales--I wish to make some observations, which I hope my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will consider.
When we were in government in the early 1970s, we made a big mistake in setting local government reform as we did. There was a drive for managerial efficiency ; in redrawing the map, supposedly to serve the interests of that efficiency, we trampled over historic boundaries, creating artificial counties that have been unpopular from the day of their introduction. Now, after 20 years of complaints and unsatisfactory arrangements, we are having to "unbundle" those rather silly artificial creations.
This debate deals mainly with the question of size. What is a suitable size for the system of local government administration, enabling it both to pay attention to community identity and to deliver services efficiently ? I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason) will not object too strongly if I take him to task for having advanced the least persuasive argument. He said that we must pay attention to the career structure provided for officers in local government administration ; I do not see why the career structure for local government officials should be the strongest argument on which to determine the size of any local authority. If that argument reached my hon. Friend from any other source, I detect an ill-considered influence.
My hon. Friend said that a population of 25,000 might be all right, but then argued that, for career-structure reasons, it would not be. Local government administration is there for local people : it is there primarily for those who elect local government members. We must consider what is a sensible number to represent the interests of the electors.
Mr. Flynn rose
Column 790for having left it. I now find that yet another English Member is speaking. I know the problems involved, Madam Deputy Speaker, but--like other Front Benchers--I registered my wish to speak in a debate that affects our constituencies, and, like them, have not been allowed to do so. I understood that Parliament was a body in which we could speak on behalf of our constituents. I know that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) is an expert on council houses, but I cannot see that he has any locus in this debate. [Interruption.]
Mr. Duncan : Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a matter of regret to me that an attempt to contribute to the debate--and, indeed, to express opinions that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers) might find that he shared, if he only had the courtesy to listen--has been treated in such a facile way.
As I was saying, we should consider the size of local government administration. It should work for those who elect the councillors and wish the councils to deliver services. We may have risked being unduly carried away in our wish to make some local authorities too large, and failed to appreciate that small units of local government administration can deliver services in an efficient way that has not been recognised in the past by those who have shaped Welsh local government administration, and who are now embarking on the same process in England.
If we returned to what I understand to be truly Conservative principles of local government reform, we would want diversity rather than uniformity. We wish to preserve historic identity. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery said that his county was created in 1542. If I may say so, he is rather nouveau : Rutland can beat that by the best part of 450 years.
Mr. Alex Carlile : May I say that I welcome the constructive contribution that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) has made to the debate ? Hon. Members representing small counties would very much like to hear that contribution. I ask others to listen to the hon. Gentleman with patience ; I know that, on this matter at least, he has a valuable contribution to make.
Let me make a simple point, to which I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will listen carefully. I raised it at the outset, when his predecessor introduced the legislation. I asked him a specific question about Powys, which results from an amalgamation of smaller counties creating a larger county. That question was this : did he not appreciate that smaller counties--smaller units of government--could, if they wished, combine with their neighbours when they saw fit to do so, for the purpose of delivering a service ? By the same token, a larger unit of
Column 791government containing parts with a strong sense of community identity cannot declare unilateral independence for the purposes of local government administration.
When it comes to constructing a sensible arrangement for local government, it makes sense to preserve smaller units, leaving them a measure of flexibility to combine with their neighbours when they see fit in order to make the delivery of services as efficient as possible. I urge the Secretary of State to present us with the arguments that he considers strong--that he thinks will really work--for the supposed economies of scale that attach to the larger units of government proposed in the Bill, which I fear will be proposed for England later. I hope that he will see fit to value the ability of smaller units, with a strong historical identity, a community interest and an understanding of the services needed within their small communities, to deliver those services efficiently-- while being able to combine with their neighbours to meet any necessary economies of scale and serve the best interests of those who elected them.
Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli) : I have particular expertise in this subject as one of the few Opposition Members--indeed, one of the few Members of the House--who took part in the Committee stage of the Local Government Act 1972. I remember well the two Ministers who were in charge. Lord Walker has been mentioned. The person who was then his Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment is now a president--President of the Board of Trade. Indeed, I know a good deal about Conservative principles of local government, about which the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) waxed so lyrical.
The 1972 reorganisation was not worth the candle, and I suspect that this one is worth not very much more. Having participated in debates on this subject for more than 20 years, I tend to think that local government reorganisation is very often a matter for the professionals, who enjoy discussing and debating size and so on. But the public are pretty fed up with these reorganisations, which--certainly in the case of Conservative changes--end up in far greater expenditure, more concentration of power and very little increase in the accountability of those who provide the services. It has been rumoured that the current Secretary of State would have been quite pleased to withdraw the Bill. I do not know whether he ever made such a promise to the Cabinet or to a Cabinet Committee, but I suspect that his heart is not fully in the legislation. After all, he had to take it over from his predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), who had a very obsessive attitude towards unitary authorities. What deep psychological reason there might have been, I do not know. I cannot divine whether it was the right hon. Gentleman's Liverpool youth or the fact that he was in charge of the poll tax. Ministers who are fellows of All Souls do not have a very high reputation. Certainly this Bill does not have the mark of what I consider to be a fellow of All Souls.
The legislation is not worth the candle. It will result in much higher expenditure, and it will not create the kind of democratic accountability that we want. If the Secretary of State wants to do something for democracy in Wales, he could start by making more democratic not just the quangos in general but, for example, the hospital trusts.
Column 792Why does not he announce that, to begin with, 50 per cent. of the members of hospital trusts are to be elected ? Let us have an election--and I say so to members of my own party too.
Let us have a ballot paper such as is used in the United States of America. Let us have an arrangement that will enable local people to be really involved. That would be an advance for democracy. This legislation does very little except shuffle matters around. As usual, the Tory party is completely out of touch with popular feeling in Wales, especially in respect of a Welsh assembly or parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) made very clearly the point that if the Bill contained a proposal for a Welsh parliament or assembly we could support it. My hon. Friend argued that such an arrangement would make it possible to have more unitary authorities. We could have a Llanelli unitary authority, and we could have similar arrangements for Port Talbot and Neath. Now, indeed, we do have Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent as separate authorities. Like other hon. Members, I ask the Secretary of State what is the difference, in terms of the Bill, between Llanelli and Port Talbot, between Llanelli and Neath, between Llanelli and Merthyr Tydfil and between Llanelli and Blaenau Gwent.
The Secretary of State has conceded that all logic, the entire intellectual basis for the legislation--if it has an intellectual basis--has gone. All of us shall now quite properly press the case for our own areas, as there is no longer any logic or any understanding as to correct size or the reasons for the figure of 22.
I return to the question of a Welsh assembly. Whenever the matter is raised, Tory Members, as happened yesterday, talk about a high-taxing, high -spending body. I am sorry to tell those people that they are completely out of touch with the mood in Wales. I do not fear another referendum. I have little doubt that, if one were held, there would be an overwhelming majority in favour of a Welsh parliament or assembly. As we are debating local government in Wales, I do not want to dwell on the question of an assembly, although the amendment refers to the matter. However, I want to make the point that there are many reasons for the shift in opinion that has taken place.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will be very interested in one of the reasons--the ever closer union in the European Community. That is one of the reasons for the ever greater consciousness of identity in Wales. People are beginning to ask why on earth we should look towards London when power is passing more and more to an ever closer union of European states. We have not yet reached that point, but this is one of the reasons that we may very well see gradually a demand not only for a Welsh parliament or assembly but for representation in the Council of Ministers for such a body or for the Welsh nation. I do not know whether that will happen, but I suspect that if the London Government, of whichever party, are bent on moving towards a single currency and a central bank and on transferring economic power to Brussels, people in Wales, as they are doing now, will ask what is the point of talking to the Secretary of State for Wales or to other Ministers in London when the thing to do is to talk to the people in Brussels. That is just one reason for the change in the mood in Wales about an assembly. The Tory party is making a very big mistake if it thinks that matters have stood still since the referendum of 1979.
Mr. Richards : I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. It is always worth hearing what he has to say. Does he think that if a Welsh parliament were established, a Welsh currency would be a good thing for the Welsh economy ?
Mr. Davies : I can see that the hon. Gentleman is a bit concerned about my remarks. He obviously remembers the debates on the Maastricht treaty. As I do not want to return to those matters, I shall not pursue the point that he has raised. Indeed, there will not be an English currency if we have ever closer union. The Minister of State likes to talk about the ecu, although I do not think that he, any more than any of the rest of us, has ever seen one.
I should like to turn to the question of what this Bill will do for my constituency--indeed, for west Wales. In many ways, Llanelli's natural area is west Wales. Everybody knows that Llanelli is the cultural and industrial capital of the region. It is the sporting capital of west Wales and may be the sporting capital of Wales as a whole after 4.30 pm on Saturday of the coming week. Dyfed, although it is an artificial creation, has been able to provide certain strategic planning services for the area of west Wales stretching from Llanelli all the way down to Pembrokeshire. If the Bill becomes law, Dyfed will go. Who will then provide the strategic planning for that area ? Pembrokeshire, Cardiganshire or Carmarthenshire ? Or can we hope that it will be a Llanelli unitary authority ? It will not be possible to provide the sort of strategic planning that Dyfed has tried to provide.
At Question Time yesterday I referred to the problem of transport and communications from west Wales to continental Europe. The Minister of State dismissed my point. He was not very concerned. He said that responsibility for roads and railways lies with his Department. There is very little co-ordination, and the situation will worsen if Dyfed as a strategic area is abolished.
When I became the Member of Parliament for Llanelli in 1970, there was a Llanelli borough council--the old borough council--and a Llanelli rural council, which took into account the fact that the villages in my area are different from Merthyr Tydfil and some of the other valley communities. The rural council took in all the old anthracite mining villages. Those bodies were amalgamated. We had one council, but at least we shared power with Dyfed. Previously, we had shared power with the Carmarthenshire county council. Now we are to lose it all. We shall not have the old Llanelli borough council or the new Llanelli borough council, and we shall not have a Llanelli rural council. In the whole of my constituency there will be no local government with real power or power sharing. Everything will be transferred to the new Carmarthenshire county council. My constituents find this quite extraordinary--a point that will be pressed in Committee.
The Lord Advocate in the other place and the Secretary of State here have mentioned the decentralisation initiative. Some people have called it the "Powys pudding". It is the Tower Hamlets neighbourhood council idea. It is no good the Secretary of State shaking his head. I say it neither in praise nor in condemnation but merely from my observation. It is the Tower Hamlets neighbourhood council idea.
Mr. Davies : I do not know about that. It may suit London areas such as Bow and Poplar and Stepney, but the whole concept of a local area committee is quite alien to the traditions of local government in the part of Wales that I represent. How are these area committees, if they were to come about, to dovetail, if at all, with community councils ? In my area the community council is very important. The hon. Member for Monmouth (Mr. Evans) said that he did not understand why they were not called parish councils. I will not go into it ; I will merely tell him to read the speech by Lord Tonypandy, who led for the Opposition in that famous 1972 local government debate. He will find out why they were not called parish councils. The reasons are obvious to those who know Welsh history.
Leaving that aside, however, how are these area committees supposed to dovetail in ? If the Secretary of State is going down that road, I would prefer the emphasis to be placed on the community council ; the town council. The town council can perform the function of the neighbourhood council or of the area committee, and it is there ; it exists ; it is elected. How on earth this hotch-potch will work out in practice, I do not know.
One of the disappointments of the Bill is that, although they have done a little, the Government have not tried to strengthen the basis of the community council which in Wales is extremely important, certainly in the part of Wales that I represent.
This is a hotch-potch of a Bill. It will do no good. It deprives my constituency of democratically accountable local government. It takes it and puts it somewhere else. We shall come back to this argument in Committee. All I can say now is that the sooner the Bill is thrown out, the better.