Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan) : When I read the Labour amendment, I was surprised because, although it started well by recognising, rightly, that there was a broad measure of support for the principle of unitary authorities, it went on to criticise every conceivable aspect of unitary authorities. My surprise diminished when I heard from the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) that he was the draftsman. What does not dim my surprise is the fact that all Opposition Members from Wales have signed the amendment, the various aspects of which I would like to deal with one by one.

First, the Opposition claim that the Bill fails to establish a directly elected, all-Wales tier of government. That is pretty clear. What it does not say is what it would cost were any such tier of government to be provided. That is rather strange because the last point in the Opposition's long list of criticisms is that the reorganisation of local government in Wales will cost the Welsh people at least £100 million. If the Opposition are so worried about expenditure on reorganising local authorities, how is it that they can face with equanimity the costs of setting up and running a directly elected, all-Wales tier of government ?

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn) : The hon. Gentleman intimates that he is worried about cost. Opposition Members make the point that the cost of the quango system currently in operation exists day in, day out and that the cost of a Welsh assembly would be no more, and probably less, than the cost of quangos. The difference, however, is


Column 795

that the services would come under some form of democratic accountability. The hon. Gentleman fails to grasp that point.

Mr. Sweeney : The hon. Gentleman has missed the point that I was making, which is that setting up and running a directly elected, all-Wales tier of government would cost money, whereas the cost of reorganising local government is a one-off cost that will ultimately lead to savings.

The second point on which the Opposition belabour the Government is that the Bill concentrates power in the hands of the Secretary of State for Wales. My first response to that is that the reforms will increase the accountability of local councillors. Presumably that is why the Opposition began by welcoming the principle of unitary authorities, because they realised that benefits will accrue from having a single tier of local government and that it will enhance rather than diminish the power of locally elected representatives. Perhaps the real reason why they are concerned about the possibility of power residing in the hands of the Secretary of State is that, after 15 years in opposition, they have come to the reluctant conclusion that they will never be in the position of fielding a Secretary of State for Wales and therefore they resent any power that the office-holder may have.

Mr. Redwood : I wonder whether my hon. Friend noticed that, when I challenged Labour Members to say where the Bill was going to centralise, they chose to give as an example clauses whereby I would be strengthening local power at the request of the local authority and its elected members-- the complete opposite of centralising power.

Mr. Sweeney : I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making the point.

The third criticism in the amendment is that the Government will abolish a democratic tier of local government in favour of joint boards and other joint arrangements. If the Opposition accept the principle of setting up a unitary authority, how on earth can they criticise us for wanting to abolish a democratic tier ? One cannot achieve single-tier local government without abolishing a democratic tier. It follows that if there are more unitary authorities than there have been county councils hitherto, it makes sense to set up some sort of joint arrangements, crossing the boundaries of the new unitary authorities, for certain purposes where it seems appropriate.

The fourth criticism is that the Bill undermines the viability of local services. That is a bit rich, coming from an Opposition who have today called for more unitary authorities. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has referred to 22 unitary authorities. The hon. Member for Caerphilly asked why there should not be 24. Why not 26 or 28, if that is the sort of reasoning that Opposition Members apply ? Other things being equal, the smaller the local authorities are, the less viable local services will be. The proposals in the Bill serve to ensure the viability of local services by achieving a sensible compromise between size of authority and genuine accountability to the public.

Mr. Ainger : The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned in his list of criteria a community of interest. Both the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) and the


Column 796

hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) have mentioned it. Does he not accept that as an important point as well as the scale or the size of the operation ?

Mr. Sweeney : I recognise the importance of a community of interest ; it is a considerable factor. It is also why I have urged the Government to create a unitary authority based on Vale of Glamorgan.

Mr. Win Griffiths : The hon. Gentleman and I were at a meeting on Friday night which was attended by about 200 people, only one of whom wanted to belong to Vale of Glamorgan. Does he recognise the fact that the community of interest in Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick is to be with the Bridgend unitary authority, not with the Vale of Glamorgan unitary authority ?

Mr. Sweeney : I was certainly pleased to visit the hon. Gentleman's constituency last Friday at the invitation of the people of Ewenny, Wick and St. Bride's Major. It is fair to say that almost all the people in the hall--about 175 from those communities--were opposed to joining Vale of Glamorgan. I shall deal with that issue later, but I feel that their interests will be best served by joining Vale of Glamorgan because they will benefit from lower local government costs and will, in all probability, receive a better service.

Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way ?

Mr. Sweeney : I shall not give way as I must make progress. The fifth criticism in the Opposition's amendment is that they fear that

"further privatisation and . . . even more Welsh quangos" will result from the Bill. I expect that knee-jerk reaction to the possibility of further privatisation, and I shall be interested to hear about the Opposition's new -found interest in keeping down the number of civil servants and bureaucrats. I hope that in future the Conservatives will have more support from the Opposition when we try to reduce, rather than increase, the amount of red tape.

The sixth criticism in the amendment is that the Bill will do nothing

"to improve the system of Welsh local government finance". I strongly repudiate that notion. One of the main purposes of the Bill is to ensure more democratic accountability. People will no longer be confused about whether to go to councillor Bloggs or councillor Snooks to deal with a housing or education problem. If it is a matter for local government, they will know who their councillor is and who is responsible.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Some will go to their Member of Parliament.

Mr. Sweeney : Indeed, some will still go to see their Member of Parliament, as I discover every Saturday morning at my two surgeries.

The Opposition's seventh criticism is that the Bill

"ignores important traditional and historic Welsh local government boundaries".

Members may have something to say about their boundaries, but I am delighted that that of Vale of Glamorgan is to continue to exist. There is a great deal of local pride in the area and I am sure that it will be strengthened by the addition of the three communities that have already been mentioned.


Column 797

The Opposition's final criticism of the Bill relates to costs. The amendment states that the Bill

"will cost the Welsh people at least £100 million which could be better used in improving . . . services."

Labour Members have missed the point. The Bill will improve public services not only in two years' time but for every year thereafter, which is why I support it. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already explained how the initial investment will be financed, and it will be money extremely well spent.

I told the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) that I would speak of the boundary between his constituency and mine. What particularly prompts me to do so were the remarks made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly, who is not in his seat at the moment but who suggested that a number of boundaries were being determined in the political interests of the Conservative party. He singled out my constituency for special mention.

I should like to set the record straight by pointing out that my constituency already has 67,000 electors. In other words, it has about 8,000 electors too many for the typical Welsh seat. In its provisional recommendation based on the existing local government boundaries, the Boundary Commission said that my seat--or Vale of Glamorgan seat--was on the large side and that it was a matter of concern but that it was inclined to leave matters as they were, for the time being at any rate.

It is certainly not a foregone conclusion that the Bill would be of any benefit to me. Indeed, one possibility is that the Cardiff boundaries might be altered and the existing Vale of Glamorgan seat could disappear. I do not know what final recommendation the commission will make, but it is important to set the record straight and stress that the reason for the inclusion of Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick is in order to benefit the people of Vale of Glamorgan, including those who live in the three communities. [Hon. Members : "None of them believes that".] It is interesting that Labour Members interrupt from a sedentary position to say that local people will not believe it. The fact is that

Mr. Ray Powell rose

Mr. Sweeney : I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment. I outlined the arguments to a public meeting at which about 175 constituents of the hon. Member for Bridgend were present. None of them refuted what I had said. With a population of about 120,000 after reorganisation

Mr. Powell rose

Mr. Sweeney : I am sorry ; I did say that I would give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Powell : I represented Bridgend from 1979 to 1983 when Ewenny, Wick and that part of the vale were part of the Ogmore constituency. I was secretary and agent to Walter Padley, my predecessor, who served the Ogmore constituency for 28 years during which time the area now in dispute was included in it and for 10 years before that. The area has a history of belonging to the Ogmore constituency and there is no doubt that it should now join Bridgend. All the people whom I represented there and whom I still know have said to me, not once but many times, that they should not become part of a different


Column 798

constituency when they have always been oriented towards the market town of Bridgend where they do their shopping. They can also walk from Ewenny to the town of Bridgend and it would be a disgrace if the area were included in Vale of Glamorgan.

Mr. Sweeney : Constituency boundaries are wholly irrelevant in this context. Changes to constituency boundaries are a matter for the Boundary Commission, not for the House.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West) : The hon. Gentleman mentioned them.

Mr. Sweeney : I mentioned them because an accusation was made against me earlier in the Chamber and I was anxious to refute it. With a population of about 120,000 once the reorganisation proposals are in place, the vale will be big enough to achieve economies of scale and to manage major services effectively while remaining small enough to maintain its existing character, foster pride in the community and delivering high quality services at a competitive cost.

The people of Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick will benefit financially from joining the vale. In 11 of the past 12 years, people living in the vale have had lower council tax, community charge and rate bills than in Ogwr. The strong likelihood is that, just as the total council tax bill now imposed by South Glamorgan county council and the Vale of Glamorgan borough council is substantially lower than the total bill imposed by Mid Glamorgan county council and Ogwr borough council, everyone living in the new vale unitary authority will pay less than those living in Ogwr.

Mr. Win Griffiths : Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, when he was making that point at the public meeting on Friday, people shouted that they might have to pay a bit more, but that the convenience of being in the Bridgend unitary authority would far overcome any slight reduction in cost from being in the Vale of Glamorgan ? They laughed at that point, and when the vote was taken at the end of the meeting, only one person was persuaded to follow the hon. Gentleman's line.

Mr. Sweeney : The hon. Member is quite right to say that I was interrupted at that stage of my speech before I had a chance to develop the other aspects of my argument.

Mr. Griffiths : What about the vote at the end ?

Mr. Sweeney : The vote at the end reflected the fact that some 175 people turned up at a meeting and clearly almost all those individuals had made up their minds beforehand. [ Laughter .] The meeting was distorted by a 20-minute speech by the chairman, who introduced the debate in such a way that, in effect, doubled the time spent on the platform by speakers who opposed the communities coming into the vale.

With regard to the services, I believe that the people living in Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick will receive a better quality of service in the vale. There has been a lot of misinformation flying about. For example, some people in Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick believe that after they join the vale they will have to go to hospital in Cardiff if they are ill, instead of going to Bridgend. That is nonsense.


Column 799

Mr. Griffiths : They do not believe that.

Mr. Sweeney : The hon. Member interrupts from a sedentary position to say that they do not believe that. I have had letters from people claiming that, I have heard people saying it, and that is why I am dealing with it. People living in places such as Cowbridge, Colwinston and Treoes in my constituency already go to hospital in Bridgend and it will be no different for the people who join the Vale of Glamorgan unitary authority. Under the recent reforms of the national health service, the money follows the patient. That will not be changed by local government reorganisation.

There are excellent schools on both sides of the present western boundary of the vale. I freely acknowledge that Bryn Teg, the comprehensive school which children from the three communities currently attend, is excellent. Cowbridge school, which has the fourth best academic record in Wales, is heavily oversubscribed ; and Llantwit Major school, which is in the process of being rebuilt to a very high standard, is also expected to be full in the near future. The sensible course is therefore for the new vale unitary authority to purchase places at Bryn Teg to avoid disrupting the education of children from the three communities.

I acknowledge that there may well be some difficulties for people who live close to Bridgend in travelling to Barry, but the need to do so has been grossly exaggerated. People who live in the three communities will doubtless continue to shop, for example, in Bridgend. If the people who live in Llantwit Major and Cowbridge, who all live in the existing Vale of Glamorgan, find that they cannot get what they want in the local shops, they often shop in Bridgend. The new local authority boundary will not affect that.

The increase in population in the western vale will tend to improve access to services. The new council is more likely to delegate certain administrative functions to the western vale if the population balance shifts westwards. For example, it is already possible to pay council tax and council house rent in Cowbridge and Llantwit Major. The new unitary authority will make its own decisions, but, when planning the local services, it is bound to take into account the wishes and needs of the population that it will serve. The population of the three communities have a lot more in common with Treoes, Llangan and Colwinston in my constituency than they do with Bridgend. There is no natural boundary between the vale and the three communities. Part of Ewenny is physically separated from the vale and joined to Bridgend. That problem can be overcome by the local government Boundary Commission, which will have power to recommend detailed amendments, as it has already successfully done for the eastern vale boundary. The addition of the new communities to the Vale of Glamorgan will provide an extra rural councillor and give more clout to rural points of view.

In essence, the proposals are in the interests of the whole of the Vale of Glamorgan. They are certainly in the interests of my constituents, whose interests I must represent today, in that the Vale of Glamorgan unitary authority will be significantly larger than the existing vale borough council area. The new authority will be in a position to deliver a high level of services at a lower cost than is being experienced at present by people living in Ogwr.


Column 800

7.6 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) : The Opposition realise that the Secretary of State is in a predicament because he has effectively inherited a rather unfortunate Bill. I am sure that Opposition Members would be more than willing to discuss and to rework the Bill with him. The Secretary of State is laughing. I had always thought that the whole point of the Bill was to bring some consensus in the matter. If there is to be consensus--he may not understand this--there has to be discussion. That is why the Secretary of State is typical of the Government. He does not listen and he will not listen. I should be obliged if he would listen during the few minutes in which I shall speak.

Mr. Redwood : I was smiling because, as I explained to the House, that is exactly what I have been doing for months since taking the job. I entirely agree with the need to discuss, think it through and see whether we can reach agreement. That is what I have been doing.

Mr. Llwyd : May I take that as an indication that discussion on the Bill has not yet ended and that there will be some give and take in Committee on various important amendments that may seem necessary ? Mr. Redwood indicated assent .

Mr. Llwyd : I am obliged to the Secretary of State for that indication. None the less, I appeal to him to recognise that there are aspects of the Bill which worry many Members on both sides of the House. No doubt the Secretary of State will have seen the recent amendment and will have noticed that every Opposition Member has put his or her name to it.

I believe, as others have said, that the fatal flaw in the Bill is the absence of an all-Wales tier of government. Members of my party make no secret of the wish to see a full tax-raising and legislative Welsh parliament. Colleagues in other parties have a Welsh assembly firmly set in their manifestos, and I need not remind the Secretary of State that no fewer than 72 per cent. of the Welsh electorate voted at the last general election for parties to include various forms of devolution in their manifestos. So important was that issue that every party had a most definite view on it.

The vote on the amendment moved by Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos in another place sent a true and honest signal to the Government of the need for an all- Wales tier. The amendment was lost by eight votes only and the fact that the other place came that near to such a substantial constitutional change tells its own story.

Mr. Morgan : A moral victory.

Mr. Llwyd : The hon. Member chips in with the right phrase. I would have used it, but he used it first.

No lasting and meaningful review of government in Wales can take place without dealing with the all-important need for an elected all-Wales tier of government. The so-called democratic deficit in Wales is huge, and even as I speak it is dividing the people of Wales from this place. A Welsh parliament is absolutely necessary, and in addressing the need for a Welsh assembly pro tem, I say that it is not only desirable but vital that such a body be set up. It, and it alone, could exercise truly democratic control over the executive functions of the Secretary of State for Wales.


Column 801

The case for an assembly is now overwhelming, if only because of the recent revelations about the Welsh Development Agency and other non-departmental public bodies in Wales. Such organisations must be made thoroughly accountable to a fully democratically elected all-Wales body. The non-departmental public bodies have a huge budget--£1.8 billion per annum--and a staff of 50,000. They are peopled by about 1,400 members, the overwhelming majority of whom are Tory placemen and placewomen. Under the proposals in the Bill there will be about 200 fewer councillors than quango members in Wales. Democratic accountability is lacking, and I am afraid that the system is in disrepute.

The answer is clear. In a recent public opinion poll 45 per cent. of respondents favoured a Welsh assembly, and only 22 per cent. were against ; the "don't know" element was 33 per cent. If we eliminate the "don't knows", 67 per cent. of the people tested were in favour and only 33 per cent. against. The same poll revealed that there is no support in Wales for the current proposals for reorganising local government. Only 20 per cent. of the people of Wales support them. No reorganisation of local government should be implemented until the new structure has been considered and approved by a democratically elected Welsh assembly or parliament.

Any reasonable or acceptable form of local government should act as a counterweight to the centralist direction and tendencies of central Government. For that to work, local government must be returned to the people. Professor Ivor Jennings, in his excellent book "Principles of Local Government Law", puts it thus :

"Local government may have a wide variety of meanings. Since it is government', the system of local government which a country adopts must be part of its governmental or constitutional structure. Since it is local', it relates to specific portions of the country defined by locality. The institutions of local government are thus governmental organs having jurisdiction not over the whole of a country but over specific portions of it".

The words "defined by locality" need further emphasis, and I shall talk briefly about them later.

As I have said, local government's role is as a counterweight to the state. It is vital that it should so act, because so long as the Government retain their financial stranglehold through charge capping and the like, councils are dangerously near to becoming mere agents or rubber stamps for Westminster rule. For good or bad, the system that we have relies on a healthy balance between local and central Government. That balance is now heavily weighted towards central Government, and that all-important balance in our democracy is under serious threat.

As though to further that damaging process, the Bill adds considerably to the Secretary of State's powers over local government. It is a centralising measure, transferring powers from democratically elected councils to the Welsh Office. It weakens democracy yet further, and does not address the serious problem of accountability in Wales. The draconian and far-reaching powers to be conferred on the Secretary of State must be brought under full democratic control.

The European aspect is interesting. The concept of subsidiarity means in essence that decisions best reached at a local level should be made at a local level. That applies not only to the relationship between the European mainland and Westminster, but to the relationship between


Column 802

Westminster and Wales. The need for that link is obvious, as is the need for a proper division of decision taking to be enshrined in any measure that purports to review local government law in Wales.

Mr. Redwood : Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that I have explained that I want many choices, responsibilities and decisions to be dealt with locally ? It is Opposition Members who say that I must specify in each case what the answer should be. The argument on local accountability is the other way round from what the hon. Gentleman has described.

Mr. Llwyd : With the greatest respect, I must point out that the right hon. Gentleman's attention has already been drawn to various parts of the Bill, such as clauses 29 to 33. We know of the many reserve powers throughout the Bill. I admit that the right hon. Gentleman said that those powers were a last resort, and that he would not wish to use them--but I am sure that he would not wish to use his power of rate capping either. None the less, those powers are there, and they were nearly used recently against a borough council in north Wales.

When one dissects the Bill carefully, one finds numerous areas in which the Secretary of State and the Welsh Office have a firm grip on everything that goes on. The powers might not be used--but they are there, and I call attention to them.

Mr. Redwood : The powers are either transitional or enabling. They do not take functions and duties from local government.

Mr. Llwyd : But with various bits of work being farmed out-- [Interruption.] Conservative Members are having a laugh about this argument, but I do not believe that it is all that funny. Inevitably, various directly provided local government services will now go out to tender. We know that that will happen ; compulsory competitive tendering may have been postponed, but it is coming in the next few months, as sure as eggs are eggs. I therefore question the Secretary of State's assertion.

I was talking about the relationship between Westminster and Wales, and I still say that the Bill will deliver the reverse of subsidiarity. It flies in the face of mainstream political and constitutional thinking in mainland Europe.

While we are on that subject, let us remember another fact. Only 15 per cent. of local government funding will come from council tax ; 85 per cent. will come from central Government. That will perpetuate the financial stranglehold. The Audit Commission, referring to the European dimension, recently said that the absence of forums in which local authorities can meet to represent the interests of a broader region was beginning to disadvantage the United Kingdom local government system in its representations to the European Commission. We know about that in Wales, because we have often failed to obtain structural funds for various areas of our country. We cannot allow our local authorities to operate under such a disadvantage. A democratic assembly for Wales is essential to safeguard and promote the interests of Welsh local authorities in Europe. Aberconwy, in my constituency, lost out and was denied assistance under the assisted area schemes because the local authority did not have a suitable voice in Europe.


Column 803

One of the justifications for the Bill is the Government's belief that the public are confused about the role of county, district and borough councils. If there was such obvious confusion, why has it taken 20 years for the Government to notice it ? The alleged duplication is also a bad point.

What of the alternative structures now being produced to clear up the confusion ? The Bill purports to replace the existing structure of two tiers--besides the community councils, that is--with a single tier of unitary authorities. However, in Committee in another place, Lord Elis- Thomas said :

"Let us not mislead ourselves. We are not talking about a simple scheme to create unitary local government ; we are talking about a very complex multi -tiered structure".--[ Official Report , House of Lords, 17 January 1994 ; Vol. 551, c. 360.]

Although local government functions will initially be vested in the new principal authorities, there will be substantial delegation to area committees, especially in rural areas such as Powys, Caernarfonshire and Meirionnydd. Other functions will be discharged jointly, either voluntarily or by joint authorities or statutory joint bodies. Moreover, police, fire and other services will be arranged on a combined authority basis. The new structure will be more confusing to the citizen than the present one. The reference to area committees shows that the Bill is bad.

If one of my constituents wishes to set up a business in the region, perhaps after being made redundant as a result of the

decommissioning of Trawsfynydd nuclear power station, he or she will need planning permission for the business premises. Which authority will that person approach ? Will it be the area committee or the new principal authority ? It will probably be neither. He will have to seek planning permission from the new national park authority, with its headquarters in Penrhyndeudraeth. He will need building regulation consent, which may be available from the area committee's office in Dolgellau. As a prudent business person, he will seek advice from the local authority's economic development department. He might require technical advice from the professional officers of the trading standards service.

Will those functions be discharged by the local area committee, the new principal authority or through joint arrangements ? Which authority should he approach ? Where will he receive his advice ? He may need advice on fire precautions for the new premises. For that, he will have to approach the new combined fire authority, with its headquarters at heaven knows where. Will the new system cause less confusion or make life simpler ? I doubt whether it will be the latter.

There is also great concern about staffing. I welcome the Secretary of State's assurance that the likely loss of staff will amount to only 5 per cent.

Mr. Redwood : I said not that there would be a 5 per cent. loss of staff, but that 95 per cent. of staff were almost certain to be transferred over. I wanted to reassure all those people, but that does not mean that the other 5 per cent. will lose their jobs.

Mr. Llwyd : I make no issue about that matter. I apologise for misreading the position.

Mr. Ainger : But there is no guarantee.

Mr. Llwyd : No. I shall come to that.

There is considerable concern in my region about the potential loss of well -paid jobs in Dolgellau, which will deprive the economy of the spending power of many


Column 804

people and families and will weaken the social fabric in Meirionnydd. That is a major concern in my constituency, which has already suffered heavy blows in recent months, especially as a result of the decommissioning of Trawsfynydd nuclear power station. There is also deep concern among members of staff, many of whom will be unable to transfer to Caernarfon even if jobs are offered there, for family and other reasons. They must at least be entitled to generous compensation. When will the Secretary of State make an announcement on that issue ?

There is also great concern about the Government's view that those employees whose contracts of employment end on 31 March 1996 will not be made redundant but will have their contracts terminated by frustration of contract. That view is unacceptable. Employees who end up without a job must be entitled to all the protection afforded by the relevant employment legislation. Those matters must be considered in great detail in Committee.

The Secretary of State will recall addressing a meeting of the Wales Trades Union Congress in January at which he said that there was need for a substantial contribution on the issue of staffing during the Second Reading debate. With great respect, I have not heard him say much about that matter today. I invite him to develop his theme since he advanced it in January.

It would be worthwhile to mention what the Staff Commission for England recently said on the subject, and I invite the Secretary of State to comment on it. It advised the Department of Environment that the reorganisation compensation scheme should be mandatory, include age and length of service banding, and have a lump sum upper limit of 82 weeks for the under-50s and a 30-week maximum for the over-50s. It said that it should also give maximum added pension years for the over-50s, come into force with the reorganisation order and last for a year after the reorganisation day.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will accept those points as minimum criteria and that the matter will be considered in great depth during the passage of the Bill ? Such matters are more vital in Wales. A recent survey by Manpower Watch shows that a disproportionate number of employees in Wales are over 50 years of age compared with their counterparts in England. It is even more important for Wales that we are able to reach an early conclusion on the matter, and that it is satisfactory and fair to staff. The subject has naturally caused great worry throughout local government in Wales.

I am sure that the Government are aware of the recent study that was carried out by a team of top local government finance officers. It showed that the transitional costs of creating 21 unitary authorities would amount to £202.3 million at 1995-96 prices over a 15-year period. It also found that running the new authorities will cost another £6.2 million per annum more than at present. Does the Secretary of State agree with those figures ? If not, what are his estimates of the transitional and annual running costs of the new authorities compared with those of the existing structures ? Will the Secretary of State guarantee that all such additional costs are financed by the Treasury and will not result in any further squeezing of local government services or other Government-financed activity in Wales ?

The debates in the other place began to expose the cracks in the Bill. For instance, great concern has been expressed about the restrictions that the Secretary of State


Column 805

intends to impose in clause 25, which allows authorities to provide services for each other. The Secretary of State has made it clear, however, that he will take away the powers conferred by clause 25 in respect of all services that are subject to compulsory competitive tendering. Those will soon include not only basic services, such as school meals and roads maintenance, but white-collar services, such as information technology, construction-related services and legal work. Does not the Secretary of State's intention to impose those restrictions militate against the lead authority's provisions and the joint working arrangements that he has advocated so strongly ? What is the relationship between clause 25 and the working arrangements in clauses 29 to 31 ? Those provisions must be examined carefully and in great detail in Committee.

The Bill is being rushed through and implemented without sufficient consideration. Also, the timetable does not add up. The election of members to the new councils will take place in April 1995. The chief executives will be appointed in June or July and the other chief officers will probably not be in post until September or October 1995. Service delivery plans, however, are to be prepared in draft form by 1 November 1995 and finalised by 1 February 1996. The Secretary of State can issue a direction to a local authority to prepare a decentralisation scheme as late as 1 July 1996. Once the scheme is submitted, therefore, he has up to 12 months in which to approve it. A decentralisation scheme might, therefore, not be approved until late 1997.


Next Section

  Home Page