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decentralisation scheme is implemented is crucial to the arrangements for service delivery and for local government democratic control. The Secretary of State must allow more time for those matters to be considered properly by the new authorities and brought into effect in a rational and orderly fashion.
Hitherto I have talked about the generality of the Bill. I shall identify some further areas which will undoubtedly concern me in Committee. I heard the powerful speech of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) on behalf of Montgomery. Of course, I add my voice to what he said, as I have done consistently. I hope that he will succeed in his difficult and arduous task of reinstating that honourable county status.
I ask the Secretary of State to think again about the excellent case for unitary status put forward by Meirionnydd. Meirionnydd has been a unit of local government since 1284, and was an excellent county council until 1974. Lately, the district council has been an excellent deliverer of local services. No fewer than 12,500 people signed a petition presented to Parliament last July calling for a unitary authority for Meirionnydd. Not one of the detailed reports prepared by Meirionnydd district council and the Meirionnydd campaign received a reasoned response. That is not acceptable. It is not acceptable for the Under-Secretary merely to say, as he did yesterday at Welsh questions, that matters relating to the Bill are for Parliament to decide. We know what that means.
Column 806I ask the Secretary of State again to give further consideration to the Meirionnydd case. Some weeks ago, during a meeting I had with the Under-Secretary, he admitted that only two campaigns had been mounted in Wales for unitary status of the nature of those run by Meirionnydd and Montgomery, so the argument that floodgates would be opened because some concessions had been given today does not add up. I am pleased for the hon. Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) and for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Smith). However, merely not to respond in any detailed way to the arguments put forward by my authority and, indeed, the Montgomery authority, and to disallow them out of hand, would be wrong, undemocratic and totally unacceptable to the people in those areas.
Does the Secretary of State further accept that communities such as Bro Garmon, Bro Machno, Dolgarrog, Llanrwst, Maenan and Llanddoget, Trefriw, Ysbyty Ifan and Eglwysbach have all indicated a preference for joining-- that list will ensure that the Hansard reporters send me a note. If they send me the book down, I shall take the time to write it all out. I apologise--I should have taken it a bit slower ; it comes as second nature to a Welsh speaker. Indeed, those communities are listed in the Official Report of the House of Lords as a result of an amendment moved by a noble Lord in Committee. Those communities have indicated that they want to join with Caernarfon, as indeed have Penmaenmawr and Llanfairfechan. They want to move in with the Caernarfon set-up. We are talking about a large number of people and a large number of councils. I ask the Secretary of State to consider the matter because it is important across all shades of political opinion. Later, I intend to table an amendment to that effect, but I shall be grateful if the Government will consider the matter in the meantime.
As the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells) said earlier, the borough of Taff-Ely is an excellent deliverer of services--it may be because it is run by Plaid Cymru. In any event, that authority has made a very strong case for unitary status. I ask the Government to re-examine that particular aspect. I join the hon. Member for Pontypridd in his arguments on behalf of that authority., We are dealing with the every-day lives of our citizens. Their aspirations must be taken into account because the Bill will mean nothing unless it carries with it the consensus of Welsh opinion. I welcome the concession on archive services and their provision. I ask whether there will be a similar approach to trading standards departments. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that that service could also be provided by smaller authorities. Therefore, I ask him to develop that aspect further, if not in this debate then obviously in Committee.
I also ask the Secretary of State, who has just left his seat, whether he can give an assurance that council employees will not be ineligible to stand for office. Undoubtedly, amendments will be tabled in Committee, but an indication at this stage would assist. Failure to allow employees to stand for office would, of course, deprive thousands of citizens of their basic democratic rights. I shall refer briefly to the question of a Welsh assembly. I remind hon. Members that a vote was taken on the amendment tabled by Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos. Although the House of Lords is not noted for radical decision
Column 807making, the amendment failed unfortunately by only eight votes. Surely that must be a telling point that the Government will have to bear in mind.
Mr. Jonathan Evans : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way because I appreciate that he is reaching the end of his speech. Surely he is not telling the House that the form of assembly which was proposed in another place is a form of assembly that would satisfy the hon. Gentleman or any of his parliamentary colleagues.
Mr. Llwyd : It is an indication of principle. Earlier, I said that I did not want a Welsh assembly ; I want a Welsh parliament. In the meantime, and on a pro tem basis, I shall fight hard for a Welsh assembly, which has been requested by other Opposition Members. I reiterate that Opposition Members sympathise with the Secretary of State. He has been saddled with his predecessor's proposals, for which he has no enthusiasm. Moreover, as a former local government Minister in the Department of the Environment, he knows that the proposals in the Bill will not lead to effective and efficient local government in Wales. He should have the honesty and integrity to express his true feelings about the Bill and consign the proposals to the wastepaper basket, where they belong. He should consult widely in Wales across the political spectrum and bring forward new proposals for the government of Wales which will be acceptable to our people ; otherwise the Bill will only give rise only to resentment and dismay. Surely that must be avoided if the process is not to be utterly discredited.
Mr. Jonathan Evans (Brecon and Radnor) : I contratulate the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) on his achievement in getting such a large number of signatures for the reasoned amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. In view of the confusion and divisions that pervade the Opposition Benches, it was no mean achievement to gain all those signatures. However, having read the Order Paper, I note that the names are arranged in alphabetical order and therefore I have no doubt that all the names owe more credit to the skills of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) than those of the hon. Member for Caerphilly.
Like a music hall conjurer, as it were, the amendment is a conjuring trick by the hon. Gentleman, which Tory Members can see through. The perception that the hon. Gentleman wishes us to gain from the Order Paper is that there is some unanimity that binds Opposition Members. However, we know about the manifest divisions in the hon. Gentleman's and between his party and the nationalist and Liberal parties in Wales. Those divisions exist with regard to the assembly itself.
Mr. Ron Davies : If the hon. Gentleman thinks that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) does my bidding on such matters, I can assure him that he grossly misreads the relationships within the parliamentary Labour party.
Mr. Davies : I certainly do not. I hope that the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) is not impugning the integrity of the hon. Members who signed the amendment. It is a fact that all 32 Opposition Members agree that the Government's proposals are fundamentally
Column 808flawed and that the system of unitary authorities is not acceptable without a Welsh assembly. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that that is an accurate reflection of the views of the 32 hon. Members who signed the amendment.
Mr. Evans : It is common knowledge that there are some among the hon. Gentleman's parliamentary party in Wales who are far less enthusiastic about the idea of a Welsh parliament than he would have us believe. More importantly, the amendment condemns the Government proposal because it
"abolishes a democratic tier of local Government".
The democratic tier to which the amendment refers presumably is the county councils. Yet Opposition Members--including the hon. Members for Rhondda (Mr. Rogers), for Blaneau Gwent (Mr. Smith) and for Pontypridd (Dr. Howells)--have demanded that further action be taken to place local government unitary powers in the hands of those at the district level, and that the new unitary authorities should be based on the districts rather than on the counties. The amendment derides and attacks the Government because they are moving away from county councils.
Dr. Howells : My difficulty in the matter is in trying to understand why, when there are local authorities and district councils that are exactly the same size, which have the same population and offer the same services--which are twins, in many ways--one becomes a unitary authority and the other is linked with neighbouring authorities. I am looking for the logic in it. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can give me a better idea of where it derives from than the Secretary of State did.
Mr. Evans : If the hon. Gentleman remains for all of my speech, he will find that I shall ask certain questions along those lines in relation to my area. I have not noticed the hon. Gentleman saying that we need to retain the two-tier system, or that we need a unitary authority based upon Mid Glamorgan county council. I have not heard those claims from Opposition Members, but I have heard claims that we need more unitary authorities, rather than fewer.
Mr. Rogers : I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman understandably shows a complete lack of knowledge of local government. He ought to realise that services are provided at different levels. It is a matter not of drawing boundaries on a map, but of delivering services. The Opposition are anxious to ensure that there is an optimum size for the delivery of the best services. Our argument is that an authority of 240,000 is too big to deliver many of the personal services. On the other hand, such an authority may in some senses be too small to provide all of the support facilities for the delivery of education and social services.
What is dumbfounding for Opposition Members is the fact that the Secretary of State can propose that an authority bounded by the same mountains and adjacent to our local authority can be big enough when it has a population of 70,000, and yet other authorities which are bigger again are not big enough. Where is the logic in the argument ?
The hon. Gentleman seems to be proposing that, in certain circumstances, the retention of a two-tier system would be desirable.
Column 809Mr. Rogers rose
Mr. Evans : May I just put a point to the hon. Member which I think is of fundamental importance ? We must look at the basis from which the Bill springs. It springs from a consultation exercise undertaken by the Secretary of State's predecessor in which he asked authorities within Wales at both county and district level whether there was a case to justify retaining a two-tier structure, or whether we should move to unitary authorities. I know about that because I was involved in the debate with each of the local authorities in my area.
Mr. Rogers : I did not mean to be abusive to the hon. Gentleman in a personal sense. I was commenting simply on the problems of deciding on the correct size for local government. Some of my hon. Friends do not agree with me, and it is not my party's policy, but I believe in two-tier local government. Frankly, the Secretary of State's proposals will create two- tier local government, because unitary authorities will have to combine to provide bigger services. In effect, there will then be two-tier local government. Why on earth must the county councils be abolished to start with ?
Mr. Evans : The hon. Gentleman will find as my speech develops that there is much which, perhaps surprisingly, unites us in the matter. I feel strongly that we should not base local government on some desired percentage, or a gross number which is the desirable figure upon which every local authority should be based. The basis of my argument is that there are different circumstances in different parts of Wales. The proposals in the Bill that govern the situation within Powys create the retention of a form of two-tier structure. I shall return to the thrust of my speech, rather than just responding to interventions from the Opposition. It is important that the debate should be seen to be about the initial step taken by the Secretary of State in asking whether there should be unitary authorities or the retention of the two-tier structure. The response from virtually throughout Wales was in favour of unitary authorities, and there can be no ducking that.
The response from the counties was that we must have unitary authorities, but they must be based on the counties. The response from the districts was that we must have unitary authorities, but they must be based on the districts. The problem identified by the Secretary of State, and which we have heard about during the debate, is that there has been confusion in the roles of the authorities. There has been confusion in terms of the delivery of services. The counties and districts have agreed on that ; otherwise, they would not have proposed creating unitary authorities in the first place. Sadly, I do not think that the authorities have looked in as much detail as they might at some of the difficulties that might arise if we went for one desirable size for a local authority area. For instance, I understand that the desirable population for a local authority within Wales must be 70, 000. However, I know that the English local government commission has argued that 150,000 is the desirable population. Why should the appropriate population be twice as big in England as it is in Wales ?
Within Wales, a number of authorities proposed in the Bill have a population significantly lower than 70,000. In the Government's proposal for Scotland there are two authorities that are smaller than Radnorshire. Those
Column 810authorities are proposed in the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill, which is being debated in Committee, and the Government recognise that a proper level of local government service can be delivered by an authority based on a population as small as in those areas.
I am sure that that is anathema to some of those who advise the Secretary of State, and to the Assembly of Welsh Counties. They see things very much in the context of the remarks of the hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Mr. Thomason), who said that one important consideration has to be the career structure of those who work in local government. I am not unsympathetic to the concerns of those who work in local government, and we should provide proper terms and conditions for them. However, our fundamental and primary role must be to ensure that we create a structure of local government that is right for local council tax payers and the local population.
Mr. Alex Carlile : Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that smaller district councils have been able to attract a high quality of officer ? Some have been brilliant young officers who have moved on, and some have been slightly older officers who were looking to work in a rural authority.
Mr. Evans : I agree entirely, and the hon. and learned Gentleman will know that, in my constituency, Radnorshire district council has a chief executive, Mr. Geoff Read, who is widely respected. He has also created a structure within the district council in which it is not the perception that whoever fills a council role must only perform that job and no other. The hon. and learned Gentleman will know that in career structures it is desirable to bring in people who train in one environment and move on to other local authorities. To say that we must all conform to one template for the structure of local government and the desired size of population, with the lines then being drawn over Wales accordingly, runs entirely contrary to local sensitivities and does not produce the best form of local government reorganisation.
Another caveat in respect of the Local Government Commission has been referred to in the debate. Proposals are being made for the retention of a two-tier structure in certain parts of England. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) suggested such an arrangement as a backstop position for Montgomeryshire. People in Montgomeryshire may have said to him that they want their own unitary authority, but certainly do not want to lose control over local services. We should ponder hard before we create a structure in a year or so of unitary and two-tier authorities over England, but only unitary authorities across Wales, created in the face of local opposition. That would not be in anyone's interests.
At the time of the debate about whether it was helpful to move towards unitary authorities, I discussed with the authorities in my area whether they believed that Powys uniquely had reasons for retaining a two-tier structure. The hon. Member for Rhondda spent a good deal of time interrupting me and I gave way to him. I see that he did not choose to remain for the rest of my speech. It is rather a shame. I accept entirely the point that he made in this regard. Some services need to be delivered to a much larger population ; other services need to be delivered much closer to the people. How are we to deal with that key problem ?
Column 811I see no reason why we should not have a structure of unitary authorities based on small populations. I am sure that the authorities in the constituency of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery and those in my area would work together constructively to deliver strategic services over a wider area. Furthermore, that might even involve some councillors from the area of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd). I know that his authority has discussed the matter within the mid-Wales context with other authorities. That is a constructive debate.
However, I was a little disappointed by the remarks of the hon. Member for Caerphilly. He said that he was committed to voting in Committee for Montgomeryshire or a Brecon and Radnor authority, but had not yet decided whether he was prepared to support a Radnorshire authority in its own right. One aspect of the debate in another place that particularly disappointed me was that it was proposed that Brecon and Radnor should be merged, against the wishes of the people of Radnorshire and in the teeth of the opposition of those people. Such proposals are not helpful in developing the best form of local relations.
The authorities in my constituency are fundamentally independent. Most of the councils are under independent control. Yet we have Labour representation in Radnorshire. I know from speaking to the Radnorshire Labour councillors last week that they intend to urge the hon. Member for Caerphilly to change the position that he outlined tonight.
Montgomeryshire. The spokesman for the Labour party in the House of Lords said that that was the policy which we would be prepared to support officially. The problem that we now face is that the hon. Gentleman is engaging in a tortured approach to his county of Powys. He obviously cannot make up his mind whether to argue the case for a unitary authority in Radnorshire and/or a unitary authority in Breconshire. As soon as he decides which side of the fence to come down on, we can consider whether to support his argument.
Mr. Evans : I am surprised to hear that remark from the hon. Gentleman. He clearly cannot have listened to any of my speeches in the House on the matter in the past two years. If he had, he would know my position.
Mr. Griffiths : I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman's argument that Radnorshire should not be drawn into a combined Breconshire and Radnorshire unitary authority. He said that if they were combined, they would be dragged kicking and screaming into the new structure and he would not approve it. Is he prepared to support our amendment ? The communities of Ewenny, St. Bride's Major and Wick have shown that they do not want to be part of the Vale of Glamorgan, but want to stay with the Bridgend unitary authority.
Column 812Gwent and Merthyr. The hon. Member for Caerphilly knows that I expressed some sympathy with the observations that they made. I was pleased to hear the announcement that by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made about those authorities. I am certainly prepared to listen to the arguments on those matters, although I cannot give a definitive response at this point.
I return to my theme. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made his proposals. The somewhat surprising proposal for a unitary authority based on Powys was not one which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery expected or one which I expected. The consultation paper referred to the creation of either a Brecon and Radnor joint authority or separate authorities. We in mid-Wales well remember the dotted line between the two district areas. I pay credit to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and to his predecessor for what they have done since that time. It is churlish of some Opposition Members to suggest that there has been any lack of consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I have been to see him on four or five occasions with representatives of the local councils to discuss the issues.
The Government clearly must recognise that the proposal for a unitary authority based on Powys in its own right is a major problem. That is why the area committees proposal is in the Bill. In fairness to the Government, that is a recognition of many of the points that we have made. However, there are dangers in the proposal for area committees. If the area committees are to have real autonomy, they must have financial control. That is a fundamental aspect which I have argued privately with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, in meetings when representatives of the local councils have been present, and on other occasions. That is one of the reasons why I have raised the matter yet again in the House.
Again, in fairness to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, he went much further in his response today than he did on a previous occasion on the issue of financial autonomy. As yet, all we know is that my right hon. Friend recognises the problem and we must examine what he proposes as the solution. The problem is not limited to financial autonomy. One of the problems that have arisen from the way in which the debate has been conducted is some difficulty in the relationship between the councils in mid-Wales. That is unhelpful and those of us who have a parliamentary role in the area should do our best to resolve it.
I am greatly displeased by suggestions that I have heard that, if ultimately there should be a Powys authority, the stronger authorities to the north or to the south of Radnorshire may choose to operate Radnorshire on a north-south basis, with disastrous effects on Llandrindod Wells. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery said that some people in his constituency feel that Llandrindod Wells is remote from them. I recognise that they have that perception, but it is inevitable when one is dealing with a vast geographical area such as Powys.
Nevertheless, if we had a Powys authority, even with that financial devolution, it would create difficulties for Llandrindod Wells, which depends substantially on being the administrative centre of Powys, because there would be a perception of a north-south split in the county.
It was surprising that the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said that he was sorry that 85 per cent. of the funding for those new authorities is likely to come from
Column 813central Government, as at present. He suggested that that was too much ; that we needed to change that balance. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would clarify those remarks.
Mr. Llwyd : I am invited to intervene. The simple point was that the longer and the firmer is the financial stranglehold on local government by this place, the less likely we are to have any democratic development in local government generally. The point is fairly obvious. I know that the hon. Gentleman wanted to make a point, but it really is a silly point.
Mr. Evans : The clear thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that, if 85 per cent. central Government funding to local authorities is too much, ultimately there will be a switch in the balance of resources so that more resources are raised locally. Presumably that is the hon. Gentleman's point.
The hon. Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Jones), although he has not spoken in the debate, was present at a Parliament for Wales meeting in my constituency recently. He made it absolutely clear at the meeting that, on instructions from the hon. Member for Caerphilly, he was arguing the case for keeping central funding from this place, that the block grants must still come from the House of Commons, and that we must not get into a debate about there being tax-raising powers for any assembly in Wales. That is yet another of the slight divisions between the position of the hon. Member for Caerphilly and the nationalists on that matter.
I ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State to give me reassurance about two aspects of the detail of the Bill. Clause 24 deals with police authorities and gives certain powers to the Secretary of State to bring forward plans in relation to proposed amalgamations. That issue causes great worry in my constituency. I was happy to hear today that within the Dyfed-Powys police force in my constituency there have been recorded reductions in crime rates of 48 per cent. in Brecon and 28 per cent. in Llandrindod Wells--and that from a police force which has the lowest crime rate and the highest clear-up rate in the country. It may be a small police force, but it is an efficient and well-run police force. We must oppose any forced merger with another police force authority such as South Wales, which is formulated on the basis of a much bigger population, but is being run into the ground through poor financial management. I therefore urge my hon. Friend to clarify what may be in the mind of the Government in relation to clause 24.
Clause 23 includes powers concerning the fire authorities. It is proposed, as the Under-Secretary of State knows, that there should be three fire authorities in Wales. I view that with substantial anxiety. People in my constituency will want reassurance about service delivery if there were to be such a reorganisation. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin) about the concerns of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children regarding children's services in Wales.
I conclude by referring to the fundamental part of the Opposition's reasoned amendment. In essence, it proposes that the Bill should not receive a Second Reading because it fails to establish a directly elected all-Wales tier of
Column 814government. That is the fig-leaf covering the hon. Member for Caerphilly. The proposal that there must be a parliament for Wales draws the Opposition together.
Opposition Members say that 70 per cent. of people in Wales support the policy. That is manifest nonsense. In 1979, more than 80 per cent. of the people in Wales voted against a parliament for Wales ; two months later, 67 per cent. of them voted for parties who were committed to it. Does that mean that in two months all the people in Wales changed their minds ? No. It means that some of the people who support some of the Opposition parties vehemently oppose a parliament for Wales.
Several factors lead to people voting for some of the Opposition Members. I wish that we could persuade them to vote otherwise. Be that as it may, the creation of a separate Welsh parliament is not one of the fundamental things that cause people to vote for some of the Opposition parties, save only perhaps in the case of Plaid Cymru.
In those circumstances, it is manifest nonsense for Opposition Members to claim that vote as evidence for support for a separate parliament for Wales. They had 67 per cent. of the vote in 1979 and 70 per cent. of the vote at the most recent election--a 3 per cent. change in the vote in that period.
Further, recently a poll recorded that 45 per cent. of people in Wales are in favour of creating some type of assembly. What do those people want ? What do they imagine the parliament leading to ? It is my case that 82 per cent. of the people who propose the idea of a separate Welsh parliament regard it, as does the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, as a step on the road to an independent and separate Wales.
Mr. Llwyd indicated assent .
Mr. Evans : I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman nods his support for that, because he spoke of the debate in another place, and said that, during that debate, the Welsh parliament idea had only just failed to get through, but it was not the type of parliament that he wanted. He wanted very much more control over a wide range of matters in Wales. So we are concerned with people who wish to be on the road to an independent, separatist Wales, and who view the establishment of a separate Welsh parliament as a step on that road.
Mr. Llwyd : I have no embarrassment about wanting a Welsh parliament --obviously not--and I wonder why the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) should suddenly be surprised when I nod my head. My argument was that a Welsh assembly is necessary now to sweep away the quango system, or at least to bring some scrutiny to bear on the quangos, because the system is in complete disrepute. We waste £1.8 billion per annum on running quangos in Wales without any proper scrutiny. A Welsh assembly could start by considering that.
Mr. Evans : Every public organisation that has been set up by the Secretary of State for Wales is answerable, through him, to Parliament. That is why we have questions on the Order Paper about them every day--most of them tabled by the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent.
I am very pleased to see the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) in his place. I was sorry that he, not discourteously, would not allow me to intervene earlier because he was keen to keep his remarks short. He said that his views about a Welsh assembly had
Column 815not really changed since the 1970s. As he said that, I remembered those famous remarks that he made in 1979 : when an elephant is on your doorstep you know it for what it is. The right hon. and learned Gentleman was most eloquent on that occasion. He was saying, in essence, that, whatever his own views may have been, the people of Wales had a totally different view.
As regards the current situation and the bankruptcy of the approach of so many Opposition Members, we know that the Labour party is not prepared, as part of its policy for a separate Welsh parliament, to put it to a vote of the people of Wales. The assiduous response of the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), during the Parliament for Wales campaign meeting, was that he had the authority of the hon. Member for Caerphilly to say, "We will have a separate Welsh Parliament and we will bring that Parliament about within 12 months of an incoming Labour Government, but there will be no referendum on it." Those were the reported words of the hon. Member for Neath. I was with him when he said that and he did so with the authority of the hon. Member for Caerphilly.
Mr. Evans : The hon. Gentleman pays too little attention to my remarks. I have consistently said that anybody who proposes a separate Welsh parliament should, in the context of the 1979 referendum, be prepared to put it to a vote by the people of Wales. Were the hon. Gentleman to do that, I should be delighted to take him on at the hustings, because I have no doubt that the outcome would be exactly the same as that of the previous referendum.
Mr. Peter Hain (Neath) : Given that unitary authorities have such widespread support in principle across the country and the consensus that local government should be reorganised on the principle of unitary authorities, how has such a popular policy become so unpopular in Wales ? The answers are self-evident.
First, the Conservatives are riding roughshod over the interests and democratic wishes of the Welsh people. That is the background against which they are introducing the Bill and why it is meeting such opposition and criticism. My constituents describe the Secretary of State by all sorts of names, some of which are too unparliamentary to repeat here. One of the nicer ones is Dr. Strangelove because of his approach to Welsh politics and the fact that his single greatest achievement has been to reduce Conservative support in Wales to its lowest level ever.
The second reason why the Bill is so heavily criticised and greeted with such suspicion is that the Government are defying the electorate. They are seeking to overturn the democratic results of general and local county council elections by instituting a new tier of quangos to replace elected representatives with a new elite. The "quangia" are exercising great powers but are not accountable. The Bill runs alongside and encourages that development because it sets up new quangos that will be less democratically accountable than the local authorities that they replace. Despite the welcome increase in the number of councils, there will be fewer elected local councillors than members of the various quangos in Wales.
Column 816That will encourage elitism and toadying, which is now such a feature of public life in Wales. Tory placepersons are put on quangos when they cannot get directly elected. It will also produce what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) appropriately described as a loss of democratic legitimacy. When elected councillors are taken out of their communities, a vacuum is left. The whole system of politics and democracy rests on legitimacy. Whatever their imperfections, local councillors are an important part of creating building blocks for that legitimacy, but they are being replaced by an unelected elite throughout the system of government in Wales.
Combined with the economic and social policies that the Government are pursuing to disastrous effect in Wales, there will be increasing problems of ungovernability, not just in Wales but throughout the United Kingdom. We shall certainly see that in communities such as those that I represent, with a strong democratic tradition and sense of community. If those features are destroyed, the traditional sense of legitimacy and respect that the communities in the valleys of south Wales have for the democratic process will also be destroyed. That is a serious consequence of the Government's open defiance of democratic wishes.
The third reason why the Bill is so unpopular is that it entrenches the fragmentation of government, the problem of quangos to which I have already referred, and the associated process of opting out which some local hospitals and schools are forced to adopt. The parallel developments of contracting out, market testing and privatisation also contribute to the fragmentation of government. The result is a system of politics in which voters no longer achieve their true role as citizens whose place in the democracy exists by virtue of exercising their democratic rights. They become mere customers of services that have been opted out, contracted out, quangoised, market tested or privatised.
That result is the destruction of local policies, and the Bill entrenches that process. Ultimately, local policies are the cement that binds local communities together. Unless people are involved in local policies, their respect for priorities cannot be attained. Moreover, the process by which cohesion can be sustained and priorities set within a community cannot be attained. The essence of politics is to set priorities, which will advantage some people and disadvantage others. One retains the respect of those who have been disadvantaged only if they feel that they have participated in the democratic process of arriving at those priorities.
However one looks at this remorseless, systematic fragmentation of politics, democracy and local government, it is a serious phenomenon that will be one of the Conservative regime's principal legacies when the Conservatives are finally driven from office. They intend to turn local authorities from democratic agencies, for which socialists have always argued, into mere administrative outposts of Whitehall. That is what the Bill is about. It seeks not to empower local citizens or local democracies but to reconstitute local authorities as administrative agencies for central Government, a process that is entrenched by the fact that some 90 per cent. of local authority finance is now provided centrally. Coupled with the capping of local authorities' scope to allow local autonomy and democracy to flower and reflect local wishes, that power is virtually extinguished. It is a
Column 817top-down version of democracy--if we can still call it democracy. It is certainly a top-down version of government, as opposed to an empowering bottom-up one.
The other key consequence of the fragmentation and destruction of local government is that the strategy and mechanism for determining the strategic approaches to policy matters and for developing policies with strategic consequences no longer exist. A cluster of competing fragmented units are responsible for carrying out services or deciding on policies. The ability to determine an overall strategic approach to Wales' future is lost, which is why the biggest gap in this process of reform of government in Wales is the absence of an all-Welsh tier of government--a Welsh assembly or parliament, whatever it is called when it is brought in, as I believe that it will be in the end, despite Conservative resistance.
The biggest hole in this reform of local government is the ability to have an agency capable of taking a Wales-wide strategic approach to policy. The Secretary of State has all but recognised that by conceding the case for establishing an economic council. Why is such a council to be established ? That is an interesting question for a Government who reject the idea of an all-Wales tier of government. At least in respect of economic policy, the Conservative Government recognise that there is a hole in their policy and that they need a Wales-wide approach. Therefore, instead of conceding the case for a Welsh assembly or a Welsh parliament, they are setting up a puppet quango in the proposed economic council. They have at least recognised the need for an overall strategy on economic policy development.
Another concession that is even less acceptable is the Secretary of State's proposed forum, which he is trying to cobble together without co-operation from the Labour party, at least in terms of the forum's composition. Why did he make that suggestion ? Because he sees a gap in his approach to government. Associated with that policy is the encouragement and promotion of joint boards and consortia that do irreparable damage to the democratic process and the lines of local accountability.
What will a local citizen in Neath be voting for in education and social services or the fire service if those vital emergency and general services are run by joint boards or consortia ? How will his or her vote determine the policies of those new quangos, consortia and boards ? How can they be held accountable when they are fragmented and dispersed into parallel bodies working alongside elected local authorities ? As a consequence, we have a real dog's breakfast of local government reform.
That is why, relatively late in the day, the Secretary of State has come upon the wheeze of decentralisation. It is not really decentralisation ; if it were, as my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies) has pointed out, the Government would need to devolve real power, not least over finance. That is not proposed. The consequence will not be real decentralisation, but the danger of reconstituting old districts in their parochial sense without being empowering agencies. That could lead to the paralysis of the new unitary authorities rather than to their being genuinely powerful and dynamic in implementing their policies and reflecting local wishes. That brings me to the future of Neath. The borough of Neath has been in existence for some 900 years. The town
Column 818dates back to Roman times. To defend the legitimacy of its existence is not simply to indulge in a local whim or some parochial self-interest ; it is not the reaction of local politicians who want to cling to office.
Neath borough council employed independent consultants, Touche Ross, a company of which the Government normally take considerable notice--but in this case they have not. Touche Ross looked carefully and in detail into the case for Neath remaining on its own and took the view that it could meet all the criteria required for successfully functioning as a unitary authority.
Mr. Hain : I am not taking any interventions from the hon. Gentleman, who is known in my constituency as Rod Gwenwn. Neath borough council has put together detailed proposals for Neath to remain a unitary authority. The Minister might at least note that even local Conservatives have enthusiastically backed them. It is not simply the Labour party that has put the case for Neath ; a broad section of the community, from the Churches to the trade unions, has endorsed virtually unanimously the case for Neath to remain on its own.
My right hon. and learned friend the Member for Aberavon pointed out that, in an independent ballot conducted for the local authority, only about 135 of the 6,000 or so votes cast were actually in favour of the Government's proposals.
The Touche Ross report pointed out that a Neath unitary authority would offer real benefits
"for social services, where the model of working together currently applied most successfully between housing and social services in Neath is capable of extension to include local health service professionals and will provide a sound basis for strategic planning".
It also pointed out :
"a Neath local education authority would be small enough for the chief education officer to have immediate personal contact with head teachers through the appraisal system".
It set out the benefits
"for highways and transportation, where the benefits of unitary status in Neath could offer better coordination between highways and planning departments without involving the difficulties of merging two district planning departments",
as is proposed for Neath and Port Talbot and half the planning authority for the upper Clwyd valley.
The report, which was delivered in May 1992, stated :
"a Neath authority would have a much clearer community focus than a combined Neath/Port Talbot authority could achieve."
It argued :
"The lack of community links between Neath and Port Talbot reflects the topography and shows through in patterns of shopping and personal mobility. Neath's vibrant pattern of sporting, leisure and cultural activities is largely independent from Port Talbot. There are significant differences in the transport focus and industrial character of the two boroughs".
It concluded :
"We believe that Neath is well placed to operate as a unitary authority in own right, meeting the criteria set out in the Welsh Office Consultation Paper of being able to deliver high quality services while meeting the financial objectives set out in Section 7 of the paper".
I need not rely simply on Labour advocates or independent consultants for that view ; those opinions were voiced in another place recently. In the debate on the Local Government (Wales) Bill, Lord Howe of Aberavon said :
"We like people from Neath as long as they keep their distance and I hope they take the same view of we people from Aberavon, but that there could not be two more distinct communities. It