Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Wigley : I did not serve on the Committee and, to that extent, I am perhaps a little bit at a loss compared with

Column 704

my colleagues. [Hon. Members :-- "Not at all."] That may be the case. What happens if an area committee, by virtue of an act of commission or omission, finds itself in a surchargeable position ? Are only the councillors on the area committee are liable in law, or is the full authority ?

Sir Wyn Roberts : Councillors are responsible for their own actions. Members of the area committees are also members of the full authority and, therefore, as members of the full authority, they might be liable to surcharge. The co-opted members obviously would not carry the same responsibility.

I also emphasise that, as with the present system where the main authority is responsible for its committee's activities, so it would be under our proposed system. The main authority would be responsible for the actions of the members of its area committees who, of course, are also members of the authority.

Mr. Rowlands : That is an amazing statement. It was prefaced by a lengthy statement describing the enormous power of area committees. The committees could have a percentage of the revenues of the local authority and of the block grants of certain amounts of capital expenditure. Is the Minister saying that, if those funds are misappropriated, are not spent in a proper manner and become subject to a district audit, the principal council becomes collectively liable and responsible ?

Sir Wyn Roberts : I want to make it clear that, as with the present system, individual councillors will be responsible under the new system for any erroneous decisions which result in their surcharge.

Mr. Paul Murphy (Torfaen) : It has been four years since we first started thinking about local government reorganisation in Wales. It is certainly three or four years since the Government issued consultative papers, Green Papers, White Papers, Bills of one sort and Bills of another. Here we are at the very last stage of our proceedings in the House of Commons, and we are still muddled, confused and besotted by the question of area committees. I suspect that if the Committee stage and the stages in the House went on any further, the situation would get worse day by day.

Frankly, I think that this is the most disappointing part of the Bill. It has been conceived in haste and as a direct result of the Government's attempt--in the Minister of State's own words in the Standing Committee--to pacify people in the Conservative party, and mainly the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). Because the Minister could not deliver--or did not want to deliver, for whatever reason--separate unitary authorities in rural mid-Wales, the Government tried to cobble together this area committee nonsense to appease and to pacify.

The problem is that the Government are then visiting on the whole of local government in Wales a confused, unaccountable and badly thought-out system of local government. I wish to speak briefly to the amendments standing in the names of myself and my hon. Friends which would delete the whole area committee part of the Bill. Frankly, I am convinced that anybody involved in the working and running of local authorities in Wales--county councillors or district councillors--will live to see the folly of this part of the legislation.

We have been landed with a two-tier system when the whole purpose of the Bill is to create a unitary system of

Column 705

local government. We might disagree on some aspects of that, but the idea of having a single tier was the attraction which the Government have tried to sell to the people of wales. But as soon as they came to a political problem--a handful of the majority in one constituency in the middle of rural Wales--the whole reform of local government had to be put out of gear.

There might be some sense in it if the Government said that area committees would be placed in all parts of Wales. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), who spoke well in the earlier debate, could have area committees in his constituency in Splott, Grangetown and other parts of Cardiff in the same way as there can now apparently be committees in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and mid-Wales.

Mr. Michael : Or in Penarth.

Mr. Murphy : Indeed. Because the system has been born out of trying to make concessions, only parts of Wales will actually have the benefit--if that is what it is--of area committees. One cannot run a system of local government in Wales unless that system is applicable to all parts. It does not make sense, and it will lead to disharmony and administrative chaos as the years roll by.

The purpose of the Bill is to avoid having to come back here in 20 years' time, or whenever it might be, to change local government all over again. After all, it was just 21 years ago that the former Secretary of State of Wales, Lord Walker, was ultimately responsible for the system that is now disappearing. We may have to come back a damn sight earlier than that if the proposals are put into effect, because they simply will not work.

Look at the confusion behind the Minister's comments about finance. No Department, with all its experts--whether the Treasury, the Department of the Environment or the Welsh Office--could come up a solution to enable the over-complex system of local government finance to apply to area committees. The capping procedures are so complicated and standard spending assessments so difficult to understand that they simply cannot apply to area committees. The Minister of State's answer on surcharge was totally inadequate. We cannot pass laws that mean that members of local authorities who become members of area committees and put up their hands to vote are not sure whether they will be liable to surcharge. Even worse, if those individuals are members of the parent authority, they may be made liable to surcharge when they have had nothing to do with the decisions of those area committees.

8.30 pm

When we debate Powys, the thrust of the discussion will be about accountability and bringing local government back to the people--certainly to those in mid-Wales, which seems to have been the birthplace of the stuff about area committees. The idea was to maintain community links and civic pride. One simply cannot get anyone in mid-Wales or anywhere else in the Principality enthused about civic pride via an area committee. One has to have a council, with a chairman or mayor, which is properly elected, because only those bodies can attract such civic pride, awareness and enthusiasm. An area committee, or whatever one may wish to call it, is not a council, which is what people require in mid-Wales.

Column 706

For that reason, the first vote on new clause 11 was designed to give people in every part of Wales the opportunity to decide through a proper plebiscite whether they wanted the proposed new local authority for their area. That is the only way to do it. The only way in which permanence and stability can be given to local government is through the establishment of councils, proper statutory bodies, not the nonsense of area committees, which will satisfy no one. Such committees will not last two years should the Bill reach the statute book this year.

No mention has been made of a possible deadlock. When we discussed Government new clause 13, the Minister referred specifically to safeguards. We want not safeguards but assurances that when there is an irreversible deadlock between an area committee and its parent authority it will be broken. We want to know who will do that. Will it be the Secretary of State, the council itself or some other body such as the proposed new association ? Who knows ? It seems to me that the possibility of deadlock and conflict between those authorities is by no means remote. We were told that the whole purpose of the Bill was to remove the conflict, deadlock and disharmony that could exist between county councils and district councils.

There are ways to decentralise local government, but that is not what we have been offered. The Minister should consider what his Scottish colleagues have done. The Local Government etc. (Scotland) Bill offers workable, sensible decentralisation.

A number of Welsh local authorities have already set up administrative decentralisation schemes for housing and other responsibilities. Let us encourage that. No mention has been made of our community councils, which are properly elected bodies. They could be given more powers and finance to do what is suggested should be the responsibility of area committees. Far more sensible measures than the Bill could have been adopted.

Nothing has been done because the Government want to improve the system of local democracy, create a better one or improve administration. We were offered area committees simply because the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor and others wanted to have a different system of local government in mid-Wales. The Government would not agree with their proposals. Doubtless, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor will talk at length about Powys. The trouble with him is that he wanted it all his own way. He was willing to take all and give nothing. That is why the Minister cannot come up with a solution for mid-Wales. What we have been offered does not represent that solution, and it most certainly does not represent a proper system of local government throughout the Principality.

Mr. Jonathan Evans : I shall have something further to say when we discuss the boundaries within Powys, but at this stage I shall confine my remarks to the proposals on area committees. If, as the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) suggested, those proposals were an attempt to pacify me, they have singularly failed, as he will well know.

Throughout our discussions, I have recognised that the Government have made a genuine attempt to create a system in which powers can be exercised at a local level. I have been pleased to see the flexibility that has been shown by the Government and by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the many announcements about the functions to be delivered at local level.

Column 707

As I made clear in Committee, I considered that it was one thing to create to create a system of local government in which we allowed functions to be devolved to area committees or shire committees, or even council committees. It is also important that we should have an accountable system of local government. The hon. Member for Torfaen spoke about accountability. To my mind, the crucial element of accountability is financial. It is for that reason that I have strongly pressed the case for allowing unitary authorities either to be set up within Powys or to establish area committees with real financial accountability. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his efforts to carry that further, but it would appear that he is unable to say anything positive in that regard today. I am bound to say, therefore, that the prescription that we are offered for area committees is flawed to that extent. I am deeply concerned about the proposals that are contained in Government amendment No. 54, because the number of councillors who are required to trigger a request for a decentralisation scheme is to be raised from 10 to 15. In the House, we often discuss particular difficulties in our respective parts of Wales. Often, there is a degree of generosity between hon. Members, which is not always evident among those on the Front Benches. On many occasions, I have heard the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) talk about adult unemployment in his constituency. I appreciate that difficulty and I do not dismiss it. I have heard the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) also speak about similar difficulties. Whatever our political differences, those difficulties are faced by communities that we know.

In rural Wales, one of our problems is sparsity of population. That is understood even by some Opposition Members. Nowhere is that problem more starkly demonstrated than in the proposal to raise the number of councillors required to trigger a decentralisation scheme from 10 to 15. In the Government proposals for Powys, the number of councillors that they suggest should be elected to represent the whole of Radnorshire is 17. If one is to trigger a decentralisation scheme in Radnorshire, one would have to get 15 of the 17 councillors to approve of it. That proportion is not far short of 90 per cent. In common with many others in the Chamber, I have been on the hustings in the past few weeks. I do not think any hon. Member present, even the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), who may still be drunk with the excitement of his success last Thursday, if I can put it like that, would ever aspire to get a majority of 90 per cent. That is the target set to activate a decentralisation scheme in Radnorshire. I am bound to say that I doubt whether that would be achieved.

Of the other two authorities in Powys, 38 councillors are allowed for in Montgomeryshire under the guidance issued. Of those 38, 15 represents but 39 per cent. of those who are able to form a judgment. I am absolutely sure that, despite all the criticisms that have been made about area committees, Montgomeryshire and Breconshire will request a decentralisation scheme. Although 52 per cent. of the councillors would need to approve such a scheme in Breconshire, 90 per cent. of the councillors would need to approve one in Radnorshire.

How can such an operation work in practice ? If a decentralisation scheme is approved in one part of Powys, and Radnorshire, for instance, cannot secure the 15 councillors required, who will make the local planning

Column 708

decisions which my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in Committee should be decided at a local level ? His statement was very much welcomed in Radnorshire, where we have had a number of wind farm applications and people feel that Radnorshire should decide whether those applications should proceed. We foresee Montgomeryshire and Breconshire having a decentralisation scheme so that they can reach such judgments, yet the whole of Powys will decide what should happen in Radnorshire.

What is the answer to that problem ? Unless we have the 15 councillors required, we shall not be entitled to apply for a decentralisation scheme under the Bill. That defeats the purpose of the exercise in which we have been engaged.

Sir Wyn Roberts : My hon. Friend is taking a somewhat depressing view of the position in Radnorshire. Given that all 17 councillors would be members of an area committee, would have been elected to represent that area and could be rejected by their electorate, I should have thought that they would all favour an area committee. Incidentally, we increased the figure from 10 to 15 councillors because, with the smaller number, a small, disgruntled group of 10 councillors might put forward an application for area committee status when they had nothing more than a difference with the major authority.

Mr. Evans : I do not make light of that difficulty. The concern has been expressed by some Opposition Members, many of whom believe in neither area committees nor decentralisation. The bottom line of concern here is the fact that mid-Wales does not have the population to reach the figures set in the Bill. We shall be disadvantaged by that. I suggest that, even at this late stage, a proportion of councillors would be a better option for areas with small populations than a requirement for a particular number of councillors. On the first part of my right hon. Friend's intervention, I know the mood in Radnorshire well. In Llandrindod Wells there is far more positive support for a centralised Powys authority ; within the more rural part of Radnorshire, however, people feel that there should be a separate Radnorshire authority, so one should not presume that it will be easy to get 15 out of 17 councillors to vote for a decentralisation scheme. If it were that easy, the Government would be saying that every councillor within an area must approve every decentralisation scheme proposed. In essence, that is what the amendment asks of Radnorshire.

Mr. Wigley : The Dwyfor area could be in a similar position to Radnorshire. Has the hon. Gentleman taken into account the possibility of a non-homogenous party political dimension ? That may not be the case in Powys, which is largely independent, but those differences could exist in some areas. A small minority of councillors in one area might want to latch on to the larger proportion to which they belong in the overall authority and use that as a vested interest to block the creation of a district committee.

Mr. Evans : When we discussed those matters in Committee, I had more faith in the part of the Bill that allows my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to decide whether a decentralisation scheme should be approved. Some people resist granting such powers to a Secretary of State. But in the scenario outlined by the hon. Gentleman,

Column 709

the Secretary of State's power would reassure me far more than racking up the requirement of the number of councillors that will trigger a decentralisation scheme. As a result of the amendment, it will be impossible for many areas of Wales to apply for a decentralisation scheme. I should prefer the requirement to be either to achieve a proportion of councillors within an area or to stick with the current trigger and then rely on the Secretary of State to decide whether a scheme should be approved.

8.45 pm

Mr. Alex Carlile : To answer the Minister of State's direct question to me, I am content with the amendments on co-option. In so far as the decentralisation schemes will work, I hope that those co-options will contribute to that.

The Government amendments and new clauses on decentralisation schemes are extremely disappointing, particularly when set against the speech made in Committee on that subject by the Under-Secretary of State. Although the debate was somewhat confused on some legal issues, which remain unanswered, we had the impression that there was a real possibility that shire committees--as we thought they were to be called--would have certain powers relating to taxation. The Government seemed to be considering the possibility that shire committees would have precepting powers or something similar. I appreciate that the Government are saying that, under the schemes, certain requirements set out are intended to ensure that the area committees have their own part of the unitary authority budget. It is regrettable, however, that there is no statutory guarantee that that will happen. I cannot accept that it was impossible for the Government to include in the Bill criteria applicable to all area committees which would ensure that they have some precepting powers and a legal status. I regret having to return to that point, but it is a key issue on the credibility of area committees.

Community councils have powers to take legal action in certain circumstances and in respect of certain liabilities. Although those powers are exercised through district councils, at least they exist. A community council can write cheques, enter into commitments and has all the trappings of a council. Indeed, it is a council. It can also own land ; many community councils own cemeteries, which are often on large amounts of land. In Welshpool, for example, the community council--the town council-- not only owns Welshpool town hall but used to own part of Smithfield, which is some of the most valuable land in the town. Welshpool town council has significant property ownership and property rights, and so it will remain.

The unitary authority will have the power to enter into contracts, to sue and be sued and to employ staff and contractors. It will have corporate status. We are told that area committees will have significant powers, but how can those powers have real meaning if the area committee must turn to the unitary authority whenever a decision is to be made involving spending or receiving money ?

The car park hut is a good example. If the area committee decides to give a car park attendant a hut, I understand that it will not even be able to sign the cheque, and that the contract with the hut provider will have to be entered into by the unitary authority. In my constituency,

Column 710

there happens to be a company, Presco, that makes prefabricated buildings and might well provide that car park hut, by bringing it down the road and dropping it off the back of one of its lorries as it trundles through town. However, Presco will have to send its invoice to the unitary authority and the area committee will have to ask the unitary authority to agree to pay those few hundred pounds in respect of that invoice.

What about more serious situations ? Suppose that an employee--an officer of the council--whose functions are entirely in relation to the area committee, committed a serious act of negligence for which his employing authority was vicariously liable. It might be an act that was approved by the area committee but would not have been approved by the unitary authority had it been consulted, yet the unitary authority is to be held liable for it.

One can also imagine tremendous disputes between area committees and unitary authorities about planning decisions. Suppose that the area committee reaches a planning decision against which there is an appeal. The appeal is heard and the Welsh Office inspector finds against the authority and makes an order for substantial costs, running into tens of thousands of pounds. Is it right that the unitary authority should pick up the bill ?

Mr. Rowlands : I have followed the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech closely. Given what the Minister said about the devolved responsibility in relation to share of revenue and block grants, does it not mean that the area committee will have to have an almost fully fledged finance department of its own to conduct those functions ?

Mr. Carlile : I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He made a significant contribution when we discussed those issues in Committee. I have to say, and I am sure that he shares my view, that none of our doubts has been resolved by what has been said today. The Government have fought and fought to avoid making the right decision, which was to create the unitary authorities in mid-Wales. For reasons that can be only political, they have decided not to do so, but, at the same time, they have managed to displease their own side. We are left with an extraordinary mess.

I suspect that I speak for councillors who are members of the existing Powys county council and for those who are members of the district councils when I tell the Minister of State that councillors in rural mid-Wales do not find it easy to understand the way in which those area committees will work.

Perhaps the Government would really like those area committees to wither on the vine. Here we come to Government amendment No. 54, on which, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that we can be given the opportunity to vote separately at the appropriate time in our considerations tonight. Government amendment No. 54 was carefully avoided by the Minister of State when he introduced the group of amendments, but it is extremely important. In many ways, it is the most important part of the group. The fons et origo of an area committee is that resolution of councillors to have an area committee. For reasons that have not been explained by the Minister, he referred to some renegade councillors. I shall discuss that later.

It has been decided to increase by 50 per cent. the number of councillors who can ask for an area committee. The effect that that will have on old counties such as

Column 711

Radnorshire has been graphically, adequately and fully explained by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans). As for the renegade councillors, I thought that it had been repeatedly emphasised, both in the Bill and in discussions about the Bill, that it will be for the Secretary of State to decide whether to allow a decentralisation scheme to proceed. If it is a renegade scheme, he will not allow it to proceed, so that disposes of the renegade councillors. It is no argument whatsoever for increasing the number from 10 to 15.

The Government have had years to think about that. Why were we not told in Committee that the Government thought that 10 was not the right number ? Why should there be such a dramatic increase ? If they want to increase it, why not to 12--a small increase which might cater more successfully for the type of situation that could confront us in Radnorshire ?

The Minister is all too sanguine about what is likely to happen in Radnorshire. There are county councillors who honestly believe, and can express those beliefs well, that decentralisation schemes are a non- starter. They do not want them. Some of them are independent councillors and they are very independent-minded. If two of those councillors are elected to the new unitary authority to represent parts of Radnorshire, that is the end of Radnorshire as a decentralised area--and then what happens ?

Is the Minister prepared to countenance planning decisions about wind farms for Radnorshire being taken by a planning committee that includes councillors from Montgomeryshire who may be feeling a little nervous about yet another wind farm being proposed for

Montgomeryshire and who therefore decide, "Let's shove it over the border into the constituency of the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor" ? One can imagine Radnorshire being at the deepest possible disadvantage in that situation, in which, if the Minister's promises are delivered, Montgomeryshire councillors decide all types of things in their area committee and Breconshire county councillors decide matters in their area committee, but everything that happens in Radnorshire has to be decided by all the councillors from Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire and Breconshire.

Earlier in these debates, the Minister of State made an appeal to common sense. In relation to those decentralisation schemes, especially the proposal in Government amendment No. 54, I am afraid that common sense has taken to yogic flying. I ask the Minister of State and the Secretary of State, even at this late stage, to reconsider those proposals, especially Government amendment No. 54, once again. If they do not, we shall have the most unholy mess in mid-Wales, and probably in parts of north Wales, too.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn) : Although the Minister of State has covered a number of the issues relating to decentralisation, many of us still support the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). The decentralisation scheme in the Bill, and in the amendments which strengthen it, are not about decentralisation : they are a recipe for confusion and--despite what the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) said--for a continued opt-out by the sections of an authority that remain dissatisfied with an electoral result and with the services that the authority provides.

Column 712

I am very worried about the negative way in which the Minister of State now intends to strengthen the area committees-- a development which has occurred since the Committee stage. Throughout consideration of the Bill, the Government have maintained that they want to do away with a two-tier system of local government. Yet the establishment of area committees will continue to impose on ratepayers and service receivers of many Welsh authorities precisely that two-tier system. The proposals will continue the confusion of responsibilities as between the committees and the unitary authorities. There is still no clear separation of powers and responsibilities in the system.

9 pm

There will be unclear lines of accountability, too. There will be a patchwork of services in certain areas simply because people who are not satisfied with the composition of a unitary authority will opt out of it. I am not against decentralisation in principle ; it is a sound idea. But the proposed system will ensure that dissatisfied councillors can appeal to the Secretary of State--originally 10 of them, now 15.

In an authority such as mine, the proposed Flintshire, a small number of councillors will be able to opt out, perhaps as soon as two or three weeks after an election for a shadow authority in which members of the authority were soundly defeated. Areas such as mine need cross-subsidisation between the industrial belt and the rural belt. But 15 out of 70 or so councillors in Flintshire, perhaps in part of the rural area, could opt out by applying to the Secretary of State for Wales, possibly taking with them a large part of a budget which is likely to have been generated by the whole borough. People throughout the borough have needs that should be met, and a small number of people representing only a small part of the borough should not be able to impede that.

Local accountability for the provision of services will not be clear. For instance, an area committee may be surcharged and all the members of the unitary authority may face a surcharge along with it. New clause 14 will make matters worse. The unitary authority will have little or no control over what the area committee does. The Government new clause states that a unitary authority

"shall not, except with the agreement of the committee, abolish the committee or alter any arrangements in force with respect to the committee which were made in accordance with the scheme". To all intents and purposes, then, the area committee will be a separate legal entity--but its actions can have an impact on members of a unitary authority, who might have to pick up the financial tab for actions taken by the area committee, even though the authority has no responsibility for the committee's actions --it has no influence over the committee at all.

In several areas, planning for one, a small number of councillors who have opted out of unitary authority control will be able to take decisions about important services. Do we want 15 out of 73 councillors to be able to blow holes in district plans long since agreed by the unitary authority, subject as those 15 will be to all sorts of local pressures ? These planning matters will no doubt be important to the 15 local councillors, but they may have no relevance to the borough's strategic development plans in respect of education, rural areas and transport. That will clearly not be in the interests of the borough as a whole, yet the unitary authority will have no influence over what an area committee does.

Column 713

There will also be a lack of co-ordination across a borough. In Flintshire, I want a coterminous unitary authority that acts in the interests of all its ratepayers, but that cannot happen as long as 15 Conservative, rural or Labour councillors can opt out and determine the priorities of their own area merely on the basis of what they think right for it. Why create a unitary authority system if one is to perpetuate, as the Minister is, that element of the two-tier system ? There will be about 114,000 people living in my local authority. Why will 15 members be able to opt out and go their own way in a whole range of areas ? That is not in the interests of the borough as a whole or of the people whom those 15 councillors represent. It is a recipe for confusion, lack of accountability, potential fraud, and for legal cases galore, which will keep many a lawyer in business for many years to come.

Although the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery--perhaps even the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans)--would welcome that, at the end of the day, I feel that the system will not work. It will not deliver the services that people want. It will not provide a coherent strategy for a geographical area. It will not lead to effective Government. Surely the Bill is about effective Government. I am concerned about co-option, which the Minister mentioned earlier and which features in the new clause. If we are to have co-option of individual members to a small local area committee, I should like to hear from the Minister a little more about the responsibilities of those individuals ; for example, how they are accountable for the services, who they can be, and how they fit into local government. Under the provisions of the Bill as drafted, and with the proposed new clauses, individuals who, by providing themselves with a smaller area committee, effectively opt out of local authority control, can draw from that local area, not just other councillors, perhaps from outside the area, but individuals who are now co-opted, who are not in any way accountable to the services and to the ratepayers who are covered by that area committee, and yet are, perhaps, appointed by a small number of people as opposed to a large unitary authority as a whole.

What we are seeing is not decentralisation, but an opting-out of a wider view of local authority services, and with an area committee comprising a small number of councillors determining what they see as best for that small geographical area without a view to the needs of the unitary authority or the community as a whole. For those reasons, the Minister should go back to the drawing board, accept the amendments that have been tabled in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen, withdraw the new clauses and let us have a decentralisation system that will work and is not a recipe for disaster.

Mr. Llwyd : I echo the words of the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson). By definition, there is a conflict between the members of an area committee and the full parent authority, because, clearly, they will wish to do the best for their district. In Committee, we heard the area committee being transformed into a shire committee, which was meant to lull us all into a false sense of security.

Mr. Rowlands : Pacify us.

Mr. Llwyd : I am reminded that the word "pacify" was used. It did not work. We were supposed to think that we were in line for something worth while, but when one looks

Column 714

at what we are being offered, one sees that it is worthless. It is a half-baked, half-hearted idea, and is a good example of policy on the hoof.

I refer briefly to one or two assurances that were given by the Under- Secretary of State during the debates. He said :

"The case has been made for shire committees to be responsible for a wide range of functions, much wider than those carried out by present district councils. Finance follows functions, of course . . .

For example, all the schemes for a particular authority might provide that a minimum of one third of the authority's budget should be delegated to the shire committee."

Later, he said :

"It should be possible for schemes to establish arrangements whereby shire committees would have responsibility for administering supplementary credit approval-supported projects for functions which have been delegated to them and receive an agreed allocation of capital resources for functions delegated to them."

Finally, he said :

"We are looking forward to the greatest practical level of decision-making by the shire committee. In line with the estimate that I have already given and leaving aside education, we foresee about 65 per cent. of the decisions on functions and finance being determined by the shire committee.--[ Official Report , Standing Committee A , 10 May 1994 ; c. 384-86.]

Much of that now seems to have evaporated. Having heard the Minister of State open the debate, I am now less happy about those assurances than I was when I first heard them.

Sir Wyn Roberts : Let me correct the hon. Gentleman. I listened carefully to his quotation from the speech made by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in Committee ; I repeated the greater part of that in the assurances that I gave earlier this evening.

Mr. Llwyd : If the Minister is in the mood to intervene, perhaps he will enlighten me on a certain point. Why has the number of councillors who would have to call for the area committee risen from 10 to 15 ? Will the Minister explain that again, briefly ? Is there any other reason for it, apart from the "rogue councillor" idea, which I consider rather preposterous ? If the Minister explained now, it might even shorten our proceedings.

Sir Wyn Roberts : I have already explained. We want the applications for area committee status to be soundly based and to relate to local identity and community loyalty. We do not want the kind of development to which the hon. Member for Delyn (Mr. Hanson) referred, in which a group of councillors who are out of sympathy with the unitary authority say, "Let us break away and form an area committee." I believe that that is less likely to happen if the number is fixed at about 15.

Mr. Llwyd : With respect, I do not accept that argument for a moment. I think that there is a good deal of mischief behind the new clause. Meirionnydd's area committee is now likely to have 21 members, or possibly 22, 75 per cent. of whom will have to decide whether to move in. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans) is faced with what is potentially an even more difficult problem : if one or two rogue councillors in Radnorshire decide that they do not want an area committee, they can dictate the position for the rest. That, surely, is not an exercise in good democratic practice.

Sir Wyn Roberts : The hon. Gentleman forgets that members of the area committee will also be members of

Column 715

the unitary authority itself. They can have two for the price of one, as it were. I cannot imagine circumstances in which area members would refuse an area committee.

Mr. Llwyd : In that case, why are we arguing about figures ? If no one is going to argue against the establishment of an area committee, why are we wasting good parliamentary time arguing about whether the figure should be 10 or 15 ? We are getting nowhere. It is like swimming in treacle.

I am dissatisfied with what the Minister has said. I think that the proposal is potentially mischievous ; it will not help Brecon and Radnor, Dwyfor, Meirionnydd and various other parts of Wales. I have always thought that the legislative process is about making laws that will not be challenged day in, day out in constitutional courts and so forth. Here we have a potential problem that may blow up and-- as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) suggested-- prove to be a recipe for the whole idea to wither on the vine. The hon. Member for Delyn made the general point that when we embarked on the Bill we were considering doing away with two-tier government, which allegedly caused confusion, complications, delay and unnecessary tension. In its stead, we are now creating a similar position involving much more confusion. We do not know what the precise legal position on contracts will be. I shall not go over the argument again, but we are even more confused now and I am sure that, regrettably, things will get worse.

In Committee, we called for clarification. Before it sat, I wrote to the Secretary of State about the matter, which was of personal interest. I still say that unitary status for Meirionnydd, Montgomery and Brecon and Radnor is the answer. The Government's attempt to head off the rebellion and pacify the people of mid-Wales is an ill-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction. The people of mid-Wales will not be pacified by the Government's half-baked plan, and in making that point I am sure that I speak for hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Clause 27 is a half-baked proposal. The Government have said that 95 per cent. of housing management must be put out to compulsory competitive tender. The guidance states that area committees will not be allowed to manage housing direct service organisations.

9.15 pm

Reference has been made to the Powys pudding. I presume that responsibility for social services will be divided between the two tiers-- the unitary authority per se and the area committee. The committees, therefore, will be responsible for some services, but will have no control over financing, staff or property resources. If a committee is not a legal entity, it cannot be responsible directly for those matters. A service will not be delivered unless the committees are in control of such major responsibilities. If area committees are established-- if they are baked a little more in the oven-- they will have a thankless job. Councillors will stand for election and will merely say, "I am sorry, but I am unable to produce that for you because of what the parent council said. It holds the purse strings ; therefore, I am not in a position to deliver anything." I urge the Minister to think again. I always think that it is a gross mistake to introduce legislation that has inherent problems.

Column 716

I have talked about whether area committees should have 10 or 15 members. I am still not persuaded and I urge the Minister to consider the matter again because it will undoubtedly cause problems in rural Wales.

The financial provisions should be strengthened. We have heard that various formulae will be used, but I am not sure what will ensue or whether the Secretary of State will approve any application. The conundrum that we are all in highlights the fact that, apart from Meirionnydd, the mid-Wales authorities, as approved in Committee, should be allowed to stand in their own right.

The Government are the authors of their own misfortune. I do not like to suggest that the legislation bodes ill, but I am certain that many problems will result throughout Wales because of the ill-thought-out way in which the proposals have been presented. Once more, I urge the Minister to apply some common sense to the situation and to allow Brecon and Radnor, Montgomery and Meirionnydd to have their richly deserved unitary status. The alternative is half-baked, will not work and is a Pandora's box.

Mr. Hain : I do not wish to offend the Minister because we are all quite fond of him really, but I must say that what we have witnessed is an extraordinary tour de force of fudging, fixing and fiddling : the more he spoke, the more contradictions emerged. He would have been better advised simply to read out the brief provided by his officials, keep his head down and not take any interventions because the more he elaborated, the more contradictions he uttered. Let us consider the question of surcharging. If I have interpreted the Minister's comments correctly, it now seems that if, as the result of a decision taken by an area committee, a surcharge falls on the whole council, individual councillors are liable to be surcharged.

Sir Wyn Roberts : That is not the position that I outlined. The surcharge falls on the individual councillors involved in taking the decision, whatever it may have been.

Mr. Hain : Is the Minister saying that although the corporate body-- the whole council--may be surcharged, individual councillors cannot be surcharged as a result of an area committee's decision ? Will he confirm that definitely ?

Sir Wyn Roberts : Clearly, cases have to be dealt with individually, but the fundamental principle of surcharging, in so far as it affects individual councillors, is that it is related directly to decisions that they have taken as individual councillors.

Hon. Members : Or failed to take.

Mr. Hain : Indeed. That is a grey area, but many other matters raised by the Minister are not at all grey.

What started off, in the Minister's notorious words, as an exercise in pacification has ended up as an exercise in obfuscation. We are recreating a two-tier system of government--precisely the system that the Bill was supposed to abolish. I am not a believer in reincarnation, but the Bill is simply an exercise in legislative reincarnation. Having been killed off, the two-tier system is now rising up in a different form.

Assuming that amendments Nos. 54 and 55 are accepted, one of the most obnoxious features of the Bill is that, on the whim of 15--previously 10-- councillors, a

Next Section

  Home Page