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Local Authorities (Expenditure On Special Purposes) (Scotland) Bill

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 10 May 1961

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As amended ( in the Standing Committee), considered.

9.27 p.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

This is a short Bill the object of which is simply to widen an existing power of county and town councils in Scotland to make payments for special purposes with the approval of the Secretary of State. The power is permissive and the Bill will not impose any new obligations on local authorities. Indeed, the purpose of the Bill is to restore the legal position to what is was thought to be in the past until a recent legal ruling was given which indicated that the scope of the existing power was narrower than had been supposed.

The Bill will achieve this restoration or extension by amending Section 339 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, and adding a new subsection. The new subsection sets out certain types of payment, described in paragraphs (a), (b), (c), which may be treated as being
"in the interests of the inhabitants of the area of the council."
The result of this is that a payment made under these headings will no longer be debarred by the "tangible and direct benefit" interpretation which has had the effect of limiting the original Section.

Paragraph (c) of the new subsection covers payments to disaster funds in respect of which difficulties have arisen in the past. Such a fund is described as one
"which is raised wholly in consequence of or in connection with a particular occurrence or event in Scotland or directly affecting persons residing in Scotland and on behalf of which a public appeal for contributions has been made by the provost of a burgh or the convenor of a county or the lord lieutenant of a county in Scotland or by a body including among its members one or more such persons".
In the Bill as originally introduced the reference was not to a provost but to a lord provost of a county or city. As hon. Members who were in the Committee will recollect, when the Bill was considered in principle several hon. Gentlemen expressed the view that this was an unnecessary limitation. Therefore, an Amendment substituting "provost" for "lord provost" was moved and carried in Committee.

This adjustment met the point made by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) who argued, correctly, I think, that the Bill's purpose of restoring the legal position to what was thought to obtain in the past would not be completely achieved if the Clause excluded provosts other than lord provosts. This was because in the past provosts, without co-sponsors, could open disaster funds to which on the earlier and wider interpretation of Section 339 other local authorities could contribute, even though none of the beneficiaries of the fund happened to be residing within the boundary of that local authority. As a result of the amendments made to Section 339 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1947, by this Bill, the position has been restored to what it was assumed to be previously and with which there was, I believe, general satisfaction.

The Bill is only a small one, but it is designed to put right a minor and unintended limitation on the powers of local authorities which experience has brought to light. With this brief explanation, I hope that the House will feel disposed to give the Bill a Third Reading.

9.32 p.m.

I do not think the Joint Under-Secretary of State will find that my hon. Friends will wish to oppose the Third Reading. However, as he knows, there are one or two things about it which leave us a little dissatisfied.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Bill widens the existing power of local authorities to make payments to certain charities and other funds with the approval of the Secretary of State. We wish that he had accepted our advice in Committee to take away this need for the local authority concerned to obtain the approval of the Secretary of State before making a contribution to any deserving fund.

The Under-Secretary has said that the Bill makes clear what was thought to be the law until recent times. This is the first time that we have had an opportunity to say a word or two about the Bill in the House. I make no complaint about that, but it is fitting that the views of the Opposition should be put on record.

The decision of the Secretary of State to withhold approval from a local authority to make a payment from the fund of the local authority was first exercised at the end of 1956 when the Hungarian relief fund was instituted and a local authority asked for permission to make a contribution to that fund. The Secretary of State was advised that, as it was not in the interests of the inhabitants of the area, his approval could not be given.

I do not think my hon. Friends made much of a fuss about that at the time, nor do we now feel strongly that the Secretary of State should have given his approval, but the unfortunate thing was that the next time a local authority asked for permission to make a donation to a disaster fund in another part of Scotland which was initiated by a committee having within its membership the type of person referred to in paragraph (c) of Clause 1, the Secretary of State withheld his approval on the ground that it was not in the interests of the inhabitants of the donating area to make a donation. The Secretary of State made clear to us at the time and on subsequent occasions that he was advised by his legal advisers that he could not give his approval.

We on this side of the House have always regarded the legal advice which the Secretary of State got as being very bad legal advice, and, having regard to the long experience for so many years of local authorities gaining the approval of the Secretary of State to the making of payments towards equally deserving charities, but no more deserving charities, we thought that it was monstrous that the Secretary of State should accept the legal advice that he was then given. He was clearly under no obligation either to seek it or to accept it after he had sought it.

We regret very much indeed the foolish decisions of the Secretary of State that made the introduction of this Bill necessary. We further regret that having gone to the trouble of bringing forward a Bill at all, the Secretary of State and the Joint Under-Secretary should have been so unwilling to have its provisions a little widened to give a little more power to local authorities to help deserving causes.

Having said that, I ought to give the Joint Under-Secretary the ready assurance that we have no intention this evening of standing in the way of the further progress of the Bill.

9.36 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary, in moving the Third Reading of this Bill, indicated that it was a somewhat simple Bill. Its object, he said, was very simple, but I confess that I do not find its object very clear.

For example, paragraph (c) of Clause 1 is not at all clear to me. I want to know if it means that if the provost of a burgh were to launch an appeal for contributions to a local fund, it would be possible for other local authorities to make contributions to that fund, or would that provost, in order to encourage other local authorities to make contributions, have to obtain, or have to have associated with the fund, the county convenor and the lord lieutenant of the county? In other words, would the provost of a Burgh, say, Kilmarnock, Motherwell or Hamilton, be unable to launch a fund of this kind, and be unable to obtain contributions from other local authorities to that fund, unless he had associated with the fund the county convenor or the lord lieutenant of the county?

I should like the hon. Gentleman to make that quite clear to us, because it seems to me uttter nonsense that the provosts of such places as Kilmarnock, Motherwell and elsewhere ought to have associated with such funds the county convenor or the lord lieutenant of the county.

9.38 p.m.

I rise only to say that the Government ought tonight to be in a rather contrite mood, because, after all, it was the Government who caused the difficulties about this matter. Certainly, they caused the difficulties that led to this Bill, because, as the Joint Under-Secretary has said, it was always thought and understood that this was in fact the position.

If it was always thought and understood that this was the position, it seems to me that the Secretary of State should have acted in accordance with it, and, of course, it was not until recently that the Secretary of State did not act in accordance with it. Then, having gone to the bother of refusing certain local authorities permission to make donations and grants to the bodies which are now included in this Bill, he found that it had created such a storm in Scotland that something had to be done. In other words, all this arose out of the muddle, the confusion and the ineptitude of the Government. We are glad that the Government have now put the matter right. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), I have no wish to oppose the Bill. I merely point out that there should have been no need for it.

I congratulate the Government on having, for once in a while, reached Scottish business just before ten o'clock. This is a remarkable achievement by the Government. Most of my hon. Friends appreciate the fact. The Joint Under-Secretary should talk seriously to his colleagues in the Government and suggest that they might also follow his good example and go a bit further and bring Scottish business before the House at a reasonable hour.

9.41 p.m.

Whilst welcoming the short extension of the Bill to expenditure by local authorities, I wish to voice the complaint which I voiced in Committee that all the expenditure is limited to unfortunate mishaps or tragedies in Scotland. As we know, tragedies are no respecters of territorial boundaries. There still remains the severe restriction upon local authorities in Scotland making contributions to any disaster or tragedy that may occur furth of Scotland.

That was brought to my notice especially when in the City of Glasgow, after the unfortunate fire in Cheapside Street last year, we launched an appeal which raised £186,000 and substantial contributions came from local authorities outside Scotland. By the Bill, no local authority can make a similar contribution to a disaster of that nature if it occurs outside Scotland. That is a limitation which ought not to have been imposed upon local authorities.

Certain authorities have common good funds and it was the practice for them to make contributions of the nature to which I have referred outside Scotland from these funds. Nowadays, these funds are largely "in the red". The City of Glasgow's fund has been "in the red" for a number of years. It would be impossible for Glasgow, with its renown for humanitarianism and charitableness, to make a contribution, for example, to a disaster fund in England.

Hitherto, we have been able to make substantial contributions. In 1946 and 1947, we contributed £5,000 to the Lord Mayor of London's National Disaster Fund. We have no money with which we could make a contribution of that kind in 1961. Going even further afield, in 1951–52 Glasgow contributed £100 to the Jamaica Hurricane Relief Fund. Now, we are completely debarred from making any contribution of this kind in the event of a tragedy outside Scotland or of an international character.

I regret very much this omission when the circumstances governing the expenditure were reviewed, especially when we consider that one of the purposes of the block grant, introduced some years ago, was to allow local authorities greater freedom in the expenditure of their funds and to be responsible solely to the electors as to how these funds were dispersed. I hope that the Secretary of State will avail himself of an early opportunity of reconsidering the Bill with a view to providing the right for a local authority, should it become necessary, to make a contribution outwith Scotland.

9.45 p.m.

I support the humane and sensible point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Sir M. Galpern). The position at the moment is that whereas English local authorities could have contributed to the fire disaster fund in Glasgow, when there was a similar disaster in Bolton with almost an identical loss of life, Scottish authorities, including the Glasgow authority, were prevented from reciprocating.

That is a serious weakness in the Bill, and I should like an assurance from the Minister that when the Bill reaches another place the point raised by my hon. Friend will be considered. I am sure that what he said conveys the sentiments of the people in Scotland who want to be in a position to help when disasters occur in the South.

9.46 p.m.

According to the information we have been given at this late hour by the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Bill has a very limited purpose. I am sorry that a Law Officer is not present to guide us. I do not know whether "guide" is the right word, because it was the Law Officers who got us into such a pickle of bother that it was necessary to have this Bill.

I am not always anxious to have the Law Officers present, but we are being promised something which is an improvement. It relates to the limitation to be placed on the generosity of Scottish local authorities because of a legal interpretation belatedly given by the Government in relation to something which touched the hearts of thousands of people in Scotland. I therefore think that we ought to have these advisers here to clear up any difficulties which might arise.

For example, I should like to know what new freedom is being given. Or is no new freedom being given to Scottish local authorities? On page 2 in line 5 we find the words:
"may be treated for a purpose".
There is no guarantee that it will be so treated. If one refers to the original Statute, one finds that the person who is to judge whether it should be treated or not is not the local authority. It is the Secretary of State for Scotland.

We have this interfering Tory Government which proclaims at every general and municipal election that they stand for the freedom of local representation and the right of local people to do what they like, and to spend their money as they like, yet they come along with this so-called extension and restoration of powers without telling the Scottish local authorities that they will be allowed to contribute only if the gentleman in St. Andrew's House thinks that it is right for them to do so.

Apart from that limitation, whether a Scottish local authority uses the ratepayers' money rightly or wrongly is equally a matter for scrutiny by Government auditors. On occasions when they have discovered that a local authority has been misspending the money, the members of that local authority have had to pay the money back.

This is a simple matter if one considers the restrictive nature of paragraphs (a), (b) and (c) which deal with charitable purposes, disasters, and so on. Why can we not leave it to the good sense of the local authorities? We have been given, rather belatedly, this so-called restoration of local authority powers by the Government because of their previous interference, and we have the right to expect that they would have gone further.

From that point of view I do not like the Bill. If there is a colliery disaster in Scotland and the local provost, or lord lieutenant, or county convenor, establishes a fund, local authorities in England and Wales are able to contribute towards it.

This is what has happened before. But when the Bill is passed and the position is reversed no Scottish local authority will be able to contribute to a disaster fund in England or Wales. It is a very serious position, and I am surprised that the Joint Under-Secretary does not seize on the point, even at this late hour, and suggest that this blemish on the Bill and this restriction on Scottish generosity as expressed through Scottish representation should be put right in another place. Let us look a little beyond the parish. Let us look a little beyond the Tweed and the North Sea and appreciate exactly how the Scottish people feel about this sort of matter.

We resent this kind of unnecessary restriction. I am sorry that the Lord Advocate cannot be here. I know that the Solicitor-General for Scotland would find it difficult; he would be in an even worse position than Mr. Wedgwood Benn, because he has not even been elected yet. But since we have one legal adviser available, he should have been in his place to confirm that my interpretation of the Bill is correct; that the word "may" imposes a restriction and that the original Statute, to which this is simply an addendum, further restricts the matter to the judgment of the Secretary of State for Scotland. It is no answer to tell us that it has always been like that. This is really not what we want.

9.52 p.m.

With the permission of the House, I should like to deal briefly with the points which have been raised. I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) is not pleased, because he very rarely is pleased.

He interpreted the matter fairly accurately—and this helps to answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McInnes)—in that, as a result of the Amendment made in Committe, the Provost of Kilmarnock would be able to start such a fund on his own, without the support of the lord lieutenant or the county convener, or anybody like that.

I should be out of order if I attempted to follow the speeches of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Shettleston (Sir M. Galpen) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Dr. A. Thompson) in dealing with the English position, because it is not in the Bill. I understand that in a Third Reading debate we must deal with what is in the Bill. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock may be slightly optimitisc, because it is unlikely that English local authorities would contribute to a disaster fund in Scotland.

It may happen occasionally, but it is unlikely to be the general rule. I must say, too, that I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) that the Government should be in the least contrite about bringing forward the Bill. Various difficulties were brought to light as a result of experience. We accepted the legal advice given to us, and that is always a good thing to do. We have put the matter right. We may not have gone as far as hon. Members opposite would have wished, but we have remedied the difficulty which gave rise to so much concern among Scottish local authorities. I am grateful to hon. Members opposite for welcoming the Bill, at least to the extent that they have done so.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.