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Oredrs Of The Day

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 5 February 1975

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Housing Rents And Subsidies (Scotland) Bill

As amended ( in the Standing Committee), considered.

New Clause 1

Limitation Of Rent Increases Under Rent Agreement Where No Rent Is Registered For Dwelling-House Under Regulated Tenancy

' .—(1) Where no rent is registered for a dwelling-house under a regulated tenancy (whether granted before or after the commencement of this Act), the rent payable in any contractual period beginning after such commencement may not be increased, by virtue of any rent agreement (whether made before or after such commencement), above the appropriate maximum amount specified in this section.

(2) In the case of any rent agreement which took effect before the commencement of this Act, the maximum amount to which the rent may be increased in terms of subsection (1) above is, for a rental period which begins—

  • (a) during the year beginning with the commencement of this Act, or
  • (b) during a subsequent year beginning with an anniversary of such commencement,
  • the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before the relevant year referred to in head ( a) or ( b) above, was payable by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment, plus £1·50 per week.

    (3) In the case of any rent agreement which takes effect on or after the commencement of this Act, the maximum amount to which the rent may be increased in terms of subsection (1) above is, for a rental period which begins—

  • (a) during the first year of the period beginning with the date when the rent agreement takes effect, or
  • (b) during a subsequent year beginning with an anniversary of that date,
  • the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before the relevant year referred to in head ( a) or ( b) above, was payable by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment, plus £1·50 per week.

    (4) There shall be disregarded for the purposes of this section such part of any increase of rent (in a case where any rates in respect of the dwelling-house are borne by the landlord) as corresponds to any increase in the rates so borne, ascertained in accordance with Schedule 4 to the 1971 Act.

    (5) Any rent agreement made before or after the commencement of this Act which purports to increase the rent payable thereunder at any time above that permitted at that time under this section shall have effect to increase the rent to the extent so permitted but no further.

    (6) Paragraph 6A of Schedule 2 to this Act shall apply for the purposes of this section as it applies for the purposes of that Schedule.

    (7) The Secretary of State may by order substitute, for the sum of £1·50 mentioned in subsections (2) and (3) above, a sum other than that sum.

    (8) An order under subsection (7) above shall be made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament, and may be varied or revoked by a subsequent order made under that subsection.

    (9) In this section, "rent agreement" means a rent agreement with a tenant having security of tenure within the meaning of section 42(1) of the 1972 Act, and, unless the context otherwise requires, any expression used in this section which is also used in Part III or IV of the 1971 Act shall have the same meaning as in those Parts.'.—[ Mr. Hugh D. Brown.]

    Brought up, and read the First time.

    4.51 p.m.

    I beg to move, That the clause be now read a Second time.

    It will be convenient, I think, to discuss at the same time Government Amendments Nos. 14, 15, 16, 17, 25 and 27.

    Now that we have ensured that the aristocracy can sleep easy tonight, perhaps we can get on with this important business.

    The new clause is lengthy, but it sets out a simple proposition. It and the amendments grouped with it are connected by the principle that rents in the private sector should not be permitted to rise by more than £1·50 per week in any year. The new clause applies this limit to rent agreements and the new sub-paragraph (4) which Amendment No. 17 would add to paragraph 3 of Schedule 2 applies it to registered rents which are being phased. There is one small difference between the two categories—where a registered rent is being paid, the service element is not to count as part of the increase, in the same way that it is discounted when the amount of each phased increase is calculated. This cannot be applied to rent agreements because no such separate amount is identified in their case.

    The amendments also give the Secretary of State power to vary the amount of the maximum increase. It is clearly possible that inflation over the next few years might make it necessary to alter the present figure of £1·50 to keep it in line with changing money values.

    There are two issues involved in this group of amendments—the need for a maximum limit on rent increases; and the level at which that maximum should be set. We need a maximum limit because, as a result of the automatic decontrol programme begun by the 1972 Act, several thousand controlled tenancies have had fair rents registered. It is inevitable that fair rents will in some cases be very much higher than rents which may not have changed very much since as long ago as 1914. It is only a fairly small percentage of rents—about 10 per cent. of registrations—which are increased by more than 75p per week with phasing applied but it is a problem which we cannot ignore.

    Housing is a basic living cost and counter-inflationary measures must bite particularly hard on such unavoidable expenditure. The whole purpose of the phasing provisions of this Bill is to make sure that necessary rent increases take place as gradually as possible so that inflation is restrained as far as it can be. In most cases division of rent increases into three phased stages reduces them to a size which is compatible with this principle but we must have a second line of defence against inflation for the small percentage of cases which do face very substantial increases. The maximum increase proposed in these amendments is the most effective way of doing this.

    5.0 p.m.

    Rents will still be able to be reregistered after three years even if the previous registered rent had not been reached because of the maximum increase and a new round of phasing would allow the rent to move gradually to a fair rent without, in all probability, involving the maximum increase. Such cases would be likely only where overall increases of the order of £300 are due to be made.

    Obviously, the level at which the maximum should be fixed is something on which everyone will have their own ideas and there can be no monopoly of right in such a situation. A figure of £1·50 is indeed a high figure, but there are good reasons for its being so. It is designed to confer very real benefits on those tenants who—with or without stautory phasing operating—are faced with very large increases in rent; these increases are undoubtedly a counter-inflation concern. At the same time, it is pitched high enough not to make inroads into the progression of any significant numbers of rents towards fair rent levels; they therefore are consistent with our aim to move away from historic low rents and all their attendant problems.

    As these amendments stand at present we are laying the ground for the gradual rise to a fair rents level for all regulated tenancies at the same time as conferring a very real benefit on those tenants who would otherwise face completely unacceptable rent increases. I hope therefore that the House will support me in proposing this new clause and associated amendments.

    Although the Minister has said that this is a simple point, he will accept that the amendments are rather complex. It is unfortunate that we did not have the opportunity of discussing them in Committee. We could have gone into them more thoroughly with more notice. However, I have a few questions about them.

    First, the Minister mentioned that this is a clause which should bring some benefits to tenants. He mentioned that it covered both agreements and new registrations of rent. Will he indicate how many tenants might be affected by the new clause? I think that the number will probably be small, because obviously only where there is an increase over three years of £225 will this have any effect.

    Second, why has the Minister introduced this provision in this Bill, when I understand that there has been no similar move in the Bill that relates to England and Wales? My understanding is that registrations in England and Wales tend to be higher than they have been in Scotland, although it is difficult to make any general comparison. There has been no indication that English rents have been registered at any lower level. Why was the move made here?

    My third general question is whether the Minister does not feel that this new clause might undermine the principle of the rent assessment committees' work and of fair rents, because the rent assessment committees, when meeting to determine rents, bear in mind what would be a fair return for landlords after a period of three years. It would appear that this would interfere with that.

    As I have said, we have had little time to consider this proposal. Will the Minister give an undertaking—without commitment, of course—that between now and the next stage of the Bill, which will be its consideration by the House of Lords, he will give consideration to anomalies which might arise from the new clause? I say this because although it may sound fair and reasonable to impose a £1·50 per week limit on rent increases, much depends on where one starts from. If one starts from a rent of, say, £5 or £6 a week, that is obviously different from the case of starting from, say, 50p a week. Between now and the next stage of the Bill, will the Government consider whether there might not be a case for saying that the new clause should apply only to cases in which the fair rent or a reasonable percentage thereof has been established, or cases in which the rent paid was, say, £1 a week or £2 a week?

    I think that there is a danger that the clause may produce a number of anomalies in our Scottish scene, where we have some rents at a relatively high level and some at a low level. Is the Minister willing to consider the anomalies which may arise as a result of the clause?

    I quite accept that this is a small group with which we are dealing. I should not like to put precise figures on it, but it is certainly about 100. Therefore, it is not a major problem but is confined to one group, of which we know, and possibly some of the higher rented houses in fairly good areas. So I am not over-stressing the value of it. Nevertheless, we do know that it will be helpful to a small group, and we think that it is an element of justice to put a maximum limit when we have set one in the council sector, albeit it is a different sum.

    It is true, as the hon. Gentleman says, that there is no comparable provision in the Bill that relates to England and Wales. It is to our credit that we have produced something that meets a prob- lem in Scotland. I do not think that it is any less significant because of that.

    I have had personal discussions, informally, with various people involved in operating rent assessment committees. I can give the hon. Gentleman a categorical assurance that it will not upset the fair rents principle. We are not changing that in any way. The hon. Gentleman can take that as a firm assurance.

    The hon. Gentleman specifically asked me about an undertaking. I do not think that any Government or draftsman are ever completely confident that what they are trying to do does not produce anomalies or some effects that were not foreseen. I am reasonably confident that we have got this about right, but it would be totally wrong of me to suggest that we are always perfect. I do not say that. The hon. Gentleman may have a point. I am not saying that he has, because I have not examined his suggestion in any detail. If the hon. Gentleman would care to submit any details to me, I should certainly be willing to study them with interest. But I should not like to commit myself, because I am reasonably confident that we have got it about right. I do not undertake to give the hon. Gentleman any specific assurance that we intend to alter it at the House of Lords stage.

    I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to resist giving any assurance, as has been suggested, that the maximum limit should be greater where the current rent is smaller. It may, indeed, be a valid point that there is a long way for a 50p rent to go before it reaches the fair rent level, but it is in precisely these cases that a tenant is faced with much greater percentage increases in the weekly rent.

    We also have to remember that any tenant paying this kind of rent—by implication, still under rent control—is a tenant who has not changed his tenancy for the last 20 years or so, say, since 1957. The vast majority, therefore, are pensioners. Irrespective of any consideration of income, they are the very people who find it most difficult to adjust quickly to a sudden change in their rent payment, particularly when it reflects percentage increases of 300 per cent., 400 per cent., or 500 per cent. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend will not—I am sure that he will not—give any ground here towards setting a higher maximum figure where the rent is lower.

    My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned that the figure was rather high. He indicated that there can be no consensus on the figure because every hon. Member will have his own idea of what the appropriate figure should be. He will, however, I am sure, concede that the figure he has chosen of £78 per annum is precisely double the figure of £39 per annum that is suggested in the Bill for the council or public sector.

    How was it that the Government fixed on a figure so markedly different from that for the public sector? What equity is it that the private tenant should be faced with a maximum figure which is double that applicable to the council tenant, especially when there is a body of evidence before us which shows consistently that private tenants have significantly lower incomes than council tenants, as hon. Members opposite are fond of stressing?

    I was also distressed to hear my hon. Friend say that the Government wanted to get away from the historic rent basis in the private sector. That is a little unfortunate, as we appear elsewhere in the Bill to be placing the council sector firmly on the historic rent basis. It will be difficult for those like myself who represent very few council tenants but a very large number of private tenants to explain to our constituents why the legal maximum figure in their case is double that for the council sector and why the figure for the council sector has been fixed on an historic rents basis whereas in their case it is thought fair and proper that we should as quickly as possible get away from that very basis.

    This is the other side of the argument. I did not say that I would give ground on the point that was raised. If I were to say now that I am flexible, that would be a mistake. As I am never too dogmatic, I said that if somebody suggests to me that we have done something which can stand being looked at again because it may give rise to anomalies, and if I were given evidence for that, I would look at it. I gave no assurance that I would take any action in another place.

    The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) has made is quite a good one. A maximum increase of £1·50 is a lot if we are talking in terms of a rent of £1 a week. However, the level could have been anything. Some might argue that it might have been £50 per year, some might say £100, some even less. It is just what we think, on balance, is reasonable.

    I know that it is tempting to make a comparison between the private sector and the council sector, but there are so many factors that tend to make comparisons difficult. I referred to historic low rents and all their attendant problems. That is different from the phrase which tends to be used in terms of council tenants. I do not think that my hon. Friend should make too much of that phrase. In arriving at this figure we have borne in mind that rent allowances are available.

    This is usually what happens when one tries to arrive at a fair figure. I am criticised by both sides. That encourages me in my belief that we have the figure about right. I hope that the House will accept the new clause and the related amendments.

    We should be grateful for small mercies. The Under-Secretary has made it clear that he is not giving a specific assurance but that, if there are any anomalies, he is willing to look at them before the Bill goes to the House of Lords. On that basis, I am happy to recommend my hon. Friends to support the clause.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

    Clause 1

    New System Of Rents For Public Sector Housing

    I beg to move Amendment No. 1, in page 2, leave out lines 3 and 4.

    This is a drafting amendment. It is fairly insignificant and needs no further explanation.

    The Minister proposes to leave out the words:

    "have regard to the terms of their rebate scheme under section 15 of the 1972 Act".
    Section 15(1) of the 1972 Act states:
    "It shall be the duty of every local authority to bring into operation not later than 1st October 1972 a scheme for granting to persons who occupy as their homes houses to which the local authority's housing revenue account relates and which are let to them by the local authority rebates from rent, calculated in accordance with the provisions of the scheme by reference to their needs and their resources."
    The important words are:
    "by reference to their needs and their resources".
    Surely local authorities should have regard to the needs and resources of those paying rent—for example, those who are disabled or persons on very low incomes who may not be able to afford the rent in question. Surely local authorities should not allow the cases of those in special need to go by default. Why does the Minister wish to omit these words?

    5.15 p.m.

    It is never wise to argue with a lawyer. However, this is still a drafting amendment. No particular category of people is involved. The amendment is designed to tidy up a possible misinterpretation of the 1972 Act, where the fact that there were rent rebates available could be used in determining rent levels.

    This technical drafting amendment in no way affects the eligibility of any person or groups of persons—disabled or otherwise—as to how they will be treated under the rebate scheme.

    I hope that with that technical explanation the amendment will be accepted.

    Amendment agreed to.

    I beg to move Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 7, at end insert:

    '(c) having regard to the general level of rents charged by comparable housing authorities and by the Scottish Special Housing Association and by new town development corporations'.
    This is an important amendment which I hope the Minister will be able to accept. Because of the amendment the Minister has introduced, the Bill now provides
    "In determining standard rents for houses … a local authority shall … (b) subject to section 33 of the 1972 Act … take no account of the personal circumstances of tenants."
    In other words, a local authority just has a general obligation to charge reasonable rents.

    There is no indication of what the Government have in mind by "reasonable". We know from experience that there is no indication of how often rents should be reviewed. What does "from time to time" mean? We suggest that, to avoid a recurrence of a situation which developed last time, local authorities should be under an obligation in fixing rents to
    "have regard to the general level of rents charged by comparable housing authorities and by the Scottish Special Housing Association and by new town development corporations".
    We want to avoid what was a most unjust situation which existed before we introduced our 1972 Act whereby the rent paid for a council house depended not on ability to pay, not on the category of house, but simply on the area one happened to live in. In an area such as Saltcoats the rents would be very low, in some cases absurdly low. In another area the rents would be very high. This was unreasonable and unfair.

    It is only fair and reasonable that the rent should be determined first by the tenant's ability to pay—by his personal circumstances—and by the rate demands on other members of the community and not simply in accordance with the place where one lives.

    There is no doubt that in the past the Government used the SSHA, which they largely control, and the new towns as pacesetters for rent increases. This brought great injustice on people who lived in new towns and on tenants of the SSHA. Although there have been considerable moves to try to equalise the situation, the last information we got about rents in local authority houses and in new towns and the SSHA was that on 28th November 1974 the average rent for a Scottish local authority house was £138 per annum; for the SSHA house it is £144 and for the new town house it is £193. This is the result of development in which new towns and the SSHA were used by Labour Governments as pacesetters for rents.

    Surely the hon. Member would accept that there is a marked similarity between the rent figures for the SSHA and the local authority. The disparity is with the new town figure, and surely the hon. Member accepts that new town rents are that much higher because most of the houses have been built in the last decade and, therefore, to meet historic costs the rents must be high.

    If the hon. Member thinks that historic costs are the basis of fixing rents he will support our 1972 Act because in it we tried to introduce the principle that pooled historic costs should be the basis for fixing rents and that there should be a gradation towards that. That is the principle of the Act which is being destroyed by the Bill. I am astonished to have an indication from the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) that he supports the principle of the 1972 Act.

    We know exactly what will happen if we pass the Bill without making the amendment. It will mean that certain local authorities, for blatant political purposes—for vote catching—will keep rents artificially low. In other areas they will go up reasonable amounts and elsewhere they will probably be a bit higher.

    Our 1972 Act was an attempt to take housing out of the political scene and to ensure that tenants moved to a situation of a pooled historic cost rent by gradual easy stages of 50p a week over a period of years. In some cases the rent for council houses has reached almost an economic level. All the scare stories about £6, £7 and £8 rents which would result from the Tory Act have been shown to be nonsense. Therefore, if we do not make the amendment the crazy situation will exist throughout Scotland of rents varying from one region and from one district council to another. This will be unfair and unjust, and it will simply permit the Labour Party to distort the housing market by using cheap rents as a simple means of buying votes.

    I was astonished when I first read the amendment, but then it dawned on me that its object is not to bring rents on to an equal basis but to raise them. If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) had introduced the amendment in order to remedy some inequitable process I should be inclined to agree with him and appeal to my hon. Friend the Minister to accept the amendment.

    It is not good enough to say that rents in new towns are £50 a year higher than the rents of local authority housing. The cost of building these houses is so much higher because of increasing interest rates and the general increase in costs in recent years. This does not happen in areas other than new towns where houses are being built now at increased cost. There is an equalisation process now going on. I would rather see an equalisation of house rents throughout Scotland, and merely because some people were unlucky enough to go into the house at a later date should not mean that they have to pay a higher rent.

    I ask my hon. Friend to pay no regard to the amendment which seeks a substantial increase in local authority rents, but to take a sympathetic attitude to the view of hon. Members who, like me, represent new towns where tenants have to pay a much higher rent than tenants of comparable housing—and I stress the word "comparable"—in other parts of Scotland. I accept that my lion. Friend will not regard the amendment with any great favour, but will he consider creating an equalisation process so that rents in new towns are not markedly higher than local authority rents in other parts of Scotland?

    I am interested in what the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) said. He has asked his hon. Friend the Minister to bring in an equalisation scheme for cases where there appears to be a different charge for the same house in a different area. He is not willing to concede, however, the effect of this principle, which is the basis of the amendment. I must point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) that the rent is determined not according to where one lives but according to which party is in control in that area. If the hon. Member for East Kilbride wants an equalisation grant he should support the amendment, the basis of which is that there should be an equality of rent for an equality of house whatever its age and position and whoever is in power in the area.

    This is the first time that I have had the opportunity of replying to the hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn), and he is wrong. Even by looking at the housing statistics of local authorities it is sometimes difficult to determine their political flavour. I do not think that anyone could draw a specific conclusion on that score.

    I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) that I am not accepting, or asking the House to accept, the amendment. In general terms I agree that it is desirable that a comparable house should command round about a comparable rent. But there are qualifications. New towns do not have a rate subsidy and a rate contribution. Amenity and all the other environmental factors come into play. Provided we compare like with like, who can deny the logic and justice of my hon. Friend's argument? I therefore have sympathy with it.

    The amendment is a new idea. It suggests that the system which operated before the 1972 Act did not work. There have been no representations from any local authority objecting to what we are proposing, which is to make that system the basis of the review of rents from time to time. There is, therefore, no support for the amendment from anywhere on the Scottish housing scene.

    The amendment is an elegant testimony to the belief, which underlay the Opposition's approach to the Bill in Standing Committee, that local authorities cannot be trusted. We differ completely from the Opposition on that score, and we are proud to do so, especially when dealing with new authorities. They have not yet had an opportunity to perform but already the Conservatives have so little faith in them that they want to tie things up for those authorities tighter than we would wish.

    5.30 p.m.

    I cannot dispute that in the past a number of authorities failed to review rents as often as they might have done, or as the courts decided, should have done. It is a matter of debate whether they did any service to their tenants, because an undue preoccupation with low rents sometimes detracted from the need to improve standards and manage- ment, matters of which we are all now aware and perhaps the new authorities will pay more attention to them. For these reasons, we should reject the amendment.

    The amendment raises a specific question, which I do not want to dodge, about the SSHA and new town development corporations. The rents differential has been narrowed, and, hopefully, will continue to narrow.

    It is all right for my hon. Friend to say "Good", but if that requires local authorities to raise their rents—

    Does the Minister accept that one way in which we could achieve this desirable objective is to reintroduce the 1972 Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act?

    I have been long enough in this busines to be suspicious of simple solutions, especially when one of them is the 1972 Act. However, I concede that if it had eliminated all rate contributions and all housing deficits, as it was intended to do, we should ultimately have reached the position desired by my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride. But that is not the way in which any of us would have chosen to arrive at that happy situation.

    That is why we rely on the good sense of local authorities. In an inflationary period, I can see no hope of any authority—local authority, SSHA or new town—reducing rents. But I hope to be able to avoid giving the impression that any Government deliberately uses the SSHA or the new towns as trend-setters for increased rents. I have already said that in the current climate rents are likely to increase, but it is not fair to the SSHA or new town corporations deliberately to use them as whipping boys to encourage local authorities to do something.

    Is it possible for my hon. Friend to indicate to the new town development corporations that it is not incumbent on them continually to increase their rents in order to keep the differential between their rents and local authority rents? There is no God-given reason why that differential should remain. It it is possible for the rents to equalise themselves, let it happen. But do not let the development corporations imagine that they must keep the difference between the rents of their houses and the local authority houses.

    My hon. Friend is taking me too far along the road that he wants to travel. I have said that I accept his proposition as a general principle. We must equally recognise that under the present system new towns are working under different constraints and financing arrangements. Therefore, I would not like to undermine the responsibilities that the House has placed on them. But I have made clear the direction in which I think we should proceed as a general principle.

    Of course, there are differences. For example, some authorities will still have no SSHA houses or new town houses within their area of responsibility, so comparisons are difficult. Some other authorities could have practically no deficit in their housing account and still have relatively low rents. Saltcoats is a good example. [Laughter.] Conservative Members always laugh. I was going to pay a compliment to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie), but I see that he is not here.

    Although the rents in Saltcoats are relatively low, the local authority's housing costs are also relatively low, because the bulk of its building was done when costs were relatively low. It was fortunate and far-seeing enough to acquire a large amount of housing land in advance of need. Therefore, whatever arguments Conservative Members may put forward in attacking authorities such as Saltcoats, people such as ex-Provost Lambie and the Lambie dynasty must be complimented on their wisdom in buying up land in those days. Perhaps other authorities did not have the same opportunity, but we should accept that Saltcoats has done a good job.

    We think that we have the measure about right. We believe that the interpretation of "reasonable" is understood, and that all the factors that hon. Members think should be taken into account will be taken into account by the new district authorities.

    The House should not accept the amendment, which merely introduces an additional complication without clarifying the duties that will be placed on local authorities.

    I cannot let the occasion pass without commenting on the amendment, because the amendment, in the name of six Conservative Members, is to try to get rents increased. Drawing red herrings across the Notice Paper in the form of the SSHA and new towns will not do. The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) who represents a tremendous number of council tenants, should stand up and say so if he wants the rents increased, and should not cloak that desire in the type of amendment we have before us.

    The hon. Gentleman knows, I know, and my hon. Friend the Minister knows, because we all represent Glasgow constituencies, that Glasgow has the highest average council house rent in Scotland. We also know from debates in Committee that the average rent of a comparable SSHA house is not as high. As my hon. Friend the Minister rightly says, there are one or two unusual examples, such as Saltcoats in Ayrshire, where, because of the foresight of people who were in command of the local authority in the past, who bought up land very cheaply and took on a building programme within their limits, the housing revenue account is much healthier than that of many larger authorities. But it is not fair to take one or two isolated examples.

    Housing is now a district function. We gave a promise that we would put the control of rents back into local authorities. Freedom for local authorities was one of the planks of the Conservative platform in 1970, but they did not give freedom back to the authorities. They introduced the 1972 Act, which they know was one of the worst pieces of class-ridden legislation ever to pass through the House.

    When the hon. Gentleman uses the words "worst pieces of class-ridden legislation", do I understand him to mean that he greatly regrets that those less able to pay their rent were most helped?

    That is not the argument, because the Labour Government were the first Government to introduce subsidies. We have always been concerned about the inability of certain people to meet the rent levels of certain houses. [Interruption.] I give the hon. Gentleman the point on the allowances for private tenants. But this discussion centres on council tenants, and we are comparing their position with that of tenants of the new towns and the SSHA. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister takes the point.

    I am glad that my hon. Friend advises us to reject the amendment, which is an attempt to make council house rents rise as fast as possible. That has always been the Tories' attitude. We have only to look at the figures which the Minister presented to each member of the Committee considering the Bill to see that council house rents have reached a dangerous level. If they continue to rise, good wage-earning families, virile young families, will move out of large council estates, because they will find it much cheaper to obtain a mortgage and buy a flat or a house.

    We must be careful in the application. We should be concerned not only with rent levels but with the social composition of the large housing estates that we have created. We could end up with a situation in which those estates will be occupied by low-paid workers, the unemployed, the pensioners and the disabled. That would create a dangerous situation. The rent that is being paid is not the only criterion that we should bear in mind. As legislators we have a social as well as a fiscal responsibility.

    The new district authorities also have regard to the difficulties that people face in paying council rents. That is why they have suggested weekly rents or other forms of paying their rents—for example—the Giro system. In my opinion the rent levels for council houses are extremely high. I think that I speak for admost all of the council tenants that I represent. I hope that my hon. Friend will see that the amendment is a sham and that he will reject it.

    Is the hon. Gentleman prepared to say how much the average council tenant in his constituency pays in rent and how much he pays in rates?

    The hon. Gentleman receives a copy of the Glasgow housing manager's report and the figures are available at the Table Office. I do not carry all the figures. I believe that the average rent was roughly £167. I accept that the rates are at a high level in Glagow, but that is not the point. The argument about the amendment is that in the opinion of the Conservative Opposition council rents are not high enough. That has always been the attitude of Conservative Members. They should come clean and tell the House that that is their attitude. I am glad that my hon. Friend has rejected the amendment.

    With respect to the Minister, we are not satisfied with his reply. I must say straight away to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) that he does not interpret our amendment as we would wish.

    Of course not. What does the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) expect?

    I must make the point firmly that what we want is to have rents throughout Scotland which are, roughly speaking, comparable. We feel that if the amendment is not accepted that will not be the position. We are suggesting that there will be a feeling of injustice throughout Scotland if the Government pass legislation which causes certain areas to have large housing deficits owing to low rents while in other areas there will be no deficits because the rents are of a different level. I have mentioned that the average rent in Saltcoats in November 1973 was £66 whilst in Bishopbriggs it was £119. Anyone who transferred his home from Saltcoats to Bishopbriggs would find that his rent would nearly double overnight. We believe that that would cause a feeling of injustice and unfairness to be felt by many people throughout Scotland.

    We wish to avoid a situation in which some local authorities will be charging high rents and others very low rents.

    Surely the hon. Gentleman is not comparing like with like. Apart from other considerations, when comparing Saltcoats and Bishopbriggs it must be remembered that one area is obviously Conservative—that is the area in which the rents are high—and that the other area is Labour dominated. Surely the argument must be based on the housing revenue account. Anyone who has studied the Saltcoats housing revenue account over a number of years will have seen that it is in a much healthier position than many other like accounts. That is the main reason for the rents being low in Saltcoats.

    I know that for the current year £171·28p is the average annual rent in Glasgow. I suggest that in comparison with Saltcoats that is a high figure. I can well imagine the attitude of persons living in Saltcoats who might wish to transfer to Glasgow. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that it is fair for persons living in Saltcoats to be charged one level of rent and those living in Glasgow to be charged a different level of rent, I suggest that that is not the view that will be taken by many people in Scotland.

    The hon. Gentleman is making two entirely different points. I agree that there should be some kind of equalisation, but if he is trying to put forward the example of someone moving from Saltcoats to Bishopbriggs, finding

    Division No. 84.]

    AYES

    [5.46 p.m.

    Adley, RobertCarlisle, MarkDrayson, Burnaby
    Amery, Rt Hon JulianCarr, Rt Hon RobertDurant, Tony
    Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Chalker, Mrs LyndaDykes, Hugh
    Awdry, DanielChannon, PaulEyre, Reginald
    Bell, RonaldClark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Fairgrieve, Russell
    Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Farr, John
    Benyon, W.Clegg, WalterFell, Anthony
    Biffen, JohnCockcroft, JohnFisher, Sir Nigel
    Biggs-Davison, JohnCooke, Robert (Bristol W)Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)
    Boscawen, Hon RobertCope, JohnFletcher-Cooke, Charles
    Braine, Sir BernardCorrie, JohnFookes, Miss Janet
    Brittan, LeonCostain, A. P.Gardiner, George (Reigate)
    Brotherton, MichaelCritchley, JulianGlyn, Dr Alan
    Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Crouch, DavidGoodhew, Victor
    Buchanan-Smith, AlickCrowder, F. P.Gorst, John
    Buck, AntonyDavies, Rt Hon J. (Knutaford)Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)
    Budgen, NickDean, Paul (N Somerset)Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)
    Bulmer, EsmondDodsworth, GeoffreyGrant, Anthony (Harrow C)
    Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesGriffiths, Eldon

    that he has to pay a higher rent and not liking the situation, and somebody moving from Bishopsbriggs to Salt-coats—

    Order. The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) has addressed the House earlier on this amendment. He may seek to ask a question but he cannot make a second and further point by way of a further intervention.

    I am merely asking whether it is not the case that somebody moving from Bishopbriggs to Saltcoats will find great relief in the foresight of the people of Saltcoats.

    5.45 p.m.

    The point must be made that it should not matter where a person lives in Scotland or where he goes to live. We believe that he should be charged approximately the same type of rent for living in the same type of house. We think that it is grossly unfair to have any form of situation which differs from that. That is why we are pressing the amendment.

    On 28th November 1974 the average annual standard rent in Scotland as a whole was £138·20p. For new town development corporation houses the average was £193·68p and for Scottish Special Housing Association houses the average was £144·72p. We feel that that differential is much too wide and that no harm can possibly come from comparing the figures.

    Question put, That the amendment be made:—

    The House divided: Ayes 164, Noes 241.

    Grist, IanMcNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Shepherd, Colin
    Grylls, MichaelMarshall, Michael (Arundel)Shersby, Michael
    Hall, Sir JohnMather, CarolSilvester, Fred
    Hall-Davis, A. G. F.Maudling, Rt Hon ReginaldSims, Roger
    Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinSinclair, Sir George
    Hannam, JohnMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Skeet, T. H. H.
    Harrison Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)Mills, PeterSpeed, Keith
    Hawkins, PaulMoate, RogerSpence, John
    Hayhoe, BarneyMorgan, GeraintSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)
    Higgins, Terence LMorrison, Charles (Devizes)Sproat, Iain
    Holland, PhilipMorrison, Peter (Chester)Stainton, Keith
    Hordern, PeterMudd, DavidStanbrook, Ivor
    Howe, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyNeave, AireyStanley, John
    Howell, David (Guildford)Nelson, AnthonyStokes, John
    Hunt, JohnNeubert, MichaelTapsell, Peter
    Hutchison, Michael ClarkNewton, TonyTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
    Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)Normanton, TomTebbit, Norman
    Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)Onslow, CranleyTemple-Morris, Peter
    James, DavidPage, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
    Jessel, TobyPaisley, Rev IanTownsend, Cyril D.
    Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithParkinson, CecilTrotter, Neville
    Kaberry, Sir DonaldPercival, IanTugendhat, Christopher
    Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRathbone, TimVaughan, Dr Gerard
    King, Evelyn (South Dorset)Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir PeterWakeham, John
    King, Tom (Bridgwater)Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)Walder, David (Clitheroe)
    Lamont, NormanRees-Davies, W. R.Walters, Dennis
    Lane, DavidRenton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)Warren, Kenneth
    Latham, Michael (Melton)Rhys Williams, Sir BrandonWeatherill, Bernard
    Lawson, NigelRidley, Hon NicholasWells, John
    Lester, Jim (Beeston)Ridsdale, JulianWiggin, Jerry
    Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Rifkind, MalcolmWinterton, Nicholas
    Lloyd, IanRippon, Rt Hon GeoffreyYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
    McAdden, Sir StephenRoberts, Wyn (Conway)Younger, Hon George
    McCrindle, RobertRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
    MacGregor, JohnSainsbury, TimTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
    Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)Scott, NicholasMr. Hamish Gray and
    McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)Shelton, William (Streatham)Mr. John Stradling Thomas.

    NOES

    Abse, LeoDavies, Ifor (Gower)Hardy, Peter
    Allaun, FrankDeakins, EricHarper, Joseph
    Anderson, DonaldDean, Joseph (Leeds West)Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)
    Archer, PeterDelargy, HughHatton, Frank
    Ashley, JackDell, Rt Hon EdmundHayman, Mrs Helene
    Ashton, JoeDempsey, JamesHeffer, Eric S.
    Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Doig, PeterHenderson, Douglas
    Atkinson, NormanDormand, J. D.Hooley, Frank
    Bain, Mrs MargaretDouglas-Mann, BruceHooson, Emlyn
    Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Duffy, A. E. P.Horam, John
    Barnett, Rt Hon JoelDunn, James A.Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)
    Bates, AlfDunnett, JackHoyle, Douglas (Nelson)
    Beith, A. J.Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethHughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)
    Bidwell, SydneyEadie, AlexHughes, Mark (Durham)
    Blenkinsop, ArthurEdge, GeoffHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
    Boardman, H.Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Hughes, Roy (Newport)
    Booth, AlbertEllis, John (Brigg & Scun)Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
    Boothroyd, Miss BettyEllis, Tom (Wrexham)Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)
    Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurEvans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Jackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)
    Bradley, TomEvans, Ioan (Aberdare)Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
    Bray, Dr JeremyEvans, John (Newton)Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)
    Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Ewing, Harry (Stirling)John, Brynmor
    Buchan, NormanFaulds, AndrewJohnson, James (Hull West)
    Buchanan, RichardFernyhough, Rt Hon E.Johnson, Walter (Derby S)
    Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Fitch, Alan (Wigan)Johnston, Russell (Inverness)
    Campbell, IanFitt, Gerard (Belfast W)Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
    Canavan, DennisFlannery, MartinJones, Barry (East Flint)
    Carmichael, NeilFletcher, Ted (Darlington)Jones, Dan (Burnley)
    Carter-Jones, LewisFord, BenJudd, Frank
    Cartwright, JohnForrester, JohnKaufman, Gerald
    Clemitson, IvorFowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Kelley, Richard
    Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)Freud, ClementKerr, Russell
    Coleman, DonaldGeorge, BruceKilroy-Silk, Robert
    Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Ginsburg, DavidLamborn, Harry
    Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Golding, JohnLamond, James
    Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Gould, BryanLee, John
    Crawford, DouglasGourlay, HarryLewis, Arthur (Newham N)
    Crawshaw, RichardGraham, TedLewis, Ron (Carlisle)
    Cronin, JohnGrant, John (Islington C)Lipton, Marcus
    Dalyell, TamGrimond, Rt Hon J.Litterick, Tom
    Davidson, ArthurGrocott, BruceLoyden, Eddie
    Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Luard, Evan
    Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)Hamling, WilliamLyons, Edward (Bradford W)

    Mabon, Dr J. DicksonPhipps, Dr ColinTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
    MacCormick, IainPrescott, JohnThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
    McElhone, FrankPrice, William (Rugby)Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
    MacFarquhar, RoderickRadice, GilesThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
    McGuire, Michael (Ince)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)Thompson, George
    Mackenzie, GregorReid, GeorgeThorne, Stan (Preston South)
    Maclennan, RobertRichardson, Miss JoThorpe, Rt Kon Jeremy (N Devon)
    McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)Tinn, James
    McNamara, KevinRobertson, John (Paisley)Tomlinson, John
    Madden, MaxRoderick, CaerwynUrwin, T. W.
    Marks, KennethRodgers, George (Chorley)Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
    Marquand, DavidRooker, J. W.Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
    Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Roper, JohnWalden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
    Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Rose, Paul B.Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
    Meacher, MichaelRoss, Stephen (Isle of Wight)Ward, Michael
    Mellish, Rt Hon RobertRoss, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)Watkins, David
    Mendelson, JohnRowlands, TedWatkinson, John
    Mikardo, IanSandelson, NevilleWatt, Hamish
    Millan, BruceSedgemore, BrianWeitzman, David
    Miller, Dr M. S. (E. Kilbride)Selby, HarryWellbeloved, James
    Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)Welsh, Andrew
    Morris, Alfred (Wylhenshawe)Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)White, Frank R. (Bury)
    Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcasle C)Whitlock, William
    Murray, Rt Hon Ronald KingShort, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)Wigley, Dafydd
    Newens, StanleySilkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
    Noble, MikeSillars, JamesWilliams, Alan (Swansea W)
    O'Halloran, MichaelSilverman, JuliusWilliams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
    O'Malley, Rt Hon BrianSkinner, DennisWilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
    Orme, Rt Hon StanleySmall, WilliamWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
    Ovenden, JohnSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
    Padley, WalterSpearing, NigelWise, Mrs Audrey
    Palmer, ArthurSpriggs, LeslieWoodall, Alec
    Pardoe, JohnStallard, A. W.Wrigglesworth, Ian
    Park, GeorgeSteel, David (Roxburgh)Young, David (Bolton E)
    Parker, JohnStewart, Donald (Western Isles)
    Pavitt, LaurieStewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham)TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
    Pendry, TomStott, RogerMr. David Stoddart and
    Penhaligon, DavidStrang, GavinMr. James Hamilton.
    Perry, ErnestSummerskill, Hon Dr Shirley

    Question accordingly negatived.

    Clause 5

    Direct Payment Of Rent

    I beg to move Amendment No. 3, in page 3, line 5, leave out Clause 5.

    In moving that Clause 5 be deleted from the Bill I say at once that I understand and share the concern which led to this clause being moved in Committee. I must also say, however, that it is essential that the clause should not be allowed to remain in the Bill. As hon. Members would expect, in the interval between the Committee proceedings and today I have met my hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Social Security to draw his attention to the clause and to seek his views. The clause has also been drawn to the attention of the Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission, Lord Collison.

    After these discussions I have to tell the House that I am reinforced in my view that the clause is technically deficient—I know that is never a good argument—and impracticable in that it aims to provide an "on request" type of service for beneficiaries without regard to whether they have difficulty in budgeting. Much more importantly, however, the clause is unnecessary in so far as it relates to people who fall behind with their rent.

    To take the main point first, the clause is no longer necessary because of an important shift of emphasis in the approach by the Supplementary Benefits Commission to the whole question of direct payment of rent. While in the past this has been regarded as an expedient to be adopted only when persuasion or other attempted remedies have failed, this is no longer the case. Guidance recently issued to Department of Health and Social Security offices, which make payments of supplementary benefit on behalf of the commission, will result in authorisation of direct payment where a tenant is persistently failing to pay rent at a much earlier stage than previously.

    This is a significant change in emphasis and should serve to eliminate one of the most frequent difficulties encountered in the past when requests for direct payment were liable to be turned down until arrears reached substantial proportions. The new guidelines will allow much greater flexibility and a greater area for discussion, so that it will become more a matter of management than of policy to see that the guidance is put into practice.

    6.0 p.m.

    There are detailed instructions in the code for the guidance of local offices. I have studied them, and, knowing something about the subject, I am satisfied that they provide a flexibility that did not exist before.

    I am aware of the guidelines which have been sent to the offices, but I am not sure about their interpretation. It has always been a problem to use compulsory powers to deduct rent payments from supplementary benefit recipients. However, I understand that they will be introduced only as a last resort, when all other efforts have failed. My information from social security people in my constituency is that they intend to go to great lengths to encourage people to pay their rent, to accept their responsibilities, to fulfil their obligations—

    Order. The hon. Gentleman will remember that he is intervening in a speech.

    Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but this is an important point. I had to mention the background before asking my hon. Friend whether he is positive that the guidelines will be interpreted in the generous way he has indicated.

    I can never be positive about anything in which there is a degree of flexibility. I should not have used that word. "Discretion" is the official word.

    There has been a change in the guidelines given to local offices. On the one hand, there is a specific guideline to deal at a much earlier stage with beneficiaries who have rent arrears, while still leaving discretion to be exercised locally.

    Has my hon. Friend had time to look at the figures which I gave him earlier today which showed that in Edinburgh there are 2,000 supplementary benefit claimants who owe, on average, about 12 weeks' rent and that only 260 of them are paying rent direct through supplementary benefits offices? Is he confident that the arrangement which he has made with the DHSS and the assurances which he has been given by that Department will guarantee that these figures are brought much more closely in line with each other?

    There have been discussions with officials of Edinburgh Corporation and the DHSS subsequent to the last letter which my hon. Friend received from the corporation. I think that Edinburgh Corporation will be reasonably satisfied, but that is a matter for my hon. Friend to check and perhaps advise me on if I am wrong There has been an increase in the number of direct payments, and, with the new instruction, I am sure that no technical barrier will exist if the case is made for increasing the number of direct payments.

    When last May the East Kilbride and Stonehouse Development Corporation increased rents for some houses which were occupied by people on supplementary benefits a difficulty arose for some people because the extra amount was not available from the Department of Health and Social Security until they had incurred the debt for the extra rent which had to be paid. In other words, there was a time-lag during which they owed the money. Some elderly people, in particular, came to see about the matter. I thought that I had straightened it out with the development corporation and with the DHSS, but apparently that is not so.

    It would be of great benefit if the Department of Health and Social Security could ensure that the extra amount of rent—indeed, the whole rent—was paid without the tenants, often elderly women, having to worry and sometimes even receiving letters saying that they are in arrears.

    That is a slightly different point which my hon. Friend should take up with the Department of Health and Social Security. Presumably he is talking about cases in which direct payment has been accepted but there is an increase in rent or rates, or both, and a time-lag in increasing the allowance. I agree that such situations sometimes cause unnecessary alarm and concern. However, I am sure that that matter can be sorted out and explained to the satisfaction of my hon. Friend's constituents.

    I confirm that the letter which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) sent me showed that there were 263 direct payments made in Edinburgh. Our latest information, which covers the last couple of weeks, is that the figure is up to 483.

    The change in the regulations is not a minor change. Perhaps I did not do the point justice in Committee. The Supplementary Benefits Commission is conscious of the problem of housing associations which cater specially for one-parent families and other low income groups liable to experience particular difficulty in budgeting and has issued special instructions about these. This initiative has been warmly welcomed by the National Federation of Housing Associations.

    We are expecting the report of the Morris Committee dealing with the relationship between social work and housing, but within its remit was a requirement to examine problems associated with the matter we have been considering. I sympathise with the views of hon. Members. I shall meet in the near future the Association of Housing Managers. I shall be putting this matter to the association, because the key to it is the use by housing managers of better and quicker methods for identifying people who are in arrears with their rent, or even identifying them before they fall into arrears.

    I hope that, with that explanation, the House will accept the amendment.

    The Minister's explanation is not satisfactory. The hon. Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) struck the nail on the head when he said that direct payments were made only in the last resort.

    The Minister made clear that there were three criticisms. The first was that the clause was imperfectly worded. Imperfect wording can easily be straightened out. His second criticism was that the clause was impracticable. It is perfectly practicable to enlarge the Department of Health and Social Security and ensure that the civil servants render a service of the nature we advocate. It may be inconvenient for them to do it with their present staffing, but it is perfectly practicable. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's argument in that respect was not convincing.

    The third argument was that it was not necessary. It is extremely necessary, and I am reinforced in that belief by representations from three sources. The first source is Shelter, the Scottish campaign for the homeless. The second is the housing committee of Edinburgh Corporation, which has had its request turned down by the Secretary of State and has resorted to approaching Members of Parliament. The third source is the report of the Committee on One-Parent Families by Sir Morris Finer. The Minister mentioned the Morris Committee, but the Finer report deals with this matter on page 511 in recommendation No. 158 which states:
    "Where a tenant receiving supplementary benefit requests, with the support of the social services department or the housing authority or an appropriate voluntary organisation, the Supplementary Benefits Commission to pay the rent direct the application should normally be granted as a matter of course."
    We are asking only that this should be done on request.

    Recommendation No. 159 states:
    "Where the social services department and landlord, in the long-term interests of the tenant, ask for the rent to be paid direct there should be greater willingness on the part of the Supplementary Benefits Commission to do so."
    I appreciate that the Civil Service may have applied great pressure on the Minister and said that this arrangement would be inconvenient, but there is a feeling growing up between social workers in Edinburgh Corporation and social workers in the Department of Health and Social Security. The corporation social workers feel that they are doing a lot of work which should be carried out by officials of the Department, especially in relation to the payment of energy charges. Rather than risk persons committing suicide or having to be taken into care, they feel that they must pay the energy charges on an emergency basis although they do not believe that within the strict definition of the statute they are entitled to do so.

    This is a reasonable request which I ask the Minister to accept.

    I share a great deal of the concern which was expressed by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), and I have a full power of attorney to speak for my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook). The assurances given by the Minister go a long way towards meeting the reservations which were expressed in Committee, and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has adopted similar procedures in days gone by.

    The Minister was generous enough to say that perhaps he had not done justice to the point in Committee. He has responded generously. In the interval he has consulted Lord Collison and has had discussions with the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security. The situation in Edinburgh has improved substantially in the last two weeks. We are always as concerned about Edinburgh as we are about our own localities.

    The assurances given by the Minister have gone a long way to meet the distressing problems. The Minister is aware of our concern, and I do not doubt that he himself has a genuine concern. His explanation has more than satisfied us.

    6.15 p.m.

    I have listened carefully to what the Minister said but I cannot take as charitable a view of it as did the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone). I am surprised that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) saw fit to give a power of attorney to his colleague rather than give his own public confession of why, for reasons best known to himself and his colleagues, he supports the Government.

    The Minister gave interesting details which we all welcome. No one disagrees with the added flexibility that the Supplementary Benefits Commission will apply. What I have been waiting to her and have not heard is any good reason why a tenant who wishes his rent to be paid directly by the Supplementary Benefits Commission should be refused that right.

    It is desirable that flexibility should be applied, but the tenant is in no different position from any other person who chooses to have various sums deducted from his income before it reaches him. All hon. Members receive their salaries after deductions for national insurance and pension contributions. We have no choice in the matter. The deductions are made partly because it is thought desirable to make them and partly to ensure that the payments are made. In addition, many members of the public, fearful of getting into arrears with insurance contributions, choose to have them deducted before the money reaches their pockets.

    Will the Minister give us an explanation of his attitude, other than the inconvenience it might cause to one or two Government or public officials, which is not a good explanation when we are considering the public interest? Will he give a good reason why a tenant who chooses to ask for his rent to be paid directly should not be allowed to do so?

    The argument that has been put forward in the past is that the tenant must bear the onus of meeting his own commitments, and we accept that. This request in no way indicates that the tenant is denying his commitments any more than an hon. Member who asks his bank to deduct money by standing order refuses to accept his commitments. If this method is convenient to the tenant, if it ensures that the landlord receives the rent and that the arrears disappear and do not reappear, on what basis does the Minister refuse to accept the method?

    The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) was not present in Committee when we discussed this matter and he cannot have read my magnificent contribution or he would not have gone over the same around. His is a typical middle-class approach: "Why should not we have the right to decide how the money should be paid?" It is not as simple as that. The hon. Gentleman claimed to take account of the right of the individual. He and his hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) skilfully disguise their patronising attitude which is that in the interests of the public purse we should take away the right of the individual to say "I shall decide how I shall spend my own money".

    The argument may be put the other way. The next stage will be when the Morris Committee reports on electricity charges. It may be said that the people who are receiving supplementary benefit should have their bills paid direct. The next suggestion will be that if they need clothes they should be Given chits which can be exchanged for clothes at the local store. Those people will end up with no money.

    I did not say "Quite right" to the Minister's remark about people ending up with no money. What I said "Quite right" to was the suggestion that a person on social security benefits should have the responsibility to say that he would like to have his rent deducted from his social security payment. It is the Minister who is interfering with the right of the individual. We are trying to protect the right of the individual to do what he wants to do.

    There is a genuine difference of opinion on the two sides of the House. I think I have expressed the overwhelming view of my hon. Friends. There are staffing problems in the Department, but that is not the main burden of the case. If the House wills something it is up to us to find the means to do it, but we must appreciate that there have been many changes in legislation which have laid burdens on the Department—for example, the Christmas bonus, and beef coupons for old-age pensioners. I should not like to see the matter go by without proper consultation through the DHSS with the staff concerned.

    Does not the Minister accept that it will take much more time and cause more trouble for the Department if it considers each application and decides whether it is to be accepted or refused than if the Department accepts every application in which a tenant asks for such deductions to be made?

    I do not want to take up the time of the House any longer. The system works fairly well. Where there are guidelines, most of the cases fall within them. It is only in the odd case that discretion needs to be exercised.

    Hon. Members who know anything about social security will realise that the system works reasonably well. The Finer Report has been taken on board. That is partly the reason why there have been changes of coding and advice to local offices. I am confident that we do not need to have the clause in the Bill, and I hope that the House will agree to delete it.

    I am bitterly disappointed with the Minister's remarks. He spoke about extending the guidelines, but the debate in Committee on this point was on the question not whether the guidelines should be extended but whether the principle should be accepted. The Minister must be aware that if this proposal cannot be undertaken in one year because of administrative difficulties, if the principle is accepted the Opposition—and, we hope, those Labour Members who supported us upstairs in Committee—will be glad to go along with the Minister in any proposal for the period to be increased to two, three or four years.

    The Minister mentioned the Finer Report—a bulky document running to hundreds of pages. I ask the Minister to look at page 396. I hope the Minister will listen to what I am saying instead of making arrogant and stupid interventions—[Interruption.] Had the Minister taken part in the proceedings on the Local Government (Scotland) Bill, he would understand why we take this attitude. However, if he looks at page 396 of the Finer Report, he will see that it says:
    "where the tenant, with the support of the social services department, or the housing authority … requests the Commission to pay the rent direct, the application should (other than in exceptional circumstances) be granted as a matter of course".
    That is precisely the situation we want to arrive at.

    The Minister was wrong in his comments about the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pent-lands (Mr. Rifkind). There is no question of our adopting an arrogant or middle-class attitude, but we are deeply concerned that, because of the absence of this facility, which we seek to provide, many hundreds of families in Scotland will be penalised. Those families are undergoing agonising crises. Many are breaking up, and mothers are taking pills because many families find great difficulty in managing their affairs.

    The Minister said that he would extend the guidelines, but I am concerned in assisting families who now face problems, and am very much interested in preventing such situations arising. The Minister must be aware of the figures published in Glasgow by the Castlemilk Interest Group showing an increase in the number of evictions for non-payment of rent. Every eviction involves human hardship and tragedy. The Minister must be aware that if this facility were introduced, it would go a long way towards preventing some of these problems arising, and would certainly help a large number of people who are in trouble.

    Nobody underestimates the administrative difficulties. This proposal would mean creating work for the Supplementary Benefits Commission and the DHSS. However, if the right were automatic there would be no need to go through each case individually. We want to establish that at some future stage, when the administrative problems are overcome, the Government will accept the Finer Committee's recommendation on this point—a point supported by the Edinburgh Corporation and social workers in many parts of Scotland—namely, that every tenant on supplementary benefit and other benefits who wants his rent paid direct should be able to take advantage of such provision.

    I was disappointed with the remarks of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) for we thought that we had his support—

    Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence of persons making such a request from the social security authorities, and of the request being refused?

    Yes, I have. I can give the hon. Gentleman many examples. If he will contact the Castlemilk Interest Group, it will give him the evidence. Furthermore, the Family Service Unit in Glasgow has evidence of such refusals.

    We are interested in this being an automatic right. We do not want to lay

    Division No. 85.]

    AYES

    [6.28 p.m.

    Abse, LeoAshley, JackBarnett, Rt Hon Joel
    Allaun, FrankAtkins, Ronald (Preston N)Bates, Alf
    Anderson, DonaldAtkinson, NormanBidwell, Sydney
    Archer, PeterBarnett, Guy (Greenwich)Blenkinsop, Arthur

    down a time scale. I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park and any member of the SNP who has a mandate to speak on this matter will reconsider the position. If this provision goes to the House of Lords the Government will probably have another thought about timing, but I believe that we should now say clearly that the House of Commons believes that this is a principle that should be contained in the Bill.

    We all know that many people on large incomes find it difficult to pay their bills. That is why they use bankers' orders to pay their mortgages and other monthly instalments. It makes life more tolerable, and enables people to cope more easily with their daily lives. Families on supplementary benefit are in a more difficult situation, for they have nothing to spare. If they get behind one week they have difficulty in making it up the next. Therefore, if their rent falls behind by a month or two months, it may be the beginning of the slippery slope, and may land a family in distress, with family break-up, children in care, and all the rest of it. We should do all we can to avoid that situation. It is worth while going ahead with this provision, even though we may save only one family break-up or prevent one family tragedy.

    Therefore, I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park and other labour Members who shared our views in Committee will stand firm and support the principle of direct payment of rents. We are prepared to leave the details to be worked out by the Government in the proper way, but surely this is a principle which, for the sake of humanity and to avoid any further family trouble and distress—and there are more families who find themselves in difficulty every year—we should support. I hope that the Minister will reconsider his position and that the House will reject the amendment.

    Question put, That the amendment be made:—

    The House divided: Ayes 214, Noes 183.

    Boardman, H.Heffer, Eric S.Perry, Ernest
    Booth, AlbertHooley, FrankPrescott, John
    Boothroyd, Miss BettyHoram, JohnPrice, William (Rugby)
    Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurHoyle, Douglas (Nelson)Radice, Giles
    Bradley, TomHughes, Mark (Durham)Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)
    Bray, Dr JeremyHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Richardson, Miss Jo
    Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Hughes, Roy (Newport)Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
    Buchan, NormanIrvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)Robertson, John (Paisley)
    Buchanan, RichardJackson, Colin (Brighouse)Roderick, Caerwyn
    Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Jackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
    Campbell, IanJay, Rt Hon DouglasRooker, J. W.
    Canavan, DennisJenkins, Hugh (Putney)Roper, John
    Carter-Jones, LewisJohn, BrynmorRose, Paul B.
    Cartwright, JohnJohnson, James (Hull West)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
    Clemitson, IvorJohnson, Walter (Derby S)Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
    Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)Jones, Alec (Rhondda)Rowlands, Ted
    Coleman, DonaldJones, Barry (East Flint)Sandelson, Neville
    Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Jones, Dan (Burnley)Sedgemore, Brian
    Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Judd, FrankSelby, Harry
    Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Kaufman, GeraldShaw, Arnold (Ilford South)
    Crawshaw, RichardKelley, RichardSheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)
    Dalyell, TamKerr, RussellShort, Rt Hon E. (Newcasle C)
    Davidson, ArthurKilroy-Silk, RobertSilkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
    Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Lamborn, HarrySillars, James
    Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)Lamond, JamesSilverman, Julius
    Davies, Ifor (Gower)Lee, JohnSkinner, Dennis
    Deakins, EricLewis, Arthur (Newham N)Small, William
    Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
    Delargy, HughLipton, MarcusSpearing, Nigel
    Dell, Rt Hon EdmundLitterick, TomSpriggs, Leslie
    Dempsey, JamesLoyden, EddieStallard, A. W.
    Doig, PeterLuard, EvanStewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham)
    Dormand, J. D.Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)Stoddart, David
    Douglas-Mann, BruceMabon, Dr J. DicksonStott, Roger
    Duffy, A. E. P.McElhone, FrankStrang, Gavin
    Dunn, James A.MacFarquhar, RoderickSummerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
    Dunnett, JackMcGuire, Michael (Ince)Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
    Eadie, AlexMackenzie, GregorThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
    Edge, GeoffMaclennan, RobertThomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
    Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Thomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
    Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)McNamara, KevinThorne, Stan (Preston South)
    Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Madden, MaxTinn, James
    Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)Marks, KennethTomlinson, John
    Evans, John (Newton)Marquand, DavidUrwin, T. W.
    Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
    Faulds, AndrewMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)Walden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
    Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.Mason, Rt Hon RoyWalker, Terry (Kingswood)
    Fitch, Alan (Wigan)Meacher, MichaelWard, Michael
    Flannery, MartinMellish, Rt Hon RobertWatkins, David
    Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Mendelson, JohnWatkinson, John
    Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMikardo, IanWeitzman, David
    Ford, BenMillan, BruceWellbeioved, James
    Forrester, JohnMiller, Dr M. S. (E. Kilbride)White, Frank R. (Bury)
    Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)Whitlock, William
    George, BruceMorris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Wigley, Dafydd
    Ginsburg, DavidMorris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
    Golding, JohnMurray, Rt Hon Ronald KingWilliams, Alan (Swansea W)
    Gould, BryanNewens, StanleyWilliams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
    Gourlay, HarryNoble, MikeWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
    Graham, TedO'Halloran, MichaelWilson, William (Coventry SE)
    Grant, John (Islington C)O'Malley, Rt Hon BrianWise, Mrs Audrey
    Grocott, BruceOrme, Rt Hon StanleyWoodall, Alec
    Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Ovenden, JohnWrigglesworth, Ian
    Hamling, WilliamPadley, WalterYoung, David (Bolton E)
    Hardy, PeterPalmer, Arthur
    Harper, JosephPark, GeorgeTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
    Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)Parker, JohnMr. James Hamilton and
    Hatton, FrankPavitt, LaurieMr. John Ellis.
    Hayman, Mrs HelenePendry, Tom

    NOES

    Adley, RobertBrittan, LeonClark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)
    Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Brotherton, MichaelClarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
    Awdry, DanielBrown, Sir Edward (Bath)Clegg, Walter
    Bain, Mrs MargaretBryan, Sir PaulCockcroft, John
    Beith, A. J.Buchanan-Smith, AlickCooke, Robert (Bristol W)
    Bell, RonaldBudgen, NickCope, John
    Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Bulmer, EsmondCorrie, John
    Benyon, W.Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Costain, A. P.
    Biffen, JohnCarlisle, MarkCrawford, Douglas
    Biggs-Davison, JohnCarr, Rt Hon RobertCritchley, Julian
    Boscawen, Hon RobertChalker, Mrs LyndaCrouch, David
    Braine, Sir BernardChannon, PaulCrowder, F. P.

    Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)King, Evelyn (South Dorset)Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
    Dean, Paul (N Somerset)King, Tom (Bridgwater)Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
    Dodsworth, GeoffreyKnox, DavidRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
    Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesLamont, NormanSainsbury, Tim
    Drayson, BurnabyLane, DavidScott, Nicholas
    Durant, TonyLangford-Holt, Sir JohnShelton, William (Streatham)
    Dykes, HughLatham, Michael (Melton)Shepherd, Colin
    Eyre, ReginaldLawson, NigelShersby, Michael
    Fairgrieve, RussellLester, Jim (Beeston)Sinclair, Sir George
    Farr, JohnLewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Skeet, T. H. H.
    Fell, AnthonyLloyd, IanSpeed, Keith
    Fisher, Sir NigelMcAdden, Sir StephenSpence, John
    Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)MacCormick, IainSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)
    Fletcher-Cooke, CharlesMcCrindle, RobertSproat, Iain
    Fookes, Miss JanetMacGregor, JohnStainton, Keith
    Freud, ClementMacmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)Stanbrook, Ivor
    Gardiner, George (Reigate)McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)Stanley, John
    Glyn, Dr AlanMcNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Steel, David (Roxburgh)
    Goodhew, VictorMarshall, Michael (Arundel)Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)
    Gorst, JohnMather, CarolStokes, John
    Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)Maudling, Rt Hon ReginaldTapsell, Peter
    Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Mawby, RayTaylor, R. (Croydon NW)
    Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)Maxwell-Hyslop, RobinTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
    Gray, HamishMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Tebbit, Norman
    Grimond, Rt Hon J.Mills, PeterTemple-Morris, Peter
    Grist, IanMonro, HectorThatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
    Grylls, MichaelMorgan, GeraintThompson, George
    Morrison, Charles (Devizes)Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)
    Hall, Sir JohnMorrison, Peter (Chester)Townsend, Cyril D.
    Hall-Davis, A. G. F.Mudd, DavidTugendhat, Christopher
    Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Neave, AireyVaughan, Dr Gerard
    Hannam, JohnNelson, AnthonyViggers, Peter
    Harrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)Neubert, MichaelWainwright, Richard (Colne V)
    Hawkins, PaulNewton, TonyWakeham, John
    Hayhoe, BarneyNormanton, TomWalder, David (Clitheroe)
    Henderson, DouglasOnslow, CranleyWarren, Kenneth
    Holland, PhilipPage, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Watt, Hamish
    Hooson, EmlynPaisley, Rev IanWeatherill, Bernard
    Hordern, PeterPardoe, JohnWells, John
    Howe, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyParkinson, CecilWelsh, Andrew
    Howell, David (Guildford)Penhaligon, DavidWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
    Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)Percival, IanHunt, John
    Hunt, JohnRathbone, TimWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
    Hutchison, Michael ClarkRawlinson, Rt Hon Sir PeterWinterton, Nicholas
    Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)Wood, Rt Hon Richard
    James, DavidRees-Davies, W. R.Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
    Jessel, TobyReid, GeorgeYounger, Hon George
    Johnston, Russell (Inverness)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
    Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithRidley, Hon NicholasTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
    Kaberry, Sir DonaldRidsdale, JulianMr. John Stradling Thomas and
    Kellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRifkind, MalcolmMr. Fred Silvester.

    Question accordingly agreed to.

    Clause 6

    Surplus Funds Of New Town Corporations

    6.30 p.m.

    I beg to move Amendment No. 4, in page 3, line 17, leave out from 'surplus' to 'after' in line 18 and insert 'on capital account'.

    The clause as it stands could be summed up as a "grabbing profits from the new towns" clause. If a new town development corporation makes a considerable profit, it should not inevitably go to the Government. It is only fair that if a new town development corporation makes a fair profit, it should be enabled to use it to improve the amenities of the new town.

    The new towns make a tremendously significant contribution to Scotland. During the summer months many visitors to Scotland are taken specially to see them as models worthy of copying in other countries. We believe that the new towns are worthy examples for other places. I ask the Government to think again and perhaps to have a more general and nationalistic approach to the matter.

    Although I did not have the good fortune to be a member of the Committee that considered the Bill, I have read the Committee proceedings. This matter was discussed at some length, and, moreover, since the Committee proceedings, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has written to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) and to other members of the Committee explaining the Government's thinking behind this provision and why they did not think it desirable that we should accept the amendment. In those circumstances, I do not wish to make a long speech about the amendment. I simply remind the House of the background against which the provision has been inserted in the Bill.

    I shall not make anything of the fact that this provision was put into the English Act in 1972 by the former Conservative Government, because I accept that for this Government to follow the provisions of the previous Government in any respect would probably be the weakest argument for any provision we might be making.

    Apart from that, there are substantial and reasonable arguments in favour of including this provision in the Bill. It is discretionary. In the event of a new town having a surplus, there is no obligation on the Secretary of State to provide for the surplus to be paid into the Consolidated Fund. Before there was any question of using this provision—it is not likely to be used in the near future—there will of course be consultations with the development corporation concerned.

    The principle that surpluses may be recovered is already part of our existing new towns legislation. The 1968 Act, for example, provides that when a new town corporation is wound up any surpluses from the winding up should be paid into the Exchequer. That is a reasonable provision, because it takes account of the history of new town financing, which has been done very largely at the expense of the taxpayer.

    We must remember that apart from loans made to the new towns, the development corporations already receive substantial Exchequer grants, apart from what is done to eliminate their housing deficits. For example, during the year to 31st March 1974, £1·8 million was paid to the new towns in Scotland by way of grants additional to the usual housing subsidies which are paid to public authorities. The effect of the financing arrangements for the new towns is that, for good reasons—because the new towns make an important contribution to economic development in Scotland and because they also provide admirable housing for the people who live in them—the taxpayer has taken on special obligations towards them. That being so, and the taxpayer having invested considerable sums in new towns, it seems utterly reasonable that if and when the new towns begin to make surpluses there should at least be a discretionary provision—not obligatory or mandatory on the Secretary of State or the new towns—that, if the circumstances justify it and the surpluses are not required either for writing down the loans or for capital expenditure, they shall be paid back to the Government, from whom the original investment came.

    As regards the present position in Scotland, East Kilbride and Stonehouse is earning a surplus on general revenue account. It is not earning a true surplus since it is still in deficit on its housing revenue account. However, on the general revenue account the surplus, with our approval, is at present being used to reduce the need for new borrowing in East Kilbride for ongoing development.

    There will be considerable capital expenditure in building up the new town of Stonehouse. None of the other new towns is likely to be in a real surplus position before the 1980s except perhaps in respect of the effect on new towns of the Government's new policy for land which we shall have the opportunity of debating later in the Session. However, in the event of surpluses becoming available, it seems to us only right that one of the possibilities for dealing with them should be that they be paid back to the Exchequer. That is the sole, limited and inoffensive purpose of the provision. Therefore, I cannot accept the amendment.

    6.45 p.m.

    I hope that by raising this matter both during in Committee and now we shall make the Government think about something which, for the second time, is unfair to the new towns.

    The Minister did not deal with our amendment. He gave us an interesting dissertation on the letter sent to us by his hon. Friend, but he did not deal with the difference between capital and revenue.

    I did not deal with that because the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) did not deal with it either when he moved the amendment, so I thought that that was not a point to which the Opposition attached any importance.

    I am afraid that the Minister could not have been listening. That was the precise point to which my hon. Friend referred when speaking about repayment. We feel that it is unfair if the Government decide to take money from new towns with a surplus on capital account and deny them the right even to take the sum off the accumulated debt. If the Minister of State lent me £1,000—which is very unlikely—and I paid £500, I think it is fair and reasonable to regard that debt as being £500.

    This proposal seems unfair. I had hoped by this amendment to make the Government look again at something which appears to be very unfair to the new towns.

    I do not want to make heavy weather of this. I met all the new town chairmen and chief executives within the last fortnight to discuss problems relating to new towns. The Bill and this provision are well known to them. I have received no complaints about them. As I understand it, the new towns are not the least unhappy about this provision.

    Amendment negatived.

    Clause 7

    Phasing Of Rent Increases Where Rent For Dwelling-House Under Tenancy Is Registered

    I beg to move Amendment No. 5, in page 4, line 21, leave out from 'rent' to 'which' in line 27 and insert:

    '(whether registered before or after the commencement of this Act).'

    With this we may consider Government Amendments Nos. 6, 8, 9, 10, 11, 21, 24, 26 and 28 to 36.

    The purpose of these amendments to to deal with especially steep increases in rents following the end of the freeze. Before I go any further, I direct hon. Members' attention to the explanatory material on the effect of these amendments, which has been made available. It was circulated to all members of the Committee and I hope that they found it helpful. Under existing legislation tenants whose rent increases were in course of phasing when the freeze began, and those who had rents registered in the early months of the freeze, might have to pay an increase made up of two phased increases immediately after the end of the freeze—either together or within a short time of each other. In many cases this would result in very steep increases and would wipe away much of the counter-inflationary benefit of the freeze.

    The effect of the amendments is to allow rents to be increased at a steady rate towards fair rent levels, following the end of the current standstill. The amendments can be summarised as follows.

    For rents registered before the freeze which were already subject to phasing the new paragraph 5A provides that they shall resume phasing at the next stage which they would have been due to reach had the freeze not occurred, instead of resuming at two levels of phasing higher. This would have happened in a very large number of cases.

    Sub-paragraph (3) of the new paragraph 5A provides that for rents registered during the freeze which would have been subject to existing phasing provisions, phasing shall begin from the end of the freeze instead of from the date on which the rent was registered.

    Paragraph 5B introduces the same arrangement for rents registered before or during the freeze which were not previously entitled to phasing and which had not been increased to the registered rent when the freeze began.

    The amendments are made within the framework of the fair rents system, which we introduced in 1965. As my right hon. Friend indicated on Second Reading, we are undertaking a longer-term review of housing policies and finance and we shall be looking closely at the system of "fair rents" as part of that review. In putting down these amendments, we are attempting to reduce the impact of steep increases in the post-freeze period. In that sense, they are designed to deal with a situation at a particular period of tme.

    The changes will, however, enable us to make steady progress towards "fair rents" from what we must recognise as in many respects a low rent situation in Scotland. As I said when we discussed an earlier group of amendments, this perhaps has made worse some of the problems arising from that policy. The amendments are made in keeping with the "fair rent' system. They do not significantly impede progress towards "fair rents", and they do not interfere with established rights of application for re-registration of a fair rent three years after the original registration.

    The new phasing arrangements make it possible to repeal—and so rationalise—the existing phasing provisions contained in the initial Rent (Scotland) Act 1971 and the 1972 Act immediately, instead of in two years as the Bill provides at present. Most of the amendments in this group are consequential upon this change. We are all concerned, in the interests of the public, whom the Bill affects so directly, to simplify the legislation on private rents as far as possible, and we are therefore proposing that we should make this Bill the sole piece of legislation to which anyone need refer concerning phasing, instead of perpetuating phasing provisions in two other Acts.

    I hope, therefore, that my hon. Friends will support me in these amendments, which attempt to solve sympathetically yet rationally the problems of phased rent movements, particularly in the post-freeze period. I commend the amendments with enthusiasm as being an attempt to introduce an element of justice to all concerned in a situation which has arisen because of the freeze.

    Will the hon. Gentleman answer two brief questions?

    First, has he discussed this proposal with representatives of rent assessment committees, and do they envisage any practical difficulties? The committees will be meeting to consider new rents and a period of re-registration when the tenants will not be paying the rents which would have been paid according to their previous decisions.

    Secondly, the Minister explained that new Clause 1 was not being introduced in England and Wales. To what extent is this bringing about a variation in practice, compared with the situation in England and Wales?

    Dealing with the hon. Gentleman's first question, as I said earlier, I have had informal discussions with some of the people concerned in the operation of the Rent Act. Again, I can give the hon. Gentleman a fairly categorical assurance that this proposal should not present any problems from the point of view of administration or from that of the application of the fair rents policy.

    As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are proposing simply a phasing arrangement which does not alter what might be described as the anniversary date of the registration of a rent. In some cases the tenants will arrive at the anniversary date where the rent can be re-registered, even though in some cases they will not have reached the fair rent. It does not cut across the basic principle of aiming towards a fair rent. However, because of the freeze and because of what we are doing, there is this difference in the final stage when the next registration may take place. In other words, it does not alter the date for that, but it means that in some cases the fair rent may not have been reached. It will not present any problems. It does not even introduce a new consideration, because the existing fair rent is already known and established.

    As for the hon. Gentleman's second question, we are happy to be able to say that what we have done here is slightly better than the English and Welsh have done. This might have been appropriate to our debates in the past two days. The only provision made in the English and Welsh legislation is for those rents registered during the freeze. We are bringing in the category of rents which were registered before the freeze. I am sure that hon. Members will compliment us on having the initiative and vision to be slightly different and, as usual, better.

    Amendment agreed to.

    Amendment made: No. 6, in line 30, leave out subsection (4) and insert:

    '(4) The following provisions shall cease to have effect—
  • (a) section 79 of the 1971 Act and Schedule 13 thereto;
  • (b) section 37 of the 1972 Act and Schedule 6 thereto.'.—[Mr. Hugh D. Brown.]
  • Clause 9

    Increases Of Rent Under Controlled Tenancy Permitted Towards Cost Of Repairs

    I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 5, line 39, leave out from 'by' to end of subsection and insert:

    'such sum as the rent officer considers reasonable having regard to the sum expended on repairs'.
    This amendment was partially discussed in Committee, although we are putting a different face on it now.

    Basically, we are dealing with approximately 5,000 substandard houses which still have controlled rents. The Bill contains provisions whereby fair rents cannot be established for these houses. Instead, the landlords are entitled to a return of only 12½ per cent. of the cost of any repairs that they do. The rents of most of these houses are very low. If a landlord wants to spend money on repairs, he will not be able to do so on the basis of the revenue from the rents of those houses. It seems to us that 12½ per cent. is unreasonable in view of the cost of borrowing money. If the landlord has to borrow money, he will not get an adequate return from his rents to finance the loan.

    We do not suggest changing the figure to a higher percentage. Instead, we suggest that rent officers should be allowed to consider a reasonable return for the landlord who has to borrow money to pay for repairs. Each case will vary. Some repairs will be major; others will be minor. But, bearing in mind the cost of borrowing, 12½ per cent. is unreasonable and allows no flexibility.

    I hope that the Minister will accept the principle, if not the exact wording, of the amendment.

    I understand the reasoning behind the amendment.

    The figure of 12½ per cent. is precedented in earlier housing legislation. I take the point that it is not easy to arrive at exactly the right percentage in a matter of this kind. We thought that in all the circumstances 12½ per cent. was probably about right.

    As the hon. Gentleman said, we are dealing here with houses which are still subject to controlled tenancies and not to the fair rent provisions. Therefore, my principle objection to the amendment is that it brings the rent officer, who is concerned specifically with the fair rent provisions, into an area from which we have specifically excluded him for policy reasons and for other reasons which it is not appropriate for me to explain at the moment.

    My second objection to the amendment is that it would introduce uncertainty about the effect that carrying out repairs would have on rents. Although the hon. Gentleman may think that by inserting a provision of this kind into the Bill the object would be achieved of encouraging landlords to spend more on repairs and to do them where in other circumstances they would not be willing to do them, there is an equal and perhaps greater danger that, with an element of uncertainty in the situation, a landlord would be less willing to carry out repairs than he would be under the clause as it is drafted.

    7.0 p.m.

    There would, of course, be certain anomalies also between one kind of tenant and another, with some tenants paying on a percentage basis and others through the rent assessment proceedings. But the basic arguments against the amendment are those I have mentioned. The first is that the rent officer would be introduced into an area where he has really no jurisdiction at the moment. The second is that the amendment would create uncertainty. On balance, the provision in the Bill is the better one, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we should encourage landlords in this kind of situation to carry out essential repairs to property and give them a certain financial incentive to do so.

    I am surprised that the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) has moved the amendment. Earlier, he wanted to curb the freedom of local authorities in the determination of rents. Now, paradoxically, he argues for more freedom to be given to rent officers to decide rent increases. It is a strange concept of democracy that would give less freedom to members of local authorities democratically elected, but give what would appear to be absolute power in this respect to non-elected officials, the rent officers.

    The amendment states that rents could be increased by
    "such sum as the rent officers considers reasonable having regard to the sum expended on repairs."
    That would be giving the rent officer far too much latitude and, as my hon. Friend has said, it would be asking the rent officer to intrude into an area where he did not intrude before. It is more appropriate that this House should decide what is reasonable, and that is what the Government are attempting to do. One-eighth of the cost of repairs per annum seems to be a reasonable amount.

    Earlier, the hon. Gentleman pleaded for the rights of private tenants. That made me even more surprised by the amendment, because it would mean that a rent officer could, in effect, raise the rents of private tenants by exorbitant amounts. The Government's standpoint is far more reasonable in setting a ceiling in both the private sector and the public sector, including a ceiling on the amount to which rents can be raised per annum as a result of repairs carried out by the landlord.

    I am quite unimpressed by the arguments of the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), but the Minister of State has put practical objections to the amendment which are worth considering. I hope that between now and later stages of the Bill he will reconsider whether 12½ per cent. is really an appropriate figure.

    I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

    Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

    Clause 11

    Miscellaneous And Consequential Amendments And Repeals

    Amendment made: No. 8, in page 7, line 26, leave out from 'subject to' to 'of that Schedule' and insert

    'the note at the end'.—[Mr. Millan.]

    Schedule 2

    Phasing Of Rent Increases Where Rent For Dwelling-House Under Regulated Tenancy Is Registered

    Amendments made: No. 9, in page 12, line 12, leave out '4 and 5' and insert '3(4), 4, 5, 5A and 5B'.

    No. 10, in line 14, leave out from 'rent' to end of line 15.

    No. 11, in line 20, leave out 'paragraph 4' and insert

    'paragraphs 4, 5A and 5B'.

    No. 12, in line 21, leave out 'immediately' and insert

    'for the last rental period beginning'.

    No. 13, in line 21, leave out 'the landlord was entitled to recover' and insert 'was payable'.

    No. 14, in line 36, leave out sub-paragraphs (3) and (4).

    No. 15, in page 13, line 31, leave out 'sub-paragraph (4)' and insert 'sub-paragraphs (4) and (5)'.

    No. 16, in line 34, leave out 'where' and insert

    'and for the purposes of this paragraph'.

    No. 17, in page 14, leave out lines 6 and 7 and insert—

    '(4) Where the permitted increase for any rental period in terms of sub-paragraph (2) or (3) above, other than any increase permitted in respect of a service element, would exceed £1.50 per week, the period of delay shall be extended, and
    (a) the permitted increase for a rental period which begins during the first year of the period of delay is an increase to the following amount—
    PRL+SE+£1.50 per week;
    and
    (b) the permitted increase for a rental period which begins during a subsequent year of the period of delay is an increase to the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before that year, was payable by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment, plus
  • (i) any increase permitted in respect of a service element not previously recovered and
  • (ii) £1.50 per week.
  • (5) Nothing in this Schedule shall enable a rent to be increased to an amount greater than the registered rent.'.

    No. 18, in line 10, leave out from "agreement" to "which" in line 11 and insert:

    "with a tenant having security of tenure within the meaning of section 42(1) of the 1972 Act,".

    No. 19, in line 18, leave out "immediately" and insert:

    "for the last rental period beginning".

    No. 20, in line 19, leave out "the landlord was entitled to recover" and insert "was payable".

    No. 21, in page 14, leave out lines 31 and 32.

    No. 22, in line 36, leave out from "shall" to "begin" in line 37.

    No. 23, in line 38, at end insert:

    "or, where paragraph 4 above applies, with the date when the rent agreement took effect".

    No. 24, in line 39 at beginning insert:

    "Modifications in cases where rent was registered before commencement of Act

    5A.—(1) In relation to any registered rent which was subject to phasing under the provisions of section 79 of the 1971 Act and Schedule 13 thereto, or of section 37 of the 1972 Act and Schedule 6 thereto, sub-paragraph (2) or (3) of this paragraph shall apply in place of the said provisions.

    (2) Where a rent was registered before 8th March 1974 and part of a period of delay imposed in respect thereof under any of the provisions specified in sub-paragraph (1) above remain unexpired on that date—

  • (a) in any case where 8th March 1974 fell within the second year of the said period of delay, this Schedule shall apply to the rent as if the second year of a period of delay imposed under this Schedule had ended at the commencement of this Act and as if the period of delay last mentioned had been extended under paragraph 3(4) above;
  • (b) in any case where 8th March 1974 fell within the first year of the period of delay first mentioned, this Schedule shall apply as if the second year of a period of delay imposed under this Schedule had begun at the commencement of this Act.
  • (3) In any case where a rent, which was subject to phasing under any of the provisions specified in sub-paragraph (1) above, was registered on or after 8th March 1974 but before the commencement of this Act, this Schedule shall apply to the rent as if—

  • (i) a period of delay in terms of this Schedule had begun at such commencement, and
  • (ii) the previous rent limit were the amount which, for the last rental period beginning before such commencement, was payable, by way of rent, having regard to the provisions of any enactment.
  • 5B. Sub-paragraph (3) of paragraph 5A above shall apply in any case where—

  • (a) a rent was registered before the commencement of this Act, which was not subject to phasing under any of the provisions referred to in that sub-paragraph, and
  • (b) the previous rent limit in terms of that sub-paragraph is less than the registered rent,
  • as it applies in any such case as is mentioned in the said sub-paragraph (3)".

    No. 25, in line 40, leave out paragraph 6 and insert:

    '6—(1) The Secretary of State may by order substitute, for the specified sum, or for the sum of £1.50 mentioned in paragraph 3(4) above, in relation to any year of the period of delay, or to the whole period, a sum other than the sum mentioned in this Schedule; and different sums may be specified for each of those cases or any of them.
    (2) An order under sub-paragraph (1) above shall be made by statutory instrument subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament, and may be varied or revoked by a subsequent order made under that sub-paragraph.
    6A. In ascertaining for the purposes of this Schedule any difference between periods of different lengths, a month shall be treated as one-twelfth and a week as one-fifty-second of a year'.

    No. 26, in page 15, line 22, leave out from 'Act' to end of line 26 and insert:

    'for the words from "section 79" to "1972" there shall be substituted the words "section 7 of the Housing Rents and Subsidies (Scotland) Act 1975".'.

    No. 27, in line 30, leave out 'section 7' and insert:

    'sections 7 and (Limitation of rent increases under rent agreement where no rent is registered for dwelling-house under regulated tenancy)'.

    No. 28, in page 16, leave out lines 11 to 24.

    No. 29, in line 27, leave out from 'Act' to end of line 31 and insert:

    'for the words from "Schedule 13" to "1972" there shall be substituted the words "Schedule 2 to the Housing Rents and Subsidies (Scotland) Act 1975".'.

    No. 30, in line 48, leave out from '( b)' to end of line 15 on page 17 and insert:

    'for the words from "Schedule 13" to the end of head (b) there shall be substituted the words "Schedule 2 to the Housing Rents and Subsidies (Scotland) Act 1975.".'—[Mr. Hugh D. Brown.]

    Schedule 3

    Repeals

    Amendments made: No. 31, in page 17, leave out lines 18 and 19.

    No. 32, leave out lines 23 to 26 in column 3 and insert:

    'Section 79.
    Schedule 13.'.

    No. 33, in page 18, line 8, leave out column 3 and insert: 'Sections 37 and 38.'.

    No. 34, in column 3, leave out line 19 and insert:

    'Schedule 6.
    In Schedule 7, paragraphs 9 to 12'.

    No. 35, in line 29, leave out 'this Part of'.

    No. 36, in page 19, leave out lines 1 to 24.—[ Mr. Hugh D. Brown.]

    7.5 p.m.

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

    This is an important piece of legislation. In our manifesto for Scotland we promised to repeal the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972, which indiscriminately put up rents, and to restore the power of local authorities to fix their own rents. The Bill fulfils that undertaking. From next May, local authorities will again be free to determine reasonable rents for the houses they provide and to make their own decisions about the size of the rate contribution to the housing revenue account.

    The Bill also provides for a strengthening of the Government subsidy support available to local authorities, with £5 million more being made available by way of housing expenditure subsidy in 1975–76 and further increases thereafter. The rent income subsidy, which is meeting 90 per cent. of the loss of income of local authorities on the rent standstill in the current year, will be continued in 1975–76, when it will have totalled about £12 million to local authorities.

    These two sums are not chickenfeed, and I am sure that the local authorities and the tenants recognise, as I hope the House recognises, that the Government are making a further substantial contribution to the provision of adequate housing in the public sector. The Bill has revealed a fundamental difference of opinion between the Government and the Opposition, and we are not surprised about that. It seems still to be the case that the Opposition mistrust local authorities—even the new local authorities. That mistrust was behind the 1972 Act.

    We have never accepted that principle. We have confidence in the ability and integrity of the new local authorities to build up their housing programmes, which have lagged behind because of the 1972 Act. The Bill will also give confidence to the building industry. We have not forgotten the private sector, by introducing a limitation on the increase of rents and the phasing provisions. This is an extremely important piece of housing legislation, and in political terms it is a fulfilment of a promise we have given. For these reasons, I hope the House will give it a Third Reading.

    7.9 p.m.

    This is an important Bill, but I do not agree that it is acceptable. It is in two parts. The first part deals with the public sector and the second with the private sector. Our arguments in Committee were largely on the provisions for the public sector, although the hon. Gentleman has introduced some sweeping new amendments dealing with the private sector following reconsideration since the Committee stage and in the light of anomalies which might have arisen.

    We object to the Bill for three main reasons. First, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, it fulfils an election pledge by the Labour Party to repeal the Housing (Financial Provisions) (Scotland) Act 1972. What the hon. Gentleman has not done is give us any reasons why the Labour Party wished to do so. Apart from saying that it is a pledge fulfilled, the hon. Gentleman has not told us just what hardship was caused by the 1972 Act. What stands out is that the Act was subject to the most blatant campaign of unfair misrepresentation of any Act of Parliament.

    There was no better example of this than the propaganda to the effect that rents of £7, £8 or £9 would be charged as a result of the Act. In Committee, the Minister gave us some details of the present percentage housing deficits of local authorities, which showed that several were on the point of achieving an economic rent, and so would not need to have substantial increases in future.

    We also object to the Bill because the national rent rebate scheme which our Act introduced ensured that rents were related not to the political complexion of the council but to the needs of the individual. As a result 241,000 tenants—three out of every 10—are at present receiving rent rebates, which average £75.

    We also think that the Bill is wrong because it will add to housing deficits. The present deficit of around £27 million will increase by probably £8 million in 1975, which will mean more on the rates for everyone, including council tenants.

    The most objectionable feature is that there will once again be wide variations in the levels of rents. Our Act was intended to bring about some harmony and do away with the situation in which rents in one area could be much above or below what they were in others. It can therefore be understood why we feel that the Government were wrong to repeal the 1972 Act and introduce the Bill.

    We should aim at fairness. We believe that we had achieved fairness with the 1972 Act, first, because it helped those in need, second, because it limited rent increases until an economic rent had been reached to 50p a week and, third, because it aimed at eliminating the rates subsidy.

    Division No. 86.]

    AYES

    [7.13 p.m.

    Anderson, DonaldDean, Joseph (Leeds West)Hamling, William
    Archer, PeterDelargy, HughHarper, Joseph
    Armstrong, ErnestDempsey, JamesHarrison, Walter (Wakefield)
    Ashley, JackDoig, PeterHatton, Frank
    Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Dormand, J. D.Hayman, Mrs Helene
    Atkinson, NormanDouglas-Mann, BruceHeffer, Eric S.
    Bain, Mrs MargaretDuffy, A. E. P.Henderson, Douglas
    Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Dunn, James A.Hooley, Frank
    Barnett, Rt Hon JoelDunnett, JackHoram, John
    Bates, AlfEadie, AlexHoyle, Douglas (Nelson)
    Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Edge, GeoffHughes, Mark (Durham)
    Bidwell, SydneyEdwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
    Blenkinsop, ArthurEllis, Tom (Wrexham)Hughes, Roy (Newport)
    Boardman, H.Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)
    Booth, AlbertEvans, Ioan (Aberdare)Jackson, Colin (Brighouse)
    Boothroyd, Miss BettyEvans, John (Newton)Jackson, Miss M. (Lincoln)
    Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurEwing, Harry (Stirling)Jay, Rt Hon Douglas
    Bray, Dr JeremyFaulds, AndrewJenkins, Hugh (Putney)
    Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Fernyhouqh, Rt Hon E.John, Brynmor
    Buchan, NormanFitch, Alan (Wigan)Johnson, James (Hull West)
    Buchanan, RichardFlannery, MartinJohnson, Walter (Derby S)
    Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
    Campbell, IanFoot, Rt Hon MichaelJones, Barry (East Flint)
    Canavan, DennisFord, BenJones, Dan (Burnley)
    Carter-Jones, LewisForrester, JohnJudd, Frank
    Cartwright, JohnFowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Kaufman, Gerald
    Clemitson, IvorFreud, ClementKelley, Richard
    Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)George, BruceKerr, Russell
    Coleman, DonaldGinsburg, DavidLamborn, Harry
    Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Golding, JohnLamond, James
    Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Gould, BryanLee, John
    Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Gourlay, HarryLewis, Arthur (Newham N)
    Crawford, DouglasGraham, TedLewis, Ron (Carlisle)
    Crawshaw, RichardGrant, John (Islington C)Lipton, Marcus
    Dalyell, TamGrimond, Rt Hon J.Litterick, Tom
    Davidson, ArthurGrocott, BruceLoyden, Eddie
    Davies, Denzil (Llanelli)Hamilton, James (Bothwell)Luard, Evan
    Davies, Ifor (Gower)Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)

    The 1972 Act was useful and beneficial and created no hardship. Under the Bill, we return to the system of councils being obliged to charge "reasonable" rents and to review them "from time to time". In Committee we tried to discover what was meant by "reasonable" and by "from time to time". The last time that this system was the law, because local authorities were not aware of their obligations, or tried to avoid them, cases were brought to court to establish whether councils had charged reasonable rents and reviewed them from time to time. Once again, we shall not have justice in this situation, and rates subsidies will mount in many towns, districts and new authorities.

    We oppose the Bill because we feel that our Act tried fairly to take public housing out of the political arena and prevent rents from becoming a means by which a political party could distort the housing market and obtain votes by charging unreasonably low rents. Our Act was fair; this Bill is unfair, and will create unfairness throughout Scotland.

    Question put:

    The House divided: Ayes 212, Noes 147.

    Mabon, Dr J. DicksonParker, JohnTaylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
    MacCormick, IainPavitt, LaurieThomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
    McElhone, FrankPendry, TomThomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
    MacFarquhar, RoderickPerry, ErnestThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
    McGuire, Michael (Ince)Prescott, JohnThompson, George
    Mackenzie, GregorPrice, William (Rugby)Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
    Maclennan, RobertReid, GeorgeTinn, James
    McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)Richardson, Miss JoTomlinson, John
    McNamara, KevinRoberts, Gwilym (Cannock)Urwin, T. W.
    Madden, MaxRobertson, John (Paisley)Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
    Mahon, SimonRodgers, George (ChorleylWalden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)
    Marks, KennethRooker, J. W.Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
    Marquand, DavidRoper, JohnWard, Michael
    Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)Rose, Paul B.Watkins, David
    Mason, Rt Hon RoyRoss, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)Watkinson, John
    Mellish, Rt Hon RobertSedgemore, BrianWeitzman, David
    Mendelson, JohnSelby, HarryWellbeloved, James
    Mikardo, IanShaw, Arnold (Ilford South)Welsh, Andrew
    Millan, BruceSheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)White, Frank R. (Bury)
    Miller, Dr M. S. (E. Kilbride)Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcasle C)Whitlock, William
    Miller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)Wigley, Dafydd
    Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
    Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)Sillars, JamesWilliams, Alan (Swansea W)
    Murray, Rt Hon Ronald KingSilverman, JuliusWilliams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)
    Newens, StanleySkinner, DennisWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
    Noble, MikeSmall, WilliamWilson, William (Coventry SE)
    O'Halloran, MichaelSnape, PeterWise, Mrs Audrey
    O'Malley, Rt Hon BrianSpearing, NigelWoodall, Alec
    Ovenden, JohnSpriggs, LeslieWrigglesworth, Ian
    Padley, WalterStallard, A. W.Young, David (Bolton E)
    Paisley, Rev IanSteel, David (Roxburgh)
    Palmer, ArthurStewart, Donald (Western Isles)TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
    Pardoe, JohnStewart, Rt Hn M. (Fulham)Mr. John Ellis and
    Park, GeorgeStott, RogerMr. David Stoddart.

    NOES

    Adley, RobertGray, HamishNelson, Anthony
    Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Grist, IanNeubert, Michael
    Awdry, DanielGrylls, MichaelNewton, Tony
    Bell, RonaldHall—Davis, A. G. F.Normanton, Tom
    Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
    Biggs-Davison, JohnHarrison, Col. Sir Harwood (Eye)Parkinson, Cecil
    Boscawen, Hon RobertHastings, StephenPercival, Ian
    Braine, Sir BernardHawkins, PaulPeyton, Rt Hon John
    Brittan, LeonHayhoe, BarneyRathbone, Tim
    Brotherton, MichaelHolland, PhilipRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
    Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Hordern, PeterRees-Davies, W. R.
    Bryan, Sir PaulHowell, David (Guildford)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
    Buchanan-Smith, AlickHunt, JohnRidley, Hon Nicholas
    Buck, AntonyHutchison, Michael ClarkRidsdale, Julian
    Budgen, NickIrvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)Rifkind, Malcolm
    Burden, F. A.James, DavidRippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey
    Carlisle, MarkJessel, TobyRoberts, Wyn (Conway)
    Chalker, Mrs LyndaKaberry, Sir DonaldSainsbury, Tim
    Channon, PaulKellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineShelton, William (Streatham)
    Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)King, Evelyn (South Dorset)Shepherd, Colin
    Clegg, WalterKnox, DavidShersby, Michael
    Cockcroft, JohnLamont, NormanSilvester, Fred
    Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)Lane, DavidSims, Roger
    Cope, JohnLangford-Holt, Sir JohnSinclair, Sir George
    Corrie, JohnLatham, Michael (Melton)Skeet, T. H. H.
    Costain, A. P.Lawson, NigelSpeed, Keith
    Critchley, JulianLester, Jim (Beeston)Spence, John
    Crouch, DavidLuce, RichardSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)
    Crowder, F. P.McAdden, Sir StephenSproat, Iain
    Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)McCrindle, RobertStainton, Keith
    Dean, Paul (N Somerset)MacGregor, JohnStanbrook, Ivor
    Dodsworth, GeoffreyMcNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)Stanley, John
    Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesMcNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Stokes, John
    Drayson, BurnabyMarshall, Michael (Arundel)Tapsell, Peter
    Dykes, HughMather, CarolTaylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
    Fairgrieve, RussellMaudling, Rt Hon ReginaldTebbit, Norman
    Farr, JohnMawby, RayTemple-Morris, Peter
    Fell, AnthonyMaxwell-Hyslop, RobinThatcher, Rt Hon Margaret
    Fisher, Sir NigelMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)Townsend, Cyril D.
    Fookes, Miss JanetMills, PeterTrotter, Neville
    Gardiner, George (Reigate)Moate, RogerTugendhat, Christopher
    Glyn, Dr AlanMonro, HectorVaughan, Dr Gerard
    Goodhew, VictorMorgan, GeraintViggers, Peter
    Gorst, JohnMorrison, Charles (Devizes)Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
    Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)Mudd, DavidWakeham, John
    Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Neave, AireyWalder, David (Clitheroe)

    Walters, DennisWinterton, Nicholas
    Weatherill, BernardWood, Rt Hon RichardTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
    Wells, JohnYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)Mr. John Stradliag Thomas and
    Whitelaw, Rt Hon WilliamYounger, Hon GeorgeMr. Adam Butler.
    Wiggin, Jerry

    Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

    District Courts (Scotland) Bill Lords

    Order for Second Reading read.

    7.23 p.m.

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

    This Bill is one of the consequences of local government reform. Under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 the burgh and the county, as local government units, cease to exist on 16th May 1975. Thus, the administrative structure on which the existing burgh and justice of the peace courts are based is removed, and fresh arrangements are needed for the disposal of summary criminal cases.

    It may be for the convenience of the House if, before describing the Bill in detail, I give some account of the steps leading up to it. The best starting point is probably the report of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland, published in September 1969. The Royal Commission did not make detailed recommendations about the administration of justice but expressed its belief that the lay courts of summary jurisdiction could conveniently be reconstituted within the new structure of the district authorities and in association with them. That is in paragraph 1102 of Cmnd. Paper 4150.

    As the House will appreciate, the Bill accords very closely with the commission's belief that the courts could be reconstituted within the new structure of district authorities. There were, however, several other steps—or, should I say, false starts?—between the commission's report and the Bill. In April 1971 the then Secretary of State said that the existing justice of the peace system should be developed with stipendiary magistrates appointed by the Crown in large centres of population to meet the need for a new system of courts after the reform of local government. A working party was set up which carried out a detailed examination of the existing arrangements and considered various aspects of the proposed new system. A White Paper called "Justices of the Peace and Justices' Courts" was presented to Parliament in March 1973. It took account of the working party's report and proposed a system of justices' courts based on the area of the island or district authority but financed by the Government and staffed by officers of the sheriff court service. Even then, in March 1973, the deadline of May 1975 was not too far distant, and much administrative work remained to be done.

    The proposals were strongly criticised because they made no arrangement for the provision of legal advice to the lay bench. The clerk of the court, provided by the sheriff court service, would, like the bench, have had no legal qualification. The then Government decided to try again, and a second set of proposals was announced in October 1973. They did not attempt to deal with this main criticism but performed a complete volte face—certainly in my view—without adequate explanation. Those of us who were in the House at the time remember that it was done in the form of a Written Answer in Hansard. Instead of the strengthened lay court of the White Paper, they proposed to abolish the centuries-old tradition of lay participation in the administration of justice and transfer all the work done in the existing lay courts to the sheriff summary court, strengthened by the appointment of a new type of lesser professional judge.

    Although no Bill to implement these proposals had been introduced, they still held the field when we came to office at the beginning of March 1974. We therefore, had to act quickly. We noted that the previous administration's White Paper proposals had come unstuck not because the vast majority of people objected to lay justice—far from it—but on the simple point that lay courts require a legally qualified clerk and that was not what the White Paper proposals would have given them. We noted also that the abolition of the lay courts subsequently proposed by the previous administration had not been well received in Scotland except amongst certain sections of the legal fraternity—no surprise there.

    My colleagues met representatives of the local authority associations who represented strongly in favour of lay participation in the administration of justice and emphasised the part played by local authorities and their members in the existing system. They put forward a strong case—as, I am bound to say, did the previous Government's White Paper—for the continuation of lay judges in the lower courts. By July, I was ready, in consultation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate, to announce my proposals. It was clear to us that what was required, and what would be most acceptable to the Scottish people, was a continuation of lay courts with legally qualified clerks and the defects of the existing courts removed—and there are defects.

    I am interested in what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Will he say whether there were any representations from anyone other than local authorities to retain the lay system of justice?

    I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there were—probably one from me as a Member of Parliament.

    We could go on like this, all along the line.

    We recognise that there were defects in the old system. In too many cases the existing magistrates receive insufficient training for the work they are called upon to do. The criminal legal aid scheme does not extend to these courts and no accused person before them, therefore, is able to obtain legal aid. The public prosecutors in the 280-odd existing lay courts are not members of a service and are not subject to direction by the Lord Advocate.

    What the present Bill does is to provide for a continuation of lay summary justice in Scotland and, at the same time, to make provision for the removal of the defects in the existing system.

    One of the most important features of our proposals and one which has been widely welcomed is the emphasis placed on the provision of training for the justices of the peace. All justices will be expected to accept training appropriate to their experience, if any, and there is a power in the Bill to disqualify any justices who fail to accept training from sitting on the bench. This will apply not only to new justices but to existing justices and burgh magistrates, and to the justices to be appointed by district councils, to whom I shall refer later.

    Lack of training requirements and facilities for the judges of the existing lay courts is one of the great weaknesses at present, and those powers are designed to remedy this situation. In order to provide an immediate stimulus, a training officer will be appointed by the Secretary of State.

    Legal aid at an estimated cost of £130,000 annually will be available from the setting up of the courts from 16th May 1975.

    Under the Bill my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate will take over, through the procurator-fiscal service, prosecution in these courts. The take-over will be completed by 16th May 1976.

    As the House knows, this Bill was introduced in another place on 13th November last year. The Bill provided for the appointment of judges from three sources—first, the burgh magistrates in office on 15th May 1975; secondly, nominations by islands and district authorities; and, thirdly, existing justices of the peace.

    In Committee in another place, however, the provisions in Clause 11 on nominations of justices of the peace ex-officio by islands and district authorities were removed, against the strong advice of my noble Friend the Minister of State, who gave a clear warning that we would seek to restore these provisions.

    As this is the first opportunity for me to comment on the matter, I wish to support what my noble Friend said and to repeat that we propose in Committee to restore these provisions in their original form.

    The Bill was further amended in another place on Report, when an addition was made to Clause 5, against the advice of my noble Friend. That was in relation to the Secretary of State's duty to appoint stipendiary magistrates. Again, we shall propose a suitable amendment in Committee.

    Will the appointment of ex-officio magistrates include police judges who were attached to the former burghs?

    That is a good point. There is a measure of doubt whether "magistrates" includes police judges. Police judges tend to be the most experienced of the magistrates in the present system. We shall make it absolutely clear that they are covered by moving an appropriate amendment in Committee.

    I turn now to the detailed provisions of the Bill. Part I provides for the setting up of the system of district courts on 16th May 1975. There will be a district court for each commission area, except where the Secretary of State otherwise directs. A commission area is defined in Clause 26 as
    "a district or islands area within the meaning of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973."
    There are one or two rural areas where there are virtually no burgh or justice of the peace courts at present because there are so few criminal cases to be dealt with. Those few are taken in the sheriff court. If the local authorities concerned take the view that a district court would not be necessary, I shall be prepared to consider directing accordingly, though I would not envisage that the power of direction would be used to any great extent.

    Clause 1(2) transfers to a justice of the peace functions of burgh magistrates not otherwise provided for and the remainder of this clause provides for proceedings to be continued smoothly over the transition to the new system and for the transfer of records and documents.

    Clause 2(1) provides that the commission area shall be the district of the district court and that the places at which it sits and the days and times when it sits shall be determined by the local authority concerned.

    Clause 2(2) provides that the bench shall be constituted by a stipendiary magistrate or by one or more justices. This allows for the maximum flexibility. Scotland has a tradition of a single burgh magistrate on the bench, but the tradition is for two or more justices to sit together in the justice of the peace court. The Bill allows for local decisions on these matters.

    Clause 3(1) gives the district court the jurisdiction and powers of the existing courts. Under subsection (2), when the court is constituted by a stipendiary magistrate it will have, in addition, the summary criminal jurisdiction and powers of a sheriff. This preserves the present position in the case of a burgh court constituted by a stipendiary magistrate.

    Subsection (3) raises from £50 to £100 the fine which can be imposed by the lay court on convicting a person of a common law offence. Since the level was last raised in 1963, this increase is required to take account of the change in the value of money.

    Clause 4 is concerned with procedure and practice and applies the existing rules of procedure and practice to the new courts. The High Court is given power to regulate procedure and practice in the district courts.

    Clause 5 provides for the appointment of stipendiary magistrates. Since, as I have indicated, it is bound to be debated in Committee I shall not enter now into any argument about its scope. There is room for argument over the extent of the powers which the Secretary of State should have under this clause. We think that subsection (4), which was not in the Bill as we drafted it, goes too far.

    Clause 6 is an important clause, concerning prosecutions. We have decided that prosecution in the new courts should become the responsibility of the procurator-fiscal service. The Crown Office has already been in touch with local authorities about the areas in which the procurator fiscal will be able to take over prosecutions from the beginning of the new system.

    I am pleased that my right honourable and learned friend the Lord Advocate has felt able to take over the entire responsibility. This will be done in two phases. The first, from 16th May 1975, will cover about two-thirds of the commission areas. The second, from 16th May 1976, will cover all the remaining areas. Thus, the provisions in subsections (2) and (9) relating to district prosecutors are essentially transitional.

    Clause 7 requires the local authority to appoint a clerk of the district court who shall be legally qualified. The local authority associations have already confirmed that authorities will be willing to provide staff and at their request the clause is drafted to allow for part-time appointments and for the employment by agreement of an officer of a regional council.

    Clause 8(1) requires a local authority to provide suitable premises and facilities for the purposes of the court. Subsection (2), without prejudice to the general duty, eases the transition to the new system by providing that premises used to any extent for the purposes of the existing courts should continue to be made available by the authority concerned.

    Part II of the Bill is concerned with justices and clerks of the peace. Much of it is re-enactment of existing statute, and it may be sufficient if I describe briefly the new provisions in this part of the Bill. At present the appointment of justices is effected by the inscription of their names under the Secretary of State's authority in the commissions of the peace which have been issued in each county. Under Clause 9 from 16th May 1975 new commissions will be issued for district and island areas. Names will not be inscribed in these commissions, but appointments will be made by instrument signed by the Secretary of State.

    Clause 10 provides for the appointment as justices of the peace of burgh magistrates holding office immediately before 16th May 1975. Such justices and those already holding office will be treated as though they had been appointed under the provisions of Clause 9.

    In my announcement of the Government's proposals on 15th July 1974 I said that we intended that all police judges in office on 15th May 1975 would also be appointed justices of the peace as in many areas they are the most experienced judges in the existing courts, having generally been bailies before they became police judges.

    Some doubt has been expressed whether the term "magistrate" in Clause 10 would cover police judges and, in order to put the issue beyond doubt in Committee we shall propose an amendment to include a specific reference to police judges.

    This is a most important point. I should like publicly to thank my right hon. Friend for such profound consideration, but will he say, since a magistrate may act at the moment as a temporary justice of the peace, whether at the time of the dissolution of the burghs he intends the appointment of justices of the peace to be permanent?

    It will be permanent within the restrictions of age and everything else. The retirement age for JPs is 70. I do not know whether there is any such restriction in relation to bailies or police judges.

    Clause 10 also contains provisions about the determination of the commission areas in which justices are to hold office. Clause 11 in its amended form provides that all existing justices who hold office by virtue of any other office will cease to do so on 16th May 1975. As I have already said, we hope to restore to this clause the provisions on nomination of ex-officio justices by district and islands authorities which were removed in another place.

    Clause 14 confers on the Secretary of State a new power to make schemes and provide courses for the instruction of justices. Justices' committees to be appointed under Clause 16 will be required to implement and administer the schemes. All justices will be expected to accept training appropriate to their experience and under Clause 15 it will be possible for the Secretary of State to disqualify any who fail to accept training from sitting on the bench.

    Clause 16 on justices' committees is a new provision. There is no precise equivalent at present to the proposed justices' committee who under subsection (1) will be responsible for advising and assisting the local authority on matters relating to the administration of the court. The justices' committee will also approve the duty rota of judges and have special responsibilities for training of justices. The justices will elect the committee annually but any stipendiary magistrate will be a member of the committee by virtue of his office. Although Clause 17 is an important one, dealing with allowances, it is essentially a re-enactment of existing law to fit the new arrangements.

    Clause 18 provides for the appointment of a clerk of peace by the islands or district authority. This name is being retained for reasons of tradition; the duties of the new clerk of the peace are those of a clerk to the justices as a body and are listed in subsection (4). This clause, like Clause 7 on the clerk of the court and Clause 22 on the clerk to the licensing court, allows for a full-time or part-time appointment and for the appointment by agreement of an officer of a regional council. Thus the local authorities are responsible on the same basis for three appointments under the Bill; there is nothing to stop the same person being appointed to all three, or to two of them, according to local circumstances. The existing office of clerk of the peace will be discontinued and there is due provision for compensation in Clause 19.

    Part III, which is called "Miscellaneous and General", need not detain us long, tonight at any rate. The amendments to the Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 1967 and the Legal Advice and Assistance Act 1972 in Clause 21 pave the way for the introduction of legal aid in the district court. The annual cost of legal aid in the district court is estimated, as I have said, as £130,000. The introduction of legal aid will meet another of the main criticisms of the existing system, and our proposal for its introduction has been warmly welcomed. There has been a gap hitherto, in that there has been no provision for legal aid in the lower summary courts, and in view of Scotland's tradition of legal aid being available to all it is desirable that this gap should be filled.

    Since there was some confusion in another place about the dates of the coming into operation of the Bill, perhaps I should say a word about Clause 27(2). The sections referred to specifically in subsection (2) will come into force when the Bill receives Royal Assent. The rest of the Bill will come into operation on 16th May 1975.

    Finally, since I have given notice already of some amendments for Committee stage, I ought to let the House know that there will probably have to be some rather technical amendments made in Committee or on Report to take account of the passage through Parliament of the Criminal Procedure (Scotland) Bill—a consolidation measure now being considered in another place.

    I hope that the House will agree that the Bill meets the objectives set by my right hon. and learned Friend and myself. First, it contains a system which can operate from 16th May 1975 without undue disruption. Secondly it avoids the extremes which caused the criticisms of our predecessors' two sets of proposals. Thirdly, it preserves the good and democratic features of the existing system while introducing some long needed improvements.

    I commend the Bill to the House.

    7.46 p.m.

    Like the Secretary of State, I welcome the introduction of a Bill to reform the system of summary justice in Scotland. However, I cannot share his enthusiasm for the form that the Bill has taken. As he said, when we considered this matter when we were in Government we did not come to anything like the same conclusion as he has. The Secretary of State rather unfairly referred to the false starts and the volte-face and so on. When we were in Government we looked at this question in considerable depth. We published a very good White Paper which set out many of the considerations which the right hon. Gentleman has adopted in the Bill. However, what I will not accept criticism for—and I make no apology for the change of policy that we adopted—is that, having published that White Paper and made the proposals, we were prepared to react to the various representations about the White Paper.

    The Secretary of State does less than justice to the course of action followed by the Conservative Government and to the kind of representations to which we paid attention. The right hon. Gentleman has simply paid attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) pointed out, to one area of representation—that of the existing local authorities and the members of the existing burgh courts. Under our proposals we were much more prepared to react, and we reacted to a much wider breadth of opinion. I wish that all Governments were prepared to be more sensitive to representations made about their White Papers. In our reaction to the various representations we showed not only a flexibility but a willingness to consider the strength of opinion and the views put to us. There was no blindness or stubbornness on our part to push through proposals which were not wholly appropriate for the situation.

    I have never regarded White Papers as sacred documents. They should be liable to change, otherwise there could be no fruitful discussions as a result of them. Perhaps I could draw the hon. Member's attention to his Government's White Paper on local government reorganisation. His Government said that there were proposals in it which were non-negotiable, and these have proved terribly unpopular in Scotland. However, tearing up a White Paper and replacing it with a totally different system is a totally different matter.

    I know that it is not in the right hon. Gentleman's nature to be flexible. Therefore, I see no point in pursuing the matter further. It shows an openness of mind and common sense to change proposals that are demonstrably wrong. I make no apology for that.

    I shall explain why we changed our proposals, because that will help to show the wrongness of the conclusions to which the right hon. Gentleman and the Government have come. The change is a natural consequence of the reorganisation of local government. The basic position in our White Paper was that in the establishment of our new system of summary justice there should be a separation from the local authority of the new court set-up which was to replace the JP and burgh courts. The Secretary of State is now back to a close tie-up with the new local authorities. Our principle was one on which we received no opposition or representations. I believe that it was generally welcomed throughout Scotland that there should be a separation of the new summary courts from local government.

    The questions raised, the ones to which we reacted, concerned the principle and practicality of lay justice. In the White Paper we came down on the side of the principle of lay justice, which the right hon. Gentleman has adopted in the Bill. The opposition to it turned on the question of practicality. It is true that much of the opposition to our White Paper and to the right hon. Gentleman's proposals came from legal opinion, from the Law Society of Scotland and the Scottish Law Agents Society. But the right hon. Gentleman should not denegrate that, as he tended to do tonight. He should not say that the opposition came only from legal opinion. Just as we must take account of the representations of those who constitute the law magistracy, we should also take account of the wider opinion expressed from legal circles generally. There can be no question of simple self-interest in that expression of legal opinion, though that has sometimes been hinted. Those who opposed our White Paper, and now oppose the right hon. Gentleman's principles, have practical, sensible grounds for that opposition.

    Even among those who supported the lay justice, the problem turned on the practical question of staffing the courts and the essential need for them to be staffed by legally-qualified clerks or assessors. What was to be the source of those legally-qualified staff? We hoped to staff the courts through the sheriff clerk service, but that did not prove to be a practical possibility.

    Therefore, we had to examine the servicing of the existing courts, which was through the local authorities. But it was a basic principle, which we accepted from the beginning, that we wanted to get away from the direct connection with the local authorities.

    That left a third source of legally-qualified staff, which was lawyers already in practice in the different areas. It raised the whole question whether it was right to bring in people from private practice and the question of the availability of legal expertise in certain areas, particularly in the rural areas.

    I have gone over the argument quickly because a number of hon. Members want to speak, but I think that I have shown that on practical grounds there was good reason for calling in question some of the assumptions which were in our original White Paper and which underlie the Bill. That is one reason why we came to the decision that we should have professional judges.

    I believe that our proposals were justified on wider grounds than those, and it is on those wider grounds that I criticise the Bill. I was the Minister in the Scottish Office who had to handle the matter. I had to consider the higher principles on which this form of summary justice should be based. When we have a watershed in the reorganisation of local government, with the opportunity, of necessity, to reorganise summary justice and the whole system of justice throughout Scotland, it is important to return to the principles on which that justice should be based, and not simply try blindly to reproduce a system of justice similar to the existing one, as the right hon. Gentleman has done in the Bill.

    Two things bore with me in my consideration, and bear with me just as much today. The first is the quality of the justice to be administered. There will be argument tonight as to whether the quality of justice would be better under one system or another. My judgment is that a professional system is better. We accept it in the sheriff courts, so it is no innovation.

    The second important principle is a uniformity of justice, which I believe is better achieved through a professional system of magistrates and judges. Because he is professional and full-time, each judge handles a much greater number of cases, and, therefore, the opportunity for uniformity is that much greater. With due respect to the burgh courts—and there has been considerable criticism of them in another place and elsewhere—I believe that both quality and uniformity of justice are better achieved by professional judges than by amateurs.

    It is to the customer of the system that the quality and uniformity matter, and, in my view, the customer is the person who finds himself having to stand in a court and have justice administered to him. Through the professional system we are much more likely to be fair to that person than if we seek to please those currently administering that justice, as the right hon. Gentleman has done. It is the person to whom the justice is administered that matters to me, rather than the person who administers it.

    On those points of quality and uniformity of justice, and the standard of service received by those to whom it is administered, I believe that under the professional system we should have achieved a higher standard than we have achieved or are likely to achieve under an amateur system.

    There is another practical argument which I must adduce. I believe that the Secretary of State is losing the opportunity of unifying the whole system of summary justice throughout Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman rightly claims merit for unifying the system of prosecution. That is to be welcomed under the procurator fiscal system as administered by the Lord Advocate. The Bill offers an opportunity to unify the administration of summary justice in Scotland by bringing the justices within the sheriff court system. It is only a short time since the new sheriff court system was set up in Scotland. I am sorry that the opportunity has been missed.

    As I have said, we have recently set up the new sheriff court system. It would have made common sense in terms of efficiency of administration if we had given that structure the work load of what are called the lower or inferior courts instead of introducing separate district courts. I very much regret that the Government have not followed the lead that we gave them. They have missed an opportunity to improve and modernise the administration of justice in Scotland.

    I am by no means alone in making that comment. It will be interesting to see whether the Minister who winds up will be able to say any more on that topic. The right hon. Gentleman, when he responded to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Pentlands, made it clear that in changing the policy of the previous Government he was doing so as a result of the representations that he had received from those already staffing the magistracy in the lay courts in Scotland and as a result of the representations that he had made. We must remember that. I beg him to look further. What he has done has by no means received universal acclaim. A leader in the Glasgow Herald of 16th January reads:
    "It did not seem likely that he"—
    that is, the Secretary of State—
    "would take the opportunity not only of creating more efficient and professional lower Courts, but also of making Scotland a progressive force in the administration of justice."
    Obviously, hopes were high. The leader continues:
    "In dismissing the case for professional magistrates, Mr. Ross has ignored the clear case for lower Court reform."
    That is what the right hon. Gentleman has done. In a leader in the Scotsman of the same date—this is informed opinion and not just the opinion of lawyers—it is said
    "A great opportunity of combining local government reorganisation with the reform of the lower courts is being thrown away."
    That is precisely what has happened. The headline of an article in the Scotsman of 20th January reads
    "District courts could become battleground."
    The right hon. Gentleman is letting us in for that sort of situation. I believe that he has missed a good opportunity to reform the whole system of summary justice in Scotland.

    I now turn to one or two points of detail which I hope will be answered when the Minister winds up. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned some of the representations—they were limited representations—that he has received. The House will be interested to know about the representations that he received from, for example, the central advisory committee of the justices of the peace. That is a body whose members were responsible in one area at least for administering lay justice in Scotland. It would be useful to the House to know the terms of their representations and advice.

    Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that from the ranks of the new local authorities he will obtain a sufficient number of justices of the peace? Those of us who sat on the Committee which handled local government reorganisation know that the job of the new councils, whether at regional or district council level, is much more onerous and more demanding than the job of the county and burgh councils. They have more people to represent and they have a more demanding task. Given that situation, and given the great keeness and enthusiasm of those who constitute the existing magistrates and justices, will the present attitude continue when the new authorities come into full operation in May and the increased demands are made?

    Next, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned training. Training is essential for the operation of the system that he recommends, but it demands time. Given the time that the councillors will have to give to their various duties, will they have time for training? That is an important matter. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about training and for his statement that a training officer will be appointed. But is there enough time between now and 16th May, when the new courts will come into being, when as yet no training has taken place? I hope that we shall hear what is being planned.

    My next point concerns legal aid. I welcome the extension of legal aid to the lower courts. At the same time, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman has his eyes open to the fact that its introduction is likely to increase the work load of the courts. It is a good thing that legal aid should be provided, but it does not necessarily make sense to add to the work load at the same time. It makes little sense to do so when the right hon. Gentleman is retaining the lay magistrate administration of justice. As we all know, stipendiary magistrates can get through a far greater work load. It is contradictory to increase the work load and at the same time not introduce the sensible and logical reform of introducing magistrates who will be able to undertake a much greater work load.

    I must stress that I was disappointed to hear the right hon. Gentleman's comments on the improvements made in another place. I hope that the Minister who winds up will have more to say about that. I do not believe that the appointment by local authorities of new justices of the peace is necessarily the most appropriate course to take. I would accept recommendation, but I believe that final consideration and appointment by the Secretary of State—namely, the practice that now exists—is a very much better way of proceeding. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think again before he seeks to turn the Bill back in Committee about whether the initiative for the introduction of stipendiary magistrates is to lie in the hands of the Secretary of State or in the hands of the new local authorities. I hope that the Secretary of State will think again about that instead of steamrollering the Bill back to what it was originally.

    Basically I do not like the Bill in the way that the right hon. Gentleman has introduced it However, we have to have a Bill of this type before 16th May. Whilst I do not like it, I do not advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House against it. With the exception of the matters that I have mentioned, I think that the Bill has been improved, and I do not think that we should divide against it. I warn the right hon. Gentleman that we shall reconsider our position if on Third Reading the Government have removed the improvements which were made in another place.

    The Government have missed a good chance of reforming and making more efficient the system of summary justice in Scotland. It is my regret and the regret of many people in Scotland that the right hon. Gentleman has let the chance slip him by.

    8.10 p.m.

    I noted that the arguments of the hon. Member for North Angus and Meatus (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) were based on the legalistic point of view. My view is that the Secretary of State is right to retain a lay element on the bench. It is held in the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, and in other places, that laymen should not come to this House and attempt to alter the law without the advice of lawyers. When I introduced the First Offenders (Scotland) Bill in 1959 there were criticisms from the Advocates Library and elsewhere. People asked "Who is this man to intervene in the law?" My measure was later emasculated in the Criminal Justice Act.

    All the wisdom in the world and all the social justice does not reside in legal textbooks. We had to call on the Official Solicitor to get the Tory Government off the hook on one occasion. That was the result of the advocacy given at that time. Lay magistrates give a good deal of attention to cases. Take the example of the old days, and the order to buy or quit. The advice given to the person affected, such as a small shopkeeper, was to go not to lawyers but to lay magistrates, the justices of the peace, and to ask what was to be done. These people had no books. All they did was to go to Kilmarnock or Ayr court and say "Your honour, who suffers the greater hardship? The landlord without his rent, or me without a house?" There is no legal textbook which will give an analytical description of subsections (3), (4) or (5) of the "Buy or Quit Act".

    I sat for some time as a lay magistrate, so I do have experience on this subject. The will of the Sovereign means habitual obedience on the part of the subject. The lawyers listen to the case, nod, and then preen themselves thinking what splendid magistrates they are. Those who sit as justices of the peace are involved in expense. They have to go to court on Monday mornings and employers do not make up their pay. The lay magistrate occupies that position because of the will of the community. These men and women have the capability to interpret the law. They need a lot of guile. Often there may be a vacancy for the superintendent which has a nice house with the job. That could mean that a lot of cases of every kind are brought before the magistrates.

    I am 100 per cent. behind the Secretary of State in his endeavour to preserve the lay element and to see that there is an even-handed administration of the law.

    8.15 p.m.

    In the midst of so many legal luminaries of various shades of splendour I take heart from the fact that the Secretary of State was, like me, a teacher. If he is able to speak on the Bill I see no reason why I ought not to add my contribution. I have never been in a court, except perhaps once, on a minor charge in the Army. I was suitably admonished for skipping rugby practice.

    If I were to appear before a court—which God forbid—I would rather be dealt with by a stipendiary magistrate who is trained in the law than by a lay magistrate. Many people in Scotland share that view, including some who have been dealt with by lay magistrates. Other professions do not accept laymen. They are not accepted in medicine. No matter how trivial my complaint, I go to a qualified doctor. I do not usually go to the village spaewife to consult her about what remedy I should take.

    That is the hon. Member's opinion. I dare say that self-medication is often equally effective.

    The teaching profession has always been most jealous of its prerogatives and has not normally accepted laymen. I could also quote the ministry and the Civil Service. We always want trained people to deal with these important aspects of our lives. If we will not allow lay folk in these professions, why should we allow them in the judiciary? If it is argued that lay justices introduce an element of democracy and if democracy is what we are seeking, we ought to be arguing for the election of lay magistrates and not for their nomination in one way or another.

    If we have laymen on the bench in the lower courts I fail to see why we should not have them also in the higher courts. If a lay magistrate is needed in a lower court to understand the ordinary circumstances of people's lives, is it not equally true in the higher courts, which are dealing with people in severe difficulties? I do not think that a mixed system of lay and stipendiary magistrates has much to commend it.

    In this case we are saying that the sole criterion for determining which sort of magistrate we shall have is the amount of business that passes through a court. It is not the amount of business but the fair administration of law which should be the criterion. Might it not be thought, from a reading of the Bill, that the lower courts are less important than the higher courts? In some respects this is true, but it is the case, too, that the lower courts are desperately important because so many people who become criminals make their first contact with the administration of justice through the lower courts.

    It is essential to have a fair system of justice in these lower courts—a system that is seen to be fair. In that way there is a good chance that the budding criminal will give up the course on which he has set out. Such fairness is much more likely to be achieved by paid magistrates than by unpaid amateurs. If there is to be overall fairness in Scotland it is more likely to come about through the operation of a small corps of professional magistrates than by the operation of a large body of semi-trained magistrates.

    I do not believe that the training envisaged in the Bill, unless it is spelt out much more clearly, will necessarily result in a trained magistracy. Naturally, we welcome the extension of legal aid to the district court. I commend this provision. If I might make a suggestion, it is that an accused person should, in certain circumstances, be allowed to opt for trial before the sheriff rather than the district court.

    I would like to ask, is it envisaged that the prosecutor in the district court will be a qualified person? I understand that in the lower courts the prosecutor is often unqualified.

    My hon. Friends and I will not divide the House tonight, because the district courts must be in being by May, but we must register our strong reservations on the method employed by the Secretary of State to continue the lower courts in Scotland.

    8.20 p.m.

    The Bill means a transformation of the operation of justice in the lower courts throughout Scotland. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State emphasised that point. We shall lose some magistrates courts which have been in operation for nearly 700 years. In my constituency they have been in operation for 150 years and nearly 200 years, respectively. It is therefore only right that my right hon. Friend should apply his mind to the replacement of this system of justice in view of the reorganisation of local government.

    I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his lucid presentation of the main purpose of the Bill and commend him on the deep penetrative thought he has given to the question of devising a system of democratic justice. No doubt he, like others of us, has been subjected to pressure to the effect that there should be a full-time legal representative known as a stipendiary magistrate or that there should be a system of lay justice.

    I am at a loss to understand the argument of the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson), who talked about the need for professionalism in local courts. There are all sorts of courts. There are industrial courts, in which a person may be found guilty or not guilty of misconduct. No one suggests that there should be a full-time legal representative in those courts. There are social insurance courts, in which a person may be found guilty or not guilty of failing to comply with the standard period of notice to entitle him to receive benefit. No one suggests that there should be a legal representative in those courts. There are children's panels. Would anyone in his senses suggest that a legally qualified person should determine whether a juvenile has committed an offence?

    Does the hon. Gentleman accept that if a child who appears before a children's panel does not accept that he is guilty the matter must be tried by the sheriff? Does the hon. Gentleman know of any example in which a person may have a criminal offence on his record for the rest of his life, or for many years, which has not been determined by a legally-qualified person?

    I have known of cases where an offence has appeared on a charge sheet in a local magistrates' court with no legal representatives on the bench.

    I am at a loss to understand some of the arguments. A lay magistrate does not simply listen to the case for and the case against and decide the matter. A legal fiscal prosecutes on behalf of the authorities and a legally-qualified clerk advises him on the law. In October, in court, I gave a decision which has been appealed against. It was an important decision. It might be a test case. It was an unusual charge. I had the assistance of a legally-qualified clerk in drawing up the presentation of a stated case to the fiscal.

    I am staggered that the hon. Member for Galloway should give the impression that unfairness results unless there is a legal representative on the bench. That is untrue. I say that as a practising justice of the peace. I do my stints during the parliamentary recesses. I did a stint during the Christmas Recess. I am already booked to do a stint at Easter.

    We bend over backwards to assist the accused person. He may have no experience of courts, and therefore we go out of our way and give him every encouragement to ensure that his view is not only fully explained but fully understood before a decision is made. I cannot say the same about some of the sheriff courts. I could give examples of unfairness which have occurred while legal experts have been sitting on the bench.

    Does the hon. Gentleman accept that that is why we have a system of courts of appeal? I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the many excellent lay magistrates in Scotland that there is a feeling among some of us that the best traditions, of which the hon. Gentleman is an excellent representative, are not always followed.

    I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman talking about a system of appeal for the legal intelligentsia. There is also a system of appeal for the local courts. I sent a person to an institution for training. Because of the remarkable progress which he made, an appeal was lodged with the Secretary of State, who wrote to the two justices of the peace who had sentenced him—he does not realise that I was one of them—and asked whether they agreed with the recommendation from the superintendent of the institution that there should be some remission of the sentence. After studying the recommendation, I agreed. There is therefore a system of appeal, whether it be for justice of the peace courts or sheriff courts.

    One must decide whether one believes in full-time stipendiary magistrates. There is a case for and a case against. If one examines both attitudes, as I have done, it becomes a matter of opinion.

    I give my right hon. Friend credit for arriving at the opinion that lay magistrates should continue. In these days there is too much expertise. We have only to set up a small department and, overnight, a huge army of experts appears. There are some in my right hon. Friend's Department. One of them wrote to me telling me that the JP courts were finished and suggesting that I, too, was finished. I have done JP service for 20 years and have never charged the authorities a halfpenny. I have never had my bus fare or even a cup of tea, but I am sure that the gentleman who wrote that letter enjoys a good fat salary. I am a great believer in voluntary effort. As long as we have voluntary effort our country will go from strength to strength. A valid reason for the Bill to be given a Second Reading is that my right hon. Friend recognises that voluntary effort.

    In the administration of justice I am the first to concede that there are different attitudes, different decisions and different punishments in the enforcement of the law, but that is not all the responsibility of the lay justice; it is the responsibility of the courts. For example, under the Burgh Police Acts the maximum fine for a person who is convicted of committing a nuisance may be £2, but in the court in which I operate the first fine is £10. It would cost much less to spend a penny than to commit an offence in the main streets of any town that comes within the jurisdiction of my court. There is a disparity between the fines, not between the lay justices. We have to adjust the law to achieve the desirable degree of uniformity.

    The extension of legal aid to lay justices' courts will mean much extra work for those courts. I predict that the first result of that extension will be in the increased number of trials that will take place in lay courts. Even in a JP court a trial might take several hours. No doubt there is an argument in favour of legal aid for certain offences, but the extension of legal aid will mean a substantial increase in the number of sittings of the court and the length of time the court will have to sit. My right hon. Friend must ensure an adequate supply of justices to serve those courts.

    If the legal judiciary were to be concerned with minor offences, such as dropping litter, breaches of the peace, breaking glass and committing nuisances, it would clutter up the legal administration and there would be chaos. Minor offences must be kept separate to avoid chaos. In the sheriff courts the period of waiting before cases are tried is six months, nine months or even 12 months. What will happen if the courts are cluttered up with minor offences? I am glad that my right hon. Friend has absorbed that and avoided chaos by continuing the system of lay justice.

    How are justices of the peace to be attracted? I sit as a JP in a court in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr. Hamilton) in Bellshill. All JPs are expected to serve twice a year. Some do not, and we are lucky if half serve once a year. That is an illustration of how difficult it is to get JPs to turn out and fulfil the undertaking they give when they take the oath to serve. That is a weakness which my right hon. Friend will have to overcome.

    If we are amalgamating the courts and there is to be only one court in a town, that court will be busy. It will have to meet four and possibly five days a week, and it will be necessary to recruit more JPs to serve in the court. I do not understand the anomaly of having two JPs to decide cases. One magistrate can determine an issue, but it takes two JPs to determine the same issue on the same type of offence and to administer the same Act.

    The Minister said that the situation would be at the discretion of the local authority. I hope that he will pay due attention to the situation, and that if cases tend to pile up and there is a shorage of justices, one justice of the peace will be able to determine them.

    I believe that there should be some provision in the Bill to deal with non-attending justices of the peace—people who want the honour of the position but do not intend to fulfil their obligations. I see no provision in the Bill by which such people may be removed from the justices' panel. I hope that the Government will examine this matter before the Committee stage to determine a formula by which people who fail to satisfy their promise to the Secretary of State may be removed from the panel.

    When the Minister replies, will he explain the system of allowances? The Bill covers travelling allowance and subsistence, but do the relevant provisions cover loss of earnings? Loss of earnings in pursuit of duty can be a large drawback to a lay justice of the peace. Many working people are unable to claim against loss of earnings, and this may hinder their enthusiasm to attend court sittings. I hope that we shall be given some assurance on this point tonight.

    If loss of earnings is included in the definition of "expenses", may we be told whether there is a ceiling to the eligible amount which a person may claim? At my last court sitting I overheard a business man complaining about the amount of business he had lost by having to sit in the Bellshill Court. These are important considerations, which must be borne in mind before people accept nominations as justices of the peace.

    With regard to the appointment of justices, is it intended to confine appointments solely to those from elected district councils, or will the system embrace other persons in the community who give excellent voluntary service? Under the present system, I know from personal experience that in Lanark such people are in the main not considered, because nominees are put forward by political parties. I have no objection to that system, but I am emphasising the fact that there are other people, who give wonderful voluntary service to the community morning, noon and night, who should be considered for these posts. I should like the Minister to consider extending the appointment of justices of the peace to those who are not elected, and I hope that we shall hear something on this score in the Minister's reply.

    I believe that the Bill is an able, earnest and thoughtful endeavour to replace the existing court system. I have no doubt that these measures will succeed. We have a tradition of service, and it is a tradition of which we should be rightly proud. I refer to the administration of justice without fear or favour.

    8.40 p.m.

    In view of the obvious long and worthy experience of the hon. Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) within the lay system, I wish that I could agree with him, but I cannot. I hold the view already expressed that these proposals represent an opportunity missed to improve the situation.

    The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) pointed out that in the main the Government's proposals run counter to the advice tendered and representations made by the Scottish Law Society, the Bar, and many social workers. It is a pity that the Government have not taken this opportunity to replace lay participation with a fully professional judiciary. Basically we accepted the Conservative Government's proposals to bring all summary criminal work within the sheriff court system.

    We feel that this Bill has many grave deficiencies. I accept that, time and the situation being what they are, it probably makes no sense to divide the House, but before the Bill goes into Committee the Secretary of State should be clear that many people are unhappy about the situation.

    There are a number of objections to the Bill, but probably the most serious is the provision to enable district councils, if they wish, to appoint up to one-third of their number to serve as justices of the new district courts.

    There is already a great deal of evidence to show that in some instances magistrates' decisions are very much coloured by their own views on and philosophy for dealing with crime. It is not uncommon for the rotation of magistrates to bring with it a complete change in sentencing policy.

    The proposals in the Bill will still further politicise the lower courts. I think that the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie touched on that point at the end of his speech, when he encouraged the Secretary of State to consider whether some way could be devised to involve in the lay system persons not within political parties. If magistrates were appointed en masse from one political party it would have a bad effect on the community's respect for the law.

    Another objection to lay magistrates concerns the lack of legal training and, therefore, the tendency for non-uniformity in sentencing. I doubt whether the proposals for the provision of specialised training courses will fill the bill. One of the serious faults in the present system is the lack of contact between the bailies on the one hand and the local sheriff on the other.

    If this system is to work—I suppose that the system will come into being whether we like it or not—district court judges will have to be in regular consultation and contact with local sheriffs to achieve co-ordination and consistency of sentencing. I accept that at any level in the courts system there will be a certain inconsistency in sentencing, but we should attempt as far as possible to achieve consistency. I believe that it would best be achieved if we enabled those who have professional training to make the decisions. It will be even more important, in view of the intention expressed in the Bill to introduce legal aid into district courts. We applaud and accept that proposal, but it would be a bad thing if people found that it was easier to get legal aid in a sheriff's court than in a district court.

    At the end of the day regular consultation between the district judges and the sheriff will probably be a more effective form of training for the judge than the proposed special courses.

    I should like to ask the Minister, when replying, to explain something that I am not clear about. The Bill as it stands envisages that responsibility for prosecution in the district courts will be taken over by the Crown Office. Anyone who has been a Member of Parliament for any length of time knows that the Crown Office is already desperately short of procurators fiscal. Equally, there is a shortage—one may say so within brackets—of procurators fiscal of calibre. Where are men to be found to prosecute in the district courts? The process will probably occupy a considerable length of time, which is why the Bill provides for district councils to appoint prosecutors to function until the Crown Office is able to take over, as it presumably will, district by district.

    What will happen then is that, first, the cities will be taken over, because they represent the largest and most serious problems. Gradually, the smaller towns will follow, so that in the end there will be a division between city and county for a fair period of time, with the city prosecutors being appointed and paid for by the Crown and with the county district prosecutors being paid for by the local authorities. I would have thought that that would be unsatisfactory. I should like to know what time scale the Government envisage, and whether they are taking any steps to accelerate recruitment in that regard.

    Secondly, the hon. Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie dwelt for some time on the justices of the peace whom we now have. He referred, in a way critically, to the fact that some justices of the peace are not exactly active attenders on the bench. That is undeniably true. Nevertheless, it is also true that although they are not very active in that regard they also serve a useful rôle in the community in doing those small things which JPs are able to do.

    The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie said that it was an honour for a worthy citizen, and a recognition that he was a person of some value in the community. I am reluctant to see that honour—it is not simply an honour—taken away, so that we are left only with those who are on active service, so to speak. It might be better to call the new district JPs bailies, or something like that, because we shall not have bailies any more. Is it not possible to retain the usefulness of the existing JPs?

    Thirdly, the Bill says nothing about honorary sheriffs, who are now an important part of the lay participation process. Will they be given training? What will happen to them? I cannot say that the system of honorary sheriffs, in general, is one which I greatly admire. I should like to know what the situation will be.

    As to cost, I think the hon. Gentleman indicated that it will be about £25,000 per annum more than the present cost. That is perhaps not a very large sum for a country the size of Scotland. Nevertheless, at the end, we shall still not have a professional judiciary, which is regrettable.

    On balance, I say in conclusion that we—I think this applies to most lawyers in Scotland—are opposed to the setting up of district courts in Scotland. Scotland has, rightly, long prided itself on having justice administered, in the main, by professional judges. Historically, the lay participation system came from England. I do not say that from a nationalist point of view. The Liberal Party prefer the sheriff court system.

    We are bound to suspect that the influence of existing lay magistrates, many of whom are councillors, has played too prominent a part in determining the Government's view. I know that many lay magistrates do an excellent job. But, in the same way, there were many excellent teachers who were without qualifications. I must say that I accepted the view completely, at the time that we set up the General Teaching Council, that we were robbing the education service of a great many valuable people. However, on balance, we accepted the proposal, initiated as it was by the present Secretary of State. Liberals think it better to have professionals, and the lack of them cannot be remedied by training courses. I am sure that the Lord Advocate agrees that a judge develops a judicial mind over a long period of time, through sustained experience.

    As the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie said, there are different points of view. But that is basically our view. We lean towards the professional system, and do not believe the lay system to be satisfactory. However, we shall not divide the House, for the very reasons advanced by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns.

    The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Wheatley Commission. Will he tell us why that commission expressed the belief that lay courts of summary jurisdiction could be reconstituted conveniently within the new structure?

    I shall. It was because the great majority of the commission felt that way.

    8.47 p.m.

    It is unfortunate that we have heard so many hon. Members on the Opposition benches who are looking for the professional.

    I agree with my hon. Friend. Nevertheless their comments about the lay magistrate and about the amateur are unworthy of the many dedicated justices of the peace and magistrates who have served in the lower courts for so many years. They have done yeoman service to the community. It was a grave omission on the part of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) not to pay tribute, now that that service is to be ended, to the many thousands of men and women who have given their services voluntarily. Many have lost time from work and received no compensation. Many have lost promotion opportunities. Many with small businesses have suffered. But they have given their services willingly, and it is to the discredit of this House that no one so far has paid tribute to the long service given by the amateur, the lay, magistrate to the community. I hope that that error will be corrected before the end of the debate.

    There is also some misunderstanding, especially on the part of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns, about the job of lay magistrates. The hon. Gentleman appears not to understand the type of crimes dealt with by them. We are not talking about road traffic offences or assaults on bus crews. We are talking about trivial offences involving breaches of the peace, stairhead quarrels and similar matters.

    It has always been our attitude that a man should be able to be judged by his peers. The quality of mercy can well come not from someone with a law degree, because there is such a place as the university of life—often a better place than Gilmour Hill, Strathclyde or Edinburgh.

    A man who is an engineer, a railway engine driver or a shop-keeper can well understand the pressures and dilemmas of people living in the slums or in stress areas, with no community facilities for their young people. The quality of mercy rests better, on balance, with the lay magistrate because he is the person from within the community. It is claimed that sentencing in magistrates' courts is erratic, But anyone who has been to the Court of Session or any other high court, or has read their proceedings, can discover the number of times that these highly qualified and skilled people have been criticised because of misdirections of juries. Recently in Glasgow there was the case of a certain lady who, to all appearances, was guilty of a certain crime, but who, because of a technicality—misdirection of the jury—is no longer in the custody of Her Majesty.

    One does not like to denigrate one's own constituency but, as the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns knows, from his period of office as Under-Secretary of State, I am not without experience of writing to the Scottish Office on various matters. I have had lack of success on a certain case which is interesting my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. It concerns a person with the same name as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland—which must demean my value to those of my constituents who are in the care of Her Majesty at present. But if my stock has gone down, it is because the attitude of my right hon. Friend has not corresponded to my thinking on that case.

    Be that as it may, having had experience of advice centres and service as a magistrate—as far as I know, I am still a police judge—I do not altogether agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), who castigated those magistrates who do not sit on the bench often. There are other rôles for justices of the peace besides sitting in court, such as witnessing and signing passport forms, and—dare I say it to those representing areas outside Glasgow?—forms testifying to lost pawn tickets. There are few of those in Glasgow today.

    Therefore, there is still a vital rôle for a JP in many ways. Witnessing signatures is important. Many firms have gone into liquidation, and claims are made by workers for their wages or by small shopkeepers for their debts to be paid. Has anyone seen a form which has been signed or counter-signed by a JP in a bankruptcy case? I see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate nods. He should understand the position. There is a great deal of work for JPs within the community.

    Would not my hon. Friend agree that if it were explained to them that all they had to do was sign forms no justice would be administered at all?

    I was merely making the point that, with the many forms which have to be signed today, and with many other duties, there is a rôle for the JP who might not have time, because of other commitments, to take his place often in the burgh court. There is room for both.

    I make the same argument about stipendiary magistrates. I am not arguing for the one against the other. I am saying that in these large areas there is a rôle for the stipendiary magistrate and a rôle for the lay magistrate. With the new district councils in being, the hon. Member for North Angus and Meares expects there to be stipendiary magistrates instead of lay magistrates. I wonder whether he has sat in a court of the type we are talking about where one finds what I would call sausage-machine justice. Listening to perhaps 30 or 40 cases a day which are boringly repetitive, a stipendiary magistrate becomes apathetic.

    I believe that there is a true story of a stipendiary who got so fed up with the number of similar cases coming before him that he fell into a sort of daze and said to one defendant, without even listening to the evidence, "Thirty days—and if there had been a shred of evidence against you, I would have made it 60." That sums up the atmosphere of many stipendiary courts. There is nothing more melancholy than spending five days a week listening to a procession of similar cases.

    There is no comparison with the sheriff court, where many cases take much longer and sheriffs do not have to spend so much time. There is a case for the lay person doing this work. It is no good arguing about devolution and bringing decision making down to the grass roots, with community councils or school councils, if, at the vital stage of a lower court, the lay magistrate is displaced.

    Who will decide, under Clause 21, how legal aid is to be awarded? Anyone with experience of the sheriff court will know that the sheriff decides, that it is not an automatic right and that there is no appeal against refusal. I know of horrifying cases of legal aid being denied to people who, in my opinion and that of many solicitors, deserved it. When a person goes to a district court, will legal aid be automatic or will he have to apply to the procurator fiscal or the sheriff? At the moment, if the sheriff thinks that an applicant is guilty, he does not give legal aid; in other words, he prejudges the case. There is a complexity of laws about legal aid, and I hope that the criteria will be spelled out. If common sense had prevailed, my attempt to insert a clause about legal aid in the last Bill discussed today would have been successful. Nevertheless, I hope that the other place will think about this matter.

    The district courts will now take over licensing functions. I have sat as a senior magistrate and chairman of a licensing court in Glasgow, which is no mean ex perience. Nothing is said in the Bill about confirmation courts which hear appeals from refusals to grant licences—sometimes about grant of licences. The quorum in the Glasgow Confirmation Court, the biggest in Scotland, is 23, but the anomaly is that the magistrates who made the original decision at the magistrates court, where the number is 19, are allowed to sit at the confirmation court. This means that a man is both judge and jury, that after he has approved or opposed an application which may have caused great conflict in the local community he can decide it again in the appeal court.

    That is totally wrong, and the Bill says nothing about it. If these licensing functions are to be taken over, the matter must be done properly, because a great deal of bitterness can be created in a community over allocation of licences. I could spend a great deal of time on the problems of the allocation of licences and the trouble this has caused. Nevertheless, this point must be borne in mind. I hope that the Minister will tell us something about the confirmation court procedure, because I am sure that it has been missed by the skilful draftsmen who have drawn up the Bill.

    One could continue at great length. However, not having had the charity of the Chair during the two-day debate on devolution, I shall respect the wishes of those who still await a chance to speak because, having endured two days on the back benches jumping up and down, which was a painful experience, I shall resume my seat with much still to say but with due regard to the matter of short speeches, which I hope will be the order of the day.

    9.7 p.m.

    I am happy to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone), and to agree that there may well be a continuing rôle for justices of the peace in witnessing documents and duties of that kind. The hon. Gentleman commented on the state of lay justice when he described himself as being, so far as he knew, still a police judge.

    Indeed. In this debate I should perhaps declare what could be a double interest, being both an advocate at the Scots Bar and a former member of a local authority.

    In considering the Government's position and their reversal of the previous Conservative Government's policy, it is perhaps interesting and significant that that reversal has taken place with a minimum of consultation. No one doubts that when the Conservative Government eventually came down in favour of abolishing the system of lay magistrates and replacing it by a stipendiary system, it was the result of a large and extensive consideration of the views of local authorities, the legal profession and other interested parties. Yet when the present Government reversed that decision and decided to continue with the lay system, it was stated that they had not carried out an extensive re-examination of new ways of incorporating lay justices into a new set-up and that what they had produced was the best available in the time.

    The Secretary of State made quite clear what we already knew—that there had been large numbers of representations from local authorities suggesting that the lay system should be continued. But when I asked him to name any other persons or organisations which had made similar representations, other than the local authorities which are obviously interested parties, the only person who had given similar advice to whom he could refer—and no doubt a person with great authority and importance in these matters—was himself. That must have carried a great deal of weight with the Secretary of State. It does not suggest that the demand for the retention of the lay system is something shared with anyone other than lay magistrates themselves.

    A similar argument cannot be true about the other side of this case. While it is true that the legal profession almost unanimously believes that the lay system is undesirable at present, there are many others who also take that view. We have heard from the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) and the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), neither of whom would have been suggested to be trying to further the interests of the legal profession for their own sake. Nevertheless, they strongly put forward the view that this is not in the interests of the people of Scotland.

    I should like to refer the Secretary of State to the debate in the other place, and a remark of Lord Wallace of Campsie, who, I understand, was appointed by the Secretary of State to the chairmanship of the East Kilbride Development Corporation and is, I presume, not to be reckoned as a person interested in the legal profession. He said:
    "For my part … I strongly recommend that wherever it is justified stipendiary magistrates should be appointed."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 27th November 1974; Vol. 354, c. 1422.]
    Clearly, there is a widespread view not simply among the legal profession that, while there has been much to be said for the system of lay magistrates, it has produced many iniquities, unfairnesses and anomalies, which should not continue at present.

    I want to make one point which has not so far been made in the debate. If at the end of the day it is believed desirable by the Government to retain a system of lay magistrates, it should be remembered that there are two quite different forms of lay magistracy which can be used. There is the system which has worked very well in England for many years. That system was originally produced by a Conservative Government when they were still thinking in terms of a lay magistracy. That is that people should be appointed as lay magistrates by the Secretary of State on the basis that he would appoint them because he believed that they were suitable to act as magistrates. If we are to have a lay magistracy, I can see a strong argument for such a system of appointment. One of the most iniquitous parts of the Government's intentions is not that they want to continue with the lay magistracy but that they want to ensure that a large part of the selection of those who should be lay magistrates should rest with local authorities.

    That would be all very well if one believed for one minute that local authorities when appointing magistrates take into account as the only important factor, or even as the major factor, the suitability of persons to be lay magistrates. I have no doubt that by chance and on the law of averages many persons who are appointed by local authorities to be magistrates, such as the hon. Members for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) and for Queen's Park, are first-class magistrates, but both hon. Members will accept and will admit that they were not originally appointed because it was believed that they had special qualifications for the job, unless Glasgow is very different from the rest of Scotland in this respect as well as in every other. They will, I am sure, accept that they were appointed because it was their turn to be appointed, either because everybody senior to them had been appointed or because those senior to them who had not been appointed did not wish to be appointed.

    That is grossly unfair, not only to Glasgow but to other people, particularly to justices of the peace. However, it must be admitted that the system of choosing magistrates has a certain element of "Buggins's turn next" about it. There are many cases in which people decided that they would not accept appointments as magistrates until they had served as councillors for several years.

    I accept that fully. I do not doubt that the hon. Member is correct in that respect. My point—the hon. Member has not refuted it, nor has he sought to refute it—was that when eventually people were appointed magistrates it was because they said that they were willing to serve and because the local authority was willing to appoint them. I am sure that the hon. Member for Queen's Park does not seek to suggest that when Glasgow Corporation, Edinburgh Corporation or any other local authority elects bailees it takes into account the suitability of the person that it put forward to become a magistrate.

    That might well be said of High Court judges as well. I speak for myself. In Glasgow we had voluntary training schemes. We went down to the court in the evening and had the benefit of the procurator fiscal and others who guided us in the elementary practice of the law.

    Again, there is no real disagreement between the hon. Member and myself. I have no doubt that many of those who were appointed were only too happy and willing to undergo training to make them better magistrates than they would otherwise have been. However, we come back to the point that those people were not appointed because of their suitability or likely suitability to be good magistrates. Unlike sheriffs and judges—who, I fully accept, can turn out not to be good sheriffs or good judges—there is the important distinction that the people we are considering have not had legal training, whereas every sheriff and judge has had many years of legal training and experience behind him before being appointed.

    Is not the hon. Gentleman again pointing to the difference of view between the two sides of the House? Is he not saying that there is no place for a lay judge? We on this side are saying that there is a place for the uninstructed layman to be a judge. There are people such as those who have been mentioned this evening who are ideally fitted to fill that niche.

    I hope that, if the Lord Advocate accepts that view, the Government will accept the amendments made in the other place. The whole purpose of the major part of those amendments was to say "By all means let us retain the lay system, but let it be the Secretary of State who appoints the people whom he believes, taking into account the circumstances, will, with the right sort of training, make suitable and good magistrates".

    There are many people throughout Scotland whom the Secretary of State, the hon. Gentleman and I would acknowledge to be suitable candidates. The advice of the lord lieutenant of the county must be relied on. The Secretary of State cannot always know. Taking a cross-section of 1,000 people, I could not name more than 10 suitable candidates, any more than the hon. Gentleman could.

    The hon. Member knows perfectly well that the many thousands of appointments by the Secretary of State have no significance in that respect, because the Secretary of State may not know the people concerned personally but acts on advice. No one is suggesting that the Secretary of State should know every individual personally. However, the choice should not be as it has been in the past and will be in the future if the Bill goes through unchanged. The power to choose individuals will be in the hands of the district councils. Clearly, the Government intend that the councils will nominate people and that the Secretary of State will automatically accept them unless they have been guilty of some criminal offence or some other gross unsuitability for the job.

    I can accept that if there are to be lay magistrates the Secretary of State should appoint them, but I can see no justification for the continuation of the present system. The hon. Member for Queens Park and the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie may be determined suitable to be appointed lay magistrates, but there are others, in particular the individuals we all know about, who have made a farce and a disgrace of the system and have given it a bad name in certain quarters. Those are the sort of people who ought not to be appointed automatically.

    With his experience in the courts, the hon. Member will recognise that there can be a difference in judgment by sheriffs, let alone stipendiary magistrates. There will be a considerable reduction in the numbers who will be elected to Scottish local authorities under the new system, and, therefore, the number of people who will be unsuitable for appointment to the bench should be considerablv reduced.

    I would be more inclined to believe that if I had not had experience of local government. I am sure that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cooke) will confirm that in Edinburgh town council appointments to the magistrates' bench were entirely a matter of seniority, and that applied to both the political parties. I see no reason to believe that this is going to change under the new district councils, and I would be most surprised if the rest of Scotland acted any differently. That is what worries we. While many of these appointments turn out to be very good, others are deplorable.

    Some authorities in Scotland have made a point of making the newest members of the authority magistrates, which I thoroughly disagree with. I would have thought that the obvious choice would have been to select the most experienced candidates. Under the new set-up this is more likely to occur.

    It is as wrong to appoint someone because he is the newest as it is to appoint someone because he is the most senior. The proper criterion should be suitability, but very few local authorities have appointed bailies and magistrates on that basis. The hon. Member knows that if appointment was in the hands of the Secretary of State that would be the criterion, and that would be much more acceptable and agreeable. I believe that the vast majority of people in Scotland, even those who support the principle of a professional magistracy, would agree with me.

    I do not wish to argue against the hon. Member's case, which is pretty well proved, but there is one worrying aspect. If we accept his proposition that the lay magistracy should disappear, do trained legal personnel exist to fill the gap?

    In my view, they do, because there is the very great difference that if we had a trained magistracy, a stipendiary magistracy, because it was acting on a full-time basis it would be possible to provide a service. In Glasgow there are two stipendiary magistrates who take a large proportion of the burden of problems which would otherwise fall on lay magistrates. In other parts of Scotland where there is a sparse population we could provide for itinerant sheriffs, and a similar provision could operate with the stipendiary magistrates.

    Two further matters worry me. First, under Clause 3 the powers are given dependent upon whether a local authority has decided to opt for a lay magistrate system on a system of stipendiary magistrates. Subsection (2) says:
    "A district court when constituted by a stipendiary magistrate shall, in addition to the jurisdiction and powers mentioned in subsection (1) above, have the summary criminal jurisdiction and powers of a sheriff."
    That is every important. It means that one local authority may have lay magistrates, who will have a maximum sentencing power of 60 days' imprisonment, while another district council may have chosen to have a stipendiary magistrate, who will have the maximum power of penalty of three months. Both might be trying exactly the same offence in exactly similar circumstances, but different maximum penalties can be imposed, depending on whether a stipendiary or a lay magistrate hears the case. That is potentially unfair.

    I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not intend to mislead the House. What he has described is the present position where there is a stipendiary court and also a lay magistrates court.

    I fully accept that, but it is not a good argument for continuing with the situation. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is suggesting that it is a desirable situation, I should like to hear the arguments for it. This is an opportunity to remove that anomaly.

    It is one thing to say that different courts may impose different sentences because of the personality or views of the presiding judge. It is another thing to say that a different maximum penalty could be imposed depending on which part of Scotland one lives in. In an area such as Glasgow there is almost certain to be a stipendiary, even under the new system. A person appearing before him may receive a three months' sentence, whereas in Edinburgh, where there are lay magistrates, for the same offence in similar circumstances a person may get only 60 days. That is not justifiable. It is no excuse to say that the situation has been like that and that it should continue. Unless there are other arguments, I hope the Government will consider having the same maximum penalties for the same offences.

    My final point concerns legal aid. Like every other hon. Member who has spoken in the debate, I welcome it, but it will mean not only a vast increase in the amount of work before the district courts but a change in the nature of the work.

    The first result of legal aid will be that, instead of there just being a legally-trained person handling the prosecution, there will be, in all cases where the accused pleads not guilty, a legally trained person acting for the defence. There will be the absurd situation of the prosecution and defence being legally trained, with the only person who is not legally trained being the person asked to decide between those two individuals.

    Although it can sometimes happen, it is relatively rare. I refer the hon. Gentleman to the facts given as an example in the debate in the other place, when it was stated that:

    "In one month recently in the Edinburgh burgh court of a total of 288 persons appearing from custody 257 pleaded guilty".[Official Report, House of Lords, 27th November 1974; Vol. 354, c. 1428.]
    In other words, there were only 30 cases in which the accused pleaded not guilty. In the vast majority of those cases he would not have been legally represented.

    I seldom sit on the bench in my court without somebody being defended by a legal representative.

    I am happy to accept that point. But the whole reason why legal aid is to be introduced is to enable many people who might otherwise plead guilty, in order to get the case over, to have the benefit of legal advice in deciding whether or not they should plead guilty. If they choose not to plead guilty, that will be because their legal adviser believes that there is a legal reason which entitles them to do so. That means that there will be far more legal arguments never mind factual arguments, in cases heard by the district courts. Many of the matters that magistrates have to decide now are matters of fact. When both sides are legally represented, there will be far more legal argument, whether Labour Members like it or not. Therefore, the person to determine what may be complex legal arguments will be the one person in court without legal training.

    There are strong arguments against the Bill. It has been improved by its passage through the other place. I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to the changes made there. They do not destroy the principle of lay magistracy, but they ensure that those appointed as lay magistrates will at least be the most suitable people for that position. That is an important compromise between those who hold different views about the principle of lay magistracy.

    I hope that the Government will show flexibility on the matter, because it will be in the interests of justice and of those who appear in the courts to do so.

    9.25 p.m.

    I welcome the commitment of the Government, as evidenced by the Bill, to retain the lay magistracy. That is very good and democratic, but, all the same, I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to respond sympathetically to the case for appointing more stipendiary magistrates. I do not believe that the retention of lay magistrates and the appointment of more stipendiary magistrates is necessarily incompatible. I say to some of my colleagues who have adopted a dogmatic defence of lay magistrates that it is difficult to do so when speaking to a Bill which will increase legal professional expertise and professionalism in district courts.

    This is not just a matter of legal aid being made available to defending counsel. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) has already referred to that. It is also the fact that we shall have more professional prosecuting counsel. That is a matter that will come directly under my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. He has given an undertaking, through our spokesman in another place, that that will be accomplished within the next year. On top of that, we now have written into the Bill—this was done when it was in another place—a provision that clerks of the courts shall be either solicitors or advocates. That is a new addition.

    I have some sympathy for the magistrates who are left as the only laymen among the rising sea of experts in the courts. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to consider sympathetically the case for appointing more stipendiary magistrates. Their appointment can be reconciled with the basically lay magistracy and may well provide some useful leavening.

    We must give considerable attention to training in the new circumstances. I welcome the provision in the Bill for training for lay magistrates. I want to look in some detail at the kind of training that is provided. I was a little put out by the reference of the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) to "legal training". I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small) that not all human wisdom is to be found in legal textbooks. I hope that the training given to lay magistrates will go beyond purely legal training and will include some social training, so that lay magistrates will gain some comprehension of social problems.

    Many of the cases that are dealt with day in and day out in the burgh courts are not in themselves evidence of crime, they are evidence of social problems. There are the cases that fall under the heading of drunkenness. Such offences constitute a significant proportion of the cases that go to the Edinburgh Burgh Court and make up a distressing proportion of the total number of cases dealt with in Scotland. In 1973 there were no fewer than 16,000 "drunk and disorderly" in Scotland. That compares with only 99,000 such cases in England and Wales.

    We must remember that many offences connected with drunkenness are brought before the Scottish courts under the heading of breach of the peace. If we couple the offences of breach of the peace with offences of drunkenness we have the alarming total of about 45,000 cases connected with drunkenness being brought before the burgh courts in Scotland. That number must be compared with the figures for England and Wales. It is an alarming comparison. Scotland, with one-tenth of the population of England and Wales, has half the number of offences connected with drunkenness. The bulk of those cases go to the courts which will be district courts under the Bill.

    The figures that I have given are a measure of a real, alarming and grave social problem. I am moved to ask what purpose is to be served by treating a social problem as a crime. We have evidence from researches that of the large number of people who end up in the courts on charges relating to drunkenness, about half of alcoholics. I refer to only one of my constituents, who has now appeared and been convicted before the Edinburgh Burgh Court 317 times on charges of being drunk and incapable. What possible purpose is served by taking such a person to the courts time after time? Would it not be better to try to provide some treatment?

    What possible purpose is served in treating what is basically an illness as if it were a crime? Perhaps we should give the same degree of urgency which we are giving to the Bill to the circular dealing with community facilities for alcoholics, which has now been lying around in various departments in the Scottish Office for 18 months.

    There is the other heading of offences concerned with vagrancy. In Edinburgh we operate under the Edinburgh Corporation Confirmation Order, which provides two definitions which must be met before a person can be convicted of vagrancy. First, the person charged must have no lawful means of support and, second, he must have no fixed place of abode. The problem with this is that time and again the lay magistrates who have been operating in our burgh court have refused to recognise supplementary benefit as a lawful means of support, which suggests an interesting attitude to the Department of Health and Social Security.

    These magistrates have also refused to recognise a lodging-house as a fixed place of abode. I have another constituent who, only the other month, was put away on a charge of vagrancy although he has been living in the same lodging-house for the past 10 years. That, I would have thought, constituted a fixed place of abode. This is a matter of acute concern to me because, as the Minister will be aware, 800 of my constituents live in lodging-houses, mainly because of the serious problem we have in Scotland of homelessness among single adult people.

    Many of these 800 constituents are regularly charged with vagrancy offences. It is interesting that these offences reach a peak which coincides with the onset of the Edinburgh Festival. What is particularly bad is that when these people are fined, because they live in a lodging-house it is said that they have no fixed place of abode and therefore they are given no time to pay. Therefore, in the majority of cases, when a fine is imposed these people are imprisoned—as has happened on most occasions to my constituent, who has appeared 317 times on drunkenness charges.

    I am rather concerned about the Bill's doubling of the fine. The courts are to be given power to fine not up to £50 but up to £100. I would appreciate an assurance that this will not result in a corresponding increase in the time served in lieu of a fine. I know that the maximum term is the same, at 60 days, but the effective maximum is most cases already is 30 days. Some assurance on this point would be helpful.

    The main point remains that I do not see much point in treating alcoholism by bringing charges alleging drunkenness. I do not see much point in trying to treat the problem of the single homeless adult by bringing vagrancy charges. We should consider the approach of our society to these social problems. I hope that the Government will bear that in mind. In the meantime, if we are to continue with this system it is imperative that recognition of the social problems which give rise to these offences be included in the training given to lay magistrates.

    Will my hon. Friend clear up one point? I agree that lay people should be given training on the social as well as the legal aspects. Does my hon. Friend also suggest that stipendiary magistrates should receive this background training?

    Indeed. I entirely accept that. I hope that if we do this training, it will not be confined to the lay magistracy. I can think of many members of the legal profession, not only in the lower courts, who would benefit from such training. We have the evidence of the children's panels, who have a well-developed and successful system of training. Many professional members of the legal bar could benefit from it. I hope that some lessons will be learned from this system when we begin training for the district courts.

    The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pent-lands (Mr. Rifkind) said that in Edinburgh in one month 280 cases were brought to the court, of which 250 pleaded guilty. The interesting point, which the hon. Gentleman neglected to mention, is that in none of the 250 cases where there was a plea of guilty and a conviction did the lay magistrate call for any kind of background or social report before sentencing. That is an unsatisfactory situation. It is not one which the House ought to tolerate. I hope that the Government will take the opportunity provided by this Bill to change that situation.

    9.35 p.m.

    I live in an area in Glasgow which had no justice of the peace for 10 years. People would come to me with papers for signing by a JP. I had to send them elsewhere for one. I made representations about the appointment of a JP. I nominated three people—a church worker, a trade union official and a political agent of some years' standing. Not one of them was selected.

    I ask the Secretary of State to ensure that every area is properly represented. More than one-third of the JPs in Glasgow live outside Glasgow, which is a disgrace. I hope that when the process of selection takes place a person's status in society is not taken as a yardstick of his intelligence. It is not always the bailie with the most years' service who is the best bailie.

    I went, with an individual who had been charged, to a court where the bailie had served for three years. He should have been a good bailie by that time. He had two similar cases to deal with. One was of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Coat-bridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey). The person concerned had gone to a public toilet at 11 o'clock and found it shut. It was in a dark corner of Govan Road. He went round the back and was arrested by two detectives. The bailie fined him £5 for not going home. In the other case a person deliberately stood on the pavement edge and spent a penny. He was fined £5 for not looking for a dark place.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) referred to the question of pawn tickets. Some Members seemed to think it a joke, but people still put things in pawn and they still lose tickets. People still need to get forms filled in, and in areas where there are few JPs it is a difficult matter. It is nearly always working class people who are in difficulty.

    I have never stood in a dock. I have never pleaded a case in a dock. I have never sat on a bench as a bailie. I have never wished to sit in judgment of my fellow men. I have never wanted to be a Solomon. Since we are talking about cases in the lower courts, and petty crime, we need not worry too much about the legal training expected of JPs. What is required is an understanding of life—how one's neighbours live and how one has lived oneself. No one can say that he has not broken the law in one way or another.

    I hope that when it receives the names from the nominated bodies the executive will strike a fair balance, so that the working class is properly represented.

    9.40 p.m.

    We have had an interesting debate in which many hon. Members have covered the broad principles of the Bill. The hon. Members for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) and Inverness (Mr. Johnston), representing the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Party respectively, have strong reservations about the changes from the October 1973 proposals which are contained in the Bill. We appreciate the necessity for the Bill and recognise the need for its rapid progress through the House because of the Local Government (Scotland) Act which comes into force in the spring.

    The Bill translates the two lay summary courts in Scotland—that is to say, the burgh courts and the JP courts—into district courts. That is a significant change. I share the view of my hon. Friends that an opportunity for reform has been lost. The chance to reform the law comes but seldom. The Secretary of State has not proved his case for continuing a system which is similar to the present one, and has failed to take advantage of a great opportunity. At the very best, so far the case has not been proven.

    I join the hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone) in paying warm tribute to the justices of the peace, whether they are ex officio or JPs in their own right, for all they have done and for the part they will play in future. The tasks which the district courts will take on have not been put into perspective. The most recent figures I have are for 1970, when there were 210,000 cases of summary justice in Scotland, of which 116,000 were in the sheriff courts, 85,000 in the burgh courts and 9,000 in the JP courts. So we are talking about just under half the cases of summary jurisdiction in Scotland. That is a significant figure, and it is one reason why so much concern has been expressed that we should get the system right.

    The hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) spoke about the social problems, and I agree with what he said about training. This is an opportunity which must not be lost. As he knows, when I was in the Scottish Office I took a particular interest in alcoholism. I agree with him that the facilities and resources in Scotland for dealing with this terrible illness are inadequate. I hope that when the Secretary of State has resources, which I know are not easy to find at present, further assistance will be given in providing the necessary facilities.

    Over the last three years there has been considerable controversy. The Conservative Government had sound reasons for a change to stipendiary magistrates within the context of the sheriff court. As Scotland has a long tradition of professional justice, as indeed of lay justice, this view was supported by an influential body of opinion—and that opinion should not be cast aside as lightly as the Government have sought to cast it aside in this debate.

    Therefore, in his reply the Minister should spell out in a little more detail who has advocated so strongly the return to lay summary justice. We know that The Cities and the Convention of Royal Burghs are in favour of lay justices, but may we be told what is the view of the County Councils' Association? We understand from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) that the Law Society is not in favour of the change. I do not think that the weight of evidence—other than the Secretary of State's personal view—has been sufficient to embrace this major change. I shall look forward to hearing the Minister give more factual details about which bodies supported this case over and above the two local authority organisations which I have mentioned.

    Having accepted the position on the principle of the subject, which has been so clearly expressed by so many of my hon. Friends, I move on to consider the more detailed points in the Bill. A great many will be raised in Committee, but there are a number on which we should like answers tonight, so that when we reach the Committee stage we shall have a basis of fact on which to argue amendments.

    The first point on which I wish to question the Minister relates to the staffing of the district authorities to run these courts. It is well known that legal assistants are in desperately short supply in the authorities. Where are we to obtain, by the middle of May, legal assistants who can be spared from local authority work to undertake a changeover to the new system and to staff the courts? The weight of work will be very much greater, and I believe that these legal assistants will need to be whole-time in the running of these new courts. The courts cannot be staffed by the type of local authority officer who works only on a part-time basis. It will be very difficult for such an officer so to organise his local authority timetable that it embraces work in supervising district courts.

    The Government, so far, have given no idea of the practical difficulties of staffing the courts by the middle of May. All the district authorities are now considering where the courts shall sit. Perhaps we can be told whether accommodation will be available.

    There is also to be borne in mind the question of cost. The new set-up will cost more money than the present one. I hope that we shall hear a little more about the estimated workload of these courts, since this matter has been highlighted by several hon. Members in this debate.

    The hon. Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park was wrong to say that district courts would not deal with motoring offences. Perhaps the Minister will clear up that matter. I understand that they can deal with motoring offences; they can endorse licences but cannot disqualify.

    Road traffic offences have always been a sheriff court matter. If the system has been changed, it is certainly not in the Bill.

    We shall listen to the Minister's reply with interest, and we hope that he will clear up that matter.

    I hope that we shall be given a little more information about the procurator fiscal. I understand that responsibility in that respect will lie with the district, and that eventually the duties of the procurator fiscal will be transferred to the Lord Advocate and the Crown Office. I hope that the Minister will tell us when this will happen throughout Scotland. I know that he said that to begin with this would have to be done on the basis that the Lord Advocate's procurator fiscal service could cope partially at present, but certainly not totally. We would like to know when this will happen.

    I turn now to training. Again, I have grave reservations about the timetable and who is to do the work. I notice that in future the new justices committee, which I welcome, will be responsible for training, but that committee will not be set up until the Bill has been enacted. Training should be going on now, because it will be the linchpin of the success of these courts in future.

    I press the Minister on the timing. As a justice of the peace I had a letter in December. I have not heard from any colleagues who are justices that timetables have been arranged for training. Does the Minister anticipate that the one training officer to be appointed can look after the whole of Scotland? Will the courses be residential? Where will they take place? I recall that in my days as Civil Defence Commissioner I went to Taymouth Castle for civil defence courses lasting two or three days. Is that the kind of thing that is envisaged for the training of justices in future?

    It is no use the Government saying that they have not had time to consider these matters. They have been in office for nearly a year. They should have contemplated doing this last summer rather than now.

    Turning to the appointment of justices of the peace, I declare my interest and position as a JP. I am sure that the hon. Member for Queen's Park has read paragraph 37 of the White Paper on justices of the peace and justices' courts. I am in the same position as the hon. Gentleman. A Member of Parliament should not sit as a justice in his own constituency. I am sure that he does not do that.

    The hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey) made a useful contribution to the debate. Whilst we appreciate the good work done by justices, we must not overlook those who want to be involved in this type of work—particularly social work. These justices can put their names forward for consideration for membership of children's panels.

    Our real difference with the Government is over the issue that was raised strongly in another place concerning the nomination of one-third of the members of district councils as justices. I believe that is wrong, and that provision was removed in another place. Lord Hughes made it clear in another place, giving very cavalier consideration to what their Lordships were saying, that this provision would be replaced when the Bill came back to this House.

    I hope that the Minister, in replying, will give us at least a firm statement that the matter will be reconsidered before further amendments are put down in Committee. If he does not, at the risk of giving the Patronage Secretary and Deputy Chief Whip a coronary, we may well be disposed to divide the House, because we think this is a crucial point in the Bill—[Interruption.] My own Whips are away looking for troops.

    I think that this is the way out of the predicament into which the Minister has got himself. Why cannot the normal justices of the peace advisory committees, which are now in force and are chaired by the Lords Lieutenant, be trusted to appoint the 400 or 500 justices throughout Scotland? It is not an enormous task, and those advisory committees know their stuff. I see no reason why that should not happen.

    The point was made that it is possible that justices might not be resident in all areas if they were appointed, because of their position as district councillors. There will be a much better geographical spread and an opportunity for a much fairer selection if that is done by the normal justices of the peace advisory committees.

    There are two criticisms. First, the system will be grossly weighted against the landward areas. Secondly, how will the district authority nominate one-third of its members? Many people have serious doubts that the matter will be decided by a party caucus before a meeting and there will be no careful selection in terms of quality, which we feel is so important with the appointment of justices. That point was well brought out by the hon. Member for Galloway and by the hon. Member for Inverness.

    The Bill indicates that provosts, bailies and police judges will be promoted automatically to be justices in the new courts. Will they be plus or minus the one-third, or will they be included in the one-third? That could make a significant difference in the balance of the appointments.

    I want to press the Minister on another important point, of which the Govern- ment are unaware. They say that the provosts, bailies and police judges from burghs will be appointed ex officio justices of the peace. Why is it that the present chairmen of district councils, who are also ex officio justices of the peace, will not be in a similar position? Is that not grossly unfair to the landward areas? There is not a squeak from the Government Front Bench. I should like to hear why there is such gross discrimination against the rural areas in Scotland, although it is understandable perhaps from the point of view of Government supporters.

    My next point is equally important in relation to the addition to the original Bill proposed in the other place by Lord Selkirk and Lord Balerno. I raise this point in relation to the initiative to appoint a stipendiary magistrate, if required, by the Secretary of State. The position at present is fine. However, if the Government fulfil their intention, as indicated by Lord Hughes in another place, only the district authority can initiate the appointment of a stipendiary magistrate. This may be satisfactory, but it seems to me that we would be in a better wall-back position if the Secretary of State, who should retain his supreme authority in Scotland, also had the right to appoint a stipendiary magistrate if he felt that it was in order to do so.

    It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

    Ordered,

    That the District Courts (Scotland) Bill [Lords] may be proceeded with at this day's sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]

    Question again proposed.

    This is important, for several reasons. Not only are we allowing to let slip an opportunity which may be required in the future—and we have to bear in mind what others have said—we shall be cutting 250 JP courts into about 55 district courts. The work load will be very heavy in those 55 courts. It could be that the Secretary of State had grave reservations about the working of the lay justices in those courts and would like to see the initiation of stipendiary magistrates. This, in a way, was behind the thoughts of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central. I have heard that Edinburgh would not take it amiss if it had a stipendiary magistrate. Glasgow's stipendiaries each deal with about 15,000 cases a year, which clearly shows the valuable work that they do in Glasgow. I hope that we shall have a favourable answer from the Government about that.

    I hope, too, that the Minister will deal with the point brought out so well by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands about the different maximum penalties under a lay magistrate and under a stipendiary. I should like to know why the practice should be continued when it is obviously an anomaly.

    I come, then, to legal aid. I want to be sure that it will work in practice. I do not suggest that any Government supporter will be drunk and disorderly tonight—certainly not the Secretary of State—but were he to appear in court tomorrow morning at 10 o'clock, would he be able to get legal aid then and there? At present, in the sheriff court the sheriff could arrange legal aid, but can these lay magistrates arrange legal aid at short notice, and will it be practical to provide the solicitors to defend anyone appearing in court at very short notice? This is important, but it is a practical point because we are naturally in favour of bringing in this legal aid provision. It is a valuable one, but we see considerable difficulties in its way.

    Is the Minister ready to appoint a director of the Scottish courts administration, now that Lord Wilson has been appointed sheriff as from 1st January?

    All in all, we have many reservations about the Bill. We appreciate the urgent need for it to become law. But we feel that it is crucial to have favourable answers to our questions before we announce our future intentions in relation to our opposition to it.

    10.4 p.m.

    It is inevitable that this debate has been almost entirely centred on whether we should have lay participation in the new district courts or whether those district courts should be fully professional.

    The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro) suggested that some of my hon. Friends might come under the influence of drink, and I turn my mind back to the winding-up speech in last night's debate when my right hon. Friend suggested that in this Burns season a toast to the Lassies would be appropriate. Even in the few moments since the hon. Member for Dumfries resumed his seat I have made up a little parody of some lines from "Tam o' Shanter":
    "When to drink you are inclined
    Or Cutty Sarks run in your mind
    You have no need to be afraid
    Because in the district court you'll get legal aid."
    The debate has highlighted the difference between the two sides of the House. I am sure that no one, in whichever party in opposition, would dispute that the collective experience and, therefore, I suggest, the collective wisdom of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the work we have been discussing has been invaluable, and, of course, this weighed heavily when it came to a decision on whether to have lay participation in these courts.

    I have been asked about the representations made to the Government about lay participation. The hon. Member for Dumfries asked what were the views of the Association of County Councils. I do not know why he picked out that association. Although it was present, with other local authority associations seeking a continuation of lay justices, the ACC did not express a view.

    I was also asked about the staffing of the district courts by the district authorities. We have been told by the local authority associations that the new districts will be able to provide legally qualified clerks of court, either from their full-time staff or from the regional staff, which is another sources of supply which could be tapped should the need arise, or from local solicitors appointed on a part-time basis. The important thing is that the staff would be legally qualified.

    Hon. Members have asked about the range of offences that will be tried or considered in the new district courts, particularly traffic offences. It was originally proposed that these courts should try traffic offences and have the power to endorse a driving licence but not suspend it. That, however, is not included in the Bill. The new district courts will cater for much the same range of offences as the burgh police courts do at present.

    We regard training as all-important in setting up the new district courts. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Cook) brought out some very valuable points in this connection, particularly in relation to the question of social background, and including the problems of alcoholism and vagrancy, which are serious. It is the intention to include training on the question of social background, and no doubt alcoholism and vagrancy would be included within that context.

    Clause 14 empowers the Secretary of State to make schemes for the training of justices of the peace, and lays a duty on the justices' committee in each area to implement and administer these training schemes. Training may be considered under two heads—what training it may be possible to give existing justices before the district courts open for business on 16th May and the long-term arrangements when the new scheme is fully operative. For the transition to the new court, one must obviously rely heavily on the experience of existing burgh magistrates and justices of the peace. About 700 experienced magistrates and 1,000 justices with court experience have expressed their willingness to serve in the district courts, and justices without experience have also offered to serve. Many of the justices to be nominated by district councils will no doubt also wish to sit in these courts.

    Even the experienced justices and magistrates should receive some training appropriate to their experience before 16th May. So some training will be given even to the most experienced magistrates before that date. Those with no experience who we consider cannot begin training too soon if they are to contribute to the new courts will be given training as well.

    The Government regard training as so important that a basic scheme has already been drawn up on lines approved by the Central Advisory Committee on Justices of the Peace, provided over by the Lord Justice Clerk. This scheme will be sent very soon to the chief executives of district councils, with a memorandum of advice on local arrangements for giving effect to it, including such matters as securing the services of sheriffs, lawyers with court experience, university lecturers in law, social workers and others to give lectures to the justices.

    As my right hon. Friend said, the post of training officers for justices of the peace has been created in the Scottish Office, and it is hoped to appoint a suitably qualified person very soon. We are intent on proceeding as speedily as is consistent with efficiency and good training in order to ensure that the justices who staff these courts will have some training before 16th May; in the longer term the training will become much more extensive.

    The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) made heavy weather of the previous Government's White Paper and their change of mind and what brought it about. At times he was struggling to justify their change of attitude about lay participation. He must know that that White Paper, which proposed the retention of lay judges, received generally warm support, apart from the proposals of non-legally qualified clerks and from a section of the legal fraternity.

    When we came to office in March 1974, we received strong representations from the local authorities. In our view, it was reasonable to assume that there was a case for maintaining a lay element and that that case had widespread support. It is important to recognise that that view was expressed by local authority representations from all political shades of opinion and not from one particular shade of opinion, as seems to have been thought by some Opposition Members who have spoken this evening.

    On the latter point, I agree. There is nothing political about this or about the opinions expressed. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned those areas in which strong representations were made and on what very important parts of these proposals the representations were made. Surely those were of extremely great importance. Will he also say what was the opinion and advice from the central advisory committee?

    Yes, I shall be coming to the opinion and advice of that committee. The House will also find that opinion and advice very interesting.

    We do not regard the objections voiced by the legal profession as being minor objections. They were considered. But what we are saying as a Government is that we took the broad consensus of opinion, which led us to the view, rightly, that lay participation should continue.

    On the question of advice from the Central Advisory Committee on Justices of the Peace, that committee discussed the proposals on two occasions. On the first occasion it considered the proposals based on the working party's report, and supported in principle the scheme which was afterwards outlined in the White Paper. On the second occasion the committee considered the matter again in the light of the representations against the White Paper and recommended in favour of lay justices by a narrow majority. Therefore, the advice of that committee, albeit by a small majority, was that we should continue the lay participation.

    Will the hon. Gentleman say whether, however, that slight majority in favour of lay magistrates was in favour of lay magistrates appointed by the Secretary of State or lay magistrates elected by the local authorities? There is a very important difference.

    There is a very important difference, but the debate tonight has not been about by whom the lay justices should be appointed. The debate has been about whether we should have lay justices at all.

    The fact is that the advice that we have, broadly, is that lay participation should continue in the district courts. I feel that I have dealt adequately with that point.

    We are prepared to consider anything that is said or proposed—including the remarks of the hon. Member for Dumfries, who asked us to be flexible and mentioned other matters—without giving any promises or making any commitments. It must be put on record that the advice that we have and the broad consensus of opinion is that lay participation should continue in those courts.

    On the question about the quality of justice, raised by the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns, it is worth quoting from paragraph 3 of his Government's White Paper, wherein they said:
    "We also believe that a proper system of training will result in a professional and uniform standard of justice among lay justices."
    There can be no doubt that the standard of justice and the uniformity of justice—if that is the correct expression—will be achieved by the system of training which we shall introduce as soon as possible.

    I turn now to the contribution made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small). In his capacity as a former magistrate he brought his wealth of experience to the debate and illustrated the great risk involved in turning over this level of court to a fully professional system. We must appreciate the level of court about which we are talking and are about to legislate.

    The hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson)—surprisingly, in my view—agreed that there should be stipendiary magistrates in all these courts and that the courts should be professionally staffed. I got the impression that later on, when the leader of his party was present, he did not agree with the hon. Member. This doctrine comes strangely from a party which considers that in certain respects the people of Scotland are able to legislate for themselves.

    Members of Parliament could to a certain extent be described as amateurs. We preside over great legislative affairs. However, we are not prepared to give ordinary people at this level of justice the right to judge their fellow men. It seems that the policy of the party of the hon. Member for Galloway is that people can have a say in their own affairs as long as they do not want to take decisions such as this. In Committee I shall want to hear how that stance can be justified.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mr. Dempsey), in welcoming lay participation, again brought to bear a great wealth of experience. I reassure my hon. Friend that there are no fears whether we shall have a sufficient number of justices to staff these courts. The best information now available to us is that about 1,730 existing justices have offered to serve, of whom about 1,000 have at least some experience in court work. With the addition of about 700 existing burgh magistrates and police judges, this provides a hard core of experience for the new courts. We expect also that there will be a further 400 justices flowing from the appointments for the district courts. In total there will be about 2,500 justices willing to do all the work. This is probably far more than will be required.

    There is no evidence to support that contention. The figure of 2,500 compares with the 1,600 calculated to be required in paragraph 30 of the White Paper. I believe that there would be a good response if we were to make a search for new justices, but we consider that we have no difficulties in that respect.

    My hon. Friend also raised the question of loss of earnings. The Bill provides, as does the present law, for the payment of an allowance to justices of the peace. There will be provision for compensation for loss of earnings, but it will have to be as at present. Therefore, the maximum will apply and no doubt the level of the maximum will be reviewed from time to time. It obviously depends upon the circumstances of the individual. The present maximum of £6·70 is not liable to tax.

    There is provision in Clause 15(2)(c) whereby the Secretary of State is empowered to deal with justices who do not attend to their duties in the court. On a constituency basis, I should tell my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie that in the Monklands district, which is in my hon. Friend's constituency, we have 24 experienced judges and 16 magistrates who are ready even at this stage to serve the new district courts. In the Motherwell district there are 35 experienced justices and 14 magistrates who are ready to serve in these new courts, so there should be no trouble in staffing them.

    The hon. Member for Inverness was in favour of the professional system, although, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, the Royal Commission on local government did not quite take the view expressed by the hon. Member. I got the feeling that it had slipped the hon. Member's memory that the Royal Commission took the same view as the Government, which is that these lay courts could be set up in conjunction with the district authorities.

    On the question of staff shortage in respect of procurators fiscal, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate is quite confident that there will be people to take overall prosecutions in two stages. The hon. Member for Dumfries asked about a timetable for the taking over of these prosecutions by the Crown. We expect all the procurators fiscal will be in these courts by May 1976. My right hon. and learned Friend is confident that we can meet this date without any problems.

    I was interested in the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Queen's Park (Mr. McElhone), and I hesitate to say that the Glasgow police court stories are legion. If time allowed I could tell a few myself, but I shall not be tempted to do so at this time of night. However, my hon. Friend brought out a very important point concerning the level of these courts and the type of case to be tried there. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Selby) made the same point. It is important to realise that the people finding themselves in these courts will, by and large, be normal, law-abiding citizens who fall foul of the law once in a lifetime. There can be nothing more awe-inspiring than to have to go into a court faced with the paraphernalia of the law, probably for a minor offence. In the past the courts at borough police court level dealt admirably with this type of offence. When the district courts come into being the set-up and the staff will be adequate to take over this type of offence.

    I wish to correct what was obviously a wrong impression by my hon. Friend the Member for Queen's Park. The Bill in no way affects the constitution of the licensing court or the court of appeal. The district courts will not take over licensing functions. The licensing courts and the court of appeal will remain as they are. The Bill does not affect licensing courts or licensing appeal courts.

    We are grateful to my hon. Friend for giving each hon. Member an answer to the points raised. However, the Bill mentions the question of licensing courts. If there are no longer to be magistrates in areas such as Glasgow, who will staff the licensing courts? I am concerned that suitable people should perform this important function.

    That is a different matter, which does not arise on the Bill. My hon. Friend mistakenly refers to magistrates. There will be no such person, as a result of local government reorganisation. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall write to him on the question of staffing and he will be given the information he requires.

    I realise that we shall have no more magistrates. However, there has been great unhappiness about the question of sheriffs dealing with legal aid applications. Who will judge the question of legal aid in the district courts?

    The matter of the licensing court is provided for in the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973. Half justices of the peace and half county councillors will staff the licensing courts and licensing appeal courts.

    The question of legal aid is important. In summary cases in the sheriff courts legal aid is granted by the sheriff, and the Government take the view that it is entirely consistent with this that justices should grant legal aid in district courts. Arrangements of this kind will have the advantage of being quick, decisive and inexpensive, and will be carried out by people with knowledge of local circumstances. We accept that the one matter in which the justices who will staff the courts will not be experienced is legal aid. Therefore, we are anxious to ensure, and will ensure, that they will have training in legal aid matters before 16th May.

    Is my hon. Friend aware that there is a considerable body of opinion which is concerned that the justice who granted legal aid might subsequently hear the case. Would not that be unsatisfactory?

    We shall examine that matter. We have no ground for concern. The same situation applies in the sheriff court.

    In conclusion—

    We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his detailed reply, but if he is coming to his peroration, may I point out that he has not answered the two points about which we have pressed most strongly—the appointment of the justices to the extent of one-third by the district authorities, and the amendment made in another place on the opportunity for the Secretary of State to appoint stipendiary magistrates? We shall want an answer on those two matters before we make a decision.

    It was on those two points that I was going to conclude. On the question of stipendiary magistrates and the Secretary of State, I ask the House to await our proposals. If they await our proposals with patience I am sure that their patience will be well rewarded. I ask the House to be a little more patient on the stipendiary issue. We shall be making proposals but I cannot say any more at this stage.

    It is the Government's view that the district councils should have the right to appoint a third of their members to staff the district courts. It is a long time ago but I said at the beginning of my remarks that I was prepared to examine any alternative proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Dumfries and his hon. Friends. I also said that I was not prepared to give any unqualified commitment or assurances or anything of that order. At present we consider that the district councils should have the right to appoint a third of their members to staff the district courts.

    The view is prevalent that the local authorities will play a large part in the appointment of the judges. The fact is that the majority of appointments will remain with the Secretary of State for Scotland, as is the position with the justices now. Even if all district councils appoint their full one-third, the total number of ex-officio justices will be only about 400 for the whole country as against about 5,000 justices at present.

    There are no grounds for anyone to say that the local authorities will be playing a major part in staffing the district courts. They will be playing a significant part but not a major part.

    Does the Minister accept that they will be playing a major part in the four cities of Scotland where the bulk of the population is centred?

    That is possibly true. That must be considered, but on balance we consider that it is an acceptable proposition. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is right that even in the four cities the district councils will play a major part in staffing the courts. I would want to consider that point. I am not absolutely sure that that is correct.

    No one underestimates the importance of the question of whether or not lay participation should continue in the district courts. It is our view that it should continue. It is our view that the Bill is a good Bill, and, like my right hon. Friend, I commend it to the House.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Bill accordingly read a Second time.

    Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 ( Committal of Bills).

    District Courts (Scotland) Money

    Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

    Resolved,

    That, for the purposes of any Act of this Session to make provision as respects district courts and justices of the peace in Scotland, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of moneys provided by Parliament of—
  • (a) any expenses incurred by the Secretary of State under the said Act; and
  • (b) any increase attributable to the said Act in the sums payable out of moneys so provided under any other enactment.—[Mr. Walter Harrison.]
  • Adjournment

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Miss Margaret Jackson.]

    Written-Off Motor Vehicles (Log Books)

    10.40 p.m.

    This is the second occasion on which I have raised, on the Adjournment of the House, the question of the need to protect the purchaser of a car that has been totally written-off by an insurance company and subsequently repaired. I first ventilated the matter two years ago, following a series of Parliamentary Questions. Prior to that Adjournment debate the Minister decided to set up a working party from the Department to consider the problem.

    The working party met on 16th February 1972. Together with the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association and other organisations, I met the working party to discuss the issue. At the end of the year, after many months of meetings, the working party reported that it was of the opinion that reconstituted cars—cars that had been wrecked and subsequently repaired—were only a minor factor in road safety. The working party recommended that no action should be taken. Since then we have had a new Government, and I hope that the Minister will look upon this problem more favourably.

    Let me detail the situation again. Three or four years ago, when a car was so badly damaged in an accident that the cost of repairing it exceeded its value it was written-off by the insurance company as a total loss. This information was stamped on the log book. If the car was subsequently repaired an intending purchaser knew that he was buying a car that had been extensively damaged in an accident. He could then make his own arrangements to have the car examined by a competent inspector. This scheme of stamping log books, which was voluntarily entered into by the insurance companies, was abandoned. I have yet to discover the reason why. I suspect that the insurance companies could get a better price for their written-of wrecks if the log books were not stamped. I am only hazarding a guess here. Perhaps the Minister can tell us why this was done.

    Many of these wrecked cars get into the hands of back-street repairers who have no scruples. They do not possess the jigs, tools or expensive machinery needed to realign a badly buckled car, or to assess whether the axles and the steering of a car are out of true. As a consequence, corroded bodywork is sometimes patched up with fibre glass. This looks fine until three or four weeks after the car has been bought, when the fibre glass falls out. In some cases when a dealer has a car with a smashed front end he will cut a front end from a similar model that has rear damage and weld it to the first car. In many cases these cars are sold at inflated prices. They are a danger not only to the driver but to all road users. In my opinion there should be some protection against these practices.

    I must make it clear that many cars that have been written-off are repaired by reputable garages. Rebuilding wrecked cars is not illegal, and vehicles repaired by reputable manufacturers are safe and roadworthy. That is why reputable dealers organised in the Vehicle Builders and Repairers Association, the Motor Agents Association and the Institute of Automobile Assessors are backing this campaign to put the back-street dealer out of business.

    Let me give an illustration of the situation by quoting a letter—one among many—which I received from a constituents on this subject:
    "We advertised recently for a 1600E Cortina, as they are in rather short supply, and had a telephone call from a young man who offered to bring his 1600E over for us to look at. This he did. He explained that it had had a slight bump on the bonnet and that he had had it resprayed. He took my husband and son out for a ride, and they thought the car was in quite good condition. After thinking it over for 24 hours, my husband decided to buy the car. The young man said that he had two log books, as one had been lost and turned up after the second one had been issued, and that we could have either. He added that he would prefer the transactions to be in cash. My husband arranged to collect the £900 from the bank, but the two log books worried me, so I telephoned the Taxation Office who told me the car had been in an accident in July 1971. I telephoned the seller to say that we wished to have the car inspected by the RAC. He was quite annoyed at the delay Ȧ".
    My constituent said that at the point the seller became very abusive. She continued:
    "Last weekend we bought a car from a reliable garage and while chatting to the mechanic mentioned the other car. The mechanic knew the seller and said that it had been two scrap cars joined togetherȦ".
    That is just one of a number of letters I have received from people who have been defrauded by back-street, so-called garage proprietors who are cannibalising wrecked cars and selling them, often at inflated prices. The cars are a hazard and a danger to road users.

    I am asking the Minister tonight to say why the scheme for the stamping of log books has been abandoned. Has the Minister consulted the insurance companies? Has he agreed with those companies that they should abandon the stamping of log books? If they have done so, what reasons have been advanced for this practice having been discontinued?

    I should like to see an arrangement—this would probably require amendment of the law—to provide that if a car is totally written off the log book is surrendered to the licensing authority and not reissued until the reconstituted vehicle has been examined by a competent Ministry examiner.

    I am asking the Minister to afford protection to the intending purchaser of a car which has been written off as a total wreck and has been reconstituted. I am asking that that intending purchaser should be given the same protection as that given to any other consumer. We all know about the mass of legislation which has been envisaged to give protection to the consumer so that in almost every commodity he buys the consumer is protected against false trade descriptions. Yet the intending purchaser of a second-hand car is given no protection whatever. In ignorance he can buy a car which has been totally wrecked, rebuilt and sold again. I hope that the Minister will give an assurance that he will now try to renegotiate with the insurance companies an agreement whereby they will stamp the log books.

    The Department has been much too complacent about this matter. I first raised it at Question Time four years ago. We are not asking for a revolution; we simply want protection to be given to a prospective purchaser of a secondhand car so that he will at least know that at some time or other the vehicle has been a wreck.

    I cannot understand the Department's adamant attitude—setting up a departmental committee that meets for 10 months to consider the question, and fobbing me off time and time again with parliamentary answers that are meaningless. Will my hon. Friend give me an assurance that he will now renegotiate an agreement with the insurers that log books of wrecked cars will be stamped to the effect that the cars have been wrecked, and that, if necessary, he will tell the insurers that if they are not prepared to enter into a voluntary agreement he will take steps to make the system compulsory?

    I hope that after this long and constant battle we shall be able to win a minor victory. We have a different Government, with a different outlook. We have a different Minister. I hope that they will look afresh at the problem, and that at long last the motorist will have some assurance that he will be protected when he buys a second-hand car.

    10.51 p.m.

    I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising a matter that every hon. Member must surely support—the adequate protection of the purchaser of a seriously damaged car which, if improperly repaired, would constitute a road safety hazard.

    My hon. Friend has been involved in the matter for a long time. I am sorry if the answers he has received from the Department in the past have not been helpful. I hope that many of the answers I have given him have been slightly more helpful than he suggested. I shall try to answer some of the points he raised tonight, and I hope that I can give him some satisfaction, but it is a slightly more complicated question than he may realise.

    My Department is vitally concerned with road safety. It is constantly seeking ways of reducing the tragic toll of road accidents and looking for ways of effectively utilising the resources available to us.

    My hon. Friend has suggested that a written-off car should have its log book withdrawn until satisfactory repairs have been carried out, it has been certified as roadworthy by a competent examiner, and the log book has been endorsed showing that the car was a written-off vehicle. This would ensure proper repair and warn the prospective purchaser of the vehicle's history.

    The endorsement proposal was tried in 1967, when insurance companies entered into a voluntary agreement whereby written-off vehicles were notified to the local motor taxation offices and their log books endorsed. Purchasers were thus forewarned. Experience showed that the arrangement had many faults: the "written-off" principle was not a satisfactory basis for defining a badly damaged vehicle, as other factors also affect the insurance company's decision; the system did not cover cars that were not comprehensively insured, or cars badly damaged but not written off; and properly repaired cars were marked for the rest of their lives by the log book endorsement. The arrangement was ended in February 1973 because it was unfair, and made no discernible contribution to road safety, as there was no evidence from the accident statistics that repaired vehicles were less safe than others of their age and type.

    Despite the lack of evidence that a significant problem exists, I have considered whether badly damaged vehicles should be tested before being returned to the road. There are a number of difficulties here, the first being the size of the problem. A "seriously damaged vehicle" is not a clearly defined term, and hence there are no statistics for the number of vehicles involved. It is estimated that the insurance companies pay compensation for the total loss of some 50,000 vehicles a year, and there are others which would qualify if they were insured. No one knows how many of these vehicles find their way back on to the roads, and there are no guesses at all of how many vehicles require major repairs without reaching this stage. Nevertheless, the chief constables do not regard the faulty repair of damaged vehicles as a significant cause of accidents. For example, the West Yorkshire police had not heard of a single example in a sample of over 9,600 accidents.

    Secondly, there is the nature of the sort of fault which is usually instanced when expressing concern over seriously damaged vehicles. This is either distortion of the chassis or the welding together of the frame from disparate parts. Neither is easily detected and neither would show up on a normal MOT test. If seriously damaged vehicles are to be retested before re-use, logic demands that they should be subjected to a different test, which should inevitably be more thorough and expensive.

    We also have the problem of enforcement. The first difficulty lies in identifying the vehicles. Not all accidents which result in serious damage are reported to the police. Likewise, the insurance companies do not hear of those accidents where vehicles are not insured against damage. Nor do garages carry out all repairs to seriously damaged vehicles. There is, therefore, no easy way of identifying these vehicles.

    The second difficulty lies in ensuring that a vehicle once identified as seriously damaged is not used again until tested. Theoretically, this would be easier, but it would involve resources in keeping records of vehicles notified and following up applications to an extent which would not be justified in the light of the size of the problem.

    My conclusion, therefore, must be that any proposal to test these vehicles should be resisted on the ground that it is not a cost-effective use of resources. However, if anyone can produce evidence of a significant road accident danger from these vehicles, I shall review my policy in the light of that evidence.

    My hon. Friend is approaching this problem entirely from the statistical point of view, which is that these reconstituted vehicles do not cause accidents. The statistical evidence is not available. Apart from that, will he approach the matter from the consumer's point of view? Cars may break down; they may not cause accidents. However, the motorist is being defrauded when he buys a reconstituted car. Therefore, from the consumer's point of view, will my hon. Friend consider ensuring that log books are stamped?

    I was going to deal with the consumer aspect. I may have given my hon. Friend the wrong impression. I dealt with the statistics to some extent when I quoted the example of the West Yorkshire police, which I have no reason to believe is exceptional. They have not heard of one example of a reconstituted car being involved in any of the 9,600 accidents that they sampled.

    Referring to consumer protection, on 1st January last the House took measures to increase the protection given to purchasers of motor cars by strengthening the law regarding the sale of unroadworthy vehicles. It is now an offence to expose for sale, to put on display in a showroom or offer for sale at auction, a vehicle which contravenes the construction and use regulations relating to brakes, steering, tyres, construction, lights and general safety. However, the prospective buyer is wise if he has the vehicle examined before purchase. I cannot stress that strongly enough.

    I have been interested in motor cars for a long time. The motor car is a peculiar symbol in our society. The number of people who save for a long time and invest a great deal of money in the purchase of motor cars is incredible. A number of salesmen—by no means all—know how to play on the psychological desire of people to own motor cars. It is quite unusual for people buying a car to behave as the writer of that letter to my hon. Friend behaved. That is an estimable way to go about it. But many people, having saved for a long time, when they are spending a lot of money to buy a car, do so in a most haphazard and thoughtless way. I cannot stress too much that if one is spending between £600 and £900 for a car one should also spend £10 or £20 to have it examined by an association or an examiner.

    Unfortunately, I know—friends of mine go out and do it—that people go out to buy a car saying that they must have it that weekend. It is the fraility of human nature which many car salesmen are masters at exploiting.

    I would say a word about consumer protection in the more general sense of value for money—a subject more properly for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. The Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and the Supply of Goods (Implied Terms) Act 1973 have greatly strengthened the purchasers' position, and if he is sold a car which is falsely described he may well have good grounds for redress in the civil courts.

    I am sure that my hon. Friend has read of many cases—I know of his interest in this subject—where a car's "clock" has been turned back. That was one method which was used to try to sell a car—pretending that it had done much less mileage than was the case. There have been a number of cases in the courts where car salesmen and companies have got into serious difficulty. There are protections.

    I am not trying to brush my hon. Friend off with the lethargy of the Department. I have looked at this matter with care. I thought it was much easier than I have since found it to be. It is not something we are sleeping on. We are very concerned, and any measures that hon. Members can suggest which will improve or maintain road safety—anything to help in the battle for road safety—will be looked at carefully.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Adjourned accordingly at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.