Skip to main content

County Councils (Abolition)

Volume 175: debated on Tuesday 26 June 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.46 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish non-metropolitan county councils; to transfer their functions to the other local authorities in their areas and, in some cases, to other bodies; and to provide for other matters consequential on, or connected with, the abolition of those councils.
I imagine that a great many of my right hon. and hon. Friends—those who remain—suspect that my intention with the Bill is to entertain them with the misdemeanours of Derbyshire county council. I am afraid that I shall disappoint them.

I shall resist the temptation to spend a full 10 minutes giving chapter and verse about how Derbyshire county council spends more on education than most counties, but gets worse results. I shall resist the temptation to spend too long telling the House how Derbyshire county council spent £2,000 on a party to celebrate the release of Mr. Nelson Mandela.

I shall also resist going into the full details of how Derbyshire county council behaves like a giant jobs agency for the National Union of Public Employees and has taken on an extra 8,000 staff in the past 10 years. I shall also resist explaining how the council rejected one low tender because it came in the wrong colour envelope.

I shall not go fully into the details of how the council's pension fund invested £305,000 in the failed Left-wing News on Sunday newspaper, before getting further embroiled with a former estate agent called Owen Oyston in a series of sleazy deals—including building a resort in the Soviet Union, dubbed by the county council leader as a millionaires' playground, which now looks as though it will never be built despite substantial investment by the council.

I shall not elaborate on the details of how a well-known Labour activist, a road ganger dismissed by the council for gross misconduct in the 1970s, was reinstated last year to a well-paid job showing Japanese executives around the county. I shall not go into details of how one defeated Labour county councillor was given a £40,000 per year council post, nor how another ex-Labour councillor was made a director of education at an even larger salary. I shall not go into too much detail—

My right hon. and hon. Friends tempt me, Mr. Speaker, but I shall resist.

I shall not go into too much detail about how a former Member of the House, Mr. Reg Race, was appointed as a £46,000-per-year county director, before the relationship turned sour and led to his resignation not long afterwards, when he was given a large golden handshake to buy his silence about the goings-on in the council.

Finally, I shall not ask the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) to enlarge on his comment that the aforesaid Mr. Race was
"sacked by Derbyshire county council because he was giving it the sort of information about its activities that its members did not want to hear."
I shall not develop those themes.

Order. If the hon. Gentleman is not going to do that, perhaps he will get on with what he is going to say.

I was about to explain that I do not intend to develop those themes because 10 minutes would be far too short a time to tell of all the idiosyncrasies and profligacies of Derbyshire county council. To use Derbyshire county council as a stick with which to beat other county councils, or as an example to justify their abolition, would be wrong and unfair.

In many ways Derbyshire county council is unique, untypical, the exception and way out on a limb. I wish to make a case for the abolition of the generality of county councils or at least to make a case for giving district, borough and city councils the right to opt out of county council control. In doing so, I should like to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) who previously introduced Bills for unitary local authorities.

Unitary local authorities, replacing two layers of local government with one, would lead to more effective provision of services and greater accountability. As many of my hon. Friends know, the two-tier system which prevails in most of the country leaves many people confused and unsure about which council is responsible for which service and, just as importantly, for its cost. Education and social services could be far better provided at a more local level, especially as the increasing complexity of local government means that services which might logically have been run as large units could be better operated as smaller ones.

Abolition will also make life easier for councils. At the moment many of the most talented councillors have to split their time between two bodies, which adds to the difficulty of finding suitable people to be councillors, as most of my hon. Friends are aware. I accept that larger administrative units can be more efficient and can save on administrative costs, but the past 20 years have shown that that is not always necessarily the case, as evidenced by a recent report which showed that in some counties 25 per cent. of the education budget was spent on administration. I accept that some services such as transport would need to be run by larger bodies. Delegated county-wide organisations could best handle such services.

I know that some people doubt whether the boroughs and districts could handle this and they argue for the necessity of a higher tier of what they call strategic planning. I remind hon. Members about the GLC. I realise that many of my hon. Friends are racking their brains to try to recall exactly what the GLC was. People outside certainly have difficulty in remembering exactly what the GLC did for them. Despite all the expensive hype during the abolition of the GLC, few now mourn its passing and in general the London boroughs have made a very good job of taking over the services that the GLC once ran—[Interruption.] I accept that there are some exceptions.

That brings me neatly to the Opposition's policy on county council abolition. We all know that in recent years the Labour party has been trying to upgrade its image. Some say that it has achieved some success. Unfortunately, all too often that success is of a faltering kind and there is more to the image than to the substance. For example, we hear that the Opposition have come round to believing in markets after all, but they believe that the markets should be servants rather than masters, for which read, "We politicians will override your free choice when it suits us to do so."

The same applies to county councils. I am delighted that the Opposition have shown some progress by coming round to abolition. As always, however, they have ruined it by proposing in part to replace county councils with a regional tier of government which many people will see as super county councils with all the inherent faults of the current system magnified several times. The Opposition should realise that we need fewer tiers of government, not more. We already have the European Community and a national Parliament, as well as county, district and parish councils in most areas. We need to sweep away a layer of government, not add another which will inevitably become a platform for yet more empire-building and expense.

I urge hon. Members to support the Bill. It will not abolish counties, which will remain in place, but it will abolish county councils and bring local government closer to constituents, making it more accountable and helping it to deliver services more effectively.

3.53 pm

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

The Bill should be entitled "the Abolition of Derbyshire County Council Bill" because that is clearly the intention of the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). At every opportunity he seeks to attack Derbyshire county council and to denigrate its activities. I therefore wish to take this opportunity to defend the council and to argue against the hon. Gentleman's bill which, in any case, is inappropriate to the restructuring of local government.

Despite many attempts in the House, the hon. Gentleman has failed in his attacks on Derbyshire county council. He mentioned the pension fund, on which he had an Adjournment debate which turned out to be a damp squib, containing nothing that could be levelled against the Derbyshire county council. All the arguments were answered before the debate. Derbyshire county council runs one of the best pension schemes of any shire county.

Despite competition, Derbyshire county council, through its professionalism—not through the efforts of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie)—attracted Toyota to Derbyshire. Conservative members were annoyed at Derbyshire county council's entrepreneurial professionalism which they think should be their preserve, but the council beat them at their own game. In addition, Labour won the Derbyshire county council election, despite its being targeted by the Conservative party with Ministers attending in droves in an attempt to achieve a Conservative victory.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley has adopted the Prime Minister's approach to the GLC and other metropolitan authorities such as South Yorkshire, which had the best transport policy in the country, both in terms of future developments and the environment. The policy is, "If you can't beat them, abolish them." The only advantage of such measures is that the Labour party has benefited from the arrival in the House of Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), with his previous experience on the GLC. If the hon. Gentleman's Bill were enacted, we would presumably see leading politicians from Derbyshire county council, such as David Bookbinder, in this House dealing readily and easily with Conservative Members.

Derbyshire county council has a fine record in areas such as education. It is top in its pupil-teacher ratio, and in special and primary education, and it comes a close second to Nottinghamshire county council in secondary education. Yet such provisions are now being attacked by the Government's poll tax. Any attack should be directed not at Derbyshire county council but at the Government and their stupid formula which, year after year, has attacked Derbyshire's grant. They have even introduced something called grant capping, which few authorities experience. Then the Government introduced the nonsense of the poll tax, from which some Conservative Members in Derbyshire have benefited considerably, making them free riders on the backs of others.

If Derbyshire county council and others were abolished, the services that they provide in a wide range of areas such as planning, highways and education, would have to be picked up by the district councils; yet the Bill does not provide for the reorganisation of district councils. District authorities which are perfectly capable of running services such as council housing would have a massive additional burden placed on them. That shows that the Bill is a deal of nonsense. It is not there to tackle the problems of local government or to restructure it. It is merely another example of cleverness on the part of the hon. Member for Amber Valley, in trying to attack Derbyshire county council. It is as clever as his other moves, which were also utter failures, when he also tripped up and fell on his face.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill order to be brought in by Mr. Phillip Oppenheim, Mr. Ian Gow, Mr. Robert B. Jones, Mr. Donald Thompson, Mrs. Edwina Currie, Mr. Michael Grylls, Mr. Teddy Taylor, Mr. Charles Wardle, Mr. Andrew Mitchell, Mr. Kenneth Hind, Mr. Nicholas Bennett and Mr. Gerald Howarth.