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Shadow Councils

Volume 264: debated on Wednesday 18 October 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make a statement on the progress of shadow councils. [36033]

Can the Secretary of State confirm that there appears to be a substantial difference between the notional budgets of the new councils drawn up by the Scottish Office and their forecasts of likely expenditure? If that is so, will he undertake to the House that those things will be assessed region by region, otherwise councils such as the Scottish Borders council could end up being starved of funds because of high-spending councils elsewhere?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is referring to the mismatch that could arise from the new boundaries. That is a particular problem. In part, it can reflect the priorities that previous councils set—sometimes wanting to spend more money in Dundee or Glasgow, for example, than in the outward areas, for reasons on which I can only speculate. It means, however, that there is a problem and it is one that we want to discuss with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and one that I mean to address. Of course, we would not underwrite some of the high spending that we have already seen in the unitary authorities. The jobs for the boys culture and the decisions taken on members' allowances and salaries for staff by some councils are difficult to justify, so we shall be keeping a close eye on the matter. The right hon. Gentleman makes a serious point and it is one with which we mean to deal. It is not easy to resolve within existing resources, but we mean to tackle it.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern at the recruitment policies of some of the new local authorities—perhaps at the number of high-earning officials who have been appointed in North Lanarkshire and Angus? Would he also say whether he shares my concern at the appointment to the North Lanarkshire authority, in a very senior position, of an elderly gentleman who is about to retire? Is there anything that my right hon. Friend can do about that?

It is extremely important that officials appointed to local government are seen to be appointed on merit and fairly. On the point about North Lanarkshire, I have had representations from the staff commission on that matter and it has said that it is unable to give the local authority a clean bill of health. It is a matter for the staff commission alone to decide whether appointments should be re-run. Let me make it absolutely clear to the House, however, that if the commission wants appointments to be re-run, it will have my full and absolute backing. Where there are examples of concern about appointments procedures, I expect local authorities to take those concerns into account and to do everything they can to reassure the public. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) would agree with that.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is growing concern among arts organisations, particularly those in Glasgow, such as the Citizens' theatre, that the ending of Strathclyde region on 1 April next year will mean the end of generous grants from that region, which will not be replaced by grants from the new, small, tinpot authorities that he has created? Will he therefore ensure that the Arts Council is given extra money to make up any imbalance that is left as a result of the ending of Strathclyde region?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has so little faith in Labour councils and in the likelihood of their supporting the arts. When he returns to his constituency at the weekend, having described Glasgow council as tinpot may get him into some difficulty.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us elsewhere in the United Kingdom regard jealously the emergence of unitary authorities in Scotland? Would not the worst result of all be the imposition of a whole new layer of bureaucracy in the form of a Scottish Assembly? Does he care to compare youth unemployment in Catalonia, where they have an extra assembly, with youth unemployment in Scotland?

I do not know why, today, everyone in the House wants to send me off to Spain. I will bear the representations in mind. As my hon. Friend says, the unitary authorities are something in which Scotland can take pride. They are a new start for local government and I hope that advantage will be taken of that new start. As he says, the English have much to be jealous about as regards what we have north of the border. A Scottish Parliament would put all that at risk, not least the generous funding that we enjoy, which the Scottish Constitutional Convention tells us will now be decided by a block grant to a Scottish Parliament—a block grant determined here in Westminster, where the number of Members of Parliament would have to be reduced, as the Liberals admit, at least privately, if not inside the convention. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) acknowledges that we would have fewer Scottish Members of Parliament here. I may be the last Scottish Secretary with the power to argue for Scotland's interests inside the Cabinet where the key decisions are taken. The Opposition put all that at risk. That is grossly irresponsible and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it.

I add my welcome to the new Secretary of State at his first Scottish Question Time and congratulate him in particular on moving from his last job as Minister with responsibility for prisons, or should I say responsibility for prison escapes, to the high office that he now holds.

On the subject of the new councils, does the Secretary of State agree that if we had had a Scottish Parliament we would never have had the wretched, gerrymandered, unnecessary, reorganisation of Scottish local government in the first place? Will he accept that giving a few powers back to local councils in Scotland and beefing up a few old quangos will be seen not as devolution but as a con trick? Given the systematic stripping of power at local level in Scotland over the past 16 years, the Secretary of State looks like the burglar who strips a house and expects to be thanked for giving back the candlesticks. When is he going to grasp the fact that the people of Scotland want a devolved Scottish Parliament and will not settle for anything less than that?

When is the hon. Gentleman going to grasp the fact that the people of Scotland do not want to pay higher income tax than the rest of the United Kingdom and that inward investment into Scotland would be damaged if companies could go to Wales, the north of England or elsewhere and have their workers paying lower rates of income tax? The hon. Gentleman is being grossly irresponsible.

As for the reference to prisons, I do not know whether the shadow Cabinet elections and alterations of responsibilities will touch the hon. Gentleman. It may well be that, after his performance over the summer, he is moved to some other position. Through the summer, we have put serious questions to him about the funding of the Scottish Parliament and the nature of the West Lothian question. All we get is abuse and no answers; we want answers. The people of Scotland are entitled to answers and to more than deals coming from smoke-filled rooms and threats to vital services in Scotland as a consequence of policies to which the hon. Gentleman has put his name.