With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.The House will recall that on 10th February I announced that the Counsellors of State acting on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen had approved the setting up of Royal Commissions to undertake a comprehensive review of local government in England and Scotland respectively. I am now happy to be able to tell the House that Her Majesty has been pleased to approve the appointment of Sir John Maud as Chairman of the Royal Commission on Local Government in England and of the right honourable Lord Wheatley as Chairman of the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland. I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT the terms of reference for the two Commissions and the names of the other members. When the House has had an opportunity to study the details, all hon. and right hon. Gentleman will, I think, agree with me that these are powerful Commissions on which we can place high hopes. I am sure that we all wish them well in their work.
We shall study the details when they appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT. In the meantime, will the Prime Minister tell us whether the terms of reference will allow the Royal Commissions to consider finances in relation to functions, and whether the term local government will include what is commonly known as regional government, including consideration of the regional councils and regional economic planning boards?
Yes, Sir; it will be within their terms of reference to consider regional forms of local government in addition to the existing ones and others which they may recommend. The Commissions are not precluded from considering questions of finance, though we are not asking them to make this the main subject of their inquiry.
Would it not be better to give the Commissions a clear direction on the question of finance, which is absolutely fundamental to local government? I very much hope that it will definitely be included within the terms of reference. Second, will the Prime Minister say what is to happen to the existing Boundary Commissions which are, I think, now sitting and considering certain changes? Are they to be suspended or abolished, or what is to happen?
If it is, as the right hon. Gentleman says, fundamental to local government to consider finance, I am sure that the Commissions will be as capable of seeing that point as the right hon. Gentleman is. They will, therefore, include such financial considerations as they regard necessary for their work. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that it is pretty fundamental to it.The Boundary Commissions are being wound up, as my right hon. Friend announced in February, but the Reports so far published by them and their unfinished work will be continued and, we hope, brought to finality by the work of the Royal Commissions.
Will the Commissions' terms of reference empower them to consider such functions of the central Government as might be better performed locally on a regional scale though not under existing local authorities?
The terms of reference will enable the Commissions to make any recommendations about the functions of the central Government which are appropriate to local government. It will not be within their terms of reference to decide how far there should be further decentralisation of Whitehall itself, but the Commissions will be free to consider existing functions and say how local government should best be organised to meet existing functions. The Commissions will be free to make recommendations about changes of functions, including—though it would not be a central part of its report, I expect—any switch of functions between central and local government.
Is there any way in which the reports of the Commissions could interfere with the implementation of changed boundaries for constituencies likely to come into being in the next four years?
I can understand the hon. Gentleman's deep concern on these questions. These are Royal Commissions on local government. The question of the work of the Boundary Commissions is a matter for an entirely different Department of State and ultimately for action by the House.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that a considerable body of opinion in Scotland is in favour of a certain amount of devolution? Will the Royal Commission for Scotland have the necessary power to consider setting up a parliament for Scotland? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] In view of the volume of opinion which seems to concur in that point of view in this House, will my right hon. Friend see that it is taken into consideration?
I am never surprised to see a coalition between my hon. Friend and the limited number of Liberals opposite, but that does not affect the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, which is to inquire into local government and not into the Act of Union and everything that has happened since.
How long are the Royal Commissions expected to take to complete their work? In other words, how long is the ball to be kicked into the long grass? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether local government reorganisation will still go on to a limited extent within the framework of the existing structure? A number of matters relating to rural and other areas are coming up at the moment. Will that work continue?
The Royal Commissions will report in certainly not much more than two years. Everyone is agreed on the need for urgency, but this review will probably be the biggest review of local government this century and we must not underrate the importance or the thoroughness with which the job must be done.With regard to the continuing work of local government reorganisation, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government and I have made it clear that each case will be considered on its merits. My right hon. Friend will be free to go on with any appropriate cases, but when it comes to the broader issues and those which involve matters of deep principle, on which the Boundary Commissions have sometimes reached conflicting views, we would do well to await the reports of the Royal Commissions.
Since the Royal Commissions may possibly recommend far-reaching changes, is it not plain that no piecemeal and footling boundary changes should take place in the interval?
I believe that we can make some useful changes on the basis, for example, of past Reports by the Boundary Commissions, but on the big issues of principle it would be better to await the reports of the Commissions. The work of the Royal Commissions will not stop all work on boundary changes in the interim. Where such changes are justified on merit, they will be carried out.
May I return to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. W. Baxter)? Is the Prime Minister aware that, at one time, Berwick was under Scottish local government but that it is now under English local government? Can it be brought back to Scotland?
Boundary distribution and the history of this subject, while important and interesting, are not immediately relevant to the work of the Royal Commissions. That will be concerned with local government. If the Royal Commissions were to make any recommendations involving a change in national frontiers, that would raise the sort of questions referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin).
The Prime Minister referred specifically to Scotland and England. I take it that Wales is included?
When the Local Government Commission for Wales reported, its recommendations were rejected by the last Government. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. James Griffiths) was appointed Secretary of State for Wales, he set up a working party composed mainly of officials to take a fresh look at Welsh local government. This has been undertaken in consultation with a cross-section of local authority opinion in Wales and it is almost completed. It is better that we await the result of its investigations before a decision is taken.
Order. Mr. Bowden. Business statement.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. At Question Time I asked the Minister of Housing and Local Government, in Question No. 22, whether the Royal Commission on Local Government would be invited to consider the desirability of the rural borough provisions in the Local Government Act, 1958. The right hon. Gentleman referred me to the Prime Minister's statement that was to be made at the end of Question Time. I therefore did not have an opportunity to put a Supplementary Question to the Minister. Would it be in order for me now to have the opportunity to put one to the Prime Minister?
This is difficult. The hon. Gentleman did not rise when I called him to put his supplementary question during Question Time. He rose later when I was passing from that Question. I cannot call everyone who wishes to put questions on local government issues like this, for so many hon. Members have interests. However, in view of the exceptional circumstances, perhaps the hon. Gentleman may be allowed to put his supplementary question.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Does the Prime Minister recognise that the future of the rural boroughs, especially as conceived in the Local Government Act, 1958, is considered by many people to be a matter of great import- ante? Will he, therefore, represent to the Minister of Housing and Local Government the desirability of not endorsing any proposals from, for example, Shropshire County Council, to merge into a large local authority unit existing boroughs whose future should be the subject of wider consideration by the Royal Commission?
The hon. Gentleman has put one point of view and, of course, there are others. I am sure that we should leave this matter to the Royal Commission to make any recommendations upon.On the particular issue raised in the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's supplementary question—about action which may or may not be taken by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government—both my right hon. Friend and I have said that he will proceed in a very limited number of cases where the position is clear. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular question in mind, perhaps he will put it to my right hon. Friend.
May I put a question, too?
Order. This is what makes me almost repent my generosity.
Following is the information:
The terms of reference for the Royal Commission on Local Government in England are:
To consider the structure of Local Government in England, outside Greater London, in relation to its existing functions; and to make recommendations for authorities and boundaries, and for functions and their division, having regard to the size and character of areas in which these can be most effectively exercised and the need to sustain a viable system of local democracy.
The names of the members are:
- Sir John Maud, G.C.B., C.B.E. (Chairman).
- Mr. J. E. Bolton, D.S.C. (Vice-Chairman).
- Mr. V. G. H. Feather, C.B.E.
- Sir Francis Hill, C.B.E.
- Mr. J. L. Longland.
- Mr. A. H. Marshall, C.B.E., Ph.D.
- Mr. Peter Mursell, M.B.E., D.L.
- Mr. Derek Senior.
- Dame Evelyn Sharp, G.B.E.
- Mr. T. D. Smith.
- Mr. R. C. Wallis, J.P.
The terms of reference for the Royal Commission on Local Government in Scotland are:
To consider the structure of Local Government in Scotland in relation to its existing functions; and to make recommendations for authorities and boundaries, and for functions and their division, having regard to the size and character of areas in which these can be most effectively exercised and the need to sustain a viable system of local democracy.
The names of the members are:
- The Right Hon. Lord Wheatley (Chairman).
- Miss M. B. Harvie Anderson, O.B.E., T.D., M.P. (Mrs. J. F. P. Skrimshire).
- Mr. Henry Ballantyne, D.L., J.P.
- The Right Hon. Thomas Fraser, M.P.
- Mr. A. L. Imrie, C.B.E.
- Mr. D. R. Johnston, M.P.
- Mr. James McBoyle, C.B.E., D.L.
- Mr. H. T. MacCalman.
One further Member will be appointed shortly.