The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. John Morris)
The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Nott), whatever else he has done, has eaten a little into my time. I was due to rise at five minutes past 11 o'clock. [Interruption.] Will right hon. and hon. Members pipe down.
This has been a long and interesting debate. Hon. Members on both sides have expressed their satisfaction and dissatisfaction with my right hon. Friend's proposals, as might have been expected. We have had an unusually large number of maiden speakers. It is my privilege to congratulate all of them on their contributions. I am sure, in view of the lateness of the hour, that they will forgive me if I do not go into detail about their speeches. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornaby (Mr. Wrigglesworth), in a fluent and able speech, told us of the anger about rate increases. Of course, from my right hon. Friend's proposals, Middlesborough is a gainer of 4p. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) combined the talents of [column 189]the skilled advocate and Celtic passion and began to bring the debate back to a proper perspective. He said that any system which doubles the rates must be wrong and that his own party was partly to blame.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), in a very able speech, said that he seeds of this increase were sown by the last Government in their reorganisation proposals. The hon. Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant), in his able speech, told us of the anxieties of a shopkeeper in his constituency about the increase in rates. I have good news for his constituent. Under my right hon. Friend's proposals he will be the beneficiary of 5p. I am sorry that I did not hear the speeches of the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) and Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) but I am told that they, too, were very able.
My right hon. Friend has been most unfairly under attack. It has been suggested that he is some kind of novice who came suddenly to office and upturned the tables the moment he got there. It is within the recollection of the House that he was Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning and before that successively Secretary of State for Education and Science and President of the Board of Trade in the last Labour Government, and that in opposition he was shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, considering then the very problems which he took over the moment he was appointed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
As my hon. Friend for South Shields (Mr. Blenkinsop) said, clearly there is a great deal of hypocrisy about the statements we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members opposite today because, as he pointed out, even after the modest benefits which South Shields will get from my right hon. Friend's proposals, there is to be a rate increase of between 50 and 60 per cent.—and none of that can be laid at the door of the present Government.
The truth is that there is a substantial increase in rates throughout the country, and it is no good the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) waxing furious about it and suggesting that most of it is our responsibility. We are [column 190]dealing here with only a part of the totality of Government support for the rates—£446 million—and only part of that sum has been shifted by my right hon. Friend to those parts of the country which, in our judgment, should carry the greater burden. We are dealing with only £200 million out of a total rate support of £3,076 million. Indeed, the rate support grant is 60.5 per cent. of the total relevant expenditure of the local authorities for this purpose. Therefore, the Opposition's case against my right hon. Friend is hypocritical.
The right hon. Lady talked of “callous indifference” by my right hon. Friend, but she spoiled her advocacy by over-egging the pudding. She glosses over the fact that her constituency in Barnet is a minor gainer from his proposals. Indeed, hon. Members opposite representing London have been conspicuous by their absence today. Most of the London areas are substantial gainers from my right hon. Friend's proposals; the only parts which do not gain are, fractionally, Bromley, Croydon, Harrow and Havering. If any hon. Member opposite who represents London votes against the order, he will have a lot of explaining to do to his constituents.
To talk of “callous indifference” is a gross over-exaggeration by the right hon. Lady. She talks of extravagance by local authorities in paying high staff salaries resulting from reorganisation. Anyone coming from outside might believe that all this could be laid at the door of the Government. But local government reorganisation has been the child of the Tory Party. The previous Government introduced it. They allowed this whole edifice to be built up. When the right hon. Lady talks of local government extravagance, is she suggesting that there should be greater Government interference? Has there been some major new manifestation on the local government front since 1st March?
In what was said to be an important vote in this House the other day, but which turned out to be a non-event, we saw the Grand Old Duke of York leading his troops up the hill and down again. I warn the right hon. Lady that she must not imitate the Grand Old Duke of York and become known as the Grand Old Duchess of York. [column 191]
It is odd, when the former Government were suggesting as recently as 17th December that public expenditure should be kept down, that there should now be the suggestion that we should indulge in greater public expenditure by way of greater assistance.
I am enjoying my right hon. and learned Friend's speech, but will he now deal with the issues that have been raised, from this side as well as the Opposition side of the House?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend. I will deal with his comments in a moment. I am dealing with the right hon. Lady just now.
We had a thoughtful and telling speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Short). She made the pertinent point that much of the present situation is due to the actions of the last Government following from local government reorganisation, water reorganisation charges and the enormous rate of inflation. These are crucial factors behind the present rates, regarded as a burden by so many hon. Members.
Mr. Graham Page
I cannot give way. The House knows that I am usually most generous in giving way. I have been allowed only 22 minutes in which to reply.
Under this Government, as under the last one, the total rate burden remains the same. The total of Government support remains the same. I hear accusations of gerrymandering. What has happened? There has been a shift of a minor part of the whole of Government assistance.
Mr. Timothy Raison (Aylesbury)
It was the Conservative Party which began this. It did not go far enough in giving the Government aid that was so much needed by many parts of the country. It is a matter of judgement, and in our judgment we have to do more. [Interruption.] Every part of the country could have done with much more. Obviously in the present economic situation—[Interruption.]—we have to shift a part of the burden within the totality of aid.[column 192]
Order. On the whole, it has been an orderly debate so far. I am afraid that behaviour does not seem to change very much whichever side is in Opposition or in Government.
The House will, I am sure, want to hear the reply to the many able and thoughtful speeches that have been made, and I will do my best in the limited time, if I am allowed to do so by hon. Gentlemen opposite, to make my reply.
The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) enjoyed himself hugely and was supported from the Front Bench when he referred to a speech made by my colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Industry. I understand that my hon. Friend was referring to the relief which would be given by the proposed rate rebate scheme which will help up to 3 million people who are less well off. The first scheme was introduced by the Labour Government, and the Conservative Government proposed to improve it.
Mr. Graham Page
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
No. The order had not come into effect, it having been laid after the election was announced. We have taken over lock, stock and barrel, the proposals of the previous Government.
That is absolute nonsense. The Under-Secretary of State's words were:
I am authorised to tell you that this Government will at an early stage be introducing a rate relief measure precisely to aid areas like Exeter which have been disadvantaged by that altered rate support grant formula.
That cannot refer to the rate rebates which were provided for in the last measure of the previous Government.
I have told the House that my hon. Friend was referring to the rate rebate scheme which had not yet come into effect. The order has been laid and we have taken over the previous administration's proposals.
Mr. James Prior (Lowestoft)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I will not give way.[column 193]
On a point of order. Would it not be in order on an occasion such as this, Mr. Speaker, for a personal statement to be made to the House at the earliest opportunity, as what the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying now is totally different?
That is not a matter for the Chair.
I have made the position clear. My hon. Friend was referring to the rate rebate order which was to be made and is being made.
The interruptions have made it exceedingly difficult for me to deal with the other points.
There have been attacks on the rating system. My right hon. Friend said that there was an element of rough justice in his proposals. I am sure that the House will accept that his aim is right and that a large number of people who are hard-pressed will welcome my right hon. Friend's proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Laughlin) and other hon. Members wanted a review.
The right hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Page) dealt with the need to abolish all rates. The right hon. Gentleman's was a fascinating speech. Indeed, three and a half weeks out of office undoubtedly sharpen the mind enormously. I thought that he was a strong candidate for being a one-man Royal Commission upon the rates.
Mr. Graham Page
The right hon. and learned Gentleman, having referred to me, will perhaps now tell the House what provision is being brought in by the present Government to aid Exeter as promised by the junior Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that that is not an intervention which I would have given way to at this juncture had I suspected that that would be its nature—though earlier, yes.
The right hon. Gentleman was less caustic than the right hon. Lady the Member for Finchley, because the right hon. Gentleman's comment upon my right hon. Friend's proposals were that they were rough guesswork and flat-footed. The implication from that was that his [column 194]Government's proposals were less flatfooted and that there was less guesswork about them. I am sure that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman would not want that implication to go abroad, because there was a great deal of roughness in those proposals as well.
One other matter which is of very great importance is the need for a review of the whole system. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Ginsburg) brought a delegation to see my right hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mr. Tomlinson) forcibly argued the case for a review, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West.
In the next 12 months there will be a review of the distribution of the rate support grant. We shall be going into the whole matter more thoroughly in time for next year and shall be paying particular attention to those aspects of the system which appear to give rise to anomalies. My right hon. Friend does not rule out a more fundamental review of the whole rating system, but this obviously will be longer term than in the next 12 months. The solution to this problem has escaped Government after Government, and I would certainly agree that there is a need to look at the problem as a whole.
What happens if the order is rejected tonight? Local authorities would have to borrow at the rate of £60 million a week at a current rate of interest approaching 15 per cent. How long this would continue I cannot say, but if hon. Members think that it would be easy or quick to renegotiate a whole grant settlement they are wrong. If there were to be any question of altering the needs and resources elements, there would have to be complicated discussions between the Department and the local authority associations, followed by discussions at ministerial level, culminating in a statutory meeting, and then the laying of a new order. This is a process which would be bound to take many weeks. This is a fact and not a threat.
The shortage of time is not our fault. The last Government created the problem. Normally this kind of order would have been laid before December. Therefore, the onus and the whole responsibility for this matter being dealt with so late in [column 195]the day lies with the last Government. The rejection of this order would cause undue and grave hardship. I therefore commend the order to the House.
The House divided: Ayes 292, Noes 217.