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Mr. Bates : Had not Cleveland county council decided to waste taxpayers' money by challenging in the High Court the decision of the local government commissioner, the situation that the hon. Gentleman advocates could have been possible.
Mr. Henderson : I understand the strong views that are held in Cleveland and I will not comment on a case that may go before the courts. If the courts endorse the view that an error was made in the way that recommendations were prepared, it would be difficult for hon. Members to be critical of a county council that took action to protect the services in its area. Before the hon. Gentleman gets too excited, he should wait for the court to make its announcements on that subject.
I shall try to categorise my comments into two parts. The second part is about the implications of the order on the rest of the review, or, in other words, the general principles that apply to the order and which will apply also to the rest of the review. There are many suspicions in the country about the Government's motives in the order and elsewhere. I notice the Minister smiling at that point, so he obviously recognises, as I have, that that is the case. There are suspicions, because many people throughout the country, especially in areas such as Cleveland and Humberside, fear that, with the local government review, the Government are attempting to cherry- pick or pick off councils with which they do not agree--for example, Labour -controlled councils and councils that have adopted policies with which the Government differ.
Other suspicions are held by people who want to have a review and have a unitary authority established in their area. They feel that they will not have that opportunity, because the Government will run for cover after cherry picking Cleveland and Humberside and not complete the review. That would mean that some areas--in, for example, East Anglia, the midlands and the south--that would want a review, to have the chance to make the case for a unitary authority, will not have the opportunity to do so. They do not believe that the review will be completed.
I can understand why those suspicions exist, because local government members in areas such as south Norfolk and Oxfordshire--I have even heard it said of members in parts of Yorkshire, who are in power--are opposed to the review and the impact that it will have on their areas. It will not be easy for the Government to ramrod any order that they want through the House. If the Government want the support of the House for their orders, they will have to make arguments that can be supported by hon. Members and which will take on board or counteract the suspicions that are held not only by hon. Members but by councillors, officers of authorities, staff and the public in many parts of the country. I do not want the local government review to be discredited. I do not want it to lose public support, but I believe that, if the Government cannot allay those suspicions, there is a risk that the whole review will be sidetracked into oblivion.
I make the Opposition's position clear to the Government. We stated in meetings that were held with authorities throughout the country that we will examine each order on its merit. But that approach is not without condition. The Government should not take our attitude to the order as a signal of our attitude to mainland reorganisation. I warn the Government tonight that parliamentary support for the procedures of the review will depend on undertakings being given on the following five issues : first, that the review will be thorough and genuinely cover the country as a whole ; that there will be no cherry picking of areas such as Cleveland, Humberside, Derbyshire or Avon ; that the review will be completed ; that recommendations will be acted on ; and that consistent principles will be adopted throughout.
Column 694Secondly, there should be no gerrymandering of specific boundaries for narrow party political advantage. Thirdly, in shadow authorities, there should be all-out elections--as I argue for the Isle of Wight--from day one. Fourthly, in subsequent years, a third of the council should be up for election annually. That could be advantageous for the Government, because if they accepted condition three--that there should be all-out elections--and suffered an horrendous defeat, if there are elections on the basis of a third of the council, it is easier for the Government to recoup some of their position in later years. So there may be strong arguments in that for the Government. Fifthly, the Government should meet the reasonable representations that will be made to them by the staff commission about the way in which staff are treated when their jobs have been changed as part of the reorganisation.
I do not wish to detain the House further than is necessary, but I should like the Minister to reconsider establishing a shadow authority on the Isle of Wight. If primary legislation is required to achieve that, I assure him that there will be no obstruction from the Opposition.
The Minister will recognise that he has a problem, because it will be difficult for the Government to get any recommendations through the House in relation to reorganisation. We support the principle of unitary authorities, but we want that principle to be established fairly. I do not believe that it can be, unless those five conditions are met.
"The world owes its onward impulses to those who are ill at ease ; permanently happy individuals confine themselves to ancient limits!" The following day, my right hon. Friend the Lord President announced the debate on this order, for which I have campaigned for so long. The day after, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Minister for Roads and Traffic, announced that there would be signing on the M27 to the Isle of Wight--the completion of a nearly seven-year campaign. So, all in all, the Isle of Wight's birthdays have almost all come on the same day.
It is a privilege, given to few in the House, to be afforded the opportunity to move history an inch. It is probably rarer still that an hon. Member may have the opportunity to legislate for his or her constituency in total isolation from the rest of Her Majesty's kingdom. Tonight, a possibly unique and historic occasion is taking place, when just one hon. Member has that opportunity on behalf of an entire county and two districts or, in the Isle of Wight's case, the two borough councils of South Wight and Medina, which, coincidentally, comprise in their entirety a parliamentary seat.
So here we stand on the threshold of the most major and radical reorganisation of local government that the island has seen in contemporary history : a single authority for the delivery of all the services throughout the island. We could debate the warts and glitches in the enabling legislation and the fact that we have an inheritor authority, as has already been mentioned, and not a fresh start as was envisaged by the local government commission. We could debate the lack of a true shadow authority and the peculiar election cycle and adjustments that the parish and town councils will have to make in due course to their own election cycle. We could debate the fact that, of the four times that I have
Column 695lost my temper since becoming an hon. Member, two of them were over this order, and were directed at my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), who is the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. I should like to apologise to him and thank him for his great kindness and understanding of my frustration. We could debate the merits and demerits of the unification of the planning process and its application and possible precedent, like the inheritor arguments, for those who may yet follow the island's example towards the unitary goal.
But, tonight, I do not intend to follow those points, for some of them, as has already been mentioned, require primary legislation. I had to exercise my judgment as to whether I could and should hold out for further changes and embellishments, or accept that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. In my opinion, the proposals for a change in local government in the shire counties probably no longer command a majority in the House, and certainly do not warrant further delay.
Did I therefore gamble the art of the possible on all the vagaries of the legislative wheel of fortune, whose uncertainties are all too well known to hon. Members ? It is true that I upped the ante, as they say ; but then, if I had not, would we ever have got this far ? I doubt it.
It is not often that a Back Bencher has the opportunity to pray in aid the opinion of a leading counsel ; but South Wight borough council, which was particularly concerned about this point, sought the opinion of Mr. Jeremy Sullivan QC. In his concluding remarks, he stated :
"I would have thought that litigation which prolonged uncertainty as to the future of local government structure for the Island would not be desirable from the Council's point of view."
I took that view in regard to further legislation. I know that that counsel's opinion has been sent to Opposition Members.
As so often happens in the House, the devil is in the detail. The detailed requirements of these changes nearly unhinged the consensus that had been built up on the island in favour of this reform. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Planning has promised me in private to give an undertaking that, when the reorganisation for the whole country is complete, he will review the electoral cycles of the new unitary authorities vis-a-vis the existing and/or remaining authorities to see whether any alignment would be welcome ; I hope that he will put that on the record tonight, as well as the arrangements for aligning the parish and town council elections on the island, which do not appear in the order. There remains the concern that I have already expressed on the Floor of the House about the combination of the three standard spending assessments and their effect on the island's future spending pattern. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is minded of that. Having spent nearly nine years working towards the success of this change, both inside and outside the House, I have never lost sight of the fact that, while the loudest noise comes from the councillors, those most affected are the men and women for whom local government service is both a career and a livelihood. I would fail in my duty to those who have given such excellent service to the island if I did not tell the Minister that there remains a substantial reservoir of mistrust among staff at all levels that the staff commission does not seem to have fully hoisted on board their concern that we are to have an inheritor authority.
Column 696Only last weekend, another staff deputation came to see me and expressed continuing concern about the fact that although the county council gives the appearance of consultation, it also gives the impression that everything has been fixed in advance. Feelings are running high on this aspect of the reform. I accept that the masterly inactivity occasioned by the delay in the order has not helped, and that once the process is embarked on some of the fears will evaporate ; I must put it on record, however, that if the employees' misgivings turn out to have some foundation, it is to the staff commission and only the staff commission that they can appeal. The Minister must ensure that the commission has the teeth to give effect to the need for transparent and fair decisions, especially in regard to borough council staff.
The other matter that I wish to raise concerns unfinished business. The commission did not deliberate on the question of the island's boundaries in relation to the Solent, but drew attention to our concerns. The Select Committee on the Environment, of which I am a member, has touched on the subject again in recent weeks. Judging by the interest that that has caused, I feel certain that every hon. Member with a coastal constituency considers that the problem must be addressed sooner rather than later.
Some on the island have eased the process ; others have opposed it. I have no wish to mention any of them tonight, however. We have an island saying : "No one mentioned, no one forgotten." So, to councillors and officers who have helped the process I say thank you ; as for those who have opposed it, my most fervent hope and prayer is that their misgivings will be proved to have been unfounded. As I have said on many occasions, I have carried a far heavier burden in obtaining these reforms than may be realised. I am very conscious that the last thing that those of us who value local government want--after all the dust has settled and all the changes have been made--is for the man on the Southern Vectis omnibus to go around saying, "Who on earth thought this one up ?" After all, the purpose of the reform is to make local government more user friendly, more efficient and--dare I say it --more comprehensible to the good citizens of the Isle of Wight, who are paying for it.
I will let the House into a secret : I have a horror of having any road or building named after me. I believe in the words, "If you wish to see my monument, look around you." To have delivered this reform to my own constituency in under seven years in the House is a piece of remarkable good fortune--but, like so many of my constituents who are lucky enough to live on the Isle of Wight, I sometimes do not want to share the island and my good fortune with anyone else. Although I am mindful that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), the President of the Board of Trade, who put the legislation through the House, I hope that he will accept that he will not find a coded message in my likening myself to Frodo Baggins in Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings". He had to destroy the one ring that his Uncle Bilbo had obtained, against all the odds, to keep it from Sauron the Dark Lord so that he could not use it for his evil purposes.
I have been pleased to hold the ring for the Isle of Wight's reform, but the Dark Lord that I see in the national picture of these reforms of local government is a bill that the nation can ill afford, and a reform that exactly fits the rule of Hapsburg politics so eloquently articulated by Count Taaffe :
Column 697"Beyond the achievement of a level of supportable dissatisfaction on all sides, I have no political ambitions."
My constituents, and the nation, will have to wait for my memoirs to learn of the effort that went into securing this order and the consensus on the island that lubricated its path. It has not been easy, but then anything worth while in this life rarely is. I understand that the other place has provisionally set aside 28 April for debate on the order, subject to what happens here tonight. I hope that the order will be approved in this House without a vote : that is what the island would wish, and I believe that it would clearly reflect the island's views.
As I said at the beginning of this short debate, I am conscious of a sense of history in the making tonight. I feel that I can only close by paraphrasing the time-honoured words used to launch every ship that has served the island since time began. Accordingly, I wish this order and the new Isle of Wight council Godspeed : may all who serve in it, whether as employees or as councillors, find fulfilment, and may all its deliberations and decisions be to our island's advantage.
I was interested by the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), in which he spoke of opposition and the Isle of Wight in one breath. Interestingly, on the island, the opposition are the Conservatives and the administration is the Liberal Democrats. I am not sure where the Labour party stands--I suspect virtually nowhere.
The Government have shown uncharacteristic generosity in introducing the order before any other. If there is any cherry picking on the Isle of Wight, the cherry certainly is very orange.I say "uncharacteristic" because if the order is passed, as I hope it will be, considerable power will be put in the hands of the new Liberal Democrat administration, which won an increased majority last May. That is very welcome.
Almost everybody agrees that the order should be passed. I understand that all three parties represented here and people on the island agree, so I very much hope that the order will be passed, but there is a difficulty in the way in which it has been handled, which has been mentioned and to which I should like to refer briefly. An inheritor authority--a continuing authority--will take over straight away. The difficulty is the possibility of some unfairness to the staff of the two councils that will be abolished, compared with staff in the other council, and to a certain extent, although this is probably less important, to the councillors concerned. More important than either of those possibilities is the lack of democracy. It is clear that some electors will choose different candidates--perhaps even different parties--for different jobs in government. One obvious example is the Isle of Wight, where the electorate, for reasons best known to themselves, chose a Conservative Member of Parliament but a Liberal Democrat administration for their county council. There is no reason to suppose, therefore, that the electorate would wish the same people on the successor authority as on the county council. It is unfortunate that they should be unable to make that further choice. I hope
Column 698that the Minister will address the lack of democracy and will assure us that this situation will never arise again in any other reorganisation.
Mr. Barry Field : Would the hon. Gentleman put himself in my shoes for a moment ? Would he have continued to try to force the Government's hand and have occasioned a delay in the introduction of the order of a year, or perhaps two years, or would he have taken the view that uncertainty is the bedevilment of good management in local government and have taken the opportunity afforded now to get on with it ?
Mr. Rendel : I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention as it gives me the chance to say that I agree that any further delay would be unfortunate. It is in the best interests of staff that they should know where they stand and I would not have tried to delay the order in the way that he suggests. In that sense, he has acted in the right manner, but it leaves us, nevertheless, with the difficulty that, unless we receive an assurance from the Minister, further reorganisations may get into exactly the same trouble as we have got into here. I hope, therefore, that we shall receive an assurance from the Minister later.
I have a personal interest in this matter not only as spokesman for the Liberal Democrats on local government, but as the Member representing the area covered by Newbury district council, which may retain exactly the same boundaries when it becomes an unitary authority if an order is proposed later this year. I do not want an unitary authority in my area to be simply a continuing authority, as is proposed for the Isle of Wight.
It seems that the situation arose originally from a simple drafting error in the legislation--or that is what we are led to believe, but perhaps the Minister will comment on that, too. There is every sign that the Government, in promising a completely fresh start, originally thought that a completely new authority would be set up in advance of any powers being transferred. Clearly, all three authorities on the Isle of Wight originally believed that that would be so and welcomed it.
It is clear that the Association of District Councils and Association of County Councils believe that a new authority should be in place before any transfer of powers and are sorry that that will not apply in the Isle of Wight. The question for the Minister, therefore, is : are we setting a precedent today that will be followed on another occasion, or will the law in effect be changed to ensure that the precedent does not apply in future ?
Despite what I have said about that difficulty, I believe that the order should be passed because my criterion for whether reorganisation should take place is somewhat different from the five criteria given by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North. My criterion is simple : is there a clear majority in favour of the reorganisation proposed among the people of the area concerned ? On the Isle of Wight, it seems that there is such a majority, so I welcome the order and hope that the House will approve it today. 7.25 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : I am quite neutral about the wording of the order. I have never visited the Isle of Wight, so I have little knowledge of it. If MORI polls and polls conducted by local government commissioners show strong support for a unitary authority
Column 699in the area, I shall support the order. The problem is the implications of the order and the procedure being followed to introduce it.
The Boundary Commission for England is reviewing local government in England. Counties are at different stages of their analysis, but we should be conducting an overall investigation of local government boundaries and functions, after which we should discuss primary legislation to enact those proposals, rather than debating an order that might be used as a precedent for other areas.
Unitary authorities have served local government well in some areas, especially where there has been strong local support for them, but I see no grounds for saying that they should be the general pattern or that they should be established by order. I am conscious of your ruling, Madam Deputy Speaker, that this debate is not on the local government review. Therefore, my concerns about Derbyshire may not be held to be entirely relevant, but, because of my concern about Derbyshire and similar areas, I am concerned about the procedure that we are pursuing tonight and the implications of it.
I do not necessarily agree with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said ; he was more sympathetic to the establishment of unitary authorities, albeit within a regional structure, than I am. Some functions of county areas may have to be rationalised, and in some areas unitary authorities should be established. In the county of Derbyshire, there seems a reasonable case for Derby itself being a unitary authority. A MORI poll conducted there showed that it was the one part of the county that was in favour of that arrangement. However, the people in the rest of the county strongly favour the status quo and see no need for any adjustment to the basic boundaries between the district and county authorities. That view needs to be taken into account. If the argument in favour of this proposal rests on the views of the people of the Isle of Wight, what happens elsewhere in the country and the attitude taken by the House should also be dependent on the views of people in a particular area.
Although the arguments might be strong in favour of the order, I am fearful of the procedures that we use to introduce it and of its implications, whether or not there is cherry picking and whether or not this is only the first stage of the new structure for local government. It is on those grounds that, unless I can be convinced otherwise, I am disposed to seek to divide the House.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I was not able to be here earlier for the very good reason that I have been engaged in trying to help save Tower colliery, the last pit in south Wales. I hope that the Minister will understand. I shall probably still be here making telephone calls to that end, after all other hon. Members have gone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) knows, I had intended to be here, but there have been some new developments with a view to another mass meeting of NUM members at the colliery in the morning.
I have taken a keen interest in the local government review, and not only in the present one of which the Isle of Wight order is the first segment. It has disturbed me from
Column 700the very beginning that, unlike the Local Government Act 1972, when issues and areas were debated as the Bill, as it was, passed through its parliamentary stages, this order is probably only one of many which are to come in the next few months or the next year. Many of us are worried about the system that is being used to introduce the order. It is pretty clear what the Government are up to, whether one describes it as Machiavellian or in some other way. In 1972, we were able to debate the proposals in principle. Now--to use a phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East--we have cherry picking, whereby the Government and their Back Benchers can say that what is proposed does not matter much to them so they will proceed.
According to what I have read, most of the people of the Isle of Wight are happy with the new proposal, which may or may not be true. However, a constituency can be happy about something but the national scene may be quite different. What disturbs me is the fact that, if we allow the order to go through on the nod, we leave it open for the Minister to be able to say in future that hon. Members were not against the issue in principle because we allowed the Isle of Wight order to go through without a Division.
That causes a problem for people such as me and my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East because our county is in line for the same treatment. We also worry about Cleveland because, presumably, the Cleveland order could be next. The Government and others might say to Cleveland that, as the Isle of Wight order went through on 18 April with hardly any opposition, every Member of Parliament accepted the system in principle. I am against the system that is being used because I can see what might happen.
Some of the counties and areas that have traditionally been hostile to the Tory Government for many years--for example, Cleveland, Durham and Derbyshire--may well be regarded as prizes to be dealt with in similar orders. The Government will say that they are using the same procedure that they used for the Isle of Wight order and the subsequent orders will be passed while most of us in Derbyshire believe in retaining the status quo. It may not be satisfactory for people in the Isle of Wight, but that is the conclusion of the majority of people in our part of the world. I think that the same is true of many other areas, too.
Some of us are astonished by the amount of money--probably £1 billion in the whole of England and Wales, including the Isle of Wight--being spent on the reorganisation of local government. Many of us believe that if such a large amount of taxpayers' money is available, it should be used to build houses and improve amenities in our towns and cities.
The Isle of Wight is minuscule in relation to the country as a whole, although I accept that it is important to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) and the people who live there. However, it could be symbolic because the Isle of Wight order might set a precedent. I should therefore like the Minister to tell us whether he regards this order as a precedent for others. Will all the rest be dealt with en bloc ? He shakes his head, so we know what the answer will be.
I predict a scenario in which the future of a few authorities such as Cleveland, Derbyshire and Durham could be subject to the vote of Tory Members of Parliament and perhaps others who will vote for similar orders, even in counties where we know that Tories are up
Column 701in arms against the proposal. I was in Somerset a couple of months ago to address about 500 people, almost all of whom were opposed to it. There was tremendous opposition from all parties.
I can envisage a situation in which several orders are introduced, but Tory Members of Parliament will say that they have had enough and are going to pack it up. The Government then have a reshuffle and the Secretary of State for the Environment is moved on, and the same happens to the Minister for Local Government and Planning. If they are moved to other Departments, what they have said will not longer matter. The Minister smiles, but that is what happens and that is what is likely to happen. The net result is that the Government will say that they have a new brush and wish to make a clean sweep. It would mean that what we fought for in Derbyshire and some of the traditional Labour territories could be changed at a stroke. Although we are not allowed to talk specifically about Derbyshire, the Government are insisting on continual revisions. I do not know whether this happened on the Isle of Wight, but the local government commissioners are repeatedly sent back until they get the results that the Government want. The Government are shifting the goal posts whenever the people of Derbyshire speak. The Minister has already said that he is not prepared to propose all the changes en bloc so that some Tory Members could vote with us against massive changes in some parts of Britain. The Government's agenda is clear : the Isle of Wight tonight, the rest later.
I do not know my party's position in this instance, but, as we are all concerned about the massive amount of taxpayers' money to be spent on this wholly unnecessary reorganisation, we have no alternative but to oppose the order on principle because it will be the start of many more orders. I do not want the Government to be able to say that nobody voted against the first. Once we have accepted in principle the idea of orders late at night, we shall not have a case to answer.
Mr. Barry Field : I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has done me a great favour in describing me as "minuscule". I do not think that I have ever before been thus described, but I take it as an honour to be described by the hon. Gentleman, who is a great parliamentarian. I shall try to clarify the precise position. The hon. Gentleman says that he will vote against the principle, but not against the order as it affects the Isle of Wight. Do I have him right ?
Mr. Skinner : No. I am saying that the local government reorganisation in 1972 was brought before the House in the form of a Bill. We had Second Reading and Committee debates. Many hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who had grievances were able to play one off against the other, and the result was that certain changes were made. On this occasion, the Government have operated differently, knowing that they are dealing with massive changes which will alienate many Tories in certain parts of Britain--although not, perhaps in the Isle of Wight. As a result, the Government are introducing the changes order by order. I have a feeling that the hidden agenda is for the order to go through--no one will get too excited about that--and then to start on the traditional Labour areas.
Column 702I am not privy to what people on the Isle of Wight have said. From what I have read, I assume that most people are satisfied with the new arrangements. However, if I accepted the order, in future, when fighting for some of the other areas nearer and dearer to my heart, I could be accused at Question Time and on other occasions. Ministers might say, "You did not fight it on principle, Skinner. You let it go through." On those grounds, I believe that we have no alternative. The Minister has made it clear that he will introduce orders in a cherry- picking fashion.
Mr. Curry : It is not my job to speak for the business managers. I am sure that if the Opposition made an approach about the manner in which the orders could be taken, the business managers would be more than receptive. However, the fact remains that the Commission makes recommendations in a certain sequence and we have to lay them in front of the House. I should have thought that those who have talked about gerrymandering or about the democratic system would have believed that on the whole, giving the House the opportunity to vote on the organising proposals as they arrive would be the best guarantee of democracy. As I said, I am not one of the business managers. If the Opposition have a better idea, I have no doubt that we shall listen to it.
What lies behind the argument is that the process is what has been described as cherry-picking. I make it clear that we are proceeding with the reorganisation. There is no thought in my mind that there would come a point at which we would say, "That is it, chaps. It is all getting too difficult." It is, of course, true that the parties are divided. Conservatives are divided against Conservatives, Labour is divided against Labour and Liberal Democrat is divided against Liberal Democrat. Provided that the debate is about the correct, sensible and most responsible form of local government, it is a good debate and there is no reason why it should not take place. We do not want it to become a debate on the basis of mistaken information or of misleading propaganda, or for it to become a Hobbesian battle for survival when people forget that the issue is delivering services. I have no problem with there being argument, however inconvenient that is, because we all share the inconvenience.
Mr. Barnes : But it will not be a full-fledged debate in the House. There will be statutory instruments--bits and pieces--and a bit of a debate. There are only a handful of us here tonight. If we had a Bill similar to the Bill that brought about the changes in 1974, we would have massive discussions, a proper Committee stage, serious consideration and the possibility of amendment. Instead, we have a statutory instrument--a matter of "take it or leave it". Unfortunately, some of us will have to leave it.
Mr. Curry : I am delighted to know that the Labour party has been so profoundly content with the procedures adopted for the reorganisation of local government in Wales and in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) said, there has been a Bill for each of those reorganisations. The decision in England was to set up an independent commission. The commission is independent because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I consult him about appointments to maintain the
Column 703balance in the commission ; that is thought to be the best way forward. In any case, that is now water under the bridge. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North asked me about five conditions ; I shall respond as precisely as possible. As I told him, we are not in the business of cherry-picking. We intend to pursue a universal review. He also talked about gerrymandering. As he knows, the commission has to make recommendations and then has to confirm or change its recommendations. The recommendations come to the Government who have to judge them in the light of criteria that are set out clearly in statute. We then have to invite the House of Commons to act on the recommendations.
Leaving aside the commission's consultations, I point out that we consult very widely. I have had as many delegations of Opposition Members come to talk to me about proposals as I have had from other interested parties. We are not in the business of trying to rig the change. That would be foolhardy and extremely difficult to pull off. I must make it clear that that is not part of the game.
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams) : I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House for not having listened to the whole debate. Do I understand it that once the commission has made its recommendations for my county of Devon and the west country, the Government will then decide whether they will go along with them ? When the proposal comes to the Floor of the House, what will happen on each order that affects Devon ? Will there be a debate such as this one for Devon and will there be a Division, or will a statutory instrument be discussed in Committee, in which case there will be no opportunity for a real debate ?
Mr. Curry : I do not claim to have any particular expertise in procedure, so if I am wrong, I shall correct my remarks. My understanding is that each order will come to the Floor of the House for debate and that each order will have a separate vote attached to it so that hon. Members on both sides will have an opportunity to express themselves on each proposal.
In general terms--I use the words "in general terms" because we consult people about what they want--we intend that shadow elections will take place a year before the new council comes into operation. The people who have been elected to the shadow council, which prepares for the new council, will be the people who assume the full responsibility. In other words, our expectation is that people will usually vote for a new council to reorganise and then to implement the new proposals.
Mr. Henderson : I am sorry that I was not able to catch the Minister's attention a second before he moved on to shadow authorities. Cherry-picking is the issue which concerns many hon. Members. Can the Minister suggest to the House a commitment that would be binding on the Government which would give hon. Members confidence that the Government were not going to change direction somewhere along the line ? Can the Minister raise confidence by saying that when orders come before the House in future, he will say what the Government want to happen with the complete review ? Can he give an assurance that there will not be back-tracking at some point
Column 704down the line ? Can he give a minimum assurance that he would demit his office if there were any abandonment of the review ?
Mr. Curry : The only assurance that I can give is that it is not the Government's intention to abandon the review. Frankly, if we had intended to bail out of the review, the time to do so would have been about a year ago ; it would not be now. The review is on course, the commission is on schedule and the timetable is being adhered to. Of course, the fact that a number of councils have chosen to go to judicial review has meant that the short-term timetable has had to be amended. However, what matters ultimately is our intention that in May 1997, the last of the new authorities will assume their full responsibilities. We are still on target to reach that date. As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North will appreciate, I cannot speculate about what may happen in future reviews, because the commission still has the competence. It is not for me to speculate on what the commission may produce. As we do the reviews, I am perfectly willing, if any general threads or patterns emerge, to discuss what we might be learning. That is as much as it would be right for me to do constitutionally.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North made a point about one third being elected at a time. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the answer he seeks because under legislation, it is and will be up to councils to tell the Government the basis on which they wish to organise their elections. I would have to have very strong reasons to say no to a proposal.
Currently, it is up to a council that elects by an all-out system, to come and ask whether it can move to a system of election by thirds. Of course, councils must start with the big bang, as it were, because there is no other way in which to start the process. However, if councils then prefer to have elections by thirds, they have the ability to ask for that and I cannot think of reasons for which we would wish to deny that request. That is all that I can do under the legislation.
I note the point that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North makes about the staff commission and its recommendations. We are about to consult widely on them. My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) mentioned those points and I noted them carefully. The staff arrangements made under the order will have to be the subject of legislation.
My hon. Friend asked me about a commitment that I gave to him and I am happy to repeat it. I told him that the Isle of Wight unitary council was technically the continuation of the county council. Therefore, it will follow that electoral cycle. The next set of elections will be in 1998 to allow the new councillors a reasonable period of office. After the transitional arrangements, the unitary authorities will return to the county council electoral cycle. However, once a structural review of shire England has been completed, and we have a clear view of the future structure of local government, we intend to review local authority electoral cycles and to consider whether and how the provisions of the Local Government Act 1972 may be amended. The possibility of considering the whole question of electoral cycles may be the point which my hon. Friend wishes to discuss.
Our review will also cover the need to align unitary authorities and parish elections in the way that is recommended for the island by the commission. We accept
Column 705that recommendation and agree that it would be expensive and wasteful to have parish elections in different years on the island. I think that that meets entirely my hon. Friend's point. I have covered the point about staffing. That will be an area on which, in future reviews when we have gained some experience, we shall be able to have a slightly fuller discussion. On the question of the extension of the coast, my hon. Friend will be aware of the especial constitutional position. I am perfectly willing to write to him in detail on the constitutional points which may be helpful as they are not germane to today's argument.
Points were made by two hon. Members who represent Derbyshire constituencies. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked whether, if we let the order go without opposing it, it would be taken as a precedent and people would say that he did not oppose the principle. I would argue the other way. If the hon. Gentleman votes against a measure such as this order, which, it is commonly understood, has a broad measure of support and is broadly supported on the island, surely he would be establishing precisely the opposite principle that, come what may, he would vote against the orders. His Front-Bench spokesmen are in favour of the local government review, but the hon. Gentleman said that he thought that the whole thing was a waste.
The fact remains that there is a broad consensus in the House that we should test the efficiency of local government against the possibility of the new structure being more efficient. There is no magical or secret blueprint. We do not have our mind set on the outcome. Being the first order, it is widely supported and it gets us a run on the board, if I may use a metaphor which is popular in certain areas of my party. I think that it will be widely welcomed on the Isle of Wight. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend's activities and commend it to the House.
Question put :
The House divided : Ayes 144, Noes 10.
Division No. 212] [7.52
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Biffen, Rt Hon John
Blackburn, Dr John G.
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thorpes)
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James