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Column 214services. Service users and service providers are equally horrified, with opposition being expressed by bodies such as the Association of Directors of Social Services, the British Association of Social Workers, the Cleveland Disability Forum, the Spastics Society, Age Concern, the National Deaf Children's Society, the Association of Speech Impaired, the National League of the Blind and Disabled, the North Tees community health council and the Carers National Association.
People in education are similarly opposed, with 42 out of 44 secondary head teachers in the area opposing the proposals, and the same view being expressed by every major teaching association. The Government's own Office of Standards in Education attacked the commission's report for failing to give proper attention to educational provision.
The list is almost endless: the Council for National Parks, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, English Heritage, the Institution of Highways and Transportation, the Library Association, the National Council of Archives, the regional tourist board, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Youth Hostel Association. It is hard to imagine a wider, stronger or more unanimous expression of opposition.
Every future key economic decision affecting Teesside will now be subject to a quango culture. The proposed Tees Valley development company, comprising 10 business men, 10 councillors and one independent chairman, will be the final piece in the jigsaw of quango government in Cleveland.
I warn those who support the order tonight that they will have to answer to the Cleveland electorate in the future. The scene is set for squabbling between quangos, with the people of Teesside standing by helplessly watching their economic future decline. The only justification that any commission or Minister might have for disregarding such overwhelming evidence would be an equally strong expression of public opinion in favour of the proposals. Yet what is the truth in Cleveland?
Only 2 per cent. of Cleveland's residents have been given an opportunity to have their say on proposals which will affect their lives for years to come, and less than 1 per cent. expressed support for the commission's proposals. It has been alleged that Cleveland county council should go because it is unpopular. In truth, there is no evidence that it is unpopular with the people who should really matter--those it serves.
The Local Government Commission showed that, in just 25 years, Cleveland has achieved an identity level among local people higher than many of the so-called traditional counties which have existed for centuries and which Banham and company now intend to leave untouched.
I have a lot more to say, but I realise that I am close to my time. The truth is that, before the introduction of the two-tier system and the creation of Cleveland, the majority of the area was governed by two county boroughs called Teesside and Hartlepool. In reality, putting right the mistakes of 1974--if mistakes they were--should mean a return to Teesside and Hartlepool. That is what the county council suggested and argued for. But Ministers are so blinkered in their views that they simply cannot bring themselves to agree with anything that the county suggests.
Column 215The problem seems to be that our system pays lip service to democracy and accountability in the Chamber and on public platforms, then slaughters those two characteristics privately in the abattoirs of the Division Lobbies.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): First, I declare an interest as a vice-president of the Association of District Councils. I welcome the order and the four new authorities to the elite club of unitary authorities.
The hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) mentioned that illustrious character whom some of us were so privileged to know, Richard Holt, and I am delighted to see his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), here tonight nodding vigorously in agreement with the Minister. He is a man who has made much progress in the House, not only having established a unitary authority tonight for his local authority, but having joined that illustrious band in the Whips Office.
I apologise to my hon. Friend the Minister for not having given him notice of what I am about to say, but perhaps I might do so now for any future orders for unitary authorities. They tend to divide themselves into two parts--those that hive up the functions of local government and those that hive them down. The previous order for the Isle of Wight was a hiving-up order and this one is a hiving down into four unitary authorities.
I do not object to the order, but I shall continue to make my point concerning the position of parish and town councils under the reorganisation of local government whenever such orders come before the House.
This is like "Brideshead Revisited" for me because I chaired the Tees and Hartlepool Port Authority Bill. I remember that at the last minute Cleveland county council suddenly decided that it would object to the Bill and it sent along a rather extraordinary county councillor who professed to be a sudden convert to the ornithology of the salt marshes around Tees and Hartlepool, most of which had suffered over the years from the industrial output of the ICI fertiliser plant. It would be difficult to believe that there was so much as a stuffed bird there, let alone a winged one.
During that county councillor's cross-examination it became clear that all that he knew about birds was the frozen poultry counter in his local supermarket. One rather gathers, even from the lower echelons of the Isle of Wight, that Cleveland county council is a professional objector without an objective standpoint.
The House of Commons Library tells me that there are 30 parish councils and two town councils in the local government
reorganisation. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the point that I wish to raise, but I want to keep emphasising it. It may seem a small administrative point, but if the parish and town councils do not have some legislative mechanism in the reorganisation of local government into unitary authorities, their election cycle will be out of kilter with the local government cycle and their election expenses will, in some cases, come to more than the precept that they raise.
Column 216That is a matter of finance and straightforward administration, but worse than that is that politically, if the elections are not aligned, candidates who are not elected for the unitary authorities will subsequently stand for election to the parish and town councils. The system that the mechanism that we are debating is trying to abolish will effectively be duplicated. The citizens who are affected by the orders will never be able to understand why they pay all their rates to the local district or borough council yet the county council spends it all- -pretty profligately, as it happens, in most cases. People do not understand that level of accountability.
The merit in the order is that in future rates will be paid to the local authority that spends them, but two separate election dates, one for the local parish and town councils and one for the unitary council, will effectively reduplicate the very system that we are abolishing.
I hope that before long my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us from the Dispatch Box when he intends to bring forward legislation to allow that situation to be amended in future by Order in Council so that wherever we are in the rolling programme of unitary authorities we can adjust the timetable of parish and town council elections to bring them into line, as we did under the previous local government reorganisation.
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The creation of Cleveland was always one of the least popular aspects of local government reform in 1974, so perhaps it is no great surprise that the Conservative Government wish to abolish it now. However, it would have been hard to conceive of a more ham-fisted, slapdash and incompetent procedure for doing so. In Cleveland the Government had a wonderful opportunity to introduce a local government reform that could have had the support of the vast majority of the local people and widespread support throughout the Cleveland area.
In the event the Government's lack of consultation, their failure to resolve the issue of what should happen to strategic services, their imposition of the costs of reform on local residents, their inadequate attempts to calm the fears of staff, especially those working for the county council, their attempts to rush through an order while the possibility of a judicial review is still present and their basic failure-- condemned by Sir John Banham himself--to consider the fundamental role and purpose of local councils, have all led to a general lack of enthusiasm among the residents of Cleveland. The Government have wasted a large part of the good will that they earned when they first proposed a local government reform in Cleveland. In particular, they have much work to do in reassuring officers facing redundancy as a result of the reforms that they will be treated no more harshly than others who have previously found themselves in a similar position. The Liberal Democrats will seize every opportunity to press the Government hard on that issue. Compensation must take account of the fact that the four unitary authorities will be continuing authorities. As I and others said when we debated the Isle of Wight order some months ago, continuing authorities, which will occur in relatively few cases, present especially intransigent problems for staff made redundant, and we should all urge the Government to arrange for compensation levels to take that into account.
Column 217My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have had to consider one further critical point. Local government reform is always disruptive, and no country can afford to reform its local government structure too frequently. There is therefore a grave danger that reform now may in practice preclude a more popular and effective reform in the next Parliament.
Unfortunately, none of the severe defects in the procedure that I have highlighted can be remedied by our vote. The Government have bungled, but the questions facing Members of Parliament now is whether we should still support reform of local government in Cleveland, and whether there is still a majority in favour of that among local residents despite the bungling.
The Government have failed to arrange the sort of full survey of local opinion that the commission has organised in other areas. Instead we are left to rely on a MORI poll with a significant margin of error, carried out among only 1,200 residents. That poll also contains so many different options to choose from that the preference between the status quo and the proposal before us is not clear in the case of residents who chose entirely other options.
At our conference in Cardiff last year we Liberal Democrats made it clear that the Government should find means of consulting local people which enabled them to express a clear preference for one proposal or another. Instead the Government have had to rely on a single muddled opinion poll from which it is difficult to discover what local people really want. That has left it open to the borough councils and the county council to conduct their own opinion polls, and it comes as no surprise to find that those appear to reach different conclusions, which in turn are often interpreted as supporting the various preferences of the different councils. Such surveys do nothing much except muddy the waters even further. I have therefore done some further analysis of the commission's MORI opinion poll figures with a view to finding out whether the people whose first preference was for one, two or three unitary councils would rather the House passed the order or not. The evidence is partial, but there is some in the second preferences given by poll respondents. If those are added to the initial first preference figures, it is clear that local people favour the unitary option over the status quo; the ratio is about three to two. That clear majority must lead us to consider seriously what other evidence or arguments there are in favour of the order.
The commission's poll also provided some evidence of local residents' feelings about the principle of unitary authorities in general. Perhaps it is not surprising that in an area such as Cleveland, where the original reforms were not popular, there is considerable support for that principle. Indeed, it is interesting to note that even at county level there is considerable support for a unitary solution, although that support tended to be for unitary authorities in Hartlepool and Teesside rather than for breaking up Teesside into three further unitary authorities, as is now suggested.
My party has supported the general principle all along, where it can be shown that that option is welcomed by local residents rather than being imposed by central
Column 218Government. Unitary authorities based on areas smaller than the present county councils will tend to bring democracy and decision making down closer to the local people, who will have more control over their own lives.
It is worth pointing out in passing that the principle of subsidiarity, which the Government are so keen to promote at European level, and now at county council level, too, should also be introduced at national level in the same way, by creating regional governments in England and separate governments for Scotland and Wales. It is absurd for the Prime Minister to say that he supports subsidiarity in an area as large as Europe, and in an area as small as a county, but that he regards the same principle as dangerous and totally unacceptable over an area of intermediate size, such as the United Kingdom.
Finally, in seeking the right answer for Cleveland, which represents one of the most controversial of all the reform proposals, I have taken the trouble to visit the area to discuss the issues with the representatives of the people. [Interruption.] No doubt other hon. Members yet to speak in the debate have done the same. It became clear to me during my visit that there was an overwhelming weight of opinion in favour of a unitary authority in Hartlepool. Opinion on the right solution for the rest of Cleveland appeared more divided, but on balance seemed more or less in line with the MORI opinion poll that I have already described. I therefore believe that if the Labour party votes against the wishes of the people of Hartlepool, Langbaurgh, Middlesbrough and Stockton, those people will not lightly forgive it.
In summary, the message from the people of Cleveland is that the Government have bungled local government reform in a big way. About the only thing that they have got right is the decision to treat each area on its merits and not to insist on one solution for all parts of the country. We, too, will make our decisions on whatever orders come before the House without regard to any decisions that we have taken previously or may wish to take in the future. We shall be concerned only to do whatever we believe to be best for the area under consideration.
Meanwhile the Government have wasted not only vast sums but their opportunity to introduce what could have been, if they had handled it right, a really popular reform with a huge groundswell of good will behind it. They have alienated many who would have been their supporters and who would have supported the reforms, and they have left unanswered many questions that will need to be answered when the proposals are to be implemented. Nevertheless, there is still a clear majority of people in Cleveland who would like the reforms to go through, and it is on that basis that I shall vote for the order and advise my colleagues to do likewise.
Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool): Under our procedures in the House it is not possible to vote against part of an order, or against some aspects of it. We must vote against the whole order or not vote against it at all.
At the outset it is important to emphasise again something stressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). I agreed with some of what my hon. Friend said but not with all of it. As he pointed out, this evening's vote will not be a vote by the Opposition against the principle of creating four
Column 219unitary authorities in Cleveland. As a constituency Member, it is my duty to take a broad view and to represent faithfully what I believe are the true opinions and interests of my constituents. That is what I intend to do tonight.
Nobody can deny that for the past 20 years we have lived very uncomfortably with the concept of a Cleveland-wide authority. It is too large for the delivery of personal services yet too small to take a regional strategic view, and it creates confusion for the public and unnecessary duplication among staff. The case for change is now too strong to ignore. The transfer to unitary authorities based on the districts is long overdue.
For the reasons that I shall describe, I believe that the proposals of the Local Government Commission are sensible and that the decision of the Government to adopt them is correct. I support change, first, because it is what the majority--I believe the vast majority--of local people want. The four-district proposal has been shown in three successive independent surveys to be the most popular choice. The thorough consultation process that the Local Government Commission undertook, of which I had extensive personal knowledge, confirmed what the independent surveys of opinion found. In contrast, support for the Teesside-Hartlepool option favoured by the county council, has consistently hovered between only 5 and 8 per cent., despite the vigorous campaign for it. That is completely understandable. What people in Cleveland want from local government before anything else, as people do everywhere else in the country, is well- managed, accessible and cost-effective local services which meet local needs and are in the hands of local councillors whom they can get hold of and make accountable for their actions. Unitary authorities in Cleveland would provide precisely that.
At present in Cleveland some services such as housing, leisure and waste collection are in local district hands. Other services such as education and social services are in remote county hands. Roads, the environment and other services are in everyone's hands and, in some cases, it appears, in no one's hands at all. If there was some sensible rationale for this division and confusion, it might be worth maintaining, but the original justification that certain responsibilities could not be left with some authorities because they were too small or lacked competence has not been borne out by experience in Cleveland.
All the district councils have managed the services which were left with them in a thoroughly competent and effective way. Everyone from the Audit Commission down recognises and acknowledges that. That leads me to my next point. There is a need to create local councils which reflect both the identities and interests of the local communities that they serve and to ensure that those councils have the capacity to deliver the services for which they are responsible. If we had the first without the second, we would be in trouble. However, in the case of Hartlepool, Stockton, Middlesbrough and Langbaurgh councils, both conditions are amply satisfied. That strongly supports the changes which are being proposed in the order. However, obviously we need to ask whether carrying out the changes is worth the candle. Is it all too much bother and expense to undertake the reorganisation? My
Column 220answer is that if it is worth having local government, we might as well get it right and achieve the best possible arrangements so long as we do not incur long-term costs in the process. We would achieve that by accepting the order tonight.
I have a great deal of faith in the proven track record of the district councils to make the transition smooth. I believe that the county council will also do so once it decides to co-operate, probably with a great deal less tension than exists between the districts and the county council at present. I am also satisfied that the council tax payer will be better off financially as a result of the new arrangements.
The most expensive option is to retain the existing two-tier arrangements. Both the four-district change and the
Teesside-Hartlepool alternative advanced by the county council would cost less. The argument has been about which change would produce more savings. It boils down to a pretty marginal difference indeed. The propagandists have had a field day on the subject. They have taken the worst extremes of ranges of figures to suit their particular case. I should say only that, with total expenditure in the review area in excess of £800 million, the difference between the options is only about 0.5 per cent.
It is clear that savings would arise from all the options. In the case of the four districts, as the Minister has already said, the savings will be between £6 million and £11 million. That will recur year on year. The transitional costs will be recovered within three years.
I mentioned propaganda. I do not wish to dwell too long on the ingeniously inventive and expensively propagated red herrings of the county council. In other circumstances, media manipulators and spin doctors everywhere, not to mention manufacturers of fax machines, would be proud of the county council's efforts. One of its arguments needs to be refuted tonight. It has been alleged that new unitary councils would be accompanied by a plethora of joint boards, quangos and the like. That is absolutely wrong. There is no substance to the claim whatever.
Aside from such shared arrangements as archives, superannuation and archaeology, there would be joint authorities, which I stress would consist of elected members, only for police and fire. Who on earth could argue with that? The boroughs would assume joint responsibility for structure planning for the whole area. That leads to the last and important point about the economy and the employment prospects of the area. Some individuals in the business community have argued that the area needs a mega-authority called Teesside to take a strategic view of the area and to draw in investment.
I desperately want to see investment and employment created throughout the area. That is the best way to tackle the poverty and deprivation which scars so many of our neighbourhoods, but the best way of achieving that is by allowing local councils with detailed local knowledge and application to work hand in hand with more powerful regional organisations and in partnership with the private sector throughout our region. The recent experience of the Samsung Electronics investment and the leading role that the Northern Development Company played, guiding the local councils, demonstrates that.
In conclusion, the model that we need to look at is a combination of genuinely local services provided by accountable district councils and regional engines of
Column 221economic and industrial growth in the public sector, working in partnership with business to obtain the best results for the local population. That is an agenda to await a different Government, but the creation of the unitary authorities by passing the order is an essential foundation. I believe that it should commend itself to the House.
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking) rose --
I am always grateful to be mentioned in dispatches by the hon. Member for Stockton, South (Mr. Devlin). He quoted extensively from my speech of 7 July. I should like to quote what he did not. I said:
"We are anxious about jobs, not redundancies. There is no doubt, however, that concern has been expressed about the current redundancy package envisaged. It is essential for there to be a fair and mandatory system of compensation. This is essential to complete the local government review successfully in Cleveland and, indeed, elsewhere."--[ Official Report , 7 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 558.] So we have placed on record our concern about jobs and redundancy packages. There will be another debate and another vote on that issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook), who is still in the Chamber, made a fine speech that came from the heart as well as from the facts. I am told that the best speeches come from the heart.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North made a speech which came from the heart and which was memorable. He mentioned the Tees Valley development company. I assure him that the company will be a genuine partnership between the public and the private sector. There will be a strong political input and influence and no one is more concerned than we are in Cleveland about the growth of quangos. I can assure my hon. Friend that a new quango will not be created through the Tees Valley development company.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) mentioned Samsung and I must put on record--as I did from the Front Bench the day after the event--the fact that we recognise the role played by Cleveland county council in that development. We obliged the Government to recognise that and they did so today from the Dispatch Box. We all recognise that very important fact.
Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar): Will my hon. Friend extend the same compliments to some other employees in Cleveland county who worked so hard on education and social services and who have, to some extent, been abused in this debate?
Mr. Bell: I am grateful that I allowed my hon. Friend to intervene. She anticipates the next part of my speech. We should give credit not only to Cleveland county council and its leader but to local councillors, those on the executive side and the people in the fire, education and social services, who have done an excellent job, which is recognised all round.
Column 222In my front room, a painting of Crauford's Light Brigade hangs on the wall, in which the 95th, 43rd and 52nd Rifles face about once more to hold back the enemy. It depicts soldiers standing in the snow, preparing a rearguard action. Their job was to hold back the enemy during the retreat from Spain of Sir John Moore's army after the battle of Corunna, where Sir John was killed.
No one can deny that the rearguard action fought by Cleveland county council was of heroic proportions. It fought, not in the snows of Cleveland, but in the press, on the radio and through the fax machine. If any of us ever gets our hands on the inventor of that machine, we will strangle him and we will say not, "Remember the Alamo," but, "Remember Cleveland county council." We hope that the days when we came to our offices to find five to 10 pages on the fax machine are over.
Cleveland fought the battle not only through the fax machine but through the courts. The hon. Member for Stockton, South referred to that fact. Under adverse conditions, its delaying tactics were brilliant, but just as in the rearguard actions of old the last soldier falls, doomed, its action falls doomed tonight. Its rearguard action is over. The snows of yesteryear do not concern us. I hope that the battle is over.
Those who are anxious to know how some Labour Members will vote would probably like to be reminded of Aneurin Bevan's famous comment that he who fights and runs away lives to run away another day and he who speaks but does not vote lives to vote another day. My hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) said that a compensation order would be introduced to deal with employment conditions in the Cleveland area, and our votes will surely be behind our Front Bench on that occasion.
More than two Labour Members of Parliament will not vote on this issue. Others have strongly supported the concept of the single-tier authority and have supported the district authority. For the past 20 years, the Labour party has been committed to moving towards single-tier authorities in many of our major cities and I am satisfied that tonight many of the Members who fought so long will take note of the vote and the long struggle.
It is just after the Christmas holidays and good will prevails. To Paul Hartford, leader of the council, I would say, "You ran a strong campaign." I surmise that no one in the House or in the country has been unaware of it. It was strong and he deserves credit for running it in the interests of what he believed to be right.
We are in a poetic frame of mind and a man's grasp must exceed his reach
"Or what's a heaven for?"
"reach should exceed his grasp".
Mr. Bell: We offer a new beginning for the people of Cleveland and it is power to the people. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North gave us a litany of the organisations in Cleveland that supported Cleveland county council. The only category that he left out was the people. He did not take them into account. The people of Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Langbaurgh and Stockton have shown in opinion polls, consultations and proceedings of every kind that one could wish for, that they want a single tier--the four-district option. That part of history cannot be rewritten. We are offering the people of Cleveland a new beginning--local democracy closer to the people, accountability to the people and a duty to serve, rather than to rule.
We do not want to confuse this great occasion by mentioning Abraham Lincoln --I may be corrected again by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North --but he believed in government of the people, for the people and by the people. Let the decision of the House tonight be that the people of Cleveland should be the winners and not the bureaucrats, the elected councillors acting in caucus or single-issue pressure groups. Let us remember that we are here to serve, rather than to rule. That will be the concept for authorities in the future. This will be the new beginning and that is what I accept and will fully support tonight-- [Hon. Members:-- "Will you vote for it, then?"]--after the vote is called.
Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking): My reason for taking a few minutes during this debate is that I spent a short time as a member of the Local Government Commission. I thank the Minister for giving me the opportunity to do so.
I share the view of many hon. Members--the principle of unitary authorities is one that I support and that is why I accepted that position. People are best served through unitary government, with one authority responsible for all personal services.
Frankly, however, this exercise in local authority reorganisation has been a disaster for a number of reasons. The legislation was poorly drafted. It did not enable the Local Government Commission or the House to consider organic change, either by giving some authorities, especially the large cities, the opportunity to become unitary authorities, or by allowing some personal services to be devolved to the districts, with strategic planning kept at the county level. There was no provision for a regional tier of government, which is essential if we want to retain a whole range of strategic issues under democratic control.
The Lancashire county council judgment, which resulted from the poorly phrased legislation, was a disaster. Inevitably, it led to most of the main players in the debate moving towards the status quo. Those who sought change were unable to achieve a consensus. The process was not a happy one.
Local government has been poorly served by the chairman of the Local Government Commission. He showed no consistency of approach, was too often influenced by personal preferences and personal
Column 224experiences, rather than objective assessment, and operated somewhat undemocratically and autocratically. We should have dispensed with his services.
Members of the commission--I include myself--were an ad hoc group of people who had little in common and were not well served by officers who were hastily brought together without ensuring that they had the proper competencies.
The results for Cleveland are quite sensible, but Cleveland is the exception, not the rule. The overall results for local government are a disaster. If we start approving in an ad hoc way reorganisation for one or two parts of the country, we shall end up with an administrative and a structural mess, with no coherence, consistency or common sense. We shall have to return to the issue when Labour takes office rather than get on with developing the services that local communities require.
The Government should and could have taken another view. The legislation is wrong, the process has been bungled and the outcome is a mess. This review has been a failure and it is a disaster for local government. Parliament has got local government into a mess and it will be up to a future Labour Government to clear it up.
Mr. Curry: With the leave of the House, I wish to make a few rapid comments in reply. I understand why Opposition Front-Bench Members did not wish to reply in the light of the remarks of Labour Members tonight.
The hon. Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Mr. Dobson) made an important statement. He said that no recommendation should be placed before the House until the process had been completed. I hope that he knows the implications of his statement in terms of uncertainty for all those who work in local government. I hope that he has discussed the matter with some of the Labour leaders of local authorities such as Hull, which is about as rock solid a Labour authority as it is possible to get. The implication of what he said perpetuates uncertainty and discontent throughout local government. It is just as well that people realise that it will mean a period of protracted uncertainty. It is hypocritical to pretend that one is concerned about people's employment prospects if the process is to be kept hanging over them until it is finished and the recommendations are bunched up and brought before the House.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman anticipated the review and talked about the areas that should get unitary status. With the aid of clairvoyance, he mentioned Ipswich, Norwich and Exeter. He certainly does not understand the past; perhaps he is better on the future. Is that Labour policy? If so, perhaps he forgets that the old county boroughs would become unitary, that Hartlepool and Middlesbrough are old county boroughs and that Stockton was close to an old county borough because it had special powers over education and other areas. So the hon. Gentleman has contradicted himself. That simply does not work--
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [16 December] .
The House proceeded to a Division.