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Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire): I thank my hon. Friend for the valuable negotiations that he has had with the Government to allow the National Assembly for Wales to let councils in Wales decide their own structures.
Mr. Foster: I thank my hon. Friend. It is possible in the Chamber simply to oppose the Government and to get nowhere, but there is another way forward, which is to have constructive opposition and to make at least some progress.
Mr. Fabricant: There are those who think that the Liberal Democrats have woolly minds in woollier hats, so, to demonstrate to the House the Liberal Democrats' thought processes, will the hon. Gentleman explain how he arrived at the figure of 85,000? Why not set the threshold at 100,000? Will he explain in detail how the horse-trading worked?
Mr. Foster: No, I will not. I simply say that if the Conservatives had their way, the figure would be zero, and, as a result of their achievements, not a single council would have escaped the imposition of these measures. As a result of what the Liberal Democrats have achieved, at least some councils have escaped. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it would be right for the Conservative party to vote against that concession? Would he vote against it--yes or no?
Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman's clear answer is that he is prepared to say to 82 councils in England and all the councils in Wales that are exempt from the Government's proposals as a result of the Liberal Democrats' negotiations that they must have those proposals imposed on them.
Mr. Waterson: Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that if the amendments that he is peddling are to have a shred of credibility, the least he can do is try to explain to the House how the Liberal Democrats arrived at the figure of 85,000 to set the line between councils that are exempt and those that are not.
Mr. Foster: It is quite simple. The hon. Gentleman has clearly got himself into a fixed mode of simply opposing and nothing more. In constructively opposing, we realise that the Government are prepared to allow no concessions in respect of any councils. The Liberal Democrats start from the clear position of preferring the provision to be
I think that we have done extremely well to reach such a position. There are those in the Local Government Association who are absolutely delighted with what we have done and are concerned that they have not had Conservative party support on the issue. The proposal is not the Liberal Democrats' ideal position. We accept entirely that it is a compromise, but, given that, we hope at least that the House will support it.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who has managed to give horse-trading a bad name. His difficulty is that when people horse-traded, at least they got a horse; he has a rather miserable camel. He cannot explain the basis of the 85,000 figure. I wish to debate the issue because I believe he has accepted that figure specifically to exclude my local council and, if I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your local council--a good, sensible council in my case and a not so good, not so sensible council in your case, but united in a belief that the Bill is unsatisfactory because it does not give them the chance to choose for themselves.
The Liberals have the effrontery to say that they went in for constructive opposition. Constructive opposition for the Liberals means dropping their principles on clause 28 and the proposed new clause. Constructive opposition is to give way on both clauses and in return get 20 per cent. of the sum of their principles on one.
Mr. Gummer: The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Liberals did a deal with the Government in the House of Lords on clause 28. Everyone else knows that; if he does not, he better talk to Baroness Hamwee, who is the expert on horse-trading. They struck that deal by not doing what they had intended originally. The same is true of the proposed new clause, yet they have the effrontery to say that we who have stood by our principles have in some way let the local government world down.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted strong and vibrant local government as long as it covered a population of under 85,000. Cannot it be strong and vibrant while being bigger than that? He is not prepared to stand up and fight for all local government.
I turn to the real villain of the piece, if it is not unparliamentary to say so--the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. I have always doubted whether she had an argument on this point. I did not serve on the Committee, but I have never heard her make the argument in the House. Today, she had an admirable opportunity. She could have explained in detail--we can be here for hours listening to her--why it was necessary for the Government to tell Labour councils that did not want to be told how to run themselves how to do so.
Let us imagine that the proposition had been a Conservative one. Would the right hon. Lady have said, "Oh yes, this is the sort of transparency we want"? No, she would have said, "Labour, Liberal and Conservative councils up and down the country do not want it." Why,
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions has not explained why a population of 85,000 is all right, but one of 90,000 is not. She did not even take the opportunity to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The reason she did not bother is that she knows that she has a parliamentary majority: she will not bother to explain anything about local government affairs so long as she knows that she can ram any measure through the House. That is yet another example of how the Government treat the House with contempt. However, on this occasion, the right hon. Lady is not only treating the House with contempt, but is doing the same to every local authority that has asked her to give it the chance to make the choice itself.
My local authority would like to try different ways of running itself to meet the needs of its electorate--not the right hon. Lady's electorate, but its electorate who choose the authority. Yet her response is to tell my authority that it can choose anything--so long as it is something that she agrees with. The Government will not let the authority make the choice, simply because the population it covers just happens to total more than 85,000 people. We are not even talking about 85,000 electors--why did the Liberals not specify electors, rather than just a population threshold? Having given up their principles, could they not have screwed a bit more out of the Government?
Mr. Gummer: I have a little more to say about Liberal principles and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who no doubt intends to be helpful. He will have to contain himself for a moment, even though he has not got long in the House--his is a seat which will be won by a large Conservative swing at the next general election.
Let us hear about the principles espoused by the hon. Member for Bath. He told us that the Liberal principle was that everything had to hang out--everyone had to know everything and everything had to be done in public. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pointed out how odd it is that the authority in North Wiltshire--which is not all that far from Bath; indeed, it is the neighbouring constituency--holds closed
Mr. Gummer: Yes, he did--he said that he would have a word with his colleagues, but that, in the end, they would make up their own mind. That strikes me as an interesting principle: anyone, anywhere can make up their own mind about any principle.
It is apparent that there are differences of principle, not merely between constituencies but between wards. In my constituency, the Liberals espouse different principles in neighbouring wards--indeed, in neighbouring houses. Liberal canvassers bang on the door and ask, "What do you want us to tell you?", and if the householders respond differently, they say different things. As someone said, if God had been a Liberal, we would have had the 10 suggestions. The problem with the Liberals is that their principles are so flexible that they cannot remember what the last one was. Now I give way to the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) who might remember what it was he wanted to ask me when he first rose.