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But there are many aspects of the Bill that concern me. Other Members have covered those in great detail, so I shall highlight three in particular. One is the loss of
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the committee structure, as directed in the Bill. I, like many others, have served on committees and found, when I arrived on the council, that that was a suitable way of learning the procedures and methods of council working. In the event of unitary structures being imposed, and with councils perhaps as strong as 80 to 100 councillors, in a cabinet system of government individual council members will be merely voting fodder and will not have access to discussion or decision making as they do on committees at present, which has cross-party benefits and allows people to mature and perform various roles on the council.

My second concern, which has not been covered much in the debate, is the impact of increasing city regions on rural areas. There are many rural areas which, even if they become unitary, will not be sufficiently adjacent to cities to be able to be included in city regions. It is important that we consider in Committee whether the similar powers that will be available to city regions will also be available to rural areas, perhaps working together.

Mr. Woolas indicated assent.

Mr. Dunne: I am also concerned about the increasing centralisation of control of the standards committee. A number of hon. Members touched on that earlier.

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that too often, frivolous complaints to the standards committee have been used to stifle debate in local democracies?

Mr. Dunne: That was most helpful. My hon. Friend makes a perceptive intervention, as ever.

Mr. Walker: But does my hon. Friend agree?

Mr. Dunne: I happily agree with the comments made in that direction.

Let me consider the two principal matters that I wanted to discuss. The first is the greater centralisation of control that the Bill creates through granting the Secretary of State powers over many aspects of local government—perhaps more than hon. Members appreciate. Clause 2 grants the Secretary of State explicit power to direct local authorities to make a proposal to reorganise. The Minister shakes his head. Earlier, the Secretary of State said that she had no intention of directing areas apart from those that initially volunteer to become unitary. However, the Bill gives her the power to do so and, if it is accepted, it will exist for her and any successors—and there have been several Secretaries of State in recent years. Although the right hon. Lady may have good intentions, her successors may not.

Clause 3 provides that the Secretary of State may specify a date by which areas that want to consider their structure must make proposals. Local authorities must have regard to any guidance that the Secretary of State chooses to make. Those powers give the Secretary of State immense control to determine what happens to local authorities, and which become unitary. It is her decision, not the local people’s. It contrasts with her earlier comments. I hope that she will honour the
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assurances that she gave and not take the powers. I also hope that we can circumscribe them in Committee.

Secondly, I want to consider consultation. Much has been said about the Government seeking to proceed with unitary status only in areas where there is a desire for that to happen, which is supported by a “broad consensus”. That term is not defined in the Bill, the invitation to bid, discussions or Ministers’ replies to questions. Defining a “broad consensus” appears to be a matter of ministerial discretion.

Tomorrow, an application for unitary status will land on the Secretary of State’s desk from three local authorities in Shropshire: the county council, Oswestry borough council and South Shropshire district council, which is my authority. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), who made a powerful speech this evening, is well aware of the position.

Mr. Woolas: Do you support it?

Mr. Dunne: I assure the Minister that I do not support the bid for unitary status. I have worked closely with my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham to make the case for enhanced two-tier working. My authority has a good track record of enhanced two-tier working with the county and neighbouring district authorities.

The proposals are supported by the county council, Labour and Liberal Democrat councillors wherever they had an opportunity to vote on them and a small number of parish councils. The consensus in support of the bid is based on an Ipsos MORI focus group, which interviewed 44 people in Shropshire. Earlier, we heard about the views of many residents of Shrewsbury and Atcham.

Daniel Kawczynski: Twenty-seven thousand.

Mr. Dunne: Yes, 27,000 residents took the opportunity to vote on the proposal. This evening, I received the results of the ballots that were conducted in my areas. They are a genuine test of public opinion. The Electoral Reform Society conducted them and the questions were independently approved by that body. The proponents of a unitary authority went to extraordinary lengths to try to stop the ballots, including legal challenge and attempts to fix local polls. I look to the Minister to confirm in his response to the debate that he will take note of the views of the voters in Shrewsbury and Atcham and in my constituency. On a 42 per cent. turnout—higher than for local authority elections in my area—57 per cent. of people in South Shropshire voted against unitary status. In Bridgenorth district council, on a 46.5 per cent. turnout, 86 per cent. voted against unitary status and in favour of enhanced two-tier local government. The people of Shropshire have spoken, and they want their councils to work together to achieve savings and greater efficiencies. They do not want a unitary authority imposed on them by this Government.

9.30 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): I welcome the many good contributions to the debate from both sides of the Chamber—many of which have
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identified a series of flaws in the Bill—to which the Minister for Local Government, who has been warmly praised this evening, will respond in a moment.

Four trends have emerged from what colleagues have said. First, councillors should be doing real jobs. They should be properly engaged, not crowded out by targets set elsewhere or fooled by a structure that pretends to involve them but does not do so. Several colleagues mentioned the need for the committee structure to be covered by the Bill, at least as an option. The hon. Members for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby), for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley) and for Eltham (Clive Efford), my hon. Friends the Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), and, notably, the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) made that case particularly strongly.

Secondly, the Government have dealt with the health aspects in only a small part of the Bill, and real concern has emerged over the limitations of LINKs. The hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) and for Bedford (Patrick Hall) and, most notably, the powerful speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made it clear how important it is to speak up for the independence of those who comment on health issues, and to speak out against their diminishing role in inspection. We defer to my hon. Friend’s expertise and look forward to his participation in the further stages of the Bill. He certainly spoke for all those on the Front Bench tonight.

Thirdly, the House was concerned about truly letting the people decide. Hon. Members drew our attention to the absence of detail in the Bill about how decisions are to be taken—decisions in relation to local government that affect the most important aspects of our constituents’ lives. We will forever be pleased that we were in the House on the night when my hon. Friends the Members for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) announced the results of the debate that should save their local district councils. That was democracy in action, and I challenge the Minister to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that he will not accept the results of those referendums. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and the hon. Members for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) also spoke of the importance of letting the people decide. Whatever the decision may be, we must bring the people into it. The Bill certainly does not do so.

Fourthly, more than one colleague picked up on the sense of prescription that lies at the heart of the Government. Whatever their honeyed words about consultation, at the end of the day they are all about telling us what to do. The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made that very clear. My right hon. Friend, above all, put his finger on what was going to happen in the next couple of years. He described the turning off of the public sector tap. If a chill has not already descended on Labour Members as they look at the money that has flowed into the education and health systems over recent years, they must surely feel one now. Let them just wait and see what is coming in the next couple of years.

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I want to deal with the positive aspects of the Bill—although this part of my speech will, understandably, be brief. First, we support local decisions on the electoral and warding arrangements of a council, which should be for the local people to decide. I repeat, however, that we urge the Minister to take the opportunity to look again at the committee system, as so many people want him to do. The Local Government Information Unit backs up that request in its briefing to us.

Secondly, we welcome the efforts to involve parish and town councils more. My old constituency of Bury—dear Bury—had no such councils, so I came rather new to the 54 parish and town councils in North-East Bedfordshire. They have been a huge blessing. They are a local tier of information and advice and, like the National Association of Local Councils, I strongly support a greater role for them. The parish and town councils in Bedfordshire are very perceptive and sharp. Among the responses that I received to the consultation that I produced, Renhold parish council said:

We have heard it from Renhold parish council—and if the Government would take note, we would all be pleased.

Thirdly, although we welcome a revision of targets from the centre, experience suggests that we should examine carefully the new local targets set. Too often, the impression is given that local targets are set with national criteria in mind. Why the Government want to be involved in the setting of local targets we just do not know.

That brings me to the heart of our concerns about the Bill: the power to direct local authorities to make applications for unitary status, and the absence of any democratic means of gauging public opinion and support for proposals put forward. On 26 October, the Government published a White Paper full of the meaningless modern jargon that those in authority now use to keep the people in their place—the patronising face of modern administration. At paragraph 3.55, the Government say:

and at paragraph 3.57:

However, by 13 December, a bare 47 days later, the Bill was published, and out of the blue the word “direct” appeared. Where had that come from? What responses to consultation had there been in those 47 days to make Ministers suddenly realise that taking that power was necessary? If minds were not changed in that time, why was there no mention of the power to direct in either the White Paper or the full details of the invitation?

It is not as if the White Paper was rushed. The parliamentary brief mentions the debate on the future of local government as having begun in July 2004, with a White Paper expected the following year. It was late, but after hundreds of seminars and speeches, those in local government might have expected it to be pretty definitive, at least on such a major issue as
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restructuring. Either the failure to mention the power to direct was incompetence of the kind that has become the hallmark of this Government, or it was deception on a grand scale, which is also now indelibly attached to them, from the Ministry of Defence to No. 10. We have already forced an admission of possible amendment from the Secretary of State, and I look forward to hearing the Minister confirm that.

Where is there any sense of democratic support for the proposals that will come forward? Where is the referendum?

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: We have had a referendum in Northumberland, and we agreed on what the county council did not agree on—that we will have two unitary authorities.

Alistair Burt: The hon. Gentleman made powerful interventions on the Secretary of State to make it clear that the people had spoken in his area, and that they deserve to be listened to. But where is that provided for in the Bill? He cannot see it, and nor can we.

How is a “broad measure of support”—the weasel words in the White Paper—to be calculated? How is that to be weighed against what is on the face of the Bill, which is what the Minister believes is in the best interests? How cringe-making some of the words in the White Paper are. It talks of a “permissive approach”—and there is the wonderful phrase from the Secretary of State:

Can anyone recognise that about this Labour Government? It sounds like a melodramatic mum appealing to a child in a ’30s or ’40s northern drama, not letting her children out of her sight to go into a cruel world. This Government would not know what letting go was if they confronted it.

This Bill highlights a fundamental divide between the two main parties, which is about the willingness to let go. Labour is addicted to power and control. From health to education, and local government to the police, everything that has a public element must be within its grasp. Every public service that one can think of has been driven almost demented with target after target, their discretion fettered and their professionalism compromised. Devolution of power is at the heart of the issue. There is a sharp contrast between the Conservative party’s approach to the issue—as shown in our commitment to the Sustainable Communities Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) and our opposition to this Bill and its unjustifiable powers to direct councils—and the Government’s hostile and reluctant attitude to the Sustainable Communities Bill and their determination to push through this Bill regardless of its constitutional outrage.

Letting go is not easy. It is against the conventional norms of government in this country over the past 30 years or so— [Interruption.] I said 30. It is completely against every fibre of the Treasury’s being, yet the evidence is that as the central Government stranglehold on local government has increased, the participation of the public at the ballot box has decreased. Coupled with that is a sense of powerlessness at local level: it does not matter what we think or say, because the Government will decide.
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People think that if their council follows the Government’s agenda it will be praised and congratulated, and given the pretence of making its own decisions—but if the council goes its own way, it will be marked down in assessments and its people will pay.

Mr. Martlew: I have great admiration for the hon. Gentleman, but when he was an MP for Bury, did he vote in favour of the poll tax?

Alistair Burt: The poll tax and history! How many years is that going to be tried on? Does the hon. Gentleman use it in every debate? History has moved on. It is not the poll tax that will be the deciding issue at the next general election, but this Government’s deceit, the way in which they control and centralise power, how they have let people down on health, education and the police, and the way in which they will turn off the tap. That is what people will judge by at the next election. Enough is enough.

Patrick Hall: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt: No.

We have seen the danger. It is time to take some risks and restore trust and discretion. Our opposition to the Bill, our support for the Sustainable Communities Bill and our continual objection to nationally driven targets and agendas is hard tangible evidence of that, against which there are only sweet words, with hidden meanings, from the Government, and the tough experience of thousands of public servants who have heard this talk of devolution so many times.

This Government now suffer from two fundamental flaws, each of which is enough to kill them. One is a failure to understand a shift in the political bedrock and to work with it. The second is that few any longer believe almost anything they say or any statistics they produce in their own interests, such has been the devaluation of the relationship between the Government and the people in this country.

The Bill is a fig leaf to cover the Department’s inadequacies. How will it help the local government funding crises, so often the result of the Treasury and the Chancellor loading responsibilities and taxes on the local taxpayer and evading the rap for doing so? How will it help the taxpayer who knows that he will have to bear the costs of any reorganisation and see any potential savings eaten up by the Chancellor, filling the gap with new taxes and ensuring that there is higher pay for executives as a result of reorganisation, as was highlighted by the newspapers this weekend? Will reorganisation build another house, provide another care bed or a new carer for the elderly? There is no doubt that taxpayers in all areas, male and female, will feel the burden.

The Bill should have been about listening to the people and devising some serious adjustments to power that would have delivered what they really need. Instead, we have a Bill that has at its centre as crass a piece of naked power grabbing as we have seen, even from this Government. The Bill should have been about restoring the democratic balance by bringing
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back under the democratic control of local authorities the powers over housing, transport and planning that were taken from them and given to unelected regional bodies. Instead, it is an increase in central Government command over an agenda that is fast losing the sense of being local and is leaving the people behind.

Patrick Hall: With regard to bids by the Conservative groups on Bedfordshire county council, South Bedfordshire district council, Mid Beds district council and Bedford borough council, what would be the hon. Gentleman’s advice to them, as they are opting in to unitary status?

Alistair Burt: My advice is that they are entitled to think what they like and take their own decisions, and they should be listened to. My advice is that they should not be subsumed by the power of direction that the Government are taking over them.

The debate is about when to take a risk and how power is devolved. This Government would not understand the devolution of power if they met it in the street stark naked, waving a cheque and asking for a peerage. The people deserve better from this discredited Government. A vote for the Opposition amendment will serve notice that the House and the people have rumbled them, and that we will accept their tightening grasp, their avoidance of democracy and their weasel words not a moment longer.

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