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18 Apr 2007 : Column 91WH—continued

In other words, what Preston wants is to take South Ribble into its friendship and then build all over it—to take away those bits of South Ribble that make it unique.

Mr. Hendrick: On a point of order, Lady Winterton. Is it in order for a Member of this House, particularly a Front-Bench Member, to publicise a Conservative parliamentary candidate during a debate of this nature?

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Ann Winterton (in the Chair): It is perfectly in order.

Mr. Pickles: I was speaking about the remarkably successful Lorraine Fullbrook, who will undoubtedly be a Member of this House soon. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Preston for pointing that out—no doubt the press will pick it up—but I detect his nervousness, so I shall try not to mention the name of Lorraine Fullbrook, Tory candidate, again. There were other considerations about the amount of open space and green belt threatened in South Ribble, but to spare the hon. Gentleman’s blushes I shall move on from the marvellous work of Lorraine Fullbrook, Conservative candidate.

The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) said that when two or three officers are gathered together, they talk of little else but restructuring. I am not entirely surprised. For an officer, moving toward restructuring is better than getting a telephone call from Chris Tarrant. There is loads of money in it. We know that from The Sunday Times, whose appointments page suggested that chief executive salaries will rise by at least £30,000 if restructuring proceeds. That is a lot of money, so I am not surprised that officers are interested in the idea of restructuring, but I am pretty certain that were we to go down to the dog and duck in Hyndburn—although I do not know whether there is one—and wander across to talk to members of the public when two or three of them are gathered together, they would not want to talk about restructuring. They want to talk about council services. They want to know why their granny cannot get into an old persons’ home or get additional help through home care. They are concerned about their children’s education, not whether a particular restructuring will occur or a chief executive can at last buy the villa on the Costa del Sol that they so richly deserve.

I was surprised by the idea that people are so proud of their locality. I would like to think that no matter what area we represent, we are all proud of our locality. The great thing about British local government and constituencies is that they are not entirely an electoral quota. They tend to be made up of real communities, and real communities should have pride. Just because a real community will not vote for its extinction is no reason to deny it the vote.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) asked whether Yorkshiremen had a sense of humour. I come from Essex, but have vague connections with Yorkshire, and like a Scotsman, one can never mistake a Yorkshireman with a grievance for a ray of sunshine. My hon. Friend was right to talk about the quality of services and to say that rural areas matter most. We know that the issue has caused enormous problems in all political parties. The last time we debated it, I quoted from Labour’s national policy forum blog in which the Prime Minister said that he was aware of the many differences between county and district, and urged us to concentrate on issues that voters care about.

We know, courtesy of the Municipal Journal, that the Cabinet was split over the proposals, and that the Environment Secretary was keen to avoid the political bloodbath that opposing bids were likely to create, but his efforts to have some of the bids removed from the shortlist caused major delays. He may well have been right, judging by what has ensued.

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I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said. The substantive point is that it does not matter whether an authority is unitary or two-tier because it is services that are important, and changing structures is so old-fashioned. It is up to us to sort out the confusion that may exist in people’s minds; it will not be sorted out by changing the structures, because of the changing reality. I have been tremendously heartened by the growth of local area agreements between districts, counties and different sorts of organisations such as health authorities and police authorities. That should be the future. We should allow local authority structures to grow naturally and organically, and see where that process goes, instead of imposing non-reality on what is happening on the ground. We will ensure in those processes that people receive better services.

In conclusion, I say to the hon. Member for Burnley that I am sure that every Member of the House would be willing to co-operate on that basis.

10.48 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): I am grateful for the contributions to the debate and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) on securing it. The matter is obviously a key issue for the people of Lancashire, and I appreciate the strong feelings that are held and the passion with which she and my hon. Friends the Members for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope), for Preston (Mr. Hendrick), for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) described the issues affecting their constituents.

I have to take issue with the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles). It pains me to do so, as he is a fellow Essex MP, but I think that he is rather cynical on these issues. I hope that his comments about the motives of those who secured this debate and about officers and politicians discussing structure were tongue-in-cheek. My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley secured the debate not so that she could avoid discussing anything else that was important, as he suggested, but—this came through clearly in the contributions—because of a commitment to service delivery to constituents in her area. That seemed to be the motivating factor for all hon. Members who spoke.

I also take issue with some of the comments about the reasons for decisions. Hon. Members will be aware that 26 proposals were received from local authorities for the creation of unitary structures in their areas in response to the invitation published alongside the local government White Paper in October last year. The hon. Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) suggested that the Government might have been politically motivated. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove rather ingeniously referred to similarities between that and the abolition of the GLC. It is absolutely clear that these were proposals that came through local authorities themselves, put forward because they wanted to be considered for unitary status. I am not aware that the GLC ever said, “Hey—let’s abolish ourselves”. That was imposed by the Government of the time; these are proposals whose true definition is bottom-up, with local authorities themselves making the decision to put them forward and asking the Government to consider them.

Mr. Wallace: The Minister will be aware that there can be conflicting views within a county. In Shropshire,
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the districts were against a move upwards while the county wanted to become unitary, but on most occasions—in that example and others—the Government chose to listen to the county rather than the anti-unitaries from the districts.

Angela E. Smith: We are considering that particular bid at the moment. The hon. Gentleman made a point about it being political, but Shropshire county council is a Conservative council and the districts opposing it are Conservative districts. It can hardly be a political issue if they are all of the same party, and I take issue with that point in his comments, which were totally unfair.

After careful consideration against published criteria, it has been agreed that 16 proposals will go forward to further stakeholder consultation. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and others will understand that I am somewhat constrained in what I can say about those: we are now in the middle of a legal process and, for reasons of propriety, I cannot get into a debate about the merits of specific proposals. I know that a number of hon. Members have raised issues different from those of Lancashire, but I cannot get into a debate on them. The reasons for the judgment are set out in the decision letters that were sent out to local authorities.

However, my hon. Friends raised a number of important issues about the next steps for local authorities, following that decision in Lancashire. It is important that I set out first how we got to where we are.

Mr. Pickles: I have a simple question. What powers is the Minister relying on to make these deliberations?

Angela E. Smith: Powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill that is going through Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is aware of that, and it is a lawyer’s trick to ask a question to which one knows the answer.

Mr. Pickles: I am not a lawyer; God forbid.

Angela E. Smith: As I said, a number of important issues must be addressed in what happens next and where Lancashire goes from here. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley and her colleagues were pressing. The invitation to bid for unitary status was published in response to views expressed during the long-standing debate on the future of local governance—that existing arrangements in some two-tier areas do not deliver the governance that places need. There is no doubt that there are risks of confusion, duplication and inefficiency in a two-tier structure.

In response to some comments made, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle, let me say that at no point have the Government said that in no cases can a two-tier structure be efficient and effective. That is a matter for local areas themselves to judge on. The White Paper made it clear that two-tier areas faced challenges, and councils within those areas could make bids for unitary status against the criteria set down where they felt that there was a case to be made.

It was put to us that, in a number of areas, accountability could be improved and that there could be stronger and more focused leadership, greater efficiency and improved outcomes for local people. Again, I take issue with the
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hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar, who said that it was not about outcomes, when the guiding principle on restructuring and reorganisation is clearly the outcome of service delivery for local people. So we were allowing restructuring to take place where that view was held, and that was quite evident when we received 26 proposals at the time.

On 27 March, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government announced that 16 proposals had been shortlisted to proceed to stakeholder consultation. In reaching that decision, the Government had to look at all the relevant information that was submitted. We have written to all councils that submitted proposals, setting out the reasons and the basis on which we reached our decisions. The proposals were assessed against the criteria, and it would be helpful if I said something about those criteria, because they have been mentioned and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove may have misunderstood them.

We are very clear that the proposals must be affordable. Any change in unitary structure must give local residents value for money and must be met from the council’s existing resource envelope. Proposals must also be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. My hon. Friend the Member for Hyndburn said that there must be consensus, but it is difficult to reach absolute consensus on such things. None the less, there should be broad agreement and evidence that there has been broad consultation and involvement.

In addition to affordability and support, proposals must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership across the area. They must also deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment—my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle was concerned that there should be local empowerment and local engagement. Finally, they must deliver value for money and equity in public services.

After careful consideration, it was agreed that 10 proposals would not go forward and that 16 would. The judgment was that there was not a reasonable likelihood of the 10 proposals, if implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified in the five criteria. The decisions are now being consulted on, and all the information presented to Ministers will be considered during that process. When we take our final decisions, we will proceed to implementation only if we are satisfied that the proposals fully meet the criteria.

As regards our next steps, the Budget confirmed that the whole public sector will be expected to achieve 3 per cent. per annum net cashable efficiency savings, and the potential new unitaries have shown what can be achieved. We expect all councils, whatever their structure, to work together to achieve greater improvement and efficiency gains. We therefore want to see similar improvements, whatever a council’s structure—again, the focus is on outcomes, rather than just structure. We asked all the principal councils that
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are already committed to going for a greatly improved and innovative two-tier approach to step forward and act as pathfinders. Five county areas have come forward to be pathfinders, and their proposals are being considered.

It is clear from the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley that there is a real desire to move to more effective, efficient and accountable local government in Lancashire and to achieve value for money. At this stage, it is important that all local authorities in Lancashire reflect on how that can be achieved within the existing structure.

My hon. Friend asked some specific questions, and we want to reflect carefully on them. She wanted to know whether the Government would meet her and other hon. Members on this issue, and I can give her an assurance that we will. It will probably be the Minister for Local Government—

Mr. Pope: Palmerston.

Angela E. Smith: I was not referring to Lord Palmerston, and I am not sure whether my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will still want to meet hon. Members when he finds out that he has been compared to him, but we shall put that to him. However, he has agreed to meet hon. Members and he will reflect on the request of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley.

My hon. Friend asked two other specific questions. First, she wanted to know what failing actually means and to have information about the ability to deliver. The judgment on delivery was taken in the round against the five criteria that I outlined. That made it clear that account must be taken of the whole affected area and of the impact outside it. A judgment was made not about the services that the existing structures currently deliver, but about the impact of the new structures.

My hon. Friend’s second question was whether we support the case for unitary authorities in principle, and I think that I have made that clear. We are not saying that the two-tier structure is inappropriate or wrong in every case, but there are clear risks associated with it, which I have addressed.

The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar asked about referendums, should they become necessary. Traditionally, change in local government has been top-down, and I mentioned the GLC. However, we are talking about a bottom-up approach, and there must be consultation and engagement, with bids coming from local authorities themselves.

It is clear that there is a drive in Lancashire to ensure that authorities are real players and that there is greater service delivery. We must go away, reflect on the comments that have been made and offer a meeting with those hon. Members who have raised the issue. Whatever the structure, however, it is clear that there must be good service delivery, with the citizen as the focus.

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Sea Cadets

11 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Some colleagues have asked why on earth the Member for Rhondda is introducing a debate about sea cadets, as the Rhondda is landlocked and I have no personal experience of the sea cadets, nor any naval connections other than the fact that my maternal grandfather was a naval architect and that my great-grand uncle designed and built the Indomitable, which helped Britain in its endeavours in the first world war. He was described by Admiral Jackie Fisher as Britain’s greatest ever naval architect.

Rhondda, however, has a sea cadet unit, although it is difficult to ensure that the sea cadets can do everything that they would like to be able to do. The debate is unusual as there have been few debates about the sea cadets over the years, and my reason for securing it is that the sea cadets organisation is one of the most valuable, but least valued, in the United Kingdom. It was founded in 1910 as the Naval Youth Brigades, formally recognised by the Admiralty in 1919 as the Navy League Sea Cadet Corps and given a formal charter in 1947. The Navy League transformed itself into the Sea Cadet Association in 1976 and the girls’ groups which existed alongside the Sea Cadet Association were amalgamated into the sea cadets in 1992.

The Marine Society and Sea Cadets is the umbrella organisation that runs the 400 sea cadet units across the United Kingdom, which also run themselves semi-autonomously. Four national training centres provide support for the individual units around the country. It is an important point, to which I will return later, that the Marine Society and Sea Cadets is run as a charity rather differently from the other organisations that are run in association with the Ministry of Defence.

In 2005, the last year for which I have been able to find precise figures, the sea cadet corps numbered nearly 13,000 cadets, with 4,400 adult volunteers staffing the units throughout the UK. For completeness, I point out that the sea cadets are for 12 to 18 year-olds, but they also have a junior section for cadets from the age of 10. Everyone wears a uniform of some kind once they have done their initial training, which is free.

The value of the sea cadets is immense, especially in some of the poorest communities in the UK, such as the one that I represent. They provide a series of skills for young people, based on a maritime or nautical theme, including leadership, teamwork, personal discipline, individual respect, care for others and citizenship: all the things that we would want every young person to grow up with.

The core values of the sea cadets are clear. They state as their founding premise that they are there

The organisation is designed to promote personal development, social inclusion and citizenship among the country’s young people, whatever their background, race, creed or colour.

The movement tries to introduce young people to an organised, disciplined and stimulating environment where they can learn new skills, interact and collaborate with their peers, and where confidence and self-esteem can flourish while, most importantly, they have a huge
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amount of fun. I know that the last point is true because I visited the Rhondda sea cadets last week at TS Minerva in Llwynypia. It was a delight to meet the commanding officer, Jeremy Williams, the other eight members of staff, members of the very committed lay board, chaired by Bob Evans, and many of the kids, who were boiling over with enthusiasm about their experience of being in the sea cadets, despite some of them being away on holiday.

As one staff member put it, delightfully, the whole point is that the sea cadets start

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