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We recognise the changes that have been made for certain technical reasons in clause 7, which relates to directions given under clause 2. We are disappointed, however, that the Government have not taken on board the sunset clause in relation to invitations to councils to be part of a unitary process. We acknowledge that
there will be a restriction involving a sunset clause on directions, but it would have been safer if it had extended to invitations as well. We are disappointed that the Government did not accept that proposal.
My only substantive point relates to clause 8, and I make it on behalf of the Electoral Commission, which is worried that the clause, as drafted, might be defective. I would appreciate it if I could run the commissions concerns by the Minister. It believes that, quite separately from reviews of local government structure, clause 8 provides the boundary committee with the power to conduct reviews of local authority administrative boundaries, either at the request of the Secretary of State, at the request of a local authority or on its own initiative. As a result of such a review, the committee will be able to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for alterations to the boundaries of a principal authority area or for the abolition or creation of such areas.
Subject to the Electoral Commission having the responsibility to direct the work of the boundary committee, we acknowledge and welcome the changes to clause 8. The last round of administrative boundary reviews was completed by the former local government boundary commission for England in 1992, and many boundary anomalies have since arisen. The anomalies are largely a consequence of new developments spilling over the boundaries between authorities.
We share the Electoral Commissions concern that no provision has been made for the boundary committee to make any necessary recommendations that may be required as a direct result of the alteration of principal authority areas. For example, unlike the former local government boundary commission for England review, the committee will have no power to recommend alterations to the ward boundaries of adjoining authorities in order to minimise the effect of administrative boundary changes on electoral equality. Nor will it have any power to recommend consequential changes to parish areas affected by a principal area boundary change. That could result in parishes being split between district or even county council areas.
The Secretary of State will have powers to make the consequential alterations to which I have just referred, and clause 10 will enable her to seek further information or advice from the boundary committee in relation to any of its recommendations. However, we share the Electoral Commissions view that clause 8 is defective. It limits the boundary committees consideration to principal authority administrative boundaries. While the Secretary of State may seek the boundary committees advice and information on consequential matters such as electoral arrangements and parish boundaries, these will not have been the subject of public consultation as part of a full review process.
I offer those concerns for the Ministers consideration. Does he share the Electoral Commissions view that clause 8, as drafted, is defective, and that it is not significantly amended by the proposals before us?
The important part of what my hon. Friend has just read is the last bit, which refers to the fact that it will be impossible to make the changes for parish councils. Parish councils are an important part of our structure, and they feel strongly about the fact
that, often, parts of a parish are excluded following changes in ward boundaries or the boundaries of more important local authorities. Would it not be helpful to ensure that the restrictions on the boundary committee were made clear, so that it would be able to make recommendations about alterations but would not be able to recommend the closure of a parish? I am still not sure that the Minister has answered my question on that.
When we deal with a later group of amendments involving parishes, I shall return to my right hon. Friends question about their position should a principal authority, namely a district council, recommend their closure as part of a community-governance review. It is feared that there would not be sufficient recourse for them to combat such recommendations. Both here and in the other place, it was pointed out that simply recommending that they have recourse to law might not take account of the difficulties that parish councils would experience when confronted with the administrative power and financial resources of a principal authority recommending their closure. Perhaps, either at this stage or when we reach the amendments specifically relating to parishes, we could be given a clear and unambiguous answer to my right hon. Friends question.
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole) (Con): There are some very small parish councils around, some of which are a thorn in the sides of districts or boroughs. I think there is a risk that areas may have an incentive to reorganise in order to get rid of people who are thorns in their sides. As my hon. Friend says, going to law on the parish precept would be unthinkable. It would be possible only for a substantial town council.
Alistair Burt: I always welcome the interventions of my hon. Friend, who gave invaluable help on the Opposition Front Bench during the Bills passage. His presence today is much appreciated, as is his extensive knowledge of all these matters.
During the Commons Committee stage, it was pointed out that, local rivalries being what they arewe need not go into that too deeply todaythere might be occasions on which scores could be settled between local politicians, and parishes might get squeezed: hence the need to ensure that they have the best possible protection available to them. Perhaps, when we reach the amendments dealing specifically with parishes, the Minister could give us some reassurance that the process will not leave them high and dry. In the context of this group, however, I am content to have presented the arguments to the Minister on behalf of the Electoral Commission, particularly those relating to the potentially defective nature of clause 8. I hope that he will respond to them.
Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I should declare an interest: my wife is a member of both Northumberland county council and Berwick borough council. I have that interest in common with the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who has just returned to the Chamber.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 change the phraseology relating to whom the Secretary of State may consult before making an order. That is quite important given that the current reorganisation hangs on the Bill, which it is assumed will validate the processes that have gone before. Clause 7 states that the Secretary of State must consult
any other person he believes to have an interest,
such other persons as he considers appropriate.
It seems to me that the people who have an interest and those who might be considered appropriate are roughly similar. The most obvious group in that category are the people of Northumberland, whom the Government rightly consulted before the Bill was drafted, in a referendum in 2004. In the referendum, a substantial majority stated that they wanted the reorganisation to produce two unitary authorities. In defiance of that result, the Government have insisted on creating a single unitary authority.
The Government could have consulted various other people, including the Members of Parliament representing the county of Northumberland, who happen to come from each political party. Had they done so, they would have discovered that every single one believed that there should be two authorities rather than one.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley) (Lab): I took up that point with the Minister, who replied that he accepted that there had been a consultation in the form of the referendum, and that 57 per cent. of the people of Northumberland wanted a two-tier unitary authority while 40 per cent. did not. In the letter that he sent me, he suggested that the 57 per cent. had not been sure what they were voting for because the whole issue was so complex and that the 40 per cent. figure was therefore significant, which was why he had decided to take it on board. I consider that an affront to the people of Northumberland, who had made clear that they did not want to lose their district councils but were prepared to accept a two-tier unitary authority.
Mr. Beith: I shall refer to that letter as well, because it throws a good deal of light on the process that is being modified by Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4. I received a copy of the letter that was sent to Northumberland county council, with a covering letter from the Minister. The letter referred directly to the referendum result. It said:
the Districts rely heavily on the 2004 referendum, which produced a majority against the single unitary option,
it is significant that in that referendum the single unitary option nevertheless had significant support.
I am sure that when the Minister was elected to Parliament, candidates from Opposition parties had significant support in the ballot box, but it is the Minister who is sitting there now, not them. When the hon. Member for Blyth Valley was elected, members of other parties had significant support; but he is the one who is sitting there, because he won the election. That was the verdict of the people.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell: Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the scenario. I received 51 per cent. of the vote in Blyth Valley at the general election, and the Liberal Democrat candidate received 40 per cent. It seems from the Ministers letter that the electors did not know what they were doing when they voted for me. The Liberal Democrat candidate should be the Member of Parliament, because he received 40 per cent. of the vote.
In a sense the Government, in advance of the Bill, have exercised the powers that clause 7 gives them. There were certain other people whom they deemed it appropriate to consult, one of whom was the chief constable of Northumbria. It should be borne in mind that the chief constable of Northumbria administers a police area much larger than either the one or the two authorities. It is not as large as he would like it to be, because he wanted to enlarge it to embrace a vastly greater area and become a much bigger chief constable in the scheme of things. He lost his way in that respect.
The Ministers letter states that there was 40 per cent. support for a single authority, but it also states that the chief constable is in favour of the proposal. That means that the chief constable personally has the equivalent of about 20 per cent. of the vote. He is not just appropriate; he has an incredibly weighted share of the vote.
I will qualify that by saying that the Government prayed one other body in aid as discounting the votes of the people: the North East chamber of commerce. As I recall, the chamber of commerce indicated that it could work with either of the options, but it, too, is a much bigger body. Clearly, all the bodies that are regional or sub-regional in scale prefer to work with fewer rather than more authorities. They will have fewer letters to write, and it makes life simpler.
If the Government are merely to consult people whom they deem it appropriate to consult or those on whom they can rely to support them, and then count them as though they represented thousands of votes in comparison with the opinion of the people who live in the areathose whose children will go to the schools administered by the authority, whose bins are emptied by the authority, who have a real and direct interestwe are making a complete nonsense of the procedure. The Minister must explain to us today how on earth such a decision came to be made, and how we can interpret the Bill as functioning legislation if, when the views of the people have been expressed fully and in a correctly administered referendumfor no one disputes the fact that the referendum was properly conductedthey can be overtaken by those of persons whom the Secretary of State deems it appropriate to consult. What are we doing here?
It appears that when we enact the Bill in the next few days, we shall be legitimising a travesty. That is a deplorable state of affairs, and it causes great offence. As I travelled around the villages of my constituency in September, time and again people came up to me and said, We voted for two authorities. Why are we not getting two authorities? Why are they not getting that? Because the Minister takes note of the peoples votes
and then consults a few people he deems appropriate and whose views he considers to be more important than those of the people. That is no way to run a democracy.
Mr. Ronnie Campbell: What shocked the people of Northumberland was that although they had a vote that gave a mandate for a two-tier unitary authority and they naturally thought that they would get thatthat they would get what they voted for, and wantedit did not happen. Surveys were done. I did one myself that produced a result of 85 per cent. in favour of two tiers. The local council also did surveys, and it got a 97 per cent. result in favour.
People are deluding themselves if they think that they will get democracy from the Governmentfrom my Government. Democracy must not only be seen to be done, but it must be done. We asked the people what they wanted, and then told them that another decision had been taken, without there even being a debate in Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, we do not know on what basis that decision was taken as we have never had a debate on the matter in this House. The Minister must tell us at some point why he took the decision to ignore the wishes of the people of Northumberland, who voted for a two-tier unitary authority. They are very disappointed and I cannot tell them why this has happened. I wrote to the Minister telling him, Im not going to explain your policy. You write to the newspapers and explain your policy, because I cant explain it as I do not know about it. I have not seen the documents or the final analysis that led the Minister to deviate from what was wanted and to make the subsequent decision.
Mr. Beith: One of the reasons why the hon. Gentleman has not seen the analysis is that when I made a freedom of information request to the Department in respect of the analysis of the consultation the Government had undertakenthe sort of consultation that is envisaged in the measure under discussionthe Government claimed exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I must now appeal, although I cannot get the appeal through before the Bill is passed, against the decision to refuse that requesta request not for the advice to Ministers but for the analysis made of the responses to the consultation. The hon. Gentleman has not seen that analysis because they will not let it out.
Mr. Campbell: Indeed, we have not seen it. That is a large part of my argument. It has been kept from us, and yet here we are debating whether to pass this Bill through Parliament. That is not democracy. It has never been democracy in my eyes when the people are ignoredespecially in such a way. I cannot say that we could put a hold on this Bill: Members can vote against it, of course, but the Government majority means thatunfortunately for the people of Northumberlandit will be passed. I am at a loss to know what will happen to Northumberland in the future, but I can say this much: it is not on my head.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con):
Following such impassioned pleas from Members of different parties representing Northumberland constituencies, I wish to put in a final plea on behalf of the representatives of
Shropshire constituencies, who have also gone through this travesty of a consultation. In the case of Shropshire, the primary reason that Ministers used to deny the evidence of the ballots presented to them was that the information on the ballot put forward by the councils opposed to unitary status was somehow deficient and biased. They chose not, however, to use that argument in respect of the authority in favour of unitary status; it put together a 16-page document, 14 pages of which were in favour of unitary status and two pages were opposed, and the population in South Shropshire voted by a 72 per cent. majority against unitary status. Inexplicably, that reason was deemed not to be relevant in the case of South Shropshire, whereas it was deemed relevant in the cases of the other two districts who voted against it. That is not what I wish to speak about, although I wanted to make a final plea to the Government to recognise the validity of the ballots that took place, but which seem to be about to be denied.
Alistair Burt: My hon. Friend and other Members have described the chaos that is still abroad in some of the areas affected by the botched unitary proposals. Does he share my disappointment that when a vote on whether there should be a referendum was proposed in the other place, our party supported it and the Liberal Democrats joined with the Government to prevent it going through?
Mr. Dunne: I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions that, because constituents have asked me why the House of Lords did not overturn the proposal, and I had to tell them that Liberal Democrat peers were not prepared to support the Conservative amendment, which I deeply regret.
Mr. Gummer: Is it not also true that in all these cases there has been no clear explanation of why the Government have made the decision irrespective of the votes of the peopleof why, for example, they have decided that Ipswich should be a unitary authority when objectively it appears that the criteria that they themselves set up are not met?
Mr. Dunne: It was clear throughout the debate in Committee that the Government are keen to install a system of local government that is as centralised as possible. We constantly had arguments about the Bill being about localising and making decisions closer to the people, but the reality of this unitary imposition by the Government is that decisions are being taken away from district councils as they will be abolished. We will have unitary councils through this wave, and although the Government have promised that there will not be a further wave, we should watch this space.
Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is difficult for the Government to take into account the results of the referendums throughout the country as many of them were very localised? In the case of Durham, the districts put out a one-sided case against a unitary. They claimed that that was a fair referendum when it clearly was not. It is therefore difficult for the Government to take such referendums into account in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.
Mr. Dunne: With the advent of a new Prime Minister whose opening mantra when taking up office was that he would listen to his people, the Government had a perfect opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, however, they decided to deny the peoples votes in these ballots.
(a) the need to secure effective and convenient local government; and
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