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I am pleased that the Government have taken the amendment on board because there is an opportunity, particularly in areas that are losing district councils and moving to new unitary authority boundaries and where new wards are to be created that cross previous district council boundaries. It is vital that the Boundary Committee takes into account both the geography and the local interests in those areas. We are entering new territory, and I am pleased that that has been reflected in this clause.

However, I ask the Minister to give some indication, especially to those outside the House who are concerned about the implementation of a boundary review into the new unitary areas, of the timetable under which the review will take place. One has to assume that, going forward, the new unitary authorities will take priority in terms of the work load of the Boundary Committee.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I hesitate to intrude on matters in Northumberland and Shropshire by dragging the debate in a direction just beyond the south-west extremes of England into the Duchy of Cornwall. I wish to address amendments Nos. 2 to 4 in particular. The change in relation to the Secretary of State from any


gathers to the Secretary of State a great deal of power and discretion to take into account only, for example, a chief constable, and not someone who is simply in receipt of local government services. One might interpret the first form of words as applying to every resident in the area likely to be affected by the change in local government. That therefore implies that there should be a referendum—that there should be an opinion poll, or that there should be consultation of all residents of that local authority area and not only the chief constable and a few people whom the Secretary of State believes it to be appropriate to consult. One could use the example of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in that regard.

2.30 pm

The Minister said that the purpose of the changes is also to ensure that principles of devolution are properly implemented. The implication, therefore, is that the Bill itself provides a substantial opportunity for local authorities to receive devolved powers. Although the amendments before us do not address devolution, there are some important devolution issues to consider, and Cornwall
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is a good case in point. During the process of bidding, consideration and the Secretary of State’s acceptance of a particular bid—in the case of Cornwall, there were two bids—the Government need to make clear what they are offering to local authorities that will be brought together to provide, in Cornwall’s case, a unitary authority.

It is important that we do not receive mixed messages, and I fear that the message that Cornwall county council—the successful of the two bidders for a unitary authority—received from the Secretary of State and the Department during the process was mixed. During my conversations with the Minister’s predecessor and others in the Department, it was unclear whether they were telling Cornwall’s local authorities that they could be a great deal more ambitious regarding the powers that they could draw down from agencies outside Cornwall to take decisions on affordable housing numbers, how NHS money is allotted to private hospitals, and a whole range of other planning and resource matters. In my view and that of Cornwall’s local authorities, decisions on convergence funding—what used to be called European objective 1 funding—are far better taken by those elected to represent the local people than by those appointed indirectly or directly by Government to take such decisions for them in Bristol or Exeter, for example, and who are therefore not locally accountable.

It is very important that the Government provide clarity on this issue. The Bill was debated on Second Reading in January and on Third Reading in May and votes were taken, but things have moved on and the scenario may well have changed. That, in turn, may well have changed the attitude of many of us to the Bill. Many engaged in this process were initially optimistic, even though the then Secretary of State made the veiled threat in the message put out to local authorities that no change is not an option; that, at least, is certainly how they understood it. A great deal of ambition was shown during the discussions on Cornwall’s bid. In fact and as I said, we had two bids. The bid from four of the six district councils clearly argued for the abolition of all Cornwall’s local authorities and their replacement with a single unitary authority. The county council’s bid was pretty much the same—in fact, the two bids were similar in many respects. However, they still could not agree on the exact configuration of internal matters within the proposed authority.

As a result of the Government’s selecting only one bid, rather than two, for further consultation within Cornwall as a whole, the district councils decided to campaign against the county council’s bid. In four of the six districts as part of that campaign, they carried out their own opinion poll, which was effectively a referendum. Whether the prevailing climate was the right one in which to undertake a referendum is open to question. This has been a contentious issue in Cornwall, but it was clear that the vast majority of people voted no—against the proposed single unitary authority.

The Minister needs to reflect on the fact that the changes proposed in amendments Nos. 2 to 4 give the Secretary of State power to ignore the vast majority of people who will be affected by such a change to local authorities. I consider that a substantial change that the House needs to reflect on. In effect, these provisions are saying that a substantial change to local
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government is a matter on which the Secretary of State need consult only the chief constable, in the case of Northumberland, and a few other so-called stakeholders—I do not like that expression—but not the stakeholders who really matter: those who consume the services provided by those local authorities.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on this issue and reassure us that, if need be, he will go back to the drawing board, make sure that local communities are fully consulted about the proposals, and clarify the mixed messages coming from his Department, so that in future, places such as Cornwall can pursue the ambition that I have described today: to draw down powers that will give Cornwall the substantial authority that it richly deserves.

Mr. Syms: I want to raise similar concerns about amendments Nos. 2 to 5. The term “consult” is widely understood and the provision offers quite a broad definition. To some extent, it allows people whom the Secretary of State might not necessarily want to hear to be included, but it also allows people to submit letters, to pass resolutions and to organise petitions to express their views. The phrase “such other persons as he considers appropriate” is more specific and limiting. It means that there are people whom the Secretary of State does not consider appropriate, so perhaps the House should ask, “Whom does the Secretary of State not want to consult?”

Effectively, judgments will have to be made, and weighting will have to be given. If the Secretary of State is taking a view on whom it is and is not appropriate to consult, that involves a judgment, including about the relative importance of different organisations. The Department must therefore have a view about how it gathers such information.

There is another issue that we must consider. Whenever any attempt is made to pick up on how much support there is for a particular change, it is important that the time frame be quite narrow. Organisations change, the control of councils changes, and the personnel who are the chief constables and chief fire officers, for example, change. One should not, therefore, simply gather together supporting letters from various organisations over a period of years, until a tipping point is reached whereby one says, “There is now enough support.” Some of the people involved in the earlier stages of such a process and who were convinced of a particular argument might well have changed their mind. A fairly narrow time frame is needed, so that there is a beginning and an end. The Government need to set out clearly their template for those whom they consider it appropriate to consult, and whom they think it not appropriate to consult.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: If a chief constable took such a decision, who would he consult—the police authority?

Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The chief constable’s views might be at variance with the police authority, which might have slightly more legitimacy in a particular area.

All this leads us to feel that the Bill does not provide us with enough information to make a judgment. The Government need to write to Members explaining who
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they feel are the sort of people it is appropriate to consult, what weight they would give that consultation and the time frame, and to put a copy of that letter in the Library.

Mr. Gummer: Is it not also necessary to be clearer about what is to be consulted on and how detailed that consultation will be? Our experience up to now is that such consultation takes place in circumstances that, as other Members have said, lead to confusion. We need to know what is being consulted on, as well as to whom that consultation shall apply.

Mr. Syms: My right hon. Friend makes a good point. If we are to pursue change, the important thing is to have a clear case and a clear way of consulting so that people know what the rules are. This brief debate—particularly the exchange of letters about Northumberland and the various other examples—shows that the Government seem to have an agenda in which they seek change and look for different things in each area.

Tom Levitt (High Peak) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense, because by saying that different weight has to be given to different consultees, he goes to the nub of the problem. If, as others seem to be arguing, the consultative referendum should be binding, there is no point consulting anybody else. If it is not to be binding and is to be simply a consultative referendum, surely that should be made clear and people should not feel that its outcome is binding on anyone.

Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He has had a lot of experience, having spent many hours on this Bill. It is clear to me, and I hope to other hon. Members, that the Government would benefit from making things clearer, because people would know what the ground rules are. A degree of confusion exists, and the Bill does not clear it up. The Minister must publish a letter or document setting out how the Government intend to proceed in these matters to give comfort and reassurance to those of us who will support change only if there is an overwhelming case for it.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: I might be going mad, but I am sure that things were clear in Northumberland because the assembly vote was on the same ballot paper as the question of unitary authorities. We had the choice of the two votes, so we were clear that we would be voting for an assembly. Had we voted for an assembly, we would have got one, because that is what the Government wanted. Why did they ask the people of Northumberland when they knew that those people were not going to get what they wanted?

Mr. Syms: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Hon. Members have had a long recess in order to talk to many constituents, particularly those in Northumberland, who had the lucky experience of being consulted on their local government. The situation raises many questions and the Minister must reassure this House that the proposed changes in this Bill will make things clearer, rather than more opaque. He must set out clearly to all of us what the Government intend to
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do, so that when our constituents ask us how will things happen, who will be consulted and what the procedure will be, we can give a degree of certainty, rather than look blank and say that we are not sure.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): This debate is a microcosm of discussions since the publication of the White Paper, let alone those on Second Reading: the Government have some good things in the Bill, but they are hopelessly outweighed by some of the bad things.

I want to address my remarks to Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4, and thus to clause 7. I see the provisions as safeguarding ones. It would be nice to report that they were safeguarding local democracy, but they are not—they are safeguarding the Secretary of State. The aim of these Lords amendments is to make the Secretary of State’s ultimate decision fireproof by including the words

He would thus be fireproof from legal challenge and criticism, whereas had we kept the phrase

it would have been more difficult for him to wriggle out.

We have heard a number of examples of the consultation process so far producing what seem to many hon. Members present to be perverse outcomes. I hope that in commenting on those revised words from the Lords which he is endorsing the Minister tells the House what tests of reasonableness will be used when the Secretary of State considers an issue. Will the Minister give us a clue about what he thinks “appropriate” means and some examples of things that are appropriate and things that are not? Obviously, those will be mediated by an interpretation of reasonableness in relation to consideration. He might, although I doubt it, give some consolation to hon. Members who have spoken if he could help us on the reasonableness of the Secretary of State’s consideration and give us a clue about the appropriateness.

2.45 pm

Mr. Syms: I wonder whether a Member of Parliament would appear in a list of appropriate consultees.

Andrew Stunell: My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) have made it clear that even when Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament are unanimous about a particular outcome it does not carry as much weight as the chief constable. That perhaps tells us something about the direction in which our democratic system is going.

Will the Minister give the House a clear explanation of what factors are leading him and the Secretary of State to refuse to release the analysis of the consultation? It is obviously not commercial confidentiality, so there must be some substantial reason behind that refusal that has not yet come to light. I hope that the Minister will tell us that.

The defects of the process in Northumberland, Shropshire and Cornwall have been mentioned. I shall mention two other cases. In County Durham, there are
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similar rows and tensions. My colleagues in the City of Durham point out to me that their substantial public consultation produced an overwhelming result, but it is also being overlooked.

Dr. Blackman-Woods: I could not let the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the City of Durham pass without comment and a question. The referendum that was circulated by all the districts in County Durham was incredibly one-sided and they refused to allow the county council to deliver any information about the single unitary authority along with the ballot papers. Although the vote in favour of the status quo was substantial, the Government should disregard that result because it was an extremely biased referendum. However, in the referendum that took place as part of the north-east assembly referendum, the people of Durham did vote in favour of a single unitary authority.

Andrew Stunell: I think that I shall let those remarks stand on their own. I understand that, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, the referendum that she mentions was not conducted solely by the City of Durham but by councils of a variety of political flavours in County Durham, the majority of which are run by the Labour party.

Mr. Gummer: Would the hon. Gentleman like to reflect on the fact that there does not seem much point in most of my colleagues demanding a referendum on greater things, because it appears that if we had one this Government would merely ignore its results?

Andrew Stunell: I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman poses the question to the Association of Chief Police Officers and sees how the answer lies, because he may get more of a hint from that than from a referendum.

I return to Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4. The key phrase in the debate is who the Secretary of State “considers appropriate”. I want briefly to draw hon. Members’ attention to a county of which I have some knowledge. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) is not present, but Cheshire is an interesting case in point, because two bids were submitted to the Minister, one proposing that there should be one unitary county council area and another proposing that there should be three separate district unitary authorities. The Secretary of State has said, “That is interesting. We have got a bid for one and a bid for three. I propose to make two.” Such a proposal is not favoured by any of the local authorities. I have not heard the view of the chief constable on this one, but I would be surprised if he thought it a terribly good idea either. The Minister might be able to help us on that. All of the examples illustrate the point that the amendments form a safeguarding clause, not for local democracy—which is what it should be about—but for the Secretary of State.

Alistair Burt: This is a passionate plea for greater attention to be paid by the Government to the views of the people who have been caught up in unitary problems, including those in my county of Bedfordshire. I am therefore even more puzzled why the Liberal Democrats in the other place did not support the proposal by Baroness Hanham for a referendum when unitary proposals are being considered. Can the hon. Gentleman explain that?

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Andrew Stunell: I am obviously glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. We have made it clear in both Houses that we believe that popular consent in the locality is important. Indeed, the whole process should be driven from the local level, not the Secretary of State’s desk.

The legislation on the statute book gives the Secretary of State powers to introduce unitary authorities if he wishes, and the only thing that the Minister can say is that the new process in the Bill is just a little bit better than the one that the Conservatives left on the statute book, which could be used if this provision were defeated. This debate has illustrated the flaws in the Bill, in that it does not make the right provision for protecting local democracy that it should.

John Healey: With the leave of the House, I will try to respond to the debate, especially the points relating to the amendments, although some general, contextual arguments have also been made. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and, to some degree, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), as well as the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), touched—in ways related to their area and constituency interests—on specific proposals for unitary authorities that are currently being considered. I recognise and understand the fierce views and high feelings, as well as the entrenched interests, that are inevitably part of such a debate. I have only recently taken up this post and this process, but I have quickly come to realise that we cannot consider, let alone proceed with, change of this nature without upsetting and unsettling many people.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell: The Minister says that we have special interests in this issue. As I have pointed out time and again, the special interest in the case of Northumberland is that of the people. It is their special interest, not mine nor anyone else’s.

John Healey: The point that I was making is that my hon. Friend has a sufficient and special interest to be in the House this afternoon and to contribute to the debate on the amendments in a way that some other hon. Members do not. I accept that he is reflecting the views of some of his constituents and his councillors.

On the question of support, we were clear, when we published the invitation to submit proposals in October 2006, that any proposals would be considered against five criteria. One of those criteria would be the extent of the cross-section of support. That was set out clearly, in headline terms and in detail, and we have consistently brought judgments to bear and applied those criteria reasonably, throughout the process. Indeed, that includes being challenged on some of our judgments in the courts.

One of the key tests was that any proposal would have

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