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Those are not my words, but the words of the original invitation to submit proposals. That was deliberate, because we wanted a formative process of consultation, in which those agencies and local people had an opportunity
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to contribute to the development of potential proposals that may be submitted to the Secretary of State. It was also deliberate in that it allowed local authorities to seek the views of local people in the way that they thought best, not by prescribing—as some hon. Members have suggested this afternoon that we should have done—in detail from the centre, but as part of the process led by the local authorities. The authorities could choose whether—and if so, how—to take the views of local residents.

Mr. Beith: In the Secretary of State’s letter to district councils, he acknowledged that

for the two-authority proposal—

so it met that criterion—

So it is all right if one has broad support, but one also has to have public sector support. All six districts are public sector stakeholders, of course, and they supported the proposal, so we come back to the chief constable. How many votes does a chief constable have?

John Healey: With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the single unitary proposal in Northumberland also had support—not significant, but minority support—from the results of the referendum in 2004. It had support from, as he rightly says, the north-east chambers of commerce and the chief constable. However, as I have tried to suggest, a broad cross-section of support was just one of five criteria that any of the proposals had to meet in order to proceed. The weakness of the proposal for two unitaries in Northumberland was not the level or nature of the support, but the strength of leadership and the doubts about whether the two authorities could deliver the services required by the people of the area. If the right hon. Gentleman checks the letter of decision, he will see that that was part of the explanation for the Secretary of State’s decision in July.

Mr. Gummer: As I apply those criteria to the decisions in Suffolk, it appears that the opposite decision was made and the opposite conclusion reached. I make no argument about whether that should have been the case or not, just that nobody understands because those five criteria have been applied differently in almost every circumstance. It is totally confusing to the electorate.

John Healey: The matter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers was not a question of Suffolk, but of Ipswich. The proposal for a unitary Ipswich met the five criteria, and in publishing the decision the Secretary of State made clear the way in which the proposal met them in that case.

Mr. Gummer: But the Minister has just said that the public sector did not support the arrangements in Northumberland. Which public sector bodies in Suffolk supported the proposal that was then accepted? It would be much quicker to list those that supported the proposal than to list those that did not, because the fact is that none did, except Ipswich borough council.

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John Healey: First, the right hon. Gentleman misquotes what I said about Northumberland. Secondly, we had more than 50,000 responses in the process of inviting and considering the unitary proposals. We will publish those shortly and he will be able to consult them for himself.

There is an important difference between the nature of the points that have been made in the debate today about support as an element of the five criteria that we have taken into account, and the terms of the Bill, which are about the Secretary of State’s consultation during the process. Those are two different things.

3 pm

Alistair Burt: Before the Minister leaves the matter of the criteria, I hope he will reflect on the fact that the problem in Bedfordshire is even more confusing than my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggested. One of the criteria in Bedford borough council’s unitary bid was not met and yet that became the Government’s preferred bid, even though the Government accepted all five of the criteria in the county council’s bid. Like my right hon. Friend, I make no argument about the merits of either bid, but merely point out that it is the confusion about the criteria and the judgments made by the Government that has caused so much distress and difficulty in local authorities around the country.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman’s understanding of these matters is normally very precise and accurate, but I must correct him. The Government would not be minded to proceed with the bid to which he has referred if it did not meet the five criteria. However, it does meet those criteria, as the decision made clear. Even so, we have some questions about the financial cases being presented by Bedford and three other borough councils, and we have sought extra information. That information has been made available to the county and to anyone else with an interest, including Members of Parliament. We are now considering the further information and views that have been submitted, and we will be in a position to make our final judgments if and when this Bill receives Royal Assent.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) dwelt at length on the question of the Secretary of State’s consultation. That consultation, which covered 16 proposals, was launched in March and ran to 22 June. It did not touch on questions of plebiscites or referendums or examine whether a cross-section of support should be one of the five criteria. Its very specific purpose was to help my right hon. Friend to seek the views of those in a position to give an informed judgment as to whether, on the evidence available, the proposal met the five criteria that had been set. The consultation was not a way for her to duplicate—in what, almost inevitably, would have been a less effective way—the information, evidence and views that, as part of the proposals that had been submitted, the council had gathered from its citizens and service users.

I can tell the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that we have released the information that he requested. We have done so properly and in accordance with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. We have not released certain information that we should not release. We will publish shortly a summary of the
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responses to the consultation process. As I said earlier, we had more than 50,000 of them. Our final decisions will take into account all the relevant information gathered and received in that process, and any supplementary and further information that we have received since we made our announcements in July.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell rose—

Mr. Beith rose—

John Healey: I give way first to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Campbell: Does the Minister have a figure for all the assets, reserves and capital receipts held by the districts involved?

John Healey: No, I do not. However, when such a figure is established, I should be happy to contact my hon. Friend.

Mr. Beith: I want to be frank with the Minister. Under the Freedom of Information Act, he has released a copy of all the responses that I received. I cannot imagine that he has read every one of them and would not expect him to. I expect that he has been given a piece of paper analysing—although not necessarily giving advice about—the conclusions of the responses. I want to be sure that that analysis did not say that the overwhelming view, especially among the relevant stakeholders, was that there should be two authorities. My point is that if he received that information and then ignored it, that would be a very relevant factor.

John Healey: The information that we have not released is precisely as the right hon. Gentleman has just described—that is, advice to Ministers. By convention, and under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, such information is not necessarily disclosable. If the information assessment analysis of the proposals found that the single unitary authority for Northumberland did not meet the five criteria, we could not have proceeded, even if we were minded to. I can assure him that the single unitary proposal for Northumberland did indeed meet the five criteria that we set but, as I explained earlier, the proposal for two unitary authorities in the county did not.

If and when the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Government will be able to reach final decisions and make the orders required to set up the unitary structures. We aim to do that in December, and the affirmative resolution procedure will mean that the orders can be debated in this House. Where the process has not started already, we expect the proposing authorities and those in other affected areas to knuckle down and prepare for the unitary structures and authorities that we intend to set up. All being well, they will be up and running by April 2009.

Mr. Campbell: I believe that the decision to set up a single unitary authority was taken because the county is in debt. It always has been, as it is very poorly run. It has very little in the way of reserves that the districts could take away. However, as I said before, the districts have reserves and capital receipts that we think amount to about £17 million.

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John Healey: That may be my hon. Friend’s view, but the Government’s decision is based on an analysis of the evidence submitted to us.

Andrew George rose—

Mr. Gummer rose—

John Healey: I give way to the hon. Member for St. Ives.

Andrew George: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On a point of principle, and not in respect of any particular area, I seek clarification of the orders to be put before the House after the Bill has been enacted. Clause 7(3) states that the Secretary of State may not make an order under what will be this Act without proper consultation. Earlier, I highlighted the distinction between the persons whom the Secretary of State deems appropriate and those whom she believes have an interest. Before the orders are put before the House, will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will consult those who have a genuine interest in the outcome of the change in local authority? In other words, will there be further consultation? It is clear that whole groups of people have not been consulted or given sufficient status in the process so far.

John Healey: I have already explained the nature and purpose of the Secretary of State’s consultation, and the way in which it was conducted as part of the process. In drawing up the draft orders that will be required to set up unitary authorities there will be further discussions with interested parties in the affected areas.

Mr. Gummer: When I used to do the job of the Secretary of State and answers were produced of the sort that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned, there was a covering note analysing them. It was not advice from civil servants to the Minister but a factual statement of what was in the totality of the response and the civil servants then gave the Minister advice on it. I think the right hon. Gentleman was asking two things. First, was there ever such a document? If not, there is a question as to whether the Minister had access to the facts. Secondly, if there were such a document, why was it treated as advice by civil servants instead of as a mere factual statement of the contents of the bundle?

John Healey: I do not think I can be clearer because I have said this twice already: we shall shortly publish a summary of the responses we received as part of the process—precisely the sort of document to which reference has been made. I shall ensure that a copy is placed in the Library.

The hon. Member for Ludlow asked a specific question about the work of the Electoral Commission in looking into possible electoral arrangements in a new unitary authority. The informal discussions we have held with the commission suggest that it is likely to be able to undertake and complete that work in time for elections in any new unitary authority in 2009.

The hon. Member for Cornwall— [ Interruption. ]the hon. Member for St. Ives is very much a Cornish Member and loses no opportunity to speak on Cornish matters. The proposal for a unitary Cornwall authority,
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which we are minded to implement, would establish the sort of body that he is interested in seeing. First, it is a good way—possibly the best way—to reflect the particular identity of Cornwall and give the county the leadership it requires. Secondly, it gives the leadership needed to undertake and exercise some of the future powers we consider appropriate and will look to devolve to local authorities.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his welcome to me in my new post. He expressed two concerns. I think he was arguing that the Bill might result in parishes being split between district, or even county, council areas. That is not the case. It would not happen. Clause 11(4)(c) allows the Secretary of State to amend the boundary of any parish as part of a boundary change order. The Secretary of State would, therefore, ensure that no parish area was split between district or county council areas.

The hon. Gentleman’s second concern was that the Secretary of State could seek the boundary committee’s advice on matters such as electoral arrangements and parish boundaries even though those matters would not have been subject to full public consultation as part of the review process. The principle underpinning the Bill is consistent: electoral arrangements are a matter for the Electoral Commission’s consideration, not for the Secretary of State, as we have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill when that point has been raised. However, the Secretary of State should be able to put in place interim arrangements, so that once a decision has been taken on a structural or boundary change, the change can happen as soon as possible. If the Secretary of State puts in place interim electoral arrangements as part of implementing a structural boundary change, the Electoral Commission is under a duty to consider whether an electoral review should be conducted by its boundary committee. The commission’s continuing role in keeping the electoral arrangements of local authorities in England under review will remain unaffected.

I hope I have been able to deal with the many points that have been raised in the debate and that Members will accept the amendments in the group, thus allowing them to remain part of the Bill.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 23 agreed to.

Clause 33

Resolution for whole-council elections: requirements

Lords amendment: No. 24.

3.15 pm

John Healey: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this we may discuss Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 47, No. 48 and amendment (a) thereto, No. 49,. No. 50 and amendment (a) thereto, and Nos. 51 and 240.

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John Healey: We now move on to part 2 of the Bill, which deals with elections. In response to good debate, strong scrutiny and a well argued case in the other place, the Government made a number of amendments.

As Members are aware, part 2 contains provisions on resolution periods, in which local authorities can resolve to change their scheme for elections. We introduced an amendment to extend the resolution period from three months to approximately six months following concerns that the three-month period originally proposed was too short.

The amendments to clauses 33, 38 and 40 extend the resolution periods set out in the Bill so that they begin on the day after the council’s annual meeting, and end on 31 December. Linking the resolution periods to the annual meeting, which will always take place after the election in an election year, ensures that local government elections will not take place during a resolution period. We also introduced a number of technical amendments to clauses 33, 38 and 40, in line with existing provisions in the Local Government Act 1972. The amendments to clause 57 update section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992, which sets out the procedure to be followed for an electoral review—a review of wards or electoral divisions in a council’s area.

In short, the amendments modernise the electoral review processes. They meet the Electoral Commission’s request that the process should be made more flexible; for instance, by allowing the boundary committee to conduct a shorter review to deal with more straightforward matters such as minor electoral boundary changes.

We made amendments to clause 59 in response to concerns raised in the other place about provisions for changing the names of electoral areas, which are district wards and county divisions. Concerns were raised about ensuring that there were appropriate measures, or safeguards, to prevent names being changed too often and without local debate. I think the amendments satisfy those concerns.

The Government made an amendment to clause 60 to require the Secretary of State in England, and Welsh Ministers in Wales, to make any order moving the date of local government elections so that they take place on the same date as the European parliamentary elections, at least six months before the scheduled date of the local government elections or European parliamentary elections, whichever is earlier. We were responding to a similar amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) in this place and by the Conservatives in the other place. At the time, we agreed to give the matter further consideration and our amendment honours that.

We accepted that there needs to be a substantial period between the making of an order changing the date of local government elections and the election thereby affected. Clearly such a period is needed to allow electoral administration staff sufficient time to put in place the necessary arrangements if the date of the election is to be changed. It also allows them to be more confident after a particular point that no change would be made to the election date.

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