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20 Nov 2007 : Column 63WH—continued

That opinion is as relevant today as it was in June. My concern is that the Minister has decided to use the model of a Norwich unitary authority as a baseline to reorganise local government in Norfolk, and that his unofficial riding instructions to the boundary committee have ruled out the status quo.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): As my hon. Friend mentions concerns about Norwich, will he reflect on the opinion of the Audit Commission, which said that Norwich city council’s financial management was not yet fit for purpose?

Mr. Simpson: My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee and has emphasised the point that I, sadly, am trying to make, which must bear heavily on the mind of the Minister, who is, of course, a former Treasury Minister.

I urge the Minister to think again. There are two obvious reasons why the status quo should be considered and, indeed, act as the template. First, we have a documented, agreed set of statistics on council tax, performance, delivery and accountability, with which theoretical options can be tested. Secondly, given Norwich city council’s at best uneven track record, it is surely absurd to use an underperforming model as the template. We would not do that in business, and my experience of the Ministry of Defence is that such a model would go into what the Army calls the “laugh and tear up file”.

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could clarify whether he is opposed to unitary authorities across Norfolk in all circumstances or just to the procedures and processes in this particular case. I have several comments to make later about some of his earlier remarks, but what is his stance on unitary status for Norfolk full stop?

Mr. Simpson: I do not want to be discourteous, but if the right hon. Gentleman had read the Eastern Daily Press over the past few weeks, he would have seen what my position is. I happen to be in favour of the status quo, although other people have different views, which is perfectly legitimate. There is a discussion to be had about the principle, to which the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly return in a minute, but I am concerned both with the principle and the processes.

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Mr. Clarke: Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of a two-tier system, not a unitary system, in all circumstances?

Mr. Simpson: I do not know, frankly. I want to have an honest debate in which all the options are under consideration. As I have tried to emphasise, it is obvious that the template must be the status quo, but it is not on the agenda. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for considering different variations as regards unitary authorities, but the status quo must be considered as a template or an option.

We now come to consider and question the process by which the Minister seeks a unitary solution. He is minded to ask the boundary committee to consider the issue. Much to the surprise of many of us in Norfolk, the boundary committee, under its chairman, Mr. Max Caller, has begun the process. To date, it has received no written terms of reference from the Minister, but that did not prevent it from beginning consultation even before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had been passed in both Houses. Indeed, it has effectively issued an ultimatum to the county and district councils to produce proposals based on a unitary model by the end of the month. They have been told that the status quo is not an option, and non-participation will mean non-consideration.

By means of letters and telephone calls, I have attempted to establish the boundary committee’s remit. My noble Friend Baroness Shephard of Northwold attempted to do the same in a debate in the other place on 12 November, as did my noble Friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market in a debate on 14 November. Neither obtained a satisfactory answer. The point that they made, and my point now, is that the boundary committee’s demand for councils to produce proposals by the end of the month, when there are no ministerial terms of reference, may, as my noble Friend Lord MacGregor put it, be illegal—and it is certainly, to say the least, bad practice. Will the Minister confirm that as yet there are no terms of reference for the boundary committee? If so, will he advise the boundary committee to cease its harassment of our councils and remove the arbitrary deadline of the end of the month? I was told by one boundary committee official that the purpose of the deadline is to enable the boundary committee to consider proposals according to a timetable.

I have used the term “harassment” advisedly. All the Norfolk councils that I have spoken to have said that the chairman of the boundary committee and his officials have been very pro-active, and rather menacing. Indeed, in an interview that the chairman gave to the Eastern Daily Press on 6 November, the reporter noted that local council leaders and officers had been told that he “carries a big stick” and that non-co-operation in the process is not an option. Despite still being opposed to the unitary authority case, those district and county councils have been forced to prepare options that are not their first choice, have serious cost implications and are not supported by any public mandate.

To illustrate how biased the process is, I shall quote from an interview that the chairman of the boundary committee gave to the BBC’s “Politics Show” on 26 October, which can be found on its website:

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So it has already been decided—that is a fact—by the chairman of the boundary committee, before his terms of reference have even arrived.

It seems to me once again that that creates fertile ground for a future judicial review, and the involvement of the Audit Commission. It is almost Alice in Wonderland. Hon. Members will recall the Queen of Hearts who was always screaming “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” Whatever the merits or demerits of the local government reorganisation for Norfolk, we can be sure of one thing: the people of Norfolk will be consulted only on the margins. In the BBC interview that I mentioned, the chairman of the boundary committee said:

Up to a point I agree with that. We have all been subject to a mass lobby. However, it seems to me that that is the attitude of a non-elected functionary who has already made up his mind, rather than someone approaching an issue with an open mind.

I remind the Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee that democracy matters. In fact, that statement is the logo displayed proudly at the bottom of the boundary committee’s notepaper. The trouble is that public opinion will count only in a very general, loaded way. As far as I am concerned, democracy counts when we have elections and issues are placed before the people. In the May local elections my party took seats from other parties in Broadland, and the same thing happened in South Norfolk. That was achieved on a platform of opposing the Norwich unitary authority. That is cause and effect. It matters. It is direct democracy—not a lot of sham workshops, stakeholders’ meetings and what Baroness Hollis of Heigham, opposing a referendum in Norfolk in a debate in the other place on 8 October, at column 72, called a “reiterative process”—whatever that consists of.

The Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee must face facts. There is no majority constituency in Norfolk for their proposal. Indeed, the more coverage the fixed proposal receives, the more it arouses the opposition of Norfolk people. At a purely constituency level, I should be very grateful for the publication by the Eastern Daily Press of the enlarged boundaries of a greater Norwich. The reaction that I have received has been considerable. I have not even touched on the costs incurred in the exercise. Norfolk county council has already allocated £250,000. The borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has allocated £200,000, South Norfolk council £200,000 and Norwich a minimum of £90,000. What about the time, effort and morale of officers working in the district and county councils?

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We have been here before. The Minister may not be aware of it, but for the past six years the primary care trusts have been organised and reorganised from one to six and back to one. In the latest attempt of the Norfolk primary care trust to rationalise local community hospitals it was forced by public opinion to beat a retreat. I am grateful that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is here, because I also want to refer to the example of the proposed amalgamation of police forces—Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We were told that it was a done deal. All the arguments stacked up. It would happen. Everything was prepared. Thanks not least to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the right hon. Member for Norwich, South was sadly—I mean that—forced to resign as Home Secretary, and within a week his successor had said that amalgamations would not take place. How does the Minister think the people of Norfolk and Norwich will trust Government proposals such as the present ones? Nothing is set in concrete.

In case I am being too parochial, let us consider what is happening elsewhere in the country, with the process of forcing unitary authorities on counties. In Cornwall, there is chaos and confusion; in Cheshire, there was a judicial review, which was rejected, but a right of appeal has been granted; in Bedfordshire, councils have been set at each other’s throats, and there are calls for judicial review. None of the time lines laid down by Ministers has been adhered to. That relates back to the time line set by the boundary committee.

Given the present dog’s breakfast, I suggest to the Minister first that he should establish and publicise the terms of reference for the boundary committee, taking into account the majority desire across Norfolk for the status quo—he should recognise that as an option that must be considered. It might turn out not to be the option that he, or, indeed, the majority of Norfolk opinion, goes for, but it should be considered seriously. Secondly, I suggest that he should advise the chairman of the boundary committee to remove an artificial deadline for the submission of proposals by councils, given that there are no terms of reference. The deadline of the end of the month must be removed. Thirdly, he should establish a proper way by which any proposals may be tested against public opinion—what Norfolk people want or specifically do not want. That should encompass Norfolk across the board—the people of Norwich, Cromer, Aylsham, Watton and King’s Lynn all have a right to know. It is just dawning on people beyond greater Norwich that the Minister’s proposals will have a direct impact on them.

This is an issue on which different MPs and parties will hold different views, but there is a suspicion in Norfolk that a done deal has already been accepted, and that Norfolk will just have to accept what is given to it. The chairman of the boundary committee, with his experience in Haringey, may think that we are a bunch of hicks. Let me tell him that we are not. Democracy matters. Norfolk will not let itself be abolished.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. A number of hon. Members wish to participate in the debate and I want to bring everyone in if I can, but I must warn hon. Members that I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 11.55 am.

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11.19 am

Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for that comment and to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for organising the debate—it is an important subject and I am glad that he has done so. I am also grateful to the Minister for the decisions that he took in the summer to deal with what was a long-standing and significant issue—namely, the absence of unitary status for a great city such as Norwich.

I begin from the position of believing that unitary authorities are, in principle, beneficial. There are a number of issues, such as planning, transport and economic development, particularly in a growth area such as Norwich, which make it extremely important that there is a coherence rather than dislocation of public authorities. I could cite a great number of examples of discontinuities between the county and the city on important development issues around the city, but I do not wish to take up everyone’s time. Those problems are acute because Norwich has been identified—rightly—as a major growth area for the coming period, and the large amount of economic development will involve matters relating to infrastructure. I profoundly believe that we will get more coherent, transparent and effective decisions if we have unitary local government, as in other parts of the country.

It would be bizarre if places such as Peterborough and Ipswich were to have unitary authorities, but cities such as Norwich did not. That is why I applaud the decisions taken by the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this year, specifically regarding Norwich, because the difference between its municipal boundaries and its actual physical boundaries—the built up areas that fall within a number of hon. Members’ constituencies—is greater than any in the country. That is a reflection of the fact that Norwich has been a growing city for decades, but the municipal boundaries have not changed to take account of it. The various inconsistencies are still more acute in Norwich than they would otherwise have been. I am glad that the Secretary of State decided to look at Norwich’s situation and the case for unitary status on the basis of wider boundaries than were previously suggested, and that the Minister was able to carry through and announce that. I welcome those decisions.

I must contest the assertions made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk on popular support. It may seem strange to him, but we in Norwich also have elections. The elections that took place in Norwich on the same day as those in his constituency gave an overwhelming mandate for unitary status. The Labour party, the Green party and the Liberal Democrats were strong supporters of unitary status for the city of Norwich. Overwhelmingly, those parties make up the elected city council of Norwich. The Conservatives were against the proposal.

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that I read the Eastern Daily Press every day. My problem with what he said arose from the fact that I could not draw out his position from his interviews with the paper, because it appeared a lack coherence. However, he has now made clear his opposition to unitary status in all circumstances.

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Mr. Keith Simpson: I shall send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the Eastern Daily Press. I have always said, as has been quoted, that I happen to be in favour of the status quo. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Clarke: I understand that, and it is what the hon. Gentleman told the Eastern Daily Press. The question that I asked was slightly different. I understand his argument—it is a traditional conservative argument, which says there should never be any change—and that he is in favour of the status quo. The question, which he was good enough to answer when I asked it earlier, was about whether he fundamentally believes that unitary status will be a good thing in future. The previous Conservative Government, as was clear from their dealings with boundary commissions, believed that there was a case for unitary status. His heroine, Baroness Thatcher, put forward changes that abolished urban counties for exactly the same reasons, so it was therefore not self-evident that a Conservative politician would be opposed to unitary status in all circumstances. I understand the conservative argument that there should be no change, but that is the issue I pursued, and I was grateful for his clarity and candour in response to my earlier questions.

My point is that there is strong support in the city of Norwich for unitary status for the city, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said. If he looked at the business community and at a wide range of voluntary and community organisations, quite apart from votes cast at elections, he would see that there is strong support for the changes, and rightly so.

Mr. Simpson: Will the right hon. Gentleman remind the House whether Labour party election literature in Broadland and South Norfolk specifically supported unitary status during the last elections, and whether that was part of the manifesto?

Mr. Clarke: I do not recall the exact manifesto published in each ward in the city of Norwich, but it is clear, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that the leadership of the Labour group on the city council and the Labour party said on many occasions that they strongly supported unitary status for the city. I believe that that was reported in the Eastern Daily Press. The Greens, to be fair them—I am not often fair to them—supported it, as did the Liberal Democrats who used to run the city council, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) will probably confirm. There is no doubt that there was a clear mandate on the issue in Norwich.

Finally, on the point the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made about the done deal, he gently and kindly reminded me about police reorganisation, but I should remind him that the police authority in Norfolk and many others supported the changes, and that nothing is a done deal in politics until it happens. Anybody who suggests that it is a done deal is wrong. Rather, the Government, to whom I pay tribute, have recognised the case and appointed a series of independent individuals as part of a statutory process to look at the issues in detail. I am sure the Minister will describe that process when he responds. That is precisely what ought to happen, and what the Government ought to be commended for.

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I wish that the hon. Gentleman would, unlike his colleagues, say that he welcomes the change, sees the benefits that might accrue, and put forward proposals. The leader of the county council in Norfolk—a Conservative—has made his proposals for, in this case, a unitary county, but he accepts the principle of unitary status. Other Conservatives are making similar arguments. The Conservative party would be best served if its elected representatives saw the merits of the case and engaged in a serious discussion about what is best for the future of the county in the same spirit as the Minister.

I am grateful that we are having this debate, and I hope that it will continue in a free and open way.

11.28 am

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is important, but I sense that there is a lack of opportunity for these issues to be discussed publicly in Norfolk and for public engagement.

My starting point is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. If I were starting with a clean sheet of paper, I would opt for a unitary authority. There is a case a for having one authority to deliver all services: there would be clarity so everyone would know which authority delivered local services, and one hierarchy, so it would be likely to be cheaper. There seems to be a compelling case on paper if one is starting afresh. However, we must ensure that there is clear evidence on which to build a case for change. Surely we are all in favour of evidence-based policy making. When I met the boundary committee, I naively put to it my presumption that it had clear evidence of the case for unitary authorities—namely, that they deliver better services with better co-ordination, that they are cheaper to run on the whole, and that they provide better value for money. The response that I received concerned me. The committee said that the evidence was pretty mixed. There is no clear evidence that unitary authorities deliver better services, better co-ordinated services or even better value for money.

If the Minister agrees that we should be engaging in evidence-based policy making, is there any justification for an incredibly expensive change that would use resources that are needed to deliver services to the people of Norfolk? On what evidence has he based his case if even the boundary committee says that there is no evidence? That seems to be absolutely fundamental.

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