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To report progress and ask leave to sit again. — [Mr. Roy.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier this evening, on a point of order, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) intervened in the debate on the European Union treaty to claim that, in December, I had held a meeting in my Department to discuss press inquiries about the meetings between my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) and Babar Ahmed in Woodhill prison. That is not correct. I was aware, in December, of press inquiries from a newspaper concerning visits by my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting to Babar Ahmed, but at no stage before last Saturday was I aware of any information that the press inquiries concerned any covert recording or anything like that. I confirm what I told the House. There are of course a wide range of other questions about this matter. That is the purpose of the inquiry that I announced to this House yesterday, when I also said that a statement would be made to the House once the report of the inquiry had been received and considered.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There cannot be further points of order. The right hon. Gentleman asked leave to raise a point of order in response to one raised earlier by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May). If this matter were to go any further, it would become a statement upon which there could be wider questions. I do not believe that it is for the convenience of the House that that be done now. These matters can be pursued on another occasion.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have said that there should be no further points of order. May I ask all hon. Members who are not staying for the debate on local government in Wiltshire to leave the Chamber as quickly and quietly as possible? There should be no disturbing conversations.

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Local Government

10.32 pm

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I beg to move,

We are tonight considering the draft order for the establishment of the new unitary Wiltshire council. The order implements the unitary proposal that Wiltshire county council itself has made. This is a proposal that the democratically elected, democratically led and locally accountable council has drawn up. It is a proposal on which the council sought the views of local people and the agencies that it deals with in the area, and one that the council has chosen to put forward to the Secretary of State as the form of local governance that best meets the needs of Wiltshire today.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The Minister has just made an assertion that the county council consulted local people. Will he give us an indication of how that consultation took place? Local people do not believe that they were consulted at all.

John Healey: When we launched the process in October 2006, we made it clear that whether councils submitted proposals was a matter for them. Having been clear about the five criteria that we would use to test any proposal, we rightly left it to the councils to decide how best to seek the views in their local areas. That is what Wiltshire county council and other councils that submitted proposals did. The important and distinctive—

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con) rose—

John Healey: May I finish this sentence? The distinctive and different thing about this process is that, unlike previous restructurings of local government, it is not prescribed from the centre, nor was its blueprint drawn up or designed from the centre. I say again that the starting point for the order before us was a proposal prepared and submitted by Wiltshire county council because it believes that it represents the best form of governance for the county in the future.

Robert Neill: I want to press the point about consultation a little; after all, this is the first of a number of such orders that we must consider, and a principle is involved. As the five criteria are described conjunctively—the word “and” is used, so we must assume that all five must be satisfied—what, if any, minimum evidential standard is there for any authority in such a position to demonstrate that the criterion of commanding broad support is met in respect of the public and stakeholders?

John Healey: The question of broad support is a judgment that we made on the evidence submitted to us. Originally, for each of the 16 proposals—some of which we did not believe met the criteria—the question was not whether there was a majority of this or that set of views in favour or not. The purpose of the criterion was to allow us to come to a judgment about whether we could be reasonably confident that, should the
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proposal go ahead, there would be sufficiently broad support for it to be successful. That was the essence of the criterion of broad support—and, indeed, of the other criteria.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Has the Minister taken any account of the MORI poll conducted among Wiltshire residents in 2006? I suspect not, as there is no reference to it in his summary of consultations published in November last year. Does he not think that he should have taken account of that fairly objective assessment of opinion in Wiltshire?

John Healey: There was indeed a MORI survey—it was an opinion survey, not a poll. That was an element of the evidence and information that we took, and to which we had regard, to come to a judgment about the level of support. Some thought it important and placed great store by it, but others had concerns about the nature of the supporting information and the nature of the questions asked.

From memory, what was clear was that 78 per cent. of those who responded in that particular sample wanted the councils to work much more closely together; they clearly saw the weaknesses that often exist in two-tier areas. The balance of opinion in respect of a unitary Wiltshire was about 62 per cent. against and 30 per cent. in favour. However, in the end it was an opinion survey—an element of the evidence that we took into account when we considered whether support was sufficiently broad for us to be confident that, were we to move ahead with the proposal, we could make it work.

Mr. Ancram: I have a factual question, to which I hope the Minister can give me a factual answer. He will remember that a paper called “Invitation to all councils in England to submit proposals for unitary status” was sent out. Paragraph 3.5 of that original document states:

When the results were published, the words “service users/citizens” had disappeared. Furthermore, the notes provided by the Minister’s Department for this debate refer to the invitation process and say that one of the criteria was supported by

Once again, the citizens have disappeared. Why did they disappear when he realised that they were going to vote against him?

John Healey: The citizens did not disappear. Our approach was to look at the range of support that might be expressed for the proposal that was submitted by Wiltshire. There was indeed a response from the public, the majority of it in campaign form. That was part of the representations that we took into account, and we published the summary of responses back in July. There were probably more people in favour of maintaining district councils and not moving to a unitary council than there were in favour of a unitary council. Nevertheless, about a third of the public who offered a view could see the merit of a unitary Wiltshire and would like that to happen.

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Let me return to a point that I made earlier. The question about broad support did not relate simply to whether there was a majority view in favour—that was not the judgment that we were trying to come to. We were trying to assess the strength, credibility and potential value of a proposal that the council itself submitted to us in response to the invitation that we issued more generally.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I have listened carefully to what the Minister has said about assessing opinion. Can he tell us, so that it is on the record, whether, on balance, the view represented to him as collected by the county council and the four affected district councils was clearly in favour of or against the proposition? Can he also put on the record whether the Government took any steps to authenticate that view so as to form any view of their own on the balance of opinion of the residents and council tax payers of Wiltshire?

John Healey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for taking such an interest in what has been going on in Wiltshire. I said a moment ago that it was a matter for the proposing local authority how it chose to seek views and to represent them as part of its proposal. To answer his question directly, we as a Government Department did not undertake any direct opinion polling or checking of residents’ views on the proposal. It was never our intention to do so, and I do not think that anyone believed that we would.

Dr. Murrison: The Minister appears to be waving this off as if the Government are not supposed to be taking any view on it and are just blithely accepting the say-so of the county council, yet they set the criteria against which these applications should be judged, and clearly criterion No. 2 falls almost by his own admission. He cannot wash his hands of this. At the end of the day, he is making the decision and needs to be responsible for it.

John Healey: I am not quite sure what point the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. I have clearly stated that from the outset of this process we had five tests that we required any proposal to meet and to pass. Wiltshire’s proposal was one of those that we received. We gave an indication of that in March and confirmed it in July. One of the tests involved a broad range of support sufficient to give us the confidence that were we to give this the go-ahead it would have a reasonable chance of succeeding.

Robert Neill: I am sorry to trouble the Minister again, and I am grateful to him for his patience in giving way, but this is an important principle and it will recur. As five criteria are proposed, can he give us an indication of on whom the onus of meeting those criteria rests? Secondly, what are the criteria for saying whether or not the test is passed? Are the same criteria used in relation to every such proposal, or do they vary? What standard must be met by a proposing authority to show that its proposal passes the test?

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John Healey: I have been getting used to the hon. Gentleman in the short time he has been in his shadow role. He brings a lawyerly turn of phrase to the debate. The criteria were set as a test that would help us and others come to a judgment about whether the proposal could succeed, whether it has a reasonable chance of doing so and whether we should give it the go-ahead. The extent and the nature of the evidence that any proposing authority submitted in order to meet those tests clearly varied. Some failed; others that passed would have gone about their task by meeting those five tests and demonstrating that they could meet them in different ways, and they did so.

With the exception of some of the financial analysis that we did, where it was possible to subject numbers to a test, a matter of judgment was inevitably involved. That is the judgment that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, as elected politicians charged with this job, made. We made that judgment on the back of consistent evidence, clearly set out in published criteria, and we made it in a process that gave all interested parties, particularly councils, ample opportunity to submit their views, to know the views of those arguing for an alternative, and to offer a counter-argument or counter-evidence if they wished to do so. We weighed all that together with any other representations that we received during the process in coming to our final decision.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I presume that there is some underpinning evidence that unitary authorities perform better than two-tier systems. As someone who has always felt that two-tier systems—in my case, three-tier—are completely misunderstood by the general public, I do not see why the Government do not realise that there is a need for consistency throughout the country. They should encourage all areas to seek sensible and rational provision of local government. Then we would not need debates like this because there would be clarity, which I am sure the general public would welcome.

John Healey: My hon. Friend is right, and because he follows such matters closely he will be able to track this back not just to the invitation we issued in October 2006, which reflected our belief that unitary local government was a way of removing many of the weaknesses he mentions in two-tier areas, but to the White Paper that we published on local government, which set out clearly the general case for unitary local government. He is right about the weaknesses: people are often confused about what different councils at different levels do. Often, services can be fragmented, leadership can be in competition and confused, and there is a degree of duplication, inefficiency and a lack of co-ordination.

Mr. Drew: Come to Gloucestershire.

John Healey: My hon. Friend no doubt speaks from his own experience. Our approach has been set out for some time, and it was reflected in the invitation to those authorities that wanted unitary status.

Before I move on, two or three Members have said, “The county council submitted the proposal. Surely you didn’t just take the evidence that the county council submitted to support its proposal.”

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The answer is that of course we did not. That is why we invited a wide range of consultees to give their views, especially about the way in which the county council’s proposal stood up to the criteria that we established.

Despite what the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) said earlier, paragraph 5.10 of the consultation did not include the question of citizens. It dealt with the broad range of support that we sought and made it clear that it was up to each proposing council to consult local people when they felt that that was an important part of their case.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I intervene diffidently because I am halfway towards supporting the Minister’s position and I perhaps take a different view from my Wiltshire colleagues on the subject. I am puzzled by one part of his argument. If he wants to show that the people of Wiltshire, as demonstrated by any body, are strongly in favour of the proposal, will he explain why the MORI poll showed that approximately 71 per cent. opposed it? All four district councils also opposed it. If someone supported it, will the Minister oblige the House by identifying them?

John Healey: There was wide support from business in the area. The association of local councils expressed a range of support, as well as concerns, and that also applies to the parish councils.

Dr. Murrison: Will the Minister clarify that? I happen to be president of the Wiltshire association of local councils and I do not believe that that body has said any such thing. Perhaps he will be a little clearer.

John Healey: I thought that I had been clear. A range of views was expressed—some were supportive and others were concerned. Several important agencies and bodies, with which the council needs to work increasingly closely in developing and providing better services, were strongly in favour of a county council because they perceived the ability to work closely with the local authority as more likely in those circumstances.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Annexe B of the Department’s impact assessment lists 53 organisations, which are described as “stakeholders” and were consulted. They include Sport England, the Highways Agency and the Audit Commission. In its victorious proclamation that it would go ahead, Wiltshire county council listed only the primary care trust and the chambers of commerce as in favour. In other words, 51 organisations did not agree.

John Healey: If the hon. Gentleman wants more detail, I shall provide it later.

I have dealt at some length with hon. Members’ questions about support and I want to move on because it is important to explain one or two points in setting the scene, not least the contents of the order, what staff who may be affected can expect and the financial case.

We made the decision that we wanted Wiltshire county council’s proposal to go ahead with reference to the five criteria that we set out at the start. We also had to consider not only whether there was a sufficiently broad cross-section of support that could make the proposal work but whether the change was affordable.

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