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19 Feb 2008 : Column 305

Mark Pritchard: Again, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I know that he wants to be seen to be generous, but he has just set out the Government’s legal responsibility. Therefore, I return to my central point: if any council workers in Shropshire suffer compulsory redundancies, the fault will lie entirely at the door of No. 10 and this Government. The Minister should not try to shift the blame onto the local authorities that will have to work out the details.

John Healey: I admire the hon. Gentleman’s determination to press his debating point again, but I am not setting out to be generous. My aim is to be fair, and to ensure that the framework that we expect and require the councils to adopt is in place so that employees are treated properly. That is what we shall do.

The order under consideration will also establish the implementation executive, which we discussed in detail with all the affected councils. That executive will be led by the county council and its membership will be drawn from the county council and all the district councils. The prescription that the Government have arrived at is based on the consensus that was reached, and we have reflected that consensus in the detail of the order before the House.

Daniel Kawczynski: The Minister says that there is a consensus. For the record, can he state that no communication was sent by his Department to Labour councillors on the county council or borough council directing them to vote for a unitary authority?

John Healey: I do not see every communication that goes out of the Department, so I cannot give him that absolute assurance without checking, but I would find it highly remarkable if my Department sent out specific communications to Labour members of councils urging them to take a particular course of action or a position. If my assumption is wrong, I will certainly tell the hon. Gentleman, but that is my initial strong response to the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, which seems to me rather left-field and ridiculous.

The first election to Shropshire council will be in May 2009, and that will be in keeping with the normal electoral cycle. Once again, the relevant provision within the order reflects a broad consensus between the county and the districts that elections should be in May 2009 rather than in 2008. By that time, of course, we expect and understand that the Electoral Commission will have been able to undertake an electoral review and to put in place new electoral arrangements that reflect the new unitary authority and better reflect the new communities and neighbourhoods that it covers.

Robert Neill: Can the Minister help us with the time scale in which he thinks that those announcements might be made? We all know the importance of getting sensible candidates in place, and making sure that publicity is available across the piece, particularly in rural areas, where it is perhaps more difficult to make sure that people who represent the whole community are readily available to stand for election.

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is right to make that particular point about an area such as Shropshire. The time scale will be a matter for the Electoral
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Commission, but I know that it has in mind the clear aim to complete the work in good time to enable candidates to be selected for any new ward boundaries, as appropriate. I know that it wishes to make sure that it has completed that work by around February next year.

The order also provides for the cancellation of district council elections that would otherwise have taken place in May 2008—that is to say in any district that elects in thirds. In Shropshire, that applies only to Shrewsbury and Atcham, where one third of the members would normally become due for re-election in May this year. As the House will know, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has concluded that if the order was approved and made, there might be a doubt about whether its provisions cancelling the district council elections in 2008 would be intra vires. In our view, there is a powerful policy case for cancelling the district council elections. There are also powers under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 that will allow us to do that. I have set that argument out in detail and explained it in our memorandum to the JCSI.

Our approach, as captured and set out in the order, provides for an effective transition that does its best to avoid disruption to services during that period, gives a good deal to the citizens and users of those services, is fair to council staff and puts in place the arrangements to create a council that will give the people, the communities and the businesses of Shropshire the local governance that they require for the future. I commend the order to the House.

12.44 am

Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): I genuinely thank the Minister for the care and courtesy that he always shows the House when he presents statements. We are on the fourth or fifth of these orders, which form part of what is to be a rolling programme, but the repetition of the arguments does not entirely make up for the lack of substance on some issues. Shropshire raises particular problems: there is the nature of the county, its geographic diversity, and the fact that to me—a mere outsider from London—it seems that it has no natural centres. There is also a lack of one of the things that the Minister regarded as a prime mover—a groundswell of opinion behind the proposal. There is a lack of support, and that is fundamental.

I would not have an issue with a genuinely localist proposal, but I do not see any evidence to suggest that change in Shropshire is localist or driven by the people. The issue may be of considerable import to the county council, for which we have great respect, and which delivers well, but that is not to say that the proposal represents the views of all the people in the county.

There is an issue that the Minister may have to consider for the future. I shall not go into it in detail now, but if we go down the route of putting in place unitary authorities in large rural areas, what do we place beneath them? How do we make sure that there is proper representation locally, as well as at county level? That is largely unaddressed in the process that the Government are undertaking, because the change is being made piecemeal. They are picking off areas that may be advantageous—dare I say it, almost for
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political reasons. Mischievous is the word, I think. I took a night off and went to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Royal Opera House the other night. The Minister occasionally behaves a bit like Puck, although he might not think of himself in those terms. He likes to sprinkle a little bit of mischievous dust on the local government spectrum and see what happens. What happens is not always what is intended, as we all know from the programme, the opera and the play.

Our local government structures frequently represent entrenched concerns and identities—that is particularly true in the counties, outside London, which is my part of the world—and that is precisely why we should be particularly careful about interfering with them. The Minister will have heard me say before that a very high standard of proof must always be required, and that the burden of proof must always fall on those who propose change. I do not think that the standard or the burden are met in this case. That is the issue for the Opposition. We do not want to be obstructive about good government—we are in favour of it—but the case for the proposal has not been made.

The Minister talks of the opinion-forming views that were taken, but he knows full well that the majority of the districts in Shropshire do not support the proposal. At least three or four of them have conducted well-researched polls, carefully constructed and controlled by the Electoral Reform Society. In our internal elections, that is good enough for his party, as it is for mine. The polls show that overwhelming majorities are against the proposal. We are not talking about a marginal majority, but about compelling evidence that points the other way; that is the point. As the Minister is a reasonable man, I might allow him a bit of subjective judgment where the situation is 50:50, but the evidence is overwhelmingly against making the change. I urge him to think about whether the measure will really help in Shropshire.

On the transitional costs and the long-term savings, neither of us have gone into the issue in great detail, but the Minister knows that academic experts have raised questions about how robust the county council’s costing methodology is. It may be right, or it may be wrong, but it has not been tested. No objective, independent values have been applied at all. I will give way to the Minister if he wants to intervene on me on that point. A series of subjective judgments have been made, one after the other. That is the picture for all the issues.

John Healey: Is the hon. Gentleman talking specifically about the work of Professor Chisholm?

Robert Neill: Professor Chisholm is one of the people who has done a great deal of work across the piece. No doubt the Minister will deal with that in his closing speech. Viewed in the context of all the other evidence, it is clear that the Department is making assertions with nothing to back them up, and that Professor Chisholm is more objective than people might think and is backed up by local evidence produced by local people. That is the key aspect. I would have more sympathy with the Minister on all the
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reorganisations if I thought that the Department was using some objective measure as a benchmark, but we have already discovered that there is no objective measure.

Dr. Murrison: Does my hon. Friend share my disgust at Government sham consultations? We are hearing about one this evening, we heard about the Wiltshire one a few days ago, and we hear it constantly about Government consultation on the national health service. It hardly encourages public engagement with policy. People are rightly becoming cynical about the whole thing.

Robert Neill: I have huge sympathy with my hon. Friend. He knows what happened in the past. In my constituency we have had what I consider to be sham consultations over post offices and hospitals. That is the part that the Minister does not seem to get. Ministers do not understand that local people want to have their views listened to. They do not want to be dictated to. The Government claim that their proposals are bottom-up, but they are not. They are produced from a skewed set of criteria and nobody has much faith in that.

Mr. Dunne: It will not have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice that the Act that allows the orders to be put in place is, by supreme irony, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. Part of the Act tries to encourage the public to participate by becoming members of foundation trusts and so on, to engage the public with the public sector. In respect of the part of the Act dealing with local government, the Government blithely ignore the consultations that they have undertaken.

Robert Neill: My hon. Friend makes the point well. I know how much he has fought for his constituency in Ludlow, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has taken a great interest and fought valiantly for local interests.

If we are to have successful local government—I am not dogmatic about the form it should take—it must go with local consent. That has been missing. My two hon. Friends who represent Shropshire seats have fought for local consent. My hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) has done the same in relation to Wiltshire.

A note of irritation creeps into my voice on behalf of my hon. Friends when a Government Department goes down a route blindly because that is set out in some sort of mantra. The Minister, who is a decent man, knows better than that. I ask him to reflect on whether we are pushing some centralised diktat that he may have inherited from some of his predecessors just a touch too far.

Daniel Kawczynski: Does my hon. Friend agree that the will of the people—the will of my constituents—is far more important than a few letters of support that the Minister may have received from organisations? I think there were a total of 47. With all respect, I do not think the Minister knows what those organisations are
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or their size or influence in my community. He should have paid far more attention to my constituents’ views than to the 47 letters.

Robert Neill: I am grateful, as ever, to my hon. Friend, who has made a valiant point. That is as good a note to end on as anything else, as other Members want to speak.

Of all the measures so far, this seems to have the least groundswell of support and opinion behind it. I hope that the Minister will listen to my hon. Friend, who represents his county and will speak shortly, and see that it is not necessary to go down this rather dirigiste route, which ill becomes him and his Department. He should think again.

12.55 am

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): This is the fourth debate that we have had on this issue, and a common theme has emerged. The Conservatives’ opposition is described as being one of principle, but it seems to me that a lot of the difficulties that we describe on all these occasions turn out to be practical ones. The Conservatives speak of principles in this place, but they seem reluctant to point out that their councillors do not often all agree with those principles.

There are a lot of fair points to be made about this matter being entirely a game for which the Government are setting the rules. However, it is a mistake to suggest that it is being forced on local government; clearly, there is support from the county council for the bid. It had to respond to the invitation and is leading on the issue. District councils may well be opposed, but it is not fair to say that the issue is being entirely forced at a local level.

Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Lady says that the Government have not tried to force the measure on the people of Shropshire; she even implies that they have not tried to push the issue either way. I have to tell her that when the current Foreign Secretary was responsible for such issues as a Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government, he came to Shropshire. He spent the day in Shrewsbury and tried very strongly to convince the county council to go ahead with the proposals. I have been the MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham for three years and can say that we hardly ever see Labour Ministers in Shropshire. I do not think that I have ever seen any, apart from the current Foreign Secretary. He was determined from the start to force the issue through; otherwise, why did he come to Shrewsbury?

Julia Goldsworthy: Even if the right hon. Gentleman had forced Labour councillors to support the measure, it would not have gone through without the support of other parties at county council level. That is my understanding.

As a principle, the Liberal Democrats have no objections to any authorities that want to explore whether it is possible to create a more efficient and transparent, less complicated, effective local government structure. I speak as one who represents a rural area with a strong identity and a dispersed population. For many people, the reality of local
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government is that it is very confusing, and confusions often arise from efforts to make processes more efficient.

I always refer to one example, in which pots of money travel from the county councils to the district councils and the parish councils in an effort to ensure that services are more responsive. However, when there is a problem, that often makes it more difficult to find out who is in charge of delivery. In principle, there is nothing wrong in councils presenting ways in which the issue could be simplified. It should be up to local councils to decide what shape the changes should take. Furthermore, local communities should have a strong say in how services should be shaped; ultimately, if they do not have a say, they will be just as unlikely to understand the new structure as they are the existing ones.

Mr. Dunne: I agree that local communities should have a say; that was precisely what was offered to the local community in my constituency, which has two districts. A ballot was undertaken for South Shropshire district council, and a majority—56 per cent.—of people were opposed to going unitary. The then leader of the district council, a Liberal Democrat, decided that that had been an example of the community voting with its heart and not its head, and tried to deny the validity of the ballot. Does the hon. Lady agree with that assessment?

Julia Goldsworthy: My understanding of what I have read about the polls undertaken in some of these council areas is that they were not referendums. The series of orders that we are discussing reveal a variety of degrees of warming to the principle of whether this could offer improvements at a local level, but we are seeing common themes in terms of practicalities. The Government should be doing certain things to try to improve the process.

Mark Pritchard: I do not wish to be too unkind so late at night, or early in the morning, but this also exposes the variety of Liberal Democrat policies. It is rather surprising that the hon. Lady is supporting the position of a Minister, yet in other parts of the country the Liberal Democrats are talking about localism and devolved powers.

Julia Goldsworthy: Perhaps because it is so late at night the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what I said earlier—that we do not have a dogmatic approach. Looking back to the debate on Northumberland, it is clear that the community held different views about what would serve them best. Instead of standing at a Dispatch Box and saying that one approach should govern everything and that we should oppose every single proposal to reorganise local government, we should listen to what people in the community are saying. If there is a problem with the way in which the Government have responded to worrying evidence from the polls, it is that they should have challenged that head on and undertaken a proper referendum of the whole area that was consistent and balanced and would have allowed people in the community to express that decision, as happened in other areas.

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Robert Neill: On the basis that we have not yet been given a referendum by the Government, does the hon. Lady think that the evidence presented by the district council and everybody else in Shropshire shows pretty clearly that the local communities do not want this? What else would she like to happen?

Julia Goldsworthy: I can only refer back to what I have seen of the way in which the polls were conducted, which indicates that they were not consistent and therefore, in themselves, not valid. They may well be a cause for further exploration, but if there are questions about their validity and consistency—

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I have been listening to the debate on television. In Herefordshire, where Conservatives supported a unitary authority without there being any referendum or ballot, and where we have a Conservative-controlled council that is spending £75,000 on bottled mineral water—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not going wide of the debate.

Julia Goldsworthy: I think that my hon. Friend has made his point.

I am not saying that we should ignore the evidence of those polls but that it at least makes clear the need for much more rigorous and comprehensive testing.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): I understand the hon. Lady’s point about dogmatic rigidity, but it is important that we deliver a degree of consistency when we are making public policy decisions of this kind. Consistent themes run through all these examples, the most fundamental of which is that local people’s views should be of paramount importance in respect of the shape of local government, and that is about not only its utility but its capacity to deliver a sense of allegiance, for it can have no political legitimacy if it cannot provide that.

Julia Goldsworthy: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said repeatedly, it is essential that there is community support and that it is demonstrated. If the county council wishes to pursue that, it has to confront these challenges head on, not try to argue its way out of them. That is not happening at the moment. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) and the Minister will know, this has been a common theme in the orders we have debated during the past few weeks.

Another commonly expressed fear is that the changes are in danger of being perceived as a county takeover. Again, we return to the fact that perception is important; it influences people’s allegiance to any change. It was important that the Minister emphasised clearly that there will not be a county council takeover. The problem is, however, that the order does not abolish the county council, but it does abolish the district and borough councils. The orders do not provide clarity. The Minister can explain the need not to abolish all of the authorities and create a new one, but the view of the matter from the ground will not be positive.

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