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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Gary Streeter
Clwyd, Ann (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
Dunne, Mr. Philip (Ludlow) (Con)
Goldsworthy, Julia (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
Hollobone, Mr. Philip (Kettering) (Con)
Howarth, Mr. George (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab)
Jackson, Mr. Stewart (Peterborough) (Con)
Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government)
Lilley, Mr. Peter (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
Love, Mr. Andrew (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op)
Naysmith, Dr. Doug (Bristol, North-West) (Lab/Co-op)
Rogerson, Dan (North Cornwall) (LD)
Salter, Martin (Reading, West) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Twigg, Derek (Halton) (Lab)
Watts, Mr. Dave (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
Chris Stanton, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 16 March 2009

[Mr. Gary Streeter in the Chair]

Draft Local Government (Structural Changes) (Miscellaneous Amendments and Other Provision) Order 2009
4.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Local Government (Structural Changes) (Miscellaneous Amendments and Other Provision) Order 2009.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the draft Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009.
Mr. Khan: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Streeter. Hopefully this will be a productive, useful and short afternoon.
The orders are consequential on the local government structural changes orders agreed by Parliament in early 2008. The Local Government (Structural Changes) (Miscellaneous Amendments and Other Provision) Order 2009 makes specific provision to ensure that various matters relevant to the new single-tier councils are dealt with before the reorganisation date. These changes are necessary to update the statute book in light of the changes made by the structural changes orders.
Without the orders, some of the new unitary councils would have to call themselves county councils, which, as I am sure that hon. Members agree, would be confusing for the communities concerned, and areas with historic traditions, including city status, would be lost to local residents—for example, Chester city would no longer be Chester city; new unitary councils would be unable to appoint members to either national parks or conservation boards for areas of outstanding natural beauty; and there would be no administering authority for the Cheshire and Bedfordshire pension funds.
The Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009 makes provision for the 2009 local government elections to be held on the basis of 123 electoral divisions, implementing the boundary committee’s draft recommended warding arrangements, as published on 2 December 2008. These changes are necessary, because without them the elections in Cornwall would be held on the basis of 71 wards returning 82 councillors—a number widely recognised by all in Cornwall, and by those involved in electoral administration, as insufficient for providing the strategic leadership needed for the new unitary councils.
Part 3 of the miscellaneous order makes provision for the appointment of charter trustees as appropriate bodies in which historic rights and privileges may vest, for parts of the areas covered by Cheshire West and Chester council, Cheshire East council and County Durham council. If colleagues have questions regarding parts 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 of the order, I shall be happy to deal with them in my winding-up speech. However, as I am sure that hon. Members agree, the order provides for sensible, necessary and consequential amendments, following the structural changes orders that Parliament has already approved.
I shall now turn to the Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009. We find ourselves in unusual circumstances: in most cases, provisions for electoral arrangements are made by the Electoral Commission, but a series of events has led us to this position today. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne has a personal interest in this matter, because of the area that she represents, and she has written to the Minister for Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey). The hon. Member for North Cornwall, too, has an interest, so I shall take some time to explain the order. If hon. Members have any questions, I shall be happy to respond to them.
Last February, when the structural changes orders establishing the new unitary councils were approved by Parliament, we planned for three of the county unitaries—Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire—to have elections in May or June 2009 on the basis of new wards and electoral divisions, with a new number of councillors reflecting the new unitary status of the council. It was for the boundary committee and the Electoral Commission to decide how many councillors there would be in future and to come up with new wards to be established by a non-parliamentary order made by the commission following a process of consultation undertaken by the committee. The commission and the committee have done what was expected of them in Shropshire and Wiltshire, and we understand that they will make the orders for those authorities specifying the new wards that will be used for the June election in those areas around the middle of March. However, in Cornwall, the committee and the commission have for a number of reasons failed to deliver the new electoral arrangements for the June elections.
All, including the boundary committee, agree that there should be 123 councillors for the new unitary council instead of the existing 82 for the current county council. However, the committee is not in a position to specify new wards. It finished consulting on a draft of the new wards on 10 February and there is no prospect that it will make an order to specify the new wards in time for the 4 June elections.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): It is increasingly clear that the boundary committee misinformed Devon Members of Parliament by saying that the status quo was not an option. Following a legal challenge for judicial review by East Devon district council, Mr. Justice Cranston has said that the committee was wrong, and the Minister for Local Government has said that the status quo was always an option, which renders the whole process null and void. Were Members of Parliament for Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cornwall, County Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Wiltshire also informed at the outset of the deliberation that the status quo was not an option? If so, does the Minister agree that they should revisit the matter?
Mr. Khan: The short answer is no, but I will get back to the hon. Gentleman with a longer answer, especially on the question whether Members were consulted, when I have received a note. It is important to deal specifically with whether Members were consulted, and I am sure that I will have a response for him before I finish my comments.
The Government have powers in local government legislation to establish new wards, and we have accordingly laid this order before Parliament. The order will be made under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 and will specify the electoral divisions for the Cornwall 2009 local government elections on 4 June. It provides for the draft electoral divisions on which the boundary committee has been consulting. There have been suggestions on modifying those boundaries, but, as I am sure that the Committee understands, it would not be right for the Government to amend boundaries on an ad hoc basis without the means to test the validity of the boundaries that were suggested by local people.
The approach that we are proposing will give the new Cornwall council full democratic legitimacy as soon as possible. In the expectation that the next council election will be held in May 2013 on the basis of the Electoral Commission’s final electoral arrangements, the new council will, from its early days, have the strength and stability necessary to pursue innovative and demanding improvements in service delivery and give Cornwall the clear and effective leadership that it needs, especially in the light of the economic challenges that the area faces.
If the local elections are not held in June, the council would continue to be run until elections can be held by, essentially, an appointed body made up of county councillors and some district councillors whose councils are being abolished on 31 March 2009. Although our powers under the 2007 Act would permit deferring the elections—the Minister for Local Government conducted soundings on such a deferral—any deferral poses serious risk to the legitimacy and success of the new council. Of course, some have argued that there is a risk in implementing new arrangements so close to the election, but hon. Members may wish to note that the timing of this order specifying the wards for the 4 June elections in Cornwall is about the same as the Electoral Commission’s orders for Shropshire and Wiltshire. We accept that in Cornwall, unlike those other counties, electoral administrators have been uncertain when or on what basis the elections will be held. For that reason, in order to provide everyone in Cornwall with clarity as early as possible, my right hon. Friend announced his decision on 19 February, as soon as it was practical to do so.
We also accept that the work that is now being undertaken in Cornwall in preparation for an election on new electoral divisions adds further stress to the somewhat stressed arrangements around the country for organising the European elections. However, we believe that with the correct support, it is entirely doable. That belief is shared by senior officers of Cornwall county council, who believe that combined local and European elections can be organised on the basis of new wards. They have dedicated resources and programme management to ensure that the elections are delivered successfully.
For those leading the preparations in Cornwall, my officials have facilitated discussions about providing support for Cornwall with Ministry of Justice officials, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the electoral panel of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives. All those involved have been incredibly helpful in providing support and advice to the council. Indeed, following this meeting, the Electoral Commission and the AEA will work directly with the council on a series of assurance reviews to support the combined election in Cornwall.
An initial review was undertaken on Tuesday 10 March, which looked at a variety of issues to ensure that arrangements were in hand. That initial review was very encouraging, and the AEA and the Electoral Commission were impressed by the amount of work that had been done in Cornwall and by the progress that had been made. On the basis of the plans to date, both bodies are confident that there are sufficient programme management arrangements and other measures in place to deliver a successful election.
Following that initial review, the AEA and the Electoral Commission will continue to provide periodic review checkpoints, which will be in line with key stages of the project plan and will provide further assistance. In addition, the AEA will review the council’s plans and risk register weekly to ensure that any concerns are addressed quickly. My officials are also in contact with the council every week as a minimum and have recently visited it as part of a stocktake of the progress that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government asked the council to make on unitary implementation.
I recognise that time is tight for those in Cornwall, but the risks posed are wholly manageable. The alternative—no new electoral mandate for the council, with the implementation executive, which was always meant as a temporary forum, continuing to lead the new council—presents a serious risk to the success of the new unitary council and puts in jeopardy the delivery of local services in Cornwall. That is a risk that we cannot run. As my right hon. Friend made clear when he confirmed his decision to proceed with an election on the current basis, it is of the utmost importance at this point to provide effective local leadership, improve service delivery for Cornwall’s residents and ensure that the council has real democratic legitimacy at the earliest point, giving it the best possible start.
Let me deal now with points that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne raised with my right hon. Friend. She has asked me to explain that she asked him about local election arrangements in Cornwall. She thinks—I agree—that dealing with these issues at the outset might help to shorten our proceedings, because some of her concerns will be dealt with. I will then come to the other points that have been made.
The hon. Lady’s main point related to taking on board the views of local parish, district and county councils about wards. She asked for small changes to be made to ward boundaries, but the short answer to her question is that it would be quite wrong for the Government to adjust the electoral division boundaries on the basis of representations made by individuals, who could have vested interests. I am afraid that it is not a matter of making a simple decision based on local agreement. Representations need to be considered against the key criteria of electoral equality, community identity, and effective and convenient local government. We are not in a position to test representations without regard to those key criteria. Although representations might be made in good faith, implementing them could, at worst, result in unfairness in electoral arrangements. The only basis on which to proceed with any safety while recognising any imperfections would be if the elections went ahead on the basis of the boundaries proposed by the independent boundary committee.
The point raised by the hon. Member for East Devon related to Bedfordshire. [Hon. Members: “Devon.”] I beg your pardon, Devon. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the new unitary structures for Cheshire, Bedfordshire and Wiltshire were implemented on the basis of proposals made by the councils themselves. The orders were debated and approved by both Houses of Parliament in February and March 2008, but I will be happy to deal with any specific points in my winding-up speech.
In conclusion, I am sure that hon. Members agree that the provisions in the orders are entirely sensible and necessary. Cornwall and the other eight new unitary authorities are on the cusp of making a landmark change in local governance in England. The process of transition is almost over, as we move towards 1 April. Those councils are about to embark on a process of transformation and innovation that will see them becoming exemplars of how local services can be delivered and how communities and local people can be engaged and empowered. The orders are a necessary part of that transition, and they pave the way for that transformation. I commend the orders to the Committee.
4.45 pm
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): It a pleasure to serve under your benign chairmanship for the first time, Mr. Streeter. The Committee will be delighted to learn that we do not intend to divide the Committee. However, I wish to probe some of the key issues involved.
It is inappropriate to revisit the epic battles fought over the original orders in February and March 2008. Suffice it to say that we all miss Mrs. Dunwoody, the former Member for Crewe and Nantwich. Her contribution to that great debate was a steep learning curve for the Labour Whips of the north-west—I was a not disinterested outsider. It was a fine example of proper debate, and she represented her constituents well. The matter was thoroughly discussed not only in Cheshire but in Shropshire and other parts of the country.
Much of the legislation is innocuous and I shall not seek to probe the Minister on it; indeed, it is consequential on the original orders and the orders made under section 7 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. We support part 2 of the structural changes order and the tidying up of the membership of the shadow executives of Central Bedfordshire council and Bedford borough council. That seems to be a sensible way forward for parish councils, and for their respective powers and locus.
I refer to part 2 of the structural changes order and paragraph 4.8 of the explanatory memorandum. I hope that the new unitary authorities will not use this opportunity to rescind their historical county names. The argument advanced in the explanatory memorandum is not particularly persuasive, and the same is true of the Minister’s argument that getting rid of the name—for instance, not calling it Shropshire county council—should be supported as it represents a new beginning.
The name of a county as a division and as an administrative area is historic; it reflects the heritage and history of the area. Notwithstanding the comments made by councillors in Wiltshire, and although part 2 of the order will allow local authorities to change their name, I believe that the unitary authorities will not want give the impression that they are “taking over” the lower-tier authorities. I therefore hope that they disregard the blandishments in the order and proudly call themselves, for instance, Cornwall county council or Shropshire county council.
I turn to part 3 of the order and paragraph 4.9 of the explanatory memorandum. There seems to be a contradiction. Whereas we would disregard heritage and history in the names of the new unitary authorities, in seeking to establish chartered trustees for the cities of Chester and Durham, the towns of Crewe and Macclesfield, and the historic area of Ellesmere Port, we sensibly pay homage to their importance for the many involved in civic life in those areas. We strongly support that position in respect of the ceremonial rights and privileges conferred over many years in those areas, particularly those relating to their predecessor local authorities. Does the Minister think that any further consequential orders will be needed to establish future charter trustees’ organisations, or will existing legislation be sufficient to establish them? I would be interested to hear his views.
I shall not detain the Committee by discussing parts 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the order, which deal with pension funds, port authorities, conservation areas, national parks and miscellaneous consequential amendments, not least because I believe that they are not contentious and that there is consensus on them. My final point on the first order, to which the Minister might wish to give due attention, concerns the statement at the end that no impact assessment is deemed to be appropriate for the statutory instrument. I am not entirely sure that that is the case. Will he give the Committee his viewpoint on that matter? I understand that impact assessments were tabled for the original section 7 orders, so he may want to dwell on that.
Moving swiftly on to Cornwall, I defer to the expertise of the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, who will no doubt want to take us through all the beautifully named electoral divisions in Cornwall, such as Bugle, Troon, Beacon and many others, although perhaps time will not permit it. Following the announcement made on 19 February by the Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), we broadly support the order. There is a settled consensus. We welcome the decision that the electoral divisions will be maintained as established until the election, as well as the crucial timing of the county council election. We understand the caveat that the circumstances are unusual.
We would have opposed an out-of-sequence county council election, because it would have been foolish to build a further election into the system, causing duplication and incurring cost. We strongly support the view that £600,000 of revenue funding has been saved by not having a duplicate election in 2011. As paragraph 8.12 of the explanatory memorandum says, any one-off election in 2010 would be both destabilising and damaging for the new council, improved service delivery and effective political leadership for Cornwall. Without intruding on private grief, I know that the Cornish Liberal Democrats have issues with the leadership of the existing county council, and they probably do not want any more problems in that part of the world.
I want to press the Minister for more details on the final part of the order, which he has mentioned. It deals with the detailed work being undertaken between the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, the AEA and the Ministry of Justice. The time scale is exceedingly tight. It will be difficult—although, we hope, not impossible—to deliver an efficient, fair and free election in the new Cornwall.
On that note, we will not divide the Committee. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s detailed answers.
4.54 pm
Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Streeter. I am sure that you will keep a close eye on events, as they may well affect your constituency.
I will start by responding to the final few comments made by the hon. Member for Peterborough, who seemed to imply that there is some private grief in the arrangements. We are quite happy about them; in fact, the Cornish MPs have supported the council in coming forward with the proposals, which we see as an important first step towards ensuring that more decisions are made in Cornwall. That is why we support the proposals. We have backed them all the way, which is slightly more than can be said of the Conservative party in its national position on the issue, given that more than a few Conservative-led councils have come forward with proposals to move to unitary authorities. Actually, we have done rather a better job, and we have been singing from the same hymn sheet.
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