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Mr. Jackson: Will the hon. Lady give way?
Julia Goldsworthy: I listened very patiently to the hon. Gentleman and now I want to make some progress, so as not to detain the Committee. [Interruption.] I may give way later but, as I have said, we have been up front, clear and unanimous about what we want to achieve through this local government reorganisation. We have always deferred to local people’s views; the same cannot be said of the Conservative party.
Most of the miscellaneous amendments are relatively straightforward. As has been said, the order refers to consequential impacts on other primary legislation and regulations. Although the amendments may seem trivial to the untrained eye, it is important that the process is right. I would rather have the opportunity to debate measures on which there is consensus, and with which there might not be a problem, if it means that we have the opportunity to debate greater issues, when they arise.
Some of the measures are important in relation to not only administration, but heritage. It is important to recognise administrations’ ceremonial duties and historical associations. However, I support the opportunity for councils that are about to go forward with unitary reorganisation to change their titles. Within Cornwall, plenty of people dispute the fact that they live in a county. They say that they live in a duchy, preferring to remember times when they were more autonomous, which is exactly the kind of thing that local communities should decide. We should be seeking not to impose titles, but to enable those areas to propose whatever they consider to be most appropriate.
It is important to get pay and pensions right, even if such matters seem straightforward. I reiterate what the hon. Member for Peterborough said about ensuring that new spend is tied up. There are some inconsistencies in the amendments. Is the Minister confident that all the loose ends have been dealt with?
I took a journey by taxi in my constituency at the weekend. The taxi driver told me that he has been having real problems with his insurance, because the insurance company says that it needs something in writing to indicate that the licensing authority is changing at the beginning of next month. The company wants a letter from the new authority, but that cannot be provided because the new authority does not exist yet. The taxi driver did not feel confident that he would have the necessary insurance to continue his business on the first of the month. Is the Minister prepared to bring measures that need to be sorted out back to the House if necessary, or is he confident that everything has been dealt with?
On the Cornwall order, I welcome the fact that we are going to elect the right number of councillors at the earliest date possible. I agree with the Minister that a democratic mandate for the new authority is vital and that the authority should be as close as possible to the finalised boundaries. However, my preference was for 123 councillors to be elected on 4 June within finalised boundaries. Other hon. Members have spoken of their frustration with the boundary committee’s inability to work to a timetable that would have provided that. I am disappointed that resources were not made available to allow the boundary committee to do its job to allow people to vote within finalised electoral boundaries.
We must not allow the best to be the enemy of the good, but this is not a worst or best case scenario. There was an opportunity to make improvements to the boundaries and to improve the draft. Let me make it clear that we will not oppose the orders, because those in Cornwall who are trying to deliver the elections at the beginning of June are operating to a very tight timetable, and it is important that they do not face further uncertainty. However, the process could have been handled better and improvements could have been made.
Although the explanatory memorandum is helpful in laying out the genesis of the decision-making process—how we got to 123 members, what submissions various bodies made and how the timetable was worked out—it is very quiet about the discussions that took place after the date and the numbers were agreed.
Let me give just a couple of examples, which relate not to my constituency, but to North Cornwall. First, a division called Flexbury and Poughill in the Bude area does not actually contain Flexbury. A simple name change would establish a clearer relationship between the area that the division is supposed to represent and the boundaries.
Another, slightly more serious issue has also arisen in the Bude area, and the Electoral Commission clearly made a mistake in accepting the proposed amendment. There are two divisions—Bude South, and Bude North and Stratton—in Bude. Theoretically, each is supposed to have an average of 3,300 electors, but one has 2,500, while the other has nearly 5,000. The commission accepted the proposals, but drew the line in the wrong place on the map, so we have two wards, one of which will have twice the number of electors as the other when it elects a councillor. Where there is consensus in such cases, it is surely a lot more helpful to incorporate changes, given that the Department has had to invoke certain powers to introduce the order today.
Mr. Jackson: Surely the logic of what the hon. Lady is saying is that we should reorganise the boundaries when we debate an order from the boundary committee, which is an amazing precedent for the Liberal Democrats to seek to establish. My understanding is that if we vote for the orders, we establish the finality of the boundaries in them. It is inappropriate for any party, for whatever reason—I will leave that hanging in the air—to seek to reorganise boundaries in this Committee.
Julia Goldsworthy: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said and not been perusing the beautiful list of ward names that he mentioned earlier, he would have heard me say that my party does not oppose the orders. We are not suggesting that we should debate the boundaries; we are merely saying that it might have been helpful, once the date had been set, if efforts had been made to determine whether there was cross-party consensus in the representations from parish, district and county councils. The Department could then have requested the Electoral Commission to look again at the issue and to come forward with proposals.
What we have at the moment are the proposals that the boundary committee came up with in isolation. There have been responses to those proposals, but there has been no opportunity to respond to the views expressed about the set of drafts on which we are working. I understand why the boundary committee is unable to complete its full timetable of consultations on finalising the boundaries, but I do not understand why something could not be done to get us closer to the final boundaries. Ideally, I would prefer ward boundaries that are as close as possible to the finalised boundaries by the time the next cycle of elections comes around. It is not a worst case scenario, but it is disappointing. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on what discussions took place between the boundary committee and the Electoral Commission. What reasons did they accept to be decisive in giving carte blanche approval to the proposals?
As the Minister has said, an early date is good for democratic legitimacy, but the explanatory memorandum makes it clear that risks are involved. He has gone some way in reassuring me that a close eye is being kept on how we are progressing towards the elections on 4 June. I hear that there will be a lot of checking to see whether the returning officer is delivering against what is necessary to achieve successful elections on that date. However, could we not go further in being clear about what levels of additional support the Minister—or perhaps other Departments—may be prepared to provide, if they feel that those risks are increasing?
We have been burned once in Cornwall with regard to the boundary commission, because we initially thought that it would be reasonable to expect to see finalised boundaries in time for elections on 4 June, but that did not happen. People need to be confident that there will not be a similar experience this time around.
Although we will be having elections on the draft boundaries, will the Minister indicate when he expects the new boundaries to be finalised? Again, the earlier that that can be done the better, although it will clearly be after the election. Further, will he confirm whether there has been any progress on the estimate of savings that will be achieved as a result of holding the elections on 4 June, in line with other local elections and the European elections? It is good news for Cornwall that there is the opportunity to secure a democratic mandate as soon as possible. However, an acknowledgement from the Minister that the necessary support will be there would go a long way to help allay concerns about the challenges to delivering the elections according to that timetable.
5.8 pm
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I do not intend to delay the Committee long. I have two quick points for the Minister, which arise from the fact that I represent a constituency in Shropshire. First, why is it that under part 2 of the local government structural changes order, in addition to deleting the word “county” from each of the five counties, he has chosen to insert the definite article “the” ahead of the name of the county? That is rather akin to his constituency being called “the Tooting”, or mine “the Ludlow”. There is an air of ridiculousness about that which seems totally superfluous. In Shropshire, there is a distinction between Shropshire council and Shropshire county council which is clear from those words. It is superfluous to have the word “the” added to those other council names.
Secondly—the preamble may explain this—there is no reference in the orders to the Shropshire hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty which makes up about 40 per cent of my constituency. It may be that that will be addressed in the order later in March, when Shropshire council comes before us in relation to the boundary committee. If that is not the case, will the Minister explain why, for example, South Shropshire district council and Bridgnorth district council, have not been omitted as members of the board of the area of outstanding natural beauty for the Shropshire hills?
5.9 pm
Mr. Khan: I was going to begin by dealing with a point raised by the hon. Member for East Devon. I must apologise to him; when he made his intervention I was distracted by my words and not by his question, which is always a mistake. I will now answer his question, and if he has any further points, he is free to write to me or to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, and we will try to deal with them.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Mr. Justice Cranston’s judgment on the judicial review taken against the boundary committee. Mr. Justice Cranston held that the committee had erred in convincing itself that it could consult on only one alternative proposal in each area—Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk. He also ruled that the committee must take into account all representations made to it, including the benefits of the current two-tier arrangements. As he knows, those matters are before the Court of Appeal and we are awaiting a judgment.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the status quo in relation to Devon, and it is worth pointing out that the work the boundary committee is currently conducting in Devon relates to structure. The electoral review process, while also conducted by the boundary committee, is separate from the structural work and is not carried out under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. The review is ongoing in Cornwall, and Mr. Justice Cranston’s comments on the status quo are not relevant to the process that we are discussing today. However, if the hon. Gentleman has specific questions about his patch, he may of course write to me or to my right hon. Friend, and we will try to deal with them.
The hon. Member for Peterborough made several comments. I thank him for the way in which he couched his introductory remarks, which contrasted with the battles of yesteryear. He referred in particular to the name of the councils. He was right to say that part 2 of the order amends the orders relating to Cornwall, Northumberland, Shropshire, Wiltshire and County Durham to make provision for the name of the new council, essentially allowing the council, subject to resolution, to omit the word “county” from its legal name. I am sure that hon. Members agree that that is a sensible provision, which provides the new unitary councils with the opportunity to adopt a truly new identity in the eyes of their residents and, just as importantly, to make a fresh start in the eyes of council staff, whether they come from the previous county or district council. The new unitary councils have requested the provision to allow them to have new identities, so that they can be known as, for example, Shropshire council or Cornwall council.
Another point was raised about the support we are giving to Cornwall. It is worth telling the Committee that the initial review to which I have referred considered, among other things, the overall approach to delivering the combined elections within Cornwall to ensure that a low-risk approach is undertaken, the project’s governance, management and reporting arrangements, the risks and issues associated with mitigating activities and corrective activities, the process for generating polling district’s electoral registers from boundary committee draft recommendations and for verifying those registers, polling district review approach and evidence and polling day arrangements. I was asked for my views and, as I have said, the initial review was very encouraging. My officials are in contact with the council on a weekly basis, as a minimum, and they recently visited it.
The issue of charter trustees has also been raised. We do not envisage creating any further trustees for those areas, as ceremonial matters can be addressed by parish councils. Another question related to any further issues. We are in regular contact with those leading change in each area and have worked with them to identify the transitional matters that we have dealt with in those orders and other regulations. We think that we have captured everything, but we will, of course, continue to monitor the transition and will bring further legislation before Parliament, if necessary.
In answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne on resources, the resources of the boundary committee are voted by Parliament through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission and not by the Government. I was also asked why there has been no impact assessment for the orders, and the answer is that the full impact of the local government structural changes, including those details set out in the orders, were assessed when the structural change orders were approved last year.
Mr. Jackson: The Minister referred in his introductory remarks to the ongoing correspondence between the Minister for Local Government and the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne. Will the Minister undertake to put that correspondence in the Library, so that we can all be privy to the answers that the Minister for Local Government has given the hon. Lady?
Mr. Khan: I have no objection to that and will ensure that it is done in due course. In answer to the question why minor changes could not be made to the draft boundaries, the hon. Member for Peterborough gave the riposte in an intervention that that is a slippery slope. Had we started to consider altering boundaries, or asked the boundary committee to do so, we would not be in a position to debate the order today, and administrators in Cornwall would not be in a position to prepare for elections. The boundary committee’s consultation on the draft boundaries closed on 10 February.
I have yet to deal with the question from the hon. Member for Ludlow about “the Tooting”. The formal name, under the Local Government Act 1972, was “the council for the county of Shropshire”. We have simply amended that to “the council for Shropshire”. We only need to make changes where areas of outstanding natural beauty have formal boards and where the council has not raised the issue. However, I am happy to look into the concerns expressed, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, if there is a danger of Tooting being renamed “the Tooting”.
I hope that I have dealt with all the questions raised.
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