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24 Feb 2009 : Column 19WH—continued

The Government already stand condemned. They are fortunate that Mr. Justice Cranston decided that it was premature to intervene at this stage, because if one reads behind the headlines of that decision the findings
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of fact are damning. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) referred to extraordinary confusion, and that comment is reinforced by Mr. Justice Cranston’s judgment, in which he points out that at the very beginning of the making of requests in relation to the three counties, as would naturally be expected, preliminary discussions were held between officials of the Department and the Boundary Commission. Why on earth the extraordinary confusion was not picked up at that stage beggars belief. It raises questions of the basic competence of those responsible, politically and administratively. That farce was compounded by the Secretary of State’s U-turn about what was meant by an aggregate. Having started by saying that the criteria should be considered in aggregate, she had to explain herself and say that “aggregate” did not mean aggregate, but capacity. That did no service to sensible government.

The criteria are not met for the other issues that are raised. The democratic deficit was mentioned by practically every hon. Member. The fact that the counties in question are large and rural makes that worse. In addition, the question of cost has allegedly been at the forefront of the Government’s consideration, but the relevant formulations have been comprehensively destroyed. Professor Chisholm and Mr. Leach effectively destroyed them in “Botched Business”. In previous debates the Minister has rejected their figures, but the subsequent evidence proves, if anything, that not only were they right, but they may have underestimated them.

I shall present two figures to the Minister. As has been pointed out, the unitary bid for Cornwall estimated transition costs at £19 million. Professor Chisholm suggested that they would be more—about £28 million. The Minister pooh-poohed that in a previous debate. In fact, the One Cornwall transition costs have just, in a public document made available to the implementation executive, come out at £42.5 million. Northumberland was in the previous tranche of six, and the Minister himself has had to write complaining that rather than producing a saving, the new unitary council has produced a £10 million deficit. The Government’s own figures on cost are incredible and the methodology used by their independent financial advisers is discredited. A future Conservative Government will place no reliance on it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) was said to keep a pearl-handled revolver in his cupboard to use on anyone who mentioned local government reorganisation to him. When he left the shadow team for his current job he left the revolver behind, and my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) and I know exactly where it is; so anyone who is tempted to think of applying for a lucrative post within a unitary authority should be on notice that, if the legislative process is not finished, our incoming Government will stop it and will ensure that there will be no more nonsense of that kind in the future. It is possible to achieve cost savings, and I take the point that has been made about the importance of achieving them. However, the irony is that of the councils in question, Norfolk has an excellent shared services agreement, which has been in place for some time, that highlights how costs can be saved by joint working, and Suffolk has a pathfinder scheme for joint working that has achieved beacon status. Why on earth not let those excellent systems of collaboration run their course, rather than interfere with them? “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a maxim well worth remembering in politics.

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Secrecy is another matter of concern that has been raised in relation to costs. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) explained her difficulty in getting information from the Department. She is not alone. Although the Department has sought to rubbish the figures given by Professor Chisholm and his colleague in “Botched Business”, it has never issued a rebuttal, and it has declined at least two freedom of information requests in addition to that from my hon. Friend: one from the late hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, Mrs. Dunwoody, and another from those distinguished academics. What have the Government got to hide? The methodology on which they rely does not hold water.

I shall conclude, because I want to give the Minister ample time to reply. The criteria, whether they are taken individually, on aggregate or as a matter of capacity, are not met in any of the relevant cases. The idea that large rural counties can meet the democratic requirement with 100 councillors per 700,000 is regarded by most people as ludicrous. It might be worth remembering why in many continental countries local government is in better health, and there is far more local pride in it. It is because often the units are more coherent and are closer to the individual. Generally, as it happens, they are two-tier as well, but joint working and procurement are the norm. Perhaps there is a lesson that we should take from that.

The concept that we are discussing is fundamentally flawed, as are the particular proposals and the process. The criteria are not met. There is no clear cross-section of support as was required, and, as several of my hon. Friends have said, it is a bizarre priority in the middle of a recession. The Minister should stop it now, because if he does not, we will. If he will not take it from me, may I give him a gentle hint from an independent source? Judges of course would never dream of telling Ministers what they should do. However, sometimes, in their judgments, as experienced and sophisticated people, they can give a subtle hint. At the very end of his judgment in the East Devon case, Mr. Justice Cranston quoted, in the last paragraph, what he described as “a significant passage” in a letter from Councillor Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon council, in which she said that leadership

The judge then said:

That is a subtle but clear judicial hint. I urge the Minister to take the hint and pull the plug.

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10.50 am

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. He has certainly been persistent in pursuing his argument, through debate in the House and letters to the Department—and in the queue in the Tea Room. I note that he has marshalled his battalions for this debate in bigger numbers than in previous debates, and I congratulate him on that. I am grateful to him for not doing so in the corridors, where he often ambushes me—but perhaps I speak too soon.

I recognise the high level of interest in the subject, and the concern in some quarters about the process. I also recognise the uncertainty that it creates for local government staff. I am keen to ensure that we put an end to the process as soon as we can. However, because of what is at stake, I must be up front about it and say that I am not prepared to walk away from the process, as it has the potential to offer real benefits for his constituents and for the residents of Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon.

The debate is timely—it is the third of a series—not least because we recently agreed a new deadline for the boundary committee to advise Ministers, and because we are only weeks away from the implementation of nine new single-level councils in other parts of the country. In those areas, it is becoming clearer what the general benefits of unitary councils can be. I have to tell the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk—and the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), given what he said at the end of his speech—that we are considering the proposals only because they were originally submitted to us by elected councils and the elected leaders of those councils of the areas concerned. Unlike previous reorganisations of local government, it is not centrally driven by the Government or a blueprint devised at the national level and imposed locally.

Mr. Keith Simpson: Does the Minister accept that, for Norfolk, the district and county councils preferred the status quo but that they were informed that that option was not on the table? Indeed, it was implied that, if they did not put forward proposals, they would be in trouble. The Minister’s is a false argument.

John Healey: No change has always been an option. If no decision is made to change, no change is clearly what remains.

In terms of the accusations and arguments about political opportunism, if the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) were to speak about Northumberland to my colleagues in the House or in local government, many of whom have served on Labour councils that will end on 1 April, she will understand that it is not a question of political opportunism. Looking across the country, we took our decision because we believe that it will lead to better local governance.

The economic downturn has been mentioned. Reports of the councils that come into being on 1 April consistently say that they are able to manage the current pressures of the downturn better as a result of the reorganisation and not despite it. It has been said that it will cost a lot and save little, but evidence emerging from those councils belies that argument, as it does for doubts about value for money, better control of council tax, improved
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services and clearer accountability. The evidence is increasingly against those who argue for no change. The arguments are increasingly in favour of the general benefits of having a single level of local government, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) clearly set out.

If the Opposition could, they would stop the process in its tracks. Without prejudging the boundary committee’s proposals, and having taken account of all the representations that we have received, there are some decisions that we will probably take. If an order is made to implement a restructuring proposal under the powers in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, it cannot be revoked by another order. As a matter of law, a power to make an order normally includes the power to amend or revoke it; that is the effect of section 14 of the Interpretation Act 1978. However, the implied power to amend or revoke does not apply when such a power would be inconsistent with the statutory framework under which the order is made.

Because part 1 of the 2007 Act sets out a detailed process under which the Secretary of State makes her statutory decisions and does not provide any basis for reopening that decision once made, the implied power to make an order to revoke or amend the earlier order does not apply in this context. That would mean that any orders made under the 2007 Act and approved by Parliament to establish unitary local government could not be revoked by secondary legislation; it would require primary legislation. I want to make the legal position clear to the House.

Increasingly, the compelling case is not to stop such reforms. I was in Northumberland last week, and creating a unitary council there would mean that about 60 highly paid senior posts will go, leading to an annual saving of more than £4 million per annum. It will mean that central bureaucratic and administrative council staff will be reduced by 200 people, saving £7 million each year. If there were a move to one or two councils in Devon, Norfolk or Suffolk, are Opposition Members seriously saying that they would not want to see such savings and the benefits that would result from using that money to improve services or keep council tax down?

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On the question of costs, I hope that Opposition Members are asking challenging questions about the cost of the legal process being pursued by some councils. Last week, we were in the Court of Appeal for three days; there were five QCs, five junior counsel, numerous instructing lawyers, and public officials from local and central Government. One local paper estimated that Breckland council’s legal costs for that legal challenge mounted to six figures.

Mr. Keith Simpson: But you were guilty.

John Healey: In fact, the judgment was entirely helpful in confirming exactly the advice that we set out on 6 February 2008 about how the boundary committee should conduct its process—and that is what it will do. [Interruption.]

Mrs. Joan Humble (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members that interventions should not be made from a sedentary position.

John Healey: I return to the general case for a single level of councils, and will try to do so in the least partisan way. For instance, without a move to unitary local government, and being able to make savings of £10 million this year, Conservative-controlled Shropshire council’s budget for next year would have required a 9 or 10 per cent. increase in council tax or savage cuts in services. Instead, the new authority has been able to recommend a zero rise in council tax. It says that restructuring is helping it to manage better the current pressures of the economic downturn.

Liberal Democrat-controlled Cornwall council will have an average increase in council tax next year of 2.6 per cent.—the lowest council tax increase in the area for some years. I was in Labour-controlled Durham last week, and saw the call centre where staff will be operating the single number for local residents to gain access to all council information and all council services. The increase in average council tax in Durham is 2.9 per cent., with a cut in some areas. Those are some of the benefits that a single unitary council can bring to local people, alongside better leadership and arrangements for ensuring that local people are better involved in decision making. Until we have received the advice, or the deadline for that advice has passed, we have no powers.

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Scientific Procedures on Animals (Statistics)

11 am

Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North) (Lab): May I place on the record my appreciation to the Speaker for allowing this debate at rather short notice and for giving us a one-and-a-half-hour slot? That will give many of my colleagues the opportunity, should they so wish, to put forward their views.

I am very pleased to see my hon. Friend the Minister in her place, because in many ways she is more responsible for the debate than I am. On 4 February, when members of the all-party group on FRAME—fund for the replacement of animals in medical experiments—met her, she told us, to my surprise, how few parliamentary debates on animal welfare in scientific research there have been. She also pleaded for the debate to be held soon, because time was of the essence—it will not be long before she must go missing to deal with the new arrival. We have kept our side of the bargain, and she now has her opportunity.

I also pay tribute to Jenny Gowan, from the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, and to Stacey Friar and Barney Reed, from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for giving me their thoughts. They spent a lot of time with me yesterday—the timing of this debate has not been ideal, because of the recess last week and because I was away in Strasbourg for three days, so I had to cram everything into yesterday in dealing with this matter.

It is nice to be speaking from this position. I think back to 1994, Mrs. Humble, when I was sitting in a similar position to you—behind that top table—while considering the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1996, which was being dealt with by a Select Committee. However, unlike you, Mrs. Humble, I had another 11 months and three weeks to go before getting away—you will be away, no doubt, at the end of this sitting. I am sure that you will be quite pleased about that. Many changes have taken place since then, however, and I had been led to believe that this place was like a halfway house to the House of Lords—a little more genteel and refined than the House of Commons, but not quite as good as the House of Lords. However, what I saw in the last debate did not bear that out—but one lives in hope!

Since I and my colleagues from the all-party FRAME group met the Minister on 4 February and having done some reading and talked to people about this subject, I have changed my views. When we met her, the spectre of diminished UK legislation was looming before us, as a result of the dumbing-down that we feared necessary to fall in line with European Union legislation and recommendations. Although our system was by no means perfect, we did not want it to be made any worse. However, I have since considered the matter in detail, and now take a more positive and—I hope—constructive position.

I think that my colleagues in the all-party group will go along with my comments. There is nothing wrong with our seeking some much-needed improvements. The current situation is far from satisfactory. We hear about the three R’s—replacement, refinement and reduction—in animal experimentation and scientific development. Most groups would go along with
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those, although the anti-vivisection people take a stronger view. They want total elimination of animal experimentation, which is an admirable view. My heart tells me that it has much to commend itself, but my head tells me that it is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. I always recall what that great statesman, R.A.—later Lord—Butler said: politics is the art of the possible.

Furthermore, I would like to put on the record my views on certain extreme and criminal elements that have intimidated people, damaged people’s property and done neither themselves, nor the movement, any favours. All that they have done is take away the public’s attention from the real issue to the criminal aspects of the groups’ activities. They have probably set us back many years. Obviously, none of the groups to which I shall refer have any time for such people, although we believe that they have a point. We find how they make that point quite indefensible.

I am pleased to praise the Government, which is rare for me, for their endeavours and successes with the Bill involving stem cell research. There was a fair amount of opposition to it from various quarters, but it is the way forward, and I hope that it will help us to achieve some of our aims in reducing animal experimentation—all the potential seems to be there. One of the biggest problems facing the nation’s health relates to our ageing population and the terrible plight of the increasing number of people suffering from dementia. Given that it is a disease of old age, it is almost inevitable that more old people will result in more people with dementia. That is leading to many problems, not least that of resources. It seems that most of the advances made on the subject have come from stem cell research, which is very welcome. Dementia is probably the largest medical problem faced by mankind in Britain—there are many others, but it stands out on account of the large number of people involved.

We must first consider the statistics. I give praise to the excellent briefing paper prepared for this debate by the Commons Library. I am sure that I can quote from it, because all the figures in it come from Government sources. In these days of scientific enlightenment and advancement and of the greater accrual of knowledge, it is sobering to think that, over the past 12 years, animal experimentation has increased by no less than 21 per cent. In previous years, the figure had fallen from a level above what it is now to a fairly low level. This is not a party-political issue but a national issue. Some might say, “Oh well, the figures went down under our regime, and have risen under a different regime”, but that is irrelevant. What is relevant is to find out why that happened and to see what we can do to arrest the situation. We first need to ensure that this remorseless rise in animal experimentation is, at the very least, brought to a plateau. Only then can we begin to consider ways and means to reduce the problem.

I do not underestimate the complexity and difficulty of achieving such a reduction, but the 21 per cent. increase over 12 years is unacceptable by any standards. We can hear all the fine words in the world, but we need positive proof on the ground that the policies are working. Sadly, at the moment, they are not.

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