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That this House recognises that there are health inequalities, particularly around heart disease, stroke and cancer, to be addressed in London; agrees that there is a need to build stronger organisations which are clinically and financially sustainable and provide the best service to their local populations; recognises the importance of the work by Lord Darzi and over 200 clinicians who undertook the Healthcare for London review, which was widely supported and consulted on in London; recognises that trusts have worked closely with their local communities to communicate the aims of the programme; further recognises that lives will be saved because the NHS in London, supported by public consultation and following review and scrutiny by local and pan-London Health Overview and Scrutiny Committees, has agreed to implement new stroke and trauma networks surrounding world-leading major trauma centres and hyper-acute stroke units to ensure that patients receive high quality and innovative care in centres of excellence, expected to save approximately 500 lives a year; acknowledges that there have already been improvements in cardiac outcomes; notes that there must be no further changes to accident and emergency or obstetrics departments unless and until improved access to new services is available and that any changes must be subject to full and formal public consultation; and further notes that the Government is preparing robust planning systems to ensure that NHS London is fully prepared to meet the challenges posed by the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister, and also that an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply to this debate.
That this House expresses grave concern at the manner in which unitary restructuring is being imposed on local government in Devon and Norfolk; questions the legality, motivation and financial probity of restructuring in Devon and Norfolk during this pre-election period; notes that the Permanent Secretary has had to seek a Ministerial Direction from the Secretary of State as to the value for money and feasibility of restructuring at this time; further notes that the Permanent Secretary has concerns regarding the legal vulnerability of current restructuring plans in the case of judicial review; cautions that distinguished academic research fundamentally undermines the economic case for unitary restructuring; asserts that restructuring will place an additional cost burden on council tax payers in Devon and Norfolk; regrets the ongoing uncertainty created in Suffolk over the restructuring plans; commends much wider joint working and shared service arrangements between local authorities as important ways of delivering efficiency savings; believes it is an abuse of the democratic process; and calls for the draft Statutory Instruments pertaining to restructuring to be subject to a debate on the floor of the House and then for the proposals to be withdrawn.
This is not the first time that we have raised the issue of Norfolk and Suffolk local government restructuring in the House, and we make no apology for doing so yet again. It is all the more important that we take this opportunity to raise the issue on the Floor of the House because, for reasons that I hope we will be able to set out fairly succinctly, there is an extraordinary set of circumstances, which gives rise to a couple of the most bizarre statutory instruments we have ever seen.
Robert Neill: Indeed. It is extraordinary behaviour, and we can set out why. We make no bones about tabling a motion condemning in trenchant terms the attitude and behaviour of the Government towards restructuring in Norfolk and Devon.
It is worth reviewing a little of the background to the present situation. Hon. Members will recall that back in 2007 the then Secretary of State invited a number of local authorities to make bids for unitary status. The key point is that about 26 bids were received. It was made clear by the then Secretary of State that they were to be judged against five strict criteria, which have been the basis upon which all subsequent decisions have been taken. It was made clear that to be successful, bids would be expected to meet all five criteria. Particularly relevant to this case were the criteria of affordability and value for money.
It is perfectly reasonable to take differing views about the virtues or otherwise of unitary local government. There are unitary local authorities across the country. Some of them work well and are successful. There are two-tier areas of local government across the country-three tiers, the parish councils would want to say-in county and shire districts, and they often work well too. That is not necessarily the driving consideration, although I
will come to a point where there are real grounds for concern about the methodology that the Government have adopted, through the Department for Communities and Local Government, in assessing some of the supposed benefits of the recent tranche of reorganisations, but that is not necessarily the principal consideration here.
The principal consideration is the Government's extraordinary behaviour in departing from their own tests and well trailed standards to produce two unitary proposals that they had unequivocally rejected out of hand as unacceptable and unable to meet two of their own criteria. The intellectual-and, some might be tempted to say, political-dishonesty is the principal issue that gives rise to this debate.
Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making an exceptionally good case against the Government, but so that I can better understand the view of Her Majesty's official Opposition, will he tell me whether he is in favour of unitary authorities in principle, or against them?
Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we have said that we should not impose unitary local restructuring. Imposition is the real issue, because unitary authorities of all political complexions can work. That is not the point here: the point is the imposition, and the imposition by unreliable and, frankly, perverted criteria.
Mr. Neill: I was going to address that point in a moment, but it seems appropriate to do so now, because I observed a very strange thing. I was trying to work out what had happened since 2007, when the same Government -albeit with a certain change of personnel-rejected those two unitary bids on the ground that Norwich and Exeter were not capable of meeting two of the three criteria.
I am conscious of something other than the change of personnel, however. The Labour party has lost one third of its seats in those two cities. It has lost a parliamentary seat, and a certain injustice has been shown in this world, because I have not yet mentioned that there was also a proposal for Suffolk. It was thought that there should be reorganisation in Suffolk, too, but that has been shelved. The people of Suffolk are not to be treated to a partial unitary reorganisation in which an area is ripped out of the rest of the county-rather like bleeding chunks of Wagner, as Ernest Newman once described it-and separated off.
They are not going to have it, Instead, they are to be treated to an entirely new beast: a county constitutional convention. Nothing quite so grand as a national constitutional convention, mark you, but a new, municipal constitutional concept. All that demonstrates, however, is that, first, the Government have exceedingly inconsistent standards, and, secondly, there is rough justice in this Government. My hon. Friend was right to refer to the two most satisfied people, because if one is or was in the Cabinet, one gets a unitary authority, but if one is a mere Under-Secretary, all one gets is a talking shop.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): My intervention follows the hon. Gentleman's answer to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell). The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) stated that the Conservative Opposition, if they were in government, would never impose unitary government. Did I understand that right? Is he saying that if the Conservatives were in government and any district council opposed unitary status, there would never be unitary status? Would there never be any new unitary authorities if the Conservatives were in government?
Robert Neill: We have made it quite clear that we oppose imposed unitary local government, and I restate that. We oppose it because, first, it is a very significant distraction, and, secondly, the benefits of joint working, shared services and more effective service delivery are being achieved in two-tier areas through collaboration between district councils. I shall develop that point later. It just so happens that the three counties under consideration all have advanced and effective means of shared service working, which the Government choose to disregard and rip up. I have been pretty clear about our position.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Shared service delivery may well be working in those counties, but it certainly is not in Gloucestershire. What should Gloucestershire Members do? Many, from across the parties, would move towards a unitary authority.
I shall review what has happened since the proposals were made. The intention was that the strict criteria should be adhered to, and it was made quite clear that they had not been met. Since then, however, there has been a lengthy and protracted consultation, a number of judicial reviews, the Secretary of State sought advice from the boundary committee for England, which came up with some proposals that were clearly not palatable, and more consultation has taken place. Finally, the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), who will open for the Government in this debate, said that she and the Secretary of State would move swiftly to come to a decision and resolve uncertainty. All I can say is that the decision has not resolved uncertainty in Suffolk, although it may at least have resolved uncertainty for two parliamentary candidates elsewhere in the country.
Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman share my horror at the extraordinary amount of public money that has been committed to the process, which has resulted in the evidence being ignored? All the money that both sides have spent on lobbying and lawyers ought to have been spent on services for vulnerable people, particularly at a time when public services are under enormous strain.
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