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the other place-

Given the rather guarded language that is used in the other place, in our robust words down here we might say that the Merits Committee was saying that the process stinks. It is a departure from the norm and there is no evidence for it. Ministers were asked to provide more evidence, but what the Merits Committee got was simply a recycling of what had already been stated, in which contradictions abound.

It was made clear at the beginning that a proposal that did not meet the five criteria would not proceed. As their Lordships' Merits Committee pointed out, the proposal being adopted is "contrary to previous practice." The Committee said that it would be helpful if the DLCG would

Instead, it found:

That sums it up-it was a blunt, almost insolent response to a serious piece of work by the Merits Committee of the other House.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is very strong cross-party support for unitary status in Exeter? What have his Exeter colleagues said to him about the merits of that particular case?

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Robert Neill: I do not accept that contention, taken across the county, at all. The other place's Merits Committee rightly concluded that the Government were adjusting their standards because it was unclear what they regarded cross-party support as referring to. It asked whether it referred to the cities or the counties.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD) rose-

Mr. Swire: rose-

Robert Neill: I apologise to my hon. Friend; I will have to make some more progress. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) has not come in yet, so I give way to him.

Richard Younger-Ross: I thank the hon. Gentleman, who has been very generous in giving way.

Is not the problem that the whole process was deeply flawed from the very beginning? The Boundary Commission was hog-tied before it could start, because the whole county, including the cities of Plymouth and Torquay, could not be taken into account in considering a rational basis for a unitary authority. It was confined to a very limited remit.

Robert Neill: That is perfectly true, and having set up a questionable set of rules to start with, the Government are now trying to change those rules to get themselves off the hook.

It was interesting to see what some of the respected local government press had to say about this issue. The Municipal Journal had a headline along the lines of "Reorganisation descends into a Whitehall farce", which is about right. A respected columnist in the Local Government Chronicle, Mark Smulian, not unreasonably invoked the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry, the man who gave rise to the gerrymander. I regret to say that that is ultimately what we are talking about here-a sordid little gerrymander, carried out by Ministers to advance a narrow and sectional interest. They are flying against evidence and seeking to distort it when it does not suit them. When the rules get in their way, they seek unilaterally to change them. The Secretary of State has ignored all objective criteria and pushed ahead for one reason only: the sectional interests of the Labour party are put first. That is why the permanent secretary took the unusual step of requiring a direction, and why we are now seeing a Government in a desperate situation pursuing the politics of division, and pitting town against country.

We raise this issue without any apology, and I am making it abundantly clear that we will press the matter to a Division, so that all hon. Members can stand up to be counted. The decision is not just thoroughly bad-we might disagree when a decision is 50:50 or 60:40-but utterly against the weight of all evidence. It is bad for the inhabitants of the counties and cities involved, and bad because it creates a very serious constitutional precedent indeed. For that decision to be taken in the dying days of this Parliament is close indeed to as grave an abuse of office by Ministers as I have seen in many a long day. I am sorry to have to say this, because I have always regarded the Ministers involved as decent and reasonable people even though I disagree with them, but in my judgment, the authors of that decision should be utterly ashamed of it.

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7.51 pm

The Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination (Ms Rosie Winterton): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and add:

The amendment sets out why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are very clear that the decisions we have taken are in the best interests of the people of all the areas concerned: the people of Norfolk, including the people of Norwich; the people of Devon, including the people of Exeter; and the people of Suffolk.

Before I comment in more detail on the Opposition motion, let me remind the House of the history of the process that led to those decisions. The Government issued a White Paper, "Strong and Prosperous Communities", and an invitation to councils in England in October 2006, well over three years ago. These explained that local government in two-tier areas can face additional challenges and risks, duplication, confusion and inefficiency in the provision of services to the public. We therefore invited councils to come forward with proposals for unitary local government if they felt it was right for their area.

In January 2007, we received proposals from Exeter and Norwich city councils for unitary city councils. Following careful assessment by the Department, in July 2007, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford (Hazel Blears), said that she was minded to implement the Exeter proposal and to refer the Norwich proposal to the independent boundary committee for advice. She asked for more information from Exeter council on the financial case.

Following further consideration, in December 2007, my right hon. Friend announced that we would be seeking the committee's advice on the proposals for both Exeter and Norwich and made a formal request for advice in February 2008.

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): If the then Secretary of State was previously minded to proceed with Exeter's bid, but then sought financial information before deciding instead to refer the matter the boundary committee-at the point the Minister just described-why did the Secretary of State change her mind? What financial information did she receive?

Ms Winterton: In January 2007, my right hon. Friend said that she was minded to implement the proposal, but asked for more information. On the basis of that further consideration, she said she would seek the advice of the independent boundary committee on the proposals for both Exeter and Norwich, and made a formal request in February 2008.

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The committee was due to submit its advice by 31 December 2008, but it was unable to do so owing to a judicial review. The deadline for the receipt of that advice was therefore extended three times until the committee finally submitted it in December 2009. I therefore say to right hon. and hon. Members that the process was in fact anything but rushed. Some would say that it has gone on for far too long. Indeed, many Members who came to see me thought that, and my right hon. Friend the current Secretary of State has consistently made clear his intention to bring the process to as swift a conclusion as possible to minimise uncertainty in the areas concerned.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I want to refer back to Norwich. Norwich had its application for unitary status turned down on its current boundaries because it could not meet the criteria laid down by the Department. Three years on, the Minister has overruled the boundary committee and we have gone back to the proposal of a unitary Norwich on its current boundaries. Surely that is completely and utterly contradictory.

Ms Winterton: I will come to the reasons why, having looked at all the proposals before us, we took the decisions we did. The hon. Gentleman came to see me. He was opposed to all forms of unitary local government in Norfolk. The logic of his argument is that if we looked totally on cost grounds, Norfolk would revert to unitary local government. I do not understand where that argument is going, or what the Opposition are proposing.

I shall now remind the House how the Government took the matter forward once we received the boundary committee's advice. First, we allowed a six-week period for representations to be made. The Secretary of State and I then had before us seven unitary proposals. We had the boundary committee's recommended proposal for a single county unitary council for Norfolk, and Norwich city council's original proposal for a unitary Norwich; the boundary committee's recommended proposal for a single county unitary council for Devon, and Exeter city council's original proposal for a unitary Exeter; and the boundary committee's recommended proposals for a single county unitary for Suffolk, a proposal for a split two-county unitary, and Ipswich borough council's original proposal for a unitary Ipswich.

Mr. Swire: There was another suggestion, and I wonder what happened to it. Perhaps I do not know solely because it was ruled out, but the suggestion was for an Exeter unitary combined with Exmouth in my constituency.

Ms Winterton: That proposal did not come forward through the boundary committee process.

Central to our decisions was an assessment of each proposal against the five criteria: affordability; broad cross-section of support; strategic leadership; neighbourhood empowerment; and value for money services. Those criteria specified outcomes that should be delivered if the proposed changes to unitary structures were to be made and if the unitary proposals were to be implemented. Accordingly, our assessments against the criteria involved making prospective judgments as to the likelihood of future outcomes being delivered. Our assessment-contrary to the committee's views-was
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that the alternative proposals for single county unitaries in Devon and Norfolk did not meet all the criteria. Having considered the original proposals for Exeter and Norwich afresh against the criteria, our assessment was the same as that of my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State in December 2007-namely, that they too did not meet all the criteria. Having made this assessment, we considered the merits of each proposal, giving careful consideration to the circumstances in which there were compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet all the criteria are implemented and those that do not are not implemented.

Mr. Bacon: I do not understand why, in the case that the Minister is talking about, she appears not to be concerned that the proposals departed from the criteria, when the decision that the Government have taken now also departs from the criteria for reasons that, far from being compelling, appear to be utterly spurious.

Ms Winterton: I am just coming to an explanation of that. We looked at the wider consideration of the merits of each proposal. The suggestion that this is somehow a new or novel procedure is not true. In December 2007, when the then Secretary of State took her statutory decisions, she approached them in the same way. She recognised that it was in principle open to her to conclude-on the basis of the information available to her-that all the criteria were not met, but there was none the less a good reason to implement the proposal, or conversely that all the criteria were met, but the proposal should not be implemented. In the event, she decided that, having regard to all the circumstances then prevailing, it was appropriate at that time to implement the nine proposals that met the criteria and not to implement those proposals that did not meet the criteria. This conclusion was made clear in the statement by the then Minister for Local Government on 5 December 2007, in which he expressly explained that the basis for those decisions was the Secretary of State's assessment of the proposals against the five criteria set out in the original invitation, which had the status of guidance under the 2007 Act, and to which councils should have had regard when making their proposals.

This approach to decision making was reflected in the Department's letters of 29 June and 7 December 2009 to councils in the affected areas. These letters made it clear that an assessment against the criteria, while central to our decision making, would not be the sole determinant as to whether a proposal was implemented. In contrast to the unitary proposals that we considered in 2007, we judged that the circumstances today for Exeter and Norwich are very different, as I shall explain. We concluded, when looking at the merits of the proposals in the round, that there were reasons-which we found compelling-why the unitary proposals should, despite not meeting all five criteria, be implemented, given the circumstances.

In the case of Norwich, that was not least because when the Total Place approach is factored into consideration of service delivery, the outcomes for services in Norwich and Norfolk could be as good as, if not better than, the outcomes envisaged by the value-for-money services criteria.

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Mr. Bacon: Is the Minister really saying that the compelling point is that services could be as good as they are at present? What is compelling about having two directors of children's services rather than one? What is compelling about having two directors of planning and transportation rather than one? What is compelling about having two heads of adult social services rather than one? How is that the potent economic reason that is the supposed rationale for this mess?

Ms Winterton: If the Total Place approach were adopted-

Chloe Smith (Norwich, North) (Con): Will the Minister explain what "Total Place" means? I, for one, am in the dark about this bit of jargon and its application to this debate.

Ms Winterton: Oh dear, how very disappointing. Total Place is about looking about the amount of public money that goes into an area and how efficiencies could be achieved by looking at it in the round. Local government could work with health authorities or the police authority. Her party's Front Benchers are fairly supportive of it as an approach to considering efficiencies.

When the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) came to see me, he pleaded for us to reject a unitary approach for the whole of Norfolk. He objects to Norwich having unitary status, but following his logic he should support unitary status for the whole of Norfolk. Presumably, in his argument, that would avoid any duplication, but that is not what he and his hon. Friends said when they came to see me.

Mr. Bacon: The point is that it is possible to achieve the benefits without the costs, the risks and the extra bureaucracy.

Ms Winterton: That is the judgment made by the hon. Gentleman, but we have made our judgment based on our assessment of the criteria and the circumstances that we have taken into account. We have seen that there are compelling reasons for allowing Norwich and Exeter to have unitary status.

Robert Neill: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining how Total Place came into her reasoning, and she is right to say that we support that approach. But against that background, why did the House of Lords Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments observe, after receiving the same explanation from the Department that she has just given to us:

Ms Winterton: We believe that the Total Place approach in this case will combine leadership within the authority with the savings that can be made. The benefits of a unitary Norwich for the local economy were judged to outweigh the risks of affordability.

Mr. Charles Clarke: Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, in the city of Norwich at the moment, public workers work either for the county or for the city, so
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there are two separate human resources functions, two separate finance functions and two separate PR functions? People in planning are working entirely in parallel, and social services and social care overlap in a wide variety of ways. Despite the merit of her letter and the advantages in joint working, the reality is that such joint working is not happening today, which is why unitary status would achieve savings.

Ms Winterton: My right hon. Friend makes an important point. That is exactly the approach that we need to take to this issue. Similarly, in relation to Exeter, I believe that our decision is right, not least because I judge the risks there on affordability are outweighed by the benefits for the local authority.

Norman Lamb: In the Minister's explanation of what is meant by Total Place, she talked about local government working alongside the health service. Three years ago, when the primary care trusts in Norfolk were merged to create one primary care trust for the county, the Government lauded the fact that we now had virtually the same boundaries for health and social care. Now that will be destroyed. Where is the logic in that?

Ms Winterton: We considered all the reasons why the criteria, in nearly all the cases, were met, but we also looked at affordability, and we believe that there are good examples-this was the point of my letter today-of how we can have joint working in those circumstances. As I have said, we believe that there are compelling reasons for our decision to depart slightly from one of the criteria, and that is the best outcome.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): The right hon. Lady is coming to the compelling reasons for departing from the criteria in relation to Exeter. What evidence has she received demonstrating why Exeter, as a unitary authority, is likely to be better than Exeter as part of a Devon county council at attracting inward investment and economic regeneration?

Ms Winterton: When the hon. Gentleman's colleagues from Exeter city council came to see me, they presented a good case for why Exeter needs some of the economic advantages of having unitary status in order to take some of the necessary strategic decisions. He might like to consult his Conservative colleagues on Exeter city council about why they backed that.

Robert Neill: Which ones?

Ms Winterton: The hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) can decide which ones he would like to consult. I am sure that he is perfectly capable of making that decision.

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