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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. We had a similar debate relating to the Cleveland order. Members on this Bench were particularly unhappy about the way in which that was handled by the Government. We stated that, were it not for the convention, we should be minded to vote with the rebels, so to speak. We asked the Government what they regarded as the status of that convention and we were assured by either the Deputy Leader or the Leader of the House that it was a convention which operated between the two Front Benches. I know that that is not the view of the minority third party in this House. Nonetheless, the Benches opposite affirmed that that was the practice that they would expect to continue between both Front Benches of this House.
Lord Shepherd: My Lords, despite the convention, it is a fact that noble Lords opposite voted against the Rhodesia order in 1965. There was then no question that noble Lords opposite were contravening the agreement within this House as regards orders.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, not for the first time am I indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who is a former distinguished Leader of the House. I noticed that during his main speech tonight he chose his words carefully.
The noble Baroness is right. Indeed, a short time ago the House was assured by the noble Earl that there is a convention. We on these Benches do not believe that there is such a convention. We believe that there is a proposition which is for the convenience of the Official Opposition, who do not wish to get too much into the habit of voting down provisions with which they disagree because when they come into government they may face the kind of problems which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, faced over the Rhodesia order. But that is a different matter.
I may be mistaken. I see the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has referred to the Companion. If the noble Earl can assure me that in the Companion there is a convention which has been approved by the Procedure Committee of this House, I shall fully recognise that fact. However, we are ready to contest the matter and I believe that unless the noble Earl can show a willingness to delay these provisions, the opinion of the House should be tested.
Lord Bancroft: My Lords, I intervene briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. Since 1979 there have been more than 200 Acts of Parliament affecting local government. We must all accept evolution and change but not at this frenzied pace. My approach to the Kent order is to test it on four simple grounds. First, is it needed? Secondly, is it wanted? Thirdly, will it make efficient that which is not efficient? Fourthly, will it save resources or at any rate make better use of them? With the greatest respect to the noble Earl, it fails on every test.
Echoing an earlier debate, for the Government, as they have, to lay claim to the virtues of consistency in local government reform is the most hilarious and outrageous claim since Arthur Askey claimed to be Charlie's aunt. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that we have not a shotgun marriage but a Kalashnikov union.
Finally, I advise all concerned to look witheringly at the estimates of extra costs. At the time of the Cleveland reorganisation I was advised by the local officers that the extra costs would be about three times those estimated by the Local Government Commission and by my old home in Marsham Street. And so it has very nearly proved to be the case. I warmly support the noble Lord's Motion.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, not for the first time I have the greatest pleasure in applauding every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. I am sure that your Lordships will be overjoyed to hear that I shall endeavour exceptionally to follow his notable example in brevity, which is most welcome tonight.
I support and agree with the proposal made by my noble friend Lord Aldington. There is no need for me to repeat in detail the arguments which he put with such skill and force. I am bound to say that, although I listened with interest to everything that my noble friend Lord Ferrers said from the Front Bench, I saw no trace of an open mind, or perhaps I should say in fairness, no trace of an open mind on the part of those for whom he speaks tonight.
I wish to make two comments. First, when the Local Government Commission was appointed I was inclined to welcome it. I thought, quite mistakenly, that it was a genuine attempt on the part of the Government to try to find out what the people wanted. Gradually the welcome that I initially felt deteriorated into suspicion. In due course, as the recommendations and performance of the
Perhaps I may say in conclusion that it would be an extraordinary doctrine or convention for us to accept that, although we have the affirmative resolution procedure which requires both Houses of Parliament to approve an order, if another place has agreed an order we must be struck dumb and have no right to express dissent. When I say "dissent" I mean effective dissent in the Division Lobby. I would not find it possible to accept that doctrine for one moment.
If my noble friend Lord Aldington wishes to take his Motion to a Division, I should be happy to support him because it is just one more example of the Local Government Commission and the Government, its ultimate master, overlooking, or not making a sufficient attempt to find out, what the people affected feel about the impact of such proposals. This is a process that I have come increasingly to deplore.
Viscount De L'Isle: My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Aldington for giving us the opportunity to reconsider the Motion for approval on the proposed changes for a unitary authority in Kent.
It gives me no pleasure to find myself at odds with the Government on their decision to press ahead with their plan, despite the original recommendation by Sir John Banham's Local Government Commission that the status quo should remain. Many noble Lords from all parts of the House expressed their disquiet in the debate that took place on 30th March 1994. The Banham Commission's decision had the overwhelming support of the people of Kent. One is somewhat reminded of the little boy who asked for his ball back when he had kicked it away. If we are bandying about acronyms, I am sure that NODAM--no development after mine--might be said about my noble friend the Minister in another place.
Opinion polls show little support by the residents of Gillingham, Rochester and Chatham for the new authority which is the subject of this order. Support in Gillingham remains steady at 31 per cent., while the opposition has increased from 43 per cent. to 61 per cent. In Rochester and Chatham support has increased from 29 per cent. to 30 per cent., while opposition has increased from 47 per cent. to 53 per cent. Rochester and Chatham council supported maintaining the status quo. The level of opposition to the formation of a unitary authority has grown, despite the commission's and Gillingham's efforts to canvas support for their plan with the residents of Gillingham and Rochester.
It may be of interest to the House that the commission felt that 29 per cent. approval for a unitary authority in Northampton was considered inadequate to warrant one, while in Kent 30.5 per cent. was considered sufficient to press ahead. The district and county councils have been able to review service provision in recent years to make considerable financial savings within the two-tier system, as we have heard other speakers say, through the integration of service provision and economies of
The commission has had to admit that the cost of service provision will be greater with the split between a unitary and county council rather than the existing two-tier system. As my noble friend Lord Aldington has pointed out, the extra cost to a Band D taxpayer in the new unitary authority is likely to be £190, while the extra cost to a county council taxpayer will be an estimated £23. Conversely, it should be possible to continue making savings through the two-tier system.
The commission has recommended that a county-wide structure plan be put in place. Noble Lords will recall that concerns over the strategic planning were raised on 30th March 1994. If Kent as a whole is to move forward into the next century with strengthening ties to Europe, both in the growing transport links which pass through the county and the proposed unitary authority and the development of the Thames corridor, strategic planning is an essential ingredient of that structure plan. I wish to support my noble friend Lord Aldington.
Lord Cornwallis: My Lords, I, in company with many other Members of your Lordships' House, must be appalled by the Government's decision to implement what my noble friend Lord Shepherd has already adequately described as a shotgun marriage, a marriage which appears to have little contingency for divorce and which, therefore, surely we must seek to abort.
For the Government to make this decision at a time of great change, challenge and commercial pressure, in the face of public opinion, in an area of Kent in which the decision will materially affect both the county and the country, on a very wide basis, must be lunacy. The greatest possible co-ordination and co-operation will be needed in the sensitive and imaginative management of the various high profile, and possibly controversial developments on the horizon in the area.
The Thames Gateway, the Channel Tunnel rail link, the ensuing motorway and other rail communications, and the possibility of a major new cement works in the area, must all require a united front and a unity of purpose to both planning and conservation. Why put all of this at risk now?
The only benefit which would seem to accrue from this exercise is the unification of Chatham Dockyard. Yes, that is a major conservation site which will be put under one authority. The Minister in another place greeted this achievement with such spectacular enthusiasm that I am led to believe that this was the cornerstone of the entire decision: surely, a very large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut, a nut which, in fact, is largely cracked already.
The opinion was, of course, partially ascertained by polls. Polls these days are highly sophisticated accurate assessments with very small margins of variation. They are welcome, particularly if they say what you want to hear. Strangely, if the opposite is the case they become notoriously unreliable and volatile, whatever the result or interpretation.
Of course the Government can say that they have consulted. But have they genuinely consulted? Are they aware of the real fears in Gillingham, that they may be about to be submerged by the will of Rochester, a fear increased by the proposed distribution of seats on the new council: 42 to Rochester and 29 to Gillingham. It is not just Gillingham, of which so much has been made, which finds Rochester City Council difficult to get on with. The city council is a by-word for insensitivity and lack of consultation, and is widely considered the most difficult local authority in the county.
Such is the fear that people in parts of Gillingham are already trying to negotiate their own town councils in order to have some say in their own local affairs. They are only too well aware of how little say is allowed to any one in the outlying areas of Rochester. Can the Government really force this through in the face of so much genuine concern? Do they dismiss that concern as mere opposition to change? I assure your Lordships that it is genuine and deep-rooted. Or do the Government not care anyway?
I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that that decision was made long before the Local Government Commission reported. The first report was sent back solely to activate this particular decision. In some places I have heard it suggested that the Minister, rejoicing in the happy days of his youth spent in the area, was anxious on behalf of the Government to reward the citizens of Rochester and Gillingham with a very expensive present. That is something in which we all delight to indulge from time to time, but generally it is the donor who pays for the present and not the recipient. In this case, not only the recipient but the whole county will pay harshly for this decision. If the experience of Cleveland is anything by which to go, the costs will have been underestimated three times over.
Doubtless, those citizens who have had 3 per cent. pay rises and 25p on their pensions may find those costs rather excessive, while those who have been more successful in their recent financial arrangements will be able to manage. The difficulties and deficiencies, both financial and administrative, which both the authority and the county will face, have been well rehearsed by previous speakers.
However, if this order goes through, there is a further proposal about which the House may not be aware. It is a proposal by the Boundary Commission to incorporate the parishes of Newington and Boxley into the new authority. Newington is at present in the district of Swale and Boxley in the district of Maidstone, which is some five miles distant from its centre and an area I know well.
Boxley Valley is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. It is also the only open space between Maidstone and the Medway towns. It is already threatened with rape by the Channel Tunnel rail link. Plans of 200 years ago compared with aerial photographs of today show clearly that the farming and field pattern in the valley is virtually unchanged over that period. It is a unique piece of unspoilt countryside, the preservation of which is being strongly contested with Union Rail. To hand that over to Rochester would be disastrous. Maidstone can expand to the south. Rochester cannot expand to the north. It would place that wonderful area under even greater threat.
I had always thought that the bedrock of support for the Conservative Party was in the rural areas of England. The fact seems to be that over the past 20 years, the party has done everything in its power to urbanise and suburbanise the countryside. There are a diminishing number of places where the rural voice has any chance of being heard or understood. Local government is almost entirely town-controlled. It is now to the shire counties to which we must look for sane and sensible management of the countryside, and this order will achieve the opposite.
It seems strange to me, as someone who has welcomed at all times the interventions of the noble Earl, that he should spend 17 minutes telling us that the Government are not going to change their mind; they are not listening; and so what are we doing here? I should have thought also that someone would have told him that "Gillingham" is in Dorset, yet "Jillingham" is in Kent.
Lord Pender: My Lords, I wish to support the Motion moved so cogently by my noble friend Lord Aldington. I have a declarable interest, in that my wife is a Kent County Councillor of some 15 years standing. I shall pass on the glowing words of praise of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, regarding Kent County Council.
The plain fact is that nearly 70 per cent. of Kent residents do not want change; and there is no case for it. The unique challenges and opportunities faced by Kent, as a peninsular county and the main axis between the UK and Europe, emphasise the need for a coherent and consistent structure of local government. The existing structure has the capacity to secure a strategic overview that the county as a whole requires while reflecting its different communities. That has been acknowledged by the commission.
The final recommendations do not meet that requirement. There will be no ongoing savings from the setting up of the new unitary council in Kent. My noble friend Lord Aldington dealt with the costs to taxpayers but the figures are worth repeating. There will be costs to all Kent taxpayers--£190 per Band D council tax payer in Medway towns and an extra £23 per Band D tax payer in the rest of the county. The Local Government Commission's own estimate of the additional cost for changing Kent is between £3.2 and
In a nutshell, the proposals put to us mean higher rates and a lower level of service for Kent taxpayers. The facts and wishes of the people of Kent beg retention of the existing structure--the status quo.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I believe that I am the only participant in this debate who is a native of north Kent. I was Recorder of Rochester for five years in the 1960s and, when the Second World War started, I was with our territorial unit doing our annual training on Bluebell Hill, which is just within the boundary of what was Chatham and which has a wonderful view over the Medway Valley. When war broke out we moved our regimental headquarters to Gillingham. Therefore, I know that area very intimately.
But I must tell your Lordships that I came here, as I told my noble friend Lord Ferrers, with an open mind. My mind has been influenced a great deal by this debate. It always seemed to me when I was Recorder of Rochester that Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham were a large coterminous urban area where the people had much in common. In fact, sometimes when one wandered through that area, one did not know which of those three towns one was in.
Therefore, it seemed to me for many years that it should form some kind of united urban council. The question in modern terms is whether it should be a district council or a unitary authority. Before I go any further, perhaps I may say how much I appreciated what the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, said about the Medway Valley. He spoke about the possible danger involved if it, or much of the part south of that urban area, were incorporated in the unitary authority; namely, that there would be a very great temptation to develop it towards the south. That would be an environmental tragedy.
As Kent is--thank goodness--to remain a county broadly as we know it and not be split into a number of unitary authorities, my strong inclination is towards that group of towns, so to speak, being a district council within Kent. The people of that district would then have the advantage of the excellent work of the Kent Education Authority, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. Of course, from the point of view of ratepayers, we simply must consider their financial position.
My noble friend Lord Aldington mentioned--and this cannot be contested because, as I understand it, it is stated in the report--that, if the unitary authority proposed were to come into being, each household would have to pay £190 a year. It would not stop there because, as time went on, the improvement of services might lead to an increase. I understand that that £190 is simply a result of transition; indeed, mere transition.
In my opinion, my noble friend Lord Ferrers had an exceedingly difficult task to perform tonight. All of us on both sides of the House admire his conduct in the many situations in which he has had to advise the House. However, I do not believe that he ever had such a difficult task as the one he had tonight. Of course, he did not mention the question of £190 per household. If he is able to do so in his reply, I am sure that it will be much appreciated.
My noble friend the Minister mentioned that Kent is a big area with a big population. That is very true; so it is. Indeed, as a native of Kent, I have been very sorry to see so much development taking place there. It used to be called the "Garden of England" but it is rapidly becoming a suburban area, as well as having such large towns. We need to be very careful about that aspect.
If Kent is too big an area with too big a population, making this one unitary authority will not help. If anything were to be done along the lines of reducing its size and the responsibilities involved--and I speak as one whose father was on the Kent County Council for many years--the obvious thing would be to divide it into two counties, east and west of the Medway. We would then have Men of Kent and Kentish Men who would be able to understand each other at last! However, I do not think that that is a necessary solution.
I shall not detain your Lordships very much longer because, quite frankly, I have already said the things that need saying. However, I have one comment to make in conclusion. It is a good Conservative principle that I hope all of us on this side of the House will observe; and, indeed, perhaps noble Lords opposite may occasionally do so. I say this: if change is not necessary, it is necessary not to change.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to speak in the gap. I can speak in support of this Motion. I can declare my interest as I am a member of a county council; namely, Lancashire County Council. Both today and tomorrow there will be debates to varying degrees in your Lordships' House, depending on the extent of representation that there is from different counties, about the proposals that are coming before us.
The history of these proposals leads me to the conclusion that this has been a shoddy, ill-thought-out exercise. It did not begin with finance, functions or democratic accountability; it began when the Bill was first put before Parliament to set up the commission with my honourable friends in another place seeking to require a unitary local authority solution to be brought from the commission. That was refused by the Government. Secretaries of State came and went.
Sir John Banham was asked to chair that commission--a man who has been criticised for doing what he was asked to do by the then Secretary of State; namely, listen to the views of the people at the time. Indeed, the Secretary of State's words were that the views of the people "shall be paramount". Sir John produced reports which the Government did not like, with some exceptions, and they were sent back to a
Local government is too important to be dealt with in such a way. Democratic accountability is also too important. I speak as one who totally supports a policy of unitary local government with a democratically elected and accountable tier of regional government between Whitehall and people in the English regions and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland--such a system as was proposed by the Government for Northern Ireland but which, allegedly, is seen by the Government as something that would break up the United Kingdom if it were implemented in England, Scotland and Wales.
I shall not speak and then vote in favour of the Motion. The reason why I shall not vote is that I believe in the conventions of this House. I believe that it is the right amendment that is being put before your Lordships in the wrong Chamber. I believe that the opportunity to do this should have been taken in another place and voted on in another place and that the nonsense of what is happening with this local government reorganisation should have been stopped there.
I think it is a tragedy. I cannot possibly vote in favour of the Government's position. I will abstain and I will not speak on every order before your Lordships' House but obviously I shall speak tomorrow at greater length on the subject of the order affecting Lancashire, of whose county council I am a member.
Earl Attlee: My Lords, I support the views of the noble Baroness on the convention. There has been some debate on the subject of the convention, that we do not vote on the statutory instrument. In the absence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, I thought I should make a brief contribution. I suggest that we know very well that we have a convention on the secondary legislation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, from time to time successfully invites the House to reaffirm his unfettered ability to reject secondary legislation. But I would suggest that that power should only be used if the secondary legislation is ultra vires or otherwise defective and not because it is unattractive. I would therefore always vote in support of approval of secondary legislation unless it appears to be ultra vires. This would even be the case if I spoke against the secondary legislation in the debate. If any noble Lord--unwisely in my opinion--forces a Division, I should have to support the Government.
Lord Taylor of Blackburn: My Lords, I too wish to speak in the gap. I was not going to intervene but I feel it would be right and proper for me to do so because I too intend speaking tomorrow on the Lancashire debate. I intend to support the Government, but that matter will be dealt with tomorrow.
Tonight, I think that we need to look at each one of these cases on their merit. I too shall not vote. I shall abstain from voting on this because, again, I believe in the traditions of the House and I accept that the House's traditions on this one are the conventions of the House, whether that suits any particular party or not. It is interesting to see how many people have been lobbied to get here tonight, one way or another. I have not lobbied anyone for tomorrow, and I give you notice about that. I shall speak as I feel tomorrow but, my word, it is interesting to see what can be done tonight and I welcome so many people being here so late in the evening on certain Benches.
But, looking at these orders in their merits, if I had been voting, I should have supported the Motion because I think it is quite right in many ways. I know the area very well. The views of the local people are definitely against this. Even though one has three towns together--and I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in some ways that there is a likeness--they are different. They are three villages in many ways--yes, three villages, because they have different ideas, different teams, and, of course, if you watch their football, you will find that that is different too. They do not all support Gillingham either.
One has this difference and, therefore, when we are looking at the orders as they come before the House, I think we shall have to look at them on their merits. And in this case I think that it is quite right for your Lordships to think again and go back and look at the matter again. But I shall not vote for the Motion because of the convention.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a unitary authority--a London authority. I have, sadly, little knowledge of the great county of Kent. It seems to me that the only matter to welcome this evening is an end to uncertainty after reorganisation having been in prospect for six years. Reorganisation in prospect I say, but, of course, there was a period when it seemed that there would be no change. The most important objection--to me the overwhelming objection--is public opinion which, in itself, is overwhelming.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, that we should not dismiss opinion research. The comment has been made that its beauty is rather in the eye of the beholder. I take that point, but good opinion research--and I believe that what has been undertaken in connection with the reviews has been good opinion research--is not a matter of putting an advertisement in the local paper and seeing what responses flow in. It does test opinion properly. That, I believe, is the approach of MORI. We seem to be talking tonight as if MORI research was the only sort of research, MORI the only polling organisation. My noble friend Lord Tope has commented that it seemed to be used in the way that Hoover and Thermos are used. MORI is not the only polling organisation, but it is a reputable one. I do not believe that it would want its findings to be dismissed
Like the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, I, too, had high hopes of this process in its early days. I thought that the commission would undertake to seek opinion and then implement that opinion. It certainly tried to. It stated in its 1995 report:
The Minister's explanation as regards the second round seems to me to be an admission that either the original guidance to the commission was wrong, or that the outcome was not what the Government wanted. The honourable Member for Holborn and St. Pancras--as my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth said--referred to the unholy partnership when he spoke in another place. He referred to an unholy partnership to put things right. That gives a clue to what underlies the proposal. Your Lordships have heard from the Government that Rochester and Gillingham are different from the rest of Kent. They are urban areas, not rural. I began to wonder whether this was a suggestion that the earlier transfer from Kent of largely rural Bromley into Greater London had been misconceived, but I shall not go down that path.
The Thames Gateway, to which reference has been made, does not in my view require a unitary authority. The Thames Gateway is essentially a partnership--an agglomeration almost--of a large number of authorities. It would not be possible to create one authority to cover the whole of the Thames Gateway. Because of that the logic fails in suggesting that a unitary authority, as proposed tonight, is required for the success of the Gateway project. Certainly the Local Government Commission did not regard it as necessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, has referred to the additional and continuing costs that will arise as a result of the proposal. The county has done well in keeping cuts to a minimum and in reducing its budget. That, I believe, is the result of good management and economies of scale. The economies of scale will certainly be jeopardised, if not lost. The county will lose SSA out of proportion to its continuing responsibilities. The increase in tax which is projected has been drawn to your Lordships' attention. I agree with the comment that if economies are to be found, they should be found in any event. They are quite a separate matter from structure. All of us involved in local government should continually look for economies.
There came into my mind a comment that I heard yesterday on one of the Sunday television programmes where newspapers are reviewed. The commentator had seen a headline which referred to the need to find
The electoral arrangements have been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Cornwallis. I ask the Minister to explain how the re-warding--I emphasise that word--will affect the 1997 election. I have heard there are local objections to moving from a system of elections every three years to elections only every four.
Finally, I refer to structure plans. The Minister dismissed the difficulties in his comments on this matter. However, his department has recognised that there is a gap in the legislation. Having admitted there is a gap, sadly it has not taken the opportunity to cure it. In a two-tier authority, as Kent will be if this order is agreed tonight, there is no mechanism for "knocking heads together" if voluntary joint working is not achieved. In an area with the peninsular features that have been described, one where I imagine there is considerable regional significance in the waste and minerals, and in the Medway Valley (this was not a matter that I had appreciated before this evening), noble Lords have very vividly shown what scope for argument there will be between the successor authorities. I repeat my point that under their arrangements the Government have failed to provide the mechanisms for proper structure planning.
Whatever the convention or convenience, my honourable friends in another place required a vote. They voted--and they alone--against what I had regarded before this evening as a shotgun divorce rather than a shotgun marriage, although I see it has aspects of both. I am delighted to have heard the robust speeches from around the Chamber. They were not, I think, the result of lobbying. I have nothing against lobbying; we are here to be lobbied. But I believe they were a result of the interest that noble Lords have in the subject. If the matter is tested, we shall follow the noble Lord into the Lobby.
Let me make the position of the Labour Party quite clear. The Labour Party regards much of the 1974 reorganisation of local government as misguided and misconceived. Since the late 1970s, the Labour Party has sought to reorganise local government and in broad terms has favoured unitary authorities. That is Labour Party policy which has gone through several conferences. We believe it makes local government more streamlined, more accountable, more democratic and more transparent. All the evidence shows that under a two-tier structure people do not know who does what, to what level of service, to what specification, at what cost and under whose authority. Two-tier structures stand in the way of clear and accountable local government.
Unitary authorities allow for local communities to have their own voice, to be accountable and not to find themselves subsumed in the interests of a larger and wider authority. Such a view is especially important where the county includes several distinctive communities. One of the MPs representing Gillingham and Rochester said that Kent was divided into north Kent, east Kent and what he called "posh Kent".
Like my noble friend Lady Farrington, I support unitary authorities within a democratically elected regional tier of government. I am sure that she is entirely right. However, I am struck that in the other House the two local MPs, with, I presume, the greatest knowledge and the greatest degree of responsibility for the views of their constituents, both supported the order--Mr. James Couchman and Dame Peggy Fenner--not merely by voting but by speaking. I take the views of the Members of Parliament elected to represent those areas very seriously indeed, whatever their party.
The second general point I wish to make is that, as I understand it, for 30 years since the Rhodesia statutory instrument order, which I believe was passed around 1965, this House has respected the convention that we do not vote against statutory instruments; nor do we support any fatal Motions or amendments to them. Let us be very clear. To do so would be for this House, an unelected Chamber, not merely to ask another place to think again. I have no problems with that at all. I should be delighted for us to amend Bills, with this House asking the Commons to think again.
We know that, if the other place, having thought again, overturns what this House has supported, then ultimately--if necessary, with the authority of the Parliament Act behind it should we decide to push it further again--it has the definitive and last word. The elected House has the hegemony in Parliament.
However, if this House votes against and overturns a statutory instrument, the House of Commons cannot vote again. It is unable to think again. That instrument is dead. If Parliament so wills, the whole business has to start all over again.
On many occasions I have found myself entirely in support of every word of Motions or fatal amendments on social security matters moved from the Liberal Front Bench. Though I agreed with every word in that Motion or fatal amendment and agreed with every word spoken very eloquently to it by movers from the Liberal Front Bench, and indeed supported it word for word, we have abstained with respect for that convention. We do not believe it right for an unelected House not merely to ask the other place to think again but to overturn the will of the Commons.
In our two-day debate on the constitution, in which every speaker in the debate in your Lordships' House mentioned the pleasure, the joy, the status and the prestige of this House, that was essentially because we accepted our, so to speak, inferior status in the sense that the elected House has hegemony. We spent two days debating those matters and one week later we appear to be suggesting that we ignore that debate and again threaten to challenge the democratic will of the elected House, including the local Members of
However, having said that, I do not believe that the local government review has been well handled. The first commission was whimsical and opinionated. The second under Sir David Cooksey was very much more professional. But even so, some of its theories--for example, the difference between periphery and centrality--were deeply implausible to all but paper geographers. This commission has been bedevilled by legal challenges from county councils (which they have every right to make). They were able to make a challenge to the Government because the Government's own legal framework was fallible. That, in turn, if I may say so, was because the Government on a previous occasion resisted amendments from my noble friend Lord McIntosh and me in this House and my honourable friend Mr. Blunkett in another place to make the guidelines legally watertight. The Government rejected our amendment to do so and as a result faced legal challenges. Had the Government accepted those amendments, the commission would not have been derailed and it would not have cost local government a year and much uncertainty.
Nor have the Government been as helpful as they should have been in terms of the situation in respect of staff. They have been nowhere near as helpful as in 1985 when we got rid of the metropolitan counties at that stage. In saying that we shall not oppose the Government, that we shall oppose the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, and that the official Labour Party will support the Government on this Motion, we do not in any sense believe that the Government have handled this matter wisely or well.
I turn now to Kent itself. I believe that the Kent reorganisation, like the Berkshire reorganisation that we shall discuss tomorrow, has been especially confusing, in part because the recommendations of the local government commission have changed. The original proposals of the commission were for two pairs of unitary authorities within the county of Kent: Dartford with Gravesham, on the one hand, and Rochester with Gillingham, on the other. In consequence, the MORI polls about which we heard tonight on whether unitary status was desirable have become hopelessly entangled with another issue; namely, whether the merger of two adjacent and sometimes competitive district councils was desirable or popular. In the event and in the face of bitter resistance from Gravesham, the Local Government Commission did not proceed with the Dartford-Gravesham merger into a unitary authority--something that Dartford and Gravesham will come to regret when they see themselves outbatted in economic development by an adjacent large unitary of Rochester with Gillingham.
In relation to Rochester and Gillingham, the LGC proceeded and the other place supported. First, it supported on the issue of size; that is, that the new unitary authority will be almost 250,000 people. No one in your Lordship's House can say that an authority of 250,000 people is not competent to organise and manage its own affairs.
Secondly, the Local Government Commission said that the area was to the periphery rather than to the centre of Kent and therefore could come out of Kent without in any sense damaging the integrity of Kent County Council. I believe that it was right on that. The Local Government Commission was influenced by the separate economic and geographic identity of the Medway towns, with a green belt to the west, open countryside to the east, the rivers of the Thames and so forth to the north and the North Downs to the south.
The Local Government commission also stated, and the other place agreed, that the new unitary authority shared a common economic framework--one, I am sorry to say, of decline to a degree; that is, of a falling population, the closure of the naval dockyard, the loss of the BP oil refinery and high unemployment. But what the other place believed, and I share that view, is that the three key issues facing local government, not just of the 1980s and 1990s but of the year 2000 and beyond, are care in the community, economic regeneration and the development of physical infrastructure.
In all three key issues facing local government the electors of those authorities will find that they have a more effective and accountable service if the responsibilities are not splintered between two tiers of local government. I refer to care in the community being splintered between district housing and council social services; economic regeneration splintered between district planning and a county education and training service; and physical infrastructure splintered between local planning and a county highways authority.
The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, raised the question not just of economic efficiency but also of cost. I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that the ongoing cost will represent around 0.5 per cent. of the expenditure involved. That is not an insubstantial sum but in comparison with the total cost it is not a high one either.
There has been wide public consultation and I worry that the proposals do not have majority support. I believe that that may be because the MORI polls inevitably tapped an issue of anxiety about merger as much as they did about unitary status. That confusion was certainly compounded by what the Local Government Commission described as the "particularly voluminous campaigning activity" by Kent County Council. My experience has been that where the authority had been a previous county bearer and had experience of unitary status, the population for the most part has been in favour of returning to that status. Where an authority has grown over the past 30 or 40 years and has not had that experience or assurance of unitary responsibility and county bearer status, those populations are somewhat fearful of change, particularly where the county council--perfectly properly--was aggressive in its campaigning.
But I am also not persuaded by the argument on the structure plan. Certainly, I believe that what the Local Government Commission and the Minister have said is correct--that they are recommending voluntary joint structure planning. Again, in my experience those joint arrangements which have been entered into voluntarily are very much more effective than statutory ones, which may be a shotgun arrangement. We are assured by the Minister that the department has fallback reserve powers, as he described tonight.
I believe that at the end of the day this new arrangement for Gillingham and Rochester will be welcomed. I accept that it is not yet welcome. I hope that the Local Government Commission and the other place will have been shown to be right. I believe that it will offer the residents of those two towns of the Medway authority clear, coherent and transparent local government. It will give them the competence and the capacity to tackle the problems that they will undoubtedly face over the next quarter of a century. I wish them well, as I am sure do other Members of your Lordships' House.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I am deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton who said that I was having a difficult time tonight. He is perfectly right. I do not like having a difficult time. I like being surrounded by my friends and sometimes it is a little difficult to tell where they are. Sometimes one looks across the Dispatch Box and finds one or two over there. Change is always difficult and everyone knows that. Everyone hates it and they would rather have what they have got used to. That is a perfectly natural phenomenon.
I believe that almost everyone who has taken part in this debate is involved with Kent. Obviously, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Hollis of Heigham, are not. All speakers have put their cases very plausibly, clearly and very well and not offensively. It has been a good-tempered debate.
My noble friend Lord Peyton was worried. He queried the fact that this measure has been passed in another place. He said that if another place had spoken, then we must be struck dumb. All I can say is, heaven help us when my noble friend finds his tongue! He said that I did not have an open mind. I thought that that was a bit hard. I could have said the same thing to him and almost to every other noble Lord who took part in the debate. Noble Lords had their points of view to put across and I put mine over.
The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, said that we were going at this at a frenzied pace. He said that it was a Kalashnikov union and not a shotgun union that was being used. That compared with the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, who said that the decision was taken long before the commission was set up. You can have one or the other but you cannot have both. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, was using slight exaggeration. He said that this matter was being conducted at a frenzied pace. It has taken three years since the start of the review. The first order was introduced in 1994; it is six months since the commission produced recommendations, which we are implementing; and it is going to be almost two years before the changes take place. So it must be a funny old Kalashnikov that the noble Lord uses.
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