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Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Blatch and my noble friend Lord Caithness, but with a further dimension. It was always said in terms of unspoken contracts in particular areas of employment that, until the 1970s, if you were a banker, because you were absolutely confident you would keep your job until you retired, you were prepared to settle for a more modest salary than might have been the case in more risky employment. It sounds as though the proposition before us, to which my noble friends have spoken, carries a different consequence. I am not arguing that local government officers are better paid or less well paid than anyone else, but the one certain thing, as sure as God made little apples, is that if a high degree of uncertainty is introduced into their career pattern, it is likely that, in order for people to work in those jobs, the salaries demanded will rise.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. There is no question that five years is much too short a time. What concerns me is that governments, whether of this country or of Denmark or the Republic of Ireland, for example, never want to take no for an answer. If the people vote "No" and the government want them to vote "Yes", the government say, "We'll keep on having referendums until you do as we want". That is the problem with this provision in the Bill.
There is no provision for people, once they have said "Yes", to go back and say "No". There is provision only for people to say "Yes". Five years is far too short a period between referendums to enable people to understand what is happening. I also believe that people sometimes vote for things on the basis of what they are told, and on propaganda, which may not always be true. They trust other people, particularly governmentsthey tend to trust governments. When governments say, "Regional government is good for you", they tend to agree and vote "Yes". But when they have the experience and see how the regional authority is working and that more money is being taken from them, that the salaries of the new regional representatives are higher than they believed they would be and that there has been absolutely no benefit and perhaps much deficit from the new regional
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, in my experience, the greatest stress for staff in local government in the past several years has come not so much from uncertainty about structural change, except for the executive scrutiny splitit has always concerned me that that has a knock-on effect on how officers feel about their powersbut principally from the loss of powers to local government over many years. Changes occur all the time.
I share the concerns expressed about the effect on staff. However, I do not suppose that the Government would want the grief of going for a second order if they believe that they will lose again. I am sure that the Minister could address that point more forcefully and clearly than I have done. Things may happen during a short period of time. One region may see that there are benefits in a nearby region. One has to bear that in mind. Also, if the possible boundary changes that we have discussed come on offer, that could make a considerable difference to how voters in a region regard the proposition.
I hope that the Minister can respond on those issues. The points that noble Lords have raised are genuine enough, although when we started today's debate I made the point that we approach questions from a different perspective from that of our colleagues on the Conservative Benches.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I want to address the employment aspect of the amendment. The loss of powers to local government, while significant, is a perennial worry that concerns everyone, whether a member or an officer, in local government. Whatever the realities of the situation, the fact is that local government's independence and authority have been constantly eroded for a very long time. That is a matter of immense regret. If one could see a reversal of that trend it would be a very good thing. We are dealing here with the possibility of change. If the change does not happen, let us say next year, the process can be revived again within five years.
My experience goes back to 1967 when a Royal Commission on the structure of local government was established. From that moment on, a dedicated team of the best intellectual brains in the local authority with which I was concernedEssex County Councilworked to provide evidence to the Royal Commission to maintain the status quo. The process took 18 months or two years. The Royal Commission then produced its report, the consequences of which were recommendations for drastically radical change. My noble friend Lord Brooke may well remember that period. The proposals for change in 1972 were implemented in 1973. The whole process took five
We are now proposing to introduce a state of permanent foment unless the electorate succumb at the first bite. It will not be good for the provision of services to the public if the best intellectual strengths of any local authority are not certain of what they are doing. Instead of devoting their efforts to improving the services that they are properly required to provide to the people of the area they serve, they will be looking over their shoulder and either trying to defend their position or to see how they can improve their position in the event of change. It does not matter which way round it is, this uncertainty will detract from the provision of services to the public that the authorities are established to provide. That is a significant aspect of the Bill.
With a five year rotation, as the Bill presently proposes, people will suffer most in those swathes of the countrythe shire areaswhere there are county and district councils. Their services will not improve in the way that they would improve if that distraction were not there. I cannot support the five-year proposal. A ten-year proposal is better, but I would prefer an even longer interval.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, my noble friend behind me has reminded me of another sequence of dates where uncertainty existed. We do not want to create uncertaintyI am sure that we will not do sobut I am reminded of what happened to the metropolitan counties. There were elections in 1972; they were introduced in shadow form in 1973 and came into force in 1974. The Tories then fought a general election in 1979 on a plan to abolish them. I cannot remember the exact date in the mid 1980s when they finally went, but there was a considerable degree of uncertainty after the 1979 election because the plan took some years to carry through.
That does not mean to say that two blacks make a white. We are not going to go down that road. We must be absolutely clear what we are talking about. The amendment refers to a region where there has been a "No" vote. We are not talking about regions which will not go ahead with an assembly, let us say, after the first soundings. I do not know what the gaps will be but, obviously, if the first soundings produce a referendum or two and one of them is successful, a Bill will be brought in anyway. An assembly will not be up and running immediately. Other regions will not be able to see how it is working until it is up and running. We have said that we would not be able to deal with too many referendums at the same time.
We are talking here about a situation where soundings have been taken, a judgment has been reached that a degree of interest was shown in a referendum on local government but there was a no vote. Such a situation would be traumatic. I can envisage the headlines in the next day's papers now.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, six speakers have addressed the matter. There were references to the other regions. I want to make clear that I am responding to the amendment to which the noble Baroness spoke.
I understand that exactly the same amendment has been dealt with in another place. I do not have any new arguments. However, we do not want uncertainty to arise. We would not wish to incur the excessive costs involved in holding many referendums, particularly in areas where there had previously been a no vote. Views may change over time as areas that voted "No" see what is happening in areas that voted "Yes". However, I do not know whether that will be the case.
Under the Bill once the five-year period has elapsed, a second referendum can take place where soundings have again been taken to test the level of interest in a subsequent referendum. The five-year period is a minimum period; it is not a requirement. The noble Baroness referred to a period of five years exactly to the day of the previous referendum. That is inconceivable.
A noble LordI forget who is was as I did not write down his namementioned uncertainty after a period of two to three years. A second referendum cannot take place within a five-year period where there has been a no vote. We are committed to taking soundings. For a second referendum to take place, the soundings would have to be more decisive than the soundings that triggered the first referendum.
Speaking from memory, I believe that the soundings started in December and continued until March, although they are still open while the Bill is proceeding through Parliament. It would be wholly unreasonable to start taking soundings after two or three years as a second referendum could not take place within the five-year period. One would need to be at the four and a half years point at a minimumthat is allowing six months for soundingsbefore one could hold a referendum bang at the end of the five-year period, or thereabouts. That might be held to be unreasonable in some circumstances. Nevertheless, it might happen. However, the soundings are the key to the matter. As I say, to trigger a second referendum they would have to be more decisive than the initial soundings. It would be terrible to get a yes vote according to soundings and another "No" vote in a subsequent referendum.
Let us say that one allows six months for soundings. In a period of four and a half years after the first referendum took place there cannot be any conceivable worries and doubts other than those that exist anyway as in that period there could be a change
During that four and a half year period there could be a change of government. A new government with different policies could take office. What is the difference between the doubt and uncertainty that people experience in that period and that which they experience anyway? That doubt is always there with regard to an organisation that is run by people who hold elective office. That is inevitable.
The idea that further soundings on a subsequent referendum could start after two to three years is nonsense. Pol Pot talked of constant revolution. We are not proposing revolution for a start and we are not proposing constant change. Therefore, if the soundings took six months as opposed to three months, nothing could happen for four and a half years. As I say, in four and a half years there could be a change of government with all the doubt, upset and worry or joy that that can bring, depending on whether one is on the winning side.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord makes light of the matter. Something like three-quarters of what he had to say was, "Oh, it's unlikely that this would happen. If there were a 'No' vote, would anyone come around? Would we go through it again? What pain there would be if we went through all of the work to end up with a 'No' vote". We have made those arguments all the way through our proceedings on the Bill.
It is only a matter of hours ago that the Government and the Liberal Democrats refused to accept a referendum taking place on the basis of evidence suggesting that there was the probability of a "Yes" vote. In other words, it would be responsible of the Secretary of State to take the view that, on the basis of the soundings, there was not just a level of interest, wholly undefinedit could be little or nothingbut a level of interest that suggested that if people went ahead with a referendum there was likely to be a "Yes" vote. The Government have set their face against that, so we are back to not knowing what a degree of interestthe noble Lord used those wordsor a level of interest would be. We are still at odds over that.
The noble Lord will at least admit that activities in that fourth year would have to take place ahead of a referendum. He said that everything was unlikely to take place within five years. If so, what have the Government to worry about? What is the worry about an extension? Perhaps 10 years is simply too long between referendums, so seven years might be better. Four years in the life of a local government is not very long. It is almost a parliament, as the noble Lord said, and governments come and go, which makes things even more uncertain. If he is right that there will not be
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was partly sympathetic to what we said, but said that in her view the greatest worry to local authorities was about their powers. Using previous local government reorganisation examples, probably we should all learn the lesson that the tensions created are about jobs, and not only the top jobs. A very sophisticated network operates for the top jobs, but it is the people in the middle band of workers who have great difficulty.
We know that regional assemblies will be centred on headquarters hundreds of miles from some of the present local authority workmen and women, whether they work for district or county councils and depending on the shape of the reorganisation. We know in purely logistical terms that thousands of people will be affected, whether in the area with 8.5 million people or the area with only 2.5 million. The landmasses in some of the areas are very considerable, and the sheer logistics will make it impossible for people to find similar jobs.
One really has to think of the scale of the problem. As we have said, it is likely that counties are more vulnerable than district councils, although there could be some very large merging operations between district councils. We are talking about very large numbers of people. I will not use the area that I know best specifically, because the noble Lord will say that he does not want to talk about individual areas; I simply use it as an example. If six county councils were to go in eastern England, the job losses would be huge. The upheaval would be huge. The passing-down of the functions of the county council to the districts would be very considerable.
The noble Lord will not be able to answer this point, because it is too hypothetical and he will probably say that my imagination is rather too fertile. We know that planning is already goingthat is a free-standing operation coming through in a separate Bill. It is not unthinkable that education will go too, to the learning and skills councils. It is an easy move, much easier than the complexity of giving it to the unitary authoritiesthe district councils. The county councils would therefore wither on the vine. One can foresee some of
I think that the gap is too small. Although I shall think again about whether 10 years is too long, I believe that five years is too short. I think that it would be almost immoral for activity to take place in that fourth year. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.