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Several questions have been asked. Why did the Government pre-empt legislation in the way that they did? Is there an element of retrospection here? Why was it a general invitation rather than an invitation to relevant authoritiesalthough it is not clear from what the noble Baroness said what relevant might mean? Then we have had a set of questions about the process of bids being made against the criteria that have been set. I want to set some minds at rest.
I have had to abandon my speaking notes as they are too narrow for the event. But I will start with what it is that we did. Two years ago, almost to the day, the then Secretary of State opened a conversation with local government about the improvements that it wanted to see. It is true that most of that conversation was framed around the benefits that improved working would bring, either as enhanced two-tier authorities or
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If we had started with legislation, which we did not need to do, questions such as those asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about whether we could not speed up the process, would have been much louder and much more insistent. We have been driven in this process by what we know must be a better way of doing things than the way in which we have restructured local government historically, which has been extremely protracted and debilitating. Yes, it has put pressure on local authorities to think about what they want, but, my goodness, it has meant that they have had to do their thinking and come forward with many proposals for improving what they do, which they would have been thinking about anyway. It is about functions; it is about services; it is not about structure.
However, there was no way in which we would have wanted to curtail the process of discussion in legislation; it was just that this was a way of enabling local authorities to move ahead speedily while allowing sufficient time for them to consider the invitation to develop and submit proposals, for a full period of consultation by the Secretary of State, and for proposals to be implemented as soon after commencement as possible in order for the new unitary authorities to be up and running by May 2009. The overwhelming message that we received from local government was that it wanted this process to be over quickly and not drag on for years, as it had in the 1990s. It was part of the devolutionary principle that we did it in this way.
The noble Baroness mentioned retrospection. There is nothing retrospective about the Bill. A retrospective provision makes valid something which was not valid or lawful at the time when it was done. The Bill provides that an invitation issued or a consultation carried out not using the powers of the Bill can lead to unitary proposals to be implemented by it. I am sure that we will have the debate again when we discuss Clause 21, but I reassure noble Lords about the matter because I know that the House takes it very seriously. I have dealt with the wide-ranging prerogative and common-law powers of the Secretary of State which enable the invitation to proceed without legislation.
The way in which the invitation was made to local authorities was raised. If we had said that it was available only to some, we would have been in even worse trouble. We always made it clear that it was unlikely that there would be more than a small number of proposals which would eventually find favour. Originally, we said eight, but, because of the high quality of submissions and the good value for money that they offered, we have confirmed that 16 proposals will go through to consultation.
There was nothing loose or sloppy about the way in which this was done. The criteria set out in the invitation made absolutely clear what we were looking for, and what local authorities should look for by way of consultation. I cannot account for the nature of local politics, but it was inevitable that there would be anxieties in areas where proposals would be inimical to local politics, geography and history, but it is not the process that was at fault.
The 16 proposals which have come forward for consultation are being extremely carefully considered according to all the processes that we have set up and the guidance that we have given to local authorities. Local authorities have been in no doubt, not least once the primary consultations were made, that it is an iterative process. Those local authorities have consulted long and hard with Ministers and officials during the past few months. They have not been left to work out what to do; it has been clear.
A question was asked about the role of Parliament. We have made provision for affirmative orders when the proposals come forward for implementation. Each will be subject to a vote of both Houses of Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised criteria in relation to the size of communities. We have said nothing about size; we have said nothing about who should qualify. We have said only that they should meet the criteria set out in the invitation. Those are the sole conditions that we have imposed. We have tried to make that as clear as possible.
I hope that I have addressed most of the issues that were raised by noble Lords in this short debate. I hope that noble Lords will feel that the amendment, as well as the objection to the clause standing part of the Bill, can be withdrawn.
Baroness Hamwee: Will the Minister clarify one point? Early on in her response, she said that the invitation was issued and that there was no need for a Bill to do it. I was not clear from what she said whether that extended to the Secretary of States conclusion and the subsequent orders. I was left wondering by much of what she said why there is a need for this part of the Bill at all. Will she expand on that?
Baroness Hanham: We will return to this matter at a latter stage, because I think that I am now more confused than the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. If this clause is required only for implementation, why does it start by stating that the Secretary of State may invite? This is not implementation; this is setting out the road along which the unitary authorities will be developed. If it can be done under general powers, Clause 2 is not needed in the way in which it is being proposed. The Bill does not state that Clause 2 is required for implementation; it states that
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The Minister has made an effort to satisfy us, but it will not do. I proposed a relevant authority because only a limited number of authorities were going to be interested. If there were never going to be a limited number of authorities, which would then be the relevant authorities, the legislation should have been implemented on the basis of unitary proposals across the country and not just 16 local authorities. When we get down to the detail, we see that the criteria reduce the number even lower than 16. We are told that, for money reasons as much as anything else, they will be reduced yet again.
This part of the Bill is not at all satisfactory. We will move on to discuss the power of the Secretary of State to direct and the consultation, which looks to us to be pretty paltry. We will get there, but, for today, I shall withdraw the amendment, although I assure the Minister that this is not the last that we will hear of it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 3 to 8 would delete this so-called type C category of proposal, which would enable unitaries to go across areas crossing county boundaries. My noble friend Baroness Hanham made a good case for resisting the general process in her previous amendment, but crossing county boundaries and forcing people to be counted as part of a different county from the one with which they identify is deeply controversial.
The central problem with type C proposals is that reorganisation across county boundaries risks totally undermining public consent for anything going ahead through those authorities. Incidentally, if the Minister were to accept our amendment on holding referendums, that might not be a problem, but we will come to that later. Whatever happens on this, the question of public consent is important; it is vital that people identify with the area where they live. We talked about communities in Amendment No. 1. Constituency boundaries, which affect and concern MPs, might change every few years, but I know of none that goes across counties. I am sure that the Minister will comment on this controversial issue. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: If we are talking about a limited number of applications or responses to the invitation, which of those still in contentionalthough that word might not be particularly felicitousrequire type C to be included? When this issue was raised in the Commons, the then Minister
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Baroness Andrews: I can give a swift answer to that, but the intention of the amendment is obviously to limit the kind of unitary proposals that councils will be able to bring forward. As the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said, the type C proposal on county boundaries is the issue. We have proceeded on the assumption that there is no such case as proposed in the amendment for restricting the options open to councils. Part of the devolutionary approach is to allow as much choice as possible for local authorities, but the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is absolutely right that in the 16 proposals there is none involving type C proposals to cross existing boundaries.
I remind the Committee that my noble friend Lord Hunt, who did such a splendid job while I sat silently coughing beside him, told the House at Second Reading that we have no plans for a further round of restructuring. He also said that the Bill provides for a process under which further invitations to councils could be made if that made sense. There may be circumstanceswe are not sure that there would bewhere it would be appropriate to invite a council to make a proposal. This is an attempt to cover all eventualities; a council should have as much flexibility as possible to put forward whatever proposal it sees fit. The whole Bill is drafted to enable us to respond to the proposals put forward by local authorities, which understand their areas best. We feel that they should have the flexibility to frame any unitary solution that they might want. The only proviso that we have made is that any new unitary should use existing district boundaries as building blocks.
The Bill as it stands will allow local authorities to bring forward a wide range of options. They will not be constrained in how they may best administer the local government function. Where the three types are set out, in the type C proposal one might indeed have a combination of whole districts and/or counties that are adjoining, so that they can cross existing county boundaries.
Concerns were indeed expressed in the other place about historic boundaries and the meanings that communities quite rightly attach to them. Fears were raised that a type C proposal might be undermined by the lack of local support that it received. I know that your Lordships are thinking about such issues, but I restate that as part of a devolutionary approach it is not for us to restrict proposals; we must allow choices. As cross-boundary working continues to increase, it might be that this is the best solution for one area, and it should be open to areas to put that forward if possible. I am not sure whether the noble Lords involved in the amendment would actually want to limit proposals on this option, or whether that would be wise in allowing scope for local authorities.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I have to confess to being more confused now than I was to start with. I understand why, in its original form, the
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From what the Minister has just said, it seems that the Government want to keep the flexibility in the legislation for future type C proposals. In that case, I do not understand what the assurance by Mr Woolas that the Bill would relate only to the current tranche actually means. My confusion is over the point that he made about the Bill. Does it refer only to the current set of proposals, or is it intended that the Bill will be used as a framework for future unitary proposals?
Baroness Andrews: At Second Reading, my noble friend Lord Hunt made it clear that we are in no way anticipating a future round of invitations. Yet we have to allow for the eventuality that there may need to be an invitation following from changes being made. We do not want to close off that option; it is quite right to provide some flexibility for that in the Bill. Since we are allowing for the other two types, surely it is sensible to allow for the type C proposal. I do not want to make a meal of this. It is not overcomplicated; it is just common sense.
Lord Hanningfield: Like the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, I am more confused. I am totally against changing county boundaries; the unitaries that were created in Berkshire are all called Bracknell Forest, Berkshire et cetera. Say that a unitary was created between Yarmouth and Lowestoft. I suppose that that could be done across Norfolk and Suffolk, but some people in that unitary would live in Norfolk and some in Suffolk. That would be crazy; the idea is quite ridiculous. We do not often say that about government proposals, but it is more ridiculous than most things that I have heard to have a unitary across two counties.
I am confused because there does not seem to be a bid that I would consider ridiculous in this round, so this provision is not very good at all. People who live in Romford, which went into London in 1964, still think that they live in Essexand, in a way, would like to come back into it. People have a lot of natural affinity with their counties. We are going to have to come back to this at a later stage. I will not pursue it today, but there is a fundamental flaw in keeping this in the Bill. I will certainly come back to it to try to put it right.
Baroness Andrews: Clearly, I would not want noble Lords to struggle with confusion on this issue. I shall write to noble Lords and set out some of the circumstances in which we think that this may be an outside option that, in future, given the expansion of unitaries, for example, we might want to consider.
Baroness Hanham: Inserted in the Bill in the other place was the limitation of 25 January 2008 on any invitation or direction, which leaves another six months. As we understand it, all the invitations have been issued and all the applications have been made. Does the Minister anticipate someone coming out of the blue with a new application that might cover type C?
Baroness Andrews: No. The invitation process that we set out is very clear. All that we are saying is that in the process of restructuring there may be outcomes that will potentially require an invitation to tidy something up or allow for an eventuality. We do not want to close off those options. The 2008 limitation applies only to directions.
Baroness Hamwee: I shall just add to the mix of questions on the points on which it would be helpful to have further clarification from the Minister when she writes. She may have just covered this point, but I shall ask just in case. Is she saying that the Government mean, and would therefore be open to the proposal, that in Clause 3 the time limit on directions could be extended to invitations other than the invitations that might need to flow from the current group of proposals?
Lord Hanningfield: I am pleased that the Minister will clarify this matter, but I am sure that we will come back to it, because the whole thing is most unsatisfactory. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak only to this amendment, which has been grouped with amendments that are to do with residual bodies and other arrangements. This is a probing amendment to help us to understand the Governments thinking on the governance of unitary counties. Some of the proposals that are currently on offerand we can talk firmly about them, because we know that we are dealing with not abstract but real proposalsinclude unitary counties such as Somerset, Cumbria and Shropshire. I seek to probe whether the Secretary of State intends to treat these as continuing county authorities or whether they will be new authorities altogether. Even in those areas where there is a high degree of consensus for a unitary county, there is still concern at the idea of what one might describe as a
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Baroness Andrews: So we are dealing simply with Amendment No. 8. That is fine. I can give the noble Baroness a fairly short response. I understand the intention behind the amendment: she seeks to find out whether a proposal for a county unitary could result in a new authoritya fresh startrather than an existing county council that simply absorbed the functions of the constituent district councils. The Bill provides for exactly thatfor the implementation of a new county council. It is effective through Clause 11(3)(e) and Clause 11(5)(a). I do not have anything else to tell her, but I hope that that answers the question.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am grateful to the Minister for the clarity of her reply. Some people will be reassured by that and others will be disappointed, but the important thing is clarity and that we understand what the arrangements will be for the new county authorities. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
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