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Before going back to my own amendments, I will turn briefly to Amendment No. 52, which also would require of the Secretary of State to take full account of representations made at any time prior to the commencement. We are doing that, and I hope that what I have said reassures noble Lords.

Let us turn back to the Government’s amendments about why we have to correct the Bill. Discussions

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around judicial review also highlighted that the consultation provisions in the Bill are drawn too wide, by proposing a consultation process that involves any other person believed to have an interest. That would add nothing but delay to a process that we have tried to make as swift and precise as possible, but we need to make the change, because it is possible that a court would be likely to require such a wider consultation than is appropriate or necessary. That would require the department to impose a consultation aimed directly at every citizen, taxpayer, council tax payer, business, voluntary group and so on, or consultations through advertisements. We have placed our trust in local authorities and believe that that would duplicate what has been done.

Finally, I come to the timescale for the Boundary Committee and Amendment No. 25. Let me make it clear that the four-week opportunity is at the end of a process that itself provides for sufficient consultation and engagement. I will explain. Where the Boundary Committee is minded to make an alternative proposal, it must publish a draft. That is the principal opportunity for people to comment—it is provided through a requirement on the committee to ensure that those who have an interest are informed of the draft proposal and the deadline. As a matter of course, the Boundary Committee follows the Cabinet Office guidance on consulting for a minimum of 12 weeks. The Bill follows the precedent in the Local Government Act 1992 and allows the independent Boundary Committee to set a window for the receipt of recommendations that it considers appropriate; the Boundary Committee has then to take account of those representations.

Where the Boundary Committee subsequently makes a proposal to the Secretary of State, we are providing a further opportunity—an additional one—hence the four weeks’ window. The Boundary Committee has to inform anyone who has made representations that it has made a proposal, and has to inform those people that they can go directly to the Secretary of State in that four-week period. Unless revised, that will be four weeks from the date set by the Secretary of State for advice from the committee. Those two processes should provide enough opportunity for people to make sufficient representation to ensure that their voices have been heard. I hope that noble Lords will be able to withdraw their amendments.

3 pm

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: Can the Minister clarify the position on the government amendments? In my own area of Suffolk, in the neighbouring county authority in Norfolk and, for example, in Devon, each county town—also, by a large margin, the largest town in the county—has a unitary proposal which would have a profound impact on the rest of the county, even though the rest of the county could, in the eyes of some, not be said to have a direct interest. Would the Government consider an inhabitant of a part of Suffolk not included in the unitary proposal to have an interest if

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they felt that their services were affected by the county town being removed from the county and having unitary status?

Lord Bruce-Lockhart: Please forgive me for being late. I have come straight from the local government conference in Birmingham, where the feeling on reorganisation is extremely high.

The Minister said that there has not been a widespread referendum across all households because the Government have asked for options from councils. But I well remember, in the 1993-96 reorganisation, Professor Grant from the Local Government Commission coming down and having a meeting of all council leaders in my own county of Kent, and saying that he invited them to come forward with their preferred options for the county—maybe pairs of district councils. Even in that organisation, councils came together and made proposals. Yet, in that reorganisation, the independent commission went out with a leaflet to every household. The importance of that was that everyone saw it to be independent and fair.

It was not just one district council within a shire doing that; it was done within the whole area under review. As I say, that was seen to be independent and fair. I cannot understand why the Government say that we cannot do that on this occasion.

Baroness Andrews: On the point of the noble Baroness, I understand that if anybody feels that they are going to be affected by a reorganisation, irrespective of whether they are within the specific boundaries, they are able to respond. No one is excluded from that process. Unless I am wrong, and I will certainly correct it if I am, that is my interpretation.

On what the noble Lord said, it is interesting that local authorities have taken many different routes to ascertain the views of their local people. I cited North Yorkshire, but Cornwall, for example, commissioned a MORI poll of over 1,000 residents. North Cornwall District Council sent a survey to 6,000 households. There has been a serious attempt by many local authorities to drill down into what local people feel about what is proposed.

On this amendment, we have been debating the Secretary of State’s role in Clause 7 and whether she should have any power to, as I have put it, parachute into the process and demand yet another review. That would undermine the integrity of what the local authorities have done at these early stages. Through the stakeholder consultation, the Secretary of State has been soliciting responses from individuals. We try really hard to collect the voices and ensure that the process has been genuinely informative so that stakeholders can have a role in the iterative process of making the proposal work. There is a big difference between the Boundary Commission making a proposal and one from a council which is democratically accountable, a point which the noble Baroness was making.

Baroness Hanham: The Minister has said,

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In discussions on this, the Minster has pointed to MORI polls, citizens’ juries and other odd ways of testing out a limited number of people’s views. I know that MORI polls are meant to give you a pretty good idea of what the world believes, but the only way of finding out what people believe is to ask them. The only way of asking them is to ensure that everybody in the electorate is asked. There are many ways that local councils consult like this and ensure that they have touched every household, so that they can be sure that they have a response.

It may not seem to matter very much to many people how the district or county councils are formed and structured, but there are an awful lot of people to whom it matters. It changes the services, and changes who delivers them. It will cause havoc for the staff and the people administering social services. This is not just a paper reorganisation, but a major reorganisation of the whole of the services. Within this, the initial discussions before January were very limited. Where the councils were putting in their original applications after the invitation, there just was not time for there to be anything other than a skirmish of a consultation. Correspondence we have had from councils involved in the invitation authorities—28 to begin with; it came down to 16 and now looks like being eight—suggests that the consultation has not been widespread.

The noble Baroness’s,

is pretty thin. You could think that you and I might be appropriate. That would be it; we could finish the consultation here and now. What is important is how wide people throw that, and how wide the Secretary of State believes that she threw it. I still believe that each member of the electorate, in whatever area is being reformed, should be consulted. It is nothing but their right to be consulted. I hear what the Minister says.

Baroness Hamwee: If I have understood the Minister correctly, it is very helpful that the Secretary of State takes account of representations, solicited or not and whenever made. I raised a question on representations made following 22 June, but the debate has gone more widely than that. As I read the clause, whoever is consulted, under the Government’s amendment that is not a restriction on those who may make representations and who will be heard. The Minister is nodding and shaking her head at the correct moments, so that is very helpful. I am not entirely sure of the solution to this. Whether the consultation undertaken at a local level is adequate, and whether the Secretary of State’s role in checking the adequacy of this, may be issues which will come out in the wash in the applications going forward. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 17 to 21 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 22:

“(c) declining the invitation.”

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The noble Lord said: This would be a simple addition to the Bill. It would allow local authorities the right to issue a straight refusal to an invitation to restructure. Unless I have missed a well hidden subsection in the depths of the Bill, such a positive power of refusal has been omitted. I am sure that the Minister can enlighten me on this issue and I look forward to her response. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: We do not think that the amendment is necessary. By definition, any invitation can be declined; for example, no one is forced to go to a party. The whole principle of the invitation process means that a council has to respond to an invitation only if it feels that unitary structures are the right solution for its area. When we issued our invitation, we made it clear that local authorities were invited,

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, only certain councils responded. As I have said, it is very much a devolutionary approach, which does not impose any obligation on any authority to respond. I ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Hanningfield: I thank the noble Baroness for that answer, which is not as helpful as it might have been. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 22A not moved.]

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Request for Boundary Committee for Englands Advice]:

[Amendment No. 23 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Boundary Committee’s powers]:

[Amendment No. 24 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 [Boundary Committee’s procedure]:

[Amendment No. 25 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 26:

The noble Baroness said: This amendment moves us on in this debate on consultation because it suggests that it would be effective to have a referendum on these proposals. It would place a duty on the Secretary of State to hold a referendum before taking any steps

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to implement a unitary authority. I remind the Minister what the now ex-Deputy Prime Minister said on introducing unitary authorities. He said that,

This Government claim that the Bill is devolutionary, but, as we have seen, it is only as devolutionary as a Secretary of State will allow it to be and is controlled quite heavily from Whitehall.

Amendment No. 26 would guarantee that no community had any kind of structure of government forced on it without giving it an opportunity to vote on that. I accept that I am rather swimming upstream, but in trying to persuade a Government who willingly sign off fundamental British freedoms, we need to ensure that the people being affected have a right to add their views. Giving local electors the power to voice a preference represents a solid investment in the future of unitary councils, which is important. We, again, are getting mixed views on what happens when citizens’ juries take place and then another form of consultation takes place. The replies will be distorted and will not add up—one consultation will go one way and another consultation will go another. It would be settled by a referendum, because that is a vote of the people, which is then binding by the majority. I urge the Government to take up this amendment. I beg to move.

Baroness Andrews: This takes us a little further—and a little further afield, too. Amendment No. 26 seeks to materially change our process of restructuring by requiring that a unitary proposal cannot be implemented unless there has been a local referendum for support. The arguments that we have heard for referendums and for this new clause suggest that there is still some misunderstanding about the processes that we are seeking to establish for restructuring. The amendment talks of what happens if a referendum rejects the Secretary of State’s proposals, but we need to be really clear that there is no question under the new processes of there being a proposal from the Secretary of State. Every proposal submitted comes from a democratically elected council, accountable to the local people, and that is the democratic process. It is right that local councils should be free to consult and engage in their communities in the way they believe is most appropriate. Some local authorities have already held a referendum, but it is not appropriate to impose one. Where a democratically elected council takes a decision, it should be validated in the normal way through a local election—the most significant referendum of all. In our representative democracy, it is surely up to a democratically elected council to make a decision that the electorate can always contradict at the ballot box.

3.15 pm

I recognise that in some areas different councils with their own mandate can reach opposing positions on restructuring, but seeking to resolve such differences between councils—which, in any event, will have a different electorate—is not the right way to

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proceed. We should ask whose electorate would be participating in the referendum. As I have set out, the process which we are putting in place allows for councils in that position to provide evidence to the Secretary of State to support their case as part of the consultation process, and they will be tested on that. Crucially, any decision for structural change will ultimately be for Parliament to vote on through the affirmative procedure.

I was not involved in previous attempts at restructuring but noble Lords may well have been. It is significant that in the Banham reviews of the 1990s there was no question of a referendum. The previous Administration created the approach that a proposal would be made by the commission they had appointed, and, if approved, it would be implemented. That contrasts with the bottom-up approach that we seek to adopt in the Bill. I accept that the Bill also provides that the Boundary Committee, having been asked for advice on a unitary proposal made by a council, can make its own alternative proposal. A referendum in such circumstances would in truth have been asking the local electorate to arbitrate between the views of its council and those of an independent expert committee. That is not a very sensible or practical way forward.

The right way to proceed is for decisions or recommendations from the independent Electoral Commission to be subject to debate by the democratically elected Members of this House and the other place. Our approach is devolutionary; it allows local authorities to come forward with proposals to demonstrate that the criterion has been met with a broad cross-section of support. Imposing referenda on local proposals would confuse, duplicate and disrupt. I am sure that is not what local authorities or noble Lords would want. I hope that the noble Baroness can withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for those not very helpful or supportive remarks. I hear what she says and I take the point about the Secretary of State. However, somebody ought to be holding a referendum, so we may come back to this at a later stage with a different designation as to who should hold one. I am still confident that the right way is to ensure that the electorate knows that this is happening and has had an opportunity to take part in the decision. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 7 [Implementation of proposals by order]:

[Amendment No. 26A not moved.]

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 27:

“(b) such other persons as he considers appropriate.”

The noble Baroness said: I beg to move.

[Amendment No. 28, as an amendment to Amendment No. 27, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 27 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 28A not moved.]

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Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 29:

The noble Baroness said: I beg to move.

[Amendment No. 30, as an amendment to Amendment No. 29, not moved.]

On Question, Amendment No. 29 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 31 not moved]

Clause 7, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 8 [Review by Boundary Committee of local government areas]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 32:

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