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The noble Baroness said: This large group contains technical amendments on the processes for reviewing boundaries, structure or electoral arrangements as provided for in Part 1 of the Bill and the Local Government Act 1992. I will go through them as clearly as I can.
The amendments to Clauses 8 and 10 simply ensure that when conducting a boundary review the Boundary Committee will be able to recommend that there be no change. As the Bill is drafted that would not be possible. If the committee thought that the existing boundary should be retained, it would simply not make any recommendation to the Secretary of State. The review procedure would have to come to a halt but without any public recognition that work had stopped or been completed. That is obviously not sensible. It is clearly desirable that the Boundary Committee, having decided that the boundaries should not be changed, formally completes the review process by making this recommendation to the Secretary of State. Those who have been involved in the review will then know that the Boundary Committee has reached that conclusion.
The amendments to Clause 12 ensure that the Secretary of State is able to make provision in relation to parish electoral arrangements when she makes an order for structural or boundary change. The Bill already enables the Secretary of State to make changes to parish boundaries; in certain circumstances this will require a change to parish electoral arrangements. The amendment ensures that this is possible.
The technical amendments to Clause 56 correct an error in the drafting of an amendment agreed to in another place. In an electoral review, the number of members is determined in relation to the ward they will represent, and the amendments reflect this.
The amendments to Clause 57 update Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992, which sets out the procedure to be followed for an electoral review of wards or electoral divisions in a councils area. In short, the amendments modernise the electoral review processes. We have met the Electoral Commissions
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The general tone of the Bill is to create more parish councils and to devolve power to local communities, but the amendments require the Secretary of State to agree to the number of parish councillors. It is suggested in other parts of the Bill that local authorities can create parish councils, so it is quite extraordinary that the number of parish councillors should then be decided by the Secretary of State. I cannot understand that; it seems totally illogical given the general tenor of the Bill.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: Everyone in the Committee is sensitive to the political significance of boundary changes. Parties will fight elections and they will win or lose but, in my experience, the greatest cause of a change in the political complexion of a council is boundary changes.
We are trying to satisfy ourselves that changes fully reflect the intention of the Electoral Commission and the powers that be in local government. I would be grateful if the Minister could satisfy me that the views of the various bodies, which we all respect, have been taken fully into account. This is a sensitive area, and if we get off on the wrong footing there could be repercussions. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
Baroness Andrews: The noble Lord asked about the term convenient. There might have been an opportunity for us to discuss this, but it has somehow vanished. The concept of something being in the interests of effective and convenient local government is long-standing in legislation. Under the Local Government Act 1972, any boundary changes had to meet that test. It also underpinned the restructuring following the Banham reviews under the Local Government Act 1992. The concept has been understood in the context of a local authoritys ability to deliver quality local services economically, efficiently and effectively, and to give local people a democratic voice in the decisions that affect them. The reason for including the words effective and convenient is to bring this long-understood concept into any decision on restructuring.
The noble Lord asked about local parish electoral arrangements. The local authority would be able to change parish electoral arrangements only as part of structural or boundary change, under Part 4 immediately afterwards. Was that the point the noble Lord was making?
Lord Hanningfield: I do not understand. If local authorities can create parish councils, even as part of any restructuring of a future local authority, unitary or otherwise, it seems extraordinary that the Secretary of State would get involved in the number on that council. Surely it could be left to the local district or county council to prescribe the number? It is really using a sledgehammer to crack a nut to have the Secretary of State involved in the number of parish councillors.
The noble Baroness said: Amendments Nos. 35, 41, 53, 54, 61 and Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 42 are all of a piece. They would protect London boroughs from being involved in any of the shenanigans that are going on at the moment. Amendment No. 35 would insert a blanket exemption from all Boundary Committee reviews of London boroughs under the Bill, which would prevent any restructuring of London borough councils under the provisions that we are discussing today.
Amendment No. 53 would reinforce the position by deleting the reference to London boroughs from the definition of local government areas. Amendment No. 41 would amend Clause 11, which provides for subsequent provisions to be included in an order to restructure. The amendment may go a little bit far, as it would prevent the establishment of county councils or district councils. It is similar to Liberal Democrat Amendment No. 42; we obviously have the same view in mind.
I hope that the noble Baroness on the Liberal Democrat Benches will be able to support Amendment No. 54, which would prevent a unitary authority from being appointed in London. I believe that we already have what purports to be a unitary authority, which is the GLA. Noble Lords have had plenty of time to debate the various qualities of that institution in proceedings on another Bill. I had rather hoped that the overall effect of our amendments would extend to preventing London from having parishes. While I recognise the merits of parish councils outside London, where they play a very different role, I do not believe that London local government needs another tier.
There are several ways in which London could be affected by the Bill. I would be grateful if the Minister would indicate the Governments intentions. If they have no plans to involve London within the terms of the Bill, it would be helpful to know that at this stage. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: I tabled Amendment No. 42 in this group, as the noble Baroness said. I share most of her concerns about London. I had thought that the boroughs were the unitary authorities, rather than the Greater London Authority, and I shall continue to claim that. I part company with her on parishes, because I believe that it is appropriate to have parishes in London if people want them. That is what the Liberal Democrats have said for a long time and it is the general thrust of this part of the Bill.
My Amendment No. 42 raises a general query. It is unclear to meI had better not include my noble friends in this, because they may have understood it perfectlyhow far this clause about the Boundary Committee is part of, and only part of, the proposals that are the subject of earlier clauses or whether it is a stand-alone arrangement. Unclear also is the extent to which this is required; in other words, is it not already within the Boundary Committees powers to do the things that are set out in the clause? I became more puzzled as I read it. I read the provision as standing alone, but I hope that the Minister will explain what is new or additional.
My amendment relates particularly to London. We need to understand whether London is potentially subject to the Bill, which I dare say would give rise to further amendments on Report. Debate about London has taken off in quite wild directions during the past two or three years, with proposals for what some people have termed super-boroughs, which might suit some, but certainly would not suit others. They would be very large combinations of five or six London boroughs. I hope that the Minister will help me to understand in general terms the place of this provision in the Bill.
I shall address restructuring first. Last Octobers invitation to councils in England was issued to all councils outside Greater London and the metropolitan counties. There were evident reasons for excluding London boroughs from that process: first, London boroughs were already single tier; and, secondly, London has its own unique arrangementsunitary London boroughs and the Greater London Authority. To have included London boroughs might well have raised some of the concerns at which noble Lords have been hinting; for example, the prospect that, following an invitation, a London borough might seek to merge with a district council outside London, thereby increasing the boundaries of the London boroughs. We did not believe that that outcome should be possible.
However, the Boundary Committee is a different matter. The process of boundary revisions set out in the Bill is new, so I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we are starting with a blank sheet of paper. That is why it is important to include London. We need to be able to address potential boundary changes in London as a result of putting in place a permanent regime for adjusting the boundaries. London cannot be excluded from that, especially when we think of the predicted growth of London. Yet as noble Lords have said, Amendments Nos. 41, 42, 53, 54 and 61 would leave out London from the provisions of the boundary clauses and would effectively mean that there was simply no ability to make any changes to London boundaries. That would remove the discretion of the independent Boundary Committee in making recommendations, even in relation to sensible boundary adjustments.
It is also important to add, as I do not need to remind the Committee, that we have only recently debated the Greater London Authority Billin fact, we are still in the middle of it. If there are questions about the functional boundaries of London, other than minor boundary changes, these should be addressed through specific legislation designed for that purpose.
Amendment No. 35 specifically seeks to prevent the London boroughs from amalgamating. Again, I hope to reassure noble Lords about the recommendations; some have expressed concern that the Boundary Committee might somehow be rather casual in its process of conducting a boundary review. I stress that the boundary review is robust and scrupulous. The Boundary Committee must have regard to the need to secure effective and convenient local government and it must reflect the identities and interests of local communities. It would reach the conclusion that a boundary review was the best solution only if it had gone through those robust processes. It is an independent committee and we ought not to try to restrict its recommendations.
Amendment No. 41 would also appear to prevent the Secretary of State from establishing an authority for any local government area as a county council or a district council, and noble Lords have expressed concerns about the Secretary of States ability to establish an area as a London borough. However, it is surely common sense to provide for the establishment of a London borough within Clause 11, given that the Boundary Committee is able to make a recommendation that, for example, two London boroughs should be amalgamated. Without that provision, we would not be able to establish an area as a London borough following the recommendation from the Boundary Committeeshould it make onethat two London boroughs should be joined.
On the issue of parishes, I am afraid that I can give the noble Baroness no satisfaction. Part 4 of the Bill obviously enables the creation of parishes in London, something that we support and put in our manifesto. It is good to have the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on that. I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised. I am certainly happy to write with further clarification if there are points of detail on how this might work.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: It is not really a point of detail, but I fear that I still find myself unclear on what proposals are contained in the Bill for powers and responsibilities for the Boundary Committee that are not already in legislation. I am not sure what is being done differently in this Bill.
Perhaps I could make an observation that has just occurred to me and my noble friend Lady Hamwee. Part of the difficulty that we have been having over the last couple of hours is that, in the Bill, the question of local government structuresthe creation of unitary authoritieshas been mixed with that of boundaries. That has proved unhelpful for the debate, as we are often debating two separate issues. Cynics and conspiracy theoristsof which I am, luckily, neithercould have something of a field day wondering what the Governments future intentions might be. In this case, the Government have made a rod not just for their own backs but for the whole Committee.
Baroness Andrews: In a way, it would have been helpful if we had had a stand part debate on the clauses concerned, in which we could have run through the intentions behind the clauses in relation to the Boundary Committee. Clauses 4, 5, 6 and so on set out the new procedures about how the Secretary of State can request advice from the Boundary Committee on any matter relating to a proposal to allow the Secretary of State to gain independent advice. For example, Clause 7 relates to what the Secretary of State may do to implement the advice received.
It is flying blind to compare the present proposals with the current procedures. I would like to set out graphically the present powers and purposes of the Boundary Committee and how they will change as a result of this, but none of the brief that I have here will do that very economically. However, I shall be happy to address the questions that have been raised about the amalgamation of London boroughs, as that was one of the noble Baronesss key points. I am always open to conversation between any stages of the Bill, as noble Lords know, but let us start by taking noble Lords through the process to see how it is comparable.
Lord Greaves: Reluctant as I am to interfere in London in any sense, I have two points. First, London may think that it has unitary local government but, looking at London from outside and at the functions of the GLA, some of us think that it has two-tier local government. If the GLA is not a local authority, which legislation says that it is in some respects and not in others, nevertheless it certainly carries out a lot of functions that some of us would think were the functions of a local authority. That is an interesting point. If Londoners think that they have unitary authorities, they may be kidding themselves.
Secondly, and again on London and the Boundary Committee, is the Minister saying that in future, if there is to be a review of the boundaries of London boroughs that could result in amalgamations or carving them up into other shapes, the Secretary of
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Baroness Andrews: As far as I understand it, the Secretary of State can invite the Boundary Committee to do that, but I believe that invitations can come from local authorities themselves if they want to do that. I shall make sure that I clarify that when I write to noble Lords.
Lord Greaves: To follow that one up, does that mean that two London boroughs that wanted to get into bed together could ask the Boundary Committee to produce a proposal for that and that that would be taken seriously by the Government?
Baroness Andrews: If that were the case, and they were able to go to the Boundary Committeewell, I shall have to take advice on that. I simply cannot envisage the process that would unfold as a result of that. I do not want to speculate from the Dispatch Box.
Baroness Hanham: The Minister is wise not to speculate, because we are in some trouble with this Bill. If, as has been suggested, the London boroughs can be included in the invitations going out about unitary authorities, these clauses on the boundary change are related to the earlier clauses on the coming together of county councils and unitary authorities that have been given the invitation by the Minister. That is where I need the Ministers clarity. If not and the Boundary Committee is suddenly to be given carte blanche to deal with boundaries across the country rather than the ones with invitations, we are talking about something much wider than we have considered up to now.
I found it odd that the London boroughs were included under Clause 8 and that reference is made to them elsewhere. I understood that this part of the Bill was to be in association with what has to be done with authorities that are amalgamating or becoming unitary authorities under the previous clauses. The Minister did not quite say that and it would be helpful if we can have clarity on that today. If we cannot, it would be even more helpful to have it before the next stage. I think I am not the only one who is confused about it, because it looks as though we are talking about different things and it would be helpful to know what we are talking about.
I am concerned that London boroughs are scooped up by that provision. I had not understood that London boroughs were going to be part of the invitation or direction by the Secretary of State under this part of the Bill, which is why I sought to take it out. I would want to take it out anyway because, if London boroughs are even to be considered for amendments, that would become another Bill in itself and another discussion. I would not want that to be put on the back of the Bill and I think we need to know about that.
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