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There is ample opportunity to make representations about an alternative proposal. It is hardly about collusion behind closed doors, because we want to ensure that proper judgments are made in response to peoples feelings and experience. Although I know that the noble Lord will be disappointed, I hope that he will accept that explanation.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister has confirmed to me that if you open this particular Pandora's box, you finish up with more dissatisfied people than was originally the case. There are many possible solutions, but only one can be implemented. The majority of people, if they were asked a straightforward question, would probably say, Actually, we don't agree with that conclusion, because they all want something different. One has to accept that.
This is not a satisfactory situation and it never will be. I am disappointed in the Minister's response and I am sorry about that, but not particularly surprised. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is another fairly simple amendment. It would give any authority on the receiving end of an invitation or direction the option of refusing it. Amendment No. 19 would complement the provisions of Amendment No. 17, although we did not get anywhere with that. It would give local authorities the option simply to refuse an invitation or direction instead of having to comply with it in one form or another. The intention is that local authorities would not be able to take such a decision without the consent of the local electorate obtained either by consultation or referendum. That is reinforced later on by an amendment on referendums.
The Minister stated clearly in Committee that no such powers were needed because by implication an invitation can be turned down. However, Clause 3 seems to confirm otherwise. Currently, when presented with a so-called invitation or direction, a local authority can respond in two ways; either by,
Clause 3 demonstrates unequivocally that the law would expect authorities to accept an invitation whether alone or in conjunction with some other authority. There appears to be a clear expectation that an invitation will be accepted because there is no possibility of it being declined. The Bill provides for a one-way road.
We have presented a series of measures that would have ensured greater flexibility and choice, but the Government have so far chosen to reject them. This is one of those options and I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, we support the noble Lord on this matter. This is not the first time that we find ourselves wondering whether the language in the Bill is the English language as we know it. The noble Lord is right in pointing out that while there may be different arguments about invitations and directions, an invitation should be capable of the response, Thanks, but no thanks.
The Minister, either in her letter of 1 October or at another time when we mentioned this issue, discussed whether the Bill should allow provisions to remain on the books for future restructuring. She has said that it is important for the Government to have invitations as a tool for two reasons. First, they help to tidy up areas affected by decisions currently being taken, which we have talked about already this afternoon. Secondly, they are useful if there is, to use the Minister's word an appetite in the future on the part of local authorities to restructure, in which case they will tell the Government and the Government will issue an invitation. Therefore, this debate crosses into the question of whether this is a time-limited offer. It also asks, When is an invitation not an invitation?.
We seem to have reached a point in the Bill of having to ask for interpretationI almost said translationof some of the provisions. It is sad that the Bill remains in need of interpretation and that matters need to be put on the record, since we are so nearly at the end of its passage through Parliament. Having got that off my chest, I will try not to make that point again tonight.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I wish to refer to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and I declare an interest as a councillor of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council and a member of Northumberland County Council, both of which are now engaged in this process. We knew that the invitation was coming, and the county council was happy to take it up. Many of the districts would have preferred enhanced working together, but when they saw the writing on the wall in what was happening at the county level, they put in a bid. Although you could say that some of this is free thinking, you get tied up in what other people are doing and it is almost impossible to act independently.
I will provide the House with more detail about what is actually happening on the ground when we come to an amendment to Clause 21 because I am not sure that the Government foresaw some things that are now happening. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance tonight that the voices of those who actually have to live under these authorities and pay their taxes to them will be heard.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I seem to be doomed to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I must tell my colleagues on the Liberal Benches that I am happy to put whatever I can on the record. With their co-operation, we tried in the summer to make sure that we teased out some of those things that were of necessity obscuring the Bill and we cleared away some of the undergrowth. However, if the House finds it helpful, I am happy to do that as much as possible as we go through the Bill without protracting the process.
It is worth repeating that in Committee I explained that an invitation was just thatan invitationand that the document invited local authorities, if they so wished, to make a proposal for future unitary local government structures for their areas. We received 26 proposals but there were numerous areas from which no proposals were forthcoming. My interpretation of that would be, Thanks, but no thanks, with local authorities indicating that they were simply not interested and some areas looking for enhanced two-tier working. In the areas which did not take up our invitation, it was, in effect, declined. I return to the point that I made in Committee: we believe that it is unnecessary to make explicit provision for this matter in the Bill, as it is a matter of common sense.
I turn to the right to decline a direction. I do not want to reiterate what I said earlier to noble Lords because I think that I made the limitations on the power of direction as clear as I could. I have set out that our approach is devolutionary and that proposals will come forward from elected local authorities. As I stressed, in order to bring the round of restructuring to an orderly conclusion, it may be necessary to direct a local authority to submit a proposal for unitary local government if that is the only way to enable the other local authority in the picture to go ahead with the proposal. As we discussed earlier, this would be a proposal from a democratically elected council.
I also explained, and I think the House agreed, that the direction power is time-limited until 25 January 2008. I assured noble Lords that we would use it only to deal with an area which was residual to one of the proposals which we announced the Secretary of State was minded to implement. It may be worth stressing that we worked with the Local Government Association to narrow the scope of the direction power, and it is generally content with our position. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister is doing her best to disappoint me very politely, just as I am doing my best to seduce her very politely, if I may put it that way. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support in this matter. Certainly, in all the conventions that I have known in life, an invitation is an invitation and can be refused. The question is whether it can be refused here. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, made a very important point: that in going down this track, if one person goes in a particular direction, inevitably everyone else should think very carefully about where they are going and whether they want to go in the same or some other direction. Decisions can become confused and, rather than think exclusively of your own interests, you begin to think in the wider, and not necessarily the logical, sense. This is a Pandoras box situation and I do not think that it is a good one to be in for one moment.
The Minister said that the amendment was not necessary because she thought that the flexibility was already there. If that is so, it is not necessary for her to oppose the amendment. As it will not affect anything from her point of view, she can perfectly well accept it. I think that we should test the opinion of the House on this and, to that extent, I shall have to disappoint the Minister rather than seduce her.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we now have a change of pace and perhaps I can bring some aid and comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We are bringing forward a number of technical amendments to Part 1. I wrote to noble Lords on 1 October 2007 setting out why these amendments are required. I will briefly cover some of the key points for the record.
Amendments Nos. 26, 34 and 41 are drafting improvements. We wish to put it beyond doubt that a proposed area may not extend into an area that is currently outside all local government areas; for example, a part of a Welsh county, the City of London or one of the Temples. Therefore, we are amending the Bill to
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Amendment No. 31 makes a minor drafting amendment at Clause 7 to clarify that the Secretary of State may decide not to implement a joint proposal for more than one local authority. The existing wording may have suggested that a joint proposal would always be implemented, which clearly is not necessarily the case.
Amendment No. 32 to Clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to request further information from the Boundary Committee relating to an alternative proposal for structural change that it has submitted. This provision will enable the Secretary of State to seek information before making a decision on the Boundary Committees recommendations. This provision shows consistency with Clause 4(2) under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice in relation to a proposal submitted by a local authority.
We are also proposing a drafting amendmentAmendment No. 36to Clause 10, under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice or information in relation to a recommendation of a boundary change. This amendment will make it clear that the information or advice that the Secretary of State can request is on any matter relating to the recommendation. This provision will ensure that the Secretary of State may request information and advice, for example, in relation to changes to principal council electoral arrangements and/or parish boundaries in parish council arrangements which may need to be made within an order under Clause 10.
Amendment No. 35 inserts a new paragraph (e) into Clause 8(4), again, to put beyond doubt the fact that any recommendation for boundary change must ensure that the current pattern of local government is retained across England. This pattern is unitary counties, counties comprising a number of districts, metropolitan and non-metropolitan, and London boroughs.
Amendment No. 36 ensures that the Boundary Committee cannot recommend the abolition of a local government area which will lead to a gap in the pattern of local government areas in England. So, for example, if the committee can recommend the abolition of one district and the merger of its area with that of another district, the committee could not simply recommend the abolition of a district under the power in Clause 8(3)(b), as that would evidently leave a gap in the pattern of local government areas.
Amendment No. 47 makes a technical amendment to Clause 15 which ensures that it is clear that statutory instruments made under previous legislation can be amended by an order under Clauses 7 and 10, no matter when those statutory instruments are made.
Amendments Nos. 224, 247, 248 and 254 make necessary changes to Schedules 1, 6 and 19. These amendments are technical in nature and ensure that
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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, perhaps I can go back to Amendment No. 36. The Minister very kindly gave us a pre-brief of what the amendments were about. I am bound to say that Amendment No. 36 did not seem to stack up with what I have got written down. Perhaps we could look at it again.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, with pleasure. Noble Lords will understand that I am reading from a very prescribed text. I see that the noble Baroness has in front of her the letter that I sent. We are also proposing a drafting amendmentAmendment No. 36to Clause 10, under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice or information in relation to a recommendation of a boundary change. This amendment will make it clear that the information or advice that the Secretary of State can request is on any matter relating to the recommendation. I hope that that clarifies the point.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, perhaps I can ask some questions and make some brief points. On Amendment No. 31, it seems to me that to have to spell out the fact that the Secretary of State may decide not to do something after consultation rather begs the question of what is meant by consultation. That is a rhetorical point, not a question. If the Secretary of State is required to consult and may then do something, one would have thought he might also not do something, otherwise what is the point of consultation?
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