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In Amendment No. 35, paragraph (e)(i) has an instance of a county comprising one district. I am confused as to whether that is a unitary authority. I had thought that unitaries were technically districts rather than counties.
The meaning of Amendment No. 47 is quite clear, and the Minister has explained that it allows an order to be made under this Bill, when it becomes an Act, which affects previous legislation. That seems to mean that one can make an order under new legislation altering previous primary legislation. I am confused about the constitutional position here. I suppose the short question is whether this is something for which there are many precedents but one has simply not noticed them.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, that is a challenging set of questions. I did not expect to be interrogated in such detail; I thought noble Lords would take what I said absolutely at face value. Clearly, I can never do that.
First, on the word may meaning shall in asking the Boundary Committee and getting advice, it means may. The Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee. That was the term I used when I explained it, so it means may.
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, it could mean that. Is it unlikely, though, is it not? I do not know what powers we have to compel the Boundary Committee to provide information; I will have to take advice on that.
The next question was whether the district is a unitary county, when most of the criteria address unitary district councils and the area of the district has a coterminous status with the county area. I will have to write to the noble Baroness on that point to make it absolutely clear.
On Amendment No. 47, which makes a technical amendment to Clause 15, my understanding is that we are talking about statutory instruments made under previous legislation. They can be amended by an order under Clauses 7 and 10. There are precedents for those changes to be made.
On Amendment No. 224, the noble Baroness asked for the criteria. My background notes say that Amendments Nos. 224 and 254 to Schedules 1 and 19 make a further repeal to Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1992, removing the words,
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment follows on from the subject of consultation. We have briefly discussed it before; it would require any authority putting forward a proposal for a unitary government to hold a referendum. The amendment would tie the action of the Secretary of State into the result of the referendumif the referendum went against the proposal, the Secretary of State would have to abide by thatso that local people would be at the heart of the decision whether or not to change their structure of local government.
Previously, the Minister has queried who the electorate would be in that referendum and who would call it. Our revised proposals for a referendum in Amendment No. 30 clearly set out that any referendum undertaken would include all those who would come under the final proposal. Under our amendment, the county concerned takes on the same definition as that in Clause 5. In other words, our proposal for a referendum would slot in nicely with the process proposed by the Bill. It would be part and parcel of a local authoritys response to an invitation or direction from the Secretary of State. There would be no sense of the elaborate arbitrating between the already made-up views of dithering local authorities or the Boundary Commission, as the Minister suggested in Committee. For the simple reason that there was a referendum part of the package, no authority would make decisions until it had consulted those likely to be affected.
That is the right way around: electorate first and politicians later. It about time that that order of importance was recognised formally in this process. The structural change of government is so long-lasting, affecting every aspect of local government, that it is only right and proper that the electorate should be the final judge of any changes.
To briefly review what has been happening until now and the results of the process so far, there have been a number of ways of testing some local opinion, as the Minister said earlier. There have been stakeholder consultations, but they tend to involve
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This becomes even more important when we realise that, of the nine authorities that have been announced as being those that the Secretary of State is considering agreeing to, fourBedford, Chester, Ipswich and Essexhave been asked to undertake further work, so there is no guarantee that the results will come about or that anybody wants them to come about. In the remaining fiveCornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Cheshirethere is pitted opposition. I do not think that we should overlook that. I know that the noble Baroness said that there would clearly be opposition in places, but this is huge opposition, not mini-opposition. In Cornwall, for example, there was a local poll, which, if we extrapolate it, shows that 97,000 of the electorate would be opposed to the proposal with only 21,000 supporting it. They are significant numbers. North Cornwall District Council surveyed 6,000 of its residents to gauge whether there was any local support for the unitary proposals and 82 per cent were against the proposals. All the way through the Cornish proposals, there has been opposition.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, 71,722 residents voted in the local poll, giving an overall turnout in the four districts of 27 per cent. The poll provided the largest ever public opinion poll result on local government in Cornwall. If the results were extrapolated across the whole of Cornwall, that would result in the figures that I have given. That confirms my point that, although it was not a referendum of all those who are likely to be affected, it was a significant enough sampleit is quite a lot of peopleto indicate that there was a substantial majority against. If there had been a referendum, we would have been able to say that that would be the outcome.
The Minister will be aware that there is great confusion in Cheshire. There are proposals for two unitaries or one unitary and, by and large, the people of Cheshire do not want any unitaries, other than those that they already have, so there is opposition there. In Northumberland, there is opposition to the proposals that have been put forward.
It is important that the electorate should be given the opportunity to see whether they like what is being put forward for them in their name. The invitations were issued at the beginning of the year, very shortly after the legislation was introduced. There was very little time for anybody to take any view of what was going on. The results were announced in July, again long before any of us had the opportunity to see this
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Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I am sorry to say that I feel that this amendment is cynical in spirit. It seems to me to be a wheeze. This wheeze of calling for a referendum on proposals for a single tier of local government is a palpable delaying tactic because the Conservative Party, with its strong position in the shire counties, naturally does not like the thought that communities within those shire counties might be able to come out from under and have some larger degree of independence from it. It is also a smokescreen for Conservative uncertainty and division. Across the country, the Conservatives are very unsure of how to respond to each situation as it presents itself locally.
One must ask on what principle the Conservative Party is calling for these referendums. It is no part of our constitutional traditionand the Conservative Party ought to respect constitutional tradition and precedentthat referendums should be required when there is a redrawing of local authority boundaries. The Conservative Party has become quite promiscuous in the matter of referendums. I heard William Hague saying at the time of the Conservative Party conference that if the Conservative Party had its way there would be referendums every time there was some redrawing of the administrative relationshipsthe respective powers, however minorbetween the Government of this country and the European Union. Of course, for major constitutional issues, it is part of our tradition; the precedents are there. It is right that referendums should be held when there is a question of major constitutional change, but we cheapen the principle of a referendum if it is invoked every time the Conservative Party wants to get itself out of some political inconvenience or embarrassment.
The Conservatives have got hold of a new idea; historically, they were never concerned. The redrawing of Welsh local government in the early 1990s was highly controversial in parts of Wales but at no point was it suggested that there should be a referendum on that. The Government proceeded with insouciance and indifference towards the opinion of the Welsh. Perhaps even more significantly, in the 1980s the abolition of the Greater London Council was of major importance and caused London to be the only major capital city without municipal government, but the Conservative Government of that time did not contemplate a referendum. If we go back to the period of the Heath Government from 1970 to 1974, a vast restructuring of local government was carried through by the noble Lord, Lord Walker, in which more than a century of tradition was overthrown and the sense of place and identity of very large numbers of peoplepeople in local government and citizens all across the countrywas profoundly affronted, but at no point did the Conservatives suggest that there should be a referendum. This seems a pretty opportunistic invocation of the principle that the people should be consulted by means of a referendum.
If we look at the specifics in the proposal in this amendment, we have to say that it is shockingly imprecise. Who should determine the question? Why should the process be in the hands of the county? The county will, of course, be biased in favour of the status quo: it is not going to want parts of its territory and population to gain independence from its government. Why should it not be in the hands of citizens and their representatives in other areas or other levels of local government?
Evidently, if the population of a county outweighs the population of the area that is proposed for unitary status, the county will have an enormous political advantage in the process. The hostile propaganda of the county will clearly give powerful momentum and advantage to a no campaign, so the whole process of a referendum on the terms proposed in this amendment would be polluted. The amendment, if it became part of the law and we had to do these things, would stack up advantage in favour of the status quo. A vote in such circumstances would have paltry legitimacy. Of course it might happen that the whole thing was treated with indifference by local people, that it turned out to be a yawn and that there was a very low turnout. That is a possibility. Albeit that people feel strongly about identification with their local authorities, it does not unfortunately follow that they would necessarily come out to vote. That way, too, a decision taken by this means would lack legitimacy.
Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, since Cornwall has been called into question, we should get the facts straight about the dominance of county thinking. The whole point of citing Cornwall is that a unitary county was proposed and the poll results throughout the districts of Cornwall quite clearly rejected it. I do not think that we need be quite so afraid, as is being suggested, of what might happen if the public are consulted on these sorts of issues.
Lord Howarth of Newport: My Lords, I do not believe in government by opinion poll. When we are considering something as important as reform of the structures of local governmentand the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, observed that these changes could be long-lasting and of very great importanceI think that a very objective and thorough consideration is needed. I certainly would not accept that an opinion poll should determine the outcome of this matter. It is also extremely difficult to pose questions for a referendum that would enable a local public debate and local decisions to be taken on a basis of full information and appropriate objectivity.
I return for a moment to the reforms of the early 1970s. My noble friend Lady Hollis was resident in Norwich in those days. I was not, but I understand that one of the consequences of those reforms was that Norwich lost its unitary status. Norwich had been an historic county borough for many hundreds of years. This was an instance of how local opinion was overridden in a fairly roughshod and insensitive
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Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I shall be brief on the point about a referendum. I think that all of us are supporters of the democratic principle. Those of us who have come from local government rate and respect what local government achieves and does. I, like many others around the Chamber, very much do so.
The point about a referendum is that it is a snapshot of direct democracy at a single point of time of those eligible to vote. Think about what that means. Does it mean, for example, that the whole of Devon would be pitted against the judgment of the citizens of Exeter? Would we have capping on the expenditure of the county resources against that of, currently, a district council, which probably has only one-fifth or one-tenth of the county resources, and who would ensure that the questions were valid?
Secondly, and to my mind more important still, what about the groups that are most affected by the possibilities of reorganisation but which have no vote either way? Certainly in the city of Norwich one of the big driving forces for unitary status on enlarged boundaries has been business. The Conservative Party, rightly in my view, has been calling forI took part in the debate and was cheering on the Front Bench of the Conservative Partythe restoration to local authority of the business rate. Alongside that, you have to build in the ability to listen to what business wants. But business is disfranchised in any debate on a referendum, as are the faith groups, the voluntary organisations and all those organisations that make up the texture of civil life. How do you incorporate them? Not by a referendum.
What should be going on hereand what I believe is happening from what I know about local government reorganisationis not a snapshot referendum or a snapshot plebiscite. It is a reiterative process in which people with disparate and often rewardingly different points of view come round a table and work out what makes best sense for their areas; they will work out some of these issues of boundaries, resources, partnerships and local offices. That is the way to do it. That then gets fed through to the Secretary of State, who decides whether enough of a robust case has been made in terms of public support, financial viability, economic growth and the views of business to justify this. Above all, the question is whether as a result you will get a strengthened recognition of the sense of place, which at the end of the day is what local government is about.
Those are the tests. When it comes to that distinctiveness about the sense of the place, you cannot just do this on a head count with people in Yarmouth, Kings Lynn or Cromer voting about what happens in Norwich; it is for the people of Norwich to have a view and for that view to be negotiated with business and all the other interests in the area and put forward for consideration in a reiterative way. That seems to me the sensible way forward. I suspect that those on the Front Bench opposite agree with me, but they are rather stuck on the amendment. I hope that they will not take it forward.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, it seems to me that one of the reasons why we are having this debate with such passion is the deficiencies of the process that led us here. It was not very clear what the framework was in which local authorities were putting forward their bids and making their decisions. That has resulted in a lot of disgruntled people in some of the areas subject to reorganisation. In a sense, with nowhere else to go, the fallback is to say, Well, we will have a referendum. From these Benches on this occasion, we are not in favour of referendums for dealing with this.
It is a sad fact that 30 years of central government emasculating local authorities has led to a situation where a lot of people do not understand what their local authority does. What is worse, they do not care all that much. That is a desperately sad state of affairs, but I am afraid that that is where we are. Turnouts in local elections can be quite low. It is worrying to consider what might happen in a referendum in which a decision could be made with a turnout as low as 15 per cent of the public. A referendum is not the same thing as opinion polling because of the differences in the ways that they are carried out, so getting a 27 per cent turnout in an opinion poll would not mean that you would get a turnout anything like that high if you were to have a referendum.
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