|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
I agree absolutely with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about interest groups. People who have more of an interest in what a local authority does and who are able to articulate that more will be disfranchised by this process. It also strikes me that, even if one were to agree to the principle of a referendum, it would be very difficult to implement it in practical terms. In the case of Norwich, for example, if you only allowed the voters of Norwich to vote, all the people from the surrounding areas who rely on Norwich for services would be unable to vote. If, on the other hand, you have the whole county, the wishes of people living a long way away who perhaps visit Norwich only twice a year could outweigh the wishes of those who live in the city. Whichever way you look at that, it is almost impossible for a referendum to reflect the views that are held in a county as diverse as Norfolk or, indeed, my own county of Suffolk. For those reasons, we do not believe that referendums are the right way to go forward, although I have a lot of sympathy with the intentions of the noble Baroness in dealing with what has been a deficit of local input into the process.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I am interested in the tactic being employed by the
8 Oct 2007 : Column 74
The noble Baroness said that a referendum would give you a proper opinion and settle the issue. She knows very well that once the referendum has been taken and the result is declared, automatically the people who have lost the referendum continue their campaign and work until eventually they find either another device or get another referendum. I start from the principle of having been in local governmentI am no longer active, but am in touch. Local government does not get it right all the time. Who are we talking about when we talk about elected councils? When a council is elected, every voter in the district has the opportunity to colour the complexion of the council. That is the best referendum that we will ever get. That is duly organised, supported and campaigned for at a local election. You win some and you lose some.
In 1985-86, I was in this Chamber as the murder of the GLC was enacted. After a paragraph in the Tory manifesto, they decided not to give the people of London the opportunity to say whether they wanted to keep it or not. There was a national referendum through a manifesto and a general election. The spokesman for that party has the audacity to come here to say, We believe that people ought to have their say on these matters. That is wrong. The Governments approach is to be careful to try to take on board what are called the stakeholders or the special interest groups.
As my friends from Norwich know, I support the Magpies, because I come from Newcastle. We have heard the voice of the Canaries, because the Canaries are the Norwich football team. As they always do, they have spoken good sense, but on this point, they have brought into the debate practical illustrations supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. I very much hope that the opposition spokesmen will recognise that this is not a runner. If they decide to run it tonight, I hope that they will get soundly thrashed.
Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again on this, but there is an important point here. We all want these reforms and structural changes to be made with public support, but I agree with my noble friends that a referendum is exactly the wrong way to go about that.
There are two fundamental dangers in using a referendum to test public opinion. One is that you get differential turnout. Any study of any election shows
8 Oct 2007 : Column 75
Wearing one of my various local government hats, I am chairman of Greater Manchester Authorities. We have been through an interesting exercise recently. We have been looking to see whether to make a bid for the transport innovation fund, which included raising a congestion charge for Manchester. That is not uncontroversial, I can assure your Lordships. We realised that if you ask people the simple question: Do you want a congestion charge for Manchester?, the answer is no. I would say no. But when you frame the question as: Do you want a £3 million injection into public transport and then you will have a congestion charge?, you get a much different result. Opinion surveys done through the local newspapers show that. So it is about how you frame the question.
As usual, my noble friend Lord Graham had it right. If people in local government want to test public opinion, they should do so through the normal election process. If people do not want the structural changes proposed, I am sure that they will reward, or not, those politicians who put them forward.
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, I cannot let this debate go by without reminding the Government that, when we had a referendum for the north-east regional authority, there was another question on the paper. The question on the paper was about local government reorganisation in Northumberland and whether people wanted two unitary authorities or one if there was going to be a change. They said clearly on that occasion that they wanted two unitaries, not one.
The process that we are discussing tonightwhich is, as my noble friend Lady Scott said, unsatisfactoryhas led in Northumberland to an invitation being given to Northumberland county council. The county proposed one unitary; the districts proposed two. Most ordinary citizens in Northumberland want there to be two. Most of the stakeholders represent areas very much bigger than Northumberland, so it is quite understandable that they would much prefer to deal with one authority than two. They said that they wanted one authority. There was a referendum, a government referendum, but it has been completely ignored.
Lord Howie of Troon: My Lords, in general terms, I am in favour of referenda in principle some of the time, but the statistics presented by the noble
8 Oct 2007 : Column 76
If the Conservative proposal for referenda were to be carriedI am not going to vote for it, by the waywould they think of having some such barrier; namely, that the majority in support of the proposal would have to comprise at least 40 per cent of the total electorate?
Baroness Andrews: My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to the combined power of not least my noble friends Lady Hollis, Lord Howarth, Lord Ted of Edas I may call himLord Howie and Lord Smith, who were extremely interesting. All sides of the argument against referenda were presented very cogently.
Perhaps I may run through some of the contextual arguments attached to the amendment. Rightly, this has been a passionate debate because we have touched on some important issues on the relationship between local government and the electorate. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said about her concern that people do not know or care. In a way, referenda do not address that issue for different reasons. That is precisely one of the reasons why we think, when we talk about Part 3, that visibility and accountability are best assisted by stronger and clearer leadership. In addition, because we have been talking about the process, it is worth putting on the record what we have done to make sure that the timetable has allowed a process to unfold which allows the engagement of local people in different ways.
The invitation to local authorities was issued on 26 October 2006. This Bill was introduced on 12 December 2006. The proposals had to be submitted by 25 January 2007. The stakeholder consultation started on 27 March 2007 and ended on 22 June 2007. The minded decisions were made by the Secretary of State on 25 July. There has been a lot of time for democratically elected, accountable councils to prepare proposals and to submit them for consultation, which was shown in the response to the proposals. We are not engaged in a process just for the sake of it. As we have said earlier, this is very much about delivering better services and better accountability.
Amendment No. 30 has the effect that the Secretary of State may not implement a proposal received as a result of an invitation or direction under Section 2, or an alternative proposal received from the Boundary Committee under Section 5 if those proposals have been rejected by a referendum. Noble Lords have spoken about the democratic process that this Bill has generated. It establishes a new framework
8 Oct 2007 : Column 77
While no single council or body, or group of councils or bodies, will have a veto, it will be necessary for any proposal to have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users/ citizens.
For very good reason, we did not prescribe the way in which democratically elected councils should engage with local people. The amendment would call for a prescription, an imposition. Local authorities have demonstrated that their criterion was satisfied as they saw fit. In some places, it was through citizens juries, user panels, opinion polls or local referendums. For example, in Exeter, which we have been talking about, an Ipsos MORI poll surveyed more than 1,000 residents. Ipswich and Shropshire County Council also commissioned Ipsos MORI polls of more than 1,000 residents.
In Cornwall, district results were as the noble Lord described. But he did not tell the House that the county council commissioned a properly sampled poll, which found that 68 per cent of people would support a unitary authority if it provided savings, which was one of our criteria. As my noble friend Lord Smith said, it depends on who asks the question and how the question is asked. Many examples have been given. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred to how that influences the outcomes.
We do not believe that it is appropriate to impose a referendum. On the point that a referendum by definition excludes some stakeholders interests, that is precisely the reason why the second stage of our engagement was with local stakeholders. We carried out a 12-week consultation on the 16 bids that were successful in phase 1. It was open to anyone to make representations. We wanted to ensure that the key stakeholders whose views we sought were the ones able to provide the evidence to show that the proposals met the criteria of affordability, strategic leadership, neighbourhood engagement and value-for-money services. This was how to get the sense of the local area and place which meant that it was properly viable and deliverable.
The amendment would also require that a referendum be carried out on an alternative proposal as made to the Secretary of State by the Boundary Committee. I have already set out why that is not necessary. Additionally, a referendum in such circumstances would ask a local electorate to arbitrate between the views of its council and the views of the independent expert committee, which is hardly a sensible way forward.
I conclude by addressing the questions raised on the referendum itself. We believe that imposing referendums would be unnecessary. Noble Lords have explained eloquently why a referendum is not
8 Oct 2007 : Column 78
It is crucial that any decision for structural change must be a decision for Parliament, which of course is provided for. All the implementation orders for structural change are subject to affirmative resolution. They will have to be debated and voted on in this House and in another place. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have had a debate on something so important. I hope that the noble Lord is as convinced as he should be about the need to withdraw his amendment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, this noble Baroness rises to respond to the debate. I realise that it is confusing. Two noble Baronesses are sitting on the Government Benches, and I have a split force on this side. I am very grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, but I am completely baffled by their contributions. The suggestion is that there should be a referendum on the final proposal. No one could imagine that anyone would put forward a proposal for unitary government without having undertaken all the consultations which have been so lavishly expanded on by speakers on the other side. What we are saying is that when the final proposal has been drawn up, when everyone is satisfied that that is what it should be, the last word on who would be involved in the change to a unitary system should come from the electorate.
I find the opposition to this very strange. The last change proposed for the reorganisation of local government was the establishment of the regions. What happened there? We had a referendum which demonstrated fully and clearly that the electorate thought it was a rotten idea and so eventually it did not come about. But the electorate was given the opportunity to comment on the proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, although the Government did not necessarily get their wish, it was put to the electorate. The Local Government Act 2003 specifically enables local authorities to hold referendums, so I do not see why this comes as a shock to those who are trying to pull it down. As well as businesses, stakeholders, PCTs and others, the people who are affected by reorganisation and restructuring are those who live within the proposed area. They are the electorate. If we believe in democracy, and we have been told that this Bill is all about bringing things down to the local level, how can the decision be made to introduce a new structure of local government without asking the electorate about it? It does not even stack up with the Governments own thoughts on regional government, where it was entirely a different matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has made many contributions. This is not a wheeze or a smokescreen, and I have tried to give the reasons why it is not. Referendums were not put forward initially by the Conservative Party, but they have been proposed by this Government for local government. It therefore seems that this is a perfectly obvious and sensible proposal, particularly on such extremely controversial matters which are not being welcomed by those who are purported as having to welcome them. It is time that they were given an opportunity to express their view. It may be that the House is not with me on this, but nonetheless I wish to test its opinion.
On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 30) shall be agreed to?
Their Lordships divided: Contents, 35; Not-Contents, 155.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
Baroness Morgan of Drefelin: My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Report stage begin again not before 8.42 pm.
Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
The Earl of Listowel asked Her Majestys Government what progress they have made towards the introduction of an allocated mentor and protected time for all newly qualified social workers.
The noble Earl said: My Lords, perhaps I may begin by saying how very grateful I am to those of your Lordships who have chosen to speak in this debate. The Governments intentions and actions towards social work are encouraging and I look forward to the noble Baronesss announcement of the spending plans in this area. However, there is a huge piece of work to be done if social workers are to finally receive the solid professional framework they have so long lacked. It will indeed require strong and consistent pressure from your Lordships House if this is to be achieved. I also thank my fellow trustees at the Michael Sieff Foundation and Dr Andrea Warman of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering for their advice and encouragement.
|Next Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|