To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what assessment he has made of the Local Government Commission's proposals for Cleveland.
I am required to take a view on the final proposals which will follow further consultation of local opinion by the commission.
Does the Minister agree that the Local Government Commission, far from being the political fix that some people have described it, carried out its work in Cleveland in a fair, rigorous and conscientious way? However, is the Minister aware of the disgraceful scaremongering and climate of intimidation which has been created by some people who are opposed to the commission's proposals? Will he take it from me that the majority of people in Cleveland want four unitary, local-based councils and that nothing else will do?
We have had some extremely disturbing reports about intimidation by certain people, including the Labour-controlled Cleveland council which is fighting desperately for its survival. We have heard elsewhere of meetings being packed by local authority employees. Of course they have their voice and a right to express their opinions. However, so has everyone else and it is opinion as a whole which counts. If opinion as a whole wants the change in Cleveland as in Avon and in Humberside—and we all know that those councils perhaps never quite attached themselves to the affections of people in the way that some historical councils did—and if people continue to make their representations, they will get those changes.
Is my hon. Friend aware that Cleveland county council's campaign of lies and disinformation, which has been deliberately designed to spread fear and anxiety among the council employees and among the public they are there to serve, has been condemned this afternoon on both sides of the House? Will he therefore give an undertaking that those responsible for the scurrilous campaign to save their own skins at the taxpayers' expense will receive the fullest possible scrutiny of the Department of the Environment and the district auditor?
I wish to make it absolutely clear that the kind of activity that has been reported is clearly wholly unacceptable. Whether or not people like the proposals by the Local Government Commission, the commission is free of party political colour. It would be entirely wrong if we were to introduce any note of party politics into the way in which the commission goes about its work, no matter what opinions we may form about its conclusions. Therefore, if people are going to try to gerrymander local opinion and give a false impression, it is clear that we will know about that and form our conclusions about what we believe to be genuine objective local opinion on the ground of all people and not necessarily those who are councillors, who work for the council or who have a special interest.