Lords amendments considered.
Boundary Committee’s powers
Lords amendment: No. 1.
The Bill is about the greater devolution of power to local government, and about greater local democracy. It puts in place a new framework to enable local government to work more closely with local partner agencies and bodies in delivering a full range of services in its area. It goes beyond the expected traditional areas of local government that we have come to recognise in previous local government Bills. For instance, it makes the link to health services, both in their delivery and in the involvement and direct participation of people in local—
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was aware of that, but I felt that it was important to set the context for the large number of amendments in the group. These amendments and those in the other groups reflect the fact that, throughout the progress of the Bill, the Government have listened intently to the arguments that have been put to us, and I hope that other hon. Members will also take that view.
All the amendments in this group were introduced by the Government in another place, and they relate to part 1 of the Bill. They are also a tribute not only to my noble Friend Baroness Andrews, who led the Bill so well through the upper House, but to Baroness Hanham and Baroness Scott, who led for the Opposition. The amendments will ensure that the new processes for bringing about structural and boundary change are effective in all circumstances, and that there are no ambiguities or uncertainties. A number of them are purely technical, and I do not intend to go through those in detail.
The amendments to clause 7 will ensure that the Bill and the invitation process are fully aligned with each other, and that the principles of devolution are properly encapsulated. They simply correct the drafting so that the clause does not require the Secretary of State herself to impose a form of general consultation on local areas, at a later stage of deliberation, that goes above and beyond that which had been quite rightly undertaken earlier in the process by the local authorities concerned.
The amendments to clauses 8 and 10 will ensure that, when conducting a boundary review, the boundary committee will be able to make a recommendation for no change. It is clearly desirable that the boundary committee, having decided that no change to the boundaries should be made, formally completes the review process by making such a recommendation to the Secretary of State.
The remaining amendments in the group are further technical amendments to part 1 and to the related schedule, schedule 1. The amendments to clause 12 will 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 and, in certain circumstances, that would require a change to parish electoral arrangements. The amendments ensure that that would be possible.
Can the Minister assure me that the extra powers, with which I am perfectly in agreement, would not extend to a point at which the Secretary of State could abolish a parish? There is a case in my constituency in which two parishes have been abolished. May I be sure that this provision will not increase her ability to abolish parishes?
The arrangements and provisions in the Bill should not put the Secretary of State in the sort of position that the right hon. Gentleman fears, certainly from her own initiative.
We are also proposing a number of minor amendments to improve the drafting of the Bill, and to ensure that the provisions in this part of the Bill can be used effectively. I commend the amendments to the House.
It is a pleasure to respond to the relatively new Minister for Local Government. He has not taken the Bill through the Committee with the rest of us, but we appreciate the attention that he is giving it now and wish him well in his role when, on future occasions, we are dealing with each other across the Chamber.
In response to the Minister’s throat clearing, I should like to do a little of my own. I just want to say that the Opposition recognise that a number of concessions were made in the other place, and I shall touch on those later. We still feel, however, that the Bill could have done more on devolution, including dealing with the regional bodies and devolving some of their powers to local authorities. Having said that, some of the matters that we shall discuss this afternoon reflect the fact that changes have been made following the discussions that took place in Committee and in another place.
We recognise the changes that have been made for certain technical reasons in clause 7, which relates to directions given under clause 2. We are disappointed, however, that the Government have not taken on board the sunset clause in relation to invitations to councils to be part of a unitary process. We acknowledge that there will be a restriction involving a sunset clause on directions, but it would have been safer if it had extended to invitations as well. We are disappointed that the Government did not accept that proposal.
My only substantive point relates to clause 8, and I make it on behalf of the Electoral Commission, which is worried that the clause, as drafted, might be defective. I would appreciate it if I could run the commission’s concerns by the Minister. It believes that, quite separately from reviews of local government structure, clause 8 provides the boundary committee with the power to conduct reviews of local authority administrative boundaries, either at the request of the Secretary of State, at the request of a local authority or on its own initiative. As a result of such a review, the committee will be able to make recommendations to the Secretary of State for alterations to the boundaries of a principal authority area or for the abolition or creation of such areas.
Subject to the Electoral Commission having the responsibility to direct the work of the boundary committee, we acknowledge and welcome the changes to clause 8. The last round of administrative boundary reviews was completed by the former local government boundary commission for England in 1992, and many boundary anomalies have since arisen. The anomalies are largely a consequence of new developments spilling over the boundaries between authorities.
We share the Electoral Commission’s concern that no provision has been made for the boundary committee to make any necessary recommendations that may be required as a direct result of the alteration of principal authority areas. For example, unlike the former local government boundary commission for England review, the committee will have no power to recommend alterations to the ward boundaries of adjoining authorities in order to minimise the effect of administrative boundary changes on electoral equality. Nor will it have any power to recommend consequential changes to parish areas affected by a principal area boundary change. That could result in parishes being split between district or even county council areas.
The Secretary of State will have powers to make the consequential alterations to which I have just referred, and clause 10 will enable her to seek further information or advice from the boundary committee in relation to any of its recommendations. However, we share the Electoral Commission’s view that clause 8 is defective. It limits the boundary committee’s consideration to principal authority administrative boundaries. While the Secretary of State may seek the boundary committee’s advice and information on consequential matters such as electoral arrangements and parish boundaries, these will not have been the subject of public consultation as part of a full review process.
I offer those concerns for the Minister’s consideration. Does he share the Electoral Commission’s view that clause 8, as drafted, is defective, and that it is not significantly amended by the proposals before us?
The important part of what my hon. Friend has just read is the last bit, which refers to the fact that it will be impossible to make the changes for parish councils. Parish councils are an important part of our structure, and they feel strongly about the fact that, often, parts of a parish are excluded following changes in ward boundaries or the boundaries of more important local authorities. Would it not be helpful to ensure that the restrictions on the boundary committee were made clear, so that it would be able to make recommendations about alterations but would not be able to recommend the closure of a parish? I am still not sure that the Minister has answered my question on that.
My right hon. Friend makes his point very well, and I share his concern. I agree that parishes are concerned about decisions being made for them.
When we deal with a later group of amendments involving parishes, I shall return to my right hon. Friend’s question about their position should a principal authority, namely a district council, recommend their closure as part of a community-governance review. It is feared that there would not be sufficient recourse for them to combat such recommendations. Both here and in the other place, it was pointed out that simply recommending that they have recourse to law might not take account of the difficulties that parish councils would experience when confronted with the administrative power and financial resources of a principal authority recommending their closure. Perhaps, either at this stage or when we reach the amendments specifically relating to parishes, we could be given a clear and unambiguous answer to my right hon. Friend’s question.
There are some very small parish councils around, some of which are a thorn in the sides of districts or boroughs. I think there is a risk that areas may have an incentive to reorganise in order to get rid of people who are thorns in their sides. As my hon. Friend says, going to law on the parish precept would be unthinkable. It would be possible only for a substantial town council.
I always welcome the interventions of my hon. Friend, who gave invaluable help on the Opposition Front Bench during the Bill’s passage. His presence today is much appreciated, as is his extensive knowledge of all these matters.
During the Commons Committee stage, it was pointed out that, local rivalries being what they are—we need not go into that too deeply today—there might be occasions on which scores could be settled between local politicians, and parishes might get squeezed: hence the need to ensure that they have the best possible protection available to them. Perhaps, when we reach the amendments dealing specifically with parishes, the Minister could give us some reassurance that the process will not leave them high and dry. In the context of this group, however, I am content to have presented the arguments to the Minister on behalf of the Electoral Commission, particularly those relating to the potentially defective nature of clause 8. I hope that he will respond to them.
I should declare an interest: my wife is a member of both Northumberland county council and Berwick borough council. I have that interest in common with the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), who has just returned to the Chamber.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4 change the phraseology relating to whom the Secretary of State may consult before making an order. That is quite important given that the current reorganisation hangs on the Bill, which it is assumed will validate the processes that have gone before. Clause 7 states that the Secretary of State must consult
“any other person he believes to have an interest”,
which Lords amendment No 2 replaces with
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”.
It seems to me that the people who have an interest and those who might be considered appropriate are roughly similar. The most obvious group in that category are the people of Northumberland, whom the Government rightly consulted before the Bill was drafted, in a referendum in 2004. In the referendum, a substantial majority stated that they wanted the reorganisation to produce two unitary authorities. In defiance of that result, the Government have insisted on creating a single unitary authority.
The Government could have consulted various other people, including the Members of Parliament representing the county of Northumberland, who happen to come from each political party. Had they done so, they would have discovered that every single one believed that there should be two authorities rather than one.
I took up that point with the Minister, who replied that he accepted that there had been a consultation in the form of the referendum, and that 57 per cent. of the people of Northumberland wanted a two-tier unitary authority while 40 per cent. did not. In the letter that he sent me, he suggested that the 57 per cent. had not been sure what they were voting for because the whole issue was so complex and that the 40 per cent. figure was therefore significant, which was why he had decided to take it on board. I consider that an affront to the people of Northumberland, who had made clear that they did not want to lose their district councils but were prepared to accept a two-tier unitary authority.
I shall refer to that letter as well, because it throws a good deal of light on the process that is being modified by Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4. I received a copy of the letter that was sent to Northumberland county council, with a covering letter from the Minister. The letter referred directly to the referendum result. It said:
“the Districts rely heavily on the 2004 referendum, which produced a majority against the single unitary option”,
and went on to say:
“it is significant that in that referendum the single unitary option nevertheless had significant support”.
I am sure that when the Minister was elected to Parliament, candidates from Opposition parties had “significant support” in the ballot box, but it is the Minister who is sitting there now, not them. When the hon. Member for Blyth Valley was elected, members of other parties had “significant support”; but he is the one who is sitting there, because he won the election. That was the verdict of the people.
Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the scenario. I received 51 per cent. of the vote in Blyth Valley at the general election, and the Liberal Democrat candidate received 40 per cent. It seems from the Minister’s letter that the electors did not know what they were doing when they voted for me. The Liberal Democrat candidate should be the Member of Parliament, because he received 40 per cent. of the vote.
The hon. Gentleman has illustrated the ludicrous position in which the Government have placed themselves.
In a sense the Government, in advance of the Bill, have exercised the powers that clause 7 gives them. There were certain other people whom they deemed it “appropriate” to consult, one of whom was the chief constable of Northumbria. It should be borne in mind that the chief constable of Northumbria administers a police area much larger than either the one or the two authorities. It is not as large as he would like it to be, because he wanted to enlarge it to embrace a vastly greater area and become a much bigger chief constable in the scheme of things. He lost his way in that respect.
The Minister’s letter states that there was 40 per cent. support for a single authority, but it also states that the chief constable is in favour of the proposal. That means that the chief constable personally has the equivalent of about 20 per cent. of the vote. He is not just “appropriate”; he has an incredibly weighted share of the vote.
I will qualify that by saying that the Government prayed one other body in aid as discounting the votes of the people: the North East chamber of commerce. As I recall, the chamber of commerce indicated that it could work with either of the options, but it, too, is a much bigger body. Clearly, all the bodies that are regional or sub-regional in scale prefer to work with fewer rather than more authorities. They will have fewer letters to write, and it makes life simpler.
If the Government are merely to consult people whom they deem it appropriate to consult or those on whom they can rely to support them, and then count them as though they represented thousands of votes in comparison with the opinion of the people who live in the area—those whose children will go to the schools administered by the authority, whose bins are emptied by the authority, who have a real and direct interest—we are making a complete nonsense of the procedure. The Minister must explain to us today how on earth such a decision came to be made, and how we can interpret the Bill as functioning legislation if, when the views of the people have been expressed fully and in a correctly administered referendum—for no one disputes the fact that the referendum was properly conducted—they can be overtaken by those of persons whom the Secretary of State deems it “appropriate” to consult. What are we doing here?
It appears that when we enact the Bill in the next few days, we shall be legitimising a travesty. That is a deplorable state of affairs, and it causes great offence. As I travelled around the villages of my constituency in September, time and again people came up to me and said, “We voted for two authorities. Why are we not getting two authorities?” Why are they not getting that? Because the Minister takes note of the people’s votes and then consults a few people he deems appropriate and whose views he considers to be more important than those of the people. That is no way to run a democracy.
What shocked the people of Northumberland was that although they had a vote that gave a mandate for a two-tier unitary authority and they naturally thought that they would get that—that they would get what they voted for, and wanted—it did not happen. Surveys were done. I did one myself that produced a result of 85 per cent. in favour of two tiers. The local council also did surveys, and it got a 97 per cent. result in favour.
People are deluding themselves if they think that they will get democracy from the Government—from my Government. Democracy must not only be seen to be done, but it must be done. We asked the people what they wanted, and then told them that another decision had been taken, without there even being a debate in Parliament. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, we do not know on what basis that decision was taken as we have never had a debate on the matter in this House. The Minister must tell us at some point why he took the decision to ignore the wishes of the people of Northumberland, who voted for a two-tier unitary authority. They are very disappointed and I cannot tell them why this has happened. I wrote to the Minister telling him, “I’m not going to explain your policy. You write to the newspapers and explain your policy, because I can’t explain it as I do not know about it.” I have not seen the documents or the final analysis that led the Minister to deviate from what was wanted and to make the subsequent decision.
One of the reasons why the hon. Gentleman has not seen the analysis is that when I made a freedom of information request to the Department in respect of the analysis of the consultation the Government had undertaken—the sort of consultation that is envisaged in the measure under discussion—the Government claimed exemption under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. I must now appeal, although I cannot get the appeal through before the Bill is passed, against the decision to refuse that request—a request not for the advice to Ministers but for the analysis made of the responses to the consultation. The hon. Gentleman has not seen that analysis because they will not let it out.
Indeed, we have not seen it. That is a large part of my argument. It has been kept from us, and yet here we are debating whether to pass this Bill through Parliament. That is not democracy. It has never been democracy in my eyes when the people are ignored—especially in such a way. I cannot say that we could put a hold on this Bill: Members can vote against it, of course, but the Government majority means that—unfortunately for the people of Northumberland—it will be passed. I am at a loss to know what will happen to Northumberland in the future, but I can say this much: it is not on my head.
Following such impassioned pleas from Members of different parties representing Northumberland constituencies, I wish to put in a final plea on behalf of the representatives of Shropshire constituencies, who have also gone through this travesty of a consultation. In the case of Shropshire, the primary reason that Ministers used to deny the evidence of the ballots presented to them was that the information on the ballot put forward by the councils opposed to unitary status was somehow deficient and biased. They chose not, however, to use that argument in respect of the authority in favour of unitary status; it put together a 16-page document, 14 pages of which were in favour of unitary status and two pages were opposed, and the population in South Shropshire voted by a 72 per cent. majority against unitary status. Inexplicably, that reason was deemed not to be relevant in the case of South Shropshire, whereas it was deemed relevant in the cases of the other two districts who voted against it. That is not what I wish to speak about, although I wanted to make a final plea to the Government to recognise the validity of the ballots that took place, but which seem to be about to be denied.
My hon. Friend and other Members have described the chaos that is still abroad in some of the areas affected by the botched unitary proposals. Does he share my disappointment that when a vote on whether there should be a referendum was proposed in the other place, our party supported it and the Liberal Democrats joined with the Government to prevent it going through?
I am glad that my hon. Friend mentions that, because constituents have asked me why the House of Lords did not overturn the proposal, and I had to tell them that Liberal Democrat peers were not prepared to support the Conservative amendment, which I deeply regret.
Is it not also true that in all these cases there has been no clear explanation of why the Government have made the decision irrespective of the votes of the people—of why, for example, they have decided that Ipswich should be a unitary authority when objectively it appears that the criteria that they themselves set up are not met?
It was clear throughout the debate in Committee that the Government are keen to install a system of local government that is as centralised as possible. We constantly had arguments about the Bill being about localising and making decisions closer to the people, but the reality of this unitary imposition by the Government is that decisions are being taken away from district councils as they will be abolished. We will have unitary councils through this wave, and although the Government have promised that there will not be a further wave, we should watch this space.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that it is difficult for the Government to take into account the results of the referendums throughout the country as many of them were very localised? In the case of Durham, the districts put out a one-sided case against a unitary. They claimed that that was a fair referendum when it clearly was not. It is therefore difficult for the Government to take such referendums into account in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests.
With the advent of a new Prime Minister whose opening mantra when taking up office was that he would listen to his people, the Government had a perfect opportunity to do so. Unfortunately, however, they decided to deny the people’s votes in these ballots.
Having got that off my chest, I wish to turn to Lords amendment No. 11 relating to clause 8. The Lords rightly propose that the Boundary Committee have due
(a) the need to secure effective and convenient local government; and
(b) the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities.”
I am pleased that the Government have taken the amendment on board because there is an opportunity, particularly in areas that are losing district councils and moving to new unitary authority boundaries and where new wards are to be created that cross previous district council boundaries. It is vital that the Boundary Committee takes into account both the geography and the local interests in those areas. We are entering new territory, and I am pleased that that has been reflected in this clause.
However, I ask the Minister to give some indication, especially to those outside the House who are concerned about the implementation of a boundary review into the new unitary areas, of the timetable under which the review will take place. One has to assume that, going forward, the new unitary authorities will take priority in terms of the work load of the Boundary Committee.
I hesitate to intrude on matters in Northumberland and Shropshire by dragging the debate in a direction just beyond the south-west extremes of England into the Duchy of Cornwall. I wish to address amendments Nos. 2 to 4 in particular. The change in relation to the Secretary of State from any
“person he believes to have an interest”
“such other persons as he considers appropriate”
gathers to the Secretary of State a great deal of power and discretion to take into account only, for example, a chief constable, and not someone who is simply in receipt of local government services. One might interpret the first form of words as applying to every resident in the area likely to be affected by the change in local government. That therefore implies that there should be a referendum—that there should be an opinion poll, or that there should be consultation of all residents of that local authority area and not only the chief constable and a few people whom the Secretary of State believes it to be appropriate to consult. One could use the example of the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) in that regard.
The Minister said that the purpose of the changes is also to ensure that principles of devolution are properly implemented. The implication, therefore, is that the Bill itself provides a substantial opportunity for local authorities to receive devolved powers. Although the amendments before us do not address devolution, there are some important devolution issues to consider, and Cornwall is a good case in point. During the process of bidding, consideration and the Secretary of State’s acceptance of a particular bid—in the case of Cornwall, there were two bids—the Government need to make clear what they are offering to local authorities that will be brought together to provide, in Cornwall’s case, a unitary authority.
It is important that we do not receive mixed messages, and I fear that the message that Cornwall county council—the successful of the two bidders for a unitary authority—received from the Secretary of State and the Department during the process was mixed. During my conversations with the Minister’s predecessor and others in the Department, it was unclear whether they were telling Cornwall’s local authorities that they could be a great deal more ambitious regarding the powers that they could draw down from agencies outside Cornwall to take decisions on affordable housing numbers, how NHS money is allotted to private hospitals, and a whole range of other planning and resource matters. In my view and that of Cornwall’s local authorities, decisions on convergence funding—what used to be called European objective 1 funding—are far better taken by those elected to represent the local people than by those appointed indirectly or directly by Government to take such decisions for them in Bristol or Exeter, for example, and who are therefore not locally accountable.
It is very important that the Government provide clarity on this issue. The Bill was debated on Second Reading in January and on Third Reading in May and votes were taken, but things have moved on and the scenario may well have changed. That, in turn, may well have changed the attitude of many of us to the Bill. Many engaged in this process were initially optimistic, even though the then Secretary of State made the veiled threat in the message put out to local authorities that no change is not an option; that, at least, is certainly how they understood it. A great deal of ambition was shown during the discussions on Cornwall’s bid. In fact and as I said, we had two bids. The bid from four of the six district councils clearly argued for the abolition of all Cornwall’s local authorities and their replacement with a single unitary authority. The county council’s bid was pretty much the same—in fact, the two bids were similar in many respects. However, they still could not agree on the exact configuration of internal matters within the proposed authority.
As a result of the Government’s selecting only one bid, rather than two, for further consultation within Cornwall as a whole, the district councils decided to campaign against the county council’s bid. In four of the six districts as part of that campaign, they carried out their own opinion poll, which was effectively a referendum. Whether the prevailing climate was the right one in which to undertake a referendum is open to question. This has been a contentious issue in Cornwall, but it was clear that the vast majority of people voted no—against the proposed single unitary authority.
The Minister needs to reflect on the fact that the changes proposed in amendments Nos. 2 to 4 give the Secretary of State power to ignore the vast majority of people who will be affected by such a change to local authorities. I consider that a substantial change that the House needs to reflect on. In effect, these provisions are saying that a substantial change to local government is a matter on which the Secretary of State need consult only the chief constable, in the case of Northumberland, and a few other so-called stakeholders—I do not like that expression—but not the stakeholders who really matter: those who consume the services provided by those local authorities.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on this issue and reassure us that, if need be, he will go back to the drawing board, make sure that local communities are fully consulted about the proposals, and clarify the mixed messages coming from his Department, so that in future, places such as Cornwall can pursue the ambition that I have described today: to draw down powers that will give Cornwall the substantial authority that it richly deserves.
I want to raise similar concerns about amendments Nos. 2 to 5. The term “consult” is widely understood and the provision offers quite a broad definition. To some extent, it allows people whom the Secretary of State might not necessarily want to hear to be included, but it also allows people to submit letters, to pass resolutions and to organise petitions to express their views. The phrase “such other persons as he considers appropriate” is more specific and limiting. It means that there are people whom the Secretary of State does not consider appropriate, so perhaps the House should ask, “Whom does the Secretary of State not want to consult?”
Effectively, judgments will have to be made, and weighting will have to be given. If the Secretary of State is taking a view on whom it is and is not appropriate to consult, that involves a judgment, including about the relative importance of different organisations. The Department must therefore have a view about how it gathers such information.
There is another issue that we must consider. Whenever any attempt is made to pick up on how much support there is for a particular change, it is important that the time frame be quite narrow. Organisations change, the control of councils changes, and the personnel who are the chief constables and chief fire officers, for example, change. One should not, therefore, simply gather together supporting letters from various organisations over a period of years, until a tipping point is reached whereby one says, “There is now enough support.” Some of the people involved in the earlier stages of such a process and who were convinced of a particular argument might well have changed their mind. A fairly narrow time frame is needed, so that there is a beginning and an end. The Government need to set out clearly their template for those whom they consider it appropriate to consult, and whom they think it not appropriate to consult.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. The chief constable’s views might be at variance with the police authority, which might have slightly more legitimacy in a particular area.
All this leads us to feel that the Bill does not provide us with enough information to make a judgment. The Government need to write to Members explaining who they feel are the sort of people it is appropriate to consult, what weight they would give that consultation and the time frame, and to put a copy of that letter in the Library.
Is it not also necessary to be clearer about what is to be consulted on and how detailed that consultation will be? Our experience up to now is that such consultation takes place in circumstances that, as other Members have said, lead to confusion. We need to know what is being consulted on, as well as to whom that consultation shall apply.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. If we are to pursue change, the important thing is to have a clear case and a clear way of consulting so that people know what the rules are. This brief debate—particularly the exchange of letters about Northumberland and the various other examples—shows that the Government seem to have an agenda in which they seek change and look for different things in each area.
The hon. Gentleman is talking a great deal of sense, because by saying that different weight has to be given to different consultees, he goes to the nub of the problem. If, as others seem to be arguing, the consultative referendum should be binding, there is no point consulting anybody else. If it is not to be binding and is to be simply a consultative referendum, surely that should be made clear and people should not feel that its outcome is binding on anyone.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He has had a lot of experience, having spent many hours on this Bill. It is clear to me, and I hope to other hon. Members, that the Government would benefit from making things clearer, because people would know what the ground rules are. A degree of confusion exists, and the Bill does not clear it up. The Minister must publish a letter or document setting out how the Government intend to proceed in these matters to give comfort and reassurance to those of us who will support change only if there is an overwhelming case for it.
I might be going mad, but I am sure that things were clear in Northumberland because the assembly vote was on the same ballot paper as the question of unitary authorities. We had the choice of the two votes, so we were clear that we would be voting for an assembly. Had we voted for an assembly, we would have got one, because that is what the Government wanted. Why did they ask the people of Northumberland when they knew that those people were not going to get what they wanted?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. Hon. Members have had a long recess in order to talk to many constituents, particularly those in Northumberland, who had the lucky experience of being consulted on their local government. The situation raises many questions and the Minister must reassure this House that the proposed changes in this Bill will make things clearer, rather than more opaque. He must set out clearly to all of us what the Government intend to do, so that when our constituents ask us how will things happen, who will be consulted and what the procedure will be, we can give a degree of certainty, rather than look blank and say that we are not sure.
This debate is a microcosm of discussions since the publication of the White Paper, let alone those on Second Reading: the Government have some good things in the Bill, but they are hopelessly outweighed by some of the bad things.
I want to address my remarks to Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4, and thus to clause 7. I see the provisions as safeguarding ones. It would be nice to report that they were safeguarding local democracy, but they are not—they are safeguarding the Secretary of State. The aim of these Lords amendments is to make the Secretary of State’s ultimate decision fireproof by including the words
“such other persons as he considers appropriate.”
He would thus be fireproof from legal challenge and criticism, whereas had we kept the phrase
“he believes to have an interest”,
it would have been more difficult for him to wriggle out.
We have heard a number of examples of the consultation process so far producing what seem to many hon. Members present to be perverse outcomes. I hope that in commenting on those revised words from the Lords which he is endorsing the Minister tells the House what tests of reasonableness will be used when the Secretary of State considers an issue. Will the Minister give us a clue about what he thinks “appropriate” means and some examples of things that are appropriate and things that are not? Obviously, those will be mediated by an interpretation of reasonableness in relation to consideration. He might, although I doubt it, give some consolation to hon. Members who have spoken if he could help us on the reasonableness of the Secretary of State’s consideration and give us a clue about the appropriateness.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell) have made it clear that even when Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament are unanimous about a particular outcome it does not carry as much weight as the chief constable. That perhaps tells us something about the direction in which our democratic system is going.
Will the Minister give the House a clear explanation of what factors are leading him and the Secretary of State to refuse to release the analysis of the consultation? It is obviously not commercial confidentiality, so there must be some substantial reason behind that refusal that has not yet come to light. I hope that the Minister will tell us that.
The defects of the process in Northumberland, Shropshire and Cornwall have been mentioned. I shall mention two other cases. In County Durham, there are similar rows and tensions. My colleagues in the City of Durham point out to me that their substantial public consultation produced an overwhelming result, but it is also being overlooked.
I could not let the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the City of Durham pass without comment and a question. The referendum that was circulated by all the districts in County Durham was incredibly one-sided and they refused to allow the county council to deliver any information about the single unitary authority along with the ballot papers. Although the vote in favour of the status quo was substantial, the Government should disregard that result because it was an extremely biased referendum. However, in the referendum that took place as part of the north-east assembly referendum, the people of Durham did vote in favour of a single unitary authority.
I think that I shall let those remarks stand on their own. I understand that, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out, the referendum that she mentions was not conducted solely by the City of Durham but by councils of a variety of political flavours in County Durham, the majority of which are run by the Labour party.
I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman poses the question to the Association of Chief Police Officers and sees how the answer lies, because he may get more of a hint from that than from a referendum.
I return to Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 4. The key phrase in the debate is who the Secretary of State “considers appropriate”. I want briefly to draw hon. Members’ attention to a county of which I have some knowledge. The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christine Russell) is not present, but Cheshire is an interesting case in point, because two bids were submitted to the Minister, one proposing that there should be one unitary county council area and another proposing that there should be three separate district unitary authorities. The Secretary of State has said, “That is interesting. We have got a bid for one and a bid for three. I propose to make two.” Such a proposal is not favoured by any of the local authorities. I have not heard the view of the chief constable on this one, but I would be surprised if he thought it a terribly good idea either. The Minister might be able to help us on that. All of the examples illustrate the point that the amendments form a safeguarding clause, not for local democracy—which is what it should be about—but for the Secretary of State.
This is a passionate plea for greater attention to be paid by the Government to the views of the people who have been caught up in unitary problems, including those in my county of Bedfordshire. I am therefore even more puzzled why the Liberal Democrats in the other place did not support the proposal by Baroness Hanham for a referendum when unitary proposals are being considered. Can the hon. Gentleman explain that?
I am obviously glad that I gave way to the hon. Gentleman. We have made it clear in both Houses that we believe that popular consent in the locality is important. Indeed, the whole process should be driven from the local level, not the Secretary of State’s desk.
The legislation on the statute book gives the Secretary of State powers to introduce unitary authorities if he wishes, and the only thing that the Minister can say is that the new process in the Bill is just a little bit better than the one that the Conservatives left on the statute book, which could be used if this provision were defeated. This debate has illustrated the flaws in the Bill, in that it does not make the right provision for protecting local democracy that it should.
With the leave of the House, I will try to respond to the debate, especially the points relating to the amendments, although some general, contextual arguments have also been made. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell), the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) and, to some degree, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), as well as the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), touched—in ways related to their area and constituency interests—on specific proposals for unitary authorities that are currently being considered. I recognise and understand the fierce views and high feelings, as well as the entrenched interests, that are inevitably part of such a debate. I have only recently taken up this post and this process, but I have quickly come to realise that we cannot consider, let alone proceed with, change of this nature without upsetting and unsettling many people.
The point that I was making is that my hon. Friend has a sufficient and special interest to be in the House this afternoon and to contribute to the debate on the amendments in a way that some other hon. Members do not. I accept that he is reflecting the views of some of his constituents and his councillors.
On the question of support, we were clear, when we published the invitation to submit proposals in October 2006, that any proposals would be considered against five criteria. One of those criteria would be the extent of the cross-section of support. That was set out clearly, in headline terms and in detail, and we have consistently brought judgments to bear and applied those criteria reasonably, throughout the process. Indeed, that includes being challenged on some of our judgments in the courts.
One of the key tests was that any proposal would have
“to have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users/citizens.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the original invitation to submit proposals. That was deliberate, because we wanted a formative process of consultation, in which those agencies and local people had an opportunity to contribute to the development of potential proposals that may be submitted to the Secretary of State. It was also deliberate in that it allowed local authorities to seek the views of local people in the way that they thought best, not by prescribing—as some hon. Members have suggested this afternoon that we should have done—in detail from the centre, but as part of the process led by the local authorities. The authorities could choose whether—and if so, how—to take the views of local residents.
In the Secretary of State’s letter to district councils, he acknowledged that
“whilst there is support”—
for the two-authority proposal—
“from a broad range of stakeholders”—
so it met that criterion—
“the proposals lack support from any key public sector stakeholders.”
So it is all right if one has broad support, but one also has to have public sector support. All six districts are public sector stakeholders, of course, and they supported the proposal, so we come back to the chief constable. How many votes does a chief constable have?
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the single unitary proposal in Northumberland also had support—not significant, but minority support—from the results of the referendum in 2004. It had support from, as he rightly says, the north-east chambers of commerce and the chief constable. However, as I have tried to suggest, a broad cross-section of support was just one of five criteria that any of the proposals had to meet in order to proceed. The weakness of the proposal for two unitaries in Northumberland was not the level or nature of the support, but the strength of leadership and the doubts about whether the two authorities could deliver the services required by the people of the area. If the right hon. Gentleman checks the letter of decision, he will see that that was part of the explanation for the Secretary of State’s decision in July.
As I apply those criteria to the decisions in Suffolk, it appears that the opposite decision was made and the opposite conclusion reached. I make no argument about whether that should have been the case or not, just that nobody understands because those five criteria have been applied differently in almost every circumstance. It is totally confusing to the electorate.
The matter to which the right hon. Gentleman refers was not a question of Suffolk, but of Ipswich. The proposal for a unitary Ipswich met the five criteria, and in publishing the decision the Secretary of State made clear the way in which the proposal met them in that case.
But the Minister has just said that the public sector did not support the arrangements in Northumberland. Which public sector bodies in Suffolk supported the proposal that was then accepted? It would be much quicker to list those that supported the proposal than to list those that did not, because the fact is that none did, except Ipswich borough council.
First, the right hon. Gentleman misquotes what I said about Northumberland. Secondly, we had more than 50,000 responses in the process of inviting and considering the unitary proposals. We will publish those shortly and he will be able to consult them for himself.
There is an important difference between the nature of the points that have been made in the debate today about support as an element of the five criteria that we have taken into account, and the terms of the Bill, which are about the Secretary of State’s consultation during the process. Those are two different things.
Before the Minister leaves the matter of the criteria, I hope he will reflect on the fact that the problem in Bedfordshire is even more confusing than my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) suggested. One of the criteria in Bedford borough council’s unitary bid was not met and yet that became the Government’s preferred bid, even though the Government accepted all five of the criteria in the county council’s bid. Like my right hon. Friend, I make no argument about the merits of either bid, but merely point out that it is the confusion about the criteria and the judgments made by the Government that has caused so much distress and difficulty in local authorities around the country.
The hon. Gentleman’s understanding of these matters is normally very precise and accurate, but I must correct him. The Government would not be minded to proceed with the bid to which he has referred if it did not meet the five criteria. However, it does meet those criteria, as the decision made clear. Even so, we have some questions about the financial cases being presented by Bedford and three other borough councils, and we have sought extra information. That information has been made available to the county and to anyone else with an interest, including Members of Parliament. We are now considering the further information and views that have been submitted, and we will be in a position to make our final judgments if and when this Bill receives Royal Assent.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) dwelt at length on the question of the Secretary of State’s consultation. That consultation, which covered 16 proposals, was launched in March and ran to 22 June. It did not touch on questions of plebiscites or referendums or examine whether a cross-section of support should be one of the five criteria. Its very specific purpose was to help my right hon. Friend to seek the views of those in a position to give an informed judgment as to whether, on the evidence available, the proposal met the five criteria that had been set. The consultation was not a way for her to duplicate—in what, almost inevitably, would have been a less effective way—the information, evidence and views that, as part of the proposals that had been submitted, the council had gathered from its citizens and service users.
I can tell the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed that we have released the information that he requested. We have done so properly and in accordance with the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. We have not released certain information that we should not release. We will publish shortly a summary of the responses to the consultation process. As I said earlier, we had more than 50,000 of them. Our final decisions will take into account all the relevant information gathered and received in that process, and any supplementary and further information that we have received since we made our announcements in July.
I want to be frank with the Minister. Under the Freedom of Information Act, he has released a copy of all the responses that I received. I cannot imagine that he has read every one of them and would not expect him to. I expect that he has been given a piece of paper analysing—although not necessarily giving advice about—the conclusions of the responses. I want to be sure that that analysis did not say that the overwhelming view, especially among the relevant stakeholders, was that there should be two authorities. My point is that if he received that information and then ignored it, that would be a very relevant factor.
The information that we have not released is precisely as the right hon. Gentleman has just described—that is, advice to Ministers. By convention, and under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act, such information is not necessarily disclosable. If the information assessment analysis of the proposals found that the single unitary authority for Northumberland did not meet the five criteria, we could not have proceeded, even if we were minded to. I can assure him that the single unitary proposal for Northumberland did indeed meet the five criteria that we set but, as I explained earlier, the proposal for two unitary authorities in the county did not.
If and when the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Government will be able to reach final decisions and make the orders required to set up the unitary structures. We aim to do that in December, and the affirmative resolution procedure will mean that the orders can be debated in this House. Where the process has not started already, we expect the proposing authorities and those in other affected areas to knuckle down and prepare for the unitary structures and authorities that we intend to set up. All being well, they will be up and running by April 2009.
I believe that the decision to set up a single unitary authority was taken because the county is in debt. It always has been, as it is very poorly run. It has very little in the way of reserves that the districts could take away. However, as I said before, the districts have reserves and capital receipts that we think amount to about £17 million.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On a point of principle, and not in respect of any particular area, I seek clarification of the orders to be put before the House after the Bill has been enacted. Clause 7(3) states that the Secretary of State may not make an order under what will be this Act without proper consultation. Earlier, I highlighted the distinction between the persons whom the Secretary of State deems appropriate and those whom she believes have an interest. Before the orders are put before the House, will the Minister confirm that the Secretary of State will consult those who have a genuine interest in the outcome of the change in local authority? In other words, will there be further consultation? It is clear that whole groups of people have not been consulted or given sufficient status in the process so far.
I have already explained the nature and purpose of the Secretary of State’s consultation, and the way in which it was conducted as part of the process. In drawing up the draft orders that will be required to set up unitary authorities there will be further discussions with interested parties in the affected areas.
When I used to do the job of the Secretary of State and answers were produced of the sort that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned, there was a covering note analysing them. It was not advice from civil servants to the Minister but a factual statement of what was in the totality of the response and the civil servants then gave the Minister advice on it. I think the right hon. Gentleman was asking two things. First, was there ever such a document? If not, there is a question as to whether the Minister had access to the facts. Secondly, if there were such a document, why was it treated as advice by civil servants instead of as a mere factual statement of the contents of the bundle?
I do not think I can be clearer because I have said this twice already: we shall shortly publish a summary of the responses we received as part of the process—precisely the sort of document to which reference has been made. I shall ensure that a copy is placed in the Library.
The hon. Member for Ludlow asked a specific question about the work of the Electoral Commission in looking into possible electoral arrangements in a new unitary authority. The informal discussions we have held with the commission suggest that it is likely to be able to undertake and complete that work in time for elections in any new unitary authority in 2009.
The hon. Member for Cornwall—[Interruption.]—the hon. Member for St. Ives is very much a Cornish Member and loses no opportunity to speak on Cornish matters. The proposal for a unitary Cornwall authority, which we are minded to implement, would establish the sort of body that he is interested in seeing. First, it is a good way—possibly the best way—to reflect the particular identity of Cornwall and give the county the leadership it requires. Secondly, it gives the leadership needed to undertake and exercise some of the future powers we consider appropriate and will look to devolve to local authorities.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his welcome to me in my new post. He expressed two concerns. I think he was arguing that the Bill might result in parishes being split between district, or even county, council areas. That is not the case. It would not happen. Clause 11(4)(c) allows the Secretary of State to amend the boundary of any parish as part of a boundary change order. The Secretary of State would, therefore, ensure that no parish area was split between district or county council areas.
The hon. Gentleman’s second concern was that the Secretary of State could seek the boundary committee’s advice on matters such as electoral arrangements and parish boundaries even though those matters would not have been subject to full public consultation as part of the review process. The principle underpinning the Bill is consistent: electoral arrangements are a matter for the Electoral Commission’s consideration, not for the Secretary of State, as we have made clear throughout the passage of the Bill when that point has been raised. However, the Secretary of State should be able to put in place interim arrangements, so that once a decision has been taken on a structural or boundary change, the change can happen as soon as possible. If the Secretary of State puts in place interim electoral arrangements as part of implementing a structural boundary change, the Electoral Commission is under a duty to consider whether an electoral review should be conducted by its boundary committee. The commission’s continuing role in keeping the electoral arrangements of local authorities in England under review will remain unaffected.
I hope I have been able to deal with the many points that have been raised in the debate and that Members will accept the amendments in the group, thus allowing them to remain part of the Bill.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 2 to 23 agreed to.
Resolution for whole-council elections: requirements
Lords amendment: No. 24.
We now move on to part 2 of the Bill, which deals with elections. In response to good debate, strong scrutiny and a well argued case in the other place, the Government made a number of amendments.
As Members are aware, part 2 contains provisions on resolution periods, in which local authorities can resolve to change their scheme for elections. We introduced an amendment to extend the resolution period from three months to approximately six months following concerns that the three-month period originally proposed was too short.
The amendments to clauses 33, 38 and 40 extend the resolution periods set out in the Bill so that they begin on the day after the council’s annual meeting, and end on 31 December. Linking the resolution periods to the annual meeting, which will always take place after the election in an election year, ensures that local government elections will not take place during a resolution period. We also introduced a number of technical amendments to clauses 33, 38 and 40, in line with existing provisions in the Local Government Act 1972. 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—a review of wards or electoral divisions in a council’s area.
In short, the amendments modernise the electoral review processes. They meet the Electoral Commission’s request that the process should be made more flexible; for instance, by allowing the boundary committee to conduct a shorter review to deal with more straightforward matters such as minor electoral boundary changes.
We made amendments to clause 59 in response to concerns raised in the other place about provisions for changing the names of electoral areas, which are district wards and county divisions. Concerns were raised about ensuring that there were appropriate measures, or safeguards, to prevent names being changed too often and without local debate. I think the amendments satisfy those concerns.
The Government made an amendment to clause 60 to require the Secretary of State in England, and Welsh Ministers in Wales, to make any order moving the date of local government elections so that they take place on the same date as the European parliamentary elections, at least six months before the scheduled date of the local government elections or European parliamentary elections, whichever is earlier. We were responding to a similar amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) in this place and by the Conservatives in the other place. At the time, we agreed to give the matter further consideration and our amendment honours that.
We accepted that there needs to be a substantial period between the making of an order changing the date of local government elections and the election thereby affected. Clearly such a period is needed to allow electoral administration staff sufficient time to put in place the necessary arrangements if the date of the election is to be changed. It also allows them to be more confident after a particular point that no change would be made to the election date.
I look forward to hearing what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has to say, but I was slightly surprised by the amendment that he has tabled. It seems to favour a 12-month notice period even though Baroness Hanham, who leads for the Conservative party in the other place, tabled an amendment for six months just as the Government amendment proposes. We have accepted the need for a substantial period between the order and the election, and I have explained the reasons for that. However, by making the period too long, we would lose the potential value of the provision and would risk being in a similar position to the one that the Representation of the People Act 1983 gives us. The period between the notice and the order and the election itself would not allow us the flexibility to make the changes. That is one of the reasons why the provisions in the 1983 Act have been used just once in nearly 25 years.
I declare an interest as a member of Tameside metropolitan council until next May. Metropolitan districts such as Tameside and Stockport—they cover my constituency—elect by thirds so, in reality, they have annual elections except for the fallow year. Would the Conservative amendment not mean that local authorities would be looking at the election in front of the forthcoming election because the 12-month period would mean that, for example, the local election in May would be before the following election that is linked to the European election? That would cause great confusion for the electoral services officers in those local authorities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If the argument is for a 12-month period between the order and the election, clearly the process of preparing the order, consulting on it and the consideration in the House beforehand mean precisely that one would have to make the changes a year before the election. Even though the Electoral Commission has raised the issue with us, I have not heard sufficient or persuasive arguments for a 12-month period. The six-month period that appears in the Bill is the right one to put in place. The arguments for such a period to appear in the Bill were correct, and that is why we tabled the amendment in the other place. I hope that this House will accept that amendment and the other amendments in the group.
I draw attention to amendment (a) to amendment No. 48 that was tabled by me and my hon. Friends.
I again recognise the work that has been done by the Government and those in the other place to seek the concessions that the Minister has mentioned for extending the time for changes to council elections. It is also appreciated that changes have been made that will make it less likely that we have “Kellyshire” or—dare I say it—“Healeyshire” produced as an administrative change by Secretaries of State should local authority areas change their name. The provision should prevent something like that from happening. We appreciate the fact that the arguments have been listened to.
We spent a long time on the first group of amendments so I shall save time by returning to the issues relating to moving the date of the local elections and tying them in with European parliamentary elections. The Minister has already considered that point, but he is entitled to an explanation as to why we have brought forward our proposal now when it was not considered in the other place a little while ago. Circumstances change and it cannot have escaped the notice of the House that choosing the date of an election is a stressful experience. In recent times, we have seen stress attached to a number of issues relating to elections. First, the Prime Minister seemed to suffer a great deal of angst about the date of a proposed general election. He spent much time briefing journalists and talking about it. Secondly, within the past 24 hours, we have considered the problems associated with the former Secretary of State for Scotland and his involvement in the electoral process in Scotland and the technical issues associated with that.
The combination of those two things has given rise to concern in the minds of commentators and objective observers of the parliamentary and electoral scene, and it has been proposed that a Government should distance themselves as far as possible from the suggestion that the moving of election dates and the adjustment of election arrangements has anything to do with any potential party political advantage. That issue has become of much greater importance.
Into that very new situation come the concerns of the Electoral Commission that have been communicated to us within the past 24 hours. It says:
“Although the Commission is generally content with clause 60, it believes that provision should be made on the face on the Bill that the Order moving the date of the elections must be made at least a year before it is due to take effect. Whilst the Commission welcomes Government’s acceptance that a notice period is required,”—
that is a movement—
“as introduced through a Government amendment, we still believe that a full year is necessary.”
The Commission makes another point that is particularly significant in the current context and I offer it to the Minister as a branch to be grasped so that a Government can show distance between themselves and any potential hint of suspicion of party political advantage that I know that he would do his best to avoid. The commission says that it
“is concerned that even with a provision for a six month notice period, present or future Governments may be able to gain a perceived advantage by moving the date of the elections at a late stage. A change to the date of the elections at short notice may raise concerns from the public as well as political parties and candidates that such a decision was politically motivated. In turn, this could damage confidence in the democratic system.”
If those were my words and that was my argument, I grant that the Minister would do well to stand up and reject them and say that it was scaremongering on a grand scale. However, I put to him the context of the past 24 hours and of the past two to three weeks when decisions about elections have been so much in the public mind and it has even been suggested that opinion polls can sway a Prime Minister in making a decision about an election date. I know that that has been denied and rejected, so I cannot possibly make that argument from the Dispatch Box with any great conviction. However, the public perception could have been affected by the sense that party political motives could have come into consideration, so here is a cast-iron opportunity for the Minister and the Government to show how much has been learned.
As a result of the Electoral Commission expressing doubt and concern about the six-month date, we quickly learned to revise the view that we put forward in the other place, which was that six months was about right. We have learned to take note of those concerns. If the time comes when we are in government and we need to use the provision that we are talking about, we would want to make sure that we stood well apart from the process, and that we were not contributing in any way to potential public suspicion that election dates might—forgive me for saying so—be chosen with party considerations in mind. We therefore accept the Electoral Commission’s view that the Bill is an opportunity for us to create that distance. We have no doubt that the decision to bring two dates together may have practical advantages, and we do not reject that as a solution, but the amendment is a belt-and-braces job to make sure that the decision is not clouded by party political considerations.
Of course, as we learned recently, a week is a long time in politics; six months is almost an eternity. I think that the six-month date that the Lords decided on is correct, for all the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gives, but to reiterate an earlier point, the May 2004 local elections were of course moved at fairly short notice to coincide with the 10 June 2004 European elections. That caused some problems for electoral services, not least in north-west England, where we also had the benefit of an all-postal pilot. Six months is the right decision. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that a 12-month period, which is suggested in his amendment, would mean that the decision to move the May 2009 local elections to coincide with the June 2009 European elections would have to be taken before the May 2008 local elections, which just does not make sense?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, but I do not follow his argument. All that our amendment asks is that a notice period be given; I do not think that that has any bearing on the running of an election. I do not think that the public will be confused, because by and large the public will not be involved in that. They will simply recognise that a decision was taken, long before any changes took place—and as he rightly says, in the political environment, changes can occur very quickly—that might give those with the power to make such a decision a reason either to merge two dates or to separate them.
The Electoral Commission says that it would be a belt-and-braces approach to allow a rather longer period than was originally envisaged. I concede that if the Electoral Commission had not come up with the suggestion, I do not think that we would have run our amendment today, but we have become sensitive to public concerns on the subject. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman raising the issue of postal votes; we could talk about electronic voting, too, because I put it to him that those experiments have not been connected with a sense that all is well. Allegations have been raised that different forms of voting can be manipulated for party political purposes. A string of cases across the country has emphasised the risks. Our measure is designed to prevent that risk.
The hon. Gentleman is a good democrat with a seat on the council. In Committee, he spoke warmly about sitting on the council, and we all recognise that the fact that he does so is important in the democratic system; it gives him the good base from which he speaks. He will be even more concerned than the rest of us to make sure that no cloud of suspicion attaches to anyone if, for administrative purposes, a decision needs to be made to bring together the dates of local and EU elections. Our measure gives him the opportunity to cast out that cloud of suspicion, and to be on the right side in any benefit-of-the-doubt argument. That is the point that I put to the Minister.
Circumstances have changed, and it is not the Minister’s fault that he joins, and brings his talents to, the Department for Communities and Local Government just when there is a maelstrom of decisions to be taken on local elections, and election dates and the perils associated with them. However, it falls to him to make a quick decision and to say, “You’ve got me there; I agree absolutely. We’ll go for the belt-and-braces, 12-month option. Then we’ll be secure, and no one will raise any hint of suspicion.” The measure is a reasonable proposition. It is a simple amendment to the Bill, and I commend it to the House.
First, let me say that the string of Lords amendments that we are considering represent good progress. They improve the legislation. I want to speak to Lords amendment No. 48, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) just did. The amendment is a great improvement on what was in the Bill before; the Minister is right about that. I recommend that he takes a look at our debate on Report on 22 May this year. I moved what was then amendment No. 265, which would have introduced a 12-month period for consideration. I did that on the basis of information supplied to me by the Electoral Commission. It said that it had concerns about the Bill as it was then drafted, and that it believed that a longer period was necessary. In fact, the Electoral Commission went beyond that and stated in a letter of 9 May last year:
“We believe that provision should be made on the face of the Bill for the Order moving the date of the election to have to be made at least a year before it is due to take effect.”
That was the Electoral Commission’s view back then and, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire, that remains the commission’s view, even though the Government have moved some way towards meeting it.
On that occasion I did not press the matter to a vote because the Minister said that she was not aware of what the Electoral Commission was arguing and that she would give consideration to the point that had been raised. To be fair to the Government, they have given consideration and come back with an improvement, but it is not a sufficient improvement.
To some extent the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and I share a borough, if not a political viewpoint. Surprisingly, when we worked on the Committee, we were quite often on the same side of the argument. I share his views about the 2004 elections and what we both faced as a consequence. However, when he reads it in Hansard, he will no doubt be a little ashamed of his argument that to give longer notice would confuse people. It does not stand up at all, does it?
It would be open to the Government to announce this week that when we get to June 2009, the local elections will be held on the same day as the European elections. In the back of our minds, I guess that most of us assume that in due course that announcement will be made. It would not make any difference to the electors next May or the following May that that piece of news was entrusted to them. I recognise the loyalty of the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish in coming to the aid of his Front-Bench team, and his bravery in advancing an argument without any merit whatever.
The Lords amendment is a distinct improvement but not a sufficiently good improvement, in the view of the Electoral Commission. That is a body to which the Government rightly pay proper attention when it expresses its views. Sometimes we on the Opposition Benches think that the Electoral Commission gets it wrong, but the Government say, “No, the Electoral Commission comes first, never mind Opposition Members.” On this occasion, the Electoral Commission has come up with a straightforward, practical argument that it would be right for that announcement to be made earlier than the Government are proposing.
The Electoral Commission gave two separate reasons for that, one of which is the need for the planning of the election by returning officers throughout the country, which seems a legitimate one. The last thing the Government can afford is elections that are not properly organised and run, and local government does not need unduly stressed electoral returning officers.
The second reason that the Electoral Commission gave is that we must remove any suspicion that the change in date was motivated by party political considerations. The hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire deployed those arguments. I deployed them back in May, so I shall not restate them to the House now, but I ask the Government, who have understood that there is a problem, to solve the problem rather than making a token move in the right direction. There can be no harm in it for them as a Government to have the legislation in the form that the Electoral Commission wants. Indeed, it protects them against any charge of a lack of integrity or of cheap party political decision-making.
The change is not difficult. Most of us would be unsurprised if those two election dates were brought together. Except in some quarters, it will not be a matter of great controversy, so why do the Government not say, “Yes, we accept that 12 months is the right period of time. We will give consideration to that, and some time before May 2008 we will announce whether we want the May 2009 local elections to be moved to match the European elections.” That surely verges on a no-brainer. I hope that when he responds, the Minister will accept the point.
I also want to speak to amendment No. 48.
I do not like elections to be run on the same day. People vote for a particular reason; at a local level, they may vote because they want efficient council services and they perceive that their local authority is doing a bad or a good job. Trying to run local authority elections with European elections, because politicians perceive a turnout problem or whatever, is wrong and should not be encouraged.
I rather agree with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). We know when the European election will be and when the local elections are scheduled; there is a month’s difference. Most of us would presume that the Government would want to move the date, and that decision could be made now. The only argument, which I am addressing, is about whether it is good or bad to have the elections on the same day. That decision does not have to be made six months or a year in advance; at this precise moment, the decision could be taken that, as a matter of course, European parliamentary elections should be held on the same day as local elections. Votes for councils involved in election by thirds would be made in May, May and then June.
The argument deployed by the Electoral Commission—and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)—can be as easily accepted as any other: the decision should be made earlier rather than later. Electoral returning officers would know what the situation was and all those who take holidays and wish to apply for postal votes would know with a great deal more certainty when the elections were coming.
Of course, it is possible that the day of the European and local elections would be a general election day. We might have three elections. That would not necessarily be insurmountable. Scotland’s problem, addressed by a statement in the House this week, is more to do with the bizarre single transferable vote system used north of the border than with the brilliant and perfect simplicity of the first-past-the-post system, which we dearly love. If we did have general, European and local elections on the same day, there would be a list system for the European election, so two systems would be deployed. I do not know what the Government’s thinking would be at that stage; I suspect that they would have to make a judgment about having the local and European elections on the same day. The general election judgment might be made rather later.
If at all; if we did not go to 2010.
As I said, elections should be, for example, clearly about local government or clearly about European issues. We have to acknowledge that these days people vote differently in different elections. That is terrible for us in politics, who like people always to vote for our parties in every election and on every occasion. However, there are Conservative voters who vote Liberal Democrat in local elections because they perceive local Liberal Democrats to be better, more active or more interested. People may vote for the UK Independence party or another party in a European election because they perceive that on a particular issue their views may be more in line with that party’s.
It is very odd. However, more volatility is one of the features of modern politics. People are starting to vote in different ways for different elections. One of the ways in which we in the political establishment try to get round that is by trying to ram everything on to the same day in the hope that there will be a sort of party list and that everybody will turn out to tick the correct box for each election. Things would also be easier for our activists. We all know how difficult it is to wind up our activists for a European election, particularly when it is done on regional lists; one feels rather lost in a constituency of 3 million or 4 million.
The political establishment rather like to run things together in the hope that they can keep party discipline, but the reality is that the electorate out there prefer to make their different choices, whether they do so for Ipswich or Suffolk, for who they want to represent them in the European Parliament, or for which Government they want. We have seen a greater spread of votes in that respect over recent years. I therefore generally deprecate running elections on the same day.
I support the view that there should be at least a year before changes of this kind could be implemented. I do so first and foremost in defence of the democratic principle that the arrangements for elections should be as distant from the parties that take part in them as is humanly possible. It is crucial that we get it right, not only for this country but to set a gold standard for others. We are the country that pioneered many of the rules and regulations that ensure fair elections.
We have an Electoral Commission, which was established in order to distance such decisions about electoral procedure from this House and the political parties within it. I ask the Minister to think seriously before he decides that he will not accept a recommendation by the Electoral Commission. There are occasions when the practical experience of this House may lead us to suggest that something that the commission recommends is not appropriate, but we must be able to argue the case very strongly, with genuine reasons for achieving the end in view. In all other cases, the House would do well to accept as a matter of course that which the Electoral Commission has recommended, not least because the public out there properly see it as an independent proposal and would quite likely judge a change proposed by us to be a mechanism to avoid the consequences of that proposal. I do not think that that is the case, but the Minister needs to explain very clearly why a six-month notice period is so superior to 12 months that it should be preferred against the independent advice.
I happen to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) about putting elections together. I have always thought that administrative convenience and neatness are never proper defences for actions when those actions may well be seen by the public as encouraging a different result from that which might occur were there to be separate elections. I personally feel very strongly about the offensive nature of the list system, which does not enable me to choose between candidates. We are sometimes faced with lists where our attraction to all the candidates standing even for the party which we support is, shall we say, somewhat limited. In those circumstances—it happens on all sides of the fence—people make a different decision when they go into the polling booth. It is pretty dangerous for us to say that it is better that they should not do that, because that decision is not up to politicians to make. If people wish to be volatile in their choice—if they wish to vote differently in different elections—our job is to convince them, if we wish to, that they should not. However, that decision is their electoral and democratic right.
I have strong objections to the bulking together of elections in any case, but what must be true is that such a decision must be made at a distance whereby no one could think it to be party political. In that respect, not only the Electoral Commission matters but the ordinary punter. I think that most people would feel perfectly happy were the Government to make such a decision now about 2009, even if they did not really approve of the bulking together of elections.
I think that the public would be perfectly happy with a notice period of about 12 months. I am a bit worried, however, that many people think that some shenanigans are going on. The Minister has to accept that they have pretty good reason to think that, given the events of the past four weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) made the case moderately and carefully, without casting aspersions in any way. However, it looks to most people out there as if there has been some pretty peculiar behaviour regarding electoral dates in recent months. It is reasonable to say that we do not want people to lose confidence in the electoral system, so I support the proposal that we accept the continued desire for the period in question to be a full year.
I come to the amendment relating to names—I am sorry that the Minister has not taken the opportunity to deal with another problem which I hope he agrees to reconsider. I am proud to represent the constituency of Suffolk, Coastal. It is the only constituency in Britain that has an ungrammatical title—a problem that I have always had with it. The boundaries of my constituency have changed every 10 years, and whereas it once was contiguous with the Suffolk Coastal district council area, now it is not. I take in a significant part of the Waveney district council, but not a significant part of the Suffolk Coastal district council. That is a confusing element for perfectly reasonable constituents who might have had no reason to write to their Member of Parliament, but now wish to. They see the name Suffolk, Coastal, they happen to live in Framlingham, which is within the area of Suffolk Coastal district council, and so they write to me, because I sit for Suffolk, Coastal. I do not, however, represent Framlingham. The issue is particularly difficult because I used to do so.
Similarly, the hon. Member for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) used to have a seat that included Southwold, Halesworth and the villages round about. People with no political connections living in the Waveney district council area tend to write to the Member of Parliament for Waveney. The situation confuses them, and there ought to be a willingness to have names for constituencies that are not confusing. My worry about the amendment is that it may put people off some of the changes that should have been made automatically. A constituency should not have the same nomenclature as a district council unless the two are coterminous.
The problem arises when tiny alterations take place. We get used to this. At the next election I shall be fighting for a seat that does not include Wisset. It is very sad for me, but I shall lose Wisset. I shall, however, gain Shadingfield and three small villages nearby. Another group of people are liable to be confused. We politicians think the matter very obvious, but most people do not have access to or an interest in the political structure, except from time to time. Sometimes, it is a long time between arrangements. People write to a Member of Parliament who they thought was the right one, and who was the right one when they last wrote, only to find that the situation has changed.
I put a plea to the Minister to do something about that, even if it means going back to some of the old names. I would not mind being the Member of Parliament for Dunwich, which was a rotten borough. I started off as the Member of Parliament for Eye, which was also a rotten borough—it is not now. At least that would mean that the people of Halesworth do not feel that they are looked after by Felixstowe or Woodbridge.
There is a problem for constituencies—particularly one by the coast that is 74 miles long, as mine is—because different places do not want to see others given pre-eminence. We may need names that are not well-known, but which make a distinction between the constituency and the district council. It worries me that the amendment has not considered that fact. Although this is not the place to do it, I hope that the Minister accepts that there are a number of examples of this problem throughout the country. Every time there is a boundary commission report, there are more such examples. The matter really needs to be taken into account.
It is comforting that my constituency has been called Berwick-upon-Tweed for approximately 500 years and that, despite boundary changes, it has retained that title.
I want to refer to some matters covered by the complex group of amendments and the clauses to which they relate and make, the Minister will be pleased to know, two relatively uncontroversial points. First, the timing of elections for new authorities is important. There is a principle at stake: the arrangements for a new authority should be agreed by those who have democratic accountability for it. That means that elections should take place—in the way in which they have usually happened in local government reorganisation—for a shadow authority. That happened when I served on a shadow local authority in 1973-4. It enabled us to plan the new authority in the knowledge that our actions would fulfil the wishes of the council that would run the authority in 12 months. We have been holding discussions in Northumberland because of reorganisation about when elections should happen and there is general agreement that we want them to take place in 2008. That is the view of not only all the districts and Members of Parliament but that of the county council and all parties on it.
I have not consulted the chief constable. I do not believe that he has a locus in the matter, except perhaps in providing police officers to ensure that the election is conducted safely. However, that has not been a problem in recent years in our part of the world.
I hope to talk to the Minister outside the Chamber at some point about the matter. It is especially important because there is no agreement about the temporary body that is provisionally trying to make decisions. Indeed, there is a dispute between the county, the districts and almost everybody else because the county has put all its executive members on the transitional committee. It has also included the leaders of the two opposition parties, but ensured that they do not have a vote—they are non-voting members. The districts, the opposition parties and the rural areas are all outnumbered on the transitional body, so it has no validity. The dissenting members can claim that the decisions are not valid and that, when the council is elected, they cannot be expected to stand by them.
However, despite disagreement about the transitional arrangement, there is agreement across the board that we want elections in 2008 and do not want to wait until 2009. I hope that the Whip has not distracted the Minister from that important point.
The right hon. Gentleman is right that the changes that we have considered for a new authority would begin in April 2009. The first election would be in May and we have already debated altering that to June. He therefore makes a good point that we should get elections to the new authorities out of the way earlier.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and provides me with a compelling initial argument, which appears irresistible. I therefore hope that the Minister will assist all the parties in Northumberland. Elections in 2008 would help us get the new authority off the ground successfully.
Secondly, I want to consider the interaction that the clauses and amendments mention between parliamentary and local government boundaries. Hon. Members know that this House and the other place agreed parliamentary boundary changes earlier this year. Those of us who are affected have been trying to explain the new parliamentary boundaries to people. However, out of the blue, the boundary commission decided to take a handful of constituencies and conduct a further review. They include my constituency and neighbouring constituencies—only six or seven are involved. The purpose is to align the parliamentary boundaries with the ward boundaries of the district councils. The Minister knows that those district councils will be abolished by his decision and the Bill. There is therefore no point in trying to align the boundaries. I have no particular view on the merits of the proposal—I would gain a few hundred people at one end and lose a few hundred at the other—but it is simply stupid. Again, I do not want the Minister to be distracted by the Whip. Doubtless, an important point is being made to him, but I shall not continue until he can give me his attention.
There is absolutely no point in trying to align parliamentary boundaries to ward boundaries that are about to be abolished. I would hope that liaison between the Department for Communities and Local Government and the parliamentary boundary commission would be sufficient to put a stop to this ludicrous exercise. I have written to the Speaker in his capacity as Chairman of the boundary commission pointing out that difficulty. I hope that the Minister can also take it up. Going ahead is not just a waste of time and money—the processes are quite expensive—but makes it really difficult to explain to people now what their boundaries are likely to be at the next election, because it is fairly unlikely that any subsequent changes will even be introduced before the next general election, although perhaps the Prime Minister will wait long enough for that to be the case.
I ask the Minister, first, to ensure that we can have our elections for the new authority in 2008 and, secondly, to ensure that there is proper liaison with the parliamentary boundary commission, so that it does not start running round trying to align parliamentary boundaries to ward boundaries that he is about to abolish.
I have a lot of sympathy for the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the problem with his constituency name. I represent a constituency called Wentworth. It has a proud mining, steel-making and industrial heritage; yet the constituency, which is part of what should be Rotherham, North, is named not after any of those proud elements of our history, but after a small feudal village in one corner of the area, many of whose houses are still tied to its main estate. That is an extraordinarily English approach. I argued in the boundary commission’s recent review that a name change was appropriate, but there was much resistance to it. I therefore have a lot of sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but the name of his constituency is a matter for the boundary commission. The amendments under discussion deal with the names of district wards or county divisions, so the issue is unfortunately not relevant.
I should point out to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) that we are not debating whether to combine the dates of local and European elections in 2009. However, in 2004, when the local and European elections were last combined, the turnout increased in the European elections from 24 to 38.5 per cent. It increased not because the elections were held together to the convenience of the election administrators, but because they were convenient to the electors. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps not underestimate the intelligence of the electors, who can distinguish issues that may matter on a European front from those that matter locally, and who in some ways may be more interested in voting on both when they have a combined opportunity to do so.
Whatever the hon. Gentleman says, I have given no hint of anything. I am dealing with the facts of what happened in 2004 and the details of the amendments before us, as I am sure you would wish me to do, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I will come to the hon. Gentleman’s point about 12 months in a moment.
The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) asked me two things. Elections for the shadow authority, under proposals for a move towards a unitary authority as part of the reorganisation, will be a matter for orders made under the Bill once it receives Royal Assent. Such elections are not dealt with in the amendments before us. He and I have already discussed a suitable date for elections in Northumberland, and I am grateful to him for putting his points on record in the House this afternoon. I was not aware of the particular local circumstances of the parliamentary boundary review in his area. I will ensure that I draw his points to the commission’s attention.
Let me deal with the amendments that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has tabled. He conjured up images of political advantage in the decision, which I believe are baseless for two reasons. First, the proposal in the amendment from the other place that I am urging the House to accept will distance the decision to combine the election dates from the arrangements for the elections, as the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal urged us to do. That provision would be on the face of the Bill.
Secondly, there are safeguards in the process to ensure that there should be no question of perceived political advantage. Were a decision to be taken to combine the elections, there would have to be consultation with the Electoral Commission and others. Furthermore, any order would have to be approved by the affirmative resolution procedure in the House. If there were any question of perceived political advantage, I submit that it would become a serious issue and a matter of strong debate. I therefore do not accept the concerns that have been set out.
The six-month period refers not to the decision but to the order to be made. The amendment proposes a 12-month period for the order to be made. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) wanted to align the elections for 2009 and said that we could make such an announcement this week. If there were a requirement for the order to be made 12 months in advance, we would probably have had to have made such a decision already. It would not simply be a question of 12 months from when the order was made. In order to make an order, there would have to be a period of consultation of three months, if we were to follow the Cabinet Office guidelines. There would then have to be a period in which we considered the responses to the consultation, drafted the order, and found the time for it to be properly debated in the House. So we can see immediately that we are not talking about six months from when an order is made. The decision has to be made, and the notice given, substantially before that.
Requiring an order to be made 12 months in advance would get ourselves into the situation that we have at the moment under the Representation of the People Act 1983, which provides, in effect, for a 15-month notice period. That has resulted in that provision being used only once in almost 25 years, because the period is too long, and the arrangements are too inflexible and do not serve the purpose that hon. Members would wish them to serve.
I say to the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire that placing in the Bill the provision for a six-month period between an order being made and an election being held will provide the necessary certainty and safeguards, give the necessary notice, and strike the balance that we are all striving for. I hope that he will not press his amendment to a vote, but if he does, I shall have to ask my hon. Friends to resist it.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 47 agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 48, in page 31, leave out lines 23 and 24 and insert—
“(3) An order under subsection (1) must relate to a single year and must be
made at least six months before—
(a) the local election day in that year, or
(b) if earlier, the date of the poll at the European Parliamentary general election in that year.
(3A) For this purpose “the local election day” in a particular year is—
(a) the first Thursday in May, or
(b) if an order has been made under section 37(1)(b) (power to change date of council and Assembly elections) in relation to that year, the day specified in the order.”
Amendment proposed to the Lords amendment: (a), leave out ‘six’ and insert ‘twelve’.—[Alistair Burt.]
Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:—
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 49 to 51 agreed to.
Executive Arrangements for England
Lords amendment: No. 52.
This group of amendments to part 3 would remove the provisions allowing councils to operate a directly elected executive model of governance arrangements. We were disappointed when the provisions were removed from the Bill in the other place. Directly elected executives were an important element of the measures that we set out in our original White Paper to provide stronger and more accountable leadership for councils. Those proposals were built on the executive models in the Local Government Act 2000. Directly elected executives are a way of dealing with the criticism of some that other models put too much power in the hands of particular individuals.
Although the Bill no longer contains proposals for directly elected executives, the measures set out in part 3 will still result in stronger and more accountable leadership. Councils will be able to choose between a directly elected mayor, and a leader and cabinet executive, which will be significantly strengthened by the Bill. We retain the ability to make regulations under the 2000 Act to provide for additional models of executive arrangements, including those comprising directly elected members.
I could have argued for what Ministers have described as the opportunity to provide local authorities with an innovative new model of governance arrangements and for the reinstatement of the directly elected executive model. However, given that I believe that the Bill will foster better leadership, that we retain a power to provide for executive models and that there is a broad consensus that we should enact the many important measures in this Bill as soon as possible, I ask the House to accept these amendments as a group and not to reinstate the provision for and the model of a directly elected executive.
The Minister could have argued for the return of the provisions, but as he has more than the modicum of common sense commonly associated with his colleagues on the Front Bench, he will not do so.
If one Googles “barmy”, one picks up hundreds of thousands of potential hits, not a few of which relate to the concept of directly elected executives, as discussed in Committee in this House and the other place. It was always difficult to work out where on earth the desire for directly elected executives originated—it was eventually revealed in the other place that Switzerland and Portugal were trying those things. The word “barmy” was used on more than one occasion by noble Lords, whom I suspect would not usually use such a term.
In general, there was a sense of surprise that a directly elected executive model of leadership was so strongly proposed by the Government, with apparently no outside support, when a modified committee system, which appeared to have quite a lot of outside support—at least, as an alternative executive arrangement—was not given any support or credence by the Government and was denied as a possible leadership model. That confused us even more.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. We will all have to add a chief constable clause to future legislation, to ensure that it is all chief constable approved, no matter what it might be. In local government, we used to do that with a variety of matters. There could be a statement at the beginning of each Bill, saying that it had been approved by the Association of Chief Police Officers, but perhaps we can avoid that.
The fact that we have been able to see through the proposal is helpful. We regret that the leadership models are more prescriptive than we would have liked, because we would have liked councils to have the opportunity to choose a modified committee system. However, we do not regret the demise of the directly elected representatives. That will doubtless cause consternation in Geneva and Lisbon, but we will have to live with that sadness—
I appreciate that the capital of Switzerland is Berne, but I was just picking places in Switzerland and Portugal at random.
Apart from the disappointment that will be felt in those places, we appreciate that the amendments were accepted in the other place, and we thank Baroness Hanham for her work on the issue. We are grateful for the combined efforts of the Opposition parties in the other place and we accept the amendments in this group.
Once again, we have a group of Lords amendments that move the Bill in the right direction. Specifically in this case, they do so in the direction of common sense and away from barminess, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) suggests. The original provisions were barmy and restrictive; now they are simply restrictive, and we should be thankful for that.
In the Public Bill Committee, the Government were able to adduce no evidence that their preference for the systems proposed would produce better local government, which might have justified their intentions. Nor were the Government able to source the proposal for an elected executive. Switzerland and Portugal are new to me, because the best that they could come up with at the time was Stockton in the north-east. I had cause to speak to my colleagues on Stockton council, including the then mayor, and she told me that the council never considered that model and that it was a proposal made by the chief executive and the leader of the council without reference to anybody else. Perhaps not surprisingly, when we took evidence from Local Government Association representatives, they were baffled as to the source. Their collective response can be summed up as, “Not me, guv.” I am delighted that my colleagues in the other place, supported by Conservative and Cross-Bench colleagues, have secured the removal of that provision.
I do not understand the Government’s love-in with the strong executive leadership model. There is no evidence to show that it leads to better running local authorities. It may not lead to worse run local authorities either, but the work of the Audit Commission was decisive. If the Government wish to persist with the proposal, I hope that they will not return to the House until they have evidence to show that the upheaval and sense of alienation that it would produce among those who participate in local government would be justified by improvements in efficiency, delivery of service, public engagement or any other positive for local democracy.
We should have the same freedom for local authorities to decide their own governance systems as we automatically give to others. If internal self-rule is good enough for Gibraltar, it should be good enough for Guildford. If it is good enough for Bermuda, it should be good enough for Birmingham; and if it is good enough for the Falklands, it should be good enough for Fareham. The Government should take their hands off local councils’ internal governance systems. They should recognise that local councils, if they are given the flexibility, will manage themselves effectively and efficiently. More to the point, they will be better able to engage their constituents in the running of their local democracy.
I too welcome what the Minister has said, especially about dropping the directly elected executive proposal. We started the Bill with an evidence session, and it was very useful. When we tried to identify from whence the proposal came, the Government said that it came from the LGA, but the LGA suggested that it came from the Government. After due process in both Houses, people have concluded that the proposal is not worth running with. The Government are probably wise not to die in a ditch for it, nor for other associated problems such as the idea that vacancies should be filled by election, and so on.
I want to pick up as well on what has been said about the modified committee system. Those of us who grew up in local government with the committee system in place believe that it is perfectly reasonable and needs only a few modifications. It is a pity that local government has not been given more latitude, although I am not sure that I go all the way with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell). Too much latitude would allow local authorities with a certain political agenda to set up a system that would make it very difficult for minorities. Minorities on councils have to be protected, as all the political parties are very much in the minority in councils all over the country and we would certainly expect to have our say.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 53 to 56 agreed to.
Changing governance arrangements
Lords amendment: No. 57.
These amendments relate to part 3 of the Bill covering executive arrangements. The importance and value of those arrangements were confirmed in the report that we published recently on evaluating local governance. I will send the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) a copy, as it provides the evidence in support of the development policy set out in the Bill.
Most of the amendments in the group are technical. They will ensure either that the provisions of the Bill work effectively, or that they are consistent with other pieces of legislation. However, some of the amendments are substantial and have to do with referendums. To help the House, I shall speak briefly about a couple of them.
The Government have proposed the amendments in question to provide local authorities with greater flexibility in the use of referendums, and to allow them to respond more quickly to their electorate when a referendum to change executive arrangements has been conducted. We have dealt with an anomaly in the Bill as drafted that meant that councils might have had to wait several years before being able to implement the result of a referendum.
My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that his predecessor in the post was in contact with MPs around Stoke-on-Trent about the democracy commission. Will he assure the House that these new amendments are consistent with the proposals for that commission?
Like my predecessor, I have been in discussion with Members who represent Stoke-on-Trent and I was pleased to announce the start of the work of the democracy commission in Stoke. It is an important piece of work being carried out by an authoritative group of people. They will be fully mindful of the Bill’s provisions, and once the Bill receives Royal Assent I will ensure that they have the relevant details so that they can take them into account, as my hon. Friend encourages me to do.
The amendments ensure that when the result of a referendum is positive, the authority must resolve the change within 28 days to avoid the risk of a long time lag. Furthermore, where governance arrangements have been put in place as the result of a referendum, a further referendum will be required to change them. It is right that if the public have decided on a particular form of governance, the public should decide on changes to those arrangements in future.
Most of the remaining amendments are technical; they clarify the Bill’s provisions and ensure that the measure is consistent with existing legislation. I commend them to the House.
In general, I agree with the emerging point that the amendments are moving in the direction we want. In this part of the Bill, there is some devolution of power and authority both to the people and to local authorities.
I am not certain about the quality of the executive model and I share the hesitation voiced by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). We are all well aware that whatever deficiencies there may have been in public service reforms in other parts of the Government’s realm—in health or education—local government has been able to produce results for the Government, partly because of strong centralised control. The issue is whether that control was driving the improved performance or whether improvements were being picked up by local councils, local authorities and local people and would have occurred in any case. I share the reservation that a set of prescriptive executive models would make a huge contribution to that process. We would much prefer local authorities to have the executive arrangements they want and to be able to choose from a variety of models, rather than the ones the Government set out.
I am sure that in many forums the Minister and I will be discussing interesting questions about the new relationship that will emerge between local government and central Government, as we try to work out a swing back from the centralism that has been part of the system for too long. I hope that in the future executive arrangements will be part of that process and that the Government will reconsider.
The provisions on referendums, to ensure that when people ask for a change in local government they are consulted on future proposals for change, are welcome and are part of a new spirit. Whatever the Bill’s other deficiencies, these amendments are welcome and the fruit of good discussions both in this and the other place.
My comments relate to amendment No. 94. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to give us some clarification of the orders that will set up the new arrangements.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the authorities will be new and that even where an existing authority, such as Durham county council, is to be used as the legal vehicle for the new authority, it will none the less be a new body? Will such a body combine the services and functions of the districts and the county in one new authority? Will the orders affirm bids that have already been made by local authorities, especially those to minimise job losses, and uphold the jobs outlined in successful bids? Will it be possible for money and resources to be moved to front-line services, so that cuts, if they have to be made, are in back-room services where there is duplication?
Finally, will the orders deal quickly with a situation in which a council, as mine did in Durham city yesterday, takes a decision to sell off 50 pieces of land in advance of the new authority coming into being? Will there be something to stop it doing that and to ensure that such decisions are subject to proper scrutiny and consultation?
We too welcome these changes. We all see the common sense of clarifying the referendum arrangements and the provision for making it absolutely explicit that when a decision has been reached following a referendum, it cannot be changed without a further referendum.
We are content with this string of amendments. On the points raised by the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), I recall that in Committee we discussed extensively the difficulties that had arisen in 1972 and 1973 when, in a number of cases, outgoing authorities left ticking time bombs for the new authorities. We certainly received assurances that the system in place would avoid that while still leaving existing authorities that might have up to 18 months to run the flexibility to perform their functions adequately. I hope that the Minister is able to confirm that and, if not, tell us how he intends to provide reassurances as necessary.
The points of my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods) were well made, but were actually not relevant to this part of the Bill. With your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will write to her and set out the answers that she is searching for. I will do the same for the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell).
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments 58 to 106 agreed to.
Parishes: alternative styles
Lords amendment: No. 107.
The Government amendments in this group have all been made in response to concerns that were raised in debate in the other place or they have been tabled to make sensible technical or drafting changes. As a package, I believe that they will strengthen the Bill and will make some of its provisions clearer.
I shall mention just two or three of the main proposals. The amendments to clause 77 have been tabled to ensure that existing groups of parishes are able, if they choose, to adopt alternative styles. An “alternative style” for a parish means a community neighbourhood or a village. All parishes should be able to adopt an alternative style if that is what a parish council or a parish meeting decides is in the best interests of their area. The amendments ensure that that can be the case.
The redrafted clauses 85, 86 and 87 have been included in the Bill so that it is clear in what circumstances a council is under a duty, or when it has the power, to conduct a review. Where local people petition for a review in their area, and no such review is under way, or has been conducted or completed in the previous two years, the principal council is under a duty to conduct a review for the petition area. In debate, general concerns were raised about the fact that in those circumstances, a principal council could choose to ignore the recommendation of a community governance review; it could simply not give effect to the recommendation. Of course, if we are to devolve those functions and the power to make those decisions to local authorities, they must be free to decide not to adopt the review’s recommendations, just as a Secretary of State is.
We noted those concerns and amended clause 98 so that a local authority is under a duty to give reasons for the decisions that it takes. The amendment strengthens the Bill, and helps to ensure that the conduct of the review and the decisions that are taken as a result of it are open and transparent. The remaining amendments tidy up or clarify the provisions in part 4. Taken together with the amendment that I have just outlined, they strengthen the purpose and provisions of the Bill, and I commend them to the House.
Before I comment on the group generally, I should like to throw out one or two questions, just to give the Minister the maximum time in which to consider them. First, where there is a group of parishes, and one parish wishes to retain the title of parish council, but the others in the group want a change, what determines the naming? Is it simply the will of the majority of the group? If one parish really wants to retain the title of parish council, does it have a veto? I would be interested to know the answer. Secondly, in the other place, on 5 July, at column 1183, volume 693 of the Official Report, my noble Friend Lord Hanningfield asked whether the Secretary of State could get involved in the issue of the number of people who sit on a parish council. I am not sure, technically, whether that should be dealt with under the group of amendments that we are considering, but I do not know the answer to the question, and I am interested to hear whether there was an answer.
In general, the group of amendments responds to the concerns raised about parish councils. It is clear that Members in both Houses feel a great deal of affection for such councils. Those of us who have parish councils in our constituencies know how much we depend on them to provide a tremendous amount of local information, and to do a lot of the routine work that we want done in a community. We are obliged to our hard-working parish council clerks, who do so much to ensure that rural areas run so effectively. We welcome the fact that the changes were made in response to some of the concerns that were raised. There is still some concern about how a system of appointed councillors will work, and about the distinctions between appointed and co-opted councillors.
It is now clear that parishes with 150 or fewer electors will not simply be abolished and fall by the wayside, which is good, but to return to a question asked earlier this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), there is concern about the future security of parish councils. They may be left only with legal redress if they face dissolution, and my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) said that it was not unknown for local scores to be settled through that process. I would like an assurance from the Minister that when he comes back to the Dispatch Box in a couple of years, there will not have been a culling of parish councils. I would like an assurance that he does not wish for that to happen, and that it is not the Government’s intention to have a series of tidying-ups, or to allow principal councils to go on that sort of spree. I do not think that that is the intention of the House, and it is certainly not the intention of the other place. Having expressed those concerns, I should add that in general the amendments that we are considering are a response to concerns, and the Opposition are content with them.
We, too, welcome many of the amendments. In particular, it is right that principal councils should be required to give an account of any decision to reject a local governance proposal. The Minister is right to have resisted the siren voices that would have imposed on them a duty to accept those. I congratulate him, for once, on striking the right balance.
I am a strong supporter of parish councils, although I have only one in my constituency, a newly created urban parish which, I am happy to report, has its charter mark and is doing a great deal of good, but is entirely untypical of parish councils as Members would expect to find them. The council, like me, is astonished by other proposals in this group, including that providing for not only co-opted councillors, but appointed councillors. It is a matter of regret to me that we do not have the opportunity to debate that fully. I give notice to the Minister that we believe directly appointed councillors to be a profoundly unsatisfactory addition to the local government menagerie. We await the orders limiting their powers and responsibilities. That addition is a fundamental flaw in otherwise sensible and helpful provisions.
I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell). Parish councils generally work well. My experience when I was a rural county councillor was that they did a good job, although one or two were on the small side. I suspect that a principal council will, on the whole, proceed in a cautious way because there are strong loyalties to local parish councils in the villages that they represent.
I reiterate my slight concern that occasionally, particularly over matters to do with planning, when parishes are asked their view, local concerns are expressed and there might be a temptation to wind up organisations that cause a principal council grief. For most parish councils the legal route is not a realistic possibility. Generally, though, I think the arrangements will be fine. My experience shows that in areas where there is a growing town and new estates being built on the edge which tend to be built as rural parishes, the question arises at what point that becomes part of a town. I suspect that most petitions and opposition to most petitions will centre on those arrangements.
A town with which I was associated was Chippenham, which has grown on the M4. Large parts of the town were officially a rural area. Periodically, the boundaries were extended to take those houses in, but there is always the issue that the parish precept is rather higher in a town council than in a parish council. There will be competing concerns, but broadly the measure is right.
It is also right that if there is a petition to a principal council, reasons should be given why it should not undertake a review. That is a sensible way of proceeding. On that, the Minister has got it right.
With the leave of the House, I shall respond briefly. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) for believing that for once, as he says, I got the balance right. I thank him for that.
I have been a long-standing and strong supporter of town and parish councils, but I cannot give the guarantees that the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) was urging on me. Decisions in future will be a matter for the principal authorities, not for Ministers. It is they, not Ministers, who will determine the number of parish councils in the future.
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about names, all parishes within a particular group need to have the same style or the same name. It will be the grouped parish council which covers all the parishes that will make that decision in circumstances where there may be differences of opinion. I hope that those responses are helpful to Members on the points that they raised.
I am grateful to the Minister; I am sorry, but I was detained outside the Chamber for a moment. I just want to say that decisions about the creation of parish councils in unparished places are becoming urgent because of reorganisation—the fact that boroughs will be replaced by town councils. In that context, I hope that the Minister will manage to get off his desk the application for there to be a Berwick town council; it has been with the Department for some time. One of his predecessors had hoped to sign it off before leaving office, but that has not yet happened.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 108 to 138 agreed to.
Orders under Part 1 of Local Government Act 2000: Wales
Lords amendment: No. 139.
This group brings together a number of relatively minor and consequential amendments from across the Bill. I commend them to the House.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 140 to 142 agreed to.
Powers to require information from partner authorities
Lords amendment: No. 143.
The amendments relate to what is commonly called a community call for action and to a significant change that we have introduced to amendments from the other place. The changes affect section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 and the new provisions on local government matters in the Bill are left just as they were when the Bill left this House.
The changes that the amendments make to the 2006 Act respond to the argument put consistently in Committee in this House and at various stages in the other House. Clause 121 is a straightforward measure that enables an elected councillor to bring a local government matter of local concern to a committee of colleagues so that they can discuss it and see whether a way forward can be suggested. Like clause 121, section 19 of the Police and Justice Act 2006 empowers the councillor to refer such a matter to an overview and scrutiny committee—in this case, a crime and disorder committee, which is also a provision of section 19 of that Act.
There are continuing concerns: first, about the onerous statutory duty that section 19 places on councillors to consider local crime and disorder matters put to them by local individuals and to respond in every case; and secondly, about the confusion that might be caused by having two models covering scrutiny of local matters. Having listened very carefully to the arguments, we have come to the conclusion that we should adjust the 2006 Act to accommodate the concerns that have been raised. We propose to take this step for two broad reasons: first, in recognition that the arguments that have been put to us have merit; and secondly, having set out a long-term view and vision in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” for taking further forward democratic and constitutional reforms. We will seek to take the empowerment of communities to influence local decision making to another stage as part of that work.
For the time being, in these amendments, we propose to clear the ground by focusing the so-called community call for action entirely on enabling elected councillors to act more effectively as advocates for their own communities. The main thrust of the amendments is to align the 2006 Act with the model set out on other local government matters in the Bill. It has been warmly and widely welcomed, certainly by the Local Government Association. While retaining the power given to a councillor to refer a local crime and disorder matter to the crime and disorder committee, we are dropping the duty placed on the councillor to respond individually, in every circumstance, to people who raise such matters with them. There is then no place for an appeal to the executive. Of course, everyone still expects councillors to be responsive—that is part of their duty, responsibility and job—but we are content at this stage not to make it a statutory duty to do so.
We have aligned the definitions, processes and procedures more closely. In doing so, we have made the revised procedure for crime and disorder matters available to county councillors, as well as to district councillors, in two-tier areas. We have also taken the opportunity to make it clear that local authorities, as well as the responsible authorities comprising the crime and disorder partnerships, are under a duty to consider, respond to, and have regard to crime and disorder committee reports.
I hope that the amendments will commend themselves to Members in all parts of the House.
We very much welcome this change of stance by the Government. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he expressed it, and grateful to his noble colleague in another place for having listened and responded to the arguments.
As he knows, this argument has been raised by Conservative Members, among others, and I am grateful for the cross-party approach to it. I welcome it personally, having raised the issue myself in Committee. It shines very strongly in the light of my experience as a member of a police authority and the discussions that I have had with many colleagues in local government. It will be particularly welcomed in county areas. Having spoken to people who represent county divisions, I know that crime is as much a part of their caseload as it is for those of us who represent borough areas. Concern was expressed not only by people in local government, but by my own borough police commander, about the difficulty that the ordinary active and concerned citizen who wanted to be helpful would have if they had to try to deal with two separate systems when raising matters relating to crime. It is a sensible rationalisation.
I also welcome the Minister’s acceptance of the importance of strengthening the role of the local councillor, as well as that of the council as a corporate body. That was shadowed in London by the report of the cross-party commission on London governance that was referred to in the Committee proceedings, which reflected a view widely held throughout the country. If we are to make it worth while for people to take part and seek election to local office, the ability to deal with crime and related issues, often one of the largest items in any local councillor’s postbag—just as it is for Members of Parliament—is absolutely key. The fact that all councillors will be able to do that is a considerable advance and it will assist in the good practice that is already developing in a number of authorities. I have seen that process in my local authority, and the Minister and his colleagues will have seen it elsewhere.
We are now moving to a much closer degree of working in collaboration, involving the police and the rest of local services. As the Minister knows, the Metropolitan police has significantly devolved power and decision making to its borough command units, and that development is measured elsewhere in the country. Allowing the community call for action to be done through one system will enable a considerable democratic input into the development of the local area agreements and the partnerships, which we all accept as an appropriate way forward.
Against that background, I welcome the Government’s change of stance. We shall not gloat too much because we accept that it is born from a considered attention to the evidence. We are glad that the evidence has persuaded Ministers of the stance we originally took in this case.
I am pleased that the Minister has returned with proposals via the other place that reflect the concerns expressed earlier in Committee. It seemed extraordinary that there were to be two completely different processes, not just separate, but different when in operation. It is very much to the credit of the Government that they have managed to get things together at this stage, so that we have an integrated process. I do not understand how we could have had two separate community initiatives when residents are baffled enough by how service delivery takes place. Too often, they are told, “No, that’s the health authority, not us”, or “That’s the bus company, not us”, and to have a further subdivision would have been very unhelpful. If a swing is broken in the playground, is that a matter for the parks, or a crime and disorder issue? Do people have to follow two different processes to get each authority to respond properly? I hope that we have achieved a process that is integrated and joined-up and which will produce a satisfactory response for residents in a short time.
I do not entirely echo the positive note made by the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) about the way in which policing is devolved and integrated. His experience in the Metropolitan police authority may be superior to what some of us face out in the sticks. In my area, where there has been a reduction in policing levels in the past year, we are not quite so ebullient about progress. Nevertheless, if we have limited policing resources, they should be used efficiently and effectively, and the proposals certainly move in the right direction. We welcome the amendment, and we hope that it will produce the benefits that the Government expect.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 144 to 147 agreed to.
Conduct that may be covered by code
Lords amendment: No. 159.
Lords amendments Nos. 159 to 163 would confirm in the Bill the circumstances in which the principles that govern members’ conduct and the provisions of the code of conduct that they must follow apply to local authority members. They do that by providing that the ethical regime may apply in members’ official and private capacity. However, it would apply to conduct in their private capacity only when an action constituted a criminal offence.
Our intention is to respond to the effect of the High Court judgment in 2006 in the appeal of the Mayor of London, which cast doubt on the code of conduct’s ability to cover members’ conduct in their private capacity. That has always been our intention but we also wish, through the amendments, to respond to suggestions from the other place that we should make it clear in the Bill. Our approach has been supported by the majority of those in local government, including the Local Government Association.
Lords amendment No. 164 simply effects a recommendation of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. It is right to do so, and I commend the amendments to the House.
We are considering a difficult matter, which was the subject of much discussion and debate in the other place. I would like to place on record the fact that we are uncertain about whether the amendments have met the challenge, although we do not intend to divide the House on the matter.
The explanatory notes, which have been so helpfully and excellently provided at short notice, state:
“The effect of the amendments would be that the only principles and provisions which may be applied to members outside their official capacity are principles and provisions prohibiting conduct which would (if engaged in) constitute a criminal offence.”
The Minister knows about the hesitancy expressed by my noble Friend Baroness Hanham in another place. We are hesitant because the amendments would not provide for an offence for which a conviction has been given. It indicates conduct which could “constitute a criminal offence”.
Concern has been expressed that conduct so minor as to constitute an offence that would be punishable by between nothing and three months in jail, which the police may not consider worth prosecuting and may result in no action, could lead to a reference to the Standards Board. I stress that I am referring to conduct outside the official capacity of an elected member and related to private life.
Indeed. I greatly welcome the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. Sadly, the history of the Standards Board is littered with abuse by councillors settling scores with each other, and vexatious cases, which have driven many of us to distraction, and led to Conservative Members’ great concern about whether the Standards Board can be relied upon to do a good and effective job.
We know that there are reforms in place. Our position is that we are agreeing to wait and see what they will produce, but we have hesitations about the Standards Board, as the Minister will be aware. However, we are looking all the time for avenues to close down unnecessary references—things that could be used that are totally contrary to the spirit of the board; things that do not pertain to elected members’ actual activity, but which could be used in a trivial manner—and we are not certain.
Let me quote briefly from the Joint Committee on Human Rights report, “Legislative Scrutiny: Fourth Progress Report”, its eleventh report of the 2006-07 Session. Paragraph 1.19 states:
“We see no reason why the Bill should not expressly state on its face the exact extent to which the code shall apply to private conduct by members, for example by providing that the only private conduct to which the code applies is conduct which has resulted in a criminal conviction. There is no reason, legal or otherwise, why such a limitation should only be contained in the code. On the contrary, in our view, there are very good reasons why such a limitation should be on the face of the Bill, to make it less likely in practice that the power will be exercised incompatibly with Articles 8 and 10.”
That is the area of hesitation for us. I would be grateful if the Minister could give the House an assurance that he believes that trivial and vexatious issues will not be caught up in the wording that is already in the Bill. Plainly it is not his intention that they should be, and it was not the intention of his noble Friends. However, we are unsure whether the wording in the Bill will not lead to the very concerns that I believe the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) will raise, and which were raised in the other place and which we are raising now—that is, our main hesitation about the provisions that are in the Bill as an amendment.
The hon. Gentleman is right: I do have some issues that I want to raise. We rehearsed them quite thoroughly in Committee. The Minister’s predecessor gave us some assurances about how he hoped things would turn out. It is good to see that some of the things that in Committee he undertook to do have materialised, but some quite serious issues are still not sorted out. I welcome the fact that the phraseology in the Bill is now more transparent, but I am not sure whether in making it transparent the Government have entirely responded to all the points that are outstanding.
I want to deal first with what in Committee was called the overcoat clause. When is a councillor a councillor and when are they taking part in their private life? I understand that the turning point in the High Court case against the Mayor involved the distinction that, as he had his coat on and was outside the door, he was in the clear, whereas if he had been in the lobby without his coat on, he would not have been in the clear. One can argue about that interpretation, but it has led to the introduction of the concept of whether someone is wearing their overcoat determining that they are on duty or on private business. I welcome the fact that the phraseology now narrows the provisions, so that only those things that are criminal offences when someone has their overcoat on will come to light.
I mentioned smoking. I do not smoke, so it is not a problem for me, but it would be a brave Member of the House who said that they had not done anything in even the past six months that, had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time, might have resulted in their being charged. Let us take speeding as an example of that. Although we have superficially restricted what can happen to people when they have got their overcoat on, the fact is that most local government councillors could be sent to the Standards Board for at least one thing every month. Therefore, the changes do not necessarily restrict things as much as the Minister would hold out. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will respond positively to what the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has said about putting on record the Government’s intentions on how the code should be drafted and, more importantly, how it should be applied.
It emerged clearly during earlier stages of the Bill that the content of the code was only part of the problem, and that another part was how the code should be interpreted. The reality at local government level is that monitoring officers on local authorities give members advice, and that cautious members go to those officers and say, “I think this is all right, but do you think it really is?” Almost without exception, the monitoring officer will say, “No, it isn’t.” They employ the insurance principle: if someone asks whether it is safe to do something, the best thing to do is to say no.
We have consequently seen a progressive shrinking of the amount of discretion that local authority members have over their conduct, and increasing conservatism—with a small c—about how the code should be implemented. That has undermined the credibility of the code and of the Standards Board. It would be good to feel that the provisions that we are considering would reverse that and restore the credibility of the board, but it will take some talking by the Minister to persuade me that we have achieved that.
So far, I have been talking about matters that relate to the overcoat issue: to what degree is a local councillor at risk when they have their overcoat on? However, there are also important questions relating to what they may and may not do when they are not wearing their overcoat—that is, when they are acting as a local government councillor. On Report, I drew attention to the fact that the Government intend, via other legislation, to give local communities more say in the planning process. That is quite explicit in their planning White Paper and I understand that it will be reflected in the legislation to follow. There will be a requirement specifically to solicit the views of local communities; developers will apparently have a duty placed on them to solicit views in that way.
If we are not careful, we could find ourselves in the absurd position in which everyone could take part in a consultation on a projected planning application except elected local councillors. The present interpretation of the code is that local councillors may not participate, advocate or campaign in respect of any planning application that has been submitted to their authority. Of course, there are various elaborate charades that people can go through to get round that, but when I served on a planning committee 20 years ago, it was not seen as out of place for a local councillor to say, “I am opposed to this, and I shall go to the committee to say so”, or for them to go to the committee, or for them to vote against an application. Nowadays, a councillor would go to prison for doing that. That is an absurd situation for local authority representatives to find themselves in.
I am delighted to receive an endorsement from that slightly unexpected quarter.
It would be good to hear from the Minister a clear exposition of the part that local representatives will play in the Government’s projected planning legislation and the additional functions that are to be placed on the local community. Will he acknowledge that, when that legislation comes along, this Bill will require further amendment to make it explicit that elected local authority representatives are not only allowed but expected to play a strong, active part in the process? We need to restore to them the power to represent their local community that most of us believe they should always have had.
Clause 184 is now far better than it was. On the face of it, it makes the overcoat issue less serious. I do not believe, however, that it will limit action to the off-duty councillor in quite the way that the Minister has explained. As for on-duty councillors, it still leaves open the central question of whether they will be allowed to represent their local communities when and where it really matters, or whether they will be muffled and gagged as current practice dictates they should be.
The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell) recognised that some of his questions would be matters for the planning legislation with which he and I may deal together. I am sure that we will return to them.
The hon. Gentleman was anxious for members to be able to act in their community representative role. He will know that the code of conduct issued in April this year allows councillors to make representations on planning matters on behalf of their communities even when there is what might be termed a prejudicial interest, which I think constitutes a step forward. Both he and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have described the issues covered by the amendments as incredibly complex, but I am glad that he thinks the position is better than it was.
As the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire said, the code prescribes conduct in a member’s private capacity where it constitutes a criminal offence for which the member has been convicted. According to legal advice that we have received, that wording is not appropriate, particularly for the purposes of what we want to achieve in the Bill. Let me try to explain why.
Because of the way in which the ethical regime for councillors is constructed, the code of conduct applies to members performing their role—that is, acting in their official role or in their private capacity. That means that it is impossible for any conduct to be confirmed as criminal at the time when it took place. A member who has been accused, for instance, of an offence relating to child pornography cannot have been convicted of the offence at the time of its commission. Therefore—according to our legal advice—reference in the Bill to conduct for which the member has been convicted would not be workable.
We have given assurances that the regime we are imposing will rely on the usual criminal process to determine whether a criminal offence has been committed. It will neither create a new offence in respect of members’ private behaviour nor create a new mechanism for judging whether or not an offence has been committed.
Let me say for purposes of clarity and confirmation that we do not intend to allow trivial and vexatious offences to be caught by the Bill. We intend to avoid that by means of regulation for which the Bill provides, and on which we will consult fully to help us get it right.
Would it be possible to place in the Library a copy of the legal advice on the first point that we discussed—the reason for which the Bill cannot include the requirement for a conviction? Will the Minister consider whether that would be possible, and write to me?
I will not give the hon. Gentleman a commitment to make the legal advice available, but I will give him a commitment to write to him and explain the terms of the advice and its implications, which, owing to time pressures, I have tried to summarise in a fairly succinct way today.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 160 to 174 agreed to.
Health services and social services: local involvement networks
Lords amendment: No. 175.
John Healey: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 176 to 201.
We turn to the last group of amendments, which address part 14 of the Bill. They deal with patient and public involvement in health. I welcome the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien), who speaks on health for the Conservatives, to the Opposition Front Bench for this debate.
As expected, throughout every stage of the Bill’s passage through this House and the other place this part of the Bill has come under considerable scrutiny. It has generated considerable debate and as a result we have made a number of important improvements. Let me briefly run through the main changes to the Bill since it left this House.
First, we have drafted amendments to include a specific provision that ensures that local involvement networks may co-operate on a local, regional and national basis as a means of undertaking their core activities, if they choose. Secondly, we have drafted amendments that set out the specific purposes of LINks’ monitoring and reviewing of local care services. Thirdly, we have drafted amendments that provide that the regulations imposing a duty on services providers to allow authorised representatives of LINks to enter and view their premises may limit the duty so that authorised representatives do not have access to certain premises and to the viewing of certain activities.
Fourthly, we have changed the duty on English NHS bodies from that of making arrangements to “consult” users of health services to one of making arrangements for such people to be “involved”; the meaning of that should also be clarified. Fifthly, we have drafted amendments to lower the threshold for when the duty to make arrangements for involvement applies. Sixthly, we have drafted amendments to place a duty on the Secretary of State to make regulations imposing a duty on strategic health authorities to arrange to involve users of health services. Seventhly, we have drafted amendments to provide for the Secretary of State to make regulations allowing strategic health authorities to make directions to primary care trusts, which will avoid unnecessary duplication of involvement activities. Eighthly, we have drafted amendments to extend the duty to report on consultation to SHAs. Ninthly, we have drafted amendments to exclude NHS bodies from being hosts of LINks, to avoid the potential for conflicts of interest. Tenthly, we have drafted amendments to ensure that transitional arrangements are put in place where local authorities have not been able to establish their LINk in time.
I hope that Members accept that the changes are significant and that they are all improvements. They have broadly been welcomed, and I commend them to the House.
The official Opposition welcome part 14 as so well amended in the other place. Lords amendments Nos. 175 to 201 to clauses 222 to 233 go a considerable way towards making LINks effective in the Government’s terms. Conservative and Liberal Democrat Lords have significantly improved the Bill. Notwithstanding that, LINks remain a poor shadow of PPI—patient and public involvement—forums and community health councils, and we still do not have patient representation as we once did.
I pay warm tribute to my noble Friend Earl Howe for his dedicated, relentless and ever courteous work on the Bill in the other place and for the concessions he extracted from the Government—it is fair to say that at times he forced them, albeit only by force of argument—with the support of Liberal Democrat peers, notably Baroness Neuberger in respect of part 14.
I also want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who so ably took this Bill through its Commons stages for our party. Its final, better shape is due in no small part to his energy, arguments and sincerity and the breadth and depth of contacts with patients and representative groups, to whom he listened carefully, and whose views on improvements he reflected in his considered approach. It would have been nice if the Government, under the Minister’s predecessor, had listened a little earlier in the process. However, from that responsibility the current Minister is unquestionably absolved.
It is important to note in addressing this group of health-related amendments the unfortunate approach that the Department took—under previous management—in sitting for so long on the responses to their consultation on the abolition of patient and public involvement forums. The wisdom of many PPI volunteers might have been woven into the Bill at an earlier stage, had the Government not sought to silence dissent in this manner.
Of course, the Government are no strangers to quashing consultation, in the form of turning down the volume on patient and public involvement. Members will recall the three-page personal apology that I received from the then Prime Minister in 2000, when the axing of community health councils—on the basis of a consultation that, in effect, never happened—was announced in the NHS plan issued on the last day before the summer recess. Our subsequent campaign secured a year’s stay of execution, which was vital in forcing the Government not to throw out the experience and expertise of the excellent volunteers dedicated to so many high-performing CHCs. That is an important point in the context of the transitional arrangements that we have just agreed to, in the form of key amendments from the other place.
The hon. Gentleman is right to give credit to those who have contributed so much through CHCs and then PPI forums. However, does he accept that not every CHC was equally good, that they lacked coherence, and that there was a lack of scrutiny of operation? Today, the circumstances are different. Local authorities have a much improved scrutiny role, and there is a big grey area between health and social services and health care in general that needs to be subjected to that scrutiny. That is why things had to change, and the Bill now includes a mechanism to ensure higher standards of scrutiny across the board.
I accept that, as one might expect, the performance of CHCs was patchy, but the vast majority performed very well with well-qualified, well-trained and experienced people. Of course, there were exceptions to that rule. I will address a little later the national link—and, therefore, the national voice—that can be effective in helping to improve health care.
It remains unfortunate that the Government decided to introduce these provisions in a portmanteau Bill, rather than in a Bill specifically sponsored by Health Ministers. Conservative shadow Health Ministers here and in the other place have achieved much in making this Bill workable, but we might have had a more effective discussion of the arguments at stake if the Bill had had a pure health and patient focus. I must put on the record that our support for these amendments is also without prejudice to our NHS autonomy and accountability Bill. In keeping with our commitment to avoiding organisational upheaval, we would not abolish LINks, but we would seek to give them enhanced inspection powers and independence from local authorities. The Bill as amended gives them their own budgets, which is a step in the right direction, but not enough.
The amendment to clause 223 on co-operation between LINks is a welcome concession from the Government. Although it does not establish a national voice—to return to the point made by the hon. Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt)—as robust as the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, or the health watch body that we will seek to establish through our NHS autonomy and accountability Bill, the Government’s recognition that an exclusively local voice is simply not effective is welcome. We wait, however, to see whether this amounts to anything in reality. We lost something of a national voice when we lost CHCs, and I share the hon. Gentleman’s hope that that absence will be addressed. We have searched in vain in any of the Government’s more recent pronouncements—not least the new health and social care regulations, announced by the Secretary of State today—for comfort that such a move will happen. We had hoped that he would remind us how wonderful it would be to have some scrutiny that was independent from the national health service. All of us remember the wonderful work done by CHCs when they produced important and influential national reports, such as the one on bedwatch.
I would also like to draw the House’s attention to the new clauses inserted after clauses 223 and 227. The former makes provisions for governance of LINks and the latter for transitional arrangements to cover the period between the abolition of PPI forums and the establishment of LINks. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen), who met my noble Friend the Earl Howe and acceded to the force of his arguments on those points.
It was important to avoid the danger that LINks would simply be a collection of more random people who would volunteer, thus the amendment wrested from the Government was to ensure that the Bill defines a system of governance: decision making; representation; authority; bodies having their own budgets; and a commitment for regulations to be amended accordingly. Again, that does not go as far as we would have liked to establish true independence. Those who are feeling most vulnerable, who need support and scrutiny of how the health service works in their case, need to be able to trust the bodies. Independence invokes trust more readily than something that is not seen to be independent.
On the latter new clause on transitional arrangements, our concern remains that there are no provisions for ensuring that local authorities discharge their duty to put in place transitional arrangements. I would be grateful if the Minister could assure us that he will take personal responsibility for the provision of adequate scrutiny in the transitional period.
We have continuing reservations about the extent of the power and independence of LINks. We welcome part 14, as amended, and we of course congratulate my noble and hon. Friends on the important concessions that they have obtained from the Government. They were outlined in the Minister’s statement, and it cannot be often that he has to list at least 10 amendments that have been the subject of considerable debate. It is important to recognise that we will continue in the next Session the debate about the accountability that will be the subject of the scrutiny apparatus for the NHS, and about how local government and people, particularly patients, are involved. That will be done through what we anticipate will be the health and social care Bill and our own NHS autonomy and accountability Bill. I confirm that, in the light of that, Conservative Members do not intend to divide the House, and we trust that this part of the Bill will speed on its journey.
The hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien) referred to the scale and frequency of organisational change in the NHS and the damaging effect that it can have if it is done unnecessarily. My hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) was guilty of flawed logic when he talked about the replacement of the community health councils. Leicestershire’s CHC was good and effective; it was widely understood, approachable and achieved a great deal. He suggested that the fact that not all CHCs were as good and effective was justification for the removal and replacement of all CHCs. I do not accept that for a moment. More should have been attempted to bring the quality of work of poor CHCs, as he would see it, up to a reasonable standard.
That was only one of the issues that I raised. More important is the fact that local authority involvement in social care is now totally integrated with health care. It is therefore important to have local authority input and a wider remit than the CHCs could have, along with the mechanism to ensure that such bodies are all of good quality.
There is more merit in that particular justification, but the first one that my hon. Friend chose to use was not especially strong. It is an approach that has been used elsewhere in Government: in the coerced stock transfer of council houses away from good housing authorities because a number of authorities have not been adequate in the past. The same also applied in relation to the PPI forums in Leicestershire, which followed the CHCs. They, too, were effective, well supported by volunteers and professionals. Over the years that they existed, they did an exceptionally good job. I have some contacts with key people at the head of those PPIs, some of whom are former work colleagues, and I do not accept that it was necessary to scrap them, but the Bill will do just that.
I have been fact finding about the attitude of the volunteers involved in the PPIs to see what they think of the Bill now it has reached the final leg of its passage through Parliament. There is good news for the Minister, and I know that he would expect that. The broad view is that the Lords have made some useful improvements in this section of the Bill, but I seek assurances from the Minister in three specific areas. If he is unable to respond immediately, because the information is not available or the time is not sufficient, I hope that he will write to me with the reassurances that I seek.
Firstly, because LINks are based on local authorities, there is a serious risk that the excellent work done by some of the PPIs—I instance an acute PPI forum, the foundation ones and those for mental health trusts—in Leicestershire, and no doubt elsewhere, will be diluted or lost in the creation of the LINks. I hope to hear more from the Minister about how he intends to ensure that LINks set up joint arrangements to maintain and enhance the work that has been so well received and of such a high standard in my area.
Secondly, the Bill is vague, perhaps inevitably so, on the membership of LINks. It would be impractical for that to continue for a lengthy period. Will the Minister say what the nature of the guidance will be to circumvent that problem? We cannot be certain that LINks, with their new membership, will be as effective as the bodies that they are replacing.
My third and final point is that various reassurances were given, and promises made, in the other place about how the governance of LINks will be robust and improved, and that firm guidance and detailed regulations will be provided to bring that about. I would like to know the Minister’s intended approach to that and the proposed sequence of events.
We are on community health councils mark 2, to a certain extent, and no one wants LINks to be set up to fail. It is hugely important that they have the scrutiny role that their two predecessor organisations were designed to bring to the NHS, but much depends on the guidance and regulations. They will probably be floated in late on a Thursday evening and go undiscussed by the main Chamber, but we want to know what the Minister’s approach will be and how he intends to avoid the risks and concerns to which I have briefly alluded.
We welcome the 10 shuffling steps forward that the Minister has made on this issue. I also wish to record my thanks to Baroness Neuberger for the work that she and her team did in the other place in conjunction with other Members. It has been a sorry tale and, as has been said, hearts were broken when community health councils were abolished. As I recall, a sharp Labour rebellion led to the introduction of PPIs and all that went with them. They were a step down from CHCs, but not actual abolition. We now seem to have taken a further step away from that original concept. Perhaps the Government are now finishing the job that they could not get past their Back Benchers when they first got rid of CHCs.
Nevertheless, I recognise that the Government have acknowledged some of the weaknesses in their original proposal. In Committee, we discussed the problem that arises with tertiary medical facilities. I spoke about Manchester’s Christie hospital, a specialist tertiary cancer hospital that would be beyond the reach of individual LINks that are pinned to local authorities’ geographical areas. I take it that what the Minister is now saying about regional, sub-regional and national collaboration between LINks is designed to respond to that problem.
Subsequent to that discussion, I have received representations about how the north west ambulance service would be dealt with under the new system. Again, I hope that the Minister will have the opportunity to reassure the House that the Bill will respond to such problems.
There is a contrast between the Government’s response to consultation on these proposals and their response to consultation on earlier parts of the Bill. In the earlier part of the Bill, they dismissed popular opinion in preference to what they considered to be professional insider opinion that knew what it was talking about. One can understand that argument even if one does not agree with it but, in respect of this part of the Bill, the Government have rejected the professional argument as well.
One has to wonder what the Government thought that they were doing when they brought the Bill forward in the first place. It was supposed to be based on the experience of those who know about monitoring and delivering health, but this proposal is a step away from that common-sense approach, not one towards it. If the Minister has the opportunity, I hope that he will let us know how the changes will improve the checking and inspection of NHS facilities—another issue that was strongly contested.
I conclude by saying that, overall, the Bill is better than what we started with. However, what we started with was so bad that no improvement could make it good.
I welcome the changes that have been made, but still have two concerns. First, Lords amendments Nos. 181 and 182 deal with rights of access to LINks, and I hope that the process of authorisation will not be so difficult that it puts people off becoming members. Secondly, I am very worried that Lords amendment No. 182 appears to enable any care organisation that wants to to keep lay monitors out. An organisation like that could be precisely the one that needs a lay visit.
My other concerns have been outlined by the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Mr. O'Brien). The transition arrangements seem liable to leave a gap between the end of PCT forums and the beginning of effective LINks. I hope that that problem can be addressed. In my area, the PCT forum will go on working until the LINk is in place, but it will no longer have the powers that it has at present.
Before the debate concludes, it should never be forgotten that what has happened—
It being four hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
Lords amendment No. 175 agreed to.
Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of business to be concluded at that hour.
Lords amendments No. 176 to 251 agreed to.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Delegated Legislation Committees),
That the draft Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 9th October, be approved.—[Mr. Watts.]
With the leave of the House, I will put motions 7 to 10 together.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),
That the draft Police Reform Act 2002 (Standard Powers and Duties of Community Support Officers) Order 2007, which was laid before this House on 8th October, be approved.
That the Gaming Duty (Additional Games) Order 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 2910), dated 8th October 2007, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th October, be approved.
Value Added Tax
That the Value Added Tax (Betting, Gaming and Lotteries) Order 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 2163), dated 25th July 2007, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th July, be approved.
That the Value Added Tax (Supply of Services) (Amendment) Order 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 2173), dated 25th July 2007, a copy of which was laid before this House on 25th July, be approved.—[Mr. Watts.]
Question agreed to.
EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DOCUMENTS
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9), (European Standing Committees),
EU-Africa Strategic Partnership
That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 11326/07 and Addenda 1 and 2, Commission Communication: From Cairo to Lisbon—The EU-Africa Strategic Partnership; and welcomes the progress being made on development of the strategy in preparation for the December EU-Africa Summit.—[Mr. Watts.]
Question agreed to.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All the news agencies are alive with the news that there is disarray in government between Downing street and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the issue of charges for the collection and disposal of rubbish. That has considerable implications for local government finance. Have you received any indication of whether a Minister will make a statement to the House, whether the Government are abandoning their recycling targets, or whether they will seek another day on which to bury bad news?
I have no notice that such a statement is planned.