House of Commons
Wednesday 24 October 2007
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [22nd October] as relates to the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill be now considered.
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London Bill which was originally introduced in this House, on 25th January 2005, should have leave to suspend any further proceedings on the bill in order to proceed with it, if they think fit, in the next session of Parliament according to the provisions of Private Business Standing Order 188A (Suspension of bills).—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Private Bills [Lords] (Suspension)
That so much of the Lords Message [22nd October] as relates to the Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
That so much of the Lords Message [22nd October] as relates to the Manchester City Council Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
That so much of the Lords Message [22nd October] as relates to the Transport for London (Supplemental Toll Provisions) Bill [Lords] be now considered.
That this House concurs with the Lords in their Resolution.—[The Chairman of Ways and Means.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Community orders are an effective way of reducing crime. The Government have ensured that more than 7 million hours of unpaid work are completed by offenders every year, with increasing visibility of projects in the community.
Some 18,000 children are affected every year when their mothers are sent to prison, yet 70 per cent. of those mothers receive sentences of less than a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree with Baroness Jean Corston’s recommendation that community sentencing should be the norm for those mothers? Does he also agree that their particular vulnerabilities and their caring commitments should be taken into account in sentencing?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As she knows, Baroness Corston has produced a report, which I intend to respond to before Christmas. The report recommends strongly that community sentences should become the norm. We have accepted in principle a large number of the recommendations and we want to explore how we can work those through, but I agree that we should try to find as many community sentences as possible for women, to reduce the number of women in prison and to ensure that their needs are taken care of.
The rehabilitation of offenders should be a key part of any sentence. Will the Minister confirm that when there is a short custodial sentence, it is difficult for the Prison Service to organise effective rehabilitation, and that a community sentence may allow better rehabilitation over a longer period?
My hon. Friend is correct, in the sense that people who receive short prison sentences, particularly sentences of less than 12 months, have a high rate of reoffending; she will know that it can be as high as 75 per cent. Community sentence statistics show that in 2000, 53 per cent. of people undertaking a community sentence had reoffended within two years. That figure dropped to 50.5 per cent. in 2004, so there is a clear correlation showing that community sentences help to prevent reoffending more successfully than short prison sentences.
Does the Minister agree that support for community sentences is greatly strengthened when they are associated with restorative justice, particularly among victims and their families? That being the case, will he look carefully at the threat to the Thames Valley restorative justice scheme because of a funding problem, and ways in which restorative justice could be encouraged and funded throughout the country?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that restorative justice is an important element in working through community sentences. He will know that the Liverpool and Salford community court options allow local people to be involved in deciding some community pay-back schemes, which are effectively restorative justice, whereby individual offenders look at the impact of their offences and how they can support the local community. I will look into the Thames Valley scheme that he mentions, and follow up with a letter to him in due course.
As a long-term supporter of community sentencing, may I suggest to the Minister, in direct answer to the question on the Order Paper, that if he wishes to increase the effectiveness of community sentencing and popular support for it, the National Offender Management Service—NOMS, or the national offender management scandal—should be dead and buried, and we should go back to resourcing and training probation officers properly, thereby doing exactly what the question asks.
I have to disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The National Offender Management Service tries to match offenders through the system, from pre-sentence report, through sentencing, custody or community sentence, and onwards into probation and supervision afterwards, with the sole intention of preventing reoffending. However, I agree that community sentences can provide a better form of prevention of reoffending than can short custodial sentences. They are not appropriate for everybody, but they are a positive means of bringing offenders face to face with the consequences of their action and providing a way in which they can be punished and rehabilitated without some of the difficulties that a short prison sentence brings.
I know that my right hon. Friend is aware of the particularly difficult situation for the families of women offenders in Wales who do not receive community sentences but are imprisoned, because there is no women’s prison in Wales. In the Government’s response to the Corston report, will he consider particularly the situation in Wales and the need for a special unit there to deal with women offenders?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who takes a great interest in such matters. She will know that I intend to respond to the Corston report shortly, before Christmas. That response will consider a range of issues. She will also know that the Welsh Affairs Committee has produced a report recommending consideration of custodial facilities in Wales—particularly north Wales, because of the difficulties faced by women who, in almost all circumstances, have to travel out of Wales for custodial sentences. I am currently assessing both reports. I have said that I want to investigate potential alternative facilities for women in Wales and elsewhere—a theme that arises throughout the Corston report. I shall certainly keep my hon. Friend informed of progress on those matters.
The Minister knows that we strongly support effective community sentencing. May I draw his attention to the multi-agency public protection arrangements—MAPPA—figures released this week? They show that one in 10 of those under supervision commit a breach of their licence within a year. Last year 83 committed a further serious offence—murder, violent assault or rape—within 12 months of release. Does that not show not only that prison is failing to rehabilitate or deter those offenders, but that supervision needs greater resources to ensure public safety?
I accept that the figures produced this week have caused difficulties concerning some individuals who have committed further crime. I want to take all possible steps to ensure that the public are protected when individuals are released on licence. Given the number of offenders going through both community sentences and prisons, there will always be the likelihood of some reoffending by some individuals.
We have to put in place proper supervision, and I believe that the probation service is doing that. However, I shall certainly reflect on the hon. Gentleman’s points. He has my assurance that the top priorities for the Government team are public protection, prevention of reoffending and stopping serious crime being committed by people on licence.
British Statement of Values
The process for developing a British statement of values will involve local, regional and national events, and opportunities for the public to deliberate and debate, using a wide range of mechanisms.
I appreciate the value of the exercise as a way of crystallising some of the issues that have been debated concerning Britishness and citizenship for the best part of a decade. However, how will the Minister ensure that once the statement of values is agreed, it will achieve some purpose and be disseminated to the wider British public, rather than just being an intellectual exercise?
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the fact that it is not just the formulation of the statement that matters, but what it will be used for. That will be for the British people themselves to decide. They are going to deliberate and debate, and in the final stage of the process—a citizens summit—they will decide not only what the statement should be, but what it should be used for, subject to the views of Parliament.
Does the Minister agree that with any statement of British values, it would be absolutely fundamental that communities across all regions of the United Kingdom would embrace and cherish that sense of Britishness—and it would actually mean something?
I completely agree; it is vital that the process be inclusive and involve every part of the United Kingdom. We are making great efforts to ensure that the process of deliberation and debate reflects that.
Is not fair play a quintessentially British value? How can the Minister justify the introduction by the Ministry of Justice of regional pay banding, in which people doing exactly the same job in adjacent towns are paid different rates?
I pay tribute to the ingenuity of my hon. Friend’s question. Of course he is right; most people would agree that fair play is an important British value. However, I am not sure how he is arguing that the system to which he alluded transgresses that fundamental principle.
I am genuinely sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who has a distinguished history of democratic participation, sees so little value in the process on which we are embarked. We very much hope that all Members of this House will take part in that process. I would have hoped that he would want to look for a statement that can bind this country together at a time of rapid change. Unfortunately, I think that he wants to make a political point, and I am sorry about that.
The hon. Gentleman asked a specific question about how much this is costing. We are still working out the process, so we do not have a specific figure to give him, but he can be assured that we will look for value for money. I shall be happy to write to him in due course when we have a figure.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the strengths of the UK is that we are made up of many cultures and many nations, and that central to any British statement of values should be a recognition and endorsement of the multicultural and multinational nature of our society and our country?
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. It is precisely because we are now a very various and diverse nation undergoing huge changes that we believe it is important to embark on this process of trying to find what binds us together. As I said, we want the process to be inclusive and we want all Members of this House to participate in it; I very much hope that they will do so.
As part of the citizens summit, will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the contents of my private Member’s Bill about burglary—the Criminal Law (Amendment) (Protection of Property) Bill—particularly in relation to ensuring that having a go, and the right to defend oneself and one’s property, family and possessions against burglaries will form part of the British statement of values?
My right hon. Friend is nodding vigorously, and I think that the hon. Lady can take that as assent.
A major review conducted by Lord Carter of Coles is currently considering sentencing policy as part of the wider examination of prison and probation services.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his response; the review will be very welcome. We have already had a serious debate in this Chamber about the need for non-custodial sentences for those who do not pose a major danger to the public. Does he accept, nevertheless, that there is public disquiet about those who pose a serious threat to the public—those who have been found guilty of crimes involving great violence or unreasonable cruelty—but whose sentencing does not always seem to reflect what the public would see as the need for salutary deterrent sentences? Can he refer that to the review body?
I share my hon. Friend’s concern about the need to ensure that the committing of a serious sexual or violent offence is properly punished. Whether in respect of the review of indeterminate sentences for public protection or in other ways, we have no intention of seeing any cuts in sentences for rape. He may also wish to know that between 1996 and 2004 the average sentence for rape increased from six and a half years to seven years, and that the minimum recommended by the Sentencing Guidelines Council in any circumstances is four years.
In considering any proposals for changing sentencing policy, will the Minister ensure that the lack of capacity in the prison estate does not influence the length of sentences given and the proportion of those sentences which are served?
Any prison system has to take account of total capacity. We have increased capacity by 20,000 places over the past 10 years—twice as fast as the rate under the previous Administration whom the hon. Lady supported, with 2,000 places a year compared with 1,000 places previously. We have already announced plans for an additional 9,500 places over forthcoming years. In his review, which will of course be published first to this House, Lord Carter of Coles is considering what further capacity is needed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the great challenges of sentencing policy is to educate the public about the sentences passed by our courts? In discussions with my constituents, it is clear that there is an under-appreciation of the length and nature of sentences. Will he take every opportunity to inform the public better about sentences that are actually passed?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. As my right hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for prisons has pointed out, we have greatly toughened up the effectiveness of community sentences, particularly for prisoners who might otherwise be sentenced to short terms of imprisonment. A point frequently made by the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is that community sentences are often more effective. I would also point out that over the last 10 years, a major effort by the police, the probation service, the Prison Service and local authorities throughout the country has ensured that crime has come down. Statistics published by the Office for National Statistics last week show that there has been a 40 per cent. drop in crime since 1995, with even bigger drops in burglary and vehicle crime.
Political Party Funding
This is one of the issues currently being considered in the inter-party talks chaired by Sir Hayden Phillips. The Government very much hope that a consensus can be reached between the parties to restore public confidence by tackling the spending arms race.
An opinion poll commissioned earlier this year by Unlock Democracy showed that 76 per cent. of the public support cross-party talks on party funding. Would the Secretary of State agree that it would be a grave error of judgment if one political party were to withdraw from the commitment on party funding for reasons of petty political advantage?
I would, and I hope that no party withdraws from the talks. The last time we reviewed the issue of party funding was in 2000, and I led those discussions. We were able to reach all-party agreement. The problem, however, was that Lord Neill recommended a tightening of expenditure limits in his report in 1998, and we all thought that that was agreed. However, it has not turned out to be the case, and as Sir Hayden Phillips made clear in his report in May, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 sought to control the level of spending but has proved inadequate to the challenge. The changes in respect of local spending have had the consequence—entirely unanticipated by all parties—of leading to more lax controls on local spending rather than the reverse, which was what all parties at the time intended.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital to plug this local loophole before politics descends into a mercenary battle to see who can raise the most money? There is an urgent need for a Bill in the Queen’s Speech to extend the current limits on national campaign expenditure to local parties and candidates.
I remain hopeful about that. I draw to the attention of the House, and of my hon. Friend, the fact that when we discussed this issue on 15 March 2007, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), on behalf of the official Opposition, said:
“we are happy to discuss spending caps on all year round non-election campaigning”,
as well as other controls. I hope that that is still the position of the official Opposition.
Most people will be astonished by the front of Labour Ministers, such as the Government Chief Whip, who call for controls on party donations but want to exempt unions from those controls. We have called for a comprehensive cap on all donations so that individuals, companies and trade unions are treated equally. Is it not obvious why the Government have rejected this? They do not want to give up the £17 million of funding they received from the unions last year. In exercising his responsibility for policy on party funding, will the Lord Chancellor be acting in the interests of the public or the interests of his party?
I am tempted to descend to the level that the Conservatives have now reached on this issue. However, I live in hope that the constructive, consensual approach that they were taking under the Leader of the Opposition only a few months ago will continue. The hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) has not been party to the all-party talks. Those of us who have know well that each party has had to accept significant compromises to reach a consensus. That remains my hope and desire, but it can be achieved only if the spirit in which we entered into the talks, and which continued until July, goes on. I greatly regret that, for reasons that remain unexplained, the Conservatives cancelled the next meeting of those all-party talks, which was due on the 3 September, and that they have had the most extraordinary difficulty in finding a date to suit them since then.
The Lord Chancellor conspicuously failed to answer the question. There is no possibility of achieving consensus while union barons control affiliation fees. By not counting £8 million of donations, he drives a coach and horses through the principle of capping donations. Is it not clear from his answer that the Government have not the slightest interest in securing a level playing field for party funding? Is it not also clear that their only interest in the conduct of elections is exactly what the Electoral Commission’s report described yesterday—partisan interest above the public interest?
I think that the hon. Gentleman protests too much. Before he starts examining the mote in our eye, he should look at the beam in his own. He totally misunderstands the way in which individual union members have a choice—[Hon. Members: “Oh!”] They have two choices. First, under Conservative legislation, they vote in ballots at least every 10 years—[Laughter.] I do not know why Conservative Members are mocking—I am taking about their legislation. Secondly, unions can make a voluntary decision about whether to pay the political levy or opt out of it.
Only one party has ever sought to act in a partisan way on party funding—the Conservative party. [Interruption.] We sought to act on a consensual basis in 2000, and we achieved that consensus with the Conservative party and with the Liberal Democrats, and I hope that we can reach it again.
Is it not clear that the official Opposition are so hooked on their regular injection of funds from the gentleman in the other place that they are not interested in consensus, and that to satisfy the public that democracy is not being bought, we will have to introduce legislation in the next Session?
It was understood by the Conservative party when it entered into talks—it may have forgotten about it since then—that the fundamental problem with the regulation of party funding at election time and between elections is the need to control total spending. I hope that nobody in the House, or any British political party, supports uncontrolled spending reaching the levels that we see in some other countries, including the United States.
Let me repeat the point that I made a few moments ago. When the House implemented the Neill committee report on a consensual basis, it was agreed that party funding at elections between the two main parties would total £40 million. As Sir Hayden Phillips’ report makes clear, spending at the last election was £95 million. It is not in anybody’s interest for that “arms race” to continue. I therefore greatly hope that the Leader of the Opposition will instruct his representatives on the Hayden Phillips working party to revert to the constructive approach that the Opposition had until the summer.
I have had no formal discussions with the Scottish Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. Devolution has strengthened the Union between Scotland and England. We are happy to engage in constructive dialogue with those who support the current settlement.
Given that the Labour party in Scotland now favours further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament, will the Minister accept that that includes an allocation of taxes raised in Scotland to fund services in Scotland? Is it not also time that the Government recognised that they need to address the English dimension and move towards consultation for a full federal constitution for the United Kingdom?
I certainly do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s last remark. I do not believe that having separate votes on England is a sensible policy. The Union is made stronger by us all being together. As for the issue in Scotland that he raised, I do not believe that there is consensus on that matter either
What the Minister has just said is simply wrong. How can the Government continue to ignore the effect that the devolution settlement has on the House of Commons? The West Lothian question will not go away. That great Labour parliamentarian Tam Dalyell was right to ask it 30 years ago, and we will continue to ask it. When will the Government take steps to strengthen the Union by ensuring that Members of Parliament who represent English constituencies have a decisive say when we make laws for England?
The hon. Lady cites Tam Dalyell. Let me put it to her in this way:
“This proposal risks creating two classes of MP. It would be a constitutional abortion. Either you are a member of parliament or you are not. If you go ahead with this, you will have 100 MPs—including those from Wales and Northern Ireland—who are second-class legislators.”
That was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House will have been shocked and saddened by the tragic drowning in the Algarve of my constituents Bob and Debby Fry, and of Jean Dinsmore. Luckily, their home town of Wootton Bassett has a powerful sense of community, and I know that people there will rally round in every way and offer the children every possible support. In offering his sympathy, will the Prime Minister also be ready to offer every practical help and support to the children in Portugal now and, perhaps more importantly, when they return home, to help to address the problems that they will face then?
The whole House—indeed, the whole country—will join me in sending our condolences to the families and friends of Mr. and Mrs. Fry and Mrs. Dinsmore, who died in such tragic circumstances. Our first thoughts—indeed, our heartfelt thoughts—are with the children of those who died. I can tell the House that the consular services in Portugal are giving every support already to family and friends. At the same time, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We will do everything that we can to support the children on their return to this country.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could help me with a little problem that I have been wrestling with. [Interruption.] If the Government were to abolish public service targets, how would we know how well they are doing?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of the targets that we have set, cancer is down 17 per cent. in this country and there has been a huge cut in cardiovascular disease. Targets have enabled us to move to our 18-week target, which we shall reach during the course of the next year, made it possible for there to be 1.5 million more admissions to hospitals and made it possible for us to be able to give people the most modern treatment, with the most modern equipment. I fear that if there is a black hole in different parties’ finances, that would enable them to cut spending on the health service when it needs to be increased.
There is nothing more important for our future than raising school standards through real school reform. An important part of that reform involves being prepared to give schools real freedom and autonomy, including over their budgets. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would fly in the face of such autonomy to punish schools that budget carefully? Will he explain why his Government are pressing ahead with a plan to confiscate 5 per cent. of the surpluses from good schools that have planned carefully?
There is £1.7 billion of surpluses in our schools at the moment. Many schools have planned to use those surpluses and will be enabled to do so. We are consulting on how we can best use those surpluses for the benefit of children’s education, and the Secretary of State for Children will report back in the next week. We are determined that that money should go to the pupils, and to their parents, to improve their education.
But why does the Prime Minister think that he knows best how to spend that money, rather than the head teachers? This is a serious issue for schools up and down the country. Let me quote some head teachers. They say that it is “unjust”, and “an ill-conceived idea”. One says that it “undermines” governors’ authority, while another says that it “destroys the trust” between schools and the Government. Why does the Prime Minister think that those head teachers are wrong and that he is right?
I do not think that they are wrong. The right hon. Gentleman should listen to what I am saying—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Sometimes it is better if he does his research. I am saying that there is £1.7 billion in surpluses, that we are consulting on how we can use them to the best effect for pupils and teachers, and that the consultation will come out in the next week. The only reason that there are surpluses in schools is because of the payments that we make directly to those schools, and the only reason that there is extra investment in education is that we made a decision to raise the amount of money spent per pupil in our schools. If the Conservatives persist with their policy of taking £6 billion out of the public services, it is our schools, our teachers and our pupils who will suffer.
Why does not the Prime Minister just scrap this consultation and let the schools keep their surpluses? Another head teacher has written that
“there is no single Government measure which I have found as depressing or potentially repressive”.
When is the right hon. Gentleman going to learn that real school reform means giving real autonomy, including over budgets? When is he going to give up his mania for state control and start trusting head teachers?
Once again, the right hon. Gentleman is not listening to what I say. The only reason that the schools have that money in their surpluses is because of the special payments that we have made, and because they have added to those special payments by their efforts. That means that £1.7 billion is now able to be used for pupils, parents and teachers. We want to see that money used to best effect. It is because we gave money to the schools and allowed them to spend it that it is possible for them to have that £1.7 billion. Our consultation will finish in the next few days and a decision will be announced.
Given that we are being asked to reduce our carbon footprint as part of energy saving week, has the Prime Minister had the chance to see the WWF report that came out yesterday, which ranks Newport as the joint No. 1 greenest city in the UK? Will he commend the residents of Newport and its Labour city council for their efforts to cut their carbon footprint?
I applaud Newport, and I applaud what my hon. Friend is doing to promote energy saving. I met the Energy Saving Trust yesterday to talk about the measures that we can take in the future. A huge amount of effort is being made this week to persuade people to take the necessary steps to save energy, whether it involves boiling a kettle, putting things on standby or changing the electric bulbs that they use. I believe that the combination of personal responsibility, public investment in energy saving and the new energy policy that we are adopting will be the best way to secure our climate change agreements. We are also absolutely committed to the European 20 per cent. renewables target.
On that specific point, the Prime Minister’s predecessor made a very firm commitment to that 20 per cent. target for renewables by 2020. The Prime Minister’s own Ministers are now trying to renege on that commitment. Does not that suggest that Brown is less green than Blair?
To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, I am pleased to see him back in his place this week. Given the turnover of Liberal Democrat leaders, it is great that he is still here. However, I think that I answered his question in my last reply.
We are committed to the targets agreed in the European Union. The European Union will now publish what it believes that each country is able to do, and we will engage in a consultation. However, I must tell both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives that that will lead to difficult decisions that they will have to make. First we have a feasibility study on the Severn barrage, secondly we wish to extend offshore wind turbines, and thirdly we wish to extend onshore wind turbines. I believe that the Conservative party has been totally opposed to something that is necessary to meet our renewables targets.
If the Government are fully committed to the 20 per cent. target for Britain, why did the Prime Minister’s own energy Minister go on television yesterday and say that he wanted it to be cut to 10 per cent., under pressure from the nuclear lobby? Does the Prime Minister not realise that if he rats on renewable power, not only will that damage the environment, but he will drag his own environmental reputation down to the level of that of his friend George Bush?
Perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman what has happened. Europe has agreed on a 20 per cent. renewables target, and each member state will be given a target that it is supposed to agree to and meet in order for the 20 per cent. target to be reached. That has not yet happened; when it happens, we will report back to the House.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what makes it possible for us to achieve our energy targets is the renewables obligation, which the Conservative party voted against when it came to the House, the climate change levy, which the Conservative party also voted against, and wind power. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in supporting wind power and its development for the future through wind farms and turbines.
Given the increasingly belligerent noises from the White House, will my right hon. Friend give a clear commitment that if there were a United States or Israeli military attack on Iran he would not support it militarily, logistically or politically?
We pursue a diplomatic course of action. I believe that we will have to step up our sanctions over the next few weeks. I have already told other countries that we are prepared to lead the way to a third resolution of sanctions, and at the same time support tougher European Union sanctions. I will rule nothing out, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I believe that both the diplomatic route and the sanctions are having an effect and, if stepped up, can have an even bigger effect in the future.
The Welsh Assembly made a decision on prescription charges, and the Scottish Parliament made a decision. They make decisions within their own budgets, and their budgets are allocated under a formula agreed by both parties in this House over the past 30 years. No more money goes to Scotland or Wales as a result of their decisions on prescriptions. That is the Barnett formula that has been agreed by all parties over the years. [Interruption.] If the Conservative party wishes to change its policy it should tell us now, but its policy throughout has been to support this funding formula.
Will my right hon. Friend reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the eradication of child poverty? Does he agree that for many people the best path out of poverty is through work, and that if the welfare to work green paper proposals are to be implemented there is an urgent need to expand the supply of affordable, reliable out-of-school provision, particularly for children aged between 11 and 14? There is currently less than one place for every 10 children in that age group. Will my right hon. Friend talk to his colleagues on an urgent basis to ensure that the service is expanded?
My hon. Friend has been a campaigner for child care over the years. I visited a Sure Start centre in her constituency only a few months ago.
The children’s plan will outline what is necessary to expand both child care and education in future years. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the expansion of opportunities for work is the best means by which we can relieve people of poverty. That is why, in providing British jobs for British workers—[Interruption.] Oh yes. That is why, in providing British jobs for British workers, we have been determined to sign agreements with 110 companies, and will sign agreements with 300 in future. Those agreements are designed to provide 300,000 new jobs, and that is one way in which we can get unemployed workers in Britain into the 600,000 vacancies that exist in the economy.
We have created jobs, we will create more jobs in the future, and we will honour our promises to the unemployed.
The independent report on the Scottish elections was published yesterday. It found that the Labour Government put party interest before voters’ interests in conducting those elections. Will the Prime Minister now offer his own personal apology for the unacceptable conduct of Ministers?
These decisions were supported by the Conservative party. The Conservative spokesman on Scottish affairs, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), said:
“I accept that the Scottish Conservatives acceded to a single Scottish Parliament ballot paper”—[Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 26.]
That was the first decision that was made. The Gould report does not put the blame on any individual or any institution. What it says is that all political parties must take their share of responsibility for what happened.
How can the right hon. Gentleman possibly deny that that report says that Ministers put political interests ahead of voters’ interests? I thought that politics was going to be different under this Prime Minister. [Interruption.] The report says that Ministers in the Scotland Office—[Interruption.]
Order. I asked for quietness on the Opposition Benches, and I also want quietness on the Government Benches. Once again, Mr. Austin, the best place—[Interruption.] Order. Let me deal with this. You said a lot, and the best thing for you to do is stay away from my Chair, because my hearing is bang-on.
That is another one of the Prime Minister’s cronies who will not behave properly. Let us just listen to what the report said. It said that Ministers in the Scotland Office
“frequently focused on partisan political interests, overlooking”
voter interests. In a democracy, that is a complete scandal.
The right hon. Member who was responsible for this fiasco as Secretary of State for Scotland is now the International Development Secretary and the Government’s election co-ordinator. How can he possibly go around the world lecturing other countries about probity in their elections?
I will be temperate by quoting from the report itself:
“Throughout the review…we have had no intention of—and in fact have scrupulously sought to avoid—assigning blame to individuals and institutions or questioning the legitimacy”.
The Gould report conclusion refers to the good intentions of those involved in assembling and conducting the elections. He then says in the interviews he has done that
“‘Party self-interest’…is not necessarily related to one party”.
He does not assign blame to one party or one institution. What he is saying is that the political system must change, and that is why we have accepted his recommendations.
I do not know how the Prime Minister has the gall to accuse me of misleading anybody. He should take a look at page 17 of the report, which says that there
“was a notable level of party self interest evident in Ministerial decision-making”.
Is not the least we deserve that the Minister who took the decisions explains himself to the House of Commons and is stripped of his responsibility for elections? The Prime Minister promised us a new type of politics. He said that he would be more open and honest. He said that he would be frank about problems. He said that he would be candid about the dilemmas. That is what he said in his leadership speech of 100 days ago. After his performance today, does that not feel like 100 years ago?
They were agreed after a long process of consultation involving all the parties. I have just quoted the Scottish Conservative leader saying that he supported the single ballot paper, and let me quote Mr. Gould again. He says:
“I don’t think I would absolve any party”
“‘Party self-interest’ in this context is not necessarily related to one party.”
This was not a failure of one party or one institution; it was to do with decisions that we should have made together and with decisions that we have now made to change the system.
Whilst not wanting to be a killjoy on the question of fireworks, I do however think that further restrictions on their sale are necessary and that the existing self-regulation is not meaningful, given their wanton use or misuse by certain elements in our society. Does not my right hon. Friend believe that it is time to revisit that legislation and to ban the sale of fireworks to the public?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue at this time of the year. The first thing to be said is that we have already made changes in the legislation governing fireworks; secondly, we will continue to keep it under review; thirdly, all Members of this House should send a message out that we expect people to exercise the use of fireworks with care and caution.
Let me first applaud Henry’s achievement, and let us all wish him well in his future career in ballet. I cannot know the direct information about the individual case relating to child benefit. I shall look into it and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.
The Government’s target is that carbon dioxide emissions from this country should be reduced by at least 60 per cent. by 2050. Does my right hon. Friend accept that a growing body of informed scientific opinion suggests that this target is perhaps insufficiently ambitious, and will he agree to review this matter in the context of the climate change Bill?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a huge interest in environmental matters. I have already said that I believe that this target may not itself be ambitious enough for our future energy needs in relation to achieving our climate change goals. I can assure him that, as part of the work that we will do, the climate change Committee will have the power to review that target.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making me aware of his programme of events for the rest of the day. I understand the frustrations of people in local areas when they want facilities. I shall certainly look at what he says to me on this matter, but I think that he will agree that if we are to spend more on community hospitals and more on hospitals generally, we will need to fund the health service properly. He should agree with us on the funding of the NHS.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has taken a long-standing interest in the development of better health care in this area. We are determined to go further on meeting better cancer waiting times, improving early detection rates and, therefore, on increasing the amount of screening done. It is important in this breast cancer awareness month to be able to say that we can do more in the future. I know that women who visit their GPs are not always referred urgently for investigation of suspected cancer, and that is why we are prepared to say now that all women with breast problems will have a guaranteed appointment with a specialist within two weeks of referral, not just those with suspected cancer. I hope that that goes some way to allay the fears that my hon. Friend has mentioned.
And that is the position of the Government. This was a brutal and horrific crime. I have already talked to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland about this. I am sure that the sympathies of the whole House will go to the family. I echo the widespread condemnation of this atrocious event and the desire that those who carried it out should be brought to justice as quickly as possible. The Chief Constable has stated that there is an ongoing investigation. It obviously would be inappropriate to speculate on responsibility at this time, but I believe that the police on both sides of the border are doing everything in their power to bring the perpetrators to justice.
I know that my hon. Friend has taken up this issue and has raised it in this House before. We established NICE so that it could make its decisions transparently, independently and free from political interference. I think that in the light of the current legal action relating to this, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the specifics of what he has said. However, I can say that the Department of Health is investing £20 million in a new national research network on neurological disease, which will expand the number and range of clinical trials on treatment. Alzheimer’s disease is one of those areas that will benefit, and I hope that he will join me in welcoming this new addition to the research.
We do regret the fact that people were not able to vote, but I must say to the hon. Gentleman that his party also supported the system that was adopted. There was a consensus on what the system would be, so it is no good coming and saying now that somehow that party knows better that the system was wrong. His party supported the system at the time. As Mr. Gould has reported, all parties must take their share of the responsibility.
Will my right hon. Friend consider adopting the feed-in tariff system for renewable energy generation, which has been so much more successful in stimulating investment in renewable energy in other European countries, such as Germany? Given this country’s vast resources of renewable energy, does he agree that it should be taking the lead in meeting the European 20 per cent. target, rather than leaving it to other countries to do more?
I think that my hon. Friend will agree that we have led the way on climate change and will continue to lead the way. Yes, we will review the feed-in tariff proposal that she puts forward, but I must say that our decision to have a renewable obligation on the companies has been one that is yielding results and that will continue to yield results in the future. I do not hide from the House the difficult decisions that will have to be made about how we reach our targets on renewables. People will have to face up, as she has said, to the need to use wind turbines both on land and on sea.
The hon. Gentleman’s hospital issue predates the announcement made by the Secretary of State for Health. However, when an appeal is made to the Secretary of State it is looked at on medical grounds. There are medics who look at the specifics of any appeal that is made. If that appeal comes, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it will be looked at by the medical experts.
My right hon. Friend will recall the misery that resulted from the collapse of the Independent Insurance company a few years ago. Will he welcome the conviction yesterday of Michael Bright and Dennis Lomas in that case, and will he assure the House that the failure of reserving that took place in that company could not happen again in the market today?
The Financial Services Authority looked into the matter, as I recall. It has to satisfy itself, as it is the insurance regulator, that insurance companies have sufficient reserves. If my hon. Friend has any further evidence to bring to me, I will ensure that the FSA looks at it.
We have set aside additional money to help farmers. We have also reduced the amount of regulation that farmers have to undertake. We have also slowed down the demands from the Inland Revenue for taxation from farmers. We have done what we can, in consultation with the National Farmers Union, to help farmers. I realise that this is a difficult time, especially for sheep farmers and hill farmers, but we will do everything in our power to help them..
I can assure my hon. Friend that this matter comes under the Parole Board and it will not release rapists who are in any way likely to harm the community. We are building more prison places and we are continuing the prison building programme at a faster rate than before. This year, we will deport 4,000 foreign national prisoners. Two years ago it was only 1,500 and last year it was only 2,500. We will deport 4,000 foreign national prisoners and we will do more, by signing agreements with countries such as Jamaica, which has 1,400 nationals in British cells; Nigeria, which has more than 1,000 nationals in British cells; and Vietnam and China, which have 400 and 300 nationals in British cells. We will sign agreements with those countries so that we can return prisoners from our cells as expeditiously as possible. We will increase the number of foreign national prisoners who are deported from our country.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this point of order, of which I have given you prior notice. It relates to the important matter of the House’s ability to scrutinise the Executive. I see that there is no meeting of the Committee of Selection today. That means that it will not be possible to nominate Members to the three new Select Committees necessary following the machinery of government changes made by the Prime Minister in June.
The intention of the orders that the House passed on 25 July was to ensure continuity of scrutiny. The Leader of the House said on that occasion:
“We do not want the existing Committees to disappear with no effective Committees to replace them. That would create a gap of some time in the pattern of accountability of Government to Committees in respect of the three Departments, which would not be right.”—[Official Report, 25 July 2007; Vol. 463, c. 942.]
Those three Departments are, of course, the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, the Department for Children, Schools and Families and—from my own point of view as Chairman of the outgoing Trade and Industry Committee—the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. Can you advise me, Mr. Speaker, what options are available to Back Benchers on both sides of the House who are concerned about the problem to put it right, preferably in this Session, to ensure complete continuity or, if that is not possible—as I fear—at least to ensure that the matter is brought to a speedy resolution in the new Session?
I thank the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee for giving me notice of his point of order. I am aware that his Committee comes to an end at the end of this Session. It is for the Committee of Selection to nominate the members of the successor Committee. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes the matter up with the usual channels, and once again I thank him for giving me notice of his point of order.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that it is both out of order and unparliamentary language for one hon. Member to accuse another of misleading the House, as the Prime Minister clearly did to the Leader of the Opposition during Question Time? Should not the hon. Member involved then apologise and withdraw the remark?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can I therefore take it that it is quite in order for Members of Parliament to accuse another Member of Parliament of misleading? If so, we will bear that in mind when we come to challenge the Government on so many occasions. [Interruption.]
Order. Mr. Skinner, I am sure that you are not going to help me. I can tell the Opposition Chief Whip that I understand his anxiety. All I can say is that he should read the Hansard record tomorrow. [Interruption.] Order. I ask the House to bear my words in mind. I have consulted the record, and I am satisfied that the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Hon. Members must understand that I am in the Chair and that it is a rolling situation—[Interruption.] I have tried to tell the hon. Gentleman that I have consulted the record and am satisfied that the Prime Minister has said nothing unparliamentary. I am inviting the Chief Whip of Her Majesty’s Opposition to read the record, and tomorrow he is welcome to come back to this matter. He is of course always entitled to come and see me, as he does on a regular basis.
Order. I already have the record. The hon. Gentleman, who is a very fair individual, knows that I have consulted with the Clerk. I have given a perfectly good offer to his Chief Whip to look at the record tomorrow. Of course, we have a day to look at things calmly.
Would I be right in saying that, if anybody said that another hon. Member or right hon. Member was using the phrase “deliberately misleading the House”—and I see that the Clerks are nodding all together, in unison—that person would have to withdraw the remark? I have been around a long time, and I have tested the market several times—[Interruption.] And it is called experience, and it is worth a guinea a box!
Grandparents (Rights of Access)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give grandparents rights of access to their grandchildren in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.
There are 13.5 million grandparents in the UK, including your good self, Mr. Speaker. They make a vast contribution to family life and nowadays, when most parents work, grandparents are probably more involved with the care of their grandchildren then ever before.
Let us consider some of the facts. Eighty-two per cent. of children receive some care from their grandparents, and 60 per cent. of child care is provided by grandparents. Nearly 5 million grandparents spend the equivalent of three days a week caring for their grandchildren and nearly half of grandparents make financial contributions towards expensive items for the family. More than 90 per cent. of first-time mothers have help from their mother, so close bonds are established at an early stage that become important for the child’s development.
If all that is true, why do we have a family legal system that recognises none of it and gives grandparents no rights of access in law? It is a sad fact that this year 150,000 children will be affected by the break-up of their parents. Even in cases where the split is handled as amicably as possible, it is a traumatic experience for the children. In cases where the break-up is difficult access can be a big issue, with the absent parent having limited contact with their children and the grandparents on that side of the family having no contact at all.
Given the increased role played by grandparents these days, withdrawal of access can be devastating for both children and grandparents, who can go from spending hours together to no contact at all. How bewildering and upsetting that must be for children already struggling to come to terms with what is happening to their family.
The law gives no rights to grandparents, which is not to say that grandparents cannot apply to the courts for access, but the process is difficult and expensive, with no guarantee of success, and thus limited to grandparents who are lucky enough to have the means to pursue it—a limitation that must be unacceptable to Members. As a result of that situation, it is estimated that 1 million children are denied contact with their grandparents. How sad that so many children cannot spend time with their grandparents, with all they bring to the family. My Bill would address that.
I pay tribute to my constituent, Dorothy Fagge, who brought all this to my attention at one of the summer shows in my constituency that I attend with my touring surgery caravan. She told me about her problems of access to her grandchildren, some of the tragic circumstances involved and her long legal battle to change things. She finally had some success in court, but it cost her more than £20,000 and, as she is only too aware, that is beyond the means of many families. When I asked her what she thought the law should be, she said that grandparents should have the same rights in law as absent parents, which is not to say that there will be access in every case. We can all accept that sometimes it would be inappropriate and not in the best interests of the child, but there should be a presumption that, all things being equal, access is normally granted for grandparents to see their grandchildren.
When the well-being of children is being considered, the role of grandparents should be part of the process. At a time when parents may be struggling with the stress of a break-up and difficulties in their relationship, grandparents can play an important stabilising role for the children: visits to their grandparents’ home can feel normal and safe when the rest of their world seems to be turned upside-down.
Such access is a simple request, which would require only simple legislation, yet it could make a huge difference to family life in this country. I am sure that the Bill, if successful, will not create heaven on earth; there will still be issues to overcome. Every Member deals with constituents who are struggling just for parental access—let alone access for grandparents—and we see how devastating that is for those involved. Family breakdowns can be complex and difficult and the courts are not perfect, but I believe that it is our duty to create a framework that gives hope and equity to all grandparents so that access is in the interests of the child and the family, and not something open only to those who can afford it.
One million children are denied access to their grandparents; today we can begin the journey to putting that right. I hope that the House will support this motion so that we do.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ian Cawsey, Nick Ainger, John Bercow, Jeff Ennis, Mr. Roger Gale, Mr. John Heppell, Shona McIsaac, Mr. Eric Martlew, Mr. Elliot Morley, Laura Moffatt, Kali Mountford and Mrs. Linda Riordan.
Grandparents (Rights of Access)
Mr. Ian Cawsey accordingly presented a Bill to give grandparents rights of access to their grandchildren in certain circumstances; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed [Bill 166].
LEGAL SERVICES BILL [LORDS] (PROGRAMME) (NO. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7) (Programming of Bills),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Legal Services Bill [Lords] for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 4th June and 15th October 2007 (Legal Services Bill [Lords] (Programme) and Legal Services Bill [Lords] (Programme) (No. 2))—
Consideration of Lords Message
1. Any message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
2. Proceedings on that Message shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. Khan.]
Question agreed to.
Legal Services Bill [Lords]
Lords message considered.
Carrying on of a reserved legal activity: employers and employees etc
Lords amendment: 4A.
I beg to move, That this House does not insist on Commons amendment No. 4 to which the Lords have disagreed, disagrees to Lords amendment No. 4A proposed in lieu of that amendment and proposes amendments (a) to (c) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 4A.
The House will be aware that although this House agreed with the Government amendments to clause 15 that apply to trade unions, they were not accepted in the other place. Their lordships disagreed and substituted different words that limited the exemption that trade unions would have from the need to be regulated as entities. In our original wording, trade unions were to be exempted in respect of any reserved legal services provided by virtue of membership. In the Lords amendment, the exemption applied only to what we might call a limited range of employment-related services.
I have thought about the issue very carefully and I accept the spirit of the Lords desire to narrow the exemption. Although I would still be happy with a wider exemption, I acknowledge the strength of feeling about the subject and particularly the concerns that were held by some consumer organisations about whether union members might not get the full level of protection. As everyone will be aware, I am very concerned that all consumers—whether they are union members or otherwise—are properly protected.
I think it would be right to say that no one wanted to prevent unions from continuing to provide legal services to their members in areas connected to their employment, trade, occupation or other membership-based activities. The services that unions provide are vital for access to justice and for industrial relations, but I can see force in the argument that preserving that position does not require an absolute exemption for all kinds of legal services.
Nevertheless, today large numbers of people earn their living in ways that differ from the traditional employer-employee relationship. It is important therefore that the amendments that narrow the exemption recognise that and provide for the different ways in which people work today and through which, by virtue of their membership of a particular union, they may benefit from assistance by that union in the same way as people employed in more traditional employment situations. On that basis, we have tabled amendments that will have a similar effect to those considered in the other place, but that will also ensure that services relating to trades, occupations or other activities associated with a person’s union membership are included.
Our amendments are not confined to employment in the narrow employer-employee sense. There are many other ways of earning a living or of being a trade union member, including through self-employment and holding a non-remunerated occupation, and trade unions deal with all of them. That is covered by the definition of “relevant activities” in proposed new subsection (9) to clause 15.
Our amendments go wider than the Lords amendments in the range of circumstances that they cover. The Lords amendments were fairly closely focused on the workplace, but our amendments apply the exemption to other situations as well. For example, proposed new subsection (5B)(b) to clause 15 covers other
“activities carried on for the purposes of or in connection with, or arising from”
the member’s employment, trade, occupation or other relevant activities.
An example would be that of a university lecturer who has a publishing contract arising out of his or her research obligations. That contract would not be with the university that employs him or her, but it does arise out of the lecturer’s employment by the university. That provision enables unions to provide services if a dispute arose about the publishing arrangements. Another example would be a case in which an agent acts on behalf of a musician who is a member of a union. The provision would allow the union to provide services to the member if there was a problem regarding an engagement, even if the agent was working on the member’s behalf.
Proposed new subsection (5B)(c) covers events that occur in the course of, or in connection with, a member’s employment, trade, occupation or other relevant activities. That would, for example, allow unions to continue to provide services to teachers who need legal help when something untoward happens on a school field trip. Proposed new subsection (5B)(d) covers activities carried on by a member for the purposes of, in connection with or arising from membership of the union. That will apply the exemption to matters that do not directly concern the member’s occupation but are nonetheless an important part of his membership role. An example would be a member’s position as a trustee of an employer’s pension fund.
Obviously, those are only examples, but I hope that the House will agree that it was important to cover the wider range of work-related and membership-related activities; I hope that Members agree that the amendments do that. Of course, under the amendments, the Lord Chancellor has the power to clarify the reach of the provisions by order, on the recommendation of the legal services board.
I can also confirm that our amendments are intended to ensure that “excepted membership services” includes reserved legal services for a member, or one of the other persons set out in proposed new subsection (5A)(a), where such services relate to, or have a connection with, activities set out in proposed new subsection (5B) that have been carried out by another person on behalf of the member. In other words, if a musician who is a member of a union has a contract for music services negotiated by an agent, any reserved services to the member that relate to, or have a connection with, those music services should be covered by proposed new subsection (5B).
Finally, for the sake of completeness, I should add that none of what I have said changes the general position on regulation that we have already set out. Any reserved services within that exemption that a union provides directly will still have to be carried out by a qualified lawyer. Approved regulators will still be able to take action if something untoward develops. Union members will still be able to take complaints about reserved services to the office for legal complaints, and will still be able to complain within the union’s rules, too.
I hope that it is agreed that the amendments deal with the main concerns expressed about the original exemption. The amendments will continue to enable unions to provide the range of work and membership-related services that they do now, which I think we all agree is important. However, the amendments also ensure that the exemption is not wider than necessary. I commend them to the House.
I declare my interests as a member of the Law Society and of the corporate finance faculty of the Institute of Chartered Accountants. Putting aside the mechanical complexities of the ping-pong process, the issue that we are dealing with first today is straightforward. That issue is whether the trade unions deserve exemption under the Bill and, if so, to what degree. We recognise that the Government have made significant movement on the issue.
The Government’s original amendment, tabled in Committee, attempted to exclude trade unions entirely from the requirement, under part 5, to become licensed alternative business structure firms when providing reserved legal services to their members. Unsurprisingly, that wide-ranging amendment, which would have allowed a trade union that operated entirely outside the regulatory structure to provide, say, conveyancing services or representation in divorce proceedings, was rejected in the other place when the Lords were belatedly given the opportunity to examine it. A proposal was then put forward by my noble Friend Lord Kingsland, limiting the trade union exemption to those legal services ancillary or incidental to the trade unions’ main employment-related function, and it was accepted in the other place.
The Government have now tabled a compromise amendment, which attempts to broaden our narrowing of the union exemption to cover membership services which relate to what they describe as the “relevant activities” of a member or former member of an independent trade union. But, taking a step back, it still remains unclear to me why the Government were prepared to expose union members who receive legal services to a potentially lower level of regulation and protection than that which other people receive when accessing similar legal services from bodies other than unions.
We are at least thankful that the Government have now accepted, however grudgingly, the absurdity of a blanket exemption for trade unions. We do, however, maintain that as a matter of principle the trade unions should not be granted that special treatment. Why should mutual societies, voluntary and not-for-profit bodies such as Citizens Advice, and small legal entities such as trade mark and patent attorney bodies, which have operated as companies without significant complaint against them for many years, all be required to be regulated alternative business structures if unions are not? Why should trade unions receive special treatment?
Who is prepared to speak out for the bodies that I mentioned, and to recognise the unequal way in which the Government are dealing with bodies that will be affected by the Bill? It is the Conservative party that is prepared to speak out, and it is the Conservative party that is prepared to question the trade unions’ unjust influence over the Government, which the unions have levered to ensure that their circumstances, and only theirs, were thought worthy of a blanket exemption and now a partial exemption. Could that be something to do with the fact that 73 per cent. of cash donations to the Labour party in 2006 came from trade unions? Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that.
The Government should be thinking about the interests of trade union members, and not the interests of trade union bosses. We will be watching to see whether the union privileges granted under the Bill are abused. On Report, various Labour Members maintained that unions were regulated by the certification officer. The role of the certification officer is a matter for another debate, and we should have that debate, but why should trade union members be exposed to poor, inadequately regulated legal services from trade unions? The result of the union exemption, if it goes through, will surely be to make necessary a thorough review of the certification officer’s role.
I know that the hon. Gentleman has a paranoia about trade unions, but does he not realise that millions of people in this country who get access to justice would not do so if it were not for the legal services provided by trade unions?
I totally accept that, but when we last debated the subject on Report, the hon. Gentleman said, when referring to the certification officer:
“I have some criticisms about the system’s lack of teeth”.—[Official Report, 15 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 610.]
I agree with him, and we should review that.
Furthermore, it must be highlighted once again that under the amendment it will still be up to the unions to determine who is classed as a member, and therefore to whom they can extend reserved legal activities without needing to be licensed under part 5. That still creates the proven possibility of unions bringing in non-connected associate members and providing a poor service to them. I would be grateful if the Minister could outline how the Lord Chancellor would consult on what are the “relevant services”. In particular, would that need to be confirmed in a statutory instrument?
The Government should be aware that the provision, together with the role of the certification officer, represents unfinished business. The compromise reached remains far from ideal, even though we accept that the Government have made a dramatic concession on the issue. The exemption would be limited to the relevant activities of the union members, but what does that mean? How would that be regulated by the Lord Chancellor? On this matter of principle, we are not yet satisfied, and we will press the amendment to a Division.
As the House may recall from our previous discussions on the subject, we had two problems with the Government’s proposal. First, the blanket exemption was far wider than we were prepared to accept, because in the provision of legal services by trade unions, it would have allowed what I would term trading in the open market. There is nothing to stop trade unions offering legal services on the basis of a general legal practice, rather than on the specific areas that were relevant to members.
The other issue for us was the position of other mutual organisations and how they might be accommodated. We still do not have satisfaction on that, but I accept that it would be extraordinarily difficult to draft an appropriate amendment to the Bill which did not effectively provide a get-out clause for a great number of organisations that would want to provide legal services on a commercial basis. Although I still think that there is a substantial argument that what is right for the trade union goose should be right for the mutual gander, I have yet to persuade myself that I can draft something that adequately makes the point in legislation. I therefore do not criticise the Government for acknowledging the point but failing to accommodate it.
On the position of trade unions, I welcome the amendment moved by the Minister. It represents a substantial reduction in scope from the previous drafting. I find little difficulty in accepting the Minister’s amendment as being very close in spirit and in letter to that which was proposed by noble Lords in another place, and it achieves the same results. The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) shakes his head, but I look at the Lords amendment and at what the Minister has produced today, and I do not see a substantial difference between them. Of course there are still issues of definition. We know that there always would be, because it is impossible to provide a schedule to the Act that lists every single potential activity of a trade union. I accept that there are still problems of definition.
However, I do not have the same sort of problems, which seem to be reaching phobic proportions on the part of the hon. Member for Huntingdon, in respect of trade unions providing services to their members. I acknowledge the valuable work that they do. I shall therefore recommend to my right hon. and hon. Friends that they support the Government amendment. I have quarrels with the Minister later, so she should not feel too complacent. I applaud the considerable movement that the Government have made in our direction and see the amendment as an acceptable compromise.
I support the amendment, which is a sensible compromise. We heard again today from the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) his complete ignorance of the way in which trade union legal services operate. Reference has been made, for example, to trade unions offering conveyancing to members and their families. Most trade unions do so now, but they do it though a panel of solicitors or it is put out to various legal firms. They will be covered by the Bill because they are independent solicitors or legal practices. The Conservatives seem to wish further to limit the activities of independent trade unions and to damage them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I was proud to work for a trade union that offered legal services to its members. In some of those cases people had suffered industrial injuries and would not have had access to justice if not for the trade union. The Conservative party should recognise that the service is given to many millions of people across the country, including even people in Huntingdon, who rely on trade unions for that service. We should get away from attempts to emasculate independent trade unions. I hope that the new Conservative party will recognise that independent trade unions providing such services are a vital part of a modern democracy.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) for again making relevant and pertinent points, and I commend the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for succinctly putting across arguments of great relevance, as he often does in our debates.
Considering the amount of thought that the Minister has put into the Bill and the amount of listening that she has done to detailed representations through formal channels and informally from my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham and me, one would expect that on this matter of all matters she would have got things right. I am pleased to inform the House that she has listened and she has got things right.
If anyone were wary of a loophole, it would be my hon. Friend and I. I would call it the Union of Democratic Mineworkers question, against which all trade union legislation needs to be proof. In law, the UDM is a recognised trade union, albeit one not within the TUC and not with many members. The UDM question is whether there would be any loophole in the law that would allow the UDM to find a route through it. If there is a loophole, the union will pay vast amounts of money for advice to find a way through it. If I felt that the Government were allowing a UDM loophole, I would want that loophole closed. Those who listen to these debates know that that would be the case for me and for my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, so we commend the Minister for the detailed thought that she and her civil servants have put into responding to the many points that have been raised.
It is with a little incredulity though no surprise that I find the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) continuing to attempt to promote his career through traditional but rather antiquated attacks on the trade unions. Only last week he attempted to equate what he was doing with the fight of miners for justice over their compensation. Sadly, he has been all too quiet about supporting the work that has been done in relation to that. He may want to consult his hon. Friends the Members for Newark (Patrick Mercer) and for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who will be able to describe in detail how the work done by Back Benchers to challenge injustices can be taken forward by Conservative MPs with vigour equal to that of some of the Labour Members who have done so. To confuse the issue seems disrespectful to the quality of our recent debates.
I appreciate that there are pressures on the hon. Member for Huntingdon as he gets his instructions to stick the boot in and go for headlines in some obscure publication unsympathetic to the trade unions. However, he does his party and its vague attempts to move to the centre ground a great disservice. There are 7 million trade unionists in this country, and the hon. Gentleman has done nothing more than remind us of his party’s traditional, unthinking bias against trade unions over the past 20 or 30 years.
Trade unions, after all, are a fundamental and integral part of a free and democratic enterprise society. I would have thought that in attempting to move to the centre, the hon. Gentleman’s party would recognise the vital and valuable role of trade unions. Sadly, old prejudices die hard, even among some of the newer and younger members of the Opposition Front Bench. That is to their cost; the public and trade union members across the country will see them out on that.
I commend the Minister on how she has listened in detail to all parts of the House, including Back Benchers, to get the Bill right.
For completeness, I should say to the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) that I am disappointed that he has not been mature enough to join the consensus that everyone else has reached; he obviously wanted to make his partisan party point. There are safeguards in the amendments. I remind the hon. Gentleman again that reserved services can be provided only by qualified lawyers who are subject to regulation by the approved regulators. I do not think that I can make the point much simpler for him; perhaps he should speak to his right hon. and hon. and learned Friends in the other place, who might be able to explain it to him in words of half a syllable. That might help.
I understand the point made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) about mutuals. However, mutual bodies and other membership-based organisations can have exemptions under proposed new subsection 15(4) if they meet the relevant criteria, which involve not providing services to the public or a section of the public. A lot of membership-based bodies will qualify for that exemption. I commend the amendments.
Performance targets and monitoring
Lords amendment: No. 10A.
The Government have listened carefully to the debates on thresholds and the persuasive arguments put forward in both Houses. I recognise the concerns expressed by Members that the board should consider the wider impact on the regulatory objectives before taking action, and I believe that the amendments reflect consensus on that important issue. The Bill now strikes the right balance, allowing the board to take decisive action where there has been, or is likely to be, an adverse impact on a regulatory objectives, but preventing the arbitrary use of its powers. The amendments do just that. They were welcomed when they were debated in the other place, and I welcome them here and commend them to the House.
I am grateful to the Minister for her comments. We are looking at the role of the Legal Services Board and its oversight of the approved regulators in terms of the modus operandi of its duty to intervene and the decisions by the approved regulators on when and how it intervenes—the so-called trigger points. It is important to look at the key principles. First, the board must recognise that the primary responsibility for regulation rests with the approved regulators. The board should apply the test that the approved regulators had taken unreasonable action, or had not acted, before it could exercise any powers, and it must seek to resolve any matters informally before resorting to exercising them.
Throughout the whole process, there has been a substantial amount of debate about where and how the board should intervene and the trigger points. If one looks back to Sir David Clementi’s report, he had in mind a small oversight role as regards regulation. He was concerned that the board should not try to second-guess or micro-manage what the approved regulators were trying to do. I am glad that the Minister has made it clear, through the Government amendments that have been tabled, that the regulatory objectives will be considered as a whole. I believe that she has listened carefully to what was said in the other place, in Committee, and by us. The amendment tabled by the Minister, which is slightly different from the one that was agreed in the House of Lords, says:
“‘and, in preparing that statement, the Board must have regard to the principle that the Board should not exercise any of those functions by reason of an act or omission of an approved regulator unless the act of omission was unreasonable.’.”
What we have here, to some extent, is the insertion of the Wednesbury test of unreasonableness, about which there was a substantial amount of discussion by various legal experts. We now have a format that will ensure that there is no unnecessary micro-regulation or involvement by the board as regards the various approved regulators, who will be allowed to get on with their job—the work that they know best. Indeed, those approved regulators have built up a substantial amount of respect with the different organisations that they represent and that they are involved with regulating.
This is another example of where discussion and a degree of effective collaboration between the Opposition parties and the Government has resulted in what we want. There was substantial debate in the other place, and in Committee. I would like to say how grateful I am to those outside organisations that have been so assiduous and conscientious in advising us on this aspect of the Bill, particularly the Bar Council and the Law Society, and some of the smaller organisations that also have the status of approved regulators.
The provisions are important because if there were a board that tried to look at every single last detail of the approved regulators, and tried to second guess exactly what they were doing day in and day out, it would have been a recipe for over-burdensome bureaucracy and far too much red tape and unnecessary involvement. However, the Government have listened carefully to the organisations that will implement the new Bill, and I am pleased to say that they have not just listened, but responded. They have introduced an amendment today that gives us exactly what we wanted originally. Rather than saying to the Minister, “We should have had that long ago,” I say that we have it now because there was proper consultation and discussion. I am grateful to the Minister for what she has done, and we are very pleased with the outcome.
In agreeing to the principles set out in the other place on this matter, the Minister has passed the tests of proportionality and reasonableness. We concur.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments 11A to 14C agreed to.
The Board’s policy statements
Lords amendment: No. 15A.
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with the Lords in the said amendment and proposes Government amendment (a) in lieu.
Hon. Members may recall that when we discussed the issue of the board’s policy statements in Committee we were broadly in agreement with the amendments made in the other place, but we were not able to accept the requirement for a policy statement to ensure that the board would not act unless satisfied that the act or omission of the approved regulator was not an approach it could reasonably have taken, because that could have restricted the board from taking action in appropriate circumstances.
The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) has already alluded to much of this matter, and as there is broad agreement on it, I ask that the Government amendment is accepted.
Lords amendment disagreed to.
Government amendment (a) in lieu of Lords amendment No. 15A agreed to.
Lords amendment: No. 74A.
I beg to move, That this House does not insist on the Commons amendments to which the Lords have disagreed, and proposes Government amendments (a) to (l) in lieu.
Hon. Members will know that my noble Friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath recognised in his opening speech that the issue is important and it has been the subject of a great deal of scrutiny and debate at almost every stage of the Bill’s passage. Some will argue that we should go further in respect of concurrence. Reflecting on the points made in earlier debates, it is clear to me that there is genuine concern about what consultation with the Lord Chief Justice might involve. That is why my noble Friend was at pains to set out the detail of how it would work. He confirmed that I had written to the Lord Chief Justice to consult him on the process we are undertaking for the appointment of the chair of the board, and he said that I would write again shortly with respect to other members of the board, which is absolutely the case.
The consultation with the Lord Chief Justice focused on the criteria against which candidates for the position of chair are judged, and he was asked to look at the draft specifications for the chair. He was invited to comment on the process we are undertaking, including the composition of the appointments panel and how we will be carrying out the campaign in line with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments guidance. He was also invited to suggest names of potential candidates that recruitment consultants may wish to contact. I understand that he will be discussing that with the Judicial Executive Board before writing back to me.
This detailed consultation is an important part of the appointment process, and I understand the strength of feeling behind setting out what we mean by consulting the Lord Chief Justice in the Bill. I sympathise with that view, which is why I have tabled amendments that would require the Lord Chancellor to consult the Lord Chief Justice on the appointments process as well as the final appointment. I hope that that gives assurance that consultation with the Lord Chief Justice will not only extend to the person to be appointed, but will embrace the arrangements for the process leading up to it. That process will apply to every appointment made, not just the first.
I can reassure the House that it is entirely a matter for the Lord Chief Justice to decide whether he makes public any disagreement he might have with the Lord Chancellor over the appointment of the chair and members of the board. Although I believe that the arrangements I have just set out will reassure hon. Members that consultation with the Lord Chief Justice, rather than concurrence, is the right approach, I want to mention some other reasons why we have adopted this approach.
First, the approach is consistent with the original recommendation of Sir David Clementi. Secondly, it is consistent with the recommendations of the Joint Committee on the draft Legal Services Bill. Thirdly, it ensures proper accountability over the appointments process because we continue to engage the oversight and regulation of the commissioner for public appointments. Importantly, we provide proper parliamentary accountability because the Lord Chancellor can be called to explain his actions to Parliament in a way in which the Lord Chief Justice cannot. Fourthly, we have transferred the function of making those appointments from the Secretary of State to the Lord Chancellor, in whom we have entrenched those functions. That is important because, under section 3 of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor has the specific duty to have regard to the need to defend judicial independence and
“the need for the public interest in regard to matters relating to the judiciary or otherwise to the administration of justice to be properly represented in decisions affecting those matters.”
As I said when we last looked at this issue, those are very good reasons why we cannot accept concurrence; it conflicts with accepted best practice. Consultation does not. I hope that the amendments I have tabled ensure that the appointments do not conflict with best practice, but that the Lord Chief Justice is involved in not only appointments to the Board, but in the process of making those appointments.
Following past debates on the issue, we have moved to tackling the sort of role that the Lord Chief Justice should have.
The view of the Opposition parties in this place and the decision of the other place was that the formal role of the Lord Chief Justice should be clearly set out through the requirement that appointments to the board were to be made through the Lord Chancellor with the “concurrence” of the Lord Chief Justice. We supported that in Committee and on Report, and it remains our ideal position. However, the Government have now moved away from a simple reference to “consultation” and provided some clarification of what consultation with the Lord Chief Justice must involve. Specific reference has also been made to the fact that
“before appointing an ordinary member, the Lord Chancellor must consult the Lord Chief Justice about the process for appointment of the member and about the person selected for appointment”.
We have maintained throughout that at no stage should the independent legal profession in this country be undermined. For that reason, we have pushed to ensure that the independence of the Legal Services Board from Government is protected through the role of the Lord Chief Justice in the appointments procedure. I believe that we were right to push that issue instead of simply accepting that a reference to “consultation” alone was sufficient. The statement of Lord Hunt, the Minister in the other place, on 17 October 2007—only last week—on the matter was telling. He stated:
“I think it will be helpful if at this stage I outline how the Lord Chief Justice is to be consulted. My ministerial colleague”—
the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice)—
“has written to the Lord Chief Justice to consult him on the process we are undertaking for the appointment of the chair of the board.”
I am slightly concerned that, given that we have been considering the Bill for roughly 11 months, consultation with the Lord Chief Justice has involved only a single letter. Consultation on the appointment of other members of the board does not appear to have even reached the letter-writing stage. Lord Hunt also pointed out last week that the Under-Secretary
“will write again shortly with respect to other members of the board.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 17 October 2007; Vol. 695, c. 747-8.]
Perhaps she could advise the House on the outcome of the consultations. I would also be grateful if she confirmed whether she has considered the use of parliamentary confirmation hearings for appointments, as suggested by hon. Members of all parties on Report.
However, the Government have come a long way on the issue. I accept that Government amendments highlight moves towards the crucial recognition of the need to involve the Lord Chief Justice in not only the method of appointment but the decisions. Although we still maintain that they could go further we accept that we have reached a clearer and more transparent position. On that basis, we will not request the House to divide on the matter.
The hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) differs from the Liberal Democrats on dividing on the matter. We still believe that the principle is important. I accept that the Under-Secretary has travelled a great distance on all sorts of matters—she knows that I appreciate that. Indeed, even on the issue that we are considering, the proposal is much better than what the Government previously suggested. The process that has been outlined is clearly better than what was previously described. I simply want her to take that last little step because it will convey an important signal about what we hope to achieve in the Bill.
I do not believe that there is a huge practical difference between the amount of consultation that has been offered and concurrence, which we believe to be so important. It is inconceivable that the Lord Chancellor would make a political appointment that did not have the support or at least the acceptance of the Lord Chief Justice. The stakes have been raised too high in terms of public and professional acceptability if the Lord Chief Justice were to make a report or simply make public his or her lack of confidence in the person appointed to the post of chairman.
Our acceptance of the principle that the chairman should be a lay member is important to the board’s independence. I am pleased that we included that in the Bill because it means that we have a guarantee of independence from the legal profession. That also guarantees credibility among the wider public. However, credibility must also be shared by the judiciary and the legal profession. In the context that we considering, I do not perceive the Lord Chief Justice as head of the profession—that would be wrong. If it were suggested that the president of the Bar Council or of the Law Society should have any sort of handle on the final appointment, that would be wrong, because it would mean accepting a legal closed shop, which, I hope, we are busting wide open in the process.
However, as head of the judiciary and in a specific context in our constitutional arrangements, the position of Lord Chief Justice has changed. It is one of the great offices of state. The seal of approval from an independent judiciary as well as Ministers and the House is to be encouraged. I therefore hold to the view that concurrence is a more satisfactory arrangement and that the House should insist on it. I shall advise my hon. Friends to vote against the Government amendments.
It is like Groundhog day because we have gone over the arguments on numerous occasions. The Under-Secretary has ably conducted proceedings on the Bill and the Government have taken on not only constructive amendments and representations from Back Benchers but even some suggestions from the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly).
I do not understand why Liberal Democrats want to divide the House—
It being one hour after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
Question put, That this House does not insist on the Commons amendments to which the Lords have disagreed, and proposes Government amendments (a) to (l) in lieu:—
LOCAL GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT IN HEALTH BILL (PROGRAMME) (NO. 3)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 83A(7) (Programming of bills),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 22nd January and 17th May 2007 (Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill (Programme) and Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
1. Proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after their commencement at this day’s sitting.
2. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
3. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]
Question agreed to.
Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill
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 constab