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Local Government (Norfolk)

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2007

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important subject and I look forward to being under your chairmanship, Mr. Olner. I also thank the Minister for being here to answer our questions, because he had to rearrange his diary to do so, and I am particularly grateful to him because he is the Minister responsible for this issue. A number of colleagues from Norfolk are also here. The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) contacted me to say that he is unable to be here because of a Select Committee commitment, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) may grace us with his presence later.

I initiated the debate to express my concerns about the Government’s proposal to have the boundary committee consider a unitary authority based on an expanded Norwich city, and about the consequent changes for the county and district councils in Norfolk. The view in Norfolk—certainly among Labour members in Norwich—is that a Norwich unitary authority is a done deal and that Ministers have already made their decision. Indeed, so confident is Norwich city council that, in September, it appointed a director of transformation—that is almost like something out of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter”—on a modest stipend of £90,000 a year. We should remember that that was before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had passed through the House. The director’s remit was to help to “shape and deliver” a new unitary council—no ifs, no buts.

My purpose this morning is to impress on the Minister that there is, to say the least, a considerable lack of support in Norfolk—and, I suspect, limited support in Norwich—for his specific unitary proposal. There are serious questions about the nature of the proposal, the impact on local communities and the danger that the county of Norfolk as an administrative unit will be abolished. Whatever people’s views on the issue, however, perhaps the most fundamental question is about democratic accountability.

I remind the Minister that for many of us in Norfolk this latest initiative follows the failure of Norwich’s bid this summer to become a unitary authority. It failed to meet the Government’s own criteria, and that was thought to be due to the inherent weaknesses of the city’s current boundaries. The Government have therefore now decided to move the goalposts and establish a unitary authority based on an enlarged city boundary.

I represent the constituency of Mid-Norfolk, which is shaped rather like a large banana resting on top of Norwich. There are two district councils in my constituency—Breckland to the west and Broadland to the east, and local government in both gets high marks for council tax and the delivery of services. Parishes in Broadland are divided between the constituency of Norwich, North and my constituency, so I must declare an immediate interest.

Following the original bid earlier this year, I did not receive one letter, telephone call or e-mail supporting the bid for a Norwich unitary authority and the possible impact on Broadland district council or Norfolk county council. In fact, quite the opposite happened, and I received hundreds of letters, phone calls and e-mails opposing the proposals. Every town and parish council formally objected, and those formal objections will be on the files in the Minister’s Department. Those objections were based on a perceived threat to county and district councils that were efficient, gave value for money and which the Government themselves rated highly for the delivery of services. Sadly—this is sad—the perception of Norwich city council was the opposite, and the Audit Commission qualified its accounts in 2004-05 and 2005-06.

Local Norfolk opinion was best summed up in an editorial in the Eastern Daily Press on 23 June 2007:

“We have long believed that there is no need for the change. Norfolk County Council is a four star authority, while Broadland has the best record in the country on such issues as recycling. Why, then, hand the keys to a council”—

Norwich—

“far beneath the Premier League on performance and service delivery?”

That opinion is as relevant today as it was in June. My concern is that the Minister has decided to use the model of a Norwich unitary authority as a baseline to reorganise local government in Norfolk, and that his unofficial riding instructions to the boundary committee have ruled out the status quo.

As my hon. Friend mentions concerns about Norwich, will he reflect on the opinion of the Audit Commission, which said that Norwich city council’s financial management was not yet fit for purpose?

My hon. Friend is a distinguished member of the Public Accounts Committee and has emphasised the point that I, sadly, am trying to make, which must bear heavily on the mind of the Minister, who is, of course, a former Treasury Minister.

I urge the Minister to think again. There are two obvious reasons why the status quo should be considered and, indeed, act as the template. First, we have a documented, agreed set of statistics on council tax, performance, delivery and accountability, with which theoretical options can be tested. Secondly, given Norwich city council’s at best uneven track record, it is surely absurd to use an underperforming model as the template. We would not do that in business, and my experience of the Ministry of Defence is that such a model would go into what the Army calls the “laugh and tear up file”.

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could clarify whether he is opposed to unitary authorities across Norfolk in all circumstances or just to the procedures and processes in this particular case. I have several comments to make later about some of his earlier remarks, but what is his stance on unitary status for Norfolk full stop?

I do not want to be discourteous, but if the right hon. Gentleman had read the Eastern Daily Press over the past few weeks, he would have seen what my position is. I happen to be in favour of the status quo, although other people have different views, which is perfectly legitimate. There is a discussion to be had about the principle, to which the right hon. Gentleman will undoubtedly return in a minute, but I am concerned both with the principle and the processes.

Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of a two-tier system, not a unitary system, in all circumstances?

I do not know, frankly. I want to have an honest debate in which all the options are under consideration. As I have tried to emphasise, it is obvious that the template must be the status quo, but it is not on the agenda. There are perfectly legitimate reasons for considering different variations as regards unitary authorities, but the status quo must be considered as a template or an option.

We now come to consider and question the process by which the Minister seeks a unitary solution. He is minded to ask the boundary committee to consider the issue. Much to the surprise of many of us in Norfolk, the boundary committee, under its chairman, Mr. Max Caller, has begun the process. To date, it has received no written terms of reference from the Minister, but that did not prevent it from beginning consultation even before the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 had been passed in both Houses. Indeed, it has effectively issued an ultimatum to the county and district councils to produce proposals based on a unitary model by the end of the month. They have been told that the status quo is not an option, and non-participation will mean non-consideration.

By means of letters and telephone calls, I have attempted to establish the boundary committee’s remit. My noble Friend Baroness Shephard of Northwold attempted to do the same in a debate in the other place on 12 November, as did my noble Friend Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market in a debate on 14 November. Neither obtained a satisfactory answer. The point that they made, and my point now, is that the boundary committee’s demand for councils to produce proposals by the end of the month, when there are no ministerial terms of reference, may, as my noble Friend Lord MacGregor put it, be illegal—and it is certainly, to say the least, bad practice. Will the Minister confirm that as yet there are no terms of reference for the boundary committee? If so, will he advise the boundary committee to cease its harassment of our councils and remove the arbitrary deadline of the end of the month? I was told by one boundary committee official that the purpose of the deadline is to enable the boundary committee to consider proposals according to a timetable.

I have used the term “harassment” advisedly. All the Norfolk councils that I have spoken to have said that the chairman of the boundary committee and his officials have been very pro-active, and rather menacing. Indeed, in an interview that the chairman gave to the Eastern Daily Press on 6 November, the reporter noted that local council leaders and officers had been told that he “carries a big stick” and that non-co-operation in the process is not an option. Despite still being opposed to the unitary authority case, those district and county councils have been forced to prepare options that are not their first choice, have serious cost implications and are not supported by any public mandate.

To illustrate how biased the process is, I shall quote from an interview that the chairman of the boundary committee gave to the BBC’s “Politics Show” on 26 October, which can be found on its website:

“Q: Is retaining a two tier authority an option? Because many people claim that this exercise is now a paper one and that a unitary future is inevitable.

A: Well a lot will depend on the terms of the invitation that the Secretary of State gives the Boundary Committee but we think we are going to be invited to propose a pattern of unitary local government for the county, and the only way we would not propose such a pattern is if we were convinced that the two tier system was better than any unitary proposal that we could come up with. And I honestly think that’s unlikely.”

So it has already been decided—that is a fact—by the chairman of the boundary committee, before his terms of reference have even arrived.

It seems to me once again that that creates fertile ground for a future judicial review, and the involvement of the Audit Commission. It is almost Alice in Wonderland. Hon. Members will recall the Queen of Hearts who was always screaming “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.” Whatever the merits or demerits of the local government reorganisation for Norfolk, we can be sure of one thing: the people of Norfolk will be consulted only on the margins. In the BBC interview that I mentioned, the chairman of the boundary committee said:

“It’s not the function of the Boundary Committee to hold a referendum, that’s not the way we do business. We want to know that there is a broad cross section of support but that’s not the same as a referendum. And it’s evidence and argument that we’re interested in rather than five thousand emails all saying the same thing.”

Up to a point I agree with that. We have all been subject to a mass lobby. However, it seems to me that that is the attitude of a non-elected functionary who has already made up his mind, rather than someone approaching an issue with an open mind.

I remind the Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee that democracy matters. In fact, that statement is the logo displayed proudly at the bottom of the boundary committee’s notepaper. The trouble is that public opinion will count only in a very general, loaded way. As far as I am concerned, democracy counts when we have elections and issues are placed before the people. In the May local elections my party took seats from other parties in Broadland, and the same thing happened in South Norfolk. That was achieved on a platform of opposing the Norwich unitary authority. That is cause and effect. It matters. It is direct democracy—not a lot of sham workshops, stakeholders’ meetings and what Baroness Hollis of Heigham, opposing a referendum in Norfolk in a debate in the other place on 8 October, at column 72, called a “reiterative process”—whatever that consists of.

The Minister and the chairman of the boundary committee must face facts. There is no majority constituency in Norfolk for their proposal. Indeed, the more coverage the fixed proposal receives, the more it arouses the opposition of Norfolk people. At a purely constituency level, I should be very grateful for the publication by the Eastern Daily Press of the enlarged boundaries of a greater Norwich. The reaction that I have received has been considerable. I have not even touched on the costs incurred in the exercise. Norfolk county council has already allocated £250,000. The borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has allocated £200,000, South Norfolk council £200,000 and Norwich a minimum of £90,000. What about the time, effort and morale of officers working in the district and county councils?

We have been here before. The Minister may not be aware of it, but for the past six years the primary care trusts have been organised and reorganised from one to six and back to one. In the latest attempt of the Norfolk primary care trust to rationalise local community hospitals it was forced by public opinion to beat a retreat. I am grateful that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is here, because I also want to refer to the example of the proposed amalgamation of police forces—Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. We were told that it was a done deal. All the arguments stacked up. It would happen. Everything was prepared. Thanks not least to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), the right hon. Member for Norwich, South was sadly—I mean that—forced to resign as Home Secretary, and within a week his successor had said that amalgamations would not take place. How does the Minister think the people of Norfolk and Norwich will trust Government proposals such as the present ones? Nothing is set in concrete.

In case I am being too parochial, let us consider what is happening elsewhere in the country, with the process of forcing unitary authorities on counties. In Cornwall, there is chaos and confusion; in Cheshire, there was a judicial review, which was rejected, but a right of appeal has been granted; in Bedfordshire, councils have been set at each other’s throats, and there are calls for judicial review. None of the time lines laid down by Ministers has been adhered to. That relates back to the time line set by the boundary committee.

Given the present dog’s breakfast, I suggest to the Minister first that he should establish and publicise the terms of reference for the boundary committee, taking into account the majority desire across Norfolk for the status quo—he should recognise that as an option that must be considered. It might turn out not to be the option that he, or, indeed, the majority of Norfolk opinion, goes for, but it should be considered seriously. Secondly, I suggest that he should advise the chairman of the boundary committee to remove an artificial deadline for the submission of proposals by councils, given that there are no terms of reference. The deadline of the end of the month must be removed. Thirdly, he should establish a proper way by which any proposals may be tested against public opinion—what Norfolk people want or specifically do not want. That should encompass Norfolk across the board—the people of Norwich, Cromer, Aylsham, Watton and King’s Lynn all have a right to know. It is just dawning on people beyond greater Norwich that the Minister’s proposals will have a direct impact on them.

This is an issue on which different MPs and parties will hold different views, but there is a suspicion in Norfolk that a done deal has already been accepted, and that Norfolk will just have to accept what is given to it. The chairman of the boundary committee, with his experience in Haringey, may think that we are a bunch of hicks. Let me tell him that we are not. Democracy matters. Norfolk will not let itself be abolished.

Order. A number of hon. Members wish to participate in the debate and I want to bring everyone in if I can, but I must warn hon. Members that I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 11.55 am.

I am grateful to you, Mr. Olner, for that comment and to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for organising the debate—it is an important subject and I am glad that he has done so. I am also grateful to the Minister for the decisions that he took in the summer to deal with what was a long-standing and significant issue—namely, the absence of unitary status for a great city such as Norwich.

I begin from the position of believing that unitary authorities are, in principle, beneficial. There are a number of issues, such as planning, transport and economic development, particularly in a growth area such as Norwich, which make it extremely important that there is a coherence rather than dislocation of public authorities. I could cite a great number of examples of discontinuities between the county and the city on important development issues around the city, but I do not wish to take up everyone’s time. Those problems are acute because Norwich has been identified—rightly—as a major growth area for the coming period, and the large amount of economic development will involve matters relating to infrastructure. I profoundly believe that we will get more coherent, transparent and effective decisions if we have unitary local government, as in other parts of the country.

It would be bizarre if places such as Peterborough and Ipswich were to have unitary authorities, but cities such as Norwich did not. That is why I applaud the decisions taken by the Government and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government earlier this year, specifically regarding Norwich, because the difference between its municipal boundaries and its actual physical boundaries—the built up areas that fall within a number of hon. Members’ constituencies—is greater than any in the country. That is a reflection of the fact that Norwich has been a growing city for decades, but the municipal boundaries have not changed to take account of it. The various inconsistencies are still more acute in Norwich than they would otherwise have been. I am glad that the Secretary of State decided to look at Norwich’s situation and the case for unitary status on the basis of wider boundaries than were previously suggested, and that the Minister was able to carry through and announce that. I welcome those decisions.

I must contest the assertions made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk on popular support. It may seem strange to him, but we in Norwich also have elections. The elections that took place in Norwich on the same day as those in his constituency gave an overwhelming mandate for unitary status. The Labour party, the Green party and the Liberal Democrats were strong supporters of unitary status for the city of Norwich. Overwhelmingly, those parties make up the elected city council of Norwich. The Conservatives were against the proposal.

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that I read the Eastern Daily Press every day. My problem with what he said arose from the fact that I could not draw out his position from his interviews with the paper, because it appeared a lack coherence. However, he has now made clear his opposition to unitary status in all circumstances.

I shall send the right hon. Gentleman a copy of the Eastern Daily Press. I have always said, as has been quoted, that I happen to be in favour of the status quo. It is as simple as that.

I understand that, and it is what the hon. Gentleman told the Eastern Daily Press. The question that I asked was slightly different. I understand his argument—it is a traditional conservative argument, which says there should never be any change—and that he is in favour of the status quo. The question, which he was good enough to answer when I asked it earlier, was about whether he fundamentally believes that unitary status will be a good thing in future. The previous Conservative Government, as was clear from their dealings with boundary commissions, believed that there was a case for unitary status. His heroine, Baroness Thatcher, put forward changes that abolished urban counties for exactly the same reasons, so it was therefore not self-evident that a Conservative politician would be opposed to unitary status in all circumstances. I understand the conservative argument that there should be no change, but that is the issue I pursued, and I was grateful for his clarity and candour in response to my earlier questions.

My point is that there is strong support in the city of Norwich for unitary status for the city, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman said. If he looked at the business community and at a wide range of voluntary and community organisations, quite apart from votes cast at elections, he would see that there is strong support for the changes, and rightly so.

Will the right hon. Gentleman remind the House whether Labour party election literature in Broadland and South Norfolk specifically supported unitary status during the last elections, and whether that was part of the manifesto?

I do not recall the exact manifesto published in each ward in the city of Norwich, but it is clear, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that the leadership of the Labour group on the city council and the Labour party said on many occasions that they strongly supported unitary status for the city. I believe that that was reported in the Eastern Daily Press. The Greens, to be fair them—I am not often fair to them—supported it, as did the Liberal Democrats who used to run the city council, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) will probably confirm. There is no doubt that there was a clear mandate on the issue in Norwich.

Finally, on the point the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk made about the done deal, he gently and kindly reminded me about police reorganisation, but I should remind him that the police authority in Norfolk and many others supported the changes, and that nothing is a done deal in politics until it happens. Anybody who suggests that it is a done deal is wrong. Rather, the Government, to whom I pay tribute, have recognised the case and appointed a series of independent individuals as part of a statutory process to look at the issues in detail. I am sure the Minister will describe that process when he responds. That is precisely what ought to happen, and what the Government ought to be commended for.

I wish that the hon. Gentleman would, unlike his colleagues, say that he welcomes the change, sees the benefits that might accrue, and put forward proposals. The leader of the county council in Norfolk—a Conservative—has made his proposals for, in this case, a unitary county, but he accepts the principle of unitary status. Other Conservatives are making similar arguments. The Conservative party would be best served if its elected representatives saw the merits of the case and engaged in a serious discussion about what is best for the future of the county in the same spirit as the Minister.

I am grateful that we are having this debate, and I hope that it will continue in a free and open way.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is important, but I sense that there is a lack of opportunity for these issues to be discussed publicly in Norfolk and for public engagement.

My starting point is different from that of the hon. Gentleman. If I were starting with a clean sheet of paper, I would opt for a unitary authority. There is a case a for having one authority to deliver all services: there would be clarity so everyone would know which authority delivered local services, and one hierarchy, so it would be likely to be cheaper. There seems to be a compelling case on paper if one is starting afresh. However, we must ensure that there is clear evidence on which to build a case for change. Surely we are all in favour of evidence-based policy making. When I met the boundary committee, I naively put to it my presumption that it had clear evidence of the case for unitary authorities—namely, that they deliver better services with better co-ordination, that they are cheaper to run on the whole, and that they provide better value for money. The response that I received concerned me. The committee said that the evidence was pretty mixed. There is no clear evidence that unitary authorities deliver better services, better co-ordinated services or even better value for money.

If the Minister agrees that we should be engaging in evidence-based policy making, is there any justification for an incredibly expensive change that would use resources that are needed to deliver services to the people of Norfolk? On what evidence has he based his case if even the boundary committee says that there is no evidence? That seems to be absolutely fundamental.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk mentioned health and social care. The Government made something of the fact that by last October Norfolk was close to achieving in health and social care what they call coterminosity. At long last the primary care trust, as the commissioner of health services, broadly matched the social services authority—the county council. The Government saw that as a good thing, and I agreed. There is a real problem with co-ordinating health and social care, and a horrible organisational divide between the two. It makes a lot of sense to have those services at the same organisational size when starting to try to integrate them. Six months later, the Government are talking about destroying all that. I find that utterly bizarre, if we are in favour of evidence-based policy making.

The process is horribly flawed. The initial process involved Norwich city council putting forward a bid for unitary status. Inevitably, it concentrated on its own concerns and the bid neglected the concerns and interests of the rest of the county—a completely flawed process. When the Government considered the bid, they reached the remarkable conclusion that they would reject the application that had been made but would approve in principle an application that had not been made and that they would do so without any evidence in favour of or opposing such an application. That is scandalous and completely contrary to evidence-based policy making.

The process is quite remarkable and bizarre. Local authorities have been asked to present their cases in principle for a unitary option for Norfolk before the terms of reference have been issued. No one would believe it if it were not happening. It is remarkable. Nevertheless, that is how the Government want to proceed. Local authorities are being put into a straitjacket. They feel that they have no option but to put forward proposals that they may not be convinced about and that will inevitably be rushed through. The time scale is utterly ludicrous.

On cost, over the summer I made requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to Norfolk county council and Norwich city council. The two authorities have together spent £600,000 on the initial process at a time when services for elderly people in our county are being cut and when many of our schools need extra funding. How on earth can anyone justify spending £600,000 on an initial process when there is such a need for funding for services in a rural county such as Norfolk, which has serious problems with educational attainment? That is scandalous. Incidentally, that amount covers the start of the process. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said, every authority is setting aside £100,000 or £200,000 to cover the main process. That beggars belief.

I have argued for a Norfolk convention. I do not want that to be a Liberal Democrat initiative or a Liberal Democrat-run idea. I want everybody to consider it seriously as a way forward. We should not have a political carve-up. We should engage the people in Norfolk and civic society in such judgments. Self-evidently, people should be able to consider the status quo option. It is extraordinary to rule out one option, particularly given the fact that there appears to be no evidence to support the idea of change. At the very least, the evidence is mixed.

At all costs, I oppose the concept of a political carve-up. I share the suspicion voiced by the hon. Gentleman: this is probably a done deal. I assume that Norwich city will get its unitary status whatever the people of Norfolk say. However, the criterion that we are told should apply—that any proposal should be supported by a broad cross-section of the community—will not be met. One can tell from hon. Members in the Chamber that the county’s political leaders are all over the place, with varying views on the issue. There is no gathering of support for any unitary option.

What is happening is a democratic outrage. We must not have a political carve-up. We must slow the process down and allow proper consideration by the people of Norfolk. Those people should decide.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate.

I was interested to hear the speech made by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke). Norfolk has seven local authorities and, apart from one, they are all performing very well. The flaw of his argument about Norwich is that the council has failed consistently and is by far the worst performer of the seven authorities in Norfolk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk pointed out, the Audit Commission was damning in its two reports on Norwich city council.

The city council failed in its bid for unitary status on all five criteria. The right hon. Member for Norwich, South talked about Peterborough and Ipswich, but they happen to be well-run authorities. In the wider counties that are involved, there is considerable support for unitary status for those councils. That support does not exist for Norwich’s case. Norwich is entirely on its own in Norfolk. There may be some support in Norwich, but I doubt that it is substantial. If we consider the different organisations that cover Norfolk, there is no support for unitary status for Norwich.

I find it absolutely staggering that the boundary committee has received no terms of reference from Her Majesty’s Government, but has begun preliminary work. It has said to the local government family in Norfolk, “Go out there, and try to come up with some solutions.” As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk pointed out, those organisations are being forced to spend substantial amounts of money on the process and the chairman of the boundary committee has been menacing and proactive. Based on everything that the chairman has said, one would conclude that it is already a done deal. Why should the local authorities in Norfolk have any dealings at all with the committee? It has no terms of reference, and I do not see why those authorities should engage with it in any way, shape or form.

Do we need change in Norfolk? The binary system that we have works well. Norfolk county council is a four-star council and has done extremely well. My local borough council, King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, is a beacon authority. Its focus on regeneration, value for money and accountability is second to none in the country. It has delivered better services with a reduced council tax demand. Let us consider the other district councils. Great Yarmouth has improved hugely over the years. North Norfolk is a good council. There are also Broadland, Breckland and South Norfolk; we have some excellent councils in Norfolk. The current system is working well.

Could unitary government work in Norfolk? Of course it could in theory, but in practice I am persuaded that, because Norfolk is a large shire county, some of the functions performed by the county council can be carried out only on a county-wide basis, with one authority in strategic control of functions such as highways, education and social services. A county council is needed to provide that framework. However, functions such as housing, planning, environmental health, and regeneration could be carried out by the county council only at the expense of accountability and only in a remote way, which is why they should be performed at the local level. That explains why the binary system works well in a county such as Norfolk.

We have a dilemma, therefore. Norfolk county council is obviously too large to carry out the whole panoply of local government functions, yet the existing boroughs are far too small to become unitaries. The only way to move forward would be to have complete upheaval, so why change things? As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk said, the proposals are entirely politically driven; there is no public support for them whatever.

As for cost I, too, have had a look at primary care trust reorganisation. Ten years ago, we had the Norfolk health authority, which itself was the consequence of a substantial number of earlier reorganisations. It was working very well, but the Government came along and said that health commissioning needed to be brought closer to the public, so they set up five or six PCTs across the county, all with their own chief executives, directors of finance, directors of corporate affairs and whole armies of bureaucrats. Ten years on, it was decided that that system was not working well, so we went back to the Norfolk health authority concept. In the meantime, various senior officials in the health service walked away into the sunlit uplands with redundancy packages of £300,000, £400,000 or £500,000, costing huge amounts. There was no consultation with the wider public.

I have been reading a report entitled “The 2006-07 DCLG Process for Creating New Unitary Authorities in England” that was prepared recently by Professor Michael Chisholm and Professor Steve Leach. In their conclusions, they were absolutely damning of the Government. They said:

“The process is so flawed that it corrupts the body politic”.

They also said that retrospective legislation was in principle pernicious and that the process was biased in favour of unitary outcomes. The Minister should read the report if he has not already done so, because it is extremely critical of what has happened so far.

Do we need any change? My strong view is that there is no such need at the moment, because the status quo works very well. Of course, if one were starting local government in the shire counties from scratch, one might well consider a unitary solution. The pragmatic approach, however, is to ask why something should be changed if it is not broken.

There was a quotation from a Government Minister in one of today’s papers, which said:

“The public hates the word ‘reform’; people think that means changing things for the sake of it.”

The proposals constitute just that: change for the sake of change, with absolutely no wider public support and with a Government organisation—the boundary committee— completely out of control.

I urge the Minister to listen to Norfolk MPs. We are saying, “By all means go ahead with the process, but please do not rule out consideration of the status quo.”

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). I shall take up where he left off on the theme of change, because it seems to me that the proposals are just the latest example of an insatiable desire that affects all Governments to engage in fiddling and changing things. I shall examine that theme generically and discuss the lessons that can be learned for Norfolk.

Wherever proponents of change are found—in the private or public sectors—it can be useful to look at how the same issues emerge, the same dramatis personae take to the stage, and the same stratagems are employed to achieve change despite strong and often compelling arguments against it. That applies in activities as apparently diverse as mergers and acquisitions of commercial companies and in delivery of changes in the adult education system or in the tax and credit system—to take two examples purely at random. I do not know why the Minister smiles, because the record shows that a lot can be learned in both of those areas. He should know that better than most, but I shall not dwell on that subject. The delivery of new computer systems is another such activity, as are private finance initiatives and the conversion of mutual building societies into banks.

Thank you, Mr. Olner. I was about to mention the reorganisation of local government. Whichever activity is under discussion, the proposed changes usually have certain common features. The benefits of the change are often questionable and unproven. It is worth saying at this point that one is not opposed to all change, in all circumstances, all the time. Nevertheless, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) correctly articulated the Conservative position, which is that, if change is not absolutely necessary, it is necessary not to change—not least because change can itself bring all kinds of unpredictable and undesirable consequences in its wake.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that nevertheless, for my constituents in Norwich, South, it is indeed absolutely imperative to change, for the reasons that I set out?

Not necessarily. The first thing that the citizens of Norwich need is a council that can look after their money properly, rather than one that, as the Audit Commission has said, is not fit for purpose. Once the council has got its basic management sorted out, it could think about other things, but it should put the tasks in the right order first. However, let me repeat that my party is not opposed to change in all circumstances.

My hon. Friend may not be aware of an article that was published in September in the Eastern Daily Press in which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) put forward his arguments in favour of unitary authorities. It illustrates the very point made by my hon. Friend. The right hon. Gentleman was quoted as saying:

“I think the position of the city council to reject a £20m investment in one of the areas of greatest need is educationally ignorant and particularly backward-looking.

You have to question the seriousness of the city’s unitary bid. People will look at the position the city council has taken and think—what is it doing turning £20m down?”

His assessment of his own city council is pretty abysmal, therefore.

My hon. Friend makes the point very eloquently. As I was saying, a number of common themes emerge. One is the theme of huge financial costs, which are usually much larger than originally stated. Another is the presence of characters who stand to benefit from change whether or not the wider interests of the organisation and of its customers are served. Last is that of a jargon or patter that, at least superficially and on first hearing, makes what sounds like a convincing case for change.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that the proponents of change often adopt the same approach, in which the first tactic is to overstate the benefits. For example, most GPs say that it would have been better not to have proceeded with the NHS IT system, even though it promised huge benefits. Another example is that of mergers and acquisitions, most of which fail—although loads of people make money from them.

The second tactic is to understate the risks and costs. The Minister knows all about that from the example of individual learning accounts, which I mentioned earlier. And who would now doubt, despite the benefits that were touted at the time of demutualisation, that Northern Rock would have been better off had it remained a mutual building society rather than converting to a bank?

Another important tactic is to act very fast so that there is little time for those who doubt the wisdom of the proposal to examine the case against it. A good example of that is the tax credits mess, in which the timetable for testing whether it would work was compressed almost to the point of extinction. Many hon. Members have seen the results of that in their constituencies.

I am tempted to say that another common theme is emerging in cases in which there has been a mess: the presence of the Minister. I shall not say that, however, because it would do him a disservice. He was a Treasury Minister for many years, and I am told that once one puts on a Treasury hat one can never entirely take it off. I am hoping, therefore, that he will view the proposals with a very jaundiced eye—not because change is always bad, but because one should make the case for it stack up, which nobody has yet convincingly done.

The people who benefit from change go by different names. Sometimes, they are called merchant bankers and lawyers. They look for transaction fees. Sometimes, they are called chief executives—a phenomenon that is common to both the public and private sectors. On occasions, they stand to receive an enormous pay-off if they lose their positions, and so face the enticing prospect of financial independence for many years to come without the inconvenience of actually having to work. Sometimes, the people benefiting are called professors of local government, who receive commission for writing long and important reports. The people who lose are often the same, although with different names: council tax payers, shareholders or people who want their garbage collected once a week and find that that is not possible.

The last category is the cadre of professional explainers or witch doctors who explain how marvellous everything is going to be. Sometimes they are called PFI consultants; sometimes they are called financial PR consultants—I should declare an interest in that regard—and sometimes they are called Ministers. The key is to develop a convincing patter. Plausible examples are needed of how silly the present system is. An example might be that parish councils cut the grass, but district councils clean the pavements or county councils clean the roads. It might be that district councils collect waste but county councils dispose of it, or that counties deal with social services, whereas districts deal with housing.

The essential point about all these examples is that the proposals—if one can call them proposals in the absence of terms of reference—for local government change in Norfolk exhibit all these characteristics. The benefits are entirely theoretical. We can have a debate about the benefits, but as the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) said, they are benefits on paper. We have had loads of experience in this respect. If 25 reorganisations of the national health service since 1982 have taught us anything, it should be that organisational tinkering must be treated with great caution.

There are enormous risks. The creation of, say, four social services departments where there is currently one involves enormous risks. There is the potential nightmare of organisational change, with vulnerable children—goodness knows, we have had experience of that issue in Norfolk—falling through the gaps in the new organogram, at a time when we have barely digested the changes caused by the merger of educational and social services for children into a new department.

The cost estimates vary, but they have been put conservatively at £100 million. I should like to know where that money is coming from. We have just had a very tight settlement through the comprehensive spending review. Why should the poor council tax payer stump up for what are at best theoretical benefits? For that matter, why should the central Government taxpayer stump up—after all, they are mostly the same people—when there are so many better things, as the hon. Member for North Norfolk pointed out, on which we desperately need to spend money?

In any case, those are conservative estimates. By how much will we see the costs explode? The largest component of the reorganisation of the police service in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire proposed by the right hon. Member for Norwich, South—the cost was £88 million—was merging the IT, at a time when people were saying that they wanted more police officers. How much will it actually cost to merge the IT of the different local authorities in Norfolk? No matter which proposal is chosen, we have to have the status quo as an option.

Of course there are characters around who stand to benefit from the process of change, whether the wider interests of the organisation and its customers are served or not. If we had several unitary councils, there would be several new social services directors, education directors—call them what you will; even with the merger of children’s services, there would be new senior staff—and directors of planning and transportation. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) mentioned the transformation director, on a stipend of £90,000. How much transformation we get for 90,000 quid remains to be seen. The answer is probably not much. If, however, we have a unitary council, there will be a number of highly paid officers taking enormous redundancy packages, as we have already seen in relation to primary care.

Once again, we have seen the tactic of acting very fast so that there is little time for those who doubt the wisdom of the proposal to examine the case. The chairman of the boundary committee is going around prejudging what form of government will emerge from the process in a way that is possibly unlawful, as we have heard, and certainly dangerous for democracy and consultation. Astonishingly, councils are expected to provide intelligent answers on local government reorganisation when they have not even been told what the question is.

Finally, a jargon or patter is needed that will at least superficially, on first hearing, make what sounds like a convincing case for change. Fortunately, that is not my job. I await a reply from the Minister, but I remain to be convinced.

I am conscious that only two or three minutes are available to me so I will keep my remarks brief. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on initiating the debate, which is timely in that we want to get things right for the people of Norfolk.

Does the Minister agree with me that the central aims when determining local government structure should be strengthening local services, bringing decision making closer to the people and improving efficiency? The Conservative party put those three issues to the electorate in Norfolk at the last local elections and received a substantial mandate.

Does the Minister agree that restructuring councils into fewer authorities than the eight that currently exist will create bodies too large to deliver the standard of local services that local people have come to expect within the current structure? That is a point lost, I hasten to say, on the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who has chosen to leave the debate at this stage. I am sure that we will take that point up with him afterwards.

I have various questions that I should like to put to the Minister quickly. I put it on the record that if he cannot give us responses in his closing remarks, I shall be very pleased if he responds to me in writing. Why is the status quo in terms of two-tier working not an option for Norfolk? When is it anticipated that the boundary committee will be given its terms of reference? What, if any, mandate does the boundary committee have to require councils to engage in a process before receipt of the terms of reference? Subject to the response to the two previous questions, is it realistic and acceptable for the boundary committee to hold local authorities to a submission date of the end of November if it will not receive its terms of reference by that date?

Can the Minister give an insight into any predetermined outcomes, especially with regard to the number of unitary authorities that would be acceptable for Norfolk as a county? If there is no predetermined number, will he provide assurance that all unviable proposals will be discounted after initial consideration in order to avoid the unnecessary use of local authorities’ scarce resources?

What is the status of Norwich’s bid? Is a unitary Norwich a predetermined outcome? Is the approach being taken with regard to Norfolk a precursor to the adoption of that approach in other two-tier areas? If not, will the Minister explain why that approach is deemed appropriate for Norfolk in isolation?

Given that the potential reorganisation is imposed rather than requested, will funding be made available to support reorganisation costs? How important are community identity and public opinion when compared with affordability and value for money? Is the review constrained by the Norfolk boundary determined by the boundary committee? Is the Minister willing to meet representatives from the authorities in Norfolk that are working up models in order to discuss their proposals?

From discussions with local residents, there appears to be little appetite for wholesale reorganisation and the implicit costs. However, we have been told by the boundary committee that public opinion is but one consideration and in no way an overriding one. Can the Minister confirm to what extent public opinion will be allowed to influence the decision on the local government review in Norfolk? I look forward to a written response to all those questions if the Minister cannot answer them in full today.

All hon. Members who have spoken so far are from Norfolk and obviously have much more detailed knowledge of local circumstances than me or the speakers who are likely to follow. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate and on an excellent, detailed exposition of the facts. The one point that was slightly non-factual but on which I agreed with him wholeheartedly came when he referred to the Alice in Wonderland style of the process—sentence is passed first and the evidence is looked for afterwards. That analogy certainly appeals to me. I made that comparison quite recently in the House when debating the rather strange, Alice in Wonderland way in which this place often works.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the boundary committee logo, which is the statement “Democracy matters”, and asked, quite appositely, how that could be when in a review such as this, the views of local people and the various local councils involved were ridden over roughshod or ignored completely. He described the process as a dog’s breakfast, talking about the cost when it is supposed to save money, about the problems of judicial reviews across the country in similar circumstances, about the confusion that arises and about the timelines and time scales that simply are not being met.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) made a legitimate point from a different perspective; it is possible to see a logical case for cities being unitary authorities. In my county of Derbyshire, some years ago, when a Government of a different complexion tried to impose unitary authorities, the compromise arrived at was that Derby City would become a unitary and the rest of the county would continue with the two-tier county and district or borough structure.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) made many valid points. As he said, if we were starting with a clean sheet—starting afresh—we might well be able to see the logic of a unitary system. Other hon. Members made that point, too. However, we are not starting with a clean sheet; we are not starting afresh. The current situation has developed over a long time and is not the clear-cut situation that we would have if we were drawing up plans for something from the beginning.

My hon. Friend asked where the evidence was for going through the process and for the conclusion that we are told we will reach even before the process has begun, which is a unitary system. He made a number of telling points when he spoke with the boundary committee, asking what the evidence was for the process, what the benefits for co-ordination would be and where value for money would be gained. The boundary committee said, “Well, actually evidence isn’t conclusive on that at all.” In that case, why are we going down that expensive, time-consuming, frustrating road in the first place, especially when, as several hon. Members have pointed out, we are facing a considerable squeeze on Government finance that will get much worse in the next three years under the common spending round that has just been announced?

The Government asked for proposals to be submitted before the terms of reference were even laid out. All the authorities involved were supposed to propose their ideas for a costly upheaval and reorganisation without knowing on what grounds they would be judged. We have come across that all too often in various government reorganisation schemes. The point was made several times that the time scale had been rushed.

My hon. Friend made another telling point. He had found out by means of a freedom of information request that two of the authorities involved had already spent more than £500,000 on initial preparations alone. If we add in the cost of all the other authorities’ initial preparations and of the whole process, if we continue down that road, a very considerable amount of money will have been wasted on a bureaucratic process that is supposed to benefit the council tax payers of Norfolk.

I was particularly impressed by the suggestion of a Norfolk convention, to which I shall return, but all options should be considered. How can a genuine consultation be held if some options, such as the status quo, are ruled out from the start? My hon. Friend spoke of the democratic outrage at how we have gone about the matter.

Before he finishes, can the hon. Gentleman clarify the Liberal Democrats’ national policy on unitary local government, particularly in cities but also more generally?

I shall certainly do so. It is on the very next page of my notes. From my point of view, both personally and as a spokesman for my party, what should we do? As has been said, we should not start from here. The Redcliffe-Maud report of 1966 to 1969 recommended a completely single-tier unitary system. That was rejected, and the Local Government Act 1972 dumped the issue. There was a major upheaval of local government in 1972; a dozen county councils disappeared and lots of changes were made. It was one of the greatest upheavals of local government in our country’s history, but it dumped the proposals of the Redcliffe-Maud report. Had the bullet been bitten back then, when a major national review was occurring, we would not be in this position today.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the situation continued. We had a total of 35 years of tinkering, change and messing at the edges from different Governments of all complexions who never tackled the system fundamentally. During those years, I have seen the matter from all angles and from the grass roots. I spent four years as a parish councillor and 12 years as a borough councillor, and I worked for a county council as a teacher for 22 years. I have seen the workings of local government from every possible angle other than city government. I remember well the pressure from the Conservative Government in the 1990s to impose unitary authorities. It caused huge dissension in Derbyshire, just like the dissension we are seeing throughout the country and in Norfolk today. The outcome was a unitary city, with the rest of the county continuing under a two-tier system.

I favour unitary authorities for the logical principle involved, but the issue is how to get there and whether it can be done satisfactorily in the situation we are in. I certainly favour smaller unitary authorities. When the Derbyshire argument was going on many years ago, I argued not for a county-wide unitary authority but for smaller ones in such areas as north-east Derbyshire. We are often told by academics and Government thinkers that that is not efficient. It is very democratic, and it can also be very efficient. I have visited small towns in the USA and all the Scandinavian countries where it works. In Norway, a town with as few as 20,000 inhabitants runs everything—police, health, fire brigade and education—not just the standard local authority services run by a district council in this country. It can be done on a smaller scale, and democracy may well be worth an extra premium if it comes with local accountability.

If a Government of any party believe that unitaries are the way forward, they should say so in their general election manifesto and go on to introduce legislation to that effect. Redcliffe-Maud provided such an opportunity 40 years ago, but no Government has done so since then. The 2005 Labour manifesto did not mention restructuring as such and did not mention the imposition of unitary authorities in any way. It said:

“We will ensure that councils are organised in the most effective way to lead and support local partnerships and deliver high-quality services”.

It referred to

“streamlining administrative structures while promoting decision making at the level that will make a difference.”

It was totally open-ended and non-committal about what that process would involve. That cannot be seen as a democratic mandate to impose unitaries in various hand-picked areas of the country.

If a Government believe that local communities should decide, they should have a proper process to allow that. That is certainly not what is happening with the process that is under way in various counties, which involves preconceived Government preferences and rules out some options, such as the status quo. It asks for proposals without stating the terms of reference and conditions by which they will be judged. It gives the power to unelected, unaccountable boundary committees. That is not the way to do it. The communities affected should decide what system of local government they want.

The proposed Norfolk convention is an echo of what happened in Scotland, where the Scottish convention led to devolution and the Scottish Parliament. It has involved all parties and extensive consultation in the community, and it took some time to achieve an answer that had widespread support across Scotland—from the Scottish people; we shall leave aside England. The proposal for a similar convention in Norfolk is excellent and should be employed throughout the country wherever such measures are proposed. Preconceived ideas should not be imposed from the top, there should not be a closed list to pick from and, above all, the local community should be involved in maximum consultation, rather than the sham that is taking place at the moment.

It is a pleasure to be here under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. If I did not know the Minister better, I would be inclined to say that he should simply stand up and give in. If this were a decently refereed boxing match, it would have been stopped long ago on points. The tidal wave of good sense that has come his way in expressions of huge concern about the proposals that we are debating would convince any neutral observer that something has gone badly wrong with the process of government for us to be here discussing them in this way. I should be grateful for a few minutes to illustrate some of my concerns.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on his opening speech, which touched on many of the points that have been amplified during this debate. I thought that he spoke with suppressed outrage on behalf of his constituents and, I suspect, the vast majority of the people of Norfolk. He spoke of his constituents’ views, expressed both to him and through the ballot box, and of the quality of performance of local authorities, which may be swept away in a reorganisation. He spoke of the bullying—let us be plain about the word—of the boundary committee in how it started and has gone about its work. He spoke about the concerns that this might be a done deal, raised the issue of whether the people would be consulted and mentioned the boundary committee’s motto, “Democracy matters”. Well, we shall see.

The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke of his belief in the importance of the unitaries in Norfolk. He is entitled to do so—anyone is entitled to put their view in this debate—but neither he nor the council that he is promoting are entitled to be the tail wagging the dog. There is neither the numerical majority to do that, nor, as my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) made clear, the moral authority, given the quality of the councils being wagged by the unfortunate tail of Norwich city. The right hon. Gentleman is entitled to express his views, but it should be borne in mind that the tail should not wag the dog.

My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) made a key point about the democratic base and the case that had recently been put to the electorate, and he ended with a series of questions to the Minister that I shall reiterate.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes)—he is an outsider in this debate, as I am—admirably summed up our concerns. He made a key point about Labour’s manifesto, saying that it gives the Government a completely open-ended chance to reorganise local government, with no parameters. It effectively gives them the opportunity to do what they want, no matter what the opinion of the majority might be in any particular place—an utterly wretched situation.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised many questions about the way in which the process had been put together. His contribution was not only illuminating but entertaining. I agree with him on the process and about the timetable problems that have already arisen. The reorganisation has not run according to the timetable. Indeed, it is already well off it. The trouble is that it will result in a rushed process that could be dangerous to the processes of democracy.

My hon. Friend was joined in that concern by Sir Michael Lyons in his consideration of the future of local government. In page 11 of his executive summary about local reorganisation, he said:

“The vast experience of reorganisation in this country provides a warning about the risks of poorly developed or executed change, and shows that it is by no means a panacea. I therefore put a much stronger emphasis on the responsibility of authorities to develop effective and flexible coalitions, which transcend boundaries and seek joint solutions to problems where those offer potential advantages.”

Most on this side of the Chamber would say that that opportunity ought to remain in the minds of the Minister and of the boundary committee; it is a much better way forward than what seems to have been proposed. My hon. Friend stopped short of declaring the whole thing a shambles, but what is in process might yet turn out to be one.

The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) asked whether there was any evidence about costs. He spoke of asking the boundary committee, with regard to its evidence-based process, what evidence it had for going forward. He got the honest answer, “Well, it’s a bit mixed.” He could have gone to others. He could have asked the previous Minister for Local Government, now Minister for the Environment, for his views. I did so when the Public Bill Committee was debating the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. We spoke about the costs of the process of reorganisation, and I asked whether we should be wary, on the basis of our collective experience, of those who wave cost savings at their electors as the potential good news behind restructuring. The Minister answered:

“The answer to that is yes.”—[Official Report, Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill Committee, 1 February 2007; c. 89.]

If even the Minister cannot see that as a key point to be taken forward, none of us should be under any illusion about the matter. If a reorganisation or restructuring is not being pursued for financial reasons or efficiency, what is it about?

I have two concerns about this reorganisation. The key one is democratic accountability. It is clear that the council submitted its proposal under the formula and the timetable, but that it failed utterly on every ground to convince the Government of its case for it being a unitary authority. The Government’s invitation to councils to take part in the process, published in October 2006, gave a clear indicative timetable. It said that by July 2007 a final announcement—no ifs, no buts—would be made of those areas that would be restructuring into unitary authorities. Well, it was not final. Out of the shambles of the application came the invitation to the boundary committee to proceed.

I task the Minister with this question. If all the other councils in Norfolk say that they do not want a change, and if they say that they want to remain with the status quo because it delivers effective and efficient local government in Norfolk, is he seriously prepared to allow the case being made by only one authority to override the views of those who are democratically elected in other parts of the county? I should be grateful if the Minister were to answer that.

My second concern is the invitation to the boundary committee. Most of us are quite surprised, given the width of its remit, that it has taken the job on. On what basis or criteria did the Government decide to invite the boundary committee to do the job? There is no doubt that they have the power, but I have heard no explanation of why, in some cases, it was decided to call a halt to the process and why, in others, it was decided to involve the boundary committee. It seems difficult to avoid a sense of arbitrariness.

I conclude by raising publicly the questions that I asked the Minister in a letter dated 14 November. They adequately sum up the concerns that have been expressed today. My first question was about the remit given to the boundary committee in relation to Norfolk, and whether the Minister would publish it. It is extraordinary that the committee is beginning work with no one else knowing what it has been tasked with. I do not see the point of that.

The second question was what time frame had been set for the review to be conducted, where it was set out and when it would be made public. The third point was that the timetable set out in the original invitation to councils in England had proved valueless for a number of proposed reorganisations. I asked what guarantee the people of Norfolk would have that the current timetable of the boundary committee, should we ever know it, would be adhered to.

The fourth question was about the powers that the boundary committee has to compel local authorities to submit information to it while it is conducting its review. We heard of the sense of menace with which the boundary committee is asking for information. That is a reflection of what has happened to local government. Many Members are concerned about that, and if the Minister can do anything about it in the years to come, it would be appreciated.

There is a sense that local authorities now look upwards to those from the Government and partnership agencies that are running them—and that they are afraid of not doing what they are asked to do—rather than looking outwards to those who elected them. That fundamental change in local government has been emphasised over the past 10 years, and it desperately needs to be cracked into.

My fifth question was whether any options for the structure of local government in Norfolk had been ruled out. We hear about the status quo not being a viable option. Who said so? Where does it say that it cannot be allowed? I have not seen it said in any Government document that two-tier local government is no longer acceptable in Britain. Of course it is. Why is it being ruled out in this case? Who said so? And who told him to say so? Is it possible for the local authorities to argue that the retention of the status quo is the best solution to the structural review?

My sixth question was about who is to pay the costs of the work of the local authorities engaged in the review at the request of the boundary committee and the Government. It is not that the majority of councils in Norfolk accepted the invitation and that the financial costs should therefore be on their own heads. They have been sucked into it, through matters completely outside their choosing.

My seventh question was about what intention there is to consult the public by way of a referendum to seek their views on the existing structure of local government and any proposed changes. The eighth was about whether the change would be implemented without the public being consulted by way of a referendum?

Those questions sum up our concerns. The Minister has a clear sense of them. Having been to a meeting in Dereham last week with a number of councillors from all the Norfolk authorities, I can say that their concerns have been more than properly expressed this morning. The real concern is that people have not asked for the change, they were not consulted about it, and they are unaware of any benefits. They do not know what they are being asked for or why. They do not know why the man who is asking them has the powers to do so, because nothing has been published. If the Minister can help us this morning, we would be much obliged.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing the debate. It is clearly a matter of great concern and interest to him and his colleagues. I thank him also for his kind words in welcoming me to the debate. I take my duties in the House seriously, although the 300 people that I left at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre may take a slightly different view.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s concerns and have discussed many of them with Members representing constituencies in the east of England and with local authority leaders—district and county. The timing of the debate is important because I am working on the terms of reference and the guidance that will be given to the boundary committee to take the next stage of the process further. That is not yet done, so the terms of reference are not sealed. I want to make it very clear, therefore, that the outcome of that process is not a done deal. Nothing is prejudged. I welcome what he expressed as his desire for an honest debate with all options under consideration. I understand and accept that he is in favour of the status quo, but I take those comments to indicate that he is not necessarily against serious consideration of change from the two-tier system.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) is, and has been for some time, a strong advocate of a unitary authority, as he has shown in this debate. I am pleased that he has welcomed our proposed steps. He is right: opinions are mixed. Opinions within councils and local authorities are mixed, as are those among the public. My hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole) reminded me that during the election in May in one of his constituency wards, an anti-unitary candidate polled just 80 votes.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) said that the Government’s interest in unitaries is politically driven. Over the past year, we have not looked at any proposals for unitary status and reform and reorganisation unless they were developed and submitted from the areas affected. We received 26 proposals under that process from all political parties. Those were led rightly by politicians in local authorities, but were not party-politically driven.

I shall give way once, but if hon. Members will forgive me, I want to deal with the many points that have been made in the small amount of time that has been left to me.

Is the Minister concerned that local authorities in Norfolk are expected to come up with their own vision of a unitary Norfolk before the terms of reference have been set? Is that not nonsense?

I knew that I should not have given way. If the hon. Gentleman will give me the time, I shall deal precisely with that point. Other hon. Members have made it, including the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) brings his considerable experience from the Public Accounts Committee to the wider perspective on this debate, and we have debated before many of the issues that he raised. The steps taken over the past 12 months have met precisely the lessons that he draws from his PAC experience. We have studied proposals, some of which were based on benefits. The risks have been considered and there has been, and in some cases continues to be, a very close examination of the costs and financial viability—given my background, I ensured that that happened. The timetable for views and comments is far from being rapid and compressed. In fact, I am being urged by many to ensure that it does not take too much longer. I realise that delaying this process will not make many of these difficult decisions any easier, but I want to ensure that I take into account fully all the information and representations that we have received when coming to final decisions, just as I propose to do with the terms of reference and guidance for the boundary committee.

The hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mr. Fraser) set out three tests: efficiency, better services and decision making closer to the people. That is quite right. Each unitary proposal that we are proceeding with has met those tests, which will continue to be applied to any proposals that might emerge from the process led by the boundary committee. Either I shall cover the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), or they will be contained in the terms of reference. I have met leaders of local authorities that might be affected and am ready to do so again at appropriate stages of the process.

On the general question of unitary authorities, I would like hon. Members to think back to the relevant White Paper and the invitation to submit proposals. Those were in response to evidence and arguments put to us at the time that, in some two-tier areas, existing arrangements simply did not deliver the governance that we require from our local communities and authorities in this modern day. There can be a duplication of services, confusion and inefficiency between the two tiers—the points outlined by the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). We were also told that for some areas a move towards a unitary authority could improve accountability, create stronger leadership, and improve efficiency and services to local people. Those have been the objectives throughout the process and the criteria against which we have judged any proposals. That is very far from change for change’s sake.

On Norwich in particular, far from failing on every count, as the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire suggested, the Secretary of State judged—I confirm this—that there was a reasonable likelihood of the unitary proposal from Norwich meeting three of the five criteria: strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership; neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment; and support from a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. The problems were with value for money and affordability. By looking at the boundaries, we can take a closer look at whether there is a viable unitary option based on Norwich but, perhaps, encompassing a wider city boundary. From meetings that I have had recently, I am quite clear about the interests that will be in the terms of reference and guidance, and I shall reflect on points put to me in this debate and meetings before issuing those terms of reference, which I aim to do in January, so that the boundary committee can formally begin its work on the review.

The boundary committee has begun a preliminary process of contacting local interested parties and authorities to explain the process of the review and to instigate informal discussions to get background and ideas for the future. I deplore the accusations that the boundary committee has acted with menace, harassment or bullying. The plain fact is that if local authorities do not participate, they cannot play a part in and influence the debate.

The boundary committee does not have powers to compel local authorities to submit information. It is a matter for local authorities to decide how to respond. The terms of reference and guidance will set out the boundary committee’s remit, which will be made available in the House Library. I will also make them public and send copies to all hon. Members who have participated in this debate and who are affected by the constituencies covered. The time frame will be set out in the terms of reference as well. To be clear, the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 does not require us to conduct referendums, but the process will last a number of months, and there will be plenty of opportunity for local authorities and the public to make their views known throughout.

I shall address a point about which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk was particularly concerned. When asked for advice, under the terms of the 2007 Act the boundary committee can recommend that the Secretary of State implements the proposal without modification or that she does not implement it—in other words, that the status quo should remain—or it may make an alternative proposal. If it does the latter, it must undertake clear consultation.

In summary, there is no predetermined number of local authorities at the end of the process, which will be open and widely consultative. The way that it will be conducted is set out in statute and there will be plenty of opportunities for hon. Members to play a full and influential part in the House and in their constituencies.