It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mrs. Humble. Although it is also a pleasure to see the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), I must say, with no disrespect to her, that many of us were hoping that the Minister for Regional Economic Development and Co-ordination, who is responsible for local government, would be here to answer many of our questions.
The purpose of this short debate that I have been lucky enough to achieve is to persuade the Minister to withdraw the orders for the unitary proposals for Norfolk and Devon or, at the very least, to postpone them. Today in the House of Lords, the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee will be considering the Government’s case for these unitaries, and it may be that it will take our proceedings into account and delay the proposals.
Ministers’ recent decisions to allow unitaries for both Norwich and Exeter and a second tier for the rest of Norfolk and Devon are subject to a court hearing on 26 and 27 April. Interestingly, we have discovered that the process of the orders in both Houses may continue despite the court hearing at the end of April, so my first question for the Minister is this. What will happen if the orders are passed through Parliament and the courts find in favour of Norfolk and Devon county councils and reject those orders?
May I make a little progress and then of course I shall let the right hon. Gentleman in?
Let me briefly sketch in for hon. Members, most of whom know it, the background to the current situation. It goes back to October 2006, when the Government invited councils to submit proposals for unitaries. In March 2007 Ipswich, Exeter and Norwich submitted proposals for stand-alone unitaries based on their existing city boundaries. In July 2007, Norwich failed to meet the ministerial criteria, not least in relation to its current boundaries, and the boundary committee for England was instructed to consider the alternatives. That is a very important point because it is the start of the three-year process.
The proposal for Norwich on expanded boundaries was therefore one of those that the Ministers thought the boundary committee should consider. In February 2008, the Department instructed the boundary committee to consider new alternatives including Yarmouth and Waveney. The following July, the boundary committee proposed a single Norfolk including Lowestoft from Suffolk, with alternative proposals including a Greater Norwich and a Norfolk doughnut including Lowestoft, and a wedge merging Norwich, Yarmouth and Lowestoft. To say the least, the proposals just for the area that I am talking about are muddled. I say straight away that I am not examining the detail of the issues relating to Suffolk and Devon. Other hon. Members will wish to comment on that.
The hon. Gentleman has not so far addressed in what respect the proposals would damage the interests of his constituents. I can see why he may have a general argument about the unitary pattern for Norfolk—he is entitled to make that case—but which specific interests of his constituents would be damaged, in his opinion, if the order was agreed?
I am genuinely surprised that someone as experienced as the right hon. Gentleman, who has been an MP as long as I have and who has been a Minister, should assume that within the first two or three minutes I would get to the point that is coming later in my speech. I will be addressing that point and I am happy to take further interventions from him, but I am trying now to establish the chaotic way in which Government instructions were given to the boundary committee and the boundary committee then had to respond.
Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the chaos was completely self-inflicted by the Government and that one consequence has been the huge amount of money spent on senior local government management time and the legal cases—money that could have been better spent on hard-pressed local services?
Yes, I absolutely agree. Indeed, in September 2008, three Norfolk councils launched a High Court action against the proposals. In November, the High Court rejected a bid to halt the process but said that equal weight had to be given to all proposals. In March 2009, the boundary committee dropped Lowestoft from its Norfolk plans. In July 2009, three Suffolk councils launched a successful legal challenge, halting the process, but that was overturned by the Court of Appeal in December 2009.
On 7 December last year, the boundary committee published its final advice to the Government for single unitaries in Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. The Government had a six-week consultation period and, on 10 February, the Minister responsible for local government rejected the boundary committee’s advice and announced that Norwich would become a unitary on current boundaries and the rest of Norfolk would stand alone. Suffolk would keep the status quo, but the Minister urged local politicians to establish a constitutional convention to discuss the best form of unitary there. Exeter was to have a unitary on present boundaries, with the rest of Devon standing alone. Therefore, with the exception of Suffolk, the Minister’s final decision on 10 February was to go back exactly to the beginning—it was a matter of going forward into the past. All that money, time and effort were wasted.
I have in the past said a few harsh words about the boundary committee, but it has my deepest sympathy for the amount of nugatory work that it undertook. In some respects, one could not make this tale up. The whole process has, I believe, reflected the Labour Government’s determination to establish unitary proposals that would benefit the Labour party. That was the view in Norfolk and Norwich back in 2007. After nearly three years of work by the boundary committee, we are back to square one. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) says, a vast amount of money and effort have been expended, which in the past year, given the economic downturn, could have been better used for the benefit of our constituents.
From the very start of the process, I was sceptical about the Government’s intentions and did not believe that the proposals would benefit my constituents. I was fortunate enough to be able to initiate two debates on the unitary proposals for Norfolk, on 20 November 2007 and 9 July 2008. Rereading those debates, I have to say, with some degree of modesty, that I and others who opposed the Government’s process were proved absolutely right.
The Government’s final proposals for Norfolk and Devon have to be set against the five extremely strict criteria laid down in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. First, the proposals must be affordable—that is, it must be established that the change represents value for money and can be met from the councils’ existing resource envelope. Secondly, the proposals must be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders. Thirdly, they must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership. Fourthly, they must deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood empowerment. Fifthly and finally, they must deliver value for money and equity in public services. Those strict criteria had already been questioned by local councils, MPs and outside experts. I will return in a moment to the failure to meet the criteria.
I do not want to prejudge what my hon. Friend will say, but does he not find it incredible that the then Secretary of State rejected both proposals in 2007 because they failed at least one of the five essential policy tests for implementation?
Yes, I agree absolutely and I shall expand on that point briefly in a few moments. I want to flag up the criterion on gaining local support to emphasise that the Government’s own legislation—the original Act—specifically excluded public consultation. They talk about the need for support by a broad cross-section of partners, but they never at any time decided to test public opinion in any of the three areas.
All the arguments against unitary proposals might have been brushed aside by Ministers had not letters exchanged between Peter Housden, the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the Secretary of State been placed in the public domain. We are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), whose letter to the permanent secretary asking whether he was seeking a ministerial direction expedited that revealing correspondence.
We know from a written parliamentary question of 10 February, submitted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), that no direction had been asked for or given in the Department or its predecessor since 1997, so the Secretary of State’s direction is pretty unique. An article in the Financial Times suggested that there have been only nine such directions throughout Whitehall since 1997. What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State?
Does my hon. Friend find it as astonishing as I do that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport should have accused the permanent secretary and other civil servants in the DCLG of being biased, seriously mishandling the situation and deliberately leaking the documents to undermine Ministers? Does my hon. Friend not think, as I do, that that warrants an inquiry?
Yes, I find that incredible, given that the permanent secretary wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk—he may want to comment on this later—enclosing not only his letter to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, but the reply.
What prompted the permanent secretary to write to the Secretary of State? In his letter of 8 February, the permanent secretary addressed the ministerial decision to allow unitaries on the current boundaries for Norwich and Exeter. He wrote:
“I do have concerns, principally about their value for money and feasibility”.
He noted that
“the original proposals for a unitary Exeter and Norwich do not meet all the five criteria (in particular they do not meet the affordability criterion) but you intend to implement them nevertheless”.
On the Secretary of State’s argument that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter would eventually achieve economic gains, the permanent secretary wrote:
“The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits”.
The permanent secretary concluded:
“My clear legal advice is that the risk of decisions for a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and indeed for not taking action on Suffolk, being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high”.
On 10 February, the Secretary of State replied, spelling out the reasons behind the ministerial—that is, the political—decision and giving the permanent secretary a direction. The Secretary of State argued:
“We have given careful consideration to the circumstances in which there are compelling reasons to depart from the presumption that proposals that meet the criteria are implemented, and those that do not are not implemented”.
The Secretary of State kept referring to advice that he had received as the basis of his decision. Who gave that advice? It certainly was not the boundary committee or the permanent secretary. What was that advice? A Freedom of Information request looking into all the letters, e-mails and notes of telephone conversations in the Department would perhaps be revealing. I have in mind the names of one or two external people who might have given that advice. At the very least, the Minister should publish the advice.
The Secretary of State admitted:
“I accept that the Boundary Committee process did not produce evidence to quantify these benefits but nor did we think it right to set these potential benefits…to one side.”
That refers to the nub of the ministerial case that in the case of
“a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich, we consider that each would be a far more potent force for delivering positive economic accounts both for the city and more widely than the status quo two-tier local government”.
That partially economic and partially political argument overrides all the other evidence produced by the boundary committee and, indeed, previous ministerial advice.
I hope to enlarge on this later, but is my hon. Friend aware of the fact that most of Exeter’s predicted growth area—the airport, the Skypark and the business park—falls outside the current city boundaries and will be under the jurisdiction of the excellent Devon county council?
My hon. Friend is quite right. There are so many contradictions in the proposals. When I lectured Army officers, it was clear to me that the Army was very good at lessons learned, and that was true of both successes and failures. In terms of lessons learned, the current proposals would come under the heading of a big failure. Indeed, our friend Mr. Peter Riddell of The Times, who is a powerful influence in the Institute for Government, should use them as a case study of how not to conduct local government.
Despite recognising all the weaknesses in the ministerial case, the Secretary of State concluded:
“I acknowledge that the Minister for Local Government and I have been advised there is a high risk of successful legal challenge particularly to decisions to implement a unitary Exeter and a unitary Norwich”.
It is game, set and match, just on the basis of that exchange of correspondence.
As an old student activist, I recognise the right hon. Gentleman’s concern that he is on a sticky wicket. I am about to do as he asks. I have already damaged his main case and I will happily expand, without taking too much time, on how the proposals will damage my constituents’ interests; indeed, I will tell him how they have damaged them over the past four years. I say that because he and Baroness Hollis have been two of the leading advocates of the proposals and any FOI request may well discover the heavy influence that they have brought to bear on Ministers.
Ultimately, the ministerial proposals come down to the vague assertion that a unitary Norwich and a unitary Exeter could be a potent force for delivering positive economic growth. In the case of Norwich, there is absolutely no evidence for that—indeed, the exact reverse is true. As somebody who was born and bred in Norwich, I say with great sadness that Norwich cannot meet the proposed criteria under a Labour council.
Under Labour, Norwich city council has been an unfortunate example of local government incompetence. Recently, it has effectively been put in special measures, with a chief executive drafted in. It gets low scores on nearly every criterion by which local government can be judged. Last year, the director of housing was sacked because of a housing scam. That is the example that the Government want to give us in terms of economic growth. I have sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, who would have a much stronger case if Norwich city council was a five-star council that really would be an engine, rather than a sheet anchor, for the rest of Norfolk
What will happen to the rest of Norfolk—to my constituents and those of the majority of Norfolk MPs—under the Government’s proposals for a unitary Norwich? The Government do not know; it has not been spelled out. It is assumed that there will be working groups involving the current leaders of Norwich city council, who have avoided an election in May, and the leaders of Norfolk county council and the district councils.
There will be a widespread break-up of common services, which will cost more and lead to more duplication. My constituents will feel the impact in education services, because there will presumably be two directors of education and two education services. In outlying districts of my constituency and the constituency of Norwich, North, such as Spixworth, Old Catton and Taverham, that will cause major problems for parents trying to get their children into school.
What about support for children? We have a big enough problem now with cases of child abuse and, sadly, child murder. The one lesson that comes out of all the studies every year is that the existence of too many authorities is invariably a weakness. However, we are going to add another authority. I hang the proposals around the heads of those urging us to implement them as the worst kind of example.
Libraries, the fire service—everything will cost more in the short term. There will be more posts of one kind or another, and some people will do very nicely, but my constituents will not. Unless the Minister can argue that the proposed services—we do not, of course, know what they will be—will be the same as, if not better than, the services currently provided by Norfolk county council, I would certainly reject the proposals.
Ministers are keen to talk about empowerment and stakeholders, and the senior civil servant at the Department who is responsible for unitaries even has the title “Deputy Director, Local Democracy”, but there is no support of significance for the proposals throughout Norfolk or even in Norwich: there has been only a lukewarm response. There were approximately 1,424 responses to the Department’s consultation on the boundary committee’s proposals for a Norfolk unitary, held between 8 December 2009 to 19 January 2010. I accept that that is not a proper survey and the Government are not interested in holding a referendum on the question, but just on the Norfolk proposals, 85 per cent. of those who submitted comments wanted the status quo, 10 per cent. were in favour of a Norfolk unitary, and 3 per cent. wanted a Norwich unitary. Is that what local democracy is all about? I am concerned not just about the likely impact on my constituents, but about the impact on the people of Norwich. The proposal would not provide them with what they want. It would mean two or three years of chaos, confusion and reorganisation, to the detriment of constituents across the board.
I urge the Minister to withdraw the proposals. My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is our Front-Bench spokesman, says that in the event of our winning the general election, we would reverse the proposals. Most people in Norfolk would say amen to that.
I do not wish to detain right hon. and hon. Members for too long, because my colleagues are well represented here this morning and want to contribute. I shall talk about the economics of the matter; others will rehearse the political side and the influence of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is the Member of Parliament for Exeter. He has made extremely unfortunate remarks about the permanent secretary at the DCLG, which I agree should be looked into. Ministers simply cannot go around making accusations about senior civil servants, and the right hon. Gentleman should know better.
I am in despair about the idea of Exeter going it alone as has been proposed, and I can do no better than to quote paragraph 5.5 of the advice that the boundary committee gave the Secretary of State on unitary local government in Devon, in December 2009, which stated that
“were Exeter alone to become a unitary authority on its existing boundaries, and the remaining area of the county to stay two-tier, there would be serious questions over the ability of the two-tier area to function effectively as a unit of local government”.
That is one view. Another view is that Exeter alone would not be able to function usefully as a unitary. That is not only my view. It is also the view of Councillor Saxon Spence, the leader of the Labour group on Devon county council, who said:
“Regarding the Exeter proposal...I have made it clear it would require considerable financial support. I would not like to see the setting up of an authority without the capacity to deliver services, and I do think that there would need considerable financial underpinning...Times are not, perhaps, too promising.”
After 11 or 12 year of Labour Government I say “Hear, hear.” Times are not promising.
It is extraordinary that such an amount of money should be spent on something that I believe will not happen, when there are areas in all our constituencies that are crying out for funding for front-line services. I am concerned about the future of the Rolle college site in Exmouth, of Exeter college in Exeter and of Bicton college in my constituency, which is threatened with merger because of lack of funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Does the Minister, in her heart of hearts, think that the exercise provides value for money for the taxpayer? Given that the Conservative party has said it will not implement the proposal, is not it better, even at this late stage, to heed the advice of the permanent secretary and many bodies and accept that it should not go ahead?
Finally, let me comment on the idea that Exeter can grow, as a city and a vibrant economic entity, as a unity authority. Exeter is a great city and the capital city of our county, which is one reason many of us do not want it to be ripped out of the county. As I said in an intervention, much of the economic success on which it relies can occur only through the use of land that is now in East Devon. I am thinking of Exeter airport, the proposed new science park, the intermodal rail-freight terminal, the new business park and Cranbrook, the new town. The highways authority will continue to be Devon county council, outside Exeter. In other words, all the projected areas for growth in the area will remain under the jurisdiction of Devon county council, largely in East Devon.
A line between Exeter and that development will be an impediment for the constituents of Exeter and will be unworkable—unless Exeter’s plan is eventually to try to expand the city boundaries to include the airport and the surrounding areas of economic growth. However, we must take the proposal to be what we have been told, and on the face of it, the answer to the question of whether Exeter will be better off on its own, without that land, must be no. Will Devon county council function better without Exeter? The answer is no. Are the existing district councils working better? The answer is yes: enhanced two-tier working is working extremely well. East Devon district council works closely with South Somerset district council and is beginning to make economies for the taxpayers of East Devon.
I suspect that it will be as a result of freedom of information requests and a change of Government that we finally discover what has really gone on in the Department and what influence current and past Secretaries of State have had on Ministers. To make this decision so late in the day is a great shame, and it will be to Ministers eternal shame if they go ahead with it.
I apologise for having a cold today; I hope it does not spread to too many Opposition Members.
Perhaps I may begin with the fundamentals of the argument, which are that the case for unitary local government is very strong. It is accepted all across Scotland, Wales and urban England, and many other parts of England, for reasons of the efficiency, co-ordination, transparency and costs of government. That is the reason for the process. I am a strong supporter of unitary local government and think that it is generally the right way to go. It gives citizens greater purchase over the decisions of the organisations that take decisions about their lives, and is more efficient and effective. I could give myriad examples of the truth of that from the city of Norwich, and I think it is true elsewhere.
However, I have some common ground with the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) in that I concede that the process in the case that we are debating has been incompetent to a great extent. Both in the time taken and in its operation, it has been damaging. I found the decisions of the boundary committee at various stages incomprehensible. I think that all hon. Members in the House would probably agree that its original preferred option of a unitary Norfolk plus Waveney had no support at all, anywhere.
The process gives rise to serious issues, but I do not think that that extends to the final decisions, which will be debated in the House in due course. However, I must concede that the process has been time-consuming and has taken great energy and resource, and that that was very serious.
I do not associate myself with those who criticise the permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. I knew Peter Housden extremely well when he was the deputy secretary responsible for schools and I was Secretary of State for Education and Skills. He is a civil servant of great integrity and experience of local government, and he will have had his own views on the matter, and expressed them. I do not think, however, that that concession on my part undermines the case for the Secretary of State’s decision and the way that he needs to take it.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong, in the light of the remarks that he has just made, for a member of the Cabinet to accuse senior civil servants of bias, leaking information and seriously mishandling the situation for years? Does he not agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their Departments’ decisions, not pillory civil servants for their Departments’ mistakes?
I have not seen the remarks that the hon. and learned Gentleman refers to, so I will not comment on them. I agree that Ministers should take responsibility for their decisions. I have carried that through in my own political career; it is important not to offload on civil servants. That is one reason why I commend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government for taking the decision that he has, having heard the advice and rightly exchanging correspondence with the permanent secretary. That is the perfectly correct process. The Secretary of State is entitled to make the decision that he has, and I am glad that he has done so.
Throughout this process, I have favoured a solution founded on a unitary Norwich based on wider boundaries, rather than on either one, two or more unitaries for the rest of Norfolk. I have always thought that that was more logical, and I hoped that the boundary committee would come to that view, because it would have been a preferable situation to the one we have at the moment. In that context, it is laughable to suggest, as the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk did, that all this is happening because of some process of political advantage. Any political aspects of it are certainly not advantaging the Labour party in Norwich, or anywhere else, and that is even more the case on a wider boundaries basis.
Anybody who makes such an allegation is perhaps not looking too carefully at the twin-hatters in their own constituencies—members of their constituency associations—who are collecting their two payments as district and county councillors. The hon. Gentleman should look carefully before making allegations about political interest in that regard.
I do not concede that in any way. For a long time, Labour’s view in Norwich has been that it is better for local elections to coincide with general elections because turnout is higher in general elections, and that is what we, as a Labour party, generally favour. These orders take away the elections that would have coincided with the general election and replace them with a new election in a year and couple of months’ time—May 2011—which will not coincide with a general election, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. That is not in Labour’s interests. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would be pleased about that.
The orders will also lead to the re-election of the whole of Norwich council. If the hon. Gentleman was concerned about the efficiency or otherwise of Norwich city council under Labour leadership over this period, I would have expected him to welcome the fact that within just over a year there will be a chance to have a whole-scale election of a new authority, in which his political colleagues can make those cases against Labour. I do not accept, therefore, the issue of political advantage in this context.
The position that the Secretary of State is faced with—I think we are faced with it, too—is whether we prefer the status quo or the proposal that he has, I am glad to say, made for a unitary Norwich on existing city boundaries. As I have said, that is not as good as a unitary Norwich on extended boundaries, but nevertheless it is significantly better than the status quo.
I have made representations. I wrote to the Secretary of State during the consultation that took place after the boundary committee recommendations were made, saying that I favoured going for unitary on current boundaries—no doubt that will be published in due course. That is my position publicly, privately and in every other way. Why? Because there are benefits to unitary local government, and they will affect and benefit my constituents directly.
We have an example in the centre of Norwich right now, in the proposals for urban pedestrianisation of Westlegate, which were blocked by the Tory county council and will now, I am glad to say, be carried through. Opinion in Norwich has been fired up by the decision of the Conservative county council to close two day centres in my constituency, turn off the street lighting in just about every street in the city between midnight and 5 am—based on the experience of rural villages—and cut out the money that comes to schools in particular difficulty in areas of poverty, which affects my constituency in particular. That is a string of Tory county council decisions that take no account of the needs and desires of the citizens of Norwich. That is why those citizens—I speak only for Norwich—believe that unitary local government is better for them, as indeed it is. It is more efficient, transparent and cost-effective, and that is why I support the order.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk talks about Norwich’s incapacity to take such decisions. If unitary councils such as Hartlepool, Darlington, Bracknell Forest and Halton, which are significantly smaller than Norwich, and ones of broadly the same size—Middlesbrough, Cleveland and Redcar, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, and Reading—can take such unitary decisions, I do not accept that Norwich cannot. If there are arguments about the competence or incompetence of Norwich city council, let those arguments be resolved by the electors of Norwich in the election in May 2011. That is the right way to do it.
There has been no real test of opinion in Norwich. A survey was done about three years ago by the Eastern Daily Press, which showed a minority in favour. Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor I has any basis of opinion, apart from the replies that were sent in to the Department for Communities and Local Government, so any idea that there is popular support is questionable, to say the least.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I think that I am in a better position to comment on that than he is, as far as the city of Norwich is concerned. The challenge I put to him and his Front Benchers is that they look to the general election when it comes on 6 May, as I believe it will, because I, as the Labour candidate, and the Lib Dem and Green candidates will support unitary Norwich on current boundaries. I think that the Conservatives will not.
I note that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Chloe Smith) is not in her place, and I am not sure what her view on the situation is, but I would be interested to hear it because about 40 per cent. of her constituents are in Norwich—[Interruption.] She is apparently on a visit to Auschwitz. I did not know that. I respect that. It is obviously a good reason not to be here, and perhaps a better thing to do than be here. The argument that Norwich cannot run its own affairs is not warranted, however.
My final point is that I do not accept what the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said about the interests of his constituents being damaged by a decision about Norwich. He is entitled to make an argument for his own constituents, but it is wrong to say that a unitary Norwich on current boundaries damages his constituents. It leaves Norfolk county council with about 85 per cent. of its current responsibilities across the rest of Norfolk, and the argument that he has to make is that Norfolk county council, which is generally an efficient county council, will not be able to deliver services to the same level to his constituents in Mid-Norfolk when it is running 85 per cent. of the county compared to 100 per cent. I see no argument for that whatever; it simply does not stack up.
The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view that a unitary Norwich is wrong—he knows Norwich very well and can come to that view perfectly reasonably—but I do not believe that he can come to that view and at the same time claim to be speaking for his constituents. His constituents’ interests will not be affected one iota by unitary status for Norwich, and I hope that the Secretary of State’s orders go through Parliament and that he maintains his position on the matter.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the judicial review process, and I was amused that Norfolk county council decided to join with Devon county council to go through that process together, as though they were the same case, which they are not. They had to take solicitors from Tunbridge Wells to represent their case, rather than from the myriad effective law firms in Norwich. I do not think that they are on strong ground; they should not be. The change will advance the residents of Norwich, and I hope that it goes through.
The Government originally set five criteria for unitary status: strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment, value for money, affordability and a broad cross-section of support. We have had many discussions with Ministers over the past four years about the proposal for a unitary Devon, or a unitary Devon minus Exeter. We already have unitary authorities in Torbay and Plymouth, and have made the case that unitary has not been a great success in Devon. Anyone who has witnessed what has happened in Plymouth and Torbay will admit that those areas do not have the critical mass to be totally successful. As we see at every election, that results in a change of—
My hon. Friend disagrees with me; he will no doubt make the case for Plymouth.
Ideally, we need a critical mass. In setting those five criteria, the Government were right to turn down previous applications, for a unitary Devon or a unitary Devon minus Exeter, because they simply did not meet the criteria. As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) reminded the House, the Government have suddenly changed the criteria without giving any evidence of the analysis on why a change was necessary.
Ministers simply say that they are compelled to depart from the presumption that the five initial criteria are necessary, without acknowledging that there has been no analysis. That gives rise to the question, from those on the Opposition Benches and the members of the public we represent: why did they change their mind without the proper analysis? There must be another reason for suddenly rushing it through on the eve of a general election. It comes close to breaking the ministerial rules about making significant changes in the run-up to an election.
One therefore questions what is behind the change. There is clearly something behind the decision to which we are not privy but Ministers are. That not only raises concerns about the way in which the Government have conducted themselves over the matter, but it adds to our concern about what may be left in Devon if the Government are successful in making the change and if a future Conservative Government did not overturn it, as has been promised. There is no doubt about our discussions with Ministers. Indeed, a Minister who came to the Department straight from the Treasury considered the matter in some detail a couple of years ago, and decided that it clearly did not meet the criteria. He therefore turned down the latest proposal.
Those who have seen the details and the financial analysis have rejected the proposal, but suddenly all the rules have changed, and on the eve of an election the Government want to rush it through. There must be another objective to the outcome that the Government claim for it. It is not in the interest of the city of Exeter, nor is it in the interests of the rest of Devon.
My constituency surrounds Exeter, and covers both the Mid Devon and East Devon district council areas, but after boundary changes my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), will have responsibility for the East Devon council area, which includes the airport and the new town of Cranbrook. It is a carpetbagging exercise. It is essential, in the early stages, that Exeter should have the critical mass to make it viable.
I bring to the attention of the House some of the comments made in a letter to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments, by Sara Randall Johnson, the leader of East Devon district council. I totally endorse her comments. She said that
“the Government confirms that its ‘priorities today are…jobs and economic growth’. I would most certainly concur with this”—
as do I—
“and the acknowledgement that local government has an essential role to play in delivering these economic priorities…‘this role is of a significance that could not be contemplated in 2006 when the criteria were developed’.”
So say the Government.
The letter continues:
“It is a matter of record that even before 2006 local government in Devon was strongly focused on jobs and economic growth”.
For example, the Met Office relocated from Bracknell to Devon, and there has been an expansion of Exeter airport’s industrial base. There is also the proposal to go ahead with the new town of Cranbrook, virtually on the same site; that will be an enormous development in that part of the county in the coming years. However, there is no new economic growth in Exeter that was not apparent under the existing two-tier system. It has not stultified economic growth and it has not stopped major companies redeploying to the Exeter catchment area.
I represent that rural hinterland that the city of Exeter wishes to bring within its city boundaries. It is a travel-to-work area. Many of my constituents travel from the Mid Devon and East Devon areas to work in the city. In that regard, the city of Exeter, Devon county council and the two district councils have had a good working partnership—we often hear the word “partnership” bandied about. I am astonished that the Government wish to destroy that partnership in order to railroad through something that can only be politically motivated.
I shall be mercifully brief, Mrs. Humble. I refer to a letter of 10 February 2010 sent by the Minister’s Department to all Devon authorities that justifies the extraordinary decision to grant Exeter unitary authority status.
The Minister agrees with her predecessor that the case for Exeter does not fit the criteria, but none the less goes on to say that there are two compelling reasons for going ahead. Those reasons are not qualified, but she still finds two reasons to depart from normal procedure and grant Exeter unitary authority status. First, she refers to economic regeneration. She says that a unitary Exeter would be a far more potent force for delivering positive outcomes for the city and more widely than the status quo of two-tier local government. My hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) both spoke about that.
My question to the Minister is this: what is the evidence for making that statement? If it is a compelling reason, surely it must be backed by evidence. However, no evidence is given in the letter. Indeed, it flies in the face of common sense and the experience of the last few years, as my hon. Friends have said. It is not a compelling reason. It is a blind leap of faith, and it is certainly not sufficient to set aside the normal criteria.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Perhaps the second reason is more compelling. The Minister says that a unitary Exeter could open the way for improvements to the quality of public services. She gives no evidence for that startling assertion, but she does not say that it will happen or why the Government are convinced about it. She says that it could happen, meaning that it may happen—meaning, of course, that it may not. What kind of compelling reason is that?
I agree with my hon. Friends. This extraordinary decision is not motivated by a desire to give the city of Exeter some kind of economic regeneration or to favour its status over the rest of Devon. It is a cynical political decision. Frankly, it is beneath the Government to stoop that low.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on introducing the debate.
I wish to speak for Suffolk and to consider the process of this extraordinary decision. In February 2008, the boundary committee began to consider a structural review for local government in Suffolk. In July 2008, it presented its first draft proposal. It bore no relationship to the historic entity of the county. For example, Lowestoft was taken out. In March 2009, the committee released a second set of proposals. A one-Suffolk proposal was formally made, but once again Lowestoft was excluded.
One of the first criticisms that come to mind over the idea of a unitary authority that covers the whole of Suffolk is that decision making would be remote. My constituents in places such as Brandon, Mildenhall, Newmarket and Haverhill would find the idea of local services being concentrated in Ipswich and the eastern part of the county of little appeal.
The boundary committee has been charged with considering the proposals for reform. According to the district and borough councils with which I have been in contact, it has steadfastly refused to listen to their concerns. The so-called three council alliance spoke of the committee being inconsistent by attempting to say that it is listening to and considering all proposals yet simultaneously refusing to engage in any dialogue about proposals other than its own. A poll commissioned by the three councils found an overwhelming rejection of the committee’s proposals. The people of west Suffolk are against the change.
The serious question is one of cost. The counter-proposal advanced by the three council alliance claims that more than £34 million savings of net outgoings can be made by the three unitary authorities. It has been estimated that the cost of transition and implementation for the one-Suffolk option, which would be an enormous unitary covering the entire county, would be at least £25.5 million. This is at a time when councils are under considerable pressure. In addition, there are the costs of the boundary committee. According to the answer to one of my past parliamentary questions, the boundary committee had spent £282,535 up to March last year, and budgeted a further £269,782 for the current financial year. What has been the result? The Government have ignored the recommendations of their own quango and announced that consultations will continue. Repeated reorganisations of public services cause considerable dislocation and a great deal of cost. The irresponsibility of such a move is made all the more acute by the fact that the Conservative party has made its position clear on the matter of reorganisation. We are close to a general election, and it is the height of irresponsibility to be proceeding on any basis at all. This should be a matter of party political consensus.
It is with weary alarm that I look at the current plans for local government and the controversy and in-fighting that is accompanying them. The Secretary of State has decided against the introduction of the so-called one-Suffolk council, or the boundary committee’s preferred alternative of an Ipswich-Felixstowe unitary authority, on the grounds that
“neither option is supported by the principal councils in the county.”
That sentiment is to be greatly welcomed. However, one wonders why such a decision was not reached much earlier, particularly when one considers the arguments that I have been proposing. It should be noted that the issue has been left up in the air. Forest Heath district council and St. Edmundsbury borough council said:
“The ministerial announcement that there will be a Constitutional Convention to determine the future shape of local government in Suffolk prolongs uncertainty and undermines management taking long term decisions.”
The drift, the uncertainty, the waste and continued expense of trying to fight an unwanted and uncalled for reorganisation that has run for years and failed to come to a conclusion, still rolls onwards to who knows what end. We simply could not make up such a fiasco.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I want to focus on the narrow issue of the correspondence between me and the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred in his introduction. Since that correspondence, there has been an extraordinary and indefensible outburst from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). I should like to hear the Minister, on behalf of the Government, condemn what was said and state, on the record, that civil servants have done nothing wrong in relation to such matters.
I wrote to the permanent secretary, Mr. Peter Housden, on 3 February. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I see permanent secretaries from various Departments twice a week, and have done so for the eight-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the Committee. I am familiar with the fact that one of the titles of the permanent secretary—it is the reason why the permanent secretary is the witness before the Public Accounts Committee—is accounting officer. Permanent secretaries are legally, as opposed to politically, responsible to Parliament for the effective, efficient and economic use of public funds.
This morning, I was at a seminar, which was chaired by the admirable Peter Riddell, at which a former senior Labour Cabinet Minister, who has only recently stepped down from the Cabinet, said, “Ministers are there to represent the public interest first and foremost in obtaining value for money in the use of public resources. That is their job. It is the job of accounting officers, of permanent secretaries, to stand behind them to make sure, if there is any falling short from that standard, that they notify it to the appropriate authorities.”
The right hon. Member for Exeter accused Mr. Peter Housden of being biased and said that he was not surprised that the documents had been leaked. May I say for the record that the documents were not leaked? They were sent to me in response to a letter that I had written to the permanent secretary. Mr. Housden copied them to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell. I can hardly think of a less likely way to leak something than to send a copy of what one is doing to the Cabinet Secretary. In his letter, which he also attached to the Secretary of State, he said that
“I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing”—
that is the approach currently proposed by the Secretary of State—
“makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as Accounting Officer.”
Far from leaking the documents, he did the right thing.
As for seriously mishandling the situation, I have since had a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General to whom I also copied the correspondence. It is a fact of the nature of requesting a direction from a Secretary of State that the permanent secretary will also send copies of it to the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his letter, Mr. Housden alludes to that. He says:
“As I am required to do, I will send copies of your instruction and this letter, to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who will normally draw the matter to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee.”
In his letter to me, which I received yesterday by e-mail, the Comptroller and Auditor General said:
“The Accounting Officer has followed the correct procedure for raising his concerns about the value for money of the scheme by seeking a Direction from his Secretary of State and notifying me. In accordance with the provisions set down in ‘Managing Public Money’”—
which is a Treasury guidance document—
“I have notified the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts of this Direction.”
[Mr. Martyn Jones in the Chair]
In other words, there is no question but that the permanent secretary has acted properly.
The reason he acted properly is that he was concerned that the approach being proposed by the Government was improper, an indefensible use of public funds, unfeasible in the sense of being undeliverable, and almost certainly unlawful. In such circumstances, he did exactly the right thing. I see that Mrs. Humble has transmogrified into you, Mr. Jones, in the last couple of seconds, so I will address my concluding comments to you.
I repeat my request to the Minister to ensure that we all understand, on the record, that the behaviour of that civil servant has been in the finest traditions of the civil service rather than against them. We all understand that the career of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has, in some ways, been an anger management therapy and a working out of his feelings towards his former employer at the BBC, but that is not a reason to lash out at civil servants, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Jones. I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this debate. He, like many hon. Members, has pursued this issue throughout the process on which local authorities in many parts of the country have embarked. Some issues were settled earlier on to the satisfaction of some and the dissatisfaction of others. In these three counties, however, the process has been particularly poorly handled. It has dragged on, and the goalposts have changed repeatedly. The Government’s guidelines have been altered, and various bodies have been asked to examine a problem that is essentially of the Government’s own making.
The hon. Gentleman referred in his opening remarks to the chaos that has been generated by the process, and I agree with him. We have a process that effectively paralyses local government at a time when it faces hardship, particularly in the provision of services. Speaking both on behalf of my party and in a personal capacity, I wish to say that there is a logic to unitary local government. In some places, it works very successfully. We have just embarked on the process in my own area in Cornwall. The issue facing us today is not necessarily one of two-tier authorities or unitary authorities being better able to cope with the problems facing an area. It is about how one considers the process of change and whether local people or local organisations have been able to influence the debate on matters that deeply affect them.
It is perhaps also important to reflect on the fact that the areas where these issues were settled some time ago were sticking to the Government’s original timetable. Although the process may have been chaotic in the parts of the country that we are discussing today—the three counties of Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk—people in other areas may well look back and think differently.
Given what we have heard the permanent secretary say and given the fact that the Conservative party has said that it will not allow these changes to happen, does the hon. Gentleman not take the view that other hon. Members have taken today that now is not the right time for any of this change to go ahead?
My view is that, having had a process that has been dragged out and having had a timetable that has been altered on several occasions, it seems rather strange that we are suddenly having a conclusion brought with undue haste just before a general election. When issues remain to be settled, or even addressed, there is a very good case for looking at the process after the general election that we are likely to have in the next few weeks or months.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that, in the case of Norwich, this process was initiated some years ago, when the Liberal Democrats ran Norwich city council and strongly supported the process? It remains the case that the Liberal Democrats in Norwich support the proposal of a unitary Norwich authority, based on current boundaries. I wonder whether he acknowledges that and whether he accepts that the case for these changes is being made not only by the Labour party, but by the Liberal Democrats and the Green party.
The point that I was making, in response to the previous intervention by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), was about timing; it was not necessarily about the merits of an individual case, because those who are best placed to determine the merits of a case are the people in the areas concerned. So I am not seeking in any way today to wade in and intervene in local grief or local triumph.
My purpose in my contribution today is to say that the process has been handled incredibly badly and that, when something such as this change is happening, there is an opportunity to encourage local people to come forward, take a view and become involved in a process that may lead to more efficient local government in their area. However, there is nothing so frustrating for people who have taken part in such a process as feeling that it is a tokenistic exercise and that whatever they have to say will not be listened to and, in the great scheme of things, not count for very much.
We could perhaps draw a parallel with the regional spatial strategy process, whereby people have made an input to a document that, in theory, could have huge implications for a local area if those strategies are enforced for very long, which remains to be seen. Again, people who have responded to consultations, such as those on the RSS, have said that they have not felt that those responses have been taken seriously. One therefore wonders whether, on a future occasion when any Government are consulting on serious proposals such as these changes, people will be encouraged to engage with that consultation process, regardless of the merits of the proposals.
We started out with the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, which enabled the creation of further unitary authorities. As I have said, I am sure that some people in certain parts of the country will welcome such authorities, because there is a logic to unitary government and unitary authorities can be very successful.
We have had a bidding process, but, as I said earlier, it has had a tight time scale. There was huge pressure to bring forward bids from different areas, without people in those areas having an opportunity to discuss whether or not they felt that making a bid was the right thing to do. So county councils of different political complexions around the country put in proposals, and district councils did the same thing. In a lot of those areas, the bidding process became one whereby people were divided one against the other.
I suppose that it is quite natural for an authority’s officers and members to feel some loyalty to it and, when they are threatened with change in a very short time frame, to dig in their heels and say immediately that they want to preserve the status quo. Some of the bids were therefore perhaps not as imaginative as they could have been. The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) referred in particular to issues in Torbay, where a small unitary authority has switched political control and where people are now experimenting with the elected mayor concept. Of course, we will see what happens in a future election there.
I have always had reservations about the idea of elected mayors. When I served as a local councillor, I always welcomed the fact that we had the opportunity to discuss things among ourselves and to work together as a wider group. Of course, I was a councillor under the old committee system, which I thought was very good and served many areas very well. Unfortunately, the Government have forced a narrow range of options on local government.
The people of Torbay will be able to respond to another point on a far more well-informed basis than I can. As the unitary authority there was perhaps struggling in some service areas, I wonder whether the bid for a referendum for an elected mayor was seen in that light. Consequently, whether or not an elected mayor will be the right solution for Torbay remains to be seen.
In response to the question put by the hon. Lady, I am not personally convinced that elected mayors are necessarily the best option. I would prefer a system under which more elected representatives have the opportunity to contribute. However, the problem with unitary authorities such as the one in Torbay is that they are small and it is very challenging for them to provide services. There could have been an opportunity to look at the wider issues relating to the existing unitary authorities. That idea was talked about at one stage, but because of the original timetable that the Government set, that proposal was set aside.
We have also had proposals for county unitaries or super-unitaries, which would perhaps struggle to provide services at the other end of the scale. They would be to remote from local people. Unlike some of the unitary authorities that were created last year, some of those bigger county unitary authorities will find it very difficult to engage with local people. That is why all these proposals were unable to command great support from the local community in each area.
We have had a process that was originally led by local authorities that were trying to get the best for their local areas from what was put on the table by the Government; we had inconclusive results; the boundary committee for England was then brought in to see whether it could sort out the mess that was left behind, and it proposed large county-wide unitaries and one urban authority in Suffolk. Again, those proposals did not seem to meet the needs or aspirations of local people and the local authorities that currently exist.
We are where we are now, and the Government have stepped in shortly before a general election to attempt to impose a solution, particularly in Devon, where they have attempted to impose a solution on Exeter. I understand that all the political parties that are represented on Exeter city council have supported a unitary authority. However, despite that support, there must be great concerns about the ability of a unitary authority of that size to deliver services effectively.
Furthermore, as other Members have already pointed out, there are knock-on effects for the surrounding authorities, too. I think that the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) tried, in effect, to build a wall around Norwich and to say, “These issues affect people in Norwich, but they don’t affect the wider Norfolk area”. However, that is not true. Quite clearly, there will be significant effects on the area surrounding Norwich.
I was trying to make the point that, if Members argue that there are effects on their own constituents outside Norwich, or for that matter outside Exeter, it is incumbent upon them to explain what those impacts are. I have not yet heard—not just today, but ever—any serious argument that the interests of the constituents outside Norwich or Exeter are affected negatively by the decision for Norwich or Exeter.
May I invite the hon. Gentleman to suggest another reason why other constituents could be affected by these changes? For example, in my constituency, which immediately abuts the city of Norwich, when the unitary authority proves to be unviable—if it goes ahead at all—because it is too small and run by people who could not run a whelk stall, it will want to expand its boundaries, encroach upon our area and come after my constituents for higher council tax payments in return for a poorer service.
The hon. Gentleman has made the point that, if unitary authorities are created that are ineffective because of their size and their failure to reflect existing communities, we may well return to this issue later on. As I have said, there are other parts of the country where unitary authorities were created some time ago, and we may have had an opportunity to put those authorities right under this round of proposals.
What is on the table has clearly been hashed together rather quickly because of the approaching general election, despite the fact that more time has elapsed than under the Government’s original timetable. Other parts of the country where unitary status was achieved recently or where bids were unsuccessful might well have benefited from the constitutional convention approach that is being offered to people in Suffolk. Had that approach been offered at the beginning, it would have avoided much of the mess that we are in.
Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Jones. You have joined a lively debate and we are delighted to have you with us.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) on securing this important debate. He has fought valiantly to raise the cause of Norfolk throughout this lamentable process and is a trenchant advocate for the case against the Government’s behaviour. I am grateful to him for raising the issues.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, in particular the serried ranks of my hon. Friends who represent the three counties involved. They have reinforced the arguments compellingly and I hope that in time they will forgive me for not dwelling on each of their contributions in detail.
The right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) spoke in favour of unitaries and I can understand why, coming from his perspective. Arguments can be made for either side and we will have to beg to differ on their merits. I make only two observations. First, there are compelling grounds for saying that what happens to the two cities will have an impact on the surrounding shire counties. My experience of 16 years in local government is that shared services cannot be disaggregated without a knock-on effect. There are issues relating to large cities that are the centres of shire counties, but this is not the right way to deal with them.
Both the cities that we are discussing are estimated to provide about 15 to 20 per cent. of the tax base and revenue for the surrounding counties. Because of the higher costs of delivering services in rural areas, removing them from the authority would be bound to have financial consequences for the surrounding areas.
No, I am saying that that would make life significantly more difficult for the efficient and admirable Norfolk county council, which is doing its best, despite having had bad funding settlements from the Labour Government, as has Devon. It cannot be said that there would be no knock-on effect from such a loss to the tax base. The leader of Devon county council calculated that the removal of Exeter could cause band D council tax to increase by about £200 per year. There are potential impacts on surrounding areas.
The other point that must be stressed is that the procedure has been utterly lamentable and is wholly indefensible; even the right hon. Gentleman conceded that it cannot be defended. The two that we are discussing are part of a round of unitary proposals that started in 2007. Like all the others, they had to meet the five clear criteria set out by the Government and the boundary committee. In July 2007, the then Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Wentworth (John Healey), made it clear implicitly that the Norwich and Exeter bids were not capable of meeting the criteria. That was endorsed by the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Salford (Hazel Blears). They were right to say that the bids did not meet the value for money criteria. I recall that there was also concern about whether Exeter met another criterion.
The small unitaries were ruled out at the beginning of the process and alternative county-wide unitaries, which were objectionable on other grounds, were proposed. What has happened since then? Nothing has changed in the evidence base. What happened was that the Labour party lost a seat in Norwich. There has been a great deal of effective lobbying to get certain Members of this House off the political hook. The Municipal Journal described the situation thus:
“Unitary plans descend into a Whitehall farce.”
It is a shabby deal. The columnist, Mark Smulian, writing in the Local Government Chronicle, was spot on in invoking the ghost of Governor Elbridge Gerry. This process is scandalous gerrymandering; it has nothing to do with good governance and is being done for political purposes.
I feel sorry for only two people: the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett), who is here to stand in for the Minister responsible for this matter and is picking up the tab for it, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Ipswich (Chris Mole), because it is apparent that Cabinet Ministers and former Cabinet Ministers manage to get unitary authorities, whereas Under-Secretaries of State get merely a constitutional convention and a talking shop. Life is unjust even in the workings of government.
As has been observed, Mr. Housden, the permanent secretary, has behaved with absolute propriety. The attacks on him are wholly unjustified and would be withdrawn by any reasonable person. As well as the passage of his letter that has been quoted, he made two other important points. Having concluded that the unitary bids still did not meet the Government’s original criteria, Ministers sought grounds to justify their departure from them. Mr. Housden wrote:
“My main concern about your proposed course has to be value for money for the public purse. It would impact adversely on the financial position of the public sector as compared with the alternative courses of action open to you.”
Mr. Housden then referred to the Ministers’ grounds for departing from the criteria, in particular the suggestion that the unitaries would be able better to achieve economic gains and regeneration potential:
“The evidence for such gains is mixed and representations that you have received provide no evidence to quantify such benefits. I also recognise your proposed approach may open the way for improved public services through the Total Place approach, but this will be dependent on the collaboration of all the councils concerned and as yet there is no clear evidence of the costs and benefits that may arise.”
The permanent secretary destroyed comprehensively the two grounds that the then Secretary of State and Minister of State gave for departing from the original criteria. There were no grounds to justify doing so. In passing, it is worth saying that shared service arrangements in all three county councils and a pathfinder scheme in one are already improving services. That has been done without any of this nonsense.
Mr. Housden went on to write:
“Moreover, any departure from the criteria when taking your statutory decisions also raises feasibility, as well as value for money, concerns. Whilst there is no statutory basis for the criteria, there is a legitimate expectation that they will be the basis of your decisions. Your proposed approach of implementing a unitary Exeter and Norwich, and not implementing a unitary council for Suffolk would be a departure from the criteria, and whilst I recognise you could adduce your reasons for this…my clear legal advice is that the risk of”—
“being successfully challenged in judicial review proceedings is very high. You have been advised that there is every likelihood of such judicial review proceedings being commenced.”
We now know that judicial review proceedings have been commenced. He went on:
“The probably nugatory expenditure which this would entail, particularly in the case of Exeter and Norwich, could only exacerbate the worries I have described about value for public money. And it would also put pressure on departmental resources, altering priorities.”
One cannot be much more damnatory than that, yet the Ministers still persist and do not come along to defend themselves in person.
The pros and cons of unitary authorities in local government can be argued in a decent fashion. However, what has happened in this process is not decent. That is why my party has said that, should it come into government, it would reverse the decision and put all of the documentation and advice into the public domain following any unsuccessful freedom of information requests. The proposal is a shabby gerrymander and is a disgrace to those who introduced it. I am sorry that Under-Secretary of State, who is not personally responsible, has to defend the decision today. The best one can hope for is that she takes the decision back and, at this very last minute, Ministers remove the shame they have brought upon themselves and abandon such an ill-conceived proposal.
I have only 10 minutes left and have a dreadful cold, which I am more likely to have got from the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) than my right hon. Friend for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), because we tend to spend quite a lot of time together one way or another.
I would like to record my gratitude and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for giving us the opportunity to debate the very contentious issue of the unitary proposals for Norfolk, Suffolk and Devon. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment with having to make do with a mere Under-Secretary of State in the unavoidable absence of the Minister for Local Government. However, as a Local Government Minister and as Minister for the East of England, I have taken a great interest in the proposals and, indeed, have heard some of the representations from both Exeter and Norwich.
I would like to try to deal with the “why now” question asked by so many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). The answer is Dickensian in its simplicity and content. The advice from the boundary committee about the process, which started in 2007, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst mentioned, was requested by the Secretary of State more than a year ago in February 2008. Thanks to a succession of judicial reviews, the advice could only be provided by 7 December last year. The delay therefore arose because of the law and, to some extent, from those who sought to use the law to delay the implementation of the proposals.
The Department received the advice a year and 10 months after requesting it. Someone once said to me that the Opposition’s only power is to delay. I do not think that that is true—although sometimes their behaviour makes me wonder—but a year and 10 months is a long time in the 60-month maximum life of a Parliament. Just because we are in an election year, the Government cannot stop making decisions or implementing proposals. It is perfectly reasonable of the Secretary of State and the Minister for Local Government to take the decision at this time, given the delay.
On the vexed question of how the decision was made and relations between Ministers and civil servants in my Department, first, it is a myth that, in some way, the Secretary of State and officials are at loggerheads. Nothing could be further from the truth. The process of seeking a direction is part of the normal administrative process that recognises that accounting officers—in other words, the permanent secretary—have certain responsibilities, which differ from those of Ministers, whose responsibilities do and should range more widely.
I am not saying that such a situation occurs routinely, but it is part of the normal administrative process for the person who is responsible for value for money to point out when a Minister has gone against specific recommendations by officials, which, in this case, we acknowledge that we did.
I have to make some progress. I regret not being able to give way, because the hon. Gentleman made some good points.
I wish to make it clear that it was proper of the permanent secretary, as accounting officer for the Department, to draw attention to the fact that Ministers had not chosen the option that appeared to deliver best value for money. However, it is equally proper of the Secretary of State to set out his reasons for taking the decision. In other words, all those involved behaved properly and there is no question of official advice being biased in any way.
I also want to dispel the myth that the correspondence between the Secretary of State and the accounting officer was somehow leaked; it was not. In accordance with the relevant civil service rules, those letters were, in fact, shared openly on the day Ministers made their announcement with the head of the National Audit Office and, subsequently, with members of the Public Accounts Committee.
The Minister is generous to give way. She mentioned a point that I raised about whether the advice that the Secretary of State received, which obviously contradicted the advice given by the permanent secretary, can be put into the public domain. This is the centre of the debate: the permanent secretary believes that the Secretary of State’s proposals do not meet the fundamental criteria. In his letter, the Secretary of State talks about advice that he has received. Can we see what that advice was?
The advice was in the form of the many representations that the Secretary of State, the Minister for Local Government and I received. I am not privy to other advice that the Secretary of State may or may not have received. The main reason for going against the criteria was the changed economic circumstances, as I think right hon. and hon. Members know.
Given that the Minister says nothing was leaked and that the permanent secretary behaved in an entirely proper manner, will she take the opportunity to apologise on behalf of her Government colleague, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for his scandalous remarks?
I shall decline that opportunity, as I do not even know what remarks the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made. All I can reiterate is that officials and Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government behaved entirely properly and the letter was not leaked.
On the question of releasing advice to Ministers under freedom of information legislation, which the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk raised, we will, of course, be making available relevant material to the courts as part of a duty of candour. We will make all relevant representations available under FOI, but it is right and proper that certain correspondence between Ministers and officials should be withheld to ensure free and frank exchange of views. Section 35 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows for that.
The assessment of the proposals, which was made in great detail by my right hon. Friends the Minister for Local Government and the Secretary of State, was difficult, because we had seven unitary proposals to consider. We had to measure them against the five criteria: affordability, a broad cross-section of support, strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment and value for money for services. Those criteria specify outcomes that should be delivered if the proposed changes to unitary structure are made. Accordingly, our assessments against the criteria involved making prospective judgments about the likelihood of the outcomes being delivered.
To cut a long story short—given the fact I have only two minutes left—in the end, Ministers decided that the economic situation in both cities merited going against the five criteria, and that the economic situation in a unitary Exeter and Norwich would be stronger because they had accountable self-governance. We did not change the criteria, as the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton suggested; they were central to our decisions, but there were compelling reasons why we went against them.
We also looked at the role that the Total Place initiative, which was launched in April 2009 as part of our operational efficiency programme, could play in bedding down the new unitaries. That initiative takes a whole-area approach to delivering public services in a geographical location and will be very beneficial indeed in the implementation of both the unitary proposals.