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Norwich and Norfolk (Structural Changes) Order 2010 and Exeter and Devon (Structural Changes) Order 2010

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

Private Notice Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty's Government to make a statement regarding the implications for the Norwich and Norfolk (Structural Changes) Order 2010 and the Exeter and Devon (Structural Changes) Order 2010 following the acceptance of the motions of regret passed in the House of Lords.

My Lords, the Government welcome the House’s approval last night of the Norwich and Norfolk (Structural Changes) Order 2010 and the Exeter and Devon (Structural Changes) Order 2010, and are disappointed that the House has regretted that the draft orders were laid. We are considering the House’s request not to proceed with making the orders before conducting further consultation, and will consider this in the light of the decision on the draft orders expected shortly in another place. The Government will lay a Written Ministerial Statement before the House, setting out how we intend to proceed, before the end of this week.

I thank the Minister for his response, which is effectively saying that the Government are still considering this matter. I ask the Minister to respond with regard to the votes that occurred yesterday evening. He will be aware that he and his party voted against the Motion standing in the name of the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in respect of Norfolk and Norwich, but when the House was invited to consider the same Motion in respect of Exeter and Devon, the Government agreed with the Motion.

Explicitly, the Motion stated that it regretted the action of the Government in tabling these orders, and called upon them to delay their implementation pending further consultation with the residents of Exeter and Devon. If they accepted the Motion in respect of Exeter and Devon, why did they vote against the same Motion in respect of Norwich and Norfolk? Is this not just another example of the chaos and incompetence of a Government who ran roughshod over their own rules and tests for unitary status, dithered for four years, then reversed the decision of their own Secretary of State, ran against the advice of their own Boundary Committee, ran against the wishes of 97 per cent of the people consulted in their own exercise—

I have already asked my Question, as noble Lords will be aware, and I am coming to my second one. They ran against the recommendations of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee, they overlooked the flaws in the drafting of the orders identified by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, they ran against the wishes of the House of Lords after its consideration, and they ran against the express wishes of the Permanent Secretary of the department. Can I ask the Minister—

Will the noble Lord please recognise the way in which this House proceeds—with short, sharp questions?

My question is, indeed, short and very sharp. Will the Minister say what conversations he has had this morning with Peter Housden, the Permanent Secretary to the department, who had regarded the previous advice as so unsafe and so against the Government’s own rules that he felt the need extraordinarily to seek political direction from the Secretary of State before he gave his approval?

My Lords, I am bound to say that this is complete nonsense and a waste of the time of your Lordships’ House. We debated this thing endlessly yesterday, and the noble Lord has raised nothing that we did not debate in three and a half hours of fairly intense and comprehensive discussion on this issue. I have had no conversations with Peter Housden this morning. I have already said that we intend to lay a Written Ministerial Statement before the end of this week, and it would be wrong of me to pre-empt what that Statement may say.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that two quite different sets of issues were discussed? One group of issues related to the process whereby the Government reached their decision; the other group of issues related to the substantive question of whether it is appropriate that municipal self-government should be restored to these important cities. After more than three years of public consideration and some eight hours of debate in both Houses of Parliament, is it not now time that Parliament reaches its decision and, if it approves these orders, that the Government should then implement them?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that it is time that we brought this to a conclusion. He is right in a sense that yesterday’s debate touched on issues of process as well as on substantive issues. Sometimes they were conflated. I repeat that we intend to lay a Written Ministerial Statement by the end of the week.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a bit rich for the noble Lord to lecture us about dithering when he led his colleagues to abstain on the one Motion that could have brought this matter to a conclusion last night and rendered today’s PNQ entirely unnecessary?

My Lords, the noble Lord gives me an open goal, if I may say so. It is a matter for the Opposition to choose how to vote on the issue. I see that they did not have common cause on this with the Liberal Democrats, but it is for them to explain the matter, not me.

My Lords, has not this House over time respected the convention that the unelected House does not overturn the elected House, however strongly we may feel about the substantive issue? Therefore, would it not be inappropriate for my noble friend to tell us today what the Government intend to do before we have had the final decision this afternoon of the House of Commons—the elected House that is full of MPs whose constituencies may or may not be affected?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right; we should await the deliberations of the other place on this matter.

As I understand it, the Government agreed last night to a Motion that expected the Government not to implement this order until certain things have been done. That was the express will of the Government. Will the Minister explain how they can proceed to implement the order as though they had not given that opinion, which amounts to an undertaking?

My Lords, we did not agree to the Motion; we accepted the second amendment because we lost the first one—I am bound to say fairly comprehensively. It was for the convenience of the House. There is no point in causing people to have to go through the Lobbies again. That would have been perverse. It was to help the House to make progress on this matter.

My Lords, as someone who sat throughout the debate yesterday, but decided not to speak because I thought that it had already gone on at an interminable length, I was unable to make the following point. Unitary local government, brought in by a Conservative Government—to their great credit—in Telford, has been a resounding success, and I commend it to other parts of the country. I further ask my noble friend, given that we are now having a debate only a matter of hours after the House made a decision after a long debate yesterday, whether this bizarre procedure, which I have never heard of before, should be one of the matters considered by the Leader’s Group.

My Lords, on my noble friend’s second point, this seems to me entirely appropriate. Regarding his first point, I, like him, value unitary government. I understand his experience in Telford. It mirrors my experience in Luton, where unitary government has transformed the prospects of our town.