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My right hon. Friend and I last met both the local authority associations on 18 January 1994 when a range of issues relating to local government and reorganisation was discussed.
Does the Minister agree that there is widespread concern in Wales about the proposed reorganisation of the fire service? Does he accept that the proposed reorganisation is opposed by those who work in the service, by the eight fire authorities and by all the new 22 unitary authorities? Does he accept also that there is now a case to re-examine the proposal to ensure that there is consensus among the people of Wales on a vital service?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of fire brigades throughout Wales. I know well that the proposals that are now being made will be most carefully studied to ensure that there is no reduction in the level of services that the fire brigades in Wales provide.
My hon. Friend puts his finger on a most important problem—that of trying to curb the natural tendencies of Labour councillors to do what they do rather than what they profess to say they will do.
Does the Minister appreciate that, by independent assessment, the Gwent fire service has been judged to be the most effective response force in the country? Is it not logical, therefore, to leave it as an independent force, preferably conterminous with the new police authority—that is, Gwent plus the Rhymney Valley? That would surely make far more sense than lumping the Gwent fire service with other local services.
I fully share the hon. Gentleman's regard for the importance of the standards that are being achieved by the Gwent force. I have complete confidence that there will be no changes that will result in any reduction of the levels of service that must be achieved, are being achieved and, I am sure, will continue to be achieved in Gwent and elsewhere in Wales.
When the Minister met representatives of local government in Wales, did he take some time to praise education authorities—especially Labour ones—for the pioneering work that they are doing in providing nursery education, which is achieving far better provision than the average for the rest of the United Kingdom?
Will the Minister be prepared to provide the new authorities with extra resources to enable all three and four-year-olds to have a nursery place and to support the voluntary sector? Such provision will give three and four-year-olds a real head start in life, which is what Baroness Thatcher promised to provide over 20 years ago. Will the Minister now implement the proposal?
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has pre-empted Question 9, tabled by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), which relates exactly to nursery education. I suggest that he bide his time and wait until that question is reached. In the meanwhile, I content myself with the observation that I notice that all education authorities in Wales have made sufficient provision in their education funding, despite their fears and claims beforehand, to ensure that the teachers' pay increase is paid in full in each of the eight education authorities in Wales, and that they are now turning their attention to increasing allowances for councillors.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but ensconced as he is in the morphology of Cardiff, North, he will be pathetically out of touch with Welsh public opinion. The fact is that there are now fewer councillors under the unitary authority system than there are people on his quangos. Does he realise that that is a very bad thing for democracy and that the people of Wales view it with dismay and, indeed, disgust? May I tell him that in no circumstances will the people of Wales put up with any more gerrymandering to lessen the number of democratically elected people in Wales?
I waited patiently to try to hear a question from the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that I have heard one. I would correct him on one of his factual errors. Yes, my right hon. Friend makes appointments to quangos; he made some 850 appointments. That is significantly less than the number of councillors in the new unitary authorities in Wales. I note the insult from Plaid Cymru towards the capital city of Wales. The hon. Gentleman cannot possibly suggest that Cardiff, North is out of touch with public opinion in the Principality.
Is the Minister aware that local authorities, our councillors, our electorates, are going through a period of great turmoil as a result of local government reorganisation and unitary authorities? In those circumstances, is there not a case for slowing down the usual work of the Local Government Commission, in terms of councillors per seat, so that the existing structure can be more consolidated?
I am sure that the work that is being taken forward by the commission will be at a wholly appropriate speed for the reorganisation of local government in Wales. As I said, in answer to the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), we are considering the responses to the consultation. We are looking closely at the number of councillors; I do not expect to see any significant reduction in their number. We are certainly giving close consideration to whether there should be any overall limit to the number of councillors on each council.