Local Government

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 11:43 pm on 5th February 2008.

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Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Shadow Minister (Defence) 11:43 pm, 5th February 2008

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Key and my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Ancram. I cannot compete with 1265, but the battlefield site of Ethandune, near Edington, is in my constituency. That is where King Alfred defeated the Danes in 878 and set up the kingdom of Wessex. If anybody knew about local government reorganisation, it was King Alfred.

Let us be clear: there is no support worthy of the name for the proposal in the county of Wiltshire. There are no grounds for the Minister's opinion, which was given in his letter of 25 July 2007 to Wiltshire county council's chief executive, that the proposals would

"command a broad cross section of support from a range of stakeholders".

Furthermore, the breezy assertion that there would be

"some support from the general public" is true only in the most literal sense, with "some support" meaning more than no support.

The November summary document continues in the same creative vein. Any reasonable comparison of the document with the raw data would reveal that there has been considerable licence in the interpretation and collation of material.

I do not know whether the Minister has been through all the responses. The Department was good enough to allow me not only to read them, but to photocopy them, and I have been through them all. They confirm my belief, from what my constituents have been telling me for many months, that there is no significant body of support, however he defines it, for the proposals before us. May I challenge the Minister to say how he is able to draw the inferences presented in the November summary document from the responses that he received and I photocopied? If he cannot do so, the second criterion in the October 2006 invitation for unitary bids is not met.

For a more reliable litmus test of public opinion, we must turn to the MORI polling data collected in June 2006. In his letter of 22 November 2007, the leader of West Wiltshire district council, Councillor Graham Payne, says:

"I can see no reference in your report about the MORI poll that was undertaken to assess the views of the public in Wiltshire."

That is the case. I asked the Minister specifically about that and he seemed to be under the impression that in some way that poll was reflected, but in fact it is not.

Wiltshire county council misused the information in the same way as the Department for Communities and Local Government appears to have been creative in its interpretation. West Wiltshire district council referred the matter to the district auditor. On 30 July 2007 the district auditor stated in response:

"I agree with you that it"— a press release issued by the county council—

"represents a misinterpretation of the MORI findings. It is highly selective in its use of information from the poll and excludes information that would provide a more accurate representation. As such, I consider that it fails to comply with the Publicity Code in that it is not objective or balanced", yet that is the body on which the Minister is relying almost wholly in making his assertions.

The matter of consultation is by no means trivial. It is especially important in Wiltshire. Over the past months and years, and certainly since 2001 when I was elected, we have become accustomed to what might be called sham consultations. We have had them particularly in relation to local health care, where it appears that the results of the opinion survey have been more or less determined before the exercise started. That has led to the most disastrous consequences in respect of the scorched earth policy being conducted by Wiltshire primary care trust and, before that, by its predecessor bodies.

This has taken place at a time when we are all trying to establish public confidence in democracy and engage people with politics and with the formulation of public policy in important areas such as local government, health care and practically every other arena. Instead, a climate of cynicism has been engendered among the public, and who can blame them if they put a great deal of time and effort into responding to consultations in good faith, in the belief that those who make a decision at the end of the day will pay close attention to what they say and act upon it? Unfortunately, in the local government consultation, like others in Wiltshire, those who are entrusted with making policy sadly seem to bat away all the time any effort put in by our constituents. They should hang their heads in shame.

Understandably, there has been considerable judicial interest in the matter. Will the Minister outline the possible outcomes of the Congleton and Shrewsbury judicial review and what implications various possible outcomes may have on the local government review process? Will the Minister say why the estimates of costs and benefits have differed structurally from one unitary proposal to another, thus disallowing meaningful comparison? That is particularly important in the present context because Somerset, just across the border—a county that is in many ways similar to Wiltshire—has had a very different outcome from its unitary bid.

Will the Minister tell us why the transition costs, recurrent costs and savings, pension liabilities and extra costs for area governance and pay harmonisation have not been included in the cost appraisal for Wiltshire? Given the absence of a budget for area governance, what did the Secretary of State have in mind when talking in July 2007 of a "real opportunity" for people to "shape their communities"? Will the Minister confirm that area governance under the proposals will be no more than an unfunded "selectocracy" with very little accountability?

In July 2006, the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government called local reorganisation "a great distraction", and in March 2007, in the Government's own review, Sir Michael Lyons criticised restructuring and recommended more joint working. That is precisely the solution that Wiltshire residents have said they want, and precisely what the MORI polling data confirmed that they wanted. The Local Government Chronicle in May 2007 reported the Treasury fear that unitary bids were a "waste of time" and that it

"simply cannot afford to bear" the financial risks involved. In 1974, local government was paralysed by reorganisation for up to three years, and I have to say to the Minister that there is good evidence that we are seeing a repeat performance right now in Wiltshire.

My constituents want local government to deliver quality services—which, by and large, it does. However, residents and council after council have responded to the Minister's consultation by saying that they do not want this expensive, remote, self-licking lollipop that is threatening 1974-style paralysis for months on end. Even at this late stage, I urge the Minister to think again.