My Lords, as the gallery departs, perhaps I may say that, in addition to moving the amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 6, 9, 12 to 16, 18, 23, 49, 50 and 51.
It is a great pleasure to be back after the Recess and to be taking part once again in the local government Bill. I had, as I suspect most other noble Lords had, a blinding flash of hope that we might all be denied having to come here at all—in which case, I could have given myself a week off and not had to deal with this and the two other Bills coming my way this week. However, wiser counsels seem to have prevailed—otherwise I might have been exchanging places with the noble Baroness rather swiftly and be considering the Bill from the other side. However, hope fails and I am moving the amendment.
This opening debate takes us to the heart of the first part of the legislation, to the heart of the principles of reinvigorating democracy and to transposing power and local decisions back to local people—which is what we understand this Bill to be all about. The Minister says that that is what the Bill intends to do—in fact, we spent a long time in Committee debating that aspect—giving power to the people. We are told that that is what the Prime Minister wants the Bill to do. Of course, the Prime Minister has been changed since the Bill was introduced and we still hope that the new Prime Minister has the same view of this Bill and that it is being executed under the joy of his hand. However, transposing power to local communities is one thing that the Bill does not do. As it stands, it will not succeed in its stated aim of reinvigorating the democratic process.
These amendments address two issues: first, the power of the Secretary of State to issue directions relating to the reorganisation of local government, which we oppose, and, secondly, the power of the Secretary of State to issue either directions or invitations to any local authority. As I made clear in Committee, the Government claim that the ethos of the Bill is to enable local authorities to improve their own structures of government. Indeed, all the Government's rhetoric places the emphasis on giving local authorities power to take their own initiatives. But, as usual, the rhetoric is a far cry from reality.
I have re-tabled these amendments to give the Minister another opportunity to confirm her statement in Committee that the principle of the first part of the Bill is improvement and restructuring by invitation. The Minister noted that this part of the Bill was an invitation-only realm. She went on to say:
"The Government are imposing nothing on local authorities".—[Hansard, 5/7/07; col. 1146.]
I accept that the current orders for local authority restructuring fall into the category of coming about by invitation or in response to an invitation—not by direction. Whether by invitation or direction, the proposals in most of the nine local authorities affected are far from uncontroversial. In spite of the Minister's words, it is loud and clear that the power remains in the Bill for the Secretary of State to issue a direction to local authorities to form unitary councils—in other words, to order them to dissolve and reform as unitary authorities.
While Clause 3 is limited in that regard until the end of January 2008, nothing in the Bill would prevent the Secretary of State before then from issuing an order or direction against the will of the majority of councils in any given area, let alone making a direction against the wishes of the electorate in the area, because the Bill does not yet provide for proper consultation with the electorate. We shall return to that matter later. The key issue is the power that the Bill gives to the Secretary of State to alter local government by direction. I am sure that the Minister, with her goodwill and optimism, believes 100 per cent that the Government, having not issued a direction so far, will not do so in the future.
To some extent, this is a matter of trust. But unfortunately legislation cannot always be built on trust because it can be used thereafter not just by those of us who have seen it through, but by others. It will therefore not come as a surprise to the Minister that we on these Benches want such a guarantee to be included in the Bill and the power to give directions in the future abolished.
Indications about which authorities will be re-formed have caused a lot of damage over the summer. As I said in Committee, the trouble is that some people in the areas being considered want it to happen and some do not; the issue is controversial. That is a pity, but it is not too late to change that particular aspect.
The Government seek to introduce a new process of structuring local government. Instead of testing the likely success and popularity—essential agreements in the overhaul of local government—in Parliament, and more importantly, through proper consultation, they have set in motion a process that goes before the legislation that mandates it in law. I do not know whether this situation is unique, but it must be pretty close. The legislation is almost useless to prevent what is happening because everything is happening before the legislation has had proper scrutiny in Parliament.
It is deeply disappointing to have to depict the situation in that way. I wish that it had not come to this and that Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council, Congleton Borough Council and Harrogate Borough Council were not all seeking judicial reviews. Throughout the country there has been outrage at grass roots level at the speed of this reconstruction process. However, that is the reality.
Nobody actually believes that this part of the Bill will cease in January 2008 or that these nine newly proposed authorities will be the end of it—far too much has gone into this for the Government just to sneak away. I ask the Minister not to ignore these amendments and hope that at least this aspect of direction will be dropped from the Bill in due process. I beg to move.
My Lords, we on these Benches did not add our names to the amendments, not because we do not have some sympathy with the point of view expressed by the noble Baroness, but because our concerns are rather differently focused. I will say more about that when we debate amendments tabled in my name and that of my noble friend.
I have a lot of sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Baroness on the Conservative Benches. We have a problem. The authorities that we are currently discussing have been chosen in a process that is to some extent outside the law because we are debating the law now and it has not yet been passed. While there may not technically be an issue of retrospection—I am not a lawyer and do not know whether there is or not—a process has been started that cannot be finished until we pass the Bill. As we are approaching the end of the parliamentary Session and there is some panic to get this measure through, we find ourselves in a highly unsatisfactory situation where a group of local authorities are a long way down the road toward unitary status without a legal framework to back that up.
To make it worse, it is not only the absence of a legal framework that causes us difficulty but the absence of a policy framework to underpin that. We in this House, in another place and, more importantly, in local government, do not understand what the Government want from local government with regard to unitary councils. Therefore, the situation is highly unsatisfactory. On these Benches we have taken a pragmatic view. Local authorities that are already in the process of restructuring are where they are. I recognise that there is a good deal of unhappiness and I shall discuss some of that in detail when we come to later amendments. Nevertheless, they have entered a process and gone a long way down the road and we believe that it would be irresponsible of us to do anything to prevent them moving forward now.
However, that does not mean that we believe the Bill will provide a satisfactory framework for local authorities in the future. We certainly do not want to keep revisiting the same problems on more and more local authorities as time progresses and therefore we have tabled later amendments to deal with the question of timing. However, for now, I simply place on the record for the House the general unease that we on these Benches have about the process. I should also be interested to know whether the noble Baroness has heard any more about how the current judicial reviews are progressing.
My Lords, in Committee I briefly drew attention to the constitutional issue affecting the use of directions. All the literature and, indeed, all the precedents show that directions are meant to be used in extreme circumstances when things have broken down between the parties and the Secretary of State needs to step in or for administrative matters. In Committee, the Minister said that there might be some hold-up—I think that that was the trend of her remarks—and that it might be necessary to push the process along, and that was why there was a need to put directions in the Bill. Constitutionally, that is a precedent. I have asked whether there are other precedents but I have not had a satisfactory reply. However, I do not believe that there are any.
As the House knows, directions are a form of secondary legislation. They are not subject to any parliamentary procedure and they should not be used, in the words of the marriage settlement, lightly. I am sure that in this case that has happened. If you add to that the comments about the process starting and proceeding in advance of the passing of the Bill, then it is most unfortunate that directions have been included. I am extremely surprised that the legal services available to the Government have allowed that to happen and I hope that they will be withdrawn.
My Lords, we return to a common problem. Regardless of what appears to a Government to be a solution—not necessarily to a problem but in response to the need for change—some people and some authorities will agree and some will not. The dilemmas facing a Government or anyone in authority are: to what extent does the tail wag the dog; to what extent is progress delayed until there is common agreement; or, at what stage do a Government exercise the powers that they have in order to make progress?
I am sure that the Minister has answers to some of the direct and pertinent points that are being raised but I cannot believe that the Government will make progress or insist on making progress in the face of sizeable opposition. That does not mean that the minority is entitled to have its view taken into account all the time. However, if we live in a democracy and if, although there may be reluctance to change, it is accepted that ultimately it may be for the benefit of the majority, then I fail to see why at the end of the day, whenever that might be, the Government should not have some power to insist on progress. Therefore, I should be interested to hear from the Government how they intend to deal with this problem.
My Lords, perhaps I may intervene for a moment to ask the Minister what the need is for the change that she talks about. The French structure of local government has not changed since Napoleon. The French have something like 38,000 separate municipalities, which manage to work together extremely efficiently, effectively and well without all this constant ferment. That is one example from what I would call a fairly radical wing of European local government.
The United States is in a similar situation. It has a very stable structure in local government. It has states, cities, municipalities and counties with known powers. It does not keep changing the structures, although it may change the way in which bodies work together, which can be done very easily. It is simply a matter of responsible local bodies taking a responsible view of their capacity to deal with problems, alone or co-operatively. Those arrangements are made ad hoc, without regulation.
I have never quite understood why, for the past 40 years, we in this country have had such a passion for structural change. Having sat on the other side of the argument in local government for much of that time, I have concluded that very often those who run our national affairs do not think that they have enough sufficiently serious matters to occupy them, so they tinker with the structure of local government, keeping everyone in a state of ferment so that they cannot properly do what they are supposed to do on behalf of those whom they serve. The real problem behind this so-called need for change is that it is a massive distraction from the proper provision of services to local communities. I say with my hand on my heart that the intellectual effort that goes into dealing with this subject in every authority at every level is beyond anything that is put into service provision. In my view, that is a disgrace and the longer the argument is perpetuated the worse things will become.
My Lords, I echo the opening statement of the noble Baroness about how nice it is to be back dealing with the local government Bill. I welcome everyone back, refreshed, sharpened and focused, to the Report stage.
Some large issues have been raised in the opening statements on this group of amendments. It is probably worth responding first to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, who concluded his argument by referring to the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, about why we are doing this. I can absolutely assure the noble Lord that no one is more conscious than the Government are of how much effort goes into restructuring and that the object is and must be about better services. That is exactly where we started from and exactly why we started with a process that is different from the previous process in 1992. The process was driven by an invitation to local authorities to consider moving towards unitary status.
I do not know enough about the French system but I do not think that the French have duplication of functions or confusions over which authority collects waste and which deals with it, or whether there are any two separate mandates held for a single area, which is what we have with the two-tier system. In some areas the system has been made to work well, but we have always known that it has been flawed, because it builds in conflict and duplication of functions.
We started from the presumption that if there were an opportunity to move towards that new system, local authorities would give us their arguments on whether they wanted to, against the criteria that we set very clearly: better leadership, better neighbourhood engagement, better services and all the things that we know make a crucial difference to improving local areas. We looked for a broad range of support on that.
We wanted to open, by invitation rather than imposition, a path to better services; we wanted to do it in a way that enabled local government not to embrace change for change's sake, but to take advantage of what it thought was an opportunity to set out a new way forward. Twenty-six local authorities came forward; 16 were invited to go forward for further consultation and we have ended up with the Secretary of State agreeing to nine proposals.
The process has been open and transparent. The debate has been conducted in every conceivable form of public arena, and that takes time. The noble Baroness says that there is outrage at the speed. She will hear me say again during this debate that the reason why we did what we were asked to do in this way—the invitation was sent out under the common-law powers of the Secretary of State—was that we were urged by everybody not to have a protracted process, but to make progress. We therefore did it in a way that we thought would be democratic, legal and effective, because it was consulted on.
I appreciate what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said about local government being where it is. Indeed, it is where it is with our nine proposals. I obviously cannot say much about the judicial review, but we expect a result shortly. I should also say that it is not entirely unpredictable that councils that are disappointed or aggrieved have sought to make legal complaint. In 1992, in the previous reorganisation, there were no fewer than 30 judicial reviews from councils that felt that their interests had been overlooked or ignored on whatever grounds. Change generates disturbance and difficulties. That is where we are.
I hope that that takes us into the narrower debate on the powers of direction. The purpose is very clear, as the noble Baroness said. The amendments would remove the Secretary of State's power to direct any principal authority to make a proposal under Clause 2, by way of inserting the word "relevant", so that the Secretary of State may only invite a relevant principal council rather than exercising the power of direction.
Briefly and I hope for the last time, I shall run through the key provisions that will enable this to happen. It is a devolutionary structure, as I have explained. The provisions in Part 1 of the Bill replace the structural and boundary change provisions in the Local Government Act 1992. Clauses 1 to 7 make provision about the invitation process for effecting structural change; Clauses 8 to 10 provide for boundary changes, which are wholly separate from the current round of restructuring; and Clauses 11 to 30 provide for the implementation of both forms of change and the necessary supplementary provision. They enable the Government to invite—or, until
Noble Lords are no doubt asking why, if this is so devolutionary, we need a power to direct at all. That is the crucial question. The answer is that the limited power of direction in the Bill is necessary to ensure that we are able to bring the present round of restructuring to an orderly conclusion. The idea that we are somehow going to extend this or rush through a power of direction rather than an invitation in the next few months, as the noble Baroness suggested, is rather a fantasy. We were aware of concerns about the original power. We worked with the LGA to limit the scope so that it cannot be used beyond
It might help the House if I give a short example of a hypothetical situation where it might be necessary to use the power. I am not saying that it is necessary at all; I hope that noble Lords will understand, when I come to the end of this description, why it would not be necessary. In July, we said that we were minded to implement the unitary proposal for Bedford borough on the basis that there was a satisfactory unitary proposal for the rest of the area. We announced that we would be inviting Bedfordshire County Council, Mid Bedfordshire District Council and the South Bedfordshire District Council to put forward a unitary proposal for the remaining area of Bedfordshire, excluding Bedford borough. I should emphasise that we intend to invite these councils to make a proposal. However, if the Secretary of State were to feel that she would be unlikely to receive a proposal in response to this invitation, she may decide to direct a proposal from the local authorities concerned.
We are on record as saying—and I can again give the commitment—that this is a very limited power, which would be used only where it is necessary to deal with a residual area in order to make sense of a unitary proposal that is currently proceeding towards implementation. It does not force any particular new structure on an area—quite the contrary. It requires the councils in an area to decide the new structure that they want. I admit that it leads to the area having to move towards unitary status, but it is interesting that in the responses that we have had to these proposals the principle of unitary status has not been challenged. People want unitary status, where they have come forward. However, we have been clear that we will use this power only where it is necessary to round off a unitary proposal that we have already received and accepted. In other words, we would require councils to make a move to unitary structures only where it is necessary for other councils to be able to implement the unitary proposal that they have chosen to put forward. It is surely better to give a council the opportunity to do that rather than going straight to advice from the Boundary Committee.
In the case of Bedfordshire, would it be right that Bedford borough could not adopt the unitary structure that makes good sense for the people of Bedford simply because the other councils in Bedfordshire were unwilling to consider a unitary future? However, that is a pessimistic scenario; from the evidence that we have in the case of Bedfordshire, we firmly expect all the councils concerned to respond, perhaps with some enthusiasm, to the invitation that we propose to issue shortly.
I reiterate that this is a limited power for specific circumstances. It follows from, and is independent of, the invitation. I hope that noble Lords will feel reassured that the limits on the way in which it might be used do not open the door to anything more.
My Lords, we have had an interesting opening debate on this issue. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke and for the support—maybe limited support—from the noble Baroness, Lady Scott.
The fact that a sunset clause was put into the Bill in the House of Commons indicates how much concern there was that this power would go on interminably. As it is, unless we can get this matter changed, it will go on interminably by invitation because at the moment there is nothing to stop that.
Secondly, we are dealing in an Alice in Wonderland world because the legislation before us is being implemented as we speak. As the Minister said, the Secretary of State has already indicated to nine authorities that she is minded to approve their becoming unitaries. I think that agreement has been given to six authorities and further information on the financial aspects has been required from another three. To try to pretend that this is going through in a peaceful and calm way in those nine authorities is not Alice in Wonderland but cloud-cuckoo-land, because where the invitation has been accepted and schemes have been put forward it would be hard to say that the tip of the iceberg is calm; what the hell is going on underneath is very big and people are quite upset about it. Even with these nine authorities, this is not peaceful and non-controversial. It is very controversial. The decision about these will be made by affirmative order, so presumably we will have an opportunity to see these cases again—I hope that we will see them again individually. The Minister nods. I take that as acceptance that each order will be laid individually. That will give us an opportunity—
My Lords, I cannot be absolutely sure about that. Certainly the House will have an opportunity to debate the orders. It is possible that similar ones could be grouped. We do not know yet. At this point I would not like to give a categorical assurance that they will all be separate.
My Lords, I accept the Minister's limited nodding as a limited response on that. I stick to my point that this is not uncontroversial; it is controversial. The direction, although limited, is still in the Bill. It should come out of the Bill. It is not required; it clearly has not been required in these stages. We also want to be absolutely clear that this process will not carry on at various authorities in bits and pieces. This is not about reorganisation or restructuring in general; it is about restructuring for very particular reasons in very particular local areas where nobody, or very few people, actually agree with it. Therefore, I think that we should remove this direction. I am not going to press the matter to a vote today, but I make it clear that our view is that the direction should not be included. I thank the Minister for her reply and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I rise to speak to Amendments Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 25. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, has Amendment No. 21 in the group. This group of amendments performs one simple function; it rules out the possibility of type C proposals, or those proposals that would create a new local authority, the boundary of which would spill across county boundaries, forcing people to be counted as part of a different county from the one with which they identify. It would make sure that the provision is removed from the Bill.
Ancient boundaries and identities hundreds of years old could face extinction under the type C powers. As the Minister said, tidying up is the byword for these powers to ensure that local authorities can be constructed in the way the Government feel would be included in the interests of the local area. The Minister justified the reasonableness of including type C proposals just because other types of proposal were also included: it was a wholesale batch of ideas.
We do not think that anything justifies the need for these type C proposals. They have not come about even by the invitations that have been issued so far, although I dare say it is possible that if conclusions were reached on some of those bodies making applications it could come about, and we believe that it should not.
There has been no mention of these proposals in the Government's policy proposal document Councils' Proposal for Unitary Local Government: An Approach to Implementation, in the Minister's response in Committee, or in the Minister's letter sent over the summer. In the complete absence of any substantive justification for the inclusion of type C proposals, I hope that the Minister will see the sense of accepting our amendments. I beg to move.
My Lords, my Amendment No. 21 seeks to do the same thing as the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness. I am coming at this from a slightly different angle. I do not in principle have any objection to the idea that two local authorities may want to merge and that they may be across a border. Not all existing borders are ancient and not all command that sort of loyalty, so I can see where a case might be made. My confusion about this provision is simply that we were given assurances in another place and in Committee that this piece of legislation was really intended only to apply to those local authorities which were currently in the frame for reorganisation. As none of those includes a proposal that extends across borders—none of them is a type C authority—not one of them will, even when you look at the knock-on effects, involve any cross-border reorganisation. I therefore cannot see why the provision is in the Bill and why it needs to remain, unless the Bill is intended to create the framework for further restructuring, in which case the assurances that we have been given so far are pretty meaningless.
My Lords, we have returned to a question that was raised in Committee. I can advance the argument a little further, for reasons that will become clear. Let me briefly explain why the requirement is needed. On the progressive point made by the noble Baroness about the future, the amendments would certainly limit the kind of unitary proposals that councils would be able to make in response to invitations. Specifically, were the amendments to be accepted, councils would only have the option of submitting a proposal that was contained within a county area, whether a county unitary based on the existing county boundary or a sub-county unitary for part of the area. They would not be able to propose a unitary council that crossed existing county boundaries.
We have made it clear on countless occasions that we are not telling councils what to do. Councils will have to submit their own proposals and they are best placed to propose a model that works for their local area. So we have to provide the maximum flexibility to invite and implement structures that make the greatest sense for local areas.
The noble Baroness is right: we have said and continue to say that we do not believe that there is a case for restricting the options open to councils in that way. That is the overriding principle. The only proviso is that any new unitary should use existing district boundaries as the building blocks.
The Bill will allow local authorities a wide range of options to put forward proposals for unitary local government. Crucially, they will not be constrained in considering how best to administer local government functions in their areas. At previous stages, noble Lords were concerned that people identify with shire counties and that cross-unitary proposals would be unlikely to command public support. Noble Lords said that there is still confusion where some of the shire counties became London boroughs. I remember the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, who is not in his place today, making a powerful statement to that effect. However, as the noble Baroness says, not all boundaries are old anyway. As I have stated, because this is devolutionary, it is not for us to restrict proposals but to allow sufficient choice because that may be the best solution for an area.
Noble Lords are right that no cross-unitary proposals are currently proceeding toward implementation. Significantly, although it did not proceed towards implementation, we received a cross-county boundary proposal from East Riding, proposing a unitary authority comprising East Riding and Selby district council, part of the county of North Yorkshire. So it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. In addition, if an area has undergone significant population and housing growth that results in the unitary boundary for that area no longer making sense, we might need to issue an invitation to enable councils to propose a new unitary area that crossed existing boundaries—again, a type C proposal. That is a potential eventuality.
When we debate the invitation itself, I shall explain at more length that there are no proposals for major rounds of invitations, but we recognise that, in exceptional situations, there may be appetite for change where it would be right to respond to a focused and targeted invitation. I will talk about that when we debate later amendments.
For the moment, on these amendments and in this situation, I hope noble Lords will accept that all we are doing is providing for a choice, which was validated because in the end we had a proposal in the final washout.
My Lords, it is interesting to know from the Minister what happened to the areas not included in the proposals. One of the effects of crossing boundaries—to which the noble Baroness has referred in the past—will be that the Boundary Committee will do the tidying up. There could be a great deal of tidying-up if county council boundaries were breached. I should be very interested to know the remaining proposals from that part of the country which would enable the proposal put forward. Perhaps it has not gone ahead because it was too complicated.
Let us be clear—these proposals are ad hoc and not a generalised restructuring across the country. As I said before, a small number of proposals are being put forward, not even for the same parts of the country—they are just spattered across the country. Where there are breaches in one area and on one border, precedents for others begin to be set up. If invitations continue to be put out, there is potential for this to happen more and more.
I was very interested in what the Minister said about Yorkshire and the fact that my noble friend Lord Eccles, who is in his place, did not leap in at the mere mention of Yorkshire. I omitted to thank him for his contribution on the previous amendment. I thank the Minister for her reply. For today's purposes, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I have introduced Amendment No. 10 at this stage in order to do what I have been hinting at during the previous two amendments; that is, to have this whole part of the Bill limited to completion by January 2008. The running on of these proposals will cause concern within local authorities, instability and insecurity. The Government have probably done enough harm with these proposals without them going on for any longer.
If the invitation to form these new authorities is not and has not been issued by now, when will it be? For how long does the Minister see this invitation and legislation continuing? The refusal so far to confirm when an invitation to change governance may be issued leaves local authorities not wanting to change in limbo. It leaves all the cards in the Government's hands and none in those of local government. It is not a million miles away from the changing attitudes to governance.
The invitation should be included in the
My Lords, Amendment No. 11 seeks to do pretty much the same as Amendment No. 10 moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I return to the remarks I made at the introduction of the first group of amendments; namely, that there is no discernible government vision for moving forward on the framework and structure of local government in this country. What we have is something of a free-for-all, and it is disingenuous to suggest that this is entirely a matter for local choice. Taking the example just used by the Minister, while it may meet the aspirations of the people of Bedford, as the urban conurbation will provide them with a unitary authority, it looks like the neighbouring area will have precious little choice over how it is structured. That decision will be foisted on it either because of the pressure of dealing with services once the urban centre is taken out or because the Secretary of State eventually exercises her discretion and uses her power to direct. So other areas actually do not have a choice and many local authorities will face the worst of both worlds. If neighbouring authorities decide to use the provisions of this Bill, they will be affected.
That would not matter so much if there was a clear understanding of what the Government are seeking to achieve, but the fact that this feels so arbitrary is unsettling for local authorities. While I do not expect noble Lords or anyone else to feel sympathy for local authorities per se, the fact is that a huge amount of energy goes into this sort of exercise, energy that is diverted away from the core functions of local government in delivering services. What is more, it makes partnership working, which the Government regard as so important, almost impossible. Council is set against council in a process that is not well understood and apparently has no timetable.
When this Bill came to your Lordships' House, it was accompanied by what seemed to be a clear commitment on the part of the Government that its provisions would apply only to those local authorities which have currently volunteered for restructuring. Clearly, there will be knock-on effects on local authorities that do not want to be restructured; indeed, they are what the noble Lord, Lord Graham, referred to as "collateral damage". If we accept progress in some areas, we have to accept that other areas will not get what they want. Members on these Benches have taken a pragmatic view and we accept that we are where we are and that these authorities have moved forward. However, that does not make it right for the future. The Minister referred to the fact that these provisions may result in invitations being given in the future, and that worries us. With no clear structure or well understood endgame, these proposals will remain on the table and local authorities up and down the country will focus their efforts on restructuring without really understanding what they are seeking to achieve and whether they have any chance of success. At a fundamental level, that can only be bad for local authorities, and what is worse, it is bad for the people they represent because the authorities will not be focused on their work.
Amendment No. 11 would do what we thought we had already done: that is, it would limit the provisions of this Bill to the current round and the immediate knock-on effects. If a future restructuring is envisaged, we ought to have another Bill that is not in any way retrospective and is firmly embedded in a government view for the structure of local government.
My Lords, I appreciate the seriousness with which noble Lords have addressed these amendments and it behoves me to try to give as much reassurance as possible on the scenario presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, of a very unsettled future for local government. Nothing is further from our thoughts, as I shall explain when I respond.
I dispute the suggestion that there has not been a framework or a policy. In the whole approach, the imperative was that we would be responsive to the potential wish of local authorities to move towards unitary status. We did that by invitation, and the criteria, the timetable and the process were very clear. I am not sure what else we could have done to signal our willingness to listen to whatever local authorities would come forward with.
Under Amendment No. 10, we would be unable to issue any further invitations to councils for unitary proposals beyond the end of January 2008. In other words, we would not be able, for example, to issue a further invitation in order to make sense of Bedfordshire in relation to the proposal that we have received from Bedford borough. We cannot accept the amendments not out of perversity or any hidden agenda, but because they would impose a complete lack of flexibility on local government. I referred to Bedford in relation to the first group of amendments and explained why it is essential that we are able to invite the rest of the authorities in an area. It is essential that the invitation power remains on the statute book and that we retain the ability, under exceptional circumstances, to respond to a local authority that in the future may want to seek unitary status.
Let me explain. I made it clear during the passage of the Bill, in the letters that I wrote to noble Lords on two separate occasions over the summer and in the meetings that I have had with them—and I am grateful to them for being willing to talk about and share some of the issues with me—that we have no plans for a future rolling programme of restructuring involving further major rounds of invitations. But we have to recognise the reality that there may be areas where, in the future, there is a specific and definite appetite for change and where it would be right to have the capacity to issue a focused and targeted invitation to the councils concerned in exceptional circumstances.
The first and most obvious circumstance would be to make sense of a recommendation for boundary change. As I said on a previous amendment, when reviewing an area, the Boundary Committee may form the view that a unitary district council needs to expand its boundaries due to population or housing growth, and it may be necessary to expand the boundaries to such a degree that the remaining area of a two-tier district council was no longer viable. But Clause 8 prevents the Boundary Committee from recommending the replacement of a two-tier area with a single-tier area as a consequence of altering the boundary of a unitary council. In that situation, where there is a strong case for structural change—an imperative case stemming from a boundary change—Clauses 1 to 7 would enable the Government to invite the local authority in that area to come forward with a proposal that it believed made sense for the local area.
Alternatively—these are the situations with which the noble Baroness is concerned—it might be the case in a two-tier area that the councils come to the conclusion that a unitary approach would be best. They could then ask the Secretary of State for an invitation and it would be open to the Secretary of State to invite them to put forward proposals. We have to leave the door open for such an eventuality, much as the Local Government Act 1992 left provisions for future changes on the statute book.
But I stress to the noble Baroness that we do not seek a wide-open door; this is not a revolving door or a recipe for local authorities to come back and forth with proposals for unitary status. I do not want authorities to misunderstand this. I do not want them to think that they can keep working away, in the way described by noble Lords, at unitary plans rather than improving services. It would be a debilitating process if they took their eyes away from the improvement of their services, which is what they should be concerned about. That is not our intention and it will not be the case.
That is why I say this is a limited application. Any invitation would have to have a very good case behind it, and would have to be targeted and focused. Maintaining the power to invite and implement proposals simply allows us to respond to such local circumstances. I assure noble Lords that we will not be encouraging invitations willy-nilly. It is not about issuing them on an arbitrary basis or encouraging anyone to follow whatever their neighbours may do. Even if a situation arises where an invitation is offered, it is entirely up to the local authority to come forward. However, as I say, these are exceptional circumstances.
There is an important precedent on the statute book in the 1992 Act. We could have used that process in respect of any area, but it would have involved requesting the Electoral Commission to direct the Boundary Committee to undertake a structural review. That would have meant the committee would consider, having regard to any guidance issued by the Government, whether unity governance was right for the area and, if so, what it should be. That is the process that we have tried to reverse by making it locally driven.
I hope that I have done enough to reassure noble Lords on both sides that they should not fear that the power will be used arbitrarily as a vehicle for unsettling local government. I take the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that this is not a comfortable process; change of this sort is not. I understand, having read the papers and listened to local authorities, that there are difficulties for those who have to go through the process when these recommendations are made, but this is not an arbitrary invitation.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response, but I do not agree with her. The problem is that once anything is in legislation, however much we might like to keep our fingers crossed and hope that it will be used only in the way that the Minister describes, it can be used as it is used. The fact that there is a possibility of an invitation being issued far in the future means that many could be issued if the Government chose to do some restructuring in that way. It is an unhappy situation that we are not bringing this particular aspect of the Bill to an end. It would have been nice to have done so before everything else started at the beginning, since we are to some extent dealing with retrospective legislation, but I hear what the Minister says. I see that everyone is piling up for the next business, and I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.