My Lords, Amendments Nos. 17 and 28 are designed to put greater flexibility into this part of the Bill by allowing local authorities to send back, in response to a request or a designation, an opinion of their own, and to permit greater time for them to do so. This would be too late for people who are already well down the line on this and whose fate has been sealed, unless the Government hold up some of the procedures that have been started. This amendment does something that the Bill does not; it makes a real allowance for the voice of local people.
It is instructive to read what has happened in both Durham and Cornwall with the proposals that have been forced out. I will quote only the Cornwall response, where on average over 80 per cent of the electorate in the district decided that they did not want a unitary county. What a surprise. I get an appalling sense of déjà-vu. In about my third year of involvement in local government, there was a royal commission. It became known as the Maud report on the structure of local government. Maud looked at the structure as it existed objectively, and he came up with a proposal for unitary local government across the country based on what was essentially a county structure.
Of course, small counties became larger and the large counties became smaller and the districts across the country were opposed anyway. The districts, remarkably, were much more likely to be contiguous with constituencies. Not particularly unsurprisingly, the Maud report disappeared into a very deep pigeonhole. With the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, sometimes I think it is a pity that the Maud report was not implemented, because we would not have had some 50 years of destabilisation. There has been constant irritation and movement, which has been largely inspired centrally supposedly to rationalise the structure of local government. I have regarded that as not particularly helpful when one comes to consider properly what local government is about. It is about the services that are provided to local people.
The amendments are small, but they are important. I hope that the Minister might give us some hope that it is worthwhile considering at this stage—she still has time to consider it—and that the amendments might be worthy of introduction; or that greater flexibility in some form might be worthy of introduction on Third Reading, if she is not prepared to accept the amendments now. This is a small matter, which does not affect the substance of the Bill. It would ease some of the pressures that local authorities feel they are being put under by what is being proposed and by what is happening on the ground at present. It would be a concession that would improve the Government's standing with local government if it were made. I beg to move.
My Lords, I wish I could give the noble Lord some comfort, especially because of the reasonable way in which he introduced the amendments. I cannot do that, or accept the amendments. I will run over some of the reasons why we think that the amendments raise interesting but problematic questions, particularly Amendment No. 17. It relates to the consultation that must be carried out by local authorities on their proposals, with the opportunity to make representations to the Secretary of State on an alternative proposal by the Boundary Committee. Amendment No. 17 would have the effect of allowing the council, when responding to an invitation, to make a proposal reflecting the results of the consultation with its electorate.
I understand the motives behind that. Regarding the consultation process as whole, perhaps I may briefly comment on the process of involving local people. The whole approach to the restructuring process was to enable local authorities, as democratically elected bodies, to decide whether to seek unitary status. One of the key tests that we set out clearly was that the proposals brought forward in the invitation must have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders, service users and citizens. It was a deliberate form of words, because we wanted there to be a formative consultation process, particularly to ensure that local partners and key agencies could respond and contribute to proposals, because they were the people most affected by them. It was also to ensure that local authorities sought the views of local people in the way that they thought best. Among the key consultees have been primary care trusts, strategic health authorities, police authorities, learning and skills councils, universities and a host of others that I could not begin to list.
Within that notion of broad support is the principle that local authorities must show that they have involved local people in whatever way is seen as most effective. Councils have adopted a variety of ways of doing that—public opinion polls, local referendums in come cases, citizens' juries, citizens' panels and surveys. I am not saying that any method was better than the others. The noble Lord quoted Cornwall, but in Cheshire, for example, the county council commissioned BMG to undertake face-to-face interviews, complemented by a series of focus groups across Cheshire. The county carried out a random telephone survey of 1,200 households and the district commissioned an Ipsos MORI survey of residents' opinions throughout Cheshire. A ballot of Crewe and Nantwich residents was conducted by the Electoral Commission and there was a survey of opinion among members of the Crewe and Nantwich citizens' panels. I could list all the methods that the nine successful local authorities used. Some of them took place before the proposals were initially submitted and provided key evidence about how they stacked up.
We have certainly met the principle of consultation. I was struck when the noble Lord quoted the case of Cornwall. The district councils commissioned that survey, and districts have often commissioned surveys that have come to different conclusions. We have seen that throughout this process. From the outset we have made it clear what we would be looking for in proposals from democratically elected councils—and that was accepted by them. In particular, we wanted to be able to see a range and depth of support that would show that the criteria for viability could be met—that the proposals would enhance leadership and that they would lead to greater local engagement and better services. There was support for that view and, therefore, viability. It was also clear that, while we expected local councils to seek the opinion of local people, it could not be the decisive factor. It was not the decisive factor in 1992. We made it clear that no group of people or stakeholders would have a veto over the proposal. From the beginning we were clear that the proposal could not be determined by a separate popular mandate. The local representative council making the decision has always been uppermost in our mind.
It has been interesting to look in detail at the results of all local polls and inquiries in all the affected areas and to see the variety of opinion expressed and the many different ways that have been employed to seek it. The Secretary of State rightly made it clear that results should be treated with a degree of caution in relation to the balance of opinion, not least because, depending on who asks the question, the districts and counties have come up with different responses to their surveys—as the noble Lord exemplified. It interesting that in Shropshire a review by Professors Rallings and Thrasher, who studied the outcomes, concluded that the process was not flawed but contained inevitable problems. Therefore, we took a series of decisions that were both principled and sensible. We had to make it clear that there was a broad range of support.
For the reasons I have explained, I hope that the noble Lord will accept that we have thought hard about this issue, but we cannot go along with the amendment.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps she might say a word or two about how the process that has been carried out and that which is envisaged take account of the views of areas that might not be affected by an immediate restructuring but will be affected by future processed. For example, in Bedford, which we discussed earlier, people and organisations within a surrounding authority might not want a unitary authority, but they may be forced to have one because the urban centre of Bedford has achieved its goal of a becoming a unitary authority. In my area in Suffolk, people living in Lowestoft may not have commented on proposals for a unitary Ipswich because they may not have realised that a possible consequence of a unitary Ipswich would be a reorganisation of the districts around it.
My Lords, all that I can say at the moment is that it will depend on the nature of the invitation made to the residual area in south and mid Bedfordshire. I am fairly certain that we would invite local councils there to proceed on a basis similar to the current one. Perhaps the noble Baroness will allow me to take that matter away and think about it in light of the discussions that are proceeding. I would not want to be categorical about that at the moment.
Amendment No. 28 seeks to alter our process for restructuring by increasing from four weeks to two months the time available for individuals to make representations to the Secretary of State on an alternative proposal made by the boundary committee. We had this debate in Committee and I am afraid that our position has not moved, because the existing process of consultation is pretty long and fairly adequate. We are not convinced that this amendment is necessary. It would increase the period for representations to ensure that individuals have sufficient opportunities, but there are numerous opportunities for communities and stakeholders to make their views known.
Perhaps I may explain. Where the boundary committee is minded to make an alternative proposal, it must first publish a draft and take such steps as it considers sufficient to secure that persons who may be interested are informed of that proposal and of the time in which they can make representations. It is a 12-week consultation. Subsequently the boundary committee must take these representations into account and if it decides to make the proposal to the Secretary of State, it must inform anyone who previously made representations on a particular proposal that it has made a proposal to the Secretary of State. The committee must also inform those people that they will have four weeks to make representations to the Secretary of State. If we were to extend this window for representations it would only increase the period of uncertainty and disruption and would not be beneficial for anyone involved.
There is ample opportunity to make representations about an alternative proposal. It is hardly about collusion behind closed doors, because we want to ensure that proper judgments are made in response to peoples' feelings and experience. Although I know that the noble Lord will be disappointed, I hope that he will accept that explanation.
My Lords, the Minister has confirmed to me that if you open this particular Pandora's box, you finish up with more dissatisfied people than was originally the case. There are many possible solutions, but only one can be implemented. The majority of people, if they were asked a straightforward question, would probably say, "Actually, we don't agree with that conclusion", because they all want something different. One has to accept that.
This is not a satisfactory situation and it never will be. I am disappointed in the Minister's response and I am sorry about that, but not particularly surprised. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, this is another fairly simple amendment. It would give any authority on the receiving end of an invitation or direction the option of refusing it. Amendment No. 19 would complement the provisions of Amendment No. 17, although we did not get anywhere with that. It would give local authorities the option simply to refuse an invitation or direction instead of having to comply with it in one form or another. The intention is that local authorities would not be able to take such a decision without the consent of the local electorate obtained either by consultation or referendum. That is reinforced later on by an amendment on referendums.
The Minister stated clearly in Committee that no such powers were needed because by implication an invitation can be turned down. However, Clause 3 seems to confirm otherwise. Currently, when presented with a so-called invitation or direction, a local authority can respond in two ways; either by,
"making its own proposal in accordance with the invitation or direction; or making a proposal, in accordance with the invitation or direction".
That is how lines 22 to 25 are worded on page 3 of the Bill. I find that a particularly awkward multiple choice.
Clause 3 demonstrates unequivocally that the law would expect authorities to accept an invitation whether alone or in conjunction with some other authority. There appears to be a clear expectation that an invitation will be accepted because there is no possibility of it being declined. The Bill provides for a one-way road.
We have presented a series of measures that would have ensured greater flexibility and choice, but the Government have so far chosen to reject them. This is one of those options and I hope that the Minister will consider it seriously. I beg to move.
My Lords, we support the noble Lord on this matter. This is not the first time that we find ourselves wondering whether the language in the Bill is the English language as we know it. The noble Lord is right in pointing out that while there may be different arguments about invitations and directions, an invitation should be capable of the response, "Thanks, but no thanks".
The Minister, either in her letter of
We seem to have reached a point in the Bill of having to ask for interpretation—I almost said translation—of some of the provisions. It is sad that the Bill remains in need of interpretation and that matters need to be put on the record, since we are so nearly at the end of its passage through Parliament. Having got that off my chest, I will try not to make that point again tonight.
My Lords, I wish to refer to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and I declare an interest as a councillor of Berwick-upon-Tweed Borough Council and a member of Northumberland County Council, both of which are now engaged in this process. We knew that the invitation was coming, and the county council was happy to take it up. Many of the districts would have preferred enhanced working together, but when they saw the writing on the wall in what was happening at the county level, they put in a bid. Although you could say that some of this is free thinking, you get tied up in what other people are doing and it is almost impossible to act independently.
I will provide the House with more detail about what is actually happening on the ground when we come to an amendment to Clause 21 because I am not sure that the Government foresaw some things that are now happening. I hope that the Minister can give us some reassurance tonight that the voices of those who actually have to live under these authorities and pay their taxes to them will be heard.
My Lords, I seem to be doomed to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. I must tell my colleagues on the Liberal Benches that I am happy to put whatever I can on the record. With their co-operation, we tried in the summer to make sure that we teased out some of those things that were of necessity obscuring the Bill and we cleared away some of the undergrowth. However, if the House finds it helpful, I am happy to do that as much as possible as we go through the Bill without protracting the process.
We debated aspects of Amendment No. 19 in Committee, but there is a significant difference because it now also relates to councils being able to decline a direction to submit a unitary proposal.
It is worth repeating that in Committee I explained that an invitation was just that—an invitation—and that the document invited local authorities, if they so wished, to make a proposal for future unitary local government structures for their areas. We received 26 proposals but there were numerous areas from which no proposals were forthcoming. My interpretation of that would be, "Thanks, but no thanks", with local authorities indicating that they were simply not interested and some areas looking for enhanced two-tier working. In the areas which did not take up our invitation, it was, in effect, "declined". I return to the point that I made in Committee: we believe that it is unnecessary to make explicit provision for this matter in the Bill, as it is a matter of common sense.
I turn to the right to decline a direction. I do not want to reiterate what I said earlier to noble Lords because I think that I made the limitations on the power of direction as clear as I could. I have set out that our approach is devolutionary and that proposals will come forward from elected local authorities. As I stressed, in order to bring the round of restructuring to an orderly conclusion, it may be necessary to direct a local authority to submit a proposal for unitary local government if that is the only way to enable the other local authority in the picture to go ahead with the proposal. As we discussed earlier, this would be a proposal from a democratically elected council.
I also explained, and I think the House agreed, that the direction power is time-limited until
My Lords, the Minister is doing her best to disappoint me very politely, just as I am doing my best to seduce her very politely, if I may put it that way. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support in this matter. Certainly, in all the conventions that I have known in life, an invitation is an invitation and can be refused. The question is whether it can be refused here. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, made a very important point: that in going down this track, if one person goes in a particular direction, inevitably everyone else should think very carefully about where they are going and whether they want to go in the same or some other direction. Decisions can become confused and, rather than think exclusively of your own interests, you begin to think in the wider, and not necessarily the logical, sense. This is a Pandora's box situation and I do not think that it is a good one to be in for one moment.
The Minister said that the amendment was not necessary because she thought that the flexibility was already there. If that is so, it is not necessary for her to oppose the amendment. As it will not affect anything from her point of view, she can perfectly well accept it. I think that we should test the opinion of the House on this and, to that extent, I shall have to disappoint the Minister rather than seduce her.
My Lords, we now have a change of pace and perhaps I can bring some aid and comfort to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith. We are bringing forward a number of technical amendments to Part 1. I wrote to noble Lords on
Amendments Nos. 26, 34 and 41 are drafting improvements. We wish to put it beyond doubt that a proposed area may not extend into an area that is currently outside all local government areas; for example, a part of a Welsh county, the City of London or one of the Temples. Therefore, we are amending the Bill to clarify that proposals for unitary local government submitted under the Bill's provisions may not extend to such an area.
Amendment No. 31 makes a minor drafting amendment at Clause 7 to clarify that the Secretary of State may decide not to implement a joint proposal for more than one local authority. The existing wording may have suggested that a joint proposal would always be implemented, which clearly is not necessarily the case.
Amendment No. 32 to Clause 7 allows the Secretary of State to request further information from the Boundary Committee relating to an alternative proposal for structural change that it has submitted. This provision will enable the Secretary of State to seek information before making a decision on the Boundary Committee's recommendations. This provision shows consistency with Clause 4(2) under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice in relation to a proposal submitted by a local authority.
We are also proposing a drafting amendment—Amendment No. 36—to Clause 10, under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice or information in relation to a recommendation of a boundary change. This amendment will make it clear that the information or advice that the Secretary of State can request is on any matter relating to the recommendation. This provision will ensure that the Secretary of State may request information and advice, for example, in relation to changes to principal council electoral arrangements and/or parish boundaries in parish council arrangements which may need to be made within an order under Clause 10.
Amendment No. 35 inserts a new paragraph (e) into Clause 8(4), again, to put beyond doubt the fact that any recommendation for boundary change must ensure that the current pattern of local government is retained across England. This pattern is unitary counties, counties comprising a number of districts, metropolitan and non-metropolitan, and London boroughs.
Amendment No. 36 ensures that the Boundary Committee cannot recommend the abolition of a local government area which will lead to a gap in the pattern of local government areas in England. So, for example, if the committee can recommend the abolition of one district and the merger of its area with that of another district, the committee could not simply recommend the abolition of a district under the power in Clause 8(3)(b), as that would evidently leave a gap in the pattern of local government areas.
Amendments Nos. 37 and 38 make technical drafting changes to Clause 11, so that orders can contain provision for matters connected to the implementation of a proposal or recommendation.
Amendment No. 47 makes a technical amendment to Clause 15 which ensures that it is clear that statutory instruments made under previous legislation can be amended by an order under Clauses 7 and 10, no matter when those statutory instruments are made.
Amendments Nos. 224, 247, 248 and 254 make necessary changes to Schedules 1, 6 and 19. These amendments are technical in nature and ensure that the provisions we are introducing can be used effectively and make improvements to the drafting of a number of clauses. I beg to move.
My Lords, with pleasure. Noble Lords will understand that I am reading from a very prescribed text. I see that the noble Baroness has in front of her the letter that I sent. We are also proposing a drafting amendment—Amendment No. 36—to Clause 10, under which the Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee for advice or information in relation to a recommendation of a boundary change. This amendment will make it clear that the information or advice that the Secretary of State can request is on any matter relating to the recommendation. I hope that that clarifies the point.
My Lords, perhaps I can ask some questions and make some brief points. On Amendment No. 31, it seems to me that to have to spell out the fact that the Secretary of State may decide not to do something after consultation rather begs the question of what is meant by consultation. That is a rhetorical point, not a question. If the Secretary of State is required to consult and may then do something, one would have thought he might also not do something, otherwise what is the point of consultation?
In Amendment No. 32—there is an awful sense of déjà vu about this—do the instances of the term "may" in the proposed new subsections (6) and (7)—
"the Secretary of State may request the Boundary Committee to provide him with information," and,
"the Boundary Committee may provide" it—mean "shall"? I suspect they might.
In Amendment No. 35, paragraph (e)(i) has an instance of a county "comprising one district". I am confused as to whether that is a unitary authority. I had thought that unitaries were technically districts rather than counties.
The meaning of Amendment No. 47 is quite clear, and the Minister has explained that it allows an order to be made under this Bill, when it becomes an Act, which affects previous legislation. That seems to mean that one can make an order under new legislation altering previous primary legislation. I am confused about the constitutional position here. I suppose the short question is whether this is something for which there are many precedents but one has simply not noticed them.
Finally, Amendment No. 224 determines the order of retirement of members. The Minister looks perplexed. Have I got the right amendment?
My Lords, that is a challenging set of questions. I did not expect to be interrogated in such detail; I thought noble Lords would take what I said absolutely at face value. Clearly, I can never do that.
First, on the word "may" meaning "shall" in asking the Boundary Committee and getting advice, it means "may". The Secretary of State can ask the Boundary Committee. That was the term I used when I explained it, so it means "may".
My Lords, while we are on that, the next bit is,
"the Boundary Committee may provide the information".
So the Boundary Committee could say, "Go away, we are not going to tell you".
My Lords, it could mean that. Is it unlikely, though, is it not? I do not know what powers we have to compel the Boundary Committee to provide information; I will have to take advice on that.
The next question was whether the district is a unitary county, when most of the criteria address unitary district councils and the area of the district has a coterminous status with the county area. I will have to write to the noble Baroness on that point to make it absolutely clear.
On Amendment No. 47, which makes a technical amendment to Clause 15, my understanding is that we are talking about statutory instruments made under previous legislation. They can be amended by an order under Clauses 7 and 10. There are precedents for those changes to be made.
On Amendment No. 224, the noble Baroness asked for the criteria. My background notes say that Amendments Nos. 224 and 254 to Schedules 1 and 19 make a further repeal to Section 17 of the Local Government Act 1992, removing the words,
"and the order of retirement".
They are no longer required, as parish councils all retire at the same time because they can only operate whole council elections. Does that make it clear for the noble Baroness?
My Lords, because the noble Baroness has raised some serious, albeit technical, issues, I will ensure that a letter answering all those points in detail is placed in the Library.
moved Amendment No. 30:
After Clause 6, insert the following new Clause—
"Referendum in case of proposals for single tier of local government
(1) This section applies where a proposal for a single tier of local government is made under section 2 or 5.
(2) The principal authority for the county concerned must hold a referendum on the proposal before any steps are taken to implement it.
(3) Notwithstanding section 7(1) below, if the result of a referendum under subsection (2) is to reject the proposal the Secretary of State must not implement the proposal.
(4) In this section "the county concerned" has the same meaning as in section 5(6).
(5) The Secretary of State must make regulations specifying the arrangements to be made for the holding of any referendum under this section."
My Lords, this amendment follows on from the subject of consultation. We have briefly discussed it before; it would require any authority putting forward a proposal for a unitary government to hold a referendum. The amendment would tie the action of the Secretary of State into the result of the referendum—if the referendum went against the proposal, the Secretary of State would have to abide by that—so that local people would be at the heart of the decision whether or not to change their structure of local government.
Previously, the Minister has queried who the electorate would be in that referendum and who would call it. Our revised proposals for a referendum in Amendment No. 30 clearly set out that any referendum undertaken would include all those who would come under the final proposal. Under our amendment, the county concerned takes on the same definition as that in Clause 5. In other words, our proposal for a referendum would slot in nicely with the process proposed by the Bill. It would be part and parcel of a local authority's response to an invitation or direction from the Secretary of State. There would be no sense of the elaborate arbitrating between the already made-up views of dithering local authorities or the Boundary Commission, as the Minister suggested in Committee. For the simple reason that there was a referendum part of the package, no authority would make decisions until it had consulted those likely to be affected.
That is the right way around: electorate first and politicians later. It about time that that order of importance was recognised formally in this process. The structural change of government is so long-lasting, affecting every aspect of local government, that it is only right and proper that the electorate should be the final judge of any changes.
To briefly review what has been happening until now and the results of the process so far, there have been a number of ways of testing some local opinion, as the Minister said earlier. There have been stakeholder consultations, but they tend to involve local business groups, PCTs and other groups of people. There have been focus groups, but they are pretty refined in terms of the numbers who take part. There have been citizens' juries, but they, too, involve a limited number of people. There has been the odd survey but, as far as I am aware, there has been no requirement that all members of the electorate must have the opportunity to put forward their views.
This becomes even more important when we realise that, of the nine authorities that have been announced as being those that the Secretary of State is considering agreeing to, four—Bedford, Chester, Ipswich and Essex—have been asked to undertake further work, so there is no guarantee that the results will come about or that anybody wants them to come about. In the remaining five—Cornwall, Durham, Northumberland, Shropshire and Cheshire—there is pitted opposition. I do not think that we should overlook that. I know that the noble Baroness said that there would clearly be opposition in places, but this is huge opposition, not mini-opposition. In Cornwall, for example, there was a local poll, which, if we extrapolate it, shows that 97,000 of the electorate would be opposed to the proposal with only 21,000 supporting it. They are significant numbers. North Cornwall District Council surveyed 6,000 of its residents to gauge whether there was any local support for the unitary proposals and 82 per cent were against the proposals. All the way through the Cornish proposals, there has been opposition.
My Lords, 71,722 residents voted in the local poll, giving an overall turnout in the four districts of 27 per cent. The poll provided the largest ever public opinion poll result on local government in Cornwall. If the results were extrapolated across the whole of Cornwall, that would result in the figures that I have given. That confirms my point that, although it was not a referendum of all those who are likely to be affected, it was a significant enough sample—it is quite a lot of people—to indicate that there was a substantial majority against. If there had been a referendum, we would have been able to say that that would be the outcome.
The Minister will be aware that there is great confusion in Cheshire. There are proposals for two unitaries or one unitary and, by and large, the people of Cheshire do not want any unitaries, other than those that they already have, so there is opposition there. In Northumberland, there is opposition to the proposals that have been put forward.
It is important that the electorate should be given the opportunity to see whether they like what is being put forward for them in their name. The invitations were issued at the beginning of the year, very shortly after the legislation was introduced. There was very little time for anybody to take any view of what was going on. The results were announced in July, again long before any of us had the opportunity to see this legislation through. In fact, it is very much in the Government's interest to allow a referendum to be held because they would then truly be able to say that there was support across the piece—if there was support across the piece—for this to happen. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am sorry to say that I feel that this amendment is cynical in spirit. It seems to me to be a wheeze. This wheeze of calling for a referendum on proposals for a single tier of local government is a palpable delaying tactic because the Conservative Party, with its strong position in the shire counties, naturally does not like the thought that communities within those shire counties might be able to come out from under and have some larger degree of independence from it. It is also a smokescreen for Conservative uncertainty and division. Across the country, the Conservatives are very unsure of how to respond to each situation as it presents itself locally.
One must ask on what principle the Conservative Party is calling for these referendums. It is no part of our constitutional tradition—and the Conservative Party ought to respect constitutional tradition and precedent—that referendums should be required when there is a redrawing of local authority boundaries. The Conservative Party has become quite promiscuous in the matter of referendums. I heard William Hague saying at the time of the Conservative Party conference that if the Conservative Party had its way there would be referendums every time there was some redrawing of the administrative relationships—the respective powers, however minor—between the Government of this country and the European Union. Of course, for major constitutional issues, it is part of our tradition; the precedents are there. It is right that referendums should be held when there is a question of major constitutional change, but we cheapen the principle of a referendum if it is invoked every time the Conservative Party wants to get itself out of some political inconvenience or embarrassment.
The Conservatives have got hold of a new idea; historically, they were never concerned. The redrawing of Welsh local government in the early 1990s was highly controversial in parts of Wales but at no point was it suggested that there should be a referendum on that. The Government proceeded with insouciance and indifference towards the opinion of the Welsh. Perhaps even more significantly, in the 1980s the abolition of the Greater London Council was of major importance and caused London to be the only major capital city without municipal government, but the Conservative Government of that time did not contemplate a referendum. If we go back to the period of the Heath Government from 1970 to 1974, a vast restructuring of local government was carried through by the noble Lord, Lord Walker, in which more than a century of tradition was overthrown and the sense of place and identity of very large numbers of people—people in local government and citizens all across the country—was profoundly affronted, but at no point did the Conservatives suggest that there should be a referendum. This seems a pretty opportunistic invocation of the principle that the people should be consulted by means of a referendum.
If we look at the specifics in the proposal in this amendment, we have to say that it is shockingly imprecise. Who should determine the question? Why should the process be in the hands of the county? The county will, of course, be biased in favour of the status quo: it is not going to want parts of its territory and population to gain independence from its government. Why should it not be in the hands of citizens and their representatives in other areas or other levels of local government?
Evidently, if the population of a county outweighs the population of the area that is proposed for unitary status, the county will have an enormous political advantage in the process. The hostile propaganda of the county will clearly give powerful momentum and advantage to a "no" campaign, so the whole process of a referendum on the terms proposed in this amendment would be polluted. The amendment, if it became part of the law and we had to do these things, would stack up advantage in favour of the status quo. A vote in such circumstances would have paltry legitimacy. Of course it might happen that the whole thing was treated with indifference by local people, that it turned out to be a yawn and that there was a very low turnout. That is a possibility. Albeit that people feel strongly about identification with their local authorities, it does not unfortunately follow that they would necessarily come out to vote. That way, too, a decision taken by this means would lack legitimacy.
My Lords, since Cornwall has been called into question, we should get the facts straight about the dominance of county thinking. The whole point of citing Cornwall is that a unitary county was proposed and the poll results throughout the districts of Cornwall quite clearly rejected it. I do not think that we need be quite so afraid, as is being suggested, of what might happen if the public are consulted on these sorts of issues.
My Lords, I do not believe in government by opinion poll. When we are considering something as important as reform of the structures of local government—and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, observed that these changes could be long-lasting and of very great importance—I think that a very objective and thorough consideration is needed. I certainly would not accept that an opinion poll should determine the outcome of this matter. It is also extremely difficult to pose questions for a referendum that would enable a local public debate and local decisions to be taken on a basis of full information and appropriate objectivity.
I return for a moment to the reforms of the early 1970s. My noble friend Lady Hollis was resident in Norwich in those days. I was not, but I understand that one of the consequences of those reforms was that Norwich lost its unitary status. Norwich had been an historic county borough for many hundreds of years. This was an instance of how local opinion was overridden in a fairly roughshod and insensitive fashion. Norwich, where I now have the pleasure and privilege to live, is an ancient city. It is one of the most distinguished and most important places not only in East Anglia but in Britain. It is a city with a cathedral, a university and an airport. It is self-evident that it should have unitary status. The Conservatives affronted the people of Norwich when they took away unitary status and they will affront the people of Norwich again if they seek, through procedural tactics and the unpopular and expensive processes of a referendum, to frustrate its return. This is not a respectable amendment and it should be thrown out.
My Lords, I shall be brief on the point about a referendum. I think that all of us are supporters of the democratic principle. Those of us who have come from local government rate and respect what local government achieves and does. I, like many others around the Chamber, very much do so.
The point about a referendum is that it is a snapshot of direct democracy at a single point of time of those eligible to vote. Think about what that means. Does it mean, for example, that the whole of Devon would be pitted against the judgment of the citizens of Exeter? Would we have capping on the expenditure of the county resources against that of, currently, a district council, which probably has only one-fifth or one-tenth of the county resources, and who would ensure that the questions were valid?
Secondly, and to my mind more important still, what about the groups that are most affected by the possibilities of reorganisation but which have no vote either way? Certainly in the city of Norwich one of the big driving forces for unitary status on enlarged boundaries has been business. The Conservative Party, rightly in my view, has been calling for—I took part in the debate and was cheering on the Front Bench of the Conservative Party—the restoration to local authority of the business rate. Alongside that, you have to build in the ability to listen to what business wants. But business is disfranchised in any debate on a referendum, as are the faith groups, the voluntary organisations and all those organisations that make up the texture of civil life. How do you incorporate them? Not by a referendum.
What should be going on here—and what I believe is happening from what I know about local government reorganisation—is not a snapshot referendum or a snapshot plebiscite. It is a reiterative process in which people with disparate and often rewardingly different points of view come round a table and work out what makes best sense for their areas; they will work out some of these issues of boundaries, resources, partnerships and local offices. That is the way to do it. That then gets fed through to the Secretary of State, who decides whether enough of a robust case has been made in terms of public support, financial viability, economic growth and the views of business to justify this. Above all, the question is whether as a result you will get a strengthened recognition of the sense of place, which at the end of the day is what local government is about.
Those are the tests. When it comes to that distinctiveness about the sense of the place, you cannot just do this on a head count with people in Yarmouth, King's Lynn or Cromer voting about what happens in Norwich; it is for the people of Norwich to have a view and for that view to be negotiated with business and all the other interests in the area and put forward for consideration in a reiterative way. That seems to me the sensible way forward. I suspect that those on the Front Bench opposite agree with me, but they are rather stuck on the amendment. I hope that they will not take it forward.
My Lords, it seems to me that one of the reasons why we are having this debate with such passion is the deficiencies of the process that led us here. It was not very clear what the framework was in which local authorities were putting forward their bids and making their decisions. That has resulted in a lot of disgruntled people in some of the areas subject to reorganisation. In a sense, with nowhere else to go, the fallback is to say, "Well, we will have a referendum". From these Benches on this occasion, we are not in favour of referendums for dealing with this.
It is a sad fact that 30 years of central government emasculating local authorities has led to a situation where a lot of people do not understand what their local authority does. What is worse, they do not care all that much. That is a desperately sad state of affairs, but I am afraid that that is where we are. Turnouts in local elections can be quite low. It is worrying to consider what might happen in a referendum in which a decision could be made with a turnout as low as 15 per cent of the public. A referendum is not the same thing as opinion polling because of the differences in the ways that they are carried out, so getting a 27 per cent turnout in an opinion poll would not mean that you would get a turnout anything like that high if you were to have a referendum.
I agree absolutely with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, about interest groups. People who have more of an interest in what a local authority does and who are able to articulate that more will be disfranchised by this process. It also strikes me that, even if one were to agree to the principle of a referendum, it would be very difficult to implement it in practical terms. In the case of Norwich, for example, if you only allowed the voters of Norwich to vote, all the people from the surrounding areas who rely on Norwich for services would be unable to vote. If, on the other hand, you have the whole county, the wishes of people living a long way away who perhaps visit Norwich only twice a year could outweigh the wishes of those who live in the city. Whichever way you look at that, it is almost impossible for a referendum to reflect the views that are held in a county as diverse as Norfolk or, indeed, my own county of Suffolk. For those reasons, we do not believe that referendums are the right way to go forward, although I have a lot of sympathy with the intentions of the noble Baroness in dealing with what has been a deficit of local input into the process.
My Lords, I am interested in the tactic being employed by the Opposition Front Bench in wanting to visit on local government for the first time the instrument of a referendum to determine major issues. The first big issue where a referendum has been used that I can recall was in 1975 on whether we should endorse our entry into the Common Market—a great issue, a massive issue. Based on the representations that I received, the people in my constituency of Edmonton voted by two to one to stay in the Common Market. I received three letters: two of them were in favour of staying in; one was against. The tactic is to try to read into, misinterpret and deliberately deceive the will of the people by referendum.
The noble Baroness said that a referendum would give you a proper opinion and settle the issue. She knows very well that once the referendum has been taken and the result is declared, automatically the people who have lost the referendum continue their campaign and work until eventually they find either another device or get another referendum. I start from the principle of having been in local government—I am no longer active, but am in touch. Local government does not get it right all the time. Who are we talking about when we talk about elected councils? When a council is elected, every voter in the district has the opportunity to colour the complexion of the council. That is the best referendum that we will ever get. That is duly organised, supported and campaigned for at a local election. You win some and you lose some.
In 1985-86, I was in this Chamber as the murder of the GLC was enacted. After a paragraph in the Tory manifesto, they decided not to give the people of London the opportunity to say whether they wanted to keep it or not. There was a national referendum through a manifesto and a general election. The spokesman for that party has the audacity to come here to say, "We believe that people ought to have their say on these matters". That is wrong. The Government's approach is to be careful to try to take on board what are called the stakeholders or the special interest groups.
As my friends from Norwich know, I support the Magpies, because I come from Newcastle. We have heard the voice of the Canaries, because the Canaries are the Norwich football team. As they always do, they have spoken good sense, but on this point, they have brought into the debate practical illustrations supported by the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. I very much hope that the opposition spokesmen will recognise that this is not a runner. If they decide to run it tonight, I hope that they will get soundly thrashed.
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene again on this, but there is an important point here. We all want these reforms and structural changes to be made with public support, but I agree with my noble friends that a referendum is exactly the wrong way to go about that.
There are two fundamental dangers in using a referendum to test public opinion. One is that you get differential turnout. Any study of any election shows that people are much more likely to vote against something than to vote for it. If you are in favour, you assume that it is going to happen and you stay at home to watch the telly. It is those who have a really strong opinion who get out to vote, so you do not get the right result. The second danger, which was raised by my noble friend Lord Howarth and to which we need an answer, is: who frames the question? In a referendum, you expect a simple yes or no response. Therefore, the power lies in who frames the question. It is instructive to consider the views coming back from Cornwall from referendums framed by district councils. If the county council had framed the question, I am sure that it could have got a totally different result.
Wearing one of my various local government hats, I am chairman of Greater Manchester Authorities. We have been through an interesting exercise recently. We have been looking to see whether to make a bid for the transport innovation fund, which included raising a congestion charge for Manchester. That is not uncontroversial, I can assure your Lordships. We realised that if you ask people the simple question: "Do you want a congestion charge for Manchester?", the answer is no. I would say no. But when you frame the question as: "Do you want a £3 million injection into public transport and then you will have a congestion charge?", you get a much different result. Opinion surveys done through the local newspapers show that. So it is about how you frame the question.
As usual, my noble friend Lord Graham had it right. If people in local government want to test public opinion, they should do so through the normal election process. If people do not want the structural changes proposed, I am sure that they will reward, or not, those politicians who put them forward.
My Lords, I cannot let this debate go by without reminding the Government that, when we had a referendum for the north-east regional authority, there was another question on the paper. The question on the paper was about local government reorganisation in Northumberland and whether people wanted two unitary authorities or one if there was going to be a change. They said clearly on that occasion that they wanted two unitaries, not one.
The process that we are discussing tonight—which is, as my noble friend Lady Scott said, unsatisfactory—has led in Northumberland to an invitation being given to Northumberland county council. The county proposed one unitary; the districts proposed two. Most ordinary citizens in Northumberland want there to be two. Most of the stakeholders represent areas very much bigger than Northumberland, so it is quite understandable that they would much prefer to deal with one authority than two. They said that they wanted one authority. There was a referendum, a government referendum, but it has been completely ignored.
My Lords, in general terms, I am in favour of referenda in principle some of the time, but the statistics presented by the noble Baroness from the poll of whatever kind in Cornwall seem to be based on a turnout of 27 per cent. That is really quite pathetic and not a sensible basis for discussion. The noble Baroness may remember that in the late 1970s, there was a referendum on the question of devolution in Scotland. On that occasion, the rule was that in order to be effective, the majority in the poll had to be 40 per cent of the total electorate, leaving out those who did not vote. I am not sure whether the same rule applied in Wales. Perhaps the noble Lord opposite can tell us.
If the Conservative proposal for referenda were to be carried—I am not going to vote for it, by the way—would they think of having some such barrier; namely, that the majority in support of the proposal would have to comprise at least 40 per cent of the total electorate?
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate. I am very pleased to have had the opportunity to listen to the combined power of not least my noble friends Lady Hollis, Lord Howarth, Lord "Ted of Ed"—as I may call him—Lord Howie and Lord Smith, who were extremely interesting. All sides of the argument against referenda were presented very cogently.
Perhaps I may run through some of the contextual arguments attached to the amendment. Rightly, this has been a passionate debate because we have touched on some important issues on the relationship between local government and the electorate. I was struck by what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said about her concern that people do not know or care. In a way, referenda do not address that issue for different reasons. That is precisely one of the reasons why we think, when we talk about Part 3, that visibility and accountability are best assisted by stronger and clearer leadership. In addition, because we have been talking about the process, it is worth putting on the record what we have done to make sure that the timetable has allowed a process to unfold which allows the engagement of local people in different ways.
The invitation to local authorities was issued on
Amendment No. 30 has the effect that the Secretary of State may not implement a proposal received as a result of an invitation or direction under Section 2, or an alternative proposal received from the Boundary Committee under Section 5 if those proposals have been rejected by a referendum. Noble Lords have spoken about the democratic process that this Bill has generated. It establishes a new framework for structural and boundary change. It is a devolutionary system and a process led by councils. In this approach to restructuring, we believed that it was right that local councils would be required to demonstrate local support for their proposals. The invitation document was very clear. It set out that one of the criteria to which any proposal must conform,
"must be supported by a broad cross section of partners and stakeholders".
"While no single council or body, or group of councils or bodies, will have a veto, it will be necessary for any proposal to have support from a range of key partners, stakeholders and service users/ citizens".
For very good reason, we did not prescribe the way in which democratically-elected councils should engage with local people. The amendment would call for a prescription, an imposition. Local authorities have demonstrated that their criterion was satisfied as they saw fit. In some places, it was through citizens' juries, user panels, opinion polls or local referendums. For example, in Exeter, which we have been talking about, an Ipsos MORI poll surveyed more than 1,000 residents. Ipswich and Shropshire County Council also commissioned Ipsos MORI polls of more than 1,000 residents.
In Cornwall, district results were as the noble Lord described. But he did not tell the House that the county council commissioned a properly sampled poll, which found that 68 per cent of people would support a unitary authority if it provided savings, which was one of our criteria. As my noble friend Lord Smith said, it depends on who asks the question and how the question is asked. Many examples have been given. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, referred to how that influences the outcomes.
We do not believe that it is appropriate to impose a referendum. On the point that a referendum by definition excludes some stakeholders' interests, that is precisely the reason why the second stage of our engagement was with local stakeholders. We carried out a 12-week consultation on the 16 bids that were successful in phase 1. It was open to anyone to make representations. We wanted to ensure that the key stakeholders whose views we sought were the ones able to provide the evidence to show that the proposals met the criteria of affordability, strategic leadership, neighbourhood engagement and value-for-money services. This was how to get the sense of the local area and place which meant that it was properly viable and deliverable.
The amendment would also require that a referendum be carried out on an alternative proposal as made to the Secretary of State by the Boundary Committee. I have already set out why that is not necessary. Additionally, a referendum in such circumstances would ask a local electorate to arbitrate between the views of its council and the views of the independent expert committee, which is hardly a sensible way forward.
I conclude by addressing the questions raised on the referendum itself. We believe that imposing referendums would be unnecessary. Noble Lords have explained eloquently why a referendum is not appropriate. They have explained in different ways why this process, this poll/referendum, would not enable an outcome that really addresses the issues that need to be addressed. Let us imagine a process where one collects opinion, but does not end up knowing whether it is affordable, workable, manageable and, ultimately, democratic. A referendum will not give a way of resolving differences. Only consensus and working through democratic processes will give that sort of result, which is precisely what we need in a situation where local authorities are being required to think so strategically and boldly about their future. That is the result we need to be able to guarantee and noble Lords have explained that that is the case.
It is crucial that any decision for structural change must be a decision for Parliament, which of course is provided for. All the implementation orders for structural change are subject to affirmative resolution. They will have to be debated and voted on in this House and in another place. I am very grateful for the opportunity to have had a debate on something so important. I hope that the noble Lord is as convinced as he should be about the need to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, this noble Baroness rises to respond to the debate. I realise that it is confusing. Two noble Baronesses are sitting on the Government Benches, and I have a split force on this side. I am very grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, but I am completely baffled by their contributions. The suggestion is that there should be a referendum on the final proposal. No one could imagine that anyone would put forward a proposal for unitary government without having undertaken all the consultations which have been so lavishly expanded on by speakers on the other side. What we are saying is that when the final proposal has been drawn up, when everyone is satisfied that that is what it should be, the last word on who would be involved in the change to a unitary system should come from the electorate.
I find the opposition to this very strange. The last change proposed for the reorganisation of local government was the establishment of the regions. What happened there? We had a referendum which demonstrated fully and clearly that the electorate thought it was a rotten idea and so eventually it did not come about. But the electorate was given the opportunity to comment on the proposal. As the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, although the Government did not necessarily get their wish, it was put to the electorate. The Local Government Act 2003 specifically enables local authorities to hold referendums, so I do not see why this comes as a shock to those who are trying to pull it down. As well as businesses, stakeholders, PCTs and others, the people who are affected by reorganisation and restructuring are those who live within the proposed area. They are the electorate. If we believe in democracy, and we have been told that this Bill is all about bringing things down to the local level, how can the decision be made to introduce a new structure of local government without asking the electorate about it? It does not even stack up with the Government's own thoughts on regional government, where it was entirely a different matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, has made many contributions. This is not a wheeze or a smokescreen, and I have tried to give the reasons why it is not. Referendums were not put forward initially by the Conservative Party, but they have been proposed by this Government for local government. It therefore seems that this is a perfectly obvious and sensible proposal, particularly on such extremely controversial matters which are not being welcomed by those who are purported as having to welcome them. It is time that they were given an opportunity to express their view. It may be that the House is not with me on this, but nonetheless I wish to test its opinion.