Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

– in the House of Lords at 8:24 pm on 8th October 2007.

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Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 7 [Implementation of proposals by order]:

[Amendments Nos. 30A and 30B not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, there is a misprint in Amendment No. 30C: "who" should read "which".

[Amendments Nos. 30C and 30D not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendments Nos. 31 and 32:

Clause 7, page 5, line 40, after "(1)(a)" insert "(or deciding not to)"

Clause 7, page 5, line 41, at end insert—

"(6) In any case where he has received an alternative proposal from the Boundary Committee under section 5, the Secretary of State may request the Boundary Committee to provide him with information or advice on any matter relating to the proposal.

(7) Where they receive such a request the Boundary Committee may provide the information or advice requested."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Review by Boundary Committee of local government areas]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendments Nos. 34 and 35:

Clause 8, page 6, line 27, leave out "not currently a local government area" and insert "currently outside all local government areas"

Clause 8, page 6, line 28, at end insert—

"(e) a change whose effect would be that England (excluding the Isles of Scilly, the City of London, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple) is no longer divided into areas each of which is—(i) a county divided into districts, or comprising one district; or(ii) a London borough."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 10 [Implementation of recommendations by order]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 36:

Clause 10, page 7, line 44, leave out "additional information or advice" and insert "information or advice on any matter relating to the recommendation"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 11 [Implementation orders: provision that may be included]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 8:45 pm, 8th October 2007

moved Amendments Nos. 37 and 38:

Clause 11, page 8, line 6, leave out from "purpose" to "for" in line 7 and insert "of implementing a proposal or recommendation or in connection with the implementation of a proposal or recommendation,"

Clause 11, page 8, line 11, at end insert "and "implementation" is to be read accordingly"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

moved Amendment No. 39:

Clause 11, page 8, line 28, leave out paragraph (d)

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I return to these amendments as a result of debate in Committee and following a review of what the Minister had to say in Hansard. The Minister said that due to the fact that an electoral review of any new area created would take the Electoral Commission 12 to 24 months to implement, it was necessary for the Secretary of State to have power to determine—along with all the other aspects of local government which she will be able to decide—the electoral arrangements for an area. The noble Baroness did not inform the House of the view of the Electoral Commission on this matter, but it would be very interesting to hear that. I would be most grateful to her if she could let us know whether the Electoral Commission has any comments.

The Minister also did not make it clear, even if, as she claimed, this power were used only for transitional periods, when exactly and under which part of the law the electoral arrangements put in place by the Secretary of State would be replaced by those decided by the proper and appropriate body, namely the Electoral Commission. Indeed, Clause 5 does not place any requirement on the Electoral Commission to review or sanction the Government's decisions. There will be no necessary revision of what are supposed to be transitional arrangements. With all due respect to the Electoral Commission, it seems possible that it could look at the arrangements for a local authority and assume that because the Secretary of State had implemented the proposals they must be workable. That seems a dangerous assumption. With much experience of government from all parties, I am all too well aware of the fact that proposals that come from Secretaries of State may not be workable, so an opportunity would be lost.

I hope the Minister will realise that such changes need to be taken seriously and not rushed through, at least not without some consideration of what the proper—I emphasise "proper"—review procedures should be. I hope that she will be able to clear my mind on these issues so that I do not have to take the matter further. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I have Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 in this group and can deal with them briefly because, like the amendment moved by the noble Lord, they concern implementation orders and transitional arrangements. In Committee, we still felt a certain confusion about exactly how the timetable would roll out and what provisions would be made for these arrangements. We have had some discussion and correspondence with the Minister, but this evening we have an opportunity to put some of these matters on the record.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I thought these amendments had been grouped separately but they have clearly been grouped together. What I am going to say may be slightly disjointed.

I will start with the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the effect of the amendments per se. If I am unable to give him a complete response to his question about the Electoral Commission, I assure him that I will write. However, I will do my best to respond to his question.

The amendments seek to remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make certain provision within orders made under Clause 7 for structural change and Clause 10 for boundary change. First, were these amendments to be made to the Bill, it would not be possible to implement the structural change orders so that the transition from two-tier to single-tier was as smooth as possible for all involved. These amendments would obviously be detrimental to the local authorities involved in the restructuring process.

Amendments Nos. 39 and 46 remove Clauses 11(4)(d) and 12, which provide the Secretary of State with the ability to include provision for electoral matters in an order made under Clause 7 for structural change or Clause 10 for boundary change. They would prevent the Secretary of State including provision in relation to the electoral matters of new unitary authorities—the number of councillors, the boundaries of wards or the election of a mayor or executive, for example. Clauses 11(4)(d) and 12 also allow the Secretary of State, where a wholly new authority is established, to appoint members of existing local authorities as members of the new local authority for a transitional period before the first elections are held, to appoint an executive for a transitional period and to provide for that wholly new authority to discharge functions during a transitional period.

Amendment No. 46 would see Clause 12 removed completely. It is obviously important that we keep the whole of Clause 12, because it is vital that the Secretary of State is able to include provision in the Clause 7 orders for the membership and representational arrangements of new authorities, otherwise there simply would not be any people there to take the decisions. To remove the Secretary of State's ability to provide for these matters would mean that, in the case of wholly new authorities, there would be no one there to take key decisions. That is clearly not satisfactory at all.

It is also important that the Secretary of State is able to include provision for electoral arrangements under Clause 12(1)(a) to (f). When we came to discuss the amendments of the noble Baroness, I noted that those provisions had not been removed. I am sure that this is because she also recognises the importance of being able to put in place transitional arrangements and provide for elections to the new local authorities. Were these provisions removed, wholly new local authorities could be established without any electoral arrangements—no wards, nothing. I understand what I think the noble Lord was saying—that he would prefer that these matters were put in place by an independent Electoral Commission. However, the commission was not able to guarantee that it would be able to put these arrangements in place before the new authorities were established.

The noble Lord asked about the views of the Electoral Commission. From the exchanges on 25 September, we understand that, while it is broadly content, it would prefer the first elections for county unitaries to be in May 2009, which suggests that they would follow the new warding arrangements made by the commission. We will talk to the Electoral Commission about its concerns on those issues. I hope that will be helpful.

We have made no decisions on these matters. We have just finished consulting on the approach to implementation, as noble Lords know, and it is a rather hefty document. However, I shall give an example of why we need to retain these powers. One scenario could be that elections are held for new district unitaries on current electoral arrangements in May 2008. The Electoral Commission supports this option, but has said it will not be in a position to complete reviews of the county unitaries until 2009 and of the district unitaries until 2010. Therefore, it is imperative that the Secretary of State can include provision for electoral arrangements within the Clause 7 order. In the example -0we have given, the Secretary of State would simply put in place the current electoral arrangements for the new authorities. Without Clause 12, she would be unable to do that, and implementation would have to wait until 2010.

I am sure that noble Lords are aware that if we were to remove the ability of the Secretary of State to deal with these matters it would delay the implementation timetable. That goes against what we have consistently been told by local government, which is that it wants as speedy a progress towards restructuring as possible. By taking out Clause 12, we would be unable to deliver that on behalf of local government. The amendments make the implementation of new unitary authorities difficult and would not allow the transition to be as painless as possible. We have tried to learn from the experience of the restructuring in the 1990s.

Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 are tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. Like the amendments in the previous group, they remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make certain provisions within orders made under Clause 7 for structural change stemming from a boundary change. I shall explain why Clause 12 is necessary.

Amendment No. 42 removes Clause 12(1)(f) to (k), so that the Secretary of State would be unable to include provision in a Clause 7 or Clause 10 order for the order of retirement of councillors and the election of a mayor or executive. In the case of a wholly new authority, it would also prevent the Secretary of State making appointments and providing for the discharge of functions during a transitional period. Amendment No. 43 inserts a new paragraph into Clause 12(1) which allows the Secretary of State to specify the length of any transitional period.

Removing Clause 12(1)(f) would not allow the Secretary of State to make provision for the retirement of councillors. Removing Clause 12(1)(g) and (h) would not allow the Secretary of State to provide for the election of a mayor or an executive for the new authority. Therefore, where the bidding authority has requested a mayoral model, we would not be able to provide for it. For example, Bedford has a mayor, and Bedford Borough Council has stated that it wishes to retain the mayoral model for the new unitary authority it is proposing. If a unitary Bedford were to be created, the amendment would prevent us being able to provide for the mayoral model to continue in Bedford. We would be unable to provide for the election of a mayor.

Clause 12(1)(i) allows the Secretary of State, in the case of a wholly new authority, to appoint existing councillors to represent the new local authority for a transitional period. Removing Clause 12(1)(j) would not allow the appointment of an executive to a wholly new authority to take decisions during the transitional period. Those provisions will be needed if the Secretary of State is to establish a wholly new authority so that members can start to prepare for reorganisation before there are elections for that authority. This will avoid a potential "dead period" between the implementation orders being made and the first elections.

Clause 12(1)(k) provides that where the Secretary of State establishes a wholly new authority, she may also provide for the appointment of an executive for a transitional period. Again, the Government believe it is important that an executive is established to discharge particular functions prior to the first elections to wholly new authorities being held.

As I have stated, the amendments to Clause 12 would make the implementation of new unitary authorities difficult and the implementation process difficult for everyone concerned. These are technical matters. In a later amendment we will discuss transitional arrangements a little more. I hope that I have made it clear to noble Lords that their amendments would have a devastating effect on the planned process of implementation.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government 9:00 pm, 8th October 2007

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. I do not have any particular difficulty with the need for interim arrangements. If the decisions are taken I accept that something has to be done. I am not yet certain about the arrangements for the end of the interim arrangements. There does not seem to be any definition of that. At what time and at what point does the Electoral Commission reassume its proper role and do these things as a result of proper study, rather than as an ad hoc arrangement on the basis of existing arrangements? After all, we have created a whole structure of new arrangements which are different, and one might have thought—perish the thought—that some new electoral arrangements might be more appropriate than those which existed prior to the change. In fact, I would have thought that was a sort of sine qua non of the whole process.

I accept that we are in a difficult situation. The noble Baroness will be prepared to hear that that is the case. I shall look with great care at what she has said, but I think that—I make a sort of request at this stage—we need to look carefully at the longer term strategic interests on this issue. Therefore, I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage, but perhaps with the assurance that we could all look at it again before Third Reading with a view to getting some sort of conclusion which would satisfy everybody.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, I am very happy to give the noble Lord that assurance. I can give him a little more detail. I will put this in writing as well because these are important points about the relationship between the Electoral Commission and the changes that are made. Clause 12(5) places the Electoral Commission under a duty to consider whether an electoral review is necessary as soon as practicable after an order is made under Clause 7. Therefore, if the independent commission wishes to review the electoral arrangements put in place by the Secretary of State, it will direct the independent Boundary Committee to do that. That takes us a bit further into that part of the process. I shall read what the noble Lord has said very carefully, and we will write to noble Lords to make sure that as much detail as possible about the evolution of that procedure is on the record.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 40 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

moved Amendment No. 40A:

Clause 11, page 8, line 40, at end insert—

"( ) Where a single tier of local government for an area whose boundaries are coterminous with those of an existing county council or closely aligned to them, a new district council for the area shall be established."

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, in the amendment I seek to return to the question of continuing authorities. In Committee we had a very brief exchange on the question of authorities that would be formed after restructuring along existing boundaries. That really means county councils turning into unitary authorities covering the county area. The noble Baroness was very concise and clear that those would be wholly new authorities.

The problem is that a difference is clearly emerging between the Government's intention, as stated clearly by the noble Baroness, and what is actually happening on the ground. From a number of areas, clear evidence is emerging of what I can describe as a county takeover. I know that my noble friend Lady Maddock will express concern about what is happening in Northumberland, but I am also receiving reports from other parts of the country—Cornwall and so on—about what is happening. Obviously, this is a difficult time and it is a complicated process. In their document setting out their approach to implementation, the Government have stated that the transitional authority will be a county-based authority. I understand why that is happening, but the problem is that counties are seeing that as a platform for launching a complete takeover. There is evidence that they are not giving district council representation as much precedence as the Government would like.

I would be very interested to hear from the noble Baroness how she thinks that the Government will respond if clear concerns emerge from local areas that the district authorities, which may have been extremely co-operative in the process, are being frozen out at the implementation stage. Can she also confirm that under the implementation document, which was published fairly recently, the chief executive will be newly appointed but there is no requirement for other officers to be? That is another area where there may well be a complete county takeover, because it is relatively straightforward to subsume a lot of district functions into existing county functions. The tendency would be to keep the same county chief officers and some very good district officers may be lost in the process. If these are to be new authorities with new cultures and practices, it is important that they bring together the best of all the component authorities, rather than just be the continuation of one.

Finally, having read carefully through the implementation document, something mystifies me which I hope that the noble Baroness can clear up for me. Paragraph 33 states that the Secretary of State cannot appoint councillors to a transitional authority, but paragraph 35 states that where there is no agreement and the LGA has not been able to broker an agreement, the Secretary of State will make the appointments. I am not clear whether the Secretary of State can or cannot make those appointments and, if so, under exactly what circumstances.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, briefly, I support what the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, said. The transitional arrangements will be absolutely fraught. Not only will we have councillors who may be losing their seats and their role but a significant number of staff on these authorities will find themselves either bidding for their own jobs or looking for work elsewhere. This is an extremely sensitive area and we must be careful that we do not upset too many people on the way. I guess that once most people see the new authorities coming up they will understand that there will be very substantial changes. How those changes are handled and how the districts relate to the counties will be important in deciding whether they work satisfactorily.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Scott. Our experience in Northumberland is precisely along the lines that she indicated. In a later amendment, I shall expand a little further for the Minister, because we are in need of help, please.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, this amendment allows us to talk briefly about the importance of having a proper implementation process. The noble Baroness referred to the implementation process involving the best of rural authorities and the people who need to be involved so that it is not a county or a district takeover. It is really important. In approaching finding the right process for implementation and working with the expert group available to us, we made sure that we had a process which people were clear about and could sign up to. It is clear on practically every page that we expect councillors to involve their local regional stakeholders and partners in their consideration. This has to be the basis of dialogue with the potentially affected councillors. There is no question that anyone should be taking over anyone. I shall come on to explain why the notion of the new authority is so important and why we have this running alongside the notion of a continuing authority for the sake of convenience.

Amendment No. 40A requires the Secretary of State to create new districts for all single tier authorities created under Clause 7, which obviously would prevent the Secretary of State from making orders for new single tier authorities to be county councils. They would all have to be new district councils, not new county councils. I know that these are probing amendments essentially, but the effect would be that in Cornwall we would have to create a unitary Cornwall district council. This would have the same boundaries as the county of Cornwall and would carry out the same functions as a new Cornwall county council, but would be called Cornwall district council. I am not entirely certain that that would be very popular, but that is what it would do. We believe that new unitaries should serve as either county councils or district councils, whatever is the most appropriate for the area.

We have always been clear—I said this in Committee and in letters to noble Lords—that the current restructuring of local government is about creating new authorities; that is, authorities with new functions and responsibilities. Looking at the proposals, it was very interesting just how innovatively people were thinking about the role of overview and scrutiny, the ways of engaging people and how to make information accessible to them. There are some genuinely innovative opportunities here. Revitalised local leadership and governance will help. Any unitary authority established as part of the restructuring process therefore will be a new authority in any commonly understood meaning of the word. Nowhere will the unitary authority, or how it serves the local people, simply be a continuation of what went before.

However, we wanted to address in very practical terms, which came out of the process with the expert group, the necessity of keeping the transition process as simple and cost-effective as possible. We want to keep down the costs of transition to the benefit of everyone—local councils and local people alike. Where an existing authority covers the same area as the proposed new unitary authority, implementation arrangements will be more straightforward if the new unitary authority is treated, in technical terms, as a continuation of that existing district or county council. It should not mean that a county council should see that status as giving it licence to take over. That is not the issue or the point. It is about securing a process which reduces the amount of massive fundamental changes that have to be made. We would want to be able to treat county councils as continuing where appropriate. The amendment would stop us doing that.

We have come at it in this way because the experience of the 1990s strongly supports this way of doing things with less disruption and a smoother transition, which is obviously what local government organisations want. To create a new district council in a county council area requires the abolition of the county council, the establishment of a new district council and the transfer of all functions, which is a much more elaborate process and additional work for everyone concerned. Bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said earlier, when we are trying to minimise disruption and unnecessary work, this would be additional work for no practical gain. It would also mean that during the transitional period there would be a county council operating alongside a shadow district council covering exactly the same area. We would have a duplication of effort and costs.

This is not about the merger of councils. Rather, these devices will ensure a smooth transition and are not an excuse or fig leaf for doing anything other than what the implementation documentation document is quite clear about. These are discussions between partners in which the districts will be equal partners in the process of finding a route to a new authority. It is all about creating something new. We do not believe that removing the ability of the Secretary of State to use continuing county councils would be in the best interests of anyone involved.

I turn to the specific questions put to me. I was asked whether the chief executive would have to be a new appointment. We certainly propose that there should be a new chief executive appointment through open competition, but we also propose that where councils wish for other senior directors to be so appointed, they too can be appointed through open competition. It is a choice that can be made locally. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, asked whether the Secretary of State could appoint councillors to continuing authorities. The Secretary of State cannot appoint councillors to transitional authorities, but he can specify the composition of the joint committee responsible for transition. If the noble Baroness looks again at the two paragraphs, I think she will see the distinction. However, I shall make sure that the point is made clear.

I hope that the position is now clear. However, I want to put on the record that this implementation document is an important working tool which has to be observed. A great deal of hard work went into the process of making the document as clear as possible, and it is important that it is taken seriously by everyone involved in the process.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, does the term "open competition" mean the introduction of a completely new recruitment process or will these jobs be ring-fenced? Inevitably, one or two chief executives will be put out of their positions, as well as other directors. Under most circumstances you would expect it to be a limited competition among them until one or other is accepted. However, it sounds as if the process will be one of encouraging people to come in from elsewhere—one of those head hunter operations. Can the noble Baroness clarify this?

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, my understanding is that it would be as the noble Baroness has described; that is, a genuine open competition in which people could put forward their names in the usual way.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government

The noble Baroness said that it would be a matter of local choice whether other officers would be subject to a recruitment process or simply transferred. In her letter of 1 October she stated that,

"where a new authority is, in technical terms, a continuing authority, steps can be taken"—

I emphasise the word "can"—

"such as recruiting new senior managers ... to show that the new authority is not simply a 'takeover'".

Presumably, therefore, if steps can be taken, steps may not be taken. As I have said, the noble Baroness talked about this being a matter for local choice, but it would be helpful to understand how the choice is arrived at. This is something that I have had the benefit of hearing the Minister explain privately by way of the committees which will be set up. Those who take the lead in those committees—the noble Baroness looks puzzled; I am thinking of the committees in which the authorities concerned will have some representation—will, I assume, be the ones to take the lead in this process. However, that begs the question: who will take the decisions on those committees? Given that this is such a sensitive area, an explanation of this in the House rather than just privately and in a letter is really quite important.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we say there that,

"even where the new authority is, in technical terms, a continuing authority, steps can be taken—such as recruiting new senior managers and holding elections—to show that the new authority is not simply a 'takeover' by the existing members and officers of the bidding authority".

The noble Baroness is right to say that steps can be taken and because this is a thoroughly devolved process it would seem illogical not to allow that option. I do not want to flood noble Lords with even more letters but, as we are a little further down the implementation process, it might be that we can take some advice.

The local choice is certainly for other members of the management team—the ones we are now talking about—and can be exercised by the joint committee which is responsible for implementation. The point the noble Baroness makes is well made, but that is essentially part and parcel of the design of the scheme. I shall seek to find out to what extent local authorities are even at a point where they may be considering some of the implications for those decisions.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene before the Minister sits down. This is one of the issues that has arisen in Northumberland. The county, obviously, would very much prefer that it was just the chief executive and maybe one or two officers but, because of the position of their staff, the districts want to have some of the jobs that will come with the new authority and would like there to be more open jobs at senior level. There is a conflict here. The guidance says that where you have a transitional authority it is expected that the county will take the lead. Obviously it does—and people, in a sense, respect that—but if the lead is taken by the county and does not include enough people from the districts having and a voice, the county can do what it likes. Our experience, which I will explain later, is that that is what is happening, and people are very unhappy about it, even though they are trying to work together for the good of Northumberland.

Photo of Baroness Scott of Needham Market Baroness Scott of Needham Market Spokesperson in the Lords, Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords who have joined in this short debate. I have a great deal of sympathy for the Minister in trying to get to grips with the complexities of moving this agenda forward in a way which is relatively speedy, not too administratively burdensome and not too slow. I can understand all that but, nevertheless, if this is wrongly implemented many of the benefits of creating a new authority could be lost. It would be a great shame if, having undergone this great transitional period, the full benefits were not reaped afterwards.

I understand fully that it is the Government's intention that these implementation committees should be joint committees. Nevertheless, I hope they will recognise that the temptation for the authority which is in the lead—we have referred to counties but it need not be—to take advantage of the position it has been given will be very great indeed. I hope the Minister will recognise that and consider ways of perhaps keeping an eye on what is going to ensure that the spirit of the Government's intentions, which have been made very clear by the noble Baroness, are adhered to. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 41:

Clause 11, page 9, line 5, leave out "not currently a local government area" and insert "currently outside all local government areas"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Provision relating to membership etc of authorities]:

[Amendments Nos. 42 to 46 not moved.]

Clause 15 [Incidental etc provision in orders or regulations]:

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

moved Amendment No. 47:

Clause 15, page 11, line 23, after "made" insert "at any time"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 21 [Pre-commencement invitations etc]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, this is a simple amendment. It would remove the powers in Clause 21 to allow invitations that had been issued and, more to the point, decisions that had been made on restructuring to take place until after the Bill had been enacted.

Clause 21 bizarrely says that any proposal made before the enactment of the Bill should be taken to be constrained by the same measures in other clauses that what I will call the "post-commencement invitations" will be under. Therefore Clause 21 shows that the Government's reasoning is not very sensible, and does not follow what we would expect the Bill to do. I and other noble Lords have moved many amendments this afternoon, any of which could be included in the Bill. If the provisions of any of Part 1 were to change—for example, the power to hold a referendum that I suggest, or the power in my previous amendments to widen consultation—any measures taken previously to the Bill would result in a much lesser deal for local electorates, and could even mean that some councils had acted outside the law as it would be applied retrospectively.

Amendment No. 28 would remove Clause 21, the effect being that any current invitations could not be enacted until the Bill itself has passed through Parliament. There was something circular about the Minister's arguments in Committee that the provisions included in Clause 21 are not retrospective. First, her argument ignored the fact that a retrospective provision does not simply make something valid that was not lawful or valid at the time. It can also make something invalid or unlawful. Amendments made to the Bill could change the make-up of Part 1 so as to render some actions being taken now unlawful in the future. That would be retrospective, and to allow for such an application prior to the Bill going through Parliament is contrary to the proper and appropriate passage of law through Parliament. Noble Lords should not have to sanction that. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, my name is attached to the amendment, although in fact I put the same amendment in quite separately. I wanted to bring to the attention of the House what has happened since there have been pre-commencement invitations and how they are working out, and it seemed logical to put that under Clause 21. That may not be exactly right, and I intervened earlier in the day. As I said then, I am a borough councillor in Berwick-upon-Tweed as well as a county councillor in Northumberland, so I am getting this on two fronts.

I want to explain what is happening on the ground before the Bill becomes law, and to ask the Government how they had expected these matters to proceed and what commitment they have to dealing with what many of us see as a lack of democracy and transparency that is unfolding as the process takes on a bit of momentum of its own. That is clear from the discussions we have already had on the Floor of the House tonight. The Bill has not passed all its stages, and yet an awful lot of it is already happening.

To go back to the original invitation, there were two proposals that people could sign up to: the possibility of having a unitary government of some sort in Northumberland, and the possibility of the districts working closer together. There are six districts in Northumberland that come under the county council, and originally they were interested in enhanced working, partly because Northumberland is a large geographical area. The south of the county is much more urban and densely populated while the other part is rural and people did not want to lose their voice. However, as matters unfolded, the county council decided that it wanted one, huge unitary authority for Northumberland. When that decision was reached, the district councils—across parties—agreed that they would look at an alternative proposal for two unitary councils, one to represent the more densely populated urban areas in the south and the other to represent north Northumberland, which is a rural area. As I indicated earlier, that had been discussed when a referendum was held in Northumberland on whether it should have an elected regional assembly. In it, residents made it clear—there was a 51 per cent turnout—that they wanted two unitary authorities.

However, after the processes that we discussed earlier had been gone through, involving the county and district councils and the stakeholders, the Government accepted that both proposals met the criteria, so both were put forward. Even the county council was forced to support both proposals, because it could not vote through the proposal for a unitary authority alone. The Government said that both proposals met the criteria, but when they came back with their view of what they were "minded to propose"—which is the phrase that I think that I should use at this stage—they came down in favour of one unitary authority in Northumberland. That is the current position. A judicial review is taking place, part of the basis for which is people finding it difficult to accept that they are going through the process without the law having been made. In addition, many opinion polls and surveys show that residents who use services do not want one unitary authority in Northumberland. The Minister can read in the judicial review documents the letter which explains the position in detail.

Nevertheless, the district councils realise that the process is advancing apace and that they cannot stand back and not take part. With good heart, they are trying to ensure that the best of what they wanted to happen under their proposal for two unitary authorities is included in the proposal for a single unitary authority. For that reason, the county council and district councils across Northumberland want shadow elections to take place as soon as possible to make the process democratic. That view is shared across all councils and parties.

The guidance for embarking on a transitional process has now been issued— because the county is keeping its own boundaries—and that is where the problems have arisen. The Government issued guidance on how we should proceed. We spoke earlier about how the process was meant not to be a take-over but a transition. The guidance contains instructions that state that the joint committee that oversees the initial stages of the transformation is supposed to reflect the geographical nature of the area and be roughly in proportion to political representation across the county.

A bone of contention for us, which we are unlikely ever to win, is the fact that the number of councillors at county and district level in Northumberland will decrease from 306 to 67 when the proposals are implemented. The Labour Party has about 35 per cent of councillors; the Liberal Democrats have 30 per cent; the Conservatives have 26 per cent; and others have about 9 per cent. However, representation on the joint committee has been based on that in the county council, because it is the lead authority. It contains 10 Labour representatives and four from opposition parties. It has taken the whole of its executive, which includes its leader and deputy leader, and only one member from the four rural districts. It is therefore completely biased towards the southern end of the county. It is allowing the leaders of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups on the county council only to be non-voting in the joint body. It will have one member from each of the district councils, of which Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives control two respectively. So there is no way that this is a political representation and neither is it geographical.

There have been discussions about this. The LGA has tried to have some influence and I understand that civil servants have talked to the councillors. As I stand here now, I do not know whether that has had any effect—but it is a double whammy for the people of Northumberland. The choice that they thought they wanted they could not get and now they seem to have been taken over. Did the Government envisage this sort of thing happening? If they did, what do they think they can do about it?

The same problem is happening with the staff. A joint staff committee is being set up and the chief executive is in charge of it. He wants four or five senior members from each of the districts to be down in county hall a couple of days a week. Berwick borough council serves 26,000 people, so if four or five of our officers are taken I do not know how we are going to carry on delivering services—and there is no money to back-fill in for the staff when they are not there. Alnwick district council is in the same situation.

Whatever the guidance says, I put on record what is happening in Northumberland—and I hope that we can get some help from the Government to ensure that we are not completely disenfranchised in Berwick. If you look at a map of Britain Berwick is in the top north-east corner; if you look at a map of the north-east region it is in the top north-east corner; and if you look at a map of Northumberland, it is in the top north-east corner. We are 50 miles from Morpeth, where we have our meetings—we are always on the edge—and as the smallest council involved we are finding very difficult to come to terms with what is happening. We badly need some help and support. That also goes for Alnwick, which is another small district council.

I hope that I have not laboured the point too much. There is much more that I could say, but that is what is actually happening—because we have started the process before the Bill has become law. Although I understand that we want to do this quickly, as my noble friend Lady Scott said, the practicalities of it are not working out, even as the Minister and her Government would like it to happen. I hope that I can get some support tonight for some help, but I understand that the Minister may want to go away and think about this and come back to me and colleagues in Northumberland with help on these matters.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, we have heard two sorts of passion in the past half an hour—one to wreck the Bill with a simple wrecking amendment and the other from the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock. She is such a powerful advocate of what may be a remote corner of the north-east and of Northumberland, but she does it proud—and what she has put on record tonight will serve a purpose. I listened intently to what she said.

Before I deal with some of the issues that the noble Baroness raised, on the general principle she will not be surprised that I cannot accept the amendment, which would simply mean that the current round of restructuring was brought to an end and that all the effort that the councils had made in putting forward their proposals was wasted. In this Chamber we see eye to eye most of the time but sometimes we do not—and in accepting the amendment we would abort the restructuring process.

Clause 21 is sensible and necessary and simply means that we can respond to the wishes of local government and run the invitation and the Bill process in parallel. It ensures that there can be no doubt that a proposal received prior to commencement of the part can be implemented after commencement. I take the point that local councillors, while the Bill is outstanding, are bound to have concerns—so it is much better that we proceed quickly to ensure that this is not the case.

When we debated this clause in Committee, I said that it was not retrospective. The noble Baroness quoted me accurately. It does not make valid something which when it was done was not valid. However, noble Lords will be aware that judicial review proceedings have been brought by Shrewsbury and Congleton district councils in relation to the current restructuring process and the issue of the meaning and effect of Clause 21 was before the court. We expect judgment in those cases shortly and it would be inappropriate for me to comment further at this time. As we have said many times in our discussions with local government about restructuring, the consistent message from councils was to get it underway and completed as soon as possible in order to prevent a period of debilitation, blight and disruption. We were aware—noble Lords have spoken about the effect on various areas—that this process would create anxiety and disquiet among local government. There will inevitably be tensions when there are proposals to abolish local authorities. That is why the approach that we followed was designed to minimise the way in which those tensions might foment. The invitation was issued in October to allow sufficient time for councils to develop proposals, to allow for consultation and to proceed towards implementation as quickly as possible after Royal Assent. So we are doing only what local authorities asked of us—to decide if we are going to go ahead with restructuring and if so to press ahead as quickly as possible.

The invitation was issued ahead of these provisions of the Bill under the Secretary of State's common law powers. Those common law powers derive from the Crown's status as a corporation sole. They are often relied on as a legal basis for government action. Indeed, in responding to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Lester, about the Ram doctrine some years ago, my noble and learned friend Lady Scotland referenced some of the situations where common law powers form the basis of governmental actions. These include entering into contracts or employing staff. So we have done nothing unlawful in issuing an invitation ahead of the Bill and all this clause seeks to do is make it very clear that it is immaterial whether the Secretary of State issues an invitation, or guidance, or receives or consults on proposals received prior to commencement; she can implement such proposals after commencement of this part.

I turn to the situation in Northumberland. As the noble Baroness said with regard to the discussions on the future of Northumberland, in the decisions in July our judgment was that having regard to all the information that was available, the district's proposal for two unitaries was not reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified in the criteria and therefore should not proceed towards implementation. The proposal for a single unitary was judged as reasonably likely to achieve the criteria. Here we are minded to implement the proposal if and when the Bill is passed. But as we move to the next step in the implementation process we set out in the document which has now finished its consultation process one of the fundamental things that we said; namely, that we should like to take the opportunity to encourage all potentially affected local authorities to begin work together without delay. Clearly, the earlier the dialogue, the more likelihood there is of getting agreement on some difficult issues and reaching a successful conclusion. Therefore, we stress that in areas such as Northumberland, all councils need to work together on this fairly. We believe that a joint committee should be formed of representatives of all the existing local authorities in the area concerned.

I said earlier that the implementation document was a living document. We are consulting on it. If the sorts of scenario emerge that the noble Baroness described, we shall no doubt learn about them in the consultation process. However, it is very important that she has put on the record what she feels is happening because we need to know how local authorities are approaching this. Clearly, the guidance is designed to be fair.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Various people in Northumberland have responded. As the Liberal Democrat group, we responded in detail and some of the things that I mentioned are in that document, which was a response to the implementation.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Communities and Local Government, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Communities and Local Government) 9:45 pm, 8th October 2007

My Lords, that is useful, because it proves my point that the consultation process will flesh out exactly how people are approaching joint implementation teams. Our officials have been engaged, and we are aware of what is going on in various parts of the country, because we are in an intense period of consultation. We will go on in the next few weeks to meet all the joint implementation teams, including in Northumberland. Officials were there quite recently. We are keeping a very close eye on the process. I am very glad to know that people are getting on with it and that they want to proceed quickly. Clearly, it would be remiss of us if we were not to be closely following that process.

If there was such a situation, and it was so serious that we felt this had to happen, the Secretary of State could specify the composition of a joint committee in the implementation order. Where there are different views locally, it could be that the Secretary of State herself would decide, having regard to all local views. That remains a power that is open to her. I will finish there, because I have no further detail to add. It may help the noble Baroness if I put that in writing for her.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Shadow Minister, Home Affairs

My Lords, this has been a wonderful discussion, because it has highlighted absolutely without any doubt the problems that there have been over the way in which this has been implemented. Before there has been any legislation, and before anyone has had an opportunity to discuss the matter in detail, the proposals of the Bill have effectively been implemented, in a way that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has pointed out, is causing endless difficulties.

There must be some reason for going through legislation in both Houses. One of those reasons must be to iron out the wrinkles to see where the problems are likely to be and to listen to people who are going to have to implement the legislation. Because that has not happened here, we are now getting all the problems that we are seeing in Northumberland and all the other unitaries that are being considered by the Secretary of State at the moment. In each one of them, as we said earlier, there are problems. It seems to me that so much of this is happening because there has not been time to give proper thought to how this would be implemented and whether it should be implemented at all. The great question mark is whether any of this part of the Bill is of any value whatever. The removal of Clause 21 would be enormously helpful, because it would take away the rights and the powers of the Secretary of State to do what she has done, which is to start implementing legislation for which she has no authority. The Minister has said that she has used common-law powers. That is a fig leaf to hide behind when there is legislation coming forward that brings all of that in.

The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, has presented this absolutely perfectly. She has given all the reasons why this should not have been done in the way in which it has been done. She has given all the reasons why judicial review is going to be carried out on this and is being carried out already in relation to Cheshire, Shrewsbury and Congleton, and why no doubt it will happen in relation to other authorities as well. The processes have not been ironed out in Parliament—they have not been ironed out properly—and people are trying to implement them on the back of documents coming from the Government that we have had no chance to discuss or even consider. I will not press the amendment tonight, but I hope that the Minister will have understood from all that has been said that this process has been really lamentable. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 [Definitions for purposes of Chapter 1]:

[Amendments Nos. 49 to 51 not moved.]

Clause 33 [Resolution for whole-council elections: requirements]:

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

moved Amendment No. 52:

Clause 33, page 19, line 30, after "meeting" insert "which is"

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

My Lords, the Government are bringing forward a number of technical amendments to Part 2. My noble friend wrote to noble Lords on 1 October 2007 setting out why these amendments are required. I will briefly cover some of the key points for the record.

First, we are bringing forward an amendment on resolution periods in response to concerns raised during Committee. Part 2 contains resolution periods in which local authorities can resolve to change their scheme of elections. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, tabled an amendment to extend the resolution periods set out in the Bill from three months to six months.

We have considered the points raised and believe that the proposal to extend the resolution periods will strengthen the Bill. We therefore propose an amendment broadly along the lines of that put forward in Committee by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. We are, however, making one slight change. Her amendment proposed that resolution periods should begin on 1 June rather than 1 October. Our amendment proposes that the resolution periods set out in the Bill should begin on the day after the council's annual meeting and should end on 31 December. The reason for this is that, as the House is aware, Clause 60 provides for local government elections to be moved to the date of the European elections, which take place in the second week of June. If the resolution periods ran from 1 June in a year when the local government elections were moved, this could result in a resolution being passed by an outgoing council just before an election. That would clearly be undesirable. Linking the resolution periods to the annual meeting, which will always take place after the election in an election year, will avoid a local government election taking place during a resolution period.

Amendments Nos. 55, 56, 60, 64 and 65 to Clauses 33, 38 and 40 make the necessary amendments to Part 2. We are also introducing a number of technical amendments to these clauses—Amendments Nos. 52, 53, 57, 58, 61 and 62—to ensure that notice of the specially convened meeting at which a resolution will be passed is given, in line with the existing provisions in the Local Government Act 1972 and, in Amendments Nos. 54, 59 and 63, to clarify that all members of a council can vote on the resolutions; that is, all the councillors and the mayor or members of the directly elected executive, where these models exist.

To ensure consistency between Parts 2 and 3, we are amending Clause 64 in Part 3—Amendments Nos. 96, 97, 99 to 101 and 110 to 113—to extend the resolution periods, ensure that notice of the specially convened meeting is given and clarify who can vote on the resolutions. We have also made similar amendments to Schedule 5.

We are bringing forward Amendments Nos. 71 to 76 to Clause 59, again responding to concerns raised by noble Lords during Committee about the provisions for changing the names of electoral areas. Electoral areas are district wards and county divisions. While there was support for the general thrust of Clause 59 to devolve the decisions on changes to the names of electoral areas to local authorities, concerns were raised about ensuring that appropriate measures were in place to prevent changes from taking place too often and without local debate. A number of amendments were tabled against Clause 59 during Committee. We have reflected on those amendments and the concerns raised by noble Lords and have brought forward amendments in this group. Amendment No. 71 requires a local authority to consult such persons as it considers appropriate on any proposed name change prior to a resolution being passed. This will ensure that there is the opportunity for local debate on any proposed name change.

In Amendments Nos. 72 to 75, we propose that the resolution to change the name of an electoral area must be passed by a two-thirds majority. This is in line with part of an amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am sure that we are all sorry that he is unwell and unable to be in his place to hear me explain this amendment. We agree with the noble Lord that a requirement for a two-thirds majority is a useful safeguard, which will require a strong case to be made for any change in name to gain the necessary support. This will provide greater stability so that the names of electoral areas are not changed too often and without the support of a significant majority of councillors.

We are also proposing a technical amendment, Amendment No. 76, to clarify that a mayor or members of a directly elected executive can vote on the resolution that I have just described to change the name of an electoral area where those models exist. The amendments respond to concerns raised by Members of the Committee during Committee stage and I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Spokesperson in the Lords (Regional and Local Government), Department for Communities and Local Government

My Lords, I thank the Minister and the Government for taking notice of a number of points made from these Benches and elsewhere at the last stage. I understand with regard to the resolution period that the Government would not want to see a controversial resolution made eve of poll. However, if I came across any of our councillors suggesting that they should be spending eve of poll doing this sort of thing, I would tell them what I thought of them.

The proposal about changing the name of an area is also welcome. I am also glad to hear that the point made by my noble friend Lord Greaves about a two-thirds majority has been taken. I have written down "welcome". I do not want to purport to read his mind totally because he may have reservations about the way that it has been done, but I was glad to hear acceptance of that point.

There are provisions in three different places for members of the council for various purposes, including an elected mayor or elected executive. It says a lot about confusion with the language that when I read that members included the mayor and elected executive I thought that the Bill must mean the mayor and the elected executive and started to write some very furious notes, but I think that it means "include" in the normal and natural meaning of the term.

I will mention now, so that the Minister is aware of it, that I was comforted when I found Amendments Nos. 117 and 118—it is very sad to be comforted by such things is it not? Those provisions show me that it is explicit that a reference to a member excludes the elected mayor. We will come to those amendments in a future group. I will ask at that point whether the way that those are dealt with means that the Secretary of State can change at will who is in and out of the definition of members. That is for another day. I am assuming that the officials, being very thorough, have done a great trawl of the Bill and could, if we asked, advise us who is a member for any given purpose. A little note about whether the elected executive—a mayor, directly elected leader or whatever—falls within or outside of the definition of member could be very useful for authorities.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for those comments and for the advance notice of her question. I commend the amendments to the House.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

moved Amendments Nos. 53 to 56:

Clause 33, page 19, line 30, after "purpose" insert "of deciding the resolution with notice of the object"

Clause 33, page 19, line 32, at end insert—

"( ) In subsection (3) the reference to the members of the council includes—

(a) in a case where the council are operating a mayor and cabinet executive, the elected mayor of the council;(b) in a case where the council are operating an elected executive, the members of the elected executive of the council."

Clause 33, page 19, line 37, leave out "1 October" and insert "the day after that council's annual meeting"

Clause 33, page 20, line 3, leave out "1 October" and insert "the day after that council's annual meeting"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 38 [Resolution for elections by halves: requirements]:

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

moved Amendments Nos. 57 to 60:

Clause 38, page 21, line 32, after "meeting" insert "which is"

Clause 38, page 21, line 32, after "purpose" insert "of deciding the resolution with notice of the object"

Clause 38, page 21, line 34, at end insert—

"( ) In subsection (3) the reference to the members of the council includes—

(a) in a case where the council are operating a mayor and cabinet executive, the elected mayor of the council;(b) in a case where the council are operating an elected executive, the members of the elected executive of the council."

Clause 38, page 21, line 36, leave out "1 October" and insert "the day after that council's annual meeting"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 40 [Resolution for elections by thirds: requirements]:

Photo of Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Baroness Morgan of Drefelin Government Whip

moved Amendments Nos. 61 to 65:

Clause 40, page 22, line 20, after "meeting" insert "which is"

Clause 40, page 22, line 20, after "purpose" insert "of deciding the resolution with notice of the object"

Clause 40, page 22, line 22, at end insert—

"( ) In subsection (3) the reference to the members of the council includes—

(a) in a case where the council are operating a mayor and cabinet executive, the elected mayor of the council;(b) in a case where the council are operating an elected executive, the members of the elected executive of the council."

Clause 40, page 22, line 25, leave out "1 October" and insert "the day after that council's annual meeting"

Clause 40, page 22, line 28, leave out "1 October" and insert "the day after that council's annual meeting"

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at 9.59 pm.