§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]
§ 10 pm
§ Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh)
I am grateful for this opportunity to initiate a debate on the proposed abolition of Cleveland county council. When the Secretary of State for the Environment announced the review of local government boundaries last year, he said that the primary task of the Local Government Commission was to ensure that local service providers would "reflect the community identity", and to reflect the wishes and aspirations of the local people in its recommendations.
One of the first local authorities to be considered was the county of Cleveland, which was drawn together in 1974 out of Hartlepool county borough, Stockton rural district, Teesside county borough and the urban districts of Guisborough, Saltburn and Marske, Loftus, and Skelton and Brotten, in my constituency. The purpose of the debate is to place on record my strong disapproval of the tactics employed by Cleveland county council since 10 May, when the Local Government Commission presented four options for restructuring local government in Cleveland.
The preferred option was to abolish Cleveland county council and replace it with the four unitary district authorities of Hartlepool, Middlesbrough, Stockton and Langbaurgh. When the announcement of the preferred option was made on 10 May, the ferocity of the immediate reaction of Cleveland county council leaders left most people astounded. Yet it proved an accurate early sign of what was to come.
Paul Harford, the leader of Cleveland county council, described the announcement of the preferred option by the Local Government Commission as a "political fix". A week later, in "Personnel Comment", the internal staff newsletter of Cleveland county council, Mr. Bruce Stevenson, its chief executive and therefore a public servant, said:The Commission's arguments are weak, they appear to have overlooked many issues, failed to follow their guidance, failed to present their evidence objectively and their proposals to test local opinion verge on farce".Things did not stop there. Councillor Paul Harford returned to the fray at a full meeting of the county council, calling the Commission's initial report "deliberately misleading". Cleveland chief executive Bruce Stevenson said of the report:it had reached a perverse conclusion which could not be reached by any reasonable person".Language of that nature used by those who hold positions of authority and responsibility is at best irresponsible and at worst seeks to undermine the integrity and independence of the Local Government Commission. One can only speculate as to why no such comments were made before 10 May.
Cleveland county council employs more than 20,000 people, and in May each of them received a letter from the council leader and chief executive calling on them tolobby as a massive campaign teamfor the council's future. The first example of this lobby of public servants was demonstrated on 11 May, when the Northern Echo decided to conduct a readers' poll, votes being registered by telephone calls to two different numbers, one for yes and one for no. The result of the poll 1090 was that 77 per cent. of respondents were against the proposed abolition of Cleveland county council, and only 23 per cent. were in favour.
Only afterwards did the full story leak out. I have here a memo sent to employees in the environment, development and transportation department of the council, which says:The Northern Echo is conducting a phone survey to determine people's opinion on the Commission's proposals. Bruce Stevenson"—the chief executivehas given the OK for the ban on 0800 numbers to be lifted so that we can phone 0891 515153 to register a vote against the proposals … so get phoning!!!!!!!Our concern at this action was not the misuse of public funds, at which I am sure that the Audit Commission will be looking closely, but rather that public servants should be authorised to use council taxpayers' money in an attempt to distort an honest attempt to gauge public opinion.
Next came a series of public meetings which had been organised by the Commission, for the express purpose of listening to local people expressing their views about the type of local government that they wished to see. At the first meeting, held in Middlesbrough on 24 May 1993, the vast majority of the audience were employees of Cleveland county council. Speakers supporting unitary districts were heckled and barracked; those supporting the county were given standing ovations. Those few members of the public who had come along to give their views were intimidated into silence.
Such was the display of intimidation that Sir John Banham, chairman of the Local Government Commission, remarked in a television interview a few days later that people admitted to public meetings wereputting on the kind of display which I last saw when I was dealing with Derek Hatton in Liverpool.What a sad indictment. I do not blame the employees for this behaviour. They have been submitted to the same campaign of disinformation as the rest of us.
In the May edition of "Direct Approach", the Cleveland county direct services newsletter, the front page leads with three bold headings:Services under threat", "Your job could be on the line",andLook inside and take action.Under a section inside headed "Your job", it asks:What will a Middlesbrough Unitary Authority mean for staffing?and gives the answer:At least 15 per cent. job losses amongst permanent staff.The Local Government Commission, in its report, states that it would envisage a reduction of staff under the four-district option of 2 per cent.
A similar tactic to mislead and deceive was attempted by the county council in its contact with the public. A booklet which cost £26,000 to produce and was sent to all homes in Cleveland stated on the front cover:Your Local Services are under threat—Read this leaflet, it could save you 100 per year or more.Let us look a little closer at the claim that the Local Government Commission's preferred option could add £100 a year to the average council tax bill. The LGC, which, of course, had detailed access to the proposals of both the districts and the county, stated that it expected the result of reorganisation to lead to a £46 a year cut in the average level of council tax in Cleveland.
1091 I have already referred to the deception of the council's own staff in the newsletter "Direct Approach", which warned of a 15 per cent. cut in jobs, yet, in communication with the public whom they are there to serve, they claim that the four unitary districts would cost an extra £23 million.
Normally, job losses would be associated with reductions in expenditure, not increases. It is expedient to claim massive job losses to one's employees, as clearly they will be motivated to work against reorganization— understandably, because their prospects and security are in doubt. On the other hand, it is also expedient to claim that council taxpayers will have to pay more, as people are naturally fearful of increased bills and expense, and will react accordingly.
In short, one can make both these assertions, but they cannot both be true. Given that they come from the same source, Cleveland county council, one or both of them must be untrue. Therefore, Cleveland county council has blatantly sought to deceive either its own employees or, more seriously, the public whom it exists to serve. Such deception should be exposed and condemned.
Another example of this campaign of disinformation which I place before the House this evening concerns the future of a £28.5 million loan to Cleveland county council from the European Investment Bank. On 19 May, Cleveland county council issued a press release stating:a multi-million pound loan for major construction projects in the area is in jeopardy because the European bank involved is worried about the possible outcome of local government re-organisation in the area.The National and Local Government Officers Association, in its local Cleveland county branch newsletter edition No. 3, said:the best attended branch meeting in years was addressed by County Councillor Paul Harford who in a detailed speech vigorously attacked the Local Government Commission's recommendations. He also revealed a shock decision of the European Community bankers who are not prepared to fund projects in Cleveland if the area was split up.A recent meeting of the Cleveland county branch of NALGO voted to make £10,000 available for the fight to create a Teeside authority. I have been told that that money had been used to fund an organisation called Campaign for Teeside, which has been placing advertise-ments in the local press. In a letter to county branch members in Cleveland, the general secretary of the union, Alan Jinkinson, said:the union is gravely concerned at the county campaign … the action of some Cleveland County branch members has caused a great deal of concern locally. Many of this campaign's claims are unfounded and are only causing confusion and concern to people relying on local services and employees in local government.This week, that stance was overwhelmingly endorsed by the NALGO national conference meeting in Brighton.
To return to the European Investment Bank loan on 19 May 1993, County Councillor Paul Harford wrote to his colleagues on the council saying:I enclose a copy of a letter received yesterday from the EIB showing their reluctance to support our £28.5 million roads programme if the Cleveland area is served by four authorities in future.The headlines that followed must have brought joy to the eyes and ears of the Cleveland public relations team:Threat of shake up", "Risk to £28.5 million construction loan", "Loan in jeopardy", and "Projects in jeopardy".1092 That night, the chief executive of Cleveland county council, Bruce Stevenson, appeared on BBC "Look North" and said:It"—the European Investment Bank loan—can only be put together by combining the work which has been done in separate Boroughs.Given that one of the three projects to be funded by that loan was the Guisborough bypass, which is vital to my constituency, I contacted the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg. The bank confirmed that it was content to offer the loan to the four unitary districts and said:There is no fundamental problem about reorganisation. This has been blown out of all proportion. It's a small legal problem, more of a technicality.Having been caught out again, the chairman of the county economic development and transportation committee, David Walsh, had the nerve to say on local BBC Radio Cleveland:There is no doubt that the loan was at risk. But I can now confirm that, due to the hard and diligent work of county council officers the loan has been secured for the people of Cleveland.One can only conclude from those examples that the whole episode had been designed to announce the bad news, destabilise confidence in the competency and ability of the districts and, when the truth is revealed, be prepared to announce the good news that the county had saved the day.
There are many more examples that I could give the House, such as the county's claim that the ring and ride scheme, which provides a vital service to the most vulnerable in our community—the disabled and the elderly—would be under threat if Cleveland county were abolished. In reality, the unitary districts had included in their submissions plans to improve the level of service in the scheme.
§ Mr. Bates
Worst of all, by launching this campaign in a vital two months in which the people of Cleveland have had their first opportunity for 20 years to express their views on what form of local government they want, political and civil service leaders have sought to subvert the course of local democracy.
With only three weeks left in the consultation period, I appeal to the political and civil service leaders of the county council. If they have any faith in local democracy and public service, they should drop the campaign and let the people speak, or be prepared to face the consequences.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)
My hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates) has made a powerful speech and I welcome the opportunity to respond to a number of the concerns that he has raised.
It may be helpful to recall that, in December 1990, we announced that there was to be a review of local government. Our reasons were that, outside the main 1093 conurbations, the system of two principal authorities in each area still prevails, the usefulness of two tiers is being questioned and the continued existence of certain authorities which were created by the local government reorganisation of 1974 but which have not succeeded in inspiring local loyalty is also in question. Another challenge is that the role of authorities is changing as they increasingly become enablers rather than direct providers of services. Therefore, we have an opportunity to think afresh about the structure of local authorities.
The Government do not see this as an opportunity to impose a new pattern of local authorities according to a national prescription; nor do we believe that it is necessary to have a uniform pattern of authorities in every part of the country. Therefore, this does not mean the wholesale abolition of either county councils or district councils, nor even unitary authorities everywhere; it means arriving at the right solution for each community. We intend to adopt a practical approach in response to local views and conditions.
The Local Government Commission was set up last year to review the structure, boundaries and electoral arrangements of the shire counties and to assess the case for unitary authorities. The Commission has a statutory remit and is independent, but final decisions will of course be for Parliament to take.
Local government spending is significant. It is more than a quarter of all public spending—over £1,300 for every adult and child in the country. Local government needs to be in strong shape to make sure that it uses this money to deliver services effectively for local people.
There is a proper concern at the need to restore real community loyalty to local government areas, to reflect a sense of belonging based on where people live and work, and on a long-standing historical and geographical sense of identity. The task for the Commission is to review local government and to recommend structures which reflect that sense of local identity and local interests, and to secure effective and convenient local government.
The Commission is seeking to assess community identity in each area in a number of ways: through opinion polling, public meetings, freepost and questionnaires. Of course, it is receiving many, many letters from individuals and local organisations. In bringing forward its initial proposals, it is for the Commission to decide what weight to give to the varied responses. Local interest has been substantial, with thousands of people writing to make their views known in the review areas.
The task confronting the Commission is challenging. The conduct of reviews is a matter for the Commission. It has been given guidelines which it is obliged to follow. It has been given guidance on policy and procedures set out in documents that are widely available free of charge from the Department of the Environment, Local Government 1 Division, Room N7/15, 2 Marsham street, London SW 1.
This means that everyone should know the parameters within which the Commission should be operating, and everyone concerned can make known their views on any Commission proposals affecting their area. We want local people to get fully involved and make clear their views. This review is about the possible future map of England. 1094 Understandably, the review has provoked substantial interest in the local government press and among the local authorities concerned.
It is imperative that local people voice their concerns and let the Commission know their views, individually or together, reflecting the views of local organisations such as chambers of commerce, women's institutes, doctors' practices and trade councils. Individually and collectively, the people of England should let the Commission know what they think about the Commission's proposals for their part of England.
We have sought to ensure that local people have plenty of opportunities to put their views forward. The formal consultation periods commence with a two-and-a-halfmonth initial period in which to put views forward. There will then be over two months in which to comment on draft recommendations, such as those recently published for Cleveland and elsewhere.
Simply because people have commented and made their views known at an earlier stage should not deter them from making their views known once the Commission has made recommendations for their area. There is then a further six-week period in which to make representations to the Secretary of State on any eventual final recommendations. So a number of opportunities exist for local people to make clear their views.
On Monday, the Commission will publish proposals for Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire. Those proposals, like the others that the Commission has put forward, are its proposals and not those of the Government. They are proposals for consultation; they are not immutable decisions. The House will appreciate that it would be impertinent of me to comment on any proposals on any area while the review by the Commission is still being carried out.
§ Ms Mowlam
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the Minister to say that it would be unacceptable for him to comment during the consultation period remembering what is happening in other parts of the country, bearing in mind that, after a full contribution from the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates), Opposition Members have not had a chance to say anything?
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject is important for the whole of our county and some perceptive criticisms have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates). It is important—
§ Mr. Baldry
I believe that it would be impertinent of me to comment on any proposals that the Commission has brought forward. It would not be right for any Minister to do that at this or any stage, until people have had the fullest opportunity to comment, and I am surprised that the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam) tempts me to comment.
However, I wish to speak about local authorities' publicity campaigns and their associated costs, which are, rightly, of concern to my hon. Friend and others. That is a proper matter on which I can comment at this stage. 1095 Some might be tempted to think that publicity and frenetic advertising campaigns during the early stages of the review will influence local people's views of their own community identity, and even perhaps the views of the Commission.
People should understand that the Commission is, and will be, independent. Aggressive advertising campaigns and knocking copy against other councils will not influence the Commission in favour of a particular local authority option. The straightforward and simple fact is that people know where they live and with what they identify. Slick advertising will not change that perception.
There has been no change in local authority permitted spending and grant levels to cover any extra spending on any local authority publicity and advertising campaigns to influence the outcome of the Commission's review. So money being spent on such campaigns—such as those to which my hon. Friend referred—is money that is not being spent on providing services elsewhere. I suggest that the best way in which to build community loyalty is the effective delivery of high-quality local services, not frenetic advertising campaigns.
Local councils should not use public funds to mount a publicity campaign, the purpose of which is to persuade people to hold a particular view. Where councils overstep the mark and neglect their financial responsibilities, that should be brought to the attention of the local auditor, who has powers in respect of unlawful spending.
People can make their views known by writing to the Local Government Commission for England. The Commission has made considerable efforts to let people know how to contact it. I shall give its address, because I think that it is important that, should any constituent approach any hon. Member with concerns about any aspect of the Commission's work, that hon. Member should make it clear to that person that the Commission wants to hear his views and that everyone is entitled to be heard. People should write to the Local Government Commission for England, at Dolphyn court, 10–11 Great Turnstile, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, WC 1. There should be no mistake about the fact that everyone has the opportunity to have his views taken on board throughout the review process.
Disraeli observed:England is the only important European community that is still governed by traditionary interests.The best guardians of those interests are the men and women of England. It is their map of England that is being redrawn. It is their voices that must be heard. It is their views that will count.
§ Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
A number of crucial points should be raised in the debate.
I must respond, in particular, to one point made by the Minister which was completely unsubstantiated—that there was evidence to suggest that Cleveland county council, by advertising and publicising the services that it has, historically, offered to the people of Cleveland, is, by default, not offering other services. He suggested that money is being moved from one budget head to another for such advertising.
§ Ms Mowlam
That argument has been put on numerous occasions, but each time Cleveland county council has provided 1096 evidence to prove that the money has been spent from the publicity budget. It has behaved just like any other local authority, which would fight its corner in exactly the same way. That the Minister suggested that Cleveland county council is in any way reneging on the services it offers to the local people is appalling.
The Minister said that the period of consultation will last for two months. Surely the debate is part of that consultation. It is unfair of the hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Bates) to cover one side of the argument, and I welcome the opportunity to put the other. Correspondence in my mailbag reveals that people hold the exact opposite view to that put by the hon. Gentleman. People would prefer one authority, on a Teesside-wide basis. At a public meeting in Skelton, in the hon. Gentleman's own constituency, the overwhelming majority of people voted for a Teesside authority.
§ Ms Mowlam
The hon. Gentleman may shout that, but the employees of Cleveland county council have as much right as anyone else in Cleveland to argue for the desired options that they want. Just because they are employees does not make them lesser human beings. They have as much right to go to public meetings, write to Members of Parliament and argue their case as anyone else. I am pleased that many have taken the opportunity to do just that.
Many issues worry people in Cleveland. They are worried that, if the option that has been put by the Commission goes through, authorities will be created—quangos of the kind that have been created over the years by the Conservatives—to provide services, such as emergency services and economic planning, across the four district authorities. In common with the development corporations and the training councils, they would be unaccountable—
§ The motion having been made at Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.