HC Deb 25 October 1993 vol 230 cc663-70

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]

10 pm

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

The Adjournment debate tonight concerns a matter of particular importance to my constituents because it affects the future of local government in the Isle of Wight.

On 6 March 1992, the Local Government Act received the Royal Assent. On 21 December 1992, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, who is now the Home Secretary, issued a press release from the Department in which he stated, inter alia, that the Government intended that fresh council elections be held in all areas where unitary authorities were set up. He stated that there would be elected shadow authorities in the areas where unitary authorities were to be set up. They would be established in virtually all areas, and my right hon. and learned Friend went on to talk of "a fresh start".

In a letter of 22 December—I emphasise the fact that the letter was written on the day after the press release—Robin Young, director of the local government directorate at the Department of the Environment, asked the chief executive of South Wight borough council for representations from the Isle of Wight about elections to a shadow—I also emphasise that word—authority. The letter states that that could affect the establishing of any new authority.

In a Department of the Environment press release on 5 March this year, the then Secretary of State says that the new structure for the island will be introduced in April 1995 and, to prepare for that, a shadow authority will be elected in May 1994. In a letter dated 2 July this year, the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), informed me that the recommendations of the Local Government Commission had been generally welcomed. He said: The timing of implementation would be 1 April 1995, as Michael Howard announced in March. The Local Government Commission had of course published its final recommendations to the Secretary of State in April of this year. The commission recommended that a single unitary authority should be established for the Isle of Wight to replace"— again I emphasise the word "replace"— the existing county council and the boroughs of Medina and South Wight. The commission said "to replace". It could hardly be clearer.

So what is the problem? Why are we having the debate this evening? On 4 August the Minister for Local Government upset the apple cart in a letter to Councillor Pettit who, I believe, is the chairman of the Association of County Councils. The letter stated that there would be no new authority and no shadow authority separate from the existing three councils. Unbelievably, particularly in view of all my work and the time that I spent with the Minister's predecessors in getting it right, the elections in May 1994 would be for the existing county councils, albeit with the additional seats.

In one fell swoop, the Department of the Environment had dissolved every ounce of consensus that I had erected and had sold the borough councillors and staff right down the Solent. That was done without the slightest word of consultation as was promised in the ministerial letter of 2 July—just four weeks previously.

So what on earth is going on? To say that the decision caused an earthquake on the Isle of Wight would be an understatement. On 29 December, all the parties concerned went to see the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), and told him how angry we were. All the political parties on the three councils were represented, including independent councillors, and council leaders and officers and myself also attended.

At that meeting, the Minister promised us that, if we could prove that the Department had in any way misled us or given us false expectations, he would have the matter reopened. Nothing could be clearer than the press releases and the correspondence from Mr. Young and other members of staff in his Department, as well as the commission—all referred to in my letter to the Minister of 5 October. I put it on record that I am happy to waive my parliamentary privilege in matters of correspondence should the Minister wish to publish all or part of the correspondence that he and I have had.

At the meeting, I suggested that paragraph 4 of the commission's recommendations about seaward boundaries should be revisited. That is entirely in line with the report of the Select Committee on the Environment on coastal zone protection and planning published in May last year in which Sir Hugh Rossi was kind enough to indicate that 1 played a leading part. That would enable the commission's recommendations to be adhered to and the wishes of the people of the Isle of Wight complied with.

At our September meeting with the Minister, the leader of the county council, Morris Barton, told the Minister that elections next year to the existing county council—albeit with the additional seats—would confuse the electorate and be seen as a waste of money given that elections were held only last year.

What makes me madder than a bald badger is that I spent hours in correspondence and conversation with the previous Secretary of State and the then local government Minister—now the Secretary of State for Wales—arguing this very point and obtaining their agreement as evinced by the press releases already quoted in the debate.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will at least do me the courtesy tonight of confirming that he has understood the unanimity of purpose among all the political parties, councillors and people of the Isle of Wight. I hope that he will acknowledge, too, that despite my very real upset at seeing my patient work totally dismantled, my response has been tempered by my refusal to become embroiled in personal recriminations or an unconstructive approach, although I have told the Minister that I will be seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister. I am actively pursuing that, as I believe that my right hon. Friend, and my right hon. Friend alone, should consider the consequences of the problem. I have received confirmation from my right hon. Friend's PPS tonight that that matter is in train.

I note that, in evidence to the Select Committee on the Environment last week, Sir John Banham stated that, if the commission's proposals were turned down, he would have to consider his position.

How do we proceed? Where there is a will, there is a way. At Question Time last week, the Secretary of State for the Environment indicated that the island has his ear as regards this problem and his good will in so far as he can influence the present impasse. I suggest that my right hon. Friend looks to the staff commission to see whether it can protect the borough's position and whether a way can be found for the three authorities to become an ad hoc shadow authority for 1994. I suggest that the disposition and staff appointments should be made, with the elections to the new authority taking place in 1995.

I also suggest that the Secretary of State should confirm that he will use his powers to allow the authority to name itself, because the Isle of Wight is unique and feels strongly the need to recognise that fact. Councillor Barton is quite right about the elections. The line drawn in the sand in all of this should be the cancellation of those wasteful elections next year and the holding of elections the following year.

My frustration is compounded when I read two things. First, in the Local Government Chronicle an unnamed spokesman from the Department of the Environment wrote: the Isle of Wight decision was not controversial. 'It seems sensible to be completely clear where the review is going before the secretary of state makes a final decision on the Isle of Wight'. I agree with that but, unfortunately, that was pre-empted somewhat by the letter from the Minister for Local Government and Planning in August.

I note that County News of 14 October reported that, in connection with the commission's new objectives, the Secretary of State has again referred to the need to give more weight to proposals emerging as a result of local consensus". That is exactly what the Isle of Wight did. It gained local consensus. It was in entire agreement. There is not so much as a moiety of doubt or a scintilla of disagreement among the good citizens and burghers of England's fairest isle, yet we are now told that we cannot proceed as we originally proposed.

My hon. Friend the Minister impressed all who met him on 28 September. We hope that, in him, we may have found the David who will defeat the Goliaths at Marsham street. Anyone who gives permissions for sharks to stick out of roofs in suburbia is surely just the Minister for whom we are looking—one with original thought to accommodate the needs of the people of the Isle of Wight.

Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us this evening when the Secretary of State intends to make an announcement about the recommendations of the Local Government Commission. Is the operative date still 1995? When is the Isle of Wight order to be laid before Parliament? When does the staff commission intend to issue specific guidance about the staff transfers relating to the reorganisation of the Isle of Wight?

If I may be so bold, I suggest that my hon. Friend arranges to meet the three chief executives or senior managers of the island's three authorities to make absolutely certain that there are no unforeseen wrinkles in any solutions that he has to offer, then invites the leading councillors of the authorities, along the lines of the deputation that he kindly saw on 28 September, to discuss his proposals. After that, it will, of course, be up to each authority to endorse the way out that impasse.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take my points on board. I am grateful for having been granted the Adjournment debate. I am sad that I have to come before the House on this issue, because there was no doubt in my mind—or those of my constituents, councillors of all parties and of none—that we had originally in the statement from the previous Secretary of State and from the Minister for Local Government and Planning a decision and solution that would commend itself to the majority of the people of the Isle of Wight. The letter in August unfortunately seems to have cut right across that consensus and caused us considerable consternation.

10.12 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

A fresh start and a new beginning with a new council on the Isle of Wight is what the people of the Isle of Wight said that they want. It is what the existing local authorities on the island have said that they would like; and it is what my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field) has been steadfast in advocating to Ministers as being in the best interests of the island.

The approach of a fresh start, one local authority provider and one voice for the Isle of Wight has been carefully considered by the Local Government Commission. Having listened, the Local Government Commission has now recommended one island, one authority.

Of course, I have to point out that in law my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is still considering the Local Government Commission's proposals for the island. I have no doubt that he will wish to come to a conclusion on that shortly, but not before he has had adequate time to consider the matters that have arisen from the debate. Anything—indeed everything—that I say tonight must be without prejudice to the decision that will be taken by my right hon. Friend.

The House will have noted, however, that in recent guidance the Local Government Commission has been asked to give more weight to proposals emerging as a result of local agreement, and the benefits of unitary authorities have been re-emphasised. In those circumstances, the House will note that the commission's proposals for the Isle of Wight are based on strong local agreement —a point that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has made clear—across party and local authority tiers and boundaries and would lead to a unitary authority for the island. That is in keeping with the guidance given to the Local Government Commission. It may be helpful if this evening I consider the likely implications of the commission's recommendations on the basis that they were to be accepted.

My hon. Friend has made three specific requests. The first is that I ask officials in my Department to discuss with the chief executives and senior officers of the local authorities on the island the best way of taking forward and completing the transition to a new authority. The second is that we consider further the timings of elections on the island. The third is that, having considered those points, I visit the Island to discuss the matters in detail with local councillors from all three local authorities, to make sure that everyone is agreed on the best way forward and what is in the best interests of the future of the Isle of Wight. I am happy to say yes, yes and yes to my hon. Friend's three requests.

When we established the Local Government Commission, we said that we were in favour of unitary authorities, and that where they were to be set up there should be a fresh start. Local people should have the opportunity to set for themselves the political agenda for decisions on how best local government services should be delivered to local people by the new council in their area. That is still very much our objective.

The concerns that have been raised this evening by my hon. Friend relate to issues concerning the differences between "new authorities" and "continuing authorities" under the legislation. It might help if I put those two phrases in inverted commas when I use them throughout my speech. I am not sure how one puts inverted commas into Hansard, but doubtless it will be worked out. In practical terms, for reasons that I shall go into, I do not believe that in practice, particularly in an area such as the Isle of Wight, there will be very much difference between a "new authority" and an authority which will clearly be perceived by everybody as being new but which will in law technically be a "continuing authority".

The Local Government Act 1992 will not allow a unitary authority to be set up as a new legal entity where the boundaries of the new authority are coterminous with those of an existing authority. So, for example, if the commission were to recommend that in a particular part of the country the best way forward for local government would be a unitary authority based on the boundaries of an existing shire county, with the districts being absorbed into the new council, in law what we would have would be a "continuing authority" of the county council rather than a "new authority".

Because the Isle of Wight is, in fact and by definition, an island, its boundaries are fixed, and because the sea cannot be included in a local authority's area, no amount of creative manoeuvre—for example, of the local government allegiance of any of the forts in the Solent—could serve substantially to alter the boundaries of the Isle of Wight. It thus follows that any new unitary authority on the island for the whole island will by definition have boundaries that are coterminous with the existing boundaries of the county council and thus in law will be a "continuing authority" rather than a "new authority".

I appreciate that that fact has caused concerns on the island, not least because earlier comments from Ministers had not highlighted that point. I appreciate that there were concerns that, once it was made clear, it signalled some intention on the part of Ministers to bring about something other than that desired by people on the Isle of Wight. It does not. It is simply a straightforward statement of the law as approved by Parliament and with which none of the local authority associations disagree. However, for all practical purposes I do not believe that it will make a significant difference to, or impact on, the strength of a fresh start for the Isle of Wight with what everyone will see as a new council with new local boundaries after fresh elections.

In the context of local government reorganisation, thought needs to be given to several matters, including where people want to get to after the establishment of a new unitary authority. I suspect that there are several issues by which we should test that: first, preparations for the new authority; secondly, elections for the new authority; thirdly, staffing issues—instructions to both the existing and new authorities.

As my hon. Friend made clear, there are at present three local authorities on the Isle of Wight: the county council and two district councils. Those three authorities have already shown a willingness to get together, sort things out and prepare for the future. When they came to see me recently, they formed a united deputation of councillors and officers from all three local authorities, who have clearly all been working together to try to determine what is in the island's best interests.

There is absolutely no reason why members of the existing local authorities should not get together to shape and plan the strategy of the new unitary authority on the island. Such an approach is to be encouraged and welcomed. They are perfectly free to enter into such working agreements together as they consider will be helpful in sorting out new staffing and management procedures after reorganisation. Indeed, councillors on the island have already set a good example of working together and I see absolutely no difficulty in their bringing about practical working arrangements best suited to the needs of the island to ensure the most constructive transition to the new unitary authority.

My hon. Friend asked me whether existing authorities on the island can work together to prepare for the new unitary authority. My answer is yes, I very much hope that they will be encouraged to work closely together and set an example to other parts of the country of how local authorities can work together to prepare for new unitary authorities.

Secondly, my hon. Friend explained his concerns about elections. There will of course be fresh elections to the new unitary authority on the island. Every existing councillor, whether county or district, will have an opportunity to seek election to the new authority, as will anyone not at present a councillor who wishes to contest those elections. The elections will also take place on new local boundaries.

At present the elections are due to take place in May 1994, so the councillors would then have powers to take decisions for the assumption of all unitary local authority functions in April 1995. Local people would of course be able to elect the councillors whom they judge would best do the job.

I appreciate, however, that my hon. Friend and many people on the Isle of Wight would prefer no elections next year and elections on new local boundaries to the new authority in May 1995. I appreciate the arguments that my hon. Friend and local councillors have made for such a course. There are a number of issues to consider. A good starting point would be if my officials discussed this further with the chief executives of the existing local authorities, whereupon I would be more than willing to meet councillors from those authorities to discuss options for elections, before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the House take any final decisions on the timing of elections for the new unitary authority.

Thirdly, but of equal importance, are the staff. I appreciate that there are concerns on the island that if there is in law a "continuing authority" rather than a "new authority" the staff of the existing district councils may in some way be discriminated against in favour of the staff of the county council. I do not believe so. Of course local government reorganisation, wherever it takes place, will give rise to staffing issues. That shows the wisdom of our decision to set up a local government staff commission to consider these issues and to give guidance and advice.

My hon. Friend has been most helpful, tonight and in correspondence elsewhere, in highlighting the concerns of people on the island and suggesting ways of ensuring fair treatment for all staff. That is certainly what we want; we want no local government staff to feel that they have been discriminated against in the process. We have been drawing up new guidance to the staff commission, in consultation with the local authority associations, to ensure that it is fully aware off all these issues—especially the "new/continuing authority" questions. We shall give this new guidance to the staff commission shortly. I believe that as a result of our guidance and of the existence and work of the staff commission no local government employee on the island need feel subjected to any prejudice.

On all the issues of importance we shall ensure that for all practical purposes the arrangements for moving forward to a new unitary authority mirror as far as possible those that would have been in place had it not been possible for a "continuing authority" to exist in law.

If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State accepts the recommendation of the local government commission after May 1995, there will be a new unitary authority on the Isle of Wight with a new name. Fresh elections will have been held on new local boundaries. Local people will have elected councillors to the new authority to give the island a fresh start.

Local people, local councillors and my hon. Friend have all been working hard to ensure the best future for the Isle of Wight. We, too, want to ensure the best future for the island, and with good will and flexibility I am sure that we can achieve what we all want—that which is in the best interests of the people of the Isle of Wight.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for having brought these matters to the attention of the House. I hope that I have been able to reassure him, and to confirm that I am more than willing to make sure that officials work on his request. In due course I look forward to discussing these matters with elected councillors from the island and with my hon. Friend. I believe that there is every possibility that we shall achieve what he and everyone on the island want: a new authority with a fresh start.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.