§ 1. Mr. Milburn
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on the progress of the local government review.
§ The Minister for Local Government and Planning (Mr. David Curry)
The Local Government Commission has submitted final recommendations for 10 shire county areas. It has published draft recommendations for 11 areas, and will publish its draft reports for a further 19 in July. It is on course to produce all its final reports by the end of the year.
§ Mr. Milburn
Is the Minister aware of the widespread support for single-tier authorities in many parts of the country, especially in former county boroughs such as Darlington? Is he also aware, however, that the rerunning of the local government review in County Durham has caused great uncertainty among local authority staff, and great anger among local residents? What assurances can the Minister give that he will not reject for a second time the overwhelming popular consensus in my town in favour of Darlington's running all its own local services?
§ Mr. Curry
I am aware of the hon. Gentleman's concern for Darlington; indeed, he has been to see me about it. The commission will produce its draft for County Durham—which, of course, includes Darlington—on 12 July. I cannot judge the reaction to that draft, as I do not know what it will contain, but we are all anxious for the process to move forward, for the uncertainty to end and for proper dispositions to be made. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that what we need now is a sensible implementation of the proposals: at present, rather too many people appear to want to engage in trench warfare.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
No doubt my hon. Friend will wish to welcome yesterday's decision by the High Court. Most Conservative Members do not believe that such matters should be resolved through resort to litigation, and 796 I think that we all support the commission's proposals for Avon, Cleveland and many other areas. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind, however, the fact that—like my three right hon. and hon. Friends representing Somerset constituencies—I am still strongly opposed to its proposals for Somerset?
§ Mr. Curry
I do, of course, welcome the court's ruling, but I must add that all it does is leave us where we wanted to be. I think that we should be a little cautious before we contemplate allowing every council in the land to decide to indulge in trench warfare through the courts: that will add to the uncertainty of the process.
We do not have a great uniform mandate, or a secret plan to impose uniformity everywhere. I know my hon. Friend's views and those of his colleagues who represent Somerset. We shall have to take our view in a considered way when it is a sensible time to do so. I welcome what my hon. Friend said, but he will recognise that I am in the business not of imposing a draconian plan but of introducing sensible measures to serve local government, focused on the delivery of services. That is at the heart of the review.
§ Mr. Mandelson
Will the Minister reaffirm the Government's strong determination to create four unitary district-based councils in the present county of Cleveland? In addition to the Local Government Commission, the overwhelming majority of the public, most local Members of Parliament, the Government themselves and now the High Court, too, support his opinion. Only the House of Commons has so far not been asked to express a view, and we expect that to happen with the minimum of delay.
§ Mr. Curry
The hon. Gentleman is right. The Government have expressed their view on the future of the Cleveland area—that the present county council should be succeeded by four district-based unitary authorities. The legal processes are not yet exhausted, as the hon. Gentleman will know, and I am reflecting on the situation in Cleveland. I hope that all those concerned will accept that it is now important to end the uncertainty so that we can get on with the business of change in a sensible measured way and ensure that it works.
§ Mr. Bates
Has my hon. Friend had the opportunity to consider carefully the judgment reached yesterday in the High Court? It was a clear vindication of the way in which the commission conducted its affairs in Cleveland, and of the decision that it reached to abolish Cleveland county council. Will my hon. Friend therefore now consider an investigation into the way in which Cleveland county council has wasted tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money in bringing that bogus case to the High Court in a vain attempt to save its own neck at the taxpayers' expense?
§ Mr. Curry
The fact that the High Court has vindicated the position of the commission and the Government so completely is most helpful. I hope that all those concerned will realise that now the sensible step is to implement, so that services will be assured. The case has been argued exhaustively in the political and the legal arena, and it is now time to bring it to a conclusion and get on with the business of change so that people can see that it will work and so that we can put the services first. That is what the process is about.
§ Mr. Straw
As the Minister has spoken about the uncertainty surrounding the review, does he accept that if, before the general election, the Government had accepted the Labour amendment to the Local Government Act 1992—the Act which established the review—the uncertainty would not have arisen?
I shall ask the Minister two questions, about staff and about start-up elections. Given the high degree of anxiety among staff about the review, will the Minister accept that the undertakings on staff transfer given by the former Secretary of State on 2 November 1992, which were to transfer the "vast majority" of staff automatically, and to provide proper compensation for those not transferred, must be honoured in full? Does he also accept that start-up elections for all councillors must be held at the beginning of any transfer period in every new unitary council, including those based on existing districts?
§ Mr. Curry
The hon. Gentleman asked two questions. As for the elections, I am now reflecting on whether it is still feasible to set up the successor authorities in Cleveland directly next May. There has been a significant delay, and the important aim is that the system should get off the ground effectively, with sensible arrangements.
On staffing, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are consulting now on draft compensation terms for staff up to the age of 50. Those terms are for general use as well as for specific use in the local government reorganisation, and they would mean that someone up to the age of 50 could receive compensation worth 66 weeks' salary—the present maximum is 24½ weeks'. There are also mandatory safety net proposals specific to the local government reorganisation, and generous enhanced pension arrangements for people over 50.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will meet Unison and the associations next week, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State or I will be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those matters. This is a consultation document, and clearly, we take consultation seriously.