HC Deb 25 April 1995 vol 258 cc757-66

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

10.23 pm
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss local government in Leicestershire. On 21 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment announced that he was minded to accept the recommendation of the Local Government Commission to alter the present local government arrangements in Leicestershire in favour of a unitary city, a unitary Rutland and a doughnut county council outside the city and Rutland, with the remaining districts and boroughs staying as they are.

Since the last reform of local government in 1974, we have had a county council for Leicestershire which, for administrative purposes, includes Rutland, and nine district, city or borough councils: Leicester city council in the middle of the county; Charnwood borough council in the north; Melton borough council in the north-east; Rutland district council in the east; Harborough district council in the south and the south-east; Oadby and Wigston borough council between rural Harborough and the city's south-eastern boundary; Blaby district council to the south and west of Leicester, separating Harborough, from Hinckley; Bosworth borough council in the south-west and west of the county; and North-West Leicestershire district council.

My constituency takes in the whole of Oadby and Wigston and much the greater part of Harborough district, the smaller part being within the Blaby constituency. I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) present. Harborough is the largest district within the county in terms of acreage, and borders the city, Melton, Rutland, Blaby and Oadby and Wigston. As the hon. Member for Harborough and a resident of Leicestershire, I take on my own behalf and on behalf of my constituents a profound interest in what is proposed for my county. Those are not matters that affect the interests of only one Member of Parliament, whether he be from the city or the county. They affect us all and, although I represent neither a city seat nor Rutland, on that account I cannot be shut out from expressing my deep concern about what the local government commission proposes for Leicestershire as a whole.

I must get at my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State through the Under-Secretary. To accept the Local Government Commission's recommendations for Leicestershire would be wrong in principle, damage public confidence in local government and lead to greater financial burdens on local taxpayers in the entire county. It would be fundamentally to misunderstand the public mood in Leicestershire, unpopular and, still worse, unwise. The overwhelming majority of Leicestershire's people want no more than to be left alone in terms of local government reform. They neither want nor need upheaval. They expressed that view by taking no interest whatever in the Local Government Commission's activities, or by reacting with puzzlement as it went about its work.

First, I shall deal briefly with Rutland, not because it is unimportant—on the contrary, it is a unique and wonderful county for which I have the greatest affection and admiration and I do not wish to see it harmed in any way—but because a solution to the difficulties that are bound to present themselves with unitary status, which is bound to attract widespread support throughout Leicestershire, is at hand. The case for recognising Rutland's identity, its long history as a county and its long-time and recently settled residents' strength of feeling for their native and adopted county is well made and can be answered by restoring to Rutland its historic county status. I shall say no more on that matter because my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who is also present this evening, fundamentally disagrees with me on two points. I hope that he will correct me if I get them wrong. First, he thinks that Rutland should be granted unitary status and I respect his view on that. Secondly, he believes that to grant unitary status to Rutland will not affect the remainder of the county of Leicestershire.

On the recommendation to give the city of Leicester unitary status, strangely and, in my view, improperly, the Local Government Commission let it be known in Leicestershire that it intended to recommend a unitary city before it had completed its review. The city of Leicester sits at the centre of the county of Leicestershire and is, in every sense, its core. It is not like Nottingham or Derby, the two cities with which it is most frequently compared, for they are at the edge of their respective counties and have an entirely different economic and geographical relationship with them. Leicester and Leicestershire are two parts of a working whole—40 per cent. of those who work in the city live in the county—and to remove one from the other is to damage both. It is foolish to believe that joint arrangements between the city, the county and the districts is a substitute for the present system—all the more so when one realises that 68 informal and formal joint arrangements will be required to provide the services currently provided by the county council alone.

To enable the city to be viable on its own, it will need to extend its boundaries into the county. Even the Local Government Commission recognised that that would be hugely unpopular in parts of the county closest to the city. No Government can anticipate the results of any future boundary commission, nor guarantee protection from an expanding city in due course. Leicestershire's and Leicester's people wanted no change. Although the commission chose not to offer no change as an express option in its survey forms, that option received more support across the county than any of the commission's three options.

That was noticeably true in Leicester. The commission's own MORI survey showed that only 14 per cent. in the city supported its recommended structure. In a separate exercise, the commission canvassed the opinion of every city household. Despite the city council's campaign for unitary status, just 909 city residents, out of a total population of 285,400, were sufficiently moved to vote for the commission's preferred, now final, recommendation.

Those considerations may be seen as mainly technical ones. At least they were known to the commission and perhaps we can assume that they were simply set aside as the commission settled for unitary authorities in all the larger cities. I suggest that it is time to move away from the belief that those cities are somehow special cases. If the Government's declared policy of no national blueprint is to hold, it can be just as easily and just as properly extended to the cities as to the more rural areas. That principle becomes all the more important when a second set of considerations is taken into account, and it is vital that it should be.

There are political considerations of which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Government need urgently to be apprised. Leicester is a politically unstable city, albeit under the permanent control of the Labour party. It is increasingly the victim of a combustible combination of Labour party in-fighting and factional Asian politics. That state of affairs is well known to the national as well as the local press. We have already read press stories about the behaviour of the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), who apparently controls the current local leadership and will influence future changes. Press stories have also appeared about the involvement in internal Labour party matters of senior city council officers.

Last autumn, I asked some pertinent parliamentary questions of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary about the Belgrave residents association. There are many disturbing elements to the story, most now connected to the selection of Labour candidates for the municipal elections in May, which are all currently coming to the boil.

Against that background, the city council has, first, conspicuously failed to deliver the opportunities offered by the city challenge programme. Secondly, it has failed miserably in its bid for a share of the single regeneration budget. Thirdly, it is currently failing to explain how it overspent on the refurbishment of the city's concert hall by £1.6 million and yet still failed to open the hall on time. Cancelled shows have cost the local taxpayer a further £0.33 million. Fourthly, the city council is spending £50,000 of public money to engage lawyers to argue against the professional recommendations of its own officers—officers of the county council and of an adjacent district council—that a gipsy camp on the very edge of the city's boundary should not be built. That proposal offends every planning consideration and every local resident, but according to the city's Labour politicians' dogma it should be built.

Leicester city council's only claim to credit lies in its title of "Environment City", a claim, which, frankly, needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as the gipsy camp debacle shows. It is an authority with no track record to show that it can deliver major projects or major services. Furthermore, Leicester city is a profligate authority. It routinely overspends againstits standard spending assessment—this year by 37 per cent. It must plunder its balances by more than £4 million this year. Its budget requirement per head is far in excess of other cities in the east midlands. The figure for Leicester is £193; for Nottingham, £146 and for Derby, £110. There can surely be no confidence that the city council understands the county services that it would presume to take over, let alone possesses the capability to do so. They are the most important local services, however, where cost-effectiveness is crucial.

The city's submission for unitary status showed an abject failure to grasp and to plan for the scale and complexity of the services. It fails to understand how delegation to schools operates. It has claimed that it will "improve the service", but the money for that is to be kept by the local education authority and not delegated. Secondly, the city's submission fails to recognise, let alone to understand, that almost 90 per cent. of the acute health facilities of Leicestershire are based within its boundaries. The enormous consequences for hospital social work of the discharge of non-city residents from hospital are thereby ignored.

Thirdly, the city has not seriously considered the implications of disposing of 250,000 tonnes a year of household waste. It has no facilities available in Leicester. Fourthly, it seeks to take over the seven county museum buildings located in the city, but mistakenly believes that a museum service is about buildings rather than collections. It has no conception of the wider range of services that reach out from museums and no respect for the integrity of the collections.

In my view, the question is all too apparent: what sense is there in such people as those who currently control the city council in Leicester being given additional powers and budgets?

I totally refute the suggestion that giving Leicester city unitary status would in some way cut out the canker from the county. It would continue to fester. I understand that the Government's current financial regime, applied within a Leicestershire envelope, would divert additional moneys into the city from the surrounding areas. Council tax payers in those areas would see their bills not only increase to pay for the transitional costs of a unitary city, but simultaneously increase to pay for the existing level of service, at best. Meanwhile, services now provided by the county council to the people of Leicester would be put under the control of people whom I would describe as irresponsible city politicians.

Given the interdependence of the city and the rest of Leicestershire, it is important to recognise the restraint that the county council has brought to bear on the political dogma and excesses of the city council. To remove that restraint, which is what the Local Government Commission's recommendations would mean, would be to the detriment of the governance of both Leicestershire and the city.

There are two further points of great concern to me, which relate to the Leicester, East constituency Labour party and to the hon. Member for Leicester, East. From material that I have received it is now possible to say that charges of interference by the hon. Gentleman in the affairs of Leicester city council, most notably by exercising undue pressure on a former housing director and on a female former councillor, have been made.

It is fair to say that I had a half-hour discussion with the hon. Gentleman yesterday and he has shown me some further papers this evening. Having heard what he told me yesterday and having looked at the papers, I concede that he has provided an explanation—but not, in my view, a complete one. As last autumn he tabled an early-day motion about me containing information that he knew was false, and as I understand that he has telephoned the chief executive of the county council several times to ask him to drop disciplinary charges against a county council employee who is, or was, a prospective candidate for one of the city wards in his constituency, and who was, or may still be, an officer of the Leicester, East constituency Labour party, I have yet to be wholly satisfied that the explanation is a complete one.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

May I take this opportunity to deny totally the charges made by the hon. and learned Gentleman, who is known as someone who raises such matters without substantiation? And as he has given way to me, would he like to comment on a dossier that I have received about him, and a letter signed by a member of the Bosworth constituency party saying that he has asked for this debate because he seeks the nomination for the Bosworth constituency, intending to take advantage of the present position of the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick)?

It would be good if the hon. and learned Gentleman gave the House an assurance that he intends to stand in the Harborough constituency in future. I raised that question with him before the debate, so he was aware of what I intended to say. I am glad that he gave me the opportunity to provide him with some information, but that is what I would expect from an honourable and learned Gentleman. Perhaps he would comment on those statements—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Is this an intervention, or has the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) finished?

Mr. Garnier

I intended only to give way, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but as the hon. Member for Leicester, East then began to make a speech, let me tell the House that what he has just said confirms my doubts about the explanation that he gave me last night. That is, I have no—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We have certainly had enough personalisation now. We shall get on with the debate.

Mr. Garnier

May I simply add, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that everything that the hon. Gentleman has just said is totally false?

The Labour party nationally has consistently failed to clean up the Leicester, East constituency Labour party. It set up an official inquiry in August 1994, but that appears to have run into the sand. The Walworth road line is that accusations of ballot-rigging and membership impropriety—

Mr. Vaz

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is a debate on local government in Leicestershire. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough is not a member of the Leicester, East or of any other constituency Labour party. There are three other Conservative Members here, and they and I would like to participate in a debate on local government reorganisation. In a debate on local government in Leicestershire it is clearly not in order to describe the inner workings of a constituency Labour party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair will decide what is in order and what is not in order but, as the hon. Gentleman says, the debate is about government in Leicestershire and, if we can get to it, it would be most helpful. There is not a lot of time in these Adjournment debates, so would the hon. and learned Gentlemen get down to the debate itself?

Mr. Garnier

It is precisely because of the way that. I employed my arguments earlier that I wish the Government to take carefully the recommendations of the local government review. As I said, accusations of ballot rigging and membership impropriety were fully investigated—

Mr. Vaz

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. and learned Gentleman took your view, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is that the debate is about local government in Leicestershire. There are hon. Gentlemen here—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is a debate about local government in Leicestershire, and let us now cut the personalities out.

Mr. Garnier

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am not talking about the hon. Gentleman; I am talking about the unwisdom of allowing unitary status to be given to the city of Leicester, bearing in mind the matters that I am about to discuss.

Walworth road has been informed of those accusations of ballot rigging and membership impropriety, and claims that they were fully investigated in August 1994 and were found to be groundless. Walworth road claims that what is going on is—

Mr. Vaz

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Walworth road is not a unitary council in Leicestershire county council. It is an internal matter. I could raise in Adjournment debates, plenty of internal matters concerning the Market Harborough Conservative Association. The hon. and learned Gentleman is ignoring what you have said.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already said to the hon. Gentleman that I will decide what is in order and what is out of order, but, having said that, I cannot, for the life of me, think what Walworth road has to do with local government in Leicestershire.

Mr. Garnier

I am advancing an argument that Leicester city council is not a responsible organisation and it is, as I said earlier, manned by members of the Leicester East constituency Labour party. I submit that it is not a proper organisation to be given unitary status.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that that is a matter of local government in Leicestershire, which has been aired at length in the best known local newspaper in Leicester, the Leicester Mercury, and that many column inches have been expended on local government in Leicester on the very topic that he mentioned?

Mr. Garnier

My hon. Friend is right. That is a matter of considerable interest in Leicestershire.

I have seen two detailed confidential reports to Labour's national executive committee. They were apparently sent to every member of that committee on 19 February 1995, under cover of a letter signed by 16 senior Leicester Labour politicians. They included, not only the ousted long-serving city council leader, Peter Soulsby, but three former lord mayors of Leicester, the secretary of the Leicester district Labour party, the secretary and chief whip of the Labour group on Leicester city council, the former deputy leader and the vice-chairman of the neighbouring Leicester West constituency Labour party. Despite the seniority of those complainants and the gravity of their allegations, the Labour party shows no signs of taking any action—and that is the organisation that will eventually have control of the city of Leicester. Walworth road shows no sign of taking any action, at least before the 4 May local government elections. The national Labour party appears determined to sweep the practices of that constituency Labour party firmly under the carpet.

A number of the allegations that have been levelled are as follows.

Mr. Vaz

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman has totally ignored what you have said from the Chair. This is a debate about local government reorganisation, not about the internal workings of the constituency party.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I will repeat myself. The Chair will decide what is right and what is wrong. Now can we get down to debate? I have already said that there is only a short period for this type of debate, and one tends to think that they are wasted on some occasions.

Mr. Vaz

Certainly in this case.

Mr. Garnier

As I was saying, some of the allegations that have been levelled are that there have been block payments for membership by particular people; the withholding of meeting notices to prevent members from voting; the exclusion of members by falsely claiming that they had resigned and the refusal to accept some people's membership without proper reason … the deliberate signing up of Party Members at false addresses to deselect councillors or … otherwise to affect the outcome of Party meetings … the use of intimidation"— for example against Leicester city councillor Mir Juma, who has claimed that it was made clear to him that, if he did not support a specific candidate in the selection, process, the city council funding for the project that he worked for would be threatened.

Mr. Vaz

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This is becoming farcical. A Minister of the Crown is waiting to discuss those important issues, and the hon. Gentleman is mentioning issues concerning councillors who are not a party to the debate and not involved—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair is now beginning to lose a little patience. There is a fine line between local government and party politics in local government. We are now really stretching a little bit too far. The subject is local government in Leicester.

Mr. Garnier

It is local government in Leicestershire, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which includes the city of Leicester. It is relevant because the Local Government Commission's recommendation, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is minded to accept, is to give unitary status to the city. I suggest that that is unwise for the reasons that I have advanced and am in the process of advancing—[Interruption.]

I urge the House to consider carefully the points that I have made and to ignore the somewhat hysterical interventions of the hon. Member for Leicester, East, who is clearly getting upset. We must work out what is best for Leicestershire and what is best for the people of Leicester. What do people in Leicestershire and the city of Leicester want?

The recommendation is unwise. I ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State my view that the recommendation should be postponed so that further consideration can be given to the activities, not only of the Local Government Commission or its recommendations, but to the activities of the people who are most likely—there is no point being prissy about it—to run the city once it is given unitary status.

There have been suggestions that the hon. Member for Leicester, East, who is clearly losing control of himself, has been involved in the overturning of the leadership of the last city council. I shall not dwell on those—all that I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to do is to postpone the period of consideration so that full thought can be given to the wisdom of giving full effect to the recommendations of the local government review.

10.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

I understand that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) has been appointed Queen's counsel today, so it falls to me to congratulate him on his appointment. I should also say how glad I am to see present for the debate my hon. Friends the Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and for Blaby (Mr. Robathan). I know that they have a great and sincere interest in the subject.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough has chosen to have a debate on the important subject of local government, particularly in the city of Leicester which borders his constituency. As he has not felt it appropriate to mention the record of Harborough district council, perhaps I may take the opportunity to pay tribute to the record of that local authority. Its councillors, especially the leader and committee chairmen, work hard and often unthanked. I, for one, am appreciative of what they have done and continue to do for the people of Harborough.

Although those involved in local government have the primary responsibility to ensure that they provide good and cost-effective services to local people, we in central Government also have a responsibility to ensure that the conditions in which local authorities work are right. As part of that responsibility, it is right that the structure of local government should be examined periodically to see if it is still responding to the needs and wishes of local people.

The functions and role of local authorities have always been in a state of flux—more so in recent years—and local people's expectations of them have also changed. That is not to say that local authorities are not providing good services at a reasonable cost, but there is always room for improvement. It was with that in mind that we set up the Local Government Commission in 1992. Its first remit was to review the structure, boundaries and electoral arrangements of the two-tier shire counties. Among other things, the commission was to consider the extent to which a unitary local government structure could better provide convenient and effective local government and meet the identities and interests of local communities. I certainly do not intend to rehearse all the arguments as I believe that they are well known.

I shall now turn specifically to Leicestershire. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced to the House on 21 March his decisions on a number of the Local Government Commission's reports on the structure in the English shire counties. The commission's recommendations, and our decisions on them, have been based on the two criteria that any change must lead to structures which can meet the needs and wishes of local people and must secure effective and convenient local government.

We strongly feel, as did the Local Government Commission, that Leicester city has the right qualities to be an effective unitary authority. Following his announcement on 21 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to Leicester city council confirming that he intends that there should be a unitary authority for Leicester. Some have suggested that our caution over unitary status for Rutland also meant that we were uncertain as to Leicester city's future status. I should like to confirm that that is not the case.

The city of Leicester has a population of 285,000. As such, it is the second largest non-metropolitan district in England and is bigger than all but four London boroughs and the majority of the metropolitan boroughs. Most of the local authorities in the county would support a unitary Leicester, as would many of the local people. The individual responses to the commission's questionnaire and the results of its MORI poll, which I believe is rather more reliable statistically, suggested that there was strong support in the city for the various options involving a unitary Leicester. The MORI poll suggested that 41 per cent. supported a unitary authority while 17 per cent. supported no change.

In addition, Leicester has a tradition of strong civic government and was a county borough. We believe that it has all the right ingredients to make it a successful unitary authority.

The point was made in some representations following the commission's final report, not least those of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough, that Leicestershire was unique because of the central position of Leicester in the county, geographically, administratively and culturally. We considered those points very carefully before reaching a decision on the structure of the county, but we do not consider that they negate the case for a unitary authority in Leicester.

My hon. and learned Friend suggested other reasons why there should be no structural change in Leicester. However, I believe that in making decisions about the structure of local government in England it is important to draw a distinction between local authorities and the councils and councillors who serve them. We in Government and Parliament can determine the size, shape, structure and services provided by a local authority, as a local authority's powers and duties are derived directly from Parliament, but we should do so with reference to the objective arguments for and against the various options for that particular area, not on the basis of whether we approve or disapprove of the activities of any existing council or group of councillors.

Councillors are, and should be, responsible to their local electorate. It is up to the people in each authority to elect the people who they think will best be able to make the decisions that will directly affect the quality and cost of local services. In this way, it is up to the people in Leicester city—as, indeed, in any other part of the country—to determine whether their existing councillors are doing a good job.

If there are real concerns about how a local authority is running its affairs, they should be taken to the district auditor or even to the police. Councils need to satisfy district auditors that their functions are carried out in accordance with statutory requirements. This is, and always has been, the main safeguard against irresponsible action. It is also open to local people to draw to the district auditor's attention any evidence of mismanagement, be it financial or otherwise.

We intend, therefore, to put an order to Parliament for its approval, creating a unitary authority for the city. Assuming that the relevant order for Leicester city is approved by Parliament, local people in the city will have the opportunity to select their new councillors. I am sure that, as part of the campaign for those elections, a debate will ensue on the government of the city, past and present. I hope that the debate will be constructive and will aid the cause of good unitary local government for the city.

My hon. and learned Friend suggested that reorganisation would lead to financial resources being diverted into Leicester from the rest of the county because an "envelope" around the county would mean that gains by one authority would have to be paid for by reductions elsewhere in the county. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend on this point. The standard spending assessments will be calculated afresh on the basis of the objective indicators for each service that an authority is providing. I cannot predict at this stage what the effects of that recalculation might be, but I can say that there will be no ring fence or envelope surrounding Leicestershire or any other county affected by reorganisation.

I should also like to say a few words about Rutland, which is ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton who speaks with sincerity and knowledge of his constituents. We realise that Rutland has a strong local identity. Indeed, it has a tradition as a separate county. We should like to see that return, but not to the detriment of local services and financial prudence. My Department has asked Rutland council to supply the assurances that we need that a unitary Rutland will be able to make good practical arrangements for the delivery of local services and that, having considered fully the financial implications, the costs can be paid for within the same financial arrangements and constraints as apply to other reorganised authorities. We shall not bring an order before the House until we are satisfied on those points.

In every county that it has been considering, the Local Government Commission's work has created a great deal of interest. Many hon. Members have been very involved in representing the interests of their communities and will continue to be—

The motion having been made after 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 accordingly at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.