§ 2. Mr. Viggers
To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment when he expects to announce his final response to the proposals of the Local Government Commission in relation to Hampshire.
§ The Minister for Local Government, Housing and Urban Regeneration (Mr. David Curry)
We are still considering the commission's recommendations for Hampshire in the light of meetings with nine of the councils concerned and the views contained in some 2,000 letters.
§ Mr. Viggers
While not many people threw their hats in the air at the commission's interim conclusions—which recommend that county borough status should be restored to Southampton and Portsmouth—very few people outside the New Forest can understand the late idea that the New Forest should have unitary status. I accept that my hon. Friend is not in a position to give me an answer this afternoon, but will he bear in mind the strong representations outside the New Forest that giving the New Forest unitary status will considerably damage the concept of Hampshire as a county?
§ Mr. Curry
My hon. Friend will understand that in reaching our conclusions on this and all other counties we have to judge the intrinsic merits of the case for unitary status in particular areas, together with the consequential effects on the remaining county area if a hybrid solution is envisaged.
§ Mr. Denham
The Minister will be aware of the strong support in Southampton for a unitary council for that area. Will he bring forward a clear timetable for local government reorganisation in Hampshire? Matters are drifting on month by month and people are unclear about whether they will face elections for new authorities this May or next year. It is also deeply unsettling for the staff who are delivering services. Will the Minister give a commitment to announcing a clear timetable for decision making and for implementing the results?
§ Mr. Curry
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we must consider carefully all the representations that we have received, and there is a heavy volume of representations from Hampshire. As soon as we have done so, we shall announce our intentions. When we have done that, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman, for the reasons that he has just stated, will want us to invite Parliament to take a decision so that the staff, about whose future he is rightly concerned, will know exactly where they stand and will not be kicking their heels for several months or perhaps a year while the process is completed.
§ Mr. Colvin
Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) had to say, does my hon. Friend appreciate that there is another view in Hampshire? Two thirds of my constituency is within the New Forest, so I can confirm that there is strong support for the recommendation that there should be unitary status for that district. With regard to resources, the New Forest is the fifth biggest district council in the country, out of 333 district councils, in terms of its tax base, and even if it were given unitary status Hampshire county council would still remain the fourth biggest. Will my hon. Friend confirm that, contrary to rumour, our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State still has an open mind on the 693 recommendations for Hampshire? Will the Minister also talk to the Secretary of State for Education about the recommendations—[Interruption.]—as she has undertaken to look carefully at the ability of the New Forest to provide an education service—[Interruption]—as good as, or better than, that which Hampshire county council now provides?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. It is an abuse of Question Time when hon. Members go on for so long. I wish that they would spend part of their lunch time working out the questions that they want to ask the Minister. That would make very good use of the lunch period.
§ Mr. Curry
As soon as we have considered the representations, we shall announce our decision. The case for the New Forest, as well as the implications for the rest of the county, must of course be borne in mind. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will be able to consider the recommendations as all these matters are for the collective decision of the Government.
§ Mr. Tony Lloyd
Is the Minister aware that he could dispel the cynicism which surrounds the review process for Hampshire and the rest of the country if he would make it clear now that he will bring before the House the final recommendations of the commission in every case in which change is proposed? If he will provide that guarantee and also make it clear that staff will have the same terms and conditions, whether on redundancy or transfer, that they were given with the abolition of the metropolitan counties, the doubts which now divide his hon. Friends will be set at naught, particularly if we know that the House of Commons and the House of Lords will have a proper say in the process.
§ Mr. Curry
The first part of the hon. Gentleman's question seems entirely without point. Of course we shall bring the matter before the House: we are obliged to do so. I look forward to the debate. I enjoyed the debate on Cleveland enormously and I hope to enjoy the same spectacle reproduced on the Opposition side in debate after debate on these matters. The one thing that would militate actively against the interests of the staff would be not knowing where they stand and following the Labour party policy of deciding nothing until all the recommendations were before the House. If that were the case, no one would know where they were and the recipe for uncertainty would be enormous.