HC Deb 13 January 1998 vol 304 cc146-8 3.34 pm
Mr. Ronnie Fearn (Southport)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the holding of referendums on proposals of the Local Government Commission for England to change local government boundaries; to make the results of such referendums binding; and for connected purposes. The new Government have made much of their wish for the emergence of democratic initiatives, particularly in local government. Active friends in local government have mentioned to me that the Minister for Local Government and Housing has made encouraging noises on this topic on several occasions. I understand, too, that a Bill is being introduced in another place permitting specific initiatives in this area. However, both that Bill and such words as I have heard from Ministers deal with initiatives that relate to current institutions of local government, based on current boundaries.

That approach is fine where local government boundaries are functioning well and are accepted by the people concerned—but what of the areas where they are not? The Government have already shown that they are not minded to tolerate identifiable communities being trapped in an insensitive system of government with which the people concerned are unhappy. They made it quite clear, for instance, that the ending of the current state of affairs in Scotland and Wales had to be determined by the people of those parts of the United Kingdom themselves. They have also made it clear, most importantly, that the views of the other parts of Britain are to hold no sway in these matters. Accordingly, the Government moved swiftly to enact change by means of the referendums for Scotland and Wales.

I seek the support of right hon. and hon. Members, particularly those in the governing party, for the idea of consistency of approach, thereby enabling people to determine which local government areas their long-identifiable communities should belong to. My principle is that the people of the affected areas should decide through the power of a binding referendum.

At the moment, we have a complete and utter shambles. The Local Government Commission for England is a quango. The previous Government wasted parliamentary time replacing the—then perfectly good—boundary commission by setting up this new quango, to no purpose besides giving it new terms of reference to make its members putty in ministerial paws. Members of the commission are doubtless good men and women true, but they know full well, whatever the circumstances they are called in to comment on, that they will have wasted their time if they do not come up with a decision that finds favour with the Secretary of State of the day. They are asked to judge any proposals for change not just according to how much favour they find with the people concerned, but according to the effects that the proposals may or may not have on the people of the adjoining areas, who are not bothered one way or the other about the whole idea.

The commissioners are allowed to obstruct any proposals, such obstruction being based not on hard and fast evidence that they may have about the effects of a proposed change but on speculation or guesswork as to what the financial effects on the given communities might be. They may leave aside any assessment of the potential of the changes for good, financially and in other aspects of good governance; disregarding if they wish any improvements that might accrue from changing the form of local government to one with which local people could identify. The commissioners have treated the adult population in my part of the country like children who are not to be trusted with taking into their own hands responsibility for the consequences of determining their own affairs.

I have read that the Government are contemplating giving the populations of various areas the power, using a referendum, to determine whether local government spending should be allowed to exceed Government guidelines. If that is so, it is in line with the direction of my Bill.

The present position is, in short, that in order to recommend change to the Secretary of State, the local government quango must prove a negative. It must prove that the proposed change will not create a net harm to some undefined portion of the people, who may not be bothered one way or the other by the suggested change. How are such matters to be decided? The answer is that the quango seems to please itself.

One thing is certain, however: the commissioners do not please the people of the communities in question. The experience of dealing with the commission has been described by some of those who have had occasion to do so in my part of the north-west as trying to knit with spaghetti.

There has always been a particular frustration that anyone wishing to introduce a petition for change has no idea whether it will ever be translated into a formal proposal for consideration by the commission, let alone whether it will become the basis for positive action.

The commission's timetable is kept full, so its limited resources are stretched. To respond to a major structural review of local government in one area within a short time, as the people of Southport have had to do on two occasions, has taken phenomenal effort by a dedicated set of people, including myself, working to achieve the public will.

For example, in 1995 a ballot was organised in Southport, with the people of the town being polled on a particular prospect for change and the status quo. Twenty-two thousand people spoke with such an overwhelming and convincing majority of 19:1 that the chairman of the boundary commission, as it was then called, felt that he had no option but to request the then Secretary of State to instruct him to conduct a special review of Southport's position. The Secretary of State rewarded that request by winding up the boundary commission and caused further years of delay by pushing through a Bill to create the new commission for England, which is no better than its predecessor.

Through those years of delay, the people of Southport held firm. When the review finally came, we presented our evidence in technical detail, advocating the advantages of change, and citing the vast numbers of local people who supported such a change. What did the commission do? It listened intently to boasts of efficiency from the officers of Sefton council, of which Southport is part, who did not want Southport to break free, and watched as the same officers orchestrated a campaign to maintain power over Southport.

The commission took evidence from various spurious community groups and seemed to give equal consideration to the opinions of many of those unrepresentative bodies and to the views of thousands of Southport residents who had consistently voted for change over the past 23 years. It also commissioned a small public opinion poll from MORI, in which the questions were phrased in a way that was hopelessly irrelevant and confusing to respondents and subject to gross misinterpretation.

Given such shoddy behaviour from the quango, we in Southport were not particularly surprised when the commission made an interim recommendation that the status quo should prevail, provided that Sefton council gave the commission within the following 12 weeks some evidence of its ability to introduce changes in the way in which it dealt with local government in communities such as Southport.

We were downcast, but then the amazing happened—or, perhaps in the case of Sefton council, it was not so amazing. After ignoring the Local Government Commission's findings throughout the summer of 1997, Sefton failed to submit to the commission any evidence at all. One can imagine the disbelief of thousands of people in Southport when the commission returned to us in November to tell us that we could ignore its previous document, together with the conditions that it attached to maintaining the status quo and its precisely defined single, viable, alternative proposition for a Southport and Formby unitary authority. The people's faith in fairness and accountability in the democratic process was shattered.

For reasons that were not disclosed, the commission decided to ignore not only its own previously published criteria for decision making, but the votes in a properly organised referendum of the thousands of people affected.

Southport is one example, among others. That is why I feel that there is no option but to introduce the Bill, which requires the Secretary of State to cause any local authority—

Madam Speaker

I must call the hon. Gentleman to order.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Ronnie Fearn, Mr. Bob Russell, Dr. Jenny Tonge, Mr. Adrian Sanders, Mr. Paul Burstow, Mr. David Heath, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Mr. Brian Cotter, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. Don Foster and Mr. Richard Allan.