HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc1023-34

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 10: No. 2, in page 16, line 21, at beginning insert— ("Subject to section (Alternative arrangements in case of certain local authorities), ").

11.5 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 15 and 17.

Ms Armstrong

This group of amendments increases the choice that local people will have about how their local communities are governed. The amendments are also consistent with the Government's policy of seeking to ensure that each council acts in a manner that demonstrates openness, accountability and efficiency. I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for the amendments, which will enable small shire districts with a population of 85, 000 or fewer to develop their own constitution according to those principles.

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)

We have already rehearsed quite well the arguments on the Bill. However, the Minister's claim that the amendments increase choice for local government takes the prize for brass-necked effrontery. This has always been the Henry Ford Bill: it offers buyers any colour they want as long as it is black.

Until now, the Bill has presented three options to local councils, but I have yet to find a council that is even remotely interested in the option of a council manager while about 1 per cent. of councils want directly elected mayors. That has left effectively one option for most councils—a cabinet system. More recently, the Government have tried to peddle a bogus fourth option. However, that option still requires an executive system and the Secretary of State's permission, and it applies to categories of council rather than to individual councils.

The official Opposition's attitude to the options has been the same throughout our consideration of the Bill. If the proposals for new local governance are so good and so popular, why not ask people to choose? [Interruption.] If the proposals are so good for local government, why have they been roundly rejected by councils such as Camden and Brighton and—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Conversations are being held on both sides of the House, but hon. Members must listen to the hon. Member who is addressing them.

Mr. Waterson

Why have the proposals been criticised so roundly by so many Labour Back Benchers? Why have they been criticised so effectively and clearly by the Labour Campaign for Open Local Government, which consists of 1, 000 members and several hundred Labour councillors? [Interruption.] The Minister scoffs whenever I mention those facts. However, every time that we have debated these issues, I have challenged her to tell us who actually wants these changes—other than, I assume, Ministers at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and a few acolytes in the New Local Government Network and in other new Labour-oriented organisations and lobby groups. Who is calling out for the reforms?

The plain fact is that the Minister was slow hand-clapped at the recent Local Government Association conference because, across the board, local government is not keen on these changes to council structures.

The amendments in this group throw a fascinating light on the Government's attitude to local government—as it does on Liberal Democrat Members' attitude to local government.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Waterson

I shall come to Liberal Democrat Members in a moment. They will have to be patient, but I will come to them, I promise.

The Government's line has consistently been that the committee system is discredited and out of date, and that it does not fit in with modern requirements. They have also taken the line that it is impossible to have proper scrutiny, transparency and openness without a clear executive scrutiny split. Indeed, the Minister even suggested recently that best value could not work effectively without such a split.

Yet lo and behold, on the basis of the amendments cobbled together between the Government and their friends in the Liberal Democrats, more than 20 per cent. of councils around the country are to be excused the new structures. One asks why that might be.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is worse in Wales because not one council will be able to take advantage of the proposal in the new amendment? All the authorities in Wales are unitary, not shire or district authorities, so councils such as my own, which has a small number of residents, will not be able to take advantage of the proposal.

Mr. Waterson

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it just shows how, in their hurry to fall over themselves to help the Government out again, the Liberal Democrats forgot about Wales. I hope that the voters of Wales will have regard to the hon. Gentleman's intervention.

Ms Armstrong

The hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) has obviously not read the Bill. It contains a subsection which makes it clear that the National Assembly for Wales will determine the future of the legislation in relation to Welsh authorities.

Mr. Waterson

Well, we will leave it to the National Assembly for Wales.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Will my hon. Friend help the House by explaining why it is suitable to exempt some councils, but not to give other councils the chance to choose? Why does he suppose that the Minister should try to tell the House that she is extending choice, when all that she is doing is giving a small amount of choice to very small councils?

Mr. Waterson

My right hon. Friend points out accurately that the Minister made no attempt in her perfunctory introduction to explain the logic behind the amendments. The logic is simply that the Government needed the Liberal Democrats' support and, in return for a deal over clause 28, they were prepared to horse-trade—not my word but that used in yesterday's debate by Baroness Hamwee, the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords—to come to a solution. The solution involved the lucky 20-something per cent. of councils. If it is such a great idea, why are the Government still so determined to impose the structures on the other 80 per cent. of councils? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said, why are they not to be given the same choice as the 20 per cent?

Obviously, the Opposition welcome the timely escape of the 20 per cent. of district councils with a population of fewer than 85, 000, but what about all the others? If it is good enough for those in that category, why is it not good enough for all councils? Why the arbitrary figure of 85, 000? It has already been suggested in the House of Lords that the measure might be subject to judicial review, but if one out of five councils are to be exempted, why not allow all councils to choose? If the benefits are so obvious, Ministers will be able to demonstrate that many councils will choose to have a cabinet system.

With all due respect to him, the Minister in the other place, Lord Whitty, lost the plot during the debate, but at least he did the courtesy of speaking for rather longer than the Minister for Local Government and the Regions who opened the debate in the House tonight. He said: Commons amendment No. 10 goes to the heart of the Bill. He said that the new constitution would give increased efficiency, transparency and accountability. He castigated the Opposition, saying that what they proposed was in total opposition to a main plank of the Bill. 11.15 pm

Lord Whitty continued: The amendments open the possibility that for certain councils the options for new constitutions from which local people can choose will, in addition to the range of executive constitutions, include constitutions based on a modernised committee system. With no logical connection, he explained that those small shire district councils are to be exempted, yet he then spoke of delivering the increased efficiency, transparency and accountability which the Government … wish to see.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 21-22.] As the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has constantly told this House that we must have such constitutions to deliver transparency, efficiency and accountability, how will that 20 per cent. of councils manage? Answer comes there none.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Perhaps I can answer my hon. Friend by telling him that it is the minority Labour group on Lichfield district council which is so disappointed that Lichfield, which has a population of 92, 000, will have this new system imposed on it. Is he aware that not only the Labour minority but the Conservative majority believe that the change will cost more, that it will obscure any transparency and will create a democracy deficit in Lichfield?

Mr. Waterson

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point in his usual fashion. The effect of the Government's proposals has been to break down party political barriers on councils such as Lichfield and to unite the parties against what the Government are trying to do.

My hon. Friend alluded to those councils that are on the limits of the exemption. In the House of Lords, yesterday, Lord Hanningfield drew attention to the plight of councils such as Rushmoor, which is unfortunate enough to have a population of 86, 000. Because of that extra 1, 000 people, the full Monty will be imposed on Rushmoor by the Government. I have already referred to the possibility of judicial review. There is also the plight of the other 80 per cent. of councils. They will, in effect, have only one option forced on them.

Our objections to the system have been well rehearsed, but it is worth reminding the House of them. There is the element of compulsion, to which we object profoundly and which has caused great resentment in local government. In many cases, a small group of people will take all the decisions. Some councillors will be consigned to the back benches by the proposals. The role of the officers in the new structures has not been thought through. It is difficult to see how effective scrutiny can be undertaken by such councils as the London borough of Newham, which has 59 Labour members and one independent Labour member. Who on that council will carry out convincing and transparent scrutiny'?

It is not only the official Opposition or even—until a few days ago—the Liberal Democrats who object to the proposals. A range of organisations in and out of local government, Labour councillors, Labour Back Benchers, academics and others have all raised those concerns over and over again.

Until recently, the Government were not prepared to take notice of any of the provisions, but a problem arose because of their lordships' attitude to the Bill. This is where the Liberal Democrats come into the picture—[HON.MEMBERS: "Hear, hear"]. I said that I would return to them and I always keep my promises. The amendments reveal as much about the Liberal Democrats as they do about the Government.

As I have explained, in yesterday's debate in the House of Lords Baroness Hamwee admitted to horse-trading. Therefore, there is no pretence from anyone involved in this rather shabby little deal of any principle, of any logic; it is simply a matter of political horse-trading. The Government needed the support of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords on clause 28 and on their structures for local government, and the Liberal Democrats extracted a price. [Interruption.] But that shabby deal points a penetrating shaft of light on the Liberal Democrats' real role and purpose in this Parliament and their true relationship with this Labour Government. It strips away any pretence that the Liberal Democrats are a real party of opposition or, indeed, that they are friends of local government.

The Liberal Democrats helped the Government out on clause 28, and at the same time they sold out 80 per cent. of local government in this country. It is worth reminding the House of the comments of the principal Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), only a couple of months ago in Committee, when he said: If councils like the models proposed by the Government, they can…move in that direction, but the structures should not be imposed on them.—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 16 May 2000; c. 158.] We know that the hon. Gentleman is a Liberal Democrat, but even Liberal Democrats, if only for their own sanity, must be expected to hold the same views for more than a few weeks.

Linked with the Liberal Democrats' deal over these amendments in the Lords was their policy on clause 28. It is the policy that dare not speak its name, because, as far as the Liberal Democrats are concerned, it takes its place alongside their views on legalising drugs and on a federal Europe—the sort of things that people do not expect to see in their local "Focus" leaflets. They are indeed the stealth party of British politics, because if that shrinking band of people who vote for them knew what they stood for, they would not vote for them.

Our views on the Government's proposals for structures are well known. Our reservations have been set out on Second Reading, in Committee, on Report and in the Lords. We have made clear our view that there should be no compulsion. We have made clear our view that the Government are entirely wrong; they are looking at life down the wrong end of the telescope if they think that tinkering with structures will make any difference to local democracy, and if they believe that more people will turn out and vote, or stand for election, as a result of their fiddling with structures.

I do not intend to invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to divide the House on these amendments. We want at least some councils to benefit from the fourth option, for which we have consistently campaigned. The difference between us and the Government and between us and the Liberal Democrats is that we have always campaigned for that option to be available to all councils, irrespective of size, throughout the country.

Mr. Don Foster

I am delighted to have the great honour to follow the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). His speech was such that it caused his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) to leave the Chamber, and, having listened to the hon. Gentleman, there is no doubt whatever that, to use a phrase that has been used once before, I feel that I have been savaged by a dead sheep.—[Official Report, 14 June 1978; Vol. 951, c. 1027.] The sad fact is, however, that the hon. Member for Eastbourne made a large number of comments with which I happen to agree. He and I spent a long time in Committee and we share the clear view that it is totally wrong of central Government to impose on local government how it should organise its decision-making processes. We have consistently made it clear that we are opposed to central Government seeking to do that.

I now come to the decision that we should take, given the position of the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ah."] Conservative Members are concerned about deciding what to do. Let me remind them that any crocodile tears that they shed for local government are ill placed in view of their party's clear commitment to get rid of, for example, local education authorities and to remove from local government many of its current powers and thereby, in effect, remove any possibility of it having any power whatever.

The Liberal Democrats take a different view. We believe in the importance of strong and vibrant local government. We believe in the importance of local government being given a power of general competence and the ability to carry out all the functions that it believes are in the best interests of the people whom it seeks to serve. It should also have the ability to raise the funds to carry out the activities within the power of general competence. As a result of pressure by Liberal Democrats in Committee, we have achieved that aim in the Bill. Furthermore, as a result of Liberal Democrat pressure, we have persuaded the Government to change their attitude on issues such as whether executives should meet in secret. We have long argued that executives should meet in public and we have now persuaded the Government of that view.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he is strongly in favour of executives or cabinets meeting in public. Is he therefore criticising Liberal Democrat-controlled North Wiltshire district council, which stubbornly insists on meeting in private?

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman is well aware of my position on this issue. I have said to him in other circumstances that I believe it is important that local councils—whether they are Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or under no overall control—hold their council meetings in public. I have made it clear to him, as I repeat to the House as a whole, that if there are examples of Liberal Democrat councils not following the recommendations that we make, I shall certainly take it up with them. However, because we genuinely believe that local government should have the power to make such decisions, the ultimate decision on the matter is one for the local council.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that his obsequious collaboration with the Government, as reflected most recently in the proposal before the House, has led to the hissing out of office of the ridiculous Liberal Democrats on Aylesbury Vale district council and the reconquest of that authority by sound and distinguished Conservatives?

Mr. Foster

There will be plenty of opportunity for electors across the country to decide whether they believe it is sensible for a political party to seek to persuade the Government to change their view on particular matters, or whether that party should simply hold a position that will not make a blind bit of difference to what happens in local government.

11.30 pm

We are debating whether the House should support an amendment moved in the House of Lords by the Liberal Democrats. The amendment will ensure that at least some councils are excluded from three proposals that central Government seek to impose on them. The key decision that this House must make is whether to accept that at least some councils—rather than none at all, as the Conservatives would have it—should be given the opportunity to find their own way forward in decision making. The issue is not whether we would tonight persuade the Government to change their view and to drop their imposition of operating methods on all forms of local government, as we would like them to do; it is simply whether all councils in Wales and 82 councils in England will receive the benefit to which I have referred.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I thank my hon. Friend for the valuable negotiations that he has had with the Government to allow the National Assembly for Wales to let councils in Wales decide their own structures.

Mr. Foster

I thank my hon. Friend. It is possible in the Chamber simply to oppose the Government and to get nowhere, but there is another way forward, which is to have constructive opposition and to make at least some progress.

Mr. Fabricant

There are those who think that the Liberal Democrats have woolly minds in woollier hats, so, to demonstrate to the House the Liberal Democrats' thought processes, will the hon. Gentleman explain how he arrived at the figure of 85, 000? Why not set the threshold at 100, 000? Will he explain in detail how the horse-trading worked?

Mr. Foster

No, I will not. I simply say that if the Conservatives had their way, the figure would be zero, and, as a result of their achievements, not a single council would have escaped the imposition of these measures. As a result of what the Liberal Democrats have achieved, at least some councils have escaped. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that it would be right for the Conservative party to vote against that concession? Would he vote against it—yes or no?

Mr. Fabricant

If something is wrong in principle, it is wrong for all, and not only for 20 per cent.

Mr. Foster

The hon. Gentleman's clear answer is that he is prepared to say to 82 councils in England and all the councils in Wales that are exempt from the Government's proposals as a result of the Liberal Democrats' negotiations that they must have those proposals imposed on them.

Mr. Waterson

Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that if the amendments that he is peddling are to have a shred of credibility, the least he can do is try to explain to the House how the Liberal Democrats arrived at the figure of 85, 000 to set the line between councils that are exempt and those that are not.

Mr. Foster

It is quite simple. The hon. Gentleman has clearly got himself into a fixed mode of simply opposing and nothing more. In constructively opposing, we realise that the Government are prepared to allow no concessions in respect of any councils. The Liberal Democrats start from the clear position of preferring the provision to be imposed on no councils. However, knowing that we shall not be able to persuade the Government of that view, we seek at least some exemptions.

I think that we have done extremely well to reach such a position. There are those in the Local Government Association who are absolutely delighted with what we have done and are concerned that they have not had Conservative party support on the issue. The proposal is not the Liberal Democrats' ideal position. We accept entirely that it is a compromise, but, given that, we hope at least that the House will support it.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who has managed to give horse-trading a bad name. His difficulty is that when people horse-traded, at least they got a horse; he has a rather miserable camel. He cannot explain the basis of the 85, 000 figure. I wish to debate the issue because I believe he has accepted that figure specifically to exclude my local council and, if I may say so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, your local council—a good, sensible council in my case and a not so good, not so sensible council in your case, but united in a belief that the Bill is unsatisfactory because it does not give them the chance to choose for themselves.

The Liberals have the effrontery to say that they went in for constructive opposition. Constructive opposition for the Liberals means dropping their principles on clause 28 and the proposed new clause. Constructive opposition is to give way on both clauses and in return get 20 per cent. of the sum of their principles on one.

Mr. Foster

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain how the Liberal Democrats have given up on their principle of opposition to clause 28?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that the Liberals did a deal with the Government in the House of Lords on clause 28. Everyone else knows that; if he does not, he better talk to Baroness Hamwee, who is the expert on horse-trading. They struck that deal by not doing what they had intended originally. The same is true of the proposed new clause, yet they have the effrontery to say that we who have stood by our principles have in some way let the local government world down.

The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted strong and vibrant local government as long as it covered a population of under 85, 000. Cannot it be strong and vibrant while being bigger than that? He is not prepared to stand up and fight for all local government.

I turn to the real villain of the piece, if it is not unparliamentary to say so—the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. I have always doubted whether she had an argument on this point. I did not serve on the Committee, but I have never heard her make the argument in the House. Today, she had an admirable opportunity. She could have explained in detail—we can be here for hours listening to her—why it was necessary for the Government to tell Labour councils that did not want to be told how to run themselves how to do so.

Let us imagine that the proposition had been a Conservative one. Would the right hon. Lady have said, "Oh yes, this is the sort of transparency we want"? No, she would have said, "Labour, Liberal and Conservative councils up and down the country do not want it." Why, then, is she not saying that now? It is because the Government have become hung up on the proposition and do not know how to get off it. The Liberals gave the Government a chance to get away with 20 per cent., but if they had pushed a bit harder, they might have got 40 per cent. Anyone who can give up one principle can give up many more, so why did the Liberals not give up a few more of their principles and buy a few more votes? They have plenty of principles, most of them contradictory, so they could give up a lot just to get what they want from the Government.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions has not explained why a population of 85, 000 is all right, but one of 90, 000 is not. She did not even take the opportunity to intervene on my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson). The reason she did not bother is that she knows that she has a parliamentary majority: she will not bother to explain anything about local government affairs so long as she knows that she can ram any measure through the House. That is yet another example of how the Government treat the House with contempt. However, on this occasion, the right hon. Lady is not only treating the House with contempt, but is doing the same to every local authority that has asked her to give it the chance to make the choice itself.

My local authority would like to try different ways of running itself to meet the needs of its electorate—not the right hon. Lady's electorate, but its electorate who choose the authority. Yet her response is to tell my authority that it can choose anything—so long as it is something that she agrees with. The Government will not let the authority make the choice, simply because the population it covers just happens to total more than 85, 000 people. We are not even talking about 85, 000 electors—why did the Liberals not specify electors, rather than just a population threshold? Having given up their principles, could they not have screwed a bit more out of the Government?

The difficulty for the Conservatives is that we are not prepared to give up our principles, because ours is a party of principle. The Liberals' principles change from place to place—

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer

I have a little more to say about Liberal principles and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, who no doubt intends to be helpful. He will have to contain himself for a moment, even though he has not got long in the House—his is a seat which will be won by a large Conservative swing at the next general election.

Let us hear about the principles espoused by the hon. Member for Bath. He told us that the Liberal principle was that everything had to hang out—everyone had to know everything and everything had to be done in public. My hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) pointed out how odd it is that the authority in North Wiltshire—which is not all that far from Bath; indeed, it is the neighbouring constituency—holds closed meetings. The hon. Gentleman replied that authorities should hold open meetings—but not if they do not want them.

Mr. Don Foster

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gumme

Yes, he did—he said that he would have a word with his colleagues, but that, in the end, they would make up their own mind. That strikes me as an interesting principle: anyone, anywhere can make up their own mind about any principle.

It is apparent that there are differences of principle, not merely between constituencies but between wards. In my constituency, the Liberals espouse different principles in neighbouring wards—indeed, in neighbouring houses. Liberal canvassers bang on the door and ask, "What do you want us to tell you?", and if the householders respond differently, they say different things. As someone said, if God had been a Liberal, we would have had the 10 suggestions. The problem with the Liberals is that their principles are so flexible that they cannot remember what the last one was. Now I give way to the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) who might remember what it was he wanted to ask me when he first rose.

Mr. Sanders

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the Conservative principle in respect of the capping of local authority budgets? What is the latest position on that?

Mr. Gummer

That was a very good principle when local authorities wanted to spend other people's money with a precept on taxation— [Interruption.] Liberal Members fall about with laughter, but, at that time, they did their usual trick: they said that they would give freedom to local authorities, but would not increase taxation—[Interruption.] Like his colleagues, the hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) is good at throwing out the odd sentence or two, but in his own constituency finds it difficult to explain Liberal principles. That is because those principles are different from his—his views are different from his neighbours views. Liberals all have different views from their neighbours. It is not surprising that the Government managed to buy off the Liberal Democrats—the price was low.

11.45 pm

I turn to the—

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Sit down; you've lost it.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman, who never had it, cannot tell others that they have lost it.

Fundamentally, we have a dictatorial Government who are using their majority to stop locally elected people deciding how they will run their own council. Liberal Democrats are intervening to try to claim credit for keeping 20 per cent. of councils out of the unacceptable maw which the Minister has presented to us but has never explained.

As usual, the Liberal Democrats have connived yet again in the destruction of democratic choice in local authorities. Like anyone who knows that what is being said is true, their only answer is to giggle. Giggling is the only logic that they can put forward. They cannot explain why 85, 000 is a magic figure. They cannot explain either why they went for a population of 85, 000 and not an electorate of 85, 000. Similarly, they cannot explain why they have had a special deal for Wales, but only if the Welsh Assembly agrees. They cannot explain the arguments that they advanced to the Government. They cannot explain why they did not hold out for more; nor can they explain why they went back on their principles on this issue and on clause 28. They can explain nothing to us, and that is because they are dealing with the inexplicable.

When we come to the elections next year, Liberal seats will fall one after the other throughout the wards that they fight. It is good to welcome to the Conservative party a Liberal Democrat who has crossed the floor in Bromley for precisely the sort of reasons that have emerged this evening.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

And in New Forest.

Mr. Gummer

Indeed. They cross the floor once they begin to see that the party in Parliament has few real principles, will not stand up for them and then pretends that an abject surrender to the Government is somehow a success. Principles? Of course Liberal Democrat Members have principles. There are as many principles as there are Liberal Democrat Members, and they are all utterly different.

Ms Armstrong

I shall respond fairly briefly. I am not sure whether I should respond to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who has not been present for many of the debates and so has not heard the arguments that have been advanced. However, I remind him that there was a Joint Committee which asked us to consider how we could make particular arrangements for small councils, especially those that had a history of non-party political control. That is now extremely difficult to define because a Bill that has passed through the House allows for the registration of political parties. Many independent parties—ratepayers, residents and so on—have registered as political parties. We therefore have no sound definition of no political control because everyone is a member of a party. We therefore considered other ways of responding to the Joint Committee's wishes and to the points that were made in Standing Committee.

On that basis, I shall respond to the debate. I assure hon. Members that the principles that are expounded in the Bill of transparency, accountability and efficiency will be required of all councils. It is choice not for councils, but for local people. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal seems not to have understood that there has been real change in his party's policy. Perhaps he can spend some time talking to his colleagues and catching up.

Mr. Waterson

Can the Minister explain how, in 20 per cent. of councils under the proposals, transparency, efficiency and accountability will be delivered?

Ms Armstrong

Those councils will have to demonstrate that. They will also have to demonstrate that they have effective scrutiny and overview functions built into the way in which they operate.

Mr. Gummer

If that is what councils with a population of less than 85, 000 can do, why cannot councils with less than 100, 000 or 120, 000 population do likewise? Why cannot my council be given the same choice, and why cannot my electors be given that choice?

Ms Armstrong

The right hon. Gentleman's electors, like the electors of every right hon. and hon. Member, will be given substantial choice within the framework of the Bill—much more choice than they are allowed at present.

I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions, and I commend the amendment.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 3 to 15, and 17 agreed to.

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