§ 11.38 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now further considered on Report.
§ Moved, That the Bill be further considered on Report.—(Baroness Blatch.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ Schedule 2 [The Local Government Commission for England]:
§ Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 63:
§ Page 28, line 34, leave out ("and not more than fifteen").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to remove the ceiling on the number of commissioners who may be appointed to the new Local Government Commission. In Committee an 1467 amendment was tabled to increase the number of commissioners to a fixed ceiling. We spent some time considering the appropriate number and how many or how few commissioners could best do the job that was allotted to them.
§ It is not necessary to include the restriction that the Bill seeks to retain by writing the maximum number of commissioners on the face of the Bill. By now we all appreciate the complexity and the scale of the task to be undertaken by the new commission. We all appreciate the speed with which it must work consistent with it carrying out its job properly and achieving the right results. Speed is necessary because the results of that task will affect people's lives.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said on 3rd December at col. 189 of the Official Report that the commission would,
carry out a rolling programme of work".
He also commented:
It is always difficult to reach a consensus with a larger number of people and we have deliberately chosen a manageable number in order to facilitate the commission's work".
I do not take issue with what the Minister said. We have all had experience of groups that are so large it is impossible for them to reach a decision. I remind the House, however, of the comment made by the noble Earl, Lord Howe, at col. 191 of the Official Report when he said:
the commission will not be overstretched and we shall ensure that it carries out its work thoroughly".
We all hope that will be the case. Is it necessary to have a ceiling in the Bill? Is it not more appropriate—we have debated the scope of the work of the commission and that will be debated in another place—that those whom the Secretary of State appoints should take on board the comments that have been made as regards the scope of expertise that will be required? There will be an amendment on that matter later today. Would it not also be appropriate to allow the chairman of the commission to make his contribution to the way in which the commission will work? Its method of working must, to some extent, be dependent upon the number of people who are available to do the job.
§ Various options are available as to the arrangements which might be made. For once I consider that the number of members to be appointed would be a matter which would be suitable for ministerial decision, without the present restriction, because the Bill itself does not provide for a specific number but merely sets out a floor and a ceiling. I ask the House to consider whether it would be more appropriate to provide the greater leeway which the amendment suggests. I beg to move.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, it is worth emphasising how different this amendment is from the amendment which we moved at Committee stage. Noble Lords may recall that the earlier amendment sought to increase the size of the Local Government Commission from the range of five to 15 members to a range of 25 to 31 members. I still think that a commission in that range is necessary to achieve a 1468 speedy and effective conclusion of its duties. We shall debate that matter in more detail when we consider the timetable.
The proper size of the commission is a prerequisite of a proper timetable. Anyone who played any part in the reorganisation of local government in London in the 1960s and in the rest of the country in the 1970s will recall what an extraordinary amount of disruption was caused by those reorganisations. The difference between what happened then and what happens now can be compared to the limitations of a fixed Whip in the House of Commons, where they know that there will be a Division at 7 o'clock or at 10 o'clock, and the running Whip which we have in this House where Divisions can be called at any time. Noble Lords who, unlike me, have experience of both Houses have often said to me that the demands on this House are very much greater than in another place.
Similarly, if we consider what is likely to happen in local government, the uncertainty of not knowing whether the local authority which one serves as an officer or a councillor will exist in one, two, three or four years' time must be very great. One will not know what the timescale for capital projects, for example, should be. These provisions sow unnecessary uncertainty.
It is clear that we support the objectives of the Government in this part of the Bill. It has been clear from the outset that we agree with the proposal that there should not be a prescriptive form of local government in different parts of the country and that local people should have their say. The corollary must be that they have their say in a timetable of consideration which is manageable. That in turn means that the number of people who will carry out the work must be adequate to the task. I support the amendment.
My Lords, as the noble Baroness reminded us, we discussed the size of the commission at Committee stage. We were grateful for the views which were offered in that debate by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, about the number of members of the commission in the light of his experience of previous local government reorganisations and for the points made by the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Seear. Despite the obvious sincerity of those views we are still not convinced that the number of members should be increased. I should like to explain briefly our reasons for that view.
I should stress that we do not underestimate the scale of the task which we are asking the commission to undertake and the resources it will need. We have said that we wish the commission to carry out a rolling programme of work, looking at the country area by area. It will be given a staff to help it do that. Against that background the number of commission members specified in Schedule 2 to the Bill—between five and 15—seems to us a perfectly adequate number given the way in which we have suggested that the reviews should be carried out.
We are also aware that Mr. Banham, the chairman designate, is reported to have said that he thinks that a commission of 15 people should be appointed. That view carries weight. I am sure that my right 1469 honourable friends the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary—who is also concerned with the appointments—will take into account the views of Mr. Banham about how many members the commission should have when they make appointments.
There is another practical consideration of which the noble Baroness reminded us, namely, the desirability of a consensus. It is always difficult to reach a consensus with a larger number of people and we have deliberately chosen a manageable number in order to facilitate the commission's work. That number should not be unwieldy. That is why we feel that there should be a ceiling on the number of commission members.
We have thought carefully about the matter, but for the reasons I have stated I do not think there is any need to remove the limit of 15 from the commission's membership. I ask the noble Baroness not to press the amendment.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I should like to be able to thank the noble Earl for that reply with a greater degree of enthusiasm. With the amendment I am not asking that the number of members be increased in any way which would require the Secretary of State to take a decision that there should be more than 15. It would still be open to him to decide that there should be only five or six. I hoped that what I thought was an uncontentious amendment which might facilitate the workings of the commission might find more favour. I accept the point about the need to reach a consensus, but the more that is mentioned the more one begins to worry that there may be a problem about reaching a consensus. That argument can perhaps be made too often. Nor do I consider that a few more than 15 members would make the commission unwieldy.
All I can say is that I hope that I am not proved right when the decisions as to how the review should be organised are implemented. That will be a matter for the Secretary of State and the chairman of the commission. There is a limit to what we can prescribe and how much we would want to prescribe. If that is how the Government wish to proceed I can only hope that they are right, but I have placed on record that we tried to assist in the process. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 64:
Page 29, line 35, after ("State") insert ("of whom at least one shall be a person with expertise in or experience of the management of the National Health Service").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this is a probing amendment. I should be very happy if at the end of the debate the Government were able to say that the idea is interesting and there are good reasons why they should take account of the suggestion that at least one member of the Local Government Commission should have expertise or experience of the management of the National Health Service. I should understand if they then said that they did not believe that that should appear on the face of the Bill.1470
§ There are good reasons why the Government should take that suggestion into account. The first concerns boundaries. It is well known that in the National Health Service difficulties have occurred where health authority boundaries do not coincide with local authority boundaries because of the overlap of National Health Service responsibilities and the public health responsibilities of local authorities. There have been moves in various parts of the country to try to rationalise the situation and ensure that, subject to the overriding needs of the health service to have sensible catchment areas for hospitals, boundaries should as far as possible be coterminous. Therefore the health service has a positive contribution to make to the debate on boundaries in different parts of the country. That view could be provided by at least one person with such expertise.
§ The second point is that the National Health Service is very much a locally provided service in which the scale of operations and therefore the size of the organisations concerned is of critical importance to the success of the organisation. That is one of the major considerations that will be taken into account by the Local Government Commission when it considers the size of the new authorities that it will set up or recommend the Secretary of State to set up.
§ There is also a great deal of talk ranging from the "big is beautiful" of the 1960s to the talk of the "small is beautiful" of the 1980s and perhaps of the 1990s which, although often worthwhile, is sometimes a little inadequately founded on evidence. The health service has experience of what works and particularly of what does not work. The health service has been particularly prone to the "big is beautiful" fallacy over the past 20 or 30 years and perhaps a member of the Local Government Commission who contributed evidence on the lack of success of too large authorities might be particularly valuable. I beg to move.
My Lords, we have already made clear that we want the commission to have among its members both people who know about local government and those with other types of experience. We are aware of the important connections between the work of local government and health authorities. We certainly think that it is important for the commission to be fully briefed on these issues, but we do not think that a statutory requirement to appoint someonewith expertise in or experience of the management of the National Health Serviceis the best way to achieve this. We believe that a better approach is to ensure that the commission is fully briefed on these important issues through the procedures for consultation.
As we have already said, we intend to issue the Local Government Commission with guidance about the procedures that it should follow in carrying out its reviews and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will direct it to have regard to that guidance under Clause 15. That procedural guidance will include a list of bodies which the Local Government Commission should consult when carrying out its reviews. We certainly intend the guidance to cover consultation with the relevant regional, district health 1471 authorities and family health services authorities. As we have already said, we shall issue a draft of the procedural guidance and invite views on it.
Where unitary authorities are set up there will be single-tier local authorities with which health authorities will need to liaise. There should also be better co-ordination within local government between social services and other related services, such as housing, once they are under one roof. We firmly believe that unitary authorities will be an improvement on the present arrangements.
Proper consultation with health authorities seems to us by far the best, most practical way to ensure that the commission fully appreciates the important interactions between local government and the health service. It would not be sensible to impose a statutory requirement that one of the members of the commission must have experience of the management of the National Health Service.
I have tried to be reassuring on this point which we all agree is an important one. I therefore I hope that, in the light of what I have said, the noble Lord will agree to withdraw his amendment.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, one aspect of the noble Earl's speech is certainly reassuring. He has gone back to the proper use of the English language and now refers to "having regard to guidance" rather than any of those ideas of "contravening guidance" which were floating around the Chamber earlier this week and a couple of weeks ago. We must therefore welcome the fact that the proper use of the English language has regained, at least for this part of the Bill, its currency in government thinking.
I am a little puzzled as to the main thrust of the noble Earl's argument. I do not see any conflict whatever between proper consultation with the National Health Service and the family health service around the country and having someone with particular knowledge of the National Health Service on the commission. One could well argue that having someone on the commission helps it to carry out proper consultation with the health service around the country, even if that person does not have experience, as he or she is bound not to, in every part of the country.
If I were setting up a commission of that kind and I knew that I would be discussing, consulting and negotiating with the health service around the country, I would want one of the members of my commission to be able to guide me on the relevance and the force of the arguments being used by the health service around the country when they came to the consultation process. I am glad to have the Government's reassurance that consultation will be a firm element in the work of the commission and, on that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 13 [Duty to conduct reviews and make recommendations]:
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 65:1472
§ Page 11, line 2, leave out ("If the Secretary of State so directs").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 65, I should like to speak also to the substantive amendment, Amendment No. 66.
§ To my mind, the timetable of the work of the Local Government Commission is the most important single aspect of its work. I referred to that a few minutes ago, but I want to reiterate how seriously we on these Benches view the threat of a rolling commission without a predetermined timetable and a predetermined end to its work.
§ The amendment is very much less prescriptive than amendments that we moved in Committee. It does not stipulate that any particular timetable should be laid down in statute, but that a timetable should be published by the Secretary of State after consultation with the local authority associations. In other words, it is up to the Secretary of State to determine a timetable as he thinks fit, consult on it, publish it and make that the public expression of the Government's intention about the process of the Local Government Commission's work.
§ Everyone agrees that the commission should complete its work as soon as possible. The Minister confirmed that point in her speech in Committee when she said that a prolonged period of uncertainty is not desirable. She said that the Government share the aim of arriving at the right answers and putting them into effect as quickly as possible. I am bound to say that their resistance to our helpful suggestions about the size of the commission ties at least one of their hands behind their back in achieving that, but the intention is nevertheless welcome.
§ We believe that a requirement on the Secretary of State to publish a timetable at the beginning would have a number of specific benefits. It would remove uncertainty and allow authorities whose areas are to be reviewed later to get on with the job without thinking that the commission might be upon us at any moment. It will mean that there will not be a continuous process of lobbying and politicking about local government boundaries throughout the country, throughout the lifetime of the commission because a series of priorities will be set for and by the commission. It means that the chairman and chief executive of the commission will find it easier to prepare their own internal manpower plans, their forecasts of expenditure and so on and that their work will be much more efficient.
I am reminded of the poem of C P Cavafy about the Barbarians in which the citizens of an Egyptian city are spending a great deal of time, knowing that the Barbarians are at the gate or about to arrive at the gate, rethinking their whole method of operation; in local government terms, rethinking why they are there and why they should be there. They are spending more time worrying about the Barbarians than they are about the survival of the city. At the very end, when they learn that the Barbarians are not coming after all, C P Cavafy ends the poem with the line:
These people were after all some sort of a solution".
§ I should not like to think of local government throughout this country under the threat of 1473 reorganisation for an indefinite time over an indefinite number of years only to find that the threat had been a distraction rather than a solution. I beg to move.
§ 12 noon
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly support the amendment. It does not seem to be asking for the moon or even a minor star. To give assurances to those concerned about the timetable and to eliminate as much uncertainty as possible, it is suggested that we put on the face of the Bill the arrangements that we have discussed and about which we have been given assurances in general terms.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, we fully appreciate that many local authorities and indeed local people are eager to learn when the structure of local government in their area is to be reviewed. We recognise that the uncertainty which inevitably accompanies the prospect of change may be worrying. To use the Barbarian poem as an analogy, however, is dramatising that uncertainty just a little too much. It is also being a little negative about the whole exercise.
We believe that a new structure of unitary authorities based on the communities with which people identify is an opportunity for improved efficiency and stronger local government. These amendments seek to require the commission to carry out reviews according to a timetable published by the Secretary of State after consultation with the local authority associations and to remove the Secretary of State's power to direct the commission to carry out reviews.
The Government have made it clear that they intend the Local Government Commission to carry out a rolling programme of reviews of local government covering all the shire county areas in England. The Secretary of State will set a balanced and manageable programme of areas for the commission. A great many local authorities, organisations and individuals commented on priorities for the review in responding to our consultation paper on local government structure. We are still considering what the commission's programme should be and we shall take those comments into account in deciding the commission's programme.
We intend to announce the programme of areas for review when the Local Government Commission has been set up, which cannot be before Royal Assent. We shall need to ensure we do not commit the commission to a rigid timetable or programme which fails to take account of the different scale of problems in different areas and hence of the different time that may be needed to undertake each review. We shall certainly try to give local authorities as good an indication as possible of when the commission will consider their area.
We have already made it clear that we shall give special priority to Humberside where the Local Government Boundary Commission found a strong case for change. We shall announce other priorities in due course. Areas where there is a history of dissatisfaction with the existing structure must be high on the list.
1474 Having accepted the uncertainty point and having taken on board not only remarks made at this stage of the Bill but also at Committee stage and indeed all that has come back as a result of the consultation process, the programme, when announced, will have been produced with all those concerns in mind.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, that is a little like the section at the end of the Queen's Speech where Her Majesty says:Other measures will be laid before you".It is not all that helpful for those who have to think about parliamentary timetables or public policy issues. It is good to learn that the Government intend to give as much notice as possible to individual authorities about the timetable and how it will affect them. It is also good to know that the Government are anxious to reduce uncertainty so far as possible
I listened carefully to what the Minister said about consultation and the timetable. This is not a matter that I shall press to a Division but I want to impress on the Government that they will have the earnest thanks of those who have to run local government during this very difficult period if they provide as much advance notice as possible of the timetable of the commission. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I fear that, failing acceptance of the points that we have made in what I should have thought was an entirely constructive and helpful way, the commission will have great difficulty securing the kind of co-operation with local authorities and people in local areas that would have been easier to achieve had it set out a programme and had it also had the full resources to do the job.
As I said, this is not a matter that I wish to press to a Division. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 66 not moved.]
Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 67:
Page 11, line 15, after ("recommendations") insert ("and in accordance with the electoral system provided by section 17").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 87. It may look as though this is the introduction of a rather less conciliatory amendment than those we have so far discussed today. However, I put it to noble Lords that the amendment is entirely within the spirit of the debate on the Bill. We have talked at length and all sides of the House have expressed concern that the authorities formed as a result of the work of the commission should reflect the interests of the communities that are represented, that they should be fully representative and that they should be highly accountable.
§ Those are aims which above all can be achieved by using a system of proportional representation by single transferable vote, as proposed in the two amendments. Many different interests are reflected in local government. We have mentioned the need to ensure that local authorities do not become hung up on party political differences. A fair electoral system would ensure that the wide variety of interests to be represented are in fact represented. The particular attribute of a form of fair vote is that the power is 1475 given not to the political parties but to the voters themselves. That must be something that we all wish to see.
§ The day before the Christmas Recess is not the time for long discursions into the merits and demerits of different systems. Although it is tempting to set off on that route, I have deliberately restricted myself to three short points. However, a fair voting system would achieve the stability that we want to see, particularly following a period of structural change. It is very important that the new authorities are able to settle down and get on with their work without having hanging over them concerns about wild swings of votes which may lead to wild swings in policies. After all, the results of the system will be broader representation and a better balance among authorities.
§ There is a lot of talk about electoral reform leading to coalition government. That may or may not be good in national government, but perhaps in this context one should think of the balance that results. If no one party has the overall majority of councillors, parties will have to work together to achieve consensus on important policies. I suggest that local government will be the better for it. It is a situation that we have seen across the country. It is not to be feared; in fact, it is something to be aimed for. Our representatives at local level work together to achieve the best for their communities. That will also be effective —another word which crops up a great deal in the Bill. In moving the amendment I do not suggest any measure that is outside either the words or the spirit of the Bill but a method of ensuring that the proposals are implemented.
§ Finally—because one should not talk about a voting system without a swift reference to it—the system must be fair. That must be at the heart of the matter. However, I believe that that almost goes without saying. That is why I have spent a little longer on the other aspects. I beg to move.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I shall follow the instruction of my Front Bench and be brief. I shall not give a long disquisition on systems.
Since the amendment is put forward exclusively by these Benches, I wish to address both sides of the House. The Government will recall that one of the origins of the poll tax—the community charge—was an attempt to deal with unrepresentative minorities who found themselves in control of local authorities and then pursued policies that were out of touch with the wishes of the electorate. In some instances such controlling minorities took off into Cloud-cuckoo-land. I am sure that we remember the words of the Prime Minister at the time. That was one of the main motivations for the community charge. It has proved quite an expensive sledgehammer to crack that nut; but the nut is real. The Government's motivation in wanting to pursue ways of dealing with that was a proper one.
Two out of three of the noble Lords sitting on the Labour Front Bench are members of the commission chaired by Mr. Plant which is looking at electoral systems. An interesting conclusion which it has 1476 reached—I understand that its work is not yet finished—is that different electoral systems may be appropriate for different levels of government. Given the commitment of the Scottish Labour Party to proportional representation for a putative Scottish Parliament, does the same principle apply to local government to which my noble friend Lady Hamwee referred? That is, getting local communities more sensitively and accurately in touch with their elected representatives. I hope that both sides of the House will give the amendment more sympathetic consideration than is often the case with regard to amendments on proportional representation.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I hope that the Government will give short shrift to the amendment. What most irritates me about the reiteration of demands for proportional representation is that they are always preluded by the word "fair". I do not believe that it is a fair system. That is a matter for argument.
The question is, to whom is the system fair? Various systems are fair to different people. No doubt it would be fair to people representing a small minority interest which might otherwise not be represented. However, the people to whom we try to be fair in devising a system of local government are the citizens. The question is what is fair to them.
If the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was right in her glowing vision of the future, and one had a multi-party, multi-group, multi-interest council, working with the single, devoted intention of reaching a consensus which would satisfy every citizen, it indeed would be fair. But it is like Europe: it is one of those pies in the sky. However, the experience of countries that have proportional representation in local government—I believe that Belgium is a good example—shows that far from having this benign effect, it merely makes the communities more difficult to run and agreement on necessary policies harder to attain. On the last day before the Christmas Recess, let us have a truce on this stuff.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, in view of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, has pointed out that I have two colleagues on this Front Bench who are members of the Labour Party's commission on electoral systems, it is better that I respond in case they should be thought to be speaking on behalf of anyone or revealing the thoughts of the commission —of which I am sublimely unaware.
I was surprised that the noble Baroness put down the amendments. I thought it strange, when we have worked alongside each other for such a long time seeking to push for local choice in the way that local government is run, that she now seeks to prescribe on the face of the Bill a specific electoral system for all parts of the country in advance without knowing at this stage the size or responsibilities of the local authorities to be set up. It would be more appropriate for the electoral system to be considered at a time 1477 when we know the composition, responsibilities, functions, size and boundaries of local authorities rather than trying to impose it in advance.
It seems peculiar to put forward one single electoral system —the single transferable vote—and describe that as fair. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, has referred to the unfairness of comparable systems in other parts of Europe. We could bring the argument much closer home. There are many councils in this country which are run on a no single party majority basis. They are hung councils. In other words, they are precursors of the kind of council that the noble Baroness wishes to see if her amendments were carried. Let us consider the experience of those councils. Let us say that one has three different groups of different sizes. If two of them represented 40 per cent. of the votes each and one represented 20 per cent. of the votes, the 20 per cent, would obtain equal authority with the two 40 per cent. representations. In other words, power and responsibility do not go alongside the wishes of the electorate. Also in hung councils officers take control. That is the reality of the matter. That is why I believe that it would be inappropriate for us to approve the amendment.
I do not say that the Labour Party sets its face against different electoral systems in local government or, so far as I know, different electoral systems in different parts of the country. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, referred to our plans for Scotland. However, it is entirely inappropriate to try to push such amendments into the Bill now.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
My Lords, I should not like it to be thought that the Labour Party was unanimous in rejecting the amendments. I support the amendments in so far as I have considered them. I do not agree with the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, about fairness and unfairness. There are a number of countries with curious proportional representation systems which bumble along at least as well as do our arrangements. No one can say that our system produces good, sensible government, either local or national—that is regardless of which party is in power.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, may well be right in saying that the system proposed is not fair. However, if he reflected upon the matter for any length of time, he would agree that it is less unfair than most other systems. It is certainly less unfair than our first past the post system.
I recall some years ago having dealings with the London Borough of Islington. In 1968 or thereabouts it had 100 per cent. Labour representation. There was an election which overturned that totally. Suddenly it had 100 per cent. Conservative representation. That may be fair but it was certainly not sensible. There was no way in which one could possibly imagine that the citizens of Islington, or any other place, were 100 per cent. of one persuasion on one day and 100 per cent, of the other persuasion the next day. The first-past-the-post system has a great many defects.
Older noble Lords may have cast parliamentary votes in the past under the single transferable vote system, because they will recall that until 1950, I think it was, there was a number of seats in the other place 1478 whose electorates were the graduates of the various universities. I was an elector for the Scottish universities which at that time had three Members. London had two or three, the English universities had two or three, and so forth.
It was the first parliamentary vote I had ever cast. We used the single transferable vote. The decision was based on proportional representation. No one at that time thought that that was an inappropriate means of electing to the other place representatives of those highly sophisticated electorates comprising of the graduates of the British universities. The system has been tried. It undoubtedly has defects, but it is by no means as bleak and unfair as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, seems to suggest. The amendment should be supported. It is a perfectly proper provision to put into the Bill.
My Lords, it would be churlish of me not to congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing the subject of proportional representation the moment she sees an opportunity to do so. I somehow doubt that she expects us to be persuaded.
The Government have repeatedly affirmed that there are no plans to change the present electoral system at local elections, or for that matter, at national ones. We consider the simple majority system to be preferable because it is well understood by the electorate, provides close and direct representation between the elector and the elected representative, and contributes to stable government at local as well as at national level. That is one of the most important points.
Let us not overlook the decidedly minus points of proportional representation. I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Beloff for pointing out what happens in the real world. I agreed with every word that he said. Any system of proportional representation often results in some form of coalition government, based upon a programme which the electorate has not had the opportunity to approve or disapprove.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way, but did I just detect an implication that the whole of the rest of the European Community was not the real world? That rather confirms what seems to be the Government's approach to it.
My Lords, I was paying a compliment to my noble friend and saying that his interpretation of what occurs is the real world.
At a local level that result would mean a tendency for elections to be followed by negotiations between the political parties. The electorate would have no say in such negotiations and would be unable to influence the type of deals and compromises which will be necessary to achieve a workable solution. That relates to the point about local choice made by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. I also agree with him that the balance of power under PR is often held disproportionately by a minority of people.
Of course there is no perfect voting system, and the simple majority system has drawbacks—I am the first 1479 to acknowledge that—and can result in anomalies. The Government remain of the view, however, that it should be retained for local elections because it is more likely than alternative systems to produce local authorities which are directly accountable to the electorate and responsible to it for the policies which they pursue. We cannot accept the amendments. I hope that now we have debated the subject the noble Baroness will be content to leave it at that.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, perhaps we can have the discussion later. I wish I was surprised at anything that has been said this morning. The one thing that I am surprised at is that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, is surprised because we have discussed briefly whether this is a matter to be raised at this stage of the Bill.
I shall respond to a few of the points that have been made. I do not believe that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, was in the Chamber late at night when I withdrew the amendment that I had tabled in Committee. At that point I used the argument, which I am sure noble Lords will understand I find irresistible, that in my local authority the current first-past-the-post system is grossly unfair to the Conservatives who currently have only four councillors against the Liberal Democrats 48, and to the Labour Party which has had no councillor elected since 1974.
To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, it is not that the system is unfair to the political parties; it is unfair to the citizens. That is why the system is wrong. The Minister said that he hoped that I did not expect the Government to be persuaded. It is the knee-jerk reaction to the issue which is so disappointing. It brings out the worst in many politicians. They retreat to their corrals instead of considering the real issues and—I hope this does not sound pious for it comes from the heart—the interests of those whom they represent.
Apart from the honourable exception of the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, in the latter speeches there seems to have been a coalition between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party on this issue.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, indeed it is Buggins' turn as my noble friend Lady Seear says. That is what we have. It does not impress the electorate that local authorities, like the country, are run on a system of Buggins' turn, and I wish to take the opinion of the House.
§ 12.28 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 67) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 38; Not-Contents, 114.1481
|Division No. 1|
|Addington, L.||Howie of Troon, L.|
|Airedale, L.||Hunt, L.|
|Aylestone, L.||Jenkins of Hillhead, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Kennet, L.|
|Bruce of Donington, L.||Lytton, E.|
|Carver, L.||McNair, L.|
|Desai, L.||Mayhew, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Mulley, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Ogmore, L.|
|Foot, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Gladwyn, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Grimond, L.||Rochester, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Hamwee, B. [Teller.]||Seear, B.|
|Hanworth, V.||Stedman, B.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Taylor of Gryfe, L.|
|Holme of Cheltenham, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Hooson, L.||Tordoff, L. [Teller.]|
|Houghton of Sowerby, L.||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Aldington, L.||Hesketh, L. [Teller.]|
|Alexander of Tunis, E.||Hives, L.|
|Allen of Abbeydale, L.||Hollis of Heigham, B.|
|Arran, E.||Hooper, B.|
|Astor, V.||Howe, E.|
|Auckland, L.||Hylton-Foster, B.|
|Balfour, E.||Ironside, L.|
|Belhaven and Stenton, L.||Jenkin of Roding, L.|
|Beloff, L.||John-Mackie, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Lindsey and Abingdon, E.|
|Blatch, B.||Long, V.|
|Blyth, L.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Boardman, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Borthwick, L.||McColl of Dulwich, L.|
|Brabazon of Tara, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L.|
|Broadbridge, L.||Malmesbury, E.|
|Brougham and Vaux, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Melville, V.|
|Carmichael of Kelvingrove, L.||Merrivale, L.|
|Carnegy of Lour, B.||Mersey, V.|
|Carter, L.||Mills, V.|
|Cavendish of Furness, L.||Milverton, L.|
|Clanwilliam, E.||Monkswell, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Morris, L.|
|Coleraine, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Cork and Orrery, E.||Mountevans, L.|
|Cottesloe, L.||Munster, E.|
|Cullen of Ashbourne, L.||Nelson, E.|
|Cumberlege, B.||Nicol, B.|
|Davidson, V. [Teller.]||Norrie, L.|
|Denham, L.||O'Cathain, B.|
|Denton of Wakefield, B.||Orr-Ewing, L.|
|Digby, L.||Oxfuird, V.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Park of Monmouth, B.|
|Ellenborough, L.||Pender, L.|
|Elliott of Morpeth, L.||Platt of Writtle, B.|
|Fitt, L.||Quinton, L.|
|Flather, B.||Reay, L.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Romney, E.|
|Gallacher, L.||Roskill, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||St. John of Bletso, L.|
|Geddes, L.||Selkirk, E.|
|Gisborough, L.||Shackleton, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Shaughnessy, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Gregson, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, L.||Strathclyde, L.|
|Strathcona and Mount Royal, L.|
|Henley, L.||Strathmore and Kinghorne, E.|
|Taylor of Blackburn, L.||Varley, L.|
|Teviot, L.||Vaux of Harrowden, L.|
|Thomas of Gwydir, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Thorneycroft, L.||Waddington, L.|
|Trumpington, B.||White, B.|
|Turner of Camden, B.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Ullswater, V.||Windlesham, L.|
|Underhill, L.||Wise, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 12.35 p.m.
The Earl of Lyttonmoved Amendment No. 68:
Page 11, line 34, leave out from beginning to ("regard") in line 36 and insert ("In recommending any structural boundary, or electoral change the Local Government Commission shall have").
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, I have drawn the short straw this morning in moving this amendment which, has nothing to do with party politics and it may not have very much to do with tinsel either. The purpose of the amendment is to strengthen the functions of the Local Government Commission. It may be of assistance to noble Lords if I refer to the previous amendment to Clause 13 which I moved in Committee. In moving that amendment I made two points: first, that the structure must as a matter of course follow function when considering any new local unitary authority; secondly, I made the point that as the Bill stands much of the Local Government Commission's work could be arbitrarily circumscribed by ministerial direction. In reply the noble Earl seemed to imply that those matters were dealt with in the Bill. However, with respect to him, I am not entirely convinced that that is so.
§ I am concerned that as it now stands the Bill looks very much like a tool for central government to reconstruct those authorities with which they disagree. I move this amendment to ascertain whether that is the intention or whether that is inadvertently just the impression which seems to be given. However, my interest is in genuine attempts to produce better local government and not about circumscribing the work of the commission.
§ I must record that on two occasions I have written to the Minister about my misgivings and I still look forward to a reply. It is partly for that reason that I feel obliged to raise my views in open debate.
§ If the Bill goes through unamended, Ministers will hold all the cards, the terms of reference, the scope of the investigation and recommendation—
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for giving way. I have written a fairly detailed reply to him and I am quite disturbed to hear what he has just said. He should have received it by now. I am checking to see whether there has been any delay between my signing the letter and the noble Earl receiving it.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. During the month of December I have not received a letter from her. It may well be that it has been delayed in the post. I did not wish to imply that the Minister had been guilty of any discourtesy. I was 1482 merely recording as a matter of fact that I have sent two letters and I have not yet received a reply to either during the course of this month.
I was referring to the fact that Ministers will hold all the cards, including the terms of reference and the scope of investigation and recommendation that would be available to the Local Government Commission. I believe also that there is no guarantee that the Minister of the day will adopt those recommendations. Therefore, all those matters can be dealt with at ministerial level with impunity, without any further reference to Parliament.
There are many unresolved questions which have cropped up throughout our discussions on the Bill as to what functions a future unitary authority may perform. Reference has been made to education, strategic planning, police, national parks—I note that there is a later amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Norrie—and so on. I cannot entirely accept that the matter is simply a question of bestowing all or part of those functions currently performed by districts or counties, as the case may be, on a single authority. Such a notion is quite fanciful. Local government is far more complex than that allows for.
If that is what the Government seek to achieve, I am somewhat against it. Public interest surely demands the complete and absolute integrity of the Local Government Commission in all its works, its dealings and its recommendations. It must not only work efficiently, but be seen to be working efficiently; otherwise local government reorganisation simply becomes window dressing for some other motive.
The amendment does two things. First, it attempts considerably to clarify the wording of the existing Bill. Secondly, it seeks to make an imperative out of something which at present is a somewhat wishy-washy discretion. We hope that its effects will go a small way towards strengthening the breadth of function and remit of the Local Government Commission and avoid its work—the specific point I have in mind—being artificially circumscribed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I understand from discussion on the last amendment that I shall not be able to rise after the Minister speaks. I hoped to be able to speak later in order to attempt to rebut what was said by the Minister. Unfortunately, the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, will have to do his best in that regard.
I see this issue in a rather simple way. It is a matter of drafting. I believe that this new draft assists the Government in their intentions. In the earlier consideration of the issue my noble friend Lord Howe said quite clearly that the Local Government Commission will look —he stated the negative but it means the same thing—at the functions of authorities in the areas under review. That is an integral part of its consideration of structure. In other words, the Government have totally taken on board the point that structure should flow from function and not the other way round.
My noble friend gave us all a considerable degree of comfort when he said that Clause 13(5) will require the 1483 commission —that makes it mandatory—to have regard to effective and convenient local government. The amendment says precisely that in 17 words as opposed to 31 and in one-and-a-half lines as opposed to three. I do not believe that it makes a substantive change.
In so far as the amendment worships at the altar of revoking clarity, I should have thought that the Government would accept the recommendation. Furthermore, as the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, pointed out—in my view somewhat cynically—it does not matter. Clause 17(1) makes it absolutely clear that it does not matter what the Local Government Commission recommends. It states:Where the Government Commission submit to the Secretary of State a report on a review together with its recommendations, he [The Secretary of State] may, if he thinks fit, by order give effect to all or any of the recommendations, with or without modifications".That is absolutely clear.
The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, did not raise the point that the Secretary of State could do that without coming back to Parliament. With respect, that is not so. It must be done by order. It is quite clear in that subsection. Notwithstanding that point, it is important that my noble friend makes clear that Her Majesty's Government is not hiding under what appears to be a somewhat obfuscatory drafting. They are trying to suggest that there is a mandatory duty when in fact it is a discretionary duty dressed up as a mandatory duty. The clumsy wording of,shall be such as appear to the Local Government Commission desirable having regard to",puts considerable doubt in my mind. The new drafting is an improvement.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Morris, drew attention to an important point in reminding us of the provisions of Clause 17(1). He quite rightly says that the Secretary of State will need to seek the views of Parliament in effect by the implementation being by way of order. But that allows for the position that the Local Government Commission may make recommendations which the Secretary of State does not wish to pursue. Inevitably the way in which the clause is worded means that there will be the opportunity to disagree with the Secretary of State if he makes a recommendation. If he simply does not proceed to make a recommendation based on the work of the Local Government Commission, then that will be an end of it. I am grateful to the noble Earl and the noble Lord for raising the issue again.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the effect of the amendment will be to lay a duty on the commission to have regard to the terms of reference in recommending any structural, boundary or electoral change. This change would make no practical difference to the way in which the commission goes about its work. I can assure the noble Earl that the commission will be required to have regard to the matters specified in Clause 13(5) (a) and (b) in carrying out its reviews. The drafting of the Bill does not leave that in doubt.
1484 The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, uncharacteristically accused the Government of setting up the Local Government Commission and putting it in place to do away with those authorities with which it disagrees. That could not be further from the truth when one looks through the Bill to see how independent the Local Government Commission will be in doing its work. But it is absolutely right, and the noble Earl was correct in saying, that it must be function led. It is essential that the Local Government Commission must consider the functions of local authorities and determine the appropriate level of authority to deliver efficient and effective services, taking into account and making it as close to the community as possible.
That is the way we perceive it will happen. The guidance will be explicit. There are a number of pages within the guidance which refer specifically to functions. It says that it is not exhaustive; there are other functions that will be contained within the final guidance. It will be impossible for the commission simply to be cavalier about dipping into some functions and not others. When it comes before the Secretary of State with a recommendation, which ultimately will have to come before Parliament and it will be for Parliament to decide, that recommendation must have addressed all the functions of local authorities. If it is vested in a unitary authority then it must convince Parliament and, in the first instance, the Secretary of State, that those services or functions can be delivered effectively and efficiently. It will be impossible for the Secretary of State to direct the commission in such a way that it will abolish some authorities and not others on purely subjective grounds. That cannot happen.
The noble Earl was right to say that complete and absolute integrity of the Local Government Commission was essential. I absolutely endorse that. There is no difference between us on that point. The noble Earl also said that the Bill seeks to impose central government influence on local government, which is the same point about how much the Secretary of State can actually interfere with what the Local Government Commission does. Again, I must remind the House that the recommendation in the first instance comes to the Secretary of State. There is a period when it will be considered—a minimum of six weeks; if it is a complicated structural arrangement then it may be much longer. Then the matter has to come before Parliament for approval.
The noble Earl also raised the question of unitary authorities having all local government functions. The department's draft guidance to the Local Government Commission makes clear that the commission should seek to recommend a structure which achieves the most effective exercise of all local authority functions including the strategic ones. That, I know, is the concern of many noble Lords. The commission will be required to have regard to the guidance in carrying out its reviews, but in the Government's view there is no need for any change to the Bill.
The anxieties that the noble Earl and my noble friend Lord Morris have are understandable. However, I hope that I have been able to reassure them that their concerns are very well taken care of by 1485 what is on the face of the Bill and the way in which the Secretary of State will instruct the Local Government Commission to have regard to the guidance.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that full reply. If my introduction of the amendment appeared slightly abrasive, that was deliberate. It has produced the response that I felt had been eluding me for some considerable while. That abrasiveness has therefore performed its function. Certainly, I did not wish to accuse the Government of trying to manipulate matters to their own ends. It is obviously a matter of great importance to the public at large and to this House that the Local Government Commission should be seen to operate as a free spirit in the truest sense of the word.
The commission is allowed to comment on boundary, electoral and structural issues. The question arose because, as I have implied, structure by its nature includes function. However, because function is not just a subsidiary of structure, but structure is a subsidiary of function, I have been concerned throughout that the function performed does not appear where I would have expected it to appear logically within the Bill. That is my conundrum. It is the point that I have been trying to impress, probably very imperfectly, on the Minister and her department. That is why I persistently return to it.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Earl and I ask for the leave of the House to reply. Does the noble Earl agree that in order for the Local Government Commission to do its work it must look at functions? The commission's consequential decision will be to determine structure. It cannot determine structure before it has considered, very properly, functions as a result of the guidance which it will be directed to pay regard to. Then the commission will have a view about structure.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I accept that entirely. The way in which the Bill is put together seems to involve a circular argument. In other words, we would consider function as part of structure, but the functions to be taken into account would relate to boundary, electoral and structural matters. So the matter has come completely full circle. That is tautologous. That is the situation that I am trying to break out of in order to ascertain what the real intentions are. If we are simply talking about redefining all the little bits that go into local government at the moment, and not considering thereafter the greater issues that arise from a unitary authority and a new structure in terms of how it performs, and all the other factors which go into it; and if there is to be only a distillation of a selected few aspects of present local authority operation, then I am rather unhappy about it. I believe that the Local Government Commission should be in a position to look at that issue.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl and I ask again for the leave of the House to respond on what I believe is a very important point which should be clarified for the record. If I have given 1486 the impression that the issue is only about functions—in other words, looking at each function separately one by one and saying "This belongs here, and that belongs there", then that is why I believe the noble Earl is confused. There is a presumption in favour of changing the structure of local authorities. There is a presumption which is explicitly in favour of unitary authorities. That becomes the starting point. The commission will be looking for unitary authorities that make sense. They can only make sense if the functions vested in the unitary authority can be delivered efficiently and effectively. There is also a presumption against a proliferation of joint ward arrangements.
If one takes all those factors together they are mutually inclusive and not exclusive. We start in favour of change, and presume in favour of unitary authorities. It must therefore follow that there has to be efficient and effective delivery of functions. Structure will be determined on the basis of that work being done properly. I can assure the noble Earl that the kind of ad hoc arrangement to which he referred is not the object of the exercise.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I believe that I have taxed the patience of the House for long enough on this amendment. We have moved into a philosophical dimension which I fear is beginning to leave me behind, even though I raised the matter in the first place. I am very grateful to the Minister for clarifying the matter. I have no doubt that her intentions and those of the Government are honourable. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity of having set down as a matter of record the Government's innermost feelings on the question. On the basis of what has been said and the reply from the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Norriemoved Amendment No. 69:
Page 11, line 38, at end insert (", including the performance of strategic functions in the wider public interest").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to ensure that the Local Government Commission has regard to the important strategic role of local authorities. I raised the matter in Committee, but I am still concerned that the strategic dimension of local government should be acknowledged on the face of the Bill as an important guiding principle for the commission. I was reassured by my noble friend the Minister at Committee stage when she said that,
before any unitary authorities are established, it will have to be shown that the issues of strategic planning and local planning, and of other services, including those which protect the environment, are satisfactorily covered".
She went on to say that the Local Government Commission should,
consider convenience to local people and, in the case of strategic functions, consider the wider public interest". —[Official Report, 5/12/91; cols. 385 and 386.]
I welcome that commitment. It is important for local government reform to protect the public interest. If local government reform results in a large number of small unitary authorities, I do not believe that it will be easy to ensure that. Neither do I believe that joint arrangements make for effective strategic planning. This issue is of vital importance. I am worried that
Clause 13 may not adequately reflect the strength of feeling about strategic matters which has been expressed on all sides of the House. The Bill should require the commission specifically to have regard to,
the performance of strategic functions in the wider public interest".
That is the aim of the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I support the amendment. The draft guidance uses the words which are picked up in the amendment. It is important that those words are on the face of the Bill and not simply in the guidance which is subsidiary to it. The debate that we have just had about functions and structure and the inter-relationship between them is one that I welcome very much. It was for the reasons which concerned the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that I tabled an amendment at a previous stage which I had hoped would tease the matter out more by making functional change another matter to be considered.
The debate that we have just had is relevant to this amendment as well. No particular model is being advocated here. The more we discuss this matter the more concerned I become that the question of strategic functions appears on the face of the Bill. I hope that the amendment will also serve the use (I avoid the word "function") of putting joint arrangements firmly in their place as a subsidiary effect.
§ 1 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I would be happy to support this amendment if the phrase used by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie—"performance of strategic functions in the wider public interest"— means that one can ask the Local Government Commission to consider the regional dimension when determining structures. It is clear when talking about strategic issues that counties are not only too large for local services; they are increasingly too small for most strategic purposes. I am sure there is no difference between those on these Benches and the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, about seeking to protect the wider public interest when strategic functions are performed by an authority larger than the district council, as presently constituted. However, for several reasons I worry that the too ready identification of strategic functions with the existing county council tier will undermine the strength of his own argument in the final case.
One has to look at physical economic development and the way that districts and counties have had to develop SCEALAs, SERPLANs and regional economic planning bodies in order to deal with issues like the East Thames Corridor, the East coast motorway or the Channel Tunnel. Indeed, two studies of local government structure in Humberside and Cheshire performed by the School of Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol reported that many local government functions, particularly the strategic ones, required a regional perspective. With regard to Humberside and Cheshire, one study said:The county is increasingly neither the area nor the level for which that perspective is appropriate".1488 It is not only in terms of physical economic development that regions will be increasingly the important fora. The same applies to environmental considerations. In this we make common cause with the noble Lord. The Countryside Commission, English Heritage, English Nature and the DoE itself, as well as tourist boards, sports councils and arts bodies, are all now organised on a regional basis. Water authorities, environmental recreation, tourism planning and national parks are all on a regional basis. We do not need national guidance, regional strategic guidance, structure plans and local plans—a cascade of four levels of planning guidance— especially as the 1991 Act significantly reduced the role of structure plans passing certain responsibilities over to local plans.
In the reorganisation of health authorities in 1980, when there were similarly so many tiers—national, regional, area (which is county) and district— government, rightly in my view, decided to dispense with the county tier—the AHA—on the grounds that it was too large for the local delivery of services, as my noble friend Lord McIntosh said, but too small for strategic and resource planning. As those in this Chamber who are active now in health authorities will, I am sure, accept, it is the region that has strategic perspectives and responsibilities.
Perhaps I may give the example of another green issue or environmental anxiety which I think the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, shares—coastal zone protection. On that issue, maritime district councils are the primary point of contact for local people. That is where planning, coast protection, leisure, tourism, environmental protection and public safety responsibilities interlock. As a result, a collection of districts have formed groups around the coastlines of England and Wales. Mostly they are multi-disciplinary, looking at coastal engineering, recreation, planning, health and tourism. In all cases it is the district councils that have taken the lead. I understand that the best developed are around the Anglian coast. They are not only based on districts, but go beyond the county to the region—that is, to Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire.
Let me give a second example: Hampshire. The DoE's regional guidance allocates to the county the requirement to fund sites for 66,000 dwellings. The county council has been arguing in public for a lower figure. The 13 districts, with a full range of political views, including balanced or hung councils, have jointly come together to support the DoE against the county structure plan. They regard it as inappropriately reflecting the dilemmas within Hampshire whether it looks to London in the north or to the problems of Portsmouth and Southampton in the south. The districts came together because of their belief that the regional guidance within the framework of the DoE was more appropriate and that if they did not do so the draft structure plan would be discredited at the examination in public.
It seems to me clear that strategic planning is best now considered at regional level. Those remaining county functions can well come down. All experience since 1972 has been the passing down of local planning 1489 functions to districts, on the one hand, in 1972, 1980, 1991, and, on the other hand, the development of regional fora—the ones I have outlined. Increasingly, the county is losing its position as a strategic planning authority. County boundaries in the first place were selected by either historical accident or for the convenience of providing particular services. Counties were never designed to be strategic planning areas. In some cases, large counties may contain several sub-regions, each with relative independent economies. Those are very different requirements. Other counties may be too small.
For those reasons, the county, as a body with a requirement to maintain strategic perspective, is increasingly too small for strategic purposes whether in terms of physical infrastructure, environmental protection, or concern for a proper long-term balance between development and environmental considerations. The county, equally, is too large for the local and the site-specific plans which increasingly district councils now handle.
If by this amendment it is meant that we can ask the Local Government Commission to consider the regional dimensions involved when determining structures, I shall be happy to support it. If it does not, and if it is simply a call to retain the county council as the only appropriate forum for strategic planning, then I suggest that it is artificial and would ossify everything that is now happening in this country.
§ The Earl of Lytton
My Lords, I should like to make a comment in support of the amendment. I preface my remarks by thanking the Minister for her letter of 17th December, which has just arrived. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out, the amendment that I moved has a dimension very close to, if not overlapping, the one moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie.
Perhaps I may refer to the final comment of the Minister's letter. It points to the inadvisability of widening the remit of the Local Government Commission because certain issues need to be dealt with on a national, not a local basis. Today we are considering a national basis of criteria that will govern a national commission looking at local authorities. Presumably we are not talking about a series of wholly different and dissimilar local authorities operating on quite dissimilar bases. It is my impression that local core needs are more notable for their similarities than for the converse.
In the context of strategic planning, this brings into focus those functions which may at the moment be outside those of local authorities altogether—outside the role of district and outside the role of county. It is important to make sure that, whatever comes out of the review, needs which rise above the structures which operate them at the moment are brought into consideration in dealing with new unitary authorities. That goes back to what I said a few moments ago. This amendment is important and I commend it to the Government.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, we had quite a debate on this subject in Committee. I believe I said then that many people were concerned that, unless the 1490 new unitary authorities were of a size and had a financial base which was relevant, we could find that local authorities would not be able to continue to discharge their functions.
I believe that I explained in Committee that many people were concerned, for example, that services like education, roads and social services could end up not in regional authorities as my noble friend instanced but in specialist authorities; in other words, we would have a schools council or a schools board administering schools throughout the country and similarly we would have a national roads authority administering, and indeed interfering in, if I may put it that way, the proper concerns of the local authority. I appreciate that this is a very difficult aspect but, nevertheless, it is a most important aspect of the Bill which will affect the commission in making its recommendations.
If we really are in favour of all-purpose authorities, as I believe we are, then we must ensure that the duties of such all-purpose authorities remain important and the authorities themselves are able, because they have a good financial base, to carry them out and to do so properly on behalf of the people in the local area.
I must say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that, despite it being Labour Party policy, I am a little concerned about regions. I am concerned that they may filch powers from all-purpose authorities. I am glad to see that my noble friend is shaking her head. Indeed, the fact that I am raising the matter shows the wide area of debate which is allowed in the Labour Party. Regional authorities must not be allowed to filch powers from the local authorities. I say that because I remain convinced that, if we are to have local government, it must be as near to the people as possible so that they know exactly who is administering the services and where they can go to complain about the services so as to have some effect on the quality of such services.
Having said that, I have no real advice to offer to the commission. I believe that it has a most difficult job in reconciling the two positions: first, to ensure that the strategic services operate and operate properly; and, secondly, to ensure at the same time that we really do have local government.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, this has been an interesting mini debate. Perhaps I may say first that I am most grateful for the opportunity to emphasise the importance which the Government attach to the strategic functions of local authorities. I should make it clear that we certainly do not wish to weaken the position of strategic functions. We fully appreciate their importance. Indeed, my noble friend Lord Norrie actually quoted what I said in Committee. He did so because of his concern about strategic functions. I can tell him that strategic functions are certainly very important.
In fact, I would go even further than I did in Committee and say it would only be when those important strategic matters are addressed or covered that a recommendation would indeed be acceptable. It would be inconceivable that the Local Government 1491 Commission could come to Parliament with a recommendation to restructure local authorities, having ignored the effective and efficient delivery of strategic services. My noble friend can be assured that such matters will be addressed. I leave him free to decide whether they are addressed to his satisfaction when they come before Parliament.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, went much further in pre-empting the outcome of the work of the Local Government Commission. Indeed, she not only went much further than I or the Government would go, but she also went much further than her Front Bench colleagues in another place would go. Moreover, in the light of what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, it would seem that she has even gone much further than he would go. She has said publicly again and again both in Committee and now on Report that county government is too small to be regional and too large to be unitary. That pretty well pre-empts its demise at the outset. It is important to recognise the fact that it must be for the Local Government Commission, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, to reconcile all those interests, to address them and to consider what the appropriate level of government should be. I suggest that it cannot be for this House or another place to pre-empt and to tie the hands of the commission.
Sometimes some of the strategic functions are somewhat overdone in the minds of noble Lords. The management of education and of our schools has been substantially devolved to the local level. That work must continue. That seems to me to be appropriate. So far as concerns roads, given the fact that there are trunk roads, primary roads and minor roads in local areas, the system at present works well. The networking of roads is dealt with at national level. It is not only the networking of trunk roads that national government determine; the primary routes are also submitted to government for approval so that the networking is co-ordinated at a national level. Long may that continue.
The responsibility for minor roads can be held at unitary authority level. Therefore, I believe that the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, are important. But as a House we should be careful of pre-empting the outcome of this debate and, as I said, of making up the mind of the Local Government Commission before the matter goes before it. It must be for local people, local business and commerce, local and voluntary groups, local authorities and so on to make their case to the Local Government Commission as to what they perceive to be the effective tier of local government. Then it must be for the Local Government Commission, in the light of the guidance and directions from the Secretary of State, to make a recommendation to Parliament. I ask the House to reject the amendment.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down I have one point to make. She has just suggested that it is not for this House or indeed the other place to blinker the functions and duties of the commission. But Clause 13(6) clearly states: 1492The Secretary of State may give directions as to the exercise by the Local Government Commission of any functions under this section; and such directions may require that Commission to have regard to any guidance given by the Secretary of State as respects matters to be taken into account".Apparently Her Majesty's Government and the Secretary of State can do that, but it appears that under no circumstances can Parliament do so. I find that rather odd.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, my noble friend made an interesting point. Of course, it will be for the Secretary of State finally to approve the guidance which is in draft form at present. In the light of that consultation process, he will eventually produce guidance to which the Local Government Commission must have regard. That will be in the public arena. It will be well understood by everyone concerned.
My noble friend is absolutely right to remind us that this House, as it considers the Bill, should ensure that no important function of local authorities is overlooked when it comes to advising the commission on how to carry out its work. I am hoping that we in this House will not pre-empt the outcome of that process; in other words, we should not at the outset almost pre-empt the demise of one single tier of local government and say that there is no room for counties because they are too small for regional government and too large for district government. That is what we should not pre-empt. I believe that we shall disturb a very large number of people in local government if we very strongly take that view.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for her lengthy reply and to all noble Lords who have taken part in this so-called mini debate. The Local Government Commission should be in no doubt that the strategic role of local authorities is of the utmost importance. I am sure that the matter will continue to be debated but for now I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Beloff moved Amendment No. 70:
Page 11, line 38, at end insert ("and
( ) to take account of local opinion.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 71. To those noble Lords who are bored with my speeches —a sentiment that I share —I must point out that I am not speaking in my own person. I shall endeavour briefly to represent the views of my two noble friends Lady Oppenheim-Barnes and Lady Young—we may call them the historic Baronesses—who for various personal reasons are unable to be present today.
§ The two amendments arise from the discussions which they led in Committee about the importance attached to the sentiments of tradition and historic accountability in the cities which have a long past in one form or another as organs of local government. On 12th December the Minister wrote to my noble friend Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. Somehow it overcome the hazards of the Christmas post and was received by my noble friend who would like me to thank the Minister. It emphasised that the commission 1493 would be expected to bear in mind, among other things, the importance that people might attach to historic associations and the traditions of their locality, whether it is a cathedral city or whatever. It would be helpful if the phrases that the Minister used in the letter appeared in her answer to the debate on the amendments because it would be nice to have them in Hansard.
§ Amendment No. 71 is more general and refers to a point that I ventured to make in Committee. It illustrated a good reason for giving the commission a fairly wide range of possibilities. Although nothing is permanent, we are looking for a more permanent structure than some recent structures have been. I advanced the view that the only thing which made for permanence, or was likely to make for permanence, in a local government structure was the opinion of the people who actually lived under it. I know the difficulties and limitations on all forms of consultation with the citizens who cannot be regarded as entirely caught up in groups, parties or organisations. However, a structure that rests upon an ascertained commitment of local opinion is likely to be more effective and longer lasting than one which is thought of for reasons of administrative convenience, whether it is structure, the delivery of services or whatever. Such things change whereas people's affection may not change as fast. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I support the amendments, in particular Amendment No. 70. I have seen the letter from the Minister and I believe that it deals adequately with the second amendment. It appears to me that discovering the views of local people is absolutely essential if there is to be proper support for whatever structure emerges, be it in historic: cities or wherever. I urge the Government to ensure that that requirement is on the face of the Bill. In that way it cannot be overlooked by this or any subsequent government.
The Minister stated in her letter to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes:Full account is taken of how people feel about their history and how it affects their identity".We wish to see the Government take full account of how the people feel about everything, not only about their history and identity in the city. I note from the letter that the Minister is committed to research which is being carried out to discover the best way of getting in touch with people and finding out how they feel about what they belong to. She stated:We will draw on its research in giving further guidance to the commission".I welcome that statement. However, whatever the result of the research, we need to have on the face of the Bill the requirement to consult local opinion. It should be an overriding requirement and I hope that Amendment No. 70 will be accepted.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I too support both amendments, the historic Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Beloff. The overriding need to take account of local opinion is accepted but I see no logical reason why that should not be stated in black and white. At the Committee stage we talked about our historic cities. From conversations that I have had 1494 during the past week or two the sheer strength of feeling about the heritage and traditions of our towns and cities has become clear to me.
I was interested to hear about the contents of the letter that the Minister wrote to the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. I shall not have an opportunity to comment on the letter after the Minister has referred to it, if she does so. However, I must point out that cities such as Stratford, Dorchester and Ely, have a heritage and tradition which I am sure their inhabitants will commend for themselves. I wish to associate noble Lords on these Benches with the arguments that I know they will be putting forward. I support the two amendments.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, I too support both amendments, in particular Amendment No. 70. I have not seen a copy of the letter which has been referred to. However, I wish to make the point that when we talk about local opinion we should not be talking only about the local authority or the political parties but also about the ordinary people. They will be governed locally and they have had far too little say in how they wish to be governed.
I urge the Minister to try to ensure, first, that all kinds of methods are adopted by the commission to inform local people of what is proposed. It is not good enough to say that information will be in the newspapers or reported on the local radio. Not everybody takes a local newspaper or wants to read one. There are many reasons but often it is just because they are ridiculous rags. There must be other means of ensuring that the widest possible range of local people are informed of the proposals. There must be arrangements to ensure that ordinary people can put forward their point of view. It is not good enough to say to them, "You can write a letter". Not everyone likes writing letters and not everyone is able to put a letter together. I hope that there will be a wide variety of means of informing people and of enabling them in their own way to put forward their own point of view.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, let me say at the outset that we are warmly committed to effective and accountable local government based on authorities that reflect more closely the communities with which local people identify. Local people and organisations will be able to have their say and the Local Government Commission will listen.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has just made an important point that there must be more than one way of securing local opinion. It cannot be done by letter writing; it must be done in a variety of ways. We expect the commission to invoke a number of methods of securing local community opinion.
The procedure which the commission must follow in carrying out its reviews is set out in Clause 15. The commission will be required to take such steps as it considers sufficient to inform interested parties of the direction to carry out a review, of any other relevant directions and of the period in which representations about the review may be made to the commission.
1495 We intend that the commission should publicise its reviews widely and make information about its activities available to local newspapers, radio and television stations and so on. Under Clause 15(3) (a) the commission will have to consider any representations made to it about the local government structure, which people and organisations would like to see in their area before drawing up its draft recommendations for change.
The commission will also publicise its draft recommendations widely and the arrangements for commenting on them. The commission will again be required to take account of representations made about its draft recommendations during this period.
At Committee stage we set out a number of ways in which the commission would elicit the views of the local community, and perhaps it would be helpful if I reiterated them now. Clause 15(7) empowers the Secretary of State to direct the commission to have regard to the guidance he intends to issue as to its procedure. This guidance will cover not only the periods of time the commission should allow for each stage of its review but also possible methods of consultation. As we said at Committee stage, this guidance will be subject to consultation before being issued to the commission. I hope on that amendment noble Lords are reassured.
As concerns Amendment No. 71, we discussed the important issue of history and tradition at some length in Committee. Heritage and traditional status of local authorities are an important part of an area's history and traditions. We have been giving further thought to these considerations and to how we can best ensure that proper weight is given to them in the commission's work.
My noble friend Lord Beloff was particularly concerned on behalf of what he called "the noble and historic Baronesses" that authorities which had no basis in historical tradition would not take root. I can sympathise with that concern. We are all aware of authorities created in 1974 which have not been widely accepted by local people. We have learnt from the 1974 reorganisation and are determined that this should not happen again. That is why community identity will be a central factor in the commission's work.
We share the aim of ensuring that this reorganisation builds on history. We fully appreciate the importance of local heritage and that authorities which have responsibility for caring for it may face particular problems which are less significant elsewhere. We also recognise the importance of the status which authorities in some areas have traditionally enjoyed. We are aware that areas which traditionally ran their own affairs are eager to do so again. It is certainly the case that towns and cities with long and proud historical traditions, which are guardians of their local heritage and have traditionally run their own affairs, are likely to be well placed to become unitary authorities. I know that many of our oldest cities are particularly keen to become unitary authorities.
1496 There are some areas where heritage and traditional status and local historical traditions will not be such a major factor. The status to which a new town could now aspire could be very different from its traditional status which might be that of a village, for example. What is important about historical traditions, local heritage and traditional status is the role these factors may play in shaping community identity.
The rationale for the Bill is that the structure and, where necessary, restructuring of local government are consistent with the wishes of local people. But that consistency has to include the effective, efficient delivery of services. It cannot simply go down the road of taking local views and opinions without accepting some of the concerns that all noble Lords on all sides of the House have: environmental concerns, strategic functions and proper, effective and efficient delivery of services. So again there has to be a reconciling on the widest possible basis of support from the local community for a unit of local government that makes sense in every sense that is set out in the guidance.
I remain of the view that it would not be sensible to expand Clause 13(5) to include specific references to heritage, history and traditions. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, made the point that once one puts historical traditions on the face of the Bill, there are many other serious considerations that also need to be taken into account. That is why we chose the guidance as a method of making sure that these matters are taken into account.
We recognise the importance of these factors. The draft guidance to the Local Government Commission makes it clear that the commission should consider the history of an area when assessing community identities. We shall be drawing on research we have commissioned into the best means of finding out what communities people feel they belong to; clearly heritage, history and tradition will be critical factors. We will draw on this research in giving further guidance to the commission. We should also be happy to consider suggestions that noble Lords may have for strengthening what the guidance says on this issue. I hope that the amendments will not be pressed.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, I wish to thank noble Lords and noble Baronesses on the other side of the House for a rare alliance with myself. I feel that the historic Baronesses would have been satisfied with the reply that my noble friend the Minister has given. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 71 not moved.]
§ Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 72:
Page 11, line 38, at end insert:
("( ) to promote accountable, responsive and accessible local government;").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment I regret that the alliance with the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, will not continue as he is leaving the Chamber. I thought about these words again after the last stage of the Bill when the Minister said—and I accept her assurance—that the commission will seek 1497 accountable, responsive and accessible local government. She also said that the amendment was not necessary.
§ It seems to me that the words in this line are not clearly within the term "effective and convenient" which should precede them. The thrust of the amendment drew much support from all sides of the Committee and again I believe that if the proposal is accepted—as I believe it is—it will be something to which the commission should have regard.
§ It is entirely appropriate and desirable that the words should appear on the face of the Bill. These terms or requirements are not of the same type as "heritage and traditional status". I accept the argument that has been made that they fall within the umbrella terminology and are more a matter for guidance than for legislation. However, "effective and convenient" involve being businesslike, doing the job well, but without entirely defining what the job is. I hope that the Government may have thought a little further, as I have, about the desirability of including these words. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, although my name is not attached to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on the Marshalled List, I also wish to support it. The more so because I was somewhat perturbed at the Minister's response on Amendment No. 68. She mentioned the "steer" that would be given, and not only that but the guidance to which the Local Government Commission would be directed to have regard. I shall not go back to those words. I noted the words she used, "functions, efficiency, structure", and the like. I believe I am right in saying that—and I apologise if I misrepresent the Minister—at no stage did she use the word "community" in her response to Amendment No. 68.
However, in response to the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, which were supported by my noble friend Lady Nicol—Amendments Nos. 70 and 71—the Minister talked about the significance of communities. We on these Benches identify ourselves with this amendment because we believe that local government is more than a package of services or a package of functions. It is about representing and embodying democratic values of pluralism, participation and accountability. It is about the values identified by the Widdicombe Report.
The assumption is that functions come and go. We know that is the case if we look back over the past century Functions come into local government and they may go out to bodies. They may go down to self-management. They may be enabled out, or they may be provided by voluntary organisations. Communities therefore, much more than functions, are the building blocks of local government. They endure. It is for that reason that, if we wish to see local government based on communities and reflecting those values, it must be accountable—that means it must be single tier—and it must be responsive and accessible. It must constitute bodies most closely connected with local people. I believe it must consist of district councils. That way, we achieve local and accessible local government. I am happy to support the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for introducing this amendment. We discussed this matter at some length in Committee and we fully appreciate the importance which noble Lords on all sides of the House attach to accountable, responsive and accessible local government. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was concerned that the commission's duty to have regard to the need to secure effective and convenient local government in carrying out its reviews would lead to a "top down" approach to reviewing local government structure rather than a bottom up approach reflecting the need for local government to be responsive to its own local community.
We are committed to an accountable and effective structure of local government based on authorities which reflect the communities with which people identify. In carrying out its reviews the Local Government Commission will be required to have regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. I remind the House that my noble friend Lady Blatch stressed that point in replying to my noble friend Lord Beloff a little while ago. There is no question of a top-down approach where the interests of local communities are ignored—instead they will be central to the commission's work. Authorities based on local communities will be best placed to achieve the accountable, responsive and accessible local government which both noble Baronesses wish to see.
I should also emphasise in this context the benefits of moving to unitary authorities. A unitary structure of local government will be more easily understood than the present two-tier structure, when many people do not know which council is responsible for particular services. Recent surveys have highlighted this point. Unitary authorities will be more accountable to their electorates. Local people will know which council is responsible for local services and will be better able to hold their authorities to account. Local people should be clearer about who their local councillors are. They should know who to speak to about local services. In this way local government should become more accessible. Unitary authorities based on local communities will also be in the best position to respond sensitively to the needs and priorities of the communities they serve.
We cannot secure accountable, responsive and accessible local government simply by rationalising its structure. We welcome the steps that many local authorities are taking to improve their responsiveness and accessibility in a variety of ways. The Citizen's Charter will of course be central to this process, and should encourage authorities to seek further improvements.
This has been a useful short debate but we do not believe the amendment is necessary. It is our view that the commission's terms of reference will be sufficient for the objectives which the noble Baroness has in mind. I therefore hope she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
§ 1.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. It was a useful debate and I hope noble Lords will not feel it was a waste of the time of the House to have repeated, in part, a debate we had at the previous stage. I cannot resist agreeing with the noble Earl that it is not simply structure that secures accountability. That was precisely what I said about an hour and a half ago. We may wish to consider this matter in the context of the guidance which the Minister has asked us several times to respond to separately. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 72A:
Page 11, line 38, at end insert:
( ) to secure arrangements consistent with the constitution of a National Park Authority independent of any other tier of local government in each and every National Park.").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, following the debate in Committee on the Local Government Bill I was heartened by the strong, cross-party support for securing independent authorities in national parks. I thank my noble friend the Minister for giving, in answer to my amendments moved in Committee, the strongest possible assurance of the Government's resolve to create an independent authority for each national park. My noble friend also made it clear that the Government intend independent status for the parks to be taken as read by the Local Government Commission. That is indeed good news for all of us who have the best interests of the national parks at heart. It means that my noble friend shares my concern that the fate of the parks should not be caught up in the deliberations of the Local Government Commission as it goes about its business region by region.
§ It is against that background of a strong, cross-party desire to treat national parks justly that I move Amendment No. 72A. My real concern is that the Bill as it stands does not give effect to the Government's widely supported objectives for the parks. Unless amended, the Bill still risks turning the national parks into unintended casualties. Having given careful consideration to the helpful answer my noble friend the Minister gave in Committee, it is my belief that two matters need to be addressed to safeguard the parks.
§ First, a way needs to be found to prescribe to the Local Government Commission its treatment of the national parks in accordance with the wishes of the Government. Again, as the Bill stands, national parks will inevitably get caught up in the regional consultations of the Local Government Commission. As the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, explained so clearly in Committee, our parks are national assets and are not suited to ad hoc regional arrangements. Yet the Local Government Commission is enjoined in Clause 13(5) to reflect local but not national interests in its deliberations.
My Amendment No. 72A would correct this. It would require the Local Government Commission to take as read the Government's intentions for national parks. I remind the House that those intentions have
been arrived at by following advice from an extremely thorough and highly respected review of national parks under the chairmanship of Professor Ron Edwards. I hope the Minister will give careful thought to my amendment, which would establish on the face of the Bill a requirement for the Local Government Commission,
to secure arrangements consistent with the constitution of a National Park Authority independent of any other tier of local government in each and every National Park".
§ The second matter to be addressed is the following. A mechanism needs to be found which will ensure that independent status can be given to the parks before the Local Government Commission makes any recommendations. As my noble friend will be aware, I am anxious that independent status be given to national parks before the first order is made to bring about changes in local government in any area in which there is a national park. It is my belief that national parks would, as independent authorities rather than as committees of county councils, be better able to withstand changes in the local authorities within the boundaries of which they presently lie.
§ Local government reform makes it even more urgent that the Secretary of State be given the power to create independent national park authorities. Without such a power he might find himself with no choice but to make some form of joint arrangements for national park administration among a number of unitary authorities. That would be a recipe for utter chaos in the parks and it would represent a step backwards to the worst aspects of pre-1974 national park administration. I feel certain that is a far cry from what the Government intend.
§ I appreciate the indications given by my noble friend in Committee that when the Government publish their full response to the national parks review—a response which is expected soon and eagerly awaited—there may be other matters which require legislation. I understand that a co-ordinated response may be desirable. However, I hope that in responding to the amendment my noble friend can reassure me that the problem of timing has been addressed and that relying on subsequent legislation to create independent authorities in national parks carries the risk that that legislation may come too late and may not prevent the parks from becoming entangled in local government reform initiated by this Bill. We live in an uncertain world. I beg to move.
My Lords, as one of those who supported Amendment No. 155 moved by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, at Committee stage, I too am persuaded that, despite the very welcome assurance given by the noble Baroness in response to that earlier amendment, we should pursue our contention that the assurance that she gave should be reflected in words in the Bill, even though further legislation may be required to embody that assurance and other recommendations regarding the future of national parks.
That should be made explicit in the Bill so that, in discussing their future structure and boundaries, county and district councils will have to take account 1501 of the future status and upgrading of those national parks which at present are represented by committees of county councils.
My concern is the greater because I heard only recently that Gwynedd County Council has published a document, A Strategy for Gwynedd—I have not seen that document but its importance is clear—in which there is no reference whatever to the Snowdonia National Park, despite the fact that the Snowdonia National Park occupies nearly 60 per cent. of the county of Gwynedd. That gives some indication of the lack of regard of the county for the national park.
The assurance given by the noble Baroness about the upgrading of the committees will be especially important in the case of those national parks which extend beyond an individual county boundary. Exmoor, for example, includes part of Devon and the Yorkshire Dales National Park includes part of Cumbria. There are problems which will require full discussion of national park boundaries as well as their status.
My final point is that the amendment is needed because I hope—but have no great certainty—that the national park committees themselves will, in view of their future status, be invited to discuss boundary questions with the Local Government Commission. I say that I hope that that will happen because the parks do not have that status and authority at present and may not be invited to participate. County councils may be reluctant or unwilling to let them have a say.
With those additional arguments, I hope that the noble Baroness will be persuaded to accept the amendment.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, we too support the amendment and the intention behind it, as we made clear at Committee stage. I do not wish to weary the House by repeating the arguments made so well by the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. However, I should like to emphasise one or two aspects.
We cannot afford delay, for the reasons which both noble Lords stressed. We are likely to end up with chaos. It is essential that a firm commitment is given by the Government at this stage, otherwise there may be some areas of disaster in the national parks, and that is not putting it too strongly.
The Government recognised the dangers to national parks as long ago as the mid-1980s and promised greater protection for national parks in their 1987 manifesto. I remind the House that that promise has not been fulfilled. That should give the noble Baroness additional strength if she seeks to give a better commitment now.
The parks which have, as we are all agreed, a regional role fit very well with the Labour Party's plans for strategic regional authorities. It is less easy to see how they fit with the rather uncertain pattern which may emerge from the unclear directions which the Government are giving. However, I am glad that the Government have at least declared their support for independent park authorities. Therefore I see no reason why this compromise amendment should not 1502 be accepted. It would at least offer the security of spelling out that the aim is an independent authority. At present that is not clear from the Bill.
It is odd that, having declared their position so firmly, the Government do not take this final step. That will inevitably be seen from outside, if not from within this House, as indicating that the Government's commitment to what they say they support is the less if they are not prepared to put it on the face of the Bill. I support the amendment.
§ Lord Moran
My Lords, I was very glad to put my name to the amendment. I was greatly encouraged by what the Minister said on the subject at Committee stage. We are all agreed that independent status is the best status for national parks. The government are to introduce that. The essence of the matter appears to me to be one of timing. It is important that the legislation to create independent authorities for national parks should come into effect before the first changes are made to local government under the present Bill.
The need to take account of local interests appears on the face of the Bill; so too should the need to take account of national park interests. The present amendment is entirely consistent with what the Minister said at Committee stage and should do what we all want effectively. It would prescribe to the Local Government Commission that each and every national park should have an independent authority. The administration of national parks would therefore be excluded from the scope of the commission's work and require the commission to ensure that any recommendations it makes for local government reform are compatible with the creation of an independent authority in each and every national park.
If we do not have something on the lines of the amendment and if we do not have legislation establishing independent national parks before local government reform begins, some damage may be caused to some of the national parks. The Secretary of State might be placed in the position of having to reconstitute a national park as more than one committee of several unitary authorities and then come up with some form of joint arrangement. That would be extremely unsatisfactory. There would also be tremendous uncertainty as to the future of national parks when their parent county councils came up for review.
The amendment would meet all the requirements and I very much hope that the Government would be prepared to accept it.
§ Lord Wise
My Lords, I too should like very strongly to support the amendment moved by my noble friend. I share his anxieties. I do not want to repeat the arguments put forward by him so persuasively and by the noble Lords, Lord Hunt and Lord Moran, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol. However, I should like to speak very briefly of the interest in and close contact of the Caravan Club with the national parks.
The Caravan Club has more than 283,000 members. That excludes their families so one can see 1503 that the club is involved in the leisure activities of a vast number of people. The club has 161 sites in England and Wales, of which 25 lie in national parks.
There are also some 3,800 certificated locations, of which 170 lie within the national parks. A certificated location is a small, privately-owned site, usually on a farm, with a maximum permitted number of five caravans at any one time.
Obviously, because of the beauty of the national parks they give immense pleasure and are favourite venues for Caravan Club rallies. In head office we have a rally co-ordination control group which assists the various rally organisers to ensure that all the rallies are well run in an orderly and well-mannered fashion. Co-ordination control obviously works in close contact with the national parks authorities and we would welcome independent authorities. It would make life so much simpler. I therefore hope that my noble friend the Minister will be able to give an encouraging response if she does not feel able to accept the amendment.
§ 2 p.m.
§ Baroness White
My Lords, I have been long enough in public life to be firmly convinced of the validity of the adage, "Put not your trust in princes, still less in Ministers of the Crown". I say that with the greatest regard for the most helpful response of the Minister in our earlier discussions on national parks and for the statements that have been made formally by the Department of the Environment in England and the Welsh Office for the Principality. However, we all know from experience that unless there is something on the face of the Bill the very best and most sincere intentions may go awry.
For the reasons that have already been most adequately deployed by those noble Lords who have spoken, there is a danger of something like that happening unless there is something on the face of the Bill covering the position of the national parks. Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I have not myself seen the statement by the Gwynedd County Council. However, as to the Principality, which must after all be included in this exercise even though it is not included in the Bill as such, in the Snowdonia, Brecon Beacons and Pembrokeshire Coast parks there will be great difficulty unless there is a firm line to implement those proposals.
I do not wish to detain the House long because there is a great deal of business to do. I understand that there is to be a Statement later this afternoon, but the essential thing is that the doorkeepers' dinner must start on time. On a more serious note, however, this matter deeply concerns all of us who have experience of the national parks and are familiar with them. I therefore hope that, even if she has perhaps been asked from elsewhere not to include the amendment in the Bill, she will realise that it is essential that it should be included.
My Lords, in the light of the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady White, I should point out that there are two Statements to 1504 come, plus an Unstarred Question at the end of this debate, so we are seriously running the risk of delaying the start of the doorkeepers' festivities this evening.
The Government are committed to the establishment of independent national parks authorities. I recognise the importance that your Lordships attach to the national parks and I sympathise with the desire expressed from all sides of the House that independent authorities for the national parks should be set up as quickly as possible. However, the Government remain of the view that it would not be appropriate for that to be done in the Bill.
Your Lordships are aware that the national parks review report, Fit for the Future, to which my noble friend Lord Norrie referred, is a good report. The Government's response to it will be published shortly. I do not want to pre-empt the publication of that response, but the Government may wish to legislate on a number of matters connected with the national parks beyond the establishment of independent authorities. In the Government's view, it would be preferable for those matters to be dealt with together rather than piecemeal. Your Lordships would not expect me to pre-empt future legislation in any detail. Nevertheless, I have taken note of the clear message that the whole House wishes it to be done speedily and I shall certainly relay that to the appropriate quarters.
Noble Lords are anxious that the review of local government structure may inhibit the establishment of independent park authorities. I wish to make two points which I hope will reassure your Lordships. First, the commission will review the structure of local government area by area. The process of reviewing the whole of England is expected to take several years and the first new unitary authorities are unlikely to be in place before April 1994. The order in which the commission is to carry out its work has not yet been settled, so at this stage I cannot say when the areas in which the national parks are situated will be considered. However, it will be apparent to your Lordships that, provided time can be found to bring forward the necessary legislation, it is likely that that would be a faster track to the achievement of the objectives that we all share.
Secondly, there is no reason to believe that the commission's work will in any way affect the establishment of independent national park authorities. The draft guidance that we propose to give to the commission is currently out to consultation. I propose to amend the guidance to make the Government's commitment to independent park authorities absolutely clear and to ensure that the commission carries out its reviews and makes its recommendations for structural changes with that in mind. The consultation period for the draft guidance runs to the end of January and the department will be happy to consider comments from consultees on how that commitment may best be reflected in the guidance.
The amendment in effect misunderstands what an Act of Parliament is about. It cannot be about some intention without being specific about the detail. If the amendment is inserted in this part of the Bill, it will be tied into the work of the Local Government 1505 Commission. As I made clear in my response to the amendment, I believe that a faster track than tying it up in that way would be preferable.
In response to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the review is clear in its recommendations that the preferred option for the future of national parks is that they should be independent authorities. It is to the Government's credit that they did not wait for tile official response to be published, but it emerged clearly that they believe it is a preferred way forward so that it does not get muddied by the work of the Local Government Commission. I can promise that the official response to that report, which has been welcomed by the Government, will be out shortly and I therefore hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for her full and helpful response. I have listened carefully and it appears to me that there are major technical constraints on what can be achieved on the face of the Bill.
I fully agree with the Minister that if it is not possible to achieve independent authorities for parks in this Bill, it becomes vital to prevent the Local Government Commission from in any way prejudicing the Government's desire to create independent authorities as soon as possible. I am sure that my noble friend will understand my anxiety as to whether the guidance is sufficient, an anxiety shared by this House and certainly found among the large body of voluntary sector organisations concerned with national parks.
It is important to remember that we are not simply talking about a missed opportunity for national parks in this Bill. The effect of the Bill on national parks is not neutral. I respectfully ask my noble friend to reconsider the scope for inserting some form of national park safeguards on the face of the Bill between now and Third Reading. By then we shall know the Government's full response to the national parks review. I await that with tremendous excitement. Despite the frustrations as to what can be achieved for the parks within the scope of the Bill, the great enthusiasm for national parks has been a most striking feature of the Government's response to my amendments. I am very encouraged by that. I shall study the constructive response that my noble friend has given me. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 73:
Page 11, line 39, leave from beginning to ("and") in line 40 and insert:
("(6) The Secretary of State may give the Commission directions as to the discharge of its functions and the Commission shall give effect to any such directions.").
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to move this amendment I shall speak also to Amendment No. 74. I was irresistibly tempted into these amendments by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, at Committee stage. When I pointed out that there was different provision for the Audit Commission under the 1982
Act and the Local Government Commission under this Bill in that the Audit Commission is, as I described it, a creature of the Government; in other words, the Secretary of State may give such directions as he thinks fit to the Audit Commission on any aspect of its duties and the commission shall give effect to those directions, whereas the Local Government Commission is under no such obligation, he said to me magisterially—or perhaps I should say ex-ministerially or even ex-commissionerally—that:
I [Lord Cockfield] think he has misunderstood the constitutional position in the case of independent bodies. It is normal practice to include in an Act a reserve power for the Secretary of State to give directions. The reason it is done in that way is to maintain the rights of Parliament, because when a direction of that kind is made by the Secretary of State it becomes debatable in both Houses of Parliament".—[Official Report, 2/12/91; col. 37.]
§ That set my mind (such as it is) working and made me wonder why the Local Government Commission was not under the same obligation. Can it be that the Secretary of State does not wish the Local Government Commission to be debatable in Parliament? Can it be that the Secretary of State wishes to have the excuse of saying in response to Questions or Motions for debate: "Well, it is none of my business. It is the business of the Local Government Commission. It works under statutory rules laid down under the Local Government Act 1992 and therefore it is not debatable in Parliament"?
§ Then it occurred to me to ask why that should be so. There is a very good reason. The Department of the Environment has woken up to the fact that next year there will be a change of Government. It does not want there to be any opportunity for the Local Government Commission to be changed in any way by the Labour government which will take office in 1992. So far as they can, the Government want to tie fairly completely the hands of the next Government. That is why they set out the limits on the size of the Local Government Commission and that is why they refuse to have any of the amendments that we propose, giving greater possibilities for the Local Government Commission to take into account local government opinion.
§ I put it to the Government: do they want the Secretary of State to be answerable to Parliament for the activities of the Local Government Commission—in which case they will agree to my amendments—or do they not? Or—perish the thought!—is the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, perhaps wrong? I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his explanation of the amendment. Under the Bill the Secretary of State may issue directions to the commission about its functions in relation to reviews, about the procedure for reviews and about its incidental powers and proceedings. I understand entirely the point raised by the noble Lord but I can assure him, on advice, that the amendments are unnecessary as the direction-making power implies that the body receiving the directions will be under a duty to comply with them.
If the commission did not comply with the directions from the Secretary of State, there would be 1507 several courses open to him. He has the power to remove members from the commission. The commission will be funded by grants for which the Secretary of State will be answerable to Parliament and ultimately the commission could be subject to judicial review and the Secretary of State could seek mandamus.
Those are of course extreme measures. In Clause 15(6) the Bill expressly allows for the Secretary of State to direct the commission to reconsider its review if for any reason he feels that it has not taken any matter sufficiently into account. However, I do not believe that the noble Lord's amendment would add to the sanctions available to the Secretary of State in those circumstances. In any case, the commission will not be a body which will take action itself. It will be a deliberative not a decision-making body. Its function will be to carry out reviews and make recommendations to the Secretary of State. Parliament will ultimately decide whether any of its recommendations should be implemented.
I hope that in the light of that explanation the noble Lord will accept that the amendments are not necessary and will withdraw them.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I find that response very helpful. I am grateful to the noble Earl for putting it in those terms and for reminding us of powers that we shall have when we take over office in the first half of next year. It is very useful to have that on record in case our filing system—which everyone knows is the real requisite of a Socialist—should be in any way defective. I would not dare to draw the implication that the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, was wrong. However, perhaps the 1982 Act went a little over the top and provided general powers which are not necessary.
With that comforting thought, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 74 not moved.]
§ 2.15 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham moved Amendment No. 75:
Page 11, line 43, at end insert:
("( ) The Secretary of State shall publish all research commissioned by him in connection with the giving of directions under this section").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, we have referred to research undertaken on the concept of communities. Quite properly the DoE proposals, both for compulsory competitive tendering in Part I of the Bill and structural change in Part II of the Bill, are being steered by research. That is absolutely right. Under CCT we understand that there was a PA report, some of whose recommendations have recently been disclosed in the Local Government Chronicle by Mr. Cresswell. We on these Benches requested the Government at Committee stage to publish the report. They declined to do so. That may be an issue to which we shall return at Third Reading.
§ On the research that is forming Government thinking on structure, the DoE has commissioned at 1508 least three pieces of research. It would be helpful if the Minister would indicate whether there are other pieces of research. I understand that the first is by CSL Limited. It is a two-part study, the first of which was designed to compile a list of factors which the commission could use to measure the case for structural change. We understand that the findings were submitted to the DoE on 28th November. The second part is designed to identify how those factors for structural change can be measured. That part is to be submitted to the DoE by tomorrow, 20th December. On the basis of that work we understand that the DoE intends to draft guidance to the commission on cost benefit measures that it should use in its work and to circulate the draft to local authority associations for comments.
§ It is an important issue which will also arise later on amendments relating to cost benefit analysis. We believe that the two CSL reports should be released into the public domain. It is in everyone's interest, not only central government but all differing parties in local government, that there should be general agreement about the cost benefit issues to be used in the restructuring exercise. For that we need open disclosure of the relevant material.
§ We also worry that the report may seek to compare like with unlike. How does one judge community identity, on the one hand, against facilities for information technology material on the other? We should like to be assured that the methodology as well as the guidelines can be properly scrutinised by local governments and professional bodies, such as CIPFA and so on.
§ The second research that the DoE is commissioning is by Newcastle University. It is a paper to help to identify communities and the extent to which such data can be incorporated into a geographic information system for the new commission. We understand that the research is mirrored by a qualitative analysis by Mr. Alan Hedges on how people think about communities. We also understand that both reports on the concept of a community are to be published in the new year. We hope to see them. Perhaps the Minister will kindly confirm that that research too will come into the public domain.
§ A third piece of research affects the Welsh Office. We understand that the Secretary of State for Wales is consulting directly with interested parties on his favourite option for structural change and that firm proposals will be put forward in the new year. We understand that the Welsh Office has hired the consultants, Touche Ross, to help them in that process which concerns the financial and cost benefit issues surrounding the options for structural change. Again, we should like an indication from the Minister as to whether the Welsh Office will be bringing that information into the public domain for debate. Will the Minister tell us whether the research will be published? —because, if not, there is a risk that the Local Government Commission may be steered by research findings that have not been properly discussed as to their methodology and implications by 1509 all the parties involved in what will be the most important local government restructuring this century. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I support the amendment. All that needs to be said is that we all want to see not just that the commission's work is done well, but that it is seen to be done well and fully, and that the debate which will engage people in so many different areas can be informed by the research. So, in the interests of a better standard of debate with everyone equally and properly informed, I support the amendment.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, under Clause 13 the Secretary of State may give directions to the commission as to the exercise of any of its functions under that clause and such directions may require the commission to have regard to guidance given by the Secretary of State as respects matters to be taken into account.
A draft of the Government's guidance to the commission was issued to the local authority associations and other interested organisations on 25th November. Comments were invited by the end of January. That draft guidance is about the overall policy considerations which the commission should take into account, including policy on specific functions. In addition, we intend to issue a separate comprehensive factual description of local government functions. The Government have also commissioned two pieces of research into particular aspects of the commission's work.
First, we have asked researchers Alan Hedges and John Kelly to look at means of developing and refining criteria which might be applied to the assessment of community identity and loyalties, and which might be amenable to testing by means of surveys of public habits and attitudes in a given local area.
Secondly, we have commissioned the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies in Newcastle University to consider the application of geographical information systems in the definition of community boundaries, with a view to developing a suitable methodology which the commission might use.
As noble Lords remarked when we debated these matters in Committee, the concept of community is not easy. We very much hope that the research will help the commission in its efforts to identify communities with which people identify and to take account of them in looking at possible local government structures. We intend to draw on that research in guidance to the commission which will be published. We may also decide to disseminate the results of those two pieces of research into communities more widely.
In the light of my assurance that the guidance to the commission based on this research will be published, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, I mentioned three pieces of 1510 research. She has referred to one, and obviously I was delighted with her response. Will she comment on the other two pieces of research I mentioned—the cost benefit analysis and the Touche Ross work for Wales?
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I did mention two pieces of research—the John Kelly and Alan Hedges research and that of the Centre for Urban and Regional Development Studies. As the noble Baroness has pointed out, we have also asked CSL Limited to look at the costs and benefits to be taken into account and at the methodology for assessing them. That study will enable the Secretary of State to give the commission guidance on those matters, either as a supplement to the main guidance or free-standing. That work is not classified as research. That guidance to the commission will be issued in draft form for consultation and published in final form. However, we would not expect to publish the CSL advice itself: such advice to a government department is not normally published. Of course advice is taken from a raft of people and organisations during the course of formulating guidance. What is important is that the guidance is in draft form, and noble Lords will be able to consider it at that stage.
The noble Baroness pressed me about the PA Consulting Group report. We made it clear to local authorities which took part in the case studies that all the information supplied would be treated as confidential. The study was an aid to the internal consideration of policy on CCT and formed detailed advice to the Government. As I have said, such advice is not normally published. It would not be right to overturn that convention in this case. We considered whether to publish factual and analytical extracts about present practice and experience, but taken out of context they could have been misleading or criticised for their selective or partial nature.
Mr. Paul Cresswell, who headed the PA team, has written to the Local Government Chronicle to put the record straight about its article of 6th December.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. She said that the two pieces of research on communities carried out by Newcastle University would be published. She said that the CSL research on cost benefit analysis will not be published and the Minister has not commented on the Welsh research.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I should correct the noble Baroness. I did not call what was done by CSL research. I called it advice. The advice of CSL is being sought, which is very different from research. As regards the Welsh matter, it must be for the Secretary of State to determine what should be published.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that additional elucidation. Although we welcome the fact that the Newcastle research will be published, on these Benches we are extremely disappointed that the Minister has not seen fit to publish the CSL guidance, advice or whatever she wishes to call it. It seems to be research if it is published and guidance or advice if it is not as far as I can tell.
1511 Amendment No. 77 deals with cost benefit analysis. That research would have been extraordinarily helpful not only to the local authority organisations but also to the Audit Commission. It is regrettable that what must be a substantial piece of research—otherwise the Government could not usefully use it—will not be made available to all the parties who will be making submissions to the Local Government Commission and the Audit Commission on the issues which that research addresses.
I hope that the Minister may reconsider her opinion on that when she receives all the information she seeks.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I repeat what I said at the beginning. We intend to draw on those two pieces of research in guidance to the commission which will be published. I believe that earlier I referred to those two pieces of research as being published, but in fact the guidance based on the research will be published.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, we seem to be at cross purposes. We both agree that research from Newcastle which reflects community interests will be published. Additional research from CSL about cost benefit analysis will not be published because she regards it as advice and not as research. If I have that wrong, I am happy to give way.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the noble Baroness has got it wrong. The two pieces of research to which I referred will be used to form the basis for the guidance which will be published. The pieces of research in themselves will not be published, nor will the CSL advice.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, that is the point I am trying to establish. The CSL advice on cost benefit analysis will not be published. Therefore it will be modified when it becomes advice to the commission. However, the original research will not be published although local authorities on all sides would find it useful and important. The Audit Commission and the Local Government Commission expect to draw on that research. It is sad that the research which will form the guidance that the Secretary of State will give to the Local Government Commission will not be available in the public domain when it is so vital. I do not understand the Minister's thinking on this but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 14 [Changes that may be recommended]:
§ 2.30 p.m.
Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 76:
Page 11, line 47, at end insert ("or the reallocation of functions between the two principal tiers of local government").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 76 seeks to provide the Local Government Commission with greater flexibility in recommending the most appropriate form of local government depending on local circumstances. I moved the same 1512 amendment at Committee stage with cross-party support and make no apology for bringing it back. It raises matters that lie at the heart of the Bill.
§ Clause 14 is still too inflexible. It limits the definition of structural change as the abolition of a tier of local government. My amendment allows for the retention of a two-tier local government structure where it has been shown to have widespread support but with a redistribution of responsibilities for local services between tiers where the Local Government Commission considers it appropriate.
§ At Committee stage I suggested that that may be an appropriate solution, for example, where a large urban authority is able to carry out more functions effectively than it currently does but where a larger authority should retain a statutory overview for strategic purposes such as planning, or indeed for the fire services. I was disappointed by the response from the Minister to my earlier amendment when she said that she did not wish to see the commission recommending piecemeal changes to the functions of local government. It would blur accountability and create confusion in public awareness of each tier's responsibility.
§ I do not believe that the redistribution of functions should necessarily be considered piecemeal. It would have significant effects. But it is less likely to create disruption and confusion than the abolition of a tier of local government. We should not be unduly restrictive and the Local Government Commission should be able to consider all options. The Government already stated that the commission should have the freedom to recommend the most appropriate local government structure depending on local circumstances. My amendment seeks to provide the commission with that freedom to ensure the best outcome for all concerned. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I support the amendment. I am less wedded to the presumptions that are contained in the guidance regarding there being a unitary solution to the restructuring. Amendment No. 76 is designed only to give the commission flexibility; it is not directing it in a specific way.
On reflection I am a little sad that the term "principal" is contained in the reference to tiers of local government. One of the ways that the commission may go is in thinking about increasing the powers of parishes—something about which we talked a good deal at Committee stage. We also mentioned the allocation of functions among the various tiers, not necessarily just the principal tiers. It is a matter which I am sure will be debated under the aegis of the commission, though I accept that there is to be a consultation paper as well in the future about the functions and role of the parishes. The Minister referred to that at the last stage.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, we on this side give limited support to the amendment. In other words, we prefer the concept of a unitary authority. We recognise that, where the Local Government 1513 Commission in response to local communities may wish to retain a two-tier structure, this will be a useful fall-back reserve power.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I apologise to the House for sounding so repetitive this afternoon. Many of these debates we have heard before. The noble Baroness referred to parishes. The fact that the word "principal" appears is no reflection on the importance of parishes and I believe I made that absolutely clear on a previous occasion.
When we discussed amendments about functions at Committee stage, I was able to offer reassurances that it will be central to the work of the Local Government Commission to look at the functions carried out by local authorities in the areas which it reviews and to make recommendations about how they should be discharged where it recommends unitary authorities. However, the amendment would have the effect of making it possible for the commission to recommend that there should be changes to the functions of local authorities as between the tiers. As we have already made clear, we do not wish to see the commission recommending piecemeal changes to the functions of local government. When we discussed similar amendments at Committee stage, my noble friend Lora Norrie and other noble Lords saw attractions in what was described as a more subtle approach, allowing the commission to recommend that functions should be reallocated where there continue to be two tiers of local government.
We see no attractions in that approach. On the contrary, we are convinced that this would be a recipe for blurred accountability and great confusion in the mind of the public about which authority did what. In the draft guidance to the commission which we issued for consultation last month, we set out the broad policy considerations to which the commission should have regard in looking at the structure of local government in each area it reviews.
The draft also contains some advice on the general issues to be taken into account when the commission is considering effective, efficient and convenient performance of specific functions. But neither the provisions of the Bill as currently drafted nor the draft guidance envisages that the commission will be empowered to recommend moving responsibility for functions about between the tiers. We do not believe that that would be a fruitful approach. I hope that the amendment can be withdrawn.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that lengthy reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 77:
Page 12, line 9, after ("include") insert ("proper justification for the costs involved and").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment seeks to ensure that the Local Government Commission justifies any costs that its recommendations involve. I moved a similar amendment at Committee stage. I was assured by my noble friend Lord Howe that the commission would not recommend change to local government structure 1514 without a proper justification of costs. I welcomed that statement. However, I was disturbed by an apparently contradictory statement made earlier during the Committee stage when my noble friend Lady Blatch said that there should be positive reasons for no change. I do not believe that there should be change for change's sake as the statement suggests. I hope that the Government will support my view.
§ I also welcome the fact that special guidance is to be issued on how the commission should assess the costs and benefits of change. I hope that that assessment will include consideration of environmental costs. However, I still find it disturbing that there is nothing on the face of the Bill which requires the commission to demonstrate the case for structural change. I share the Government's view that local government reform should be worthwhile and cost effective. The safest way of ensuring that that takes place is to place a statutory duty on the commission to provide evidence to that effect. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, clearly local government structural reform has to be worthwhile and cost effective. That is obviously right. We believe that there will be savings in single-tier authorities; for example, there will be fewer problems of overlap, better resource allocation between services that are integrated on the same tier, selling surplus property and the like. Equally clearly, there will be the costs of transition, especially as they affect staff, such as retirements, redundancy payments and so forth. However, as the Government argued when discussing CCT, costs tend to occur at the beginning and savings should be able to continue.
I have three points to make. First, any such savings will not be easy to forecast, as experience with the abolition of the metropolitan counties between 1984 and 1986, gave evidence. INLOGOV did some research after the metropolitan counties were abolished to see what the result in cost benefits seemed to be. Knowing that they were going to be abolished, the metropolitan counties, quite reasonably, were determined to run down their balances and, for political mileage, to fix as low a precept as possible in their final years. Equally, the districts which took on their responsibilities blamed the costs of transition for increases in their budgets even though the subsequent services were speedily integrated into delivery.
In other words, the response to cost benefit largely depended on the level of services explored and the level of charges pertaining after reorganisation. There were no easy answers. Similarly, when the Local Government Commission reviewed Humberside in 1989 with the same brief—namely, to find whether, as regards cost-benefit analysis, Humberside should be retained—the consultants were unable to identify the cost benefit simply because it depended on the future shape and level of policies and charges, as with the metropolitan counties.
Secondly, in any case, as was said concerning an earlier amendment, there are different kinds of cost benefit. There will be democratic gains, closeness to the people, democracy and the like. That has to be weighed against the financial gains from consortia purchasing and procurement. There we are comparing 1515 different classes and different categories of cost, gain and benefit. It is in this context that I find it very regrettable that a moment ago the Minister was unable to assure us that CSL research, so relevant to this transaction, would be published.
Thirdly, on these Benches we believe that the considerations for the future shape of local government should certainly include consideration of cost benefit, but that they should be led by considerations about community and about the strength of democracy. As the Local Government Boundary Commission said in its evidence to the DoE:We see it as probable that new unitary authorities will evolve new and more cost-effective means of service provision which are not capable of calculation in advance of the event".The commission also warned that it is:important to avoid the risk that over-emphasis on the costs of introducing change might serve to frustrate the very improvements in local government and accountability that the very process of restructuring is intended to promote".That was from the Local Government Boundary Commission—that the evidence of cost benefit analysis would be useful but of only limited help in determining the future structure of local government. I support the amendment.
§ Lord Digby
My Lords, anyone who lived through the reorganisation in 1973 can have no doubt about the costs of reorganisation. Most politicians see the mote in the existing eye and forget the beam in the one putting it in. I cannot imagine that the commission will fail to take the costs into account. However, I urge that the duty to produce proper justification should be written into the Bill. It will concentrate the mind in a most constructive way. I hope that the Government will accept this amendment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for introducing this amendment which, as he reminded us, is similar to amendments which were tabled during the Committee stage. In those debates I gave an assurance that it was most certainly the Government's intention that there should be a proper justification for the costs and upheaval involved before any structural changes are made. That justification is part of the case for, or against, change. It is specifically provided for in paragraph 14 of the draft guidance to which the commission is required to have regard.
In that Committee debate I described the work being done by CSL Group Limited—to which the noble Baroness referred earlier—for the department on the costs and benefits of change. Its report will also be about methodology and will enable the department to prepare draft guidance to the commission on the way it should consider and assess these issues. I should like to say to my noble friend Lord Norrie that because of the presumption in favour of unitary authorities there must be positive reasons for no change, just as there should be positive reasons for change. I can do no more than say, as I did in Committee, that any changes that occur should not be changes for the sake of change.
The guidance to the commission will be issued in draft form for consultation. After the consultation has 1516 been completed it will then be published in its final form. In the light of that assurance, I hope that my noble friend will not press this amendment.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's reply. I hope that the guidance will make it clear that the costs of change should be fully justified. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 77ZA:
Page 12, line 50, after ("area") insert ("or part or parts of its area").
§ The noble Lord said: In moving Amendment No. 77ZA I should like to speak also to Amendment No. 88A. These amendments repeat amendments that were tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Feversham, in Committee. He regrets that he is unable to be here, but as president of the National Association of Local Councils he is very much concerned with the position of parishes in the work of the Local Government Commission. He and I agree that we made substantial progress in understanding the provisions intended by Government. On the whole, we were pretty well satisfied with the provisions of the Bill as far as concerns parishes.
But there were two outstanding items which we believe it necessary to raise again briefly. The amendments are not the same, but they have been grouped together, with my agreement, in order to save time. I shall speak first to Amendment No. 77ZA. It refers to Clause 14(3) (g) where the changes which may take place under the clause include,
the abolition of a parish, with or without the distribution of its area among other parishes".
We propose that the wording should read:
the abolition of a parish, with or without the distribution of its area, or part or parts of its area, among other parishes".
It seems to us that the provision in the legislation is logically incomplete.
§ The permutations which seem to us to be possible are: first, the abolition of a parish in such a way that the whole area is unparished—that is provided for in the Bill as drafted; secondly, the situation where a whole parish is attached to another parish—that is also provided for in the Bill as drafted; thirdly, the situation where a whole parish is divided among different parishes, which is quite a likely situation as some parishes are too small and it would be proper for the area to be divided among neighbouring parishes —that does not seem to be provided for in the Bill as drafted; and, fourthly, the situation where part or parts are added to a parish or parishes but the rest is not parished—again, that is not covered by the Bill as drafted. Without in any way seeking to change the thrust of the Bill, we believe that all the permutations which may arise ought to be considered.
§ The second point arises in Amendment No. 88A. It refers to the obligation to give information to parishes. In Committee, when responding to Amendment No. 219, the noble Baroness gave an adequate assurance that there would be reference to information for existing parishes, but there was no commitment as regards the information being given to parishes which may be created. Therefore, by way of 1517 Amendment No. 88A, which refers to Clause 20 and "agreements as to incidental matters", we propose to provide an answer to the problem.
§ I hope that the Government will feel that both amendments are useful additions to a section of the Bill that is generally welcomed. I beg to move.
§ 2.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I hope that I shall be able to reassure the noble Lord that all he seeks to achieve is covered in the Bill. Perhaps between now and Third Reading he will refer again to the Bill in order to bear out what I say.
Amendment No. 77ZA seeks to make it clear that, where a parish is abolished, not only will it be possible for all of its area to be distributed among other parishes or to become unparished, but it will also be possible for only part of its area to become unparished and for the remainder to be distributed. As I said before, the amendment is unnecessary. I tried to explain the position in Committee, but I am afraid that I shall have to try to do so again at this stage.
Clause 14(3) explains what is meant by a "boundary change". Paragraph (a) describes what is in practice the most common example of a boundary change; namely, the alteration of a local government area. Noble Lords will note that Clause 28 defines a local government area as including "a parish". It is therefore possible to transfer part of a parish to another parish simply by means of altering the boundary between the two, and making one parish smaller and the other larger. In such a case the entire area affected would remain within one or the other parish. An area cannot be abolished simply by altering its boundary.
Paragraph (c) permits the abolition of a principal area outside Greater London—that is, a county or a district—but requires the whole of the abolished area to be distributed among areas of the like description. That means that every part of England outside Greater London must fall within a county and a district.
The position with parishes is different, because not all of England is parished. Paragraph (g) therefore provides for,the abolition of a parish, with or without the distribution of its area among other parishes".The effect of these words is that it is not necessary, every time a parish is abolished, for all of its area to remain within one parish or another. The words do not mean, however, that the whole of the abolished parish must either be distributed or become unparished.
Clause 13 requires the Local Government Commission to recommend such boundary changes as appear to it to be desirable. The commission may therefore recommend that part or parts of a parish should be transferred to one or more neighbouring parishes by means of an alteration of their areas and also that the former parish should be abolished and what is left of its area should become unparished.
In this manner the effect which this amendment is designed to achieve can already be achieved under the Bill as drafted. This provision is no different from that 1518 which already appears in the Local Government Act 1972, under which the type of changes that I have described have taken place on numerous occasions.
I turn to Amendment No. 88A. The Government are entirely in agreement with the intentions of the amendment. I can, however, assure your Lordships that it is unnecessary. Clause 20 refers to any public bodies affected by an order under Part II of the Bill and this reference is explained in Clause 28(3). The effect of that subsection is that the reference to any bodies affected by an order includes a reference to any bodies established under, or in consequence of, such an order.
All that the noble Lord desires of the two amendments is covered by the Bill.
§ Lord McIntosh of Haringey
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords understood that argument perfectly. I barely understood my own arguments and I certainly do not claim that I took in all the Minister's reply. I shall read it with great care. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 77A:
Page 13, line 20, at end insert:
( ) In considering whether to recommend a structural or boundary change the Local Government Commission shall work on the presumption that local authorities individually shall have direct responsibility for local government functions.").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I move the amendment following an interesting debate in Committee. I found helpful the statement which the Minister then made that joint boards even on a voluntary basis were intended to be the exception. We need to go as far as we can on the face of the Bill. The amendment is tabled to require the Local Government Commission to work on the presumption that the local authorities individually will have direct responsibility for local government functions.
§ Under the Bill and the draft guidance it is still envisaged that a number of services will be subject to joint arrangements of some kind or another. Strategic planning, social services, trading standards and the law and order functions are specifically mentioned in the draft guidance. I see some inconsistency between the paragraph in the guidance dealing with law and order functions in support of joint arrangements and paragraph 11 which states that the statutory joint authorities detract from accountability and should he the exception. I do not accept that the law and order services are different in any way nor that they should therefore be dealt with differently by joint arrangements in terms of funding, accountability or anything else.
§ We said in Committee, and it bears repeating in support of this amendment, that joint arrangements weaken accountability and public understanding of the system. The description of them as a hotch-potch is right, even if that is not a scientific or technical term. They certainly work against efficiency. I am told that the staffing figures indicate that between 1985 and 1987 there was a negligible overall change in the number of staff employed by the metropolitan councils and the number employed by the boroughs 1519 and the joint bodies which were created following the reorganisation of those councils. In Merseyside and West Yorkshire, the sum of the three joint boards' precepts was greater in 1986–87 than the final metropolitan county council precept in 1985–86. Whether the efficiency and cost-effectiveness argument can be relied on at all I rather doubt.
§ The standards of service undertaken under the aegis of the joint authorities also give cause for concern. Waste disposal in South Yorkshire and the West Midlands and trading standards in Greater Manchester and Merseyside are only examples I have received where independent research evidence shows that matters are not as they might be.
§ The accountability argument found favour with Members on all sides of the Committee and the lack of accountability was mentioned of those who take part in the joint arrangements. These people are not directly elected. They have no direct relationship with consumers or others involved in the various services. The arrangements are very much a second priority for those who take part in them in many circumstances. That is not to suggest that they are not taken seriously by the members. It is simply that the workload is so great that it cannot be their first concern. I believe that the work suffers as a result.
§ Most recently, we have had the example of the problems of the London Boroughs Grants Committee which have threatened services across the board. While I appreciate that the Bill does not concern London, we should regard that as an awful warning of what can happen if the structural arrangements are not appropriate.
§ I suggest that the evidence is that joint arrangements do not give us gains in effectiveness or efficiency. We lose on accountability. The public do not know who on earth is responsible for what. There is no evidence that the services are better; indeed, there is probably evidence that they become worse. The operation of the services becomes quite cumbersome. As we have mentioned before, the private tensions and private agendas of those who are involved in joint arrangements never quite surface but they affect the way in which joint bodies work.
§ In moving the amendment, I ask your Lordships to remember the heartfelt pleas of those who talked about joint arrangements on the previous occasion and to give the arrangements the status or lack of status which we suggest in the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Cumberlege
My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I wish to say how encouraged I was by hearing my noble friend the Minister emphasise during the Committee stage that joint arrangements, even on a voluntary basis, are intended to be the exception. In your Lordships' House there is recognition that it would be wrong to be prescriptive about the size of unitary authorities and there is a clear understanding that it has to be a matter for the commission. However, there is also a realisation that 1520 authorities must be of sufficient size to command adequate resources for the tasks to be undertaken, which will increasingly be of a commissioning nature.
My experience in setting up commissioning teams is that it requires people of a high calibre if value for money is to be achieved. I fear that if small, tuppenny ha'penny unitary authorities are set up, they will fail to attract professionals with sufficient knowledge, negotiating skills and expertise that will be necessary if we are to give local charge payers the value for money which is their due.
I am aware that time is pressing and, like the doorkeepers, I am getting hungrier by the minute. However, it is worth while taking time to note that in the past 10 months under the NHS reforms, where we now have a defined split between purchasers and providers, regional health authorities have had to re-draw their district boundaries, merging districts in order to ensure that authorities are of sufficient size to attract and sustain the calibre of people to form the commissioning teams.
Frankly the tasks in local government are much more difficult as the services that are provided are more diverse and the span of responsibility is wider. I am concerned that if the principle is conceded by the commission that new authorities can be established without being of a sufficient size to have direct responsibility for virtually all the local government functions within their area, the intentions of my noble friend the Minister to ensure that joint arrangements are the exception rather than the rule will go by default.
We will have a system of local government which is incomprehensible to the public, where accountability is diluted, where officers are obliged to formulate policy and take decisions and where an inordinate amount of unproductive time is spent trying to reach agreements and negotiate future expenditure. We know that to achieve successful joint working there must be a shared vision. That is absolutely essential. There must be agreement on priorities and a willingness to finance particular schemes or commission particular services. Most important of all, there must be a shared ability to resource those joint plans once they are agreed.
I am sure there would be sufficient good will on this matter. I recognise that authorities will agree a joint vision and they will set the priorities and be willing to finance those aspirations in principle. However, my experience of joint working is that where the system fails is in its inability to synchronise resources and to deliver the finance jointly at the time required. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has already referred to some examples this afternoon. I could refer to 12 examples but I shall not do so.
However, I wish to explore the closure of hospitals where local government, social services, housing and planning departments have to work closely with health departments. We know that in this case too there must be a joint vision. We must get the timing right and take responsibility for the individuals being moved out of the hospital concerned. We must have regard to the future of those working in the hospital. Above all, we must slot the community services into 1521 place prior to the closure. In short, we have to make it happen. But does it happen? No, it does not. We are still left with countless piles of old, decrepit, Victorian workhouses and institutions suited for another age and another purpose. They are incarcerating people whose quality of life is shameful.
If over 20 years we have so abysmally failed those wonderful people, what are the chances of succeeding in the future when there may be nine or 10 social services departments with which to negotiate, whereas in the past there has been only one? I recognise that unitary authorities, incorporating as they do housing as well as social services, will enhance the chances of success. I am not arguing against the principle of unitary authorities. I am just anxious that they should be of a sensible size and that they should he coterminous with health authorities. I am anxious that we arrive at a sensible and workable system which enriches the lives of our citizens and fulfils their aspirations. I support the amendment.
§ 3 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I am afraid that we on this side of the House cannot support this amendment because the implication that local authorities individually should have direct responsibility for all local government functions would effectively mean an end to all partnership arrangements between districts, between counties and between local authorities and voluntary organisations. On behalf of these Benches I am not arguing for statutory joint authorities, although police and fire may be an exception here, as was the case before 1974.
We believe that voluntary joint arrangements are a useful, flexible, sensible and cost-effective way of handling and delivering those few services that draw on a larger population base than the district but almost always use a smaller population base than the county council. They may, for example, involve sharing specialist machinery, plant, or laboratory equipment, but the movers of the amendment would have all of that produced by each local authority. They may involve, for example, shared tourism arrangements or districts coming together to protect a green belt. Districts may, for example, come together on a voluntary basis—this is the case between Norwich and South Norfolk —to protect a river valley. Joint arrangements may involve co-ordination of neighbouring districts on arrangements to provide a common policy on concessionary bus fares. Are the movers of the amendment suggesting that these joint arrangements should not take place? There may also be voluntary joint arrangements between local authorities and voluntary groups which span several districts.
Some of the most fruitful developments over the past decade have been projects such as Exeter City Council's special needs forum, the cross-agency care in the community committees in Milton Keynes or Plymouth's housing project group and crossroad schemes for the disabled. All have been praised by the Audit Commission. They were all made possible by joint arrangements.
1522 What about care in the community? The noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, said that boundaries should be coterminous with health authority areas. Having read fairly carefully the debates concerning patients in care which took place in 1980 when the AHAs were abolished, I noted that it was said that it was not a matter of overriding concern that the newly established DHAs should be coterminous with social service authorities. It seems a little curious for that to be quoted now.
Bottom-up arrangements work satisfactorily. It is simply not true that they are difficult to establish or cumbersome to operate. We have research from the Rowntree Trust, an independent body, published in October 1991, on the government of London which found that most of the borough joint committee schemes appear to work well.
Equally, after five years of experience of unitary districts following abolition of the metropolitan authorities, the AMA is not aware of any problems, with the single exception quoted by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, of the London boroughs grant scheme, although it has consulted its members widely. INLOGOV has also undertaken extensive research and makes the same point.
Both noble Baronesses have said that joint arrangements impede accountability. If for that the reason we are not to have them, local government will be forced into a two-tier structure which is infinitely more confusing and opaque than a handful of joint arrangements or, alternatively, local government will be forced into very large, county sized, unitary authorities with, as all the research shows, lack of local accessibility and real diseconomies of scale.
If your Lordships were minded to accept the amendment it would lock us into size, an issue which we explored at Committee stage. It would also lock us into an assumption that local authorities have to be large enough to provide all services. The whole development of local government in the past decade has been towards enabling authorities, authorities which procure services from outside, which span the public and private sector and span the statutory and voluntary organisation divide. The amendment is seriously out of date. It would ossify local government in the worst possible way. It would mean that no partnership arrangements could ever be established on a voluntary basis to respond to the new needs which might not relate directly to the local population base. It would mean that local authorities could not come together on concessionary fares, on green issues or on tourism. That would surely send local government in the opposite direction from everything which has made it sensitive and flexible and provided value for money over the past decade. We on this side of the House will certainly not support the amendment.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, perhaps I may briefly support what my noble friend has just said and give one or two working examples of useful joint arrangements. I believe that choice should be a matter for local authorities. I do not want to see them compelled to make such arrangements or compelled not to. There are circumstances in which it would be 1523 advisable for them to enter into such arrangements and others in which those arrangements might not work.
The noble Baroness will be well aware of the arrangements in Cambridgeshire. Perhaps I may tell the House about one or two. For example, in some of the Cambridgeshire districts there has been some very useful collaborative work on the provision of grant aid for voluntary bodies. That makes sense because it means that the money is distributed where it is needed and it avoids duplication of effort.
I served for several years on a joint traffic management committee of the county and city councils in Cambridge. We argued sometimes because we were of different political persuasions and perhaps we did not always make the right decisions. However, most of the time the arrangement worked extremely well. Without it I suggest we would not have managed the traffic arrangements for Cambridge nearly so well.
In a further example the county council wished to close an educational and recreation facility. Three of the district councils got together and rescued that facility and are now operating it extremely well.
The final example that I should like to give, which I am sure will appeal to noble Lords on the Benches opposite, is the East Anglian Shires Purchasing Consortium in which local authorities got together to buy the items that they needed and were able to obtain a valuable discount by reason of coming together. Those arguments cannot be dismissed and I hope that the amendment will not be accepted.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, although I understand the anxieties in the minds of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, the debate has illustrated very well why it would not only be inappropriate but wrong to tie the hands of the commission, so that it would rule out either informal or formal arrangements for joint working. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, gave some examples that I know very well. I was party to the establishment of at least one of the three that she mentioned. I therefore ask noble Lords not to press the amendments.
In our draft guidance to the commission we make it clear that the commission should recommend a structure which enables individual authorities to be responsible for all local government functions, except law and order services, which are a special case. The significance of establishing unitary authorities which match communities will be lost if those authorities do not have such direct responsibility. I was sorry to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, did not agree that it was sensible at this stage to make exceptions for police and fire authorities. It is sensible to say at the outset that it would not be desirable if they were fragmented into much smaller unitary authorities. There will be a great deal more stability and certainty in the future of police authorities if that is established at the outset, but it is a matter for consultation at present.
The Local Government Commission should have a free range across all other local authority functions to determine the appropriate level of authority. A 1524 structure of unitary authorities, each with responsibility for all local government functions, does not preclude voluntary arrangements between authorities to share expertise or facilities if that is sensible and efficient in practice. Where such arrangements are made, the authorities concerned may each retain statutory responsibility for a service in their area. They may draw on each other on an agency basis to achieve the most flexible and cost-effective results.
We cannot rule out joint arrangements for all local government functions whatever the circumstances. I assure the noble Baronesses that we are well aware that statutory joint arrangements detract from accountability. We have made it clear that we intend them to be very much the exception rather than the rule.
We are committed to an accountable and effective structure of local government based on authorities which reflect more closely the communities with which people identify. We consider that a structure of unitary authorities, each with responsibility for all local government functions, could be the most beneficial structure for local government in most areas. Where a unitary structure is not appropriate, two tiers may remain.
If the amendment were accepted, it is possible that, for every conceivable reason, there would be a good argument for a unitary authority to be established. However, because it would not be sensible to fragment the police authority, that would be the sole reason for not presuming in favour of what would be the most sensible decision, consistent with local community opinion.
The presumption in favour of a local government structure which enables individual authorities to have direct responsibility for all local government functions, except the law and order services, is set out clearly in the guidance and it is not necessary for it to be on the face of the Bill.
As I said, we cannot rule out joint arrangements for all local government functions, whatever the circumstances. The Bill as drafted leaves it to the commission to make recommendations about whether such arrangements are required. It will be open to the commission, under the Bill as drafted, not to recommend joint arrangements for most functions. However, where it is unlikely that a satisfactory local government structure can be achieved without joint arrangements, I am sure that the House will agree that the commission will be in an excellent position to make recommendations about them. It would be unwise to remove its duty to do so, as Amendment No. 78A seeks to do.
It is a unique event that the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, and I are on the same side of the fence. For that reason, if for no other, the amendment should be rejected.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, that state of affairs must make us all the more alarmed. I was surprised by the vehemence with which the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, greeted the amendment. I can only think that, like the noble Baroness, Lady Cumberlege, she too is noticing the lack of lunch.
1525 In response to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, said with regard to the restructuring of the health service, whatever the rights and wrongs, let me not the judgmental term "mistakes", but at least let us learn from history.
I had thought that what I propose in this amendment was a statutory way of saying that joint arrangements should be very much the exception and not the rule. If the amendment had been phrased in those terms, I should have been told that it was not quite the way that one should put it in the legislation. I did not intend to suggest and do not believe that I did suggest that there should not be voluntary joint arrangements. But we must accept that voluntary joint arrangements cannot be regarded as a panacea. They cannot be left as the means of mopping up what does not conveniently fit into the structural rearrangement in such a way that it tempts those who organise that structure to leave bits on one side, knowing that they can be mopped up, and not do their level best to deal with those services appropriately.
It is probably enough for me to say that voluntary joint arrangements are not ones which I would outlaw —quite the contrary—but neither are they arrangements on which we should rely. In view of the time, I simply ask leave to withdraw the amendment. However, I do not one whit retreat from my concern about the issue.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.15 p.m.
Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 78:
Page 13, line 30, leave out ("and").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, as I explained during our debates in Committee, we have been re-examining the provisions in the Bill to ensure that they do not rule out options for development planning—especially strategic planning of the kind we see in structure plan preparation.
§ The need for Amendments Nos. 78 and 79 stems from the fact that development plan preparation is not treated as a single function in the planning Acts. We want the Local Government Commission to be able to make recommendations about development plans. A full range of options should be open to it, including the option to have unitary development plans prepared by unitary authorities.
§ Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (as amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991) deals with development plans. Chapter 1 of that part, which currently applies to the area of any local planning authority in Greater London or a metropolitan county, requires each local planning authority to prepare unitary development plans for its area.
§ A unitary development plan contains all the elements which in a non-metropolitan area would be found in the three or four separate plans. In such areas there are potentially up to four different types of development plan. That point has been mentioned already by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. Structure plans are prepared by the county council, as are minerals local plans and waste local plans; and local plans are prepared by the district council. It would 1526 clearly be administratively more efficient if a single authority could combine those functions rather than being required to carry out all the procedural arrangements three or four times over. That is already the case in the metropolitan areas where we have unitary local government now.
§ This amendment will give the Local Government Commission the flexibility to recommend either that the present system in the non-metropolitan areas should continue, adjusted as appropriate to unitary authorities, or that the new unitary authorities should prepare unitary development plans, as the London borough and metropolitan district councils do at present.
§ In cases where the existing two-tier development plan system is to be retained within a system of unitary authorities, it may be desirable for the local plan to include minerals or waste policies. The amendment also provides for that possibility.
§ The Secretary of State will be able to implement the commission's recommendations about arrangements for planning under Clause 17. As we have said before, we fully appreciate the importance of the planning system. We have made it clear that before any unitary authorities are established, it will have to be shown that the issues of strategic and local planning are satisfactorily covered.
§ Our draft guidance to the commission says that it should have regard to the need to establish authorities which cover areas such that they can carry out all their functions effectively and do so in ways which reflect community interests. The guidance goes on to say that the commission should look for a structure to achieve the cost effective exercise of functions and delivery of services consistent with wider public interest. It should consider the wider public interest in the case of strategic functions, which I know is behind much of the anxiety of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege. The draft guidance also sets out more detailed advice specific to land use planning.
§ In the light of our commitment to strong planning arrangements, I hope that noble Lords will accept these amendments which are designed to keep the commission's options open.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, the noble Baroness referred to Chapter 1, Part II, of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 which makes provision for the preparation of unitary development plans in metropolitan areas. The amendment allows for the extension of those provisions to any new authorities created in the shire counties.
I am not convinced that unitary development plans will work without an accountable, effective and enforceable strategic framework. I should like to know how the framework is to be provided. In my view it cannot be by joint arrangement.
The noble Baroness also referred to the second option under Chapter II, Part II, of the 1990 Act. The new unitary authorities would be required to prepare authority-wide local plans. They would be able to prepare joint structure plans with neighbouring authorities. That brings us back to joint arrangements. I have considerable doubts as to whether effective strategic planning can be provided by joint 1527 structure plans. I foresee deadlock where unitary cities may not agree with their surrounding shire areas about either the scale or location of development, the priorities for countryside protection or indeed the disposal of the city's waste. I believe that there are formidable problems with the two options. Joint arrangements should not be considered as an acceptable solution. I was encouraged by the Minister when she said earlier today that there was a presumption against the proliferation of joint arrangements. I greatly fear that the only way out is through my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment being drawn into an ever widening circle of local planning matters.
I have a preferred option. It would provide for a unitary authority large enough to prepare a structure plan but with local plans prepared on an area by area basis. The amendments should allow for that, but I am not sure that they do. Perhaps my noble friend will reassure me that such an option is possible.
My Amendment No. 78B provides an alternative way forward that would safeguard strategic planning. However, I wish to know how the Government intend to tackle the major problems involved in its own amendment to which I have just referred.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, we believe that the amendment is sensible and wish to support it. We believe—we would like the Minister's comments—that unitary development plans have worked well in metropolitan districts many of which are no larger than existing district councils.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I too support the amendment. It allows the technical arrangements as options which will be necessary if the thrust of the Bill and the commission is to be implemented. The amendment allows structure and local plans to be dealt with at the same time as the other arrangements. That is clearly sensible.
I refer to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis. From my experience in London it has been difficult and time consuming to ensure that strategic concerns are properly reflected in the unitary plans which are now at consultation and deposit stage in many London boroughs. The process has not been helped by the fact that the very fine work undertaken by the boroughs agreeing their advice to the Secretary of State has not been reflected in the guidance from the Secretary of State. I believe that that is a lesson from history that people have taken much to heart. I support the amendment.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, the amendments relate to leaving open options for the Local Government Commission. They are no more and no less than that. I couple that with all the safeguards that I have described about how the commission will work and to what it must have regard in putting recommendations before the Secretary of State.
My noble friend Lord Norrie said that he would like the Government to set out now how they intend to resolve some of the problems to which he referred. At this stage, it is not for the Government to resolve 1528 those issues; it is for the Local Government Commission to set about its work. Where it changes the arrangements for the structure of local authorities—in other words, changes the responsibility for planning matters—it must, first, convince the Secretary of State that delivery of those responsibilities is effective and efficient.
Secondly, the commission must also convince both Houses of Parliament. In the light of the fact that I am asking merely for options to be kept open and flexibility for the Local Government Commission, I ask the House to accept the amendment.
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 78A not moved.]
Lord Norrie moved Amendment No. 78B:
Page 13, line 35, at end insert ("with the exception of functions performed under Chapter II of Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 which the Commission shall ensure can be carried out effectively without joint arrangements").
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to ensure that any new unitary authorities created by the Bill are large enough to produce structure plans without joint arrangements. There was much debate in Committee about the merits and problems of joint arrangements. Considerable scepticism was expressed on both sides, in particular by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about the effectiveness of joint authorities or boards. I shall not rehearse their various shortcomings now.
§ This is a probing amendment. It is intended to ensure that structure plans continue to be drawn up by one authority. The amendment may be technically flawed, but its intention is clear. Structure plans provide effective strategic planning. They are a framework for reconciling conflicting interests. They are most important for protecting the countryside and the wider environment. They are valued by developers as well as environmentalists for the statutory overview and direction they provide.
§ I do not believe that an effective structure plan could be prepared by more than one authority. Without structure plans, I fear strategic planning will be in turmoil. I am not sure that that can be the Government's intention. Unless we have effective strategic planning, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State will be placed in the unenviable position of having to intervene increasingly in local planning problems. On the one hand, the Government recognise that joint authorities are to be the exception because of their limitations; but, on the other, the Government are opening the door to joint arrangements for the preparation of structure plans. I do not see how joint arrangements can be made to work effectively for strategic planning purposes. This is a matter of great anxiety on all sides of the House. I hope that the Government will respond positively to the amendment. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, much of the argument put forward on the previous two amendments related also to this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Norrie, has said that it is a probing amendment, perhaps I can probe the Minister to find out what she 1529 envisages happening, as a result of what she suggests in the Bill, or what the noble Lord suggests, that would affect marine areas.
The Minister will recall that we have on a number of occasions discussed the need for a coherent approach to coastal areas. There has been no reference to that at any stage of the Bill. If the noble Lord's suggestion goes forward, I see the difficulties now existing in marine areas being exacerbated. I should like the Minister to comment upon that point when she responds to her noble friend.
§ Baroness Blatch
My Lords, I do not wish to be repetitive on this amendment because we have covered almost all aspects of two tier authorities, joint authorities and so on. I hope that what is on record substantially answers that.
As regards the questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, where it is a function of the local authority on any aspect of planning, whether it is responsibility for marine or land areas, that function must be addressed by the Local Government Commission. In other words, when a recommendation is made to the Secretary of State, the way in which that responsibility is exercised must be set out very clearly both for the Secretary of State and Parliament. I hope that in the light of answers given to previous amendments and what I have just said, the amendment will not be pressed.
§ Lord Norrie
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's reply. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 79:
Page 13, line 35, at end insert ("and
(d) whether, in connection with any recommended structural change, any authority should, for the purpose of the vesting of functions under Part II of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (development plans) in that authority—
§ On Question, amendment agreed to.
§ [Amendment No. 80 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]
§ Clause 15 [Procedure on a review]:
§ Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 81:
Page 14, line 28, at end insert:
("( ) cause a public meeting to be held for the purposes of consultation to examine such matters affecting the consideration of representations as they or the Secretary of State consider ought to be examined.").
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in Committee I proposed amendments requiring a public inquiry to be held. I must agree with what the noble Earl, Lord Howe, said at that time; namely, that it is better to go along to a village hall and listen to people rather than to hold a stultifying formal inquiry. He is quite right about that.1530
§ However, I believe it is important that local people should not only be entitled but should also be encouraged to make known their views. The Government are placing considerable weight on the interests of communities in formulating proposals for reform. That is quite right. There has been a good deal of discussion about making provision for extremely detailed exploration of people's views.
§ We do not yet know what the guidance on procedures will contain, but I propose this amendment in the hope that it may take us further along that route. On this occasion I do not ask for a statutory requirement for an inquiry. I merely seek the less formal, cosier requirement of a public meeting. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the spirit of this amendment. The Local Government Commission's procedure has been designed to provide for extensive public consultation, and the commission will certainly want to do all it can to make the best possible assessment of local views. When the Local Government Commission is carrying out a review of local government structure in an area it could certainly be useful for it to hold a public meeting to discuss the review as a means of gathering local views. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent the commission from holding public meetings and we shall certainly encourage the commission to hold such meetings whenever they are appropriate through the procedural guidance which my right honourable friend intends to issue to the commission and to which it will be required to have regard. We shall invite views about the contents of this guidance.
I cannot agree that it would be appropriate to require the commission to hold public meetings about all of its reviews.
I can assure the noble Baroness that we fully appreciate that public meetings can be helpful in discussing possibilities for change. We should certainly expect the commission to hold public meetings whenever they would be of value. The procedural guidance will encourage the commission to consider whether it would be appropriate to hold public meetings as part of its review process. But within the procedure laid down in Clause 15 and having regard to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State, the commission will need to use its discretion and judgment about how it carries out its work. It will need to be able to respond to local circumstances and the scale of the task in hand.
In the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel more comfortable about the issue and will withdraw the amendment.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I am genuinely grateful for that response and feel that it has been helpful. In the light of the commitment given by the Government to take broad views on the content of the guidance—I accept that that is perhaps the vehicle for looking at these matters in more detail—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.