HL Deb 08 June 1994 vol 555 cc1222-4

2.46 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Following the debate in this House on 30th March, what is their present position on the recommenda-tions of the Local Government Commission.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (The Earl of Arran)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has received the commis-sion's final recommendations for 10 areas. An order to implement the proposals for the Isle of Wight has been approved. An order for Cleveland will be laid in due course, subject to the judgment of the High Court. He has directed the commission to conduct further reviews of Derbyshire, Durham and Gloucestershire. He is still considering the recommendations for Avon, Somerset, Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will my noble friend pass on a message to his right honourable friend to seek to persuade him that the recommendations of the commission, on the whole, are likely to lead to heavy costs in the short term and great confusion, with those benefits that are hoped for so long postponed as to be almost unreal? Will he perhaps make decent arrangements to give this thing a proper burial?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that my natural role is not that of an undertaker, particularly in these circumstances. I have already assured my noble friend in our debate on 30th March that I would pass on his anxieties and concerns and indeed those of other noble Lords about the local government reform. However, he needs also to understand that we need to create structures which meet local needs, local services and local identities. In so doing we must arrive at the right solution for each community. But certainly the benefits of change will need to outweigh the cost of disruption.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House of the timescale for the final outcome of the commission's work, bearing in mind the substantial number of areas of the country that he mentioned? Can he give us an undertaking that when the commission report and the final recommendations go through the House, local government will still have a role to play which is not the continually diminishing role under the present government?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, local government will always have a very important role to play. As regards the timing, we have said that we hope that the reviews will be finished by autumn this year and that those areas which are changed will be up and running and operating by April 1997.

Lord Bancroft

My Lords, will the Minister explain why in the case of Cleveland—subject to the High Court ruling—drastic change is to be enforced by April next year without shadow authorities or local elections and with the threat of only eight working days to comment on the draft parliamentary order? Will the Minister take the House into his confidence on the intellectual justification for that ungovernable rush, as the chairman of the Local Government Commission phrased it, to achieve an early win in Cleveland?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, the noble Lord is aware that Cleveland is under judicial review at this moment. All authorities, be they new or continuing authorities, will generally have elections to a shadow authority a year or so before reorganisation. However, we shall respond to local preferences. For instance, on the Isle of Wight local preference was for elections immediately after reorganisation.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, can my noble friend agree that, if the work of the Local Government Commission can be brought to an expeditious close with only the essential minimum of change, the present antagonisms between local authorities will be dimi-nished and the potential costs, both transitional and final, will be at a low level?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I know that my noble friend is a great expert on this matter. We are looking at all possible transitional costs. The whole point of the exercise is to align local needs and services to what each community deserves and needs.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, further to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, did I understand the Minister to say that in the case of Cleveland, despite our previous expectations, there would be new elections before the new authorities were established? Also, will the Minister answer the specific question in relation to consultation? Can he confirm that Cleveland county was given only eight days to comment on a draft parliamentary order? Is that the way to proceed if these matters are as important as the noble Earl suggests?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, that was not the question. We made quite clear that structural change in Cleveland is dependent upon the result of the judicial review hearing. Consultation on the draft order is entirely without prejudice to the outcome of those proceedings.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that we on this side support the local government review. However, can he assure the House on two points? First, on the democratic agenda —a point already raised in the context of Cleveland— can he give us an assurance that there will be all-out elections for shadow authorities, an appropriate number of councillors, annual elections and no cherry-picking? Secondly, over and beyond the democratic agenda, can the Minister give any assurances to members of staff, many of whom are rightly apprehensive about their future?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, on the first point, the commission was directed to review all of shire England, and the Government will not pick and choose. The noble Baroness described it as "cherry-picking". They will base their decisions on a fair assessment of recommendations. I appreciate the second point made by the noble Baroness. However, the Local Government Commission staff are working on all issues of staffing and we are aiming to consult shortly on draft regulations in relation to staffing matters.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware of the Local Government Commission's recommendations to date? The specific unitary option has commanded 50 per cent. or more support in only six out of 63 districts covered. Overall the existing system was four times more likely to command such support than any specific unitary authority. How can the Government claim that the public want any change?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, we are not trying to bring about change for change's sake. It is important that the noble Earl understands, as I believe he does, that this form of local government has been around for 20 years. It is thought expedient and correct to take a sensible, good look at it to see whether it can be improved upon and better conditioned to the needs of the local people whom it serves.

Lord Alport

My Lords, will my noble friend agree that it would be better to discuss this matter when we know what the Local Government Commission is recommending rather than to talk wildly about it at the present time?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, it is entirely up to your Lordships. We can talk about it now, but there will be more interesting aspects to debate at a later stage.

Baroness David

My Lords, can the Minister say when Sir John Banham will finish his task of chairing the commission? Can he also say whether he was appointed for a certain length of time or what the conditions of his employment are?

The Earl of Arran

My Lords, I cannot answer that question at this moment. I understand what the noble Baroness is saying and I shall correspond with her on the point.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, we must move on to the next Question.