§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Aldington rose to move to resolve, That this House declines to approve the draft Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996 and invites Her Majesty's Government, first, to reconsider what is necessary to ensure the provision of efficient local government services throughout Kent without additional administrative costs falling on the taxpayer; secondly, to take full account of researches ascertaining the clear wishes of the local people; and, thirdly, in any order affecting the structure of local government in Kent, to make mandatory the establishment of a procedure for the future of a county-wide structure plan for Kent in accordance with the recommendation of the Local Government Commission.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion in my name on the Order Paper. The purpose of the Motion, which has the support of Peers from Kent of all parties and on the Cross Benches—many of them have told me that they are unable to be present tonight for good reasons, but I regret their absence—is to persuade the Government not to proceed with this mistaken and damaging order and to think again about their policies on Kent local government structure. Our debate will enable this House to consider important subordinate legislation to which the other place was not able to give more than a short time. We cannot amend the draft order but we can and should give the Government and the other place a chance to have second thoughts. That is what I am about tonight.
§ If passed, the order will take out of the County of Kent the present districts of Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham, merge them and give them a unitary district council. The order goes further and would create a new county—if you please—given the name of the County of the Medway Towns. The district would no longer be in Kent; it would be in the new county. Chatham, with all the historic associations of its dockyards, would no longer be part of Kent; nor would the City of Rochester, with its cathedral, the historic centre of the diocese covering north and north-west Kent, I wonder how the Secretary of State has become so powerful that he can, by order, create new counties in England. I am told that he has that power but I have not yet been able to discover from where the power comes. I do not believe that the commission in its report recommended the creation of a new county.688
§ Be that as it may, implications arise from the setting up of the new county in Kent. My honourable friend the Member for Gillingham asked pertinent questions in another place in that regard on 4th July but time did not allow for him to be given an Answer. One thing is clear: nobody who is living in and is a citizen of the Medway towns can also be a citizen of Kent; perhaps we shall be enlightened on that later.
§ My Motion is concerned with three points arising from the order and they are clearly set out. Before I come to them I want to remind the House of the inevitable effects that this change in Kent's constitution will have. Kent's local government services have been developed by boroughs, districts and counties over a long period, the method of delivering them changing over the years and partnerships being developed between county, district and others.
§ Everyone has gained from the experienced and skilled leadership of the teams that have been formed, as they gained, too, from the economies of scale, particularly in specialist services. The proposed change will inevitably cause disruption and loss of economies of scale, both for the new unitary authority and for the residual Kent. There is no evidence that any of those services suffered because of the structure. Indeed, both commissions—there were two: one in 1994 and one in 1995—acknowledged that the present two-tier structure is well capable of meeting the needs of the people. Of course, there will be improvements, but people, not structures, evolve improvements.
§ Kent has much experience, too, and a good record in the encouragement and co-ordination of economic development county-wide and tackling economic change. A good example was the closing of the Chatham Dockyard and the difficult consequences that followed. Another good example of the way in which economic development problems are tackled in Kent between the districts and the county is the Thames Gateway project. That is a great project which includes areas on both sides of the River Thames and in Kent which go far outside the Medway towns, covering Dartford and Gravesham and parts of the Swale to the east.
It was the importance of the Thames Gateway project that led my right honourable friend Mr. Gummer to call for a second review of the proposal for unitaries in North Kent which the 1994 commission specifically rejected. The 1995 commission said of the Thames Gateway, at page 55 of its final report:
Although the area [of the Medway towns] is in the Thames gateway, the developments taking place in the Medway are not on the same scale as in the Kent Thamesside and such issues were judged to be supplementary rather than central to the arguments for unitary status".
In its earlier report giving draft recommendations it said the same thing, but more decisively:
The Gateway is not in itself a sufficient reason for recommending change to local government structure".
§ That is what the commission recommended to the Secretary of State.
§ What did the Secretary of State in the other place say in recommending the order on 4th July (Hansard, col. 1067)? He singled out once again the Thames 689 Gateway as one of the two points he wanted to make in support of the order. The other point was the desirability, in his view, of a forced marriage between Rochester and Gillingham because they were squabbling too much. I commend to him the same "Whitehall knows best what is good for you" policy, but I commend to the House the opposite.
§ Within the present two-tier structure there is the undoubted advantage of a county-wide structural plan which the order would maintain for any plan made before 1998 but not for any plan made after that date. Also, there is the advantage to local people of having the county council championing their cause in Whitehall and co-ordinating strategy that affects where they live, their environment and their jobs.
§ It is not reality but theory—academic and/or political—that led to the introduction of unitary ideas for Kent—ideas that may well be supported by ideas and opinion in other parts of England. I do not quarrel with that. But in Kent, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is a saying born of much experience, and the sensible people of Kent, by a large majority, believe that that is fully applicable to their local government set-up. They have twice—in 1994 and again in 1995—been able to say what their wishes were, not just through letters and MORI polls, but through business and other organisations in which they are represented.
§ What are the consequences for them? First, there is the financial consequence. They would have to pay the cost through council tax—a considerable cost to the taxpayers in the new County of the Medway Towns and a smaller one for the rest of Kent, but nevertheless a cost. Transitional costs are inevitable. We are told it will be between £8 million and £10 million. It is wiser to take the higher figure and add to it, as reported experience of new unitaries show, for example, in Hampshire and Cleveland; there is experience also in Wales.
§ More significant figures relate to the additional ongoing costs and their continuing effect on the council taxpayer. The best estimate I can give is for an addition each year to the council tax, Band D, in the new Medway district of £190 per household and of £23 per household in the rest of Kent as a reward for losing Rochester and Gillingham. I know it has been said—it has been said to me—that those are small figures that can be speedily offset by savings. But they are not small figures; no increase in tax is small and no reduction in tax is so small that it is not welcome.
§ If savings are to be made either in the Kent County Council or in any council by greater efficiency, those savings should be available to add to or improve services or to reduce taxes. They should not be used to cover the costs of unwanted reorganisation. That in itself leads to no savings and no improvements. It may interest the House to know that in the past three years Kent County Council has made efficiency savings of the enormous figure of £80 million. I hope that those figures are not challenged by the Government; they have been in the public domain for some weeks and have not been contradicted. I am greatly troubled to work out in my mind how my noble friend can conceivably justify 690 imposing those reorganisation and administrative costs on the unwilling citizens of Kent against the wishes of the great majority.
§ The great majority have said that they would prefer the structure of local government in Kent to stay as it is; that is, no change. That is the majority view of both the Medway towns and in the rest of Kent. The commission's report shows that. The report of October 1994 gave the figures for 1994 and the November 1995 report in relation to the Medway towns shows the figure to have increased in favour of no change in the course of that year despite the Secretary of State's reference back.
The commission's 1994 report ends with a summary which I believe caused some annoyance to the Secretary of State. It stated:
There is at present no overall support in the county for a change in local government structure. [The commission] is also satisfied from the huge volume of further evidence and arguments that it has received from special interests as well as from the public at large that the existing structure [Kent County Council and its districts] has the capacity to secure the strategic overview that the county as a whole requires, while reflecting the variety of different communities it comprises".
§ That is why the Government rejected the idea that had been put out to consultation, of the Medway Town unitary authority and the Dartford and Gravesham unitary authority.
§ The 1995 report produced no evidence to contradict that clear conclusion. At page 59 of the report the commission contented itself with saying that, although there was an overall preference for the two-tier structure, there was a reasonable measure of support for unitary status. But that disregards the majority altogether, which was 60 per cent. as opposed to 30 per cent. That is a funny conclusion for the commission to reach and it is an even funnier one for the Government to accept.
§ The MORI poll sets out a number of detailed points on which the citizens of Kent had been asked to give their views, but it is quite clear from that that it is the Kent districts which are more in favour of having a county council than anywhere else in England which was reviewed, just as they reject the idea that a unitary authority would be more in touch more decisively than elsewhere
§ My noble friend made us all laugh a little the other day at Question Time when he dismissed MORI polls with a mighty sweep. I did not take him seriously and I hope nobody else did. If we do not have MORI polls, how else can we expect the commissioners to make a judgment as to how people feel? I remind the House that they took the MORI poll, and those of us who believe in "Keep Kent" had nothing to do with it.
I wish to detain the House for only a few more minutes. During the reviews following the 1992 Act, "the wishes of the people" were to be a dominant consideration. I have letters assuring me of that. On winding up for the Government in the debate on 30th March 1994, my noble friend Lord Arran used these words at the end of his speech in reply to a typically pointed intervention by my noble friend Lord Peyton, who was reminding him of the tenor of your Lordships' cogent speeches. He said:
Our aim remains to give local people a structure of local government which meets their needs and wishes".—[Official Report, 30/3/94; col. 1157.]
In ordering the second review of a number of districts, I know that the Secretary of State altered the guidelines and moved some of the original commissioners, but I did not know that he decided to move one of the goalposts and to abandon that government undertaking. I cannot believe that he did, because it has been put so very clearly by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister only very recently in a speech in Newcastle as regards what he thinks about changes in the constitution. I shall read his words to the House:
Look at the history of this century and the changes there have been—not fundamental but significant nonetheless—in Parliament, our electoral system, the Civil Service, local administration, even the Monarchy and Church. Not change for change's sake. Not the result of some technocratic plan. Not to serve the interests of the institutions themselves. They have been changes to strengthen the links with the individual citizen who they are there to serve. That's the kind of constitutional change I support. Practical change, not grand plans. And above all change that is driven by what people want".
§ Why have the commission and the Government so manifestly disregarded the evidence of those wishes?
§ The third point in my Motion relates to the structural plan. It is a very important point that there should be in the British peninsula leading to Europe a county-wide strategic plan. The order makes provision for the pre-1980 plan to continue, but makes no provision for a plan after that date to be mandatorily devised by the county council and the Medway Towns authority together. It is very important that there should be no reliance on a voluntary, joint endeavour there; it should be mandatory.
§ That is the case against this order, asking the Government to reconsider the matter. The Medway towns are not separated from Kent by the North Downs, as was mentioned in one of the commission's reports as though it was the horse and cart era. They never have been and they are not. Kent is a splendid county of diverse communities and it is important that it stays together. I rest my case there. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That this House declines to approve the draft Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996 and invites Her Majesty's Government, first, to reconsider what is necessary to ensure the provision of efficient local government services throughout Kent without additional administrative costs falling on the taxpayer; secondly, to take full account of researches ascertaining the clear wishes of the local people; and, thirdly, in any order affecting the structure of local government in Kent, to make mandatory the establishment of a procedure for the future of a county-wide structure plan for Kent in accordance with the recommendation of the Local Government Commission.—(Lord Aldington.)
§ 7.46 p.m.
The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, my noble friend has made a speech which is characteristic of him 692 and in which he rightly defended Kent. It was a speech of pride and we all appreciated that. He asked some telling questions and made some telling points.
He has tabled a Motion which is clearly directly opposed to the purposes of my own Motion, which appears on the Order Paper to be dealt with a little later. My noble friend's Motion says that your Lordships should not approve the order in my name. In due course I hope to persuade your Lordships that that would be a pity. I hope that my noble friend will see the wisdom of not pushing his Motion and seeking the opinion of the House for the order to be reviewed. My Motion is to establish a unitary authority for Gillingham and Rochester.
Perhaps I may first respond to the three points in my noble friend's Motion; and then set out some reasons of my own as to why your Lordships should not be persuaded by my noble friend. I shall first address the question which my noble friend raised as to why we accepted the recommendation of the Local Government Commission for a new authority in Kent when it had recommended no change in the original review.
Your Lordships may recall that under Sir John Banham a review was carried out between 1993 and 1994. That was a county by county review of the structure of local government in England. The overall outcome was that the commission recommended, and we accepted, the creation of a number of unitary authorities.
On the commission's recommendation, many areas, including Kent, remained unchanged. However, some districts within these areas appeared to be very similar in nature to others which were to become unitary authorities. Therefore, we asked the commission, under Sir David Cooksey, to carry out a further review of 21 districts, including, in Kent, Gillingham and Rochester, Dartford and Gravesham, in order to test consistency in this matter.
The main outcome was that the commission, following its independent assessment of each of the districts, recommended the setting up of eight unitary authorities, including one for a merged Gillingham and Rochester. It recommended no change for the remaining 12 districts, including Dartford and Gravesham in Kent.
My noble friend Lord Aldington said that that was all theory and that it may be fine elsewhere, but not in Kent. I can understand why my noble friend took that view. That is a view which, in the common parlance of the day, is often known as NIMBY, which means "not in my back yard". It says, "Anyone else can do it, but we do not want it". Although I can understand that view, I do not think that it is a telling reason as to why this should work everywhere else but not, for some extraordinary reason, in Kent.
My noble friend then referred to the costs which might arise from the setting up of a unitary authority for Gillingham and Rochester. I agree with him—I make no dispute about it—that there will, of course, be some extra costs. The commission estimated that the transitional costs might amount to between £8 million and £11 million and that there might be ongoing costs 693 of between £3 million to £9 million. Those transitional costs are once-and-for-all costs. They are not ongoing costs.
Although those figures may appear large, in comparison with the overall budget of Kent County Council, they are not. For this year, 1996–97, the county has set a budget of over £1,000 million. Even after the creation of a new unitary authority in the Medway towns, Kent will still be one of the largest counties in terms of its budget. Furthermore, significant economies of scale could still be made. Indeed, I congratulate Kent on having made such economies already, as my noble friend mentioned. Of course, economies can be made by both Kent County Council and the new unitary districts.
As I have said, one must compare that sum of £1,000 million with the transitional costs of between £8 million and £11 million. The authorities will be able to borrow to cover their transitional costs and, in general, authorities will not have to meet borrowing or interest costs for three years, by which time savings should have been realised. I agree with my noble friend that nobody likes extra costs—of course they do not—but if the change will bring local government in those two areas closer to the people—that is the whole point of this—and if it is possible as a result also to make economies, I think that those transitional costs will in time be absorbed entirely.
Much, of course, will depend on the will of the authorities concerned. Rochester City Council, at least, has expressed the view that a unitary Medway would result in considerable long-term savings and that it would be better placed to provide cost-effective services. That is the view of one of those local authorities.
My noble friend's Motion refers to taking account of the clear wishes of local people. The commission, in its review, gave them opportunity for the expression of local opinion throughout Kent as well as commissioning MORI polls on their recommendations. We also allowed a period for representation on the commission's recommendation for change. I know that the opinion which was expressed in general was against change. But neither the commission nor the Government thought that that was conclusive.
One must accept that it is generally the case that those who oppose change are more likely to express their views than those who agree with it. In addition, a whole range of people tend not to be particularly interested and therefore do not feel motivated to vote or to answer a MORI poll. Furthermore, there was, of course, an orchestrated campaign in Kent to keep the status quo. That is fair enough. If people want to make their views known, they are entitled to do so. However, we must recognise that it is sometimes easier to sign a petition or to send a standard letter than to express an independent view. When a great campaign is under way, it is easy to draw people, like iron filings to a magnet, to the cause célèbre and those who have no particular view or who hold a contrary view do not have such a ready or well-made avenue of expression.
My noble friend asked how else one can find out people's views other than by asking them through a poll undertaken by, for instance, MORI. Great campaigns 694 can by themselves sway people's view. Polls are snapshots of opinion on the day when the question was asked or answered. Much depends on the question. It was, of course, up to the commission to find out people's views. It did that. That was part of its responsibilities.
However, local opinion was not the only factor under consideration. The Local Government Act 1992, which set out the framework for the local government review, states that any changes must secure effective and convenient local government which takes account of community identities. Those are fairly complex issues to measure and cannot be judged simply by asking people questions in a poll—important though polls may be.
The third point in my noble friend's Motion concerns the need for adequate structure planning arrangements for Kent. The commission recommended that strategic planning should be retained across the area of the existing county. We have given effect to this in the order, which is laid before your Lordships, by transferring Kent County Council's strategic planning responsibility for this particular area to the new unitary authority. This will enable the two authorities—Kent County Council and the new unitary authority—to make voluntary arrangements for joint working on the structure plan for their combined area.
My noble friend Lord Aldington said that the powers of the Secretary of State are enormous if he can simply make a new county. My noble friend wondered how the Secretary of State got those powers. Parliament gave him those powers. They are explicitly provided for by Section 14 of the Local Government Act 1992 which allows for,the constitution of a new local government area of any description".The provisions go on to make it clear that that could include a new county.
If my noble friend wants the specific details, I can advise him that under Sections 13(1) and 14(3)(b) of the Local Government Act 1992, the Local Government Commission may recommend the constitution of a new local government area of any description by amalgamation or separation of any local government area.
Under Section 28 of the same Act, "local government area" is defined to include a non-metropolitan county in England. Under Section 17(1), the Secretary of State may by order give effect to the Local Government Commission's recommendations. That is what the order does.
These provisions are similar to those which appear in other orders for structural change. They will operate in parallel with recent guidance from the local authorities' associations and our own Circular 4/96 on the matter. There is no need for any further legislation to bring that about.
Perhaps I could turn to the reasons why we have brought forward the Kent order. There are considerable benefits to be gained from the joining of Rochester and Gillingham. With a population over 240,000, these two 695 district councils form one of the largest urban areas in the south-east outside London, and they have common physical, economic and community interests.
Putting the area into the hands of one unitary authority, which will have district and county administrative functions, will be simpler and will enable the full range of local services to be provided more efficiently. This area of Kent is just totally different from the remainder of Kent. It is a large urban conurbation. The rest of Kent is not.
The Local Government Commission found that the local rivalry between Gillingham and Rochester is damaging for local interests. It prevents the area from being recognised for what it is: the largest conurbation in the south-east outside London, with all the typical problems of urban areas. In this case, the commission took the view that convenient and effective local government required a merger. Even after the change, Kent County Council will still have one of the largest populations in England, with over 1.3 million people, and it will have the same responsibilities for the county area which, it used to have—other than for Rochester and Gillingham.
The content of the order for Kent is broadly the same as in other orders for structural change which your Lordships have considered in the past. The changes which are proposed by this order—the merging of Gillingham and Rochester and the creation of a new unitary authority to run them—will come into effect on 1st April 1998. It is proposed that at that date the existing Gillingham Borough Council and Rochester City Council will be abolished. The rest of the county of Kent will remain two tier. The authorities concerned will have nearly two years in which to plan for these changes. The order, once it is made—if your Lordships approve that it be made—will confer new powers and duties on the existing district authorities, the county council and the prospective unitary authority, in order that they should co-operate and prepare for the transfer of functions.
The unitary Medway Towns authority will be a new authority. The Kent order allows for elections in May of next year to a shadow authority which will facilitate the changeover, for example, by setting budgets and promoting joint arrangements, during the period until the new Medway Towns authority comes into operation. On 1st April 1998 it will take over as the unitary authority.
The order before you does not deal with ceremonial arrangements which I know tend to be of considerable interest to your Lordships, but we will be making separate provision for this in general regulations in good time for the new arrangements to be in place by no later than 1st April 1998. It is necessary to distinguish between local government and historical purposes. For local government purposes, since the Medway towns will no longer be served by the county council technically that cannot be part of the county. In historical terms nothing has changed. Gillingham and Rochester will still be in Kent. We will be making an order to ensure that the lieutenancy covers both Gillingham and Rochester.
696 The provision which we intend to make will clearly show that the new unitary authority will continue to be part of the historic county of Kent, and it will therefore remain within the jurisdiction of both the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and the High Sheriff.
Another matter for which separate provision will be made is the policing of the area. The intention is that the existing Kent County Police Authority will continue to cover both the area of the new Medway Towns authority and the rest of Kent. We also intend to provide for members of the Police Authority to be appointed by both the County Council and the new unitary authority. This provision is to be made by the Home Office at a later date.
The issue before the House today is whether your Lordships should be permitted to accept this order. If my noble friend's Motion were to be approved, it would prevent your Lordships from accepting the order. The recommendation to set up the new authority was made following an independent review. The Local Government Commission put forward good arguments for the change. They were also consistent with the broader picture for creating unitary authorities elsewhere in England. We have therefore accepted them.
I hope that your Lordships will feel that, with that explanation, it would be undesirable to accept my noble friend's Motion. I hope that my noble friend will not feel that it is appropriate to put the matter to the test. After all, this matter has received the approval of another place. There is a long-standing convention that your Lordships do not vote against secondary legislation which has passed another place, for the reason that both Houses have identical powers in respect of secondary legislation. Both Houses can vote for or against an order but cannot amend it. For that reason, over a period of years the convention has been developed not to vote against orders which have been passed by another place in order to avoid deadlock between the Houses. My noble friend may say that he is not asking your Lordships to vote against the order but simply asking the Government not to lay it and inviting your Lordships to vote for it. The effect is the same. I hope that when my noble friend comes to consider that question he will think it prudent to accept the order and not to press his Motion.
§ 8.4 p.m.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, for raising this important constitutional issue. What are the wishes of the people of Kent? How far are their wishes to be brushed aside by a Secretary of State? It is perfectly true that this order was approved in another place. When one considers other orders, plus the one for Berkshire, this matter was dealt with in a most cursory way. Apart from the Secretary of State who spoke at the beginning, and the various speakers called upon by the Deputy Speaker, there was no wind-up and no answer provided to any of the anxieties which were raised in the course of that debate. The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, is allowing Members of this House to look at the order and decide whether it should be delayed—I shall speak mainly to 697 that—for further consultation with the people of Kent as a whole and the people who are to be in the new unitary state.
I do not say that I am in any difficulty, but my party has taken a rather robust view on unitary authorities. In principle, I am with my party. But two points are required to be satisfied before it can be said that a unitary authority should be imposed. First, there should be a degree of cohesion between those who are being brought together. Secondly, do the parties to this marriage—the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, used the word "marriage"—agree with it? Surely, there have been enough lessons over the past 30-odd years to indicate that where local government reform has been imposed in the end it has failed. One can think of a number of counties that have been abolished and are now being brought back into being because that is the wish of the people in those areas.
The proposed unitary authority does not have that cohesion which I suggest is necessary for a unitary state. If one considers the statistics relating to how people shop, use their leisure periods and where they work, it is clear that there is no cohesion between the areas to be married. If my memory is correct, most of the people work in Maidstone which will remain part of the old Kent. I suggest to the House that this is not a marriage that is being freely entered into by the people of those two areas. I recall that when this matter was put to the people some 63 per cent. of those in Gillingham voted for the status quo and wished to remain part of Kent as a county; some 53 per cent. of those in Rochester also wished to remain part of Kent as a county. I believe that there are sufficient statistics to show that opinion has hardened.
Whatever the Minister may say, this order is a shotgun marriage. It is not an arranged marriage but a shotgun arrangement to be applied to people within what will be a new unitary state; and it is against the wishes of their confederates (if I may so describe them) who are the people of Kent.
Although I support the unitary state, I have no difficulty in supporting the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. The Motion asks the Government to think again. The noble Lord is not rejecting the order. I would not do that myself, having pleaded with the party opposite on so many occasions. This was a device adopted by Conservative Office during my time as a way in which the view of this House could be registered. It was not binding on the Government; it was just asking the Government to consider various issues.
I have listened with the greatest care and attention to the Minister this evening. I could not find one word on the benefits to the people of Gillingham and Rochester of being in the unitary state. All I know is that that will be to the disadvantage of the people of Kent. You cannot take out such a sizeable population and leave the county of Kent as though it had never happened. The people of Kent will still be deeply involved, whether financially with the provision of services, or otherwise, within that new unitary authority. You cannot isolate a unitary authority from the body politic of the county of Kent. Noble Lords who have been listening to this 698 debate will not have heard one single word on the advantages of these dramatic changes which have been imposed, shotgun style, upon the county and the people within the proposed unitary state.
It was—was it not?—the Prime Minister only the other day who spoke about legislation in the future and the need for greater consultation in terms of primary legislation. I have enough experience now—I am a member of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee—to say that these orders have greater significance on ordinary people than any primary legislation. It is true that this House has a convention not to vote against the matter. However, it is a perfectly respectable method—it has happened on a number of occasions—by which this House has said, "Government, have another look at it".
In the light of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, believe that this is an occasion when the matter should be referred back. I had a feeling all the way through the Minister's speech that the matter has been rigged. The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, may correct me, but under the proposals of the commission under Sir John Banham, the status quo in terms of Kent had been admitted; it was not an issue to be placed before the people of Kent. Eventually, because of pressure, it was agreed that there should be an alternative, an option. The Minister said that there was a massive public relations exercise to persuade the people of Kent. It was minuscule. With very limited financial resources the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and a few of us across all the political parties, representing industry, the professions, the unions and the like, sought to explain to the people of Kent the implications of the proposal. The answer was so clear that Sir John Banham in his first commission said, "My Lords, leave it as it is". That is how he reported the matter. But it did not suit the Government, so they sacked Sir John Banham, appointed a new chairman, and made clear, as I understand, what was to be expected. We have those proposals now before us.
I do not think that the Government can rely, therefore, on the report of the second commission. What really matters is what the people of Kent themselves want; and what the people within those two areas who will be subjected to a shot-gun marriage think. As the noble Earl does not wish to have the MORI poll, then it is entirely up to him to decide how to ascertain the wishes of the people.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. I do so without any question of my allegiance to my party policy because party policy can never have conceived that a unitary state can be set up anywhere at any time. It would require certain issues to be resolved. I hope that the House puts aside all the risks, and what the Minister has said. All the Motion will have done is to say to the Government, "Go away, think about it, consult with the people who really matter in this issue, and then this House will abide by your decision".
§ 8.16 p.m.
§ Lord Thomson of Monifieth
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I strongly support the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, in the Motion that he has moved 699 seeking a delay in the Government's application of this order. Like the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I have listened very carefully indeed to what the noble Earl the Minister had to say and I think we are all indebted to him for giving us a certain amount of additional information about government thinking on the order. I am bound to say, as I shall seek to argue in my remarks, that nothing he said in any way convinced me that we were wrong in seeking that the Government should have serious second thoughts about imposing this order.
For my part, I speak as a Kentish Scot, somebody who has lived in Kent now for more than 20 years. Kent seems to me to have a unique geographic position that the Government ought to have taken account of as the main strategic route to the mainland of Europe with the Channel Tunnel and in due course the high-speed line. There was therefore in the case of Kent a special case for the county remaining as an entity with a single county council. I am bound to say that Kent County Council, from what I have seen, has impressed me as being a thoroughly effective and efficient county council, both in reasonably healthy partnership with district councils and, as the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, said, in showing a strong sense of economy in the savings it has been able to make in order to try to produce the most efficient services for its citizens. These views about the geographic position of Kent are reinforced by the need to have for Kent a county council that can act as a really good centre of the kind of strategic planning that is needed both for the Thames estuary and for Kent as a whole.
As has been said by both the noble Lords who have spoken, the first Local Government Commission finally came to the view that I have just been expressing, despite a considerable amount of government pressure to come to a different view, and felt conscientiously that it had to take account of the overwhelming public opinion that was shown in favour of keeping Kent as an entity. There was then the extraordinary episode which I noticed that Mr. Frank Dobson in another place for the official Opposition, in an engaging moment of frankness, called the setting up of an unholy partnership between the Labour Party and the Secretary of State to get rid of the chairman of the commission and other members who had given such an unsatisfactory verdict in the Government's view and to set up a new commission to look afresh at the case for at least two unitary authorities in Kent.
The debate we are having tonight, and the debate that is going to take place tomorrow on a whole series of other orders, will, I hope, be approached on the basis that the question of unitary authorities should not be a matter of principle at this stage, still less a matter almost of ideology, but a matter of what is best for the circumstances of each area.
I am pragmatic or agnostic about unitary authorities. There are areas where I am sure that they are the most appropriate form of government and there are areas where they are not. It is in that spirit that we should approach the matter. I was rather astonished—if I may say this to the noble Earl—to find that he 700 was arguing that the government's case for having thrown out the first Local Government Commission report was that, above all, the Government must have consistency. Consistency is the language of the commissar, of the central bureaucrat, not, I should have thought, the language appropriate to the kind of claims made in the splendid quotation from the Prime Minister that the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, produced about putting the people first.
The noble Earl did his best to deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, about not taking account of the MORI polls. It was a fairly weak position. It seemed to be almost the very essence—coming strangely from the Benches opposite—of that famous phrase:The man in Whitehall knows best".Consistency is everything. Whitehall must have consistency over the whole of England in the pattern of local government.
In the case of Kent, the compromise which finally emerged, and which the Government have adopted, is ludicrous. The enthusiasts for the unitary principle may well have felt originally that there was a case for abolishing the county council and replacing it with a whole series of unitary authorities. As we know, that case was examined carefully by the first commission and dismissed on overwhelming evidence. To end up with a surgical operation, cutting up Kent for the sake of creating a single unitary authority, is the worst of all worlds. It sounds like a sop to a Secretary of State who has been suffering—I like Talleyrand's famous phrase, warning all politicians and diplomats to use not too much zeal—from an excess of zeal.
In fact in another place I noticed that the Secretary of State used three arguments to defend his decision. He made some mention, as the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, said, of the case of the Thames Gateway, to which I shall come in a moment. He had two main arguments. The first was that he lived in the area as a boy. The Secretary of State was a lucky lad to live in such beautiful surroundings in Kent, but 40 years later it is hardly a basis for public policy as a Cabinet Minister. The second, more substantial but not more credible, argument was the claim that disputes about local planning between the two districts of Gillingham and Rochester/Chatham would be improved by what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, called a shotgun marriage. Experience of shotgun marriages would not sustain that proposition.
The truth is that on the really important planning issues the new unitary authority will do damage instead of good, both to the people of the unitary area itself and to the people of Kent as a whole. In support of that I call in evidence the commission itself which said in September 1995 in its overview report at paragraph 87:The prospects for the Thames Gateway goals in North Kent are probably best achieved through the minimum number of councils, or, if a continuing large number of councils is involved, through the continuation of the two-tier situation, in which the County Council can take an over-arching coordinating role. The problem with establishing large unitary authorities is the lack of coherence amongst some of the North Kent communities".That is strong advice. It disposes of the noble Earl's argument that we should look forward to relying on voluntary arrangements between the new authority and 701 Kent County Council in carrying forward these important planning obligations. Beyond the Thames Gateway, there are the wider considerations of the strategic plan for the whole of Kent which, as the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, pointed out, is being put seriously at risk. In the noble Earl's winding-up speech we need some reply to the point made by the noble Lord about making mandatory some of the provisions in that respect.
As far as concerns the immediate interests of the citizens of the Medway area, the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, made a devastating case with his customary and admirable moderation. I shall not repeat the arguments he advanced. I wish to put forward one particular argument relating to Gillingham and one which relates to our approach to the possibility of delay in imposing this order. In Gillingham about 96 per cent. of those who took the trouble to respond to the commission's inquiries said that they wanted the status quo. I should perhaps add that the only area in the proposed unitary authority in which there has been a local election since the commission reported is in Gillingham, and the view there strongly endorsed the view that the status quo partnership with the two-tier system and the county council should be sustained.
The chairman of the Gillingham council pointed out to me that in determining the electoral wards for the new unitary authority Parliament is being asked by the noble Earl to agree this evening to something that the Government have apparently no intention of implementing. I am not sure whether they have taken this properly on board, but paragraph 9 of the order provides for the next elections in May of next year to be based on existing electoral wards. Separately, I understand that the Government have asked the commission to make a further review of wards for the new authority for a report at the end of December. If that report is going to seek significant changes in the pattern of wards for the new unitary authority, there will be precious little time for the normal decent democratic processes, the selection of candidates and so on, to take place. In any case, as a matter of principle, it is wrong we should be asked to approve an order that apparently the Government do not intend to implement. Provided that the Government are looking for a reasonable way to delay the imposition of the order, that problem may provide them with a way out.
Finally, we have a scheme which is clearly against the wishes of the people throughout Kent, and in particular against the wishes of the people in the area concerned, and which will undoubtedly cost every citizen in Kent increased council tax and reduced services. The noble Earl dealt a little cavalierly, or cheerfully, with the idea that £8 million was just a small sum of money. I do not know how he gets on with that argument when he goes on behalf of his department to meet the Chief Secretary to the Treasury these days.
I notice—if I may say this to the official Front Bench opposite—that Mr. Dobson, on behalf of the Labour Party in another place, admitted that common sense says that a change like this is always costly. He based his support for insisting on that change by asking the Government to ensure that the transition is cushioned by 702 adequate funding. I cannot believe that Mr. Dobson had any real belief that in the present atmosphere of the Treasury seeking cuts in public expenditure and local authorities facing cuts in their expenditure there was any hope of that happening.
What we face in this order—if I may say this, lacking the moderation of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington—is a scandalous defiance of local opinion throughout Kent which will damage greatly the effectiveness of one of the best county councils in Britain to serve its citizens. The Government should have second thoughts about this.
Perhaps I may conclude by making some uninformed comments on the noble Earl's constitutional argument. He said that it is a convention of this House that we do not seek to vote against an order which has been passed in another place. He admitted that in the formal sense the two Houses have equal powers in this matter. Can the noble Earl produce any evidence from the Companion showing that such a convention exists? We on these Benches, who sometimes take a more vigorously democratic view of these matters, have on more than one occasion voted against orders—
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. We had a similar debate relating to the Cleveland order. Members on this Bench were particularly unhappy about the way in which that was handled by the Government. We stated that, were it not for the convention, we should be minded to vote with the rebels, so to speak. We asked the Government what they regarded as the status of that convention and we were assured by either the Deputy Leader or the Leader of the House that it was a convention which operated between the two Front Benches. I know that that is not the view of the minority third party in this House. Nonetheless, the Benches opposite affirmed that that was the practice that they would expect to continue between both Front Benches of this House.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, despite the convention, it is a fact that noble Lords opposite voted against the Rhodesia order in 1965. There was then no question that noble Lords opposite were contravening the agreement within this House as regards orders.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, not for the first time am I indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who is a former distinguished Leader of the House. I noticed that during his main speech tonight he chose his words carefully.
The noble Baroness is right. Indeed, a short time ago the House was assured by the noble Earl that there is a convention. We on these Benches do not believe that there is such a convention. We believe that there is a proposition which is for the convenience of the Official Opposition, who do not wish to get too much into the habit of voting down provisions with which they disagree because when they come into government they may face the kind of problems which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, faced over the Rhodesia order. But that is a different matter.
703 I may be mistaken. I see the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, has referred to the Companion. If the noble Earl can assure me that in the Companion there is a convention which has been approved by the Procedure Committee of this House, I shall fully recognise that fact. However, we are ready to contest the matter and I believe that unless the noble Earl can show a willingness to delay these provisions, the opinion of the House should be tested.
§ 8.33 p.m.
§ Lord Bancroft
My Lords, I intervene briefly to support the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. Since 1979 there have been more than 200 Acts of Parliament affecting local government. We must all accept evolution and change but not at this frenzied pace. My approach to the Kent order is to test it on four simple grounds. First, is it needed? Secondly, is it wanted? Thirdly, will it make efficient that which is not efficient? Fourthly, will it save resources or at any rate make better use of them? With the greatest respect to the noble Earl, it fails on every test.
Echoing an earlier debate, for the Government, as they have, to lay claim to the virtues of consistency in local government reform is the most hilarious and outrageous claim since Arthur Askey claimed to be Charlie's aunt. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that we have not a shotgun marriage but a Kalashnikov union.
Finally, I advise all concerned to look witheringly at the estimates of extra costs. At the time of the Cleveland reorganisation I was advised by the local officers that the extra costs would be about three times those estimated by the Local Government Commission and by my old home in Marsham Street. And so it has very nearly proved to be the case. I warmly support the noble Lord's Motion.
§ 8.36 p.m.
§ Lord Peyton of Yeovil
My Lords, not for the first time I have the greatest pleasure in applauding every word spoken by the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. I am sure that your Lordships will be overjoyed to hear that I shall endeavour exceptionally to follow his notable example in brevity, which is most welcome tonight.
I support and agree with the proposal made by my noble friend Lord Aldington. There is no need for me to repeat in detail the arguments which he put with such skill and force. I am bound to say that, although I listened with interest to everything that my noble friend Lord Ferrers said from the Front Bench, I saw no trace of an open mind, or perhaps I should say in fairness, no trace of an open mind on the part of those for whom he speaks tonight.
I wish to make two comments. First, when the Local Government Commission was appointed I was inclined to welcome it. I thought, quite mistakenly, that it was a genuine attempt on the part of the Government to try to find out what the people wanted. Gradually the welcome that I initially felt deteriorated into suspicion. In due course, as the recommendations and performance of the 704 commission became clear, the suspicion was replaced with a downright hostility. That is how I view the Government's proposal before us tonight.
Perhaps I may say in conclusion that it would be an extraordinary doctrine or convention for us to accept that, although we have the affirmative resolution procedure which requires both Houses of Parliament to approve an order, if another place has agreed an order we must be struck dumb and have no right to express dissent. When I say "dissent" I mean effective dissent in the Division Lobby. I would not find it possible to accept that doctrine for one moment.
If my noble friend Lord Aldington wishes to take his Motion to a Division, I should be happy to support him because it is just one more example of the Local Government Commission and the Government, its ultimate master, overlooking, or not making a sufficient attempt to find out, what the people affected feel about the impact of such proposals. This is a process that I have come increasingly to deplore.
§ 8.42 p.m.
§ Viscount De L'Isle
My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Aldington for giving us the opportunity to reconsider the Motion for approval on the proposed changes for a unitary authority in Kent.
It gives me no pleasure to find myself at odds with the Government on their decision to press ahead with their plan, despite the original recommendation by Sir John Banham's Local Government Commission that the status quo should remain. Many noble Lords from all parts of the House expressed their disquiet in the debate that took place on 30th March 1994. The Banham Commission's decision had the overwhelming support of the people of Kent. One is somewhat reminded of the little boy who asked for his ball back when he had kicked it away. If we are bandying about acronyms, I am sure that NODAM—no development after mine—might be said about my noble friend the Minister in another place.
Opinion polls show little support by the residents of Gillingham, Rochester and Chatham for the new authority which is the subject of this order. Support in Gillingham remains steady at 31 per cent., while the opposition has increased from 43 per cent. to 61 per cent. In Rochester and Chatham support has increased from 29 per cent. to 30 per cent., while opposition has increased from 47 per cent. to 53 per cent. Rochester and Chatham council supported maintaining the status quo. The level of opposition to the formation of a unitary authority has grown, despite the commission's and Gillingham's efforts to canvas support for their plan with the residents of Gillingham and Rochester.
It may be of interest to the House that the commission felt that 29 per cent. approval for a unitary authority in Northampton was considered inadequate to warrant one, while in Kent 30.5 per cent. was considered sufficient to press ahead. The district and county councils have been able to review service provision in recent years to make considerable financial savings within the two-tier system, as we have heard other speakers say, through the integration of service provision and economies of 705 scale. The creation of the unitary authority will not be able to sustain these savings. The cost of implementation will further exacerbate the problem, with increased costs for both the county council and the new unitary authority. Shared arrangements are unlikely to be a reality, given the concerns of councillors and the differing policy aims.
The commission has had to admit that the cost of service provision will be greater with the split between a unitary and county council rather than the existing two-tier system. As my noble friend Lord Aldington has pointed out, the extra cost to a Band D taxpayer in the new unitary authority is likely to be £190, while the extra cost to a county council taxpayer will be an estimated £23. Conversely, it should be possible to continue making savings through the two-tier system.
The commission has recommended that a county-wide structure plan be put in place. Noble Lords will recall that concerns over the strategic planning were raised on 30th March 1994. If Kent as a whole is to move forward into the next century with strengthening ties to Europe, both in the growing transport links which pass through the county and the proposed unitary authority and the development of the Thames corridor, strategic planning is an essential ingredient of that structure plan. I wish to support my noble friend Lord Aldington.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Lord Cornwallis
My Lords, I, in company with many other Members of your Lordships' House, must be appalled by the Government's decision to implement what my noble friend Lord Shepherd has already adequately described as a shotgun marriage, a marriage which appears to have little contingency for divorce and which, therefore, surely we must seek to abort.
For the Government to make this decision at a time of great change, challenge and commercial pressure, in the face of public opinion, in an area of Kent in which the decision will materially affect both the county and the country, on a very wide basis, must be lunacy. The greatest possible co-ordination and co-operation will be needed in the sensitive and imaginative management of the various high profile, and possibly controversial developments on the horizon in the area.
The Thames Gateway, the Channel Tunnel rail link, the ensuing motorway and other rail communications, and the possibility of a major new cement works in the area, must all require a united front and a unity of purpose to both planning and conservation. Why put all of this at risk now?
The only benefit which would seem to accrue from this exercise is the unification of Chatham Dockyard. Yes, that is a major conservation site which will be put under one authority. The Minister in another place greeted this achievement with such spectacular enthusiasm that I am led to believe that this was the cornerstone of the entire decision: surely, a very large sledgehammer to crack a very small nut, a nut which, in fact, is largely cracked already.
That would be more than enough reason not to proceed with this unitary authority, even before consulting public opinion. Yet on top of all this, public 706 opinion from every quarter, business, industry, planning, conservation, and the man in the street, has come out in a ratio of two to one against this proposal, and that ratio is strengthening.
The opinion was, of course, partially ascertained by polls. Polls these days are highly sophisticated accurate assessments with very small margins of variation. They are welcome, particularly if they say what you want to hear. Strangely, if the opposite is the case they become notoriously unreliable and volatile, whatever the result or interpretation.
Of course the Government can say that they have consulted. But have they genuinely consulted? Are they aware of the real tears in Gillingham, that they may be about to be submerged by the will of Rochester, a fear increased by the proposed distribution of seats on the new council: 42 to Rochester and 29 to Gillingham. It is not just Gillingham, of which so much has been made, which finds Rochester City Council difficult to get on with. The city council is a by-word for insensitivity and lack of consultation, and is widely considered the most difficult local authority in the county.
Such is the fear that people in parts of Gillingham are already trying to negotiate their own town councils in order to have some say in their own local affairs. They are only too well aware of how little say is allowed to any one in the outlying areas of Rochester. Can the Government really force this through in the face of so much genuine concern? Do they dismiss that concern as mere opposition to change? I assure your Lordships that it is genuine and deep-rooted. Or do the Government not care anyway?
I am afraid that I have reached the conclusion that that decision was made long before the Local Government Commission reported. The first report was sent back solely to activate this particular decision. In some places I have heard it suggested that the Minister, rejoicing in the happy days of his youth spent in the area, was anxious on behalf of the Government to reward the citizens of Rochester and Gillingham with a very expensive present. That is something in which we all delight to indulge from time to time, but generally it is the donor who pays for the present and not the recipient. In this case, not only the recipient but the whole county will pay harshly for this decision. If the experience of Cleveland is anything by which to go, the costs will have been underestimated three times over.
Doubtless, those citizens who have had 3 per cent. pay rises and 25p on their pensions may find those costs rather excessive, while those who have been more successful in their recent financial arrangements will be able to manage. The difficulties and deficiencies, both financial and administrative, which both the authority and the county will face, have been well rehearsed by previous speakers.
However, if this order goes through, there is a further proposal about which the House may not be aware. It is a proposal by the Boundary Commission to incorporate the parishes of Newington and Boxley into the new authority. Newington is at present in the district of Swale and Boxley in the district of Maidstone, which is some five miles distant from its centre and an area I know well.
707 Boxley Valley is a designated area of outstanding natural beauty. It is also the only open space between Maidstone and the Medway towns. It is already threatened with rape by the Channel Tunnel rail link. Plans of 200 years ago compared with aerial photographs of today show clearly that the farming and field pattern in the valley is virtually unchanged over that period. It is a unique piece of unspoilt countryside, the preservation of which is being strongly contested with Union Rail. To hand that over to Rochester would be disastrous. Maidstone can expand to the south. Rochester cannot expand to the north. It would place that wonderful area under even greater threat.
I had always thought that the bedrock of support for the Conservative Party was in the rural areas of England. The fact seems to be that over the past 20 years, the party has done everything in its power to urbanise and suburbanise the countryside. There are a diminishing number of places where the rural voice has any chance of being heard or understood. Local government is almost entirely town-controlled. It is now to the shire counties to which we must look for sane and sensible management of the countryside, and this order will achieve the opposite.
It seems strange to me, as someone who has welcomed at all times the interventions of the noble Earl, that he should spend 17 minutes telling us that the Government are not going to change their mind; they are not listening; and so what are we doing here? I should have thought also that someone would have told him that "Gillingham" is in Dorset, yet "Jillingham" is in Kent.
§ 8.55 p.m.
§ Lord Pender
My Lords, I wish to support the Motion moved so cogently by my noble friend Lord Aldington. I have a declarable interest, in that my wife is a Kent County Councillor of some 15 years standing. I shall pass on the glowing words of praise of the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, regarding Kent County Council.
The plain fact is that nearly 70 per cent. of Kent residents do not want change; and there is no case for it. The unique challenges and opportunities faced by Kent, as a peninsular county and the main axis between the UK and Europe, emphasise the need for a coherent and consistent structure of local government. The existing structure has the capacity to secure a strategic overview that the county as a whole requires while reflecting its different communities. That has been acknowledged by the commission.
The final recommendations do not meet that requirement. There will be no ongoing savings from the setting up of the new unitary council in Kent. My noble friend Lord Aldington dealt with the costs to taxpayers but the figures are worth repeating. There will be costs to all Kent taxpayers—£190 per Band D council tax payer in Medway towns and an extra £23 per Band D tax payer in the rest of the county. The Local Government Commission's own estimate of the additional cost for changing Kent is between £3.2 and 708 £9.4 million. In addition, there will be transitional costs, again estimated by the commission at between £7.8 million and £11.2 million. None of that money will go directly towards improving services. Given the high costs of change, there will be great difficulty in protecting existing levels. Both the county council and the new unitary council will suffer from a loss of economies of scale in relation to services.
In a nutshell, the proposals put to us mean higher rates and a lower level of service for Kent taxpayers. The facts and wishes of the people of Kent beg retention of the existing structure—the status quo.
§ 8.57 p.m.
§ Lord Renton
My Lords, I believe that I am the only participant in this debate who is a native of north Kent. I was Recorder of Rochester for five years in the 1960s and, when the Second World War started, I was with our territorial unit doing our annual training on Bluebell Hill, which is just within the boundary of what was Chatham and which has a wonderful view over the Medway Valley. When war broke out we moved our regimental headquarters to Gillingham. Therefore, I know that area very intimately.
But I must tell your Lordships that I came here, as I told my noble friend Lord Ferrers, with an open mind. My mind has been influenced a great deal by this debate. It always seemed to me when I was Recorder of Rochester that Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham were a large coterminous urban area where the people had much in common. In fact, sometimes when one wandered through that area, one did not know which of those three towns one was in.
Therefore, it seemed to me for many years that it should form some kind of united urban council. The question in modern terms is whether it should be a district council or a unitary authority. Before I go any further, perhaps I may say how much I appreciated what the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, said about the Medway Valley. He spoke about the possible danger involved if it, or much of the part south of that urban area, were incorporated in the unitary authority; namely, that there would be a very great temptation to develop it towards the south. That would be an environmental tragedy.
As Kent is—thank goodness—to remain a county broadly as we know it and not be split into a number of unitary authorities, my strong inclination is towards that group of towns, so to speak, being a district council within Kent. The people of that district would then have the advantage of the excellent work of the Kent Education Authority, which has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. Of course, from the point of view of ratepayers, we simply must consider their financial position.
My noble friend Lord Aldington mentioned—and this cannot be contested because, as I understand it, it is stated in the report—that, if the unitary authority proposed were to come into being, each household would have to pay £190 a year. It would not stop there because, as time went on, the improvement of services might lead to an increase. I understand that that £190 is simply a result of transition; indeed, mere transition.
709 In my opinion, my noble friend Lord Ferrers had an exceedingly difficult task to perform tonight. All of us on both sides of the House admire his conduct in the many situations in which he has had to advise the House. However, I do not believe that he ever had such a difficult task as the one he had tonight. Of course, he did not mention the question of £190 per household. If he is able to do so in his reply, I am sure that it will be much appreciated.
My noble friend the Minister mentioned that Kent is a big area with a big population. That is very true; so it is. Indeed, as a native of Kent, I have been very sorry to see so much development taking place there. It used to be called the "Garden of England" but it is rapidly becoming a suburban area, as well as having such large towns. We need to be very careful about that aspect.
If Kent is too big an area with too big a population, making this one unitary authority will not help. If anything were to be done along the lines of reducing its size and the responsibilities involved—and I speak as one whose father was on the Kent County Council for many years—the obvious thing would be to divide it into two counties, east and west of the Medway. We would then have Men of Kent and Kentish Men who would be able to understand each other at last! However, I do not think that that is a necessary solution.
I shall not detain your Lordships very much longer because, quite frankly, I have already said the things that need saying. However, I have one comment to make in conclusion. It is a good Conservative principle that I hope all of us on this side of the House will observe; and, indeed, perhaps noble Lords opposite may occasionally do so. I say this: if change is not necessary, it is necessary not to change.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I should like to speak in the gap. I can speak in support of this Motion. I can declare my interest as I am a member of a county council; namely, Lancashire County Council. Both today and tomorrow there will be debates to varying degrees in your Lordships' House, depending on the extent of representation that there is from different counties, about the proposals that are coming before us.
The history of these proposals leads me to the conclusion that this has been a shoddy, ill-thought-out exercise. It did not begin with finance, functions or democratic accountability; it began when the Bill was first put before Parliament to set up the commission with my honourable friends in another place seeking to require a unitary local authority solution to be brought from the commission. That was refused by the Government. Secretaries of State came and went.
Sir John Banham was asked to chair that commission—a man who has been criticised for doing what he was asked to do by the then Secretary of State; namely, listen to the views of the people at the time. Indeed, the Secretary of State's words were that the views of the people "shall be paramount". Sir John produced reports which the Government did not like, with some exceptions, and they were sent back to a 710 newly-constituted commission. We have seen the tragedy brought about by local government reorganisation imposed on people in Scotland, people in Wales and in counties that have been abolished. With the Government failing to fund in order to protect services, what has happened?
Local government is too important to be dealt with in such a way. Democratic accountability is also too important. I speak as one who totally supports a policy of unitary local government with a democratically elected and accountable tier of regional government between Whitehall and people in the English regions and those in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—such a system as was proposed by the Government for Northern Ireland but which, allegedly, is seen by the Government as something that would break up the United Kingdom if it were implemented in England, Scotland and Wales.
I shall not speak and then vote in favour of the Motion. The reason why I shall not vote is that I believe in the conventions of this House. I believe that it is the right amendment that is being put before your Lordships in the wrong Chamber. I believe that the opportunity to do this should have been taken in another place and voted on in another place and that the nonsense of what is happening with this local government reorganisation should have been stopped there.
I think it is a tragedy. I cannot possibly vote in favour of the Government's position. I will abstain and I will not speak on every order before your Lordships' House but obviously I shall speak tomorrow at greater length on the subject of the order affecting Lancashire, of whose county council I am a member.
§ 9.8 p.m.
My Lords, I support the views of the noble Baroness on the convention. There has been some debate on the subject of the convention, that we do not vote on the statutory instrument. In the absence of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, I thought I should make a brief contribution. I suggest that we know very well that we have a convention on the secondary legislation. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, from time to time successfully invites the House to reaffirm his unfettered ability to reject secondary legislation. But I would suggest that that power should only be used if the secondary legislation is ultra vires or otherwise defective and not because it is unattractive. I would therefore always vote in support of approval of secondary legislation unless it appears to be ultra vires. This would even be the case if I spoke against the secondary legislation in the debate. If any noble Lord—unwisely in my opinion—forces a Division, I should have to support the Government.
§ 9.10 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Blackburn
My Lords, I too wish to speak in the gap. I was not going to intervene but I feel it would be right and proper for me to do so because I too intend speaking tomorrow on the Lancashire debate. I intend to support the Government, but that matter will be dealt with tomorrow.
711 Tonight, I think that we need to look at each one of these cases on their merit. I too shall not vote. I shall abstain from voting on this because, again, I believe in the traditions of the House and I accept that the House's traditions on this one are the conventions of the House, whether that suits any particular party or not. It is interesting to see how many people have been lobbied to get here tonight, one way or another. I have not lobbied anyone for tomorrow, and I give you notice about that. I shall speak as I feel tomorrow but, my word, it is interesting to see what can be done tonight and I welcome so many people being here so late in the evening on certain Benches.
But, looking at these orders in their merits, if I had been voting, I should have supported the Motion because I think it is quite right in many ways. I know the area very well. The views of the local people are definitely against this. Even though one has three towns together—and I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in some ways that there is a likeness—they are different. They are three villages in many ways—yes, three villages, because they have different ideas, different teams, and, of course, if you watch their football, you will find that that is different too. They do not all support Gillingham either.
One has this difference and, therefore, when we are looking at the orders as they come before the House, I think we shall have to look at them on their merits. And in this case I think that it is quite right for your Lordships to think again and go back and look at the matter again. But I shall not vote for the Motion because of the convention.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a unitary authority—a London authority. I have, sadly, little knowledge of the great county of Kent. It seems to me that the only matter to welcome this evening is an end to uncertainty after reorganisation having been in prospect for six years. Reorganisation in prospect I say, but, of course, there was a period when it seemed that there would be no change. The most important objection—to me the overwhelming objection—is public opinion which, in itself, is overwhelming.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, that we should not dismiss opinion research. The comment has been made that its beauty is rather in the eye of the beholder. I take that point, but good opinion research—and I believe that what has been undertaken in connection with the reviews has been good opinion research—is not a matter of putting an advertisement in the local paper and seeing what responses flow in. It does test opinion properly. That, I believe, is the approach of MORI. We seem to be talking tonight as if MORI research was the only sort of research, MORI the only polling organisation. My noble friend Lord Tope has commented that it seemed to be used in the way that Hoover and Thermos are used. MORI is not the only polling organisation, but it is a reputable one. I do not believe that it would want its findings to be dismissed 712 on the basis that it had not undertaken the research thoroughly and sought adverse opinions as well as support. It is clear that the great majority of local people are opposed to the proposal. The Local Government Commission in its first response to this matter—or in its first incarnation, if I may put it that way—took that into account.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, I, too, had high hopes of this process in its early days. I thought that the commission would undertake to seek opinion and then implement that opinion. It certainly tried to. It stated in its 1995 report:There was very clear support for the commission's alternativestructure of no change. That is, the alternative to its draft recommendation for two unitary authorities and no change in the rest of the county. Therefore its final recommendation at that stage was for no change to the existing arrangements.
The Minister's explanation as regards the second round seems to me to be an admission that either the original guidance to the commission was wrong, or that the outcome was not what the Government wanted. The honourable Member for Holborn and St. Pancras—as my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth said—referred to the unholy partnership when he spoke in another place. He referred to an unholy partnership to put things right. That gives a clue to what underlies the proposal. Your Lordships have heard from the Government that Rochester and Gillingham are different from the rest of Kent. They are urban areas, not rural. I began to wonder whether this was a suggestion that the earlier transfer from Kent of largely rural Bromley into Greater London had been misconceived, but I shall not go down that path.
The Thames Gateway, to which reference has been made, does not in my view require a unitary authority. The Thames Gateway is essentially a partnership—an agglomeration almost—of a large number of authorities. It would not be possible to create one authority to cover the whole of the Thames Gateway. Because of that the logic fails in suggesting that a unitary authority, as proposed tonight, is required for the success of the Gateway project. Certainly the Local Government Commission did not regard it as necessary.
The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, has referred to the additional and continuing costs that will arise as a result of the proposal. The county has done well in keeping cuts to a minimum and in reducing its budget. That, I believe, is the result of good management and economies of scale. The economies of scale will certainly be jeopardised, if not lost. The county will lose SSA out of proportion to its continuing responsibilities. The increase in tax which is projected has been drawn to your Lordships' attention. I agree with the comment that if economies are to be found, they should be found in any event. They are quite a separate matter from structure. All of us involved in local government should continually look for economies.
There came into my mind a comment that I heard yesterday on one of the Sunday television programmes where newspapers are reviewed. The commentator had seen a headline which referred to the need to find 713 £17 billion. He thought it must be something to do with the Royal divorce settlement, but then realised it was the amount by which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was adrift.
The electoral arrangements have been referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Thomson of Monifieth and Lord Cornwallis. I ask the Minister to explain how the re-warding—I emphasise that word—will affect the 1997 election. I have heard there are local objections to moving from a system of elections every three years to elections only every four.
Finally, I refer to structure plans. The Minister dismissed the difficulties in his comments on this matter. However, his department has recognised that there is a gap in the legislation. Having admitted there is a gap, sadly it has not taken the opportunity to cure it. In a two-tier authority, as Kent will be if this order is agreed tonight, there is no mechanism for "knocking heads together" if voluntary joint working is not achieved. In an area with the peninsular features that have been described, one where I imagine there is considerable regional significance in the waste and minerals, and in the Medway Valley (this was not a matter that I had appreciated before this evening), noble Lords have very vividly shown what scope for argument there will be between the successor authorities. I repeat my point that under their arrangements the Government have failed to provide the mechanisms for proper structure planning.
Whatever the convention or convenience, my honourable friends in another place required a vote. They voted—and they alone—against what I had regarded before this evening as a shotgun divorce rather than a shotgun marriage, although I see it has aspects of both. I am delighted to have heard the robust speeches from around the Chamber. They were not, I think, the result of lobbying. I have nothing against lobbying; we are here to be lobbied. But I believe they were a result of the interest that noble Lords have in the subject. If the matter is tested, we shall follow the noble Lord into the Lobby.
§ 9.21 p.m.
§ Baroness Hollis of Heigham
My Lords, we on this side of the House oppose the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. We do so on two main grounds.
Let me make the position of the Labour Party quite clear. The Labour Party regards much of the 1974 reorganisation of local government as misguided and misconceived. Since the late 1970s, the Labour Party has sought to reorganise local government and in broad terms has favoured unitary authorities. That is Labour Party policy which has gone through several conferences. We believe it makes local government more streamlined, more accountable, more democratic and more transparent. All the evidence shows that under a two-tier structure people do not know who does what, to what level of service, to what specification, at what cost and under whose authority. Two-tier structures stand in the way of clear and accountable local government.
714 Unitary authorities allow for local communities to have their own voice, to be accountable and not to find themselves subsumed in the interests of a larger and wider authority. Such a view is especially important where the county includes several distinctive communities. One of the MPs representing Gillingham and Rochester said that Kent was divided into north Kent, east Kent and what he called "posh Kent".
Like my noble friend Lady Farrington, I support unitary authorities within a democratically elected regional tier of government. I am sure that she is entirely right. However, I am struck that in the other House the two local MPs, with, I presume, the greatest knowledge and the greatest degree of responsibility for the views of their constituents, both supported the order—Mr. James Couchman and Dame Peggy Fenner—not merely by voting but by speaking. I take the views of the Members of Parliament elected to represent those areas very seriously indeed, whatever their party.
The second general point I wish to make is that, as I understand it, for 30 years since the Rhodesia statutory instrument order, which I believe was passed around 1965, this House has respected the convention that we do not vote against statutory instruments; nor do we support any fatal Motions or amendments to them. Let us be very clear. To do so would be for this House, an unelected Chamber, not merely to ask another place to think again. I have no problems with that at all. I should be delighted for us to amend Bills, with this House asking the Commons to think again.
We know that, if the other place, having thought again, overturns what this House has supported, then ultimately—if necessary, with the authority of the Parliament Act behind it should we decide to push it further again—it has the definitive and last word. The elected House has the hegemony in Parliament.
However, if this House votes against and overturns a statutory instrument, the House of Commons cannot vote again. It is unable to think again. That instrument is dead. If Parliament so wills, the whole business has to start all over again.
On many occasions I have found myself entirely in support of every word of Motions or fatal amendments on social security matters moved from the Liberal Front Bench. Though I agreed with every word in that Motion or fatal amendment and agreed with every word spoken very eloquently to it by movers from the Liberal Front Bench, and indeed supported it word for word, we have abstained with respect for that convention. We do not believe it right for an unelected House not merely to ask the other place to think again but to overturn the will of the Commons.
In our two-day debate on the constitution, in which every speaker in the debate in your Lordships' House mentioned the pleasure, the joy, the status and the prestige of this House, that was essentially because we accepted our, so to speak, inferior status in the sense that the elected House has hegemony. We spent two days debating those matters and one week later we appear to be suggesting that we ignore that debate and again threaten to challenge the democratic will of the elected House, including the local Members of 715 Parliament. Irrespective of the issue, we on this side of the House will not take part in seeking to overturn a statutory instrument or supporting a Motion which, I have been advised, is effectively fatal. It is not a matter of government convenience—apart from the jibes from the Liberal Benches which I take in the spirit in which they were offered: fatally, I do not doubt. It is in my view a matter of democratic principle.
However, having said that, I do not believe that the local government review has been well handled. The first commission was whimsical and opinionated. The second under Sir David Cooksey was very much more professional. But even so, some of its theories—for example, the difference between periphery and centrality—were deeply implausible to all but paper geographers. This commission has been bedevilled by legal challenges from county councils (which they have every right to make). They were able to make a challenge to the Government because the Government's own legal framework was fallible. That, in turn, if I may say so, was because the Government on a previous occasion resisted amendments from my noble friend Lord McIntosh and me in this House and my honourable friend Mr. Blunkett in another place to make the guidelines legally watertight. The Government rejected our amendment to do so and as a result faced legal challenges. Had the Government accepted those amendments, the commission would not have been derailed and it would not have cost local government a year and much uncertainty.
Nor have the Government been as helpful as they should have been in terms of the situation in respect of staff. They have been nowhere near as helpful as in 1985 when we got rid of the metropolitan counties at that stage. In saying that we shall not oppose the Government, that we shall oppose the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, and that the official Labour Party will support the Government on this Motion, we do not in any sense believe that the Government have handled this matter wisely or well.
I turn now to Kent itself. I believe that the Kent reorganisation, like the Berkshire reorganisation that we shall discuss tomorrow, has been especially confusing, in part because the recommendations of the local government commission have changed. The original proposals of the commission were for two pairs of unitary authorities within the county of Kent: Dartford with Gravesham, on the one hand, and Rochester with Gillingham, on the other. In consequence, the MORI polls about which we heard tonight on whether unitary status was desirable have become hopelessly entangled with another issue; namely, whether the merger of two adjacent and sometimes competitive district councils was desirable or popular. In the event and in the face of bitter resistance from Gravesham, the Local Government Commission did not proceed with the Dartford-Gravesham merger into a unitary authority—something that Dartford and Gravesham will come to regret when they see themselves outbatted in economic development by an adjacent large unitary of Rochester with Gillingham.
716 In relation to Rochester and Gillingham, the LGC proceeded and the other place supported. First, it supported on the issue of size; that is, that the new unitary authority will be almost 250,000 people. No one in your Lordship's House can say that an authority of 250,000 people is not competent to organise and manage its own affairs.
Secondly, the Local Government Commission said that the area was to the periphery rather than to the centre of Kent and therefore could come out of Kent without in any sense damaging the integrity of Kent County Council. I believe that it was right on that. The Local Government Commission was influenced by the separate economic and geographic identity of the Medway towns, with a green belt to the west, open countryside to the east, the rivers of the Thames and so forth to the north and the North Downs to the south.
The Local Government commission also stated, and the other place agreed, that the new unitary authority shared a common economic framework—one, I am sorry to say, of decline to a degree; that is, of a falling population, the closure of the naval dockyard, the loss of the BP oil refinery and high unemployment. But what the other place believed, and I share that view, is that the three key issues facing local government, not just of the 1980s and 1990s but of the year 2000 and beyond, are care in the community, economic regeneration and the development of physical infrastructure.
In all three key issues facing local government the electors of those authorities will find that they have a more effective and accountable service if the responsibilities are not splintered between two tiers of local government. I refer to care in the community being splintered between district housing and council social services; economic regeneration splintered between district planning and a county education and training service; and physical infrastructure splintered between local planning and a county highways authority.
The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, raised the question not just of economic efficiency but also of cost. I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that the ongoing cost will represent around 0.5 per cent. of the expenditure involved. That is not an insubstantial sum but in comparison with the total cost it is not a high one either.
There has been wide public consultation and I worry that the proposals do not have majority support. I believe that that may be because the MORI polls inevitably tapped an issue of anxiety about merger as much as they did about unitary status. That confusion was certainly compounded by what the Local Government Commission described as the "particularly voluminous campaigning activity" by Kent County Council. My experience has been that where the authority had been a previous county bearer and had experience of unitary status, the population for the most part has been in favour of returning to that status. Where an authority has grown over the past 30 or 40 years and has not had that experience or assurance of unitary responsibility and county bearer status, those populations are somewhat fearful of change, particularly where the county council—perfectly properly—was aggressive in its campaigning.
717 But I am also not persuaded by the argument on the structure plan. Certainly, I believe that what the Local Government Commission and the Minister have said is correct—that they are recommending voluntary joint structure planning. Again, in my experience those joint arrangements which have been entered into voluntarily are very much more effective than statutory ones, which may be a shotgun arrangement. We are assured by the Minister that the department has fallback reserve powers, as he described tonight.
I believe that at the end of the day this new arrangement for Gillingham and Rochester will be welcomed. I accept that it is not yet welcome. I hope that the Local Government Commission and the other place will have been shown to be right. I believe that it will offer the residents of those two towns of the Medway authority clear, coherent and transparent local government. It will give them the competence and the capacity to tackle the problems that they will undoubtedly face over the next quarter of a century. I wish them well, as I am sure do other Members of your Lordships' House.
§ 9.35 p.m.
My Lords, I am deeply grateful to my noble friend Lord Renton who said that I was having a difficult time tonight. He is perfectly right. I do not like having a difficult time. I like being surrounded by my friends and sometimes it is a little difficult to tell where they are. Sometimes one looks across the Dispatch Box and finds one or two over there. Change is always difficult and everyone knows that. Everyone hates it and they would rather have what they have got used to. That is a perfectly natural phenomenon.
I believe that almost everyone who has taken part in this debate is involved with Kent. Obviously, the noble Baronesses, Lady Hamwee and Lady Hollis of Heigham, are not. All speakers have put their cases very plausibly, clearly and very well and not offensively. It has been a good-tempered debate.
My noble friend Lord Peyton was worried. He queried the fact that this measure has been passed in another place. He said that if another place had spoken, then we must be struck dumb. All I can say is, heaven help us when my noble friend finds his tongue! He said that I did not have an open mind. I thought that that was a bit hard. I could have said the same thing to him and almost to every other noble Lord who took part in the debate. Noble Lords had their points of view to put across and I put mine over.
The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, said that we were going at this at a frenzied pace. He said that it was a Kalashnikov union and not a shotgun union that was being used. That compared with the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, who said that the decision was taken long before the commission was set up. You can have one or the other but you cannot have both. The noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, was using slight exaggeration. He said that this matter was being conducted at a frenzied pace. It has taken three years since the start of the review. The first order was introduced in 1994; it is six months since the commission produced recommendations, which we are implementing; and it is going to be almost two years before the changes take place. So it must be a funny old Kalashnikov that the noble Lord uses.
§ Lord Bancroft
My Lords, I am sure that the noble Earl is not deliberately misunderstanding. My reference to the frenzied pace was the fact that we have had well over 200 Acts of Parliament affecting local government in the past 16 years.
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. I thought that he was referring to a frenzied pace over this matter. All those Bills were necessary, and that deals with that.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, asked what was so good about consistency and that it was the language of the commissar. That is fairly flamboyant, too. We should not mix up consistency with uniformity. The outcome will not be uniform. We shall have two-tier areas and unitary areas. We are not imposing a master plan on anyone. When the commission under Sir John Banham recommended unitary status for some large urban areas and not others with apparently similar characteristics, we asked it to look again because we did not believe that that was consistent.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, said that there are no benefits. He said that we had not said what benefits there might be. One benefit is that the unitary authority will have greater accountability. There will be less duplication because there will be one authority as opposed to two. There will be greater efficiency and less bureaucracy. The authority will be nearer to the people. There will be one authority for a single contiguous urban area with the same economic and community interests. That should end the current disputes between the two authorities. There will be a new sense of common purpose.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, went on to say that this has all been rigged—
Yes, my Lords, rigged. That was the word that the noble Lord used. I did not think that that was a very worthy suggestion. Indeed, I thought that it was rather insulting to Sir David Cooksey and his fellow commissioners. Sir John Banham's first review was widely criticised—not just by the Government, but also by the Opposition and most independent commentators. Sir David Cooksey was asked to review 21 districts. He recommended unitary status for only nine, including these two. Nine out of 21 does not sound particularly "rigged" to me.
My noble friend Lord Aldington was also concerned about my right honourable friend's powers to make a new county. Our interpretation of the Local Government Act 1992, which I set out earlier, has been tested by judicial review in a previous case, and upheld.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, liked the speech of my noble friend Lord Aldington. He would, wouldn't he? He particularly liked his quotation from what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said. It is always dangerous to start quoting things. I should now like to quote an extract from the Prime Minister's speech. My right honourable friend said:The Conservatives believe in giving citizens the reins wherever possible".719 How do you do that if you do not bring authorities closer to them, as we are doing in this order through a unitary authority?
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister also said:We believe in moving power from centralised bureaucracies to smaller structures closer to their local communities and consumers".That is what we are doing here.
The noble Lord, Lord Thomson, also said that there was no time to reflect on the results of the electoral review. We think that it is important to start the unitary authorities on a sound electoral basis. We expect the result of the commission's further electoral review in time for arrangements to be in place before the shadow elections in May 1997. Local interests have already been alerted to, and have consulted on, the changes through review.
We expect county and unitary authorities to make voluntary arrangements for working together over planning provisions. We consulted the local authority associations on this. The associations themselves took the initiative to produce guidance in support of that approach. The parties interested in planning provisions in other orders are also supportive of the approach. I think that the provisions for the Kent order, with the guidance in our circular, are quite satisfactory.
§ Baroness Hamwee
My Lords, is the Minister not aware of the very strong representations made by the Association of County Councils which identified a gap in the legislation in the case of hybrid authorities—in other words, those authorities where a county remains and there is a two-tier structure in part, but a unitary structure in another part? Is the Minister not aware of the strong representations that have been made, backed up by arguments which, as I understand it from correspondence that I have seen, are entirely accepted by his department as amounting to a gap in the legislation?
My Lords, I am not sure that there is a gap in the legislation. Clearly, there is an overlap and we have to ensure that the two authorities work together. I hope that we shall.
The noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, said that polls are reliable. I wonder whether he has witnessed what happens with polls before general elections. If he looks back to the past few general elections, he will find that polls have not been all that reliable—
§ Lord Cornwallis
My Lords, I said that polls are reliable when they say what you want them to say. They are unreliable when they say what you do not want them to say.
My Lords, I quite agree. But that is the trouble. That is what happened at the last general election. The Labour Party listened to the polls. It listened too hard and the polls were wrong. The noble Lord makes a good point as well as an entertaining one. Of course, when the polls are on one's side, one uses them. When one is trying to deal with the complexity of local government reorganisation one cannot rely only on 720 polls. I believe that the noble Lord was slightly unfair when he said that it took me 17 minutes to say that I would not listen. Half of the complaint has been that matters have not been explained in another place. If I had come to this House and not explained what the Government intended to do, the noble Lord, Lord Cornwallis, would have given me stick and, if he had not done, both noble Baronesses would have done so. I thought it only right to try to explain what was intended.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was worried about re-warding. The order makes provision for the new authority to have a total of 68 councillors. This is 24 fewer members than at present who serve in the two existing authorities, but it follows the commission's recommendations. The order also makes provision for transitional arrangements to return the new authority for a full four-yearly term, as it at present applies to Rochester City Council.
I know that your Lordships are anxious to come to a conclusion on this matter. I know that your Lordships, particularly those who live in Kent, are very concerned about this. That is perfectly understandable. But your Lordships also have a perfect right to vote for this. Your Lordships have a perfect right to vote against an order.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, the Motion before the House is not voting against the order. As I suggested earlier, it is a procedural device which was devised by the party opposite to enable the House to express a view and urge the Government to reconsider the matter. We are not voting against the order.
My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, had listened a little more carefully. I said that your Lordships were perfectly entitled to vote for or against this Motion. Noble Lords are perfectly entitled to vote for and against an order or anything: First Readings, Second Readings, Third Readings, Committee stage, Report stage, amendments—the lot. But there must be some kind of order if we are not to fall foul of the elected Chamber. The noble Baroness was quite right. She said it was funny that we had had a debate on the constitution only about two weeks ago and possibly the first thing we did was to vote against a Motion, which would have the same effect as annulling the order because we could not oppose the order. This is a matter of convention in the House. The noble Lord was quite right to refer to the Rhodesia Order of 1968. That caused such a row that it was decided to have some kind of convention not to vote against orders—I say that this has the same effect—which had been passed by another place, for the very reason given by the noble Baroness: it would overrule another place.
Your Lordships are perfectly entitled to vote for the Motion moved by my noble friend, but, having had such a debate, I believe that we would be testing the patience of another place a great deal if we did that. The noble Baroness laughs. The Liberals are all gung-ho; they do not mind what they do because they are not in government or in opposition. They do what they like—even whip for it, which is a most extraordinary thing to do.
721 I come back to the quite surprising speech of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. He is an ex-Lord Privy Seal and ex-Leader of the House. When he was Leader of the House he always took great care about the relationship between another place and this House. Even his party says that it will not vote for this Motion but will abstain, for the very reasonable and proper reasons advanced by the noble Baroness. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has, however, slipped the painter and parted from his party in this respect.
§ Lord Shepherd
My Lords, the noble Earl looks at me and refers to me as an ex-Leader of the House. In a sense it is probably more important that I should be referred to as an ex-Chief Whip. If it was a Motion against the order I would not support it. But this is not a Motion which destroys the order. The order can be re-introduced. We are a revising Chamber. If we think that there is something wrong here, we have a duty to say to the Government, "Think again".
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is careful with his words and persuasive. He has said that if this were a vote against the order he would not support it. However, he is quite happy to vote for the Motion which says we may not lay the order. The effect is exactly the same. Another place has passed the order and we in that case will not.
In conclusion, despite the anxieties which your Lordships have expressed and which I understand, I very much hope that my noble friend will not put this Motion to the test for the reasons I have given. It is unsatisfactory and undesirable that we should find ourselves in any form of conflict there. The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, made a very important point when she said that this is the right amendment but it should have been discussed in another place. I do not know whether it is the right amendment, but that is where it ought to have been discussed and not in this House. I hope that my noble friend will consider very carefully before he presses his Motion.
§ 9.52 p.m.
§ Lord Aldington
My Lords, my noble friend expects and hopes that I shall consider very carefully. I seem to have two seconds in which to consider very carefully. However, I have been listening very carefully throughout to the debate.
First, let me deal with the arguments about the convention. As I understand it, there is no convention in the book. There is no rule. There is an understanding between the Front Benches and that is all. If the Front Benches want there to be a convention and a rule, let the Procedure Committee consider the matter and let the House debate it, but that has not happened so far.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, for whose support I am always very grateful and whose experience is considerable, is quite right in what he has said about the purpose of my Motion, which I was very careful to put to the House right at the start of my opening speech. It is to give the Government an opportunity to think again and to give the other place an opportunity to think again. There is no reason at all why they should not take the 722 order back, have a look at it in the light of what has been said in this House, resubmit it to the other place and resubmit it to us. If there is delay, that time will perhaps have been well used. It seems to me nonsense to say that this is provoking a clash between the two Houses as if we were turning down the Second Reading of a major Bill or the whole of a major Bill. This is just the same as making an amendment to a Bill.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, monopolises the attentions of the House and she wags her head there. She has given me a great lecture today. I have listened to her moving amendments to the House and insisting on them. She must now allow me to propose to the House that we ask the Government to think again. That is what I say about the convention and it seems to me from what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and other noble Lords have said that those of us who are not in on this understanding between the two Front Benches on the matter of the convention have a different view from them on the matter.
I think the same applies to the merits of the Motion. It seems to me that there is a very close link between the two Front Benches as to how you deal with unitary government. There is a feeling expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, that there is some particularly strong theoretical merit in it and that this really is more important than the review of the facts of each case. But it is the facts of the case that matter and we say that the facts of each case were looked at by Sir John Banham's commission. That commission came to a conclusion based on what it found and on local opinion. The new commission came to a different conclusion on different guidance, disregarded local opinion altogether, disregarded the cost and disregarded the importance that it had itself attributed to the county-wide strategy. That is a great mistake. If the House believes that it is a mistake, as it manifestly does, because the vast majority of noble Lords who have spoken have kindly supported me today, for us not to show that we think that it is a mistake would be an enormous error, and bad for the House—as bad as breaching a convention. So, I beg to move.
My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend one thing. He said that we had the right to do this. This is not like passing an amendment. It is secondary legislation. If my noble friend thinks that carrying this Motion is just like passing an amendment and that it will have no effect, I can assure him that it will have an effect. I hope that he will think hard before putting this matter to the House, not so much because of the content of the order, but because of the effect that it will have on secondary legislation which has been accepted by another place and which your Lordships might reject. It will have the effect of overturning that which another place has accepted.
§ Lord Aldington
My Lords, I have thought. I do not want to weary the House. My noble friend has said that on a number of occasions. I understand that the other place has made up its mind. It did so after listening to the Secretary of State for about a quarter of a column of Hansard, and after listening to my honourable friend the Member for Gillingham for about two minutes, with 723 an interruption from my honourable friend Dame Peggy Fenner. On that, it made up its mind. If noble Lords look at the Division Lists they will see that practically no other Kent MPs were present. The other place did not pay regard to the county of Kent. This place has. That is why I wish to test the opinion of the House.
§ 9.57 p.m
§ On Question, Whether the Motion shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 33; Not-Contents, 60.
|Division No. 5|
|Addington, L.||Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Aldington, L. [Teller.]||Kintore, E.|
|Bancroft, L.||Monckton of Brenchley, V.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Palmer, L.|
|Carlisle, E.||Pender, L.|
|Clanwilliam, E.||Perry of Walton, L.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Peyton of Yeovil, L.|
|Colgrain, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Cornwallis, L. [Teller.]||Renton, L.|
|Cross, V.||Rochester, L.|
|De L'Isle, V.||Russell, E.|
|Falkland, V.||Shepherd, L.|
|Falmouth, V.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Geraint, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Thurso, V.|
|Hamwee, B.||Tope, L.|
|Addison, V.||Inglewood, L.|
|Annaly, L.||Jenkin of Roding, L.|
|Astor, V.||Kingsland, L.|
|Attlee, E.||Leigh, L.|
|Balfour, E.||Lindsay, E.|
|Berners, B.||Long, V.|
|Biddulph, L.||Lucas, L.|
|Blaker, L.||Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Mackay of Clashfern, L. [Lord Chancellor.]|
|Brigstocke, B.||Mackay of Drumadoon, L.|
|Butterworth, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Carter, L.||Mottistone, L.|
|Chalker of Wallasey, B.||Mountevans, L.|
|Chesham, L. [Teller]||Northesk, E.|
|Clark of Kempston, L.||O'Cathain, B.|
|Courtown, E.||Pilkington of Oxenford, L.|
|Cranborne, V. [Lord Privy Seal]||Prior, L|
|Cumberiege, B.||Sanderson of Bowden, L.|
|Denton of Wakefield, B.||Seccombe, B.|
|Elton, L.||Shaw of Northstead, L.|
|Ferrers, E.||Skelmersdale, L.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Stewartby, L.|
|Gisborough, L.||Strange, B.|
|Goschen, V.||Strathclyde, L.[Teller.]|
|Harris of Peckham, L.||Trumpington, B.|
|Hayhoe, L.||Ullswater, V.|
|Henley, L.||Waddington, L.|
|Hollis of Heigham, B.||Wilcox, B.|
|HolmPatrick, L.||Wynford, L.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and Motion disagreed to accordingly.