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Viscount Ullswater: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, has taken time off to criticise this year's settlement rather than to address her remarks to the changes which are to take place in Avon. I do not criticise her for that; it is another opportunity to make such a criticism. However, I am glad that the noble Baroness began her remarks by saying how much the reorganisation has been supported locally as regards what is happening in Avon. In that, I believe that the noble Baroness encapsulated the feelings of local people; as, indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee suggested. I have no query with what the noble Baroness said. No one on this side of the House questions the dedication of the staff or the officers of Avon County Council. But, somehow, Avon as a countynot as a county councilhas not won the hearts and minds of people generally.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, asked me a number of questions. I believe that it would be right for me to try to piece together some of the answers for her because I am speaking now in reply to her amendment. The noble Baroness asked for some reassurance on what authorities can and cannot do at various times in the implementation process. I hope that I can provide the noble Baroness with that reassurance.
Before the elections, all authorities can do what they need to do to prepare for reorganisation, but with some responsibilities being reserved until after the elections. As I said earlier in my opening remarks, the essential
I believe that is a very sensible division of responsibilities. It allows authorities to get off to a good start, but ensures that councillors elected to a unitary authority decide how the authority is run. That also suggests that all of the authorities elected in May are, to some degreeand, perhaps, a greater degreenew. They will have new councillors who will not necessarily be bound by the decisions of their predecessors. However, I am sure that the co-operation that I mentioned will be in place and that the new councillors will tackle the challenges, as they find them, of a unitary authority with a fresh approach.
My noble friend Lady Faithfull asked me about specialist staff. I should tell my noble friend that, in fact, we expect that 90 per cent. of the staff will transfer across from Avon County Council to the new unitary authorities. That means that all the front-line service providers, such as the care workers from social services, will transfer by a statutory transfer order. That will ensure that the provision of services will continue. The unitary authorities will have the power to appoint staff, including chief officers, once the elections have been held in May. I believe that my noble friend's concerns about specialist staff are misplaced. Indeed, I am sure that all unitary authorities will be well aware of the statutory requirements that they will have to undertake and that they will ensure that the staff they have are the specialists that they require.
It has been said that, even if the powers are equal, the districts which are combined cannot be expected to co-operate fully and that, as a result, the new authorities are at a practical disadvantage. However, I believe that we have to question that assumption. Is it right? We need to look simply at what is in the interests of the councillors on the districts which are to be combined. Many councillors in those districts will want to be councillors in the new, unitary authorities. They will know that their positions and work in the future will depend very much upon what they do now and that they will be judged by the electorate at the time.
The noble Baronesses, Lady Farrington and Lady Hamwee, also raised the issues regarding the effect of Article 21. We have studied the article most carefully. It is straightforward and simply removes from authorities which are to be abolished any duties which require them to prepare budgets or plans for the years after they are abolished and passes those duties to the successor authorities. Not to make the successor authorities responsible for deciding the way in which they are to deliver services would be indefensible. However, the order does not prevent authorities which are to be abolished from working in those areas; indeed, the duty to co-operate promotes that.
The Government are satisfied that, taken together, the provisions are adequate to enable the ongoing provision of services in the run-up to reorganisation. It is said that the level of service delivery will decline as a result of reorganisation. I believe that that concern was expressed by my noble friend Lady Faithfull and other speakers. We do not accept that dividing a service between four unitary authorities means that the service would be damaged. In the particular case of Avon, as I said, all the authorities involved have already been working very hard on implementation to ensure a smooth transfer of services. As a part of that work, they have been considering a number of services where joint arrangements might be appropriate. As I understand it, such services include the Social Services Court Team, the Child Protection Register, special education and the Central Library. Concern has been expressed in respect of all of those services. I am encouraged that the authorities involved are looking very carefully at the provision of such services. As my noble friend Lord Peyton emphasised, they are key and important services. I believe that the new authorities will undertake them in a sensible way.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and my noble friend Lord Peyton, raised the issue of the cost of reorganisation. In the case of Avon, both the Local Government Commission and the districts believe that reorganisation will produce net savings. We believe that the supplementary credit approvals that we shall be making available will enable authorities to meet any net costs which arise in the short term without making any significant impact on the revenue accounts of the new authorities. Therefore, there should be no need for any adjustment to the authorities' SSA grant or capping limits. As for the years after 1995-96, we shall announce the arrangements for transitional costs nearer the time. However, we do not envisage the need for significant changes.
My noble friend Lord Peyton asked me when those savings would be made and whether it would be for the benefit of our grandchildren should Avon produce such savings. It is difficult to forecast exactly when savings will show through. Indeed, much depends on how authorities implement reorganisation. However, the estimates made by the Local Government Commission suggest that costs will be paid off within around five to 10 years and that, after that, net savings should benefit local people year after year. Perhaps I may remind my noble friend that the commission's estimates of ongoing savings are between £5 million and £9 million each year. Of course, they will be continuing savings.
My noble friend and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol also asked about the boundary review of Bristol and whether comment would be made upon the shape of the boundaries. The Local Government Commission considered and rejected proposals to extend the boundary of Bristol. I believe that the Government have made their position on future boundary reviews of Bristol quite clear. The purpose of any future boundary review will only be to correct minor anomalies, although the Government have made
The right reverend Prelate also asked me about the staff who may have to take a drop in salary and whether they would be protected. We recently consulted on a scheme for detriment compensationthat is, compensation for a drop in earnings for those remaining in local government employment. At present, we are considering the responses.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, asked why the compensation for redundancy is not as good as it was in 1986. All I have to say to her is that times are different. Things are not the same as they were in 1986, and anyway the local authorities are given discretion to pay up to 66 weeks' pay based on age, service and banding to eligible staff below the age of 50. These arrangements are, as I have mentioned to the noble Baroness before, at the maximum 2.7 times more generous than otherwise statutorily provided under employment legislation. I think that many private sector companies would like to be in that rather privileged position.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about the future planning for the Avon and Somerset police authority. I assure her that there is no question of the police authority as a result of this order being unable to make plans for the time after 1996. It is only after October 1995 that representatives of the new authorities will take over the planning role, but there is nothing to prevent the existing authorities from starting work on that already in the time between the elections and October.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, asked me why successor authorities have a right of access to information but authorities which are being abolished have no equivalent right. All the authorities have to co-operate, and I believe that this will cover most cases, especially when authorities are working together positively, as they are currently in Avon. But there is a more detailed point here. In order to plan properly the authorities which are taking over functions will need access to information which might otherwise be covered by the requirements for data protection. Authorities which are being abolished will not be in the position of needing such information from their successors. Therefore I think that that point is covered by that part of the order.
The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, also indicated that there was inadequate consultation with the county council. The Government have been accused of giving authorities in Avon an inadequate opportunity to comment on the draft order. This simply is not the case. The Government allowed authorities as long as possible to make comments, and the High Court made it quite clear that sufficient time had been allowed for consultation on these matters. Of course if the orders were not made early enough to allow elections to be arranged for May this year, reorganisation would be delayed for a year. This would prolong the uncertainty, particularly for staff of authorities to be abolished, and especially for Avon County Council. I am sure that noble Lords would not have wished that to happen.
My noble friend Lord Peyton indicated that the Government have taken a wise decision with regard to Somerset. I think also that we have taken a wise decision to accept the recommendations of the Local Government Commission which in this instance has, I believe, listened to the opinionthis was also brought to the fore by the noble Baroness, Lady Hollisof local people. The authorities to be put in place instead of Avon County Council are those which will not only provide the services for local people but will also be broadly welcomed.
The people of Avon have indicated that they want change. Throughout the Local Government Commission's consultation process, only about 100 members of the public, businesses and local bodies wrote to the Government out of a population of some 970,000. In all four of the proposed unitary authorities the commission's polls showed more support for the commission's final recommendation than the present two-tier structure. The purpose of the review, which has been stated frequently by the Government, is to secure for each area the structure of local government which is accountable, reflects the identity and confidence of local people and provides services efficiently and cost-effectively to the community.
I hope that during the course of my remarks I have been able to answer most of the questions put to me by noble Lords. Therefore in the light of what I have said, I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, will feel able to withdraw the amendment which she has tabled. The Government believe, and are confident, that the structure proposed by the commission for Avon, and implemented by this order, will achieve what I have mentioned. I commend the order to the House.
Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful reply. I hope he will understand that after I have had a chance to read the detail of some of his technical comments in Hansard I may wish to take them up in writing. I thank all those who have taken part in this debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bristol and the noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, spoke with strong local knowledge and that is important when we consider the future of local government. I am also grateful for the support I received from my noble friend Lady Hollis.
I fear I have to disagree with the Minister as regards seeing as separate the funding for local government, because the cost of reorganisation is being met by £50 million being top-sliced from the rest of local government expenditure in England in the current year at a time when local authorities can ill afford to lose that. Therefore there is a concern there. Many points of detail have been raised. Perhaps the most important concern still remains that of the continuing authority and the equal treatment of staff.
As I said, I thank all those who have contributed to the debate. I am a new Member of your Lordships' House. I have certainly learnt in the comparatively short time that I have been here how much knowledge