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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, the noble Lord was quite right to refer to his first point. I meant to make that point to the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, but I failed to do so. The Royal County of Berkshire remains; it is only the county council which is being abolished.
The noble Lord also referred to costs as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. The only figures which are available--and they are reasonable--are the bids which have been submitted on the basis of the changes being made during next year. In fact the changes will be made in the year thereafter and new bids will have to be submitted. It will be a matter for the new unitary authorities to make savings where they can.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my appreciation of his right honourable friend's courtesy in receiving a deputation on this subject towards the end of last week has now been considerably watered down by this decision? Is he further aware that to reserve for Berkshire alone, among the 36 shire counties, the fate of total dismemberment will come as a sharp and unpleasant shock to the traditional supporters of this Government within the county of Berkshire?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, I know that my noble friend met my right honourable friend, who listened carefully to what he and those in his delegation said. However, one has to make a decision. My noble friend says that many people will not like the decision--I accept that some people will not like it--but plenty of people will like it. I repeat that the independent Local Government Commission has made its recommendations. All the Members of another place agreed with that decision. My noble friend now asks my right honourable friend to overturn the decision. If it had been a Labour area and the independent commission had suggested an all-unitary structure and all the Labour Members of Parliament agreed with it, if my right honourable friend then decided to overturn the decision, one can imagine the hoo-ha that would arise.
Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, will the Minister confirm to the House that for three years, up until last year, Berkshire County Council campaigned for its own abolition? Will the Minister also confirm that in its evidence to the Local Government Commission review Berkshire County Council submitted that,
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, it gives me the most enormous pleasure to agree with the noble Baroness--which does not often occur. But she is absolutely right. The Berkshire County Council campaigned for unitary status. For some funny reason it changed its mind. It has now whipped up a quite enthusiastic campaign against such status. Why it changed its mind, I do not know, and I doubt whether the noble Baroness knows.
Lord Renwick: My Lords, perhaps I may join the campaign to support Berkshire County Council. Will the effectiveness of the county council's social service responsibilities benefit from the change, especially as regards the control of child abuse, the ability to organise adoption and looking after those with special educational needs and, dare I mention it, dyslexia?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, we expect the new unitary authorities to work as independent organisations. However, there will be times when unitary authorities will have to work together. My noble friend has given some examples. I refer also to schools for children who are backward. On such occasions the district councils may have to work together. I have no reason to believe that they will not.
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, most people have had to leave their homes in the south of the island of Montserrat and are staying with friends and relatives, or in the improvised accommodation in the north. The present relocation is likely to be prolonged. The economy has been seriously disrupted. The British Government are providing £16.5 million in assistance and have made special arrangements for the entry of Montserratians who wish to come to the United Kingdom.
Lord Rea: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that informative Answer. Perhaps I may remind noble Lords that Montserrat is a British dependent territory, and that Her Majesty's Government bear a direct line of responsibility for the welfare of its people, if not for the actual volcano.
As the noble Baroness said, some 5,000 people from the more prosperous and fertile southern part of the island have been resettled in temporary shelter in the north. They are reluctant to leave Montserrat because it is their home. What plans have the Government permanently to develop the economy and infrastructure of the northern part of the island? It may well be the only safe and habitable area for many years even if the current eruption simmers down.
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for not blaming the Government for the volcano erupting. However, joking apart, it is a very serious situation which has continued for nearly 11 months. The people of Montserrat have suffered sorely from it. I wish to pay tribute to their stoicism in the face of this continual cloud of volcanic dust which seems to hang across the island.
About 4,500 people have gone from the south to the north. About 1,500 people still on the border of the safe zone might have to be removed to the north should the drift of the volcano's ashes turn further northward.
In the first place we set up temporary accommodation. However, it has become clear that although the Chief Minister of Montserrat arranged the accommodation, more now has to be done. We have a full-time engineer there, plus other staff, helping the governor. We are taking the help of a number of specialist engineers. Some from Her Majesty's services have been assisting there. As did my right honourable friend, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, last week on a visit there, we are considering what further assistance must be given. We are following a twin track approach, allowing people to come to the United Kingdom for up to two years if they wish--to work, we hope, if they can find work--or through the aid programme supporting those who stay on the island.
The provision of more than £16.5 million in total for something under 10,000 people is a significant help. With the Government of Montserrat--they are responsible, although it is a dependent territory--we are considering what more can be done to help people gain a livelihood in the north and better living accommodation.
I do not believe that the Minister answered my noble friend's Question. However, we need to consider the long-term future of Montserrat by securing a less dependent economy if those who are now leaving are to return. Can the Minister tell the House what the Government are now doing to promote an economy which is less dependent than at present?
Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, obviously the long-term future must be worked out with the Government of Montserrat. They are an elected government. They have made it clear that they wish to maintain Montserrat as a viable community. We shall support them in that. Those who are resident there who wish to move permanently to the north will be helped to do so. But it must be the decision of the Government
While final decisions cannot yet be made, work is going on and the help that the people of Montserrat need is being given to them by people well qualified to do so and with a greater knowledge of the situation than I have.