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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.
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.
Earl Ferrers: 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 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?
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--
Earl Ferrers: 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
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.
Earl Ferrers: 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.
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.
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