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Even after the change of mind by the county, a survey by the county itself showed that some 50 per cent. of people were in favour of unitary authorities or held no fixed opinion. So far I have not heard a case made out against the abolition of Berkshire. It is not a Machiavellian plot by the Government. It comes from a well-researched Local Government Commission report. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord who said it, I resent very much his talk about a hand-picked Local Government Commission. This commission was picked in exactly the same way as is every other local government commission. So if we are attacking this one then we are attacking them all. The people who man them do a very good job. They are people of the highest integrity and they ought not to have their characters impugned in that way.
Perhaps I may sum up very quickly. We have already seen that these orders went through the other place without a Division. We know the views of the Berkshire MPs who, I suggest, do know what their electors want. The county itself, until it changed its mind after three years, also wanted this proposal. I believe that the case has been made and I hope that your Lordships will reject the amendment and support my noble friend the Minister.
Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, I can only say to the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, as regards his remark about hand-picked local government commissions, that one of our difficulties in this whole range of orders is that the Government did hand-pick one commission, but they did not like the recommendations it made and so they sacked it and hand-picked a second commission. That is the source of a good many of the problems that we face.
This is a very similar debate to the one we had yesterday on the Kent order, during which I made rather a long speech so I shall be very brief indeed today. Listening to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and the powerful case that he made, I can hardly believe that the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, could have been listening very closely if he did not believe that there was any argument at all for retaining Berkshire County Council. There is much in common between what we discussed yesterday and the discussion today. In Berkshire the evidence seems very strong that, as far as one can judge the available methods of measuring opinion, the majority view is for retaining the status quo. If the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, once again casts doubt on public opinion polls, then there should be some delay until there is an opportunity for an election in the county, which will be the best way to test that matter.
As regards costs, the need for a strategic authority and the fragmentation of services, which are all issues that we went through yesterday as regards Kent, they seem to be equally valid in terms of the case for retaining Berkshire County Council.
The main charge made by the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, is that of a change of mind by Berkshire County Council. I myself thought that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, answered it adequately. Having listened to the arguments so far and having read the background material to this matter, I believe that the real charge is not against Berkshire County Council for changing its mind, but against the Government, who are apparently incapable of changing their mind. They have so firmly committed themselves to what they regard as the principle of the unitary authority, to which the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, declared himself to be so dedicated, that they have really turned that principle into a sort of doctrinaire ideology. It would be much better if these issues were discussed in each area of England on their merits relating to the circumstances of that area rather than against that rather doctrinaire background. As I say, the real charge is against the Government for their rigidity, for defying common sense and for being unwilling to trust the people in this matter.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, we are now about halfway through the list of speakers and the score seems about nine to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, and two to the noble Earl. It will be interesting to see how we end up.
I must declare an interest. I was born in a Nissen hut in the capital of the Royal county. My father was for years its Lord Lieutenant and most of my family still live in the Royal county, three being deputy lieutenants, one of whom is my mother. Members of my family have represented the Royal county in another place. At the turn of the century our family business was the 42nd largest employer in the United Kingdom and we employed over 7,000 people in the Royal county. I make those declarations just in case anyone thinks it rather odd that a resident of Scotland is speaking in this important debate.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, I much applaud many of the achievements of this Government, but I have to say that their efforts in reforming local government have been nothing short of disastrous, the situation in Scotland being one of the classic examples. As my noble friend Lord Tenby mentioned, the Government's plans for the change of local government in Berkshire are nothing short of madness, sheer madness, and as the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, mentioned, that madness will be expensive and complicated. I should like to hear from the noble Earl why Her Majesty's Government want to introduce something which is going to be expensive and complicated.
My noble friend Lord Tenby also mentioned the MORI poll, which showed that 73 per cent. favour the status quo. It is interesting that the average turnout at general elections is somewhere in the region of 73 per cent. It could therefore be argued that the voting population of Berkshire is in favour of the status quo. I feel sure that if that poll were conducted today, there would be an even higher percentage against the plans.
I beg the Government, even at this late stage, to maintain the status quo and to keep the Royal County of Berkshire as it is. The Government have nothing to lose and everything to gain by agreeing to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Peyton.
Lord Aldington: My Lords, I rise briefly to support my noble friend Lord Peyton, who was good enough to support me yesterday. That is my first reason for supporting him. My second reason is that I agree with everything that he said. The argument about Berkshire is as strong, perhaps stronger, than that which was put to the House late yesterday evening in respect of Kent.
I shall not repeat all the points that were raised then, but our theme today is the same as that of yesterday. Why do the Government disregard the opinions of the people who live in the counties which they wish to deprive of their county councils? Why will they not honour the undertakings given, first, by the Secretary of State who introduced the provisions and who said--in words paraphrased by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington--that local opinions are paramount;
I beseech my noble friend to think again and to accept this opportunity for second thoughts. Many points of extreme importance have been made about the good governance of the county of Berkshire. The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goff, and other noble Lords, reminded us of the difficulties of strategic planning in that area. Those points are very important and they were not contradicted in any way by my noble friend Lord Finsberg who spoke as if Berkshire was like London. Berkshire is a very special place. I should like to hear one single reason--I have not yet heard one--why Berkshire does not need a county council. I support fully my noble friend Lord Peyton.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I think that I have some qualifications for speaking in this debate. First, I have been concerned with the Berkshire reorganisation since its inception when a joint submission was made by Berkshire County Council and five districts for the abolition of the county council and its replacement by unitary authorities. I also saw Mr. Curry, the then Minister, to plead for the six unitary authority proposals, so I am not a Johnny-come-lately to this issue. I have been living with it for some long while.
My other qualification is that of residence and of involvement in public life in Berkshire over a long period. I have lived in Reading for 52 years. I still live in Reading. I have not gone to live in Scotland or elsewhere--
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