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Lord Rooker: It is interesting to see how noble Lords dismiss the argument about whether tiers of government matter. We think that they do, which is why we are having no new tiers of government. The mantra will continue to be, "We are not having new tiers of government".
If we are to get a good working relationship with local government in whatever form at the level of a district council or, on the odd occasion, of a county councilI think that there is only one unitary county council, and I cannot pre-judge what might come out of the boundary reviewwe need to streamline the local authority structure. We might be wrong, but that is our view. The way to do it is to have a unitary structure.
As we have made clear, no existing unitary authority will have its boundaries interfered with. There will not be wholesale review and change; that would be change for change's sake. It is only in areas in which the structure is two-tier that we need to consider which way to go to make a unitary authority. There are many different ways of doing that. We are not pre-judging what the Boundary Committee could do; it could recommend a unitary structure for current two-tier areas based on counties, districts or something different. That is up to the Boundary Committee, and we will assess the proposals, when they are published.
Lord Greaves: The Minister has again asserted that there cannot be an extra tier. He has not yet provided any arguments to support that assertion. Simply asserting something time and time again does not make it a better argument.
We need to understand why an extra tier would be so bad. If, as has been stated, no powers will come up from local government and there will be no change to the position of local government, what extra costs will be incurred by maintaining the status quo?
Lord Greaves: The Government are entitled to have a policy, and we are entitled to question them on that policy and find out the reasons that lie behind it. If the Minister refuses to give the reasons, we are all wasting our time.
Lord Rooker: We are not. One would not know where to stop. I have been involved with local government reorganisations in the past as a constituency Member of Parliament. There is an idea that the bureaucracy level would stay the same; that decision-making would be streamlined; that it would be cheaper; and that people would have a better relationship with different tiers of government and fully understand who is delivering what service. Tiers could be added ad infinitum.
Perhaps I may finish answering the question asked by the noble Lord. The Government have taken the view that a unitary tier underneath a regional tierI do not like the term hierarchicalis efficient and can be streamlined and meaningful to communities. Local authorities can be the champions of their communities in this respect, as well as speaking with one voice. An area that is unitary would not have two organisations speaking to government or to the regional assembly, as happens at present. Therefore, there would be clarity of purpose and transparency. That is an important point.
Members of the Committee have spoken about the ordinary votersour mastersnot understanding what is happening. If we want them to understand, we need clarity and simplicity in our government structures. Adding more tiers of government is not the way to do that. The noble Lord may not like it, but that is the plain fact of the matter.
Lord Greaves: I am grateful for the patience of the Minister. In starting that reply, he has pointed out that reorganisation is what costs the extra money in local government. It is not a question of how many tiers; it is a question of reorganisation. It is the Government who are proposing to reorganise government in these areas with all the extra costsI agree with him entirelythat will accrue. Why will maintaining the status quo cost an extra penny?
Lord Hanningfield: I should like to add to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Independent work by the Audit Commission and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) suggests that turning England into a unitary organisation would cost well over £1 billion. That cost would be for just the reorganisation of local governmentmoney that could be spent on schools and hospitalsto achieve nothing.
Setting up regional government and the regions would be much cheaper. The method proposed by the Government is by far the most expensive, as plenty of independent evidence will show. It could be done much more cheaply by creating regional assemblies above the existing local government.
If we have to accept that as an argumentand that is the argument being put forward by the Governmentthere is no case for the reorganisation of local government because it is doing now what the Government say that it will be doing post the introduction of regional assemblies. At Second Reading, the Minister promised me that we would know the cost of the abolition of a large number of councils around the country. It would be helpful to have that figure. Why should the councils be abolished gratuitously to introduce regional assemblies when the case put forward by the Government is about ceding powers from national government to regional assemblies and simply making sense of the bodies that already exist in the regions?
Lord Rooker: I do not think that the Government could make a caseI certainly could not make a casefor another tier of elected people in addition to those that we have already. I cannot make that case, whatever information I am given. I could not make a solid case for saying that we should have elected assembly "people"namely, councillors, or whatever their title may bein addition to those we have already. In two-tier areas with districts and counties, I would not be able to make a case for saying to people that in addition to electing Members for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament, they will have to elect yet more people.
Lord Rooker: No, no, our plan is for elected regional assemblies. Perhaps I may finish my point. If the Government had a plan for local government reorganisation, there would have been an inquiry and a report that would have dealt with the whole of England.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred to the work being done by CIPFA. We do not have a plan for local government reorganisation in England. We have a plan for elected regional assemblies in areas where people choose in the referendum to have them. We clearly indicate that it will not be "big bang". That is the implication of the Bill. The whole country would not have regional assemblies at the same timeif ever.
We do not have a plan and therefore the issue does not arise. It is true that the manner in which we propose setting up and running elected regional assemblies, based on unitary local authorities, has a consequence for partial local government
The Earl of Onslow: What the Minister is saying is that we have an "accident" for local government reform. In other words, it may happen or it may not. The Government do not know whether they are coming or going. They are suggesting that we may have local government reform or we may have a local authority here or a local authority there. That is not grown-up thinking. It is like having a little pen with round balls on string to play with. I am sorry; I am flabbergasted.
Baroness Hanham: The Minister can have a go at two of us at the same time. I take issue with the Minister on his description of the local government review as being a partial local government reorganisation. The Minister will recall previous local government reorganisations. This is major. The Government will have to go to the electorate in a region and say, "Okay, now you are going to vote whether you want a county council or a unitary authority. What size do you want your unitary authority to be? In fact, your very loved town hall up the road is to be amalgamated with your deeply unloved town hall in the unitary district next doorthe people with whom you have been fighting for donkeys yearsbecause you will be amalgamated with them in a new unitary authority".
My understanding of the Boundary Committee is that it would be asked to form unitaries from the counties, councils or whatever else. However, as I understand it, there is a rider which is that they can review all the unitaries to ensure that they make sense. Therefore, not only the unitary authorities within the two-tier system would be reviewed to ensure that they make sense; the Boundary Committee would have the right to review them all. That is not a partial reorganisation; it is a major reorganisation of local government. I would hate the Minister to think that it was anything but that. This is "big-bug" stuff. There will be considerable oppositionand not just from this House.
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