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Lord Waddington: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment which appears to be an important step forward, allowing people the opportunity to say what form of unitary local government they want in their areas. I rise for one reason. I have had the opportunity to read the full letter written to interested Members by the Minister. I thank him for that letter. He has intimated his preparedness to accept the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, but I notice that subsection (5) of Amendment No. 12 says that the Boundary Committee should be required to set out "at least two options". The Minister in his letter says that he has it in mind to ask the Boundary Committee to produce two recommendations or more if it thinks appropriate. Would it be simpler to ask the committee to list all viable options? I am unsure why it should be limited to two. I am glad that the Minister does not accept that
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt the letter said "at least two options"; it did not foreclose on any other options. There is a choice. It is up to the Boundary Committee to do that and not the Government. The words "at least" allow for the possibility of more.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, I agree entirely with the Minister, that that is better than to limit the committee to just two. I wonder whether it should be said boldly to the committee that it should list all viable options for having unitary local government in a particular area.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am a little less sanguine about this amendment than my noble friend Lord Waddington. I see more mischief in it than he has. Over the weekend there was a small amount of publicity that I assume arose from the Liberal Democrats' publicity drive, crowing that, as a result of the agreement by the Government to take up their amendment on restructuring unitary government, regional government was now assured. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has now reiterated that. As we knew from the Liberal Democrats, that is what they have been out for all the time. Their views on these proposals are now nailed to the mast, although there has been little doubt about that all along.
What do the amendments amount to? In all honesty, they are the nail in the coffin of the county councils. They finally dispel any possibility of the status quoI acknowledge that the Minister has not been in favour of thatin terms of the local government structure continuing. I thought that that was an option under regional government in which the Liberal Democrats were interested, with the county councils being protected. Having accepted the amendments, it is clear that the Government no longer see any role for the counties in their present form, despite declaring that they were neutral on their continuation.
The amendment follows on from one tabled in Committee when the Liberal Democrats sought to have a second question asked in county and district areas only: whether the electors were in favour of county and district councils being organised into a single unitary tier of local government. It was one that sought to decouple the reorganisation of local government from the question on regional government. As worded, it might just have had our support because it would have elicited a "Yes" or "No" answer. It was also designed to prevent county and districts being overwhelmed by a vote from the metropolitan and shire areas, a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
But the amendment goes far further than that. It asks for views on options for the reform of local government only. There is no chance to vote against reform. Even before a vote on regional government
Under the second question there is no possibility that county councils, in particular, can survive in their current formeven if an option were put forward to make a unitary from their boundaries. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who, I notice, is not in his place todayI beg his pardon; he is present. He seemed to have some feeling for the counties' position. But, if he has accepted this amendment as likely to help him out, I say to him that he has been sold a pup. Unitary government will willy-nilly come out of this. County councils cannot survive, and it is the Liberal Democrats, along with the Government, who will have ensured their demise.
We have tabled amendments both in Committee and today to ensure that information is available about the powers, structures and costs of regional government. But similar information, not just maps of boundaries, will now have to be made available for unitary authorities, since now we have no idea what unitary government will do. In general, it will have to absorb the powers and responsibilities of county councils, taking on, for example, social services, waste disposal, highways and the other county council responsibilities. Any unitary county council left will provide only its share of those services. It will not provide them for its related districts, as in the past.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I fear that I have put my case very badly. I am not quarrelling with the case that she put forward. I do not want to see any local government changes at all. I certainly do not want to see the disappearance of counties. But, assuming that the Government will not resile from their determination to use their voting power to ensure that the price of having a referendum is to have unitary local government, does not my noble friend agree with me that, if we are eventually left in that position, it is better that local people should have the opportunity to choose what form of unitary government they should have than be denied it? I will certainly not vote for this amendment if it will foreclose the opportunity for us to insist once more that there should be no change in the local government structure at all.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, noticed that I am in my place, but she did not remark on the fact that I have moved my place since Committee stage. It is with very great regret that I say
I live and am politically active in a two-tier area, so perhaps I look at life from a perspective different from that of those from London and metropolitan areasor some of them anyhow. I declare that as an interest. Like my noble friend, I shall refer to other amendments on the Marshalled List that are part of a package negotiated between members of my party and the Governmentthere is no secret about that. The meaning of the amendments moved by my noble friend can be understood only by looking at them in the context of the package.
The crunch is whether people in areas that are to have referendums on regional assemblies, as proposed by the Government, have the democratic option to decide for themselves and not be told by the Minister, 10 Downing Street or anyone else that two-tier local government is not allowed. I would hardly wish to refer to the proposal as regional government, as the proposals are such feeble affairs. We debated that issue vigorously in Committee. It is the issue on which, I believe, the negotiated deal sells the pass.
I repeat those words at some length because I believed then that I was speaking on behalf of my party. After I spoke, I was not given an indication that I had not been speaking on behalf of my party. But I believe that my party has, regrettably, now agreed to be blackmailed, bullied and browbeaten.
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