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Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Clause 7 [Implementation of proposals by order]:

[Amendments Nos. 30A and 30B not moved.]

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Fookes): My Lords, there is a misprint in Amendment No. 30C: “who” should read “which”.

[Amendments Nos. 30C and 30D not moved.]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews) moved Amendments Nos. 31 and 32:

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On Question, amendments agreed to.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Review by Boundary Committee of local government areas]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 34 and 35:

“(e) a change whose effect would be that England (excluding the Isles of Scilly, the City of London, the Inner Temple and the Middle Temple) is no longer divided into areas each of which is—(i) a county divided into districts, or comprising one district; or(ii) a London borough.”

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 10 [Implementation of recommendations by order]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendment No. 36:

On Question, amendment agreed to.

8.45 pm

Clause 11 [Implementation orders: provision that may be included]:

Baroness Andrews moved Amendments Nos. 37 and 38:

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Dixon-Smith moved Amendment No. 39:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I return to these amendments as a result of debate in Committee and following a review of what the Minister had to say in Hansard. The Minister said that due to the fact that an electoral review of any new area created would take the Electoral Commission 12 to 24 months to implement, it was necessary for the Secretary of State to have power to determine—along with all the other aspects of local government which she will be able to decide—the electoral arrangements for an area. The

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noble Baroness did not inform the House of the view of the Electoral Commission on this matter, but it would be very interesting to hear that. I would be most grateful to her if she could let us know whether the Electoral Commission has any comments.

The Minister also did not make it clear, even if, as she claimed, this power were used only for transitional periods, when exactly and under which part of the law the electoral arrangements put in place by the Secretary of State would be replaced by those decided by the proper and appropriate body, namely the Electoral Commission. Indeed, Clause 5 does not place any requirement on the Electoral Commission to review or sanction the Government’s decisions. There will be no necessary revision of what are supposed to be transitional arrangements. With all due respect to the Electoral Commission, it seems possible that it could look at the arrangements for a local authority and assume that because the Secretary of State had implemented the proposals they must be workable. That seems a dangerous assumption. With much experience of government from all parties, I am all too well aware of the fact that proposals that come from Secretaries of State may not be workable, so an opportunity would be lost.

I hope the Minister will realise that such changes need to be taken seriously and not rushed through, at least not without some consideration of what the proper—I emphasise “proper”—review procedures should be. I hope that she will be able to clear my mind on these issues so that I do not have to take the matter further. I beg to move.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, I have Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 in this group and can deal with them briefly because, like the amendment moved by the noble Lord, they concern implementation orders and transitional arrangements. In Committee, we still felt a certain confusion about exactly how the timetable would roll out and what provisions would be made for these arrangements. We have had some discussion and correspondence with the Minister, but this evening we have an opportunity to put some of these matters on the record.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I thought these amendments had been grouped separately but they have clearly been grouped together. What I am going to say may be slightly disjointed.

I will start with the questions raised by the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, and the effect of the amendments per se. If I am unable to give him a complete response to his question about the Electoral Commission, I assure him that I will write. However, I will do my best to respond to his question.

The amendments seek to remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make certain provision within orders made under Clause 7 for structural change and Clause 10 for boundary change. First, were these amendments to be made to the Bill, it would not be possible to implement the structural change orders so that the transition from two-tier to single-tier was as smooth as possible for all involved. These amendments would obviously be detrimental to the local authorities involved in the restructuring process.

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Amendments Nos. 39 and 46 remove Clauses 11(4)(d) and 12, which provide the Secretary of State with the ability to include provision for electoral matters in an order made under Clause 7 for structural change or Clause 10 for boundary change. They would prevent the Secretary of State including provision in relation to the electoral matters of new unitary authorities—the number of councillors, the boundaries of wards or the election of a mayor or executive, for example. Clauses 11(4)(d) and 12 also allow the Secretary of State, where a wholly new authority is established, to appoint members of existing local authorities as members of the new local authority for a transitional period before the first elections are held, to appoint an executive for a transitional period and to provide for that wholly new authority to discharge functions during a transitional period.

Amendment No. 46 would see Clause 12 removed completely. It is obviously important that we keep the whole of Clause 12, because it is vital that the Secretary of State is able to include provision in the Clause 7 orders for the membership and representational arrangements of new authorities, otherwise there simply would not be any people there to take the decisions. To remove the Secretary of State’s ability to provide for these matters would mean that, in the case of wholly new authorities, there would be no one there to take key decisions. That is clearly not satisfactory at all.

It is also important that the Secretary of State is able to include provision for electoral arrangements under Clause 12(1)(a) to (f). When we came to discuss the amendments of the noble Baroness, I noted that those provisions had not been removed. I am sure that this is because she also recognises the importance of being able to put in place transitional arrangements and provide for elections to the new local authorities. Were these provisions removed, wholly new local authorities could be established without any electoral arrangements—no wards, nothing. I understand what I think the noble Lord was saying—that he would prefer that these matters were put in place by an independent Electoral Commission. However, the commission was not able to guarantee that it would be able to put these arrangements in place before the new authorities were established.

The noble Lord asked about the views of the Electoral Commission. From the exchanges on 25 September, we understand that, while it is broadly content, it would prefer the first elections for county unitaries to be in May 2009, which suggests that they would follow the new warding arrangements made by the commission. We will talk to the Electoral Commission about its concerns on those issues. I hope that will be helpful.

We have made no decisions on these matters. We have just finished consulting on the approach to implementation, as noble Lords know, and it is a rather hefty document. However, I shall give an example of why we need to retain these powers. One scenario could be that elections are held for new district unitaries on current electoral arrangements in May 2008. The Electoral Commission supports this option, but has said it will not be in a position to complete reviews of the county unitaries until 2009 and of the district

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unitaries until 2010. Therefore, it is imperative that the Secretary of State can include provision for electoral arrangements within the Clause 7 order. In the example we have given, the Secretary of State would simply put in place the current electoral arrangements for the new authorities. Without Clause 12, she would be unable to do that, and implementation would have to wait until 2010.

I am sure that noble Lords are aware that if we were to remove the ability of the Secretary of State to deal with these matters it would delay the implementation timetable. That goes against what we have consistently been told by local government, which is that it wants as speedy a progress towards restructuring as possible. By taking out Clause 12, we would be unable to deliver that on behalf of local government. The amendments make the implementation of new unitary authorities difficult and would not allow the transition to be as painless as possible. We have tried to learn from the experience of the restructuring in the 1990s.

Amendments Nos. 42 to 45 are tabled in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott. Like the amendments in the previous group, they remove the ability of the Secretary of State to make certain provisions within orders made under Clause 7 for structural change stemming from a boundary change. I shall explain why Clause 12 is necessary.

Amendment No. 42 removes Clause 12(1)(f) to (k), so that the Secretary of State would be unable to include provision in a Clause 7 or Clause 10 order for the order of retirement of councillors and the election of a mayor or executive. In the case of a wholly new authority, it would also prevent the Secretary of State making appointments and providing for the discharge of functions during a transitional period. Amendment No. 43 inserts a new paragraph into Clause 12(1) which allows the Secretary of State to specify the length of any transitional period.

Removing Clause 12(1)(f) would not allow the Secretary of State to make provision for the retirement of councillors. Removing Clause 12(1)(g) and (h) would not allow the Secretary of State to provide for the election of a mayor or an executive for the new authority. Therefore, where the bidding authority has requested a mayoral model, we would not be able to provide for it. For example, Bedford has a mayor, and Bedford Borough Council has stated that it wishes to retain the mayoral model for the new unitary authority it is proposing. If a unitary Bedford were to be created, the amendment would prevent us being able to provide for the mayoral model to continue in Bedford. We would be unable to provide for the election of a mayor.

Clause 12(1)(i) allows the Secretary of State, in the case of a wholly new authority, to appoint existing councillors to represent the new local authority for a transitional period. Removing Clause 12(1)(j) would not allow the appointment of an executive to a wholly new authority to take decisions during the transitional period. Those provisions will be needed if the Secretary of State is to establish a wholly new authority so that members can start to prepare for reorganisation before there are elections for that

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authority. This will avoid a potential “dead period” between the implementation orders being made and the first elections.

Clause 12(1)(k) provides that where the Secretary of State establishes a wholly new authority, she may also provide for the appointment of an executive for a transitional period. Again, the Government believe it is important that an executive is established to discharge particular functions prior to the first elections to wholly new authorities being held.

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As I have stated, the amendments to Clause 12 would make the implementation of new unitary authorities difficult and the implementation process difficult for everyone concerned. These are technical matters. In a later amendment we will discuss transitional arrangements a little more. I hope that I have made it clear to noble Lords that their amendments would have a devastating effect on the planned process of implementation.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation. I do not have any particular difficulty with the need for interim arrangements. If the decisions are taken I accept that something has to be done. I am not yet certain about the arrangements for the end of the interim arrangements. There does not seem to be any definition of that. At what time and at what point does the Electoral Commission reassume its proper role and do these things as a result of proper study, rather than as an ad hoc arrangement on the basis of existing arrangements? After all, we have created a whole structure of new arrangements which are different, and one might have thought—perish the thought—that some new electoral arrangements might be more appropriate than those which existed prior to the change. In fact, I would have thought that that was a sort of sine qua non of the whole process.

I accept that we are in a difficult situation. The noble Baroness will be prepared to hear that that is the case. I shall look with great care at what she has said, but I think that—I make a sort of request at this stage—we need to look carefully at the longer term strategic interests on this issue. Therefore, I am happy to withdraw the amendment at this stage, but perhaps with the assurance that we could all look at it again before Third Reading with a view to getting some sort of conclusion which would satisfy everybody.

Baroness Andrews: My Lords, I am very happy to give the noble Lord that assurance. I can give him a little more detail. I will put this in writing as well because these are important points about the relationship between the Electoral Commission and the changes that are made. Clause 12(5) places the Electoral Commission under a duty to consider whether an electoral review is necessary as soon as practicable after an order is made under Clause 7. Therefore, if the independent commission wishes to review the electoral arrangements put in place by the Secretary of State, it will direct the independent Boundary Committee to do that. That takes us a bit

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further into that part of the process. I shall read what the noble Lord has said very carefully, and we will write to noble Lords to make sure that as much detail as possible about the evolution of that procedure is on the record.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 40 had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.]

Baroness Scott of Needham Market moved Amendment No. 40A:

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in the amendment I seek to return to the question of continuing authorities. In Committee we had a very brief exchange on the question of authorities that would be formed after restructuring along existing boundaries. That really means county councils turning into unitary authorities covering the county area. The noble Baroness was very concise and clear that those would be wholly new authorities.

The problem is that a difference is clearly emerging between the Government's intention, as stated clearly by the noble Baroness, and what is actually happening on the ground. From a number of areas, clear evidence is emerging of what I can describe as a county takeover. I know that my noble friend Lady Maddock will express concern about what is happening in Northumberland, but I am also receiving reports from other parts of the country—Cornwall and so on—about what is happening. Obviously, this is a difficult time and it is a complicated process. In their document setting out their approach to implementation, the Government have stated that the transitional authority will be a county-based authority. I understand why that is happening, but the problem is that counties are seeing that as a platform for launching a complete takeover. There is evidence that they are not giving district council representation as much precedence as the Government would like.

I would be very interested to hear from the noble Baroness how she thinks that the Government will respond if clear concerns emerge from local areas that the district authorities, which may have been extremely co-operative in the process, are being frozen out at the implementation stage. Can she also confirm that under the implementation document, which was published fairly recently, the chief executive will be newly appointed but there is no requirement for other officers to be? That is another area where there may well be a complete county takeover, because it is relatively straightforward to subsume a lot of district functions into existing county functions. The tendency would be to keep the same county chief officers and some very good district officers may be lost in the process. If these are to be new authorities with new cultures and practices, it is important that

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they bring together the best of all the component authorities, rather than just be the continuation of one.

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