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Lord Tope: My Lords, not for the first time I have to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, and I think to myself, "Now follow that". The only way I can compete with him on this occasion perhaps is to read out the names of all the parents who have written to me during the passage of this Bill. But I shall spare your Lordships.
I started the process of this Bill during the Second Reading debate by stating very strongly the Liberal Democrat commitment not just to a high priority but to the highest priority for the funding of early years learning and increased provision for nursery education for all three and four year-olds whose parents want it. It is therefore appropriate that I end on the same note and reiterate that very strong commitment from my party. If I thought that the Bill would in any way help toward that, I might at least at this stage of the conclusion be willing to wish it at least some qualified success. But I share the view, so strongly expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Morris, that this Bill and the scheme it will allow will not do it. It will be likely to raise expectations which too often will not be fulfilled. Above all, it is almost the least effective way of targeting resources to increasing provision for early years learning. For those reasons, we feel that fundamentally the Bill and the scheme that it will allow are flawed.
We have sought during its passage through this House to make it a less bad Bill. I think we have succeeded in one important area. If phase 1 is the success that the Minister believes, the Government have nothing to fear from the evaluation. The evaluation presumably will demonstrate that; we shall accept that we were wrong; and the scheme will go ahead. If he believes that, he should be content with our amendment. It is not my view of what an evaluation will show; nor do I believe that it will be the best way to extend early years learning.
We have had very long sessions on what the Minister quite rightly described as a very short Bill. I should like to feel that apart from a few important areas it will leave us as a better Bill. But I fear that it does not. It is better for the amendment which your Lordships agreed; it is certainly better for the amendment on special needs which the Minister introduced. We all welcome that and, since I have not spoken before on that subject, let me put on record that I and my party welcome it. That makes it a less bad Bill but it does not make it a good Bill. Most of all, I regret an opportunity lost.
I join the noble Lord in thanking the associations which have advised us very well indeed. This has been the first Bill that I have been able to take right through from start to finish. Certainly I appreciated the help and advice from the local authority associations. I also pay tribute to and thank my research assistant in our Whips Office--Carolyn Rampton, for whom this was also her first Bill from start to finish and so we learned together, I hope successfully.
Perhaps I may conclude with the Minister. If I had the time, I should wish to count up the number of times that he said, "My Lords, this is an unnecessary amendment". At times, it is a little dispiriting to be told that on amendment after amendment. Nevertheless, on the whole he has treated us with great patience and some tolerance and sought to explain--not always convincingly, I must say--why amendments are unnecessary. He told us earlier that it was possible he might not be with us today. I am pleased that he is with us. I hope that now the matter is concluded, he will not have to wait very much longer before having an even more personal interest in the subject matter before us.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon: My Lords, before we take leave of the Bill, I rise briefly to add my thanks to those already expressed in your Lordships' House. I have expressed from these Benches my hesitations about various aspects of the Bill and feel, with the noble Lord, Lord Tope, that we have made modest amendments which have improved it. I join him in expressing my appreciation of the amendments on special educational needs which have been moved and agreed.
I enjoyed taking part in the debates of the Bill. I cannot possibly match the comprehensiveness of the thanks which the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, has already offered--biblical in their range, but we have noticed that the noble Lord is frequently biblical in his references and we are grateful to him for it. I offer a word of thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, not least for her untiring championship of church schools, which she mentioned on many occasions throughout the debates. Finally, I thank the
Lord Aldington rose to move to resolve, That this House declines to approve the draft Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996 and invites Her Majesty's Government, first, to reconsider what is necessary to ensure the provision of efficient local government services throughout Kent without additional administrative costs falling on the taxpayer; secondly, to take full account of researches ascertaining the clear wishes of the local people; and, thirdly, in any order affecting the structure of local government in Kent, to make mandatory the establishment of a procedure for the future of a county-wide structure plan for Kent in accordance with the recommendation of the Local Government Commission.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to move the Motion in my name on the Order Paper. The purpose of the Motion, which has the support of Peers from Kent of all parties and on the Cross Benches--many of them have told me that they are unable to be present tonight for good reasons, but I regret their absence--is to persuade the Government not to proceed with this mistaken and damaging order and to think again about their policies on Kent local government structure. Our debate will enable this House to consider important subordinate legislation to which the other place was not able to give more than a short time. We cannot amend the draft order but we can and should give the Government and the other place a chance to have second thoughts. That is what I am about tonight.
If passed, the order will take out of the County of Kent the present districts of Rochester upon Medway and Gillingham, merge them and give them a unitary district council. The order goes further and would create a new county--if you please--given the name of the County of the Medway Towns. The district would no longer be in Kent; it would be in the new county. Chatham, with all the historic associations of its dockyards, would no longer be part of Kent; nor would the City of Rochester, with its cathedral, the historic centre of the diocese covering north and north-west Kent, I wonder how the Secretary of State has become so powerful that he can, by order, create new counties in England. I am told that he has that power but I have not yet been able to discover from where the power comes. I do not believe that the commission in its report recommended the creation of a new county.
Be that as it may, implications arise from the setting up of the new county in Kent. My honourable friend the Member for Gillingham asked pertinent questions in another place in that regard on 4th July but time did not allow for him to be given an Answer. One thing is clear: nobody who is living in and is a citizen of the Medway towns can also be a citizen of Kent; perhaps we shall be enlightened on that later.
My Motion is concerned with three points arising from the order and they are clearly set out. Before I come to them I want to remind the House of the inevitable effects that this change in Kent's constitution will have. Kent's local government services have been developed by boroughs, districts and counties over a long period, the method of delivering them changing over the years and partnerships being developed between county, district and others.
Everyone has gained from the experienced and skilled leadership of the teams that have been formed, as they gained, too, from the economies of scale, particularly in specialist services. The proposed change will inevitably cause disruption and loss of economies of scale, both for the new unitary authority and for the residual Kent. There is no evidence that any of those services suffered because of the structure. Indeed, both commissions--there were two: one in 1994 and one in 1995--acknowledged that the present two-tier structure is well capable of meeting the needs of the people. Of course, there will be improvements, but people, not structures, evolve improvements.
Kent has much experience, too, and a good record in the encouragement and co-ordination of economic development county-wide and tackling economic change. A good example was the closing of the Chatham Dockyard and the difficult consequences that followed. Another good example of the way in which economic development problems are tackled in Kent between the districts and the county is the Thames Gateway project. That is a great project which includes areas on both sides of the River Thames and in Kent which go far outside the Medway towns, covering Dartford and Gravesham and parts of the Swale to the east.
It was the importance of the Thames Gateway project that led my right honourable friend Mr. Gummer to call for a second review of the proposal for unitaries in North Kent which the 1994 commission specifically rejected. The 1995 commission said of the Thames Gateway, at page 55 of its final report:
Within the present two-tier structure there is the undoubted advantage of a county-wide structural plan which the order would maintain for any plan made before 1998 but not for any plan made after that date. Also, there is the advantage to local people of having the county council championing their cause in Whitehall and co-ordinating strategy that affects where they live, their environment and their jobs.
It is not reality but theory--academic and/or political--that led to the introduction of unitary ideas for Kent--ideas that may well be supported by ideas and opinion in other parts of England. I do not quarrel with that. But in Kent, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", is a saying born of much experience, and the sensible people of Kent, by a large majority, believe that that is fully applicable to their local government set-up. They have twice--in 1994 and again in 1995--been able to say what their wishes were, not just through letters and MORI polls, but through business and other organisations in which they are represented.
What are the consequences for them? First, there is the financial consequence. They would have to pay the cost through council tax--a considerable cost to the taxpayers in the new County of the Medway Towns and a smaller one for the rest of Kent, but nevertheless a cost. Transitional costs are inevitable. We are told it will be between £8 million and £10 million. It is wiser to take the higher figure and add to it, as reported experience of new unitaries show, for example, in Hampshire and Cleveland; there is experience also in Wales.
More significant figures relate to the additional ongoing costs and their continuing effect on the council taxpayer. The best estimate I can give is for an addition each year to the council tax, Band D, in the new Medway district of £190 per household and of £23 per household in the rest of Kent as a reward for losing Rochester and Gillingham. I know it has been said--it has been said to me--that those are small figures that can be speedily offset by savings. But they are not small figures; no increase in tax is small and no reduction in tax is so small that it is not welcome.
If savings are to be made either in the Kent County Council or in any council by greater efficiency, those savings should be available to add to or improve services or to reduce taxes. They should not be used to cover the costs of unwanted reorganisation. That in itself leads to no savings and no improvements. It may interest the House to know that in the past three years Kent County Council has made efficiency savings of the enormous figure of £80 million. I hope that those figures are not challenged by the Government; they have been in the public domain for some weeks and have not been contradicted. I am greatly troubled to work out in my mind how my noble friend can conceivably justify
The great majority have said that they would prefer the structure of local government in Kent to stay as it is; that is, no change. That is the majority view of both the Medway towns and in the rest of Kent. The commission's report shows that. The report of October 1994 gave the figures for 1994 and the November 1995 report in relation to the Medway towns shows the figure to have increased in favour of no change in the course of that year despite the Secretary of State's reference back.
The 1995 report produced no evidence to contradict that clear conclusion. At page 59 of the report the commission contented itself with saying that, although there was an overall preference for the two-tier structure, there was a reasonable measure of support for unitary status. But that disregards the majority altogether, which was 60 per cent. as opposed to 30 per cent. That is a funny conclusion for the commission to reach and it is an even funnier one for the Government to accept.
The MORI poll sets out a number of detailed points on which the citizens of Kent had been asked to give their views, but it is quite clear from that that it is the Kent districts which are more in favour of having a county council than anywhere else in England which was reviewed, just as they reject the idea that a unitary authority would be more in touch more decisively than elsewhere
My noble friend made us all laugh a little the other day at Question Time when he dismissed MORI polls with a mighty sweep. I did not take him seriously and I hope nobody else did. If we do not have MORI polls, how else can we expect the commissioners to make a judgment as to how people feel? I remind the House that they took the MORI poll, and those of us who believe in "Keep Kent" had nothing to do with it.
I wish to detain the House for only a few more minutes. During the reviews following the 1992 Act, "the wishes of the people" were to be a dominant consideration. I have letters assuring me of that. On winding up for the Government in the debate on 30th March 1994, my noble friend Lord Arran used these words at the end of his speech in reply to a typically pointed intervention by my noble friend Lord Peyton, who was reminding him of the tenor of your Lordships' cogent speeches. He said:
The third point in my Motion relates to the structural plan. It is a very important point that there should be in the British peninsula leading to Europe a county-wide strategic plan. The order makes provision for the pre-1980 plan to continue, but makes no provision for a plan after that date to be mandatorily devised by the county council and the Medway Towns authority together. It is very important that there should be no reliance on a voluntary, joint endeavour there; it should be mandatory.
That is the case against this order, asking the Government to reconsider the matter. The Medway towns are not separated from Kent by the North Downs, as was mentioned in one of the commission's reports as though it was the horse and cart era. They never have been and they are not. Kent is a splendid county of diverse communities and it is important that it stays together. I rest my case there. I beg to move.
Moved, That this House declines to approve the draft Kent (Borough of Gillingham and City of Rochester upon Medway) (Structural Change) Order 1996 and invites Her Majesty's Government, first, to reconsider what is necessary to ensure the provision of efficient local government services throughout Kent without additional administrative costs falling on the taxpayer; secondly, to take full account of researches ascertaining the clear wishes of the local people; and, thirdly, in any order affecting the structure of local government in Kent, to make mandatory the establishment of a procedure for the future of a county-wide structure plan for Kent in accordance with the recommendation of the Local Government Commission.--(Lord Aldington.)
He has tabled a Motion which is clearly directly opposed to the purposes of my own Motion, which appears on the Order Paper to be dealt with a little later. My noble friend's Motion says that your Lordships should not approve the order in my name. In due course I hope to persuade your Lordships that that would be a pity. I hope that my noble friend will see the wisdom of not pushing his Motion and seeking the opinion of the House for the order to be reviewed. My Motion is to establish a unitary authority for Gillingham and Rochester.
Perhaps I may first respond to the three points in my noble friend's Motion; and then set out some reasons of my own as to why your Lordships should not be persuaded by my noble friend. I shall first address the question which my noble friend raised as to why we accepted the recommendation of the Local Government Commission for a new authority in Kent when it had recommended no change in the original review.
Your Lordships may recall that under Sir John Banham a review was carried out between 1993 and 1994. That was a county by county review of the structure of local government in England. The overall outcome was that the commission recommended, and we accepted, the creation of a number of unitary authorities.
On the commission's recommendation, many areas, including Kent, remained unchanged. However, some districts within these areas appeared to be very similar in nature to others which were to become unitary authorities. Therefore, we asked the commission, under Sir David Cooksey, to carry out a further review of 21 districts, including, in Kent, Gillingham and Rochester, Dartford and Gravesham, in order to test consistency in this matter.
The main outcome was that the commission, following its independent assessment of each of the districts, recommended the setting up of eight unitary authorities, including one for a merged Gillingham and Rochester. It recommended no change for the remaining 12 districts, including Dartford and Gravesham in Kent.
My noble friend Lord Aldington said that that was all theory and that it may be fine elsewhere, but not in Kent. I can understand why my noble friend took that view. That is a view which, in the common parlance of the day, is often known as NIMBY, which means "not in my back yard". It says, "Anyone else can do it, but we do not want it". Although I can understand that view, I do not think that it is a telling reason as to why this should work everywhere else but not, for some extraordinary reason, in Kent.
My noble friend then referred to the costs which might arise from the setting up of a unitary authority for Gillingham and Rochester. I agree with him--I make no dispute about it--that there will, of course, be some extra costs. The commission estimated that the transitional costs might amount to between £8 million and £11 million and that there might be ongoing costs
Although those figures may appear large, in comparison with the overall budget of Kent County Council, they are not. For this year, 1996-97, the county has set a budget of over £1,000 million. Even after the creation of a new unitary authority in the Medway towns, Kent will still be one of the largest counties in terms of its budget. Furthermore, significant economies of scale could still be made. Indeed, I congratulate Kent on having made such economies already, as my noble friend mentioned. Of course, economies can be made by both Kent County Council and the new unitary districts.
As I have said, one must compare that sum of £1,000 million with the transitional costs of between £8 million and £11 million. The authorities will be able to borrow to cover their transitional costs and, in general, authorities will not have to meet borrowing or interest costs for three years, by which time savings should have been realised. I agree with my noble friend that nobody likes extra costs--of course they do not--but if the change will bring local government in those two areas closer to the people--that is the whole point of this--and if it is possible as a result also to make economies, I think that those transitional costs will in time be absorbed entirely.
Much, of course, will depend on the will of the authorities concerned. Rochester City Council, at least, has expressed the view that a unitary Medway would result in considerable long-term savings and that it would be better placed to provide cost-effective services. That is the view of one of those local authorities.
My noble friend's Motion refers to taking account of the clear wishes of local people. The commission, in its review, gave them opportunity for the expression of local opinion throughout Kent as well as commissioning MORI polls on their recommendations. We also allowed a period for representation on the commission's recommendation for change. I know that the opinion which was expressed in general was against change. But neither the commission nor the Government thought that that was conclusive.
One must accept that it is generally the case that those who oppose change are more likely to express their views than those who agree with it. In addition, a whole range of people tend not to be particularly interested and therefore do not feel motivated to vote or to answer a MORI poll. Furthermore, there was, of course, an orchestrated campaign in Kent to keep the status quo. That is fair enough. If people want to make their views known, they are entitled to do so. However, we must recognise that it is sometimes easier to sign a petition or to send a standard letter than to express an independent view. When a great campaign is under way, it is easy to draw people, like iron filings to a magnet, to the cause celebre and those who have no particular view or who hold a contrary view do not have such a ready or well-made avenue of expression.
However, local opinion was not the only factor under consideration. The Local Government Act 1992, which set out the framework for the local government review, states that any changes must secure effective and convenient local government which takes account of community identities. Those are fairly complex issues to measure and cannot be judged simply by asking people questions in a poll--important though polls may be.
The third point in my noble friend's Motion concerns the need for adequate structure planning arrangements for Kent. The commission recommended that strategic planning should be retained across the area of the existing county. We have given effect to this in the order, which is laid before your Lordships, by transferring Kent County Council's strategic planning responsibility for this particular area to the new unitary authority. This will enable the two authorities--Kent County Council and the new unitary authority--to make voluntary arrangements for joint working on the structure plan for their combined area.
My noble friend Lord Aldington said that the powers of the Secretary of State are enormous if he can simply make a new county. My noble friend wondered how the Secretary of State got those powers. Parliament gave him those powers. They are explicitly provided for by Section 14 of the Local Government Act 1992 which allows for,
If my noble friend wants the specific details, I can advise him that under Sections 13(1) and 14(3)(b) of the Local Government Act 1992, the Local Government Commission may recommend the constitution of a new local government area of any description by amalgamation or separation of any local government area.
Under Section 28 of the same Act, "local government area" is defined to include a non-metropolitan county in England. Under Section 17(1), the Secretary of State may by order give effect to the Local Government Commission's recommendations. That is what the order does.
These provisions are similar to those which appear in other orders for structural change. They will operate in parallel with recent guidance from the local authorities' associations and our own Circular 4/96 on the matter. There is no need for any further legislation to bring that about.
Perhaps I could turn to the reasons why we have brought forward the Kent order. There are considerable benefits to be gained from the joining of Rochester and Gillingham. With a population over 240,000, these two
Putting the area into the hands of one unitary authority, which will have district and county administrative functions, will be simpler and will enable the full range of local services to be provided more efficiently. This area of Kent is just totally different from the remainder of Kent. It is a large urban conurbation. The rest of Kent is not.
The Local Government Commission found that the local rivalry between Gillingham and Rochester is damaging for local interests. It prevents the area from being recognised for what it is: the largest conurbation in the south-east outside London, with all the typical problems of urban areas. In this case, the commission took the view that convenient and effective local government required a merger. Even after the change, Kent County Council will still have one of the largest populations in England, with over 1.3 million people, and it will have the same responsibilities for the county area which, it used to have--other than for Rochester and Gillingham.
The content of the order for Kent is broadly the same as in other orders for structural change which your Lordships have considered in the past. The changes which are proposed by this order--the merging of Gillingham and Rochester and the creation of a new unitary authority to run them--will come into effect on 1st April 1998. It is proposed that at that date the existing Gillingham Borough Council and Rochester City Council will be abolished. The rest of the county of Kent will remain two tier. The authorities concerned will have nearly two years in which to plan for these changes. The order, once it is made--if your Lordships approve that it be made--will confer new powers and duties on the existing district authorities, the county council and the prospective unitary authority, in order that they should co-operate and prepare for the transfer of functions.
The unitary Medway Towns authority will be a new authority. The Kent order allows for elections in May of next year to a shadow authority which will facilitate the changeover, for example, by setting budgets and promoting joint arrangements, during the period until the new Medway Towns authority comes into operation. On 1st April 1998 it will take over as the unitary authority.
The order before you does not deal with ceremonial arrangements which I know tend to be of considerable interest to your Lordships, but we will be making separate provision for this in general regulations in good time for the new arrangements to be in place by no later than 1st April 1998. It is necessary to distinguish between local government and historical purposes. For local government purposes, since the Medway towns will no longer be served by the county council technically that cannot be part of the county. In historical terms nothing has changed. Gillingham and Rochester will still be in Kent. We will be making an order to ensure that the lieutenancy covers both Gillingham and Rochester.
The provision which we intend to make will clearly show that the new unitary authority will continue to be part of the historic county of Kent, and it will therefore remain within the jurisdiction of both the Lord Lieutenant of Kent and the High Sheriff.
Another matter for which separate provision will be made is the policing of the area. The intention is that the existing Kent County Police Authority will continue to cover both the area of the new Medway Towns authority and the rest of Kent. We also intend to provide for members of the Police Authority to be appointed by both the County Council and the new unitary authority. This provision is to be made by the Home Office at a later date.
The issue before the House today is whether your Lordships should be permitted to accept this order. If my noble friend's Motion were to be approved, it would prevent your Lordships from accepting the order. The recommendation to set up the new authority was made following an independent review. The Local Government Commission put forward good arguments for the change. They were also consistent with the broader picture for creating unitary authorities elsewhere in England. We have therefore accepted them.
I hope that your Lordships will feel that, with that explanation, it would be undesirable to accept my noble friend's Motion. I hope that my noble friend will not feel that it is appropriate to put the matter to the test. After all, this matter has received the approval of another place. There is a long-standing convention that your Lordships do not vote against secondary legislation which has passed another place, for the reason that both Houses have identical powers in respect of secondary legislation. Both Houses can vote for or against an order but cannot amend it. For that reason, over a period of years the convention has been developed not to vote against orders which have been passed by another place in order to avoid deadlock between the Houses. My noble friend may say that he is not asking your Lordships to vote against the order but simply asking the Government not to lay it and inviting your Lordships to vote for it. The effect is the same. I hope that when my noble friend comes to consider that question he will think it prudent to accept the order and not to press his Motion.
Lord Shepherd: My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, for raising this important constitutional issue. What are the wishes of the people of Kent? How far are their wishes to be brushed aside by a Secretary of State? It is perfectly true that this order was approved in another place. When one considers other orders, plus the one for Berkshire, this matter was dealt with in a most cursory way. Apart from the Secretary of State who spoke at the beginning, and the various speakers called upon by the Deputy Speaker, there was no wind-up and no answer provided to any of the anxieties which were raised in the course of that debate. The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, is allowing Members of this House to look at the order and decide whether it should be delayed--I shall speak mainly to
I do not say that I am in any difficulty, but my party has taken a rather robust view on unitary authorities. In principle, I am with my party. But two points are required to be satisfied before it can be said that a unitary authority should be imposed. First, there should be a degree of cohesion between those who are being brought together. Secondly, do the parties to this marriage--the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, used the word "marriage"--agree with it? Surely, there have been enough lessons over the past 30-odd years to indicate that where local government reform has been imposed in the end it has failed. One can think of a number of counties that have been abolished and are now being brought back into being because that is the wish of the people in those areas.
The proposed unitary authority does not have that cohesion which I suggest is necessary for a unitary state. If one considers the statistics relating to how people shop, use their leisure periods and where they work, it is clear that there is no cohesion between the areas to be married. If my memory is correct, most of the people work in Maidstone which will remain part of the old Kent. I suggest to the House that this is not a marriage that is being freely entered into by the people of those two areas. I recall that when this matter was put to the people some 63 per cent. of those in Gillingham voted for the status quo and wished to remain part of Kent as a county; some 53 per cent. of those in Rochester also wished to remain part of Kent as a county. I believe that there are sufficient statistics to show that opinion has hardened.
Whatever the Minister may say, this order is a shotgun marriage. It is not an arranged marriage but a shotgun arrangement to be applied to people within what will be a new unitary state; and it is against the wishes of their confederates (if I may so describe them) who are the people of Kent.
Although I support the unitary state, I have no difficulty in supporting the Motion proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. The Motion asks the Government to think again. The noble Lord is not rejecting the order. I would not do that myself, having pleaded with the party opposite on so many occasions. This was a device adopted by Conservative Office during my time as a way in which the view of this House could be registered. It was not binding on the Government; it was just asking the Government to consider various issues.
I have listened with the greatest care and attention to the Minister this evening. I could not find one word on the benefits to the people of Gillingham and Rochester of being in the unitary state. All I know is that that will be to the disadvantage of the people of Kent. You cannot take out such a sizeable population and leave the county of Kent as though it had never happened. The people of Kent will still be deeply involved, whether financially with the provision of services, or otherwise, within that new unitary authority. You cannot isolate a unitary authority from the body politic of the county of Kent. Noble Lords who have been listening to this
It was--was it not?--the Prime Minister only the other day who spoke about legislation in the future and the need for greater consultation in terms of primary legislation. I have enough experience now--I am a member of the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee--to say that these orders have greater significance on ordinary people than any primary legislation. It is true that this House has a convention not to vote against the matter. However, it is a perfectly respectable method--it has happened on a number of occasions--by which this House has said, "Government, have another look at it".
In the light of the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, believe that this is an occasion when the matter should be referred back. I had a feeling all the way through the Minister's speech that the matter has been rigged. The noble Lord, Lord Aldington, may correct me, but under the proposals of the commission under Sir John Banham, the status quo in terms of Kent had been admitted; it was not an issue to be placed before the people of Kent. Eventually, because of pressure, it was agreed that there should be an alternative, an option. The Minister said that there was a massive public relations exercise to persuade the people of Kent. It was minuscule. With very limited financial resources the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, and a few of us across all the political parties, representing industry, the professions, the unions and the like, sought to explain to the people of Kent the implications of the proposal. The answer was so clear that Sir John Banham in his first commission said, "My Lords, leave it as it is". That is how he reported the matter. But it did not suit the Government, so they sacked Sir John Banham, appointed a new chairman, and made clear, as I understand, what was to be expected. We have those proposals now before us.
I do not think that the Government can rely, therefore, on the report of the second commission. What really matters is what the people of Kent themselves want; and what the people within those two areas who will be subjected to a shot-gun marriage think. As the noble Earl does not wish to have the MORI poll, then it is entirely up to him to decide how to ascertain the wishes of the people.
I support the noble Lord, Lord Aldington. I do so without any question of my allegiance to my party policy because party policy can never have conceived that a unitary state can be set up anywhere at any time. It would require certain issues to be resolved. I hope that the House puts aside all the risks, and what the Minister has said. All the Motion will have done is to say to the Government, "Go away, think about it, consult with the people who really matter in this issue, and then this House will abide by your decision".
For my part, I speak as a Kentish Scot, somebody who has lived in Kent now for more than 20 years. Kent seems to me to have a unique geographic position that the Government ought to have taken account of as the main strategic route to the mainland of Europe with the Channel Tunnel and in due course the high-speed line. There was therefore in the case of Kent a special case for the county remaining as an entity with a single county council. I am bound to say that Kent County Council, from what I have seen, has impressed me as being a thoroughly effective and efficient county council, both in reasonably healthy partnership with district councils and, as the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, said, in showing a strong sense of economy in the savings it has been able to make in order to try to produce the most efficient services for its citizens. These views about the geographic position of Kent are reinforced by the need to have for Kent a county council that can act as a really good centre of the kind of strategic planning that is needed both for the Thames estuary and for Kent as a whole.
As has been said by both the noble Lords who have spoken, the first Local Government Commission finally came to the view that I have just been expressing, despite a considerable amount of government pressure to come to a different view, and felt conscientiously that it had to take account of the overwhelming public opinion that was shown in favour of keeping Kent as an entity. There was then the extraordinary episode which I noticed that Mr. Frank Dobson in another place for the official Opposition, in an engaging moment of frankness, called the setting up of an unholy partnership between the Labour Party and the Secretary of State to get rid of the chairman of the commission and other members who had given such an unsatisfactory verdict in the Government's view and to set up a new commission to look afresh at the case for at least two unitary authorities in Kent.
The debate we are having tonight, and the debate that is going to take place tomorrow on a whole series of other orders, will, I hope, be approached on the basis that the question of unitary authorities should not be a matter of principle at this stage, still less a matter almost of ideology, but a matter of what is best for the circumstances of each area.
I am pragmatic or agnostic about unitary authorities. There are areas where I am sure that they are the most appropriate form of government and there are areas where they are not. It is in that spirit that we should approach the matter. I was rather astonished--if I may say this to the noble Earl--to find that he
The noble Earl did his best to deal with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, about not taking account of the MORI polls. It was a fairly weak position. It seemed to be almost the very essence--coming strangely from the Benches opposite--of that famous phrase:
In the case of Kent, the compromise which finally emerged, and which the Government have adopted, is ludicrous. The enthusiasts for the unitary principle may well have felt originally that there was a case for abolishing the county council and replacing it with a whole series of unitary authorities. As we know, that case was examined carefully by the first commission and dismissed on overwhelming evidence. To end up with a surgical operation, cutting up Kent for the sake of creating a single unitary authority, is the worst of all worlds. It sounds like a sop to a Secretary of State who has been suffering--I like Talleyrand's famous phrase, warning all politicians and diplomats to use not too much zeal--from an excess of zeal.
In fact in another place I noticed that the Secretary of State used three arguments to defend his decision. He made some mention, as the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, said, of the case of the Thames Gateway, to which I shall come in a moment. He had two main arguments. The first was that he lived in the area as a boy. The Secretary of State was a lucky lad to live in such beautiful surroundings in Kent, but 40 years later it is hardly a basis for public policy as a Cabinet Minister. The second, more substantial but not more credible, argument was the claim that disputes about local planning between the two districts of Gillingham and Rochester/Chatham would be improved by what the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, called a shotgun marriage. Experience of shotgun marriages would not sustain that proposition.
The truth is that on the really important planning issues the new unitary authority will do damage instead of good, both to the people of the unitary area itself and to the people of Kent as a whole. In support of that I call in evidence the commission itself which said in September 1995 in its overview report at paragraph 87:
As far as concerns the immediate interests of the citizens of the Medway area, the noble Lord, Lord Aldington, made a devastating case with his customary and admirable moderation. I shall not repeat the arguments he advanced. I wish to put forward one particular argument relating to Gillingham and one which relates to our approach to the possibility of delay in imposing this order. In Gillingham about 96 per cent. of those who took the trouble to respond to the commission's inquiries said that they wanted the status quo. I should perhaps add that the only area in the proposed unitary authority in which there has been a local election since the commission reported is in Gillingham, and the view there strongly endorsed the view that the status quo partnership with the two-tier system and the county council should be sustained.
The chairman of the Gillingham council pointed out to me that in determining the electoral wards for the new unitary authority Parliament is being asked by the noble Earl to agree this evening to something that the Government have apparently no intention of implementing. I am not sure whether they have taken this properly on board, but paragraph 9 of the order provides for the next elections in May of next year to be based on existing electoral wards. Separately, I understand that the Government have asked the commission to make a further review of wards for the new authority for a report at the end of December. If that report is going to seek significant changes in the pattern of wards for the new unitary authority, there will be precious little time for the normal decent democratic processes, the selection of candidates and so on, to take place. In any case, as a matter of principle, it is wrong we should be asked to approve an order that apparently the Government do not intend to implement. Provided that the Government are looking for a reasonable way to delay the imposition of the order, that problem may provide them with a way out.
Finally, we have a scheme which is clearly against the wishes of the people throughout Kent, and in particular against the wishes of the people in the area concerned, and which will undoubtedly cost every citizen in Kent increased council tax and reduced services. The noble Earl dealt a little cavalierly, or cheerfully, with the idea that £8 million was just a small sum of money. I do not know how he gets on with that argument when he goes on behalf of his department to meet the Chief Secretary to the Treasury these days.
I notice--if I may say this to the official Front Bench opposite--that Mr. Dobson, on behalf of the Labour Party in another place, admitted that common sense says that a change like this is always costly. He based his support for insisting on that change by asking the Government to ensure that the transition is cushioned by
What we face in this order--if I may say this, lacking the moderation of the noble Lord, Lord Aldington--is a scandalous defiance of local opinion throughout Kent which will damage greatly the effectiveness of one of the best county councils in Britain to serve its citizens. The Government should have second thoughts about this.
Perhaps I may conclude by making some uninformed comments on the noble Earl's constitutional argument. He said that it is a convention of this House that we do not seek to vote against an order which has been passed in another place. He admitted that in the formal sense the two Houses have equal powers in this matter. Can the noble Earl produce any evidence from the Companion showing that such a convention exists? We on these Benches, who sometimes take a more vigorously democratic view of these matters, have on more than one occasion voted against orders--
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