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Column 398Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Value Added Tax (Construction of Buildings) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 280), dated 8th February 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that, while this afternoon's statement about the future of Northern Ireland was being made, the Government announced that prescription charges would be raised. That was a deliberate sneaky venture on the Government's part, to hide a move that was reprehensible and highly
Column 399controversial. I wonder whether a Minister has been given an opportunity to make a statement announcing just what is involved in today's proposals.
Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that points of order were raised with you earlier about precedent. Are you now able to clarify the way in which such matters have been handled in the past, and can you also tell us whether the Secretary of State has expressed her intention to make a statement in the House? She spoke in the House on Monday--and, indeed, yesterday,, although there was no need for her to take part in yesterday's debate, because she had not served on the Standing Committee--but apparently did not feel able to raise an issue resulting from a question that can only have been tabled yesterday.
I have no knowledge of any intention to make a statement. No doubt Madam Speaker would be apprised of any such intention first in any event. As for the main issue that has been raised, I must tell hon. Members who have raised points of order in seeking a precedent that the present case is not on all fours with that precedent. When the Speaker deplored a particular practice, that related to using a question that had already been answered and, at some later stage, giving information pursuant to that. That has not happened today. The question concerned was tabled straightforwardly; it is on the Order Paper, and was replied to by means of a written answer. Even if the present case had been on all fours with precedent, the fact remains that the Speaker--although she said that she deprecated it--did not rule it out of order; I gather that the matter is still being considered by the Procedure Committee.
I must therefore rule that what happened was perfectly in order, although hon. Members may not like that particular method of handling the provision of information.
Mrs. Beckett: Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I do not want to detain the House, but what worries Opposition Members particularly--apart from, as you say, the manner and the matter: a huge increase in prescription charges has been put through--is the fact that, although the question was tabled yesterday and it must have been known that it would be answered straight away, the House was not given the information.
Column 400by more than 2,500 per cent. without sending a Minister to the House to make a statement to try to justify such criminal taxation of the sick?
Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I listened with interest to your explanation of the position relating to precedent. Is it not the case, however, that last year, when a rise in prescription charges was sneaked out in the way that Madam Speaker so deprecated, the Secretary of State for Health had to make a full statement in the House? Should she not do so again this week?
Madam Deputy Speaker: It is not for the Chair to decide whether a Minister of the Crown should or should not make a statement. I understand, however, that this does not preclude the making of a statement.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does the Speaker not have some right to tell the Procedure Committee that it should report on the matter as soon as possible? There is clearly concern, and a feeling that the procedure now being used is increasingly becoming an abuse of the rights of hon. Members to ask questions about important issues.
Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If prescriptions had gone up in line with inflation, they would now be 53p instead of £5.25. Is not it a discourtesy to the House and to yourself that the Secretary of State for Health has done this? Is not the decision a scandalous attack on the sick?
Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. An important issue is involved here. It is possible that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health could help us, because we need to know that the standards that are being followed today were followed precisely by the Labour Government when they introduced prescription charges all those years ago. In 1976, they cut the hospital--
Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is clear that we are moving into a discussion of the merits or otherwise of the matter. That is not a matter on which I can rule, or on which I wish to take further points of order. I hope, therefore, that any further points of order will strictly relate to order and not to the merits or demerits of the decision.
one-and-a-half-hour orders, so an obvious opportunity exists for business to be interrupted and for the Leader of the House or the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement later tonight.
Column 401intends to put 15p on prescription charges. Many of our constituents can ill afford medicine at present. Surely it is in order for Back Benchers to debate such a measure.
Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sure that the ingenuity of all Members will ensure that the matter is raised in various ways, but we cannot continue with the matter now. We must proceed with the next business.
Madam Deputy Speaker-- then put the remaining Questions required to be put at that hour.
That the Value Added Tax (Protected Buildings) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 283), dated 8th February 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.
That the Value Added Tax (Input Tax) (Amendment) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 281), dated 8th February 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.
That the Value Added Tax (Buildings and Land) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 279), dated 8th February 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 8th February, be approved.
That the Value Added Tax (Payments on Account) (Amendment) Order 1995 (S.I., 1995, No. 291), dated 8th February 1995, a copy of which was laid before this House on 9th February, be approved.
That the draft Avon (Structural Change) Order 1995, which was laid before this House on 9th February, be approved.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): I convey to the House the decision of Madam Speaker to place a 10-minute limit on the speeches of Back Benchers. I am sure that she would also hope that Front-Bench spokesmen will not take too long either.
Mr. Curry: Apart from a few minor points, the order implements the Local Government Commission's recommendations for Avon. Its effect will be that, on 1 April 1996, Avon county council will disappear and its powers will be taken over by four unitary successor authorities. The existing authorities of Bristol and Woodspring will be given unitary powers. Woodspring is to be renamed North West Somerset. The existing authorities of Bath and Wansdyke will be abolished and comprise a single new unitary authority, to be called Bath and North East Somerset. The existing authorities of Kingswood and Northavon will also be abolished. They will comprise a further unitary authority to be called South Gloucestershire.
In the absence of clear agreement on alternative names for unitary authorities, we have concluded that we should not make any change to the names recommended by the commission. However, authorities retain the power to make changes to names if they resolve to do so. They may wish to consider that issue. There seems to be an increasing tendency--which I am not greatly in favour of--to give compass references to political names,
The order is not a judgment on the performance of the existing local authorities in the area. I made that clear during the Cleveland order debate and I make it clear now. That is not what the review was called on to judge. It involved finding the best form of local government for the future in each area.
In Avon, a generally constructive debate has taken place about reorganisation and the implementation of change. Of course, I have not agreed with every point put to me, but I have considered them all carefully and the debate has been conducted in a sensible and generally non-partisan way.
Authorities that are to assume unitary status should be given a fresh, democratic mandate to do so. There will therefore be whole council elections to all four unitary authorities in May this year. All four authorities will then have responsibility for planning and budgeting for change before they assume responsibility for the full range of local government functions on 1 April 1996.
In future, the three councils outside Bath will hold whole council elections every four years, although if local authorities wish to adopt a system of thirds, they may make representations. We do not hold any ideological view about which is preferable--we have always made that clear. Bristol will return to its current arrangements of elections by thirds from 1997. That follows Bristol's representations that it wished to retain elections by thirds
Column 403but that it did not wish to have an election in the year immediately after reorganisation. We have tried to accommodate what seems a sensible representation.
Warding arrangements for the two new authorities are as recommended by the commission, except for the correction of a technical error in South Gloucestershire. There are no changes to the current warding arrangements for Bristol and North West Somerset.
The commission also recommended the abolition of the county of Avon and its return to Somerset and Gloucestershire for ceremonial purposes. The order abolishes the county area of Avon and provides for Bristol to be a county in its own right, as it was before 1974, with its own lord lieutenancy and high sheriff.
As in the case of Cleveland, we shall be making separate provision to put into effect the commission's recommendations for ceremonial arrangements elsewhere in the present county of Avon. We shall therefore provide that, for ceremonial purposes, Bath and North East Somerset and North West Somerset will be part of Somerset and that South Gloucestershire will be part of Gloucestershire.
Once the order is made, all authorities in the area will have extra duties and powers to prepare for reorganisation. They will each be under a duty to co-operate in implementing change. Unitary authorities will have access to the information that they need. Once the new councils for the four unitary authorities have been elected, they will have further powers to make the necessary preparations, including setting budgets and recruiting staff for the functions that they take over on 1 April 1996. They will be required to consider whether any of their new functions would best be discharged through joint arrangements with other authorities. Taken together, those provisions will ensure that a smooth transition to the new structure takes place, with proper safeguards for essential services. I am mindful of Madam Speaker's injunction for Front-Bench spokesmen to be brief, so I should like to deal quickly with some of the questions that have been raised during consultation. Where an existing authority, as a result of reorganisation, assumes responsibility for new functions but its area is unchanged, that is a continuing authority. We simply have no powers to abolish it. However, where a unitary authority has new boundaries, that authority is classified as a new authority. So Bristol and North West Somerset will be continuing authorities, and South Gloucestershire and Bath and North East Somerset will be new. It all sounds very theological but it is an important aspect of reorganisation.
Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Is the Minister aware of the anxiety of staff in, for example, a county authority, that they may not get a fair deal in applying for jobs in the new continuing authorities because, in effect, their existing staff are in a better position? The Minister said that he did not have the powers. I know that representations have been made for those powers to be taken.
Mr. Curry: As the hon. Gentleman has noted, it has been argued that continuing authorities will have an advantage and that they will have the inside track on recruitment. It is argued that they can get the recruitment process under way now, before the new authorities come into existence. I do not agree. All the authorities will be able to start planning for the reorganisation once the order
Column 404is made. All four unitary authorities will get extra powers, for example, to make appointments once the elections have taken place, and the elections are scheduled for this May.
The existing authorities are being encouraged to think ahead on behalf of their successors. I could not stop them if I wanted to and it would be ridiculous to try. But that applies equally to continuing authorities such as Bristol, and authorities like Bath and Wansdyke, which are to be replaced by new ones. They cannot take decisions on behalf of their successors, but they can help, if they wish, to get them off to a proper start. There is nothing involved that sensible and honourable people cannot settle sensibly themselves. We have to make the assumption that we are dealing with sensible and honourable people in local government. I could not possibly justify placing artificial legal obstacles in the way of a sensible and well-planned transition from the old structure to the new.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): The Minister will be well aware that the two new authorities that are not continuing authorities are concerned about the point that he is making. Can he clarify the issue? Will the new authorities that are continuing authorities be unable to make decisions in respect of new services that they take on--for example, education--and of staff recruitment and appointment until after the elections?
Mr. Curry: That is exactly the position. The order confers upon the new authorities--whether they be shadow authorities or the authorities that will discharge both the functions of the old councils and prepare for the new council--powers that will not be endowed until such time as those new councils are in existence. Of course, we want existing councils to do some preparatory work. The whole purpose of doing that now is that the uncertainty is ended as soon as possible. There is a clear legal break and the legal right is conferred by the order that establishes the new councils, which come into existence in May.
Ms Dawn Primarolo (Bristol, South): I do not quite understand the distinction that the Minister is drawing between a preparatory plan and an actual plan and when the authorities can take over. Is he saying that, for example, Bristol should be taking no decisions whatsoever for the continuity of the services until after the election?
Mr. Curry: I am saying that there are two classes of authority. I said earlier that this all sounds very theological, whether the authority is new or continuing. However, it is a material consideration, not a theological one. We are bound by the terms of the statutes to which we have to refer.
If an authority is a continuing authority, which means that it is being reorganised within its boundaries, it has a certain competence to be able to prepare. However, it does not have the legal ability to prepare--that comes with the new powers endowed upon that council after the election in May. The argument is that, because the core of that authority is not going to change, it will be able to do its preparation work more effectively. The gap is a narrow
Column 405one in any case. There is to be an election in May, so reasonable people should be able to sort things out. It is a problem without a reason.
Mr. Roger Berry (Kingswood): Is making appointments part of the preparation or is it not? I understood the Minister to say specifically that it would be wrong for appointments to be made before vesting day; before the new authorities are established. Is that the case? Can we have that reassurance?
With a continuing authority, the council that currently exists will have to undergo a new election in order to exercise its new powers. In the meantime, it is able to do preparation work for that. The old authorities-- that is, those that will be reorganised--will, by dint of that reorganisation, have the powers conferred upon them to begin that work. [Interruption.] I can now give the hon. Member for Bristol, South (Ms Primarolo) a yes or no answer. On whether the authorities can make any appointments before the election of the new authorities, the answer is that they cannot. The answer is no.
Mr. Curry: As the hon. Gentleman said, it is dead simple, but difficult to remember. I am glad that I have managed to cast light upon that difficult area. If any doubt remains, when I reply to the debate I shall do my best to clarify the issue further. It took me quite a long time to understand the matter. Once one has understood it for about three hours, it is difficult to retain the information much longer. I am being very honest.
We come to another theological subject in which the House is interested, but again it is a material theological subject. I have been asked why the authorities are to be unitary district councils, not unitary county councils. I sometimes wonder why people ask such questions. I genuinely do not understand this question. It makes no difference in terms of local services.
The only significance--I hope that this is not regarded as a mischievous statement--is that it has some bearing on to which local authority association the new councils choose to belong. [Interruption.] I thought I might have spotted that one. However, my understanding is that the local authority associations are to form one big happy family soon, so it is a rather short-term preoccupation.
Perhaps that is not to happen quite as soon as some thought it would. In any event, given that Bristol and North West Somerset are continuing and must therefore continue to be districts, it would be inconsistent and confusing to designate the other authorities in the area as counties. Therefore, all the successor authorities are districts.
The order also makes specific provision in respect of a number of services. For the police, articles 12 and 13 provide for the representatives of the four unitary authorities to replace Avon county council's nominees on
Column 406the Avon and Somerset police authority from 1 October 1995 for certain purposes, essentially so that they can be involved in decisions on the budget for 1996-96 and on policing plans. Avon county council's representatives will remain on the authority for all other purposes until that council is abolished.
For the fire service, the order provides for each of the unitary authorities to be fire authority areas. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will, in due course, be bringing forward proposals for a fire combination scheme, so that the fire service will continue to be delivered over the present area.
As unitary authorities, the four Avon districts will be responsible for both strategic and local land use planning for their areas. We are determined that there should be adequate arrangements for strategic planning in areas where reorganisation takes place. In the case of Avon, the commission proposed that the four unitary authorities should maintain separate local plans but work together on a joint structure plan. We have accepted that recommendation. The draft order gives effect to that by transferring the county's strategic planning responsibilities to the four district councils. We look to them to make the necessary voluntary arrangements for joint working on the structure plan. We expect that the authorities in Avon will establish satisfactory arrangements to fulfil that important planning function.
Our policy is that there should be statutory arrangements only where absolutely necessary; we believe that voluntary arrangements are more accountable. In addition, we do not think that we should tie the hands of the authorities which will be elected in May. The local government review and reorganisation in Avon have been the subject of a long and vigorous discussion. This has, of course, resulted in uncertainty for all those involved with local government in the area. This order will end that uncertainty. What is important now is that authorities set aside their past differences and work together to make a success of reorganisation and future local government in the area. I am confident that they will do so, and I commend the order to the House.
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras): As with the Cleveland order, it is probably worth reminding the House--especially those Conservative Members who either do not know or have forgotten--that this order from a Tory Government is intended to abolish the Avon county council, which was set up by a previous Tory Government. Some Conservative Members try to portray the Avon, Cleveland and Humberside councils as a Labour creation. However, they were created by a previous Tory Government, and they are now being dismembered by the party that brought them into being. We might describe what we are discussing tonight as a case of municipal infanticide.
The order is also a product of the Government's local government review. We have said before--we shall say it again, because it is true--that the review was conceived in malice against several Labour county councils. The Government do not like Labour councils, irrespective of whether local people vote for them. Perhaps they dislike Labour councils even more because they know that the councils are popular, and the Government have finally
Column 407decided that, if they cannot win elections to councils, the only answer is to get rid of the councils. They did it with the Greater London council and with the metropolitan counties and they are now setting about wiping out in a malignant way those county councils that they do not like.
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I served on Avon county council; I opposed it when the Conservative Government suggested it; I opposed it when it was controlled by the Conservative party to which I belong and I am delighted to vote for its abolition tonight, irrespective of who controls it.
Originally, the Government said that the review would cover the whole country. As the right hon. Gentleman who is now the President of the Board of Trade said in the House in January 1992:
"We know that most local authorities want unitary status and we believe that such status will provide a better structure for the future in most areas."--[ Official Report , 20 January 1992; Vol. 232, c. 37.]
If the review turns out as it appears it will, 230 or more of the 296 shire districts that existed before will continue to survive as shire districts with a county council above them, so that 80 per cent. of the councils that the Government intended to reform and to turn into unitary authorities will remain as they were. How have the Government selected the ones that are for the chop?
I return to the fact that the decision was obviously politically motivated, and go on from that to say that the conduct of the Local Government Commission for England, which should have been beyond reproach, has not been. It has not behaved in the quasi-judicial manner that one could expect from something called a Local Government Commission.
Conservative Members may not know about it, but Opposition Members are familiar with the letter from the boss of the Local Government commission for England to the Secretary of State, saying how important it was that the Government and the Commission received "an early wind". That is not usually regarded as a quasi-judicial point of view. I should not like to appear in a court where the judge was asking for an early wind for him and for the police.
That approach has been maintained throughout by the Local Government Commission. It has not conducted itself as it should have done. It has not taken a consistent approach in every part of the country. Its consultations have varied from place to place. As a result, there have been years of wrangling and vast expense. A great deal of money has been spent on court cases, and there has been a massive diversion of effort by local councillors, who would have done better, and no doubt would have preferred, to spend their time trying to ensure reasonable services.
At the end of that process, there are grotesque inconsistencies in the recommendations, ranging from Rutland, which will be a unitary all-purpose authority with 33,000 people, to Warrington and Northampton, with
Column 408180,000 people, which will not be given unitary status. Those are the recommendations of the Local Government Commission, before the Secretary of State brings his bizarre judgment to bear on those matters.
At least some progress has been made, in that the Government have conceded that they will bring all the final recommendations of the Commission to the House--a commitment that they previously refused to make.
That brings me to the Avon (Structural Change) Order. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Mr. Berry) and other hon. Friends may wish to speak about its detail, and they will no doubt do so in some depth and possibly at some length--not more than 10 minutes, of course--but we do not believe that the order creating four districts provides a good basis for future high-quality local government in the Avon area.
I am confident that councillors--not only Labour ones, but councillors of all parties--who are elected to the new authorities will do their best to make those arrangements work, but that will be difficult. For a start, it is significant that about 1,000 jobs are put at risk by the reorganisation. As we know from orders that the Government have passed through the House, the compensation terms for staff who may have to lose their jobs are less generous than those that prevailed in 1986 and certainly rather less generous than the severance arrangements that the boss of the Severn Trent water authority arranged for himself, getting about half a million quid for disappearing. That sort of money will not be available to the many staff who have put in a vast amount of dedicated effort on behalf of the people of Avon.
I expect that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood will explain his anxiety about the future of services in the Avon area. Doubts about the cost effects have been expressed by the various contending parties. I join with the Minister in having some doubts about various parts of the order. I also have doubts about anyone's predictions about savings or additional expenditure that will result from the reorganisation of local government, because I cannot think of any set of predictions that has ever been made in the House that turned out to be right.
My main worry is about the boundaries of Bristol. I am convinced that the boundaries of Bristol, as set out in the order, will leave Bristol too narrowly drawn. There are excellent Labour councillors in the city of Bristol.
Ms Primarolo: Even the Government agree that the boundaries drawn for Bristol are not sensible, because they have given an undertaking that they will review those boundaries in a few years' time. The good citizens of Bristol might find themselves having to waste their council tax yet again on bureaucratic change and butchering of their services when it should be spent on building up local democracy.