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Local Government (Devon, Norfolk and Suffolk) Debate

9th March 2010

Keith Simpson raises his objections to the lack of local consultation about the unitary authority proposals.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I want to speak on behalf of my constituents in my constituency, which wraps around the northern outskirts of Norwich. I have spoken on this issue in three separate debates in Westminster Hall and I am obliged to make a few points on it now.

I must say to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) that this is not just about cost and money. It is about democratic deficit, as my constituents were never asked their views. The Bill by which the unitary authority is being established specifically excludes constituents. Stakeholders, business groups and all kinds of quangos-but not our constituents-may be consulted. The only test that we have ever had, although I accept that it was not objective, showed that, if anything, the overwhelming majority of people in Norwich and the rest of Norfolk preferred the status quo.

Julia Goldsworthy: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that parish councils, which are an important part of local democracy as they are the closest to the communities that they serve, have been specifically and explicitly excluded from the process?

Mr. Simpson: The hon. Lady is absolutely correct.

If the change goes ahead, certainly in Norwich-I shall not comment on Exeter-it will have an impact on my constituents and, I suspect, on constituents in other parts of Norfolk. First, there will be disruption and many services will be duplicated. Also, the financial criteria do not seem to add up. The fact that the House of Lords Merits Committee attempted to get further details and that the Department was unable to provide them stacks that up. The process has been a disgrace from the very beginning, and Ministers have finally produced the orders in desperation, but it is wrong to go ahead with them just before a general election. The Government have no manifesto claim on this issue at all. I suspect that the majority of people in Norfolk will judge the change on whether it delivers better quality services and whether their council tax goes up.

In an intervention on the Minister, which she kindly took, I said that the argument for a unitary Norwich would be strengthened if it were a five-star council-if it were Norfolk county council-but, sadly for the people of Norwich, it is not. It has always struggled. It has had poor leadership, it has not been able to manage its accounts and it has had all kinds of major problems. I honestly cannot see that a Norfolk unitary authority will be the engine to drive forward any form of future economic expansion for Norfolk. If anything, in fact, past criteria show that it will be a sheet anchor and that it will have an immediate impact on my constituents.

I shall make one final point, as I know that other hon. Members wish to speak. The Minister and her colleagues have made great play of the fact that the permanent secretary is there only as an adviser but, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said, he is actually the accounting officer. There is ministerial responsibility to consider. The whole issue should be referred to the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and Ministers should be held responsible-both personally and financially-for these decisions. What has happened has been shown, by both the permanent secretary and the Merits Committee, to have got close to breaking the law. I hope that Ministers will be held personally responsible. I also hope, in the event of a change of Government, that future Ministers will look into this matter and make certain that those people are held responsible.

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