VETERAN Crewe and Nantwich MP Gwyneth Dunwoody launched a blistering attack on Secretary of State for Local Government Hazel Blears in the House of Commons chamber shortly before the controversial decision to split Cheshire into two separate ‘super councils’ was announced.
Mrs Dunwoody, longest serving woman member of Parliament and ‘Mother of the House,’ who favoured the option of a single unitary council for the whole county, strongly condemned the controversial county split.
Here is the full text of what she said in a Christmas adjournment debate in the Commons:
"The business of government in a democratic country is a delicate balance between the needs of the population and the desires and political objectives of the Government.
"Although we have a system that enables us to vote for our Governments on a four or sometimes five-yearly basis, in the interim it is essential that whoever the Government are they do not misunderstand the implications of the changes they make.
"In the administration of our country, local government has an important part to play. Indeed, one might say that the present Government have channelled large sums of money into local government and given it extra powers precisely because they expect there to be a partnership between the needs of the population at local level and the Government centrally. There are frequently objections from people who believe that all decisions should be taken centrally and imposed on those who for one reason or another have different views. That has never been my view and it never will be.
"I believe that today the secretary of state for communities and local government - to whom I have given notice that I intend to mention her - intends to announce the reorganisation of Cheshire. She has never at any point deigned to explain the reasons for those major changes. Indeed, just before the summer recess, when an announcement was made that it was the intention to divide Cheshire into two, irrespective of the needs or wishes of the population, a letter was issued from the Department saying that the decision would none the less be subject to close examination of a number of factors, of which the economic ones were enormously important.
"Rather foolishly, I thought that comment was serious and in the intervening time, with the assistance of people in education, the health service and general services, I have endeavoured to persuade Her Majesty’s Government - pointlessly, as it now appears - of the inequity and imbalance of the scheme they were proposing.
"My reasons were simple. The decision is not political. As anyone who bothers to make even the most elementary calculation will discover, the Labour party has little to gain from what is being proposed. The fact that my constituency will become part of a council dominated by a 56% Conservative vote is obviously of no concern to some people, but it is important to understand that the other part of Cheshire will be no safer.
"Those who pretend that the decision is political should examine the facts and figures. The decision is certainly not economic. Cheshire is a mixed, interesting and dynamic county, which is changing every day. It has close relationships with Manchester in one direction, Liverpool in another and with North Wales and the Potteries at various points. It is notable not only that the county has responded at all levels to the need for imaginative change, but that it is clearly capable of carrying forward at county level a unitary government that would be economically viable and would respond to the dynamic that the Labour Government have been proposing.
The secretary of state has taken the decision not on political grounds - certainly not on party political grounds - and not on economic grounds, because all that information was supplied to her and to Treasury Ministers in considerable detail from the beginning of the discussion in July. It was pointed out to her that the two new authorities would rapidly run out of reserves - indeed, that they would do so within the first year of their creation. It was pointed out to her in great detail - the figures have been emphasised time and time again by independent audit - that the effect on the population of Cheshire, and particularly on my constituency, would be directly felt in the development of its schools, hospitals and general services, be they waste, roads or any of the other services that local government controls.
"Therefore, there has to be a particular reason for today’s statement. Of course, that statement is in the form of a written answer, because it would be unfortunate to have to come here and answer questions from the Members concerned. Presumably it is because the secretary of state is alleged to have said - although I am sure it cannot be true -that Cheshire is too big. May I point out that of the five unitary counties that have been given permission to go ahead by the secretary of state, Cheshire is the smallest area? But, of course, throughout the debate facts have not really carried any great emphasis.
"Why are we continuing to press ahead with a change that will not just destroy the old county boroughs and the cohesion of our education services, but will make the situation impossible, for example, for large assets that are jointly owned, such as Tatton Hall, which will need vireing from one authority to another before it can remain in the control of the population of Cheshire? But none of those things is of concern. We must move on; progress is all.
"We should give full credit to the secretary of state. She alone appears to have taken the decision. Treasury ministers know very well that the facts and figures with which they were presented were absolutely watertight and that discussions have been held both at county level and at local government level in Chester and elsewhere with a number of auditors who have made it plain that they have accepted the case for one unitary county because those figures are viable and the alternative is not. It is known that the taxpayers in my area will not only have to pay many thousands of pounds, but will face the loss of many of the advantages that they have at present.
"I have been in the House long enough to see the coming and going of many inadequate personalities. I have seen those on both sides of the House who have been promoted for various reasons. I have seen the crawlers. I have seen those who have used sex - there are so many it would take too long to name them. I have seen those whose sexual preferences were of interest to others. I have seen those who demonstrated a great commitment to their own interests, irrespective of the political parties that they were supposed to represent.
"But I have rarely seen a decision such as this, taken with such cynicism and with so little respect for the interests of the average voter. When the secretary of state was seeking office as the deputy leader of the Labour party, she said that people frequently become disaffected with their own Government because they feel that no one is listening to them. Wherever could they have got that idea from? She also made it clear - she told us constantly - that she would listen.
"Let me make it very plain: this decision will affect everything in my constituency - every practical purpose that I am pursuing at the moment. Three new health centres, a new school, which is desperately needed in one of the most deprived areas, and a new railway station: all those things will be scuppered by this decision, which will make my local government fundamentally uncertain not only in economic terms, but in its political control.
"If I may say so, the decision has been taken with a degree of cynicism that I have not seen for some time. I do not believe that it is in the interests of the Labour party, but then it has never been pretended that the decision is in the interests of the Labour party or of individual voters. It is not in the interests of those who work in the health service, the education service, or social services, or of those who want decent, high-quality local government services. I believe that it is a decision that has been taken for the most venal and personal reasons, and I find it wholly and deeply objectionable."