HL Deb 10 May 2000 vol 612 cc1563-6

2.48 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have altered the policy outlined in their manifesto on the establishment of regional assemblies in England.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, we remain committed to moving to directly elected regional government in England where there is a demand for it. First, however, the English regions themselves, including the voluntary regional chambers, regional development agencies and others, will need to develop—and, indeed, are developing—their own views and thereby contribute to moving forward.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, can he tell the House how many specific requests for regional assemblies the Government have received from English regions and what, in that case, has been their response? Is there to be a referendum in each such region?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that I can reply to the noble Lord in the terms that he asks the question. The position is that a significant number of people in local government and business in many regions of England have indicated support. The northeast probably has the most advanced and widespread support for an English region. It is clear that different regions wish to move at different paces. Where a firm consensus exists among politicians and business leaders, we would move to a referendum. However, that is not imminent in any English region.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, bearing in mind the unfortunately low poll in recent local elections, what does the Minister mean by the sufficiency of demand in a region? Does he mean a majority of all the electors in an area or a majority of those who happen to vote on a particular occasion?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, whether we like it or not, the tradition in this country is to take the balance of those who vote. Clearly, in setting up a new constitutional structure it would be desirable to ensure a higher turnout. However, were we to conduct a referendum in any English region, the result would be based on the majority of those who vote.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, in any election where fewer than 35 per cent of the electorate voted, would it not be a good idea if that tier of government were abolished until the next election? Would that not save unnecessary tiers of government, save a lot of public money, be completely democratic, solve the Government's problems in London and enable us to get rid of both the Mayor of London and the European Parliament?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is a novel notion which appears to have a superficial attraction to certain noble Lords. However, I believe that from time to time it would lead to the abolition of a number of parliamentary constituencies which were subject to by-elections and also to the abolition of a significant number of older councils. Surely, our objective must be not to abolish local government and local accountability but to try to ensure that a larger proportion of the electorate takes an interest in those matters. That involves bringing in decision-making at the appropriate level. We believe that in England too many decisions, which would more sensibly be taken at a regional level, are still taken centrally.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister refer to the north-east a moment ago. I wonder whether he will reaffirm that he is aware that we are at a fairly advanced stage, with the northeast convention, in drawing up detailed regional assembly plans? At what point does he advise that we approach the Government with the proposals?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am indeed aware of the interest and pressure for a regional assembly in the north-east. We would expect to receive an approach from the north-east local authorities and others collectively when the details of the convention have been finalised. However, I believe that it would be right to say that it is unlikely that a move in that direction will occur within the lifetime of this Parliament.

The Earl of Carnarvon

My Lords, is the Minister aware of any enthusiasm for regional government in the south-east of England?

Lord Whiny

My Lords, as elsewhere, there is enthusiasm in the south-east of England for more decisions to be taken at regional level. Therefore, the development of regional planning bodies, regional transport planning and regional development agencies in the south-east are fairly well supported, both in the local authority and the business sectors. The noble Earl is correct to say that the overt demand for a regional assembly is significantly less in the south-east than it is in many regions of England, particularly the north-east and the north-west.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that the dividing up of England into regions, the "Balkanisation" of England, plays into the hands of those who hanker after a federal Europe of the regions, which would mean the end of the United Kingdom?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, until this moment, I had not realised that that was the motivation. Some of your Lordships have a degree of paranoia about the European Union which seems to be reflected in a number of questions. This is about better democracy within this country and taking decisions at the appropriate level. Regional assemblies would be responsible for strategic planning decisions which are not sensibly taken in Whitehall or at individual local authority level. It is important that we bring local authorities together. It is important also, however, that we allow that development to grow organically rather than impose a solution and a time-scale from here. That is the exact opposite to the top-down approach which the noble Lord implied.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that it is high time that, for example, regional health authorities, regional institutions of higher education, new authorities dealing with skills and learning and many other quangos were brought under effective regional democratic accountability?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in principle, there is an argument for that, but I should move cautiously. For example, there is a degree of democratic accountability in relation to health authorities. If we establish regional assemblies, the pattern of their responsibilities may need to be relatively small to start with and, indeed, the pattern may vary from region to region. Certainly, the strategic planning aspects of their responsibilities would be the most important. It may well be that some of the other areas to which the noble Lord refers would he brought in at a later stage.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, if the Minister accuses my noble friend Lord Waddington of paranoia towards the intention of the European Union in this regard, would he at least admit that the boundaries of these regional assemblies have been agreed in Brussels? Will he say whether it is the Government's intention that these assemblies should be eventually financed by local taxpayers, by Westminster or by the European Union?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, they would be a strand of local government and their financing would reflect the funding of local government. Clearly, the exact form of financing would be a matter for decision at the time. They would certainly not be an extension of any European structure. I believe that the noble Lord is referring to the fact that the Commission has accepted the UK Government's proposals on what the statistical regions within Europe should be for Government Office purposes. That is nothing to do with how we devolve power within the United Kingdom. It is and will continue to be entirely a matter for the United Kingdom and the people of the United Kingdom.