HL Deb 21 March 2001 vol 623 cc1427-67

3.6 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

rose to call attention to the case for devolution to the English regions; and to move for Papers.

The right reverend Prelate said: My Lords, I must first declare an interest in devolution as I chair the North East Constitutional Convention. My intention in seeking this debate is not, however, to make a special case for one particular region but to give your Lordships the opportunity of expressing your views on political devolution in England and to seek a response from the Government about their future intentions in the programme of constitutional reform on which they are embarked.

The present Government have indeed been bold against the background of public disillusionment in the political processes. Low percentages of turn-out in elections indicate that voters have lost confidence in what they perceive to be an over-centralised and unresponsive political system. Within a year of the last general election the Prime Minister renewed his commitment to democratic renewal by emphasising the need for better education and the wider use of information technology so that citizens might be encouraged to participate in what he called, open, vibrant, democratic debate which is a laboratory for ideas about how we should meet social need". I have become involved in this issue because I believe that it is only when people genuinely participate in the political process that real change in society will occur. We need to move from a dependency culture into one which enables all to influence the decisions which affect their lives and to take responsibility for them.

The past four years have seen significant steps towards fundamental changes in the way the constitution operates. The devolution in Scotland, Wales and London, the impact of the Human Rights Act, and the first stage of reform of your Lordships' House have, in the words of Professor David Marquand, heralded a reconstruction of the British State more fundamental than anything which had happened to it since the Act of Union of 1707". Perhaps it is too much to expect more from one term of government but the programme of constitutional reform seems to have got stuck. Disillusionment is again beginning to show itself. Just four months ago one poll indicated that only 1 per cent of the populace thought the present system of government worked extremely well while 64 per cent thought that it could be improved. What, I wonder, will be the turn-out in the forthcoming local elections and a possible general election? Large numbers of absentees will indicate a serious state of affairs in our democracy. There is a strong argument that the devolution programme that has begun in Britain should continue to provide the stimulus for democratic participation and a recovery of confidence in the political process.

It is argued that devolution in England is inevitable after the start made in four parts of the union. Devolution to one part of the nation must affect all others. I am sure that your Lordships do not require me to spell that out. A situation could occur in which a government were dependent on the votes of Scottish MPs, for example, to press forward with their legislation, yet, because of devolution already enacted, the English could not equally influence similar policies in Scotland.

For some, the answer is an English parliament, but surely that has serious weaknesses, for it would effect the break-up of the United Kingdom into a number of federal states with England as the dominant partner and the reason for Scottish devolution would be undermined. Moreover, an English parliament would not address the over-centralisation of government and the disenchantment that many regions feel with the metropolitan outlook.

The recognition that the English regions need regionally rooted government to devise and deliver policy effectively began some time before devolution to Scotland and Wales. The previous government set up regional offices and a variety of quangos, but those structures did not address the overall need for cohesion in regional policies. There is already a tier of government at regional level with all its attendant bureaucracy, but it is still dominated by Whitehall departments. Regional assemblies with democratic accountability would create no extra bureaucracy and would provide a regional overview that the present fragmented organisation cannot handle.

While I applaud the work of the regional development agencies, not least in the North East, they work under considerable frustration because of fragmented funding streams from the Government and the fact that they have been tied to national programmes. All that has hampered the development of regional strategies. The Government have responded to those criticisms to some extent, but there are still many areas where overlap and confusion are the order of the day. The regional economic strategies are poorly integrated with the regional planning guidance. Furthermore, regional cultural strategies, the regional transport strategy and the sustainability frameworks all ought to be addressed in an integrated and joined-up manner. In other words, while regional government offices and RDAs have been a genuine step towards a regional approach, they do not provide the overall cohesion that is needed. Nor do they fill the democratic deficit and give the people of the region the responsibility for devising and fulfilling the overall strategy that affects them. The present arrangements also make sustainable development in the regions very difficult. In order to look long term at the future of a region it is necessary to bring together environmental, economic, social and cultural concerns.

That leads to immense frustration among local authorities. Even if democratic regional assemblies are introduced, local authorities will continue their important role in service delivery, but they need to work in partnership with each other rather than in competition, as often happens at the moment. The cooperation mechanisms between local authorities are wasteful of time and money and they are still unable to achieve the cohesive strategy that is desperately needed. They are a poor alternative to democratically elected regional government.

I am advocating a number of democratically elected regional assemblies in England, which would evolve according to government guidelines but not necessarily in precisely the same pattern or at the same time in every region. Their powers would focus on cohesive strategic planning, enabling them to be streamlined and non-bureaucratic. They would be largely serviced by the current provision made for Government Offices and non-departmental government bodies. They would not create another tier of bureaucracy, but would eliminate a good deal of the present confusion. They would provide a framework in which RDAs, learning and skills councils, regional planning guidance, Government Offices, the Countryside Agency, the Housing Corporation, regional sports and cultural bodies, tourist boards, environmental agencies and offices of the NHS Executive could work together in a complementary way to provide a long-term sustainable strategy that matched the particular needs of the region.

I do not pretend that this is an easy task. There are many factors that I do not have the time—and certainly not the knowledge—to address today. However, I believe that the question has become urgent. I am glad to hear that the Government are working on a Green Paper setting out plans for elected regional government. It is vital that they do not write it from an ivory tower. When a realistic document is published, there must be informed consultation on its contents, so that when the time comes for regional referendums on the subject people are well informed about the issues at stake. Those of us who are rooted in the regions can enable that process to take place. I very much hope that the Government will take the opportunity provided by this debate to begin that initiative and provide some hard promises about their policies for the regions.

I hope the Government agree that the existing tier of regional operation is fragmented and poorly coordinated, that too much public policy does not match local conditions, that there is insufficient democratic scrutiny and that English politics needs to recognise and accommodate the rich diversity and pluralism that our nation rejoices in.

I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I conclude on a more personal note. I am often asked why a Church leader has become so involved in an intensely political issue. In the first place, I believe that the issue of regional government should be above party political divides. I am not ashamed if that sounds a little naive to many of your Lordships who have given distinguished service to the nation through party politics. I am deeply concerned that the vast majority of the population feel marginalised from the political processes that affect their lives. I long to see the people of the North East, which is the region that I know best, take a full part in the decisions that will shape their destiny. For generations they have been oppressed and have often lived desperate lives, dependent on others who seem have all the power. They have been subject to a dehumanising system that has left them feeling marooned and helpless. Closer association with the comprehensive strategies that will shape their region will free them to be even more responsible citizens and significantly help them to contribute to the common good. In this context, I am grateful that provision has been made for this debate and I look forward to listening to your Lordships' contributions and to the response of the Government. I beg to move for Papers.

3.19 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I believe that we should all be grateful to the right reverend Prelate for having initiated this debate. However, I regret that I can find so little common ground with him. We are debating this matter at a time when the public are being rudely reminded that, as a result of the machinations of the Chancellor and the profligacy of local authorities, their local tax bills are increasing well beyond the rate of inflation. The one thing of which I am absolutely sure is that people in England, who are already suffering from a surfeit of politicians and bureaucrats, do not want yet another tier of local government. But that almost certainly is what we shall get.

There was a time when Labour said that elected regional authorities would come about only after the abolition of the county councils and the creation of unitary authorities. However, I remind the House that on 16th January this year Mr Prescott said: We remain committed to moving to directly elected regional government. In the meantime, there are no plans to reform the structure of local government".—[Official Report, Commons, 16/1/01: col. 184.] On 17th January, his Under-Secretary of State was even more definite, saying that the creation of regional assemblies need not be preceded by another round of local government reform. So let the public beware. Elected regional bodies will mean another layer of local government and even higher local tax bills. Of that there can be no doubt whatever.

On 26th May last year, a No. 10 spokesman was reported in the Guardian as saying: We need this"— that is, regional government— like a hole in the head". I agree entirely with what then appears to have been the Prime Minister's opinion.

For a start, the regions which were invented for the purposes of the Regional Development Agencies Act were, with the possible exception of the north-east region, exactly that—inventions. They were artificial creations, with one part often sharing no common problems with another and rarely reflecting any community of interest or regional loyalty. There is certainly no community of interest between the people of Nelson in north-east Lancashire, which I once represented, and the citizens of Birkenhead, let alone between those who live in Merseyside and the farmers on the banks of the Solway. And there is no conceivable community of interest between the people of Cornwall and the people of Bath.

Therefore, when power is devolved not to existing local authorities but to regional bodies, for the most part it will not mean giving power to local people; it will mean taking power from them. It will not mean government which is closer to the people but, in most of the country and certainly throughout most of Lancashire, which I know quite well, it will mean precisely the reverse.

We must be clear about another matter. If regional government comes about, it will not, as some with amazing self-deception have suggested, be a sort of English answer to Scottish devolution. The West Lothian question will not be solved by regional government. Regional government is no response to the under-representation of England in the Parliament at Westminster. Regional government alone will certainly not stop England receiving, under the Barnett formula, a far smaller share of public spending than Scotland. I assert again with absolute confidence that the best way to help the burghers of Gateshead and Bootle is not to give them more councillors but to give them more money.

No. 10 was right: we need more government like a hole in the head. The last thing that we want is more bodies trying to justify their own inflated allowances. And mark my words: elected regional assemblies will start as costly talking shops, monitoring the work of the RDAs and pontificating about planning and transport. However, in no time at all, they will demand, as indeed some chambers have done already, a wider role involving the whole economic, social and environmental well-being of the region. In short, they will be costly millstones round the necks of the people.

Lastly, I want to say a word about the important European dimension. Hearing Mr Blair rubbish our history and Mr Straw ridicule our patriotism, and seeing Mr Blair quite happily surrender more and more of Westminster's authority to Brussels, I sometimes wonder whether he would mind very much if we simply ended up as a series of provinces in a "Europe of the regions". Of course, elected regional bodies, with a corresponding decline in the importance of Westminster, will be a big step in that direction.

There is no mystery as to how we would fit into a Europe of the regions. The European Commission published a map to illustrate its thinking—a map on which every country in the European Union was depicted except England. It was not a printer's error; it was a reflection of the fact that, looked at from Brussels, Scotland is one region which can be called Scotland and Wales is another region which can be called Wales, but there is not much point in attributing a group name to a part of the United Kingdom which is made up not of one region but nine.

If we allow it to happen, regional government will bring about what can best be described as the balkanisation of England and the side-lining of our Parliament at Westminster as the regional bodies, already busy setting up separate offices in Brussels, look more and more to Brussels for direction and funding. I cannot believe that nine English regions, each competing against the others for the biggest share of grant money, will do much for harmony in our country. It certainly will not help to maintain our national identity, and that, I believe, is something which is worth preserving.

3.26 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I very much welcome the debate but, even more, I welcome the role that the right reverend Prelate plays in his own region. He has a leading role in the North East, where I believe the cross-party, cross-sector support for regional development is most important. Regional government will be most successful in areas where there is a will for it. We need to follow that will.

In response to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I believe that we should raise our eyes to the aspiration; that we should will what we believe is good. We should not be held back by criticism of mere administration and extra bureaucracy.

I do not make light of the apparent dislike of the electorate for elections, nor of the low turnouts that we experienced in the London referendum. I declare an interest as a member of the London Assembly, although my Mancunian roots are by no means cut off. However, in London, one of our prime objectives—and certainly one of mine; it was central to my decision to stand—was the engagement of the public in the political process. That applies to all regions. I believe that regional government could offer that type of engagement, and it is very much in tune with the comments made by the right reverend Prelate.

We have talked about Scotland and Wales. I do not overlook the fact that they are nations and have a very particular identity. However, I am also aware of the jealousy—I believe that that is probably the correct term—of those who border those nations. We know of the concerns that exist in the North East. I experienced similar concerns when I went to Oswestry a little while ago. I asked one of my colleagues here what I should know about Oswestry. He said, "You should know that they are concerned about the additional funding to the Welsh Development Agency just a few miles away across the Border". That is unhealthy. However, I believe that it can be turned round if we have a regional pattern of government.

Of course, I am aware of the DETR's recent consultation paper, Strengthening Regional Accountability. I hope that this afternoon the Minister will take the opportunity to confirm to the House that the Government are looking to do more than simply strengthen the scrutiny role of the regional chambers.

People have said to me, "We want regional government like London". They should not want regional government quite like London. I do not commend the model of a single-person executive, but I do commend the sphere of government which deals with strategic matters and which can consider issues on a cohesive, integrated basis.

Good government is about accountability and accessibility. Up and down the country are quangos and government offices which I believe should be replaced by regional government. In place of an inaccessible series of organisations should be those which can be properly in the public eye.

I also believe—and this is an issue that we have previously encountered in London—that regional government should have the right directly to question government Ministers. I know that that is a sensitive issue. However, I believe that, if we are truly to appreciate regional issues, the relationship between central government and regional government could well be reflected by that direct and public debate. I must make it clear that we on these Benches do not regard that as taking power from local government, which we support and will continue to support, but of bringing it down from central government and its army of quangos.

I wish that I had more time than the few minutes available today to outline a number of topical examples that have occurred to me where regional government would have a role to play. I shall mention a few. First, arts funding; we have recently heard of Arts Council proposals for centralisation. Secondly, I cannot believe that regional government would not have a role to play in the present foot and mouth disease crisis. Thirdly, it would have a role to play in the scrutiny of health services, which your Lordships debated yesterday in the context of the Health and Social Care Bill. Fourthly, there is the longer running issue of house building and planning. The UK planning framework is probably one of the most centralised in Europe. We have heard—and I support this—that Europe is a Europe of the regions, and I hope that we in this country can play our regional part.

I believe that those of us who are passionate about good government, good governance and public service must support both the concept of regionalism and the accountability of government and the involvement of our communities and individuals.

3.31 p.m.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, my noble colleague from the North West, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, used to represent Nelson and I used to represent Birkenhead and the Wirral. The noble Lord said that there was no connection whatsoever, but perhaps he would like to know that Lady Hamilton was born on the Wirral! On a more serious note, I can tell him that it would have been very useful to have discussed at the time of the local government review the promotion of unitary authorities against a background of developing local government as well.

I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for introducing this debate on the case for the English regions. It is a subject in which we have taken a renewed interest in the wake of the success of the Scottish, Wales and Northern Ireland executives. In the regions that are furthest from London, such as our North West, the North East of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, or the South West, many of us feel like piggy-in-the-middle between London and the peripheral nations of the United Kingdom; and we often feel left out. Recent expenditure on museums in the English regions compared with those in London is a good example. If we compare the spending of the tourist boards of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland with that of England, we find that we are in a severe minority.

Nevertheless, the Government acknowledge that some problems and opportunities are regional, not national, to which end they have set up RDAs and regional chambers. I would like us to go forward and develop regional government. My experience on the North West Tourist Board and North West Arts— sufficiently large entities to contrast and promote best practice when delivering services to people—convinces me that we can develop a sense of region.

I want to concentrate today on my experience of Europe and the developing relationship of the English regions with the European Union. My experience as an MEP led me to think that we were unclear in talking to Brussels, compared to other European Union states, notably the German Länder and the Spanish authorities. When I was an MEP trying to represent Cheshire and Wirral, I well remember taking local authorities to see Bruce Millan, the then regional Commissioner, whose jaw would drop when he saw yet another of the 28 North West local authorities coming to see him. On the other hand, when he was speaking to the Germans or the Spaniards, he was able to get a clear message through about what the regional authorities required in terms of help and advice from the European Commission.

That impressed itself on me most clearly when I visited Barcelona and saw the investment that had been made and the work that had been done to improve the port facilities there. The people of Barcelona said, "We are developing very quickly. We are going to draw off some of the traffic from your region of Liverpool, Birkenhead and Merseyside because we are able to develop". But the key to their success was their ability to work with the regional authorities in Catalan, who in turn worked well with Madrid, who in turn worked well with Brussels. We have not developed that pattern in a way that would be most effective for us in the future, and I believe that the development of the English regional government will help to promote that in the future.

I have very little time and shall conclude by saying that this debate provides an opportunity for the new government, when elected, to give a voice to English regions, which will be effective not only in counselling our own government here in London but in talking to and working with Brussels.

3.36 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for enabling us today to examine what has happened to the notion of regionally elected assemblies, trailed in the Government's manifesto.

I say at the outset that I do not believe that regional bodies are intrinsically bad. During four years as a member of the Committee of the Regions of the European Union, I saw enough to appreciate that they can make very major contributions to their own areas. With great respect to my noble friend Lord Waddington, I do not believe that there is a diabolical plot on the part of Brussels to wipe out the United Kingdom by introducing regional government.

The truth of the matter is that the regions of the European Union vary enormously in their make-up. Some have legislative powers; some have taxing powers; they are of different sizes; they perform different functions. But they operate on the basis of what suits their particular communities and states. Spain has its autonomous regions, which have moved at a different pace. On the other hand, Scandinavia has structures that are much closer to ours.

It seems to me that we always face a difficulty in debating this matter. That is because we are never quite sure what we are seeking. Are we looking for some kind of local government body covering something that is described as a region, or are we looking for something with some kind of legislative function more akin to that which has been introduced in Scotland and Wales? I have no doubt that the latter is not realistic or desirable for the English regions, which we are considering today. I say nothing about Scotland or Wales, where different considerations apply.

I remind your Lordships that the Government's manifesto referred to a situation in which regional assemblies would exist in an area with a unitary system of local government. That would inevitably lead to larger unitary authorities—in this regard I agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington—taking local government further away from the people.

One of the most obvious distinctions between Scotland and Wales and the regions of England is that there is no doubt about what comprises Scotland and what comprises Wales. I hope that I shall not be corrected about that, now that the question of Monmouthshire has been settled. But in England there are major difficulties in deciding which county goes into which region. Cornwall probably believes that it is a distinct region from the rest of the South West and should be considered in its own right. More controversially, is London a region on its own, or is it part of the South East?

There was great unhappiness at the time of the Regional Development Agencies Bill, when the Government insisted on working on the boundaries that had been set up to suit the administrative convenience of central government, rather than taking into account local views. The Government knew that that was the case because they resisted all attempts to write into the Bill a provision to review those boundaries.

We do not see any evidence of the demand for a further tier of government. Certainly, the new system of government in London did not bring people out in their droves. During the passage of that Bill, we asked time and time again whether the Government were trying to set up a regional authority or whether it was another tier of local government. We never got a straight answer. When local government structures are an addition, they tend to add cost, not value. I remember the very modest sums that the Greater London Authority was to cost council tax payers in London. That has now all been forgotten in the light of council tax increases which have caused consternation to political leaders of all political persuasions in boroughs across London.

The Greater London Authority has decided what it is for itself. I see in its advertisement for a head of media relations that: The GLA is unique. We're England's first regional government", and, as such, it will have a head of media relations at £62,000 per annum, who will look after the mayor, and a deputy head of media relations at £45,000 a year to raise the profile of the assembly's individual members. All that money is spent despite the fact that outside the high profile areas of the capital, litter still abounds and so does the graffiti.

We are always in some difficulty in knowing whether we really support the devolution of functions, never mind power. Subsidiarity is a great battle cry between governments of the member states but it is never applied between national and local governments. Our legislation is full of guidelines and statutory guidance to control the local functions.

I recognise that local authorities need to think and act over areas wider than their own jurisdiction. But rather than constant reorganisation and adding tiers, we need to look at the mechanisms of co-operation which exist in other countries. As I have urged your Lordships' House on other occasions, if it would not be too bitter a pill for us to swallow, could we please examine the French structures of urban communities and districts which allow individual communes to own the structure and work together without creating a tier, and an additional tier, of cost?

3.42 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, we have a hopelessly lopsided constitution. We now have devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, as we have heard, we have a curious half-way house in London.

As for the rest of England, the country is politically highly centralised. Local government has had its powers and responsibilities reduced in recent decades. The regions have become an increasingly significant layer of government decision-making, something of which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, seems completely unaware. The Government Offices for the Regions are responsible for billions of pounds of expenditure. But the problem is that nobody in the regions, other than the civil servants who work in those offices, is responsible for those decisions. They are completely unaccountable.

During the course of this Parliament, we have had the creation of the regional development agencies. The one that I know best, Yorkshire Forward, has made considerable progress. It is doing a good job in bringing focus to economic development issues. It is bringing new energy to those areas of policy-making; and it is helping to strengthen the identity of the region, which is of considerable importance, not least when bidding for funding externally or for external investment. But the powers of the RDAs are limited and they certainly provide very little in terms of additional accountability.

While all that has been happening, there has been a great bubbling up of interest in and activity on the question of regional government in the regions themselves. The Campaign for the English Regions now has representatives from most of the regions, and the Campaign for the North-Eastern Assembly and the North East Constitutional Convention, in which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has played such a major part, have developed a very substantial and workable scheme for devolution to the North East.

Equally, in Yorkshire and the Humber, a constitutional convention has been formed. It is quite interesting that at the first meeting of that body, one of the most telling speeches was made by a civil servant frustrated that in the health service, although the targets that he was given seemed relevant, when it came to the ethnic minority communities in Bradford in which he was working, the targets were a complete nonsense, and he had no flexibility to amend them.

I believe very strongly that the discussion which took place in Scotland and which led to the Scottish Parliament now needs to take place across the whole of England. It has begun in some regions and I hope that the publication of a Green Paper will help to take that forward.

From these Benches, and certainly from my own point of view, I have a relatively clear view of the model that I would seek. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I am not looking for something that will be described as a new tier of local government. I am looking for something which is clearly fully-fledged regional government which is more akin to the Welsh Assembly than a glorified county council.

Unless regional government has significant powers covering the big issues—health and education—and tax-raising powers, it will not be able to fulfil its potential and will run the risk of being little more than a regional talking shop.

We believe—I revert to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—that the Barnett formula should be amended and should be a formula for funding at regional level based fairly on need. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition for this process.

We believe also that the process should be permissive. Some parts of the country at present are not convinced that regional government is for them. Others are very keen on it. The model that was adopted in Spain allowed those regions that wanted it to press ahead and achieve full-scale regional government. The others could then see what they thought and be allowed to come along as they thought fit. In my view, that is the best model. My guess is that when those regions which have a less clear identity at the moment saw regional government working successfully in the North East, the North West, Yorkshire, the Humber and the Midlands, they too would go for it.

Regional government offers the prospect of more coherent public policy-making at regional level, more efficient use of public money and greater public participation in the way that that money is spent. For those reasons, I believe that a Bill to allow elected regional government to be introduced where there is popular support for it should be a high priority for the next Parliament.

3.47 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, I add my gratitude to my noble friend the Bishop of Durham for securing this debate. In areas of West and South Yorkshire covered by the diocese of Wakefield, I have not detected a huge groundswell of public opinion urgently seeking political devolution. But as a Bishop in Yorkshire, I am left in no doubt about the strength of Yorkshire pride, even though, as a Lancastrian myself, I think it is sometimes overstated.

Yet it is that very strength of common identity which, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, has shown, makes our Yorkshire and Humberside region a good example of how devolution can build on natural foundations, and not many other regions have such a genuine sense of shared identity. Some will want regional government and, as the noble Lord, Lo rd Waddington, made clear, others will not. I do not think that matters. My noble friend the Bishop of Durham and the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, have indicated already that variation is healthy and it may well be the right way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, rightly pointed to the seeming nonsense of the make-up of some of the English regions. But he failed to include in his recognition of a region that does make sense that region to which I am referring of Yorkshire and Humberside.

In Yorkshire and Humberside, our regional assembly was formed with all-party support. Our regional chamber has brought together for the first time partners from the business and voluntary sectors, including the churches and faith communities. Our regional economic strategy has provided for the first time a coherent framework for the work of the whole public sector and we have seen decision-making being opened up and brought closer to ordinary people.

The £130 million from the last round of the Single Regeneration Budget was allocated by Yorkshire Forward through a process that involves the regional chamber and community groups in setting the criteria and sharing the decisions.

It is our experience, certainly in my part of the North, that the absence of appropriate regional strategies in the past has often undermined the ability of some of our communities to work together. It has undoubtedly exacerbated the tendency to have to look to London and the South East.

In terms of economic regeneration in the former mining areas of my diocese, I have seen how, often despite good intentions, the complexities of the problems and the specific and sometimes unique local issues have not always been understood here in London. I believe that we must press for the principles of subsidiarity if we go forward with regional government. However, it must be a real devolution of power from central government to the assemblies rather than a scooping up from local authorities which, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, eloquently said, would leave us worse off with something like glorified county councils.

I particularly want to draw the attention of the Minister to the work of the churches and faith communities in some of the new regional institutions. I do not refer to Bishops chairing constitutional conventions, but, for example, to the work of the south-east and south-west regional faith forums, and to the fact that in Yorkshire and Humberside, the churches are full members of the chamber. We have seconded an officer to Yorkshire Forward to work on social inclusion. We have spearheaded the creation of benchmarks for community involvement in regeneration. That should not be surprising: churches or other faith communities are present in every part of every English region.

It is disappointing, therefore, that church and faith community involvement of that kind is not always welcomed. It is not only disappointing but perplexing that churches and faith communities are not part of the new Regional Cultural Consortia. That is odd, not least because of our obvious involvement in heritage, art and music. I should be grateful for a response from the Minister, either in this debate or afterwards, as to that strange occurrence.

The Runneymede report acknowledges that faith has often been downplayed through ignorance or bias. It identifies faith as a key issue in social inclusion. Involving the churches and faith communities fully is not only sensible but essential if inclusion objectives are to be achieved. The Government's announcement of £5 million in support of regional chambers is welcome. However, I hope that some of it will be used to facilitate further church and faith community involvement.

Perhaps I may conclude by saying that discussion of elected assemblies is important, but not if it blinds us to what is already happening on the ground. We must realise that participation in regional government is about more than political parties and that devolution will be of value only if the process takes seriously the involvement of all major partners, not least among them the churches and the faith communities.

3.53 p.m.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, we are at an historical turning point in the economic development of the United Kingdom. Boom and bust have been replaced by stability, with unemployment and inflation at their lowest levels since the 1970s.

What better climate can there be for ultimately securing an assembly for Cornwall; provided, that is, that the county can satisfy Her Majesty's Government that its claims are valid. It has been suggested that a referendum, when it comes, should be conducted by both town and parish councils because much of Cornwall is rural. Perhaps I may quote from the declaration, compiled last year, to set up the Cornish constitutional convention. It states: Cornwall is a distinct region, defined by identity, geography, culture and history. It has a characteristic economic profile which sets it apart from the south-west. It enjoys unique opportunities to engage with other parts of the world, both through its cultural links with other Celtic regions and the Cornish diaspora". The declaration adds—significantly to many Cornish people; to some a vital point: In all aspects it differs from the artificial construct known as the south-west". I have never lived in the Royal Duchy but I have spent quite a lot of time there. Many members of my family come from Cornwall and many still live there. I know from them that, half seriously, half jokingly, the Cornish think of themselves as "not English". One of my cousins, at school in Truro, told me of the day when the headmaster announced to the assembled school that a certain member of staff would be leaving and taking a job on the other side of the Tamar, the river that divides Cornwall from Devon. "Mr So and So", he said, "will be leaving us, to our great regret, to take up a post in England".

That is a remark which might be made by a Scot, a citizen of Wales or someone from Northern Ireland but not, I think, by anyone living in any other region of the United Kingdom. It underlines Cornwall's peculiar and unique position. The Prince of Wales has referred to it not as a county but a country, for it has many distinct features which set it apart from the rest of Great Britain. It has, for example, its own language, a member of the Brythonic group of Celtic languages, most closely related to Breton. Although it has remained almost unspoken since the beginning of the 19th century, steps are being taken to revive it and works are being written in it.

Cornwall has the world's biggest shipping lane within three miles of the largest natural harbour in Europe, for the development of which Hayle has a multi-million pound plan. Its coastline is unrivalled for beauty and tourist attractions. Inland, it is distinguished for its fine gardens and now for Nicholas Grimshaw's Eden project, the largest geodesic domes housing tropical flora in the world.

A campaign to win home rule for Cornwall has so far gained the support of 20,000 people in an area whose population is under half a million. Campaigners particularly dislike the concept, if and when devolution comes, of their county being included in the area experimentally called the South West and extending from Scilly to Swindon. They feel a real need to resist being swallowed in a region encompassing such distant places as Bristol and Gloucester, with which, opinion is, they have little in common.

As regards the Cornish constitutional convention, a south-west regional assembly is acceptable—so long as it stops at the Tamar. One of the founders of the campaign, Councillor Bert Biscoe, stated: There are no ideas of breaking away from the United Kingdom. We are talking about Cornwall being a region, not necessarily English, but British. Emotionally, there is wide support for it in Cornwall". Her Majesty's Government show great interest in Cornwall, designating it as a health action zone and sports action zone and, as such, along with the Scilly Isles, the only part of the South West eligible for Objective 1 funding, the aid that helps to improve the European Union's poorest regions. The county's plea for a degree of self-government is based partly on its distinctive culture and language but more than that on the county's economy. Much of its industry has declined over the past century and despite new jobs in tourism and manufacturing industries, it still suffers from unemployment and low wages.

Campaigners believe that an assembly would help to lift Cornwall's economy and change that, because so far no one has tried giving Cornwall a voice and an individual identity. If it wishes to change its status and achieve its aims of the establishment of an assembly on the lines of that which Wales now enjoys, it must convince government of its qualifications, its economic advance and its distinctive claims to semi-autonomy. Only a referendum would show how determined the Cornish are to stand alone or to submit to being part of a larger artificial and, in the opinion of some, unnaturally constructed region.

3.59 p.m.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, with the right reverend Prelate, I share knowledge of the north-east of England. I am a Northumbrian, and like everyone in the region which is called the North East, take great pride in the beautiful cathedral of Durham. Two of my children graduated at Durham University. So, one has an affection for that lovely place.

I should like to talk of the North East as a region. All the regions of this country have known problems in the past years, but few have known as many as the north-east of England. In the late 1950s I was elected to another place at a time when our three major industries, coal, shipbuilding and steel, were simultaneously in decline.

From then on, we experienced a remarkable problem with regard to employment. In attempting to deal with it, the region has always had some kind of development agency. I can go back to NEIDA— North East Industrial Development Association—a small body of leading industrialists, leading trade unionists and two MPs. I was one of them. That soon developed into a broader organisation called the North East Development Council which brought in local government. At present, we have One North East, a smaller but efficient body which is knowing great success.

Do we need another layer of government? I do not believe that we do. We tackled unemployment in a strong way and now, thanks to the work of One North East, there is an influx of new industry in the region. The region has experienced great environmental development. Since the late fifties, a period when both major parties subsequently were in office, the region has received considerable government support. Environmentally, the region is fantastically developed. We must have one of the best road systems in the country, built during the administrations of both major parties.

All our derelict sites have been cleared. The banks of our rivers are clean where they were once derelict. The quay side of Newcastle lives again and there are many examples of environmental improvements. Unemployment is still above the national average but not much. It is slightly higher than it was at the previous election. I believe that that is temporary because much is happening in the area which is good.

So do we need regional government? I do not believe that we do. Much of our new prosperity and improvement is due to having solid local government. I would greatly regret the abolition of Northumberland County Council in favour of a regional government. I never served on the council but my late father did for more than 40 years. I do not believe that we need anything other than the solid local government set-up that exists in the North East. The industrial situation is improving, as are educational facilities. Training opportunities are now available in the North East which did not exist when I became a Member of Parliament for Newcastle upon Tyne.

I believe that it is unnecessary to introduce regional government into England. It is a difficult proposition. I am against devolution; I have always contended that this is too small an island for federalism. I believe that it would be disastrous for people in England to have another layer of local government. The right reverend Prelate said that he deplored the fact that there was such apathy with regard to voting. There is, which is sad, but attempts have always been made to overcome it. Many years ago, I made my maiden speech on a Conservative local government Bill. I tried to support the idea of a block grant system in the hope that it would waken up individuals to the importance of valuing their local authorities. It did not do so and I doubt whether a regional government would do any better.

4.4 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I feel a doctoral thesis topic coming on; namely, the role of the Anglican Church in pioneering devolution. It began with Canon Kenyon Wright who chaired the successful Scottish Constitutional Convention. I am pleased to see that his example is currently being followed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, who chairs the North East Constitutional Convention, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool, who chairs the North West Constitutional Convention. As an Anglican, I am proud of that fact.

Before other parties lay claim to the concept of regionalism, perhaps I may point out that it is good intellectual Liberal policy. It was advocated at least 70 years ago by Professor Ramsay Muir.

I was slightly surprised to hear two noble Lords on the Conservative Benches speak of their enthusiasm for local government. They were MPs, one a Minister, of a Conservative administration under Mrs Thatcher which did more to denude local government of its powers and to accrete more power to the centre than at any time since the Tudors. Nevertheless, their conversion and devotion to local government are welcome.

It is fitting that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham should have initiated the debate, for which he is to be thanked, because the North East has a highly developed sense of its own regionalism. It has long had that strong regional identity, but that was recently strengthened by strong constitutional developments in Scotland which culminated in the restoration of the Scottish Parliament. As that Parliament increasingly asserts itself by formulating its own distinctive policies, so those English regions which border on Scotland become the first to appreciate the potentialities of regional devolution and democratically elected assemblies.

Although regional consciousness is most highly developed in the North East, the North West and in Yorkshire, there is a growing public opinion among the English that they are the most under-enfranchised nation of the four which comprise the UK. Northern Ireland and Wales now have their own elected Assemblies and Scotland has its own Parliament. Those three nations also have their own Secretary of State; there is no Cabinet Minister for England. The innovation of the London mayor apart, England and its regions are becoming increasingly aware of their democratic deficit relative to their Welsh, Northern Irish and Scots compatriots.

An English Parliament, whether a separate institution or a sub-set of the House of Commons, is not the answer to the English question in general or to the West Lothian question in particular. It would be too large and would not effectively cater for the regions of England, many of which are larger in territory and population than the three nations benefiting from devolved democratic government. If it is accepted that Whitehall and Westminster do not always know best as far as concerns those powers that have been devolved to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, why is that not true also for the English regions?

Despite their failure to complete the system of voting reform by kicking the Jenkins report into the long grass, it is heartening to observe that Labour Ministers have not totally lost their enthusiasm for further constitutional reform. Recently, both the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer reaffirmed their belief in progressing the idea of democratically elected regional assemblies, with full devolved powers, for those English regions which vote for it.

Following the example of Scotland, the three most northerly regions will vote for devolution, to be followed by the South West. Cornwall will be an important element of that. The principle of subsidiarity will have been fully implemented. The model of the Scottish Constitutional Convention is now being followed elsewhere in England. Others are being formed in the Midlands and all are co-ordinated through the good offices of the Campaign for the English Regions. Here I declare an interest as a director of the Rowntree Reform Trust Limited, which financed much of the Scottish Constitutional Convention and will always assist with devolutionary innovations.

Let us unleash and celebrate the diversity of the regions of England.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, we must be grateful to the right reverend Prelate not only for introducing the topic but for persuading us to take it seriously. All too often, English regionalism is treated in a frivolous or facetious way, with references to the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy or to English nationalism, manifested by supporters of West Ham United. This is a serious topic whose time is coming, if it has not already come.

It was observed, for example, by Dr Tony Wright, a Member of the other place, that the English regions "are silent and uninvited guests at the devolutionary feast". Things cannot continue like this. There is a growing interest in business and among the political parties, including the Liberal Party, as the noble Lord, Lord Smith, observed. However, I point out that in the days of Mr Asquith the Liberal government did not do anything about it.

I believe that the Conservative Party is much more enthusiastic at local level than expressions by its leaders might indicate. To my knowledge, the centralism of the Conservative Party nationally is not, for example, echoed by its members on Buckinghamshire County Council. I am sure that there are other examples of that. The Conservatives opposed devolution which has given them new life in Wales and Scotland. If the right reverend Prelate allows me to say so, that is perhaps an example of life after death. 'That applies even more so to the Labour Party which now takes a much stronger line. In addition to John Prescott, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr Gordon Brown, made a very strong speech in Manchester in favour of devolution. He said: We are moving away from the old Britain … where people had to look upwards to a Whitehall bureaucracy … to a Britain of citizens where … we are ourselves in charge and it is up to us". Perhaps I may speak briefly as a Labour Peer. The Labour Party is often wrongly associated simply with centralisation and the view that "the gentleman of Whitehall knows best". The intellectual roots of the Labour Party are much more varied than that. For a great part of its history the Labour Party was the party of decentralisation. The Fabians supported municipal socialism, the ILP supported local government and local accountability, and Keir Hardie supported the idea that the Red Dragon should be united with the Red Flag.

The great change in the Labour Party came about with the unemployment of the 1930s and the planning mechanisms of the war. That was the high noon of the Labour Party's commitment to centralisation—to an extreme of collectivism—which was at variance with much of its earlier history. There has been a considerable change since then, particularly under the present Government of Tony Blair, with the creation of the regional development agencies and their many limitations, fragmentation and inadequate powers. Nevertheless, they exist and provide a quite different perspective on the whole problem of the implementation of government. I believe that in England there are now signs of the beginning of a vibrant regional government to supply the same kind of stimulus that has taken place, for example, in Germany and Spain.

Other noble Lords have referred to the wider factors which give momentum to regional government. One of them is devolution, of which we have heard a great deal. It is simply not possible to sweep England aside when the question of devolution is discussed because the matter impacts on all parts of the United Kingdom. Other noble Lords have referred to Europe and the way in which it is becoming increasingly regional in nature. I believe that the general process of constitutional reform implies regional government at all levels—perhaps even the reconstitution of this House in due course. It has been said in this debate that the best way to answer the West Lothian question is not to ask it. If one had regional government which operated properly, that question would be redundant.

I believe that regional government would have various advantages. It would build on an existing and increasingly vibrant, if fragmented, regional structure with the RDAs and the other bodies to which reference has been made. It would promote genuine pluralism not only in our constitutional arrangements but in society; and it would also make financial transfers more transparent. Clearly, it should be adopted gradually because it is not compatible with the present form of unitary local government. We have asymmetrical devolution; perhaps we should also have asymmetrical regionalism.

I hope that the Government are sympathetic and extend joined-up government to the localities as well as the centre and release local energies. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have spoken in favour of more active, vibrant local government. To quote a famous poem, the people of England have not spoken yet, and perhaps they should be allowed to do so.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I, too, should like to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for initiating the debate this afternoon. Several noble Lords have posed the question (which I do not believe anyone has answered), what is regional government? If one looks at the European Union, no single country has the same model. The Länder in Germany have almost the same powers as a good number of national governments, and yet the regions of France have very few at all. Perhaps when the Minister answers the debate this afternoon he will give his ideas on what regional government in England should look like.

As many noble Lords are aware, I am leader of Essex County Council. Several references have been made to glorified county councils. I should like to see them. The county of Essex comprises 1½ million people and is larger than most European regions. Essex is virtually surrounded by water, and one can almost canoe round it. Essex is also being put together with other areas in an Eastern region. As much as we like North Norfolk and the fens of Cambridgeshire, we have very little in common with them. We are larger than most European regions and have an historical base. When one looks at most European regions one sees that they are also historically based. Essex was a kingdom 1,000 years ago. For 200 years Essex had a king and London was a small village in Essex. Why should we not be a region on our own? I believe that it is pointless to try to put together artificial regions in England.

Obviously I am very much involved in local government. Whenever I hear people speak in favour of regionalism usually they come from the North East or North West. I do not hear many people in the South East, East or even the South West talking about regional government. Each of the great counties of Essex, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Kent, comprise over 1 million people. Why can they not be the regions of the United Kingdom? Why can we not just develop our county councils in a way that gives them more power devolved from national government, as was historically the case in the United Kingdom? Why do we need to keep reinventing something that may not necessarily be satisfactory?

As to voting, even if we do not have a general election on the same day, the turn out for the county council elections in Essex will be just as great as for the London Assembly. There will not be many more people voting for regional government than vote at the moment.

I am vice-chairman of the Local Government Association. Last year a hearing chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Dearing, sat for many days to ascertain the desire for regional government in England. Evidence was given by people from all over the country and all political parties. That hearing resulted in a very good report, which I commend to noble Lords. The conclusion was that in England there was no national demand for local government. Demand varied considerably around the country. People did not want another tier of local government.

Clearly, if we have regional government we want to know what powers are to be devolved to it from national government. People have talked about regional offices taking a considerable number of decisions, but many of them are administrative in nature. I cannot see what decisions elected members will take from regional offices. Perhaps the Minister can also give an indication as to that. If we are to have any further developments in the North East and North West perhaps they should be based on the Spanish model. It may happen simply in that part of the world. Certainly, we have no desire for it in the East and South East. I do not believe that more than 10 per cent of people in Kent or Essex will vote for regional assemblies in the South East or East.

One of my particular roles as a member of the Committee of the Regions, of which my noble friend Lord Bowness and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, were members some years ago, is to consider those countries which have applied to join the European Union. Several of those countries are very small. I was in Slovakia last week. A country of 5½ million people is considering between eight and 10 units of regional or perhaps county government. Therefore, I ask the Minister why, if we are going to have regional government in this country, we need to have such enormous units as the East and the South East.

We should not keep reorganising our local government or our structures in this country. We are unique as a country in wanting to keep looking at this matter. We think we shall improve our voting performance by so doing. We have these great counties. We should make the most of them and devolve powers from national government to the counties and surrounding regions. I rest my case on that point.

4.20 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I, too, thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for introducing the debate. I should like to declare my interests. First, I am a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. It has supported the Campaign for the English Regions and the campaign for Yorkshire. Secondly, I am still a serving municipal councillor in Calderdale, West Yorkshire. Thirdly, for the absence of any doubt, before I came here last May, my residence, life and being has always been in the county of Yorkshire.

The point has been made that the great northern regions are likely to be first in the queue in terms of being concerned and interested in devolution—the North East, the North West and Yorkshire. I am not surprised to hear from the previous speaker that there is less interest in Essex. Those of us with our lives and beings in the North believe that Essex is, perhaps, a few yards from London. I suspect that if there is regional devolution in England, even in Essex, its people will warm to the idea before too long.

First, what is this regionalism? We must make it very clear that we are talking, for a start, about the democratisation of existing regional structures. At the present time there is substantial administrative devolution. In our region, in Leeds, there is City House where the civil servants dispense that which central government has to offer. In the absence of such devolution, that has been the birthplace of the regional quango. The only reason that we have this multitude of regional quangos is because we do not have democratic regional devolution.

Secondly, we must consider what regionalism is not. It is not about hoovering up local government. That has been debilitated year after year for long enough. It must be made very clear—for example, to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—that there is no question whatever of another tier of local government; it is entirely different. What vanishes are those many regional structures which could be, and should be, part of regional government.

Thirdly, in the past year or two we have seen the developments in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and in London. It is important that there is equality of opportunity when looking at regional devolution in England. In other words, we cannot have a structure— certainly noble Lords on these Benches would not warm to it—whereby there is, for example, in one part of Britain, a one-party state, and in another the possibility of a multi-party activity with genuine electoral systems.

Fourthly, it is important that there is the opportunity either to increase or decrease taxation, so that people can take a view on whether members of their regional authorities are operating properly. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, if people do not want the regional authorities, and this applies to London, to spend money on media relations people, at least they can despatch them, or endeavour so to do, at the ballot box. At the present time, that cannot be done with the quangos. Therefore, it is important that we look at the taxation angle.

My fifth point is that, with regional devolution in England, there may be an opportunity for your Lordships' House to be involved in looking at the constitutional boundaries. That is very different from regional boundaries. I refer to the rights, duties, responsibilities and opportunities of constitutional boundaries with regional government. That could be looked at perhaps in the same way as your Lordships' House looks at European matters.

4.25 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Bishop of Durham for introducing the debate. He is an enthusiastic and eloquent proponent of regional devolution. I entirely share his desire that this subject should be widely and comprehensively discussed. I do not share his enthusiasm, at least not until some questions, many of them posed today, are better answered than has been the case so far.

The fundamental question is this: do we have too much government or too little? It could be argued that we have quite enough layers of government, too much bureaucracy, too much room for political manoeuvring and for political delaying, and not enough able people willing to take on the responsibilities, with the huge demands on time and energy, that active participation in local or regional government requires. On the other hand, as my noble friend the Bishop of Durham said, there are many areas of life and of public expenditure where unaccountable quangos function without the benefit of democratic discernment and decision making. "Let's make these bodies properly accountable", goes the argument. A number of noble Lords have said that today.

My own personal involvement has been with the West Midlands where a constitutional convention is in place to look at these matters, chaired by my noble friend the Bishop of Birmingham. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, can add another bishop to his bag. There are questions being debated in the West Midlands which need to be discussed more widely but in different ways in different regions.

I return to the fundamental question already asked: is there in England a sense of regional coherence and identity? Without that sense of coherence and identity a regional assembly cannot be made to work. I do not share the confidence of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that if it works in one place, other regions will want to follow. That sense exists in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but in the English regions it is patchy. In the North East and Yorkshire, yes, that sense exists; in the North West, perhaps it does, although the distance between Cumbria and Manchester makes it very difficult for it to be a coherent region.

The question needs to be asked whether these regions, which are those covered by the regional development agencies and by the Government Offices, are the right regions? I remember the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, referred to this matter during a heated debate in your Lordships' Chamber when the regional development agencies were being created. One noble Lord thought that the eastern region should consist simply of Norfolk and Suffolk and was appalled to discover that it would also include Essex. I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. Even worse was to come because he discovered that the regional office was to be situated in—Bedford. He spoke the name with an extraordinary sense of distaste and incredulity.

The West Midlands is a much more geographically compact and coherent area than some, but it is still 100 miles from the Staffordshire moorlands to the Black Mountains. There is a very great difference between central Birmingham with its Convention Centre and Symphony Hall, or the colourful cosmopolitan culture of Handsworth, and a sheep farm on the hills in south Shropshire overlooking Welshpool. The question remains: have we the right regions? Is there or could there be created a sense of regional identity in every part of England? At present I doubt it.

The Churches in the West Midlands, working ecumenically through the West Midlands Churches' Forum, understand the complementarity between urban and rural. We celebrate and affirm cultural diversity. We have acknowledged the urgent need that has arisen in recent years to deal with the Rover crisis and to press on with the regeneration of the Black Country and the Potteries. But we have tried in particular, and against the background of these pressing urban concerns, to keep before the regional development agencies the need for proper attention to social inclusion, the rural dimension, which will be even more important post-foot and mouth, and environmental sustainability, which is so often left out of account when business-driven planning is taking place.

The question is whether all these matters would be better handled and more effectively dealt with if we had an elected assembly and whether popular support exists for such an assembly. I am not entirely convinced. I believe that these areas of life have been well dealt with by the quangos—though they are quangos—and I am not convinced that an elected assembly would have done better, or that it would have been more focused, more purposeful and more effective.

I want to make one last and very important point. I am absolutely convinced that we must not contemplate yet another tier of government. We shall have that unless we make one proviso. If there is to be regional government—devolution and regional assemblies—it must be against a background of unitary authorities alongside empowered parish councils, as recommended in the rural White Paper. If there is not unitary authority government, we will simply be creating another tier, whatever anyone may say about it. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that if we were to go down the route of regional assemblies, the Government would change their mind and insist that we had only unitary authorities.

4.31 p.m.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, this debate comes at an opportune moment. The regional gross domestic product figures, published at the end of last month, highlighted yet again not so much the North-South divide, although the North East has the lowest GDP of all the UK regions, as a divide between London, the south-east and eastern regions and the remainder which are all below the English average.

It is reported that the Government are considering a massive transfusion of funds to those regions to raise living standards and improve public services. I do not know whether that is true, but the basic governmental argument for devolution to the regions is that there must be suitable vehicles like the regional development agencies through which to channel expenditure and elected regional assemblies rather than chambers to which they will be accountable. As I understand it, that is the Government's position.

I bring a Welsh perspective and experience to this debate in the hope that it will be helpful. We have had a Secretary of State for Wales since 1964 and non-stop administrative devolution ever since. Under this Government, a National Assembly has replaced the Welsh Office. The Assembly is now in its second year. That it is too early to pass judgment on its performance is the kindliest verdict, but it is already clear that even a well-funded regional government of this kind, operating against the background of a prosperous British economy, is not the answer to all our problems.

On the economic front, which I regard as all important because people's living standards are related to it, GDP per head in Wales has fallen over the past decade from 84 per cent of the national average to 80.5 per cent. With the impending loss of 3,000 jobs in the steel industry, along with 8,000 actual job losses in manufacturing since 1997, the current plight of the rural areas and the possibility of a recession, I foresee deterioration rather than improvement in the years immediately ahead, despite the obtention of Objective 1 status for the Valleys and West Wales.

I am bound to point out that the proudest claim of the present Secretary of State for Wales at the most recent Welsh affairs debate in another place was the benefit brought to Wales by the national minimum wage, but that was a boon—if such it proves to be in the longer term—brought by national rather than regional government. Scotland has not fared much better as far as concerns GDP over the past decade. Growth, at 0.9 per cent, has been minimal. On the health and social services front in Wales, hospital waiting lists have gone up alarmingly since 1997.

What I am saying is that devolution, even when it is backed by considerable resources, does not necessarily provide the economic regeneration and better services that we all desire. Speaking of resources, it is well known that Scotland has done well under the Barnett formula and expenditure per head there is much higher than in England. Wales, I hasten to add, has not done too badly either. Scottish expenditure has very understandably excited envy in the North East where the demand for devolution appears to be most advanced. The question is whether all the English regions can be as well endowed per head as Scotland— I doubt it—but their assemblies, if they come about, will press ceaselessly for more and the prosperous regions will become increasingly discontented. What we shall certainly have in that event is an additional and costly tier of government.

Is the huge transfer of resources that devolution implies from the prosperous to the less prosperous regions the best wealth-creative use of those resources, or are we missing some other important ingredients of prosperity in our concentration on this new vehicle of government?

I travel a great deal along the M1 and the M6 these days. I am appalled by the delays, especially around Chester, Birmingham and other conurbations. I keep wondering how much those delays are costing our regional businesses. It is certainly a great deal of money. I am sure that the delays are also frightening off would-be investors. We desperately need better roads, but that is now an unfashionable cri de Coeur. Should we not be looking again at the relocation of offices away from the South East and at the possibility of developing clusters of mutually related industries in suitable localities? Work, productivity and jobs—well-paid jobs—mean so much in these areas of need outside London and the South East. The national lines of development that I have mentioned do not need a multiplicity of new bureaucracies to achieve results.

4.38 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, I begin by declaring a small intermittent interest as an occasional member of the North West Constitutional Convention. I join the long queue of noble Lords who must be boring the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham to death by thanking him for introducing the debate. Many of the speeches have certainly lifted my heart. I think in particular of the speeches from the Liberal Democrat Benches, the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield—I grew up in Wakefield—and the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, who brings a welcome historical perspective to the House and points out that these things take time; indeed, they do take time.

My first interest in regional democracy in the North West came into existence as a result of reading a pamphlet entitled North West Regional Government, which was published in 1965 by a group of Liberal candidates in the North West. I mention that because one of the leading members of the group was my noble friend Lord Tordoff, who has continued to inspire me ever since. In those days we felt that we were a small and weak voice—a voice in the wilderness. There were times when I had hopes of the Conservative Party. During the early 1970s I did my best to interest my then Member of Parliament in these matters. He is now the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I have to say that I failed miserably, as your Lordships will have realised from listening to the noble Lord today.

In the 1980s, it was a source of great pleasure to many of us that the Labour Party in the North West was coming around to our point of view. I pay tribute to the Labour leadership of Lancashire County Council, of which I was a member at the time—I was not a member of the Labour leadership; the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, was a member of that leadership—for the lead they demonstrated to the Labour Party in the North West. I believe that we have all come to realise that these are battles which will not be won unless we are prepared to work together across political lines and with people outside politics. That is an important lesson to be learnt from Wales and, in particular, from Scotland.

To the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, I simply say this: do we have too much government in this country? The answer to that is probably "yes". However, to the question, "Do we have too much democracy in this country?", I believe that it is the view of many that there is a severe democratic deficit. It is that democratic deficit which elected democratic regional government would seek to redress.

I have been impressed by the speeches of the Yorkshiremen on the Benches in front of me, some of them real and some by adoption. As a native Yorkshiremen, I offer a Lancastrian viewpoint. The North West Regional Convention has done a great deal of work on this. However, many of us feel that it is now some what beached on the sand and that a new initiative will be needed after the general election, whenever it is held. Last June, Liberal Democrats in the North West put forward a submission to the convention in which we made three important points: The central principle should be that an elected North West authority and regional government should essentially take their powers from central government (including existing regional arms of central government and quango type bodies) and not from local government … Liberal Democrats will not be able to support any proposal where regional powers are substantially gathered from local government". That is extremely important. Secondly, we went on to say that, The new regional authority must be 100% elected". Thirdly, we said that the, new elected regional authority must be representative of the full range of both geographical and political differences in the region". We were concerned that the report entitled New Way Forward, No Way Back—that could be a new Labour title, although that should not necessarily damn it—advocates a very small body. I am not optimistic that we would be able to persuade people in Cumbria, for example, to support a body in which Cumbria might have only one or two representatives as against far more for the great conurbations of Manchester and Liverpool, let alone gain the support of sub-regions such as the area of north-east Lancashire in which I live. If we are to have an elected body, it will need to be big enough to be representative of the entire region. Furthermore, it will need to be elected using an electoral system which provides both political and geographical plurality within the region. Without that, the Liberal Democrats would find it very difficult to support any final proposal.

We desperately want to support the right proposal. This is something for which we have been campaigning for at least 35 years. I look forward to taking part in elections—not necessarily as a candidate but as a voter and a political activist—to a North West regional assembly. I believe that the North West does exist and that within the region there is a strong sense of identity. There are also strong affinities: economically, socially and culturally. The time has now come for an idea in which many of us have believed for a long time. We have reached the point where this ought to be put into effect. I hope that the time for it to happen will be during the next Parliament.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I did not put my name down to speak in this debate, but having listened to the contributions, it may be helpful if I mention briefly the conclusions of the Royal Commission on the constitution which considered devolution between 1969 and 1973. I was appointed to the Commission in April 1971, when Mr Selwyn Lloyd became the Speaker. It was from then onwards that we considered thoroughly the possibility of devolution to the English regions.

Only three of the 11 members were in favour of it. However, eight members were in favour of regional coordinating and advisory councils, partly indirectly elected by local authorities and partly nominated by central government. I cannot go into any great detail, but I think that it would interest noble Lords to learn of some of the findings. I say that because circumstances have not changed greatly over the past 30 years. Indeed, having served in two Houses of Parliament for the past 55 years, I find that they have scarcely changed at all, even with regard to this matter.

When considering the expenses of such councils, the Commission suggested that they should be met by precepts on the local authorities in each region. Fair enough. The main responsibility of the councils is set out on page 356, in paragraph 1208 of the report. It states: The regional councils would meet the need. as represented to us by many witnesses, for machinery at the regional level for the co-ordination of local authority action and for the expression of regional views". I think that we have heard many "expressions of regional views" during this interesting debate.

I must confess that, during the 30 years which have elapsed, I have kept an open mind on this matter. However, I think that the views expressed at the time of the vast majority of the members of the Commission—eight out of 11—are not far wrong today. I shall say no more.

4.47 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am sure that the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for reminding us of the report of the Kilbrandon Commission in 1973. It is true that the majority of its members recommended the establishment of co-ordinating and advisory councils, but a strong minority were in favour of elective devolution. Indeed, the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission which, if I remember aright, reported in 1969, was also in favour of setting up eight English provinces with indirectly elected councils. However, if we are to consider the progenitors of what we are discussing today, I should like to pay tribute to the late John Mackintosh, who was then a Labour Member of Parliament. His book on the devolution of power, published in 1968, was not only a significant contribution to what later took place in Scotland in particular, as well as in Wales, but also set out a blueprint of a kind for the form of English regionalism that we are discussing today.

In view of the strictures voiced by my noble friend Lord Greaves, I am reluctant to add to the praise which has been heaped on the head of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, but I hope that he feels, as I do, that he has given the House a great opportunity to discuss an important matter to which, on future occasions, we should return. I disagree with very little of what he said. History will record—I see no reason for not saying this today— that the present Government have been, in constitutional terms, a great reforming government. That is how they will be best remembered. However, they have stopped short of acting on the recommendations in the Jenkins report, which has already been mentioned from these Benches, and of making progress on regional devolution for England. I hope that this unfinished business will be a matter to which a new government will turn if they secure a second term.

We were not surprised when the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham reflected his particular interest in devolution for the North East. I have to say that I have a personal interest. Although I was born and brought up in Liverpool and am therefore familiar with the north-west region of this country, I also represented the North East constituency of Stockton-on-Tees for over 20 years. During that period, I was fully aware of the local feeling which developed into a considerable passion for devolution of one kind or another, and of the organisations and institutions, to which the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred, which helped to underpin that movement.

I say to those who worry about differences of opinion and traditional hostilities within other regions, "Do not think that putting together Tyne, Wear and Tees was easy; do not underestimate the difficulty of putting together urban and rural communities". Time and circumstances have made the North East a leader in the demand for devolution, and a similar growth is likely to occur elsewhere even if the passion does not exist now.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham was right to refer to the democratic deficit. This is the core of the difference between regionalism as proposed by the majority of the Kilbrandon Commission, for example, and regional government. Central government in the regions is not regional government. Decentralisation of administration—perhaps to quangos—by Westminster and Whitehall without democratic sanction is not devolution of power either. Regional government is distinct. Power lies within the region and accountability is to those who have been elected to serve in the government of that place.

There is a longish history of regionalism of one kind or another in England, but there has been none at all of regional government. Both the present Government, with some justification, and the previous Conservative government can point to modest progress in regionalism. The Conservative government—this was referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—established integrated government offices in 1974 to co-ordinate the delivery of policy. All credit to them. The present Government have set up the regional development agencies, which we discussed at great length—I remember the major contribution of my noble friend Lady Hamwee at that time—prior to the 1998 Act. They have also set up what are now generally called regional assemblies.

We have been here once before, and perhaps I may be forgiven a personal odyssey. Some 35 years ago, I was a junior Minister in the Department of Economic Affairs under George Brown. In that capacity I was responsible for setting up the economic planning councils and the economic planning boards which played an important part in development for some years beyond that. The councils were made up of local authority members, businessmen, trade union representatives, voluntary bodies and representatives of the arts and tourism, although I am not sure whether there were representatives of faith communities. They were councils which, although unelected, nevertheless did a very considerable job in their time.

Equally, representatives of government departments were brought together in the economic planning boards under a civil servant of what was then known as under-secretary level. We had some difficulties. The Board of Trade had been responsible for distribution of industry policy; it was very reluctant indeed to come in to the boards. The Department of Housing and Local Government, as it was then called, was responsible for land use. I well remember the then Minister, Mr Richard Crossman, accompanied by the formidable Dame Evelyn Sharp, marching into the office of the Secretary of State, George Brown, and making it absolutely clear that only over their dead bodies would the new councils and boards be called "planning councils" and "planning boards"; the word "economic" had to be inserted.

I say this only to demonstrate that those planning councils and boards performed a function not too far different from what is now assigned to the agencies and the assemblies. While the Government have every right to claim credit for what they have done, to some extent they have been going back to where we were 35 years ago, with that kind of regionalism being substantially eroded in the interval.

The history of regionalism goes back even further. I was glad to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, said about the Labour Party's involvement in it. One could say that it began with the special areas Acts of 1934, which dealt with areas of high and persistent unemployment. It is certainly true that proximity to Scotland has had an impact on sentiment in the North East in favour of change, particularly in the period 1977–78, the first attempted devolution.

There has been a long history of industrial decline, which has not yet finished. Although, as the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, rightly said, the position is somewhat improved, the latest figures show that unemployment is 5 per cent in England, 3.2 per cent in the South East and 8.1 per cent in the North East. So the problem is not yet solved; the job is not wholly done.

I accept that new developments of regional government are bound to be asymmetrical. It would not be right to create a single blueprint and require the different regions to fall into line on the same time-scale. The regions will exist because the people of the regions want them to, and for no other reason. I hope very much that the Government will prepare a programme for what I call "rolling regionalism"— bearing in mind, perhaps, as an example, the way that candidate members are prepared for the European Union: when they have satisfied certain criteria, they will he admitted.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Newby that Wales is the right working model to follow—or, at least, it is the starting point—for the evolution of something better for the regions. I hope very much that the regions which already have a sense of identity and wish to see a rolling programme of the kind I have indicated will prepare not only a campaign—I think it has gone beyond that, certainly in the North East—but a blueprint, even a draft Bill, for what might happen.

It will be very important to satisfy those who share the feelings of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and others. It would be right to show them that this will not take away from local government and add an unnecessary tier, but will lead genuinely to decisions in the regions being made by the regions in exercising powers which hitherto were the property of this Parliament and the Civil Service which serves it.

My noble friend Lord Smith of Clifton referred to "unleashing and celebrating regionalism in England". As I said, I hope that we shall make real progress in the next Parliament. This has been an excellent debate. Although we are not of a single mind, nevertheless this is a stage in the development of a significant constitutional change for this country.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, my welcome and gratitude to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham can be expressed in a slightly different way: welcome to the cold bath of politics.

We have had an interesting debate and it gives me great pleasure to note that we have covered most of the regions within the country. We have covered London; we have covered the North East very thoroughly, where demand is very strong; the North West was covered by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who said that the idea seems to be getting more sticky there; and the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, spoke for the West Country—for Cornwall, if I am correct—and illustrated in her remarks the problems of regionalism as we know it. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield spoke for Essex. I am an Essex nationalist at heart so I understood what he said. I even found some sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, because I was a member of what was in those days the South-East Economic Planning Council. So I recognise that body and I have some experience of regionalism at work in this country. It was a very good body. But it was an advisory body, without authority. In practical terms such bodies are not the most suitable form of government.

We should remind ourselves that we already have four layers of government—indeed we could say five, six or seven if we wanted to be sophisticated. We have national government, county government, district authorities and parish government. Added to hose, as a kind of sub-division, are the unitary authorities. We also have two other national types of government: the Welsh region—if the Principality will forgive that term—and the nascent nation state of Scotland. That might be deemed to be enough.

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord has forgotten that there is European government. He is supposed to be telling us that he is against it. It would be dreadful if he forgot to do so, particularly in the run-up to an election.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I am grateful for that reminder. That takes the number of levels of government to eight. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, remarked that we have too much government and not enough democracy. That may well be the problem, but adding another level of government in an attempt to solve the question of democracy would present a problem in itself.

I return to the issue of devolution. That, rather than structure, is what the debate initially needs to be about. Devolution is not a stream of statutory regulations from central government of which local authorities are obliged to take note and with which they are obliged to comply. Over the years we have seen an endless succession of such regulations. I spent a long time in local government under—to my distaste—an increasingly centralist national government. It is distressing to find that trend continuing. Devolution is not about government Bills going through this wonderful Palace of Westminster telling local authorities exactly how they should structure their business for administrative purposes, dictating exactly how they should establish their administrative organisations.

Returning to the present, we need to note that devolution is not about the kinds of measures announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget. The Chancellor promised increased flexibility for the regional development authorities. He said that this increased flexibility would be matched by increased accountability through objectives and targets that would shortly be announced by the Deputy Prime Minister. I can already feel the steel bands of Whitehall's control closing round the RDAs.

I am afraid that man is ever restless. He always feels that things would be better if he were somewhere else, and he strives to get there; and usually, when he gets there, he is disappointed. Then he will strive for something else. I cannot help but feel that if we arrive at the promised land as regards the regions, we shall find that there is great dissatisfaction.

Let us consider the problems in context. It is worth noting that it is as far from Gretna Green to John o'Groats as it is from London to Land's End, or indeed from London to Newcastle—and Scotland is supposed to be one region. There is a particular history, but that specifically illustrates the problem. Considered on an international scale, the United Kingdom is smaller than California and many other states within the United States of America.

There are other types of problem which will not be tackled by structure or, indeed, by democratic representation. Again, they are perhaps best illustrated by contrasting Scotland and the North East of England. I am sorry that this is the case. I spoke on this matter during the passage of the Scotland Bill. The average GDP per head in the United Kingdom is £12,455, based on the 1998 figures, which are the latest that I could obtain from the Library. In Scotland, it is £11,902, which is 96 per cent. In the North East it is £9,819, which is 79 per cent. Despite that real disparity in worth and value for the people of Scotland, they enjoy the enormous privilege of over £1.20 per head for every pound of public expenditure in England. The people of the North East enjoy the enormous privilege of contributing, through the Barnett formula, to that privileged position. It is a matter which could and should be tackled within the Palace of Westminster, and successive governments have signally failed to do so—for reasons that have to do with politics and, dare one say, with the democratic deficit.

What is required if we are to make progress in government in this country is real devolution of authority and decision-taking to the local communities. There is no doubt that not least among the frustrations that ordinary people feel with government and the reason why there is too often a lack of interest in elections, is the feeling—which is correct—that the powers of decision-taking on matters that affect local communities are removed from them. It is no good saying that, because there is a power of decision granted by national government to the local community, matters are all right, if there is not with that power control over the money, or if control over the money remains with Whitehall.

I return to what can be put into statute. We have 150 pages of regulations relating to highways expenditure. They are so detailed and require such conformity that they empower Whitehall to have intimate control over the details of local expenditure on highways matters. That is why we feel strongly that the proper way forward is to begin with correct and proper devolution through the structure that we already have. If we can begin to get that right, then if there are subsequent failures in the system there will be justification in going for something else. But to experiment with something novel, out with the traditions of this country, when we cannot make our present system work is to take a gamble which might be rather less than fortunate.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Whiny

My Lords, perhaps I may begin by thanking the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham for raising the debate. Time was when Bishops of Durham were rather heavy representatives of top-down government, both from London and from Rome; and, indeed, on their own behalf. I am glad to see that the present incumbent is on the side of the people of the North East, and that we are here today discussing how we can bring greater democracy to that region, as well as to other British regions.

The title of the debate refers to "English regions", but obviously we have strayed somewhat wider into the settlement so far on the constitutional changes brought in by this Government—a great reforming government in relation to our constitution. Decentralisation and devolution have already been applied to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. It is only right that we should now address the English regions. During the course of the debate we also addressed the role of Parliament, the role of Europe, and especially the role of local government.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, observed that it is important to retain English national identity. I do not disagree with that view. However, there is also a very important dimension of that identity; namely, regional and local identity. The North East does have an identity. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, pointed out, Yorkshire has a pretty clear identity. Many of the other regions have an identity that may not be always as clear. There is a South West identity, even though it may be differentiated among the various counties and duchies of the South West. Even where that identity is not strongly felt, what is strongly felt is that decisions need to be taken closer to the people and that there is too much power centralised in London. That applies just as much in Essex and Cornwall as it does in the North East.

We have already achieved devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We need to meet that sentiment in England. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, said, the very fact that devolution to Scotland and Wales has taken place makes the regions closest to it think most acutely about it. It has a rolling effect across the rest of England. There is a problem of differential prosperity between the regions of England. We recognise that there is a North-South divide, although it is not necessarily quite as simple as that. Obviously, there are significant disparities within regions between prosperous and less-prosperous areas and, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford said, between rural and urban areas within regions. However, there is a regional dimension to much of this. We want all regions to share Britain's prosperity.

I should point out to noble Lords that unemployment has fallen in every British region, but it remains much higher in regions like the North East than in the South East. Within the United Kingdom as a whole, although the North East income per head has increased in recent years—a welcome increase—it has done so more slowly than in other regions. As regards the North East, there is still a disparity regarding the UK average of £13,000 per head and the £15,000 per head that applies to the south-east of England.

There is nothing inevitable about regional inequalities. Similarly, there is nothing sacrosanct about regional equality. But, clearly, the widening gap is not appropriate when we wish to share prosperity among all our citizens. We can achieve a better spread of prosperity both between and within regions and nations of the United Kingdom. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, reminded us, many attempts were made to achieve that aim during his stint in the DEA. There were also earlier attempts, as well as subsequent attempts, to redress regional imbalances.

We have taken a very important step in the creation of the regional development agencies. In an otherwise not entirely favourable comment in relation to regional government, the noble Lord, Lord Elliott, mentioned the importance of one agency in the North East turning round the industrial infrastructure of that region. The development agencies were established in 1999, and subsequently thereafter in London, to drive forward measures to improve competitiveness, to decentralise decision making, and to bring the private sector and local government into development programmes for the regions.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Wakefield reminded us, those RDAs are working with local government and with the regional chambers; and, indeed, with the administrative devolution that we already have in Government Offices. The RDAs are only two years old. They have confounded the critics of their establishment and have succeeded. They receive enormous support from both business and the community in their regions. I regret that it seems to be the official policy of the Conservative Party to abolish both RDAs and Government Offices. That is an odd line to take for a party that I hope would wish, with us, to spread prosperity. We must have the instruments to do so.

Government Offices represent administrative devolution. There has been a substantial amount of administrative devolution over the past few years. It has been difficult, as was the case in an earlier era referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, to ensure that all government departments participate in the Government Office structure. But an increasing number are doing so, including—most recently— MAFF, which is incorporating its regional activity into Government Offices. That is most valuable. However, we need to go further.

Our first step has been to create the regional chambers. They are voluntary organisations, which bring together local government and other bodies within the region. They provide the main link between the RDA and regional representatives. With the increased flexibility and resources that we are giving to the RDAs, the role of these chambers has become more crucial than ever. That was why the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced an additional £5 million for those chambers to provide for the expanding scrutiny role that the new flexibility of the RDAs requires. They also have an important role in planning, development and transport plans for the regional level.

The regional chambers are, perhaps, not dramatically different from what the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred to as arising from the Kilbrandon report of 30 years ago, in terms of his own viewpoint. The noble Lord said that nothing much has changed, but I do not believe that to be the case. We are all grateful that the noble Lord has not changed. However, the whole constitutional framework within which local government and regional development is operating has changed, both in relation to Scotland and Wales and in relation to the role of local government. That applies also to the number of decisions that we are now taking administratively in conjunction with local government at the regional level. I give way.

Lord Renton

My Lords, I was trying to make clear that nothing much has changed, as yet, in the regions.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not believe that that is true. With regional planning guidance, regional transport strategies and the creation of the RDAs, many economic, planning and strategic decisions are now dealt with at regional level. The point of going beyond the regional chambers is to democratise that process. The noble Lord would be right to say that nothing much has changed in terms of the democratic accountability of those decisions.

We want to go further than the regional chambers, but we only wish to do so when there is popular support for that move. We made a commitment in our manifesto to move towards directly-elected regional government where it was demonstrated—through referendums—that the people of the regions wanted it. I should make it clear today in this House that that commitment still holds. There is no blueprint for directly-elected regional assemblies, or a time-scale for their introduction. However, we are committed to that outcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, called this a programme of "rolling regionalism"; indeed, to some extent, that is what would happen. There is a greater enthusiasm in the northern regions than there is in the southern regions. Therefore, it is likely that the northern regions would be the first to adopt the structure. I should not compare that exactly with the process of accession to the European Union, where a number of criteria are set by the existing members for potential members. The key criterion in this case will be the will of the people of the region concerned, as expressed through a referendum and a democratic vote.

In the process of moving towards directly-elected regions, we shall need to study the structure of regional government and its scope and purpose. We shall also want to consider what can be achieved and what added value it can provide. Each region must be able to decide on the way and time-scale—

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, that is very interesting. How does the Minister view the impact of that process on central government and on the democratic structure of central government? Will we reform the House of Lords further? What will we do in relation to the House of Commons? How will it "gel" with that? If we are to have democratic regional government, how will it impact on central government?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, my noble friend takes me much further than this debate. Clearly, there is an impact on the role of Parliament if we devolve more decisions to the regional level. Like the right reverend Prelate, we are not in favour of an English parliament. We are, however, in favour of devolving some central government functions to the English regions. That, therefore, slightly alters the role of Parliament in overseeing the decentralisation of power within this country.

As to the structure of the House of Lords, I am not in a position to make pronouncements on such matters today. Your Lordships will know that there are proposals in the Wakeham committee's report for direct election to the House of Lords which would be based on a regional structure which, broadly speaking, as I understand it, would follow the structure of the devolved English regions.

Questions have been raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and others about why, if we need regions—

Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld

My Lords, I hope that I may press my noble friend a little further. How many elected members do we have to have in the United Kingdom before we have a properly elected democracy?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble friend's question relates to the number of elected Members in the House of Lords. I could not possibly make a pronouncement on that matter at this stage. However, if we are talking about elected persons throughout the United Kingdom, the numbers involved at regional level would reflect the powers at that regional level. The numbers would not be very different from the numbers who take part in the regional chambers at the moment.

I do not share the concern which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and others expressed that we have far too many elected politicians in this country, or the concern of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that we do not have the right quality of people coming forward. If there is a clear decision-making structure at regional level, appropriate people who are qualified and talented will come forward to fill democratically elected positions. At the moment the problem is that far too many decisions are taken which are not accountable to elected politicians at the right level. Therefore, we need to create a structure where such decisions can be taken.

The absolute number will depend on the propositions that arise region by region. It will also depend on the other issue which has been raised; that is, the reorganisation of local government. We have indicated that although in principle we are in favour of moving towards unitary local government structures, there is no presumption that all regions will have moved to unitary local government prior to the creation of elected regional government. It ill behoves the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was a member of a government who did not complete the reorganisation of English local government, to press us now to do that instantaneously. The reason we are not saying that it is a precondition for local government to have been reorganised before we introduce regional government concerns the central point about regional government, underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, namely, that the power will not be taken away from local government but from central government. It is a devolvement of power, not a dragging upwards of local government—

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In view of what he says, can he share with your Lordships how he envisages the regional assembly working? Does he see it as the London model, strictly constrained by government guidelines with policy approved by the Secretary of State, or does he see it in terms of a Welsh model, perhaps exercising the functions of secondary legislation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord has a tidy mind and he wishes to see structures which are precisely the same across the whole of the United Kingdom, or at least within England and Wales. That is not the view of the Government. London is unique as a world city which virtually constitutes a region. It is not a model for anywhere else but it is an important structure for a city region.

We are now talking about a different structure within England, which is a national identity. Therefore, one is breaking up a national identity as compared with the situation in Wales. It is, however, clear that the scope of regional government is not as wide as the scope of the Welsh Assembly. We are talking about having a role in strategic matters, economic development, planning, transport and environmental assessment, not taking over the whole of what are currently national government responsibilities within the regions, and certainly not— I was making that point when the noble Lord intervened—taking powers away from the counties and the unitary authorities within the regions.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I am sorry to come back but the noble Lord will understand that the functions he has just set out are classically functions of local authorities which we have reorganised to make bigger and bigger so that they have the scope to deal with those matters.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I was just about to explain. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked why we needed bodies of this size. I mention the field that I know best. In the case of transport policy, it is not possible to deal with the M6 going through Staffordshire—a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts—on a county basis. One needs to take a much wider approach. Similarly, as regards the development problems that he has encountered in the West Midlands—I assume, on his way home to North Wales—which cause additional pressures on the transport system, one cannot address those problems on a county by county, let alone district by district, basis. One can only tackle them on the basis of a larger, coherent economic region. That is what we are trying to establish and the powers I mentioned are the kind of powers we wish to devolve to regional level, subject to democratic accountability.

Lord Sheppard of Didgemere

My Lords, does the Minister agree that if devolution is to work central government must at some time let go? If we take as an example something which does not cross too many boundaries, what about the London Underground?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, that is precisely what I am saying. At the moment a substantial part of national government's regional responsibilities—operating to some extent through the Government Offices—is not subject to any degree of accountability at the regional level. We intend to pass those powers down to the regional level. Of course, standards and some regulations will be set at national level. However, the idea of democratising structures is not to give a new empty structure of local and regional government but to provide a real and effective devolution of power.

There has been some discussion on what the scope and the size of those regions should be. I believe that I have replied to that point in general terms. However, there will be queries about particular aspects concerning which county is within which region. Before the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke, I had thought that Essex was already a glorified county council and—I hesitate to use the term—kingdom even, particularly in the light of his irredentist remarks about wishing to take back London. I recognise that there will be tensions within the regions. We believe that the Government Office boundaries that we have set are sensible and we have taken government decisions to consolidate those boundaries. However, in the course of the democratisation process, other options may arise.

My noble friend Lady Rendell referred to Cornwall. Cornwall is a special case. It is a special county and perhaps deserves special status and special respect. A degree of creativity is involved as regards the Cornish convention. almost as much as in the case of the North East. the Yorkshire. and the North West conventions. It is not, however, in the terms that I have described, a region which can on its own determine its economic, transport and planning infrastructure. Nevertheless some aspects of devolution will apply in relation to Cornwall.

I have no difficulty in defending the fact that there is an asymmetric development of devolution. It is asymmetric in two senses in that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different kinds of powers. The English regions will have different powers from the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The development is also asymmetric in terms of time-scale. Some English regions will take powers before others. We would not devolve those powers to those areas which were not subject to directly elected assemblies. There are other European examples of asymmetric devolution. Spain has been cited. If the north-east of England had the same degree of success in its devolution as the north-east of Spain, in the context of the Catalonion government and the City of Barcelona government, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate and his flock would be well pleased.

I believe that we are on the right track. It is not as tidy a track as some noble Lords might wish. Progress may not be as rapid as some people, particularly in the northern regions of England, would like. None the less, as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Glasgow recently, we are committed to bringing forward the opportunity for English regions directly to elect their regional governments. At that point, the responsibility for various aspects of economic, strategic and planning policies would fall to those regions. We would hope that all the English regions would eventually take up that option. However, the decision will be theirs and it will be facilitated by this Government. We intend within the next few months to bring forward a Green Paper on these issues: the scope, structure and nature of devolution; and the nature of the electoral process for the English regions.

I welcome the debate. I thank the right reverend Prelate and all noble Lords who participated in it. We have touched on a number of issues which are of great importance to the English regions, many of which will no doubt be discussed during the coming months and years as we debate, region by region, how fast and in what manner we shall go down the road of further democratisation of our hitherto somewhat centralised constitution.

5.32 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Durham

My Lords, first, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for so clearly restating the Government's position. Of course, I wish that he could have gone further today because I am impatient as regards this issue, as are many people in some of our regions. I shall look out for its appearance in the Green Paper, in the party manifestos at the general election and, it is to be hoped, within the legislative programme of the next Parliament.

Secondly, I thank those noble Lords who supported the arguments I sought to put forward. They have enriched and enlarged them because of their wide experience, deeply embedded as it is in political history and events. There has also been a geographic spread. It is good that we have heard the experience of many different regions. I am deeply appreciative of the time given and for the expertise demonstrated in those speeches.

Finally, perhaps I may express thanks to those who disagreed with me. I do not think that I have ever been so courteously criticised in all my life. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke of the cold bath. He should see the ice cubes in the baths into which I sometimes have to climb in some of the circles in which I move. I thank those noble Lords for being so generous and for leaving unscathed my central argument; namely, that the existing government presence in the regions is unaccountable, costly, fragmented and deeply frustrating to those of us who operate in the regions. I stand by that argument. I am grateful to all who contributed. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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