HL Deb 09 May 2002 vol 634 cc1267-84

3.36 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"Today, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and I are presenting our White Paper,Your Region Your Choice—more democracy, less bureaucracy. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

"Right across the United Kingdom and Europe there has been a growing recognition of the importance of regions as a focus of economic growth and social identity.

"This Government have challenged the notion that the only decisions worth making are those taken in Whitehall and Westminster. We recognise that people in Birmingham or Bradford, Liverpool or Lowestoft, Falmouth or Faversham, Newcastle or Norwich, deserve to have their voice heard as well. We believe that Britain as a whole cannot achieve its full potential unless all of our regions share in success and drive that success.

"When we offered devolution, we placed our trust in the people of Scotland and Wales. Today I am announcing measures to bring decision-making closer to the people of England by strengthening the regional powers and by giving them the choice of regional government.

"We trust the people to make that choice and, if they so wish, to choose to elect a regional assembly and give a new voice to their region. This White Paper gives effect to our manifesto commitment to provide for directly elected regional assemblies for those regions that want them.

"My interest in regional policy goes back over 30 years. In the early 1980s Michael Foot asked me to draw up a new policy framework to secure agreement for devolution for Scotland, Wales and the English regions—which, as some of you will remember, was causing us a local difficulty. The result was our Alternative Regional Strategy, published in 1982, which set out a framework for devolving power to Scotland and Wales and decentralising power to the English regions.

"Later, in 1994 I appointed Bruce Millan, the former Scottish Secretary and European Commissioner, to chair the Labour Party's Regional Policy Commission. His report,Renewing the Regions, said that, 'without strong regional policy rooted in the regions themselves, and without firm commitment to decentralisation we are unable to develop our national economy to its full potential'. "Many of the ideas in this White Paper find their origins in those earlier pieces of work. I would like to express my appreciation to those who worked on these reports, some of whom are Members of this House today.

"This Government have always recognised the regions' potential. In 1997 we inherited one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. We have changed that. In our first term we devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And in England we restored democratic city-wide government to London—abolished by the Opposition. We reformed local government. We strengthened and broadened the Government Offices for the Regions. We set up nine regional development agencies, which in their first two years created or safeguarded more than 80,000 jobs. And we helped establish a network of regional chambers and assemblies, which have improved accountability and given the regions a new voice.

"Today's White Paper takes that a step further. It sets out a range of options for people in the English regions. But whatever they decide, this White Paper will strengthen regional policy across England.

"In all regions we are giving extra resources and greater flexibility to the regional development agencies. In all regions, regional chambers will have greater responsibilities and will have a greater role in regional planning. In all regions we will give extra responsibilities to the Government Offices to strengthen regional decision-making and to ensure that government is joined up in the regions. But for those regions that wish to proceed to directly elected regional assemblies this White Paper sets out the process.

"Members are well aware of the different needs and aspirations of our English regions. There is a strong and growing demand in some regions to have a distinct democratic voice and a greater say over their own future.

"The people of the English regions should rightly have the same choice that we gave to the people of Scotland, Wales and London. This White Paper is about striking the right balance; it is about trusting the people; it is about responding to the needs of a modern, diverse, and more progressive society; and it is all about creating the conditions for greater prosperity and reducing disparity in and between our regions.

"The key is flexibility. That requires a pragmatic approach and the consent of the people of the regions. Where there is a referendum in favour of them we will establish elected regional assemblies. And I believe where one or two regions lead, others will follow.

"This White Paper sets out the powers, functions and financial arrangements for these new elected regional assemblies. They will have real power and funding to improve the quality of life of people in their region—particularly by improving regional economic performance. Indeed, raising growth by just half a per cent for the worst-performing regions would increase our national wealth by £20 billion in 10 years. And, as my right honourable friend the Chancellor's Pre-Budget Report made clear, if all regions raised their productivity to the national average, the average person in the United Kingdom would be £1,000 a year better off.

"Regional assemblies will be responsible for developing joined-up regional strategies on issues such as: sustainable development; economic development and regeneration; skills and employment; planning; transport; housing; health improvement; and culture.

"Assemblies will have a range of powers to help them deliver those strategies. For example, they will allocate funding for economic development, housing, tourism, arts and sport. And they will be responsible for the regional development agencies—appointing the board and approving the regional economic strategy.

"Regional assemblies will be funded primarily by central government grant; and they will have complete freedom to spend that grant as they judge best. We will agree targets with them and provide a single pot for regional government.

"In addition, they will have the power to raise further funds through a precept on council tax and, indeed, through borrowing. Naturally, budgets will vary depending on the population of each region. But on current expenditure the budget for the North East would be around £350 million a year, and in the North West it would be around £730 million. On top of that, assemblies will have a direct influence over large amounts of central government's public expenditure—some extra £500 million in the North East and £1.3 billion in the North West. This is over and above the £3 billion spent by local authorities.

"Elected assemblies need to be big enough to properly represent the interests of the different communities in the region, but not so big that they become unmanageable. We therefore propose that assemblies should have 25 to 35 members. For an assembly of that size it is important that there is broad political representation in the assembly.

"In Scotland, Wales and London we have used the additional member system of proportional representation to elect the members of the Parliament and Assemblies. On balance we have decided to use the same system for English regional assemblies. The boundaries of each region will be the existing ones used by the Government Offices for the Regions and the regional development agencies.

"In addition to elected regional assemblies, we would like to see greater involvement of groups such as the business community, trade unions, voluntary organisations and environmental groups. We want to encourage the regional assemblies to draw on the experience and skills of individuals in the region who may not be able to stand for election themselves.

"We want to build on the experience of the Scottish Civic Forum, the partnership arrangements in Wales, the London Civic Forum and the arrangements introduced in a number of English regional chambers. Different regions may want to use different models and we are specifically asking for views on this. For example, there could be appointed assembly members who could play an active part in the role of assemblies but without the right to vote.

"Regional assemblies represent a new tier of political accountability. Regional assemblies will work closely with their local authority partners. However, in areas that currently have county and district councils, an assembly would add a third tier of government. We believe it would be more efficient and simple if, in those cases, we moved to a fully unitary system of local government. So where a decision is made to hold a referendum for an elected assembly—and only in those regions—there will first be an independent review of local government structures conducted by the Boundary Committee for England. This review—before the referendum—will examine the two-tier areas of the region and make proposals for a wholly unitary local government system. Existing unitary authorities in the region will not be affected.

"We believe that when a referendum is held voters should know what the proposed structure of local government would be and be clear who would do what in their area. I should emphasise that these reviews will take place only in those regions where a referendum will be held; and any restructuring of local government would take place only if there is a `Yes' vote in that referendum.

"This White Paper sets out the process and timetable for establishing elected regional assemblies. Before we decide which region or regions should hold the first referendum, we will consult all the English regions on our proposals. The Secretary of State will decide whether a region should hold a referendum, primarily by assessing the level of public interest in the region. In reaching his conclusion, he will seek the views of the regional chamber, local authorities and other key stakeholders. We intend to introduce legislation to provide for referendums and local government reviews as soon as parliamentary time allows.

"Our intention is to allow for a referendum to be held before the end of this Parliament. After a region has voted for an elected assembly, we intend to introduce further legislation enabling assemblies to be established. This would make it possible for the first regional assembly to be up and running early in the next Parliament—under a Labour Government, of course.

"In conclusion, all English regions will benefit from our strong regional policy, and we will continue to develop the regional structures and agencies we put in place in our first term. In addition, our White Paper now offers the opportunity of a new constitutional settlement for the English regions—a choice which has been denied to them for far too long.

"The opponents of these proposals must answer this question: if devolution is good enough for Scotland and Wales, why would they deny that choice to the people of England? Our proposals today will give the regions of England new choices, new powers, and a new voice. By devolving power, we can elevate our democracy. By empowering our regions, we can engage people more effectively. By harnessing the energy of the regions, we can drive forward the nation's economic growth. By embracing diversity, we can strengthen the United Kingdom. And by liberating the potential of our regions, we will be helping Britain to prosper. I commend these proposals to the House".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.49 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, first, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. At least he has had a quieter background against which to deliver it, as he has not been competing against the "Byers Show" which has been taking place in the other House.

I should make it clear from the outset that on this side of the House we are against regional government. This Government have already carved up this country into three, and they have foisted a further layer of bureaucracy on London—all in the name of choice by the people—which they now extol for the regions.

In that regard, it is worth recalling that the votes in the three referendums that took place to bring about those changes accounted for less than 25 per cent of the population, and therefore expressed the will of a tiny minority of the electorate. Will there be a threshold of a significant proportion of the population taking part on this occasion.

The same problem is in prospect again. Allied to that is the prospect of further fractionalisation of this country into incoherent regions that bear little relationship to each other and in many cases do not have a commonality of interest within them. Devon, Cornwall, Northumberland and Durham would all vanish. Does the Minister recall the controversy over the loss of the Ridings in Yorkshire? How much worse would be the loss of Yorkshire itself. Bristol is nearer to Brighton than it is to Falmouth, but it would be in a common region.

Local government should be for local people and by local people. We do not need a further tier of government, which removes local accountability, is decided by proportional representation, introduces the possibility of fringe parties and creates more full-time, well rewarded political jobs. Nor do we need the inevitable reorganisation that is threatened—the abolition of the county councils, which are the historic seats of this country's government, established before the Domesday Book and well in advance of May 1997, the start of current history as seen by this Government.

There is little point in the Deputy Prime Minister saying that this will come about only by the will of the people. It has been the clear intent of this Government since the Prime Minister said that regional government could come about only if another tier of local government was removed, as is the case with the proposals that county councils should be shorn of their role in structural planning. Is it the intention that in the areas where regions are put forward, that will mean the end of the county councils.

It is also clear that, even if the electorate do not vote for elected regional assemblies, far greater powers will he given to those greatest quangos in the sky, the regional development agencies and the regional planning bodies. That means further powers in the hands of non-elected officials.

There are many questions that need to be asked. I hope and expect that there will be an opportunity to do so in a full discussion on the White Paper in this House. Until then, will the Minister say whether the Government are proposing that regional government will be established before or after a review of local government structures within it? As the Deputy Prime Minister said last year: Of course we will need to make sure the structure of local government fits with any new regional tier, and that may require some adjustments". That may prove to be the understatement of all understatements.

Will the Minister give an estimate of the likely total costs of the establishment of the regional structure and the consequential reorganisation? On the basis of the costs associated with the Deputy Prime Minister's county council of Humberside, the rest would cost in the region of £2 billion to change. Is that a good use of taxpayers' money? Is the Minister aware that the Greater London Authority alone is spending £34 million a year on administration and that a precept on the council tax has increased by 30 per cent in two years.

Will the grant to be given by the Government be top-sliced from the local government grant? If so, does that anticipate a reallocation of resources for the rest? Will there be a review of the Barnett formula, which gives Scotland and Wales substantially greater funding per head of population than elsewhere, or will regions be bought by similar over-provision.

I understand that today is Europe Day. Is it not ironic that this announcement should be made today? It brings the federalisation of this country ever closer to a federalised Europe. Perhaps Kent will be joined with Calais, Flanders and Wallonia—as it is already in the Interreg programme—as a European self-governing region. Perhaps the Minister would like to tell the House whether the regional government that he proposes—or that the Deputy Prime Minister proposes—would be able to deal directly with European institutions, bypassing the scrutiny of Parliament and doing their own deals for funding. Truly, Romano Prodi must be dancing on his tippy toes at the prospect of so much influence in this land.

We believe that the general tide of post-war centralisation has gone too far under Labour. Under this Government, councils have been burdened with mountains of red tape and local democracy has been undermined. Regional government will not improve that; it will accelerate the trend. Far from giving power to local people, the proposals will take it further away. We do not believe that the White Paper has anything to offer that will enhance democracy in this country.

3.56 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the principle of devolved government. I had better follow that up quickly by saying that the detailed proposals will require and deserve detailed consideration. We are enthusiasts for democracy and we recognise and celebrate the diversity of our country. We believe that it is entirely appropriate for the announcement to be made on Europe Day, given the role of the regions in Europe.

I declare an interest as a member of the Greater London Assembly. I hope that the Government will learn from the London experience. An executive mayor with an assembly whose role is pretty much limited to scrutiny may be the worst model of all. From my quick look at the White Paper, it appears that the Government have learnt that lesson, at least in their proposals for an executive consisting of a leader and a cabinet, though I am not sure whether that is a public or a private Labour Party matter. We certainly need something closer to the parliamentary than the presidential model.

We are all aware of the electoral events in France, the Netherlands and our own cities over the past week. That highlights the need for every government to be relevant to their people. Electoral engagement follows power and delivery. Will the assemblies' powers be token or really strategic powers? Can the Minister assure the House that the assemblies will take down powers from central government, not take up powers from local government? Will they have all the relevant powers so that, for instance, health and housing—which I see are on the list—and tertiary education, to take but a few, are knitted in with economic and social development, as I believe they should be.

I said that powers should not be taken up from local government. We regard it as appropriate that no change is made to the local government structure until elected regional government is in place. At that point, both local and regional tiers and the Electoral Commission can be involved in any change.

Currently, there is an enormous raft of quangos. Will the regions have control, with power to define their shape and structure? I have never believed that the regional development agencies amount to democratic devolution; they are merely a degree of decentralisation. We shall need to examine the detail of the proposals on them. This may be one of the few points on which I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.

Will central government this time adopt a self-denying ordinance and keep their hands off regional issues? As happened with the Greater London Authority Bill, no doubt someone will count: the number of references to the Secretary of State. I hope that they will not find that he scores higher than the new assemblies.

Are the Government prepared to learn from two years' practical experience? I can speak only for London, but there is also experience from Wales and Scotland. That experience was gained at various levels including the human level. A new body needs to be of a size which facilitates the dynamics of the political process. In my experience, which includes a year of chairing the London Assembly, 25 members is too small a number for the breadth of responsibility involved and quite the wrong size for a full meeting at which everyone considers himself or herself a "Front Bencher" as it were by virtue of that small size and wants to have his say. I am aware of the representational role but I believe that the figure of 25 to 35 members is too small. I believe that all assembly members should be elected. Local government has managed to lose co-optees; it clouds the issue of accountability to have appointees.

Does the Minister also recognise the need for shadow running? I know that the public want to see action and to see the pigeons banished from Trafalgar Square a week on Thursday following the election, but does the Minister accept that it is necessary for there to be sufficient time allocated to set up a new assembly? Two years into the process of working towards an effective operation in London I am still not sure whether I am involved in politics or in anthropology.

Will the Minister also acknowledge that where the scrutiny arm has powers these need to be effective? I give merely one example. It is no good allowing the scrutiny arm to veto the totality of a budget if it cannot alter and control the powers of virement of the executive with regard to that budget.

I refer to a serious point which I hope that we can correct with regard to London on the back of regional legislation. Does the Minister accept that access to information must be at least as good as it is in local government? In London we appear to have less access to policy development decisions of the Mayor than is the case at local level.

Does the Minister accept that the legislation should be a framework? I make that heartfelt plea as one of those who sat through the proceedings on the Greater London Authority Bill. It is not possible to anticipate all the detail that will be needed when this new form of government is in operation and certainly not to get the detail right if it is imposed in advance.

Will the Minister consider the need to address the relationship of government offices to regional assemblies? The Government Office for London is now larger than it was when the GLA was created. I am unpersuaded that extra responsibilities given to government offices will achieve regional or, indeed, much other accountability.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will accept the good wishes of these Benches in regard to those who embark upon what I hope will be a fulfilling and effective venture.

4.3 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for her support and good wishes. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that her party opposed devolution to Scotland but now supports it; it opposed devolution to Wales but now supports it; and it opposed devolution to London but now supports it. I understand from her remarks that her party opposes the regional government proposals in the document we are discussing. I am not sure when it may change its view in that regard.

I turn to the specific questions asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. She asked whether a threshold would have to be crossed in regard to a referendum. However, there is no reference to a threshold. The noble Baroness asked foursquare whether the proposals signalled the end of county councils. That matter was dealt with in the Statement. I draw the noble Baroness's attention to the relevant part of the Statement which states: So where a decision is made to hold a referendum for an elected assembly—and only in those regions—there will first be an independent review of local government structures conducted by the Boundary Committee for England. This review—before the referendum—will examine the two-tier areas of the region and make proposals for wholly unitary local government. Existing unitary authorities in the region will not be affected". Therefore, it will be for the Boundary Committee for England to make recommendations on an independent basis as to how to produce a wholly unitary local government system in those parts of the region where there is to be a referendum and where there are two-tier arrangements for local government. How it proposes to do that is a matter for the independent review. That could involve the counties or the districts.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Does he accept that it is extremely unlikely that a unitary authority would end up as a county? A unitary authority is a unitary authority and a county is a county. To try to pretend that a county would become a unitary authority seems to me to be utterly ridiculous if I may say so. I believe that the Minister confirms what I said; namely, that county councils will be abolished.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, no doubt the bodies concerned will attach the importance they see fit to those opinions of the noble Baroness. The Isle of Wight and Shropshire are two areas with unitary counties. The noble Baroness also asked whether the Government would envisage a review of local government before such a change is proposed. The part of the Statement that I have just read out makes the position absolutely clear. As regards estimates of costs, I believe that the noble Baroness asked about the costs of an assembly and the costs of any local government reorganisation. As regards the costs of running an assembly, we would envisage a sum in the region of £25 million per annum. However, I am not in a position to give any realistic estimate of the costs of any reform of local government connected with that as I do not know what the reorganisation would involve.

The noble Baroness asked whether the grant would be top-sliced from local government. The answer is "No". No review of the Barnett formula is envisaged. As regards whether it would be possible for any region with its own elected assembly to have direct relations with the European Union, the body which has relations with the European Union is obviously the United Kingdom. That is the constitutional position. There may be representative bodies in various towns where activities are carried out by the European Union but the body that relates to the European Union will continue to be the United Kingdom, as is the case in relation to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked a number of questions. However, many of them concerned advice. I accept them in the good spirit in which they were offered. I believe that she asked whether the powers of assemblies would be token or strategic. That is what I have written down. As the Statement made clear, they would have power to determine the strategic direction of the region. In addition, they would have specific powers to deliver on their strategies. I gave some examples of that. More detail on that matter is contained in the White Paper.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also asked whether the power would flow down from central government or up from local government. The power will flow down from central government. The question of whether assemblies would have power over quangos in the regions will depend on the quango concerned. I draw the noble Baroness's attention to the fact that assemblies would have power over RDAs, which are perhaps among the most significant bodies in a region. She asked whether government would keep their hands off regional issues. That is a slightly rhetorical question. Surely a White Paper that is designed to devolve down from Whitehall and Westminster to regions, whether or not they have elected regional assemblies, is a strong indication of a Government who are keen on genuine decentralisation.

The Government are, of course, prepared to learn from existing experience. One of the issues that we need to debate is that of the size of regional assemblies. The noble Baroness drew attention to the problems of the London Assembly in that regard. As regards shadow running, obviously sensible arrangements must be made for the setting up of any elected regional assembly once a referendum indicates that it is wanted. Scrutiny powers need to be effective and will have to be debated. The noble Baroness drew attention to scrutiny powers in relation to budgets. I believe she said that the only power that was available was in effect to veto the whole budget. We shall need to consider that matter.

Access to information is incredibly important for any government or legislative body. The proposal that legislation should involve a framework is plainly right. I believe that the noble Baroness was referring to the setting up of the assembly's legislation, not the referendum assembly. That will come only after legislation implementing the referendum procedure and after a referendum had voted "Yes". We should then move on to that legislation.

The noble Baroness's point about the need to address the relationship between government and the regional assembly was of course correct. That will be a very important relationship. She concluded by offering the proposal her good wishes, for which I am very grateful.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the Minister realise that in the North West, following the abolition of the county councils, having wholly unitary local government would be an appalling piece of constitutional vandalism? Can he not see that in the North West a combination of unitary authorities and a regional government would be bound to be dominated by Merseyside and Manchester, and that that would mean that the voice of those living in small towns and the countryside would be completely extinguished? People outside the conurbations would get nothing but hefty bills, fewer fields and more concrete.

What on earth is all this nonsense on page three of the Statement about the people of the English regions having the same choice given to them as has been given to the people of Scotland? Regional government will be expensive, but the noble and learned Lord knows perfectly well that it does not involve the devolution of powers that are remotely similar to powers that have been devolved to Scotland. It really is ridiculous and insulting to pretend that the proposals are an English answer to Scottish devolution.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, if the move to—

Noble Lords


Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I apologise. On the noble Lord's first proposition—he referred to constitutional vandalism—I disagree. On whether there should be an elected regional assembly, that will be a matter for the region to decide in a referendum. Before it makes its decision in that regard, the precise consequences relating to local government will be known because the proposals require that the Boundary Committee has made its recommendations for bringing unitary authorities into being. People will know before they vote what the precise consequences in relation to local government are.

On the comparison between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the proposals involve, for those regions that vote for them, the opportunity to have significant decentralisation of power from Whitehall and Westminster. There are people in north-west and north-east England—and in other regions—who believe that it is better that some of those important issues should be dealt with at a reasonable level, which is closer to where they live than Whitehall and Westminster.

I should correct an error that I made earlier. I said that Shropshire was a unitary authority but I should have referred to Herefordshire. I was wrong in what I said and I apologise for that.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, I welcome the Government's proposals to give the choice to English regions to repair their democratic deficit. Given that the Government have evolved different structures for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, and differing proposals, including precepting for the English regions, which may not in the event prove adequate, will they consider building into primary legislation the power further to decentralise responsibilities and powers to the proposed assemblies, as is indicated in paragraph 4.50 of the White Paper.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for his welcome. He, more than practically anyone else in the House, has experience of giving choice to those parts of the United Kingdom that want devolved assemblies. His views on this matter carry particular weight. I note his proposal, which we shall certainly consider.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, as someone who lives in the North West and who has been a passionate supporter of regional government for most of the past 50 years, I find it difficult to be enthusiastic about the White Paper. It is a good example of the fact that if one gives the Government a good idea, they will make a mess of it.

Will the Government look again at the proposed electoral system? It is paraded as being proportional representation but it is no such thing; it involves semi-proportional representation at best. In regions such as the North West and the North East, it is likely to produce a permanent majority for the Labour Party.

Will the Government look again at the proposed size of the assemblies? I refer not to political representation but to the representation of a large and diverse region such as the North West, which has a larger population than that in Scotland. The Minister said in the Statement that people in Liverpool deserve to have a voice. However, the people in places such as Carlisle—and even in Silloth, Nelson and Colne—deserve to have a voice. Under the proposals Cumbria would at best have perhaps two representatives. Is the proposal a recipe in the North West for permanent rule by the regional Labour Party mafia.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I disagree with that proposition. It is important to have broad political representation in the assembly. The noble Lord knows better than I do that if we seek to reach agreement—a broad consensus—on the precise form of the electoral system to be used, we should, unfortunately, never be able to do so; that is because, in relation to what is the best system, the issues and differences are so detailed, complex and wide. In Scotland, Wales and London we used the additional member system of proportional representation to elect Members of the Parliament and the Assemblies. On balance, we have decided to use the same system for English regional assemblies because we believe that it would produce broad political representation in those regional assemblies, as it did in the bodies to which I referred in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords—Lord Woolmer of Leeds: My Lords—

Noble Lords


The Lord Bishop of Guildford

My Lords, if my good friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham were here, he would warmly welcome the publication of the White Paper. He has been active in seeking to give voice to the north-east region. That is an example of the fact that, for all the diverse responses that will happen throughout the country, the voluntary sector and the Churches are already actively engaged in that process.

I press the Minister on those proposals and the report. In the south-east of England, from Oxfordshire right round to Kent, I do not think that we shall be rushing for a regional assembly. Nevertheless, regionalisation has drawn the voluntary sector and the faith communities—I chair a faith forum—into the process. I want to hear a little more from the Minister on the future role when we formalise those arrangements in the legislation. We struggle, if I may say so, with the public sector sometimes in getting real roles in the democratic process for the voluntary sector and the faith communities. It is good to be consulted but the word "partnership" needs to have some substance to it. In the coming weeks, how do the Government intend to draw us into the consultation exercise in relation to that aspect of the report.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for his welcome to the proposals and for suggesting that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham would welcome them equally strongly. I pay tribute to the Church for the part that it has played in developing these proposals and earlier proposals in relation to devolution, such as devolution in Scotland—the Church played a considerable part in that regard.

We are completely serious about the commitment to having a true partnership with the voluntary sector and faith communities. In the weeks and months to come, we need to work out precisely how that is to be done. That means proper, real consultation with faith communities, among others, on how that should be done as we develop the proposals.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that people in Yorkshire and Humber welcome the opportunity to demonstrate their desire to play a major part in developing and running their own region? Does he recognise that they will judge the proposals by the extent to which power is devolved from the centre to the regions? Will he elaborate on the powers relating to health, education and transport? I note that the power to allocate funding in those areas appears not to be in the Government's mind.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that the proposals will be welcomed not only in Yorkshire and Humber but also in other regions throughout the country as a genuine opportunity to devolve power down from Westminster and Whitehall to the regions, where, rightly, many, many issues should be decided.

So far as concerns transport, health and education, the proposals do not envisage the distribution of a substantial amount of funds to those three areas. But they do involve the elected regional assemblies playing a significant part in the development of strategies in those areas. However, in areas such as housing, it is envisaged that the elected regional assembly will have funds at its disposal.

Lord Biffen

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a deep sense of cynicism about public life and politics at all levels in this country? Is he also aware that, unless the proposals that he is bringing forward are widely acclaimed and successfully effected, they will add to that sense of disillusion, to our political danger.

In that context, can he tell us a little more about what he means by the term "social identity"? Perhaps I may tell him that there is no social identity between Shropshire, Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Coventry. There is, in fact, a great danger throughout England that the rural areas will feel increasingly neglected by the processes of the Government. That anxiety will be intensified if we find that the rural areas are simply being attached to major urban areas, which are at the core of the new regional arrangements. As I am certain that it is not the intention of the Government to add to social discontent but rather to ameliorate it, can he assure me that he will take that into account.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that there is cynicism in relation to politics in some parts of the country. Part of that cynicism comes from a lack of connection or a remoteness between the governed and those who govern. In those circumstances, we believe that giving regions the option—I make it absolutely clear that it is an option—of regional government is a sensible way to increase the connection by seeking, where a region wants it, to decentralise power from Whitehall and Westminster. It will happen only where a region wants it and only where the region is aware, before the decision is made in a referendum, what the effect will be on the local government arrangements. We consider that to be a sensible and fair approach. We also believe that it is a way in which to increase, rather than decrease, people's faith in politics.

The noble Lord asked me to take into account what he said. Of course, every contribution will be taken into account.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, if the move to regional government is to be made on a voluntary basis, as appears to be the case from the noble and learned Lord's last remarks, and if it is not intended to guarantee the destruction of the counties, as appears to be the case from his exchange with the noble Baroness opposite, does it not follow that, at the end of these changes, there will be no uniform pattern of local government in this country? There will simply be a patchwork of one form of government in one part of the country and another form in another part. Will that not be extremely confusing both for central Government and for the nation as a whole.

Does the Minister agree that this calls to mind the image of a celebrated drawing by the artist, Edward Lear? He produced a beautiful drawing of an imaginary plant with people in odd postures hanging from it. Its title was "Manypeeplia Upsidownia". Is that not the direction in which we are heading.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it would be right to say that at present the nature of local government is a rather complicated patchwork with unitary and two-tier arrangements. Noble Lords may remember the previous government's response to the Banham review. That government abolished six metropolitan county areas.

I am finding it difficult to make myself heard due to the remarks being made from a sedentary position by a former Secretary of State for the Environment, whose responsibilities included local government.

There is a patchwork at present. We also recognise that different arrangements will apply in different parts of the country. We see that in relation to parts of the United Kingdom where devolution has already occurred. We also envisage the possibility that different arrangements will apply throughout England. We fully recognise the possibility that some areas will want a regional assembly and some will not. However, we believe that that is the right way to approach the issue; namely, if regions, fully knowing what the arrangements will be at both regional and local government level, vote for regional government, then they should have it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Lord Maclennan of Bogart

My Lords—

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I believe that the Liberal Democrat Benches should be allowed to put forward a question first, followed by these Benches. There will be time for questions from all three Benches.

Lord Maclennan of Bogart

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's recognition that the imposition of uniformity in a heterogeneous country such as England would be unwelcome. However, is he not at some risk of imposing a uniformity in respect of local government which is not apt to sustain regional government and certainly not to make it as popular as I have no doubt he and other members of the Government believe it should be? Is there not a case for recognising that, although unitary government should be the norm, in certain parts of the country good cases may be made for a retention of the status quo or some modification in the light of regional government.

Secondly, again for the avoidance of the imposition of an unwanted framework on the country, can the Minister set out the Government's thinking on the future modification of boundaries to take account of any criticisms that there may be of existing regional boundaries? Although they may make sense as a starting point for this exercise, they would not necessarily commend themselves throughout the whole country as a basis for this reform.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I hope that that is implicit in what I said. However, perhaps I may now make it explicit. Where a particular region does not have, or does not move towards, a referendum, then there is no proposal to change the existing local government arrangements. That means that they will continue to differ in different parts of the country. However, where there is to be a referendum and where people vote "yes" in that referendum, the White Paper says as a matter of principle that there should be only unitary local government. If one adds an additional tier, there would be too many tiers. That does not necessarily mean that one abolishes the role of counties. It is for the independent Boundary Committee to express its view before a particular region embarks upon a referendum.

So far as concerns the question whether there are any proposals to change the existing regional boundaries within England, the answer is: not that I am aware of. However, I shall need to confirm that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords—

Lord Filkin

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has not yet spoken, so let us hear him first.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Lord. When the Minister said that if devolution was good enough for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, why was it not good enough for England, was he not confusing the issues? Devolution for Scotland restored the nationhood to the Scots, whereas devolution in England appears to be taking it away. I should like him to address that point.

My second point is that people in the North East and the North West who are concerned and are perhaps in favour of regionalisation are so in favour because of the Barnett formula. I understood the noble and learned Lord to say that the Barnett formula would not be altered. In that case, the North East and, indeed, other regions in England would suffer the same deficit as they are suffering now. I hope that the Minister can deal with that point again.

Finally, are these proposals in any way geared to, and associated with, the proposal of the European Union Committee of the Regions and the Commission to have a Europe of regions? The Minister did not answer that question, which I believe was asked in the first instance by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the first question was: is this not different from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because it is giving back to them whereas it is taking away from the regions? That is not the right question. The right question is: what promotes good governance? Secondly, has this anything to do with the proposal made by the European Union Committee of the Regions? The answer is no; it has not. The third question was: what about the Barnett formula? I made clear that there are no plans to change that.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords—

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords—

Lord Filkin

My Lords, I suggested that it was this side first. If we are brief, we should be able to hear both the noble Lord, Lord Lea, and the noble Lord, Lord King. It would be good to hear both.

Lord Lea of Crondall

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that, although some of us came reluctantly to the concept of variable geometry, it is inevitable? The difference between these carefully thought out proposals and what was happening under the previous government was that, rather like Oliver Cromwell going round with his commissioners, the Banham committee was deciding what would happen in the counties. That happened in several counties in England. There will now be a democratic mandate and this will not happen without a democratic mandate in any part of England.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I thoroughly endorse the comments of my noble friend Lord Lea. Underlying the proposals in relation both to any reform of local government in a region where there is to be a referendum, and for there to be an elected regional assembly, there must be the consent of the people through a referendum. We believe that that is the right approach.

Lord King of Bridgwater

My Lords—

Lord Filkin

My Lords, with regret, we are out of time. I very much regret that. That clearly signals that we need an early debate on the matter, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham suggested. Perhaps we could have a word subsequently with the noble Lord, Lord King, to ensure that we are aware of his question.

Back to