HL Deb 20 February 2003 vol 644 cc1245-66

12.20 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The issues of decentralisation and democratisation have been at the heart of the Government's agenda since 1997. There is no doubt that any assessment at that point would have found the UK to be one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. It was a system which, by and large, ignored the aspirations of different parts of the UK. It was one where "Whitehall knew best". I am the first to admit that Whitehall does not know best. It never knew best in the first place and it certainly does not today.

The Government have sought to give power and responsibility back to the people and to make our politics more open, more accountable and more inclusive. I fully accept that there is a price to pay for a government who introduce more openness and more accountability. It is a price that we are willing to shoulder.

In the previous Parliament, the people of Scotland, Wales and London chose to take more decisions for themselves. They were each given that power by way of referendum, and legislation followed.

The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, which was published in May last year, set out our proposals for giving people in the English regions the same opportunity. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill is the first step in taking forward these proposals. It will allow the people of the English regions to choose whether they want more say over decisions taken in their region. The Bill does not decide whether there will be elected regional assemblies. It is a paving Bill, a preparations Bill, and that is its sole function.

In terms of regional policy, the Government have already done much to decentralise decision making to the English regions in any event. We have set up the strong, business-led regional development agencies to drive economic growth in the regions and we have helped to create a network of voluntary regional chambers to scrutinise those agencies. But there are limits to how far responsibility should be devolved without an increase in democratic accountability. That is always a dilemma. One wishes to devolve as much as possible but, ultimately, if there is no democratic input, it is inevitable that Minister's will decide that responsibility must stay at the centre because someone has to be accountable to Parliament.

The Bill is the next step in the democratisation of existing structures and bodies. It is designed to increase democracy at the regional level and to give people a choice over the way in which they are governed. It gives them an opportunity to vote, through a referendum, whether or not they wish to have an elected regional assembly. They can vote to have one or vote not to have one: it is their choice. They will not be forced to have a regional assembly or pushed to vote "yes"; it will be their decision.

We believe that elected regional assemblies would give people a distinct political voice and a real say over decisions which matter to them. We mean them to have substantial powers to make a difference on key issues such as economic development, skills, planning, housing, transport, health improvement, culture and the environment. They will be able to deliver tailor-made regional solutions to regional problems. The whole point of devolving decision making is that problems and solutions are not the same everywhere.

Elected regional assemblies will also be able to improve co-ordination and efficiency at a regional level, which will lead to a reduction in bureaucracy. There is no earthly reason why bureaucracy should be extended by regional assemblies as proposed in the Bill.

If it is decided to establish regional assemblies, all their powers will come from central government, central government agencies and central government quangos; they will not come from local government. I wish to make that absolutely clear. No new functions will be created. The central government agencies, functions and quangos are operating at the moment, but they are not democratic at a regional level.

The Bill is about choice. A referendum will not be held in a region if there is insufficient public interest in holding one. As I said, no region will be forced to vote "yes"; it will make its own choice. Some regions may well take the view that, because of their political make up, their geography and democratic factors, they prefer to stick with the arrangements already announced for government offices, regional development agencies and regional chambers. They may feel that those organisations are sufficient to provide the influential regional voice they desire without having what they may perceive as new power structures created in parts of their regions.

The Bill itself will not establish regional assemblies—that will come later—but the precedent has been set in Scotland, Wales and London.

People voting in a referendum are entitled to know what the consequences will be of voting "yes". We have set out in the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, our proposals for elected assemblies. Before any referendum takes place, we intend to publish a summary of our proposals for both the assemblies and for any local government reorganisation in the region. I shall come to that fairly crucial point later. I wish first to give a quick summary of the Bill.

An open meeting was held last week for any Members of your Lordships' House who are interested in the Bill. I shall recap for those who were not present. Part 1 of the Bill enables referendums on elected regional assemblies to be held and sets out the conditions which must be met beforehand. The first condition is that the Secretary of State must have considered the level of interest in the region in holding a referendum. The Government do not intend to hold a referendum in a region if there is insufficient interest. Soundings are currently being taken in the regions about this interest, and again I shall come to that in more detail later.

Part 1 also sets out what will be the referendum question. The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to comment on the intelligibility of a referendum question and any preamble to it. The commission published its views on the question in the Bill on 25th November. It was broadly content but made some small suggestions in regard to the structure and the wording of the preamble. In the light of that advice, the Government amended the wording of the preamble to the referendum question at Report stage in another place. I can tell your Lordships that the commission is now content with the wording provided.

Part 2 provides a power to direct the Boundary Committee for England to review the structure of local government in a region before any referendum. The second condition that must be met before holding a referendum is that the Boundary Committee has made its recommendations following such a review.

The review must recommend the best wholly unitary structure for those areas that currently have both a county and district council. We intend to implement the recommendations only where we propose to establish an elected assembly in a region following a referendum. In other words, if a region chosen for a referendum went through the process of the Boundary Committee looking at what would be the best unitary structure, and the decision of the people of that region was not to proceed to an elected regional assembly, the plans for local government reorganisation would fall. The plans are there only in the event of there being an elected regional assembly. In other words, this is not a back-door method of establishing unitary local government.

Part 3 requires the Secretary of State to seek the Electoral Commission's advice on one or more matters concerning electoral matters for regional assemblies. Because of concerns expressed in the Standing Committee in another place, the Bill now makes it clear that the Secretary of State is obliged to seek this advice.

Part 4 provides a power to make grants in respect of the activities of the existing voluntary regional chambers. Part 5 covers general provisions such as commencement and expenditure.

As I mentioned earlier, the Government are currently conducting a soundings exercise on the level of interest in each region in holding a referendum for an elected assembly. The closing date is 3rd March, a week next Monday. The level of interest will be the main factor in deciding in which region or regions to direct a local government review with a view to holding a referendum. We want to hear the views of the people in each region and of the existing regional chambers, local authorities, MEPs, Members of Parliament and others. They have been requested to send in their responses by 3rd March.

In some regions the level of interest may be inconclusive—that is, it may not be high enough to justify holding a referendum, but not low enough to rule it out. It may be the case that so many regions have a high level of interest that we shall need to look at whether to "ration" the number of reviews conducted at once. The Boundary Committee's resources are being examined, but factors will arise such as not reviewing too many regions at the same time. In such instances, we may want to consider the effects on local government in the region of conducting a review. These factors are set out in Clause 12.

There was much debate in another place about regional boundaries. Under the Bill, elected regional assemblies will share the same boundaries as the Government Offices for the Regions, the regional development agencies and the many other regional bodies that operate to these increasingly accepted boundaries.

I freely admit that there is a debate to be had. People will argue—and indeed it is my personal view—that some counties seem to be in the wrong region. But that is not an issue. On the other hand, it is not foreclosed for the future. The plan is to use the existing boundaries and all the quangos and agencies that go with them; but it has not been ruled out that in the future the boundaries could be looked at. But for the purposes of the Bill, if there is a freely expressed choice in favour of a regional assembly, it will be set up and operate on the existing boundaries.

An aim of regional assemblies is to draw together the work of existing regional bodies. So we do not want to re-define these now, with the massive upheaval and cost that would be involved, before getting to the point of setting up regional assemblies.

The current regions are a reasonable size. They are set out in a succinct fashion in the White Paper in terms of population and other factors. They are all different. The population differences are substantial, but they are, in our view, of a reasonable size in terms of population, geography and economic weight to justify the creation of elected assemblies and to differentiate them from local government—so that the function will be different; so that one can clearly see that it is not local government in any particular geographical area.

The local government review that is required before a referendum can be held in a region is worthy of reference. The review will be required to recommend the best unitary structure for those parts of a region that currently have both a county and a district council.

Concern was expressed in another place, and will no doubt be expressed in this debate, about linking local government reorganisation to the establishment of regional assemblies. I must tell your Lordships that unitary local government is an integral part of the regional assembly package. If there is not unitary local government, there will be no regional assemblies. We are not going to separate them out. Frankly, it would be very difficult to defend an extra tier of government, which is what would happen if that were the case. By definition, to have a structure of local government—that is, elected regional assemblies—is a new level, a new layer. We are not going to go down the road of imposing extra layers of government on people where there is no justification for it. Therefore, if the regions choose to have that extra layer of government, unitary local government will be an integral part of the package, not two-tier local government. We are not prepared to add an extra tier. There will be a great deal of debate on this point today and in Committee. But I have to disabuse your Lordships. It is not possible for us even to contemplate separating the two. We are not going to be accused of introducing an extra layer of government. That is the prime purpose of the package concept of the Bill.

Moving to a wholly unitary structure where an assembly is to be established will ensure that government remains streamlined. Our policy is about reducing bureaucracy, not increasing it. It is important that people understand the implications for local government before they vote in a referendum. That is fundamental.

I shall not go into too much detail in a Second Reading debate, but if the Bill receives Royal Assent, let us say during this Session—and let us say that a number of regions are chosen—it will take about a year for the Boundary Committee to do its work of examining a structure for the best kind of unitary local government at that level. So we are some way away from the referendum. In that period of time, the implications for that particular region will be fully explored, both by those involved politically in the region and by individual citizens, business, the voluntary sector, the communities and religious groups. So there will be no misunderstanding at the point of voting in a referendum as regards the implications for local government in that region. It is fundamental that that should be clear. We shall publish a summary and make sure that it is well publicised. People must not vote in the dark for a regional assembly, unaware of the consequences for local government.

Reorganisation will go ahead only where people vote "Yes". It will be by simple majority. It is not possible to invent any thresholds that we believe we could defend. People will have a simple choice. We cannot allow people who do not vote in effect to have a veto.

Under existing unitary authorities, any region where there is a referendum will not face structural or boundary change. This will be part of the advice to the Boundary Committee. There is, of course, a mixture in every county and there are obvious exceptions such as the unitary county of Herefordshire. But where there is an existing unitary body it will not be "messed about with" in terms of further change. That would make no sense.

I accept that there will be debate about the future of the counties. We have no plan to abolish the counties. I do not want to think aloud on particular areas and be totally wrong; however, it may be that in examining unitary structures in an area where a referendum is held, in some counties there could be another unitary county. I do not know. We have no agenda to abolish counties—or, for that matter, the districts. It is up to the Boundary Committee, which is wholly independent of government, to recommend the best wholly unitary local government structure for the region.

The Government have published their draft guidance to the Boundary Committee on local government reviews. Comments on this are requested by 3rd March this year.

I want briefly to refer to Part 4 of the Bill. This creates a new power for funding the eight existing regional chambers. The Government helped to set up these chambers to contribute to the preparation of regional economic strategies by the regional development agencies. The chambers are made up of local authority representatives and key regional stakeholders from the social, economic and environmental sectors in the region.

The regional chambers have been a success story, and have taken on an increasingly significant role. All chambers now scrutinise the work of the RDAs. Many are now involved in the production of regional sustainable development frameworks and the preparation of regional planning guidance.

Five of the eight chambers have taken on the role of the regional planning body. In the light of the positive responses that we have received to our planning Green Paper, we now believe it is right for all eight regional chambers to carry out this role in the absence of an elected regional assembly.

At present, the chambers receive most of their funding from local authorities. As the role of chambers expands, in particular on planning, a more general funding mechanism is needed. That is the reason for Part 4 of the Bill.

Before concluding, perhaps I may make one further point. One gets advance notice of contributions in a Second Reading debate and this may avoid having to answer it later. There is no requirement from Brussels, the European Union or anywhere else for England to have a structure of regional government. We are not implementing some plan or plot hatched up by Johnny Foreigner to seek to bring in EMU by the back door or in some way channel funds into different regions. There is no EU requirement that member states should have elected regional government. This is a United Kingdom policy to meet United Kingdom needs.

The Bill provides an opportunity for the regions; it is up to them to take it or not. That is the point—it is their choice. It is the most significant constitutional prospect for the regions in a generation, and it is a key component for the programme of decentralisation and reform. A referendum is the first step—it is such a change that the people must make the choice whether to go down that road. Regional solutions for regional issues are important, but this is about choice.

The Bill comes to this House after extensive consideration in another place, and I look forward to the debates in this House. After that, we continue the debate in the regions and if sufficient interest is shown—the test is in the Bill—it will be up to the people to choose, through the ballot box, whether to proceed. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Rooker.)

12.41 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, perhaps I may bring one moment of unity to the debate—it is likely to be the last today—by welcoming the Minister back to the Dispatch Box. There has been a great warmth of feeling for him over the past month, and we are delighted to see him back. I also declare an interest as a member of a local authority.

The Government's thirst for modernisation and reorganisation of local government, as well as innumerable other aspects of our corporate lives, seems completely unquenchable. Their pursuit of regional government is just the latest. Following devolution in Scotland and Wales and the increasingly unpopular Greater London Assembly, there is little evidence that, so far, England's electors are as engaged with that prospect as the Government. That may be because they have not read with breathless enthusiasm the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions or because there has been no proper consultation and no debate in Parliament or elsewhere on what regional government's role, structures and powers would be.

Is it not absurd that the Bill, with all its implications, comes in advance of a regional assemblies Act which would have enabled these matters to have been decided before electors were asked to take part in a referendum on whether they wanted elected regional assemblies? I hear what the Minister says about that information being available where the electors say they want regional assemblies, but that seems to us far too late. At least if that debate had taken place now, they would have been aware of the limited responsibilities which are being proposed for these bodies.

The only legislation to date, therefore, to give authority to any part of the Government's ambitions for the introduction of a further tier of local government is this Bill. Since it has not, by a long way, completed its parliamentary scrutiny, on what are those bodies, which are currently being consulted on the level of interest, to base a rational decision? In the absence of such detail, is it not reprehensible that the Secretary of State embarked in early December, a mere three weeks after the Bill's introduction in another place, on a soundings exercise in each of the regions which will enable him to consider the level of support there might be for holding a referendum on regional government? As the Minister says, such a consultation will be concluded before 3rd March—before the Committee stage in this House has even been reached.

It is particularly notable that the Bill contains no criteria against which the Secretary of State is to make a decision on the level of interest for an order being made or on which his judgment can be challenged, other than those in Clause 1(8), where he must consider views expressed and information and evidence provided to him". That provision is so wide as to be meaningless. I advise the Minister that we shall put forward proposals for constraints to be imposed on the Secretary of State's sole discretion.

That is particularly important, as it is on the information which he gleans from this exercise that the Secretary of State will be able to unleash the Boundary Committee to undertake a complete review of local government within a region concerned and provide a framework for unitary authorities from the existing county and district structure, but in that region only. Any existing unitary authorities in the region will remain as such, although whether they could be split into larger or smaller units is left unclear. Perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify that when he replies.

It is here, of course, that the Government's position becomes incoherent, for it is not intended to introduce regional government countrywide—which might be a comprehensible policy, at least—but only if an unstated proportion of the electorate in a region votes in a referendum in favour of it being established. It is already clear that there will be no comprehensive regional support for regional government, so the result of what will surely be a long-drawn-out exercise will be a mishmash of local government tiers across the country, which neither meet nor match in their structures, duties or responsibilities.

However, the clearest implication of what is proposed is that the creation of unitary structures, except in the rarest of circumstances, will, despite what the Minister has said, result in the county councils being abolished, leaving only a unitary tier and a remote, inchoate region. That hardly increases democratic legitimacy.

We have already had a number of debates in this House which have drawn attention to the lack of common identity and incompatibility between urban and rural areas and their widely differing needs and characteristics in all the large regions. We remain extremely concerned at that and at the threat to the county councils, the oldest tier of self-government, predating the Domesday Book. But then, I fear we know that the Government's view of any structure which existed prior to 1st May 1997 is that it must go.

There is, too, the very possible danger that a vote in regions with sizeable metropolitan areas could be distorted by the greater number of electors who live in the cities and towns against those who live in the less populated rural parts of the region, although it is they who will suffer the burden of local government reorganisation. Agreement for a referendum to be held under such circumstances could cause the most bitter conflict if a way is not found to enable those areas affected by a rearrangement of the county and district structure to vote on that alone.

We shall want to test rigorously at Committee stage not only the rationale of the piecemeal nature of this reform but the desirability and necessity of another major reorganisation of local government. It will consume a vast amount of resources without delivering a single additional nurse, teacher or policeman. Nor will it improve the future delivery and quality of services such as planning, housing, transport and health. Experience and common sense say that those practical things are what matter, and that the nearer the Government are to the people, the better. That is something others are learning. In many parts of Europe, for example, government is being passed down from the regions to lower tiers, not up from the lower tiers to the regions.

So to enable voters to make up their minds whether to support the proposal or vote in a referendum, what exactly will regional assemblies do? How, if at all, will such a change improve the democratic legitimacy of what is currently being carried out by the regional development agencies and regional chambers, which have barely had a chance to bed down? These are already made up of a majority of elected local councillors from associated local authorities. They also include representatives from business. It is instructive that business leaders believe that the proposed reforms will not enhance, but will only damage economic growth.

The soundings exercise paper says: they would have a significant influencing role, including scrutiny powers and making appointments to regional public bodies". That barely sounds a major reason for major change. The paper also says that the functions will be taken from central government, but it does not say what functions, though we know that even if the county council happens to survive under such reorganisation, it will lose its responsibilities for strategic planning. That is not going down from the centre, but going up from local government. The White Paper says that there will be responsibility for—wait for it—overseeing strategies on transport, economic regeneration, tourism, and a few others. That information is available only to those who have read the White Paper. It also hardly seems to justify a huge, expensive reorganisation.

What about increasing democratic legitimacy? Each assembly will have between 25 and 35 members, each of whom will represent 160,000 to a quarter of a million electors—at least double the size of the constituency of any Member of Parliament. Some of those members will be elected, but some will be selected from an additional list, as in London and the Scottish Parliament. They will all be paid. The leader and six or seven cabinet members, who will presumably do most of the fun stuff, if local councils are anything to go by, will be paid handsomely, but they will hardly be able to say that they are close to the people.

The boundaries of the regions were originally set up for economic regeneration purposes. They are arbitrary by nature and unsuitable for these new structures. I hear what the Minister says, but despite that, they should be sorted out more coherently before any other reorganisation is commenced.

The concern must be that this will be another major constitutional reform implemented with the participation of only a minority of the electorate. Fewer than 30 per cent of those eligible voted in elections for the Greater London Assembly, with just 17 per cent in favour. Thus, a new tier of government was created with the support of far fewer than 20 per cent of the electorate. That is highly unsatisfactory. We want to ensure a reasonable threshold of support.

So far, the Government have been silent on the potential costs of their proposals. Before any referendum, it will be essential that they give estimates of the costs relating to the structural reorganisation, the set-up costs of the regional tier infrastructure, the ongoing revenue costs and the charge to council tax payers. We shall seek to ensure that that is part of the information available to the public in the lead-up to any referendum.

In those regions that choose to have regional government, will there also be a cry for new regional palaces to house the new assemblies? In that respect, the experience of devolution in Scotland and Wales is not reassuring. The new Scottish Parliament building has now cost £338 million, against the original estimate of £40 million. The Welsh Assembly costs almost £150 million a year to run, against the old Welsh Office arrangements, which cost £72 million in their final year. The Greater London Assembly foglamp cost £125 million to build. Its precept has soared by an incredible 82 per cent in the three years of its existence. In my local authority, which has one of the lowest council taxes in London, that now costs £224 for every band D payer and nearly £500 for those in hand H. Those who are being encouraged to consider other devolved government should beware.

Finally, there is the exclusion of legal proceedings under Clause 10, which means that there could be no challenge in court to the result of a referendum. That seems an extraordinary provision, to which we shall certainly return.

There remain other concerns, but they will be picked up by other noble Lords. I believe I have said enough to indicate that we consider not only that there are enormous flaws in the proposals, but that they are ill considered, bureaucratic and expensive. I promise the Minister that the Bill will be given thorough consideration throughout the Committee stage.

12.56 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, it is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, back in his place. We have been thinking of him.

I have never fought a "Yes, but" or a "No, but" campaign, but the Government are proposing referendums that weld together the separate issues of regional government and the structure of local government. In doing so, they propose a question that many will find incapable of a single straight answer. I am sorry to say that, given the thoughtful and measured introduction by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, but I believe that the Government have taken a good idea and are in danger of making a mess of it.

All of us in this House will be passionate about democracy, despite being the objects of patronage, either in our own persons or our ancestors'. My party is also passionate about celebrating diversity. No governmental area is a monotone, whatever its sphere or size, but to different extents in different parts of the country there are feelings of regional identity. Some of these are evidencing themselves in growing partnerships between cities whose history includes considerable rivalry, such as Newcastle and Gateshead or Liverpool and Manchester. We welcome the acknowledgement in the Bill of diversity between the regions.

The Government would say that they are passionate about devolution. Their record supports that, even with the criticism that many of us feel that in some aspects the Government have been too timid. They risk that record with a question that is essentially bipartite, complicated and confusing.

My enthusiasm is because I believe that government is best where it is appropriate, and it is appropriate to have strategic government for what is regionally strategic on a democratic basis. I am sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, regards the Greater London Assembly—which she may be distinguishing from the Greater London Authority as a whole—as increasingly unpopular. I assure her that we are doing our best. She also said that government is best when it is closest to the people. That seems to be an argument for devolution, not against it.

In declaring an interest as a member of the Greater London Assembly, I shall try not to be diverted into rebutting criticisms of it, but I note the noble Baroness's comments about cost. One also has to look at the services, many of which have had to be provided by whoever. On her comments about the precept, I am sure that, with her local government background, she will recognise that most of the costs are met by central government grant.

I should have preferred to see what the Deputy Prime Minister announced recently in his community plan developed in the context of democratic regional government. That is just the sort of thing that should be attended to. In fact, we have government at regional level—we have central government at regional level at the moment. There are government offices, learning and skills councils, regional offices of government agencies and quangos and so on.

My second criticism of what is essentially a good idea is that form should follow function. Indeed, I believe that electoral engagement will follow function by way of powers and the delivery of services. We are disappointed that the Government are, for instance, proposing to retain direct control over the learning and skills councils. Regional assemblies should have direct powers on transport and a real role in public health. However, I do not want to be wholly negative. We welcome the decision to give assemblies housing powers, for example.

That is not the point for today, however. The real point is that we should be having a proper debate. I should like to think that we might learn from London's experience. The Mayor has identified the need for a city-wide approach to dealing with waste. I acknowledge that the current Mayor has a tendency to offer us a solution to every problem—the transfer of power to himself. The devil is often in the detail, but even if the Government think that in London the devil is in city hall, that should not block the full knowledge of the assembly's powers being debated and disseminated before the referendum takes place in any region. We should have a debate on that subject. The Minister tells us that people will know what powers are proposed, but the Government may not have got it right.

If we are not to have full legislation, I am attracted by the notion of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill. That could be assessed, for instance, against the Local Government Association's six tests of regional democracy. The tests are: enough clout to make a difference; accountability; the devolution of powers based on a consolidation of subsidiarity—that will probably raise some hackles—flexibility; transparency; and building on existing strengths. I am curious that the legislation on powers is to be left until there is at least one "Yes" vote, because that will mean regions voting at different times on different bases.

It is essential that there should be a debate on the size of each assembly. My experience of chairing the London Assembly suggests that the dynamics are much more important than I had appreciated before May 2000. An assembly of 25 is too big for a comfortable plenary meeting at which everyone feels that they can have their say and, critically, too small to be fully representative.

The representative nature of assemblies is bound up with the boundaries of regions. The Minister in the Commons said that reopening the issue of boundaries was not productive. It may not be welcome to some, but the issues of the boundaries of a region and the local government structure within each region are not, to the minds of those on these Benches, being addressed properly.

We know how high feelings run in the South West. In this House, we recently heard the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro saying that London was an awful long way from anywhere. Many Cornish people say that Bristol is a long way from anywhere, too. Different feelings run high in the North East, and were my noble friend Lady Maddock able to be here, she would have said so. In the South East, the administrative boundaries established by the Conservatives are wholly artificial. Of course, different feelings run high in each region. I assume that the Government will not simply adopt what one might regard as the logical solution and propose the boundaries of the television regions. I will not make that proposal, because I have not checked with my noble friend Lord Greaves whether he regards the North West as Granada land.

The Minister addressed forcefully the issue of local government within the region, which is a point of fundamental disagreement between the Government and us. It is a different issue from regional government and, probably, a matter for democratic regional government. I do not understand how it can be for the Boundary Committee to consider excluding the retention of two-tier local government. The United Kingdom is not over-governed, or not at the political level at any rate, when one compares us with many other countries, including our European partners. We may be over-governed administratively, and in London the Government Office has grown since the establishment of the Greater London Authority.

Will the Government contemplate whether the "extra tier" should in fact be regarded as an "extra sphere"? They should contemplate that point, first, because it should not mean extra bureaucracy and, secondly, because a vote in this House may require them to contemplate it. The Boundary Committee should be able to consider all the options. If the soundings suggest that several referendums should take place early, the Boundary Committee's resources need to be able to support what is required in order not to delay democracy.

If the measures go forward as proposed, the Government must tell us why the votes of those in a unitary area may, because of their numbers, impose that structure on those who have and want to retain two-tier local government. The Government have not told us how they will interpret responses to soundings that amount to, "Yes, we want regional government but not on these boundaries", or, "Yes, but we want to keep our county and district".

I am forgetting that the soundings relate not to whether there should be an elected assembly but whether people want a referendum—but even Ministers sometimes forget that. I attended this House's Select Committee on the Constitution, when the Minister, Mr Raynsford, gave useful evidence. He said that, if the current soundings exercise demonstrates a strong appetite in four regions we would certainly pay close heed to that". I quote that not to be snide but to point out the difficulty of sounding out whether people want a referendum as distinct from whether they want regional government. The Government will publish the responses, but it will not be easy to explain the judgment that is made.

There is too much in and around the Bill that is confused and confusing. In Committee, we will explore issues of information to voters, intelligibility and accessibility. We will include issues that are properly raised by the RNIB and Mencap, on which noble Lords will have received briefings. We want information to be available that will enable voters to make an informed decision. That was a problem in London and remains one—although those of us elected to the GLA now have responsibility for that.

The Minister dismissed the thought that these measures were some cunning EU plot. My noble friend Lord Tope, who is a member of the Committee of the Regions, tells me that the most publicity that the committee gets is from the leaflets issued by UKIP, which regards the committee as having far more power than my noble friend has ever managed to identify. He is delighted by the attention and publicity.

When people want regional government, it should be promoted and supported with enthusiasm. The Bill is called, a little inelegantly, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. One might almost regard it as the Regional Government (Procrastination) or (Stringing Out) Bill. That is not what the Government really want. Let us make it, in spirit if not in title, the Regional Government (Facilitation) Act.

1.9 p.m.

Lord MacGregor of Pulliam Market

My Lords, I begin by declaring somewhat of an interest. I am a member of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which produced the report that was the basis of the 1990 Act on referendums and party political funding. In that context, the committee will have a crucial meeting later today on our latest report on standards in government, special advisers and all that sort of thing. Therefore, I hope that the House will forgive me if I have to absent myself briefly to take part in that discussion. I am also a member of the Constitution Committee which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, has had very useful evidence from Nick Raynsford on this issue. However, at the end of that, a considerable number of questions were still unclear or unanswered. I should like to concentrate on those now.

I am opposed in general to regional assemblies in most parts of the country, but most particularly in my own region of East Anglia. I have always suspected that we have reached the current position on regional assemblies largely because they are the Government's answer to the still unresolved dilemma of the 'West Lothian question in Scotland and, to some extent, to the demand from regions such as the North East, seeing what is happening in Scotland, to have more funding for themselves, which they think they will get through a regional assembly. If that is so, and I believe that there is a large element of that in it, I suspect that we will get into the same muddle as we have on House of Lords reform, where the desire to get rid of hereditary Members has led to the present constitutional and political muddle. The desire to appease the West Lothian question will lead to exactly the same on regional assemblies.

There is a key difference, however, which is relevant to this Bill. In Scotland—and I speak as a Scot—Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a national identity, a national history and a national awareness. Many things are done differently there. There is no such identity in most of the regions of England. In my own eastern region, for example, there is no identity of interest between the people of Chelmsford and the people of Cromer. There is no identity of interest between the people of Epping and the village of Earsham in my former constituency in Norfolk. There is simply none. They do not see themselves as part of the same region, in the way in which the Scots and Welsh see themselves as part of the same nation.

I share all of the concerns in the excellent speech of my noble friend Lady Hanham. I should like to embellish some of them under three headings. The first is the pre-referendum stage. The Secretary of State is given sole discretion to decide which regions most want to have a referendum. On what basis will that be done? I am very worried about the whole issue of how the decision will be made and about the Secretary of State's lack of accountability to anyone else for his decision. Will he give more attention, for example, to ambitious local government officers who see this as an opportunity for them than to the people of the areas that they are supposed to serve? Will it be to those who are enthusiasts for a regional assembly, but who may be in a very small minority and are already well geared up to respond to the consultation period?

I am deeply concerned about the shortness of time for the consultation period, to 3rd March. Those who want a regional assembly, and they may well be in a minority, are already preparing all their responses and will submit them heavily. However, the vast majority of the people in these regions do not even know about the consultation period. In evidence to the Constitution Committee, Nick Raynsford said: We have recently received the result of a survey conducted by Durham County Council which has highlighted still a degree of lack of knowledge about our arrangements"— you can say that again— so we are considering whether there should be more effort to inform the public". I should like to know the result of that consideration and how it will have an impact before 3rd March.

So clearly, and certainly in the region that I come from, people do not know about this consultation period. So how are the Government going to decide the level of interest in a referendum? I suspect that that may be one of the reasons why we have paragraph 40 in the Explanatory Notes, which states: The level of interest in holding a referendum does not equate to the level of interest in having an elected regional assembly". So we may end up with a referendum that most people do not want, at great cost, with further work by the Boundary Committee to decide how we are going to have unitary authorities in that region, but that then does not proceed. It seems a complete muddle.

Then there is the question of parliamentary involvement. We are told that the decision to hold a referendum will be made by affirmative resolution. As we all know, however, an affirmative resolution cannot be amended. So if there is a general feeling in a region that some of the aspects really bother them and they want a different arrangement for the unitary authorities in that region, there will be no way of testing or expressing that view. They can just take it or leave it. That is what will happen if we give sole discretion to the Secretary of State. Who else, therefore, will be able to comment on the issues that come to the Secretary of State? Will the Electoral Commission? Will Parliament have any opportunity to amend any of the proposals? It seems to me a very dictatorial power.

My second heading is the referendum itself. I have a number of questions, which I shall put later because of time, about how the yes and no groups will be decided and what funding will be available for them. That point is not at all clear. Of course, it will be said that it is for the Electoral Commission. However, it would be helpful to know the type of criteria that will apply in the setting up of the yes and no groups.

I want to concentrate on three key factors in relation to the referendum itself. The first is a simple question which covers an enormously complex range of issues. I am concerned that, in coming to this referendum, the voters will simply not be aware of most of the implications and most of the issues. It is said that in a case where there are no two clear sides, the Electoral Commission will be responsible for giving information. Frankly, however, the Government must be responsible. The Government have still to put before us an enormous amount of information about the basis on which the decision will be taken.

Although the White Paper goes into some detail, it is unclear in many ways, and very many powers overlap. In very many areas, the White Paper talks about "consulting", "proposing", "reviewing" and so on. It is not at all clear how some of the issues—health, transport, social inclusion and crime reduction, all of which are mentioned in the White Paper as powers for the regional assembly—will interrelate with the unitary authorities or other authorities, such as the police authorities, health trusts and so on. So I hope that, before a decision is made at any referendum, the Government will bring forward the Bill specifying the powers and the financing thereof. Although I recognise that Parliament can change the Bill, the Bill will provide a much clearer basis for the region to make known its views and make its decision.

I come to the question of finance. In another place, there have been many comments about the Barnett formula and about the exact financing in relation to this Bill. The Government say that there will be no change in financial arrangements based on whether an area chooses to have a regional assembly. In other words, an area that goes for a regional assembly will not have a financial advantage over areas that do not. That will come as a bit of a surprise to many in the North East who expect that a regional assembly will bring them additional financing—indeed, that is one of the reasons why it is so attractive to them. So will the Government make it absolutely clear and explicit from the beginning that no extra money will flow from central Government as a result of setting up a regional assembly? Although that seem to be what the White Paper, the Explanatory Notes and Mr Raynsford say, that is not yet clear to the electorate as a whole. I think that it is vital that that is done.

I think that there will be all sorts of problems in how the division of financing is done between the unitary authority and the regional assembly. The White Paper apparently sets out all sorts of new powers and responsibilities which the regional assemblies will have but which are also the responsibility of the unitary authority. It seems inevitable that that will have to lead to higher costs for the assembly itself. I have already referred to the number of times that the words "advice", "consultation" and "review" occur in the White Paper. All of that will have a cost.

My noble friend Lady Hanham has already referred to the experience in London, and particularly in Scotland in relation to the new Scottish Parliament building. We all know perfectly well that any estimate of such costs brought forward now by the Government will almost inevitably be doubled or trebled. There is going to be a substantial cost there. Who will pay for all those new activities and facilities? Will the costs be met through the regional assemblies' limited powers to raise funds? Will all that be made clear before the referendum so that voters know what they are letting themselves in for in terms of extra financing and precepts? The last point on the referendum, which was discussed in another place, is that it is important for there to be a threshold to indicate the level of interest in regional assemblies.

That brings me to the local democracy point of which the Minister made a good deal in his opening comments. I believe that local democracy means that decisions should be taken at the lowest sensible level, which in most cases will, in rural areas like my own, be the county councils or the district councils. In that respect I cannot see how the proposals will enhance local democracy. If East Anglia—Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire—votes one way in a referendum, making it clear that it does not want a regional assembly or a unitary authority, but the southern parts of the region opt for an assembly, it is clear that the wishes of a large part of that electorate will be denied. Their wishes as regards local democracy will be thrown in their faces. They will have a regional assembly that they do not want and that they will not believe will reflect their interests in any way.

Another aspect of local democracy, as mentioned by my noble friend, is the size of constituencies. If decisions are to be taken by members who have constituencies of 160,000 to 250,000 electors, local democracy will be lost. The Scottish Parliament has 129 Members elected by a population that will be a good deal smaller than that in some of the regions in England, and yet the number of elected members in a regional assembly will be smaller. If we are to have a regional assembly in the eastern region, it is possible that there will not be a single elected regional member from Norfolk. That will lead to the kind of nonsense that at present we have in the European Parliament. I do not see how that aids democracy or local democracy at all.

My time is up, but those are just a few of the questions to which we need answers. Those who are consulted on whether they want a referendum and those who are to vote in a referendum will need much more information.

1.22 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, unlike the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, and having been a passionate supporter of regional devolution as far back as the introduction of the Redcliffe-Maud report on local government in 1969, I support and welcome the Bill. My last speech to the Labour Party conference before I joined the staff one month later was to oppose that report. I had a number of reasons for doing so. The main one was the undemocratic method for establishing the regional bodies—the so-called provincial councils. There were not to be direct elections, the members being drawn from the local authorities and other organisations in the area, similar to the current position of RDAs.

My second reason was that the provincial councils would constitute another tier of local government when the opportunity should have been taken to devolve functions and powers from central government downwards. A group of friends and I were so cross about the Redcliffe-Maud report that we drew up a document on how we could declare UDI in our region. We felt that we had a regional identity. My noble friend Lord Woolmer was part of that process. We were stymied by the next local government reorganisation which, arbitrarily, took away great pieces of Yorkshire and put them into Lancashire. So that was the end of our UDI. I make that point to stress that people have a regional identity, as it has been suggested otherwise.

I have always believed that politics in every sense should be open and accountable. This paving Bill is the start of the implementation of the Labour Party's manifesto commitment to provide directly elected regional assemblies for those areas that want them. I shall return to that point. There has been some criticism of my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister and his motives. Like me, he has long been a supporter of regional devolution. I admire him for his tenacity and for the many years of commitment that he has shown. He is finally able to achieve his aim.

Reading the debates in another place and in your Lordships' House on the subject, I could have been mistaken for believing that the idea of regional governance was a new one plucked out of the air by this Government and that it creates a new level of bureaucracy, which is not so. Regional government structures have existed for many years. The present regional government offices were established by the Conservative government in the mid-1990s, presumably because they recognised the importance of the regions, the existence of regional identity and the fact that the regions had been neglected and ignored for far too long.

As the Minister said, since 1997, RDAs have been established, the functions of GOs have been increased, regional chambers have been established and a plethora of regional agencies have been set up. That has happened alongside regional offices being set up by the TUC, the CBI—represented on every RDA—the chambers of commerce and many other voluntary organisations. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford said on 9th May 2002 in your Lordships' House, regionalism has drawn together the voluntary sector and the faith communities.

Now we have a proliferation of regional bodies for which we need coherence and co-ordination. The proposed regional assemblies should, as my noble friend said, cut out a great deal of the current regional and sub-regional bureaucracies, giving greater clarity and clearer lines of accountability. Importantly, the establishment of regional assemblies will counter the present and continuing regional democratic deficit. That is the crux of the paving Bill and ultimately of an assemblies Bill.

I believe that the regions are the most appropriate level at which strategic decisions should be taken. It is an opportunity for regional solutions to be found to regional problems. Economic development, transport, the environment, planning development, land use, house building, public health and training and skills have to be considered regionally and on a regional scale. Such functions cannot be carried out at a local government level. The assembly has to be a strategic body, not a service delivery one.

Equally the actions of an assembly have to be accountable and transparent to the people affected by them. For example, currently there are no means for the people of a region to scrutinise, to challenge and to influence spending or to question the consistent under-spending by the RDAs when so much remains to be done. I understand that the regions will continue to receive a block grant, as now, but underpinned by high level targets and national standards. I know that there has been some criticism of that, but I believe that it is right. National standards are needed to drive up standards and to guarantee equity.

While the functions of the assemblies, as mentioned in the White Paper, are broadly understood, I accept that there is concern that the powers will not be outlined before referendums take place. I appreciate that that follows the same process as for Scotland, Wales and London and is based on the principle that referendums are purely advisory and not binding on Parliament.

In the debate in another place on 26th November, at col. 270 the Minister said that the Government were not necessarily opposed to a draft constitution Bill outlining powers but that there were problems relating to timetables. He said that the matter would be kept under consideration. Can my noble friend indicate whether there have been any outcomes from that consideration?

Before looking at the process itself, I wish to refer to the ultimate loss of some county councils. With the greatest respect, it seems a little pious for a party that removed county councils without any consultation with the electorate suddenly to use them as a reason to oppose the Bill. In 1985, six metropolitan county councils were abolished and replaced by unitary authorities, a move that as a principle I personally supported, being a supporter of unitary authorities, but it was achieved with little or no discussion among those involved. The Conservative government repeated the exercise in 1992 when they abolished four further counties and a number of districts. Unlike the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I have no problem welding the establishment of regional assemblies with a review of local government.

I believe that the Government are right in removing one tier of local government where currently there are two, so long as it is done with the approval of the electorate and not as it has been done in the past.

Having extolled the virtues of regional government and the principles that lie behind the Bill, I want to deal with the process itself, about which I am not so confident. Like the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, I am a member of the Constitution Committee and had the advantage of discussing my concerns with my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford when he gave evidence to us on the Bill. However, I still ended up with reservations.

I have no queries about the conduct of the referendums, or about a threshold, as the process will follow the procedures laid down in the PPER Act. However, I believe that the question would have benefited from the word "directly" being inserted before "elected". Nor do I have a problem with the variable geometry that will result from the introduction of unitary authorities. My reservations relate to Clause 12, to which so many noble Lords have referred.

The clause provides for the Secretary of State to take soundings about the level of support in each region as to whether there should be a referendum, taking into account and comparing the different aspirations in different parts of the UK. It is partly because we are also concerned about democracy that we are concerned about the clause. My concern, along with that of so many others, is about how the assessment will be made and how the decision will be taken. Who other than the statutory bodies that the Minister outlined has been consulted? Will the findings be published, indicating why a decision has been taken for or against a referendum?

Nick Raynsford made it plain to the Constitution Committee that there was no reason why a number of regions could not hold their referendums at the same time—except administrative ones. At page 9 of the committee's report, he states that, there is certainly no arbitrary limitation to the number of regions that can progress". I have a real problem with the scenario that in one area regional decisions will be accountable while in the neighbouring area they will not. We may even find that that applies to two sides of the same street.

If one examines the polling evidence on the level of support for assemblies, the Secretary of State will have a difficult job deciding which regions should be allowed to go ahead. The BBC poll conducted in March last year showed that in all regions but the South East there was majority support in favour of assemblies. Even in the South East, the figure was 49 per cent. If I get out of the House in time, I shall attend a meeting this evening in the South East to look at the question of promotion of a regional assembly, so there certainly is some support there.

I appreciate that polling is only a guide, but it has to be taken into account as an indication of support. The polling also indicated that the main reasons for support were that the regions would have a stronger voice in Westminster and Brussels, and that regional development, transport policy, education and the police would be improved by having a democratic regional input. As we have heard, to build on that support, five regions—the North, Yorkshire and Humberside, the North West, the South West, and the West Midlands—have set up constitutional conventions to prepare for the introduction of their assemblies. Expectations have been raised.

If the stumbling block to a number of regions holding referendums at the same time seems to be that the Boundary Committee could not cope, I do not find that a legitimate reason. The resources have to be found in order for it to be able to cope, and for it to carry out thoroughly and impartially the reviews that need to take place. That is particularly important, because the process is a long one. If the number of referendums is limited in the way planned, it could be 2010 before the second wave of elections takes place, even taking into account that, as Clause 25 suggests, Parts 2 and 4 of the Bill will come into force as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent.

It is right and fair that the English regions are given the opportunity to have a new democratic voice, as given to Scotland, Wales and London, so that the people in those regions can be part of the decision-making that affects their daily lives. There will be an interesting debate in Committee, and a lot of detail will be raised and questioned. As I said at the start of my speech, I have supported the English regions having a voice for a very long time. I am glad that decentralisation and democratisation is finally coming to fruition.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I think this may be a convenient moment to adjourn the debate on Second Reading. I beg to move that the debate be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 1.36 to 2 p.m. for Judicial Business and to 3 p.m. for Public Business.]