HL Deb 20 February 2003 vol 644 cc1276-338

Second Reading debate resumed.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, in any case, it would have been a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, with whom I collaborated in 1989 on the details of by-election expenses and overseas voting rights to be included in a Bill that summer. It is not merely a pleasure, but also a privilege, given that she is one of only two Labour Back-Bench Peers who have found it possible to assist the Minister at Second Reading by supporting the principle underlying the Bill.

Some of us are revisiting territory that we covered recently in a similar but more general debate on local government. Had we had a third opportunity, we could have applied the well-known test of the Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark that, What I tell you three times is true". But I doubt whether there will be much change in the asseverations delivered between the two debates.

Although the Bill is about preparations only, the very concept of a regional referendum implies the necessary possible consequence of a regional assembly; thus, the latter is as much a part of the principle of this Bill as the preparations. I have a handful of observations on the latter principle before concluding on the former. I put the cart before the horse, since without the cart the horse would be irrelevant.

First, I appreciate that the Prime Minister's antagonism to Conservatism carries the implication that one cannot learn from the past. In this context, that seems an error. I cite as a single example, recently confirmed by devolutionary experience and alluded to by other of my noble friends, that re-organisation expenditure always dramatically exceeds budget.

Secondly, the Government believe that they have provided a framework for regional development through the regional development agencies. I would be happier to apply the learning-from-the-past thesis if the Government believed that they have also provided a springboard as well as a framework for future regional reorganisation. That would imply a review of the regional development agencies' success to date. DTI figures last year show that RDA target achievement is so far unproven.

Thirdly, the Government believe that regional assemblies will accelerate regional regeneration and reduce regional economic disparity. The doughnut shape of France, which is not without regional development, with the wealth at the centre and poverty on the perimeter, is not only a paradigm of my own concern about the euro Europe-wide: it is a rebuttal of the Government's optimism. Academic work such as the Rowntree Foundation study—I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Best, in his place—also reinforces scepticism about the issue. It is an irony, both on cost and on economic opportunity, that a scheme intended to promote economic expansion has not managed to secure the CBI's support, but, rather, has provoked its opposition.

Fourthly, again in ignoring lessons from the past mode, the Government seem to have forgotten the nation's opposition to the removal of old landmarks and the creation of bland homogeneity. It was not only rural Rutland that objected to its obliteration. More appositely, urban areas such as Avon and Humberside resented their removal from their roots. For incidental and extraneous reasons, I am a minor authority on the Humber and its hinterland. As a small boy in 1947, when the Labour parliamentary majority was of a scale approaching that of today, a schoolmaster rebuked a misdemeanour of mine by handing me copies of Bradshaw and The Times guide to the general election and telling me to devise a railway journey from Edinburgh to where I was at school in the south of England that avoided passing through a single socialist constituency. It turned out that the only feasible such journey involved taking a train to the station on the north bank of the Humber nearest its mouth, walking to the shore and engaging a ferryman to row one across, and then walking from the southern shore to the station nearest to the river mouth.

Fifthly, a rule-of-thumb calculation in another place, which has been echoed by my noble friends today, is that regional representation will comprise one representative for around 150,000 voters. By British standards, it is a pretty remote representation. I acknowledge that European Parliament practice has now moved from individual constituencies to closed regional lists, but I do not think that anyone would argue that that reconstruction has been, to put it neutrally, anything other than unfortunate. The fact that the elephantine regional list is to be maintained in another Bill receiving Second Reading in the House today is another incidental example of the Government ignoring experience. Meanwhile, if we are to have 150,000 voters required to elect each representative, planning considerations will move much further from the individual citizen.

In all those matters, there is a whiff of dogma in the Government's proposals. In that regard, we are lucky that the Minister in charge of the Bill in your Lordships' House is the very antithesis of dogmatic. I can imagine him good-humouredly and relevantly pointing out to me, as he did to the House in his opening speech, that no region is obliged to have a regional assembly unless its citizens so vote in a referendum, and even then the Government retain some discretion.

I conclude, therefore, with two observations about the envisaged referendum procedures. Again, to some degree, I follow paths already taken by other noble friends. The first is the initial hurdle at which the Government will need to be convinced that there is in a region sufficient interest in a regional assembly to justify a referendum. I am less well informed than some noble Lords about the Government's soundings and am mildly surprised that they are going on while the Bill is still before Parliament. But, in response to other noble friends' questions, I shall be interested to hear how the Minister envisages that that interest—what might be described as sufficient interest—will be ascertained and calibrated. I shall be concerned if the Government rely on opinion poll data or their proxies, when voters will know so little of the detail of regional assemblies, and given that incremental costs have an historical record of ballooning. I also recall the Greater London Assembly Bill mushrooming from 270 clauses on introduction in another place to 413 clauses when it passed Third Reading in your Lordships' House.

I always have in mind Enoch Powell's response on "Any Questions?", when, as a capital punishment abolitionist, he was confronted on the panel by the observation that there was an 80 per cent majority vote in national polls in favour of retention of the capital penalty. He said that such data was collected by people with clipboards from people standing at bus-stops—I must allow for mutatis mutandis. He said that, if he had been standing at the same bus-stop with a retentionist, he would have guaranteed, provided that no bus came along for a quarter of an hour, that he would turn the retentionist into an abolitionist by the time that the bus arrived. I agree that the late Enoch Powell was an unusually effective and well-informed advocate. But the principle still applies, especially when interest in the proposition is still general.

My second point on procedure relates to the unfettered right of the Secretary of State to determine the period of the referendum prior to which the Government also have the right to campaign for the principle of the proposition. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. In its 11th sessional report, the committee said that no minimum or maximum referendum period was prescribed by the Bill. The absence of limits implies that the Secretary of State might vary the periods for different regions. Your Lordships may recall that holding the Welsh devolution referendum precisely a week after the similar Scottish vote may have affected the Welsh result. Thus, the apparently discretionary power pertaining to the Secretary of State is not necessarily insignificant.

All those matters will engross your Lordships' House in Committee, to which I already look forward. If I am briefly absent at any point in the afternoon, it is because the deadline for putting down amendments for the Report stage of the Licensing Bill falls today.

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, the House will be relieved to hear that I intend to keep my remarks brief. I declare an interest as a county councillor of 10 years' standing, and noble Lords may be surprised to hear that I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the Bill—but only broadly. There are two areas of concern. The first is the unnecessary linkage between elected regional assemblies and local government review. The second is the fact that the range of powers envisaged for the assemblies has not been debated, explored and clarified, before the legislation enabling them to be created is considered.

The proposals in the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice still leave far too much power in the hands of Whitehall for my liking. The Government have made a lot of the so-called democratisation of the current plethora of regional bodies, but, in the context of the Bill, that democratisation is a myth. The truth is that all the major delivery agencies, such as the National Health Service, the learning and skills councils, the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority—to name but a few—will continue to be run strategically from a central location. They will continue to be subject to the baleful influence of Whitehall, with its mania for performance indicators and target setting. Local diversity will continue to be slowly strangled through a regime of government by performance indicator.

The balance of power has not changed. That means that regions will have to adapt their priorities to fit in with those of national government. Once again, we see the obsession with structures over powers. Just as local government is all too often local administration, so regional government will be regional administration. There is a danger that, as in local government, true accountability will be blurred because the people who are elected will be taking decisions that have already been made by central government.

I use transport as an example. A regional assembly with the power merely to recommend is not much of a step forward from the current arrangements, under which representatives of local authorities in a region are mandated to meet in regional fora. Work has been done recently on multi-modal studies. Regional groupings have worked together to create integrated transport strategies to meet the aspirations of the region, not just in transport but in land-use planning, economic regeneration and sustainability. Yet, having made those detailed recommendations, the delivery agencies, all operating on legitimate national targets, say that such regional aspirations do not meet with national priorities and will not happen. People in the regions wonder why on earth the Government asked them to do the job in the first place.

Worse still, the national bodies operate in isolation not only from each other but from regional priorities. They are simply not capable of delivering appropriate transport strategies in the regions. I am not the only person saying that. The Commission for Integrated Transport, of which I am a member, has come to the same view, as has the CBI. The creation of the regional assemblies as envisaged will do nothing at all to address that situation. It is clear to many people that the regional assemblies must have some of the powers that rest currently with the Department for Transport.

The referenda on elected regional assemblies have been linked with local government review. In the context of the Bill, it is irrelevant to debate the relative merits of unitary authorities and two-tier structures. However, I must say that, if, on consideration, the Boundary Committee believes that the best way forward for service delivery in any area is to have a unitary authority, that area should have a unitary authority, regardless of how it might feel about regional government. Conversely, if the committee thinks that two-tier is the best option, why should an area be denied a regional tier of government? If the Government believe, as I do, that the current regional arrangements require democratisation, why should people who vote to keep two tiers of government have to choose between having two tiers and having democratic regional arrangements? That makes no sense to me, nor will it make sense to other people.

What saddens me is that the White Paper made clear that there was no de facto case for local government review in the context of the Bill. There is simply a perception of over-government. Political leadership is about conviction and persuasion. If the Government believe in regional assemblies, they should seek to persuade us that it does not represent over-government. They should not act simply out of fear of that perception.

Shire counties such as Suffolk went through local government review in the early 1990s. It was a shambles because there were no underlying principles relating to the powers of the authorities concerned. It was all about structure. This process looks set to repeat many of the same mistakes and could end up in the same unsatisfactory mess. Councils will face potential upheaval, staff will be threatened and vital services potentially threatened, all to no discernible purpose except a dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits-all view.

In many regions, including mine—the east of England—it is almost impossible to imagine voters choosing a directly elected regional assembly, if it means that they will lose the shire counties that they understand and trust. In other regions—for example, Cumbria and Northumberland—people risk having their desire to keep their county council over-ridden by other parts of the region that have had unitary government for a long time. That is riding roughshod over their needs.

Noble Lords may wonder why, having said all that, I support the Bill when I have such fundamental problems with it.

The Earl of Onslow

It is because you are a Liberal.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, the noble Earl is right. As such, I believe strongly in the principle of regional government and that it must be there for the right purposes. However, I am a pragmatist. If the Bill is the best that is on offer, I shall go along with it, in the hope that, given time and success, there will be a deepening of the regional dimension to our governance.

It is a pity that the Government did not choose to be bolder. With the Convention on the Future of Europe sitting, the role of this House under the spotlight, the failure of the Commons to deal with legislation as it progresses and the fact that it is unable even to debate the current international situation, the Government should examine the entire constitutional settlement, including regional and local authorities. There is a growing understanding that much of the failure to provide decent public services in this country is due to the fact that our institutions are set up in ways that are rooted in times gone by and are not suited to today. Such constitutional debates are not just a matter of academic discussion: the quality of people's lives—sometimes their lives themselves—depends on them.

3.48 p.m.

Baroness Wilcox

My Lords, I am privileged to live in the county of Cornwall, and it is on that county and its future under the proposed regional assembly that I shall centre my remarks.

Cornwall has the strongest identity of all the regions of Britain. Its boundary is sacrosanct, and, throughout the implementation of its Objective 1 regeneration programme, it has shown that it can pull together effectively with its representatives. It is a poor county in money terms. The decimation of the fishing industry, in which my family and I earned our living for so many years, made it poorer still. However, the county is rich in identity. I appreciated the passion with which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, spoke of her region; it struck a chord with me.

We have tourists, for our coastline is beautiful and our air is clean. They come and they go, putting a strain on our public services for short, hectic bursts, before leaving a county with an ageing population to watch its young people go out of Cornwall to earn a living. That is our problem, and we deal with it. Cornwall is used to being far away from the centre of things and has learnt to look out for itself and is proud to do so.

In the 1990s, the Conservative government set up the Local Government Commission. I was privileged to serve on that body for the whole of its term. As a commissioner, I travelled the length and breadth of England, offering a new option for local government—unitary authorities. I was lead commissioner for Cornwall. Painstakingly, the county considered the case for a unitary authority and, after a lengthy campaign with all sides airing their views on television, radio and in the press, and with the commission team taking the choices to town halls and villages explaining exactly what was on offer, the Cornish people voted overwhelmingly to retain their county and district councils. It was their right and they had exercised it with the choices clearly before them.

This time our people will be asked to vote in a referendum that intends to set up a new institution—a regional assembly. Our SW1 is based a long way from Cornwall where all its major decisions will be taken. Therefore, in our situation, a clear choice is a democratic essential. But how will Cornwall and the rest of the people of Britain know what they are voting for? What powers will the assembly have? How many members will there be? How many voices will there be for Cornwall, with its low population? How will the members be elected? Who will pay the costs? Who pays? We heard the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, speak on that subject in great detail.

Where is the plan? On what basis can anyone vote in a referendum before knowing what they are voting for? The Local Government Association—who should know—believes that coupling the issue of public support for regional assemblies with the requirement to establish a wholly unitary local government system is unnecessary and will distract attention from the overriding objective of improving local services. No evidence was provided in the White Paper as to the need for unitary local government to accompany regional assemblies other than the vague notion that an extra level of government would be one too many and overly bureaucratic—well, well! So why do we need another level over the head of that which we have already which is working rather well, especially in Cornwall where we are rather left to get on with things ourselves as we are too small and too far away to bother about and, like many rural areas, there is not enough votes in us?

Centralised anything is expensive, and slow—very, slow. The further away from the people, the fainter the sound of their voice. Sensitivity to special local geographic and democratic needs gets lost. Cornwall is a long way from anywhere. There will be little sympathy for us. Therefore, we want to see the plan first, so that we know what we are going to be asked to vote for.

I fear that there will be great nervousness and unhappiness over this whole upheaval. The debate in Cornwall now is already dominated by the demand of the Cornish Constitutional Convention for a directly elected Cornish assembly. Despite warnings from Nick Raynsford, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in another place, that such an assembly would be too small to have strategic vision, the convention believes that there is a chance to achieve its goal.

For 1,000 years and more, Britons have been a free and proud people, a nation of individuals prepared and willing to take responsibility for themselves and their own. Given clear choices in a Bill—not just a consultation White Paper that carries no commitment—and given clear evidence of the need, again Cornwall can make a decision, as it did under the Local Government Commission those seven or so years ago. If not, Cornwall will reject the change. She will dig in and who knows, she might even achieve her assembly.

3.53 p.m.

Lord Smith of Leigh

My Lords, I support my noble friend on the Front Bench. In doing so, I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, that he under-estimated by 50 per cent the amount of support on his Benches. I hope that his other figures are more reliable. Before I begin to—

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that I under-estimated by only one-third.

Lord Smith of Leigh

My Lords, 50 per cent—it depends on which way around one is looking at it.

I shall begin with declaring some interests. I am leader of Wigan; I am chair of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities; and I am a former chairman of the North West Regional Assembly. Therefore, I have experience at three tiers of local government level. I believe that the North West needs regional government and I have been an advocate for some time. There is not a conflict between the needs of local government and regional government.

I believe in flexibility in government. The Bill gives that opportunity. Those regions which feel that they are not mature enough to move forward to a fully-elected regional government may take that choice. But those regions which believe that they are ready should not be stopped from moving forward in this way. That is important.

There is much debate about what is regional identity. In most cases, regional identity is somewhat stronger than people feel. During the adjournment, I opened an e-mail containing an unpublished MORI poll for the North West. In terms of identity, people identify, first, with the North West region; secondly, with the district; and, finally, with the county. It is an important unpublished report.

The important point is that the ultimate choice will be made by the public. I share some of the feelings of the previous speakers, that maybe the White Paper does not go far enough. But I believe that it is just the first stage. With devolution in Scotland and Wales—and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was involved in some kind of devolution in Northern Ireland—the genie is now out of the bottle.

The regions of England will want something themselves—and they will want it for four reasons. A more powerful voice is wanted to represent the regions both in the UK and—dare I say?—in Europe. A great many issues concerning this country are determined in Brussels. Successful regions have good representation in Brussels.

We need to develop more effective regional strategies. I am a frequent user of the West Coast Main Line. I made it to the debate today by the skin of my teeth because the train was late again. I am relying on the train getting me home tonight, but who knows? Transport and other issues relating to the regions need to be addressed. It may be a surprise to Members opposite but, as my noble friend the Minister said, planning is already a regional matter. Powers are not being taken away from local government; a regional dimension in planning is already taking place.

Principally, we want to focus all the regional government that is taking place. It is not a new tier of government; it is happening already. As in every other region, in the North West a complex web is centred on the government office, other government departments and a great number of quangos set up by past and present governments, but there is not much joining-up. There is no public accountability. I want to see more working together. It is inefficient. I agree with the Minister that there could be efficiency savings, never mind costs. Certainly, it is not very effective. Working together will be better for the regions.

I should like to make a commitment, should I be involved, that there should be plans to improve regional economies. The North West has the third lowest GFP per head. It also has the highest number of deprived areas. We must do better. A regional dimension with local people who care about their community and care about the region will do a lot better than in the past.

The support for regional assemblies—despite what noble Lords opposite would like to think—is not just from political anoraks like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and myself. It is wider than that—it is in the communities. The universities in the North West, now working together in the North West Universities Association, and the trade unions support it. The CBI has been quoted, but the North West Chamber of Commerce, which is a much more representative body of the business community, is in favour of regional government of the North West. Community groups now work at a regional level and public support is there.

My noble friend Lady Gould mentioned a BBC poll in which 72 per cent of the people of the North West were in favour. On analysing the detail of the poll, it was found that 81 per cent thought the region would have a stronger voice; 63 per cent thought that it would be closer to the people; 74 per cent thought that it would improve the economy; 42 per cent thought that it would just be a talking shop; but 49 per cent thought that it would not be a talking shop and would get something done.

We have heard a great number of fears about regional government which need addressing. The question is whether we have the capacity in the regions of the UK to make decisions about what should happen in them. Size does not matter; we all know that. However, the North West, with a population of just under 7 million, is bigger than four EU countries. What is most important in the regions is commitment. If people want it to work, then it will do so.

A number of noble Lords opposite have also mentioned fundamental problems between urban and rural areas in the regions. In the North West, it is feared that Manchester or Liverpool will somehow not allow rural areas to develop. But at the moment the choice is not whether Manchester or Liverpool would do that because London makes decisions in regard to the rural areas. Indeed, I question whether the statement is true. When I was leader of the North West Regional Assembly and foot and mouth disease was at its height in Cumbria, that body organised the first two lobbies of European Commissioners on tourism and structural funds to try to help the hard-pressed Cumbrian economy. We did not forget our rural communities, although clearly the outbreak was not a problem in the urban areas. The rural dimension is false.

Will regional assemblies end traditions? I think that there will still be a Lancashire cricket team. It will continue to play, as it has always done, in what is technically Cheshire across the Mersey and we shall still cheer whenever the team beats Yorkshire. That will not change.

A key question that reflects the fears of the Liberal Democrats is the linkage with local government reform. I agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench and the Government that it will add clarity to governance in local areas. Districts are closer to people than are counties. Ultimately, however, people will have a choice about what is to happen, unlike when the metropolitan counties were set up, which my noble friend pointed out. The strength of the Bill is that it will give people a chance to vote and to choose what is to happen.

Noble Lords have expressed many different opinions and quoted from opinion polls on regional government and so forth. The Bill, however, will provide an opportunity to ask people directly. I look forward to that challenge in the North West. If I felt, as do noble Lords opposite, wary of regional government, I would welcome the Bill and lend my support to it. I would support the referendums. If the proposal is going to be as horrendous as has been implied, clearly there will be no problem about persuading people to vote against it. But I fear that, just as noble Lords opposite were wrong in Scotland and wrong in Wales, they will be wrong in some of the key regions of England.

4.2 p.m.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, in taking part in this debate, I hope that my contribution may be of some interest because of my lifetime association with the North East of England. I was born in the region and for a great many years represented a constituency there in another place.

The North East is said to be principal in desiring regional government. I hope to indicate that that is not entirely so and that when the full consequences of regional government become evident, it may be that people will not really desire it.

Recently a response was sought of the regional CBI, which indicated only modest interest. The main claim for regional governance, expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister, is that it will improve regional economic performance. I should like to say a word about the current economic performance of the North East. It has improved enormously over recent years from the post-Second World War position, when we saw the decline of major industries and unemployment rates were appalling. As a young MP in the late 1950s, I continually received deputations from people who had been made redundant, often at difficult times of the year such as Christmas. Today, however, the unemployment rate for the region stands at 6.7 per cent; many of us can remember it being very much higher than that. The figure is only slightly above the national average. Although economic performance is desperately important in any region, as the Deputy Prime Minister has rightly pointed out, at the moment the North East is not doing too badly with local government in its present form.

I turn now to the development agency for the North East. One North East has been remarkably successful in attracting new industry to the region. It has done so in conjunction with, and with co-operation from, existing local government. In his opening speech the Minister spoke of government offices and arms in the regions. To that end, the government arm in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne has also been successful and most helpful to the region, both to local industry and to individuals. Whenever I have approached it I have been given the maximum amount of advice and aid.

When regional authorities were first proposed, I joined in the strong reaction against a third level of government. That is not to be and it was good to hear the Minister confirm today that under no circumstances will there be a third layer of local government if regional assemblies are introduced. However, the realisation that one of the two existing layers will be removed is causing great consternation in the North East of England. Recently in Blyth, a town in east Northumberland, the leader of the council stated that he was urging his authority to re-examine its former pro stance for a regional authority because the proposed single authority system would follow a major shake-up of town halls in Northumberland, which is feared by many. I do not think that it is desirable or democratic under any circumstances to have a smaller government unit in the name of local people and local problems.

In the region we call the North East of England, 68 per cent of those entitled to vote in a referendum already live in unitary council areas. I make the point because the unitary council areas cover the densely populated parts of the region. The North East is peculiar in that it has certain densely populated parts along with great and expansive areas of open country. The population of Northumberland is 300,000; it is quite a small county. Indeed, it is the second smallest county after the Scilly Isles. If we have a local government review which deems that there will be a single local government authority in Northumberland, it may well be that Northumberland County Council will become a unitary council. Is not that enormously dangerous in a vast area with a population that is not high? The region is vast in terms of acreage, but not only sheep live there—although there are an awful lot of them—many people live there too, served by excellent local authorities. There is an obvious danger in removing local councillors, thus taking away democratic representation in particular from those who live in the county's rural areas.

What will happen in the region of my birth if a referendum takes place and a "yes" vote is successful? The North East has two county councils: Northumberland and Durham. Both councils are historic, highly regarded and have been in place for a long time. They will go, along with 13 district councils. The members of county councils invariably represent areas which they know and in which they are known. That is an important point. For many years my late father was a member of Northumberland County Council. He was also a borough councillor and his town's wartime mayor. Whenever I was asked how I got into party politics, I used to reply that I was brought up on county council minutes.

District and county councillors are well known locally—I know many in my area—and the advent of regional government would mean a substantial withdrawal from public life of so many who have served so well. People wish to be part of their community, but if we move to regional government, decisions that are now taken by district and county councils will be taken by a body consisting of no more than 30 to 45 members, which, in an enormous electorate, will be remote from local problems and local people.

If a referendum is held—and it is obvious from what the Minister said that it will not be held in a hurry and not until after the local government review—I hope that people will vote "no".

4.11 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a unitary local authority, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, in West Yorkshire. I approach the Bill by looking at it through Yorkshire eyes, although I hope I can see how it will affect other areas.

I speak as someone who is in favour of regional government in England. I believe that there is an appropriate level for decision making. It may well be that on informal matters it is possible to decide at street level where you will have the bonfire on 5th November and whether you will have a street party. There are other appropriate levels—parish, council and regional. We must make clear that there are now regions. The Bill does not introduce a fresh tier; regional levels exist. Above that there are the national, European and United Nations levels

In a way, this is a very odd Bill; it is a comical affair. We have been told that it follows what happened in Scotland, Wales and London. It is a precursor. Or is it an aperitif or mood music? Its title is the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. To prepare or not to prepare? It is a Boy Scouts Bill. Be prepared—but be prepared for what?

The major element of the Bill concerns referendums—I am not keen on referendums but they took place in the other areas and we must live with that—which will be held to frank regional assemblies and regional government. The appetite for voting is not as high as it used to be. Voting seems to be going out of fashion.

However, the ability to vote is still in fashion and elected bodies are far more popular than appointed ones. Reference has been made to the debates in your Lordships' House in regard to whether we should be an appointed House or an elected House. I believe that a public opinion poll was published in which 3 per cent of those questioned thought that it was a good idea to have an appointed House, and rather a lot more were in favour of an elected House. People have a greater enthusiasm for election than for appointment, and a greater enthusiasm for elected bodies than for quangos.

There are two major elements to regional government. First, decision making is nearer home—and we need clarity in that regard. Secondly—this is a major feature in favour of regional assemblies—there should be fewer quangos. Democratic central government agencies will exist in the regions, not the fiefdoms that exist at present.

I have five questions on which the Minister may wish to ponder or, indeed, to answer. How many, and which, quangos will be put out of business? An answer to that question will raise the enthusiasm for regional government. I believe that the RDAs will be the first on the list, but there must be many more. The Minister referred to voting in the dark. We shall not be voting in the dark if we know how many quangos will be put out of business.

Secondly, when people are asked to vote, will they be clear about what powers will be devolved, how much democracy there will be and how much more can be done nearer home?

As to my third question, reference was made to the element of local government, local government reform and the desire for unitary authorities, agree that it would be better if there were unitary authorities in most places. I believe that there are areas which have been seeking unitary status but which have not yet achieved it. It is interesting to note that in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill reference is made to the Labour manifesto commitment that, provision should be made for directly elected regional government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local government is established". The Government should stick with the word "predominantly" rather than going for wholesale unitary regional government.

As I said, I speak with some understanding of Yorkshire. I am far from clear that North Yorkshire—which extends from Skipton and beyond in the west to Scarborough in the east—would be right for a unitary authority. There are exceptions. I hope that the word "predominantly" is carried forward and that there is not a wish to make every single area a unitary authority. I hope that many areas will want a unitary body, but that will not be the case everywhere.

As to my fourth question, the White Paper suggested that these regional authorities would have between 25 and 35 members. Reference has been made to the fact that in Scotland there are 73 constituency members and 56 top-up members, a total of 129. That is a far better basis for membership. It seems that we shall be grouping together four parliamentary constituencies and then adding some top-up members.

That may be all right for London, where people live just round the corner, but I am not certain that it is right to have so few people representing such vast regions. People in the country will say that if it is good enough for Scotland to have 129 members, surely we should have decent regional assemblies in Yorkshire, the North East, the North West or wherever.

My fifth question is whether, after the Boy Scouts Bill, we shall need another Bill—or will it be eight more Bills? It will be interesting to know what is to happen when we come to the real Bill. I suspect that improvements will be required to this Bill and I look forward to the debates on that. But we shall need to know the framework of the substantial Bill before anyone will be able to not necessarily vote but campaign and enthuse about a new kind of regional government.

4.19 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, has raised an extremely good point. The Bill basically says: you may vote. But vote for what? The noble Lord suggested that we might have some idea about what the regional assemblies should vote for. That is the first sensible Liberal suggestion that I have heard for years—since the Parliament Act of 1911.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that it would be immature not to vote for regional assemblies. There are those who may take a different view. We may disagree with him, but the accusation of being immature is not totally reasonable.

Constitutional change is terribly easy. When I was a very young man, and had just arrived in this House, we had the 1971 local government changes. The point was that it could be done; no one was going to argue about it. Yippee! We would make a constitutional change, tear up local government, and change it all again.

We have gone through constitutional change after constitutional change, most of it ill-thought-out. We have had a wonderful example today. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested that, if new regional assemblies are to come about, they should be hybrid—partly democratically elected and partly appointed. He totally fails to make any connection with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who thinks that hybrid assemblies are a bad idea and that they all have to be appointed. I look around me and say that according to the Lord Chancellor we all have to be appointed.

We democrats believe something slightly different—I know that my own side are not sound on this either. We democrats believe that a greater proportion of Members should be voted for. We also see no reason why there should not be some topping up from other sources. I have no difficulty with that. But the Government ought to make up their mind what they believe is right.

Equally, suddenly the Government says that we all have to have the Human Rights Act; and the Act is there because the House of Commons cannot he trusted not to pass tyrannical Acts or to protect an Englishman's liberties—which is what I, as an old-fashioned constitutionalist, thought was its purpose. Then, we pass the Human Rights Act, the judges interpret it in a way that the Home Secretary does not like, whereupon the Home Secretary goes ballistic, and he and the Prime Minister say that they are going to derogate from it.

There seems to be a total lack of cohesive thought in what the Government want to do about the constitution. I know what I want, but I am not in government—many of your Lordships will say what a blessed relief that is, and I would not necessarily disagree with them. But we must begin thinking seriously about this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, says that the Bill has nothing to do with Europe. I think there is some cliché somewhere: "The lady doth protest too much". The noble Lord was like a lady protesting like hell. I am afraid to say that I believe that there is a European connection, and a perfectly understandable one.

Europe grew up without common law, without a unitary state. This country was a unitary state before the Conquest. It had a perfectly sensible local authority system very early on; namely, counties, shrievalties and chartered towns. That system worked. We managed to bring it gently up to date, to change it gradually and to make it work for a long time. We were a unitary state.

Germany was not a unitary state, because the French interfered and made sure that the Hapsburgs could not unite it. Spain was not a unitary state, because it was the junction of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. Italy was not a unitary state, because the papacy did not wish the emperor to impose a unitary state on it. So the balances of all those continental countries made sure that there could not be a unitary state.

We are a unitary state. We have common law, and it has served us enormously well. To mess about with it because someone has been to a polytechnic constitutional conference in Scunthorpe or wherever strikes me as not being a very intelligent way to approach these matters. We should develop the institutions that we have. We have county councils and district councils; some people want unitary councils, some want split-level councils.

Governments have persistently taken away from local authorities the powers that they had. Before the poll tax of unblessed memory, local authorities raised approximately 50 per cent of their revenue. They now raise some 7 per cent. If local authorities are allowed to use more of the powers that they have and to raise more of their revenue, we shall re-introduce democracy at local level. There is nothing democratic about these proposals. No one is suggesting that, the new regional authorities should have the power to raise tax. No one is suggesting that they should have real powers. It is suggested that 25 people, a few of whom are elected and others who are appointed, should be allowed to boss about some quangos. Only a tax-raising authority can have real power. That is why the Commons has power.

What is happening is this. Ethelred the Unready abolished the Heptarchy. The Heptarchy was a bad idea in 900. Now, John the Totally Completely All Over the Place wants to reintroduce the Heptarchy. That is what these regional assemblies are. They are another layer of totally unnecessary government which will not make any decent improvement in ordinary people's lives or give them any more control. Let us give hack to local authorities the powers to tax and the powers to take their own decisions. That will be much better than a recreation of the Heptarchy.

4.26 p.m.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I look forward to a referendum in Yorkshire and Humberside and hope that the referendum supports an elected regional assembly.

Within the Bill there are a number of areas where legitimate points of concern might arise. I hope that the Government are still open to consideration of some of those issues. Your Lordships' Select Committee on the Constitution set out many of these in paragraph 4 on page 3 of its Fourth Report. We shall no doubt explore those issues, along with those raised today and in Committee.

The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, published last year provides a backcloth to the Bill. I believe that it does not go far enough. Many important issues concerning the scope, powers and funding of elected regional assemblies are unclear or merit further debate. Do the Government expect that paving legislation regarding the scope, powers and funding of the ERAs will be necessary before the first regional assembly is established?

Would it not be helpful in terms of public awareness, judgment and decision if such legislation were to be published, at least in draft form, before any referendums were held? If that is not done, it rather calls into question the bold claim in paragraph 3.6 on page 32 of the White Paper—repeated by my noble friend the Minister earlier today: The general approach to regional assemblies' functions has been to take power from central government bodies and quangos, not from local government". That claim is central to much of the thinking underlying the Bill and, by implication, any subsequent legislation. Will the legislation to establish elected regional assemblies set out in detail what powers are to be transferred from central government to the elected regional assemblies? Will that Bill set out details of transfers of funding to the elected regional assemblies to support their regional strategic policies in the relevant areas?

I turn briefly to the question of local government, with reference to Yorkshire-Humberside. In terms of population, North Yorkshire represents a small proportion—500,000 out of some 5 million—but it is a very large county. If the purpose and consequence of the move to elected regional assemblies is to transfer power from central government bodies and quangos, not from local government, surely the regional assemblies will not duplicate or triplicate the work of local authorities. That is the Government's claim. Why, then, are the Government set, in principle, on eliminating a tier of local government, where it currently exists, in the event of establishing elected regional assemblies?

If an elected regional assembly is not established, the Government are perfectly happy for two tiers of local government to continue, presumably because it is an effective and appropriate way of delivering local services. If an elected regional assembly is established, taking powers only from central government, why is there the need to change the structure of local government as a principle? I simply do not understand the logic. However, I understand that if the Government had not put forward this proposal, Members on the Opposition Benches would be shouting that this would duplicate, triplicate and multiply costs. It would be encouraging to hear Conservative Front Bench Members saying that that is not the case and they are not arguing about extra costs. I accept that the Government's case is difficult politically, but I certainly do not understand the logic of their position, even if I understand the political imperative.

However, I believe the White Paper's claim to be a considerable overstatement of a transfer of powers from central government to the regions: it could raise expectations unduly. If people are to vote on real, effective regional devolution of power—art important constitutional reform I totally support—details of the scope, powers and financing of the elected regional assemblies should be transparent.

Regionalism is about power as well as general influence. There are whole swathes of public policy where the regional dimension is important and regional vision and drive can make a real difference. I am thinking of such areas as health services, education, learning and skills, transport, the environment and even planning, where recent changes are only a modest start in the right direction.

Increasing the regional sensitivities of Whitehall departments has been a welcome step, but that is not regionalism. It does not strengthen regional identity, regional commitment or regional self-development.

Kirklees Metropolitan Council undertook an exemplary public consultation exercise on the issues raised by the White Paper, and I commend it to your Lordships. It noted on page 4, paragraph 9: There is a plethora of organizations operating at regional and sub-regional level. This causes confusion even to those used to working on regional issues … It is not clear who makes decisions and where accountability lies". The report also observes that if it is possible to divide a central Government budget into eight for regional development agency purposes, it should also be possible to divide it into eight for other key policy areas. But I suspect that the controlling hand of Whitehall and the political self-interest of Ministers are a powerful block on a vibrant regionalism in England. England is one of the most centralised unitary countries in the democratic world. The eventual Bill on the powers and funding of the elected regional assemblies will tell us if anything is to change.

I conclude with a few observations on opinions in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Many local councils have undertaken consultation exercises. Those have, without doubt, raised awareness of the possible referendum process, if not the issues that will lie behind a referendum decision. The Yorkshire and Humberside regional Assembly has undertaken a particularly thorough review of public opinion on whether a referendum should be held. The regional assembly considers those findings on Monday next, and I await its views and assessment with interest.

Most people know little or nothing about the issues of substance behind a possible referendum. For example, work done for the North Yorkshire County Council shows that 75 per cent of residents in North Yorkshire have either not heard of the Government's proposals or, where they have, are unable to explain them. If pressed, I believe that a quiet, if not totally silent and not too committed majority, would wish to have the opportunity to vote in a referendum. I think that people who desire a referendum are in the majority in my region, especially if other regions were to have a referendum, which would lead to the problem of timing.

If people are pressed on how they would vote if a referendum were held, the silence is even louder. There may be differences of views between the rural and urban areas in the Yorkshire-Humber region, but those differences may not be as strong as some might expect. In the study by North Yorkshire County Council 59 per cent of people in that county support the idea of a referendum. Based upon the minority of people who say they would vote, 61 per cent said they would vote for an elected regional assembly. That was in North Yorkshire, outside the big urban heartlands.

Interestingly, the effect of restructuring local government in North Yorkshire was as likely to cause people to vote for a regional assembly—46 per cent—as against—44 per cent. So although I have grave doubts about the principle underlying the Government's pragmatic, political decision to go for unitary authorities, it may come as a surprise to some that in North Yorkshire there is no overwhelming desire to keep a two-level, two-tier body.

If a referendum is to be held in my region—and I hope it is—there is a great deal to be done by proponents and opponents of the move to elected regional assemblies if a turnout is to be respectable and the electorate's decision a clear guide to the Government. The Bill is a paving Bill in that process. I wish it well, but I hope that the Government are able, even at this stage, to listen to some of the concerns expressed in this Chamber.

4.36 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I shall concentrate my remarks on the likely implications for economic performance at regional level if the Bill is enacted and regional assemblies are established.

First, I should like to comment on the Government's attitude to local and regional government in England. Unless we understand that, it is difficult to make sense of the White Paper. It uses some splendid language, to which the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, referred, and raises one's expectations for regional government. Yet when one looks at the powers envisaged for regional assemblies, one sees a great roar that has produced a mouse.

I was fortunate in getting a double insight into government thinking when I attended a meeting of the Campaign for Yorkshire in Leeds a couple of weeks ago. The speakers included Ed Balls, speaking for the Treasury, and Richard Caborn, who was of course largely instrumental in getting the idea of regional government in England moving in government.

Ed Balls talked about various small additional powers that local government might get and said something like, "local government has to earn greater powers". Richard Caborn, when describing with great satisfaction the fact that the RDAs now had greater discretion within the single pot, said that that had been possible because they had earned greater flexibility, and that the powers given to regional government would have to be earned. We on these Benches reject that approach completely. We believe, as a matter of principle, that maximum powers should be devolved to local and regional level. We do not take it as axiomatic that national government have earned all their powers. In many cases, they have simply grabbed hold of powers from local government, not least because, in some cases, the government of the day did not like the polices adopted at a lower level.

However, there is a silver lining in the Government's approach. The White Paper implies that if regional assemblies exercise their minimal powers wisely, further powers will be given to them. I hope that the appropriate analogy is that of the European Parliament. It started off with minimal powers and very low understanding but has acquired significantly greater powers because the logic of the European Parliament, and its role within the EU, has become apparent. Governments have given the European Parliament greater powers because they feel that it has a more powerful role to play.

To return to the economic case, one can see how elected assemblies would help the regions at regional, national, European and international levels. At the regional level, the RDAs have made significant progress, not least in developing regional economic strategies—concepts that, to the extent that they existed, were not put into effect before, but are now being produced as a result of a huge amount of consultation, involving the energies of large numbers of people. RDAs have been criticised in this debate for not yet having achieved a major shift in regional disparities. Given their short life and small budget, that seems unfair and misleading.

The problem with the RDAs as the main drivers for regional economic development is that many of the things that they wish to happen fall outwith their powers. An obvious example involving the Yorkshire and Humberside RDA's regional economic strategy relates to the role of culture in the region. The RDA has many powers, but it has no power or significant influence over cultural development, nor should it. Without a regional assembly, it will be impossible to bring together those other elements of regional life, which breathe life into and strengthen the economic strategies.

The role that the RDAs claim for themselves of knocking heads together at regional level to produce coherent delivery of economic policy is not best suited to a nominated body. If anyone is suited to that work, it is the elected politician who has a mandate.

Secondly, English regions currently have very limited ability to lobby effectively on economic matters at national level. When the Yorkshire and Humberside RDA launched its regional economic strategy a couple of weeks ago, I chaired a small working group on transport policy. Everyone in the room rapidly agreed that the major problem was that there was no body within Yorkshire that could lobby at national level for improvements in transport, whether it was the railways, airports or transport within the region. When I took that conclusion back to the plenary everyone nodded their head wisely, but it was clear that nothing was going to happen as a result of that conclusion because the RDA is not in a position to become an effective lobby at national level. The only people who can come down to Whitehall and Westminster and berate the Government are elected politicians with their own mandate. Only an elected assembly will be able to lobby for public economic goods.

There has been some discussion today about the Barnett formula. Does anyone believe that the Government will change the Barnett formula unless there is tremendous pressure on them to do so? How can tremendous pressure be brought to bear at the moment from the English regions when there are no regional bodies with any weight that can come to London and berate Ministers? Again, unless we have directly elected regional assemblies able to look a Minister in the eye and say, "We have a mandate", we shall not get a significant response from Whitehall.

Thirdly, regions need to be stronger in European negotiations. There will soon be a major renegotiation of the structural funds to take account of EU enlargement. The inevitable consequence will be a reduction in the proportion of the structural funds coming to the UK. To protect the level of structural funds coming to London, Ken Livingstone, as an elected regional leader, has had the political clout to pull together other cities and regions to make the case for an urban strand in future structural funds. The other English regions have no elected politicians with the clout and remit to undertake a similar role. As an inevitable consequence, the regions will lose out in the political horse trading that will precede any decision on the future of structural funds.

Contrast that with the growing and deepening involvement of regions across the EU with the economic development agenda. They are not doing that for fun or on a whim. They know that in the competition for jobs and investment, clear and firm political support really matters.

That takes me to my fourth and final area—the international links that regions increasingly feel the need to build up to generate trade and investment. I shall illustrate the current nonsensical situation with an instance involving Yorkshire Forward, in which I was involved. Yorkshire Forward has signed an agreement with the Zhejiang province in China, by which the two areas agreed to work together to promote trade, inward investment, tourism and other links between them. It makes a lot of economic sense for an English region to have a strong link with the largest and fastest growing economy in the world.

However, when a delegation of senior politicians, administrators and businessmen came to Yorkshire to get the agreement moving, the RDA had the difficulty of having no one at Yorkshire level to speak to them, so I was dragged into the meeting in Leeds to pretend to be the equivalent of the vice-governor of Zhejiang province—population 45 million—and explain that, although at the moment things at regional level were pretty weak, the Government were about to enable a regional assembly to be put in place that would be able, in part at least, to replicate what the regional bodies were doing in China. In accordance with the RDA's strategic goal of linking sporting success to regeneration and regional pride, I then marched the Chinese delegation to Elland Road for one of Leeds United's fortunately successful UEFA Cup matches in the early autumn. Much as I enjoyed the whole experience, I felt it was slightly ludicrous.

For all those reasons at all those levels, the economic development agenda of the English regions needs the buttressing of elected regional assemblies. Even with the limited powers in the Green Paper, many of the things that I have described will be possible. I hope that if and when there are regional assemblies in the northern regions and they are successful in moving forward the economic development agenda, the government of the day will use that as a basis to strengthen what is proposed so that what is now a second-rate, milk and water proposal for regional government becomes the real thing.

4.48 p.m.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, as I have said on other occasions, I may be less hostile to the concept of regional government than are some of my noble friends. I have seen regional authorities in different forms in different countries in Europe. Despite the difficulty of transposing political structures and systems from one jurisdiction to another, there is no doubt that in those countries they enjoy some real advantages. Incidentally, like the Minister, I do not accept that this is a dastardly scheme from Brussels. I look forward to hearing later speakers this afternoon put forward the evidence that it is, which was trailed in Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph.

Nevertheless, I remain sceptical about whether those advantages will ever be achieved in England or whether the centralising political culture of this country, which exists even when we are trying to decentralise, will bring forward proposals of any worth.

I have real reservations about the concept of regions in this country. Few areas have a clear sense of regional identity. Many people have loyalties to different places for different purposes, but they do not fall neatly into the regions that the Government have in mind.

As I have said in previous debates, there is much to be said for ensuring that there are statutory mechanisms—better mechanisms than exist at present—that enable existing local authorities to work together. They might achieve much of what is behind the idea of a regional assembly, but without the disruption that will undoubtedly follow this Bill. My fear is not that the Bill will set up another sphere of government that will weaken central government and Parliament, but that it will be just another local government reorganisation that will weaken all the local government structures in the regions in question.

The suggested powers include economic development, transport, land use and regional planning, environmental protection and public health, but not many of the major issues to which the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred. The Bill says nothing about the powers of regional assemblies. The noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, dwelt on that matter at some length and very clearly. I have great sympathy with the view that we should not approve the Bill until the Government give a clear and unambiguous statement as to what precisely the assemblies will do and how they will be financed. The proposals will be worthless unless there is a real devolution of power to the assemblies, not one that is hedged about by so many controls that, in effect, they are the creatures of the Deputy Prime Minister or his successor.

Much has changed since I left local government in 1998, but I am bound to observe that much of what is trailed as powers of the regional assemblies is not a million miles away from the concerns of local authorities then and, I believe, now. There is nothing to suggest that there will be a ground-breaking experiment in England to hand real power and functions to regional assemblies or even local authorities, on the Scandinavian model. Why, if we are to have devolution, are the English assemblies to be less trusted than the Welsh Assembly? If it is because the English assemblies are going to be a different creature, it can only be because it is going to be a local government creature.

Will the Minister expand on Clause 23 and the grant-aiding powers for regional chambers? I was under the impression, as I am sure that other noble Lords were, that with the advent of regional assemblies, the chambers would go. However, the Deputy Prime Minister waxed lyrical about the success of regional chambers. He said: They have taken on an increasingly significant role … At present, the chambers get most of their funding from local authorities. As the role of the chambers expands, in particular on planning, a more general funding mechanism is needed".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 196.] Can we have a categorical assurance that where there is an assembly there will not be an RDA, a regional chamber and, indeed, the assembly?

I have great sympathy with the views expressed on the reorganisation of local government as a consequence of a positive result of a referendum on the establishment of a regional assembly. If devolution and decentralisation are the names of the game, why must a region that has voted to have an assembly with devolved powers have a system of local government thrust on it? If devolution means anything, it must be that regional government can decide the system that it considers best for the delivery of local government services. In rural areas, smaller units for the delivery of some services may be more appropriate.

I remain sceptical about the Bill. There is a suspicion that the Government must propose the abolition of the counties if the Bill is to have anything to offer the new regional assemblies. This is a Bill to reorganise local government and, yet again, to shuffle the services between one tier and another. The resulting local government reorganisation will sour relations between communities for years and cost a fortune. It is a proposal not to give power to the regions but to create larger units of local government.

I turn to the vexed question of boundaries. It would be right for the Boundary Committee to conduct a timetabled exercise on the boundaries of the proposed regions. When the Regional Development Agencies Bill was before your Lordships' House, a number of noble Lords raised the question of boundaries. Concern was expressed that using the boundaries of regional offices for the purposes of establishing RDAs might give a hostage to fortune when the proposals were made, which were already being trailed, for regional assemblies.

At that time, I moved an amendment that would have placed the decision on the boundaries in the hands of the Boundary Commission. It was an attempt to deal with the problem of deciding on the extent of each region with the intention of ensuring that a real community of interest existed. The Government resisted that amendment and similar pleas from my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon and other noble Lords. It was resisted largely on the grounds that the future was not being prejudiced. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in resisting the amendment, said: This Bill is not concerned with making RDAs accountable to regional assemblies in the first place … However, we made clear our intention that in time the people in the regions of England will have the opportunity to decide whether they wish to move to a more decentralised form of government. But it is at that time, and not now, that there will be a case for putting our RDAs into a regional democratic framework and for considering the boundaries of that democratic framework … If and when regional assemblies are established, there will clearly be a need for new primary legislation to establish them. Parliament will then have the opportunity to consider the extent and the boundaries of the regions proposed in that context. We are not committed to using these precise boundaries for regional assemblies at a later stage … The Boundary Commission does, by and large, determine electoral boundaries, but that too is a matter for consideration when that legislation emerges".—[Official Report, 7/10/02; cols. 441–42.] He went on to say that the amendments, would place the decisions on the boundaries in the hands of the Boundary Commission. We do not consider that to be appropriate. Although I take very much the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about the appropriateness of the Boundary Commission for reviewing electoral constituencies, we are not involved with electoral constituencies or bodies of democratic accountability here; we are dealing with development agencies and the administrative areas of those development agencies. It would not be appropriate, given the expertise and the system of working that the Boundary Commission has adopted in the past, to apply it to this area. We understand that some of the concerns behind this proposition relate to the presumption discussed on the earlier amendments that we were using the same boundaries for future purposes. I hope I have made clear my assurances on that".—[Official Report, 7/10/02; cols. 453–54.] Will the Minister table an amendment in Committee that will enable us to consider the boundaries of the regions? He said that there was a power to change the boundaries some time in future. Is he relying on the RDA Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to review but not increase or decrease the number of regions? I fear that we are being asked to approve a Bill that will give the Secretary of State powers to hold a referendum in a region established by previous Secretaries of State and governments as a matter of administrative convenience. That referendum will be to decide whether there should be a regional assembly without, as yet, any specified powers. It is not known how it will be funded, and local government will be reorganised or abolished in the region before any of the questions are answered.

Far from devolving power, this is an extraordinary sleight of hand that takes power away from people and their region and puts it in the hand of Government.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Dixon

My Lords, the campaign to get elected regional government on the parliamentary agenda has taken a considerable time. I welcome this Bill as the first long awaited step. Like my noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds, I look forward to the referendum.

I shall confine my remarks to the North East region, which has its own identity. Last Friday, I attended a memorial service for Joe Mills OBE, a great northerner. He was chairman of the Northern Regional Labour Party and was always a strong advocate of elected regional government. I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, to my right honourable friend Joyce Quin M P, to the right honourable Alan Beith MP. and to the many others in the region who have long spearheaded the campaign for an elected regional assembly.

It was over a quarter of a century ago, in 1976, that I attended a meeting in Newcastle at which my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister showed his enthusiasm for elected regional assemblies. Unfortunately, that meeting took place during the period of the ill-fated Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills, during the 1974–79 Labour government. The meeting was attended by some cynics who felt that that policy had been trotted out as an act of appeasement to various northern Labour MPs who were not too happy about the Scottish and Welsh Devolution Bill. I should point out that some of the MPs who showed opposition did so not because they were totally opposed to devolved government for Scotland and Wales, but mainly because they maintained that Scotland and Wales already had tremendous advantages over the northern region where there was not even a regional development agency.

In his maiden speech, on 20th November 1976, after winning the by-election in Newcastle Central, and referring to the passage in the Queen's Speech on devolution, my old comrade, the late Harry Cowens, said: If there is to be devolution, adequate safeguards for cities like Newcastle are vital. Without them the situation would be like the attitude of a person who had tried for a considerable time to win one of the minor prizes on a football pool only to discover the person living next door winning a very big one".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/11/76; col. 112.] That was the situation at the time of the introduction of the famous—or as many now see it, the infamous—Barnett formula.

On Tuesday, 28th January 2003, there was a very good report in the Newcastle Journal by Paul Linford, following a Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Barnett. The article pointed out that, according to Treasury figures, under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives £410 per head more than the North East in government spending on vital public services. Moreover, under the formula, Wales receives £215 per head more in public spending than is currently available to the North East. If the North East received the same overall government funding per head as Scotland, it would be worth an additional £1.1 billion to the region. I appreciate the earlier comments of the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, but the creation of a regional assembly will not in itself change the Barnett formula. I believe that an elected regional assembly would be able to make a strong case to the government of the day for a fairer and better settlement for the North East.

On 18th December 2002, in a debate on the constitution, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said: It is about 175 paces from the Speaker's Chair in the House of Commons to the Woolsack here … Frankly, at times the distance between them could as well be 175 miles. We live in different worlds that seldom come together".—[Official Report, 18/12/02; col. 672.] If noble Lords will just double that 175 miles, they will have some idea of how remote people from the area where I was born and bred feel about some of the decisions made in their name in Whitehall. There are many people in the North East who feel at times totally disconnected from the centres of power in London.

During the time that I served in another place as MP for the Jarrow constituency, Scotland and Wales had both their own Secretaries of State in the Cabinet and other Ministers. They had their own Grand Committees. They had their own Select Committees. They had their own Question Time. The regions had a committee, but, because it was a Standing Committee rather than a Select Committee, it had no permanent secretariat, did not control its own agenda and could meet only if the Minister tabled a Motion. We could never get the then Tory government to table such a Motion so that we could have a debate on the Floor of the House about the problems facing the North East. As Opposition MPs, we had to use half our supply days each Session to talk about the problem in the North East.

The 2001 census results reveal some shocking facts. They show that the North East region has England's highest rate of people in poor health, the highest proportion of adults with no qualifications, and the highest number of people who are economically inactive and permanently sick. Since the devolution of Scotland and Wales in 1999, people living in the North East can look across to Scotland and see free personal care for the elderly and students no longer paying tuition fees. They can look across to Wales and see improvement in a series of policy areas, from free bus passes for the elderly to the reintroduction of free school milk. Indeed, just recently we had a situation in which Welsh MPs in another place voted to abolish community health councils in this country while CHCs have been retained in Wales. In South Tyneside, we lost our good community health council, with which I worked for many years.

I can understand the reservations expressed today about having one tier of local government. I served on Jarrow Borough Council under the two-tier system with Durham County Council. After the Local Government Act 1972, I went on South Tyneside Metropolitan District Council. I know which I prefer. However, when I hear Tory MPs and Tory Lords and Baronesses talking about local government reorganisation and referendums, I recall that there was no referendum before the 1972 reorganisation was forced on the people. When they talk about costs, I recall that the costs of the 1972 reorganisation were colossal.

There is support for an elected regional assembly in the North East. A poll carried out last March by the BBC showed that 72 per cent of people in the North East region favour such an assembly. About the time of the Jarrow Crusade, in 1936, when 200 men marched 291 miles to London with a petition to draw the government's attention to the unacceptably high level of unemployment in the town, a small deputation from Jarrow Council went to see the then President of the Board of Trade about the terrible situation in our area. However, He told them to go back and work out their own salvation". Now, almost 70 years later, I believe that an elected regional assembly will offer a real opportunity for the North East to set its own priorities. The regions will be able to make many decisions for themselves and set their own agenda based on the needs and views of the people in the area.

Some argue that an elected regional assembly would create an extra regional tier of government. However, as my noble friend Lord Rooker pointed out, a regional tier of government already exists—consisting of central government outposts staffed by civil servants as well as numerous unelected and unaccountable quangos which daily make key decisions affecting people's lives in the region.

I recall, as chairman of the housing committee of South Tyneside Metropolitan Council, going every year to the Government Office at Welbar House, in Newcastle, and arguing with civil servants for what we considered adequate finance for the Housing Investment Programme. I hope that an elected regional assembly will make the system more accountable by bringing all the regional quangos under a single, democratically elected body. To those who argue that those who want a regional assembly must be mad, I say, "Look at the 2001 census returns for the North East and see where the sane ones have got us".

I should like, finally, to reiterate the points made on the desirability of having a draft Bill printed before the referendum. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will seriously consider that. However, I assure him that he will have my utmost support in getting the Bill on the statute book.

5.9 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, speaking after so many erudite contributions, there does not seem to be much more to say about the detail of this unfortunate and dangerous Bill. As my noble friend Lady Hanham made clear, it is open to unacceptable manipulation by the Secretary of State, among its other defects. But I have one question for the Minister arising from his opening remarks. He referred to Clause 12 of the Bill and told us that soundings are being taken on the levels of local interest in having a referendum at all, with a closing date of Monday 3rd March.

I am told that in some areas, and maybe everywhere, if one writes on the form that one is against a regional assembly, that is taken as "expressing an interest" and therefore counts in favour of a referendum. I find it hard to believe, but I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is not happening and, if it is happening, that that is not the conclusion that is reached.

The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, assured us that the Bill does not represent another attempt by the corrupt octopus in Brussels to wrap one more tentacle around what remains of our sovereignty. To those who have watched the steady erosion of our sovereignty to the European Union over many years, I fear that those assurances do not cut much ice.

That is because with every new loss of our democratic freedom we always start off by being told by the government of the day that, whatever the threat is, it does not exist, that it is just a figment of the imagination of some academic think tank, that any Euro-realist who thinks that he has spotted some new advance by the corrupt octopus, is simply over-excited or worse. Then we move to the next phase of the procedure: "Okay, so the European Commission is proposing it, but there is no stomach for this with our EU partners". Then we are told, "Well, some of them want it, but we shall argue vigorously against it in the Council". Then when the United Kingdom has given in or has been out-voted, we get the final insult: "There is nothing particularly new in this and anyway you were warned". Thus the ratchet grinds eternally forward and indeed, as I am sure the Minister knows, the treaties state that it cannot go backwards. So, with European regionalisation, we are now at the first phase: "It's not happening". I am grateful to the Minister and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for confirming that and for playing so true to form.

I hope it will be helpful if I try to point out why this Bill, and the whole project of European regionalisation, are indeed central in the strategy of those who wish replace the nation states of Europe with a mega-state in the shape of the European Union, sometimes referred to as a "Europe of the regions". I would have thought that now there can be no doubt that that is indeed what many in Brussels—perhaps most—want to achieve. After all, as I have pointed out to your Lordships before—most recently on 18th December in our debate on the constitution—the European Union already has its own parliament, executive, supreme court, currency, trade policy, flag and anthem. The convention on the future of Europe, chaired by Valery Giscard D'Estaing, aims to complete the process by granting the EU its own army, foreign policy, police force, tax and legal system. Above all, it appears that the EU is to have its own legal personality enshrined in a new written constitution, setting the new European order permanently above the nation states. If all that does not add up to a state, then I do not know what does.

To discover where regionalisation fits into the dream, or rather nightmare, depending how you look at it, one need not look much further than a document recently put out by the EU's Committee of the Regions, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred as the innocent little think tank that always comes into these projects at an early stage. The document is entitled Major Steps Towards a Europe of the Regions and Cities in an Integrated Continent. In a series of diagrams this document lays out the building blocks to be used in the creation of regional government in all EU countries. There are sections marked "Genesis-, "Breakthrough", "Consolidation" and "Further Integration and Enlargement"—the same kind of process that I described in somewhat less elegant terms earlier—which explain how the Council of Europe and a variety of European regional associations have been working towards this grand goal since the 1960s and which show how each new treaty has linked into and furthered the process. I suppose that this Bill starts to lead us from "Genesis" toward "Breakthrough".

Under the Committee of the Region's master plan, the UK is broken up into 12 regions, each with a regional assembly in direct contact with the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. The diagrams in the pamphlet make no reference to Westminster, and the word "England" does not exist anywhere. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain their identities but England is replaced by London and eight regions: East Midlands, Eastern, North East, North West, South East, South West, West Midlands and York and Humber. I wonder whether any of that sounds familiar to your Lordships. It should do because they are the same constituencies from which we send members to the European Parliament, as we saw from the earlier Bill today. So, my second question to the Minister is how the boundaries proposed in the Bill may eventually fit with those constituencies or can he assure us that they never will?

Whatever the answer to that question, the plan is that before long the Committee of the Regions will cease to be something of a talking shop, as we move from "Breakthrough" to "Consolidation", as the regions get ever greater tax raising powers and as Brussels takes over their control.

I hope that that gives some flavour of what this Bill could really come to be about. But I want to spend some of my time today looking at what is going on in the minds of those who wish to impose their grandiose dream on the peoples of Europe. Why on earth do they want to do it and why is regionalisation so important to them? As far as I can see, put very simply, they confuse patriotism with nationalism and they believe that the modern democratic nation state represents a threat to peace. So it must be broken up and neutralised and diluted into their new European cocktail. Indeed, the idea that the EU will somehow procure peace seems to be the deep, central idea which underpins the European dream. There are other bad ideas, of course, which I do not have time to deal with today, such as that the EU is good for trade, when it would be far better if the democracies of Europe entered free trade arrangements with each other and were linked otherwise only through NATO.

But the central assumption is that the EU will secure peace, which the continued existence of the nation state would endanger. We Euro-realists think that that is a dangerous assumption, because we remember the lessons of history and accept the realities of human nature. Those teach us quite simply that on the whole democracies do not provoke wars, whereas forced conglomerations of different peoples and nations nearly always end in disaster.

Of course, the EU is a top-down creation, structurally and incurably undemocratic. Apart from the remaining communist states, it must be the only institution on the planet which pretends to be a democracy, but whose bureaucracy, the corrupt and incompetent Commission, enjoys the exclusive rights to propose legislation and to conduct international affairs. So we Euro-realists say that the Eurocrats have chosen a very dangerous model. We say that democracy is the guarantor of peace, not this frightening creature which is taking shape in Brussels.

While on the subject of peace, we also think that the Europhiles have a brass nerve when they claim that the EU has been responsible in any way for peace in Europe since the last war. NATO kept the peace in Europe since 1945 and NATO will continue to do so if it is not undermined by the EU's absurd new army. Is anyone seriously suggesting that any country in the EU would have declared war on another in the absence of the EU? I hope not.

Brussels' ambitions to break up the nation states and assume their powers are not confined to its Committee of the Regions. Those ambitions are widely shared by Europhiles everywhere and have been for some time. For example, as long ago as 1994, Charter 88 group published a speech by Mr Neal Ascherson, a member of the Federal Trust Round Table, of which I gather Europhiles like Mr Charles Kennedy, Mr Peter Mandelson and the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr are also members.

A brief quote neatly reflects the ambitions of Brussels and the Committee of the Regions: increasing unity at the European surface and increasing diversity at regional level are in fact parts of a single development, the weakening of the nation state. That is why Maastricht not only designed fresh steps towards supra national unity, but also instituted the Committee of the Regions". That was written two years after Maastricht.

So I have only one other question for the Minister. I feel sure that he will dismiss my remarks, if he is good enough to refer to them at all, as unfounded, exaggerated, and generally the product of my fevered Eurosceptic brain.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I confirm that we are not planning regional armies.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

No, my Lords, but the European Union is planning its own.

So the question is this: will the Minister come to the Dispatch Box with his hand on his heart, and give an unequivocal assurance on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, that the regionalisation envisaged in the Bill will never and could never, and I mean never, lead to the kind of dominance by Brussels and the European Union which I have described? I look forward to his reply.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, first I must declare that I am leader of Essex County Council. Perhaps I should also declare that I am the leader of the Conservative group on the Committee of the Regions in the UK. I shall have a discussion with my colleagues some time about that committee; I think that there are certain misunderstandings about it. At this stage of the debate, many of the messages have been put over. I shall repeat some of the issues, but they are worth repeating, because we have to make a lot of very difficult decisions on the Bill.

Although I am a firm supporter of transferring power from central government to the local community and am a strong believer in strengthening local democracy, I cannot support the proposals for devolution to the English regions as they stand. I have three principal reservations about the Bill. First, the regions in question are meaningless to most people in most parts of the country. Secondly, the creation of regional assemblies will lead to the abolition of county and district councils. Public services will he severely disrupted. The young, the vulnerable and the needy will ultimately pay the highest price for local government reorganisation. Finally, people will be asked to vote in referendums on the grey proposals of a White Paper. People should go to the polls to vote on the black and white substance of legislation.

Any consideration of regional government must start with the regions themselves. As I see it, England has been carved into eight convenient units. Originally created for administrative purposes, they lack any cultural, social or historical identity. Why manufacture regions? Many parts of England already have a natural identity. Consider my own county of Essex. With a population of 1.3 million people, it is larger than 13 American states. By European standards it is large enough to be a region in its own right. Historically, it was a kingdom before England was unified 11 centuries ago. It is a unit of government that people instinctively understand. The 100,000 London commuters who live in Essex look to the capital, not the so-called East of England.

I have been quite disturbed by much of the debate. I do not think that people understand what counties do or what they are. Most of the people who have spoken are not from a county background or have been on county councils. We have a devolved unit in this country—the counties. They are historically devolved and should stay that way. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned that the Yorkshire and Humberside region had dealings with China. Essex County Council has an office in China, as we have trade in China. Counties can undertake such dealings; we do not need regions to do it.

Regions must be more than mere compass points on a map. People will support regional assemblies only if they recognise themselves as being citizens of the regions that the bodies will represent. I fear that we are going through all this simply because of three parts of the country—the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside, and perhaps the North West, although not everything is certain there The White Paper on regional devolution is entitled Your Region, Your Choice. Arguably, the Government have chosen regions for their own convenience. They are the Government's regions; it is the Government's choice.

Consulting people about meaningful regional boundaries is the first and most crucial step towards securing effective regional government. It is the key to encouraging people to vote in regional elections. It is the cornerstone on which regional government will stand or IA. That is why we are talking today. As the leader of a large local authority, I have grave concerns about tying elected regional assemblies to local government reorganisation. I was a serving councillor when local government structure was reviewed in the 1990s. There was little appetite for unitary authorities in many historic counties then. There will be no more now.

The threat of local government reorganisation will inevitably distract councils from the vital task of delivering quality public services. In my own administrative region, the East of England, the Audit Commission has judged the performance of five out of the 10 councils to be good. One local authority, Hertfordshire County Council, has been rated "excellent". Under regional assemblies, good and excellent councils will he dissolved. Councils that have been through a rigorous comprehensive performance assessment, have proven corporate capacity and have developed strong partnerships with their stakeholders will be dismantled. They could be replaced with untried and untested unitary authorities.

The taxpayer will shoulder the significant financial burden of reorganisation. As I said, public services will face inevitable disruption. As the Bill stands, the Secretary of State will have the power to call repeat referendums in regions that have rejected regional government every five years. Local authorities will be forced to operate in a climate of uncertainty if the issue keeps coming back. Forward planning and continuous service improvement will be undermined by the constant threat of reorganisation.

The Government believe that a regional tier of government is "one tier too many". That overlooks the different demands that different tiers of government are uniquely placed to meet. District councils are able to respond to local needs. A county council meets the economies of scale needed to deliver strategic services such as education and social care. If we introduce unitaries in rural counties, we shall lose the economies of scale, and sacrifice democratic accountability and the support for rural communities. Europe demonstrates that two tiers of government can co-exist beneath the region. We have only to look at the examples of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, as some of my noble friends have said.

Let us turn now to the powers of regional assemblies. As the Bill stands, people will be going to the polls in the dark. They will be asked to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly for their region. They will be expected to express an opinion before legislation has been passed defining any regional assembly's powers. As the Bill stands, people will be voting for what a regional assembly could be, not what it will be.

The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, states that functions are "generally" not being drawn up from local government. The Government have already signified that they intend to replace county structure plans with regional spatial strategies. The term -generally- allows scope for more responsibilities to be removed from local authorities. The Minister said that they would not be, but that does not reassure us about what is happening to planning. Voters must know what they are supporting before they enter the polling booth.

The weight of such constitutional reform rests solely on the shoulders of the Secretary of State. He will be the one to choose which regions should hold referendums. He will be tasked with interpreting the results of the "advisory" polls. It will be the Secretary of State who will ultimately decide whether a region should embark on the regional assembly route. A doubting Secretary of State will not even be able to turn to legislation for clarification or resolve.

The Bill sets no thresholds for voter turnout. It does not even state that a majority of those who vote in a referendum should vote in favour of elected regional assemblies for the result to stand.

The principles of devolution are laudable. Decisions should be taken as close to the people whom they affect as possible. We need to revive public interest in local democracy. It is because we are in favour of devolution that we oppose the proposals. Regional government will win public support only if it meets people's expectations. If we are to have regions, let them be meaningful with a natural identity. We should unshackle regional devolution from proposals to reorganise local government.

If there are any advantages of regional government, they must be weighed up against the costs, in both financial and democratic terms. We must ensure that any potential regional government is about getting real devolution, not centralisation in disguise. I have considerable reservations about the whole Bill.

5.29 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is it not remarkable that in 1888 the Victorians passed the Local Government Act, which served this country well for 86 years until 1974, when that infamous Act virtually destroyed everything that the Victorians had done? In contrast, in the 1980s, we fiddled around trying to put right the 1974 Act. We did not succeed, and then, in the 1990s, we reformed local government again. Apparently, that has not been a success either, and we have now reached the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. The Bill intends to regionalise a country which is governed according to the unitary process and has been governed thus successfully over a very long period of time.

I say, first, that I am an unreconstructed fan of local democracy and local government. Therefore, I consider the Bill to be a completely unnecessary piece of legislation. It is not really about devolution, as the Minister told us. Devolution and empowerment of local people is what I want, but the Bill will certainly not provide that. Let us make no mistake and let us not pretend: it will impose yet another expensive, wasteful layer of government on England to no good purpose—indeed, probably the reverse.

The reason for the "quangoisation" of England is the removal of powers from local government. If we want to deal with quangoisation, I suggest that we give back those powers and let local authorities get on with the job that they have done for hundreds of years. If we really believe in devolving power to the people, the power should be given to strong local authorities. They should be empowered to provide for their areas what their residents need and want.

As I have already said, there is a paramount need to return to local authorities powers which have been Filched from them by successive central governments of both political parties. Indeed, it is also important to give them adequate financial resources to do their job. Those resources must include the power to raise their own money and not to be beholden to central government for most of their income. I believe that someone said that local authorities have to provide 7 per cent of their income. When I was leader of Reading County Borough Council, we provided 65 per cent from our own resources, and that gave us power to do for our area what we wanted to do, and to do it successfully and with the consent of the people of the area.

The business rate should be returned to local authorities. It is a disgrace that they ever lost it. They should also have power to raise a local income tax or a sales tax and be allocated a proportion of VAT revenues on sales of vehicle fuels in their area. Indeed, where it can be done profitably, they should also be able to provide consumer services for the benefit of their council tax payers. That is what I call devolution—not regional councils but real devolution to the people of the local areas.

As to the need to supply services or have economic co-operation over a wider geographical area, there is no reason why local authorities should not co-operate together to provide them—they have done so before. Such arrangements would be cheaper, more efficient and more acceptable than the construction of the proposed assemblies. Let us have no doubt: those assemblies are bound to move power away from the localities—it is inevitable that they will do so—and they will be less accessible and less transparent.

To further assist local democracy, the Cabinet system should be discontinued. It has been an absolute disaster up and down the country. It has removed decision-making from most of the councillors and has killed local discussion and local democracy. Therefore, having shown that it has failed, it is about time to drop that system and drop it quickly.

I appreciate that in some parts of the country local councils have been bamboozled into believing that elected regional assemblies will complement local government and not compete with it and that the regional authority will somehow attract new business to the area. Both propositions are open to considerable doubt. If the regional assemblies are to function in any significant way over the whole region, they will have to have the power to override the will of the local authorities; otherwise, they will be no good. Where they believe that they do not have that power, they will seek it, and probably—because they will be stronger than the local authorities—they will get it.

The regions are so large and widespread that there is unlikely to be identity of interest and purpose between the localities within it. Far from bringing people together, they will cause only conflict and discontent. So far as concerns economic development, industry and jobs, there is no evidence that regional authorities will assist the process of attracting or reallocating national or, indeed, international resources to any particular area, especially to regions which are already disadvantaged. What is more likely to happen is that we shall have elected regional assemblies which will be in competition with each other. The probability is that the rich regions will get richer at the expense of the poor ones.

In the North East, the real problem, as the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, pointed out, is that they are deprived of that £1.2 billion which goes to the Scots and to the Welsh. If they had that, I would guess that the call for regional government would quickly die away. The imposition of regional government will be a recipe for conflict and confrontation. Therefore, I am opposed to it.

But, of course, English local government is not the only consideration in this drive for elected regional assemblies, there is also a European element.

The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, reads the Sunday Telegraph and Christopher Booker's column. I recommend that everyone should. Indeed, if everyone did, they would be much better informed about what happens in the European Union and where it is going.

Lord Bowness

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. They may be better informed about what Christopher Booker thinks, but would the noble Lord not agree that they might be quite confused about what is the reality?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, frankly, I have always found that Christopher Booker is usually right on the ball and in the end has the matter right. He had it right on fridges, for example, long before anyone else got on top of the problem.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

And fish!

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I recommend that his column is read every Sunday.

First, there is the distribution of the £1 billion a year structural funds, for which British taxpayers have already paid £1.6 billion. Therefore, we only gel our own money back less quite a lot. Apart from that, there is an ongoing drive by the EU for regionalisation, which can be traced back to the Werner report, which warned that regional and structural polices would eventually no longer be exclusively within the jurisdiction of member countries. It was followed by the Marjolin report which confirmed that. Tindeman's report the same year predicted that regional policy would have to expand gradually with progress in aligning the economic and monetary policies of member countries.

Then of course we come to our old friend Jacques Delors, the Artful Dodger of European politics. He reorganised, through a framework regulation, the payment of structural funds direct from Brussels to the regions, thus bypassing member states' governments. That led to the setting up of regional offices in each of the English regions by the previous government. That was further developed in 1998 by the creation of regional development agencies. Those are now to be followed by elected regional assemblies.

The next little piece of history shows that regionalisation has a serious EU dimension. Occasionally, certain Europeans state openly that the days of the nation state are numbered. It is little wonder that people such as the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and myself and a substantial body of opinion are suspicious of the real intent behind the establishment of elected regional assemblies. No doubt—

A noble Lord


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, this is a Second Reading debate. While 12 minutes is recommended, there is no compulsion on people to hold to it. I shall say what I intended to say and if I am not further interrupted, I shall be able to get on with it faster.

No doubt we shall be accused of being paranoid about Europe and the denials will be issued. But, as usual, we will probably be proved right in the end.

I want finally to raise the question of public funds being used to fund organisations campaigning in favour of elected regional assemblies, but not available to those campaigning against them. That certainly seems to be happening in the North East where local councils are using taxpayers' money to support the North East Assembly/Association of North East Councils.

That is a gross, and possibly illegal, use of taxpayers' money and is unfair to those campaigning against elected regional authorities and the large body of council tax payers who also oppose these assemblies. Significant sums of money are involved. I sincerely hope, since this is undoubtedly cheating the public and gaining an unfair advantage for one side of the argument, the Government will hold an inquiry into this, or at least refer it to the Electoral Commission.

It is not our practice to vote on Bills at Second Reading, but if we were voting today, I would certainly have no hesitation in voting against this one. Perhaps we can do something about it in later stages.

5.44 p.m.

Baroness Seccombe

My Lords, for me, this is the most important Bill before us in this Session. I know that it is only a paving Bill for a regional government Bill to come before the House later, but even so we are being asked to agree measures of which we have no detail and yet which could lead to this country being governed in a manner completely foreign to us and our fellow citizens. It is therefore imperative to debate the Bill's consequences.

The Government's record since coming to power in 1997 is one of destruction of some of our most noble and honourable institutions. I am sure that when an assessment is made of the period, no one will refer to it as one of the finest chapters in our history. The United Kingdom has seen its strengths undermined by the creation of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the London Assembly, and the Government have changed the House of Lords without having any idea of where to go from here.

The combined effect of such changes amounts to a revolution. Unless they are allowed time to bed down, they could destabilise our constitution. However, undeterred, the Government are embarking on yet another measure for which they are seeking your Lordships' endorsement without spelling out any of the basic elements.

I realise that the Bill is not concerned with setting up regional assemblies, but in order for electors to understand the issues, they must have more information than has been given to date. After all, how on earth can anyone be expected to vote or even bother to vote when they have not been told how it would affect their lives and their communities?

For me, one of the major problems is the airbrushing out of history of our proud nation of England. Scotland may have its Parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland may have their Assemblies, but the Government want England as we have known it for centuries to be divided into regions, and, as a consequence, to make England extinct—an horrendous notion. I do not know whether that has come about as a result of the Scottish flavour of the membership of this Government or because the Prime Minister feels that it would play well with his European colleagues. I can only say that I have not met anyone who finds the initiative at all attractive.

The Labour Party argues that the regional assemblies would redress the imbalance for England that has been created by the Government by devolution. But that is simply not the case, as the powers of a regional assembly would be in no way equivalent to those acquired by the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The new assemblies would inevitably spell an end to our traditional local government in rural areas. One could speculate that the county council tier of government has never been to the liking of the Labour Party because over the years it has more often than not been under Conservative administration.

The Government claim that powers would be handed down to the unitary authorities, but I believe that exactly the opposite would occur, with duplication of services and resources being sucked up to the regional body. The cost of the assemblies is as yet unknown and one can only speculate, but even if similar assurances as those made to Wales and Scotland were given, that certainly would not give me confidence. One has only to follow the history of the costs of the building projects in Edinburgh, Cardiff and London, which soared out of all recognition from the estimates, to understand why.

It is claimed that regional assemblies would be better placed to secure European grant money to aid projects in needy areas, but it is member states that agree the allocation, not regional government. It is also the member countries that distribute the funds to regional assemblies. As a consequence, there would be access to no extra funding whatever.

The Government have not and cannot give any answer to the West Lothian question. It is inconceivable and unacceptable that we should continue with a system under which Members of Parliament from Scotland can vote on issues concerning England and Wales while we in England are not even able to ask a question on Scottish subjects. We are just told, "That is a devolved matter". That answer is intolerable. The Government appear to suggest that regionalisation is an answer to the West Lothian question and would rectify the problem, but that is ridiculous. The powers of an assembly would certainly not be equivalent to those given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

My concern is that dividing the country into massive, unwieldy regions will take decision-making further away from the people, not nearer. The present historic county structure is a tried and tested form of government. Regional assemblies would have only 25 to 35 members—200 to 300 countrywide. On the other hand, the county councils have more than 20,000 members, who know their area and, more importantly, the constituents and their local problems, a point so well made by my noble friend Lord Elliott.

I now live in the beautiful county of Warwickshire, but in the past I lived in the former West Midlands county and served on its council. So I have experience of the different concerns and priorities of urban living. I was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, say that people have a sense of regional identity. I have no sense of regional identity. If I can use the phrase, I feel that I live on the cusp. I live within a 10-mile radius of the West Midlands, the area to which I have been assigned; the East Midlands, which goes as far as Lincolnshire; the southern area, which stretches to Kent, and the south-western area, stretching down to Cornwall, about which my noble friend Lady Wilcox spoke with such passion. My fear is that proposals to carve the country into regions would lead to the large industrial conurbations dominating decisions on all matters, to the detriment of smaller, rural counties, which would be simply left out.

The Bill would empower the Boundary Committee to make weighty decisions including where the constituency boundaries would be set and the type of unitary authority and influence over the referendum question. We need to ensure that we have as much information as possible before the Bill is passed. I look forward to our in-depth debate at Committee stage. I also look forward to hearing from the Minister this evening.

This is a horrid Bill. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I do not see it as a comical affair. But I assure the Minister that I shall do all in my power to assist him in ensuring that his Bill will be much improved when it leaves this House.

5.52 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I cannot believe that the Minister's heart is in this Bill. He is far too sensible for that. I cannot recall a Bill presented to Parliament so deeply flawed. It is extremely difficult towards the end of the debate to know where to start.

Let us start with the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. Whether there is to be a referendum where you live is not your choice; the Deputy Prime Minister will choose, having considered the level of interest in a referendum. We have heard plenty of criticism of that provision and the unhealthy power that it gives the Deputy Prime Minister. I will not trouble the House by repeating those criticisms. It is difficult to take seriously the soundings exercise that is now in train and shortly to end, when one reads from reports of proceedings in another place that a person who writes to express fierce opposition to the whole idea of regional government may well he taken to be expressing interest in a referendum. Nothing could be more daft. But, apparently, that is the position, if one accepts what was said in Standing Committee A on 12th December and in the House on 23rd January. If it is not the position, I hope that the Minister will say so in plain terms. So far, no Minister has said that it is not the position.

Let us take the matter a stage further. The citizen told that there is to be a referendum where he lives may then find to his astonishment that he is being asked to vote for or against an assembly for a region that to the best of his knowledge has never existed, or to which he never thought for one moment that he belonged. Not he, but the Deputy Prime Minister, has decided that, for the purposes of this exercise, geography and community of interest should be thrown out of the window. He has decided that Banbury should be taken to be part of the south-east region; Watford should be placed in the eastern region; and Cheltenham put in the south-west. That will all be done just because it fits a map drawn up not for electoral purposes but to delineate the area of responsibility of government offices. Even if one is in favour of elected assemblies—I certainly am not—one must accept that the thing could be done in a saner way, as was pointed out by my noble friend Lord Bowness.

The bemused citizen may be approached by his diocesan bishop and persuaded to vote for an assembly. Noble Lords will know that some bishops seem to have taken a great interest in that spiritual matter. The bishop will not even be able to pass on heavenly guidance as to the powers and functions of the assembly, as they will not have been decided by Parliament. We have not yet been told that any hint of those powers will be given to Parliament by the Government before the first referendum takes place.

It is constantly said that the Bill is about bringing decision making closer to the people. In the words of the Deputy Prime Minister, it is about elected assemblies taking functions down from central government, not up from local authorities. That is a terrible distortion of the truth. A statement by Lancashire County Council—supported by all parties, I remind the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who will follow me—points out that present plans offer no significant degree of devolution. The White Paper makes it clear that virtually no new decision-making powers are to go to the regions from the Government. There will be a sucking-up of power to the regions from authorities closer to the people. The Liberal leader on Lancashire County Council called it, the vacuuming-up of every decision from local communities". To see the truth of the matter, we should consider the planning powers already seized from the county councils and handed to the assemblies before they have even been elected.

The Government are being less than frank when they say that they have no plans to abolish the county councils. If any county councils survive, it will be no thanks to the Government; it will be as a result of a decision of the Boundary Committee, which has been commanded to go down the unitary authority route, whether it thinks that that is right or not. The decision of the Boundary Committee, in compliance with that demand from the Government, to turn a particular county council into a unitary authority is the only circumstance in which a county council will survive. As I said, the survival of such a council will be no thanks to the Government.

In every instance where there is now a county council, local government will become more remote from the people as a result of the disappearance of district authorities, whether the county council survives or not. In my area, Ribble Valley, it is inconceivable that any unitary authority will be as close to the people and as responsive to local needs as is Ribble Valley Borough Council, placed in the middle of a country area.

Not only will the regional authorities, with one member for up to 250,000 constituents, be remote from the people; in the North West, the assembly will be dominated by Manchester and Merseyside. I know that that was challenged by one noble Lord who is not now in the Chamber, I think, but it is a matter of pure arithmetic. The population figures prove it: most people in the North West come from the conurbations of Manchester and Merseyside. That is a recipe for drowning the interests of those who live in the countryside and those who live in small towns.

We have had plenty of local government changes in recent years. They have cost enough. According to a paper produced to assist us by the Library, the partial-Heseltine review at the beginning of the 1990s cost £669 million. The regional policy adviser for Cheshire County Council points out that Cheshire, where there is minimal demand for regional government—I do not believe that anyone will challenge that—faces a review and, if a North West referendum is successful, faces the disruption and cost of a full-scale reorganisation of local government when it has just settled down from the local government review conducted only about four years ago.

However, all those costs of local government reorganisation are a tiny part of what will be the total cost of government regional policy. Regional bureaucracies are already burgeoning, often with a proliferation of pointless non-jobs. During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I pointed out an advertisement for a community development worker—Turkish speaking—and the government office of the East Midlands seeking a director of community affairs responsible for the implementation of joined-up policy. You cannot get much dafter than that.

But wait until people are recruited to serve the elected assemblies. Wait until we are required to pay the regional councillors the £48,000 per year, plus £50,000 expenses, drawn by the one-and-a-half-day-week Members of the Scottish Parliament. They are bound to be paid something like that. The precedent has been set. Wait until they demand prestigious new buildings. I believe that one noble Lord suggested that it was their entitlement to have such.

If the Government consider that regional assemblies are the English answer to Scottish devolution, why are we not all being asked in a referendum whether we want this form of devolution? But, of course the Deputy Prime Minister was talking nonsense when he asserted at Second Reading that: The Bill offers … opportunities for the English regions similar to those offered to Scotland".—[Official Report, Commons. 26/11/02; col. 189.] The assemblies are to have no legislative powers and functions which have been devolved to the Scottish Parliament are not going to be devolved to the regions. Nor will Mr Prescott shower money on the regions—certainly not on those which vote for elected assemblies. I must say to the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, that people are far more likely to take note of stated government policy in the White Paper than the vain hopes of noble Lords, however eminent. The White Paper states in black and white: We believe that fairness and consistency of treatment between the English regions can be most simply demonstrated if the level of resources for the regions with an assembly is determined on broadly the same basis as for other English regions". In other words, there is no money in this. If the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, doubts that, he should read again what was said a short time ago in this Chamber by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh. He announced that there was no intention whatever of changing the Barnett formula.

One thing that the assemblies will do is compete with other regions for European largesse. I dread to contemplate the cost of junketing trips to Brussels, as one region tries to do down another. My noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch knows from harsh experience that one has only to mention Europe here to be accused of being paranoid. But I advise noble Lords, now and again, to read what my noble friend said a few years ago—he has been uncannily right on a large number of occasions. What my noble friend Lord Bowness cannot deny is that, whether by accident or design, Mr Prescott's plans fit neatly into the Brussels idea of a Europe of the regions. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in speaking to the European Parliament (Representation) Bill today, twice referred to the Government being committed to the "regional"—namely, the European—regional agenda. Of course the Government are so committed. It is pathetic to pretend otherwise.

During the debate on the Queen's Speech, I called attention to a Brussels publication and its attached map of an area stretching from Kent to Oxford and down to the New Forest, which was described as, a Region of the European Union with Roman and Norman ties that stretch back into history". We can close our eyes to what is going on if we like, but it usually makes more sense to keep them open and face up to the truth.

I do not want the dismemberment of the United Kingdom. I do not want one part of the country set against another, with the emphasis always being on what makes us different rather than what binds us together. Even if this was what the Government pretend it is, a measure to devolve power from Westminster, I would be against it because as power was drained away from Westminster upwards to our masters in Brussels and drained away downwards to the regions, we would see this Parliament losing any real meaning or purpose.

6.6 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who is an old friend of mine. At least he wakes me up and gets the adrenalin going. I speak as someone who has been campaigning for democratic regional government for the past 40 years. I have watched the Labour Party, first in the North West and then in the rest of the country, slowly come round to the concept. I recall being involved in the publication of a pamphlet setting out a blueprint for regional government in the North West in 1967.

Nevertheless, in replying to the debate I must say that I welcome the Bill with two cheers rather than with three. Indeed, the second cheer is a rather feeble and weak affair, a bit like the powers proposed for regional government in the Bill. I listened with enthusiasm to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Leigh, who has had to leave to catch his train. I beg his pardon, I see that he has returned to the Chamber. We shall share anoraks after the debate. I noted too the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon. Both noble Lords made passionate speeches in favour of regional government in different parts of the North of England. However, I question whether the Government's proposals as set out in the White Paper will meet their aspirations, or will go even half way to meeting them. That is the problem. So while I disagree in principle with noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, I disagree with the Government in what they have set out.

We have difficulty with four elements in the general proposal. Given that this is a paving Bill, it is right to discuss the broader concepts. First, we are concerned that the new regional assemblies will be weak and ineffective talking shops. Secondly, the assemblies will be too small in number to be representative of large and diverse regions such as the North West. For example, how would the Government persuade people in Cumbria to vote for a regional assembly in which they might have no more than two representatives? Thirdly, it does not appear that the new assemblies will genuinely take over and replace the huge, complex regional "quangocracy" discussed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, which would be so much better if it were brought into local government. Fourthly, as a result of the proposals, will there be genuine jobs for the members of the regional assemblies? No doubt they will be well paid and expected to work full time. I share the concerns expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, over whether there are full-time jobs here.

Turning to the Bill, a number of questions have been asked. For example, my noble friend Lord Shutt of Greetland asked an interesting series of questions. However, we have three main concerns in regard to the detail of the Bill. The first is that when people are asked to vote in any referendum which may take place, they will be voting for a pig in a poke. It will not be clear what they are voting for. The Minister said that a paper would be issued giving a summary of the Government's proposals, but we know how many changes were made to the Greater London Authority Bill as it passed through Parliament, particularly in your Lordships' House. No doubt the same thing will happen with the referendum Bill. Even if the Government put forward their proposals in great detail, there is no guarantee that that is what we shall end up with.

The second area of concern has been spoken to by many noble Lords—that is, the coupling of the reorganisation of local government with regional assemblies.

The third area of concern relates to the genuine worries that exist about the consultation process. Who on earth in the North West knows that they are being consulted at the moment about whether or not they want a referendum? The answer is that it is people within the political system—councillors, Members of Parliament, those in the existing regional bodies and so on—who are being consulted. But for the people as a whole, where are the advertisements in the newspapers and on television; where are the programmes on local radio and the pamphlets through the doors?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, has the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, been consulted? Because I have not.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, the answer is no. As far as I am aware, Members of this House have not been consulted, even though they may live in the areas concerned.

Lord Waddington

Why not?

Lord Greaves

Presumably because we are not representative, my Lords. I share the noble Lord's concern. I certainly intend to make my views known before the deadline. I have found out because I am a part of the political process; I talk to politicians and we discuss the matter in the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, the whole consultation process is entirely unsatisfactory.

We are told that this is what happened in Scotland. But in Scotland there was a convention that had existed for years; there was a broad degree of detailed consensus over what form the Scottish Parliament would take; there was an agreement between at least two of the political parties there and everyone was clear as to what would happen. That is not the case in the English regions.

As to the powers to be devolved, my noble friend Lord Newby was worried that any regional assembly would become a mouse; my honourable friend in the House of Commons, Ed Davey, described it as a paper tiger; and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred to a corrupt octopus. Together with my pig in a poke, we have a menagerie that would do well in Blackpool Zoo.

There is a wide-ranging concern among both supporters and opponents of regional government that the bodies, when set up, will not amount to very much. They have been described as being like the GLA without the Mayor. I am not sure what the GLA would be like—perhaps my noble friend will tell me—without the Mayor and an executive to scrutinise legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred to Lancashire County Council, which has voted unanimously against the present proposals. Some people will say, Well, it would, wouldn't it, because "turkeys do not vote for Christmas". However, that does not mean to say it is wrong. The Labour leader of Lancashire County Council, Councillor Hazel Harding, stated in an article she has written that: We looked back on the centralisation of power by recent governments. We saw huge advantages in the wide-ranging powers at first proposed. It was to have been a genuine 'government' for the North-West with a good deal of Westminster's spending power devolved locally—money that was to be spent according to local need, not dictated by distant Whitehall. So what a disappointing surprise to unwrap the White Paper and find it contained such a poor degree of devolution that we could not support it". She went on to point out that the North West Assembly would control a budget of £730 million—which sounds a lot at first—and have influence over another £1.3 billion. But total public expenditure in the region is currently £32 billion, so even the amount it could influence would be only 3 or 4 per cent of the total, which seems a little on the low side to put it mildly. I was a member of Lancashire County Council for 24 years. Led by its then leader, Louise Ellman, the county was the pioneer in the region in campaigning for elected regional government. If Lancashire County Council is opposed to the Bill, I believe that the people of Lancashire will be opposed to it. If the referendum is close in the rest of the region, the Government may find it difficult to get the proposal through.

As regards the coupling of these proposals with local government reorganisation, it cannot be right that the future structure of local government in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire—I speak of the region in which I live and know best—may be determined by the votes of the larger number of people who live in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.

The Minister was very strong on this point in his opening speech. He said: If there is not unitary local government, there will be no regional assemblies". He indicated that unitary local government is, an integral part of the regional assembly package"; and, We are not prepared to add an extra tier … It is not possible for us even to contemplate separating the two". That does not sound like the approach that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, normally takes in this House. I know that he is acting on orders from on high. But this House has every right to de-couple the reorganisation of local government from the Bill if it wishes to do so. I believe that it would be right to stand firm on that. It would not be right to reject the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Shutt said. The Labour Party manifesto at the last general election included the clear commitment: Provision should be made for directly elected regional government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local government is established". If, as a House, we stand firm on this matter as the Bill completes its remaining stages and de-couple those aspects, we are doing no more than supporting the Labour Party manifesto. I do not believe that that would represent a constitutional crisis.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? Does he not agree that predominantly unitary local government is not established in the North West; and, therefore, not to proceed with a referendum for an elected assembly would actually be in accordance with the Labour election manifesto?

Lord Greaves

My Lords, that is arguable. In many of the discussions that took place in the lead-up to these proposals, the "predominantly unitary" argument was being used. The compulsory abolition of non-unitary local government came very late in the proceedings. At that time, the Government accepted that the North East was predominantly unitary and that the North West just about qualified. It all depends on whether the decision is based on area or population. In terms of population, the North West already has predominantly unitary local government.

I hope that I can make just two more points without being interrupted again—much as I enjoy interruptions from the noble Lord. I want to examine the question of tiers. There is an assumption that tiers of democratic local government are in themselves somehow undemocratic and undesirable. Yet if we look at the present situation, we see that we do not have two-tier, but multi-tier, local government. Where I live in Lancashire, we have district councils and we have the county council. But we also have a fire authority and a police authority—which is more than the county council, because it is the county council plus two unitary authorities. In the health service, we have a whole series of tiers: we have trusts delivering services and we have the area health authority, which is smaller than the county but bigger than the districts. At regional level, we have a huge number of quangos.

In the House of Commons, my honourable friend Edward Davey quoted research from Councillor Chris Foote-Wood, a colleague of mine in the North East, who had found over 172 regional and sub-regional quangos in the North East and 71 Government Office North East partnerships. There is a huge number of separate organisations which may or may not work together—some cover regions and some cover only part of the regions. We already have lots and lots of tiers. What matters is how efficient and democratic these bodies are, how good the services are and—in new Labour speak—how much best value there is.

Do people in Lancashire believe that the situation in Blackpool and Blackburn, which are now unitary, is significantly better than that in the rest of the county which is still two-tier? I have seen no research and no evidence that that is the case and I do not believe that it is. The idea that the efficiency of government is determined by the number of tiers is nonsense. As my noble friend Lord Shutt said, what matters is appropriate government at the appropriate tier.

We shall be looking to improve the Bill as it goes through this House. I hope that when it leaves this House, I shall be able to give it at least two full cheers rather than one and a half.

6.21 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, back in his seat. We have been thinking about him a great deal in recent weeks; it has not been easy, and we welcome him back to our debates.

I predicted that the Bill would receive a lively yet interesting Second Reading, and it certainly has. The size of the Bill belies the constitutional importance of the changes it presages. My noble friend Lady Hanham, who will lead from these Benches, opened with a characteristically spirited and informed speech. Her knowledge of local government and the currency of her experience will result in a powerful contribution to the Bill's following stages, and I look forward to working with her.

The Second Reading speech of the Deputy Prime Minister made interesting reading. It contained much convolution, some contradiction, considerable distortion and very little hard information on the detail of how regional government will actually work. More crucially, the very people who will he expected to vote for or against regional government will have to do so without knowing what they are voting for. However, I was struck by the opening paragraph of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech on Second Reading. It displayed one of the false premises that underpins the Bill. He said: When the Government came to power in 1997, we had one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. It had no regional democratic accountability and ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 188.] Apart from the fact that we have parish, town, district, county, national and European government, with representation in all parts of our relatively small country, I am sure that doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, firemen and prison officers—to name just a few—will testify that the Government's centralist tendency has increased massively since 1997.

I was also struck by the briefing for this debate from the Royal National Institute of the Blind. It welcomed the principle of regional government which would result, it said, in taking decisions closer to the people. How wrong that perception will prove in practice. The reverse is true. Government will be more, not less, distant from local people. However, I support the RNIB and its concerns. If regional government is to be established, we have to make sure that the interests of those with disabilities are protected.

However, to say that Conservative governments before 1997 ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions is a travesty of the facts. Let me place on record just a few of the economic regeneration programmes which transformed many parts of our country when we were in office. Here I agree with all that my noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth said. I hope he will forgive me for being present in the Chamber when he spoke, but I heard and saw his speech on one of the monitors.

Billions of pounds were spent de-polluting vast areas of land and preparing them for development on Teesside and throughout the Docklands area in London. There were major developments in Tyneside, Teesside, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool, Gateshead, Docklands, the Black Country, Don Valley, Plymouth—I could go on. We introduced City Challenge programmes, the Safer Cities programme, city technology colleges and specialist schools that boosted education and training in urban areas. The single regeneration budget was introduced to tackle the poorest areas of the country and there were special centres to boost employment opportunities.

All the development projects involved the refurbishment and new build of housing, the preservation and creation of new jobs, increased economic and business activity and massive inward investment, which was attracted into our country.

Those are just a few examples of what the Conservatives did for the regions of our country. Those programmes were backed with billions of pounds. The development corporations did an excellent job. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, they were focused and their boards included a mix of local councillors, business expertise, the voluntary sector and local community leaders. Because the area improvements were based on ideas and plans created by local communities, the feeling of ownership in those areas and involvement at grass roots was very strong.

Each regional area had a sponsor Minister, who promoted the area for which he was responsible. They acted as the eyes and ears for the community, through liaising with nationally and locally elected members, businesses, the voluntary sector and the local community generally. I was proud to have been associated with Teesside, where I witnessed the most dramatic transformation in the physical, social and economic environment. I am delighted to continue to be involved with development projects in that area, although I have no pecuniary interest to declare.

I will not accept from this Government—and certainly not from the Deputy Prime Minister—the accusation that we ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions.

The greatest claim for the Bill is that it will result in bringing government closer to the people. That is a distortion. Where two-tier government exists, one tier will disappear if regional government is to be established. If the district councils are abolished in a region, a tier of really local government will be removed. If the counties are abolished, government will move on up to a regional level. We all know from the White Paper that not much power is being ceded from on high. It will pull power away from the truly local level.

However one looks at it, government will move further away from the people. The excellent speeches of my noble friends Lord MacGregor, Lord Hanningfield and Lady Wilcox made the case for county councils, although I noticed a mild threat from my noble friend Lady Wilcox of a possible UDI for Cornwall. The elected representatives will have much larger constituencies, moving from electorates of approximately 6,000 or 7,000 to electorates of between 150,000 and 200,000, with a mix of directly elected councillors and those selected by political parties under a list system.

Costs will be phenomenal. We already have on record the experience of Scotland, Wales and London, which have built—or are still building—Lrge, expensive monuments for themselves on prime sites. They have spawned large and expensive bureaucracies. Because of the greater travelling distances, more substantial and costly support services are needed to sustain the staff and elected representatives. The running costs have increased enormously.

Imagine the distances that will have to be travelled in the South West if the region is run from Bristol. Even without regional government, Cornish councillors already have to travel miles to carry out their work. The size of the south-western region is absurd. What is the community interest between the people of Hereford and Stoke-on-Trent or Wellingborough and Chesterfield? Why must the choice be one of regional government only at the expense of a tier of local government? One answer is: because the Deputy Prime Minister said so.

On Second Reading in the Commons, the right honourable Alan Beith invited the Deputy Prime Minister to comment on the following: If the boundary committee decides to make local government more remote by providing single-tier county local government, people will be invited to vote against the local government system that they want to get the region that they want. To make matters worse, the decision will be taken by voters who are not affected by the proposals and who live in those parts of the region that already have single-tier government".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 191.] The Deputy Prime Minister's reply was, unsurprisingly, not very enlightening. I hope that the Minister will respond to Alan Beith's point in his reply.

In response to another question, the Deputy Prime Minister said: Elected assemblies will take functions down from central Government, not up to local authorities".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 189.] My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to that matter. What the Deputy Prime Minister said is patently not the case, however. Has he actually read his own proposals? Of the 10 powers listed in the White Paper, eight are ceded from county councils.

The inevitable tension in the regions between urban and rural interests is a matter for real concern. With the exception of Scotland, voter turnout for referendums has been poor, whether for town mayors or devolution. Only 12 per cent of the people voted for a mayor for Bedford, while 25 per cent voted for a Welsh Assembly and approximately 17 per cent voted for the Mayor of London. That cannot be described as the will of the people. As if to cock a snook at the system, a healthy number of people in Hartlepool voted for a man in a monkey suit.

I share two more concerns. First, there is a lack of a threshold below which constitutional change should not take place. Secondly, without such a threshold, the urban vote will overwhelm the rural vote, especially if there is a low turnout. How can the Government stand by and treat rural voters with such contempt? Again, that is not surprising, because that is what they have done since they came into power in 1997.

The role, powers and functions of regional government should be determined through consultation ahead of any vote. My noble friends Lord Brooke and Lord Bowness made that point powerfully. Ministers must tell us against what criteria they will assess the level of interest in regional government. How on earth can that level of interest truly be relied on if the information that people should have to express an interest is simply unavailable?

Much constitutional change has taken place since 1997, mostly ill thought-through and much of it taken in isolation, by pursuing a piecemeal approach to legislation. This Westminster Parliament has been seriously weakened. Apart from the contempt for Parliament shown by the Prime Minister and his Executive, Members in both Houses find daily that we are prevented from asking questions about Scottish issues and that our ability to ask questions about Welsh and London matters is considerably limited. If regional government should come about, even more areas will be out of bounds to the Westminster Parliament. In a sentence, Parliament is weakening, the Executive are strengthening and the axis for decision making is moving to Brussels.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who asked where all that leaves the integrity of an English parliamentary voice. I refer to the whole of England, not to an England fragmented into artificial regions. As my noble friend Lord Waddington asked, what will be the constitutional consequences for the United Kingdom Parliament?

A decade or so from now, we will reap the whirlwind of such ill-thought-through constitutional change. We are already witnessing a weakening of the United Kingdom Parliament and, by default, a strengthening of the Executive. We are facing the loss of our county councils and, possibly, the Lord Lieutenancy. Worrying changes have been made to the local magistracy, and there has been greater movement towards federalism through the proposed Convention on the Future of Europe.

As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, it is fashionable to deride the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but today they made some powerful points. Indeed, they usually do. We need to be very cognisant about what we are sleepwalking into by some of these ill-thought-through constitutional changes.

Contrary to the claims of decentralisation for the Bill, the Government have retained throughout a draconian hold on central control. I agree with my right honourable friend David Davis in another place, who said: We reject regional assemblies not because we oppose devolution, but because we support it. We reject them not because we oppose economic development, but because we support it. We reject this Bill not because we oppose democracy, but because we support it".—[Official Report, Commons. 26/11/02: col. 204.] Despite voicing many concerns about the Bill with which I agree, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, said that the Liberal Democrats will nevertheless vote with the Government. At least for the people of East Anglia, where she and I come from, the consequence will be the sacrifice of a tier of government. The Liberal Democrats will have to stand to account if that turns out to be the case.

Noble Lords should not be fooled. Regional government sounds attractive to many people because they believe that money will flow generously to the regions. It sounds attractive to others because they do not fully realise that the sacrifice that they will have to make is the loss of their own local authorities. However, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said, those who believe that money will flow generously to the regions are extremely misguided indeed. As we all know, the resources would be dissipated in the expensive abolition of county and/or district councils, by increased bureaucracy, and, from what we have seen so far of devolution, by much self-indulgence. Nationally, the Executive will remain all powerful. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, and what he will undoubtedly say again in a very spirited way, Whitehall will continue to think it knows best.

There are many hours of business ahead of us on this Bill. I say again how proud I am to serve in the second Chamber, which always takes its scrutiny role so seriously and constructively. I look forward to working with my noble friends, with the Minister and with other noble Lords over the next weeks and months.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I should like first to thank noble Lords who referred to my recent absence. I have received much comfort from all the messages I have had in recent weeks.

Before dealing with as many of the points raised as possible, I should also deal with a few summary points on cost. It is far too early to put any figures on the cost of local government reorganisation. I do not think that anyone has attempted to do so. The best estimates of the cost of a referendum vary according to population size: about £2 million in the North East, and £3 million in the South East. The latest estimated cost of the Boundary Committee's review of local government in regions chosen for referendums is slightly different from the estimate given to the Commons and in the Explanatory Notes, at between £750,000 and £3.2 million. The costs of conversion to unitary authorities will depend largely on the current mix in the region under review. The set-up costs for regional assemblies, including the costs of the referendum and elections, would vary from about £15 million to £30 million. The running costs would be about £25 million. That is a gross figure, not net, because much of that money is already spent by quangos and other bodies in the area.

I should like to deal with one point that no one has mentioned, but which is a useful pointer. I saw in yesterday's Birmingham Post that the West Midlands Regional Assembly has decided to say, "Please do not put us in the first tranche of referendums". My personal view of the West Midlands has always been that while many people there fancied regional government, there was no great push for it. I was therefore not surprised to see that report. However, if soundings suggested that there should be a referendum, a referendum were held and the electorate said no, the issue could not be raised again for at least five years. The Bill provides for that. One cannot hold referendums willy-nilly where there is a head of steam but no substance or where there is no support. That has to be put on the record, because that is firmly in the Bill.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord appears to have left the topic of costs, but would he comment on the cost of abolition? Taking, for example, the South West, there are 55 districts or seven county councils. most of whom would not be able to work in the one place where the regional assembly is to be set up.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I apologise. I skirted round that matter. I said that it is too early to give the cost of re-organisation. I did not give a figure as I have no figures on that at all. I was giving a summary of some of the costs that we can estimate.

Another matter I should make clear is in relation to the soundings document. I asked where it had been sent. A problem with membership of this House is that noble Lords do not represent anyone. The Government cannot say, "That Peer may have represented somewhere in the past when in another place, but now he or she may live hundreds of miles away". Therefore the distribution list for the soundings document consisted of Members of Parliament in another place, the English regions, the MEPs for the English regions and the principal local authorities in the regions. That is a grand total of 800 out of a distribution of 1,100. The rest went to local government, the TUC, the CBI, chambers of commerce, RDAs, the regional chambers, the English regional network, the Round Tables, constitutional conventions, the Local Government Conference, various committees, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, tourist boards and so on.

There is a problem, but the distribution was not conducted in secret. It was known that a package of documents was published: both the draft information to the Boundary Committee and the soundings document.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, it seems to me that when the legislation comes before the House it may be deemed to be of interest to Members of the House. I certainly was unaware until someone found it for me that there was a paper about the sounding exercise. The House may need to consider more closely the information made available to it.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I apologise unreservedly because people who speak for a party or a group in this place are known to have a function as Front-Benchers. Therefore, they should have been forwarded the documents. That clearly is an error.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I was the only Member of the House who went to the meeting arranged by Mr Raynsford and to which he brought the documents for their Lordships to take away. I have them here because I went to the meeting.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I was aware of that and the noble Lord has spoilt the line I was to use when responding to the points made in his speech.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, a number of us turned up for a meeting with Mr Raynsford but he did not turn up.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not know about that. I know that there was a meeting of all-party Peers and I was told that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, was the only person who attended. If there have been other errors I shall have them investigated.

A theme in the 22 speeches of those in support of the Bill and those against its concept—I do not believe that I am exaggerating—was a desire for more information at the point of decision making. Whether it is a draft Bill or more detailed information to the electorate and to the Houses at the time of a referendum, it is clear that people must know what they are voting for and the consequences of that for their local government structure as well as for the regional structure. We must be absolutely clear about that.

During the course of the debate I believe that the penny has dropped that there is no new money. If anyone is supporting the Bill in the hope that there will be more money, do not bother; stick with the status quo. If that is your only reason for supporting the Bill, I repeat that there is no extra money. That has been made abundantly clear.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the question of testing public opinion as to whether there should be a referendum. He did not go on to answer the question asked, which was whether all the people, even those who expressed opposition to regional authorities, would be taken as being in favour of a referendum. That is an important point, and it needs answering.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is an important point and I shall come to it before I finish, because it deserves an answer.

I shall briefly go through some of the points made by noble Lords. It is impossible to deal with all 22 speeches, and I do not want to take too much of the time of the House. I certainly do not want to use Parkinson's law and speak till half-past seven.

It is clear from what the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said that there are some questions about the sounding exercise, and I have no doubt that we can debate them in Committee. It is good that we are having the debate now. The sounding exercise has taken place over three months. The more publicity there is the better. We do not want the issue to be closed off, with people not knowing about it. Some judgments have to be made from the various regions, but they will not be made until the Secretary of State has the necessary powers, which means once Parliament has approved the Bill.

Many people, such as the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, have said, "Yes, we support the Bill, but". The theme of some speeches has been that the Bill does not go far enough. That is because we are presenting what is in the White Paper. We are not presenting regional government or a fully fledged equivalent of what is in Scotland. No one is making that claim. The provisions are much more akin to what happens in London.

The regional assemblies are not service delivery bodies. Let us be absolutely clear about what they are. I am not talking the issue down; I am simply setting out the facts, as it is important that I do so. They are not service delivery operations, so people must not vote or push for them in the expectation that they are something other than what is set out in the Bill or was said in the White Paper. We have been abundantly clear about that.

The noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, made a point about Norfolk. I cannot go over the detail in winding up, but an area the size of the East of England would have something like 16 elected members if there were 25 in total. Norfolk has a sixth of the population, so it is inconceivable that it would not have representation. In Committee, I could give some detailed figures or assessments of that, but it would not be deprived of representation. True, that representation would not reflect the population. I do not deny that, thinking about the issue raised on centres of population. The noble Lord was fearful that there would be no one representing what is currently the county of Norfolk.

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market

My Lords, if there are one or two members from Norfolk, it is nevertheless an enormous county, one of the largest in the country. Does the Minister really think that it will be easy for the elected members to represent the county properly?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot make a judgment on that. I was simply making the point that Norfolk would not be unrepresented, even by a small number of people. The way the electoral system is being looked at would satisfy that, I hope.

My noble friend Lady Gould made the point—she made it for me in a way—about expectations being raised. It is wrong if people raise expectations about what is outwith the White Paper. We are promoting what was in the White Paper. In effect, the Bill is a paving Bill for the referendums and for the possible starting-up of elected regional assembles. We do not want to mislead people. On the other hand, of course, regionalism in the way my noble friend put it draws in much wider sections of society than the present arrangements enable us to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, gave us a series of lessons from the past, but I have to be careful about answering him. The last time that I answered one of his vitriolic attacks on the Government was two days before the last Budget, and no one woke up to what I said about the Treasury until just after the Budget. That caused a little bit of inconvenience in the Home Office at the time. I went a little too far. I said "every good idea"; I probably should have said "many", "most" or something like that.

The noble Lord is right: we should learn lessons from the past when we go in for such changes. In the forthcoming period and during the passage of the Bill, I hope that we will be able to show that we have done that. The noble Baroness, Lady Scott, also supported that point. The powers obviously do not go far enough. She said that they were "okay—but". I thank her for her support. Nevertheless, attempts will be made to strengthen the Bill. I accept that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the question of Cornwall. I fully accept her point. I have been to Cornwall only a few times on holiday. I drew attention to the fact that the regions are government regions. There is one example that I always give to people. I have never measured the distance, but about 40 miles south of the centre of Birmingham is the small town of Chipping Camden, which is in Gloucestershire. It cannot be much more than 40 miles from Birmingham, but it is in the same region as Land's End. That is the reality. The noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, made the same point, giving examples of boundaries where she lives in Warwickshire. It is a difficulty; I do not deny that.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith, raised the question of the complexities of the institutions in the regions. It is true that they are incredibly complex. He made the point fairly that at present London, and not Manchester or Liverpool, makes the decisions for the North West. That is the reality, and clearly one has to work on that issue. We do not want such decisions to be made in London because we do not accept that Whitehall and Westminster know best. We want to move decision-making to the relevant area. Of course, the argument will be over whether the decisions should be made in Carlisle or Manchester, but certainly they will not be made in London. That is a big advantage.

The noble Lord, Lord Elliott, made the point about the RDA in the North East being a big success. I am very glad to hear that. I do not know how the noble Lord voted during the passage of the RDA Bill, but that is something that we tried to do because we wanted to reach out—it was a better way for our regions. We believed that the regional development agencies would be a good idea. They are very new instruments. No one is in a position to say whether they have been a roaring success or an abject failure. But everyone can find good things that the RDAs have been able to do for their regions. That is an excellent point. I make no claim beyond that. Quite rightly, the noble Lord said that the North East is in the vanguard; others will say that that is not quite the case.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord. We are trying the patience of the Minister and I know that he is trying to finish his points. Just now, he made an interesting statement about how people in Manchester or Liverpool would want decisions to be made not in London but in their part of the world. Can he give one example of a decision that would be made in Manchester or Liverpool—not by a county council or a unitary authority in that area—that would previously have been made in London?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords: housing. We are regionalising housing. The decisions that would have been made in the Housing Corporation and the centre in London will not be made there. That is set out in the sustainable plan published a few weeks ago. That is one example which meets the criteria to which the noble Baroness referred. If she asks me to give another example, I shall have a job to find one. I should have to take advice on that. However, it so happens that I know that housing is one example that fits the criteria.

The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, who attended the all-party meeting, also made the point—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords—

Lord Rooker

My Lords, perhaps I may answer the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and I shall then give way to the noble Earl. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, asked whether there would be any fewer quangos. The answer is probably "no". The legislation would not lead to the abolition of quangos. The strength of the provisions would lie in how the quangos were arranged and managed and were democratically accountable to the people sent by the electorate.

The noble Lord also asked whether there would be more than one Bill—the implication being a Bill for each region. The answer is "no". Once a referendum has taken place in an area—if it takes place and is successful—then a Bill will be brought forward to the House for that region. But that Bill would be triggered later. A Bill for every region would not be required. The noble Earl spoke next but clearly he wants to intervene.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I apologise because I love listening to the noble Lord; it is a great pleasure to do so. Can he explain how housing will be devolved? At present, central government imposes housing targets, which most of the regions do not want. Will the regions be able to say, "We don't want them"? No, they will not. Therefore, I believe that this will still be a central government issue.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, there really is no time to go into the detail, but it is clearly set out. I am not speaking off the cuff, it is set out in the sustainable plan published on 4th February. It makes absolutely clear the substantial changes we propose for regionalising decisions made on housing.

I regret that the noble Earl lost me slightly. My education was not that good in that I was just an engineer. I understand his points and the one about the Euro-connection. We are not seeking or offering to break up the United Kingdom or England. The Bill is not a precursor to that. Therefore, those who claim it is are saying that there is more to regional government than we propose. I must knock that on the head so that false expectations are not raised.

My noble friend Lord Woolmer spoke about the need for more information before the Bill is enacted. He made the point about the White Paper making bold claims regarding our proposals. He asked about the two-tiers argument. The simple argument is that it may not be logical but it is political. I do not believe that anyone could stand up in this House and honestly say, "Well, if you'd gone down this road we would have refrained from complaining about your introduction of an extra tier of government and more bureaucracy". The CBI and every party would be after us to say, "You are just initiating more elections, adding more tiers and burdening the voters". We will not do that. So the reason we do not want that extra tier may not be logical, but political.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, the Minister says that every party will be after the Government. Does he exempt us from that accusation?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats are not a national party like others. They are different in some parts of the country from others. Even I know that. I am speaking in the round. We would have been open to an accusation of imposing an extra tier of government. We are not prepared to be put in the dock for that. That is the reason why we shall not opt for three tiers.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, spoke about the powers of a mouse. If we are to have the definition of a mouse—as opposed to a lion breaking up the UK into fully-fledged regional government, which we do not propose—we plead guilty. Nevertheless, it is a beginning.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

My Lords, I said earlier that even the boundaries could be open to review at a subsequent date. That would not be before the referendum. We want to stick to existing boundaries otherwise it would cause a massive upheaval. We have no secret agenda or plan, but it is not set in stone that this will always be the case.

We do not have this kind of structure now. Therefore, we want to start at a very modest level—25 to 30 people—with a modest set of devolved powers and to democratise those existing powers already being used in the regions.

Earl Russell

My Lords, perhaps I may offer some comfort to the Minister. The point he is attempting to make is one which people have been trying to explain to the English since 1604. If he does not succeed, he is in good company.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I take that as a tribute. I thank the noble Earl. This is not sleight of hand. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said that.

Lord Bowness

It was, my Lords.

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, it was. This is not sleight of hand. I hope that I am making the matter clear, but the noble Lord also stressed the need for clarity on the powers in a Bill or draft Bill—as I said, the theme throughout the debate was the need for information up-front. He also asked—I can give a positive answer to this—whether the chambers will go if there are elected regional assemblies. Yes. There would be no justification for the chambers; they would be superfluous.

My noble friend Lord Dixon made the point, which is fair enough, that an elected regional assembly for his region could make a contribution to finding local solutions to local problems and regional solutions to regional problems. It is not the be-all and end-all, but my noble friend also made the point about requiring better information and a draft Bill. I fully accept his point about the Barnett formula. Fairly, he drew attention to other matters relating to Scotland and Wales. We may end up with elected regional assemblies in only two or three regions. I do not know; it is the voters' choice. If it happens to be in those regions that adjoin Scotland, so be it, the people will have chosen; the Government will not have imposed it on them. That point is not unimportant.

I intervened in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, to make the point that we are not proposing that regional assemblies should create armies.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, I let the Minister off when he said that the last time, but not even the European Union would be as stupid as that.

Lord Rooker

But, my Lords, the noble Lord saw fit to raise the issue in his speech, along with a lot of other scare stories. Nevertheless, he had a point to make and it has been heard. I must say that I do not think that the referendums will impinge on the peace that has been created since the Second World War—another road down which the noble Lord travelled. He asked me about Euro-constituency boundaries. At present, I understand that regional government boundaries are in any case coterminous with European Parliament boundaries. As far as I know, there is no cross-over; they were used last time.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, speaks with massive experience of local government, which I respect. He gave a fair example when he said that Essex has a bigger population than a certain number of US states—I cannot remember how many.

Lord Hanningfield

Twelve, my Lords.

Lord Rooker

Well, my Lords, it is not an unimportant point to make that each state in America gets two Senators, whether it is smaller than Essex or, like California, with a population of 50 million. That is the most powerful second Chamber in the world, with 100 members, but it is not based on a proportion of the electorate; there are two Senators per state. We would not invent that system today; we would not propose that in this House—oh, no, there must be equality of the vote. Nevertheless, that is a good example.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield also asked, "All for three regions?" I would say that if it ends up being all for three regions, so what, if that is the people's choice? He made a point about voter turnout; I wish that we could do more about that as well. I hope that good, vigorous debates in this place about the reality of life outside—to which we are just as attached as are Members of another place—and on the structure of government, from our experience, will set the debate alight.

I fully admit that I have kept my big mouth shut on reform of this place, but in my short experience here—less than two years—I have been under much tougher scrutiny as a Minister in this House than I ever was in the four years from 1997 to 2001 in the other House. I make a rod for my own back, but that is the reality. I could cite example after example from the past 18 months. So I hope that I treat the House as being important because of the experience that is here, and that we can set the debate alight so that people do not go around saying, "We did not know what was happening. We did not understand what were the consequences of the Bill".

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, no one would accuse the Minister of failing to answer our questions in detail—to that extent I entirely agree with him. However, on voter turnout, does he agree that the more that voters know about what any given authority has the powers to do—and, indeed, the more powers that it has and, therefore, the greater relevance to their lives—the greater the turnout?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely true. If they have a good understanding of the electoral system, that is even better. Of course, we have not quite had the courage to introduce proportional representation for another place, but, gradually, it is coming. People's votes count more under PR than under first past the post. I was converted many years ago.

I want to make only one point in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who forecast everything he said in the Daily Telegraph, which is why I raised the point in my opening speech. He used the phrase, "the imposition of regional government". I flatly deny that there will be any imposition of regional government whatsoever. Some will say that the proposed system of regional assemblies is not government anyway. There is no imposition of government. That is the kind of extravagant language that sets the hares running, confuses people and becomes anti-democratic. You might as well be honest: it is not imposed. You may not like what is happening, but the voters will choose. You may not like the boundaries; you may not like the question, but, at the end of the day, pieces of paper will go into a ballot box, which is how the decision will be reached. I cannot accept that that constitutes imposition by anyone.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister makes some interesting comments about the word "imposition". But vast rural areas of this country could, as a result of a derisory majority—one vote is enough, as there is no threshold—decidedly consider that regional government had been imposed on them if the voters who turned out came from urban areas. The noble Lord is right technically but, unless the Bill provides a safeguard for those living in rural areas, they will believe that in practice regional government has been imposed.

The noble Lord has been hugely patient. Will he clarify an answer that he gave me earlier on the powers in respect of housing that would be given to regional assemblies? Only a week or so ago, we received a paper in this House that told us about the number of houses to be built across the country. Some of my noble friends regarded the plans as concreting over the South East and South West. If the assemblies are to have power at regional level, as opposed to dealing with aspects of the housing sector as the White Paper says, does that mean that they can decide not to build houses in, for example, the Stansted area, along the corridor between Cambridge and London, or in the precious parts of the green belt in the South East and South West? Is that the power that they will have? If not, what is the power worth?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the noble Baroness's question is based on an assumption that all the big cities (and the big-city politicians) want elected regional assemblies. That may not be the case. They may prefer instead to be the biggest fish in their own pool. It is assumed in the question that the big cities will be hell-bent because they are unitary; that it does not matter to them, and that they will opt for elected regional assemblies. That is not a valid assumption.

The implication is that it will be argued that only people in areas with two-tier authorities should have a right to a vote. That is one of the issues raised by the Local Government Association. If that policy were adopted, people in some small areas would be given a veto against the majority in the regions. I fully accept that we can debate the matter at length in Committee.

Lord Greaves

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the only veto that people in those minority areas would have is over a reorganisation of local government in their own area; and that it would not affect the people in areas that are already unitary?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, no. But I think that the question was put in reverse, to the effect that people in rural areas would lose the right to a two-tier authority because they tend to be two-tier.

On housing, the White Paper was published last May; the sustainable communities programme was published last month, and housing policy changes have been taken forward. The plans for how we will regionalise housing are still being discussed. The noble Baroness in her original question gave the good example of housing. I will be happy to go into further detail on it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Lord Rooker

My Lords, may I first respond to the noble Baroness's speech? I have re-read my right honourable friend's opening paragraph. Without qualifying what he said, I wish to make clear that we do not claim that the world started on 2nd May, 1997. My right honourable friend did not say that.

There are some good examples, which we have celebrated and made clear. The first is the docklands development. I accept that there have been problems with it; but, for 30 years, four local authorities did absolutely damn all about the docklands until the development corporation was set up. In the development vehicles for the four growth areas we are now trying to learn from some of the mistakes made by the London Docklands Development Corporation in its early years.

The other thing that we can celebrate is that one of the four growth areas, the Thames Gateway, was identified 10 to 15 years ago by the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine. That is where the credit goes for that, and we have always made that abundantly clear. We did not invent it, and we did not ask for studies to be done, as we did with Ashford, Stansted/Cambridge and Milton Keynes/south Midlands. As for the one in my back yard in Birmingham—Heartlands—I remember going with colleagues late one night to see the late Nick Ridley and ask him to impose a development corporation for those 3,000 acres because, otherwise, nothing would be done. We are not saying that the world started then.

On the other hand, it was not this Government that abolished the Royal County of Berkshire without a referendum, was it?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Lord Rooker

Hang on a minute: I have not had an answer to that question. It was not this Government that abolished the Royal County of Berkshire without a referendum.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Lord. He suggested that I had said that regional authorities would be imposed. I did. The Bill is an imposition in itself.

In my speech, I raised the question of the use of public money on one side of the argument. Ratepayers' and taxpayers' money is being used to finance organisations campaigning at this stage for regional elected assemblies, while those who are against them are denied public money. Is that legal? Is it fair?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, all I can say is that the matter has been examined by Nick Raynsford, the Local Government Minister. Nobody has found any illegality taking place. I understand that issues have been drawn to the attention of the district auditor. Answers have been given in another place and, I think, to one of the Committees of your Lordships' House to the effect that the money is not being misspent. Obviously, people can investigate that.

I must make a final point before I sit down.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I want an answer on one point. If Birmingham City Council, say, takes the view that the noble Lord said that it had done, could it, as a big fish in a small pond, campaign against the plans as a matter of council policy? Would that be allowed under local spending rules?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it is not a question of campaigning. I said earlier that, as far as I know, the regional assembly in the West Midlands has written to say, "Please don't put us on the list for a referendum". There is nothing to campaign about. When the point comes and an area chooses to have a referendum, a campaign will be under way, and the Electoral Commission's rules on money, on the length of the campaign and on ensuring fairness for both sides will come into play.

I shall make a final point to answer a specific question that I was asked about the soundings document. At the back, there is a little questionnaire. Maybe that is putting it a bit strongly: there are a few tick-boxes. If anybody writes in to say that they do not want an elected assembly, that will not count as having an interest in a referendum. If someone writes in and says, "We don't want an elected assembly", it will not count. If someone sends in the form, on which question 6 asks "Do you want a referendum in your region?", and they tick "Yes" or "No", we will have an answer. If they write in and say, "We're not interested in this", it will not count. Question 7 goes on to ask for a view on holding a referendum, ranging from "Very strong" to "Very weak". The Bill does not allow us to count such letters. We operate not as free agents but as decent public servants making proper decisions. We will publish as much as we can about the representations.

I have referred to every noble Lord who spoke. I may not have answered all their questions, but I hope that the Bill will get a Second Reading.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister has been extremely tolerant. He has spoken for 37 minutes, with many interruptions. There will be a Committee stage and a Report stage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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