HL Deb 16 June 2003 vol 649 cc542-57

3.50 p.m.

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

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

"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on referendums for establishing elected regional assemblies in the English regions. First, though, I would like to apologise to the House for the stories that have appeared in the press over the weekend and this morning. There has been intense speculation about which regions will move to a referendum, but the source of the stories appears to have been a leaked Cabinet Committee letter. I assure the House that the letter was not released on anyone's authority, and apologise again that the leak occurred.

"In 1997 this Government inherited one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. As the House knows, we have reversed that legacy.

"During the past six years, we have carried out a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change. We have decentralised government and transformed our political system through devolution to Scotland and Wales; we are continuing our reforms of the House of Lords and modernising local government; we have restored democratic city-wide government to London; and we have set up strong regional development agencies in England which have helped increase investment and employment in all our regions to record levels. We have strengthened regional policy and helped to create a network of eight voluntary regional chambers.

"In May 2002 we published our White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. It set out our plans for elected regional assemblies in those regions in which people wanted them. It contained proposals for a new regional tier of government which would take powers and responsibilities from central government—not from local authorities.

"The White Paper said that regional assemblies would make a real difference, thanks to powers over economic development, jobs, investment, transport, planning, housing, culture, arts, and sport.

"Elected regional assemblies will bring greater democracy and a new political voice to the regions. They will reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it, and will—above all—provide regional accountability.

"Last month, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act became law. Today I am taking the first steps under that Act to deliver our undertaking to hold the first regional referendums during this Parliament. We have no intention of forcing elected regional assemblies on any region. However, it is clear to me that in some regions voters want this opportunity. I intend to give them that choice.

"The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act sets out what must happen before I can call any referendums. First, I must consider the level of interest in the region in holding a referendum. Secondly, the Boundary Committee for England must have made recommendations on options for unitary local government in those parts of the region which currently have two tiers of local authorities.

"On 2nd December 2002 we started a soundings exercise in the eight regions outside London. We gave the soundings document a wide distribution, and asked for responses by 3rd March. The House will recall that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was amended in the Lords in April to allow for a second question in the referendums on the options for unitary local government. The soundings exercise was extended to take this into account, and we asked for further responses by 16th May.

"In assessing levels of interest, I have considered all relevant responses. I have today published a summary of the responses and other evidence that I have considered. That document has been placed in the Library and made available in the Vote Office.

"In total we estimate that at least 50,000 people were involved in the soundings exercise; a lot more than in a typical opinion poll. Over 7,000 direct responses were from individuals. The rest came from organisations or individuals responding in a representative capacity, for example through surveys or petitions. Although these responses represented the views of many individuals, they were each recorded as single responses.

"I do not think that it will surprise the House that levels of interest in a referendum vary between the different regions of England. In some regions, interest was low. In the West Midlands, only 16 per cent of respondents said that they wanted a referendum. In the East and South East of England around 35 per cent said they wanted a referendum; and in the South West and East Midlands the figure was around 40 per cent.

"Taken together with other views, information and evidence, these figures show that there is insufficient evidence in the West Midlands, the East of England, the South East, the South West and the East Midlands to justify a referendum being held now.

"I am therefore not directing the Boundary Committee to undertake local government reviews in those regions.

"The picture is quite different in the three Northern regions. In the North East and North West over half of all respondents wanted a referendum, and in my own region, Yorkshire and the Humber, almost three quarters said "Yes". In all three northern regions there was significant and widespread interest in holding a referendum from the business community, trade unions, local authorities and the voluntary sector.

"Taking all the evidence together, I am satisfied that interest in a referendum is high in all three regions. Therefore, I am pleased to announce to the House today that it is my intention to hold referendums at the first opportunity in the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.

"I expect that opportunity to come in the autumn of 2004. I have therefore today directed the Boundary Committee for England to carry out a local government review in each of these three regions. These reviews will cover the existing two-tier areas of Durham, Northumberland, Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire County Councils. The Boundary Committee will recommend at least two options for structural change in relation to each area, and voters in those areas will be given a choice as to which unitary option they prefer.

"Reviews in the three northern regions will begin shortly. Copies of the guidance to the Boundary Committee have been placed in the Library.

"Building on the proposals in the regions White Paper, we intend to publish a draft Bill setting out the powers and functions for elected regional assemblies in those regions that want them. If the people vote "Yes" in the referendums, we could have the first elected assemblies up and running early in the next Parliament. This will be another significant step on the road to regional government for England.

"It will take forward the Government's commitment to develop a strong regional voice in all eight regions. The regional chambers, the RDAs, and the Government Offices will all continue to ensure that there is a distinctive regional voice from every region—whether or not there is an elected regional assembly.

"This Government remain committed to a strong regional policy which will benefit the country as a whole. We are offering the people of the three northern regions an historic opportunity; an opportunity we offered the people of Scotland, Wales and London before them; an opportunity for the northern regions to choose how they are governed.

"This is an opportunity to strengthen democracy and reduce bureaucracy, an opportunity to gain a new political voice and for greater prosperity—for more growth, more jobs, more investment. It is an opportunity for those regions that have the desire for change to determine their own future.

"Today's announcement is good for democracy, good for the English regions and good for the whole of the UK.

"I commend this Statement to the House". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.58 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this unsurprising Statement to the House today. I say "unsurprising" because it has been clear from the very first discussions that took place on this matter that the Deputy Prime Minister was hell-bent on ensuring that regional government in the areas in which he believed that he could achieve a vote—any sort of vote—in favour would be implemented, whatever happened. I cannot extend the usual courtesy of thanking him for letting me have previous sight of the Statement. It has taken me until 3.45 p.m. to get the Statement from another place—not from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I managed eventually to get a copy from the Minister's office or through the Whips' office at the same time.

The paper on the soundings exercise to which the Minister refers, which gives extremely interesting details of the results of that exercise, is embargoed. It was embargoed until the start of the Statement today. It was only with the most extreme efforts that I managed to get a copy of the document.

The normal courtesies that are extended to the opposition clearly have misfired or miscued in my case. The other opposition party may have fared better, but I should like to place on record that I do not expect very much from the Government, but I do expect an opportunity to see what I am going to talk about.

There has not been a strong response to the soundings exercise, which, as the Statement says, was implemented in December and was to be finalised in March. It was extended in March and then again, we understand, into May, because of the derisory result that was emerging. When I checked the ODPM's website in early April, there had been 7,000 responses in total. I am told that a month later there were 8,000. We are now told that there were 50,000 responses; that is, replies from the whole country. Only 7,000 of those replies have been received from individuals. It emerges from the paper to which I have now been made privy that in the North West there have been 3,611 responses in favour—and one should bear in mind that most of those, given that 7,000 responses were from individuals, must have come from organizations—with 336 against. In the North East—good grief—there were 733 responses in favour, and in York and Humber, there were 1,000 responses in favour.

The Deputy Prime Minister tries to hide behind the fig leaf that a MORI poll would have produced the same sort of result, but a soundings exercise conducted in the way that this one has been deserves to produce the sort of results that it has. It is therefore hard to see how the Deputy Prime Minister has come to the conclusion that there was "high" interest in the three regions that I have mentioned and could possibly justify his decision to go ahead.

If a judgment can be made by the Deputy Prime Minister on the soundings with such a paltry turn-out, will the Minister tell us what level of participation in a referendum would be so low for him to decide that there would be insufficient support for regional government to be introduced? Is it still the intention that that decision, following a referendum, will be for the Deputy Prime Minister to make alone? If that is so, and we reside on the result from these soundings, that decision would be made on a very low basis indeed.

That matter was discussed at great length in this House, as was also the question of how people were to be informed of what regional assemblies will actually do. The Minister listed the matters that regional government will be able to tamper with. However, he tried to give the impression that there will be significant powers for regional assemblies, when it has been clear all along, and still is, that they will be nothing more than scrutinising talking shops.

We proposed during discussions on the Bill in this House that a draft Bill should be introduced. I am glad to hear from the Statement that that will be done. Perhaps I may ask the Minister when we can expect that and whether it will be laid before the House for discussion.

Is it also still the case, as the Minister repeatedly said during the process of the Bill, that any regional assembly will have "no new powers and no new money" or is there yet to be a power of precept and if so, for what purposes? What will the regional assemblies cost the council tax payer—first, to set up; secondly, to run; and thirdly, to pay those who will be their elected members? Has that yet been worked out? It had not when the Bill was passing through this House.

As the Minister said, there will be two questions, but the real question today is why a referendum for regional government is so important when the Government will not commit themselves to one for the far-reaching European constitutional convention. On that matter, the public can be stirred, but it seems to be in the deepest slumber over regional government.

The proposals are so far from a priority in the minds of any of the electors—the sounding exercise demonstrates that per adventure in the abysmal response that it has generated—that one wonders how the Government have the gall to go ahead with them. Even the business community, represented by the CBI, has expressed the gravest concern about regional assemblies, believing that they will do nothing to enhance enterprise or economic performance. Will the Minster say whether the views of the CBI have been taken into account?

The outcome of the proposals, if they come about, will be the demise of the county councils, the second tier of government for the past 1,000 years—but then, this Government seem to be impervious to 1,000 years of history in any respect. It is certainly our view that the public could be misled over the value of regional government. It is now up to the Government and the careful scrutiny of Parliament to see that they are not. It is also up to the good sense of the public to see through this charade.

4.07 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Statement. We welcome it because we support devolution where people want devolution. It is right for the Government to enable that decision to be taken on a local or, perhaps I should say, regional basis. I can assure the noble Baroness that I, too, have had the Statement for only a short time, although I heard news of it from the "Today" programme this morning. My decorator, who arrived when I was listening to it, thought that I was mad to be interested.

We support regional democracy and the move away from the quango state that regional assemblies would enable. We are also glad that our proposals for a second question have been accepted, given that the Prime Minister is not prepared to retain two-tier local government.

The story really begins here. Does the Minister agree that the referendums need to be won? Does he agree that that may be a harder exercise than dealing with the legislation and the soundings? The soundings exercise addressed the level of interest in holding a referendum. Many of us were somewhat sceptical as to whether that would be read by respondents as indicating interest in the holding of a referendum as distinct from interest in there being a regional assembly. I do not suppose that I will be able to tempt the Minister to speculate on that today, but perhaps he could tell the House what is meant in the Statement by "relevant" responses, which are those which have been taken into account in assessing the soundings.

Does the Minister also agree that it is important to be clear about the powers and the functions of the proposed assemblies? The Minister knows that we on these Benches believe that they should be greater. We regret, for instance, that it is not proposed that the regions will be able to hold the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Councils— to mention just three—to account at regional level. Does he agree that even if supporters of the principle disagree on the detail, it is important to work together and simultaneously for as much devolution as possible? We will have the draft Bill before the referendum. Can the Minister tell the House not only when it will be published but—to go further in than did the noble Baroness—what arrangements there will be for its scrutiny? For example, is it proposed that there will be a Joint Committee of both Houses? It is in my view essential that the scrutiny of the draft Bill provides an opportunity for debate that is as extensive as possible.

We note the response to the soundings exercise in those regions that are not among the three that will have early referendums. The Minister will recall the concern expressed during the passage of the Bill about levels of uncertainty and anxiety in those other regions. Could he take the opportunity today and whenever possible to reassure those other regions that proposals for a regional assembly, while not ruled out, are not just around the corner for them? That means that life could continue as always in those regions.

Coming from London, I cannot help but observe that the White Paper told us that the new regional assemblies are not to have an executive mayor. I hope that during the passage of the Bill the door will not be closed to issues of structure, such as the need to ensure that there are enough members of the new assemblies to ensure representativeness and to carry out the executive and scrutiny functions.

Finally—and in view of the preceding Statement—can the Minister confirm to the House that responsibility for the matter will remain in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and not move to the new Department for Constitutional Affairs?

4.11 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am grateful for those responses. I apologise if anyone feels that they did not get stuff on time. I am not exactly sure of the situation. I assume that my right honourable friend stood up at 3.30 but the Statement would have been made available to the Opposition Front Bench before then. I do not know why it was made available to the noble Baroness at only quarter to four. I apologise for that.

I take the House seriously and always remind civil servants and colleagues, "Don't forget the House of Lords, by the way". I do so because of what previously happened in relation to the Bill and the soundings. I had my tongue in my cheek when I read one half of the sentence because, as noble Lords know, during the passage of the Bill, noble Lords were not on the list for the soundings distribution.

The 50,000 figure has been challenged so I shall explain it. Total responses logged are 8,465. Of those, 7,132 were from individuals in their private capacities. The balance of 1,513 were from organisations including Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and local authorities. Twenty-eight opinion polls and surveys, and nine petitions were supplied; 37,243 people were consulted via opinion polls or surveys. There were 1,411 signatures to petitions. At least 7,800 people were involved in providing views by way of focus groups, votes at meetings and responses to circulars. The total involved in that way is 46,459; if that is added to the 7,132 direct individual responses the number is 53,591. I call that more than 50,000 people issuing a view. One cannot say that someone who is asked a view is ignored or treated any differently when they have given a view to a survey just because they did not write in. We logged them differently; that is why I can give the breakdown.

This is the first time people have been given a choice about their government structure—I almost said their local government structure but it is not that, nor is it about central government structure—in England. When the Tories abolished Berkshire county council there was no referendum or choice for the people beforehand. To listen to the Opposition, anyone would think that no one had ever abolished a county council. Let us get the facts right. I do not believe that Berkshire county council was ever Labour but there was no referendum for the people of Berkshire. If there is a "yes" vote and the assemblies are set up, the test will be whether they are abolished by another government. The track record is not very good. The Conservatives opposed the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and changed their mind. I understand that they opposed democratic city-wide government for London and later changed their mind. We must not forget the valuable contribution of the 150 Tory councillors represented on the regional chambers; I am sure that they will have a word or two to say about the valuable contribution they are making.

Most of the other answers I can provide are basically those I gave during the passage of the Bill. Nevertheless, I shall do my best. I shall not fall into the trap associated with the turnout level. We discussed that in Committee. If we put any figures on a turnout level, that would be an open invitation for those who want to frustrate the objective to call for an abstention in order to manipulate the outcome. We shall wait and see what the people's choice is; that is what matters at the end of the day. It is true that there will be no new powers, no new money and no new tier of government. That is the mantra and that remains exactly the same.

The costs I gave during the passage of the Bill are unchanged. The set-up costs are approximately £30 million. The running costs are about £25 million a year, some of which will be offset by amalgamations and regional office changes. I believe I gave a figure of about £5 million.

On the draft Bill, I cannot go much beyond the Statement save to say that our intention is to produce a draft Bill before the referendums. We cannot currently provide a timetable; to be honest, it is too far ahead to calculate parliamentary counsel resources. I—and, I believe, everyone else—would be happier if a draft Bill were published a decent time beforehand. The question is, not knowing the date of the referendum, other than autumn next year, could there be parliamentary scrutiny beforehand? That could mean the summer. I could not possibly prejudge that. For the avoidance of any doubt, the production of a draft Bill will not delay the referendums; I make that abundantly clear. Having a draft Bill will not act like a veto or a trigger for the referendum. We have already said—and I mean this—that through the letterboxes of each of the houses and dwellings in the regions will come information about what the regional assemblies are about and what their powers and functions will be; there will be full information. Needless to say, when the draft Bill appears, it will be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. However, I cannot at present give details about the timetable; I am sorry about that.

On the EU, it is no good asking me questions. I cannot answer those questions and, basically, I will not.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

No, my Lords, I have no authority to answer questions for the Government on the European Union; other Ministers are employed, paid and briefed to do so. I am not one of them.

We have no plan to abolish the county councils. It may be the case—I do not know—that the Boundary Committee may put forward options for single-tier unitary county councils; I do not know. It is for that committee to look at the six or seven county councils on the list that I mentioned. There is no sub-plot to abolish county councils.

We have considered all of the "relevant responses". I believe that that phrase was included because the lawyers considered that some of the responses that were received were not relevant. That includes many from business, individuals and organisations; they had a variety of views all of which have been considered.

I have dealt with the costing issue and the level of responses. On the soundings exercise, people might chaff about it but the fact is that one can run a well-respected opinion poll in this country with, I believe, about 1,700 people, so long as they are classified correctly and virtually mirror exactly the population of this country. That is tried and tested and scientific. Many more people were involved and it was split on a regional basis. The regions are not all the same size. They are not the same; they do not look the same, they do not act the same and they do not sound the same. I say: thank goodness for that. My question for the Opposition is: if the assemblies are set up, will they abolish them?

4.19 p.m.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the Minister recall that two or three years ago the Prime Minister was reported as saying that we needed local government and elected regional assembles like a hole in the head? Does he know what caused the Prime Minister to change his mind? What sort of madness is it when a government grant people referenda on regional government for which there is no great groundswell of support but refuse a referendum on proposals from Europe that affect our very independence as a nation? Has the world gone completely mad? Does not our present local government set up—especially our county councils—help maintain a balance between urban and ruralinterests? Is it not disgraceful that the Government are prepared to risk all that being set at nought in the North West, for example, where any assembly would be bound to be dominated by urban interests based on the conurbations of Merseyside and Manchester?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, on the latter point, as we made clear during the passage of the Bill, all polices, whether from regional assemblies, central or local government, must be rural-proof. The rural element of those policies should be an integral part of them, not tacked on at the end.

The original White Paper sets out that, should there be a "yes" vote and a Bill establishes a regional assembly, the electoral system for that assembly would not be based on a quota system for the size of constituencies, such as that in another place. The Boundary Committee has the powers to change, alter and keep discreet figures for electoral numbers for rural areas to take special account of the dispersal of the population. That would not happen in elections for membership of another place. The idea is an integral part of the plan and I will not accept that there is an argument between urban and rural interests.

Ultimately, the people will decide. If they choose to have an elected regional assembly, that is their choice—not that of this House, the Government or another place. We have set up the procedure to give people the choice. That is it. There is now a set of rules—a statutory framework—for governing referendums that was not available for the earlier referendums, which will lead to a fair result. As for the first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the quote from the Prime Minister, the noble Lord gave no chapter, quote or reference, so I will not answer it.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement, which I welcome. Several right reverend Prelates on these Benches have supported the policy over the past few years. I signed the letter from the bishops and Church leaders of the North West, largely because I wanted an end to the uncertainty. The North West is a region surrounded—north and south—by devolved government. The citizens of the North West have the right to a similar government.

I chair the North West Rural Affairs Forum—the Defra body—and I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about rural and urban interests. Therefore, will the Minister assure those of us who will vote in the referendum about what the body will actually do and about the interests of the rural areas and shire counties, which cover a vast area over and against the heavily populated conurbations of Greater Manchester and Merseyside. Will he assure us that the Statement will be well publicised so that people are well aware of what will happen post-referendum?

I hope that the criteria by which the Boundary Committee deal with this difficult and sensitive business of designating regions will be clearly published for all of us to understand.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, on the last point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, which I hope was covered in the Statement, the criteria given to the Boundary Committee have been published today. Details of the direction that has been given to the committee should be available in the Library. There is no secret about them—nothing has been done behind closed doors.

On what will happen post-referendum, as much information as possible will be made available before the referendum, during the campaign and over the coming months. It is difficult because, in areas in which there is two-tier local government, a decision will have to be made about the new structure. Obviously, the Boundary Committee will take a while—perhaps six or nine months or even a year—to complete the reviews in each of the three regions for the local government changes that would be on offer for the present two-tier areas, where only people in those areas will have the second vote.

Full information about what matters will be dealt with by the regional assemblies and how they will operate will be available, based, one hopes, on the draft Bill. The public will receive information through letter boxes.

I can only repeat my earlier comments about the urban/rural split. I hope that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn does not go down the same road. The idea that only people who live in rural areas care about those areas is a scandalous lie. It is a calumny on all the other people. We all care. A quarter of the population of this country lives in rural areas, although many of those people work in urban areas. However, rural areas are not just a playground. The chocolate box image imagined by people who know nothing about the countryside is false. We are talking about vibrant, sustainable communities.

Policies must be rural-proof. The Countryside Agency's chair and chief executive, as well as Ministers should be held to account. Along with the Deputy Prime Minister, I have been on the receiving end of ensuring that all our policies are rural proof. We assured ourselves that they were not only an add-on or afterthought to the overall policies of the department.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Constitution Select Committee's report on devolution? Has he read it? Has he seen the annexed report that shows widespread disillusionment about the consequences of devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Is he aware that, in Scotland, the cost of the Parliament has increased from £40 million to £400 million, that half the electorate failed to turn out for the election, and that the Northern Ireland Assembly is not sitting? Only this week, there has been huge resentment in Wales and Scotland about the proposed changes in the offices of Secretary of State for those countries.

Would it not be more sensible for the Government to get the constitutional changes that they have made right before embarking on another, like the Frank Spencer figure in "Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em"? Would it not be better to make what they have done work before setting out on a new agenda?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, who sat in a previous Cabinet, I must say that nothing he said was relevant to the Statement.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, the planning process will he severely affected by these proposals. The reference to the creation of new unitary authorities is a clear indication of that. I have therefore been trying to find out what has happened to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill that featured in the gracious Speech at the beginning of this Session and has been stuck in another place for some months. We were promised that it would be here in June. It is not here. I learn from an article in the Financial Times a week ago that the Government have decided to withdraw that Bill and delay legislation until the next Session. Is that true? Some of us have been working hard to prepare for its arrival and the absence of information is worrying.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I say with the greatest respect that there is no absence of information about the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. Everything is known. There was a debate in another place on Tuesday last week in which the orders for what we propose for the Bill, that were announced the previous week, were approved. We have not withdrawn it at all, but referred it back to the Standing Committee in the House of Commons. We are taking the opportunity to include the long-awaited removal of Crown immunity in planning matters, add parts of the Bill that could not be included in the original Bill in respect of compulsory purchase to make the process easier and make minor changes to the setting up of urban development corporations relating to community plan growth areas.

Those matters were all agreed last week and are on the record. When the House of Commons has considered it, they will use their new procedure to carry over legislation from one Session to another. Therefore, the Bill—not a new Bill—should arrive in this House just before Christmas or in the first week of January. With all the additions that we want to make, we cannot proceed with the Bill as drafted because it does not fit the procedures of this House.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will probably get Royal Assent four months later than originally planned. It would not have received Royal Assent until November anyway. In order to achieve decent consideration in this House, the Bill will probably now receive Royal Assent at the end of March next year. It will be a much better Bill than the one we kicked off with.

The Government think that it is wise to take the opportunity to add those extra elements. It was not thought appropriate to include all those major additions—although there are no changes of policy—on Report.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there are at least two major arguments for the measure? I hope it is in order not merely to address the House twice in rapid succession, but also to startle the Whips twice in rapid succession by supporting the Government. In my case, that is unusual.

First, devolution has come about in Scotland and Wales—I do not agree with the comments made aboutthat—but nothing has been done about England. England has been described as a "black hole" in the constitutional arrangements. The proposals are a natural extension. In the presence of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, I express the hope that regionalism together with devolution is eventually placed in his department as a way of integrating the constitutional arrangements and making sense of them.

Noble Lords


Lord Morgan

Secondly, I believe that the measure will promote greater equality. It brings together civic accountability of liberal democracy and the drive for equality in social democracy. Disparity in wealth, regional strength and economic progress in the different parts of England has been manifest. That is the result of over-centralisation and the lack of administrative and political clout in those areas.

We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about a thousand years of history. I have spent 45 years of my life teaching history, as has the noble Earl, Lord Russell.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his support. In answering him, I can answer a question I neglected to answer from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. It is intended that this remains a policy issue for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There is no intention to transfer this policy issue to the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

My noble friend is right that the present situation has not worked, otherwise we would not have the present regional disparities in this country. That is not to say that we want all regions the same, but some lag considerably behind others in economic performance, even though the quality of life and scenery is much better in many of the northern regions.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the view of Professor Vernon Bogdanor that legislative devolution has not been matched by any equivalent degree of financial devolution and that that is one of the main difficulties? Will lie give an undertaking that that mistake will not be repeated in regional government? Is he aware that he cannot give that undertaking without paying attention to the relations between Europe and the regions as well as Whitehall and the regions?

Is the Minister further aware that proposals for regional government in England go back to the negotiations for Anglo/Scottish union in 1707? Will he confirm that it is not a coincidence that discussions of regional government in England again follow major changes in the Anglo/Scottish relationship?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the latter point probably has a lot of substance and I look back to the debates in another place on the referendums relating to the devolution Bills introduced in the mid-1970s when I first became a Member there. Devolution to Scotland has raised the issue as regards the North East and the North West because of the economic activity and so forth.

The noble Earl's point about financial devolution is important and serious. However, there is no new money. The tax raising powers are a minor precept on local government and probably the noble Earl and Professor Bogdanor would not say that we are proposing financial devolution. I do not believe that that is figured in the calculations, but I understand the importance of his comments. Scotland has devolution to a minor degree, but, to the best of my knowledge, it has not taken up the opportunity to use it.

Earl Peel

My Lords, the Minister earlier said that he did not want to fall into the trap of pre-empting what he would regard as being an acceptable turnout in percentage terms before a referendum was to be decided. That seems a most extraordinary way of going about determining an issue of such constitutional importance. Will the noble Lord give an indication of how the Government will decide whether a particular percentage is to be regarded as sufficiently high for them to accept the results of a referendum? Will this vary from one part of the country to another? Will it be 12 per cent in one area, 20 per cent in another and 25 per cent in another?

Furthermore, the Minister talked about greater democracy and local accountability, but can he confirm that the average number of voters per regional assembly member will be approximately 250,000—four times more than a Member of Parliament? Is that really local accountability and local democracy?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, yes, I can confirm the figures that the noble Earl has given. We are not proposing large assemblies, as we made clear during the passage of the Bill. They will vary between about 25 to 35 in terms of membership. The Greater London Assembly is about that size, but I am not overly familiar with it. Therefore, the electoral system will be a form of PR and the additional-member system, which makes the constituencies large. However, it is dependent on the function. That is the issue. We are not talking about the equivalents of local councillors or Members of Parliament. The functions will be different so they will be large, but that does not diminish their function or importance in any way, shape or form.

I cannot help the noble Earl on the turnout. It is obvious I cannot go down that road and give a view about what might be an acceptable turnout based on what might be an acceptable level of victory. We have made it clear that one vote is enough as a majority, but we had these discussions during the passage of the Bill. It would be wrong to give such a figure if only for the fact that it would be misused by those who want to oppose the measure. They would campaign for abstentions, which is a pretty dishonest thing to do in a democracy. Yes, campaign for your views—"I am for this", or, "I am against that"—but to campaign for an abstention in order to manipulate the outcome is not democratic.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, thank you very much. It is time I had a little consideration in this House. I want to ask the Minister two questions. First, he said that there will be no new money or powers. Will the electorates of the three regions be informed that there will be no new money or powers; that they will be subject to precepts; and that they will not therefore be in the same favourable position as Scotland and Wales? Will he also tell them—and I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will listen to this—that there is no possibility of "dequangoisation" because there will be no new powers?

Secondly, will he assure me that public money will not be used between now and when the referendums take place on one side of the argument? Will there be grants to both sides of the arguments if and when the referendums take place?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, in short, the answer to all four questions is yes.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I should like a little clarity timing. The powers, duties, responsibilities and expectations of these devolved bodies need to be thoroughly known. Those who are campaigning for devolved government want to know exactly what they are able to campaign about. There is no doubt in my mind that those who do not want the devolved assemblies will know what to campaign about. With the vested interests of the counties and the districts, the fears which exist and the greater fears which might be spread, they will know what to say. Therefore, it is most important that the powers, duties, responsibilities and expectations are clearly laid out.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is saying about what the various sides will know. If you are against the proposal, you know now. It does not matter what the Boundary Committee comes up with on options. If you want to keep the status quo—two-tier local government and so forth—you vote no and campaign on that. It is easier to do that but we will not have the options for local government in the two-tier areas for perhaps 12 months. Three regions have to vote, which makes it more difficult.

On the other hand, there will be a campaign period for the referendum. I assure the noble Lord that Nick Raynsford, the Minister responsible for local government, will be taking every opportunity to deploy the arguments about what is available in respect of regional assemblies. We will ensure that every household has the required information. That will not be until after we know what the options are. If it is done too early and too far away from the referendum, it will be lost in the ether. On the other hand, I accept the point that if you are against the whole exercise, you can start your campaign wagon rolling tomorrow. However, that is a very negative campaign wagon because those who take that view really will not know what they are opposing, at least until the Boundary Committee gives its options.

Those people who go on television to say "vote no" can be asked the question, "What are you against? You do not even know what is going to happen yet". It is a little like the argument on the EU Treaty, which I said I would not answer. We will not get the EU Treaty until after the inter-governmental conference, which is another reason why I am not answering any questions on it.

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