HL Deb 05 March 2003 vol 645 cc812-6

3.4 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is appropriate for public money to be used to campaign for regional government in advance of a decision to hold a regional referendum.

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

My Lords, the government grant to regional chambers may not be used for political purposes, including campaigning for an elected regional assembly. That is a condition of grant about which we have reminded the chambers. We are satisfied that regional chambers are not using government grant in that way.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it is known to the department that money coming from local government is in fact being spent in some parts of the country to campaign for regional assemblies—a proposal that has yet to go before Parliament and receive Royal Assent. Are the Government not concerned that that directly breaches the code of practice set out in the Local Government Act 2000?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, and it is true, but that is a matter for the independent district auditor and not for the Government. I understand that the district auditor has been contacted on at least one occasion, perhaps more. The district auditor must draw his own conclusions; it is not a matter for the Government. We are satisfied that central government money is not being used inappropriately. We have also reminded the chambers of the position.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in order to have a sensible discussion it is essential to get the maximum amount of information to the electorate before the referendum is held? Is he not also surprised to find that this topical Question is really not a topical Question?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, given that the Bill is currently before the House, there are plenty of opportunities to raise these issues—as there was in another place. I understand that the allegations made in another place were answered satisfactorily, both in writing and in Committee, by the Minister concerned. No one has sought to say that the information given by the Minister was inaccurate.

I repeat that the regional chambers are voluntary bodies and get their money from different sources. We have repeatedly said that the government grant is not for expenditure on activities of a political or exclusively religious nature—for example, campaigning, publicising or promoting the case for an elected regional assembly. It is not appropriate to use government money for those purposes. It is for the regional chambers to decide what to do with the other money they get. If there is a complaint about the money they receive from local government, the complaint should be made to the district auditor, not government Ministers.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it not clear from the answer that the noble Lord has just given that regional government will have to be paid for by the people in each region? Should they not therefore be consulted before they have to accept that commitment?

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords. I return to the initial Question. The precise purpose of the referendums is to decide whether regional government comes to an area. The purpose of the legislation currently before the House is to determine whether referendums in advance of a decision should take place. The people in the region will choose whether to have an elected regional assembly. It is for them to decide whether to call it regional government or home rule. They will be elected regional assemblies, and that is that.

Lord Morgan

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is considerable enthusiasm for the Government's initiative on regional government in many parts of the country; that it is seen as the natural corollary of Welsh and Scottish devolution; that it bears on the earlier Question on regional economic disparities; and that there would be even more enthusiasm if there were a statement on the powers and functions of the assemblies prior to the referendum?

Lord Rooker

We could do that, my Lords. However, I think that the penny dropped during Second Reading of the legislation that there are no new powers and no new funds. That causes disquiet in certain areas. There is an argument for and an argument against. That argument is for the regions after the House, if it so desires, passes the legislation and work continues on the local government changes. It is a complicated matter. We have made it clear that there will be a full government statement on what people are voting for, and the consequences of so voting, before they take part in a referendum.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, is the Government's policy on regional referendum to hold them only when they will be won?

Lord Rooker

No, my Lords. We shall return to this point. The soundings aspect of the legislation concluded on Monday. The purpose of which was to see whether there was a desire in the regions for a referendum. Some people may want a referendum in order to defeat the proposal, as that would put it on the back burner for five years. As the legislation says, a defeat would kill the proposal stone dead for five years. The question is whether a region wishes to express an opinion for or against. That is how we will choose which region or regions will be first to have a referendum. As I think we have made clear, we do not expect that there will be more than one or two such regions before the next general election. The Bill has yet to be considered in Committee and on Report. I assume that these matters will be debated at length at that time.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, in the event of the Secretary of State ordering a referendum in the North West and that referendum resulting in a no vote, can I have an assurance from the Minister that the cost attendant on the abortive local government reviews will be borne entirely by the Secretary of State and not by the council tax payers in the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire where there is virtually nil support for regional government?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot answer the specifics of that question. However, I invite the noble Lord to table an amendment in Committee. By then I shall have a considered response to the question.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, in view of the lack of information available about the powers and structures of regional government, will the Minister say on what basis the Secretary of State will make his decision, following the sounding exercise which finished on 3rd March and well before the Bill receives Royal Assent, about the level of interest in a region with regard to a referendum?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not want to fudge the issue but these matters will be discussed at Committee stage of the Bill. At Second Reading we made clear that the Secretary of State would have to reach a considered judgment on whether there had been a sufficient level of interest in a particular area to justify a referendum, which would probably involve a year's work on the local government boundary review and a large expenditure commitment. The Secretary of State would have to reach a judgment having taken account of the relevant soundings. No decision will be made or announced until after the legislation receives Royal Assent. It is not possible to prejudge the soundings in a particular area during the passage of legislation through Parliament. It would be quite wrong to do so until Parliament agrees the legislation.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, why were Members of this House not included on the distribution list of pro forma for responses to the sounding exercise on the level of support for referenda concerning this matter?

Lord Rooker

Because, my Lords, we made a cock-up for which I have apologised to the Front Benches.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his frankness if not on his parliamentary language. I am grateful to him.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I take the noble Lord back to my Question which is not about government money but about public money. I quote from the code of recommended practice of local authority publicity pursuant to the Local Government Act 2000 which states that, local authorities, like other public authorities, should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns". Does not the department take a view about public funds being used to promote a proposal that has yet to receive parliamentary and sovereign approval?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I cannot help but draw the noble Baroness's attention to the fact that she altered the wording of the Question after she first tabled it. When it first appeared in my department late yesterday afternoon, it referred to taxpayers' money. That phrase was later altered to public money. There is a difference. I take the phrase "taxpayers' money" to refer to national taxpayers' money; that is, money under the Government's jurisdiction. The term "public money" includes money under the jurisdiction of local government. We have a policy—I am aware that some people disagree with it—of providing as much quasi independent local government as possible in this country without too much interference from central government. There is a tried and tested procedure of the district auditor levying onerous penalties if local government steps out of line. I repeat that if the money that the assemblies have obtained from local government is considered to be misspent, the correct person to whom to complain is the district auditor who will take a dim and severe view if they have overstepped the mark.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, on the now famous forms which have been issued for people to express their view on whether or not they want a regional assembly, is it true that if they state that they do not want a regional assembly and do not want a referendum, that counts as interest in a referendum and will therefore help to procure one? If so, that seems unacceptable.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord was present at the debate during which the matter was raised. I believe that the form has seven "tick" boxes. Some people also expressed their views in letters. It has been alleged that we took account of the views expressed in those letters rather than the boxes that had been ticked on the forms. I believe that we have stated that we have not done so. I appreciate that it is not an easy matter to assess, certainly not in seven tick boxes. The soundings have gone much 'wider that that.

The Secretary of State will have to reach a judgment as to whether there is sufficient interest in a region to justify holding a referendum. Once that decision is made, subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent, nothing will happen for a year as the boundary review will have to consider the relevant local government structure. It is important for people to know about the form of unitary local government. The two things go together. No unitary local government means no elected regional assemblies. It is as simple as that. We have made that clear. It will take about a year for that to happen. Therefore, there will not be any referendums or decisions on referendums to trigger the political parties legislation until the summer of next year.