§ 11.7 a.m.
§ The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 1:
Before Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
(1) Before making any order under this Act the Secretary of State shall—
(2) For the purposes of this section "relevant interests" means professional bodies, trades unions, voluntary organisations, faith groups, political parties, business organisations and community organisations.
(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) and (b), the Secretary of State shall set out a timetable for the giving of responses to him.
§ The noble Baroness said: The Bill seeks to facilitate the establishment of eight regional assemblies within England by defining the process by which referenda will be held. One of the mainstay arguments that the Government have used when trying to persuade us that regional government is a positive step forward is that England has prominent regional differences and that decentralising a degree of power from central government to elected regional assemblies will allow policy to be tailored to the differing needs of those in different areas. So we are told that public services will meet local needs and people will no longer feel that Whitehall dictates all.
§ However, if the Government have their heart set on the establishment of regional assemblies, which would be a fundamental constitutional change and involve a major reorganisation of local government, it is irresponsible and democratically untenable that a preliminary review of those boundaries is not carried out first. Amendments Nos. 1 and 10 make such a review the primary requirement preceding the calling of a referendum.
§ I am sure Members of the Committee will recall the heartfelt concerns of a number of noble Lords at Second Reading who felt little allegiance to the regions to which they had been assigned with little or no regard. As presently constituted the regions are huge, the boundaries unnatural and arbitrarily drawn. My noble friend Lady Seccombe pointed out that living in Warwickshire she has within a 10-mile radius of her home the West Midlands, the East Midlands, the South East and the South West regions. Regional identity should not be swept under the carpet in the interests of utility, which is what we feel the Government are doing.
§ From the White Paper it is clear that the Government believe that a debate on the composition of the regions and their definitions would be a waste of time. That is a somewhat dismissive view of an area of significant constitutional change. However, the Government have, without consultation, decided to stick with the administrative boundaries used by the Government Offices for the Regions and the regional development agencies—regions that have no coherence or points of community identity.
§ Clause 26 of the Bill makes it clear that the references to regions in the Bill are those defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. There are various views of how those regions came about, but since they were created for administrative rather than electoral purposes, they are unlikely to have been the subject of the degree of consultation that we propose in Amendment No. 1.
In the White Paper the Government say that they have not,
completely ruled out in the longer term the possibility of adopting boundaries for regional assemblies that do not follow the existing boundaries".
But that is simply fanciful. Why refuse to review the system of boundaries at this stage in advance of the re-organisation of the local government substructure—a matter to which we shall return at a later stage—if there is even the smallest chance that at some time in the future those boundaries will be altered? That undermines the validity of a referendum—a result obtained on the basis of the boundaries as put forward at the moment. Surely it would be more regular, constitutionally and democratically, to sort out all the above details before asking people to vote for the proposals.
§ The boundaries of the proposed regions do not even square with people's perceptions. The number of people who do not know which region they supposedly live in is but one manifestation of the difficulty. A Mori poll in the North West region revealed that only 28 per cent could identify the region in which they lived, 12 per cent named entirely the wrong region and 60 per cent had simply no idea which region they lived in. The artificial North West region stretches from Crewe in Cheshire to Carlisle in Cumbria. Like many other regions, it has rural and metropolitan communities with different needs and characteristics. Cheshire has more affinity with the Midlands. Staffordshire and Cumbria are far apart. Cumbria might better be placed in the North East. The artificial—
§ Lord Rooker
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness as she gives us a historical breakdown of the regional boundaries, but anyone would think that the present Government set them. The boundaries that she fundamentally attacks now were set by the previous Conservative government. I do not understand the purpose of this part of her speech.
§ Baroness Hanham
It is abundantly clear. I said that, where the regions are formed, they have the regional development agency boundaries. I also said that it was unclear where they were originally formed. Historically, they go back to 1948. But this Government accept them as the boundaries. We argue that, for the purposes of an electoral system rather than an administrative one, they are completely inappropriate because they do not relate to communities or local identities. This amendment suggests that the Government provide, construct and look at smaller regions that have an identity.
To conclude my earlier remarks, there are disparities not only in the make-up of the regions but in the population. The North East region has a population of around 2.5 million whereas the South East region has a population of 8.5 million. There is very little credibility. It will be difficult to construct constituencies and to ensure that there is any regional identity unless the population has a say in the matter.
§ 11.15 a.m.
§ Lord Tordoff
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. The situation will be made more difficult if she persists in believing that Cheshire looked towards the Midlands. It looks towards Manchester and Liverpool—I speak as Lord Tordoff of Knutsford, which is in the good county of Cheshire. There is no question that Knutsford looks north, north-west and north-east, not south.
§ Baroness Hanham
I am sure that the noble Lord will have an opportunity to develop his comments in a minute, as soon as I finish my remarks.
In conclusion, the redrawing of the boundaries will not be easy. But it must be done before the new constitutional arrangement takes place. We do not avant to underestimate the extent to which the Bill proposes fundamental changes, not only to the constitutional arrangements of the country, but to the democratic arrangements. We should not be too glib about that. We should take seriously what regional government means, if that is what the Government are intent on introducing. I beg to move.
§ Baroness Hamwee
We on these Benches have made no secret of our concern about the regional boundaries, which, as the Minister reminded the Committee, were created by the previous government, though for a different purpose. They were created for administrative reasons. One wonders whether they were created to continue control from Whitehall rather than to devolve it. They were used for the purposes of the regional development agency boundaries so that we could get on with that proposal. I must confess that during the passage of the Regional Development Agencies Bill I did not support change of the boundaries. Hindsight is a great thing.
We have heard some examples. I thought that my noble friend was going to say that Cheshire was a unique entity—sui generis is perhaps the term to use. Many people living in Cheshire would not wish to be identified with anywhere else. But there are identity problems elsewhere. I understand that Shropshire feels closer to Gloucestershire than to Birmingham in the South West, although I cannot speak directly about that. Under the proposals, Gloucestershire is allied with Cornwall. We know about the problems in the South East.
But to what extent is the purpose of this amendment to get it right? We know that the Conservatives do not wish to see regional government in place. I cannot help thinking that the amendment is simply a recipe for delay. Under the amendment as tabled, several conditions must be met, including much consultation—I would not argue with that. But I wonder whether it is dealt with in a limited way, given that "relevant interests" is so closely defined.
1442 The wording of subsection (1)(c)(ii) of the new clause, which provides for,the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities",is familiar. The words were used in the Local Government Act 1992 in the context of the proposals for structural change to local government. But it is significant that they were printed alongside the condition that the Local Government Commission should have regard to the need,to secure effective and convenient local governmentWe are about securing effective and convenient government at all stages. If we must have such conditions, I would not wish to leave that out.
There is also the question of size, which worries me. This is a diverse country and, of course, the populations of different parts of the country are different. I do not understand the need for size to be a criterion. That suggests that there is a need to create a level playing-field so that the regions can compete for power between themselves. The regions differ in size, but that does not undermine the identity of any region. I say that without disagreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the proposed South East region, which is an absurdity. I accept that, but I do not think that the amendment is the way to go about things.
I come back to my first point. We know the attitude of the Conservatives to this important democratic proposal. Critical as we on these Benches are of the way in which the Government are going about things, we do not wish to see regional government threatened. I fear that that is what the new clause is aimed at.
Does the noble Baroness agree that many of her colleagues in different parts of the country are concerned about the shape of the boundaries and look to Parliament—particularly this House—to do something about them and, at least, have a proper debate about them? If possible, we should ensure that boundaries are readjusted to come more closely into line with community interests. The noble Baroness's colleagues say that: does she speak for them?
§ Baroness Hamwee
I speak for all my colleagues, including those on these Benches. I said that we had concerns about boundaries, and we need to get them right. However, we should not delay the process, as the provision in the amendment would do. The issue must be addressed, but, reading between the lines, I do not believe that this is the way to go about it, if we are to have regional government in the form in which we all want to see it.
§ Lord Waddington
At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was extremely frank. As usual, he was entirely honest in his explanation of the Bill's purpose. However, I can hardly say that I came away with the impression that he was a great enthusiast for the Bill. I was moderately surprised, therefore, when he intervened during the remarks made by my noble friend.
1443 It is sensible to examine the boundaries and ask whether they should be used as boundaries for electoral purposes. Unusually, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was wrong, when she said that the boundaries were set for the purposes of the regional development agencies. In fact, they were set up to demarcate the boundaries of the Government Offices for the Regions. They were drawn on the map to show where the area of responsibility of one Government Office ended and that of another began.
It is ludicrous to say that, because the boundaries were set at the beginning of the 1990s, they should be the boundaries for elected assemblies in the regions. One has seen example after example of the failure of the boundaries to create an area in which there was any obvious identity of interest or any loyalty among the people living within the boundaries for the area.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I corrected my reference to the regional development agencies. I appreciate that the boundaries were set in the early 1990s. The Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 reflected those boundaries.
§ Lord Waddington
My point is straightforward. Whether we like the idea of elected regional assemblies or not, we ought to make some effort to get the boundaries right and have regions that are understandable to the people who will vote for the assemblies.
The Minister acknowledged the absurdity of some of the boundaries at Second Reading. Referring to remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, about Cornwall, he said:I fully accept her point. 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 was a plain acknowledgement of the absurdity of it all. The Minister went on: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 it".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1330.]If it is a difficulty, it is the Government's duty to address it.
There are major issues in the North West. Should Cumbria be in the North West or the North East? That question should he addressed now, before we launch ourselves into this exercise. Obviously, it will take time, but it will be a long process anyhow, as the Minister has often said.
The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, challenged my noble friend's assertion that Cheshire had links with Staffordshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire. It depends which part of Cheshire one lives in. My noble friend was, I think, reading from a paper given to us a day or two ago by representatives of Cheshire County Council. They made the point that, in the north of 1444 Cheshire, one will certainly find oneself in a commuting area in which all the links are with Greater Manchester, as I know well. In south Cheshire, however, one begins to see links with the counties further south, rather than to the north.
The North West is not the best area in which to look for examples of absurd boundaries. We heard of plenty of those in our earlier discussions. It is ridiculous that Watford should be in East Anglia, or that Banbury should be in the South East. It is absurd that Cheltenham should be in the South West. I could go on and on. It is the Government's duty not just to say, "These are convenient boundaries, and go ahead we shall"; they must get the thing right, if they want to go ahead at all.
§ Baroness Warnock
I support the amendment with some hesitation, for I have not made up my mind whether I am for or against regional assemblies. The worst disaster for the setting up of regional assemblies would be if the boundaries had later to be changed because they did not work. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that the matter ought to be settled or, at least, debated, before we begin setting up the assemblies.
It was bad enough when the county boundaries were, as it seemed to many people who were loyal to their county, arbitrarily changed. I think of the obvious case of the ridings of Yorkshire. Not only would it be confusing to start on the process of establishing regional assemblies, rightly or wrongly, and then have to change the boundaries of the areas that they were meant to serve; it would cast doubt on the validity of the whole process.
§ 11.30 a.m.
§ Lord Shutt of Greetland
I believe that many of these boundaries are in the eye of the beholder. They are not perfect and they can change. It is clear that Amendment No. 1 is intended to be an impediment to regional government. Therefore, I oppose it.
I think that there are three positions as regards regional government. The first position is stated in the proposed new clause. The Conservative Benches regard regional government as "big" local government. That is a problem. Their mind-set is big local government. On these Benches, regional government is about democratising that which is in the regions already and further devolving from central government. I believe that the third position is that taken by the Government, who seem to be promoting an elected regional advisory committee. We live in hope that we can build on that. Therefore, we are generally supportive of the Bill in order to build upon it and make it real.
Clearly, this amendment is about impeding regional government so that it does not happen. The Conservative Benches are worried that it is big local government. They may acknowledge that.
In my speech at Second Reading I said—I repeat it only to establish my bona fides and 1445 perhaps to chide the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for being somewhat dismissive of this amendment and its motives—that I am perhaps less hostile to the concept of regional government than some of my colleagues. However, I do not believe that that is what we would be getting.
Amendment No. 1 is not about the principle of regional assemblies. It is about whether this paving legislation will set up real regions to which communities can relate. If that is not done, the regional assemblies will fail. I repeat that this amendment is not about whether we have the regional assemblies. It is a comprehensive amendment that sets out all that might be required to ensure that proper boundaries and regions are established.
I accept that a much slimmer procedure could be proposed. If my memory serves me right, when a major local government reorganisation occurred in New Zealand, the Government established a commission with far-reaching powers to establish boundaries and merge authorities. The quid pro quo to that was that the Government accepted the recommendations of the commission and did not insist on debating every proposal in Parliament. That saved a considerable amount of time.
The response of the Government to this amendment will inform us whether we are referring to devolved powers or, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, merely big local government. I believe that the proposal is about big local government. Nothing that has been said or put on paper suggests that there will be anything but big local authorities. There is little or nothing to suggest that real powers will be devolved.
Leaving that matter to one side, the argument concerning a proper examination of the boundaries is hard to deny. I ask noble Lords' forgiveness for repeating what I said at Second Reading. I referred to the discussion which took place in Committee on the Regional Development Agencies Bill on 7th October 1998. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, stated: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 arc not committed to using these precise boundaries for regional assemblies at a later stage".—[Official Report. 7/10/98; col. 442.]Those are the kind of assurances given to your Lordships' House in response to amendments put forward at that time. It was argued that if we proceeded with regional development agencies and their attendant regional chambers on the boundaries of the existing government offices, we would be prejudicing the future. We were assured that the future would not be prejudiced. Today, some five years later, it is clear that the future was being prejudiced when that Bill went through.
1446 During the same debate, in justifying not involving the Boundary Commission, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, stated:we are not involved with electoral constituencies or bodies of democratic accountability here;"—namely, regional development agencies—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".—[Official Report, 7/10/98; col. 450.]Therefore, I wonder what has changed in that time. What are the arguments to justify the boundaries of what are alleged to be democratic bodies—not merely democratic bodies exercising allegedly more than local government functions—while apparently exercising devolved functions of government? These are questions that should be answered at this stage, before any reference to the Boundary Commission is dismissed as causing delay.
I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for taking issue with a point which he and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, made. It would be unfortunate if at the outset of the Bill we were to play party politics with this issue. I listened carefully to the Second Reading debate and I have read in Hansard the report of the debate since. I have also had a great number of discussions outside the House. There are people from all parties—in particular, from the Liberal Democrat Party—who take different views about regional assemblies. In particular, they are fighting hard against the shape of the boundaries. It would be unfortunate if this debate was overridden by suspecting the motives of those of us on these Benches who are saying, at the outset of this Bill, that if this constitutional change is to happen, it is important that there should be a healthy debate in this House—and in the character of this House, which is to have open, constructive and fair debate—about the shape of the boundaries. Ultimately, there should be, a parliamentary determination of those boundaries reflecting views from all parties. Therefore, I believe that that is unfair.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and my noble friend, referred to big local government. This is not big local government. It is certainly big government because it is anything but local government. It is big centralised government. The Minister gave examples at Second Reading. Powers are not being ceded from the top down—from central government to regional government. They are being ceded upwards from county and unitary authorities to the regions. The control, but not the powers, is moving down. There will be influence over issues, but not power.
The only example which the noble Lord very readily and almost unthinkingly gave was that of housing. There will not be determinating powers. There will not be powers in the real sense that we understand powers in government. Yes, it will be influence, but powers will reside still with the departments in Whitehall.
This is big government—control from central government. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will bury their political prejudices in this matter and argue 1447 for all people of all political persuasions that this is an important debate that should take place at the outset of the Bill and not be subordinated to party hack politics.
§ Lord Waddington
Before my noble friend sits down, is she aware that the Liberal Democrats on Lancashire County Council have firmly expressed their opposition to this measure?
§ Baroness Blatch
My noble friend makes the point for me. That is right. That is why I believe that this is the last Chamber in the world where we should play party politics with a matter so constitutionally important.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
If, like the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I thought that the amendment sought to undermine the whole concept of regional government, I should support it with alacrity. But I fear that it does not. The amendment accepts regionalisation; it proposes that the regional boundaries should not be decided now, but after due consultation with many people and bodies. In my view that is an acceptance of the principle of regional government, which, as I made clear at Second Reading, I am completely against. I believe in local, democratic, government. I believe that regionalisation will undermine that, not complement or improve it.
The present regional structure was set up following the passing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when it was decided that the regional aid distributed by the European Commission, using our taxpayers' money, should no longer be administered through central government but through regions. The existing regions, which under the present Government became regional development bodies, were set up to make that administratively possible; namely, to administer the direct link between the regions and Brussels. That is the history.
Many people in this country believe that regionalisation does not have so much to do with good local government as with good administrative arrangements between Brussels and the European Union. There are those who would not agree; but I believe it, as do many others. Therefore, if we are to have regionalisation, we must give grave consideration to what we intend to do with the regions, and to how they should be geographically set out.
It is no good saying that the present regions are set in stone. That is nonsensical. A great many people have different ideas about where the regional boundaries should be, even if they agree with regional government itself. I sat on the committee of the association of municipal corporations dealing with the reorganisation of local government in 1968; we gave evidence to the Royal Commission. If my memory serves me right, it was suggested that there should be 12 indirectly elected provincial councils. So, even then, the proposal was not for eight regional authorities but for 12.
1448 Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I worry that an association between some of the areas contained in the existing regions is nonsensical. I live in Reading. My region will include Lambourn, in the Lambourn Valley—which trains marvelous racehorses—and Dover and Folkestone in the east. There is no compatibility between the two areas. Their interests are entirely different and would be difficult to reconcile.
Perhaps I may give a recent example of what happens when regions are too big. The south-east regional planning committee recommended that there should be extra building in Reading, on the flood plain. Why on earth would it make such a recommendation when the areas it suggested were flooded? Yet it did so. If we are to set up these regions—which, I repeat, I am against—we really must be very careful that we do so in such a way that they will work, and not simply between Brussels and this country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is beginning to understand this—according to his article in The Times. If we are going to set up regions at all, we ought to be doing it in such a way that there is compatibility, and agreement, between the people who will be affected.
As I said, I am split. I am in great difficulty. I am in a dilemma. I do not support the proposal because I do not support regional government; yet I believe that if we are to have regional government, it is better to set it up after what is suggested in the proposed new clause has taken place. I do not think that the amendment will be pressed to a vote today, but perhaps we can consider the matter further and return to it on Report.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ The Earl of Caithness
First, I apologise to the Committee for not being able to be present for the Second Reading debate. I was unable to stay for the whole debate; therefore, I did not put my name on the list of speakers.
One of the great advantages of this place is that it is a Chamber of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I can bring some experience to our proceedings of how regional assemblies are working in Scotland. I shall set out my stall by saying that I am pro regional government—whatever regional government means. We have it at the moment: some of the county councils are good regional government. I am also, however, in the right circumstances, pro regional assemblies. There can be merit in putting areas together. Furthermore, in the right circumstances, I am pro unitary authorities. But the size of the region, its powers, and how it will work are crucial considerations.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I live in what is classified as the South East region. I spent a great deal of my life in the Banbury area, where at one time I was a land agent. Looking at the map of the South East, my reckoning is that the logical place to have a regional assembly would be at Gatwick.
On a good day, the journey to Gatwick would take me two hours-plus from Banbury—providing that there is no hold-up, or fog, on the M25. A person living 1449 in Broadstairs, in Kent—most of the people in Banbury. with due respect to them, probably do not have a clue as to exactly where Broadstairs is; they know that it is probably in Kent but they cannot put a finger on it, and most of the people in Broadstairs probably do not know where Banbury is, which is not so surprising—will have an equivalent journey time to Gatwick of about two hours. It will take those poor people who live on the Isle of Wight—such as our current Lord Chairman—at least three hours to get to Gatwick, excluding the ferry journey; and that will be on a good day.
We have exactly the same problem in Caithness. Our regional assembly is in Inverness, and it takes our councillors two-and-a-half hours to get there. If the weather is bad, they have to make the journey the night before. One Liberal councillor has said that it is "madness", and "a complete waste of time", to have a regional assembly so far away. In the Highlands council, your vote can be counted only if you are in the chamber. A 20-minute meeting and a vote on the Budget meant that that Liberal councillor had to leave Caithness the night before in order to travel down to Inverness for a debate lasting 20 minutes, and to cast his vote. He then had to make the journey back. What a waste of time and money! Yet the principle behind parts of this Bill is absolutely right. Some regional assemblies could be beneficial. That is why I support reviewing the boundaries now. If that does not happen, whatever is said about the boundaries being able to change, I have a nasty suspicion that they will not change. They can get set in stone, and it becomes too difficult for the Government to change them. It becomes too difficult for the whole bureaucracy. If the process towards a referendum is started, people assume what the boundaries are, which then get set in stone. I think the amendment is far from being a delaying measure. It is a practical measure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, disappointed me. She started off very encouragingly, like her friends up in Caithness, saying that she was concerned about the boundaries. However, she did not say what she was going to do about them. I had hoped that she would suggest a positive alternative to what we have before us. However she does not like what either we or the Government are proposing.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said that regional assemblies would democratise what is there. I ask the noble Lord to talk to his Liberal friends up in Caithness. If he talked to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, or John Thurso MP, he would find it is far from democratising what is there. It is not producing better services. It is quite different in Caithness. Whereas decisions used to be made locally, they are now being made in Inverness, and then passed down the line. That is not good for local government or local involvement in government. We must learn from some of the mistakes we made in reforming local 1450 government—and I include my own party. We must not take government further away from the people, but bring it back to the people.
§ Lord Greaves
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, issued various challenges to us, so I believe I am justified in replying to some of them. Debate on the first amendment is always broad-ranging. Some of the issues raised relate to the amendment; others relate to other countries. We have just heard the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, talk about Scotland, to which this Bill does not refer. He put his finger on a very important point. There is no regional assembly meeting in Inverness. There is no such body. There is a local government body, the Highlands and Islands Council. It may well be far too large for the area it covers. People have to travel from Thurso to Inverness to vote, and then go back again. That may all he true—although it is in Scotland, not in England. However, it illustrates a very important part of the case we are putting forward. Various broad questions have been discussed. Are the new regional assemblies, which essentially are going to be big local authorities taking most of their powers—insofar as they have powers—upward from local authorities? Are they going to be genuine regional bodies which take over the powers of the very large number of unelected and often only remotely accountable bodies—quangos—which exist in the regions at the moment? Are they going to involve devolution of powers from Westminster, as happened in Scotland and, to a lesser degree, in Wales?
That is the huge question mark over the whole of the Government's intentions on regional government. It will arise during this Bill. It will arise even more when and if—
§ Lord Waddington
I do not understand why the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is so worried. There is no question about it at all. If there was a question, it has been answered by the Minister. He plainly said:I think that the penny has dropped during Second Reading of the legislation that there are no new powers and no new funds".—[Official Report, 5/3/03; col.813.]
§ Lord Greaves
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, asks me why I am so worried. That is precisely why. We believe the Government may be seriously and fundamentally wrong on these matters, which will have to be debated at a later stage. I remind the noble Lord that legislation gets passed by Parliament. The Government may have their views and a huge amount of influence on what gets passed. Nevertheless it is Parliament that passes it. Until that happens, we do not know what the answers to the questions are going to be.
§ Lord Waddington
I must ask the noble Lord to give way again. The Government—quite wrongly—have decided to go ahead without first presenting a Bill which defines the powers of the new assemblies. We can only go on what government spokesmen say. They have said that there will be no new powers. It is ridiculous to assume that something entirely different 1451 will happen, in spite of that clear commitment by the Government. The Government have told us what will happen.
§ Lord Greaves
The Government have told us what they want to happen and what they think will happen. That may be different from what actually happens in the real world. We only have to go back to the Greater London Authority Bill. When it left Parliament, it was in a very different state from when it came to Parliament. It still may not have been perfect or ideal. It may not have been what the Liberal Democrats would have produced. Nevertheless, the Act that was finally passed was very different from the Bill that was first presented to Parliament. That is not unusual. I hope that the Conservatives will join with us in significantly improving legislation which in due course will set up regional government. We will find out whether that happens.
However, this amendment is not really about powers at all. It is about regional boundaries. I want to turn to that question. It is always easy to ridicule a particular proposal for a territorial area—whether administrative or governmental—by looking at places on the periphery and saying they have far more in common with people who live just over the border than they have with the core or main part of their area. That always applies whether it is a region, a local community or whatever it happens to be. It is in the very nature of territorial areas and boundaries. At Mow Cop in the south of Cheshire, the county boundary with Staffordshire runs along the hilltop next to the folly and the quarries. That does not mean that the boundary at Mow Cop between Staffordshire and Cheshire is stupid. It may be that the whole of that boundary should be redrawn locally, and all of it put into one area or the other. The fact that people living next door to each other in Mow Cop are now in the present counties is not an argument for saying that those counties are somehow wrong and should be abolished.
It is always the case that if lines are drawn on maps, then some places near or on those boundaries will have more in common with people just the other side than they have with the main centre of the area, the region, the local authority, the country, or whatever it happens to be.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I have heard no one suggest that it is the peripheries that are the problem. There are many major problems about proceeding with the regions, as they have been established administratively as government offices. It is about size—which indeed raises the question of how many should be set up. It is not about peripheries. Controversially, one could ask whether London should be a free-standing region in its own right, or part of another region. It is no good quoting other capital cities in Europe, because they are smaller. Those arguments are not the subject of this amendment, but they are much bigger than just the issue of people who live on the margins. No one has suggested that that is the issue.
§ Lord Greaves
I agree with the noble Lord. I was about to make that point. I was replying to most of the criticism of the boundaries of the regions made by his colleagues. They have talked about places in Gloucestershire that are in the same region as Land's End but are nearer to Birmingham. That is a question of periphery and the margins. I live almost on the boundary of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which will be the boundary between the North West and the Yorkshire region. Some of the places near to where I live were moved out of Yorkshire into Lancashire in the 1974 local government reorganisation. There may be arguments that places like that should be moved into one area or another, but that is a peripheral issue. It is inevitable in any carve-up of an area into territories. It is not a serious argument to be entertained.
The noble Lord, Lord Bowness, has, however, identified the serious possibility of dispute over whether larger areas should be detached from regions and made into separate regions of their own or moved from one region to another. The obvious area of dispute in the North West, to which I think the noble Lord referred, is Cumbria. There is an argument as to whether Cumbria is a sensible area. Some say that it is unified by the Lake District, which is in the middle of it, and that it would be silly to split the Lake District between different areas. However, the affinity of people in south Cumbria is certainly to the North West. There is no doubt that Barrow-in-Furness and the south lakeland areas such as Milnthorpe and Kendal are in the North West. The only doubt is whether north Cumbria—north Cumberland, as it was—covering the Carlisle and Penrith area and perhaps the west coast around Workington is actually in the North East. These are peripheral areas that will always be difficult to put into a region. The geographical reality is that anyone who lives in Workington is, by definition, a long way from anywhere.
There is an argument for having a major debate about the issue. It is a matter of judgment as to whether such a debate, which would take a long time, should be allowed to hold up the Government's plan to go ahead not with regionalisation of the whole country—nobody is suggesting that—but with giving some regions the ability to have a referendum.
I do not think that the Bill will be applied to the whole country. In some areas, regional boundaries are disputed. The whole of the South East is perhaps the greatest example. There is no consensus on what the regions are and how they fit. Another important question arises over Cornwall. Should it be a separate region on its own, because of its identity and its distance from everywhere else? These are major issues.
If there were any chance of the Government going ahead with referendums in those areas, I would have more sympathy with the amendment. However, in practice that is not the case.
§ Baroness Hanham
Does the noble Lord agree that the Government intend to introduce regional 1453 government? If they intend to introduce it in totality at some stage, it is impossible that they should not set out the framework for that regional government before any further decisions are taken. I challenge the noble Lord on whether it is possible to argue that, because it will be all right for a couple of regions up in the North East and the North West, which may or may not be totally happy about the idea, it will not matter whether the other regions are all hopelessly wrong. We are dealing with the principle here. We are not on the tatty edges.
§ Lord Greaves
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for spelling that out. I think we are in the real world. We have to look at the Bill in those terms, considering what is going to happen, not some airy-fairy principles about what may occur at some distant future time. It is interesting to hear a Conservative Front Bench spokesperson argue about long-term principles. I thought that was what they always accused us of doing instead of living in the real world. I think we are living in the real world on this matter. We are told that we have to listen to what the Government are proposing. They are clearly considering going ahead with referendums in a limited number of regions. The three regions they are clearly considering in the foreseeable future are the North East, Yorkshire and the North West. For all the peripheral problems here and there, there is no fundamental disagreement that if we have regions in this country, those three exist and have an identity. Pretty well anyone can sit down with a map and draw the rough boundaries.
§ Baroness Blatch
We all live in the real world. In my part of the real world, this is part of the parliamentary process. We are in no doubt about the Government's intentions. Knowing how open the Minister is with Parliament, I have no doubt that he will remind us that at the end of the day the people will decide whether to have regional government. The Bill is set up for the people to decide.
We know that if we lie down now—in a parliamentary sense—and simply accept these boundaries as de facto because they are what the Government want, we will be remiss in our duty. This part of the process is to try to persuade the Government that there is a real issue. Whether or not the Government intend to have regional government only in the North East and one or two other areas, whether there is to be a referendum and whether the answer is yes or no in any part of the country, once the boundaries are set and the Bill is passed by Parliament, people will be able to vote only on the boundaries set in the Bill. This is our opportunity to say at the outset that the boundaries should be properly revisited, taking into account all the points made.
I am also cognisant of what the Liberal Democrats have said. On Second Reading, they made it clear that, irrespective of whether they get changes to achieve the kind of regional government they want, if the Government insist and powers are ceded upward from local government to regional assemblies rather than downward from national government, with all of local 1454 government being reorganised, at the end of the day the Liberal Democrats so want regional government that they will still vote for the Bill. We are more principled than that. We will fight for Liberals, Conservatives and Labour Party members outside this Chamber to get the point sorted out by Parliament ahead of action being taken and referendums being held.
§ Lord Greaves
I am grateful that the noble Baroness will come out fighting for us all. We look forward to seeing that. The question of powers comes up later. We all agree that the Bill is unsatisfactory in that it does not deal with powers. We shall discuss amendments on that subject later.
There is clearly an important point to be made about boundaries. Other amendments, some of which we have tabled, deal with the issue in a better way.
The criteria laid out in paragraph (c)(i) and (ii) of the amendment simply do not meet the provisions of the Bill. Paragraph (c)(ii) refers to,the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities".I agree with that proposition, but if there is to be a review of regional areas and regional boundaries, there clearly has to be as part of that review a consideration of whether there is a regional identity, whether there are regional interests and where those regional identities and interests lie. That ought to be a fundamental consideration. It is indicative of the approach taken in the amendment by the Conservatives that they do not even think that that is worth including.
The suggestion that the criterion of "approximately equal population size" is a fundamental criterion is nonsense. Cornwall is a case in point. If there is to be a review of boundaries, there is clearly a case—whether it is right or wrong—for saying that Cornwall should he a region in its own right. A large number of people would argue that case. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, argued that case from the Conservative Benches at Second Reading. That view clearly clashes with what is set out in the amendment regarding a uniform size. On that ground alone we find it impossible to support the amendment.
§ Baroness Rendell of Babergh
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to Cornwall. Cornwall may be a major example of dissent from the proposed regions. Some 10 per cent of its population has signified objection to being part of the South West—an area which would include Swindon and Gloucester. Cornwall has its own language, which is very much on the increase, a unique terrain and a coastline probably distinguished above all others in the United Kingdom. Only a referendum will show, but Cornwall will not easily submit to inclusion in a vast area along with fellow constituents with whom the Cornish consider they have nothing in common.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, was brave enough and well informed enough to introduce the European dimension into the debate, as some of us did at Second Reading. The noble Lord could not see, of course, that his erstwhile noble friend on the Front Bench, the Minister, treated his intervention with, I was going to say silent mirth but I am afraid it has become the sort of statutory ridicule with which any of us are greeted who try to recognise the influence that the European Union is having on nearly all our affairs. This Bill is no exception.
At Second Reading I think that I got the Minister to confirm, in a somewhat coy way, that the boundaries proposed—I am sure he will correct me if I am wrong—for the English regions are, indeed, the same boundaries which have been drawn for the European constituencies. That means that they were agreed in Brussels and that they receive so-called European aid, which is not, of course, as the noble Lord—
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way, but perhaps he can help me. I thought that I heard him say that the boundaries of the European constituencies were agreed in Brussels. I thought that there was great argument in this House and elsewhere when we settled the boundaries of the European constituencies.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
They are the boundaries of the European constituencies and they send Members to the European so-called Parliament. They are, as I understand it—the Minister appeared to confirm this at Second Reading—the boundaries which we are considering today. In fact, the Minister said: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".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1334.]It is a usual European trick to say, "Well, it is there anyway. It was used last time and so there cannot be anything wrong with it".
§ Baroness Scott of Needham Market
Does the noble Lord agree that the boundaries as they are currently drawn exist only because his party when in government created them for administrative purposes? Has he not observed that other organisations have therefore reorganised their boundaries in order to be coterminous, and that the decision to create regional parliamentary constituencies for the European Parliament was taken as a matter of convenience as they already existed? This Bill follows on from that.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
I do not know whether the noble Baroness was present, but I thought that we had already covered that point. I do not think that the noble Baroness or anyone on her Benches could accuse me of going along with anything done by my party in 1456 the European context. I am grateful for her intervention but I am entirely innocent of the accusation that she seeks to make.
Before the helpful intervention of my noble friend Lord Bowness I said that the regions already receive European so-called aid. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, reminded the Committee briefly—but I shall do it again—that there is no such thing as EU aid. We get back only about £1 from every £2 that we send to the corrupt filter in Brussels. That so-called aid is always spent in this country on projects which are designed to improve the image of the corrupt octopus in Brussels and not necessarily on projects which we would back here.
As I say, at Second Reading the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and, indeed, my noble friend Lord Bowness tried to dismiss the genuine fears that many of us have that what we are witnessing in this Bill is in fact the beginning of the great project of the Europe of the regions. In that regard I say to the Minister that he did not answer the main question that I put to him at Second Reading, and this may be as good an opportunity as any to put it to him again. If we Eurosceptics were scaremongering, would he 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 described in my Second Reading speech and with which I do not need to trouble the Committee again now? I was given no such assurance from the Minister on that matter. It would be helpful to have such an assurance today.
But there is a positive aspect to the amendment which I should have thought the Minister might he willing to accept. If the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, myself and others are just scaremongering and these regions and the boundaries of these regions have nothing to do with the European project of the Europe of the regions, then surely it would allay our fears and much of the resistance that the proposal is meeting in the country if the Minister were to accept the amendment which might result in boundaries different from those of the European Union constituencies. I do not say that it would kill completely the project of the corrupt octopus in Brussels, but it might go some way towards messing it up. Therefore, for that reason, I support the amendment.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I want to take up one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made. He made many good points and reasonable points. But he referred to living in the real world and said that we were all agreed on the fundamentals. I hope that I always live in the real world. I meet many people and talk to many people. Their world seems to be my world. I hope the noble Lord will agree that I, like him, live in the real world. He said that we are all agreed on the fundamentals. But the debate has demonstrated that we are not all agreed on the fundamentals. That is the whole point of the discussion. He seems to think 1457 that today and over the next three or four days in Committee we are discussing an issue which has been agreed.
That is not the idea. The idea of scrutinising the Bill is to seek to improve it. I believe that the amendment does that. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, may not agree with the contents of the proposed new clause but we should try to understand and improve the Bill. I give an example. He said that provided the people agree, the Government will have referendums in three regional areas. Let us suppose that the people in those regions agree and set up regional authorities. They say, "This is a good idea. We want to set up other regions". However, the other regions may not agree with the boundaries. They may say, "We would agree with the regions if you had not already given what we consider should be part of our region to someone else". The method of setting up regions on the basis of present administrative regions and on the basis that they would be more democratic is absurd and undemocratic. It will not enable regions to be set up which are convenient to the working of ordinary people and of good devolved government.
We are not all agreed on the fundamentals. Indeed, what the Minister may argue are fundamentals are certainly not fundamentals. If we are to have regional government—I repeat that I am agin it—we should start with a blank sheet and decide exactly what the boundaries of the regions will be.
Cornwall has been mentioned. I have to say that Cornwall would be far better served by good devolved local government than by being part of a regional government. What Cornwall wants is not just a new country called Cornwall—that would be absurd—but the ability to do what is right for Cornwall. It must have far more powers and the wherewithal to do so. That is what Cornwall really wants. Some people down there may not know it. I want local government properly resourced, near to the communities which are served and able to co-operate with local government to provide greater services.
I hope that I do live in this world. But we are not agreed upon the fundamentals and unless the Minister is prepared to move sharply on the issue and start on a blank piece of paper so far as concerns the geographical areas, the whole matter will be a complete and utter failure in the long term.
§ Lord Rooker
At the risk of embarrassing the noble Lord, I thought that the most telling intervention came from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he told the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that because I had said something, it was going to happen and, therefore, it had to be accepted. I hope that that will be the flavour of the remainder of the debate.
I give a pledge to the Committee that I shall do my best to answer only the amendments tabled. I shall be ruthless with myself. I apologise for my earlier intervention when the noble Baroness was introducing the amendment. However, I thought it right to put the matter in context. These boundaries have not appeared since 1997. It is true that they have been used 1458 since 1997 for other purposes: for the European elections; and the regional development agencies. The word "incoherent" was used in relation to the boundaries. Therefore, I thought it right and not party politically churlish to remind the noble Baroness that those are boundaries set up by a Conservative government. We have not sought to interfere with them. They have been used and added to for many other functions. As the noble Baroness said in an intervention, other organisations changed their internal arrangements to fit in with them because it was administratively convenient.
I wish to make this clear. It cannot be "big" local government because the powers scrutinised by the assemblies will be from central government. Power is not going up; it is all going down. I treat the proposed new clause seriously. I do not think that I shall be minded to accept it; I shall give reasons why. However, I have to assume that those who are fundamentally opposed to regional government will still vote against the proposal. I am not sure of the purpose of the new clause. If you are against regional government you can propose processes for setting up or delaying the boundaries but I assume, therefore, that at the end of the day the Conservative Party will vote against the proposal.
§ Baroness Hanham
On that point alone, it does not matter whether or not the Conservative Party is in favour of regional government. In this Chamber we are considering government proposals on a policy they have developed and are about to put t o the electorate. Whether or not the Conservative Party believes in regional government, it seems perfectly proper to accept government policy at face value but to ensure that it is at least as coherent as possible.
In view of the Minister's remarks about powers, when we debate the next amendment perhaps he will particularise the powers proposed to be devolved from central government to the regional assemblies. At Second Reading, the noble Lord gave the example of housing. It sounded suspiciously like breaking up the Housing Corporation or, if not, taking the existing housing functions from existing local government. Perhaps those points will be answered in the next group of amendments.
§ Lord Rooker
As I probably stated at Second Reading, the answers are set out in the sustainable communities plan. There is no secret about the proposal on housing.
With respect—I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord too much—the functions quoted as going to regional assemblies are those at present carried out by local authorities of one kind or another. They are not central government functions.
§ Lord Rooker
The noble Lord has a fundamental misunderstanding. Between today and the following days in Committee, I invite him to read the Government's policy statement in a White Paper— 1459 there is no secret—published in May 2002. It is available in the Printed Paper Office. It sets out exactly government policy, clearly thought through. It puts forward a proposal. The Bill is based on it. It is a paving Bill because it sets up only the preparations for the regional assemblies.
We believe that the consultation proposed by the new clause would be unproductive, expensive and time consuming. It is likely that no more agreement would emerge from that process than there is on current regional boundaries, for the reasons that we have heard today. There will always be arguments on the margin; people will argue about how many regions there should be in the country, whether the London boundaries should remain the same, and so on.
The current boundaries are well established, whatever disputes there may be about the margin and numbers and whatever arguments there might be about one part of a county looking north or another part looking south. The boundaries have had a good deal of acceptance and recognition over several years, and they are used by many organisations, as well as by the Government.
§ 12.30 p.m.
§ Baroness Blatch
Does the Minister accept the distinction between what is proposed and the administrative boundaries as they are at the moment, with good county government and good spread, and local district and parish government below them? The distinction is real and it is what we are here to discuss. If regional assemblies are introduced, local government will be vastly changed and vastly removed from local people. Therefore, administrative areas without county councils and with vastly amalgamated district councils are a very different proposition indeed.
§ Lord Rooker
That is another point that we will debate later on. We are not prepared to introduce new tiers of government. I made that clear on Second Reading. We are not having any new tiers of government.
§ Lord Rooker
No, hang on a minute. The implication of the intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is that we would have regional assemblies provided that we leave everything else as it is. That would imply another tier of government, as the merchants and the media have said. I have read in the past few days, in the forgers' gazette parading as the Daily Mail, that we are introducing another tier of government. We are not. If we had to introduce another tier of government we would not introduce this Bill, and if it was amended in such a way we would not proceed with it.
We are not prepared to introduce another tier of government. That is why, if regional assemblies are to be introduced after a referendum, we need first to 1460 consider what will he needed to create unitary authorities, so that there is only one tier of government in addition to regional assemblies. Before people voted in a referendum for a regional assembly, they would know all the details of that process; they would know where the boundaries were, what the unitary authorities were, and what changes were proposed to the functions of local government.
§ Baroness Blatch
Will the Minister accept that he has completely misinterpreted my concern? He says that we have consistent administrative areas, that they have worked so far and there is no reason why they should not work in future. However, they worked because they worked alongside good county and local government. The proposition set out in the White Paper is that they would be working alongside nothing because the counties and/or the districts will have disappeared. I was not suggesting the introduction of another layer of government; I was simply saying that the proposition is a very different one indeed.
§ Lord Rooker
The noble Baroness cannot say that until the Boundary Committee has proposed what is necessary to create unitary authorities in advance of a referendum. That cannot take place until the committee gets the wherewithal from this legislation. Therefore, it is not possible to make that allegation.
§ Lord Waddington
The Minister is becoming very confused, which is unusual for him. Surely, it follows as night follows day that in those parts of the country where there is only unitary government, if one creates a regional government one is creating another tier of government.
§ Lord Rooker
Yes, in those parts of the country, but there is not a single region that is exclusively unitary, so there would be changes. They will be dealt with in other amendments.
I want to give the mechanics and practicalities of the new clause. We are only the Government—we may get it wrong. Nevertheless, the information that I have may be useful to our deliberations.
If the new clause was accepted, we estimate that it would take about 16 or 17 months to conduct a review of the regional boundaries, provided that all England was done at once. The resources of the Electoral Commission are such that it could not conceivably conduct an all-England review, given the workload that would involve. It would have to be broken down into tranches—probably into two or three regions, so that the country was done in three tranches—which the new clause does not permit. The reality is that under the new clause it would take about four years to review the regional boundaries.
I know that what I am about to say will be prayed in aid against me later, but it is in the White Paper. In exceptional circumstances, on some unspoken date in future, we have not ruled out changes to the boundaries. That does not mean that we or anyone else have plans for them. It would happen only in exceptional circumstances and in the longer term, as 1461 we made clear in the White Paper. Therefore, imposing a boundary review in the amendment would not be conducive to our plans to proceed expeditiously to give the regions of this country the opportunity to have elected regional assemblies. The point at issue is: how soon can we let the people decide whether they want elected regional assemblies? If we proceed as the Bill intends and the soundings work out, one, two or more regions may have a referendum before the next general election. They should not have to wait for four years for a review of the boundaries" which the new clause would make necessary.
§ Lord Rooker
I will not be able to answer any questions about Scotland—I can tell the noble Earl that.
§ The Earl of Caithness
I was not going to mention Scotland again. However, it has been a useful experience living there, because I have seen happen something similar to what the Government propose.
Would the amendment be any more acceptable if it were rephrased so that there was a boundary review for only two areas at first? One could do a review of the North East and Yorkshire first, if the Government particularly wanted to begin in that area. The rest of the country could learn from that, and it would make it easier to know in advance what would happen when it came to a referendum.
§ Lord Rooker
That would not make sense, given the fact that we have been taking soundings from citizens and organisations within the existing boundaries on which the Bill is based and on which we want to proceed. When the Bill gets Royal Assent, if Parliament so desires, the Secretary of State will make a statement about the results of the soundings. After that, the Electoral Commission can be given the starting gun to start work. Therefore, the noble Earl's suggestion would not work—it would still cause delays.
It would be using extreme language to suggest that the new clause would wreck the Bill, but it would delay the provisions by four years.
The key aim of regional assemblies is to bring under democratic control the work of existing regional bodies. I do not have to set them all out, because they are in the White Paper, a summary of which was produced in the Printed Paper Office. In the North East alone, there are 30 organisations comprising central government departments and agencies with regional or local offices. In that region, there are 21 national public bodies with regional or local offices. There are two other regional public bodies and five sub-regional or local organisations located in the region.
§ Lord Rooker
No, I want to finish this point.
1462 The key aim is to bring under democratic control the work of the existing regional bodies that deliver or administer services. A significant number of those bodies operate on the boundaries that are the subject of the amendment. We think that they are a reasonable size in terms of the population. It would be impossible to make the regions identical in terms of landmass, economic performance, the GDP or population. Those details are set out in the White Paper.
If we redrew the boundaries before we started, there would be massive upheaval in all those organisations. It may be that the soundings do not work, and there may be no vote for regional assemblies. In that case, what would have been the point of reviewing the regional boundaries over the course of four years, when they work okay at the moment, for present purposes?
§ Lord Hanningfield
Essex and Hertfordshire dislike intensely being included in the eastern region—and it does not work. The Minister will be as enthusiastic as I am about the Thames Gateway. It is ridiculous that the decision on the Thames Gateway, which relates to Essex and Kent, is taken in the Eastern region. There would be a considerable advantage in reviewing the boundaries in the South East now; it would help to make them work. The existing boundaries are not working in a good chunk of the country. Even if there were no regional assemblies, a review would benefit the way in which boundaries work in the South East and the Thames Gateway.
§ Lord Rooker
I agree with the noble Lord on the importance of the Thames Gateway. However, it is currently split between three regions—the South East, East and London. Based on all the evidence I have from my short time at the ODPM, co-operation and partnership between the people and the key players are working immensely well. Nothing is perfect, but that is no excuse to stop the entire process and start again. As I said repeatedly on Second Reading, the assemblies are strategic. Eight regions outside London are established and recognised and a range of organisations are already in place, each of which is a sufficient size to enable it to perform its role. London's boundaries are established and no one is arguing that they should be changed—although that is the implication of a review. The new clause seeks to tear all that up—and for what? It offers pointless delay. Nothing would happen for four years. It would be four years before people would have a choice of whether to go down this route. It would be a complete waste of time. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press this amendment.
§ Lord Greaves
The Minister referred to the large number of organisations in the North East which already exist on these regional boundaries and he used the specific words, "bringing them under democratic control". Did he actually mean that, or was he still talking about some sort of airy-fairy monitoring and scrutinising and about not controlling them in any way 1463 whatever? Will not those organisations still exist? Where they are responsible to central Government, will not that responsibility continue?
§ Lord Rooker
Regardless of the degree of scrutiny, it is democratic control. As we said, they will be very small bodies and there will be another piece of legislation. However, the position will be fully set out before the referendum so that, before they vote and decide whether to go down that route, people understand the powers, consequences and procedures for how such regional assemblies work. That is the people's choice, not the Government's choice or the politicians' choice, based on all the evidence we can muster and make available on the consequences of a "Yes" vote in a referendum.
§ Baroness Hamwee
I invite the Minister to address a specific point. He talked about delay—which, as I made clear in my speech, very much concerns me. I described it, perhaps more harshly, as "mischief", and he avoided saying that this was a wrecking clause. However, I think that it would help the Committee—this is an entirely straight and innocent question—if he said how the amendment, if agreed to, would relate to the Government's manifesto commitment, as I understand it, to introduce regional government in this Parliament. I do not have the manifesto with me, so I do not know the precise words. However, given the role of this House, the question seems relevant.
§ Lord Rooker
I do not know the date of the next general election, but I think that it will be in less than four years. So I can safely say that, if this lot took four years, it would be beyond this Parliament.
§ Baroness Blatch
The Government are making it possible to introduce regional government. However, as the noble Lord makes clear every time he comes to the Dispatch Box, it will be the people who introduce it, not the Government. This is a paving Bill. The Government will have met their parliamentary and manifesto obligation simply by putting the Bill before Parliament and gaining approval for it. Parliament will decide the means to the end. So it will not be the Government who introduce regional government.
§ 12.45 p.m.
§ Baroness Hanham
I think that this amendment has generated a worthwhile debate on the overall principles of regional government. As I said, it does not really matter whether the Conservatives agree with regional government. As Members of the Committee have seen, there are some divisions on the Benches about the principle and form of regional government. What does matter is that the Bill is coherent. To be fair, we have not yet had a Bill on regional assemblies. This is simply a paving Bill for how and where assemblies are established. Our argument is still that one cannot proceed with elected regional assemblies when there is incoherence on the point of democratic input.
1464 This aspect of the debate has been quite entertaining because no one has any idea where these boundaries originated. In the House of Commons debate, regionalism was traced back not quite to Alfred and his cakes, but quite some way. It was decided that its basis lies probably in the 1948 work and pensions areas. Members of the Committee can therefore choose their own starting point, but these regions have served an administrative purpose. However, we believe that there is a difference between administrative and democratic regions. We are trying to establish that difference.
The amendment also puts forward the argument for ensuring formal and proper consultation with the great number of bodies and great number of people on the regional boundaries. The debate has given a small indication of the great concern and interest in the quixotic nature of the current boundaries. If one is proposing any layer of government—regardless of whether it is an additional or changed layer—and democratic input, those who elect the individuals forming that assembly should have at least some idea of the relevance of the area concerned. Cornwall and Cumbria have been cited as major areas of concern. They are not just on the periphery of boundaries. They are a great test indeed for my proposal on boundary review.
I think that the Government may hold a misconception about the extent to which the country understands their intentions. The position will not have been helped by the fact that the soundings exercise by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to test interest levels ended before the Bill reached this House. That exercise finished on 3rd March. As noble Lords who followed proceedings in another place will know, the report of those proceedings could be written on the head of a pin. There was very little interest and very little information. I think that the Government will find it difficult to say that there has been meaningful consultation. This amendment provides for a proper consultation process.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
The noble Baroness is presumably winding up. Before she does, I should like to ask whether she has read the article in The Times. a week ago last Monday, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said:With our plans to increase UK funding for regional policy, devolve decision-making power to the regions and return key regional policy responsibilities from the EU back to Britain, the future control of regional economic policy is moving from Brussels to London and then from Westminster to the … regions themselves".Does the noble Baroness agree that that appears to show a fundamental change in government policy—that they are not satisfied with how regional policy is being controlled by Brussels, and that they therefore want it returned to this country? That being so, might not the Government want to consider whether the existing administrative regions are more suitable for this new devolvement from the EU than are the existing regional development bodies, which were of course set up to suit the European connection? Does it not suit and help the noble Baroness's argument that 1465 the Chancellor of the Exchequer is thinking along different lines and may very well want to alter the regions to suit a policy which is dictated and followed by the United Kingdom rather than Brussels?
§ Baroness Hanham
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for drawing my attention to the article, which I have not seen. I can well understand why the Chancellor might wish to repatriate some of the decisions made on our behalf in Brussels. It may very well be that he would like to have some of those decisions taken by us, but on a regional basis. If that is correct, and he wishes to review the boundaries, that would fit in nicely with my amendment.
I am a little burdened by the arguments put forward by the Liberal Democrats. I do not believe that they reflect what is being said in the country in general. There is great concern across the board.
§ Lord Waddington
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Is it not right that she should pay tribute to the Minister who really made the point for her on 20th February? He said:My Lords, the Liberal Democrats are not a national party like others. They are different in some parts of the country to others".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1332.]
§ Baroness Hanham
I am grateful to my noble friend for that intervention. I believe that the Liberal Democrats may not be speaking as they did in another place and as has been said in the country. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to test that further. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Clause 1 [Referendums]:
Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 2:
Page 1, line 5, at beginning insert "Subject to subsection (1A),
§ The noble Baroness said: We have already opened up a number of areas of the Bill, but I am not certain how we can debate its merits. The Bill asks people to vote for regional assemblies when we, and those who vote, are not being told the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements of the assemblies. This issue was rightly emphasised by many noble Lords at Second Reading. I do not believe that at that stage the Minister gave anything like an adequate response although he admitted that the regional assemblies would not be service delivery organisations.
§ It seems more than likely that they will be just talking shops. But no one should be asked to vote for a pig in a poke. Even if only one or two regions are involved in the reorganisation in the early stages—the way things are going there may be none at all—that represents an enormous constitutional upheaval. But the only information available about the practical powers of the regional assemblies is that they will resemble in some shape or form the proposals contained in the White Paper.1466
§ But if the White Paper is to be believed, these functions or powers will consist principally of a right to consult or be consulted on some strategic plans or the exercise of some control over organisations and bodies whose functions already exist regionally. Perhaps I may take up a point made in the previous debate. I wonder how many of the organisations listed on page 81 of the White Paper will come under regional government and how many will stand as free organisations. I refer the Committee specifically to the learning and skills councils, which I understand will not be part of the responsibilities of regional assemblies. The Minister might wish to comment on that.
§ To highlight the general ignorance about what regional assemblies will do, I wish to comment on the comparisons with Scottish and Welsh devolution which have been bandied about. It is absolutely clear that what is proposed for the regional assemblies is very different as regards Scotland and Wales and there will be no devolution of power. To date, this House and another place, which has unavailingly discussed this issue, are in the dark as to the actual nature of the powers, structures and constitutional arrangements of elected regional assemblies.
We are not alone: it seems that the Government themselves are no clearer. We understand that regional government officers will continue as before. In the debate on 20th February, the Minister admitted that as a result of this upheaval it was not likely that there would be fewer quangos. As my noble friend Lady Blatch has already pointed out, he could think of only one significant devolved power from central government and that was housing. In reply to a question from my noble friend, the Minister said (at col. 1331 of the Official Report):
We are regionalising housing".
§ If my noble friend Lady Blatch asked me to give another example, I would have a great job in finding one. But there is one: it is the decimation of the structural planning roles of the county councils, which are being passed to the regional planning boards which would continue to exist.
§ A crucial point is that an elected regional assembly would not improve the future delivery and quality of vital services such as education, social services, transport and health. But what they will do needs to be spelled out and agreed by Parliament. If we in this House and another place are confused about what functions the regional assemblies will have, how much more will that apply to the general public?
§ Perhaps it is in the Government's interest to keep the public so confused since if they hear that regional assemblies will take decisions from Whitehall and will have a larger degree of devolution, the public may be inclined to vote in favour. If they did, as things stand, they would have been gulled into a view that there was more to these changes than there is. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to show that in the absence of proper, detailed proposals, wholly erroneous information is being spun already by campaigning organisations, which are long on enthusiasm but short 1467 on reality. What the public is not being told is that of the 10 powers listed in the White Paper, eight would be ceded by county councils, as my noble friend Lady Blatch told us at Second Reading.
§ The reality is that far from bringing decisions closer to the people—another spun fabrication—those in housing and planning in particular are being taken further away from the people affected. When they fully understand the implications of regional assemblies in terms of costs, the re-organisation of local government and representation, they may be less than enchanted by the whole idea.
§ I cannot stress enough that the functions of regional assemblies must be spelled out clearly and definitely before a referendum is held. It will be thoroughly misleading, if not completely dishonest, not to do so. Our view is that the Government should draft a regional assemblies Bill; that it should be debated in Parliament and passed before any decision is taken on how, when and where any referendum should be held. It is the democratic responsibility of this Government to lay their cards on the table as to the powers of regional assemblies. If there is the required level of interest they should not be afraid to do so. I beg to move.
§ 1 p.m.
§ Baroness Hamwee
Amendment No. 5 takes a slightly different approach and picks up on comments by the Minister and his colleagues about their minds not being wholly closed to pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill before a referendum is held. That process attracts me—not least because, depending on how the Committee goes about its business, it would enable direct discussion with witnesses, stakeholders and others with a stake, however one defines that, in the outcome. That seems a constructive way of dealing with proposed legislation and, because of our concerns about the powers spelt out in the White Paper and some of the terminology used now, it needs to be explored further.
In the debate on Amendment No. 2, the Minister—referring to the powers scrutinised by the new assemblies—talked about scrutiny as being democratic control. Scrutiny does not amount to the exercise of a power. Whether or not it amounts to democratic control depends on how scrutiny is applied—at its most extreme, scrutiny can veto the exercise of a function proposed by the executive body. It is not just the headline issue of powers and functions but how the executive and scrutiny arms will operate in the assembles for which they are proposed.
The issue extends to structure. We tend to concentrate on function. This House is not the best example of the maxim that form should follow function but to my mind it should. If the function were as we wish it to be, the proposed form may not be appropriate.
The new assemblies are supposed to be mean and lean, comprising between 25 and 35 members. There are issues around how much a small body can be representative of a substantial region. We have concerns over whether so small a body can provide the 1468 executive and scrutiny arms. It is not just a matter of the workload. There is a danger that the number of members suggested to undertake those two functions is too low.
The amendment asks the Minister to build on comments made by him and his colleagues about being open to some way of continuing this debate. It is clear that Parliament would like to be involved in the debate about the assemblies' powers, functions and structure. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are a way of taking that forward.
If anyone is to be convinced that the Bill is an exercise in devolution, not local government reorganisation, it is vital that powers are spelt out clearly—certainly before any referendum is held.
The Minister chided me earlier, suggesting that I had not read the White Paper. While it is true that I do not have my copy, that has been remedied by the Printed Paper Office. Its contents are just as I remember from my original reading of them. The White Paper makes it clear that the powers of an elected assembly are at best marginal. It is important to take account of the summary:Elected assemblies will improve the quality of life for people in their regions, particularly by improving regional economic performance … Assemblies will be given the lead role in developing strategies to achieve this. They will drive the implementation of their strategies, monitor progress and revise strategies when appropriate … Assemblies will be given a range of powers to help them to deliver these strategies. These will include executive functions such as responsibility for resources and influence to promote results that will benefit the region … Specific responsibilities include economic development and regeneration, spatial development, housing, transport, skills and culture … Regional Development Agencies will be accountable to their elected assembly, which will appoint the Chair and Board members".That last responsibility is the only one that is not an existing local government county function and is true devolution from the Secretary of State to the proposed regional assemblies. Otherwise, they are to be consulted.
The Minister earlier listed the number of public bodies active in the North East as some justification for establishing regional organisations. The list of central government departments and agencies with regional and local offices, presumably prayed in aid of the argument, includes the Court Service, Crown Prosecution Service, Forestry Commission, Highways Agency—which we know is not going over because that was said on Second Reading, HM Land Registry, Inland Revenue and Passport Agency. There is no suggestion that any of them will be involved or be subject to regional assemblies. They have regional offices in the same way that any organisation might have branch offices.
§ Lord Rooker
I did not say that they were going over. I gave that as an example of other organisations that have used the boundaries for their purposes. I did not say that they were going over to the elected regional assemblies.
I do not want to put words into the Minister's mouth, but I doubt that the Passport 1469 Agency is using a regional boundary. If there is a convenient location for a Passport Agency office in the North East, it has nothing to do with regional boundaries.
The organisations that will be subject to democratic control from regional assemblies include the Countryside Agency, Environment Agency and English Nature. The White Paper, from which we are supposed to draw comfort and be informed, makes clear the formidable role that a regional assembly will have in connection with the environment. It will have the right to be consulted by the Countryside Agency, Environment Agency, English Nature and other relevant public bodies—and to consult them in turn. That is not devolution in my terms.
If those examples purport to justify establishing regional assemblies, then although we are told that there will be no additional tier of government, the truth is that there will be no additional tier of local government. The Government in their wisdom will reorganise local government, make it much larger than it is currently and transfer functions from existing local government bodies to the new assemblies. The new assemblies will not be a devolution of government from the centre. If they are going to be statutory local authorities, they will be subject to the same controls as existing local authorities. I draw Committee Members' attention to the definition of local authorities in Clause 23 of the Local Government Bill which appeared recently in the Printed Paper Office. It includes all the existing local authorities with which your Lordships will be familiar. Clause 23(1)(o) also includes:any other body specified for the purposes of this subsection by regulations under subsection (2)".Under subsection (2) those are levying and precepting bodies. The White Paper says that regional assemblies will raise their finances independently and not by a levy on central government. They will therefore be local authorities and not devolved assemblies. If the Government wish to prove me wrong, they will publish the powers before the referendum.
§ Lord Waddington
It is only through such debates that we begin to get the picture and some idea of what job, if any, the elected members of the regional assemblies will have. On 5th March the Minister said that there were no new powers or funds. He was underlining what he has said again today: there will be no new powers devolved from central government to the elected assemblies. He has said today that no new powers will be taken from local government and given to the elected assemblies. That is not strictly true, because we know that it has already been decided that planning powers should go to a regional level.
Apart from that matter, the Minister says that no powers will be taken from local government and given to the regional assemblies. What on earth will they have to do? The assembly members will be paid and people are entitled to know what salaries they will receive and what the chief executives will be paid. The bill for the assemblies will be footed not by central government but by council taxpayers, who are already 1470 being punished by the Government. They will be paying their taxes for nothing, if the Minister's words are to be taken literally, because there will be no new powers for the assemblies to exercise.
We will be debating the referendum question on Clause 2. The wording of Clause 2 on the statement that must precede the question on the ballot paper makes this proposal sound far more attractive than the facts warrant. I know that the Electoral Commission has approved the wording, but it has nothing to rely on except the extremely vague wording on page 34 of the White Paper to which my noble friend Lord Bowness referred. It is wrong that anyone should be asked to vote in a referendum for a regional assembly without the powers or lack of powers that it is to exercise being spelt out at least in a draft Bill if not in legislation.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
This is a cart-before-the-horse Bill. How on earth can we ask people to vote for something if they do not know what they are voting for? That is what the debate is about. When people are voting for something, especially a major change, they should know exactly what they are voting for. The Minister may believe that only opponents of regions are concerned about the matter, but the Campaign for the English Regions is also concerned. It sent me a large brief, but it is only necessary to quote one paragraph. It states:In the meantime people in the regions are understandably concerned about voting for an assembly whose powers have not yet been established. If the Government will not legislate before a referendum then it should move this timetable forward by committing itself to publish a draft powers and constitution Bill well in advance of any referendum. This will enable debate about how assemblies will work to continue and develop in the regions".If the people in favour of the regions are concerned about the Government's policy, surely the Minister should consider what they are saying and ensure that before people vote they know what they are voting for and are not being asked to buy a pig in a poke.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ The Earl of Caithness
I support the amendment. As I said on the first amendment, the two crucial issues are the size and functions of the region. It is crucial that those who are to take part in the referendum know exactly what they are voting for and the implications. Now that the full implications have been realised north of the border, many of the people who voted would not now vote in the same way. All sorts of functions such as planning and culture have been lost at a local level and have gone to a regional level.
That has been a disaster for all sorts of small community-based interests, which have been doing a great deal of good work for a long time but now find that their finances have changed and that they are not able to continue. Where planning is carried out on a regional rather than local basis it is a recipe for disaster because locals do not feel involved in controversial decisions. To give an example, windmills for 1471 generating electricity have caused endless problems because decisions are not being taken at the local level as they should be.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
I also support these amendments to define the powers and functions of the proposed assemblies. I know that the Minister wishes to avoid all discussion of the Bill's European dimension. I noticed, for instance, that he did not take the opportunity I offered him to answer my basic question at the end of my remarks on Second Reading. I can of course persist.
To be more specific and to give the Minister a much easier question to answer on the European dimension with reference to the amendments, what will be the interface between the new regional assemblies and Brussels? I presume that Brussels will continue to send back some of our taxpayers' money in the guise of EU regional aid. What role do the Government see for the new regional assemblies in that process? Do the Government ever foresee them having powers to raise taxes, for instance? Would those taxes be confined to the regions, or can the Government foresee part of them being passed to the tentacles from Brussels?
§ Baroness Blatch
I did not want to stop the Minister if he was only intervening as regards my noble friend.
§ Baroness Blatch
I am sorry. I am only a little one. The Minister should bear in mind that we cannot see each other.
First, I strongly support my noble friend. With a proper determination of boundaries before—
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Baroness but it is important to remember that we are in Committee and that it does not matter whether the Minister speaks or not. If anyone wants to continue the debate after the Minister has spoken, he or she can do so and that will be quite in order.
§ Baroness Blatch
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is absolutely right. I did not want the Minister to think that he was bringing the amendment to a close and then stand up and discuss it. This also gives the Minister an opportunity to respond to everyone who has spoken.
1472 As I just said, I strongly support my noble friend. The first two groups of amendments are absolutely fundamental. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, used the phrase, "The cart before the horse". That is definitely the case with the Bill.
I hope that the noble Lord will forgive us—it is the stuff of politics in both Chambers to use such an opportunity to test all of the arguments and propositions, whichever government are in power.
Whenever I have listened to government Ministers advocating the development of regional assemblies, they have used the language of bringing democracy to all bodies that operate in the regions. I strongly support the comments of my noble friend Lord Bowness.
I have examined the list relating to the North East. The noble Lord was absolutely right; it merely reflects what is happening in the area. It would be helpful if the Minister told us what on that list will be ceded—that is, in terms of a link with, partnership with, influence over or shared influence together with—and what powers will pass from the National Health Service, the Inland Revenue, the Passport Agency and learning and skills councils. There are two important lists. I suspect that if a regional assembly is established in the North East, many of those bodies will still operate there—some of them will do so autonomously—and some will have links with the regional assembly.
As I read the White Paper, even regional development agencies will remain in being under the regional assemblies arrangement. When Ministers discuss this matter, they refer to all such bodies in the region being brought under some form of democratic control. We probably have a meeting of minds with our Liberal colleagues in this regard. There is a real hungriness—or, to be absolutely grammatically correct, hunger—on the part of most of us to know precisely what the Government have in mind in terms of real powers being ceded and from what source.
My second point involves the difficulty of making sense of the language. The summary to chapter 4 states:Assemblies will be given a range of powers to help them to deliver these strategies. These will include executive functions such as responsibility for resources".If assemblies will be given money from central government—we know of the tendency of government to tag any moneys that come down from on high—of course they will have responsibility for such resources. With regard to any moneys that they have, they will be held accountable by district auditors, external auditing and public accountability. The summary continues that assemblies will also be given,influence to promote results that will benefit the region".What exactly does that mean? It is important that the Minister gives those words real meaning when he replies.
An example in chapter 4 is set out in Box 4.1, which is entitled, "Regional strategies for an elected assembly". When one runs through that, one finds it hard to discern a power that will be given to the regions. They will have influence and partnerships 1473 with other bodies. With transport, for example, there will be powers to "spell out plans". However, the plans will be controlled by national government. They will not have the power to determine: to address congestion, to improve public transport or road links and to ensure that transport systems support sustainable economic growth. They will merely have the power to set out plans.
On housing, Box 4.1 states that the assemblies will have powers to,deal with all aspects of the housing market and social housing in the region".They will have the power to "deal with" but not to determine. When I asked about the housing that will surround Stansted, I received a letter. The Government will determine that development; there will be no power to determine in a region or at county level. They will have a role in planning and an influence in the local determination once the number of houses has been determined at national level.
On health improvement, Box 4.1 refers to assemblies,setting out a long-term public health strategy, which assemblies will agree with the relevant Regional Directors of Public Health".How does that dovetail with the 10-year plan of the NHS? The NHS determined the NHS Plan and it has been presented to Parliament. What powers will they have to determine something that is separate, or will they simply have to operate within the plans set out by the NHS?
There are real areas of concern. As noble Lords will know, my particular area is education. The learning and skills councils are regional bodies: there are 47 of them around the country plus a national body. They will continue to operate as learning and skills councils. Will the regional assemblies take on themselves the powers that are currently controlled by the learning and skills councils?
I am extremely concerned about my final point. What will be the consequence in practical terms for the two parliamentary Chambers: the House of Commons and the House of Lords? We already know that when there was devolution to Scotland, we were told on almost a daily basis that we could not ask questions about Scotland because that was a matter for the Scottish Assembly. We are told on Welsh matters that we cannot ask questions about Wales because that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. We are now told on London matters that we cannot ask questions on London because that is a matter for the Mayor of London.
If the North East gets its assembly, will we find ourselves, as Members in this House, with no influence, knowing that the regional assembly has no real power and that its accountability will be to national government? However, we, as Members of this House or another place, will lose our influence as a United Kingdom Parliament.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch that if the Bill comes to fruition and we have eight regional assemblies plus London, the United Kingdom 1474 Parliament will be very seriously emasculated constitutionally. The weight of the United Kingdom as an entity, whether with regard to Europe or anywhere else in the world, will be seriously diminished by this approach.
The Minister must forgive us for labouring these points and for sounding so anxious about the answers to some of our questions. However, it is incumbent on him to agree with my noble friend that before people are asked to vote in a referendum, they know what they are voting for, what the powers and functions will be and what the entailed costs will be. All of that information must be put before the electorate and agreed by Parliament so that the electorate can make an informed choice.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.
§ Lord Evans of Temple Guiting
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ [The Sitting was suspended from 1.29 to 2 p.m. for Judicial Business and to 3 p.m. for Public Business.]