HL Deb 20 March 2003 vol 646 cc396-447

4.10 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1, Amendment No. 25A.

Lord Rooker

As we commence our tenth hour on Clause 1–I enjoyed the first nine hours and I am sure that I shall enjoy the second nine—I shall do my best to answer the questions that have been raised. First, however, I want to get one point out of the way, which I hope will bring a smile to the face of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. Earlier she asked me a question which I was not able to answer. She invited me to do so, but it was impossible and I could only think to myself, "She's got me here".

As the Bill stands, no order is made under Clause 12. So I can give an undertaking that no order will be made within the next 12 months. I know that that is something of a cheap answer, but when officials drew my attention to the clause I realised that it is not an order-making clause in that sense.

I wish to repeat an important point I made last week. In the scale of things, and because of what has been said about wrecking the constitution and the high level of urgency in this matter, I want once more to state that it will be at least 2006 or 2007 before any elected regional assembly is set up. I repeat: the earliest date will be at least 2006 or 2007. So while we have a timetable and a process governed by this paving Bill and a referendum, there is no rush on the establishment of the assemblies.

I wish to make a further preliminary point before turning to the specific issues relating to the amendment. No powers are being ceded from the Westminster Parliament. From time to time during our debates earlier today, the words "Parliament" and "government" were used interchangeably, which was unfortunate. No powers are to be ceded from Westminster, as opposed to Whitehall. Powers are to be ceded from Whitehall rather than from Westminster; that is, they will come from the executive, the Government, their agencies and quangos. The elected assemblies will not have powers to make primary or secondary legislation.

Baroness Blatch

The executive has no powers. Powers are parliamentary powers. The executive is a servant of Parliament. Parliament is sovereign and all powers lie either with Parliament or they will be ceded to local government. However, even the powers of local government are gained from Parliament. I do not know what the noble Lord means when he says that powers will be ceded from Whitehall and from the executive, but not from Parliament.

Lord Rooker

I do not think that that is a fair way of putting it. The noble Baroness has served as a Minister. She must understand the difference between the executive actions a government takes under existing statutory rules, such as the paying out of money and funds, all of which are approved by Parliament. In the main those are executive actions, certainly in terms of government offices of the regions.

I return to the words used this morning about powers from Westminster and from Parliament. The powers of parliamentary scrutiny over the Government will remain. I do not believe that people could think seriously that we are seeking to shut down the questioning of a whole range of public policy. Questions are asked about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland since there have been devolved assemblies. Given a few moments' thought, it is easy to work out how to raise a point. While it is true that the Minister may not be able to provide the answer—because, in the case of, say, London, the Mayor for London has direct statutory powers in regard to certain functions—the ability to raise any issue in Parliament remains firmly in place.

As a Back-Bencher I never had any trouble raising issues that I wanted to raise, whether they were in order or out of order. Given a little thought, any issue can be raised. It may be that you did not always receive the answer, but sometimes the central aim was simply to ensure that the issue was raised.

There are no legislative powers for the assemblies, either primary or secondary. To that extent, I freely admit that the assemblies will not be like the National Assembly for Wales, which has powers to enact secondary legislation. The Scottish Parliament has primary legislative powers. No one says that the assemblies are all the same. Indeed, it would be wrong if we tried to make them all the same because the country is so diverse.

I turn now to the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I almost referred to his "tricolour of questions", but I should not say that. I do not want to wind up the noble Lord. He put three questions to me. Yes, the Government do plan to implement paragraph 4.18 of the White Paper. Yes, the Government will continue to take responsibility for negotiations on the total amount of EU spending. Finally, yes, elected assemblies will have a power to raise taxes. I made that specific intervention in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

I believe that the noble Lord—

Lord Rooker

Perhaps I may finish the answer to the noble Lord's third question before he rises to speak. I have said that the elected assemblies will have the power to raise taxes. Chapter 5 of the White Paper explains that they will be able to raise a precept on the council tax. However, that has absolutely nothing whatever to do with the European Union, which is the central point I want to make. That is made quite clear in Chapter 5 of the White Paper and there is no secret about it.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

I am sure that either it was a slip of the tongue on the part of the noble Lord or a mistake on his briefing paper, but I referred to paragraph 4.31 of the White Paper, not paragraph 4.18, with which I am not familiar. That paragraph does not appear to address the points I sought to put to the noble Lord. It would be helpful if he could confirm that the Government do intend to stick to what is set out in paragraph 4.31.

Lord Rooker

I fully admit my mistake. The noble Lord is quite right. My note of his speech mentions paragraph 4.31, but my official note refers to paragraph 4.18. No doubt in due course I shall be able to give the noble Lord a fuller answer. However, I can confirm that he did ask about paragraph 4.31 because that is what I wrote down at the time, and that was the paragraph I read.

Perhaps I may turn to the central points of Amendment No. 25A, which seeks to prevent any referendum being ordered until the Secretary of State has published the results of an independent inquiry into the constitution and practice of the effects of regional government on the UK Parliament. There is a simple answer here which no one in our earlier debates mentioned. Noble Lords already have independent advice on the constitutional effects of the Bill. The Constitution Select Committee of the House of Lords published its report on 12th February, but I do not think that any Member of the Committee referred to that during our earlier discussions.

While it is true that the committee noted a number of constitutional implications, it did not highlight any particular effect on the UK Parliament. More widely, on 15th January the committee reported on devolution and inter-institutional relations in the UK, to which last week the Government published their response. In some ways, therefore, while I do not in any way denigrate the importance attached to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, it could be held that this is really a delaying move. The effects on the constitution are already available to noble Lords. The matter has been looked at. We submit that the establishment of regional assemblies will not diminish the role of Parliament.

Parliament and central government will remain responsible for UK-wide matters: defence, foreign policy, European policy, relations with international bodies and taxation. Parliament will retain responsibility for the areas of England-wide importance: the National Health Service and schools. Finally, Parliament will continue to be responsible for primary and secondary legislation for the English regions. So the UK will remain a parliamentary democracy with the Westminster Parliament absolutely supreme.

I repeat once more: there is no Speaker in this House and so there are no rules. It is 10 times easier to raise an issue here than in another place. For myself, I think we ought to change that to bring about a little precision, thus enabling Ministers to provide better answers. The answers would be better if the questions were more orderly than is sometimes the case. My experience is that Members of both Houses, with a few minutes' thought, can raise any issue they wish. Over the years, many of my troublesome friends have found it quite easy to do that. Empowering the English regions will not mean a break-up of England or the United Kingdom.

As to the practical effects, there will be the distinct advantages set out in the White Paper. I am not making a case for or against them because the point of the exercise is to let the people choose in a referendum. Elected assemblies will mean a devolution of power and decision-making will be brought closer to the people. Reference has been made to decision-making being removed from communities, but it will be brought a lot closer to the people. We may argue about their importance, but they will not be made in Whitehall, they will be made in the regions. There will be a new regional level of public scrutiny and democratic accountability.

It is difficult to quantify the way in which individuals will make use of the tool of an assembly. If established, assemblies will give a distinct political voice to the regions of this country and a say in the regional decisions that matter to them. I accept that that will depend on individuals and the leadership given by the people elected to such assemblies.

Assemblies will mean that some of the issues t hat are now decided at Westminster will be decided in the regions. That is the whole point of the exercise and I make no apology for it. But if noble Lords are saving that it would be best if all these matters were still dealt with in London, I can assure them that, whatever I may have hinted I thought about the Bill, I have no problem whatever in dismissing the idea that it is a good thing that all decisions should he made in London. It is not a good thing; it is a bad thing. As many decisions as possible should be made far away from London and near to the people affected by them. If that is at regional level or local council level, so much the better, We will be a better, more mature democracy for it.

It will also put Ministers under greater scrutiny in exercising the devolution of power. A lot more thought will have to be given to the policy structure when decisions are devolved in that way. An independent inquiry would not add to our knowledge. We are confident that once the people choose—if they choose—they will he best placed to take those decisions in those areas. The policy is about choice.

I have with me—although I cannot show it to the Committee—a copy of the said map. I have checked it. It is a genuine EU map of states and regions. I can assure the Committee that the word "England" appears on the map, as does the word "London". I hope that that puts to rest, once and for all, the matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch.

The Earl of Onslow

Will not the EU have direct contact with the regional headquarters under the new octarchy produced by Ethelred the Unready's successor? If it by-passes London, will that not have constitutional implications?

Lord Rooker

Not really. I have made it clear, repeatedly, that the regional assemblies will have no new powers and no new money in that respect. It is not a question of by-passing London. I have said that central government will remain responsible for negotiations on the total amount of EU spending, and there will be issues of matched funding which will have to involve London; we will be copied into them. We are not talking about home rule for the regions. Those at the centre will need to know what is happening. It is not a question of by-passing London, but not all decisions will fall to be made in London.

The Earl of Onslow

Is the noble Lord saying that the EU will go to the regions and London will still interfere? That seems to impose a new wedge of bureaucracy. London will take the action and no decisions will be passed down. Is that what the Minister has just told me?

Lord Rooker

Although they are not completely analogous, we have examples in the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority. Although they are at a lesser level than the Scottish Parliament, which has the power to pass its own primary legislation, no one has ever come forward with examples of where the EU has by-passed London and London has been ignorant or interfered in a gross way. I grant the fact that the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London Authority are not very old, but all our evidence to date is that those structures, which were approved by Parliament, seem to be working extremely well. There is no reason why they should not work in the English regions.

Lord Waddington

I am rather concerned by the Minister's efforts to calm the fears of my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch. He may not have succeeded in his efforts.

How many of the regions have already established offices in Brussels? I believe that a number have done so. One of the risks of this exercise is that there will be more and more traffic between the regions and Brussels. Regional committees will visit Brussels to try and screw out of the EU a greater share of regional funds than other regions expect to get. There will he war between the regions in their fight to get a better deal out of Brussels. Not only will this create a lot of bad blood; it will create a new bureaucracy such as we have never had before. We never had to have offices in Brussels until this mad idea of regional government raised its head. How many regions have already established offices in Brussels and what is it already costing us?

Lord Rooker

I shall need to come back to the issue of the paragraph to which the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, referred. I have the answer to that now.

The short answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is that I do not know.

Lord Waddington

I should be grateful if the Minister would find out.

Lord Rooker

I will find out. If there is an answer I shall give it to the noble Lord and to the Committee. I do not know about the regions, but I have a recollection that one or two cities have opened offices in Brussels. This is not a new issue. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, confirms that.

People are arguing, "We want them to know about what we have got to offer. We want to share in this enterprise. We want to make sure that decisions are not taken in Brussels based on ignorance of what our city has got to offer". I do not see a problem with that.

I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I got the paragraph number wrong. The Government intend to implement paragraph 4.31, which relates to the question he first asked.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

Quite so. In which case, how can the Minister say to my noble friend Lord Onslow and the Committee, as he has done on several occasions, that there will be no new money? If paragraph 4.31 is followed, the regions will take over the process to which my noble friend Lord Waddington referred and they will be in competition for the purported munificence—the fraudulent munificence, of course—that flows from Brussels. How can the Minister be sure that there will not be a lot more money for certain regions and certain projects on conditions favoured by, let us call it, the European Union and not by Her Majesty's Government? I did not hear the Minister's previous answer. It was my fault because I was picking up on the mistake on the identity of paragraph 4.31. Will the British Government—leave aside, if you wish, Parliament—be able to intervene and say to the European Union that they do not want something funded or that the funds should be distributed in a different way? It is in this area that our sovereignty is clearly at risk.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I do not have a specific answer to that, but we have made it abundantly clear, so far as concerns the Treasury, the UK Budget and our books, that we are devolving for decision making things that already happen. That is why I can use the expression "no new powers". We are devolving, in the regions, more public scrutiny to the Government Offices, the government agencies and some of the government quangos—I do not say all—for those areas that will be covered by the slim, tightly run, well-audited English regional assemblies if they come about.

I shall never be able to convince the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on any matter relating to Europe. He thinks that it is a bucket-load of crooks with loads of money which he thinks they have stolen from the member states and are giving out as largesse and stuffing people's pockets. I cannot have a debate on that basis. I do not think that that is a fair way of putting it.

The Earl of Onslow

Will the Minister accept that there has been just a tad of that? There has been a certain amount of jiggery-pokery in terms of Italian olive groves and overseas aid. I do not say that it is as bad as my noble friend Lord Pearson believes, but there has been a tad of that.

Lord Rooker

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, makes the point that that whole edifice is constructed on what he keeps calling a "corrupt institution". I do not accept that. I am not arguing—I know what happened about the Court of Auditors. I did not serve in MAFF for over two years without knowing a thing or two about what was happening over tobacco growers in Europe. It did not seem quite right. So there are those issues. But the fundamentals of the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, are such that I shall never be able to convince him.

We are not planning on any new powers in the regions, which means that we do not justify any new money in the sense of it coming from the centre of government. We have made it clear that the regions will be able to precept the local authorities; and, in answer to the second question put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, that the Government will take responsibility for the negotiations on the total amount of EU spending anyway.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I want to help the Minister and I want him to be able to help us. Therefore, I should like to refer back to the article that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote in The Times on 6th March. Perhaps I may read a paragraph from it. He stated: 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 nations and regions themselves". If some of us thought that that could be brought about, and that the Chancellor was indeed moving to remove powers from Brussels relating to regional policy and the allocation of funds—partly our taxpayers' funds—from Brussels to the regions; if we believed that that would be devolved from Brussels to our own Government and then to the regions, that might cast a different reflection on the debate.

Lord Rooker

I fear that I have still not got round to reading the Chancellor's article, but I have read reports about it and I know the thrust of it. The point is that that does not undermine paragraph 4.31 of the White Paper. That paragraph does not say that the regions will go to Brussels to negotiate for money. It says that they will take over the current role of the government officials who negotiate the detail of the single programming documents, and then the management of the funding in order to deliver the objectives of those documents. So paragraph 4.31 is fully consistent with what the Chancellor wrote in the article that my noble friend has quoted—obviously with great support on all sides of the Committee, which may enable us to make a little progress.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

But that is not what paragraph 4.31 says. I have it in front of me. I have already placed this on record twice in our debates. The Minister has quoted selectively, but the paragraph clearly says that, the assembly will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices"— not officials— on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods. This would mean that the assembly"— not the Government any longer— will chair the programme monitoring committee, play a key role in drawing up the single programme documents, and lead in negotiations on these programme documents with the European Commission". The Government do not come into it any more, do they?

Lord Rooker

So what? That is exactly what the regional assemblies will be there to do. I do not distinguish between government officials and the Government Offices. The government officials work in the Government Offices. There is a structure there, so that is a play on words. If the assemblies are carrying out the functions set out in paragraph 4.31, that is exactly the role that they are best placed to carry out for their region, on a regional basis, without it being done from London. I do not see what the problem is—obviously the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, does.

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Lord sees powers being taken away from Westminster and being given to the new heptarchy that is being created—"octarchy", to be accurate. That is a constitutional change. It may be a good idea, but there is a pretence that it is not a constitutional change and that it will not take power away from Westminster. To allow, let us say, Scunthorpe or whatever the "capital" of a region may be, to negotiate directly with Brussels seems to me to be a constitutional change. It would be wise if we did this with our eyes open, if we thought it a good idea. Some of us do not think that it is a good idea to take away powers from Westminster.

Lord Rooker

I return to the second point I made when I came to the more considered parts of my speech; namely, based on the briefing prepared for me rather than ad-libbing. The Constitution Committee of this House published its report on 12th February. The committee noted a number of constitutional implications. We accept that. But the committee did not highlight any particular effect on the UK Parliament. There are implications; the committee noted them; and this Committee has considered them. But there has been no great torrent from the committee saying: "Stop this Bill. It will wreck the UK Parliament". It did not say that. It is not as though the matter has not been considered by this House. It has.

Baroness Blatch

We hope that the Minister will continue to ad-lib. We find it much more revealing and certainly more refreshing than the notes that are written for him. It is characteristic of him to be his own man on the Front Bench opposite. The Minister may consider it a relief that the Committee stage of a Bill is, and always has been, a tiresome stage. On Report, the Minister will be able to engage his wit in slapping us all down and saying that we have already spoken on the matter once. So that is ahead of us.

On a more serious note, perhaps I may take up the point made by the Minister about how regional government will work. If he is right—if the powers (I think that the word was not used correctly) are those of Westminster and the quango bodies will merely be an administrative arm of government and will make decisions only within parameters set by government, and if most of the major decisions will be ratified by government in one form or another—why go through this pain of having a trigger, setting up a Boundary Committee and reorganising local government? If no power is being ceded upwards from local government and no powers are coming down from national government, why go through this laborious, expensive, politically de-stabilising process? It seems to me that there is no argument.

Secondly, the Minister, rightly and with some feeling, referred to the amount of time that we have spent on Clause 1. I am afraid that we shall probably spend quite a lot of time on Clause 2. These early clauses are important. They go to the heart of the Bill.

It comes as some relief to know that the Minister checked at lunchtime that the Deputy Prime Minister will not be naming an area and exercising an order under Section 12 for at least a year. That is fine. But what is the hurry? Why must the Bill be through by 8th May? There is no hurry at all if the first regional assembly, even on a fast track, cannot be in place until 2006–07. I do not know why our usual channels—mine as well as the Minister's—want the Committee stage to be completed by Monday evening. That seems absurd. given the timetable to which the Minister referred and given that he has removed the meat of rumours that were fairly strong before we started our work today.

We have some idea of what regional assemblies' functions will be. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is about to come before the House, and we understand that these bodies will be responsible for spatial planning, which is completely different. Why that should be such a divided subject across regional government and why there should be a separate regional quango, I do not know. But it would help us to know what free-standing decision-making powers a regional assembly would be able to exercise. If no powers are being ceded from below and no powers are ceding from above, that leaves regional assemblies as no more than an administrative arm of government, and for that we do not need such an elaborate system.

The Minister rightly chided us all for not looking at the House of Lords Select Committee report. I have scanned it but I will look at it more carefully to see what it says. I believe there is a link in constitutional impact on the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole when one considers what is being discussed in the Convention on the Future of Europe. For example, the convention is ceding powers in the areas of defence, foreign policy, law and economic policy. The Government may come to regret the incorporation of human rights because they are already beginning to fall foul of it. That has already ceded sovereignty from the parliamentary body to the courts and the judges.

We went about House of Lords reform the wrong way. We did not determine the powers and functions of a second Chamber, ending up with the composition; we started with the composition, which was the wrong way round. That reform is having an impact on the relationship between the two Houses and the way in which Parliament operates as a whole.

Regional assemblies will have an impact. Something is flagged up in the Select Committee report which we will look at carefully. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will also have an impact. As the Minister rightly reminded my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, it will go ahead, irrespective of regional assemblies. I accept that; it is a free-standing Bill, and whatever form this Bill takes, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will go ahead. But it is seriously paving—it emasculates the existing powers of the county councils, some of the district councils and some of the unitary authorities. I think the regional assemblies will compound all that.

I understand what the Minister says about county functions but, reading the White Paper, some of the functions of the existing county councils will be carried out by regional assemblies.

Whether one or more areas eventually has a regional assembly, there will be an impact on the nature, characteristics, powers and functions of this Parliament. If I am wrong and the Minister is right, why go through this elaborate process simply to turn an administrative arm into an elected assembly?

Simply leaving everything to chance and seeing what happens when regional assemblies are in place is no way to legislate on constitutional change. We could have the worst of all possible worlds, with only some areas having regional assemblies. I think there will be great confusion.

This is such an important issue that we will return to it on Report.

4.45 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

Before my noble friend withdraws the amendment, could the Minister reply to her point about the Bill's timetable? I apologise to the noble Lord for not being in my place this morning when he may have said something about it, but I was called out of the Chamber. Given the timetable that he has enunciated, why is there so much pressure to get the Bill through by early May?

Lord Rooker

I was going to respond to that point but I accepted that we would move on. I cannot be precise about individual dates. However, there are good and bad times of the year in which to hold referendums. At certain times of the year, because of purdah, one would not be allowed to do things. We all know when general elections can he held. There is a maximum period of five years but in general we are almost on a four-year cycle. I am not saying that the next election will be in 2005—I cannot be precise about that.

It is public knowledge that if there were to be a referendum, autumn 2004 would be a suitable time. We have said that the Boundary Committee may need up to 12 months in which to do its work. The referendum period is about 10 or 12 weeks. It is easy to work hack from autumn 2004 to see approximately when Royal Assent would he needed. Until we have Royal Assent the Deputy Prime Minister cannot make a statement about the judgment on the soundings. That does not mean that there is a rush, but if we did not do certain things early this summer, the possibility of holding a referendum in the autumn of 2004 would be ruled out. That takes us into 2005, when there may be a general election—I do not know—but there will be local government elections. So it is easy to work backwards.

If there were a yes vote, primary legislation would have to be introduced. I suspect it would be a large Bill compared with this one. That is why I am fairly certain that the earliest possible date for setting up an assembly would be July 2006. Once we have agreed to do it and it is all set up, the elections have to take place. So the earliest possible time for an assembly to be established, on this time-scale, is 2006. That would mean requesting the Boundary Committee to start its work early this summer. One is talking about a very long process and no one can accuse the Government of rushing it. It is a natural progression—there must be time to take certain decisions and time for certain things to happen so that we are not accused of rushing matters. In addition, consultation will take place. I hope that is a satisfactory explanation of the Government's thinking on approximate dates.

Baroness Hamwee

Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, perhaps she can deal with a matter that has been touched on when she comes back with it. The amendment refers to the effects of regional government; it does not refer to the effects of the proposals as set out in the Bill. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Baroness Blatch

One problem with the Bill is that the whole process is triggered by Clause 1. I will have to read the Minister's speech carefully, as he has just contradicted himself. I expressed myself as relieved that the Deputy Prime Minister would not exercise an order under Section 12 for another year. He has to do so in order to start the process for the Boundary Committee; we know from the Minister that it will take a year to do its work. For a referendum to take place in the autumn of 2004, which the Minister said was the earliest date, an order will need to be made in June, July or August this year.

I heard some rumours before lunch. The anxiety of the usual channels in this House to have the Bill finished by Monday is becoming clearer. The noble Lord refuted it, but we are going to get a statement soon after 8th May from the Deputy Prime Minister to allow a referendum to take place in the late summer or autumn of 2004.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness has got it right. The note that I have probably explains the situation a lot better than I did. I think it is fair to put this on the record. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding, particularly about Clause 12. I am not playing with words, but Clause 12 does not give order-making powers.

There is a complicated chain of events before an elected assembly can be established. First, we need Royal Assent to this Bill. Then the Deputy Prime Minister needs a bit of time to consider in which region or regions to direct local government reviews—that is the direction, not an order under Clause 12. The local government reviews could take up to 12 months. Then the Secretary of State has to decide whether to order a referendum and lay and make the orders. The referendum process will take a minimum of 10 weeks and maybe more. It would be best not to work on minimum figures all the time. To guarantee a referendum in this Parliament we need early Royal Assent.

If there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum, a main Bill will have to follow. That will need at least one year. Then there have to be elections to the assembly. That is why I said that at the earliest an assembly could not be set up before July 2006. That probably requires getting Royal Assent to this Bill in the not too distant future—early this summer or late spring this year, whatever definition one likes to make. I do not have a specific date to give, but the noble Baroness can see why an early date is required for all these long processes.

Baroness Blatch

My last word is that to spend three years on expensive, painstaking, laborious, politically disabling procedures in order to create an elected administrative arm of government is ludicrous. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 [Referendum question]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton)

Before I call Amendment No. 26, I have to inform the Committee that if it is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 27 to 31 for reasons of pre-emption.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 26: Page 2, line 20, leave out subsection (1) and insert— ( ) The questions to be asked in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 are:

  1. 1. "Should there be an elected assembly for the (insert name of region) region?"
  2. 2. "Should county and district councils in your region be reorganised and replaced with unitary authorities responsible for delivering all local government services?""

The noble Lord said: As the Minister said, we have spent 11 hours on Clause 1. I trust that we are not going to spend a similar time on Clause 2. It is my job to introduce this very important first amendment to the clause. We have spent hours discussing the referendum. We are now discussing the question that will be put to the electorate in that referendum. We have just talked about the timetable. Assuming that the Government get their Bill through, there will be at least one referendum towards the end of next year.

The Minister said firmly last week that if we had regional authorities there would be only one tier of government below that or nothing at all. I should like to explore that further. As I said last week, we should not talk lightly about the reorganisation of local government. We seem to have a thrill for local government reorganisation in this country. The United States and most European countries have systems of local government that have stood the test of time over 200 years. We seem to want to reorganise local government every 10 years. I did not agree with the Conservative government's reorganisation in the 1990s and I cannot agree to any reorganisation now. It detracts from providing services, which is what we should be about.

The amendment would separate the issue of having a regional assembly from the reorganisation of local government. That is very important. The amendment would introduce a second referendum question giving people in two-tier areas a chance to express their view on whether local government should be reorganised.

I have been through local government reorganisation twice. Services, staff and the public all suffer. As my noble friend Lady Blatch said a moment ago, the process could go on for two or three years before there was a regional assembly. Some areas of our country would be destabilised and disturbed for two or three years. Services would suffer as a result.

We shall shortly start our consideration of the Local Government Bill during which we shall talk about the comprehensive performance assessment for councils. Many councils that will be reorganised will have been judged excellent or good in that assessment. We are going to tell the public that councils that have just been applauded by the Government and the Audit Commission will be destroyed. Most people who live in two-tier areas are happy to have county and district councils. They would not want local government to be reorganised for the sake of setting up a region. They should have the opportunity to say that.

The proposal is particularly unfair to people in rural areas because those parts of the country can be dominated by the urban electorate. We talked about this last week. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that there would be differential turnout so the rural areas might be able to defeat the urban areas because more people would vote in rural areas. Let us look at the three areas that are most likely to have a referendum. The North East has a total of 2.5 million people. Only 800,000 of them live in the two counties of Durham and Northumberland. There would have to be an enormous differential turnout for the people in Northumberland and Durham to outvote the Newcastle and Sunderland conurbations. In the North West, which has a total of 6.7 million people, only 2.3 million live in the three great counties of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. That might seem a reasonable number, but it is still only one third of the total. The urban areas of Manchester and Merseyside comprise two thirds of the area. The situation is even worse in Yorkshire and Humberside. There are 5 million people in that area, but North Yorkshire has only 600,000 of them. Even with a 100 per cent turnout in North Yorkshire and a 12 or 14 per cent turnout in the rest of the area, North Yorkshire could still be outvoted. This is a denial of democratic principles. Those counties and districts could be destroyed without people being given a chance to make any comment. We feel very strongly that the question needs to be put to the public in a referendum. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington

I am a little puzzled by Amendment No. 26. It seems to suggest that everyone in the region would be voting on the question of local government changes. My noble friend said that the clear intention is that people who live where there is a two-tier local government structure should be able to vote on it. That is dealt with in Amendment No. 48, which, for reasons I do not understand, is not grouped with these amendments. I would have thought that it should have been. People who live in a part of the region where there is a two-tier structure of local government should be able to vote on whether it is changed. I read the amendment as meaning that, even though it does not mean that on its own. It would mean that if Amendments Nos. 26 and 48 were carried.

Amendment No. 31 is useful. People should be aware of the area for which the assembly they are being asked to vote for or against will be responsible. There is very little appreciation of what is included even in the North West. People in the south of Cheshire do not for a moment consider themselves part of an area that extends all the way to the Solway.

Lord Dixon

I mentioned this morning the result of a consultation carried out by Durham County Council. It had 7,000 responses. Support for holding a referendum was 66 per cent; 24 per cent were not in favour. Support for establishing an assembly was 66 per cent against 24 per cent. That is the two-tier authority on which I used to serve.

5 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

Will the noble Lord tell us why the council is spending taxpayers' money at this stage, before the Bill has received Royal Assent, on surveying whether a referendum is wanted?

Lord Dixon

That is the consultative procedure laid down by the Government, who asked for responses.

Lord Waddington

With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I am not quite sure what that has to do with my speech. At the moment, I am addressing the question of whether people in the south of Cheshire really consider themselves part of a North West that goes up to the Solway. I do not think that he knows whether I am right or wrong on that, and I do not blame him for that as it is not his part of the country.

I want to raise again the extraordinary business of the Government not being prepared to look at the regional boundaries before any referendums are embarked on. I have looked into the matter since we discussed it a little while ago. I simply do not understand what the difficulty is. From Clause 26, one finds that, a region is a region … specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998". The 1998 Act states in Section 25 that the Secretary of State may by order and after consultations, make alterations in the extent of the regions". He could embark on consultations right now and, in a matter of months, come to conclusions that would at least get rid of some of the more outrageous anomalies. If that were done, we would be dealing to a large extent with the mischief that is obvious to us all. For the time being, it is obviously essential that when people go into the polling booths they should be made aware of what on earth the strange area is, for which there will be an elected body if they vote yes.

Lord Greaves

The group of amendments is headed by Amendment No. 26, but there are four Liberal Democrat amendments in it. The substantive one is Amendment No. 38, which would leave out lines 33 to 36 of page 2. The other three are consequential on that.

Amendment No. 38 tackles the same problem in a different way. Again it is about the fact that, in the Bill, the Government are combining the establishment of regional assemblies with a reorganisation of local government into unitary authorities in those parts of the region affected that at the moment have a two-tier local government system. We discussed the principle of that in considerable detail last Thursday, and I do not think that there is any point in discussing it all again at this stage, although we may wish to come back to it later.

Amendment No. 38 would remove the second part of the preamble or statement that accompanies the referendum question. The first part states that, the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities". That is an interesting wording, given the limited powers available in the Bill, but we can come back to that later. The second part states that, local government would be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils. There would be no such reorganisation of other local authorities in the region". That is in line with our wish to decouple the two issues and leave it up to local people to decide what structure of local government they want, if they get a regional assembly and after they have got one. We want to remove the lines from the preamble because we would not want them to be part of the conditions for having a regional assembly. That is fairly straightforward and is something that may gain support in the Committee.

So far as the Conservative amendments are concerned, Amendment No. 26 sets out two questions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, we would think their wording not ideal, but the principle behind them is absolutely clear. It is one that we support, so we would certainly support the amendment if the Conservatives put it to the vote today.

Amendment No. 31 gives sensible clarification, setting out what the region consists of in the statement. It may be thought that the scale and passion of the referendum campaign will be such that everyone will know about all such matters by the time that they vote. I would not be totally certain that they would know which region covered exactly which area, and it would not be silly to include on the ballot paper a definition of the region proposed to be set up. We would therefore support that amendment as well.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

I wish only to make a point that I made in a speech at Second Reading. The vast county of Northumberland is very big territorially, but not in terms of population. My noble friend said that the population of Northumberland and Durham numbered 800,000. If I get it right, and I think that I do, Northumberland has only 300,000 people.

The second part of Amendment No. 26 asks whether county and district councils should be reorganised and replaced with unitary authorities. It is quite obvious that the eventual aim of the legislation is unitary authorities. That has been made very clear. We are to have no more three-tier authorities, so if we are to have regional bodies and if the individual councils are to remain in being, there will eventually be only the regional authority and district councils. If the district councils were to lose their powers, a county such as Northumberland would be affected. It would be very bad for those who live way apart from the south-east corner of Northumberland where most of the population is. The local councils further north are very important.

I see a great problem in the future of a unitary authority, which will be either a regional authority or the county council. If it is a regional authority, the county council goes. If the local councils remain, they will be all right but remote from the major body, the new regional authority.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I should like to add a few words in support of the noble Lord. Lord Hanningfield. Like him I am a county councillor, although in Suffolk, and as such declare an interest. I hope that the Minister will accept that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and I as leaders and so on suffered from the previous local government review, which was botched because it was not properly thought through. No one gained from it. There were considerable losers, not least people in areas where nothing changed but there were three years of uncertainty. We would certainly be keen to see that situation avoided.

At the Committee's previous sitting last Thursday, the Minister made it clear that the Government's position was that unitary status was non-negotiable in the context of the Bill. If we have a regional assembly, we have to have a regional tier underneath. That had nothing to do with performance or ideal structures, but was simply to deal with a perception of over-government. The Government do not want to give anyone the opportunity to say that the Bill creates an extra tier.

Of course, the benefit of Amendment No. 26 is that it leaves the choice up to the people affected. If they decide that they would like an extra tier of government, that is their decision and it makes it much harder for them to then complain about the addition of an extra tier. I hope that the Government will give that some very serious consideration. It seems absolutely right to us on these Benches, and clearly to Conservative Members of the Committee, that local people and not the Government should decide the structure of local government in their areas.

The Earl of Caithness

I echo what the Minister said earlier; that is, that he wants to get government closer to the people and done by the people. The one thing that would destroy what he wants would be to take away district councils.

The Minister said that it was easy to raise any matter in this Chamber. I will take that opportunity, although he knows what I am going to say, but I do not expect him to reply this evening. I take noble Lords up to Scotland, where we suffered horribly from the local government review. Caithness is dominated by Inverness, which is a good two or two-and-a-half hours' drive away. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield mentioned the disparity in populations in England. Exactly the same situation as is proposed in this context has happened in Scotland. We have seen examples of it and learnt to live with it. It is not a terribly happy experience. I regret what the Conservative government did to local government in Scotland; they removed democracy from the local people. I therefore hope that the Minister will think again in this regard; it is absolutely fundamental to the Bill.

While I am on my feet, I jog the Minister's memory about our first day in Committee. He said that he would look again at whether the boundaries of metropolitan areas could be examined. We discussed that and he saw the logic of what we were saying. Has he given that any further consideration?

Baroness Hanham

As I understand it, one of the rationales of the Bill is to give democratic legitimacy to the Government Offices for the Regions through various activities and the organisations that spin off underneath them. One could give democratic legitimacy to the regions if one wished without fouling up all of the rest of local government beneath them. It is extremely important that people within the areas that will be changed—the counties and districts—have an opportunity to comment on that. After all, they probably do not currently know or worry much about the regions. If they are electing a small number of people to act on their behalf, that queries democratic legitimacy. It is important that the Government consider the need to ensure that people understand the implications of what they are voting for—if they do not do so, we may help them. The way in which to do that is to give them two questions.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I follow the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, on regional boundaries. I keep going back to the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission. I have memories of that and of the reason why it failed to deal with the problem. One reason why we had the 1974 debacle was because the Department of Education laid down that one could not run an education authority with fewer than 500,000 people. That was always a nonsense. There were many good local authorities: Reading, where I was the leader, was one of them. It was an excellent local authority with a population of about 125,000 and it led the country in providing education for the deaf and in many other innovations. Because of that restriction, we got a form of local government that was not suitable to the country. It failed and had to be reviewed shortly after.

My point is that the number of regions and their boundaries is absolutely crucial. The Committee knows very well that I believe that regional government is completely unnecessary but, whatever one's views on that, if the Government want regional government to be successful, they must ensure that the boundaries and compatibility of the areas are correct in the first place. If one does not get them right, one will have perpetual trouble. It would help the Government if they trust in regional authorities to get it right from the start and not make the same mistakes as were made with the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission in, I believe, 1968. It was stymied by the insistence of the Department of Education that there must be 500,000 people to have a viable education authority. That was absurd.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I want to comment on Amendment No. 31. Although I said this morning that we do not want to look at all of the polls and that one can present whatever figures one wants, I point out that even in the North East, in the poll to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, referred this morning, more than 50 per cent did not know what region they lived in now. That was supposed to have had much publicity and support in the North East. We tabled Amendment No. 31 so that people would at least be told on the ballot paper what region they live in. We joke about Essex but a recent survey there showed than fewer than 5 per cent thought that they lived in the eastern region. People in Cheshire do not know which region they are in. The ballot paper should state on it what region one is in and what one is voting for.

I want to say more about Northumberland; people must defend it—

Lord Greaves

I apologise to the noble Lord for intervening and thank him for giving way. I am intrigued to know where the other 95 per cent in Essex thought that they lived.

Lord Hanningfield

The 120,000 who come to London every day thought that they were more associated with London than with anywhere else. The majority thought that they lived in the South-East rather than the East of England.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting


Lord Hanningfield


Northumberland needs people to defend it. Geographically, it is a very large county. As my noble friend said, it has only about 300,000 people. It has six district councils, with an average of only about 50,000 each, but the geographical area in each of those district councils is considerable. They serve their people very well. Northumberland as a unitary would be an extremely big geographical area and it would be difficult for it to be a unitary county. People already feel dominated by Newcastle; they feel that Newcastle gets all of the resources and is looked after better. It is important that we give some support to those areas. They feel threatened by the continued dominance of the urban area in places such as the North East. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

Lord Rooker

I begin by getting out of the way the issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, which was also raised last week. All of our deliberations are reported back to policy Ministers—Nick Raynsford and colleagues. Several noble Lords discussed the boundary review not being able to consider an existing unitary authority that happened to be in an area. My response was practical: I said that I would take away the issue for consideration. We are considering it but it is much too early to come back with an answer; we are still at Committee stage, as it were. However, the issue has been taken on board.

Amendment No. 26 gives an additional separate question. I stress that the question is separate and is not linked to the first question. I agree that it is unfortunate that, with regard to the two separate questions and Amendments Nos. 27 and 29, the amendments relating to the second question ended up in another group of amendments which we shall consider later. I am not responsible for the grouping of amendments. I wish that there was more conformity with groups of amendments in this House. That is something we could learn from another place. The grouping structure there makes for more concise debate. One does not have the same debate, split over several groups. Sometimes, with our groupings, one may miss points or be excessively repetitive.

We made clear that the move to single-tier local government is an integral part of the package. I do not desist from saying that without the rationalisation, the regional assembly will add extra complexity to another layer of government. We want a clear division of responsibilities between the tiers, and clear lines of accountability.

I have never been a councillor, but I know that forming a structure for local government is a serious issue. Local government delivers services to people in a much closer way than does central government. I understand that, having been a Member in another place. I have lived through local government changes in Birmingham. We do not want this to be a hit and miss or pick and mix affair. I am horrified at the implications made in a couple of speeches that people should be allowed to fix their own number of layers.

People would divide up the parishes in some areas, and local government would grow like Topsy—completely out of control.

One needs to take a good strategic view. One question, with the full implications made clear to voters, avoids the ambiguity. Getting across the implications of the answer to one question is fundamental.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

I am genuinely perplexed by the Minister's comments. I understand him to mean that, if we allow people the choice, layers of government will grow like Topsy. His position has always been that the concern would be about over-government; I find it difficult to believe that people could complain about over-government and then choose to create more tiers. How can the Minister have it both ways?

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness used a good example in her speech. She said that she was content that people should be allowed to vote for extra tiers of government—that was their choice. We do not believe that extra tiers of government are a good idea. I made that point on Second Reading.

This is a political issue as much as anything else. We are not having extra tiers of government: it is as simple as that. We would rather not proceed with the Bill than have that happen. The price of having elected regional assemblies is having a single tier—the best form of single tier we can get. That is why we need the boundary review. This is a political issue, and I have no mathematical or intellectually coherent formula to justify it—it is raw politics. We are not having extra tiers.

To the best of my knowledge, in any other local government reorganisation there have not been many votes by the people concerned. I do not remember there being town polls or anything of that sort in past local government reorganisations, although those reorganisations have occurred frequently. In fact, they have occurred more frequently than they should have done. I accept that.

Amendment No. 31 adds to the end of the referendum question. One has to be careful about the form of words used here. We were told that people do not know what region they live in. The Government's question, which some think inadequate but which was agreed by the Electoral Commission, is set out in Clause 2. The ballot paper will say: 'Should there be an elected assembly for the … region?"' The name of the region would be inserted—for example, it would say, "for the north-east region". Do Members of the Committee not think that a ballot paper including that question might tell the voter which region they live in? The question mentions the name of the region, so the difficulty of knowing which region people are in is overcome.

Amendment No. 31 goes wider and lists, counties, metropolitan boroughs and unitary authority districts", that comprise the region. I have some sympathy with that aim. Sometimes it is difficult to explain to people where their constituency boundaries are. They are incoherent for reasons of history and geography. I understand that Members of the Committee want voters to be aware not only of the name of the region but how it is made up—what is in the north-east or south-east region? As one noble Lord said, a person living in Banbury might not know that Broadstairs is in the south-east region. However, a ballot paper is not the place to give such information.

The Government will publish that kind of factual information, including the powers and size of the assembly and the counties that make up the region. At that point, the proposed changes will come in from the boundary review. I emphasise that because the Government will have to say what they are going to do with those proposals, the default being to accept them, as they come from an independent body, but not necessarily so.

The proposals must be distributed. We will ensure that the document is delivered to each household in advance of the referendum. It will include information not only about the name of the region but about how it is made up, and which authorities are included in it. People should have that information before they vote as it informs them of the implications of the possible changes to the local government structure. The document will tell people about the two-tier structures that are to become one-tier and how those structures have been formed after a year-long deliberation.

Lord Greaves

The Minister said that the boundary review recommendations did not have to be accepted by the Government but did have to be put to the people in the referendum. There seems to be some conflict there.

Lord Rooker

The proposals for the boundary review —the Government's view of what is planned for the boundaries —will be put to people at the referendum. The Boundary Committee will be asked to come up with the best available form of single-tier government. In the main, the Government would probably accept that as the default, hut the provision is such that the Secretary of State will have to take a view on what comes to him from the boundary review. I am making that distinction because many of the amendments refer to the results of the boundary review.

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister give way?

Lord Rooker

I shall in a moment, because I can see the question coming. The question that should be asked in the House during scrutiny should not be about the possible recommendation from the Boundary Committee but what the Government will do with that recommendation. In the main—in most cases if not all—the Government would accept a proposal from an independent body asked to do a job based on a list of rules and within the parameters asked of it. That would be the proposal that we would put to the House and to the people of a region. However, that may not happen in every case.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister will know about the relevant point better than I do, as it was a point that exercised the Select Committee. There is no scope whatever for a voter to have a view about the Boundary Committee review of local government. The only question they are asked is, "Do you want a regional assembly?" One goes with the other, without any form of modification whatever.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness has got it absolutely right. One is the price of the other, and that is what people must weigh in the balance. If they do not like the implications for local government and that, to them, is the most important aspect of their community and their lives, they would vote "No". They would seek to prevent from happening the local government changes that are part and parcel of the elected regional assembly.

I do not know which regions will be chosen. I cannot know that, because I have not seen the soundings, but people seem fairly certain about which regions will have a referendum. There are eight regions, four of which have a much greater population in the two-tier areas than in the single-tier areas and four of which have a much greater population in the single-tier areas than in the two-tier areas. It just so happens that it is four regions to four. Of course, noble Lords only talk about one set of four and not the other. In other parts of the country, an overwhelming percentage of the population—up to 88 per cent in one case—live in two-tier authorities. If they thought that maintaining that structure was more important than gaining a regional assembly, they would vote "No". That is the price of the package and people will have to make that judgment. As long as they are given all the information and are made aware of the implications of their vote, our electorate and citizenry are sufficiently mature to make that judgment.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those comments. I share the view of other noble Lords that the Minister has been fair in most of his responses. However, I am very disappointed with parts of his last response. Several noble Lords are members of local government and know what providing services in local government is all about. Local government reorganisation seems to be spoken of lightly, almost as a purely paper exercise. However, problems often arise not from implementing reorganisation but from talking about it. The Minister said that people can vote against creating a region if they do not like the reorganisation, but he has missed the point. We will have spent a year talking about reorganisation. It is that year of discussion that will cause disturbance and affect services.

Before coming to the Committee this morning I had a meeting in Essex, where each day we support about 20,000 disabled and elderly people in their homes. We are desperately short of care workers, but we were examining how we might improve the services for those people. If there were a reorganisation, the staff who work for the local authority would be worried about their jobs. We do not want a year of that. I was therefore disappointed by our discussion because we have missed the point. Discussion of reorganisation is just as bad as reorganisation. If there is a referendum in the North East at the end of next year, there will be a year of disturbance in Northumberland, for example, in which services are not provided properly and the elderly and school children suffer. The Minister clearly has not been in local government. If he had, he would understand that. He talked so lightly about reorganisation.

Such consequences are why other countries do not reorganise. The United States has had a stable system since independence. It has about six tiers of government from the Senate downwards. France has introduced regionalism, but it did not disturb the underlying structure. It wants to provide services. We talk so lightly of reorganisation without realising what it will do to the services that we provide. That is why we who are also elected councillors want to try to provide decent services. That is what it is about. So I was very disappointed by those comments.

The Minister said that the issue was totally political. It should not be totally political, but about the services that we provide. If the Government want regional; government, I see no harm at all in having sufficient underlying tiers to provide decent local government.

The government review will take some time. I should like a little more clarity on that. I think that the Minister said that the final decision on reorganisation will be taken by the Secretary of State rather than in the boundary review. Perhaps he will confirm that. That is slightly worrying as well. If we go through all the processes of a boundary review but the Secretary of State does not make the change, there will be even greater disturbance.

Lord Rooker

We have not changed the rules. The same arrangements have applied in every review, including the parliamentary review. They may have been changed once by a Home Secretary. I want to be clear about this. I do not want anyone to accuse me of not explaining the consequences. In the past few days, noble Lords have concentrated almost exclusively on the results of the boundary review. Although those results are very important, the ballot paper will reflect what the Government do with those results. I honestly thought that I should draw attention to that fact, but there is nothing new about it. The Secretary of State will express his view after the Boundary Committee reports to him in due course.

Lord Hanningfield

That causes me even more consternation about the uncertainty of the whole process. However, I was pleased to hear the Minister say that he wanted the ballot paper to set out clearly the options for voters. In later amendments, we deal with the matter of cost. Enormous costs will be incurred not only in establishing the assembly but in reorganising the area. The reorganisation will be much more costly than the assembly. I was therefore pleased to hear the Minister say that the public should know precisely what they are voting for. We shall return to that issue.

The Minister mentioned the four more rural regions. Those areas will require even more reorganisation. As I said, there is great concern about the prospect of a year's reorganisation in the East of England or in the South East in order to destroy the districts or the counties. Much more reorganisation will be required in more rural areas than in urban ones.

I was pleased to hear that the Liberal Democrats support this type of amendment. I agree that the wording should perhaps be tightened up a little and be a little more self-explanatory. I think that we will return to this type of amendment at Report stage. I think that the amendment will be pursued, although I shall not press it today. l was pleased to hear the Minister's comments on Amendment No. 31. He did not give all the answers that we seek, but we can return to the issue when we discuss the exact wording for the referendum. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 27 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton)

Before I call Amendment No. 28, I have to inform your Lordships that if Amendment No. 28 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 29 to 43 for reasons of preemption.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 28: Page 2, line 20, leave out from "order" to end of line 36 and insert "shall be determined by the Electoral Commission

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 28 is grouped with Amendment No. 33, which stands in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. Amendment No. 28 offers another approach to skinning this cat of a question. In this amendment, we want to explore the proposal that the Electoral Commission should determine the question. At this point, I shall talk about "a question" but noble Lords will understand that, in our view, two would be much clearer.

Of course, I accept that the issue of the yes/no answer is political but, now that we have an Electoral Commission, it seems to us that the presentation of the question is squarely within its competence. In fact, our amendment covers both the question and the preamble. It does so because the clearer the question, the less detailed and complex the preamble may be. I deliberately put them that way round.

That is the simple proposition, but I hope that at this stage the Minister can tell the Committee what advice the Electoral Commission has given thus far on the presentation of the question and the preamble, which we shall debate in more detail shortly, I hope that, before bringing the Bill before Parliament, the Government held discussions with the Electoral Commission on what, as I said, seems to be a matter on which it is not only well placed but best placed to advise. I beg to move.

Lord Hanningfield

I support the Liberal Democrat amendment and shall speak to our Amendment No. 33, which is along the same lines. We feel strongly that the Electoral Commission rather than the Government should determine the wording on the ballot paper for the referendum. The Electoral Commission is a neutral body. I refer to what the Minister said in response to the debate on the previous amendment—that is, all the information should be set out fairly so that people have a fair choice in their vote. The Electoral Commission must be the best body to decide the exact wording. Therefore, I commend Amendment No. 33, which, as I said, is very similar to Amendment No. 28 tabled by the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Waddington

I do not say for one moment that the noble Lord may not have good reason to criticise the precise form of Amendment No. 33. But I should have thought that we are pushing at an open door when we say that the statement in Clause 2(2) is far too bland. It cannot be sufficient to state before the question on the ballot paper, local government would be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils", when, by then, the conclusions of the Boundary Committee will be known. I should have thought that it would be very much in the interests of the Government, and certainly in the interests of those in favour of an elected regional assembly, to spell out the matter far more clearly.

I shall give the Minister an example. I may be wrong but I believe that in Lancashire there would be far less resistance to local government reorganisation which turned the county council area into a unitary authority than to carving up the country part of Lancashire and giving a third to one big borough, a third to another big borough and a third to another big borough, where the country interest would be completely overwhelmed by the urban areas.

Therefore, I should have thought—of course, it would depend on the conclusion of the Boundary Committee—that in many circumstances it would be greatly to the advantage of the Government and to those in favour of elected assemblies, and certainly to the advantage of the elector, if, in a concise statement above the question, the conclusion of the Boundary Committee was set out. For example, it might state that in the case of Lancashire such and such a district council area will go in with Blackburn, such and such a district council area will go in with Preston, and such and such a district council area will go in with Blackpool, or whatever it may be.

Therefore, I hope that if the Minister does not feel able to accept this precise amendment, he will go away and consider the possibility of a far more comprehensive statement preceding the question on the ballot paper, setting out in concise terms the effect of the conclusions of the Boundary Committee.

Lord Hanningfield

Before the Minister replies, I should add that, as well as the Boundary Committee's work—a matter to which we referred a great deal during debate on the previous few amendments—we also talked at considerable length during the first debates in Committee about the functions of the region. The intention of the second part of our Amendment No. 33 is that the Electoral Commission should also set out the functions and powers of the region. We have had considerable debate about that over the past two days of the Committee stage.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I hope that I can give noble Lords answers that will make them happy. I wish we were at the point of having a referendum somewhere as I would have one of the leaflets that will be delivered to every household in the region. They will explain how the region is made up; what its powers are; what the assembly's functions would be; and other matters. Our intention is not to put that on the ballot paper but to produce a document that spells out all these issues which will be presented to every household in the area before the referendum.

I accept that we have to have the main Bill. As regards Amendment No. 33, voters must be aware of the intended scope of the responsibilities of those elected assemblies when casting their votes in referendums. The only way they can be made aware is by a publication put through the door and not one they have to go and collect themselves. We need to overcome the inertia. It must be done that way and that is what we intend to do. It cannot be done on the ballot paper and it would be too late if it was presented at the polling booth. First, one would be presenting it only to people who turned up to vote; and, secondly, we want to increase turnout. So we would make sure that the document was produced well in advance.

I want to turn to the central point. There seems to be a misunderstanding. Through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, Parliament gave life to the Electoral Commission. The commission's role is to comment on the intelligibility of UK, national and regional referendum questions and to be consulted where the question or preamble is set by subordinate legislation.

The Act does not give the commission the responsibility to set the question. That is understandable because it is supposed to be a body that is above the fray. The people appointed to the commission need to be as independent as possible. Without giving them a veto, they should be able to comment on the wording of the preamble and if they do not like it to say so publicly. Woe betide a government who go against a strong recommendation of the commission and change what it proposes.

The commission has been consulted on the question and the preamble and is satisfied. Changes were made in another place. This matter is dealt with in another group of amendments and although I have read them all I do not remember where. Clause 2 sets out the preamble. I would hate to go to a polling station and to be met with the preamble set out that way on the ballot paper. One can use that wording but lay it out better. The intention is to produce the preamble in bullet point form without changing the meaning in any way, so it is easier to read. In other words, we will tabloid it, so one can read it at a glance rather than having to read a short essay.

This has all been agreed with the commission as the intelligibility of the proposal is fairly fundamental. We have a degree of sympathy with the issues raised today. I accept that the preamble is relatively short. Our intended operation and the process and the documents that we will publish meet the spirit, and in some cases the actual letter, of what noble Lords have put to the Committee today. That being so, looking at the groupings, I have no doubt we will have the same debate a few more times before we finish. I shall return to the matter if need be. But I hope, having set the scene, that the spirit is there and that we are at one. But we shall do it in a practical way.

It would be quite wrong to give the commission the power to write the question. That would go against its grain. It would remove its watchdog and scrutiny roles and reduce the force of its arguments and power if there was something with which it was extremely unhappy. There would be one hell of a row about it outside as well as inside both Houses.

Lord Hanningfield

On Amendment No. 33, I think we were pleased to hear some of the noble Lord's comments. I am sure that we shall return to this matter, as he said, several more times in Committee and at later stages. Obviously the information that goes to the electorate will be very important indeed. If pamphlets are acceptable, by whom will they be written? Or, if they are to be political pamphlets, there will be various bodies which will be keen on them. But the information that goes to the public is very important. It needs to be neutral and full. It needs to include the aspects of local government reorganisation and we think that it should include costs. It should certainly state strongly what the region is going to do. We suggest that it should be done after the passing of an Act of Parliament setting out the powers and responsibilities of a region. That information is important. The Minister has not spelled out exactly how that will happen. Perhaps he, too, will give the matter some further thought before the following stages of the Bill, because we shall obviously keep returning to it. As I said, the process must be independent and understandable by the electorate, so that they know what they are voting for.

So although I shall not press our amendment, we shall keep returning to the issue until we have some clear answers about what the public will be told before they vote.

Baroness Hamwee

Like the Minister, I know that there is an amendment somewhere that deals with information, but I cannot quite remember which it is.

It is absolutely right and proper to put booklets through household doors. But from my experience twice in London—in the case of the referendum and then the actual election—and, most recently, twice with the mayor's scheme for congestion charging, all of which involved booklets through doors, I know that the Royal Mail target rate for delivery is about 87 per cent. It is certainly not accurate. I know that London SW14, where I live, was ignored on all those occasions. But that is not central to my amendment.

The Minister has answered and unanswered my question. He told us that the Electoral Commission has read the question proposed in the Bill and has given it a clean bill of health. I am happy with that, which obviously answers my question. He unanswered the question when he said that there would be a hell of a row if, at a later, more formal stage, the Electoral Commission—

Lord Rooker

It is my fault; I am just too open. I was then discussing the role of the commission and why it should not have power to write the question. Its power lies in approving the question and the preamble. If it does not like it and the Government do not want to change it, that is when there would be a hell of a row. However, in this case, it has approved both the question and the preamble, as set out in the Bill.

Baroness Hamwee

My point was that if there was a hell of a row after the Bill, including that question, had been passed that would not help us. However, I have received the assurance that I need and I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 29 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling Amendments Nos. 30 and 31, I must inform the Committee that there is a mistake in the Bill's line numbering. I should make clear that Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 are to the question within quotation marks.

[Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

Before calling Amendment No. 32, I must inform the Committee that if it is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 34 to 43, for reasons of pre-emption.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 32: Page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 34 and 42. Perhaps a little unrealistically, the lead amendment proposes to delete the preamble, because the question should stand or fall on its own and be intelligible without explanation.

I am not wholly confident that voters, seeing a lot of words in front of them, will do more than read the headline question. I do not know whether the Government have undertaken any research on how a question with such a preamble would be received. I am sure that there are testing techniques that could assist him in looking at such an issue.

The Minister alluded to the complexity of the preamble. I suggest that not only the Electoral Commission but the Plain English Campaign might have a role in that regard. It is lawyers' language—and I speak as one—to use such phrases as: If an elected assembly is to be established, it is intended that".

It is not the sort of language that prompts many to read on.

Amendment No. 34, the second amendment in the group, would delete the words in parentheses, in as nearly as may be the following form". The amendment gives us the opportunity to hear from the Government why they inserted those words. They did so in the House of Commons without any debate on the matter. We may already have the answer in that bullet points are used to present the preamble differently as a result of advice taken. I hope that the Minister can tell the House why those words were inserted and what is in the Government's mind when they say, as nearly as may be". There are all sorts of different forms that could be similar to that set out in the Bill. What would require the form to be changed?

Amendment No. 42 would permit the Electoral Commission's involvement after the Bill's enactment. We have almost covered that point. If the Minister wishes to add anything, no doubt he will do so. I beg to move Amendment No. 32.

Lord Hanningfield

We on the Conservative Benches do not agree with this amendment. I support the Liberal Democrats in highlighting our discussion on earlier amendments about the need to look again clearly at the referendum question to ensure that the public understand what they are asked to vote on, the intention of the vote, and the information on it that goes out. We have tabled further amendments on that subject. I hope that the Minister will indicate that he and the Government are open to reviewing the matter to ensure that the question is understandable and that people know what they are letting themselves in for.

The Earl of Onslow

Did the Bills providing for referendums in London, Scotland and Wales include such a preamble? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the English used is appalling. It is full of all sorts of sub-clauses and unnecessary subjunctives. Is that normal in Bills of this kind?

Baroness Blatch

I hope that my noble friend does not succumb to accept the amendment. First, if the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, were successful in getting rid of the preamble, the question would be almost a confidence trick on the people of England. It is very different from the referendum in Scotland. Scottish voters were asked only two questions: whether they wanted a Parliament and whether they wanted it to have tax-raising powers. But they were not at the same time agreeing a massive reorganisation of government below the tier of Parliament.

I argue that the major part of the reorganisation in England is not the imposition of a regional assembly but the complete upheaval of local government. That is pertinent to people and should form part of the question. We have just withdrawn an amendment to that effect.

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the words in parentheses, in as nearly as may be the following form", give the Government scope to change the wording agreed by the Electoral Commission. I worry about the scope given. There is no definition of what would be, as nearly as may be". Would it go back to the Electoral Commission for approval?

The Earl of Onslow

I am pleased to say that my noble friend can rest assured: I am just as worried as she is about the consequences of local government reorganisation. We have been round the steeplechase before. There should be a separate referenda amendment. That does not mean that this clause is not sloppily drafted, badly written and probably unclear.

Lord Rooker

I apologise for any confusion that I might have caused in the previous debate. I know that it sounds daft, but I referred to the preamble being in bullet point form, and anybody who has an up-to-date version of the Bill will see a couple of bullet points. I was carrying around the Bill as it was in another place, in which there were no bullet points.

We are not trying to pull a fast one here. I must make that clear. Amendment No. 34 is based on suspicion about the words, in as nearly as may be the following form". There was no opportunity to explain the purpose of the words in another place. There is no sinister purpose. The words will not allow the wording of the statement to be changed. Subsection (2) goes on to say that the statement, must precede the question on the ballot paper". It is unfortunate that, in Clause 2, the question is printed at subsection (1) and the preamble is printed at subsection (2). On the ballot paper, it will be the other way round, as is made clear. Subsection (2) says: The following statement … must precede the question".

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Lord has just said that the clause is unsatisfactorily printed. By that, does he mean that he will take it away, write it so that we can all understand it and put in back in the Bill in the proper order? That is the logical conclusion of what he said. I know that the Minister listens to what people say and takes it into account. I know that, when he says that something is silly, he means that it is silly. That is the logical conclusion of what he said.

Lord Rooker

No—far from it. If I did that, I would be criticising the parliamentary draftsman. In a clause on the referendum question, the question should be put first, and that is what the parliamentary draftsman has done. That is why we have subsection (1), and the preamble is set out in subsection (2). On the ballot paper, they will he set out the other way round, as is clearly stated. The preamble will appear in bullet point form, leading to the question on which the voter is required to give a view. That is the only point that I was making.

The phrase, in as nearly as may be the following form is a technical device to ensure that the statement that is to precede the question will contain the bullet points, when it appears on the ballot paper. That is the point. It is to get over a technicality, and we are not pulling a fast one.

As I made clear, the role of the Electoral Commission is to comment on the intelligibility of the issue. The commission suggested that bullet points would improve the structure of the preamble, and we agreed that it would be helpful. It makes sense that, in due course, the ballot paper also reflects the bullet point structure used in the Bill.

Making Amendment No. 42 would mean that the referendum question and the accompanying statement could be, amended by regulation at any time after the Electoral Commission has made a report to the Secretary of State regarding the question and the statement". Those regulations would be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses. Under Section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, the commission has a statutory obligation to comment on the intelligibility of UK national and regional referendum questions and of any statement preceding them that are contained in Acts of Parliament. As I said, the Electoral Commission has commented on the question and the statement and is content with the current wording.

However, Amendment No. 42 is unclear as to whether the Electoral Commission would need to be consulted on any amended question that the Secretary of State proposes. In effect, the amendment could mean that the question and statement could be amended after the first region or regions have held referendums, so that the question and statement are different for subsequent regions.

I do not think that that would be a good idea. It would be wrong to circumvent the Electoral Commission, but it would also be wrong if later the basic ground rules were changed for other regions, should there be other regions. We must treat them all equally in this respect, so that Parliament has the opportunity to debate everything before this, the primary legislation, goes through. Therefore, I hope that Members of the Committee feel that they can withdraw their amendment. I hope that the explanation and the words added, but not debated, in another place, are satisfactory.

Baroness Hamwee

I have no problem with the question appearing in the Bill before the proposed preamble. That is sensible. If on the ballot paper it was not to be a preamble but to follow the question, it would be called something other than a preamble—perhaps a postscript.

I hope that the Minister has not been using the previous version of the Bill throughout this Committee stage. I should hate to think that we shall have to go back through all the amendments and debate them again because the Minister has been referring to different lines.

I am still a little confused. If the Electoral Commission has now said that bullet points, or blobs, are helpful to make the preamble clear—I agree that they are— why do we still have, in as nearly as may be the following form"? If the work has been done and, having gone through this consultation process, the Secretary of State has taken on board the comments made by the Electoral Commission, why are those words still needed?

Lord Rooker

It is a technical point. I suspect that it is because the words "The following statement" in subsection (2) means the words. The statement may not include the bullet points. The bullet points are the layout and the phrase, in as nearly as may be the following form namely, the layout—is to cover that. It is purely a technical means of setting out the ballot paper so that it is easier to read. The words will not change.

Baroness Hamwee

I accept that. I do not know why parliamentary counsel is so paranoid or precise that he or she feels that if the line endings happen to come at slightly different points, this technical approach is needed to cover that. But there we go. It is not—

Lord Rooker


Baroness Hamwee

I am about to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Rooker

No, let us be serious about this. Once the Bill has obtained Royal Assent someone who wanted to be a troublemaker might claim that "The following statement" must appear. He may say that the typesize must be the same or the line-spacing must be the same, whereas the form in which it appears to make it more legible—more white space, a better typeface—is the form, in as nearly as may be the following form". We are not allowing troublemakers—barrack-room lawyers—to come along and mess this up. Therefore, those words are needed to overcome any technical problems in order to lay out the same words in an understandable form. Not that I would dream of referring to Members of the Committee as troublemakers, of course.

Baroness Hamwee

It depends which way the wind is blowing. That is extremely helpful. I am grateful to the Minister for spelling that out so clearly. I am not for a moment questioning the assurance that the Minister has given about the consultation with the Electoral Commission. I realise that Amendment No. 42 may do so, but I did not intend it to treat regions differently, one from another. However, I am not clear what happens if, following consultation after the passing of the Bill, the Electoral Commission is unhappy, and what procedure would be allowed to enable the question and preamble to be changed.

Lord Rooker

After consulting and taking advice from the Electoral Commission before publishing the Bill, the Government made changes to the preamble to the question. The commission has now confirmed that it is content with the wording as set out in the Bill. We have no intention of changing that. Once the wording has been set out in the Act of Parliament, that will be it. The Electoral Commission would have approved the wording.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful to the Minister and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 33 and 34 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Simon)

If Amendment No. 35 is agreed to, I shall not be able to call Amendment No. 36 on the grounds of pre-emption.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 35: Page 2, leave out line 27 and insert ""This referendum is advisory only. The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly for the

The noble Lord said: I am sorry to have to return once again to the wording of the preamble, but I think that it is necessary to seek a further amendment. In the course of the previous debate the Minister remarked that he was a little confused by the wording. I am pleased that we were able to clarify at least part of it.

We are particularly concerned about some of the words used in the preamble. The words, 'You can help to decide", are rather ambiguous. We have already discussed the fact that after the review, if he so chooses, the Secretary of State will be able to change any recommendations made by the Boundary Committee. We know also that it will be for the Secretary of State to decide whether a region will be formed. The referendum will not decide whether a region is created; that is a matter for the Secretary of State. Perhaps it is for that reason that the words "help to decide" have been used.

We feel that the position should be made much clearer. The preamble should stress that the referendum is advisory to the Government. Therefore, we propose that a form of words making that point should be included, otherwise the public could be misled. In helping to decide, people may think that they may be actually deciding something when they come to vote, but in fact they are not. Ultimately, it will be for the Secretary of State to decide. We believe that, in seeking to be fair and honest with the electorate, the preamble should make it clear that the referendum will be advisory and that the Secretary of State will take the ultimate decision. I beg to move.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees

I must further advise noble Lords that a mistake has been made in the line numbering of the Bill at this point. The amendment is to the first line of the statement, ending in a question mark.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I would oppose the amendment, as indeed I would oppose the wording set out in the Bill. I should have tabled an amendment to delete all those words. They are unnecessary and nothing is required at that point. If people take the trouble to go down to the polling station or to put a cross on a ballot paper at home, they will know damn well that they are contributing towards making a decision. They do not need to be told that they can "help to decide" whether there should be an elected assembly. If they are voting, then they ought to know what it is they are voting for. This is unnecessary verbiage.

I oppose the proposed amendment because, given that under our constitution we have a parliamentary democracy rather than a people's democracy, every referendum must be advisory. No referendum can bind Parliament. Again, any amendment is completely unnecessary. All referendums must be advisory; the decision of any referendum need not be accepted by Parliament because Parliament is supreme. As I have said, we are a parliamentary democracy.

I wish to make a further point. The amendment suggests that we should add a form of wording to make it clear that the referendum is advisory: This referendum is advisory only. The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly for the". But that is already the case. You do not need an amendment to state what is already the position in law.

Indeed, inserting those words may very well cause electors to say, "Well, what on earth is the point of my coming down here to vote if the Secretary of State has the final decision? In spite of what I say, he can do what he likes anyway". Many noble Lords are coming to the same conclusion that, no matter what we say, the Government and the Secretary of State will do what they want anyway. We do not want to encourage the electorate to believe that, no matter what they do in a referendum, it will be the Secretary of State who makes the decision.

I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw the amendment. It is completely unnecessary under our constitution.

6.15 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Lord. Lord Stoddart, has given a perfectly good reason for inserting the advisory clause. He said that the referendum is advisory anyway because you cannot bind Parliament. In that he is constitutionally correct. It should therefore be pointed out to the electorate that it is advisory only because of the state of the constitution. I do not believe that every member of the electorate understands that point. It is an extremely good and very important constitutional point. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has made a speech which, were you to take out the word "not", would make a perfectly valid argument for the advisory state of the referendum.

Baroness Blatch

Before the Minister replies, perhaps I may ask a question. The opening words of the preamble are, "You can help to decide whether there should be"— not, "You can help to decide whether there should not be"— because the vote will decide one way or the other. I would argue that it is not an advisory note. It should be an explanatory note because it explains to people what they are voting for.

My understanding of the Bill as it stands—I hope that it will not be in this form when it leaves the House—is that as few as 10 per cent of the electorate could turn out to vote and a majority of one would not leave the Secretary of State to decide whether there should be a regional assembly; it would bind him to forming one. Am I wrong? Would a majority of one be enough to determine the issue unless a threshold is put into the Bill?

Is the Minister suggesting by the words, "You can help to decide" that, if the turn-out is very low and the majority extremely slim, the Secretary of State could use a flexible power to introduce a regional assembly; or, worse than that, if the referendum is lost by one or two votes, that the Secretary of State could decide that the result was so close that he could establish a regional assembly?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

A new face at the Dispatch Box. We are all agreed that the referendum is advisory. It is important that the Committee should know that the Electoral Commission has read this clause and has signalled that it is content with it.

Baroness Blatch

I thought that the referendum was a vote as to whether one should or should not have a regional assembly, not that it was advisory. Will people vote and then leave it to a third party to decide whether or not there should be a regional assembly? My understanding is that when you are asked to vote, you vote "Yes" or "No" and there is a majority one way or the other. An assembly will then be established if there is a "Yes" vote, and not established if there is a "No" vote.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The referendum will be advisory only. As we have said, the Secretary of State will decide after the referendum whether or not there should be an elected regional assembly.

The Earl of Onslow

So we go through the palaver of passing this Bill; there is a referendum; and then the Secretary of State says—I almost used the favourite spherical word of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee— that he is going to pay no attention whatever to the result. In other words, for the sake of pure argument, there can be a referendum; 95 per cent of the people in a region turn out; 60 per cent say either yea or nay; then the Secretary of State says, "Because this is a referendum, it is advisory. I am going to ignore the result and do what I wanted to do anyway". That is a pretty odd way to run a referendum.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

If the Secretary of State were to act like that, he would be irrational. I think that we ought to bring this discussion into the real world. If a clear majority vote for—

The Earl of Onslow

Can or cannot the Secretary of State say, "I disagree with the referendum result"? If the answer is yes, it is advisory. That means that he can ignore it at will, and at any level.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The intention is for the Minister to be guided by the referendum results. If people vote "Yes", we intend to establish an assembly. If people vote "No", we intend not to. However, there is the obvious point that a further Bill is required to provide powers to establish assemblies.

The Earl of Onslow

That does not help at all. The Secretary of State can, therefore, say that he is going to ignore the result of a referendum. I am sorry to hammer this point home. It seems quite an important one.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

It is a very important point, but the sentence that I read out a moment ago is crystal clear. The Government's intention is to be guided by the referendum result. If people vote "Yes", we intend to establish an assembly; if they vote "No", we intend not to.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Perhaps I may put another scenario to the noble Lord. It is important that we understand that Parliament is supreme. It is Let us suppose that, in 2005, a referendum is held under a Labour government saying yes to a regional assembly; then, a few months later, there is a general election at which a Conservative government, not committed to regional assemblies, are elected. Is the noble Lord suggesting that the new government should be bound by a referendum instituted by the previous government? That is why Parliament is supreme.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Parliament is supreme. Perhaps I may return to the amendment and, if necessary, return to the points that we are discussing now.

When the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, spoke initially he made a very good point; namely, that by including the word "help" we are allowing the electorate to contribute to making a decision. That is a good and inclusive thing to project to the electorate. I do not have difficulty with the inclusion of the word "help". In a democracy, it is rather a good word to have in this sentence. I really do not think that it moves away from the principle that the Secretary of State will decide, after considering a referendum result, whether to establish a regional assembly. So I do not have the problem with the word "help" that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has. I find it rather a helpful word.

Lord Hanningfield

There have already been some amendments on the preamble. The more we go on, the more confused we become. We were trying to make it clearer to the electorate that, as the Bill stands, they will not be deciding whether there will be a regional assembly. As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said, Parliament is currently paramount, but once the Bill reaches the statute book—if it does—the Secretary of State will probably be more paramount than Parliament because he has enormous powers under the Bill to establish a region or whatever he wants to do. That is really what we object to, and we think the preamble should make it clear what people are voting for.

The White Paper is called Your Region, Your Choice. As I said on Second Reading, it should be "Your Region, the Secretary of State's Choice". We should make it clear in Committee that the preamble is very unsatisfactory. I and most of my noble friends would prefer that if people voted yes, the referendum would take place, and if they voted no, it would not. If that is not going to happen, the electorate should know that the referendum is advisory and not in any way binding on the Secretary of State who has all the powers if the Bill becomes law. I shall withdraw the amendment, but I am sure we will come back to the preamble later in the Bill's proceedings. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 36: Page 2, line 27, leave out "an" and insert "a directly

The noble Baroness said: I must admit that it was a slip on the keyboard that did not group this amendment with others when we were dealing with the groupings for last week. However, I move it simply to see whether the Minister has been able to give further thought to the inclusion of "directly", which we discussed then. He may still be burning the midnight oil, pondering over the issue. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

We are back to the word "directly". I have not been burning the midnight oil, I am afraid, but I hope that officials have. I made a commitment last week that we would consider the amendment further. That stands. So, having been given this re-reassurance, I hope the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hamwee

I needed no re-reassurance.

Baroness Blatch

Before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, what is the reassurance? What exactly is the Minister saying? We had a long discussion about what "directly" meant, and it is not consistent with the Bill. It is not a directly elected assembly. What assurance is the Minister giving?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The assurance—I said re-reassurance because I have given it to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, twice—is that we will consider the discussion that we had last week on "directly" in front of "elected assemblies" and will come back to the House with our full recommendation.

Baroness Blatch

I offer a fulsome apology to the Minister. I had not realised that the question was still being considered. I thought he was confirming an assurance I had not heard about.

Baroness Hamwee

The noble Baroness may recall that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, came into the Chamber and offered some advice during the debate. I needed no further assurance; I had no doubt the matter was being considered. I simply hoped that we might take one issue off the Marshalled List for Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 37: Page 2, line 32, after "development;" insert— the functions of the organisations listed in the schedule below which are exercised in the region shall be transferred to the elected assembly and the powers of such organisations for the region shall be abolished;

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 37, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 39.

I accept that the amendments complicate the preamble and that I have been arguing for more simplicity. I wanted to ensure that we did not fall foul of the Bill by being outside the Long Title. I hope it will be apparent, at this hour of the evening, that I would like to probe the issue of powers. I am not proposing to go in detail through each activity and function of all the organisations listed in the amendment, and I hope the Minister's approach will be similar.

The White Paper describes each region in the relevant appendix rather like a tourist brochure, giving an indicative list of the public bodies active in the North East. On Second Reading, in reply to my noble friend Lord Shutt, who asked whether there would be any fewer quangos, the Minister said: The answer is probably 'no'. The legislation would not lead to the abolition of quangos. The strength of the provisions would lie in how the quangos were arranged and managed and were democratically accountable to the people sent by the electorate".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1331.] By definition, quangos are not democratically accountable. Our approach is to bring them clearly within the aegis of democratically accountable new regional assemblies.

Page 80 of the White Paper says that many of these organisations are accountable to central government. It goes on to talk about central government operating locally. I am not wholly clear about the Government's approach to accountability. If we accept having central government programmes operating locally with quangos accountable to central government, the objective of having those quangos accountable through the regional tier will not be achieved.

The government offices alone administer much of the regional programme. They are not going to be abolished. No doubt there are issues of costs. On this point it would be an unnecessary diversion to talk about the recipe for added costs that could be dealt with, but the Government seem to be going out of their way to fail to deal with. In any event, there is a cost of democracy and the cost-benefit analysis and balance suggests very strongly to me that a regional accountability mechanism is worth a great deal.

The most important issue is the effectiveness of the work undertaken by the various organisations. The White Paper tells us: Elected Assemblies will improve the quality of life for people in their regions, particularly by improving regional economic performance". It also says: Assemblies will be given a lead role in developing strategies to achieve this". However, when we look further to issues such as transport, we find that the elected assemblies' responsibilities for transport strategy will include, advising central government"— that is not being responsible for transport strategy; it is an advisory role— on the allocation of funding for local transport, including consistency of local bids with regional policies and priorities". Assemblies will also have, powers to make proposals to the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority". That is not strategic responsibility in the terms in which the chapter introducing all this seems to imply. It is an input into central government decisions. A regional input is good, but it does not amount to what could be achieved, which could take forward the development of the regions significantly. The White Paper tells us on page 34 that assemblies will improve "regional economic performance". However, the regional development agencies will remain operationally independent. The new assemblies can appoint to the boards, but there are constraints and criteria to be met with regard to those whom the assembly can appoint.

The White Paper states that the assembly will provide funding from the block grant and will have maximum flexibility in allocating resources. I accept that there has been some movement as to how detailed the designation of the government grant is, but I do not believe that the words will accord with the experience of anyone in the Chamber who deals with economic regeneration as to flexibility in allocating resources.

I am not going to go through the whole list, but I want to refer particularly to learning and skills councils. They are central to good economic performance. The skills of the workforce are the building block of good economic performance. The White Paper says so as well, stating: Developing the skills of the workforce plays a vital role in economic development". It goes on to tell us that: Elected assemblies will assume responsibility for drawing up and organising Frameworks for Regional Employment and Skills Action (FRESAs), which will set out the key priorities of the region in respect of skills development and improving employment opportunities". Why the separation? Why the responsibility for drawing up a central government programme? Might not a regional assembly see better than the Government what is appropriate for its own region?

We do not see that approach as the right way to go about achieving good strategic regional government. I fear that it demonstrates a mindset, which is that the proposals do not amount to real devolution. I beg to move.

Lord Hanningfield

The amendment only highlights the whole problem of what we are talking about. Until the Government spell out what regional assemblies will do and what their powers and functions might be, we are talking in a vacuum about regional government. As we have said several times in Committee, we need the Government to publish—perhaps initially in draft form so that we can comment on it, but then fully so that we can debate it in both Houses of Parliament—an Act of Parliament that sets out the powers and responsibilities of regional government.

The noble Baroness has put forward a long list of quangos that are in the Government's paper on regions. We all agree that those quangos would be rather better if they were democratically controlled rather than appointed bodies controlled by people who did not have any democratic accountability. For our part, we would not want to see some of the quangos going to large regional government. Many of them could be dealt with much better by local authorities. For example, the Small Business Service is fairly local. One does not need a large regional government for it; a local authority would do. Therefore, I do not agree that everything should go to a regional assembly, but the issue will add to the problem.

Until the Government spell out in an Act of Parliament what the powers and functions of regional government will be, we will continue to debate the issues without clarity as to what we should be doing.

The Earl of Caithness

I merely take up a small point mentioned by my noble friend. He said that there would be a problem until the Government spelled out in an Act of Parliament exactly what there would be. The trouble is that the referendum will already have taken place before we get the Act of Parliament. When we seek to alter that Act, the Minister will turn round and say, "Oh no, you can't alter the Act of Parliament because this is what people voted for in the referendum". My noble friend is not going to get what he wants; we have to get in earlier.

Baroness Blatch

I absolutely agree with that point. That is what makes the Bill so important. As I said earlier—much earlier—the Bill will trigger a great deal of executive action over which Parliament will have no say. The conditions that will apply when people come to make the decision are only "maybe or maybe not"; we have not had assurances that there will be a draft Bill before them. The Scottish people certainly made their decision without the detail before them, as did the Welsh people; that was also the case with London government. At the moment, I have no high hopes that a draft Bill will contain all the detail that will allow people to understand the issues.

I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, about learning and skills councils. Under some decisions, they could disappear altogether. Learning and skills councils are second-guessing organisations and their functions should reside with county councils, which previously had those functions and were doing a good job. I say to the noble Baroness that the tensions that grew up as a result of the way in which the learning and skills councils operate were very real. They fund sixth forms. A head teacher can be forgiven for being confused; instead of funding coming from one stream, it now comes from learning and skills councils for sixth-formers and from the Government through local government for the rest of the school. Although the school is a single entity, it has to deal with two different bodies.

We also know that learning and skills councils are starting to discuss cuts in sixth-form funding. That makes running a school extremely difficult. A third problem arose in my area, where we have an outstanding music school in Huntingdon. Outside school hours, it serves the needs of adults and children, some of whom are as young as two or three and who are taught the violin by the Suzuki method. It is now likely to close because—would you believe it—the learning and skills council was set up only to deal with people who are 16-plus and by law cannot fund anyone below that age. There is a mixture of adults and children in that establishment, so it will probably go to the wall because of an unforeseen lacuna in the legislation. I argue not that learning and skills councils should be absorbed into the regional assembly but, frankly, that they should disappear altogether.

It is terribly easy simply to put out the list and say that those bodies should form part of the regional assembly. We need a much longer and more detailed debate about the nature of each of the bodies, whether they should exist at all, and where their functions properly reside. A good number of them will be in local and/or district and/or unitary authorities. Simply to include them in this way and say that they should form part of regional assemblies is much too simplistic.

Lord Rooker

I will stick to the spirit of what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, proposed when she said that she did not want to go into much detail and that she knew that there were other Bills to come. However, she proceeded to go into an enormous amount of detail.

I have repeated in this House what Nick Raynsford said in another place during the passage of the Bill; that is, that information will be available to people in the regions before they vote in the referendum, as will a statement from the Government, based on the White Paper, setting out what powers the elected regional assembly would have.

Noble Lords have heard me say several times that we intend to bring forward another Bill to establish the elected regional assemblies when parliamentary time allows and after there has been a "Yes" vote in at least one region. That Bill will include detailed provisions about the statutory functions of elected assemblies. There is no doubt that both Houses of Parliament will want the Bill to be scrutinised properly. I am not going to anticipate those detailed discussions now; nor can I accept that the paving legislation should do so.

The amendments are wholly inappropriate for this Bill. I know that I am going to get my hands slapped by the noble Baroness, who says, "This is so important. We need to know everything before we start". Life is not like that. We have a set of procedures to go through—I spelt them out in detail earlier.

This level of detail should not be included in the Bill. Before people vote, they will know that level of detail in relation to elected assemblies. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment to a Division.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I shall not press my amendment tonight.

I am chastised for going into too much detail, but I could have gone into a great deal more. There is a point of principle about the nature of quangos which it is right to address as part of the paving legislation. I am wholly with the noble Baroness on the need for a full Act. We have not had a satisfactory rationale from the Government as to why quangos and public bodies should be left with central government, but I can see that I shall not get such a rationale at this stage.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, suggested that two particular services would be better dealt with by local government. I do not necessarily disagree with them. Someone may recall who set up the Small Business Service—I do not remember whether it was this Government or the previous Conservative government. Having a regional assembly with proper powers would enable the regional assembly to devolve some matters to local government. We on these Benches would be enthusiastic about that. However, no amendment will be perfect or sufficiently extensive, and had I produced one that was longer than the Bill itself, someone would probably have commented.

The learning and skills councils are certainly a difficult issue, and I am aware of the problems highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I was concentrating on the connection between skills training and economic development. I wholly appreciate the difficulties that have arisen from the issue of continuity of education in skills training from 14 to 19. There are matters to be debated in that regard, but I named those bodies because the White Paper promotes economic development as central to the proposals for regional government. We should have skills training in whatever form—the more local the better, but better regional than national. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 38 and 39 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 39A: Page 2, line 36, at end insert— It is not proposed to establish an elected regional assembly in any region until at least three regions have voted in favour of the establishment of such assemblies in referenda conducted pursuant to section 1 of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003.

The noble Lord said: The amendment is designed to test and reconsider the constitutional area of setting up the regions. I doubt that we want to reopen the debate about the constitutional effect on England that took us an hour and a half earlier today. However, whatever the Minister says, setting up regional government will cause a big constitutional change. It affects both this Parliament and local government. In a previous debate, we discussed whether regional government was "big local government"—we do not want to go into that again, either. However, these changes will involve a massive reorganisation of local government, including moving to a unitary system in England. Therefore, there should be a sufficient test of public opinion; people should be asked whether they want to go down that route.

We have been told over many years that Members of Parliament in the North East desperately want regional government, and that is why the Bill is before us and why there will be regional elections, although that may be only media speculation. That is the favoured area for regional government, because it adjoins Scotland and people around Newcastle want it. We do not think that that would be sufficient. I know that the Minister will deny that it is only for the North East, the North West or Yorkshire and Humberside. However, we believe that there should be a sufficient test of the feeling for regional government in England. There should be sufficient support for such change before we start to dismember the current system and replace it with different systems across the country.

We tabled the amendment because we feel that at least three potential regions should vote in favour of regions before even one of them is set up. It is a constitutional issue and we think that the issue should be pursued. We feel that without the legitimacy bestowed by such a test, it would be wrong to set up one region while perhaps leaving the rest of the country as it is. We want to test the popular support for regional government in England. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

The amendment raises an issue that I do not think we have yet discussed at all—the mishmash of layers of government that would be created if there were regional government in only one or two parts of the country. We have not yet discussed how those layers of government would interrelate. Is the North East of England to have superior powers and to get more of what it wants? It certainly thinks that that would be the result. It thinks that it would be much better placed than areas without regional government to get money from the Government and from Europe. I think that that is a falsehood. Indeed, I think that the Minister himself has said that that is unlikely. He said that regional status is unlikely to be preferable and that it is more an administrative matter.

However, if there are fewer than three or four regions—three would be less than 50 per cent of potential regions—there will be a very strange local government structure. We have not tested that proposition. This amendment gives us the opportunity to ask the Government what they are doing with the structures of government. What do they expect to result from this change? Why should one part of the country be governed in a completely different way from others? As my noble friend said, we need an indication of how popular the idea is across the country. Indeed, we could have done that had we had a referendum across the whole country before we set off on this debate. We have not tabled an amendment to that effect, but it might have been a very good idea.

I think that there is going to be a great lack of cohesion. I think that this amendment opens up that debate.

Lord Greaves

I do not think that we can support this amendment and I shall explain why. In a sense, it comes back to the different positions from which we and the Conservatives approach the Bill. Both Opposition parties are very sceptical about the Bill and the Government's objectives, but we are sceptical for different—and in many ways opposite—reasons. We are sceptical because we want to see good, strong regional government in as much of England as possible. We do not think that this Bill will deliver that. The Conservatives are sceptical because they do not want the Bill at all and they fear that it will deliver at least part of that agenda. There are occasions when we come head to head with the Conservatives and say that we disagree fundamentally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned the risk of creating a mishmash if only one or two—and then she said three or perhaps four—regions are created. The amendment specifies three regions. In her terms, there would be a mishmash unless the whole of England had regional government or did not have it. From her point of view, it would not matter whether one, two, three, six or seven of the eight regions went ahead with regional government. She said that areas under regions would be governed by completely different systems and in a completely different way.

But, of course, we already have that in the United Kingdom. We have three countries: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I correct myself—Northern Ireland is a Province and has suspended regional government, although perhaps the suspension will be lifted before too long. Therefore we already have a "mishmash" in the noble Baroness's terms. London has a completely different system from that of the rest of England, and that does not appear to have resulted in the disintegration of the kingdom.

There is now a whole series of different systems even within local government. Some places have elected mayors—a rather disastrous system which was nevertheless foisted on various parts of the country by the present Government. Even when we do not have elected mayors, local authorities have different systems of running themselves. We have unitary authorities, two-tier authorities and so on.

Therefore, in the noble Baroness's terms, we have a mishmash. That is not an argument for or against the amendment. It may be an argument against the Bill altogether and I am sure that, if the noble Baroness is honest, that is her argument in relation to the mishmash.

Whatever happens, if regional assemblies are elected in any parts of England, we shall end up with different systems in different regions. As a Liberal Democrat, that does not worry me very much. I should like to see effective regional devolution throughout England. However, I recognise that, at least in parts of England, it will take time for the understanding and the wish for that to develop. I am certain that, if regional assemblies were on offer at present, Cornwall, for example, would grab it with two hands and possibly parts of the north of England would also be willing to go ahead.

However, the fact is that there is one system in one area and another system in another. I use the earlier words of the Minister: so what? Why does it matter? Why is it necessary to have uniformity of administrative and democratic structures across the country? The model is Spain, which has had a whole series of asymmetrical initiatives and systems of devolution for the different regions, and still has. Some Catalonians might consider Catalonia to be a country and not a region, and most Scots consider it to be a country and not a region.

Catalonia has a substantial system of devolution—far greater than most parts of Spain. But does that mean that Catalonia is in a state of disintegration? Of course it does not. The Basque country has far greater devolution than other parts of Spain. There are political problems associated with separatism, but those are distinct from the question of the system of government and administration. That does not matter. What matters is that the people who live in those areas are comfortable with the system they have. That is why consulting people and referendums—

Baroness Hanham

It seems to me that the Basque country is a dreadful example to put forward. People in the Basque country fight each other all the time not only over the administration and the political system—I understand that—but over the question of nationhood. That is a very poor example to put forward as an area which administers itself and has its own democratic point.

Lord Greaves

That may be the noble Baroness's view but it is not one with which I agree. There are problems in the Basque country. They are political problems and problems of separatism, which often arise after people have lived in a state of subjugation under highly centralised, dictatorial systems, of which the former Yugoslavia is a classic example. What has happened in the Basque country is very similar to that.

Whether the Spanish Government centrally have dealt with the matter as well as they should have done is a different issue. But the difficulties in the Basque country have nothing to do with the system of regional devolution there. In practice, that has been quite successful. The difficulties are far more national within Spain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, may understand.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, also talked about different systems all over England. Again, there is no problem with that. Our objection to the amendment is that if regionalisation goes ahead and regions are willing to experiment, take it on board and do it, they should be allowed to do so. It is quite likely that under the present Government proposals, there will be one region only in England that wants to embrace it and go ahead. That is a likely outcome. I speak as someone from the North West, who knows the North West—

7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

Will the noble Lord address the asymmetric point? One or two amendments ago the noble Baroness Lady Hamwee suggested a number of regional bodies that could be subsumed into the regional assemblies. But a great many of those bodies, including the learning and skills councils, which we discussed in some detail, are tied in line management terms with a national body. There is a national Learning and Skills Council as well as learning and skills councils and a national Sector Skills Council as well as sector skills councils. There is a national CBI organisation and a national environmental organisation. So if one gets one, two or even three parts of the country becoming asymmetrically regional what would happen with the break-up of these national bodies which are regionally delivered? It would create the most incredible confusion around the country.

Lord Greaves

I have greater faith in people's understanding of systems than does the noble Baroness. I do not think that it would cause incredible confusion.

The noble Baroness is not arguing—I say again—in favour of this amendment, which is only about whether it should be one, two, three regions or whatever, but against the whole tenor of the Bill and the whole process of going ahead with asymmetric devolution. We do not think it is a problem. The question is: what would other national organisations do? Almost inevitably—as happened with Scotland and Wales in many cases—they would reorganise themselves in order to fit in with the structure of public decision-making. That is the way organisations work. The reason why they presently have an English national structure is because that is the way government in England is organised. If there were devolution for some regions in England organisations would match it in their own structures and systems. To suggest that it would be so confusing that no one could possibly understand it is stretching the argument a little far, to put it mildly.

I make one final point. I think that there is a good argument for going ahead with one region only. It is up to the people in the regions as to whether they want to go ahead. I mention the North East because, despite the fact that the Minister will tell me that he knows nothing about this and never hears this talk, everyone knows that region is the leading contender to go ahead. There is a good argument for saying, "Let the North East go ahead and test the Government's proposal, despite the grave scepticism many of us have about it from opposite ends, and let other areas see how it works". That would provide a model which would be a much better basis on which areas such as the North West could make their decision as to whether to go ahead.

The danger I foresee is that in the first wave too many regions will be forced to have referendums. The regions which would really benefit from regional government will lose the referendum because of the uncertainty; because of the effect it will have on local government; because people will be split between those who do not want it and who invent all kinds of bogeys about how much it will cost and so on; and those who cannot raise the enthusiasm to campaign for it because it is a fairly feeble offering. The referendum will then be put off almost indefinitely.

So I oppose the amendment simply because, among other things. I think there is a good case to test it out in one region only at the beginning.

Baroness Hamwee

To add to what my noble friend said, the asymmetric nature of the proposal does not trouble me—as it obviously did not trouble those drafting the amendment.

However, I wonder what faith people would have in politics if they turned out to vote in their region, voted in a majority "Yes" vote, but nothing happened because two other regions did not also vote "Yes" by a majority. Indeed, I wonder whether that proposal would skew the outcome. It would certainly skew the turnout, because someone might think, "My cousin Betty in Pendle says that the North West does not want an assembly, so it will not happen, because there will not be three. And it is raining, so I will stay at home in Skipton and watch the new series on television". That is a likely reaction to the proposal in the amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, instanced the position in Spain. I respectfully suggest to him that the history of Spain is entirely different from that of this country. The history of a country impinges on the present. The local government structure in this country has evolved —if I can put it that way—from being a collection of kingdoms, which were first united by William the Conqueror and, to an even greater extent, by Edward VII. The tradition of government in this country has therefore come from the shires and towns. That is what we are left with; that is what we have.

The Deputy Prime Minister is an expert on the matter. He toured the country to discover whether regional government was desirable and possible. He came to the conclusion that it was. He has been selling the idea for many years but, unfortunately—this is my theory—many people would not buy it. Because a lot of people would not buy it, he feels that it is impossible for Parliament to impose a regional system on the country, which has county loyalties above all and, sometimes, even town loyalties.

We therefore have the Bill as a ruse, as has been mentioned, to create a domino effect. The most likely area votes first, and then others say, "We must have that as well. They have an elected assembly; we must have one too". Then one goes throughout the country and gets a vote in every part of England for regional assemblies. I do not think that it will happen that way, because, let us make no mistake, people are fond of their shires. Even our cricket teams, for example, are based on counties, not regions. There is no regional loyalty—not even in the North East. The nearest we come to it is in Yorkshire. We all know that people in parts of Yorkshire are very loyal to Yorkshire.

The North East is the favoured area because people there have seen what has happened in Scotland. They say, "Look what has happened in Scotland. They have their own Parliament". Of course, the North East will not have its own Parliament, nor its own tax-raising powers, as Scotland has. What is more, as we already know—we have been told it time and time again—the North East will not be favoured as Scotland is in the Barnett formula. It would he different if we were to alter the Barnett formula. But, in spite of the fact that the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, said that the formula should be ended, it is to be continued. That is why people in the North East feel that they would do better if they had a regional assembly. It simply will not happen.

I do not agree with the regions, as noble Lords know. But, if the Government were confident about their policy and that regional assemblies were a good thing, they would have a properly structured Bill for regions throughout the country. It is nonsense to suggest that this is the proper way forward. I do not think that it will work. Frankly, I do not know whether this amendment would help much; it would probably complicate matters even more. But perhaps that is a good thing. I would like to consider the matter further.

Lord Rooker

At the risk of winding anyone up, this is the cheekiest amendment that we have dealt with—the brass neck in proposing to slap down the variety and mishmash that is England. Long may that mishmash continue; we do not want all of England to be the same. This amendment seeks to make all of it the same. The whole thrust of it is cheeky.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his 12-minute speech, made some brilliant arguments against the amendment but spoke for so long that I have forgotten them, so I cannot use them. It is a bit rich to demand that three or more regions vote in favour of a regional assembly. It is a wrecking amendment that seeks to drive England to be uniform. The underlying thrust is that everywhere must be the same. We do not want England to be the same; we want to embrace its variety. We argue about the boundaries, but all of the country is not the same; therefore, people should have a choice. The idea that people in one or two regions could stop people elsewhere effectively exercising their choice undermines the democratic credentials of noble Lords.

The amendment is unworthy—I am getting even stronger now. It is cheeky and unworthy to come up with it. I could go through a long list, playing off one region against another, but I shall not fall into that trap. We should celebrate the mishmash of England. I realise that around 83 or 84 per cent of the UK's population live in England. The United Kingdom is unbalanced—long may that continue. But it is wrong in principle to seek to drive the system to be the same for everybody. Noble Lords should think better of it. I cannot believe that, even if its supporters thought that they would obtain a majority, they would seriously seek to include it in the Bill. I challenge them to say that, even if they thought that there was majority support for the amendment, they would not press it. I certainly hope that they do not.

Baroness Hanham

Before the Minister sits down, the corollary of his argument about mishmash and uniformity is that, beneath the regional tier, one does nothing—one does not form uniformity below the tier of government.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker

We are not seeking uniformity—no, no, no. In some regions, there will be unitary districts or, maybe, unitary counties. It will not be the same in every region. Some districts that are single tier may join or overlap because of the boundary review. The Boundary Committee will not come up with the same pattern for every region; I am absolutely certain of that.

Baroness Blatch

If they are unitary authorities, they will be the same. Whether merged districts or county councils, they will have exactly the same functions and will be uniform unitary authorities, unless something new that we do not know about is happening and powers are to be moved around all over the place. They will be unitary authorities with unitary powers, and they will have uniform powers throughout the land.

Lord Rooker

As I said, they will be unitary, but they will not be the same, in the way that the noble Baroness puts it. A unitary county is not the same as a unitary district. Other districts will be considered. It will not be the same pattern in every region. By definition, the regions are different, but "No new tiers" is the mantra, and we are sticking to it.

Even at this late stage, I challenge noble Lords opposite to say whether, if they got the votes, they would seriously put this amendment on the statute book.

Lord Hanningfield

I am sad that I had to be the one who proposed this cheeky and unworthy amendment, as the Minister called it. This one fell to my turn.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to two bad examples, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said, Spain is about the worst possible example of the variation of regions. There is great unhappiness in Spain. One knows only too well what is happening in the Basque area, and Catalonia sees itself as being divorced from the rest of the country. I do not want to see us doing the same thing in England, making one part separate from the rest.

I agree with the Minister that one does not want everything to be the same. One of the great virtues of England is that Cornwall is enormously different from Cumbria. Everywhere should be different. The suggested system of eight regions is more uniform than the system that we have. I like the diversity of the current system. I have been in local government since I was about 20, and the fact that there have been metropolitan areas, county areas, district areas and London boroughs has added to the spice of life in local government. I would rather see that continue than have one unitary system in the country.

I return to our earlier point. This is a constitutional issue. It is changing the system. There are no natural regions in this country. As the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said, we have counties and large metropolitan areas, and there are no natural regions. In many other countries, there are, for historical reasons, natural regions. We have what we have—large counties and small counties. Disturbing that is a big constitutional issue. That is why we proposed the amendment. We should ensure that a substantial number of people in England want to see regional government, not just in one area. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Why should the North East be a guinea pig? Why should Northumberland suffer?

Lord Greaves

The answer to the question, which the noble Lord might like to consider, is that it wishes to be a guinea pig.

Lord Hanningfield

I doubt that Northumberland and Durham wish to be guinea pigs. In fact, I know that Northumberland does not. The people whom I know there are not very supportive of the concept. I have been to several meetings with people from Durham. They are busy trying to make a unitary county out of Durham county. There is a lot of unhappiness. I doubt that all the people in that area wish it to be a guinea pig, even if there is a majority on the question of a referendum.

The proposed developments for England lead us into a minefield. I must say to the Minister that we would have the gall to put the provision into the statute book, if we had the votes, so I shall test the opinion of the House.

7.19 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 39A) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 19; Not-Contents, 53.

Division No. 3
Blatch, B. Hanham, B.
Bridgeman, V. Hanningfield, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Hurd of Westwell, L.
Byford, B. Marlesford, L.
Onslow, E.
Colwyn, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Renton, L.
Courtown, E. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Cox, B. Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Dixon-Smith, L. Wilcox, B. [Teller]
Acton, L. Howells of St. Davids, B.
Addington, L. Hunt of Chesterton, L.
Amos, B. Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord
Andrews, B. Chancellor)
Archer of Sandwell, L. Lea of Crondall, L.
Borrie, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Brennan, L. [Teller]
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Carlile of Berriew, L. Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Carter, L. Mitchell, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Craigavon, V. Rennard, L.
Crawley, B. Rogers of Riverside, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Rooker, L.
Desai, L. Russell, E.
Donoughue, L. Sawyer, L.
Dubs, L, Scotland of Asthal, B.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Simon, V.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Temple-Morris, L.
Goldsmith, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Greaves, L. Whitty, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller] Wilkins, B.
Hamwee, B. Williams of Mostyn, L.(Lord
Haskel, L. Privy Seal)
Hayman, B. Woolmer of Leeds, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

7.29 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

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