§ 6.28 p.m.
§ Lord McNally rose to call attention to the case for moving power from Westminster and Whitehall to local government and democratically elected regional assemblies; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, two questions may arise concerning this debate. One concerns its timing and the other concerns why I should initiate this debate about local government and devolution. On the matter of timing, this debate takes place a week after the local elections have taken place. One might have thought that this debate would offer opportunities to indulge in hustings and soapbox debating. However, I claim that it is far better to have this debate after the dust of battle has settled when we can look ahead on this important topic.
§ As to myself as choice of mover, it is true that I have been in and around Whitehall and Westminster for almost 40 years in various jobs. I do not come from the local government tradition, with the experience of many in this House and the other place. But nearly four decades of experience have convinced me that if we are going to modernise our government and make it fit for the 21st century, we have to move away from what we became in the 20th century: the most over-centralised state of any modern democracy. I hope this debate will explore whether we have had that leap of imagination in government necessary for a real movement of power out of Whitehall and Westminster, rather than just the appearance of it.
§ There is a concern that Labour's new localism is simply its old centralism dressed up for the occasion. We have an over-powerful executive and a Parliament that is, very often, either unwilling or unable to provide checks and balances. That is why we on these Benches continue to seek a reform of Parliament at national level. We also believe that better governance could be achieved by devolving power out of Whitehall and Westminster, and closer to the people. For that reason, we have in the past supported the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies and the Greater London Authority. We continue to support the idea of regional government for England.
§ Before 1997, we shared a common agenda with the Labour Party through the Cook/Maclennan report. It became a blueprint for change, largely carried out in the first years of this Government: the Human Rights Act; the various parliaments and assemblies I have referred to; the Freedom of Information Act. One of the problems we face is that, as they have stayed in office, the Government have assumed some of the arrogance of power. We clearly saw that in the ill 805 considered decision to impose postal ballots on the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside. That clearly had more to do with the political calculations of John Prescott in Yorkshire and Humberside, and Ian McCartney in the north-west, than any notion of making sure that the ideas had been thought through and the implementation was effective. If we appoint an independent referee such as the Electoral Commission, we should listen to it.
§ In passing, I understand this rush to find new ways of encouraging people to vote, and that there is a certain increased credibility when turnout is up. But it worries me, not just because of the dangers of corruption. The act of voting is, in its way, part of the social contract between the citizen and government. I subscribe to a comment made by the late Hugo Young, that we should perhaps cherish more the 50 per cent who do vote, rather than pursue too vigorously the apathetic and those who are not playing a part in the process. That may be a side debate.
§ The lesson of the postal ballot and other matters is that if you want constitutional reform to stick, you must at least try for cross-party consensus. That is particularly true in light of last week's local election results. I am not going to indulge in cheap party politics by suggesting that the Labour Party is now the third party of local government, or that a Labour vote is a wasted vote in many areas. But it is true that the great northern one-party bastions of local government are no longer there. That is an altogether good thing as far as local democracy is concerned. The problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister has gained a reputation for approaching some of these matters from too narrow a view of party advantage rather than seeking broad consensus. That is why I was delighted—and I hope the Minster will expand on this in his reply—that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has today published a discussion pamphlet on the future of local government, encouraging greater participation in the debate on the future shape of local government by the public at large and interested groups.
§ If we can get the leap of imagination that transfers real power, we are in a "win-win" situation. Not only do we get the benefit of better governance, we also attract a higher quality of people who will want to take part in doing a real job of work. We on these Benches also believe that the case for a fairer system of local government funding must be looked at.
§ One of the reasons I initiated this debate came from the experience of local election campaigns, and my own experience in the north-west and elsewhere. I know my noble friend Lord Greaves will expand on that later. I am very worried that the promised referenda in the autumn are in danger of being lost unless the Government take on board the legitimate criticisms made of their approach so far. The Government have to convince people that their regionalism consists of more than moving power to the regional "quangocracies". There is a danger that if we leave too much power in central hands, and take too 806 many powers from genuinely local bodies, it will produce cynicism and a rejection of the whole proposal. It will indeed be a recipe for a "no" vote.
§ Devolution will only work if it consists of a genuine transfer of real power to the regions. That devolution must be based on strong regional democracy to tame unelected regional government. There is a real danger in the way the Government are approaching this that what we will get is not devolved government based on democratic accountability, but some devolved government to bodies that are not themselves democratic, and are still basically in the hands of the Whitehall machine.
§ My view has always been that two of the most misunderstood words in English are subsidiarity and federalism. They are abused, particularly in the European context. I myself have always been a federalist, and I believe that there are certain matters best dealt with on a European basis. There are some matters best dealt with by this Westminster Parliament, some matters best handled by devolved regional assemblies, some matters will continue to be best handled by local government, and some by parish and neighbourhood bodies as well.
§ The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)
My Lords, I am reluctant to intervene, but I will not get the chance to speak until I wind up the debate. There will not be the referenda in the northern regions unless this House approves the orders for the referenda. It would be very helpful if, during the course of this debate, the Liberal Democrats would make their position clear on whether they are going to assist the flow of those orders through this House. Obviously, they must be passed before the Summer Recess.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, one of the reasons that we initiated this debate was to tease out of the Government their basic philosophy on these issues. If I may say so, much will rest on the persuasiveness of the Minister's reply to what I hope will be a constructive debate. We are the Liberal Democrats; we are here to help. Much more seriously, we are simply putting down a warning which I think will come from many parts of the House. Regardless of whether we co-operate in getting an autumn referendum through, the Government will lose the referenda if they do not convince people that they are about a real transfer of power.
I hope that as the debate unfolds and the Government take on board this spirit of constructive criticism we will make the progress that the Minister wants. That is why we would like to hear his response to the Liberal Democrats' ideas on a local income tax. There is no doubt that one of the problems that has bedevilled devolution and the transfer of power is the problem of local government finances. I was an official when Tony Crosland told local government that the party is over. It was no good central government sweating blood to try to control public expenditure if local authorities did not give a damn about how much expenditure increased. Even the dreaded poll tax was an attempt to try to tie local government expenditure to some kind of consequence at the ballot box.
807 We on these Benches would also advocate PR at local government level as a very healthy way of encouraging people. Given the right levels of responsibility and resources, people of real ability in all parties can still be attracted into local government. If we can get the right kind of devolution, it would be more efficient and mean less bureaucracy. It would deliver genuine subsidiarity and leave regions free to decide their own priorities in a whole range of areas. At the moment, the Government seem very coy about how far they will move power into the regions.
It is on that basis that I encourage the debate. In the debate so far the Government have made a declaration of intent, but that has left a suspicion that the leap of the imagination—what today's discussion pamphlet called "the vision"—truly to transfer power is still absent. In today's press release from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister says that, today, he wants to kick-start the debate. I hope that that is what we will do in this debate. I beg to move for Papers.
§ 6.44 p.m.
§ Lord Morgan
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for initiating this debate. It is a great privilege to be number two in the batting order, which I used to be in cricket but have not hitherto been in the House. But the Benches around me indicated the passionate interest that the Labour Party takes in these matters. So that might account for my presence.
I speak for two reasons. First, the Government's programme of constitutional reform has been very remarkable. It has been a programme of modernisation, but it is incomplete without attending to matters of regional and local government in England. We have seen this extraordinary policy of devolution elsewhere, which is one of the most astonishingly radical programmes of a government in modern times. I believe that it is actually more coherent than is often stated; it is not haphazard. I think that there are underlying principles of accountability and indeed of decentralisation which underpin the policy. However, it is not satisfactory because there is nothing about England.
England has been called by the Constitution Unit "a black hole" in the constitutional reforms. An article in Parliamentary Affairs, varying the language slightly, called it,a gaping hole in the devolution settlement".Let us all agree that it is at least a hole in some sense. The natural way to fill that hole, I think, is through extending the principle of regional government.
I intervene for a second reason which I suppose is more theoretical. There is a great deal to be said, including from these Benches, on the imperatives of decentralisation, pluralism and the dispersal of power. That, it seems to me, is the principle that underlies our deliberations this evening. It is a natural theme, no doubt, for the Liberal Democrats, following the lead of our greatest Prime Minister, Lloyd-George, who spoke a great deal on these matters. It should not be inimical to Conservatives. Conservatives throughout their history have celebrated locality and place. They 808 have not always been at all stern, unbending unionists, from the Primrose League in the 1890s to John Major in the 1990s.
From these Benches I would like to say that decentralisation is also a very sound policy for the Labour Party. The Labour Party for a long time in its history was the party of decentralisation. Its association with centralism and the idea that the gentleman from Whitehall knows best is a relatively recent innovation in the party's history. It was not the view of the Webbs, who espoused municipal socialism. It was not the view of Keir Hardie or George Lansbury or the ILP. R H Tawney, a great theorist who had a great effect on many of us on these Benches, argued that a socialist society was feasible only if it was based on popular—by which he meant local—decision making. That is the argument underlying much of Tawney's writings, including particularly The Acquisitive Society.
The Labour Party's stance changed—which I as an historian think was fairly recently—in the 1930s, namely with the unemployment of that decade, the Second World War and the experience of the Attlee government. It is rather melancholy to me in a way that one of our greatest reforms by one of our greatest statesmen, Nye Bevan's National Health Service, had the effect of riveting centralism on our social services, which was opposed, of course, by Herbert Morrison and others at the time.
So I welcome very much the fact that the present Government are showing signs of reversing this trend and returning to their roots. They have had RDAs and regional assemblies. We have the dispersal of government agencies, and now we have the proposals for regional referendums—I believe that that is the plural. I hope that that is something that will take place. Most certainly, I hope that we have something to reverse the tendency by which Great Britain has been one of the most centralised countries on earth. It has been so for many centuries, since the time of the Tudors.
Much of the debate will rightly focus on England, and most of my comments will focus on England—I live in England, and I like living in England—although they apply also to Wales.
It is extremely important that we take devolution further than has hitherto come in Wales. So I would very much introduce the plea to my noble friend that the Government eventually listen very positively to the report of the Richard commission. The commission unanimously—unanimously despite all the debates—strongly supported a case for meaningful devolution, giving Wales over a period of years precisely the same legislative powers as Scotland. At the moment we have a false devolution in Wales. We have a situation in which the National Assembly cannot get its views adequately across. It has no direct power over legislation, other than regarding the whims of the Cabinet and this House. Its weakness compared with Scotland is an anomaly. The Assembly once asked for seven or eight measures that it thought might be introduced on behalf of Wales, but no time was found for any of them. That is not satisfactory and that was 809 the view my noble friend Lord Richard and the fellow members of his commission, who represent all political parties and none.
The main stumbling block is regarding the Welsh Labour MPs. They will deliberate later this summer and one could well see self-interest in that they might be antagonistic to more power being transferred to the Assembly—but they will have much power. It is proposed that the Sewel convention be extended to the Welsh Assembly and there will be plenty for the Welsh Labour MPs to do.
Regarding England, there are two strong grounds for more regional government—a democratic case and an egalitarian case. There should be a democratic basis for effective regional government in Wales—and England cannot be left in limbo as it is the largest part of the United Kingdom with 85 per cent of the population, especially when democracy has been extended to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I would support the view that has come from many sections of the Government that there should be regional assemblies, with planning powers and powers far greater than those of the RDAs, that are elected on a democratic basis. We have had some negative arguments for regional government—including the extension of government agencies, call centres and so on, to different parts of England. I welcome the part played by John Prescott, who is frequently derided in this House for, frankly, snobbish reasons. I have heard some noble Lords talking about him and they should be ashamed of themselves. He deserves great praise for being innovative and positive, not least in his document, The Northern Way.
Can my noble friend the Minister comment on the question of transferring regional government from John Prescott's department—despite the initiatives that he has taken—to the Department for Constitutional Affairs? That would have a different, more constructive and thrusting view of devolution and regional government than the present system.
The other case is egalitarian. I imagine that my noble friend, as a socialist, as I am, realises that socialism is about equality, or so we are told. The present structure is unequal. It encourages and perpetuates disparities between different parts of England, which date from the end of the First World War and have become ever wider. The comparators of economic performance indicate and underline that. John Prescott and Gordon Brown have spoken positively in such terms. The current operation of the Barnett formula is an obstacle, because it is unfair to many areas of England and perpetuates the present regional economic divide in this country.
The elected regional assemblies envisaged for the northern parts of England could be proactive. They could attract new resources and new elements of economic activity to areas of low growth. John Prescott has talked about transport policy. There are many other areas in which effective regional assemblies could operate, including housing, learning and skills policy and so on. In view of my own background, I would like to see universities playing a positive role in regional government. That is not a novel idea—for seven years I 810 had the privilege of being the vice-chancellor of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, and we regarded ourselves as very much a motor of economic activity in agriculture and the introduction of small industries and so on to rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, would know about that. Regional assemblies would be an element of reddressing the inequalities in our country that have grown inexorably under Labour and Conservative governments over the past 25 years.
I conclude by congratulating the Government on taking regional government seriously. They are often derided—we have heard speeches in this House that are not historically accurate about the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy and so on, which I hope we can do without this evening. The Government deserve praise for making a good start. Referendums, it is to be hoped, will take place in northern areas. There are also proposals for regional authorities in other parts of England, including those of the Royal Society of Arts for the south-west. If we had more effective regional government, as has been proposed, we would have a reflection of and a complement to the constitutional reforms that have been introduced hitherto in this country. They would also reflect the pattern of many other European countries—for example in the federal state of Germany, where regionalism has been the motor of change. There are many variations between European countries, but I hope that Britain can reflect that too.
I welcome this debate and the Government's proposals and I look forward to my noble friend's response. Devolution is part of the fabric of this country in Scotland and Wales and I hope that it will become stronger in Wales. Hitherto, we have had little reflection of that in England. In the words of the famous poem, the people of England have not yet spoken, but in parts of that great country, perhaps they will do so.
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, we should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for this debate, because there is much to be discussed. There is much in what he says about over-centralisation. However, the key question is what sort of devolution is appropriate. One of the questions is whether devolution to existing authorities is the way to proceed, or whether there should be devolution to new authorities.
It is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, but I do not agree with a single word he said. I cannot accept for one moment his argument that regional government is somehow the English answer to Scottish devolution. In another debate I referred to comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister in the other place at the Second Reading of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. He said that the Bill offered opportunities for the English regions similar to those offered to Scotland. That was complete nonsense. No one has suggested for one 811 moment that regional authorities in England will have any powers such as those that have been afforded to Scotland.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, that was suggested during the negotiations on the Act of Union in 1707 and the idea has been around ever since.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I am talking about the situation today and not the situation in the 18th century. Devolution has been granted to Scotland on a scale that no one suggests will be granted to England under the present arrangements. I have no doubt that from time to time over recent years people in the north of England have felt they have been somehow disadvantaged as a result of the Barnett formula and Scottish devolution. But perhaps, as the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, hinted, the answer would be to look at the Barnett formula. I have no doubt that if one were to ask someone in a pub in Newcastle whether he would prefer regional government and more councillors or more money as a result of a change in the Barnett formula, he would soon give a straight answer—which would not be in favour of regional government.
In the past few days I have been thinking about events back in 1970. Jim Callaghan, as he then was, was Home Secretary and he did not like the recommendations of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. So, he carried out his statutory duty and laid before Parliament the orders to give effect to the commission's proposals and then arranged for the Labour Party to be whipped to defeat the orders.
There is some sort of parallel between that and Labour's cavalier approach to the electoral system when they determined to press ahead with compulsory postal voting throughout the north of the country in last week's elections against the advice of the Electoral Commission. It seems clear that Labour, in the event, paid a penalty for that, as probably did the Labour government in 1970. The behaviour of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, over the proposals of the Boundary Commission had some effect on voting in the 1970 general election.
Recent events have shown not only that manipulating the electoral system to try to gain a party political advantage does not always pay—as the noble Lord, Lord McNally, said, it is better to try to deal with these matters by cross-party agreement—but that when elections to a number of bodies are held on the same day under a variety of voting systems, even if the instructions to voters are plain and easily understood—and not plain wrong as they were in London—there is almost bound to be trouble. The public will be confused; ballot papers will be spoilt; and results will be challenged.
I go on from there to suggest that if in a small country such as ours there is a plethora of authorities with different and sometimes overlapping responsibilities, there can be confusion not only on polling day. It is of the essence of democracy that voters should be able to call to account those who they believe have not carried out properly the duties which have been given to them. They can hardly do that if they cannot see clearly who is responsible for what and what governmental body is 812 responsible for what. That is a good reason for having no more bodies with a share in government than is really necessary.
My noble friend Lord Norton of Louth put it in this way:Fragmentation of powers, far from empowering the people, leave them uncertain as to who to hold accountable for public policy".There is a great deal in that and we should all bear it in mind. Of course there is a case for moving powers from Westminster and Whitehall to existing organs of local government, but I would submit it is much more difficult to justify giving powers to a new tier of government and virtually impossible to justify giving such powers at the expense of existing local government.
That, when you boil it down to its essentials, is exactly what Labour's plans are about. Their proposals are about change at the expense of local government because not only are powers like planning being taken from local government, but, if Labour get their way and assemblies are set up, the organs of local government closest to the people, the district authorities, will go entirely.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, it is simply not true to say that planning is taken away from local government. The giving of planning consent is a local government matter at district council level. That will remain the case and there are no plans to change it.
§ Lord Waddington
My Lords, I cannot agree for one moment. The giving of strategic powers to new regional authorities clearly diminishes the powers of the planning authorities. And the planning authorities are the county councils, so I cannot follow the noble Lord's argument.
The regions of England we are talking about—I have made the point many times but it must be made again—are artificial creations drawn on the map by bureaucrats and not for electoral purposes. They were drawn to delineate the area of responsibility of government offices. They are not, with the possible exception of the north-east, areas to which people feel they owe loyalty. They are not areas within which people feel they belong to one community. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will agree that the farmer on the banks of the Solway is unlikely to talk of a resident of Bootle as a fellow citizen of the north-west. I should imagine that there are few residents of Cheltenham who think they belong in the south-west, or residents of Banbury who think they are in the south-east. I would not think you would be able to find one.
However, it is over these artificial regions that it is hoped the new assemblies will preside. They will be remote bodies—far more remote than existing local authorities. And the more they are built up—these bodies to which people owe no natural loyalty and with which people have no natural affinity—the more they will weaken the organs of local government to which people naturally relate.
813 In the north-west, the regional assembly will be entirely dominated by Manchester and Merseyside, where the bulk of the population live, and if people vote for a regional assembly, they will rue the day when the counties lose their authority which was so skilful in balancing urban and rural interests.
The Motion before the House refers to moving powers to regional assemblies. And I have to say bluntly that I am against these assemblies whether they have powers or not. I am against regional assemblies whose purpose is just to put a veneer of democratic respectability over functions already exercised in the regions, but I am also against regional assemblies with real powers.
If the assemblies get no more than minimal powers, which as far as I can judge seems to be the intention, they will be no more than an expensive and pointless extra layer of government. Assembly members will no doubt demand high salaries and expenses, like those drawn by the one and a half day a week Members of the Scottish Parliament, and they will expect good accommodation and well paid staff. And then they will hunt around for something to do.
But I am bound to say I am just as much against regional government with real powers. I see no gain in Parliament at Westminster being further diminished and regions built up at Parliament's expense. Again, it is all about democracy and accountability. At present, we have a simple and transparent system of democratic accountability, with the man and woman in the street linked via his or her MP direct to government. The person can go to his Member of Parliament and the Member of Parliament can go to government and get a reply for his constituent. I ask myself where is the advantage in having more and more power drained away from our Parliament to, on the one hand, undemocratic institutions in Europe and, on the other, to assemblies in the regions, unless of course one wants to see our Parliament lose all meaning and become part of a federal Europe of the regions. I do not want to see a balkanisation of England and a federal Europe and, judging by last week's results, neither do the British people.
But at the end of the day, there is one thing that we and the Liberal Benches can agree on; that there is little excuse for the Government's failure to say clearly what powers they intend regional assemblies to have. One leaflet put out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister seems to confirm my worst fears. It tells us what members of assemblies are most likely to be up to. The pamphlet reads:An Assembly could represent the Regions in Brussels, lobbying for the Region at European level".In plain words, the Deputy Prime Minister seems to believe that it will be in Britain's interests for assembly members to go off to Brussels to try to screw more out of the Commission than the region next door. If anyone thinks that that sort of activity will be good for amity and make for a happier country, he must have taken leave of his senses. To adopt the elegant phraseology of the Prime Minister, we really need that like a hole in the head.
814 We are all waiting anxiously to hear what the Minister has to say and I want to ask him just one question. Does he stand by the statement he made on 5 March last year at col. 813? On that occasion, the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, suggested that there would be more enthusiasm for regional government if there were a statement on the powers and functions of the assemblies before the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, replied with his customary candour:We could do that, my Lords. However, I think that the penny dropped during the Second Reading of the legislation that there are no new powers and no new funds".—[Official Report, 5/3/03; col. 813.]Does the Minister stand by that statement now?
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, began his speech I thought that we were going to agree that there is a strong case for moving powers from Westminster and Whitehall to at least some form of local government or regional assemblies. However, as he developed his argument, he seemed to deny that there is any case at all.
§ Lord Waddington
No, my Lords. I thought I had made myself quite clear. I believe that there is a case for some considerable additional devolution to existing local authorities, but there is no case for devolving powers to new authorities.
§ Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
My Lords, at least we can agree that there is a case for devolving powers from the centre. I hope that the Minister in his reply will agree with that.
On the subject of regional assemblies, I shall take up some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for introducing the debate so that we can discuss these important issues. I believe that there is a strong case to be made for regional assemblies. We need to make a good start before the referendums take place.
I could not disagree more with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he describes asking someone in a pub how he feels about having a regional assembly. If that person in the pub fully understood that at the moment so many of the decisions affecting regions are made by unelected regional development agencies, by the Government Offices for the Regions and by Westminster, and that crucially the regional development agencies, which are in no way democratically accountable, hold the funding for such a wide range of projects, the case would be made for elected regional assemblies.
Perhaps I begin to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in agreeing that we do not need additional layers of government at regional level. I deeply regret that in the previous local government review, led by Sir John Banham, the Government at the time bottled out following through and making the case for unitary authorities everywhere. If we had unitary authorities throughout the country, backed up by very strong parish and town councils, we would 815 have a much more transparent system for the voting public. It would be clear to them that they had one local councillor and councillors who represented them on the principal authority dealing with a wide range of the functions that they really cared about.
Rural areas still have county and district councils and I am not making a case for the abolition of either. I declare an interest as a Somerset county councillor. I am making a case for unitary authorities. I have learnt the bitter lessons from the last local government review—I was in local government at the time. The arguments about where the boundaries should be were some of the most sterile that I have ever heard and were a total turn-off for the public. I believe that that has led to the further disillusion felt by the public and it is one reason why the electoral turnout for local government elections has dropped.
I turn to another reason why I believe that turnout has dropped. It is no good the Government casting around for other solutions, such as postal voting, unless they solve the issue of devolving powers, and to devolve powers they must loosen the straitjacket that they have imposed around local government.
In 1997 when the Labour Government were elected I hoped that they would stand by what they said about local government having powers. At the time they quite correctly analysed that local government was not in a healthy state and needed help. There were monolithic councils that did not scrutinise what they did and did not perform at all well in the interests of their citizens. At that time the Government correctly set up the Improvement and Development Agency to help those councils in two ways: first, by peer review, which was a strong and sensible way forward, and, secondly, by showing the examples of best practice that have developed into the beacon council scheme, which has much to commend it.
However, the Government then went off the rails. They introduced the comprehensive performance assessment whose targets and goals mean that every council up and down the land is terrified of failing the assessment. The Minister may say that fear of failure is good because it drives people to perform better. I do not believe that fear is a good motivator in any circumstance. Further, it takes away from the voting public the ability to choose between different models of how things may be achieved.
Having targets and some form of measurement is important, but if the Government are to reawaken interest in local democracy, they must move to a system of measurements, targets and scrutiny that relies far more on public opinion of how a local authority has performed than on central government stating the targets and delivering their own policies and targets through local government. In that way, local government is no better able to perform true local democracy than under the préfecture system in France. Of course, in France there is local government and a préfecture, whereas in England the Government have made local government its own préfecture.
On what really matters to people, such as housing, crime and health, local government can only tinker around the edges and write a strategy that it discusses 816 with partners. It needs to be re-enabled to take back some decision making and delivery that the public expect. The public do not like talking shops, nor attending endless workshops. They ask what action will happen at the end and local government now has to say, "We cannot take any of this action; it will be taken by our partners". A good place to start may be with the Housing Corporation, which at the moment is funded to deliver the housing function, together with registered social landlords.
I believe that local government should still have a more primary function in delivering with registered social landlords and others, and the form that that delivery of housing units in its own area will take should be decided by local government. That is one area that I believe that the Government could free up and give local government a far bigger role.
Finally, other quangos are unelected and much less regulated. I do not believe that they have to go through anything like the same stringent performance measures as local government. Why is that? Are the Government more relaxed about quangos? Of course, they appoint those who chair them, who, I believe, in turn have a hand in appointing those who sit on them. We need a bonfire and a sieving mechanism for such quangos and we must decide which ones we need. I hope that the Government come good on the Haskins report and devolve a lot of those responsibilities to local authorities, certainly those in rural areas.
When we debated in this House the system of election to the European Parliament, we rightly chose a PR system. I regret that I voted for a closed-list system, because people regret the loss of connection with their own MEP. We must press the Government to return to an open-list system. That would entirely reinvigorate people's wish to vote for their MEP.
§ 7.20 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, I should like to begin with the statistic with which I hope—the clock permitting—to conclude. When public expenditure is decided on, in this country the decision, allocation and accountability is 78 per cent conducted by central government. It will not surprise noble Lords that the second country in the EU on that measure is France. What surprised me was the extent of the gap: the UK, 78 per cent; France, 44 per cent; and in Denmark dropping as low as 29 per cent. The centralisation of the UK is truly exceptional. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, even as recently as 100 years ago, it was not so. It has got very much tighter, which is chiefly to do with the growth of one body: Her Majesty's Treasury. It is, like the poor, always with us, I am afraid.
The argument here is about accountability. I had the privilege recently of debating with the right honourable gentleman Mr Oliver Letwin. He began his argument by saying that the state had failed. When he said that, he was speaking about the state as manager. There he had a very strong case. I have listened to my noble friends Lord McNally and Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, both of whom 817 described feelings about the state exercising accountability that are entirely and painfully familiar to me as a university teacher.
The state does not know how to teach, how to conduct local government, how to practise medicine, or how to practise law, so in all those areas it relies on one of the heresies of the 20th century: that there is an abstract art called management, independent of the thing to be managed. That is unfortunately not so. In all these areas, the state imposes on various public service professions standards many of which they do not accept. The remark of my noble friend Lady Miller about different models was absolutely crucial. In this regard, change of government makes absolutely no difference; that is why I think that it is Whitehall more than Westminster that we should be discussing.
However, what Mr Letwin did not say is that, if the state has failed as a manager, equally the market has failed as a provider. It is not in the nature of the market to do things that can be done only for non-market objectives; nor is it in its nature to provide a universal service; it is simply against the nature of the beast. Nowadays, the performance of the Post Office clearly illustrates that. For my part, I would not say that I have a Post Office anymore. The nearest is a mile and a half away, in exactly the opposite direction from those shops to which I most usually go. So it is, if not prohibitive, at least severely discouraging. At a time when the Government are so aware of the need for people to take casual exercise to avoid obesity, to close down the post offices to which people used to walk must carry a medical as well as a social cost. I would like to know whether that has been quantified.
We need the state as provider but not the state as manager. How we make that distinction is the really interesting thing. Just over 10 years ago, I wrote a book on academic freedom in which I attempted to lay out the boundaries of what was properly the state's business and what was properly that of the universities. I showed it to an old friend from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals lobby of its great days in the 1980s. She said, "Yes, this is absolutely fine. But how on earth are you going to make the Treasury pay attention to it?" It was a fair question, because our real enemy is the monopoly power of the Treasury. A monopoly will always, in the end, behave like a monopoly. Power corrupts, and monopoly power is no exception.
The point in our thinking of a commitment to regionalisation is that we will then have 11 bodies, or whatever number it is, capable of competing with each other. The depth of disillusionment among public servants, which I have felt quite strongly, will then be able to have an outlet: in going to serve the region that offers the best terms for doing one's job, according to one's own conscience and in the way that one thinks is most useful. Those regions that respect their professions the most will attract the best staff; therefore they will attract the best results, and, presumably, a number of members of the public. Regions can attract that vital element of competition, together with a local power of raising revenue, where 818 a centralised model such as we have under devolution at present simply cannot do it. It is because we believe in the virtues both of the state as provider and of competition as a defender of standards that we have hit on the model that we have. It will be extremely interesting to see how it develops.
This is not a proposal for public services to be unaccountable. I have been accountable to Whitehall, and, in a different system in the United States, to my own pupils. I found accountability to my own pupils nothing but valuable. When they had a complaint, it was always worth listening to. Sometimes there was a reasonable answer to the complaint, sometimes there was not, but one could not go into the discussion with either assumption firmly in one's mind. I remember one dreadful mistake that they made, but it was the only one. They complained that one person did not have his mind on his lectures. They did not know that his daughter was desperately, painfully ill all term and died in great pain in the seventh week of term. They were quite right; if they had known a little more, I do not think that they would have said what they did. Otherwise, their criticisms were pretty well infallible. I shall never forget the pleasure of taking to one of my colleagues a copy of the Yale Course Critique which said that his lectures were one of the things that went a long way to making the high cost of a Yale education bearable.
So I am not one of those people who believe in unaccountable professionals—very far from it. I married a pupil, to whose academic judgment I was accountable for 40 years. I wish I still were at this moment; I would be doing something much better than I am now. But it must be accountability to an informed audience. It will mean, obviously, a vast amount of shake-up and a great deal of disturbance.
I rather thought that there would be people here who would say that it could not be done. I suspected that they might include the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. When I saw that he had been put in front of me in the speaker's list, I thought that he could not, but I underrated the noble Lord's ingenuity as a debater, which is very great. It was the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who said that it could not be done. Well, why is it that it can be done in every other country in Europe? I do not believe that the Danes, the Dutch, the Germans, the French and everyone else have administrative talents which are totally denied to the British. So if they can do it, why cannot we?
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
My Lords, tell it not in Gath nor in the streets of Askelon, but the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, coincides, in principle if not in wording, with a Motion that the Conservative Party would have put down for debate in a fortnight's time if the noble Lord had not anticipated us. We may not share the same bottom line with the noble Lord's party, but we are united with them in our recognition of the significance of the subject. So we thank the noble Lord for providing us with this earlier opportunity, even if a senior Front-Bench opener has taken over what I, in my innocence, 819 believed to be inherently Back-Bench debates on Wednesdays. That must complicate matters for his noble friend who is winding up.
I congratulate too my noble friend Lord Waddington, who is a passionate and doughty fighter for true localism in local government. What united my noble friend with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and, incidentally, with myself, during debates on the recent paving Bill was agreement on the Orwellian or even Alice-like quality of legislating for referenda on regional assemblies when some regions had already set up their own regional assemblies—not even calling them shadow regional assemblies—without any prior legislative or statutory underpinning or foundations. It is no wonder that the electorate, even the most mature electorate in the world, has sometimes been confused. That constitutes a poor run-up to referendum campaigns.
It is also a pleasure to follow the noble Earl, Lord Russell, whose oratorical span of subjects and issues is so broad. At the Westminster and Whitehall end of this Motion, his ancestor Lord John Russell was the only Prime Minister to sit in Parliament for my former constituency, or a part of it, while holding the premiership. Within my own party Arthur Balfour was one of my predecessors, but not when he was Prime Minister, and the younger Pitt secured 56 votes in the seat at an election in the 1780s while Prime Minister, but without actually standing in the election himself.
The paving Bill is of course one of the grandparents of this debate. No doubt my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, in winding up will remind us of the practical data with which we could not be supplied during the Bill's passage, but which those voting in a referendum will need to know if the proposition is not to become a pig in a poke.
My contribution to this debate will seek to be philosophical rather than overtly polemical. In the far-off days when I attended the Harvard Business School, I recall being taught that a measure of the health of an organisation was how low within it decisions were taken. In government, I can also remember being taught that there was not a natural read-across in that regard from the private corporate sector into the Civil Service, although I cannot help remarking that different departments had different hierarchical levels at which submissions to Ministers were signed off. To at least my untutored eye, it always seemed that the departmental morale was highest in places where the signing off was at the lowest level, not least because it then afforded the maximum number of people a presence at subsequent ministerial discussions.
Although the read-across into local government again is not a perfect one, instinct and intuition tell me that the relationship between government, with a lower case "g", and the Government is likely to be best where those doing the governing are closest to the governed. That is a fortiori truer still where the representatives emerge from the comparative anonymity of a closed-list system, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, alluded.
820 Where I live in south-west Wiltshire, parish councils thrive despite the recent brouhaha about the declaration of interests, and are much better reported in the local press than are that other index of local life—village cricket matches. I acknowledge that the diocese of Salisbury has a high incidence within its own parochial system of team ministries, but in a rural environment that degree of collaboration across parish boundaries is no bad thing. Local government within a county can survive the bisection of parliamentary constituencies.
The recent European elections are a useful preface to the referenda. We had a debate shortly after I entered your Lordships' House on the desirability of regular briefing of the electorate on European developments. I remember arguing that one of the problems of building the European cathedral, in de Gaulle's metaphor, was that, mutatis mutandis, the Dean and Chapter had not kept those in the parish pews decently informed about either their plans or, indeed, what was happening. To borrow an analogy from D-day, they missed Montgomery's point that the morale of troops is better when the maximum amount of information is shared with them. Elites and establishments, elsewhere on the Continent as well as here, have been parsimonious, even patronising, in that regard. "Not for you to bother your little heads", they might imply. In these elections, continent-wide, they have paid a price for that attitude.
Of course, I acknowledge that UKIP enlivened the election, not least for the media, and its very simplisticness played well against the prevailing uncertainty. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. But I am less concerned about UKIP than I am about the BNP. The comparison between the BNP vote in the local elections, where it stood only selectively, and the vote that it secured in the European elections suggests that voting for an extremist party—qua party—may be an easier decision for voters to take than voting for a particular identified individual. Certainly, lists are the enemy of properly representative democracy, and that has implications for regional assembly elections, if there were to be such, when representatives would already be much further from their electors.
The jury is now out on postal votes. They are now the subject for the Electoral Commission review. I shall simply await the outcome of that. But clearly something went wrong. I sincerely hope that the Government will never again diminish the authority of the Electoral Commission, which is a sensible and worthwhile innovative body, by riding so roughshod over it as they did on postal votes, where patently more worth rested in the commission's caution than in the Government's recklessness. The elections threw up a good quota of fatuous statements, but none more so than Mr Hain's claim that the Government had afforded more people the opportunity to vote. What did he think that one man one vote meant before the Royal Mail's entry into the process?
But the Motion comes back to regional assemblies. There, I hope that we shall take a long, hard look at London's powers and what they have achieved. I have alluded before in your Lordships' House to Glenda 821 Jackson's ragbag of strategies in the Greater London Authority Act, which were presumably included because it was supposed to be a strategic authority, and her assertion that under the Act they must be reconciled to meet its terms. She has thus spawned an industry of conflict reconciliation and bureaucratic paper shuffling, but there are no hard results that one can detect from that process of reconciling strategies.
If there are worthwhile virtues in regional government—I realise that some of your Lordships' House perhaps on my side would deny any—they lie in transport and spatial strategy. While I acknowledge central institutions must retain some control of transport policy in the capital, a greater degree of regional authority, especially where it relates to interchanges with the general network, would be to the good. Here, in this particular case, a clear means of resolving conflicting strategies between the Mayor and Transport for London on the one hand and the Strategic Rail Authority on the other, is important.
In principle, transfer of many powers from the centre is generally to the good. We know that the transfer is hindered by central government's distrust of what local government might do with it, but trust the local authorities is as pertinent an injunction as trust the universities or, more largely, trust the people.
Outside your Lordships' House, I might run into more criticism within my own party for my belief that our own local government policies as a party were better when they were largely formulated by those who had profound personal local government experience. Within your Lordships' House, our Front-Bench spokesmen on local government and environmental matters, including my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, have just such experience, both in a major county council and in a major local—indeed royal—borough. In my view, they are much the better for that.
I greatly look forward to my noble friend's wind up tonight and, in bipartisan terms suited to your Lordships' House, I look forward to the Minister's as well. He has had a lot of practice in these debates in recent weeks.
§ 7.40 p.m.
§ Lord Livsey of Talgarth
My Lords, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate about moving power from Westminster and Whitehall to democratically elected regional assemblies. Like many Welshmen, I have moved around the country during my career. I lived in the north-east of England during the time of the reign of T Dan Smith and I lived in the south-west of England during a time when lots of other interesting political shenanigans were going on. The Minister and his department are dealing with devolution for England, and I believe there is enormous scope for that, certainly in the areas in which I have lived.
I want to follow briefly the foray made by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, into Welsh politics, although I realise that the Minister does not have authority in that respect. Nonetheless, the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, 822 made the point about the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the issue of the reform of our constitution. That is a schism at the present time.
We should have a separate debate in this House on the Richard commission. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, has applied for such a debate and I hope that the Government will be generous enough with their time to enable it to take place. There are many lessons for regionalism throughout England and Wales when we examine what was said by the Richard commission. I shall allude to one or two of its recommendations and its discussions on the relationship between Westminster and Whitehall with the Welsh Assembly, because some of those comments on Westminster and Whitehall's attitude to Wales apply equally as well to the regions of England.
The reason I am addressing the subject of the Richard commission is that power, so far as Wales is concerned, lies here in Parliament, and we are hamstrung so long as we have only secondary legislative powers. That is demonstrated in reality by the fact that during the first fours years of the operation of the Welsh Assembly Wales took only one primary legislative Bill of its own through Westminster per year. That was the case until recently, when the Bill for a children's commissioner for Wales blazed a trail, along with the NHS (Wales) Bill, as well as clauses in education and local government Bills which apply to both England and Wales. That illustrates some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan.
On Whitehall and Westminster and its relationship with the Welsh Assembly, the Richard commission report makes comments that I am sure would be echoed if applied to many regions of England:The Assembly Government benefits from close engagement with Whitehall departments in developing policy and legislation affecting Wales. Goodwill and co-operation are important in making the relationship work. However, the Assembly Government is the junior partner in the relationship and making different arrangements for Wales is a complication for hard-pressed central departments which can cause delay even when there is no objection to giving the Assembly Government what it wants".If we were to exchange a particular region of England for the words "Assembly Government", we might come to a similar conclusion.
On the accountability of the Welsh Assembly, in particular in relation to Parliament, the report states:
There is a fundamental problem of split accountability—policies are proposed by the Assembly Government in Wales but are scrutinised and adopted by different politicians in Westminster".
That is a crucial criticism which can be mirrored by the state of the British constitution as it stands at the moment.
The Richard commission has a vision for the role of the Assembly when it states:
The Assembly is the democratically elected representative body for the whole of Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government should be able to formulate policies within clearly defined fields and should have the power to implement all stages for effective delivery, in partnership with the UK Government and other stakeholders. The Assembly Government should be able to set its
own priorities and timetables for action. It should be accountable to the people of Wales through the elected Assembly for its policies and their implementation".
§ Without making a meal of the Richard commission report, and before we have a full debate on its conclusions, I want to say only that two of the most important recommendations were for the Welsh Assembly to have primary legislative powers and, indeed, for it to be elected by the single transferable vote. Pungent criticism was made of the present closed list system of regional members because it produces a two-tier representation in the Assembly. That is a lesson for elected assemblies throughout the United Kingdom.
§ The proposals set out in the Richard commission report would mirror in Wales the legislative arrangements for the Scottish Parliament, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan. Welsh MPs should take a leaf out of the book of their Scottish colleagues, where the Sewel convention has given Scots MPs substantial influence over legislation with the mutual agreement of the Scottish Parliament. That is in addition to their substantial influence in Westminster on Treasury, foreign affairs, defence and many other matters. I believe that Welsh Labour MPs in particular have little to fear. It is certainly my own and my party's view that the Richard reforms should go ahead without delay. I hope that a constructive debate on the subject will be held in this House very soon.
§ 7.47 p.m.
§ Lord Greaves
My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as an elected member of Pendle Borough Council.
§ Lord Greaves
Whether my noble friends will cheer what else I am going to say, I am not sure, but I thank them for that.
My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer repeated the general view that turnouts for local elections have declined. That is true if you look at a particular period over the 1990s and into the early part of this decade. As I said at Second Reading of the regional elections pilots Bill, that is not necessarily true if you look at a longer timescale. It looks as though turnouts bottomed over the past two years and perhaps were about to rise. What we saw on Thursday, quite independent of the postal vote pilots that took place, was an increase in turnout for local elections.
That rise may have been influenced by the fact that the elections were held on the same day as the European elections. It is possible that some people who would otherwise not have voted in either of the elections may have decided to vote in both because they wanted to vote in one. Nevertheless, it is clear that the general turnout for the local elections, independent of the postal pilots, rose perhaps by around 10 per cent. That is to be applauded.
824 It is clear that there were three reasons for the increase in turnout in different parts of the country. First, there was increased interest in the European elections. Where a freestanding European election vote was held, and with no postal pilot, turnout went up. Secondly, turnout rose more steeply where local elections were held on top of the European election and, thirdly, it rose even more where an all-postal pilot took place. We shall look at all the figures with great interest and no doubt we shall have an opportunity to talk about the all-postal pilots and what is to happen in the future. I certainly have a store of nice horror stories about them that we picked up over the past few weeks.
I do not want to talk about that today but, using the north-west as an example, I should like to talk about the relationship between turnout and the size of the local authorities. That is important, in view of the proposals for local government reorganisation, should people in the region vote for a regional assembly.
Looking at the five counties, the turnout in Cheshire was highest at 44.2 per cent. Almost all of them held local elections there, which was one factor. The average size of the local authority at district level is approximately 96,000. In Lancashire, turnout was 43.2 per cent, with the average size of local authority being 77,700. Five of the 14 districts did not have local elections. In Cumbria, turnout was 42.6 per cent, the average local authority is 63,500, and half of them did not have local elections. All those areas had relatively high turnouts of between 42 and 44.5 per cent.
In Greater Manchester, where the average size of local authority is 188,500, the turnout was down to 40 per cent, despite the fact that they all had local elections. In Merseyside, where the average size of authority is 205,600, the turnout was down to 38.3 per cent.
Those figures show a clear correlation between the size of the local authority and turnout. Why is this? It is not particularly the size of the authority that people are concerned about but the size of the ward in which they are voting and how close the councillors who represent them are to the people living in those areas.
Within the shire districts, on average, one councillor represents 1,000 to 1,500 people. In the metropolitan districts, it is four, five, six, seven times that number. People are far less likely to know their councillors and the candidates who are trying to get elected. A Government who are on record weekly as saying that they want to increase turnout in elections as one of the fundamental improvements they want to make to our democratic system must take this on board: the more local the people or the councillors who stand for election, the higher will be the turnout of people who will vote for them. My district in Pendle had a turnout of 51 per cent which was the highest in the region, and we are quite proud of that because we, too, believe that this is important.
Why am I raising this in connection with a debate on regional devolution? The problem is that the Government's proposals for regional assemblies—I hesitate to use the word "devolution", because very little, if any, devolution is involved in the proposals—are tied to a reorganisation of local government. I 825 cannot find any polite words to describe the proposals for my part of Lancashire. They are ludicrous. We are to be given the choice of two huge, monster local authorities, in which, inevitably, even if the size of the council goes up to 80 or 90 members, each councillor will have to represent far more people than is currently the case.
We are being offered a choice of a unitary county council for the whole of Lancashire, from Carnforth and the Arnside peninsula in the north to west Lancashire, Ormskirk, Skelmersdale, which is a Liverpool suburb, and up into the hills where I live in east Lancashire. We are being offered one local authority for that whole area, representing 876,169 electors and a population of about 1.1 million. If somebody tells me that that is local government, I tell them they do not know the meaning of the words in the English language. It is the abolition of local government as we have known it, and this council would be responsible for most local services.
There is an alternative. We are to be offered the amalgamation of Burnley, Pendle, Rossendale and the Ribble Valley, with a mere 216,029 electors. That is larger than all but four of the existing metropolitan districts in the north-west, apart from Liverpool, Manchester and two other big ones—an area which consists of lots of medium-sized and small towns and huge rural areas. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, knows that very well, as he has lived there for most of his life.
We will have a huge authority, extending from the borders of Preston in the west right up into the hills on the borders of Lancashire and from way up in the Bowland fells in the north down to the edge of Greater Manchester in Rossendale. This is a ludicrous proposal—everybody locally thinks it is a ludicrous proposal. I do not know who wanted it, but the Electoral Commission came up with it. Here we have, out of the blue, a choice between two unitary authorities, both of which, in my judgment—and, I believe, in the judgment of the vast majority of people who live in our part of the world—are quite unacceptable. I believe that this is one reason why the regional referendum in the north-west is extremely unlikely to be won by the Government on their present proposals.
We are told that it is all to do with an obsession with size. The Boundary Commission was told that existing metropolitan authorities, let alone existing unitaries such as Hartlepool, and the Welsh unitaries, which are much smaller than this, are out of the question because the Deputy Prime Minister issued advice and guidance, and said that there had to be these huge, monster, Frankenstein bodies. That may or may not be the case, but I believe that if the Deputy Prime Minister did this, he has shot himself in the foot.
Many of us in the north-west who are passionate about regional government would campaign with huge enthusiasm and gusto for something remotely like the Welsh model described by the noble Lord, Lord Morgan. But we are not being offered the Welsh model. The noble Lord said that because Wales did not 826 have anything like the powers of Scotland, it was an anomaly. The north-west is not even being offered anything like the powers of London, where the Mayor has considerable authority over all kinds of things. We are being offered a talking shop, and what few powers it has will largely be moved upwards from local government and not downwards from Westminster. There are other problems with its size and how representative it would be, but we could live with those if there were not these other problems.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, asked whether people in Solway and Bootle—people on the Solway Firth and people on the Bootle harbour front, no doubt—think they are in the same region. Territorial areas always have problems at the margins. Some of the great conflicts and wars in Europe have been over fairly obscure places, such as Alsace and Lorraine and Schleswig-Holstein. That is always a problem.
I believe that the north-west is a region and deserves regional government. The current system works fairly well and achieves turnout of 40, 45 and 50 per cent in their local elections. The Government are proposing to tear up the local government map and go for something that is pretty feeble and hopeless.
I said all along that I would not make up my mind how I would vote in the referendum until after last week's elections. It will require a very great improvement in the Government's proposals to get me to vote "yes". At the moment, you can put me down as a "no". What is being proposed in the north-west is not worth a kettle of fish. The Government will destroy a lot of active, functioning, democratic local government in order to achieve it, and I am afraid that I cannot stomach that.
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Lord Newby
My Lords, there has been agreement in this extremely interesting debate on at least one point—namely, the need for greater devolution of power from Westminster. Having said that, the question then arises that the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, posed directly, of where this devolution should go. Should it go to local government or to the regions of England? On these Benches, we believe that it should go to both.
As far as local government is concerned, there are problems of role, powers and funding. My noble friend Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer dealt very well with the problems of the powers of local government. The internalising of the prefecture model is a marvellous analogy that I will take with me from this debate. As far as funding is concerned, the noble Earl, Lord Russell, made the key point that if a quarter or less of the funding for local government is set by local government, the scope for that local government to exercise discretion is severely curtailed. However, I will spend most of my time this evening talking about the issue of regional government because that is the area where the bulk of the debate is likely to be over the next few months.
I start with the practical experience that we have of regional government—or national government, as they would call it—in Scotland and Wales. In Wales, one remembers that the referendum decision to establish an Assembly was only very narrowly passed. 827 What has happened since? First, it is clear that, even with the limited powers that the Assembly has, a whole raft of measures has been introduced in Wales because they were wanted in Wales and Wales is different from England. The Richard commission refers to two—the nationwide free bus passes for the elderly and disabled scheme and free prescriptions, but there are many more. The Assembly has been able to exercise its discretion.
Secondly—and again the Richard commission brings this out—if you talk to people in Wales who interact with the Government from outside the Government about whether they would prefer to work with the Welsh Office or the Assembly, there is near unanimity that they would prefer to work with the Assembly because it is more responsive to what they say. It is also interesting and instructive that the commission found a broad consensus not for turning back the clock, but for moving forward to deal with some of the constraints on self-government in Wales by expanding the powers of the Assembly.
I have some very limited direct experience of the views of people in Scotland on devolution having attended last week a conference on youth crime where I was able to talk to representatives of local authorities and NGOs in Scotland that are grappling with that issue. Again, there was unanimity that it was better dealing with the Scottish Executive than it had been dealing with the Scottish Office. The words "more responsive" and "more innovative" were used.
Those comments begin to address one of the major criticisms of devolution to the English regions—the question of adding a layer of bureaucracy. There was always an identifiable bureaucracy in Scotland and Wales—the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office—which had plaques on their walls and Ministers who exercised the bureaucracy. However, the truth is that there has always been bureaucracy at regional level in England—now called the Government Offices for the Regions, which in their previous incarnations were the departments and their outposts. However, these immensely powerful bodies, which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, overlooked in his contribution, are unknown to the people of the regions, who do not know that they exist, far less how powerful they are.
Other criticisms of regional government, some of which were made tonight, also need addressing. Understandably, one might ask whether this will cost a vast amount more than the current system. In one sense, it will clearly cost more because there will be a new layer of political oversight and scrutiny. The Richard commission makes that clear. However, as the inaugural chairman of one of the northern RDAs said to me when I raised this question with him some time ago, the public policy outputs in his region would be significantly improved if the region had greater discretion on how it spent government money. Therefore, significant efficiency savings will be made that are lost at the moment because one has a national, rigid implementation of policy established by the gentleman in Whitehall—it is nearly always a gentleman—who certainly still believes that he knows best.
828 The proposed powers of the assemblies are the weak feature of the Government's position. The Government have got into a real intellectual muddle in the way that they have looked at the powers of the various bodies that have been established. One can begin to understand, at least in part, the difference between the powers given to Scotland and Wales. The structure that has been set up and the powers that have been given to London almost defy logic. I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, who questioned what had been achieved by the Mayor, because we do have the congestion charge which we would not have had otherwise and which, for good or ill, is a major public policy development.
§ Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville
My Lords, I was not arguing about specific things such as the congestion charge, but about the series of strategies that litter the Bill and still have to be resolved and reconciled when, in my view, they do not produce any benefit.
§ Lord Newby
My Lords, I agree that the power to write strategies, which is one of the major powers that we have in London and is envisaged for the English regions, is far more likely to cause confusion. However, in the cases of London and the English regions, that is because not enough power has been devolved. As we approach the referenda, the question of powers is first, "Is half a loaf better than no bread?", and secondly, "Will the power given in the first stage be the final level of power? Even the White Paper stated that there are likely to be further proposals for the decentralisation of responsibilities to assemblies as time goes on. The Richard commission and the push for greater power in Wales are examples of how one can expect a certain dynamism in the development of these assemblies. Although I barely dare mention it at this stage, the analogy with the European Parliament seems relevant. That body had virtually no powers when it was established, but it now has a lot o powers. Why is that? Because the case for giving it greater powers has been demonstrated over decades.
We also need to work hard to demonstrate the advantages that we hope might accrue from regional assemblies, because they are not fully understood. I do not have time to deal with all of them, but there is certainly a strong case for giving the regions authority to tackle the problem of economic disparity, which, under this Government, has got worse rather than better. Figures out today show that since 1997 earnings growth in the north-east has been 22 per cent while in London it has been 80 per cent. Is Whitehall grappling with that issue? Is there a strong regional policy to deal with it? No, there is not. Unless there are politicians in the regions whose careers depend on doing rather better than that, we shall not see any significant diminution in the disparities in regional economic performance.
In the next month we shall hear the Government's thoughts about the timing of referenda and the powers that will be given to regional assemblies. I believe that a draft Bill might be forthcoming in July. I urge the Minister, as many noble Lords have this evening, to 829 strengthen the powers originally considered for the assemblies. A number of areas have been raised this evening: transport is an obvious one, learning and skills is another, and there are many others. I agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves to the extent that the ability to win a referendum in the north-west or anywhere else will be enhanced if we can demonstrate to the electorate and to those who might stand that these bodies will have significant powers.
As for the region that I know best, Yorkshire and the Humber, at least it looks as though the debate will have a keen political edge. Yesterday, Paul Sykes, who has been funding and supporting UKIP, issued a wonderful statement about his attitude to the referendum for a regional assembly in Yorkshire. He said:Where do we now turn our attention?"—meaning UKIP.
To regional assemblies. To have a Brussels-inspired assembly governing Yorkshire would be the low point in my life and I will fight tooth and nail to stop this being imposed on our region. Surely, we have enough government from Brussels without these regions that are basically going to be the puppets of Brussels. For anyone to say that these have been dreamt up in our nation, they are fools and have been misled".I am clearly a fool and, I hope, a happy fool. If Mr Sykes puts in the maximum that he can under the legislation, he will be able to spend some £590,000 of his own money from himself and UKIP on the campaign. That and his statement suggest that there will be a very strong political edge to the campaign in Yorkshire. I urge that the Government, when we enter the lists on this matter, do so with the same kind of commitment that we are seeing from some of the opponents of regional assemblies and that they do not adopt the milk and water approach to campaigns that we have seen on Europe.
In recent days and months there has been much soul-searching about the state of politics and political life in Britain. There is clearly no single solution, but one component must be to revive local government by enhancing its role and its ability to raise its own funds and to give people in the regions a direct voice and real power over the delivery of public policy objectives.
§ 8.12 p.m.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, like all noble Lords I thank the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for introducing this debate on devolution. While I am on my feet at this stage, lest I forget later, I thank my noble friends Lord Waddington and Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville for their contributions. I shall pick up some of the points made in the debate, but I have enjoyed listening to it so much that I may miss some. I certainly will not do it justice.
There is a fortunate coincidence in the timing of this debate, in that it comes two days before the inter-governmental conference in Europe, dealing with the European constitution, which deals with precisely parallel issues to these—that is, the division of responsibilities between levels of government. I do not know whether one can devolve powers upwards; I suppose that probably one cannot and that there must be 830 another word for it. But behind the question lies the issue of the nature and character of a nation state and what makes a nation state, which includes control of defence, finances, social affairs, the legal system, and so on. We do not need to have the argument. But the argument is there and I hope that, when the Prime Minister goes to the intergovernmental conference, he will remember it. I hope that he will also remember it when he comes back because that debate is exactly paralleled by this debate tonight. We are talking about what powers are appropriate for local government and the nature and character we expect of local government. It is a precise parallel.
With the exception of the possible regional structure—I put it that way at the moment as there is no absolute certainty about how the coming months will work out—English local authorities have a very long history. Counties have existed for a thousand years or more. Of course, there has been increasing legislative change over that time, particularly over the last century. It is most depressing to go into a chief executive's office and look at the shelves of books of laws that affect county councils. There are about two books that cover the first 25 years of the last century; about 20 that cover the second 25 years; about 40 that cover the third 25 years; and since that time one needs a library to contain the legislation that has been passed. That says something about the way we deal with things.
District and unitary authorities are the successors of the old town councillors, with similar long histories. Below that, there are still town councils, local councils and parish councils, which I have always regarded as the foundations of democratic local government in this country. All of them were centres of civic pride. They were centres of community and social development long before modern government regulated them into subservience. If devolution means anything, it means that we must begin to return to that state of affairs.
We know what the situation is now. There is law, statutory regulation and statutory guidance, with which one must comply. There is guidance and statutory plans, with which one must comply. If one does not, one does not get the money. One has to comply with best value. There is comprehensive performance assessment that every local authority has to go through. If it does not, or it does not succeed, it is downgraded and loses a degree of financial independence. That is estimated to cost about £1 billion. It is a totally non-productive expenditure in the interests of the general electorate who local authorities serve. Local authorities have to do what Whitehall wants in the assessment. They have to comply with Whitehall's view of what local government must do.
This is a far cry from the early days of the Audit Commission, when we had comparative statistics. Every local authority wanted to improve its performance in those comparative statistics. This huge machinery of government on top was not needed. It is no wonder that the public increasingly see local government as the agent of the centre and become increasingly bored with what is going on. That is where we are. Civic pride has 831 diminished and many people are reluctant to come forward as candidates for local authorities. The Government's solution to this is more of the same.
I must spend a little time on the regional issue as so many noble Lords have mentioned it. The noble Lord, Lord Morgan, rightly argued in favour of Wales. It would be unpatriotic of him not to do so. He welcomed the Richards report, which advocates even greater power for the Welsh Assembly in order to parallel Scotland. But that is not on offer to England, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has already pointed out. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, talked about the power of government offices for the regions. The powers that they have are not on offer to the regional assemblies. Those offices have clear remits to carry out government policy. The way the Government arc establishing the regional assemblies, if they eventually get off the ground, means that they will have to do the same thing. But that should not be the purpose. They should have independence.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, seemed to think that competition between regional assemblies could be more effective than the Treasury when it came to winning funds. I find that argument somewhat naïve because I think that the Treasury will win. If we are to have devolution to local government and regional assemblies, if they exist, then the financial responsibility which should accompany it can only come if, and only if, the Treasury itself is prepared to cede some of its authority.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, perhaps I may clarify a little what I said. I was perhaps indistinct. I was referring not just to the quantity of money, but to the degree of control and freedom from Treasury interference in its detailed allocation.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I am grateful for the qualification, but I do not hedge my remarks. The problem for the noble Lord, Lord Morgan, in particular is that he needs to remember that most of the English regions are larger than Wales and Scotland. To argue that Wales should have primary legislative powers and then to expect English regions to be established on a chimera of authority is again surprisingly naïve. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
§ Lord Morgan
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord, but he was referring to my argument which he misunderstood. The naivety was on his side. My view was that devolution and regionalisation is a cumulative process. Just as we have a process of change and are on the cusp of change in Wales, I imagine that in future we shall be on the cusp of change in the English regions also. It will take a long time, because there is a long transitional process.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, I accept that it might be a long process, but I am not sure that I am prepared to accept that the United Kingdom Parliament is prepared to cede what it sees as most of its authority because it is largely an English Parliament. There are huge constitutional difficulties which could lead, as I believe my noble friend Lord Waddington, said, to an 832 England of the regions, a Commission in Brussels, and a United Kingdom Parliament that has virtually nothing to do. We need to think very carefully on that.
I turn now to the powers of regional assemblies. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has dealt with the structural problems. The powers of regional assemblies are being established specifically so that they comply with government policy. That is not devolution, but agency. That should not be happening. If regional assemblies are established then the transitional costs of the structural change to be made, if the Government are to have their way, have been estimated variously, depending on the system, at between £1 billion and £3.5 billion. That is wholly unproductive money giving no service to the public at all and merely fulfilling the whim of the government of the day. I cannot accept that that is sensible. I do not believe that it is a reasonable thing to do.
If we believe in devolution, and I do, we should begin by making the existing system of local government work. I can understand the Minister and his colleagues in another place being frightened of that because most of the badly performing local authorities in the country are controlled by members of his party. That is an unfortunate reality which he has to live with. The reality is that if we believe in local government and devolution let us make the system that we have work properly. Let us get the authority back down to the local counties and to the local communities where it properly belongs. That will re-stimulate interest. Only after we have that right should we begin to discuss the question of some other structure which might or might not work if it were given proper authority.
§ 8.25 p.m.
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, this has been a really interesting debate with some helpful and useful speeches. I had a prepared speech which covered most of the points that were raised. However, I have written my own speech as the debate progressed, although writing my own speeches sometimes gets me into trouble.
I want to reply to this debate with honesty and clarity. I apologise that I shall not discuss Wales. I say that with due respect to my noble friend Lord Morgan and to the noble Lord, Lord Livsey. I have nothing in my brief on Wales. I might get into trouble if I told the Deputy Prime Minister that there was a consensus that regional government should be passed to the Department for Constitutional Affairs. However, I understand why that point was raised.
I shall start with some of the points that I planned to make and then I promise that I will respond to some of the really useful points that were raised in the debate. First, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mc Nally, on securing the debate. He is right about its timing. It is much better to hold the debate today when we can have the rational reasonable debate that we would not have been able to have had it taken place last Wednesday. I fully accept that. The noble Lord very kindly batted the ball back to me that I tossed to him during the intervention. I shall do my best to respond to that.
833 The Government have taken substantial steps to reverse the trend of what I think everyone accepts has been excessive centralisation in the way the country has been run over the years. However, we have tried to do that with a degree of consensus and consultation rather than abolishing local authorities and county councils willy-nilly without any consultation whatever, as happened in the 1980s and 1990s. We have gone about it in a different way. We think that our record is strong and demonstrates how seriously we have addressed the genuine devolution of power from Westminster and Whitehall to the rest of the country.
We have devolved some but not all powers to Scotland and Wales. We have restored city-wide government to London. We cannot now be accused of being the only major capital city without city-wide government. We are now offering the chance of devolved power to the English regions. I was delighted to hear noble Lords speak persuasively in support of devolution to the regions, although the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is dead against that. I take the point that the noble Lord made about city councils. We want to continue to devolve appropriate powers from the centre save in one area which I shall discuss in a moment. The next few weeks will be crucial. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will not have the chance to vote no in the referendum unless he is prepared to support orders in this House that will allow the referendum to be held in the first place. We are trying to let the people decide. I hope that people will not stand in the way of the referendum. As I believe the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, half a loaf is better than no loaf. Here is a measure that we can build on, as I think was said during the passage of the relevant legislation. It will not be too long before the relevant date is announced. I have no information about that but it must be imminent. It will certainly be announced before the Summer Recess.
The vast majority of the functions that we transfer to elected regional assemblies are currently carried out by central government and their agencies in the region or by unelected public bodies. That is why I make the point regarding no new powers. We have not invented powers; it is a question of transferring powers. Those powers will make a difference to vital areas such as job creation, planning in the sense of regional spatial strategies but not planning application decisions, housing, transport, culture, the environment and the Fire and Rescue Service. The Fire and Rescue Service is the only exception to the principle that assemblies' functions will be devolved from the centre and not taken up from local level. That is because we believe that the challenges of resilience in the face of terrorism require broader co-ordination of the Fire and Rescue Service. We are discussing that on the Bill that is currently before the House.
The elected regional assemblies will be elected by people in the region and accountable to them. This will democratise an existing layer of regional governance that is unelected at the present time. We can argue about the degree of involvement, but there is no democracy in the 834 regional quangos and the government regional offices at the moment. Our policies will give the public an opportunity to help to shape their local government. In answer to one key point criticising the system, these elected assemblies will be elected by proportional representation.
I am pleased to say that not one elected body that has been set up by the Labour Government since 1997—with the approval of Parliament—has used first past the post. The system is so discredited that the Government have not felt able to push first past the post for any of these new bodies. It is fair to say that we could not export first past the post to one emerging democracy among the former communist countries in eastern Europe, or South Africa. Unfortunately, I speak with the zeal of the convert, so I have to shut up at that point. That is one of the great problems when you have been converted from one system to another: you can go overboard. But I think I have made the point that PR would be a good exercise even for the other place at some time.
Our vision for local government is twofold. In the short term we are working to give local authorities more flexibility and opportunity. In the longer term we are looking for a more holistic approach, with the new financial arrangements which have come into force in this financial year: the new borrowing powers, new freedoms and flexibilities and a substantial increase in the powers to local authorities. We are trying to decrease unnecessary bureaucracy for all local authorities by imposing less inspection, less ring-fencing and far fewer plans. There is very little ring-fencing of finance from the centre now. We are giving them more power to borrow and invest and deregulating consent requirements. We are giving them more financial autonomy, with the power to charge for discretionary services, enabling them to retain income from some fixed penalty notices, fines and other incomes.
We are moving to give power to trade to fair, good and excellent authorities, and providing further freedoms on the use of income from fixed penalty notices. We have also established the Innovation Forum for Excellent Authorities. This facilitates improved and more substantive dialogue between central and local government on improved delivery of shared national and local priorities. Already, the forum has initiated projects in six key areas: reducing hospital admissions for older people; early years and school improvement; community safety; integrated public services; local governance and partnership arrangements; rationalising local targets. It has established pilots to improve these services.
This will better equip the local strategic partnerships—which are an innovation—to be more effective in meeting national and local priorities, and pooling budgets with joint commissioning of services, achieving a long-term vision for those local authority areas.
Looking further ahead, we are developing a vision and strategic approach to local government for the next five to 10 years. We have published a document today. It is only a short document, but it is our contribution to starting that debate, setting out key issues and our overall 835 approach. This strategy project will recognise the importance of strong local government, which we want, as weak local government has been a problem.
Key issues that impact on local government need to be considered in a coherent and holistic way, as part of an overall vision and strategy with a longer-term view. This includes the way local government will interact with the new regional structures. The strategy project will start a long-term, 10-year vision of what outcomes we are seeking; set out a clearer role for local councils in securing these outcomes, based on their democratic responsibility for leading and governing local places; link this to the development of key issues across central government; develop a new settlement between local and central government to deliver this, providing clearer responsibility and accountability on all sides. I agree very much with the point the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, made about where the decisions are made.
The regional assembly referendums are a chance for a whole tier of government to be democratised by consent. We have delivered devolved governments to the Scots, the Welsh and to the people of London, and now the other people of England can choose and have a voice. It is the decision of the people but they cannot make that decision unless this House—and the other House, of course—actually passes the necessary orders to allow the referendums to take place later in the year. By the time the referendums take place, and hopefully by the time the orders come before this House, there will be much more information available on the powers, the sequencing and maybe the draft legislation which we are using our best endeavours to produce.
I think I have answered the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. I am not going to get into a debate by giving way, because I do not have time. But I stand by everything I said. I know that people are using the odd sentence here and there a bit out of context. However, it is clear that the transfer of powers to the regional assemblies—to democratise powers that already exist and are being used by undemocratic bodies—means that there are no new powers. The key point is the way in which the democratic control of those powers is exercised.
The budget is another issue. The block grant—the block sum of money—will be for the regional assemblies to divide up as they choose. It will fund a range of bodies including the regional development agencies and others. At the moment that is done behind closed doors. The block will be the same regardless of whether the region has an elected body. We have said that. I do not mind how my words are used—that is part of the political knockabout—but that is the position and it has to be made absolutely clear.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, raised the issue of list systems. My personal view is that open lists are better than closed ones. I think that people should have a greater choice when they are voting on a list system. If you are going to have a PR system in large areas, you cannot necessarily use additional member systems. If you start going down the road of list systems, one issue has to be considered from the 836 democratic point of view: the fact that putting crosses or numbers against people's names concentrates the mind.
The point was made in an earlier speech that people seemed to have a greater propensity to put a cross against the BNP last week because they were not putting their mark against the name of a person. I think that that should be addressed. There is no government policy on it because the decision was made to go with closed lists. However, we are experimenting and it is very early days. We have not used PR and these kinds of electoral systems in this country for long. The seven years since those systems were introduced is but a blip on the timescale.
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made a very powerful speech. I will draw all noble Lords' speeches to the attention of Ministers, but I will do so particularly in the case of the noble Earl's speech. He contrasted expenditure control in France with that in the UK: 78 per cent in the UK against 44 per cent in France. I have another figure which I have carried round with me since I came across it some years ago when looking at the connection between local councillors and the people. Each MP in the House of Commons represents more or less the same number of people based on a quota boundary system. It is 69,000, although it can vary by plus or minus 10 per cent. There is nothing like that in local government where ward sizes vary enormously.
In France, roughly one in 100 adults is elected in some form to the government structure. In this country, one in 1,600 adults is elected. So the overall figures show that, compared with France, people in this country are 16 times more remote from local government and administration. So we should ask ourselves why people are not as interested in getting involved in local government and decisions here as they clearly are in France, where they have more control over expenditure, as was indicated in the noble Earl's figures.
I am not replying to the speeches in any particular order. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, said that it is quite good to use the lowest level of decision-making. I think that that is true for every organisation, including commercial organisations and, as the noble Earl said, universities. I am sure that it is true also in local government.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, dealt with turnout based on council size. I do not have any figures on that, but I certainly hope that the Electoral Commission will consider it in its analysis of what happened last week. Did the postal votes really have a dramatic effect? I do not know. I do not have any figures on that at the moment. Clearly a higher percentage of people voted, but perhaps the percentage was not as high as one would expect based on the experience of other pilots. As we know, that was not the first postal voting pilot; there have been others. I certainly hope that the noble Lord's analysis, based on council size, turnout and whether the elections were for local government, will receive attention.
837 I should add that Paul Sykes can spend all the money he likes, but if UKIP goes round telling lies about the referenda and the regions, it is for all the other democratic parties to nail that lie-making. That is the fact. These regional assemblies are not the creatures of Brussels. The boundaries were not drawn up in Brussels; they were drawn up by a previous Tory government in this country—for other purposes, I accept, but we have not changed the boundaries.
So if Paul Sykes and UKIP start telling lies, as the signs are that they will, they must be nailed by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party, Plaid Cymru, the Scottish National Party—all legitimate democratic parties. I know that we have political banter between us, but UKIP must be done for telling porkies on a grand scale if that is what it starts doing. It will try to use money, along with lies, to swing the election. That is as bold as I can be on that; I do not think that I can sugar-coat it any further; that is where we are.
On the proposal for local income tax, elected regional bodies have no fund-raising powers; I must make that clear. That was part of the proposal. Of course, there will be legislation, subject to a yes vote in one of the referendums, to set up regional assemblies. The House has not debated a Bill for the regional assemblies; we have debated only a Bill for the referendums to give people the choice. That will come later and I suspect we will have lots of debates on fund-raising powers of the assemblies. I confirm that the election will be by proportional representation. I have made my great plea for PR all over.
I am now giving the government view. We have no plans to change the regional boundaries. As I have repeatedly made clear, there is a good debate to be had about some counties that are thought to be in the wrong region. Examples were given—such as Banbury—and I have previously used the example of Chipping Camden, which is 40 miles south of Birmingham but in the same region as Cornwall, as Lands End. That is ludicrous. But we have the boundaries we have.
We said to start with that we would rather test public opinion on the boundaries we have then spend what would be a couple of years arguing about the boundaries. We have always said that we are open to later review, but not for the purposes of setting up elected regional assemblies. My note goes on to say that those boundaries were drawn up by a Conservative government in 1995.
§ Lord Dixon-Smith
My Lords, before the Minister leaves the question of the regional assemblies, what happens if we arrive at the referendums later this year and the Electoral Commission has not yet reported on the experimental system used last week? What system of election will be used in that event?
§ Lord Rooker
My Lords, we know that the proposal is for postal voting. I make no bones about that. Let us be clear. There will be two questions in some areas, because of the local government matter; one understands that. We are not voting for people. There is no issue of someone being elected or unelected in those referendums.
838 I do not say that that devalues the report from the Electoral Commission on postal voting. I have personal experience of some really dodgy practices under postal voting—even within political parties. So it is not plain sailing. On the other hand, one may balance whether there is a vast improvement in turnout against a price to pay, or whatever. The fact is that with the referendums, we are not comparing like with like with the elections last week, where the elections were for parties that resulted in people being elected from the list system or directly elected for local councils on first past the post. I am not knocking the idea that we should take account of them.
I do not know the sequence from when the Electoral Commission will report. As I said, to hold referendums in the autumn, the orders will need to come before the House before the summer recess. That is clear. The powers of elected regional assemblies will be much greater than those of the current regional chambers, although the regional chambers style themselves as regional assemblies—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.
This is a good one and worth reading out because I want to be open with the House. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, raised the issue of Lancashire reorganisation. The answer is, "Don't comment on this". There is a perfectly valid reason for that. A legal consultation is under way about the boundaries and local government structure for setting up the regional assemblies. It would be quite out of order for Ministers to pronounce on that while it is under way. We are genuinely a listening government, so we will treat the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tonight as an entry to the consultation process concerning what he believes about local government. I am sad that he has already decided to vote no when he has not yet seen the orders.
I have done my best to reply in the spirit of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. There is a real issue about our over-centralised state. We have taken some measures in the past seven years to address that. They are not good enough, not far enough and not fast enough, but they are part of a journey along the road. That should be the spirit of the Government's response. We have made but a start and there is a greater vision for the next five to 10 years which we will seek to develop in consultation with the parties and the public—and there will be free and fair debate in this House and the other place.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ Lord McNally
My Lords, 30 years ago I was travelling with the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, to an election meeting on the outskirts of Birmingham, when we heard the noise of a young candidate on a loudspeaker extolling the virtues of the noble Lord, who said, "let's stop". It was not on the schedule, but that was the first time that I had the pleasure of hearing the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in action. I enjoyed it then and I enjoyed it again tonight. He was probably as close to the party line then as he was tonight.
839 The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, slightly chided me that I was leading on this debate as a Front-Bencher. Without revealing too much about what goes on in those secret Liberal Democrat party meetings, that decision concerned the old matter of the soldier who found that he was a volunteer, because everyone else in the line had taken one step back. I do not regret that because this has been a timely debate in which all of the contributions have been part of that kick start for which the Deputy Prime Minister called today.
Regarding the experience of London, I suspect that the London assembly proposals were drawn up as a straitjacket for what the Government perceived as the inevitable Livingstone mayoralty. You do not get these things right if you draw them up to deal with a single personality or a single party. Therefore, the spirit in which the Minister responded was entirely welcome, but he has realised that it is not me he must convince; it is the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and there is not much time to do that. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.