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Lord Monk Bretton: My Lords, there is one matter that I wish to mention at this stage. During the passage of the Bill I spoke about the good service rendered to rural communities by the rural community councils and their relationship with the Rural Development Commission, which is to be disbanded. It emerged that the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, and I had the same wish to see this good work continue as before. That was good news. However, I still have anxieties as to whether that will happen. Until now the Rural Development Commission has had a clear remit to maintain the rural community council network. The Government have currently renewed this--through the new Countryside Agency--but only until the year 2000. However, the noble Baroness gave the House good assurances as regards the Government's intentions thereafter. But what is to happen after 2000? That still remains a pretty open question.
The main options for continuing this work are through either the regional development agencies or the new Countryside Agency or a mix of both. Reading the Bill, the prospectuses and the guidelines for these new agencies, it is clear that so far these agencies have not been designed to carry on this work of a long-term, comprehensive countryside role in the way the Rural Development Commission has done until now. Thus, as
As to the social work side of what has been done by the Rural Development Commission, I hope that the central monitoring unit of the commission will be retained on a national basis. Otherwise I fear very much it will disintegrate.
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, I rise briefly to give my thanks to both Ministers for listening at Committee stage when I put forward an amendment requiring the Secretary of State to consult those who represented rural interests when appointments were made to the RDA boards. The amendment I proposed at that stage had been tabled in another place by my honourable friend Tim Yeo and brushed aside. It is a recognition of the work of your Lordships who spoke on that occasion, and also a tribute to the work of both Ministers, that in this House the amendment was given a better, more thorough hearing. I am grateful to the ministerial team, not only for listening but for obtaining agreement in the DETR that the amendment should be brought forward and adopted on Report, with the more felicitous wording that the Government were able to achieve.
I understand from some Members of your Lordships' House that there is a view that there is unfinished business. I am sure that that will remain a view despite the welcome to some parts of the Bill. I am equally sure that your Lordships will have the opportunity in further debate to test how effective the provisions of the Bill have been once it comes into operation. I am sure that your Lordships will be holding the ministerial team to account for the operation of the Bill in the future. At this stage I wish to record my thanks to the ministerial team. I hope that, with your Lordships' help, I shall be able to persuade them to be so receptive in the future.
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I rise briefly to congratulate the Minister. As he pointed out, this is the first Bill that he has taken through his department. I congratulate not only him and his colleagues but express my warm appreciation to the Government for their initiative in creating the opportunities that the Bill will present. As the Minister has said, it is not a new idea but is built upon experience in other regions.
It is a stimulus for organisations such as the co-operative movement. I am very proud of my association with that movement. The creation of the Bill has concentrated minds of a disparate nature in the co-operative movement and ensured that it speaks with one voice in putting forward its ideas of what it would like to see happening in each of the regions--not only in retailing, but banking, credit, housing, agriculture and a great many other spheres. Throughout the co-operative movement there has been a recognition that there should be a synthesising of its interests in order to maximise the strength of the voice that it can make heard at a regional level.
The Minister and his colleagues have made a very good start, even though there has been some criticism. There is a general acknowledgment that anything the Government can do to concentrate the minds of people in the regions on the benefits that can come from working together in partnership and by maximising the existing strengths, led by a Government-inspired team, is well worth pursuing.
I congratulate the Government on what they have done. The phrase "unfinished business" has been used more than once. I have always been prepared to let the Government have their way and to see what happens in the event. This House will have a continuing role in monitoring what happens in the regions. One of the strengths of this House is that there are people from all regions, with experience and contacts, who will take every opportunity to remind the Minister where the Government are going wrong. Once again my thanks to the Minister and the Government for this initiative.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, when the Bill started its passage through this House I said that we broadly welcomed it. That is still the case. We hope that a regional approach to regeneration will prove to be effective. I, too, would like to thank the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, for the time that they have given outside as well as inside the Chamber, in helping to forward discussion on the Bill. I also thank my own colleagues and, like others, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, who has been so constructive in edging us forward to a position where the Bill really does reflect rural concerns in a way that was not apparent on the face of the Bill when we first saw it, whatever the intentions.
I hope that the Government will take on board the constructive comments that I know will be coming their way on both sets of draft guidance. I have already commented that it might be more appropriate if the sustainability aspects were not dealt with in such a way that they could be interpreted as some sort of add-on. That goes back to an earlier, very important, discussion, which will continue as the agencies get up and running.
I look forward to the designation of the regional chambers. I wish I could look forward with any reasonable level of optimism to their funding being adequate to the task that they will have to undertake. I am well aware of the great disparity in the funding of the various chambers. This is an important Bill. We wish the agencies, the chairs who have been
Lord Bowness: My Lords, as we come to the last stage of the Bill's passage through your Lordships' House, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and, at Second Reading, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, and the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton for their courtesy throughout all its stages. I also thank my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon and other colleagues on my Front Bench who have assisted me throughout the passage of the Bill. I particularly want to add my thanks to the Minister for the amendment about rural interests, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St. Johns, for her persistence in ensuring that this was achieved.
I wish, however, that it had been possible to make more changes to this Bill. In the White Paper and at Second Reading the Bill was held out as a major decentralising measure. But nothing has been done to this Bill during its passage through your Lordships' House to alter the fact that, in my view, it is a centralising measure. It provides a vehicle for the exercise of power by the Secretary of State. His hand is upon the levers of power. He appoints, he gives his guidance, he gives his directions, he decides whether or not he will delegate to the Regional Development Agencies the powers that he has vested in him by Parliament.
There are a number of specifics which remain outstanding. The position of local government is still unsatisfactory. The Government have failed to put upon the face of the Bill the number of local government members to be appointed to each Regional Development Agency, although I understand from the assurance of the Minister that four members will be appointed.
I remind your Lordships that the Government have also refused to put on the face of the Bill the provision for local government members who lose their electoral mandate to resign. I concede that the Government have suggested--I am grateful to the Minister for what I am sure is a helpful and well intentioned suggestion--that if no active members of local government within the area were left on the RDA it might be possible to use the terms of the appointment letter to remedy the situation. I accept this Minister's assurances but I would have preferred for the future to have had some safeguards on the face of the Bill. I submit to your Lordships' House that local government has a special position. It is elected locally and it is capable of bringing an element of elected accountability to the regional development agencies.
My second outstanding concern is the Government's refusal to contemplate any alteration in the number of regions at some time in the future. The number is nine--I have got it right today--but it must remain nine irrespective of how matters turn out. This measure was designed, we are told, to give power to the regions. The Government have taken the regions as designated by the previous government for their regional offices, with one exception, determined that they shall be the regions for RDA purposes. There
Local interests are being forced into the constraints imposed by central government with no real chance of a separation if that proves to be the local wish. Although Ministers have denied that these proposals in any way pre-empt decisions on boundaries for regional assemblies if they come about, there can be no doubt whatever that, as a result of the pressures imposed by the regional development agencies within the areas, the Government are, whether it is intended or not, forging regions which do not currently exist, which do not currently have a significant coherence and which may not be best for the delivery of local services and policies. I have no doubt that everyone involved will do their best to make the regional development agencies work for their regions and, in so far as they are concerned with prosperity and employment, everyone will hope that they work and will wish them success. But we should not be under any illusion that they are local bodies. No one should be under any illusion that they will not impact on local government in the areas and on the policies and functions of local government. They will be quite different from the UDCs of the past.
We will have RDAs for the whole of England. The whole country will be covered by centrally appointed bodies answerable and accountable to the Secretary of State, a point made on an amendment earlier today by the Minister. I shall not repeat the core functions and the many policies and programmes in which regional development agencies will be involved. However, we do not know, beyond the possibility of TECs' funding, what else the Secretary of State may choose to delegate to the RDAs.
With funding from central government--what impact that will have on other bodies, despite assurances given, is difficult to tell--the regional development agencies are poised to be significant players in their area. In so far as they deliver prosperity and employment, we wish them success, but it is the ability of the Government to manipulate them that should not be under-estimated. We should not portray this in any way as a decentralising measure or an empowerment of the regions. It certainly should not be described as power to the regions and decentralisation.
For that reason, because so much is coming together in the hands of the Secretary of State, we shall follow the progress of the regional development agencies very closely indeed. If the RDAs are to be accountable through the Secretary of State to Parliament, it is in Parliament that questions about their functions will have to be asked and answered.
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