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Baroness Blatch: Before the noble Lord, Lord Tope, concludes the debate, perhaps I may say a few words. I am grateful that the Minister referred yet again to

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10 to 15 per cent which will be considered for local discretion. There is going to be more than a passing interest in the mechanism for this. I know that there is consultation going on at the moment.

I wonder if I can ask two questions. First, is it likely that that consultation process will be sufficiently advanced for this Chamber to take some account of it during the final stages of the Bill? Will it be available in time and will we have some understanding of the Government's thinking in time for my colleagues in another place to be able to take it into account when considering any amendments to the Bill?

Secondly, in the way in which the noble Lord has spelt it out, what I am not sure about is whether the consultations going on at the moment envisage actually bidding for or negotiating for varying amounts or percentages of discretion, or whether once the amount of money for discretion has been determined at national level that will be applied evenly across all local skills councils. If it is to be a bartering system, then it is going to be very complicated and extremely time consuming. If it is going to be evenly applied, it is going to cause rough justice. I am not sure what is contained within the document so far as the consultations are concerned. It would be helpful if the Minister was able to throw some light on the matter.

Lord Bach: I am afraid that I shall not be able to throw much light on the second question that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, asks. As I understand it, this is general consulting through the funding and allocations consultation document. I cannot be more precise than that this evening.

I can be more precise about when the consultation period ends: it will be in April. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, will have to work out where that fits into the passage of this Bill, as I will also. We hope, of course, that the Bill will have passed through this House by April. Whether it will have passed through the other place is a much more vexed question.

Lord Tope: I look at the clock now and think it is a moot point whether it will have passed through this House by April. I am grateful to the Minister for some helpful replies. I am bound to say that I was not at all surprised to hear him say--I speak as someone who has served in local government for a long time--that this Government do not favour maximum local flexibility. I think that is probably an unnecessary statement from any government. It was a helpful reply in places. We will study it with interest. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos 117 to 119 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 120:

    Page 9, line 10, leave out ("the regional development agencies and").

The noble Baroness said: I shall not be the most popular person in the Chamber on this set of amendments. The Government have an agenda. They have had an agenda since they came to office. It is to

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see the demise of our county councils and go to regional development councils or regional district councils, whatever they are called.

Lord Bach: I think that the noble Baroness means regional development agencies because that is what they are.

Baroness Blatch: No. I am not talking about regional development agencies. I am talking about regional development agencies being a forerunner for what the Government really have in mind which is to go for elliptic bodies in the regions, whether they are called councils or anything else. It has been very widely and vocally talked about by Labour councillors and Labour members up and down the land. Certainly, many Labour councillors in county councils believe that this is on the agenda. I have believed it for a very long time. One has not only to look at this piece of legislation, but at local government Acts coming through the system or already on the statute book, the setting up of the development agencies themselves, and the way in which local authorities--whether Ministers are prepared to admit it or not--are being air-brushed out. The rural development agencies are very high profile in this Bill. It is difficult to get either local education authorities or local authorities included in the Bill in this respect.

If the noble Baroness replies to this group of amendments, she will not be able to resist taking yet another jibe at my "conversion" with regard to local government. I say straight away that I have been involved with local government and have a strong commitment to local government. I believe that local government has a strong role to play. However, the scenario we are discussing is different. As I said on Tuesday, when we were in power--the noble Baroness said that we bypassed local government when we were in power--we devolved down to local communities. We sought to devolve power to schools, colleges and institutions at ground level. However, in this Bill the devolution operates upwards to councils that comprise bigger units than local councils and which are more remote from local people. These larger councils are governed by the Secretary of State and the national council. It is very much a "top down" system.

Given the superior position of rural development agencies in this Bill, I want to do my bit of "air brushing" by means of the amendments we are discussing and delete certain references to the agencies. I suspect that I am not wrong in expecting the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Government to stand shoulder to shoulder on this issue of rural development agencies. However, I am committed to the tiers of government that are most local to the people on the ground. I still firmly believe that devolution must take place downwards to institutions at the local level to enable them to respond to needs with regard to skills, education and links with employment. The best way to

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achieve that is to bypass the raft of areas in this Bill that place rural development agencies in a superior position vis-a-vis local authorities. I beg to move.

Lord Dormand of Easington: I hope that I have not misunderstood the noble Baroness. She certainly has not always been opposed to non-elected bodies. She will recall the experience of Teeside Development Corporation, of which I had the privilege to be deputy chairman. The Committee may not be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, appointed the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, as a supervisor, as it were, in that area. I do not want to make the noble Baroness blush too much--especially as I make these comments--but she was held in the highest possible regard in the north-east. She initiated vast improvements in that area. That legacy remains. There is a role for both attitudes that have been mentioned; I do not want to be too academic about that point. However, I felt that I had to make those remarks.

Lord Tope: The noble Baroness referred throughout her speech to "rural development agencies". I believe that she intended to refer to regional development agencies as that is contained in the amendment. The noble Baroness nods her head. I have every sympathy with her confusion with all the acronyms here as I also have some difficulty with them.

The noble Baroness was half right in her remarks. She is right in that I profoundly disagree with her. I congratulate her on being able to detect in the Government an enthusiasm for elected regional government that I have not been able to detect yet. She appears to believe that the Liberal Democrats stand shoulder to shoulder with the Government on that matter. If we are in that position, it is only because it is the best way for us to give them a hard shove in that direction, and that is what we shall wish to do. If this Government have an agenda, secret or otherwise--I would hope that they would publish it--to move to elected regional government on any time-scale (but preferably a short one) I would certainly greatly welcome that. However, at this time of night and with this Bill I shall resist the temptation to talk about what local government structure might be beneath the regional level. Clearly that is an important debate for another time and another place. The noble Baroness was right to believe that if the occasion arises I shall certainly resist the amendments we are discussing.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Bach: I have learned a lot from the noble Baroness tonight. I have learnt what government policy is as regards the future of local government. It may be that I am unaware of a press statement on the subject today. I have been taken by surprise and I am unable to answer the noble Baroness. My belief is that she is wrong about our policy, much to the chagrin of the noble Lord, Lord Tope, who will neither push us with one shoulder or another. We shall go on doing what is right.

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As regards the noble Baroness's support for local government, to coin a phrase, "Methinks the Lady doth protest a bit too much". I do not believe that anyone could say that removing further education from local education control into quangos was a pro-local government move. I am delighted to hear support for the Government's policy on devolution. It is not something I have heard before from the Conservative Opposition. However it is too late to join in political argument at this stage. I know clearly what the noble Baroness means by her amendments and she knows equally clearly that we must reject them.

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