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Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill

Second Reading debate resumed.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, in any case, it would have been a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, with whom I collaborated in 1989 on the details of by-election expenses and overseas voting rights to be included in a Bill that summer. It is not merely a pleasure, but also a privilege, given that she is one of only two Labour Back-Bench Peers who have found it possible to assist the Minister at Second Reading by supporting the principle underlying the Bill.

Some of us are revisiting territory that we covered recently in a similar but more general debate on local government. Had we had a third opportunity, we could have applied the well-known test of the Bellman in The Hunting of the Snark that,

But I doubt whether there will be much change in the asseverations delivered between the two debates.

Although the Bill is about preparations only, the very concept of a regional referendum implies the necessary possible consequence of a regional assembly; thus, the latter is as much a part of the principle of this Bill as the preparations. I have a handful of observations on the latter principle before

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concluding on the former. I put the cart before the horse, since without the cart the horse would be irrelevant.

First, I appreciate that the Prime Minister's antagonism to Conservatism carries the implication that one cannot learn from the past. In this context, that seems an error. I cite as a single example, recently confirmed by devolutionary experience and alluded to by other of my noble friends, that re-organisation expenditure always dramatically exceeds budget.

Secondly, the Government believe that they have provided a framework for regional development through the regional development agencies. I would be happier to apply the learning-from-the-past thesis if the Government believed that they have also provided a springboard as well as a framework for future regional reorganisation. That would imply a review of the regional development agencies' success to date. DTI figures last year show that RDA target achievement is so far unproven.

Thirdly, the Government believe that regional assemblies will accelerate regional regeneration and reduce regional economic disparity. The doughnut shape of France, which is not without regional development, with the wealth at the centre and poverty on the perimeter, is not only a paradigm of my own concern about the euro Europe-wide; it is a rebuttal of the Government's optimism. Academic work such as the Rowntree Foundation study—I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Best, in his place—also reinforces scepticism about the issue. It is an irony, both on cost and on economic opportunity, that a scheme intended to promote economic expansion has not managed to secure the CBI's support, but, rather, has provoked its opposition.

Fourthly, again in ignoring lessons from the past mode, the Government seem to have forgotten the nation's opposition to the removal of old landmarks and the creation of bland homogeneity. It was not only rural Rutland that objected to its obliteration. More appositely, urban areas such as Avon and Humberside resented their removal from their roots. For incidental and extraneous reasons, I am a minor authority on the Humber and its hinterland. As a small boy in 1947, when the Labour parliamentary majority was of a scale approaching that of today, a schoolmaster rebuked a misdemeanour of mine by handing me copies of Bradshaw and The Times guide to the general election and telling me to devise a railway journey from Edinburgh to where I was at school in the south of England that avoided passing through a single socialist constituency. It turned out that the only feasible such journey involved taking a train to the station on the north bank of the Humber nearest its mouth, walking to the shore and engaging a ferryman to row one across, and then walking from the southern shore to the station nearest to the river mouth.

Fifthly, a rule-of-thumb calculation in another place, which has been echoed by my noble friends today, is that regional representation will comprise one representative for around 150,000 voters. By British standards, it is a pretty remote representation.

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I acknowledge that European Parliament practice has now moved from individual constituencies to closed regional lists, but I do not think that anyone would argue that that reconstruction has been, to put it neutrally, anything other than unfortunate. The fact that the elephantine regional list is to be maintained in another Bill receiving Second Reading in the House today is another incidental example of the Government ignoring experience. Meanwhile, if we are to have 150,000 voters required to elect each representative, planning considerations will move much further from the individual citizen.

In all those matters, there is a whiff of dogma in the Government's proposals. In that regard, we are lucky that the Minister in charge of the Bill in your Lordships' House is the very antithesis of dogmatic. I can imagine him good-humouredly and relevantly pointing out to me, as he did to the House in his opening speech, that no region is obliged to have a regional assembly unless its citizens so vote in a referendum, and even then the Government retain some discretion.

I conclude, therefore, with two observations about the envisaged referendum procedures. Again, to some degree, I follow paths already taken by other noble friends. The first is the initial hurdle at which the Government will need to be convinced that there is in a region sufficient interest in a regional assembly to justify a referendum. I am less well informed than some noble Lords about the Government's soundings and am mildly surprised that they are going on while the Bill is still before Parliament. But, in response to other noble friends' questions, I shall be interested to hear how the Minister envisages that that interest—what might be described as sufficient interest—will be ascertained and calibrated. I shall be concerned if the Government rely on opinion poll data or their proxies, when voters will know so little of the detail of regional assemblies, and given that incremental costs have an historical record of ballooning. I also recall the Greater London Assembly Bill mushrooming from 270 clauses on introduction in another place to 413 clauses when it passed Third Reading in your Lordships' House.

I always have in mind Enoch Powell's response on "Any Questions?", when, as a capital punishment abolitionist, he was confronted on the panel by the observation that there was an 80 per cent majority vote in national polls in favour of retention of the capital penalty. He said that such data was collected by people with clipboards from people standing at bus-stops—I must allow for mutatis mutandis. He said that, if he had been standing at the same bus-stop with a retentionist, he would have guaranteed, provided that no bus came along for a quarter of an hour, that he would turn the retentionist into an abolitionist by the time that the bus arrived. I agree that the late Enoch Powell was an unusually effective and well-informed advocate. But the principle still applies, especially when interest in the proposition is still general.

My second point on procedure relates to the unfettered right of the Secretary of State to determine the period of the referendum prior to which the

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Government also have the right to campaign for the principle of the proposition. I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform. In its 11th sessional report, the committee said that no minimum or maximum referendum period was prescribed by the Bill. The absence of limits implies that the Secretary of State might vary the periods for different regions. Your Lordships may recall that holding the Welsh devolution referendum precisely a week after the similar Scottish vote may have affected the Welsh result. Thus, the apparently discretionary power pertaining to the Secretary of State is not necessarily insignificant.

All those matters will engross your Lordships' House in Committee, to which I already look forward. If I am briefly absent at any point in the afternoon, it is because the deadline for putting down amendments for the Report stage of the Licensing Bill falls today.

3.40 p.m.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, the House will be relieved to hear that I intend to keep my remarks brief. I declare an interest as a county councillor of 10 years' standing, and noble Lords may be surprised to hear that I am, broadly speaking, in favour of the Bill—but only broadly. There are two areas of concern. The first is the unnecessary linkage between elected regional assemblies and local government review. The second is the fact that the range of powers envisaged for the assemblies has not been debated, explored and clarified, before the legislation enabling them to be created is considered.

The proposals in the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice still leave far too much power in the hands of Whitehall for my liking. The Government have made a lot of the so-called democratisation of the current plethora of regional bodies, but, in the context of the Bill, that democratisation is a myth. The truth is that all the major delivery agencies, such as the National Health Service, the learning and skills councils, the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority—to name but a few—will continue to be run strategically from a central location. They will continue to be subject to the baleful influence of Whitehall, with its mania for performance indicators and target setting. Local diversity will continue to be slowly strangled through a regime of government by performance indicator.

The balance of power has not changed. That means that regions will have to adapt their priorities to fit in with those of national government. Once again, we see the obsession with structures over powers. Just as local government is all too often local administration, so regional government will be regional administration. There is a danger that, as in local government, true accountability will be blurred because the people who are elected will be taking decisions that have already been made by central government.

I use transport as an example. A regional assembly with the power merely to recommend is not much of a step forward from the current arrangements, under

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which representatives of local authorities in a region are mandated to meet in regional fora. Work has been done recently on multi-modal studies. Regional groupings have worked together to create integrated transport strategies to meet the aspirations of the region, not just in transport but in land-use planning, economic regeneration and sustainability. Yet, having made those detailed recommendations, the delivery agencies, all operating on legitimate national targets, say that such regional aspirations do not meet with national priorities and will not happen. People in the regions wonder why on earth the Government asked them to do the job in the first place.

Worse still, the national bodies operate in isolation not only from each other but from regional priorities. They are simply not capable of delivering appropriate transport strategies in the regions. I am not the only person saying that. The Commission for Integrated Transport, of which I am a member, has come to the same view, as has the CBI. The creation of the regional assemblies as envisaged will do nothing at all to address that situation. It is clear to many people that the regional assemblies must have some of the powers that rest currently with the Department for Transport.

The referenda on elected regional assemblies have been linked with local government review. In the context of the Bill, it is irrelevant to debate the relative merits of unitary authorities and two-tier structures. However, I must say that, if, on consideration, the Boundary Committee believes that the best way forward for service delivery in any area is to have a unitary authority, that area should have a unitary authority, regardless of how it might feel about regional government. Conversely, if the committee thinks that two-tier is the best option, why should an area be denied a regional tier of government? If the Government believe, as I do, that the current regional arrangements require democratisation, why should people who vote to keep two tiers of government have to choose between having two tiers and having democratic regional arrangements? That makes no sense to me, nor will it make sense to other people.

What saddens me is that the White Paper made clear that there was no de facto case for local government review in the context of the Bill. There is simply a perception of over-government. Political leadership is about conviction and persuasion. If the Government believe in regional assemblies, they should seek to persuade us that it does not represent over-government. They should not act simply out of fear of that perception.

Shire counties such as Suffolk went through local government review in the early 1990s. It was a shambles because there were no underlying principles relating to the powers of the authorities concerned. It was all about structure. This process looks set to repeat many of the same mistakes and could end up in the same unsatisfactory mess. Councils will face potential upheaval, staff will be threatened and vital services potentially threatened, all to no discernible purpose except a dogmatic adherence to a one-size-fits-all view.

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In many regions, including mine—the east of England—it is almost impossible to imagine voters choosing a directly elected regional assembly, if it means that they will lose the shire counties that they understand and trust. In other regions—for example, Cumbria and Northumberland—people risk having their desire to keep their county council over-ridden by other parts of the region that have had unitary government for a long time. That is riding roughshod over their needs.

Noble Lords may wonder why, having said all that, I support the Bill when I have such fundamental problems with it.

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