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The Earl of Onslow: It is because you are a Liberal.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, the noble Earl is right. As such, I believe strongly in the principle of regional government and that it must be there for the right purposes. However, I am a pragmatist. If the Bill is the best that is on offer, I shall go along with it, in the hope that, given time and success, there will be a deepening of the regional dimension to our governance.
It is a pity that the Government did not choose to be bolder. With the Convention on the Future of Europe sitting, the role of this House under the spotlight, the failure of the Commons to deal with legislation as it progresses and the fact that it is unable even to debate the current international situation, the Government should examine the entire constitutional settlement, including regional and local authorities. There is a growing understanding that much of the failure to provide decent public services in this country is due to the fact that our institutions are set up in ways that are rooted in times gone by and are not suited to today. Such constitutional debates are not just a matter of academic discussion: the quality of people's livessometimes their lives themselvesdepends on them.
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I am privileged to live in the county of Cornwall, and it is on that county and its future under the proposed regional assembly that I shall centre my remarks.
Cornwall has the strongest identity of all the regions of Britain. Its boundary is sacrosanct, and, throughout the implementation of its Objective 1 regeneration programme, it has shown that it can pull together effectively with its representatives. It is a poor county in money terms. The decimation of the fishing industry, in which my family and I earned our living for so many years, made it poorer still. However, the county is rich in identity. I appreciated the passion with which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, spoke of her region; it struck a chord with me.
We have tourists, for our coastline is beautiful and our air is clean. They come and they go, putting a strain on our public services for short, hectic bursts, before leaving a county with an ageing population to
In the 1990s, the Conservative government set up the Local Government Commission. I was privileged to serve on that body for the whole of its term. As a commissioner, I travelled the length and breadth of England, offering a new option for local governmentunitary authorities. I was lead commissioner for Cornwall. Painstakingly, the county considered the case for a unitary authority and, after a lengthy campaign with all sides airing their views on television, radio and in the press, and with the commission team taking the choices to town halls and villages explaining exactly what was on offer, the Cornish people voted overwhelmingly to retain their county and district councils. It was their right and they had exercised it with the choices clearly before them.
This time our people will be asked to vote in a referendum that intends to set up a new institutiona regional assembly. Our SW1 is based a long way from Cornwall where all its major decisions will be taken. Therefore, in our situation, a clear choice is a democratic essential. But how will Cornwall and the rest of the people of Britain know what they are voting for? What powers will the assembly have? How many members will there be? How many voices will there be for Cornwall, with its low population? How will the members be elected? Who will pay the costs? Who pays? We heard the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, and the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, speak on that subject in great detail.
Where is the plan? On what basis can anyone vote in a referendum before knowing what they are voting for? The Local Government Associationwho should knowbelieves that coupling the issue of public support for regional assemblies with the requirement to establish a wholly unitary local government system is unnecessary and will distract attention from the overriding objective of improving local services. No evidence was provided in the White Paper as to the need for unitary local government to accompany regional assemblies other than the vague notion that an extra level of government would be one too many and overly bureaucraticwell, well! So why do we need another level over the head of that which we have already which is working rather well, especially in Cornwall where we are rather left to get on with things ourselves as we are too small and too far away to bother about and, like many rural areas, there is not enough votes in us?
Centralised anything is expensive, and slowvery, slow. The further away from the people, the fainter the sound of their voice. Sensitivity to special local geographic and democratic needs gets lost. Cornwall is a long way from anywhere. There will be little sympathy for us. Therefore, we want to see the plan first, so that we know what we are going to be asked to vote for.
I fear that there will be great nervousness and unhappiness over this whole upheaval. The debate in Cornwall now is already dominated by the demand of the Cornish Constitutional Convention for a directly elected Cornish assembly. Despite warnings from Nick Raynsford, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in another place, that such an assembly would be too small to have strategic vision, the convention believes that there is a chance to achieve its goal.
For 1,000 years and more, Britons have been a free and proud people, a nation of individuals prepared and willing to take responsibility for themselves and their own. Given clear choices in a Billnot just a consultation White Paper that carries no commitmentand given clear evidence of the need, again Cornwall can make a decision, as it did under the Local Government Commission those seven or so years ago. If not, Cornwall will reject the change. She will dig in and who knows, she might even achieve her assembly.
Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, I support my noble friend on the Front Bench. In doing so, I should like to point out to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, that he under-estimated by 50 per cent the amount of support on his Benches. I hope that his other figures are more reliable. Before I begin to
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I believe that I under-estimated by only one-third.
Lord Smith of Leigh: My Lords, 50 per centit depends on which way around one is looking at it.
I shall begin with declaring some interests. I am leader of Wigan; I am chair of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities; and I am a former chairman of the North West Regional Assembly. Therefore, I have experience at three tiers of local government level. I believe that the North West needs regional government and I have been an advocate for some time. There is not a conflict between the needs of local government and regional government.
I believe in flexibility in government. The Bill gives that opportunity. Those regions which feel that they are not mature enough to move forward to a fully-elected regional government may take that choice. But those regions which believe that they are ready should not be stopped from moving forward in this way. That is important.
There is much debate about what is regional identity. In most cases, regional identity is somewhat stronger than people feel. During the adjournment, I opened an e-mail containing an unpublished MORI poll for the North West. In terms of identity, people identify, first, with the North West region; secondly, with the district; and, finally, with the county. It is an important unpublished report.
The important point is that the ultimate choice will be made by the public. I share some of the feelings of the previous speakers, that maybe the White Paper
The regions of England will want something themselvesand they will want it for four reasons. A more powerful voice is wanted to represent the regions both in the UK anddare I say?in Europe. A great many issues concerning this country are determined in Brussels. Successful regions have good representation in Brussels.
We need to develop more effective regional strategies. I am a frequent user of the West Coast Main Line. I made it to the debate today by the skin of my teeth because the train was late again. I am relying on the train getting me home tonight, but who knows? Transport and other issues relating to the regions need to be addressed. It may be a surprise to Members opposite but, as my noble friend the Minister said, planning is already a regional matter. Powers are not being taken away from local government; a regional dimension in planning is already taking place.
Principally, we want to focus all the regional government that is taking place. It is not a new tier of government; it is happening already. As in every other region, in the North West a complex web is centred on the government office, other government departments and a great number of quangos set up by past and present governments, but there is not much joining-up. There is no public accountability. I want to see more working together. It is inefficient. I agree with the Minister that there could be efficiency savings, never mind costs. Certainly, it is not very effective. Working together will be better for the regions.
I should like to make a commitment, should I be involved, that there should be plans to improve regional economies. The North West has the third lowest GFP per head. It also has the highest number of deprived areas. We must do better. A regional dimension with local people who care about their community and care about the region will do a lot better than in the past.
The support for regional assembliesdespite what noble Lords opposite would like to thinkis not just from political anoraks like the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and myself. It is wider than thatit is in the communities. The universities in the North West, now working together in the North West Universities Association, and the trade unions support it. The CBI has been quoted, but the North West Chamber of Commerce, which is a much more representative body of the business community, is in favour of regional government of the North West. Community groups now work at a regional level and public support is there.
My noble friend Lady Gould mentioned a BBC poll in which 72 per cent of the people of the North West were in favour. On analysing the detail of the poll, it was found that 81 per cent thought the region would have a stronger voice; 63 per cent thought that it would be closer to the people; 74 per cent thought that it
We have heard a great number of fears about regional government which need addressing. The question is whether we have the capacity in the regions of the UK to make decisions about what should happen in them. Size does not matter; we all know that. However, the North West, with a population of just under 7 million, is bigger than four EU countries. What is most important in the regions is commitment. If people want it to work, then it will do so.
A number of noble Lords opposite have also mentioned fundamental problems between urban and rural areas in the regions. In the North West, it is feared that Manchester or Liverpool will somehow not allow rural areas to develop. But at the moment the choice is not whether Manchester or Liverpool would do that because London makes decisions in regard to the rural areas. Indeed, I question whether the statement is true. When I was leader of the North West Regional Assembly and foot and mouth disease was at its height in Cumbria, that body organised the first two lobbies of European Commissioners on tourism and structural funds to try to help the hard-pressed Cumbrian economy. We did not forget our rural communities, although clearly the outbreak was not a problem in the urban areas. The rural dimension is false.
Will regional assemblies end traditions? I think that there will still be a Lancashire cricket team. It will continue to play, as it has always done, in what is technically Cheshire across the Mersey and we shall still cheer whenever the team beats Yorkshire. That will not change.
A key question that reflects the fears of the Liberal Democrats is the linkage with local government reform. I agree with my noble friend on the Front Bench and the Government that it will add clarity to governance in local areas. Districts are closer to people than are counties. Ultimately, however, people will have a choice about what is to happen, unlike when the metropolitan counties were set up, which my noble friend pointed out. The strength of the Bill is that it will give people a chance to vote and to choose what is to happen.
Noble Lords have expressed many different opinions and quoted from opinion polls on regional government and so forth. The Bill, however, will provide an opportunity to ask people directly. I look forward to that challenge in the North West. If I felt, as do noble Lords opposite, wary of regional government, I would welcome the Bill and lend my support to it. I would support the referendums. If the proposal is going to be as horrendous as has been implied, clearly there will be no problem about persuading people to vote against it. But I fear that, just as noble Lords opposite were wrong in Scotland and wrong in Wales, they will be wrong in some of the key regions of England.
Lord Elliott of Morpeth: My Lords, in taking part in this debate, I hope that my contribution may be of some interest because of my lifetime association with the North East of England. I was born in the region and for a great many years represented a constituency there in another place.
The North East is said to be principal in desiring regional government. I hope to indicate that that is not entirely so and that when the full consequences of regional government become evident, it may be that people will not really desire it.
Recently a response was sought of the regional CBI, which indicated only modest interest. The main claim for regional governance, expressed by the Deputy Prime Minister, is that it will improve regional economic performance. I should like to say a word about the current economic performance of the North East. It has improved enormously over recent years from the post-Second World War position, when we saw the decline of major industries and unemployment rates were appalling. As a young MP in the late 1950s, I continually received deputations from people who had been made redundant, often at difficult times of the year such as Christmas. Today, however, the unemployment rate for the region stands at 6.7 per cent; many of us can remember it being very much higher than that. The figure is only slightly above the national average. Although economic performance is desperately important in any region, as the Deputy Prime Minister has rightly pointed out, at the moment the North East is not doing too badly with local government in its present form.
I turn now to the development agency for the North East. One North East has been remarkably successful in attracting new industry to the region. It has done so in conjunction with, and with co-operation from, existing local government. In his opening speech the Minister spoke of government offices and arms in the regions. To that end, the government arm in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne has also been successful and most helpful to the region, both to local industry and to individuals. Whenever I have approached it I have been given the maximum amount of advice and aid.
When regional authorities were first proposed, I joined in the strong reaction against a third level of government. That is not to be and it was good to hear the Minister confirm today that under no circumstances will there be a third layer of local government if regional assemblies are introduced. However, the realisation that one of the two existing layers will be removed is causing great consternation in the North East of England. Recently in Blyth, a town in east Northumberland, the leader of the council stated that he was urging his authority to re-examine its former pro stance for a regional authority because the proposed single authority system would follow a major shake-up of town halls in Northumberland, which is feared by many. I do not think that it is desirable or democratic under any circumstances to have a smaller government unit in the name of local people and local problems.
In the region we call the North East of England, 68 per cent of those entitled to vote in a referendum already live in unitary council areas. I make the point because the unitary council areas cover the densely populated parts of the region. The North East is peculiar in that it has certain densely populated parts along with great and expansive areas of open country. The population of Northumberland is 300,000; it is quite a small county. Indeed, it is the second smallest county after the Scilly Isles. If we have a local government review which deems that there will be a single local government authority in Northumberland, it may well be that Northumberland County Council will become a unitary council. Is not that enormously dangerous in a vast area with a population that is not high? The region is vast in terms of acreage, but not only sheep live therealthough there are an awful lot of themmany people live there too, served by excellent local authorities. There is an obvious danger in removing local councillors, thus taking away democratic representation in particular from those who live in the county's rural areas.
What will happen in the region of my birth if a referendum takes place and a "yes" vote is successful? The North East has two county councils: Northumberland and Durham. Both councils are historic, highly regarded and have been in place for a long time. They will go, along with 13 district councils. The members of county councils invariably represent areas which they know and in which they are known. That is an important point. For many years my late father was a member of Northumberland County Council. He was also a borough councillor and his town's wartime mayor. Whenever I was asked how I got into party politics, I used to reply that I was brought up on county council minutes.
District and county councillors are well known locallyI know many in my areaand the advent of regional government would mean a substantial withdrawal from public life of so many who have served so well. People wish to be part of their community, but if we move to regional government, decisions that are now taken by district and county councils will be taken by a body consisting of no more than 30 to 45 members, which, in an enormous electorate, will be remote from local problems and local people.
If a referendum is heldand it is obvious from what the Minister said that it will not be held in a hurry and not until after the local government reviewI hope that people will vote "no".
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of a unitary local authority, Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council, in West Yorkshire. I approach the Bill by looking at it through Yorkshire eyes, although I hope I can see how it will affect other areas.
I speak as someone who is in favour of regional government in England. I believe that there is an appropriate level for decision making. It may well be
In a way, this is a very odd Bill; it is a comical affair. We have been told that it follows what happened in Scotland, Wales and London. It is a precursor. Or is it an aperitif or mood music? Its title is the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. To prepare or not to prepare? It is a Boy Scouts Bill. Be preparedbut be prepared for what?
The major element of the Bill concerns referendumsI am not keen on referendums but they took place in the other areas and we must live with thatwhich will be held to frank regional assemblies and regional government. The appetite for voting is not as high as it used to be. Voting seems to be going out of fashion.
However, the ability to vote is still in fashion and elected bodies are far more popular than appointed ones. Reference has been made to the debates in your Lordships' House in regard to whether we should be an appointed House or an elected House. I believe that a public opinion poll was published in which 3 per cent of those questioned thought that it was a good idea to have an appointed House, and rather a lot more were in favour of an elected House. People have a greater enthusiasm for election than for appointment, and a greater enthusiasm for elected bodies than for quangos.
There are two major elements to regional government. First, decision making is nearer homeand we need clarity in that regard. Secondlythis is a major feature in favour of regional assembliesthere should be fewer quangos. Democratic central government agencies will exist in the regions, not the fiefdoms that exist at present.
I have five questions on which the Minister may wish to ponder or, indeed, to answer. How many, and which, quangos will be put out of business? An answer to that question will raise the enthusiasm for regional government. I believe that the RDAs will be the first on the list, but there must be many more. The Minister referred to voting in the dark. We shall not be voting in the dark if we know how many quangos will be put out of business.
Secondly, when people are asked to vote, will they be clear about what powers will be devolved, how much democracy there will be and how much more can be done nearer home?
As to my third question, reference was made to the element of local government, local government reform and the desire for unitary authorities. I agree that it would be better if there were unitary authorities in most places. I believe that there are areas which have been seeking unitary status but which have not yet
The Government should stick with the word "predominantly" rather than going for wholesale unitary regional government.
As I said, I speak with some understanding of Yorkshire. I am far from clear that North Yorkshirewhich extends from Skipton and beyond in the west to Scarborough in the eastwould be right for a unitary authority. There are exceptions. I hope that the word "predominantly" is carried forward and that there is not a wish to make every single area a unitary authority. I hope that many areas will want a unitary body, but that will not be the case everywhere.
As to my fourth question, the White Paper suggested that these regional authorities would have between 25 and 35 members. Reference has been made to the fact that in Scotland there are 73 constituency members and 56 top-up members, a total of 129. That is a far better basis for membership. It seems that we shall be grouping together four parliamentary constituencies and then adding some top-up members.
That may be all right for London, where people live just round the corner, but I am not certain that it is right to have so few people representing such vast regions. People in the country will say that if it is good enough for Scotland to have 129 members, surely we should have decent regional assemblies in Yorkshire, the North East, the North West or wherever.
My fifth question is whether, after the Boy Scouts Bill, we shall need another Billor will it be eight more Bills? It will be interesting to know what is to happen when we come to the real Bill. I suspect that improvements will be required to this Bill and I look forward to the debates on that. But we shall need to know the framework of the substantial Bill before anyone will be able to not necessarily vote but campaign and enthuse about a new kind of regional government.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, has raised an extremely good point. The Bill basically says: you may vote. But vote for what? The noble Lord suggested that we might have some idea about what the regional assemblies should vote for. That is the first sensible Liberal suggestion that I have heard for yearssince the Parliament Act of 1911.
The noble Lord, Lord Smith, said that it would be immature not to vote for regional assemblies. There are those who may take a different view. We may disagree with him, but the accusation of being immature is not totally reasonable.
Constitutional change is terribly easy. When I was a very young man, and had just arrived in this House, we had the 1971 local government changes. The point was that it could be done; no one was going to argue about it. Yippee! We would make a constitutional change, tear up local government, and change it all again.
We have gone through constitutional change after constitutional change, most of it ill-thought-out. We have had a wonderful example today. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested that, if new regional assemblies are to come about, they should be hybridpartly democratically elected and partly appointed. He totally fails to make any connection with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who thinks that hybrid assemblies are a bad idea and that they all have to be appointed. I look around me and say that according to the Lord Chancellor we all have to be appointed.
We democrats believe something slightly differentI know that my own side are not sound on this either. We democrats believe that a greater proportion of Members should be voted for. We also see no reason why there should not be some topping up from other sources. I have no difficulty with that. But the Government ought to make up their mind what they believe is right.
Equally, suddenly the Government says that we all have to have the Human Rights Act; and the Act is there because the House of Commons cannot be trusted not to pass tyrannical Acts or to protect an Englishman's libertieswhich is what I, as an old-fashioned constitutionalist, thought was its purpose. Then, we pass the Human Rights Act, the judges interpret it in a way that the Home Secretary does not like, whereupon the Home Secretary goes ballistic, and he and the Prime Minister say that they are going to derogate from it.
There seems to be a total lack of cohesive thought in what the Government want to do about the constitution. I know what I want, but I am not in governmentmany of your Lordships will say what a blessed relief that is, and I would not necessarily disagree with them. But we must begin thinking seriously about this matter.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, says that the Bill has nothing to do with Europe. I think there is some cliche somewhere: "The lady doth protest too much". The noble Lord was like a lady protesting like hell. I am afraid to say that I believe that there is a European connection, and a perfectly understandable one.
Europe grew up without common law, without a unitary state. This country was a unitary state before the Conquest. It had a perfectly sensible local authority system very early on; namely, counties, shrievalties and chartered towns. That system worked. We managed to bring it gently up to date, to change it gradually and to make it work for a long time. We were a unitary state.
Germany was not a unitary state, because the French interfered and made sure that the Hapsburgs could not unite it. Spain was not a unitary state, because it was the junction of the kingdoms of Aragon
We are a unitary state. We have common law, and it has served us enormously well. To mess about with it because someone has been to a polytechnic constitutional conference in Scunthorpe or wherever strikes me as not being a very intelligent way to approach these matters. We should develop the institutions that we have. We have county councils and district councils; some people want unitary councils, some want split-level councils.
Governments have persistently taken away from local authorities the powers that they had. Before the poll tax of unblessed memory, local authorities raised approximately 50 per cent of their revenue. They now raise some 7 per cent. If local authorities are allowed to use more of the powers that they have and to raise more of their revenue, we shall re-introduce democracy at local level. There is nothing democratic about these proposals. No one is suggesting that the new regional authorities should have the power to raise tax. No one is suggesting that they should have real powers. It is suggested that 25 people, a few of whom are elected and others who are appointed, should be allowed to boss about some quangos. Only a tax-raising authority can have real power. That is why the Commons has power.
What is happening is this. Ethelred the Unready abolished the Heptarchy. The Heptarchy was a bad idea in 900. Now, John the Totally Completely All Over the Place wants to reintroduce the Heptarchy. That is what these regional assemblies are. They are another layer of totally unnecessary government which will not make any decent improvement in ordinary people's lives or give them any more control. Let us give back to local authorities the powers to tax and the powers to take their own decisions. That will be much better than a recreation of the Heptarchy.
Lord Woolmer of Leeds: My Lords, I welcome the Bill. I look forward to a referendum in Yorkshire and Humberside and hope that the referendum supports an elected regional assembly.
Within the Bill there are a number of areas where legitimate points of concern might arise. I hope that the Government are still open to consideration of some of those issues. Your Lordships' Select Committee on the Constitution set out many of these in paragraph 4 on page 3 of its Fourth Report. We shall no doubt explore those issues, along with those raised today and in Committee.
The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, published last year provides a backcloth to the Bill. I believe that it does not go far enough. Many important issues concerning the scope, powers and funding of elected regional assemblies are unclear or merit further debate. Do the Government expect that paving
Would it not be helpful in terms of public awareness, judgment and decision if such legislation were to be published, at least in draft form, before any referendums were held? If that is not done, it rather calls into question the bold claim in paragraph 3.6 on page 32 of the White Paperrepeated by my noble friend the Minister earlier today:
I turn briefly to the question of local government, with reference to Yorkshire-Humberside. In terms of population, North Yorkshire represents a small proportion500,000 out of some 5 millionbut it is a very large county. If the purpose and consequence of the move to elected regional assemblies is to transfer power from central government bodies and quangos, not from local government, surely the regional assemblies will not duplicate or triplicate the work of local authorities. That is the Government's claim. Why, then, are the Government set, in principle, on eliminating a tier of local government, where it currently exists, in the event of establishing elected regional assemblies?
If an elected regional assembly is not established, the Government are perfectly happy for two tiers of local government to continue, presumably because it is an effective and appropriate way of delivering local services. If an elected regional assembly is established, taking powers only from central government, why is there the need to change the structure of local government as a principle? I simply do not understand the logic. However, I understand that if the Government had not put forward this proposal, Members on the Opposition Benches would be shouting that this would duplicate, triplicate and multiply costs. It would be encouraging to hear Conservative Front Bench Members saying that that is not the case and they are not arguing about extra costs. I accept that the Government's case is difficult politically, but I certainly do not understand the logic of their position, even if I understand the political imperative.
However, I believe the White Paper's claim to be a considerable overstatement of a transfer of powers from central government to the regions; it could raise expectations unduly. If people are to vote on real, effective regional devolution of poweran important constitutional reform I totally supportdetails of the scope, powers and financing of the elected regional assemblies should be transparent.
Regionalism is about power as well as general influence. There are whole swathes of public policy where the regional dimension is important and regional vision and drive can make a real difference. I am thinking of such areas as health services, education, learning and skills, transport, the environment and even planning, where recent changes are only a modest start in the right direction.
Increasing the regional sensitivities of Whitehall departments has been a welcome step, but that is not regionalism. It does not strengthen regional identity, regional commitment or regional self-development.
Kirklees Metropolitan Council undertook an exemplary public consultation exercise on the issues raised by the White Paper, and I commend it to your Lordships. It noted on page 4, paragraph 9:
I conclude with a few observations on opinions in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Many local councils have undertaken consultation exercises. Those have, without doubt, raised awareness of the possible referendum process, if not the issues that will lie behind a referendum decision. The Yorkshire and Humberside regional Assembly has undertaken a particularly thorough review of public opinion on whether a referendum should be held. The regional assembly considers those findings on Monday next, and I await its views and assessment with interest.
Most people know little or nothing about the issues of substance behind a possible referendum. For example, work done for the North Yorkshire County Council shows that 75 per cent of residents in North Yorkshire have either not heard of the Government's proposals or, where they have, are unable to explain them. If pressed, I believe that a quiet, if not totally silent and not too committed majority, would wish to have the opportunity to vote in a referendum. I think that people who desire a referendum are in the majority in my region, especially if other regions were to have a referendum, which would lead to the problem of timing.
If people are pressed on how they would vote if a referendum were held, the silence is even louder. There may be differences of views between the rural and urban areas in the Yorkshire-Humber region, but those differences may not be as strong as some might expect. In the study by North Yorkshire County
Interestingly, the effect of restructuring local government in North Yorkshire was as likely to cause people to vote for a regional assembly46 per centas against44 per cent. So although I have grave doubts about the principle underlying the Government's pragmatic, political decision to go for unitary authorities, it may come as a surprise to some that in North Yorkshire there is no overwhelming desire to keep a two-level, two-tier body.
If a referendum is to be held in my regionand I hope it isthere is a great deal to be done by proponents and opponents of the move to elected regional assemblies if a turnout is to be respectable and the electorate's decision a clear guide to the Government. The Bill is a paving Bill in that process. I wish it well, but I hope that the Government are able, even at this stage, to listen to some of the concerns expressed in this Chamber.
Lord Newby: My Lords, I shall concentrate my remarks on the likely implications for economic performance at regional level if the Bill is enacted and regional assemblies are established.
First, I should like to comment on the Government's attitude to local and regional government in England. Unless we understand that, it is difficult to make sense of the White Paper. It uses some splendid language, to which the noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, referred, and raises one's expectations for regional government. Yet when one looks at the powers envisaged for regional assemblies, one sees a great roar that has produced a mouse.
I was fortunate in getting a double insight into government thinking when I attended a meeting of the Campaign for Yorkshire in Leeds a couple of weeks ago. The speakers included Ed Balls, speaking for the Treasury, and Richard Caborn, who was of course largely instrumental in getting the idea of regional government in England moving in government.
Ed Balls talked about various small additional powers that local government might get and said something like, "local government has to earn greater powers". Richard Caborn, when describing with great satisfaction the fact that the RDAs now had greater discretion within the single pot, said that that had been possible because they had earned greater flexibility, and that the powers given to regional government would have to be earned. We on these Benches reject that approach completely. We believe, as a matter of principle, that maximum powers should be devolved to local and regional level. We do not take it as axiomatic that national government have earned all their powers. In many cases, they have simply grabbed hold of powers from local government, not least because, in some cases, the government of the day did not like the polices adopted at a lower level.
However, there is a silver lining in the Government's approach. The White Paper implies that if regional assemblies exercise their minimal powers wisely, further powers will be given to them. I hope that the appropriate analogy is that of the European Parliament. It started off with minimal powers and very low understanding but has acquired significantly greater powers because the logic of the European Parliament, and its role within the EU, has become apparent. Governments have given the European Parliament greater powers because they feel that it has a more powerful role to play.
To return to the economic case, one can see how elected assemblies would help the regions at regional, national, European and international levels. At the regional level, the RDAs have made significant progress, not least in developing regional economic strategiesconcepts that, to the extent that they existed, were not put into effect before, but are now being produced as a result of a huge amount of consultation, involving the energies of large numbers of people. RDAs have been criticised in this debate for not yet having achieved a major shift in regional disparities. Given their short life and small budget, that seems unfair and misleading.
The problem with the RDAs as the main drivers for regional economic development is that many of the things that they wish to happen fall outwith their powers. An obvious example involving the Yorkshire and Humberside RDA's regional economic strategy relates to the role of culture in the region. The RDA has many powers, but it has no power or significant influence over cultural development, nor should it. Without a regional assembly, it will be impossible to bring together those other elements of regional life, which breathe life into and strengthen the economic strategies.
The role that the RDAs claim for themselves of knocking heads together at regional level to produce coherent delivery of economic policy is not best suited to a nominated body. If anyone is suited to that work, it is the elected politician who has a mandate.
Secondly, English regions currently have very limited ability to lobby effectively on economic matters at national level. When the Yorkshire and Humberside RDA launched its regional economic strategy a couple of weeks ago, I chaired a small working group on transport policy. Everyone in the room rapidly agreed that the major problem was that there was no body within Yorkshire that could lobby at national level for improvements in transport, whether it was the railways, airports or transport within the region. When I took that conclusion back to the plenary everyone nodded their head wisely, but it was clear that nothing was going to happen as a result of that conclusion because the RDA is not in a position to become an effective lobby at national level. The only people who can come down to Whitehall and Westminster and berate the Government are elected politicians with their own mandate. Only an elected assembly will be able to lobby for public economic goods.
There has been some discussion today about the Barnett formula. Does anyone believe that the Government will change the Barnett formula unless there is tremendous pressure on them to do so? How can tremendous pressure be brought to bear at the moment from the English regions when there are no regional bodies with any weight that can come to London and berate Ministers? Again, unless we have directly elected regional assemblies able to look a Minister in the eye and say, "We have a mandate", we shall not get a significant response from Whitehall.
Thirdly, regions need to be stronger in European negotiations. There will soon be a major renegotiation of the structural funds to take account of EU enlargement. The inevitable consequence will be a reduction in the proportion of the structural funds coming to the UK. To protect the level of structural funds coming to London, Ken Livingstone, as an elected regional leader, has had the political clout to pull together other cities and regions to make the case for an urban strand in future structural funds. The other English regions have no elected politicians with the clout and remit to undertake a similar role. As an inevitable consequence, the regions will lose out in the political horse trading that will precede any decision on the future of structural funds.
Contrast that with the growing and deepening involvement of regions across the EU with the economic development agenda. They are not doing that for fun or on a whim. They know that in the competition for jobs and investment, clear and firm political support really matters.
That takes me to my fourth and final areathe international links that regions increasingly feel the need to build up to generate trade and investment. I shall illustrate the current nonsensical situation with an instance involving Yorkshire Forward, in which I was involved. Yorkshire Forward has signed an agreement with the Zhejiang province in China, by which the two areas agreed to work together to promote trade, inward investment, tourism and other links between them. It makes a lot of economic sense for an English region to have a strong link with the largest and fastest growing economy in the world.
However, when a delegation of senior politicians, administrators and businessmen came to Yorkshire to get the agreement moving, the RDA had the difficulty of having no one at Yorkshire level to speak to them, so I was dragged into the meeting in Leeds to pretend to be the equivalent of the vice-governor of Zhejiang provincepopulation 45 millionand explain that, although at the moment things at regional level were pretty weak, the Government were about to enable a regional assembly to be put in place that would be able, in part at least, to replicate what the regional bodies were doing in China. In accordance with the RDA's strategic goal of linking sporting success to regeneration and regional pride, I then marched the Chinese delegation to Elland Road for one of Leeds United's fortunately successful UEFA Cup matches in the early autumn. Much as I enjoyed the whole experience, I felt it was slightly ludicrous.
For all those reasons at all those levels, the economic development agenda of the English regions needs the buttressing of elected regional assemblies. Even with the limited powers in the Green Paper, many of the things that I have described will be possible. I hope that if and when there are regional assemblies in the northern regions and they are successful in moving forward the economic development agenda, the government of the day will use that as a basis to strengthen what is proposed so that what is now a second-rate, milk and water proposal for regional government becomes the real thing.
Lord Bowness: My Lords, as I have said on other occasions, I may be less hostile to the concept of regional government than are some of my noble friends. I have seen regional authorities in different forms in different countries in Europe. Despite the difficulty of transposing political structures and systems from one jurisdiction to another, there is no doubt that in those countries they enjoy some real advantages. Incidentally, like the Minister, I do not accept that this is a dastardly scheme from Brussels. I look forward to hearing later speakers this afternoon put forward the evidence that it is, which was trailed in Christopher Booker's column in the Sunday Telegraph.
Nevertheless, I remain sceptical about whether those advantages will ever be achieved in England or whether the centralising political culture of this country, which exists even when we are trying to decentralise, will bring forward proposals of any worth.
I have real reservations about the concept of regions in this country. Few areas have a clear sense of regional identity. Many people have loyalties to different places for different purposes, but they do not fall neatly into the regions that the Government have in mind.
As I have said in previous debates, there is much to be said for ensuring that there are statutory mechanismsbetter mechanisms than exist at presentthat enable existing local authorities to work together. They might achieve much of what is behind the idea of a regional assembly, but without the disruption that will undoubtedly follow this Bill. My fear is not that the Bill will set up another sphere of government that will weaken central government and Parliament, but that it will be just another local government reorganisation that will weaken all the local government structures in the regions in question.
The suggested powers include economic development, transport, land use and regional planning, environmental protection and public health, but not many of the major issues to which the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, referred. The Bill says nothing about the powers of regional assemblies. The noble Lord, Lord Woolmer, dwelt on that matter at some length and very clearly. I have great sympathy with the view that we should not approve the Bill until the Government give a clear and unambiguous statement
Much has changed since I left local government in 1998, but I am bound to observe that much of what is trailed as powers of the regional assemblies is not a million miles away from the concerns of local authorities then and, I believe, now. There is nothing to suggest that there will be a ground-breaking experiment in England to hand real power and functions to regional assemblies or even local authorities, on the Scandinavian model. Why, if we are to have devolution, are the English assemblies to be less trusted than the Welsh Assembly? If it is because the English assemblies are going to be a different creature, it can only be because it is going to be a local government creature.
Will the Minister expand on Clause 23 and the grant-aiding powers for regional chambers? I was under the impression, as I am sure that other noble Lords were, that with the advent of regional assemblies, the chambers would go. However, the Deputy Prime Minister waxed lyrical about the success of regional chambers. He said:
Can we have a categorical assurance that where there is an assembly there will not be an RDA, a regional chamber and, indeed, the assembly?
I have great sympathy with the views expressed on the reorganisation of local government as a consequence of a positive result of a referendum on the establishment of a regional assembly. If devolution and decentralisation are the names of the game, why must a region that has voted to have an assembly with devolved powers have a system of local government thrust on it? If devolution means anything, it must be that regional government can decide the system that it considers best for the delivery of local government services. In rural areas, smaller units for the delivery of some services may be more appropriate.
I remain sceptical about the Bill. There is a suspicion that the Government must propose the abolition of the counties if the Bill is to have anything to offer the new regional assemblies. This is a Bill to reorganise local government and, yet again, to shuffle the services between one tier and another. The resulting local government reorganisation will sour relations between communities for years and cost a fortune. It is a proposal not to give power to the regions but to create larger units of local government.
I turn to the vexed question of boundaries. It would be right for the Boundary Committee to conduct a timetabled exercise on the boundaries of the proposed regions. When the Regional Development Agencies Bill was before your Lordships' House, a number of noble Lords raised the question of boundaries.
At that time, I moved an amendment that would have placed the decision on the boundaries in the hands of the Boundary Commission. It was an attempt to deal with the problem of deciding on the extent of each region with the intention of ensuring that a real community of interest existed. The Government resisted that amendment and similar pleas from my noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon and other noble Lords. It was resisted largely on the grounds that the future was not being prejudiced. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in resisting the amendment, said:
He went on to say that the amendments,
Will the Minister table an amendment in Committee that will enable us to consider the boundaries of the regions? He said that there was a power to change the boundaries some time in future. Is he relying on the RDA Act, which gives the Secretary of State the power to review but not increase or decrease the number of regions? I fear that we are being asked to approve a Bill that will give the Secretary of State powers to hold a referendum in a region established by previous Secretaries of State and governments as a matter of administrative convenience. That referendum will be to decide whether there should be a regional assembly without, as yet, any specified powers. It is not known how it will be funded, and local government will be reorganised or abolished in the region before any of the questions are answered.
Far from devolving power, this is an extraordinary sleight of hand that takes power away from people and their region and puts it in the hand of Government.
Lord Dixon: My Lords, the campaign to get elected regional government on the parliamentary agenda has taken a considerable time. I welcome this Bill as the first long awaited step. Like my noble friend Lord Woolmer of Leeds, I look forward to the referendum.
I shall confine my remarks to the North East region, which has its own identity. Last Friday, I attended a memorial service for Joe Mills OBE, a great northerner. He was chairman of the Northern Regional Labour Party and was always a strong advocate of elected regional government. I pay tribute to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham, to my right honourable friend Joyce Quin MP, to the right honourable Alan Beith MP, and to the many others in the region who have long spearheaded the campaign for an elected regional assembly.
It was over a quarter of a century ago, in 1976, that I attended a meeting in Newcastle at which my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister showed his enthusiasm for elected regional assemblies. Unfortunately, that meeting took place during the period of the ill-fated Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills, during the 197479 Labour government. The meeting was attended by some cynics who felt that that policy had been trotted out as an act of appeasement to various northern Labour MPs who were not too happy about the Scottish and Welsh Devolution Bill. I should point out that some of the MPs who showed opposition did so not because they were totally opposed to devolved government for Scotland and Wales, but mainly because they maintained that Scotland and Wales already had tremendous advantages over the northern region where there was not even a regional development agency.
In his maiden speech, on 20th November 1976, after winning the by-election in Newcastle Central, and referring to the passage in the Queen's Speech on devolution, my old comrade, the late Harry Cowens, said:
On Tuesday, 28th January 2003, there was a very good report in the Newcastle Journal by Paul Linford, following a Question tabled by my noble friend Lord Barnett. The article pointed out that, according to Treasury figures, under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives £410 per head more than the North East in government spending on vital public services. Moreover, under the formula, Wales receives £215 per head more in public spending than is currently available to the North East. If the North East received
On 18th December 2002, in a debate on the constitution, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said:
During the time that I served in another place as MP for the Jarrow constituency, Scotland and Wales had both their own Secretaries of State in the Cabinet and other Ministers. They had their own Grand Committees. They had their own Select Committees. They had their own Question Time. The regions had a committee, but, because it was a Standing Committee rather than a Select Committee, it had no permanent secretariat, did not control its own agenda and could meet only if the Minister tabled a Motion. We could never get the then Tory government to table such a Motion so that we could have a debate on the Floor of the House about the problems facing the North East. As Opposition MPs, we had to use half our supply days each Session to talk about the problem in the North East.
The 2001 census results reveal some shocking facts. They show that the North East region has England's highest rate of people in poor health, the highest proportion of adults with no qualifications, and the highest number of people who are economically inactive and permanently sick. Since the devolution of Scotland and Wales in 1999, people living in the North East can look across to Scotland and see free personal care for the elderly and students no longer paying tuition fees. They can look across to Wales and see improvement in a series of policy areas, from free bus passes for the elderly to the reintroduction of free school milk. Indeed, just recently we had a situation in which Welsh MPs in another place voted to abolish community health councils in this country while CHCs have been retained in Wales. In South Tyneside, we lost our good community health council, with which I worked for many years.
I can understand the reservations expressed today about having one tier of local government. I served on Jarrow Borough Council under the two-tier system with Durham County Council. After the Local Government Act 1972, I went on South Tyneside Metropolitan District Council. I know which I prefer.
There is support for an elected regional assembly in the North East. A poll carried out last March by the BBC showed that 72 per cent of people in the North East region favour such an assembly. About the time of the Jarrow Crusade, in 1936, when 200 men marched 291 miles to London with a petition to draw the government's attention to the unacceptably high level of unemployment in the town, a small deputation from Jarrow Council went to see the then President of the Board of Trade about the terrible situation in our area. However,
Some argue that an elected regional assembly would create an extra regional tier of government. However, as my noble friend Lord Rooker pointed out, a regional tier of government already existsconsisting of central government outposts staffed by civil servants as well as numerous unelected and unaccountable quangos which daily make key decisions affecting people's lives in the region.
I recall, as chairman of the housing committee of South Tyneside Metropolitan Council, going every year to the Government Office at Welbar House, in Newcastle, and arguing with civil servants for what we considered adequate finance for the Housing Investment Programme. I hope that an elected regional assembly will make the system more accountable by bringing all the regional quangos under a single, democratically elected body. To those who argue that those who want a regional assembly must be mad, I say, "Look at the 2001 census returns for the North East and see where the sane ones have got us".
I should like, finally, to reiterate the points made on the desirability of having a draft Bill printed before the referendum. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will seriously consider that. However, I assure him that he will have my utmost support in getting the Bill on the statute book.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, speaking after so many erudite contributions, there does not seem to be much more to say about the detail of this unfortunate and dangerous Bill. As my noble friend Lady Hanham made clear, it is open to unacceptable manipulation by the Secretary of State, among its other defects. But I have one question for the Minister arising from his opening remarks. He referred to
I am told that in some areas, and maybe everywhere, if one writes on the form that one is against a regional assembly, that is taken as "expressing an interest" and therefore counts in favour of a referendum. I find it hard to believe, but I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that that is not happening and, if it is happening, that that is not the conclusion that is reached.
The Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, assured us that the Bill does not represent another attempt by the corrupt octopus in Brussels to wrap one more tentacle around what remains of our sovereignty. To those who have watched the steady erosion of our sovereignty to the European Union over many years, I fear that those assurances do not cut much ice.
That is because with every new loss of our democratic freedom we always start off by being told by the government of the day that, whatever the threat is, it does not exist, that it is just a figment of the imagination of some academic think tank, that any Euro-realist who thinks that he has spotted some new advance by the corrupt octopus, is simply over-excited or worse. Then we move to the next phase of the procedure: "Okay, so the European Commission is proposing it, but there is no stomach for this with our EU partners". Then we are told, "Well, some of them want it, but we shall argue vigorously against it in the Council". Then when the United Kingdom has given in or has been out-voted, we get the final insult: "There is nothing particularly new in this and anyway you were warned". Thus the ratchet grinds eternally forward and indeed, as I am sure the Minister knows, the treaties state that it cannot go backwards. So, with European regionalisation, we are now at the first phase: "It's not happening". I am grateful to the Minister and to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for confirming that and for playing so true to form.
I hope it will be helpful if I try to point out why this Bill, and the whole project of European regionalisation, are indeed central in the strategy of those who wish replace the nation states of Europe with a mega-state in the shape of the European Union, sometimes referred to as a "Europe of the regions". I would have thought that now there can be no doubt that that is indeed what many in Brusselsperhaps mostwant to achieve. After all, as I have pointed out to your Lordships beforemost recently on 18th December in our debate on the constitutionthe European Union already has its own parliament, executive, supreme court, currency, trade policy, flag and anthem. The convention on the future of Europe, chaired by Valery Giscard D'Estaing, aims to complete the process by granting the EU its own army, foreign policy, police force, tax and legal system. Above all, it appears that the EU is to have its own legal personality enshrined in a new written
To discover where regionalisation fits into the dream, or rather nightmare, depending how you look at it, one need not look much further than a document recently put out by the EU's Committee of the Regions, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred as the innocent little think tank that always comes into these projects at an early stage. The document is entitled Major Steps Towards a Europe of the Regions and Cities in an Integrated Continent. In a series of diagrams this document lays out the building blocks to be used in the creation of regional government in all EU countries. There are sections marked "Genesis", "Breakthrough", "Consolidation" and "Further Integration and Enlargement"the same kind of process that I described in somewhat less elegant terms earlierwhich explain how the Council of Europe and a variety of European regional associations have been working towards this grand goal since the 1960s and which show how each new treaty has linked into and furthered the process. I suppose that this Bill starts to lead us from "Genesis" toward "Breakthrough".
Under the Committee of the Region's master plan, the UK is broken up into 12 regions, each with a regional assembly in direct contact with the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. The diagrams in the pamphlet make no reference to Westminster, and the word "England" does not exist anywhere. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland retain their identities but England is replaced by London and eight regions: East Midlands, Eastern, North East, North West, South East, South West, West Midlands and York and Humber. I wonder whether any of that sounds familiar to your Lordships. It should do because they are the same constituencies from which we send members to the European Parliament, as we saw from the earlier Bill today. So, my second question to the Minister is how the boundaries proposed in the Bill may eventually fit with those constituencies or can he assure us that they never will?
Whatever the answer to that question, the plan is that before long the Committee of the Regions will cease to be something of a talking shop, as we move from "Breakthrough" to "Consolidation", as the regions get ever greater tax raising powers and as Brussels takes over their control.
I hope that that gives some flavour of what this Bill could really come to be about. But I want to spend some of my time today looking at what is going on in the minds of those who wish to impose their grandiose dream on the peoples of Europe. Why on earth do they want to do it and why is regionalisation so important to them? As far as I can see, put very simply, they confuse patriotism with nationalism and they believe that the modern democratic nation state represents a threat to peace. So it must be broken up and neutralised and diluted into their new European cocktail. Indeed, the idea that the EU will somehow procure peace seems to be the deep, central idea which underpins the European dream. There are other bad
But the central assumption is that the EU will secure peace, which the continued existence of the nation state would endanger. We Euro-realists think that that is a dangerous assumption, because we remember the lessons of history and accept the realities of human nature. Those teach us quite simply that on the whole democracies do not provoke wars, whereas forced conglomerations of different peoples and nations nearly always end in disaster.
Of course, the EU is a top-down creation, structurally and incurably undemocratic. Apart from the remaining communist states, it must be the only institution on the planet which pretends to be a democracy, but whose bureaucracy, the corrupt and incompetent Commission, enjoys the exclusive rights to propose legislation and to conduct international affairs. So we Euro-realists say that the Eurocrats have chosen a very dangerous model. We say that democracy is the guarantor of peace, not this frightening creature which is taking shape in Brussels.
While on the subject of peace, we also think that the Europhiles have a brass nerve when they claim that the EU has been responsible in any way for peace in Europe since the last war. NATO kept the peace in Europe since 1945 and NATO will continue to do so if it is not undermined by the EU's absurd new army. Is anyone seriously suggesting that any country in the EU would have declared war on another in the absence of the EU? I hope not.
Brussels' ambitions to break up the nation states and assume their powers are not confined to its Committee of the Regions. Those ambitions are widely shared by Europhiles everywhere and have been for some time. For example, as long ago as 1994, Charter 88 group published a speech by Mr Neal Ascherson, a member of the Federal Trust Round Table, of which I gather Europhiles like Mr Charles Kennedy, Mr Peter Mandelson and the BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr are also members.
A brief quote neatly reflects the ambitions of Brussels and the Committee of the Regions:
So I have only one other question for the Minister. I feel sure that he will dismiss my remarks, if he is good enough to refer to them at all, as unfounded, exaggerated, and generally the product of my fevered Eurosceptic brain.
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