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In conclusion, the redrawing of the boundaries will not be easy. But it must be done before the new constitutional arrangement takes place. We do not want to underestimate the extent to which the Bill proposes fundamental changes, not only to the constitutional arrangements of the country, but to the democratic arrangements. We should not be too glib about that. We should take seriously what regional government means, if that is what the Government are intent on introducing. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: We on these Benches have made no secret of our concern about the regional boundaries, which, as the Minister reminded the Committee, were created by the previous government, though for a different purpose. They were created for administrative reasons. One wonders whether they were created to continue control from Whitehall rather than to devolve it. They were used for the purposes of the regional development agency boundaries so that we could get on with that proposal. I must confess that during the passage of the Regional Development Agencies Bill I did not support change of the boundaries. Hindsight is a great thing.
We have heard some examples. I thought that my noble friend was going to say that Cheshire was a unique entitysui generis is perhaps the term to use. Many people living in Cheshire would not wish to be identified with anywhere else. But there are identity problems elsewhere. I understand that Shropshire feels closer to Gloucestershire than to Birmingham in the South West, although I cannot speak directly about that. Under the proposals, Gloucestershire is allied with Cornwall. We know about the problems in the South East.
But to what extent is the purpose of this amendment to get it right? We know that the Conservatives do not wish to see regional government in place. I cannot help thinking that the amendment is simply a recipe for delay. Under the amendment as tabled, several conditions must be met, including much consultationI would not argue with that. But I wonder whether it is dealt with in a limited way, given that "relevant interests" is so closely defined.
There is also the question of size, which worries me. This is a diverse country and, of course, the populations of different parts of the country are different. I do not understand the need for size to be a criterion. That suggests that there is a need to create a level playing-field so that the regions can compete for power between themselves. The regions differ in size, but that does not undermine the identity of any region. I say that without disagreeing with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about the proposed South East region, which is an absurdity. I accept that, but I do not think that the amendment is the way to go about things.
I come back to my first point. We know the attitude of the Conservatives to this important democratic proposal. Critical as we on these Benches are of the way in which the Government are going about things, we do not wish to see regional government threatened. I fear that that is what the new clause is aimed at.
Baroness Blatch: Does the noble Baroness agree that many of her colleagues in different parts of the country are concerned about the shape of the boundaries and look to Parliamentparticularly this Houseto do something about them and, at least, have a proper debate about them? If possible, we should ensure that boundaries are readjusted to come more closely into line with community interests. The noble Baroness's colleagues say that: does she speak for them?
Baroness Hamwee: I speak for all my colleagues, including those on these Benches. I said that we had concerns about boundaries, and we need to get them right. However, we should not delay the process, as the provision in the amendment would do. The issue must be addressed, but, reading between the lines, I do not believe that this is the way to go about it, if we are to have regional government in the form in which we all want to see it.
Lord Waddington: At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was extremely frank. As usual, he was entirely honest in his explanation of the Bill's purpose. However, I can hardly say that I came away with the impression that he was a great enthusiast for the Bill. I was moderately surprised, therefore, when he intervened during the remarks made by my noble friend.
It is sensible to examine the boundaries and ask whether they should be used as boundaries for electoral purposes. Unusually, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was wrong, when she said that the boundaries were set for the purposes of the regional development agencies. In fact, they were set up to demarcate the boundaries of the Government Offices for the Regions. They were drawn on the map to show where the area of responsibility of one Government Office ended and that of another began.
It is ludicrous to say that, because the boundaries were set at the beginning of the 1990s, they should be the boundaries for elected assemblies in the regions. One has seen example after example of the failure of the boundaries to create an area in which there was any obvious identity of interest or any loyalty among the people living within the boundaries for the area.
Baroness Hamwee: I corrected my reference to the regional development agencies. I appreciate that the boundaries were set in the early 1990s. The Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 reflected those boundaries.
Lord Waddington: My point is straightforward. Whether we like the idea of elected regional assemblies or not, we ought to make some effort to get the boundaries right and have regions that are understandable to the people who will vote for the assemblies.
There are major issues in the North West. Should Cumbria be in the North West or the North East? That question should be addressed now, before we launch ourselves into this exercise. Obviously, it will take time, but it will be a long process anyhow, as the Minister has often said.
The noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, challenged my noble friend's assertion that Cheshire had links with Staffordshire, Shropshire and Derbyshire. It depends which part of Cheshire one lives in. My noble friend was, I think, reading from a paper given to us a day or two ago by representatives of Cheshire County Council. They made the point that, in the north of
The North West is not the best area in which to look for examples of absurd boundaries. We heard of plenty of those in our earlier discussions. It is ridiculous that Watford should be in East Anglia, or that Banbury should be in the South East. It is absurd that Cheltenham should be in the South West. I could go on and on. It is the Government's duty not just to say, "These are convenient boundaries, and go ahead we shall"; they must get the thing right, if they want to go ahead at all.
Baroness Warnock: I support the amendment with some hesitation, for I have not made up my mind whether I am for or against regional assemblies. The worst disaster for the setting up of regional assemblies would be if the boundaries had later to be changed because they did not work. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that the matter ought to be settled or, at least, debated, before we begin setting up the assemblies.
It was bad enough when the county boundaries were, as it seemed to many people who were loyal to their county, arbitrarily changed. I think of the obvious case of the ridings of Yorkshire. Not only would it be confusing to start on the process of establishing regional assemblies, rightly or wrongly, and then have to change the boundaries of the areas that they were meant to serve; it would cast doubt on the validity of the whole process.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: I believe that many of these boundaries are in the eye of the beholder. They are not perfect and they can change. It is clear that Amendment No. 1 is intended to be an impediment to regional government. Therefore, I oppose it.
I think that there are three positions as regards regional government. The first position is stated in the proposed new clause. The Conservative Benches regard regional government as "big" local government. That is a problem. Their mind-set is big local government. On these Benches, regional government is about democratising that which is in the regions already and further devolving from central government. I believe that the third position is that taken by the Government, who seem to be promoting an elected regional advisory committee. We live in hope that we can build on that. Therefore, we are generally supportive of the Bill in order to build upon it and make it real.
Clearly, this amendment is about impeding regional government so that it does not happen. The Conservative Benches are worried that it is big local government. They may acknowledge that.
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