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Amendment No. 1 is not about the principle of regional assemblies. It is about whether this paving legislation will set up real regions to which communities can relate. If that is not done, the regional assemblies will fail. I repeat that this amendment is not about whether we have the regional assemblies. It is a comprehensive amendment that sets out all that might be required to ensure that proper boundaries and regions are established.
I accept that a much slimmer procedure could be proposed. If my memory serves me right, when a major local government reorganisation occurred in New Zealand, the Government established a commission with far-reaching powers to establish boundaries and merge authorities. The quid pro quo to that was that the Government accepted the recommendations of the commission and did not insist on debating every proposal in Parliament. That saved a considerable amount of time.
The response of the Government to this amendment will inform us whether we are referring to devolved powers or, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, merely big local government. I believe that the proposal is about big local government. Nothing that has been said or put on paper suggests that there will be anything but big local authorities. There is little or nothing to suggest that real powers will be devolved.
Leaving that matter to one side, the argument concerning a proper examination of the boundaries is hard to deny. I ask noble Lords' forgiveness for repeating what I said at Second Reading. I referred to the discussion which took place in Committee on the Regional Development Agencies Bill on 7th October 1998. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, stated:
Those are the kind of assurances given to your Lordships' House in response to amendments put forward at that time. It was argued that if we proceeded with regional development agencies and their attendant regional chambers on the boundaries of the existing government offices, we would be prejudicing the future. We were assured that the future would not be prejudiced. Today, some five years later, it is clear that the future was being prejudiced when that Bill went through.
Therefore, I wonder what has changed in that time. What are the arguments to justify the boundaries of what are alleged to be democratic bodiesnot merely democratic bodies exercising allegedly more than local government functionswhile apparently exercising devolved functions of government? These are questions that should be answered at this stage, before any reference to the Boundary Commission is dismissed as causing delay.
Baroness Blatch: I hope that my noble friend will forgive me for taking issue with a point which he and the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, made. It would be unfortunate if at the outset of the Bill we were to play party politics with this issue. I listened carefully to the Second Reading debate and I have read in Hansard the report of the debate since. I have also had a great number of discussions outside the House. There are people from all partiesin particular, from the Liberal Democrat Partywho take different views about regional assemblies. In particular, they are fighting hard against the shape of the boundaries. It would be unfortunate if this debate was overridden by suspecting the motives of those of us on these Benches who are saying, at the outset of this Bill, that if this constitutional change is to happen, it is important that there should be a healthy debate in this Houseand in the character of this House, which is to have open, constructive and fair debateabout the shape of the boundaries. Ultimately, there should be a parliamentary determination of those boundaries reflecting views from all parties. Therefore, I believe that that is unfair.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and my noble friend, referred to big local government. This is not big local government. It is certainly big government because it is anything but local government. It is big centralised government. The Minister gave examples at Second Reading. Powers are not being ceded from the top downfrom central government to regional government. They are being ceded upwards from county and unitary authorities to the regions. The control, but not the powers, is moving down. There will be influence over issues, but not power.
The only example which the noble Lord very readily and almost unthinkingly gave was that of housing. There will not be determinating powers. There will not be powers in the real sense that we understand powers in government. Yes, it will be influence, but powers will reside still with the departments in Whitehall.
Baroness Blatch: My noble friend makes the point for me. That is right. That is why I believe that this is the last Chamber in the world where we should play party politics with a matter so constitutionally important.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: If, like the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, I thought that the amendment sought to undermine the whole concept of regional government, I should support it with alacrity. But I fear that it does not. The amendment accepts regionalisation; it proposes that the regional boundaries should not be decided now, but after due consultation with many people and bodies. In my view that is an acceptance of the principle of regional government, which, as I made clear at Second Reading, I am completely against. I believe in local, democratic, government. I believe that regionalisation will undermine that, not complement or improve it.
The present regional structure was set up following the passing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, when it was decided that the regional aid distributed by the European Commission, using our taxpayers' money, should no longer be administered through central government but through regions. The existing regions, which under the present Government became regional development bodies, were set up to make that administratively possible; namely, to administer the direct link between the regions and Brussels. That is the history.
Many people in this country believe that regionalisation does not have so much to do with good local government as with good administrative arrangements between Brussels and the European Union. There are those who would not agree; but I believe it, as do many others. Therefore, if we are to have regionalisation, we must give grave consideration to what we intend to do with the regions, and to how they should be geographically set out.
It is no good saying that the present regions are set in stone. That is nonsensical. A great many people have different ideas about where the regional boundaries should be, even if they agree with regional government itself. I sat on the committee of the association of municipal corporations dealing with the reorganisation of local government in 1968; we gave evidence to the Royal Commission. If my memory serves me right, it was suggested that there should be 12 indirectly elected provincial councils. So, even then, the proposal was not for eight regional authorities but for 12.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I worry that an association between some of the areas contained in the existing regions is nonsensical. I live in Reading. My region will include Lambourn, in the Lambourn Valleywhich trains marvellous racehorsesand Dover and Folkestone in the east. There is no compatibility between the two areas. Their interests are entirely different and would be difficult to reconcile.
Perhaps I may give a recent example of what happens when regions are too big. The south-east regional planning committee recommended that there should be extra building in Reading, on the flood plain. Why on earth would it make such a recommendation when the areas it suggested were flooded? Yet it did so. If we are to set up these regionswhich, I repeat, I am againstwe really must be very careful that we do so in such a way that they will work, and not simply between Brussels and this country. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is beginning to understand thisaccording to his article in The Times. If we are going to set up regions at all, we ought to be doing it in such a way that there is compatibility, and agreement, between the people who will be affected.
As I said, I am split. I am in great difficulty. I am in a dilemma. I do not support the proposal because I do not support regional government; yet I believe that if we are to have regional government, it is better to set it up after what is suggested in the proposed new clause has taken place. I do not think that the amendment will be pressed to a vote today, but perhaps we can consider the matter further and return to it on Report.
The Earl of Caithness: First, I apologise to the Committee for not being able to be present for the Second Reading debate. I was unable to stay for the whole debate; therefore, I did not put my name on the list of speakers.
One of the great advantages of this place is that it is a Chamber of the United Kingdom. Therefore, I can bring some experience to our proceedings of how regional assemblies are working in Scotland. I shall set out my stall by saying that I am pro regional governmentwhatever regional government means. We have it at the moment: some of the county councils are good regional government. I am also, however, in the right circumstances, pro regional assemblies. There can be merit in putting areas together. Furthermore, in the right circumstances, I am pro unitary authorities. But the size of the region, its powers, and how it will work are crucial considerations.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I live in what is classified as the South East region. I spent a great deal of my life in the Banbury area, where at one time I was a land agent. Looking at the map of the South East, my reckoning is that the logical place to have a regional assembly would be at Gatwick.
We have exactly the same problem in Caithness. Our regional assembly is in Inverness, and it takes our councillors two-and-a-half hours to get there. If the weather is bad, they have to make the journey the night before. One Liberal councillor has said that it is "madness", and "a complete waste of time", to have a regional assembly so far away. In the Highlands council, your vote can be counted only if you are in the chamber. A 20-minute meeting and a vote on the Budget meant that that Liberal councillor had to leave Caithness the night before in order to travel down to Inverness for a debate lasting 20 minutes, and to cast his vote. He then had to make the journey back. What a waste of time and money! Yet the principle behind parts of this Bill is absolutely right. Some regional assemblies could be beneficial. That is why I support reviewing the boundaries now. If that does not happen, whatever is said about the boundaries being able to change, I have a nasty suspicion that they will not change. They can get set in stone, and it becomes too difficult for the Government to change them. It becomes too difficult for the whole bureaucracy. If the process towards a referendum is started, people assume what the boundaries are, which then get set in stone. I think the amendment is far from being a delaying measure. It is a practical measure.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, disappointed me. She started off very encouragingly, like her friends up in Caithness, saying that she was concerned about the boundaries. However, she did not say what she was going to do about them. I had hoped that she would suggest a positive alternative to what we have before us. However she does not like what either we or the Government are proposing.
The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said that regional assemblies would democratise what is there. I ask the noble Lord to talk to his Liberal friends up in Caithness. If he talked to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, or John Thurso MP, he would find it is far from democratising what is there. It is not producing better services. It is quite different in Caithness. Whereas decisions used to be made locally, they are now being made in Inverness, and then passed down the line. That is not good for local government or local involvement in government. We must learn from some of the mistakes we made in reforming local
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