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Baroness Blatch: Will the Minister accept that he has completely misinterpreted my concern? He says that we have consistent administrative areas, that they have worked so far and there is no reason why they should not work in future. However, they worked because they worked alongside good county and local government. The proposition set out in the White Paper is that they would be working alongside nothing because the counties and/or the districts will have disappeared. I was not suggesting the introduction of another layer of government; I was simply saying that the proposition is a very different one indeed.
Lord Rooker: The noble Baroness cannot say that until the Boundary Committee has proposed what is necessary to create unitary authorities in advance of a referendum. That cannot take place until the committee gets the wherewithal from this legislation. Therefore, it is not possible to make that allegation.
Lord Waddington: The Minister is becoming very confused, which is unusual for him. Surely, it follows as night follows day that in those parts of the country where there is only unitary government, if one creates a regional government one is creating another tier of government.
If the new clause was accepted, we estimate that it would take about 16 or 17 months to conduct a review of the regional boundaries, provided that all England was done at once. The resources of the Electoral Commission are such that it could not conceivably conduct an all-England review, given the workload that would involve. It would have to be broken down into tranchesprobably into two or three regions, so that the country was done in three trancheswhich the new clause does not permit. The reality is that under the new clause it would take about four years to review the regional boundaries.
I know that what I am about to say will be prayed in aid against me later, but it is in the White Paper. In exceptional circumstances, on some unspoken date in future, we have not ruled out changes to the boundaries. That does not mean that we or anyone else have plans for them. It would happen only in exceptional circumstances and in the longer term, as
Would the amendment be any more acceptable if it were rephrased so that there was a boundary review for only two areas at first? One could do a review of the North East and Yorkshire first, if the Government particularly wanted to begin in that area. The rest of the country could learn from that, and it would make it easier to know in advance what would happen when it came to a referendum.
Lord Rooker: That would not make sense, given the fact that we have been taking soundings from citizens and organisations within the existing boundaries on which the Bill is based and on which we want to proceed. When the Bill gets Royal Assent, if Parliament so desires, the Secretary of State will make a statement about the results of the soundings. After that, the Electoral Commission can be given the starting gun to start work. Therefore, the noble Earl's suggestion would not workit would still cause delays.
The key aim of regional assemblies is to bring under democratic control the work of existing regional bodies. I do not have to set them all out, because they are in the White Paper, a summary of which was produced in the Printed Paper Office. In the North East alone, there are 30 organisations comprising central government departments and agencies with regional or local offices. In that region, there are 21 national public bodies with regional or local offices. There are two other regional public bodies and five sub-regional or local organisations located in the region.
The key aim is to bring under democratic control the work of the existing regional bodies that deliver or administer services. A significant number of those bodies operate on the boundaries that are the subject of the amendment. We think that they are a reasonable size in terms of the population. It would be impossible to make the regions identical in terms of landmass, economic performance, the GDP or population. Those details are set out in the White Paper.
If we redrew the boundaries before we started, there would be massive upheaval in all those organisations. It may be that the soundings do not work, and there may be no vote for regional assemblies. In that case, what would have been the point of reviewing the regional boundaries over the course of four years, when they work okay at the moment, for present purposes?
Lord Hanningfield: Essex and Hertfordshire dislike intensely being included in the eastern regionand it does not work. The Minister will be as enthusiastic as I am about the Thames Gateway. It is ridiculous that the decision on the Thames Gateway, which relates to Essex and Kent, is taken in the Eastern region. There would be a considerable advantage in reviewing the boundaries in the South East now; it would help to make them work. The existing boundaries are not working in a good chunk of the country. Even if there were no regional assemblies, a review would benefit the way in which boundaries work in the South East and the Thames Gateway.
Lord Rooker: I agree with the noble Lord on the importance of the Thames Gateway. However, it is currently split between three regionsthe South East, East and London. Based on all the evidence I have from my short time at the ODPM, co-operation and partnership between the people and the key players are working immensely well. Nothing is perfect, but that is no excuse to stop the entire process and start again. As I said repeatedly on Second Reading, the assemblies are strategic. Eight regions outside London are established and recognised and a range of organisations are already in place, each of which is a sufficient size to enable it to perform its role. London's boundaries are established and no one is arguing that they should be changedalthough that is the implication of a review. The new clause seeks to tear all that upand for what? It offers pointless delay. Nothing would happen for four years. It would be four years before people would have a choice of whether to go down this route. It would be a complete waste of time. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press this amendment.
Lord Greaves: The Minister referred to the large number of organisations in the North East which already exist on these regional boundaries and he used the specific words, "bringing them under democratic control". Did he actually mean that, or was he still talking about some sort of airy-fairy monitoring and scrutinising and about not controlling them in any way
Lord Rooker: Regardless of the degree of scrutiny, it is democratic control. As we said, they will be very small bodies and there will be another piece of legislation. However, the position will be fully set out before the referendum so that, before they vote and decide whether to go down that route, people understand the powers, consequences and procedures for how such regional assemblies work. That is the people's choice, not the Government's choice or the politicians' choice, based on all the evidence we can muster and make available on the consequences of a "Yes" vote in a referendum.
Baroness Hamwee: I invite the Minister to address a specific point. He talked about delaywhich, as I made clear in my speech, very much concerns me. I described it, perhaps more harshly, as "mischief", and he avoided saying that this was a wrecking clause. However, I think that it would help the Committeethis is an entirely straight and innocent questionif he said how the amendment, if agreed to, would relate to the Government's manifesto commitment, as I understand it, to introduce regional government in this Parliament. I do not have the manifesto with me, so I do not know the precise words. However, given the role of this House, the question seems relevant.
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