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Lord Rooker: I do not know the date of the next general election, but I think that it will be in less than four years. So I can safely say that, if this lot took four years, it would be beyond this Parliament.
Baroness Blatch: The Government are making it possible to introduce regional government. However, as the noble Lord makes clear every time he comes to the Dispatch Box, it will be the people who introduce it, not the Government. This is a paving Bill. The Government will have met their parliamentary and manifesto obligation simply by putting the Bill before Parliament and gaining approval for it. Parliament will decide the means to the end. So it will not be the Government who introduce regional government.
Baroness Hanham: I think that this amendment has generated a worthwhile debate on the overall principles of regional government. As I said, it does not really matter whether the Conservatives agree with regional government. As Members of the Committee have seen, there are some divisions on the Benches about the principle and form of regional government. What does matter is that the Bill is coherent. To be fair, we have not yet had a Bill on regional assemblies. This is simply a paving Bill for how and where assemblies are established. Our argument is still that one cannot proceed with elected regional assemblies when there is incoherence on the point of democratic input.
This aspect of the debate has been quite entertaining because no one has any idea where these boundaries originated. In the House of Commons debate, regionalism was traced back not quite to Alfred and his cakes, but quite some way. It was decided that its basis lies probably in the 1948 work and pensions areas. Members of the Committee can therefore choose their own starting point, but these regions have served an administrative purpose. However, we believe that there is a difference between administrative and democratic regions. We are trying to establish that difference.
The amendment also puts forward the argument for ensuring formal and proper consultation with the great number of bodies and great number of people on the regional boundaries. The debate has given a small indication of the great concern and interest in the quixotic nature of the current boundaries. If one is proposing any layer of governmentregardless of whether it is an additional or changed layerand democratic input, those who elect the individuals forming that assembly should have at least some idea of the relevance of the area concerned. Cornwall and Cumbria have been cited as major areas of concern. They are not just on the periphery of boundaries. They are a great test indeed for my proposal on boundary review.
I think that the Government may hold a misconception about the extent to which the country understands their intentions. The position will not have been helped by the fact that the soundings exercise by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to test interest levels ended before the Bill reached this House. That exercise finished on 3rd March. As noble Lords who followed proceedings in another place will know, the report of those proceedings could be written on the head of a pin. There was very little interest and very little information. I think that the Government will find it difficult to say that there has been meaningful consultation. This amendment provides for a proper consultation process.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: The noble Baroness is presumably winding up. Before she does, I should like to ask whether she has read the article in The Times, a week ago last Monday, by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He said:
Does the noble Baroness agree that that appears to show a fundamental change in government policythat they are not satisfied with how regional policy is being controlled by Brussels, and that they therefore want it returned to this country? That being so, might not the Government want to consider whether the existing administrative regions are more suitable for this new devolvement from the EU than are the existing regional development bodies, which were of course set up to suit the European connection? Does it not suit and help the noble Baroness's argument that
Baroness Hanham: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, for drawing my attention to the article, which I have not seen. I can well understand why the Chancellor might wish to repatriate some of the decisions made on our behalf in Brussels. It may very well be that he would like to have some of those decisions taken by us, but on a regional basis. If that is correct, and he wishes to review the boundaries, that would fit in nicely with my amendment.
The noble Baroness said: We have already opened up a number of areas of the Bill, but I am not certain how we can debate its merits. The Bill asks people to vote for regional assemblies when we, and those who vote, are not being told the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements of the assemblies. This issue was rightly emphasised by many noble Lords at Second Reading. I do not believe that at that stage the Minister gave anything like an adequate response although he admitted that the regional assemblies would not be service delivery organisations.
It seems more than likely that they will be just talking shops. But no one should be asked to vote for a pig in a poke. Even if only one or two regions are involved in the reorganisation in the early stagesthe way things are going there may be none at allthat represents an enormous constitutional upheaval. But the only information available about the practical powers of the regional assemblies is that they will resemble in some shape or form the proposals contained in the White Paper.
But if the White Paper is to be believed, these functions or powers will consist principally of a right to consult or be consulted on some strategic plans or the exercise of some control over organisations and bodies whose functions already exist regionally. Perhaps I may take up a point made in the previous debate. I wonder how many of the organisations listed on page 81 of the White Paper will come under regional government and how many will stand as free organisations. I refer the Committee specifically to the learning and skills councils, which I understand will not be part of the responsibilities of regional assemblies. The Minister might wish to comment on that.
To highlight the general ignorance about what regional assemblies will do, I wish to comment on the comparisons with Scottish and Welsh devolution which have been bandied about. It is absolutely clear that what is proposed for the regional assemblies is very different as regards Scotland and Wales and there will be no devolution of power. To date, this House and another place, which has unavailingly discussed this issue, are in the dark as to the actual nature of the powers, structures and constitutional arrangements of elected regional assemblies.
We are not alone: it seems that the Government themselves are no clearer. We understand that regional government officers will continue as before. In the debate on 20th February, the Minister admitted that as a result of this upheaval it was not likely that there would be fewer quangos. As my noble friend Lady Blatch has already pointed out, he could think of only one significant devolved power from central government and that was housing. In reply to a question from my noble friend, the Minister said (at col. 1331 of the Official Report):
A crucial point is that an elected regional assembly would not improve the future delivery and quality of vital services such as education, social services, transport and health. But what they will do needs to be spelled out and agreed by Parliament. If we in this House and another place are confused about what functions the regional assemblies will have, how much more will that apply to the general public?
Perhaps it is in the Government's interest to keep the public so confused since if they hear that regional assemblies will take decisions from Whitehall and will have a larger degree of devolution, the public may be inclined to vote in favour. If they did, as things stand, they would have been gulled into a view that there was more to these changes than there is. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence to show that in the absence of proper, detailed proposals, wholly erroneous information is being spun already by campaigning organisations, which are long on enthusiasm but short
The reality is that far from bringing decisions closer to the peopleanother spun fabricationthose in housing and planning in particular are being taken further away from the people affected. When they fully understand the implications of regional assemblies in terms of costs, the re-organisation of local government and representation, they may be less than enchanted by the whole idea.
I cannot stress enough that the functions of regional assemblies must be spelled out clearly and definitely before a referendum is held. It will be thoroughly misleading, if not completely dishonest, not to do so. Our view is that the Government should draft a regional assemblies Bill; that it should be debated in Parliament and passed before any decision is taken on how, when and where any referendum should be held. It is the democratic responsibility of this Government to lay their cards on the table as to the powers of regional assemblies. If there is the required level of interest they should not be afraid to do so. I beg to move.
Baroness Hamwee: Amendment No. 5 takes a slightly different approach and picks up on comments by the Minister and his colleagues about their minds not being wholly closed to pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill before a referendum is held. That process attracts menot least because, depending on how the Committee goes about its business, it would enable direct discussion with witnesses, stakeholders and others with a stake, however one defines that, in the outcome. That seems a constructive way of dealing with proposed legislation and, because of our concerns about the powers spelt out in the White Paper and some of the terminology used now, it needs to be explored further.
In the debate on Amendment No. 2, the Ministerreferring to the powers scrutinised by the new assembliestalked about scrutiny as being democratic control. Scrutiny does not amount to the exercise of a power. Whether or not it amounts to democratic control depends on how scrutiny is appliedat its most extreme, scrutiny can veto the exercise of a function proposed by the executive body. It is not just the headline issue of powers and functions but how the executive and scrutiny arms will operate in the assembles for which they are proposed.
The issue extends to structure. We tend to concentrate on function. This House is not the best example of the maxim that form should follow function but to my mind it should. If the function were as we wish it to be, the proposed form may not be appropriate.
The new assemblies are supposed to be mean and lean, comprising between 25 and 35 members. There are issues around how much a small body can be representative of a substantial region. We have concerns over whether so small a body can provide the
The amendment asks the Minister to build on comments made by him and his colleagues about being open to some way of continuing this debate. It is clear that Parliament would like to be involved in the debate about the assemblies' powers, functions and structure. Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 are a way of taking that forward.
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