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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He answered the question about the status of the regional authority. He said that it would not be a local authority. Nor is it to be a government. Therefore, what will its status be? Will it have a status in its own right as a regional assembly and a regional authority? What will that status be?
Lord Rooker: I can only repeat what I previously said. The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked for a definition of a local authority. The question was: will an elected assembly be a local authority? The specific answer is, "No". Regionally
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of the learning and skills councils. I shall become a tautologist if I continue repeating what I have said. The noble Baroness has been most generous and I therefore draw her attention to paragraph 4.29 on page 39 of the White Paper. That sets out the individual responsibilities of the elected assemblies and the learning skills councils. It may be that Members do not like that. However, it is set out.
I shall not "over claim" for the elected regional assemblies. In some speeches today, there has been a thrust which suggests that the regional assemblies will not be as big as the Government have claimed. We have not made massive claims. We have been clinically calculating on what their function and role will be. I am partially criticised for pointing out that there will be no new money and no new powers. And nor will there be a new tier of governmentI am adding that to the mantra now.
We are not making super claims for the regional assemblies. We have been clear. It is set out in the White Paper. Further arguments have been put forward, then knocked down with comments such as, "Well, it's not going to have these powers". That was never the proposal. It is a modest advance in democratic accountability for the spending of huge sums of public money. That is to be welcomed.
Baroness Blatch: If it is a modest advance as regards the spending of huge sums of public money, I am grateful. But the learning and skills councils and the sector skills councils are concerned with skills in a regional context. If that is the case, and if there is to be no duplication, what on earth will be the relationship of the regional assembly to sector skills councils and to the national Sector Skills Council, to learning and skills councils and to the national Learning and Skills Development Agency?
Baroness Hamwee: I am sure the Minister will accept that what the Government propose may not be the same as what we end up with. My noble friend made that point earlier. I do not presume to speak for the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, but I hope that the Minister accepts that we on these Benches are keen to make progress, in the knowledge not only of what the Government propose but of what the final product might be.
Will the Minister clarify two points? Will the regional assembly, although not classed as a local authority, still be funded publicly either by central government or by local taxes from below? Therefore, although it is not strictly a local authority in the Minister's definition, will it be a local authority quango or some equivalent definition?
I am confused on a second point relating to the functions of the assemblies. Shall we in this Chamber be able to debate, amend, and persuade the Government to change some of the functions that they propose to give to regional assemblies before the people in an area are given a chance to vote? Or shall we be cut out of the process as from now?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: It may be convenient if I raise two questions at this point. The Minister did not comment on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the relationship with the European Union. That is importantbecause there is a relationship. The Commission has offices in all the regional "capitals"it has a presence in the regionsand, through local authority members, there will be a presence in Brussels itself. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, may want to enlarge on that point. It is a question that needs comment.
The Minister says that the regional assemblies will spend huge amounts of money, and that the quangos will not be brought under the democratic control of the regional authorities. But they spend £50 billion a year. If my arithmetic is correct, that is between 12 and 15 per cent of the total national tax take. Yet they are not to be democratised in any way. That is something of a lacuna which I am sure the Minister would like to address.
Baroness Hamwee: I rarely follow the noble Lord's example, but I shall do so on this occasionif not politicallyand add to the list of points for the Minister to answer, having now remembered my question. It relates to the timing of the government proposals. Will the Minister be a little clearer as regards the obstacles? Is there a problem as regards the time of parliamentary counselwhich often presents difficulty; or is there some structural reason why a draft Bill will not be available for scrutiny as early as we should like? I am still seeking a way in which we might meet one another on this point.
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I did not speak before lunchalthough not for dietary reasonsbut the Minister addressed the idea of "the cart before the horse". I think I was responsible for introducing the concept at Second Reading (at col.
In referring to the two-stage process, the Minister indicated that he cannot guarantee a draft Bill. I recall a similar process when we debated the Greater London Authority Bill. We had had an initial debate in another place on governance in London in June 1997. In that debate, I quoted the episode where Lord Homeas he then was nothad been asked during the 1964 general election about the government's intentions as regards VAT. He said that a lot of very clever men were thinking about it at that very moment. I said I had the impression that the same was true of what the government were going to do for London. Mr Raynsford, whose responsibilities have remained remarkably constant in this area over the past six yearsalthough with extended and promoted levelsreplied that I was perfectly right and that a lot of clever people were thinking about it. We then had the White Paper, and moved on to the Bill, which extended from 270 clauses when it first reached this place to 413 when it was placed on the statute bookindicating that the clever men had clearly had to work overtime in terms of extending the range of the Bill. It meant, inevitably, that we were looking at a moving target the whole time.
In a Bill so directed towards strategyas I understand this Bill will bethere was a whole series of strategies which the assembly and the authority were supposed to produce. I took the liberty of asking Ms Glenda Jackson, the Minister then in charge of the Bill, what would happen if the strategies were in conflict with each other. She was gracious enough to say that that could not happen, because the Bill prevented it; they were not allowed to be in conflict with each other. That did not seem quite as gracious as she might have beenwhich would have been to explain how the differences would be resolved. At this juncture, I am reassured by the Minister's remarksalthough on the basis of past experience I have lingering doubts about how it will all turn out in the end.
As regards the timetable, we are some period away from any referendum that might take place. The Bill will have to receive Royal Assent. Only after Royal Assent will the Secretary of State give his views to Parliament about soundings in the regions; and the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee will have to review local government. The estimate is that that will take about 12 months. I cannot even forecast the publication of the draft housing Billwhich is supposed to be later this monthlet alone talk about the Bill to set up assemblies, with all their powers, which is 12 months away at the earliest, if there are to be referendums.
We are not opposed in principle to providing a draft Bill in advance of the referendums. There is no policy difference. There are timetable issues that will determine whether that is feasible. I suspect that there may well be resource implications. Nevertheless, we have to be so far advanced in order to publish a summary of how we propose that the assembly will work before people cast their vote. All that would have to be in place. On the basis of that, we should know how the Bill would be drafted.
On the question on which I am tempted by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Pearson, this is not a cop-out. The White Paper is there for everyone to read. Chapter 8pages 58 to 62sets out the powers and the relationship with other bodies, including Parliament, the Council of the Regions and the EU, and other matters. I cannot go beyond the content of the White Paper. If I ask for a note from my officials, it will simply draw my attention to paragraphs in the White Paper. I do not think that Members of the Committee would thank me for reading out four pages of the White Paper.
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