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Baroness Blatch: I wish to correct an impression that I may have created in how I spoke to the amendment. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that we should not be threatened by the Minister when he says that this would wreck the Bill. There are two questions: one on the organisation and the other on whether we have regional assemblies.
Lord Greaves: I did not reply specifically to that point because we are talking about the condition relating to a review of local government, which ought to be removed. I am aware that the noble Baroness has tabled some amendments creating other conditions. We will listen with interest to the debate on them and consider them dispassionately.
Baroness Maddock: I wish to make two points. Along with my noble friends, I am shocked at what the Minister has said today. Those of us who believe in democracy cannot really believe that the Minister will do what he says.
I wish to say more on what the Bill means to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where I live. The people of Berwick will now have to decide either to have devolution from Londonwith the Scottish Border four miles away and single-lane roadsthey feel remote from London and are desperate to have local government that understands what their region needs. But they are not desperate to lose their local borough council. They feel remote from the centre of Northumberland County Council, which is 50 miles away. If they want power from the centre in London, they will have to give up local representation.
England and the British Isles have far fewer representatives across the board than almost any other country in Europe. Yet people are trying to convince us that we are over-governed and that that is why we cannot have both the system we want and regional government.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: The Bill is supposed to be about bringing real democracy to the regions. I indicated at Second Reading that I was in favour of having unitary local government authorities. Many aspirants to unitary status have not yet achieved it. I wish them well, because local government decisions made near the grassroots are the best ones. But it might not be right everywhere.
Why should the Bill involve local government? That confuses the issue. The referendum is about whether people want regional government; it should not be about local government. All local government members ought to be able to sleep well in their beds during this referendum. It should not affect them. It is another spoke in the wheel of big local government. The Government are bringing in the issue of local government, but local government members want to be out of the way. It will create a tremendous hurdle to campaigners if the issue is on the back foot to start with because it is loused up by local government reform also.
The Minister is wrong in not wanting another tier. The tier exists. In Leeds we have the Westminster Government with their pitch in City House and we have all the Yorkshire quangos. The Bill should be
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Usually, by this stage, one gets some clarification of what a Bill is about. The more I have listened to this discussion, the more bewildered I have become. Normally, the Government lay down a policy of government, including local government, administration and so on. But in this situation the localities will decide what sort of administration they have. We might be left with a situation where the North East has a regional assembly but the rest of the country does not.
I feel sure that the Government are banking on the possibility that, if they can get one region to vote for a regional assembly, there will be a domino effect whereby all the others will say, "if they have an assembly, we must have one as well". But that is by no means certain. So in EnglandI say England advisedly, because it is Englandsome regions will have a regional assembly and others will not. I do not know how on earth that will make things better or more democratic.
The Government say that they wish to devolve powerswe do not know whichand that they believe in devolution. On the other hand, they believe in pushing other services to Brussels. They are counter-devolving some things upwards to Brussels at the same time as they want to devolve other things downwards. As far as I can see, there is no joined-up thinking. No wonder local authorities do not know which way they are going. They are bewildered by what is happening and wonder what the Government's policy is.
What we are discussing is the guts of the Bill. If we remove that second plank, the Bill is gone. That is the significance. I am not threatening the CommitteeI would not be so stupidbut I am explaining the consequences of removing the guts of the Bill. We have made it clear from day one that the principal point is that regional assemblies in areas in which people have chosen to have them, on the basis of the information that we will supply, will operate on the basis of unitary local government.
There may be arguments about the wording in the manifesto. Not having fought the previous election, I did not read the manifesto as closely as I should have done, although I campaigned for my colleagues, needless to say. The White Paper is the mechanism for turning a manifesto commitment into practical policy. We can dissect the words in the manifesto, as we have done in both Houses. Ideas are put together that must
Baroness Blatch: I believe the noble Lord and his colleagues in another place when they say that power is being devolved from national government to regional assemblies and bringing democracy to what is already there in the regions. However, if it is true that powers are not being taken from the bottomthe districts and the countiesupwards, why should it affect the counties or the districts at all?
It is possible for the Government to achieve their political objective, if they mean what they say. I do not doubt the noble Lord's word, but I think that the White Paper does not say the same. The White Paper cedes nothing from national government and will take a good deal of powers from local government. The hidden agenda seems to be the reorganisation of local government, not the devolution of power from national government.
Lord Rooker: Whether noble Lords believe me or not, no statutory powers that local government exercises at the moment will be removed to the regional assemblies. Local government can sleep easily, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, put it.
Lord Hanningfield: We are about to receive the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which will move virtually all planning powers from the county councils and some from the district councils to the regional assemblies. The noble Lord must acknowledge that some powers are being moved from local government to regional assemblies.
Lord Rooker: That is not a consequence of this Bill. That is not double-speak. The powers in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which we will debate when it arrives hereit has not yet finished its passage through another placewill operate whether or not there are elected regional assemblies. That structure will stand the test of time with or without elected regional assemblies; one is not necessarily linked to the other. Planning authorities at district council level will be responsible for the control of development. There is no change there. I am not here to discuss that Bill, and those changes are not a consequence of this Bill.
The Earl of Onslow: I search genuinely for information. Why is it essential that local authoritiessome unitary, some county and districtshould be unified to create a district that will have something totally different to do? How will the Bill affect the powers and duties of local authorities? I do not understand.
I can see that if, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, the Government were taking something away, there might be a need for an imposed unitary authority. If Alnwick wants to run things one way, Guildford another way and Scunthorpe a third way, why should not they be allowed to do so? According to the Government, their powers will not be affected by this Bill.
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