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Lord Rooker: Will the noble Baroness please accept that that is simply not so? I have made it abundantly clear that a regional assembly cannot be set up until after the next general election. The time required for the boundary review, for the referendum and for progress on the main Bill mean that there is no prospect whatever of a regional assembly being up and running this side of the next general election.

Baroness Blatch: First, we do not know when the next general election will take place. I do not doubt the noble Lord's word; I accept it, as I always do. I believe that he made that statement in good faith.

Will he go one step further and say that there will not be a Clause 12 order within the next 12 months? I do not think that he is able to go that far. Nor do I believe that he is able to say that there will not be a clause 12 order in indecent haste this side of the Summer Recess. I hope, therefore, that I can be forgiven for repeating that, given the dearth of information in the Bill and our constant search for detailed information in the White Paper, we have to make assumptions. One is that there is a great deal of pressure for the Bill to complete its passage quickly. If what the Minister says is true, what is the hurry? Why is there such haste? There can be only one reason; namely, to determine one or more areas of the country as having expressed an interest in having regional government.

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The amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish an independent report considering the constitutional and practical effects that regional assemblies will have on the functioning of Parliament. That is to be done before a referendum is held.

As we on these Benches have said so many times, it is clear that the Bill has the greatest constitutional significance. It would be foolhardy to embark on such a project without fully weighing up the implications of regional assemblies for our historic Mother of Parliaments.

It does not need pointing out to those present that the authority and powers of the Westminster Parliament have taken a pretty severe bashing over the past decade. We can no longer, in this House or in another place, ask questions about Scotland—that is an issue for the Scottish Parliament. We can no longer, as Members in this place and another place, ask questions about Wales—that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. We now cannot ask questions, in this House or in another place, about London—that is a matter for the Mayor of London.

Wales has its own Assembly, Scotland its own Parliament, and England is to be carved up into nine regions. London has already gone, and the rest of the country is to be carved up into another eight regions. In the worst of all possible worlds, we will get a patchwork, with not all regions having regional assemblies. The emasculation of this place as a parliament will be serious.

At least we should make sure that any decision that is taken is conscious—an intentional decision made on the basis of knowing all the information. The process in which the people of England are to exercise their power to vote should be open. From what is known of devolution so far, we know that the emasculation effect will be very real.

The task would also serve to focus the minds of those in local and, more especially, national government on what powers would fall into the remit of regional assemblies and what would remain the responsibility of Westminster. We are still not sure. We have still had no definitive answer as to what specific powers will pass from the Westminster Parliament to the regional assemblies. Most of us on this side are sceptical about what the Minister has said; we know that he is answering for the department, so this is not a personal criticism. We know that powers will be ceded upwards from local authorities to the regions.

Let us take the Government at their word. They say that real powers will be ceded from the Westminster Parliament to the regional assemblies. Indeed, that is the kind of regional government that the Liberals support, although they will not achieve it through this Bill. If powers will be ceded from the Westminster Parliament, it is fundamental, basic and seriously constitutionally important that we should know what that means for the nature, the character, the powers and the functions of a United Kingdom Parliament.

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We can see already that the clout of the United Kingdom is seriously at risk. We belong to the European Union as an entity, as the United Kingdom, but when a viewpoint is being put in Europe on behalf of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament could say that it does not agree with that line. As my wonderful late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish predicted in this House, it is only a matter of time before Scotland wants its own voice around the European table. But as we split up into regions, we know that some regions of this country, such as the North-East and the South-East, are more pro-Europe than others. Because of their geographic proximity and the way in which the grant system has worked in their favour, there is an empathy. We should not sleepwalk into what I regard as a constitutional situation; we should have thought it out in advance.

Since 1997, we have passed a good deal of constitutionally important legislation. We tend, as a parliament—and this is a fault—to take each proposition in isolation. We have not really thought through the ramifications of many of these constitutional changes as they will impact on the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole. I cannot tell your Lordships just how seriously I regard that issue. Before the people of this country are asked to choose whether they want a regional assembly without understanding the ramifications, there should at least be some definitive explanation from the Government as to how they see Parliament serving this country as a United Kingdom parliament when one area, or more, has a regional assembly. So far, we have a vague idea at best. I am stunned that so little is known about the precise nature of what we are embarking upon with the Bill and the constitutional consequences.

The Minister said that one would think that the Bill had not been through the House of Commons. As a Front-Bench Member in opposition, and even when I was a Minister, I never learned a great deal from Bills that came to this House from the House of Commons, where the guillotine and the pernicious system called the knife are used and large tracts of a Bill are not discussed at all, even cursorily. With regard to the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills, I am very proud to say that I belong to a part of the Parliament and a part of the parliamentary process that discussed each Bill from the first letter of the first word of the Bill to the last letter of the last word of the Bill, and at every stage of the parliamentary process, without filibustering and without wasting parliamentary time. That cannot be said for another place. Those Bills were barely discussed in another place and the people were asked to vote in a referendum without knowing the detail of how devolution would work in practice.

I cannot overstate the importance of this issue. I regard this as a key amendment to the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington: I recall that on Second Reading the Deputy Prime Minister said:

    "The Bill offers, for the first time in our history, opportunities to the English regions similar to those offered to Scotland, Wales and London".

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Of course, that was absolute nonsense, but at least it shows that the Government are putting forward the Bill as some sort of answer to Scottish devolution. It is a pretty messy and unsatisfactory answer when, at the end of the day, some parts of the country may have elected regional government and some may not.

What is certain is that if the Deputy Prime Minister was anything like right and if, in time, real powers are devolved to the regions from our Parliament at Westminster at the same time as powers are seized from Parliament and given to Brussels, the role and standing of our Parliament at Westminster will change out of all recognition and will be greatly diminished. Some may wish this to happen but I doubt if there are many. The trouble is that we are, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, sleepwalking into these changes. It is absolutely shocking that these changes should take place without any sort of realisation or any attempt to explain to the public what the end result may well be. It is high time there was a full inquiry on the implications of these changes.

1 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Blatch for tabling the amendment, which gives me an opportunity to repeat my question about how the Bill takes forward the European Union's plan for a "Europe of the regions", to the detriment of our national Parliament. How much of our remaining sovereignty will the Bill cede to the corrupt octopus in Brussels? The Government would like to pretend that it will not cede any sovereignty.

I asked those questions on Second Reading on 20th February at cols. 1302–06 and again in Committee on 13th March at cols. 1455–56, 1471 and 1505–06. In the absence of any real reply from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, who had joined me in this line of questioning, was good enough to press the Minister at cols. 1508–09. He asked the Minister whether he was unable or unwilling to answer our questions. The Minister replied:

    "No. I rest my case on what I said and my references to the White Paper. I cannot go beyond what is in the White Paper regarding any of the questions that were raised about the council of the regions"—

I think he may have meant the Committee of the Regions—

    "the Chancellor's article—which I have not read—the European Union or regional offices. Either something is in the White Paper or the Government have not yet pronounced on it. If we do so in due course, we shall let the House know".—[Official Report, 13/3/03; col. 1509.]

I can but hope that the Government have thought about this vital question and are now in a position to let us know the truth of the matter.

By way of background, we should recall how the Minister attempted to head off our line of questioning on Second Reading. He said:

    "There is no requirement from Brussels, the European Union or anywhere else for England to have a structure of regional government. We are not implementing some plan or plot hatched up by Johnny Foreigner to seek to bring in EMU by the back door or in some way channel funds into different regions. There is no

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    EU requirement that member states should have elected regional government. This is a United Kingdom policy to meet United Kingdom needs".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1251.]

I think the Committee will agree that that is a firm assurance, but it clearly does not square with the Government's policy as set out in paragraphs 8.19 and 4.31 of the White Paper, which I placed on the record on 13th March. To achieve absolute clarity and to help the Minister with his reply, I fear it is worth placing the salient part of paragraph 4.31 on the record again. It says that the assemblies,

    "will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods. This would mean that the assembly will chair the programme monitoring committee, play a key role in drawing up the single programme documents, and lead in negotiations on these programme documents with the European Commission".

I should like to pin the Minister down. Do the Government intend to implement that part of the White Paper? Will the proposed regional assemblies take over responsibility from central government—from this Parliament—for extracting and spending funds from Brussels? That is my first simple question. I trust that the Minister can answer it with his customary clarity.

Assuming that the Government intend to follow their White Paper, my second question is also simple. Will this Parliament or the Government of the day enjoy any control over the amount of money that the corrupt octopus in Brussels—or the European Union, as the Minister may prefer to call it—sends to the proposed regions? Will the United Kingdom be able to limit the amount of EU aid that is given to our regions? As I have said before, EU aid is a fraud in any case, because only half of what we send to the crooked filter in Brussels comes back to us as EU aid, and always on projects designed to enhance its own image.

Be that as it may—and it is—my third question is one that I have asked before without getting a reply, but hope springs eternal, so I shall try once more. Will the new regions come to have their own tax-raising powers? If so, how will those powers relate to Brussels? I hope that the Minister will regard that question as esoteric and fanciful, in which case he will be able to confirm that the proposed regions will not have such powers.

I repeat my three questions. Do the Government stand by paragraph 4.31 of their White Paper? Will the UK have the power to limit the amount of money thus sent by Brussels to the proposed regions? Will the proposed regions have their own tax-raising powers, and, if so, how will they interface with Brussels? Those three questions seem pretty important to me, because the answers will show how much of our remaining sovereignty the Government are prepared to cede to Brussels under the Bill. It is also information that should clearly be put before the voters in any referendum.

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