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Lord Greaves: I sometimes think it would be helpful if we adopted a new acronym to save time and referred to the corrupt octopus in Brussels as the COB.

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We keep being told that we cannot ask questions in this Parliament about Scotland and Wales. That is partly true. We cannot ask questions about those matters that are devolved, as opposed to those matters that are reserved to this Parliament. There is an important difference, which is clearly relevant to the Bill if any matters are going to be resolved. We are also told that we cannot ask questions about London. At Question Time I sometimes think I am in a meeting of the Westminster parish council rather than a chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament. We have lots of questions about holes in the roads outside this building, the closure of streets in London, congestion charging and all the rest of it, not to mention the Tube.

Baroness Blatch: Does the noble Lord accept that London is the capital city of this country and the flow of traffic and the ease with which people can get through it and around it are important not simply to Londoners but to the rest of the country? It is a traffic hub for railways and roads. Interest in London is not confined to people in London. Substantially, our questions on these matters are answered with, "This is a matter for the Mayor of London".

Lord Greaves: As an adopted Londoner for part of the week nowadays, I think the noble Baroness makes my point for me. We are allowed to ask questions about London and to discuss them at great length. I sometimes think that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is a London commissioner in this House. I am not objecting to the capital city of this country being discussed here, just as I do not object to anybody from any other part of the country wishing to raise matters. I am merely saying that the repeated mantra that we cannot ask questions or discuss these matters is not true.

There is an important truth at the heart of the amendment, although we cannot support the amendment. In the words of the noble Baroness, we are asked to take each constitutional proposition in isolation from others. There was an attempt, spearheaded in many ways by the Liberal Democrats, when we and the Labour Party were in opposition, to put together a constitutional package that included lots of useful and desirable things such as the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a move towards proportional representation. An important part of that was the body known as the Cook-Maclennan committee, which produced the Cook-Maclennan report.

One of our great disappointments—it will not be shared by the Conservatives—has been that the Government, in their constitutional legislation, have come forward with a piecemeal approach and not presented each item of it as part of a wider package or vision for the fundamental reform of the British constitution that our party believes has been and remains necessary. We applaud some of the work done and some of the legislation. We applaud the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. We regret that the Government seem

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to have substantially run out of steam on their constitutional agenda. The Bill is the last fairly feeble spluttering of that agenda before it finally runs into the sand. It is no secret that we want to beef it up and get it going again.

There is a kernel of truth at the heart of the amendment, which is that neither the Government nor Parliament are at present looking at the constitutional package as a whole and seeing what the effects will be. Those effects would include the relationship of this country to the European Union, or the COB as the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, would prefer to call it. We will disagree on how we think that things ought to go. That does not mean to say that there ought not to be such a comprehensive look, but there has not been and we have to take the Bill as it is.

We do not know what an independent inquiry would be or how it would be set up. The noble Baroness talked about why but not how it would happen. We have to make our own judgments into such matters, which we can perfectly well do. Particularly, we will be able to do it if and when we ever get to a Bill to set up regional government rather than this preparations Bill. The amendment seems premature. If such an independent inquiry were to take place, it ought to be in conjunction with definitive but substantive legislation rather than this paving legislation. On those bases, we would not support the amendment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, with some interest. I understand in a way why he might not support the amendment, yet it seems that there is nothing between his argument and that made by my noble friend on the Front Bench in moving the amendment.

For the whole of my life, I have seen a steady process of accretion of power into government. My noble friend Lord Pearson talked about the Government perceiving that as UK policy to meet UK needs. In my view it is not UK policy for UK needs, but government policy for government needs. I make a clear distinction between government and Whitehall, between Parliament and the people of this country.

Behind all the provisions, we do not see a process of real and genuine devolution. The impact of the Bill, if it is passed and the country then accepts it with regional referendums and we finish up with a full regional structure, will mean that there are that many fewer local bodies in the country with which Whitehall has to deal. The counties will go and the districts will go in the shire areas. We will then have nine regions outside London, London itself and a unitary structure down below.

That is the constitutional effect. Having said that, in the process we will continue the gradual turn of the thumbscrews that has gone on for so long. We will see increasing power in the legislation establishing the new bodies, so that the Government can take more detailed control over what they want the local bodies to do. In a way, the Bill is part of that. It is only paving legislation, but two other Bills are coming through.

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The Local Government Bill is about to come before us, and another deals with planning and compulsory purchase. That Bill anticipates this Bill in a sense.

1.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker: No, it does not.

Lord Dixon-Smith: It does. It creates a planning structure that assumes that this Bill will be implemented.

Lord Rooker: With the greatest respect, it does no such thing. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill would operate whether this Bill was ever enacted or not. It is not dependent on it.

Lord Dixon-Smith: I am happy to have that reassurance, but it almost makes my case worse rather than better. What we are seeing is an increasing ability for the Government to control and direct local authorities, one that has gone on for so long, being extended. If it is not dependent on the Bill, that almost makes it worse because there will be control over existing authorities. One has only to look at what is happening with local government finance, where there is increasingly detailed control and direction, and the physical allocation of more and more of an authority's budget to specific government requirements. That is what is really going on.

If, at the same time, large parts of the country's business are outwith Parliament's control because of the constitutional precedents that have already been set vis-a-vis Scotland, London and Wales, and there is less and less for Parliament to do, that may be greatly to the Government's convenience. However, I doubt that it is really what we should be doing.

I shall return to the amendment, which contains the seeds of an interesting idea. It calls for an,

    "inquiry into the constitutional and practical effects of regional government on the United Kingdom parliament".

However, I am afraid, and my noble friend would agree, that it says nothing about what should happen as a result of that inquiry. If the inquiry is not subsequently debated and its implications accepted by Parliament, there is no point in having it. I make the argument badly. If Parliament does not consider the report and either accept or reject it, there is no point in having the inquiry. That is the point to which we need to come. It is on that that there is congruence between what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and by my noble friend when she moved the amendment.

I hope that my noble friend will not press the amendment at this stage for that reason. Unless we have the power to get some control over the consequences of the cumulative Bills that are going through—piecemeal legislation that is not being considered as a whole—frankly we are missing an opportunity. At the moment, the amendment does not go far enough.

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Lord Dixon: The amendment is another delaying tactic. It does not refer to the Bill, but to the referendum. Clause 1 refers to the referendum in a region as to whether there should be a regional assembly.

I can understand the Conservatives being concerned about the constitution. I noticed earlier a couple of noble Lords who were Cabinet Ministers when I was next-door in the House of Commons and the Maastricht Bill went through. I cannot recall the Conservative government tabling an amendment about the effect that that Bill would have on the constitution. They did not even suggest a referendum. I can understand why they did not have a referendum on the Maastricht Bill—they could not even get the present leader of the Tory party to vote in favour of it. To come along now and make that suggestion is, quite honestly, another delaying tactic. The Conservatives are opposed to regional government. They have been honest about that. Why did they not vote against that at Second Reading? If the amendment were agreed to, it would delay the referendum.

I turn to the northern region. The noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred to a poll but I will refer to another two polls. The first is the County Councils Network/ICM poll of the northern region. On support for holding referendum, it found that 60 per cent were in favour and 21 per cent against and on support for establishing an assembly, 51 per cent were in favour and only 13 per cent were against. The Durham county council consultation received 7,000 responses and found that 66 per cent were in favour of a referendum and only 24 per cent against. On establishing an assembly, it found that 66 per cent were in favour and only 24 per cent against. That shows the feelings of the people in the North East.

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