Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: Quite so. In which case, how can the Minister say to my noble friend Lord Onslow and the Committee, as he has done on several occasions, that there will be no new money? If paragraph 4.31 is followed, the regions will take over the process to which my noble friend Lord Waddington referred and they will be in competition for the purported munificence—the fraudulent munificence, of course—that flows from Brussels. How can the Minister be sure that there will not be a lot more money for certain regions and certain projects on conditions favoured by, let us call it, the European Union and not by Her Majesty's Government? I did not hear the Minister's previous answer. It was my fault because I was picking up on the mistake on the identity of paragraph 4.31. Will the British Government—leave aside, if you wish, Parliament—be able to intervene and say to the European Union that they do not want something funded or that the funds should be distributed in a different way? It is in this area that our sovereignty is clearly at risk.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker: I do not have a specific answer to that, but we have made it abundantly clear, so far as concerns the Treasury, the UK Budget and our books, that we are devolving for decision making things that already happen. That is why I can use the expression "no new powers". We are devolving, in the regions, more public scrutiny to the Government Offices, the government agencies and some of the government quangos—I do not say all—for those areas that will be covered by the slim, tightly run, well-audited English regional assemblies if they come about.

I shall never be able to convince the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on any matter relating to Europe. He thinks that it is a bucket-load of crooks with loads of money which he thinks they have stolen from the member states and are giving out as largesse and stuffing people's pockets. I cannot have a debate on that basis. I do not think that that is a fair way of putting it.

The Earl of Onslow: Will the Minister accept that there has been just a tad of that? There has been a certain amount of jiggery-pokery in terms of Italian olive groves and overseas aid. I do not say that it is as bad as my noble friend Lord Pearson believes, but there has been a tad of that.

Lord Rooker: The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, makes the point that that whole edifice is constructed on what he keeps calling a "corrupt institution". I do not accept

20 Mar 2003 : Column 403

that. I am not arguing—I know what happened—about the Court of Auditors. I did not serve in MAFF for over two years without knowing a thing or two about what was happening over tobacco growers in Europe. It did not seem quite right. So there are those issues. But the fundamentals of the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, are such that I shall never be able to convince him.

We are not planning on any new powers in the regions, which means that we do not justify any new money in the sense of it coming from the centre of government. We have made it clear that the regions will be able to precept the local authorities; and, in answer to the second question put by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, that the Government will take responsibility for the negotiations on the total amount of EU spending anyway.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I want to help the Minister and I want him to be able to help us. Therefore, I should like to refer back to the article that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote in The Times on 6th March. Perhaps I may read a paragraph from it. He stated:

    "With our plans to increase UK funding for regional policy, devolve decision-making power to the regions and return key regional policy responsibilities from the EU back to Britain, the future control of regional economic policy is moving from Brussels to London and then from Westminster to the nations and regions themselves".

If some of us thought that that could be brought about, and that the Chancellor was indeed moving to remove powers from Brussels relating to regional policy and the allocation of funds—partly our taxpayers' funds—from Brussels to the regions; if we believed that that would be devolved from Brussels to our own Government and then to the regions, that might cast a different reflection on the debate.

Lord Rooker: I fear that I have still not got round to reading the Chancellor's article, but I have read reports about it and I know the thrust of it. The point is that that does not undermine paragraph 4.31 of the White Paper. That paragraph does not say that the regions will go to Brussels to negotiate for money. It says that they will take over the current role of the government officials who negotiate the detail of the single programming documents, and then the management of the funding in order to deliver the objectives of those documents. So paragraph 4.31 is fully consistent with what the Chancellor wrote in the article that my noble friend has quoted—obviously with great support on all sides of the Committee, which may enable us to make a little progress.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: But that is not what paragraph 4.31 says. I have it in front of me. I have already placed this on record twice in our debates. The Minister has quoted selectively, but the paragraph clearly says that,

    "the assembly will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices"—

not officials—

20 Mar 2003 : Column 404

    "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"—

not the Government any longer—

    "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".

The Government do not come into it any more, do they?

Lord Rooker: So what? That is exactly what the regional assemblies will be there to do. I do not distinguish between government officials and the Government Offices. The government officials work in the Government Offices. There is a structure there, so that is a play on words. If the assemblies are carrying out the functions set out in paragraph 4.31, that is exactly the role that they are best placed to carry out for their region, on a regional basis, without it being done from London. I do not see what the problem is—obviously the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, does.

The Earl of Onslow: The noble Lord sees powers being taken away from Westminster and being given to the new heptarchy that is being created—"octarchy", to be accurate. That is a constitutional change. It may be a good idea, but there is a pretence that it is not a constitutional change and that it will not take power away from Westminster. To allow, let us say, Scunthorpe or whatever the "capital" of a region may be, to negotiate directly with Brussels seems to me to be a constitutional change. It would be wise if we did this with our eyes open, if we thought it a good idea. Some of us do not think that it is a good idea to take away powers from Westminster.

Lord Rooker: I return to the second point I made when I came to the more considered parts of my speech; namely, based on the briefing prepared for me rather than ad-libbing. The Constitution Committee of this House published its report on 12th February. The committee noted a number of constitutional implications. We accept that. But the committee did not highlight any particular effect on the UK Parliament. There are implications; the committee noted them; and this Committee has considered them. But there has been no great torrent from the committee saying: "Stop this Bill. It will wreck the UK Parliament". It did not say that. It is not as though the matter has not been considered by this House. It has.

Baroness Blatch: We hope that the Minister will continue to ad-lib. We find it much more revealing and certainly more refreshing than the notes that are written for him. It is characteristic of him to be his own man on the Front Bench opposite. The Minister may consider it a relief that the Committee stage of a Bill is, and always has been, a tiresome stage. On Report, the Minister will be able to engage his wit in slapping us all down and saying that we have already spoken on the matter once. So that is ahead of us.

20 Mar 2003 : Column 405

On a more serious note, perhaps I may take up the point made by the Minister about how regional government will work. If he is right—if the powers (I think that the word was not used correctly) are those of Westminster and the quango bodies will merely be an administrative arm of government and will make decisions only within parameters set by government, and if most of the major decisions will be ratified by government in one form or another—why go through this pain of having a trigger, setting up a Boundary Committee and reorganising local government? If no power is being ceded upwards from local government and no powers are coming down from national government, why go through this laborious, expensive, politically de-stabilising process? It seems to me that there is no argument.

Secondly, the Minister, rightly and with some feeling, referred to the amount of time that we have spent on Clause 1. I am afraid that we shall probably spend quite a lot of time on Clause 2. These early clauses are important. They go to the heart of the Bill.

It comes as some relief to know that the Minister checked at lunchtime that the Deputy Prime Minister will not be naming an area and exercising an order under Section 12 for at least a year. That is fine. But what is the hurry? Why must the Bill be through by 8th May? There is no hurry at all if the first regional assembly, even on a fast track, cannot be in place until 2006-07. I do not know why our usual channels—mine as well as the Minister's—want the Committee stage to be completed by Monday evening. That seems absurd, given the timetable to which the Minister referred and given that he has removed the meat of rumours that were fairly strong before we started our work today.

We have some idea of what regional assemblies' functions will be. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is about to come before the House, and we understand that these bodies will be responsible for spatial planning, which is completely different. Why that should be such a divided subject across regional government and why there should be a separate regional quango, I do not know. But it would help us to know what free-standing decision-making powers a regional assembly would be able to exercise. If no powers are being ceded from below and no powers are ceding from above, that leaves regional assemblies as no more than an administrative arm of government, and for that we do not need such an elaborate system.

The Minister rightly chided us all for not looking at the House of Lords Select Committee report. I have scanned it but I will look at it more carefully to see what it says. I believe there is a link in constitutional impact on the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole when one considers what is being discussed in the Convention on the Future of Europe. For example, the convention is ceding powers in the areas of defence, foreign policy, law and economic policy. The Government may come to regret the incorporation of human rights because they are already beginning to fall foul of it. That has already ceded sovereignty from the parliamentary body to the courts and the judges.

20 Mar 2003 : Column 406

We went about House of Lords reform the wrong way. We did not determine the powers and functions of a second Chamber, ending up with the composition; we started with the composition, which was the wrong way round. That reform is having an impact on the relationship between the two Houses and the way in which Parliament operates as a whole.

Regional assemblies will have an impact. Something is flagged up in the Select Committee report which we will look at carefully. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will also have an impact. As the Minister rightly reminded my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith, it will go ahead, irrespective of regional assemblies. I accept that; it is a free-standing Bill, and whatever form this Bill takes, the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will go ahead. But it is seriously paving—it emasculates the existing powers of the county councils, some of the district councils and some of the unitary authorities. I think the regional assemblies will compound all that.

I understand what the Minister says about county functions but, reading the White Paper, some of the functions of the existing county councils will be carried out by regional assemblies.

Whether one or more areas eventually has a regional assembly, there will be an impact on the nature, characteristics, powers and functions of this Parliament. If I am wrong and the Minister is right, why go through this elaborate process simply to turn an administrative arm into an elected assembly?

Simply leaving everything to chance and seeing what happens when regional assemblies are in place is no way to legislate on constitutional change. We could have the worst of all possible worlds, with only some areas having regional assemblies. I think there will be great confusion.

This is such an important issue that we will return to it on Report.

4.45 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: Before my noble friend withdraws the amendment, could the Minister reply to her point about the Bill's timetable? I apologise to the noble Lord for not being in my place this morning when he may have said something about it, but I was called out of the Chamber. Given the timetable that he has enunciated, why is there so much pressure to get the Bill through by early May?

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page