|Previous Section||Back to Table of Contents||Lords Hansard Home Page|
Baroness Hanham: As I understand it, one of the rationales of the Bill is to give democratic legitimacy to the Government Offices for the Regions through various activities and the organisations that spin off underneath them. One could give democratic legitimacy to the regions if one wished without fouling up all of the rest of local government beneath them. It is extremely important that people within the areas that will be changedthe counties and districtshave an opportunity to comment on that. After all, they probably do not currently know or worry much about the regions. If they are electing a small number of people to act on their behalf, that queries democratic legitimacy. It is important that the Government consider the need to ensure that people understand the implications of what they are voting forif they do not do so, we may help them. The way in which to do that is to give them two questions.
My point is that the number of regions and their boundaries is absolutely crucial. The Committee knows very well that I believe that regional government is completely unnecessary but, whatever one's views on that, if the Government want regional government to be successful, they must ensure that the boundaries and compatibility of the areas are correct in the first place. If one does not get them right, one will have perpetual trouble. It would help the Government if they trust in regional authorities to get it right from the start and not make the same mistakes as were made with the Redcliffe-Maud Royal Commission in, I believe, 1968. It was stymied by the insistence of the Department of Education that there must be 500,000 people to have a viable education authority. That was absurd.
Lord Hanningfield: I want to comment on Amendment No. 31. Although I said this morning that we do not want to look at all of the polls and that one can present whatever figures one wants, I point out that even in the North East, in the poll to which the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, referred this morning, more than 50 per cent did not know what region they lived in now. That was supposed to have had much publicity and support in the North East. We tabled Amendment No. 31 so that people would at least be told on the ballot paper what region they live in. We joke about Essex but a recent survey there showed than fewer than 5 per cent thought that they lived in the eastern region. People in Cheshire do not know which region they are in. The ballot paper should state on it what region one is in and what one is voting for.
Lord Hanningfield: The 120,000 who come to London every day thought that they were more associated with London than with anywhere else. The majority thought that they lived in the South-East rather than the East of England.
Northumberland needs people to defend it. Geographically, it is a very large county. As my noble friend said, it has only about 300,000 people. It has six district councils, with an average of only about 50,000 each, but the geographical area in each of those district councils is considerable. They serve their people very well. Northumberland as a unitary would be an extremely big geographical area and it would be difficult for it to be a unitary county. People already feel dominated by Newcastle; they feel that Newcastle gets all of the resources and is looked after better. It is important that we give some support to those areas. They feel threatened by the continued dominance of the urban area in places such as the North East. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.
Lord Rooker: I begin by getting out of the way the issue raised by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, which was also raised last week. All of our deliberations are reported back to policy MinistersNick Raynsford and colleagues. Several noble Lords discussed the boundary review not being able to consider an existing unitary authority that happened to be in an area. My response was practical: I said that I would take away the issue for consideration. We are considering it but it is much too early to come back with an answer; we are still at Committee stage, as it were. However, the issue has been taken on board.
Amendment No. 26 gives an additional separate question. I stress that the question is separate and is not linked to the first question. I agree that it is unfortunate that, with regard to the two separate questions and Amendments Nos. 27 and 29, the amendments relating to the second question ended up in another group of amendments which we shall consider later. I am not responsible for the grouping of amendments. I wish that there was more conformity with groups of amendments in this House. That is something we could learn from another place. The grouping structure there makes for more concise debate. One does not have the same debate, split over several groups. Sometimes, with our groupings, one may miss points or be excessively repetitive.
We made clear that the move to single-tier local government is an integral part of the package. I do not desist from saying that without the rationalisation, the regional assembly will add extra complexity to another layer of government. We want a clear division of responsibilities between the tiers, and clear lines of accountability.
I have never been a councillor, but I know that forming a structure for local government is a serious issue. Local government delivers services to people in a much closer way than does central government. I understand that, having been a Member in another place. I have lived through local government changes in Birmingham. We do not want this to be a hit and miss or pick and mix affair. I am horrified at the implications made in a couple of speeches that people should be allowed to fix their own number of layers.
One needs to take a good strategic view. One question, with the full implications made clear to voters, avoids the ambiguity. Getting across the implications of the answer to one question is fundamental.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I am genuinely perplexed by the Minister's comments. I understand him to mean that, if we allow people the choice, layers of government will grow like Topsy. His position has always been that the concern would be about over-government; I find it difficult to believe that people could complain about over-government and then choose to create more tiers. How can the Minister have it both ways?
Lord Rooker: The noble Baroness used a good example in her speech. She said that she was content that people should be allowed to vote for extra tiers of governmentthat was their choice. We do not believe that extra tiers of government are a good idea. I made that point on Second Reading.
This is a political issue as much as anything else. We are not having extra tiers of government; it is as simple as that. We would rather not proceed with the Bill than have that happen. The price of having elected regional assemblies is having a single tierthe best form of single tier we can get. That is why we need the boundary review. This is a political issue, and I have no mathematical or intellectually coherent formula to justify itit is raw politics. We are not having extra tiers.
To the best of my knowledge, in any other local government reorganisation there have not been many votes by the people concerned. I do not remember there being town polls or anything of that sort in past local government reorganisations, although those reorganisations have occurred frequently. In fact, they have occurred more frequently than they should have done. I accept that.
Amendment No. 31 adds to the end of the referendum question. One has to be careful about the form of words used here. We were told that people do not know what region they live in. The Government's question, which some think inadequate but which was agreed by the Electoral Commission, is set out in Clause 2. The ballot paper will say:
The Government will publish that kind of factual information, including the powers and size of the assembly and the counties that make up the region. At that point, the proposed changes will come in from the boundary review. I emphasise that because the Government will have to say what they are going to do with those proposals, the default being to accept them, as they come from an independent body, but not necessarily so.
The proposals must be distributed. We will ensure that the document is delivered to each household in advance of the referendum. It will include information not only about the name of the region but about how it is made up, and which authorities are included in it. People should have that information before they vote as it informs them of the implications of the possible changes to the local government structure. The document will tell people about the two-tier structures that are to become one-tier and how those structures have been formed after a year-long deliberation.
Back to Table of Contents
Lords Hansard Home Page