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Baroness Hanham: The amendment raises an issue that I do not think we have yet discussed at all—the

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mishmash of layers of government that would be created if there were regional government in only one or two parts of the country. We have not yet discussed how those layers of government would interrelate. Is the North East of England to have superior powers and to get more of what it wants? It certainly thinks that that would be the result. It thinks that it would be much better placed than areas without regional government to get money from the Government and from Europe. I think that that is a falsehood. Indeed, I think that the Minister himself has said that that is unlikely. He said that regional status is unlikely to be preferable and that it is more an administrative matter.

However, if there are fewer than three or four regions—three would be less than 50 per cent of potential regions—there will be a very strange local government structure. We have not tested that proposition. This amendment gives us the opportunity to ask the Government what they are doing with the structures of government. What do they expect to result from this change? Why should one part of the country be governed in a completely different way from others? As my noble friend said, we need an indication of how popular the idea is across the country. Indeed, we could have done that had we had a referendum across the whole country before we set off on this debate. We have not tabled an amendment to that effect, but it might have been a very good idea.

I think that there is going to be a great lack of cohesion. I think that this amendment opens up that debate.

Lord Greaves: I do not think that we can support this amendment and I shall explain why. In a sense, it comes back to the different positions from which we and the Conservatives approach the Bill. Both Opposition parties are very sceptical about the Bill and the Government's objectives, but we are sceptical for different—and in many ways opposite—reasons. We are sceptical because we want to see good, strong regional government in as much of England as possible. We do not think that this Bill will deliver that. The Conservatives are sceptical because they do not want the Bill at all and they fear that it will deliver at least part of that agenda. There are occasions when we come head to head with the Conservatives and say that we disagree fundamentally.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, mentioned the risk of creating a mishmash if only one or two—and then she said three or perhaps four—regions are created. The amendment specifies three regions. In her terms, there would be a mishmash unless the whole of England had regional government or did not have it. From her point of view, it would not matter whether one, two, three, six or seven of the eight regions went ahead with regional government. She said that areas under regions would be governed by completely different systems and in a completely different way.

But, of course, we already have that in the United Kingdom. We have three countries: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I correct myself—Northern Ireland is a Province and has suspended regional government, although perhaps the suspension will be

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lifted before too long. Therefore we already have a "mishmash" in the noble Baroness's terms. London has a completely different system from that of the rest of England, and that does not appear to have resulted in the disintegration of the kingdom.

There is now a whole series of different systems even within local government. Some places have elected mayors—a rather disastrous system which was nevertheless foisted on various parts of the country by the present Government. Even when we do not have elected mayors, local authorities have different systems of running themselves. We have unitary authorities, two-tier authorities and so on.

Therefore, in the noble Baroness's terms, we have a mishmash. That is not an argument for or against the amendment. It may be an argument against the Bill altogether and I am sure that, if the noble Baroness is honest, that is her argument in relation to the mishmash.

Whatever happens, if regional assemblies are elected in any parts of England, we shall end up with different systems in different regions. As a Liberal Democrat, that does not worry me very much. I should like to see effective regional devolution throughout England. However, I recognise that, at least in parts of England, it will take time for the understanding and the wish for that to develop. I am certain that, if regional assemblies were on offer at present, Cornwall, for example, would grab it with two hands and possibly parts of the north of England would also be willing to go ahead.

However, the fact is that there is one system in one area and another system in another. I use the earlier words of the Minister: so what? Why does it matter? Why is it necessary to have uniformity of administrative and democratic structures across the country? The model is Spain, which has had a whole series of asymmetrical initiatives and systems of devolution for the different regions, and still has. Some Catalonians might consider Catalonia to be a country and not a region, and most Scots consider it to be a country and not a region.

Catalonia has a substantial system of devolution—far greater than most parts of Spain. But does that mean that Catalonia is in a state of disintegration? Of course it does not. The Basque country has far greater devolution than other parts of Spain. There are political problems associated with separatism, but those are distinct from the question of the system of government and administration. That does not matter. What matters is that the people who live in those areas are comfortable with the system they have. That is why consulting people and referendums—

Baroness Hanham: It seems to me that the Basque country is a dreadful example to put forward. People in the Basque country fight each other all the time not only over the administration and the political system—I understand that—but over the question of

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nationhood. That is a very poor example to put forward as an area which administers itself and has its own democratic point.

Lord Greaves: That may be the noble Baroness's view but it is not one with which I agree. There are problems in the Basque country. They are political problems and problems of separatism, which often arise after people have lived in a state of subjugation under highly centralised, dictatorial systems, of which the former Yugoslavia is a classic example. What has happened in the Basque country is very similar to that.

Whether the Spanish Government centrally have dealt with the matter as well as they should have done is a different issue. But the difficulties in the Basque country have nothing to do with the system of regional devolution there. In practice, that has been quite successful. The difficulties are far more national within Spain, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, may understand.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, also talked about different systems all over England. Again, there is no problem with that. Our objection to the amendment is that if regionalisation goes ahead and regions are willing to experiment, take it on board and do it, they should be allowed to do so. It is quite likely that under the present Government proposals, there will be one region only in England that wants to embrace it and go ahead. That is a likely outcome. I speak as someone from the North West, who knows the North West—

7 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Will the noble Lord address the asymmetric point? One or two amendments ago the noble Baroness Lady Hamwee suggested a number of regional bodies that could be subsumed into the regional assemblies. But a great many of those bodies, including the learning and skills councils, which we discussed in some detail, are tied in line management terms with a national body. There is a national Learning and Skills Council as well as learning and skills councils and a national Sector Skills Council as well as sector skills councils. There is a national CBI organisation and a national environmental organisation. So if one gets one, two or even three parts of the country becoming asymmetrically regional what would happen with the break-up of these national bodies which are regionally delivered? It would create the most incredible confusion around the country.

Lord Greaves: I have greater faith in people's understanding of systems than does the noble Baroness. I do not think that it would cause incredible confusion.

The noble Baroness is not arguing—I say again—in favour of this amendment, which is only about whether it should be one, two, three regions or whatever, but against the whole tenor of the Bill and the whole process of going ahead with asymmetric devolution. We do not think it is a problem. The question is: what would other national organisations

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do? Almost inevitably—as happened with Scotland and Wales in many cases—they would reorganise themselves in order to fit in with the structure of public decision-making. That is the way organisations work. The reason why they presently have an English national structure is because that is the way government in England is organised. If there were devolution for some regions in England organisations would match it in their own structures and systems. To suggest that it would be so confusing that no one could possibly understand it is stretching the argument a little far, to put it mildly.

I make one final point. I think that there is a good argument for going ahead with one region only. It is up to the people in the regions as to whether they want to go ahead. I mention the North East because, despite the fact that the Minister will tell me that he knows nothing about this and never hears this talk, everyone knows that region is the leading contender to go ahead. There is a good argument for saying, "Let the North East go ahead and test the Government's proposal, despite the grave scepticism many of us have about it from opposite ends, and let other areas see how it works". That would provide a model which would be a much better basis on which areas such as the North West could make their decision as to whether to go ahead.

The danger I foresee is that in the first wave too many regions will be forced to have referendums. The regions which would really benefit from regional government will lose the referendum because of the uncertainty; because of the effect it will have on local government; because people will be split between those who do not want it and who invent all kinds of bogeys about how much it will cost and so on; and those who cannot raise the enthusiasm to campaign for it because it is a fairly feeble offering. The referendum will then be put off almost indefinitely.

So I oppose the amendment simply because, among other things, I think there is a good case to test it out in one region only at the beginning.

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