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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene but we do not have the opportunity to come back at any later stage. This is Report stage. That is why noble Lords should be allowed to ask final questions. With regard to the answer the noble Lord gave concerning precepting, it does therefore seem that regional assemblies will be able to take money from local authorities and from local council tax payers for matters with which they may not agree; in other words, depriving local authorities of money which they might otherwise wish to spend on their local services. I am not satisfied to find that regional assemblies, without having direct representation, will be able to raise taxes locally, because that is what it amounts to.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I do not wish to address the House on procedure but my understanding is that at Report stage if a noble Lord wishes to elucidate an answer, he or she has every right to intervene further. It could be argued that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is doing just that.

I repeat a sentence I read out a moment ago. The level of general grant will be set to take account of this contribution. We also believe that an assembly should be able to raise some extra money within the region if it believes that that is desirable—for example, to increase funding for economic development—and likely to be supported by the region's voters.

As I said, I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. He asked many detailed questions further to carrying out his research. In my view those will be answered by the further in-depth information that will be published by the Government not only in terms of explanatory booklets but also, we hope, in terms of a draft Bill which, as I said, we very much hope to be able to publish before the first referendum.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I know the noble Lord for his intelligence and for his courtesy. I believe

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that had there been good answers to the questions that I raised, he would certainly have given them. There are two possible explanations: one is that the Government do not as yet know them themselves; the second is that they have not told the noble Lord, in which case he is in a very unpleasant and difficult position. Of course he has my utmost sympathy because I have found myself not always on the best of terms with my Front Bench, extraordinary as it may seem.

There are two points to which I should like to refer very briefly. First, I welcome the noble Lord's assurance that the Government have no hidden agenda and that there are no surprises to come. That is most interesting. The second matter, which rather puzzled me, was that the noble Lord said that we were at the early stages of a process. Processes can lead anywhere. People who initiate processes are the last to be able always to indicate or prophesy their fulfilment or their conclusions. So I am not entirely comforted by that; my worries are still very much there.

I should have liked—I hope that my noble friend is listening to every word that I am going to say now—to have sought the opinion of the House on this particular amendment which has the merit of clarity and of being easily understood. That is rare on occasion in your Lordships' House. But on the other hand, just as I was beginning to steel myself to thinking that we ought to have a Division, I met the terrifying glance of my noble friend Lady Hanham on the Front Bench. I read from that that if I wished to escape alive from your Lordships' House this afternoon I had better not ask for a Division. Therefore, with great regret, I ask permission to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 3:

    Page 1, line 7, at end insert—

"( ) Before making an order under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must exercise his powers as defined in section 25 of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 (c. 45) (power to alter regions) to review the boundaries of the regions as specified in Schedule 1 of that Act."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, a very fierce Baroness Hanham gets to her feet.

In Committee I introduced an amendment which would effectively have forced the Secretary of State to ignore the boundaries as defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act and to ask the Boundary Committee to start from scratch, inviting submissions from local authorities and any other relevant interested parties about the creation of regions which were compatible in size and which reflected the needs and identities of local communities.

It would be fair to say that my amendment met with a mixed response. I received considerable support from some who felt that the 1998 regional boundaries, which had, after all, been created for administrative not constitutional purposes, were less than satisfactory. They were adamant that the boundaries were nonsensical and that these regions had no obvious unity or cohesion for election purposes. I was faced with allegations from the Government that it

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was merely a wrecking amendment designed to be an impediment to any progress on the establishment of regional assemblies as any such comprehensive review would take at least a year.

I spent a little time rereading that debate and I have listened to both the support and the criticisms. In response I have tabled Amendment No. 3, which is intended to be something of a compromise. The Minister said that he had not ruled out any future change in boundaries of regions. Not surprisingly, I and many other noble Lords thought that it would be far preferable to review the boundaries at the beginning before making substantial changes in terms of local government reorganisation and restructuring and incurring large costs by setting up the administrative machinery of regional assemblies.

Amendment No. 3 follows that commonsense approach of reviewing boundaries at the start rather than making changes later. As the current boundaries reflect those defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, our amendment refers to Section 25 of that Act which states that:

    "The Secretary of State may by order make alterations in the extent of the regions in Schedule 1".

It goes on to explain that he cannot alter the number of regions. He should, however,

    "take such steps as he considers sufficient to secure that members of the public who may be interested in the proposed order are informed of it and of the period within which they may make representations to him about it".

He must also consult the RDAs, the local authorities that will be affected and such other persons as he thinks fit. Any order made under this section must be laid in draft before both Houses and approved by affirmative resolution.

The Secretary of State therefore already has the power to alter regions under that section of the RDA Act 1998. I believe that the section is eminently sensible and well drafted. It does not, of course, go so far as my previous amendment, but it would ensure that the anomalies could be ironed out. Where areas such as Cornwall or Cumbria had particular concerns, the Boundary Committee would have to take them into account.

The steps to be taken are straightforward. The process need not be that over-expensive or time-consuming. The power rests not with another body, but with the Secretary of State himself. If the Government were committed to listening to what the people wanted, they would agree to the amendment. It concedes some flexibility. The boundaries are not set in stone, and nor should they be. The Secretary of State must at least have a look at the possibility of altering the regions before he kicks off the whole process of regional assemblies. Indeed, he might even be persuaded that the number of regions was wrong and should be increased. If so, he could take action to do that.

Boundaries by their very nature are contentious. Those on the periphery will always feel more affinity with the town just across the border than with the

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central city of the region, which may be two hours drive away. Paragraph 6.4 of the White Paper states that,

    "the Government believes that a prolonged debate over the composition of individual regions is likely to generate a good deal of fervour, but with no obvious prospect that boundaries that are more widely acceptable or practicable would emerge at the end".

However, as I said before and as we discussed in Committee, the regions are incorrect. They are completely unbalanced in terms of population and geography, for example. We have had long discussions on the absurdity of each boundary and what it included.

It is frankly irresponsible to avoid consideration of a review of boundaries in the expectation that no preferable boundary arrangement is likely to be discovered. The Government have a positive duty to undertake a review. The power to do so already exists in a previous Act of Parliament. They have consistently said that regional assemblies are about choice and will not simply be imposed. To fail to consult on boundaries would incur great resentment and make people feel that they had been forced into a region for which they had no affinity. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: My Lords—

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and I were being so polite to each other that we failed to let the Minister see that there were some comments to be made.

The noble Baroness talked in terms of the Secretary of State reviewing the regions. I hope that the Minister can help us on how many years—I suspect that it would be years—would be required to review the boundaries of the regions, which I read as meaning all the boundaries of all the regions. It would be a matter for the Boundary Committee of England, not for the Secretary of State to design when he was having a leisurely bath one morning.

I hope that the exceptional circumstances to which the White Paper refers, in paragraph 6.5 on the possible alteration of regional assembly boundaries, and to which the Minister referred in Committee can be interpreted quite widely by the Government. It is perfectly clear that there are areas in which boundary considerations outweigh almost everything else. It is also clear that there are some regions where there is a great deal more interest in regional government. I do not expect the Minister to be geographically specific but I can say that, in my assessment at any rate, those areas are ones in which boundary considerations are not as great as in others.

I learned only recently that a full Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Evans, has just referred, would have to deal with the issue of boundaries. It is most important that the matter is not wholly off the agenda once we have dealt with this preparations Bill. What concerns us is that the exercise would be very prolonged. I accept that Amendment No. 3 is different, but I was concerned by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness in Committee on

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creating such an extended programme as to take regional government off the agenda, in effect. I fear the same with this amendment.

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