Select Committee on Constitution Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness(Questions 1-19)




  1. Mr Raynsford, may I, first of all, thank you very much for coming this afternoon to be with the Committee. We are extremely grateful to you for finding the time and agreeing to come and answer our questions. May I open by saying the Committee is extremely grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for writing in the way he did about the Bill. It is extremely helpful to us and we do commend him for being proactive and writing; we thought this was an extremely beneficial way of proceeding and we do recommend it as a good practice, so we would like to put that on record. Secondly, I would like to say that this Committee, under its terms of reference, is required to required to report to the House on bills of constitutional significance, therefore, given the very nature of the Bill, we are required to report on it. It is just a case of fleshing out some aspects of the Bill in respect of the constitutional provisions and the Deputy Prime Minister in his letter helpfully identified those aspects which are constitutional. As a Committee we are solely concerned with the constitutional dimension and not with any political elements of the Bill at all. Before we put any questions to you, may I invite you for the record to identify yourself and your official and then invite you to make any opening statement you would like to?

  (Mr Raynsford) Thank you very much for that invitation. I am the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and I am responsible for the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill which was introduced into the House of Lords on 27 January and which I understand is due to have its Second Reading on 20 February. I am joined by Ian Scotter, an official in the Regional Policy Unit of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I very much appreciate your remarks about the letter which the Deputy Prime Minister sent on 23 January. I understand that the Committee found the letter and its annexes helpful; that was certainly our intention, and can I thank the Clerk for his helpful guidance to my officials in putting the letter and its annexes together. As each of you will have the Deputy Prime Minister's letter to hand I do not intend to go over the detail of the letter with its annexes, but perhaps I can set out very briefly why the Government is taking this Bill through Parliament and how it fits into our broader approach to constitutional change—and I take your point about focusing solely on the constitutional issues. The Government has a clear commitment to devolving power, which we have already demonstrated through the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and the GLA. Each body operates differently with separate sets of responsibilities tailored to the needs of the nation or area in question. We believe that the British constitution has been strengthened, not diminished, by the creation of the devolved administrations and the Greater London Council not least because the absence of devolved power led to a strongly held sense of injustice at the extent to which decisions which should have been taken regionally were being determined at the centre. I speak as a London Member of Parliament who was very conscious in the period after the abolition of the Greater London Council in the 1980s that London did not have—uniquely among major world cities—a city-wide authority to speak for the citizens. We are also very conscious that the Government's devolution agenda to date has left, in the words of one of your members, a "black hole" in respect of England, and we believe that the extension of devolution to the English regions is both necessary and timely. We are aware of the concerns which you yourself have voiced in the recent House of Lords debate which you initiated on the British constitution. If I may quote you, you said that "the [Government were] making profound changes without any clear coherent view of where we [were] going"; you questioned whether "[we had] the prospect of a misshapen, perhaps dysfunctional, constitution [with] no way of seeing how each part fits with the other parts", and you questioned whether the "current debate about . . . regional government [served] to highlight [this] problem." While I would not necessarily agree with you on all of those conclusions, I certainly do agree with you about the crucial importance of these issues and I confirm they are ones to which the government has given and is continuing to give serious thought. In that same debate the Lord Chancellor made it clear the government's approach was to proceed by pragmatism based on principle, and he set out three principles which have informed all of our constitutional reforms. First, that we should remain a parliamentary democracy with the Westminster Parliament supreme; secondly, that we should increase or seek to increase public engagement in democracy and, thirdly, that we should devise a solution to each problem on its terms. Implicit in this is that we are not imposing a uniform structure but we recognise that asymmetric solutions are a natural consequence of responding to different aspirations in different parts of the UK. That explains why we have accepted significant variations, for example, in the extent of the powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament as against the Greater London Authority, and it also explains why it is right that those English regions which want more autonomy should, in our view, be given the opportunity which is in line with the manifesto commitment. Because there are clearly considerable variations within the English regions in their appetite for elected regional assemblies, we do not believe it is appropriate to impose a uniform structure. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill takes forward our commitment that "provision should be made for directly elected regional government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local government is established". Implicit in this commitment is, first, that there may be elected assemblies in some regions but not others and, second, that there needs to be a restructuring of local government because two-tier local government exists to a greater or lesser degree in every English region outside London. Following extensive re-organisation of local government in the 1990s, we are not attracted by the prospect of a further wholesale re-organisation across the whole of England. However, it is not possible to rule out some re-organisation for two reasons: first, if we left the structure of local government unchanged, some regions with predominantly two-tier local government would, by the very definition I have already outlined, be debarred from the choice of whether they could have an elected regional assembly, and we think it is right that every region should have the opportunity—not all will take it but everyone should have the chance. Secondly, creating a new regional tier of government on top of the existing two tiers seems to us to be one tier too many. We are not in favour of a proliferation of tiers of government or of bureaucracy. We believe that in order to help build effective working relationships between local and regional government, and to provide a single champion to focus on local communities' needs, we need to streamline local government in those regions which opt for a regional assembly, and for this reason we believe it right to move to a unitary structure in such regions, but there is no need to restructure local government in regions that are not going to have elected assemblies. I accept entirely this is a pragmatic approach which is not going to please those who adopt a purist view of the constitution and wish to see uniform structures imposed throughout the United Kingdom, but I believe and I will argue that the approach we are adopting is consistent with the organic way in which our constitution has grown over the centuries. I hope these introductory remarks are helpful in putting our legislation in context, and I will happily answer any questions you want to put to me.

  2. Thank you. That is extremely helpful and, indeed, anticipates some of the points we would like to touch on. Perhaps I could start off and pick up on two points that you have made, and in essence look at the constitutional practice because we are not concerned necessarily with the merits of some of the aspects of local government reform. I take your point—and, of course, the Deputy Prime Minister made the point quite properly and appropriately in his letter—that the Bill implies an asymmetric model of regional government, or potentially so as you mentioned, and your justification was that otherwise there is a black hole in respect of England in terms of devolving powers. From a constitutional perspective one could argue that we already have some degree of asymmetry with the devolution settlements. I suppose this proposal could be constitutionally distinctive in that it would be introducing asymmetry within England itself, and you have provided the justification for why the government would be prepared to have an asymmetrical system in response to regional demand. From a practical point of view and looking at the consequence of co-ordination, if you have an asymmetrical system of government and the relationship to the centre in terms of making contact, is that something that has been anticipated and thought through?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes, and that is why in Chapter 2 of the White Paper we have given very considerable focus on the issues that need to be co-ordinated, whether or not there are elected regional assemblies. If I can specify principles, we have spelt out very clearly our view that there should be no financial advantage one way or another; that the choice of whether or not there should be an elected regional assembly should be neutral financially in that respect, and that those regions that opt for an elected regional assembly should do so because they see the merits of the case and not because of other considerations. The role of the Government Offices will remain fundamental in all those regions that do not elect elected regional assemblies, and will hopefully provide a channel for a link between central government and the various regional bodies, in the absence of an elected regional assembly.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

  3. As somebody who has been in favour of regional assemblies since it was first mooted, I think, by Radcliffe Maud in 1969, I am delighted that we have finally got to that point; but I do have a little question about the fact that it is not going to be universal. If you take, for example, an area which is on the border of, say, Yorkshire and Lancashire, with one side of the road in Yorkshire and the other side of the road in Lancashire, what worries me is the accountability question because you will have one side of the road where they will have people who will be accountable for what is happening and on the other side there will be people with no accountability in the same way. That is one of the questions that worries me enormously. You say that it is a question of whether people want to do this but I am not sure that there is necessarily sufficient understanding yet of what it will mean to the electors in terms of that accountability issue, and I think that needs to be explained more.
  (Mr Raynsford) Apart from the obvious remark that over the centuries Lancashire and Yorkshire have differed in all sorts of ways—

  4. Yes. I come from there!
  (Mr Raynsford)—I would say, first of all, that we are recognising the very real differences in the sense of aspiration for regional devolution that exist in different parts of the United Kingdom. I do not for a moment pretend that if we were to hold a referendum in the south east in the next month we would see anything other than a large vote against having an elected regional assembly. Interestingly, the further away from London one gets—and there is significance in this—the greater appears to be the appetite, and it is no surprise in my view that in the south west region, Yorkshire and Humberside and the north west and the north east in particular, one sees an ever increasing appetite for devolved autonomy. Proximity may be one factor there—that London is seen as the driving force in our constitution at the moment and the further away people are maybe they feel more of a need for a greater sense of regional identity—but there are other factors such as that issue, that sense of regional identity. There is a strong sense of regional identity in many of our northern regions. I do not think people in the south east feel quite the same way about the south east. They might feel strongly about their area south of London in Kent, Sussex and Surrey, but I am not sure they feel a great identity with Milton Keynes which also falls within the same region. So there are differences and those exist at the moment and if one were to impose a uniform structure irrespective of the views of the communities, I think you would be creating a constitution that was potentially unstable. We are trying to go with the grain of public opinion and recognise that there must be, as I said in response to the Lord Chairman's first question, a recognition of the concerns of individual regions but also co-ordination to ensure that there is not an unfair bias in favour of those that opt for a regional assembly against those that will not.

  5. You identify, quite rightly, as you get further away from London that you get more regional identity but I do get the impression from all the papers that I have read that the idea is to start with one area and then perhaps move to another and another according to when the Secretary of State feels it is appropriate to do so. If you can identify four areas where they are quite clear about their regional identity, why can they not be the ones that start? Why are we doing it more gradually than that?
  (Mr Raynsford) I will make one point absolutely clear: it is not just going to be on the Secretary of State or the Deputy Prime Minister's decision but based on the evidence that comes back from the consultations we are currently undertaking. We have openly invited people to give us their views and will have full regard to those before a decision is taken. There is no obstacle to a larger number than just one region going ahead initially. It is our assumption that probably there will not be more than perhaps two or possibly three regions at the outset—that is simply a perception based on what soundings we have done so far—but there is no absolute bar, and if the current soundings exercise demonstrates a strong appetite in four regions we would certainly pay close heed to that, but there are practical issues to do with the requirement for local government re-organisation and it would certainly be stretching the resources of the Boundary Committee to undertake a very large number of local government reviews simultaneously. We will obviously take that practical issue into account but there is certainly no arbitrary limitation to the number of regions that can progress.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: That has not always been the impression given.


  6. Can I ask a supplementary on this? Obviously holding a referendum now is not a constitutional innovation—we have held a number before—but what is innovative is the trigger mechanism. It is not Parliament saying, "There will be a referendum here"; it is giving the power to the Secretary of State to decide in specified circumstances that there is the level of interest. To some extent you touch upon the fact that the Bill does stipulate that but, given that it is constitutionally novel, do you feel that the Bill has gone as far as it could in stipulating the provisions under which it should be triggered and determining the level when the interest is clearly there within a region—and I take the point in the explanatory memorandum that interest is not the same as judging the number of people who support regional government—but I am just wondering whether one could have gone further in that respect given that one is, in effect, setting quite an important precedent?
  (Mr Raynsford) We did give serious consideration to other alternatives including, for example, a petitioning mechanism if more than a certain percentage of people were to sign a petition that would trigger a referendum. The difficulty with that approach is that, given the size of the regions we are talking about, it will be possible for anything other than a very high threshold to be satisfied by a small part of the region as a whole pressing strongly in favour, achieving, say, a 5 per cent threshold, when across the great majority of the rest of the region there was no significant support at all. Given that this is not just simply a process of holding a referendum but it also involves a Boundary Committee review and the potential disruption of local government attendant on that, which we recognise is not something to be triggered without good reason, we felt this was not necessarily the best way forward. We think that the approach allows an opportunity for not just the representative bodies in the region, the members of Parliament, the members of the European Parliament, local authorities and other representative bodies to give us their views, but also for the public at large, and we have recently been giving some attention as to whether we ought to be giving greater publicity to the soundings exercise. We have recently received the result of a survey conducted by Durham County Council which has highlighted still a degree of lack of knowledge about our arrangements, so we are considering whether there should be more effort to inform the public, but we wanted to ensure that there was as wide a scope as possible for people to respond rather than a mechanistic approach which might produce perhaps a distorted outcome.

  7. I wonder if, given the points made about the mechanistic approach and that there may be dangers in trying to produce one specifically in the Bill, one nevertheless has the problem of the dividing line between sufficient interest and not quite sufficient interest to trigger a referendum and whether that could then be off-set by a high level of transparency in terms of the decision reached by the Secretary of State, and whether there are mechanisms in place to achieve that?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is certainly our intention to publish all evidence so people can form a clear judgment about the basis on which the Secretary of State reached his decision, and I hope that will achieve that transparency.

Lord Morgan

  8. Mr Raynsford, you kindly identified me with the "black hole" remark; I did say that and my hope was that the black hole would be filled and that this measure will do so, and like Baroness Gould I am enthusiastic for it and sympathetic to what is proposed. I am just trying to visualise what the difference would be between an area that opted for a regional elected assembly of this type and an area that would not have one. We have asymmetry at the moment between Wales and Scotland which is very visible in the area of financial accountability—broadly speaking, the Welsh Assembly spends money that it does not raise and that is allocated to it. Would there be a financial or difference of financial control and accountability between the two?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are not proposing that there should be differences between the English regions but we are proposing there should be a broadly comparable constitutional arrangement for each English regional assembly. The one exception to that would be in relation to London where the Greater London Authority already exists. It is not strictly a regional body though it does perform a similar function. It is a city-wide authority, and it has responsibility in two areas which are not replicable elsewhere. The Metropolitan police is a unique institution which falls within the remit of the Greater London Authority, and there is Transport for London—there is no equivalent regional transport body that is appropriate for the regional assembly to control. So those two would be unique powers to London against which we are proposing that the English regions would have rather greater power in relation to housing in their regions than is the case in respect of the Greater London Authority. With those broad differences, however, we do think that the English regional assemblies will broadly have the same type of powers as the Greater London Authority. They will have a limited capacity to raise finance themselves and be able to do so through precepts, which is the same model as the Greater London Authority and to that extent they are closer, I suppose, to the Welsh pattern than the Scottish one which has rather more extensive financial powers.

  9. That is very helpful. So if there is a Regional Assembly in a part of England then it would have a budget to spend which would be allocated?
  (Mr Raynsford) Yes. It would have a budget and it would itself be able to levy part of that through its precepting power, but it would receive block grant from central government in just the same way that those regions that did not have elected regional assemblies would receive funding from the centre for delivery of services in those regions.

  10. And you see the elected representative in the assemblies having a level of accountability to their electors for spending this money?
  (Mr Raynsford) The difference is in the regions without regional assemblies it would be the government office that would allocate the funds or the appropriate body, for example, the regional office of the Housing Corporation that currently allocates housing sums. Where there is a directly elected regional assembly, the members of that would be responsible for the budget and for allocating the block grant to the various headings within their remit.

Chairman: I am not sure how we should follow the black hole analogy because I am not sure if black holes are filled or simply consume matter!

Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market

  11. I am not going to talk about the issues of politics but strictly the constitutional implication—namely, the fact that I think this is establishing a precedent in allowing different referenda at different times about the same issue in a single country, in England, and it is that I am really focusing on. On the definition of regions, I know it says that they are the regional government agencies in the Bill, but what happens if you get, and you said yourself the regions are fairly large, in a region a response which shows that one part of it is keen to have a referendum and another part is not? Do you have to make a judgment for the whole, or can you say, "Well, this clearly shows that this will not fit for the region as a whole and we can make changes in the region".
  (Mr Raynsford) I have emphasised we have adopted a pragmatic approach to this and our view is we should start on the basis of the existing government office regions. They are established; they are the regions for which services that will transfer to the regional assembly are currently discharged via other regional bodies—and I have talked about government offices—and that seems a sensible building block. But we have not ruled out the possibility of changes in the longer term and I readily accept in relation to the south east that there is not the sense of regional identity and it may well be that, in due course, it is felt appropriate to reconsider some of the boundaries. However, I have to say as a pragmatist that boundary issues tend to be about the most controversial that ever come up, and had we taken the advice of the opposition in committee debates that we had in the Commons on this and started the process with a free-for-all on boundaries, I do not believe that we would be talking about any regional assemblies in the foreseeable future because there are obviously enormous variations and views on this. So it is a pragmatic approach building on the existing regional structures that are in place, boundaries that have been there for many years, that were the basis of the government offices established during the 1990s, and are well understood particularly in those regions which have a strong sense of regional identity and which we think would be the ones with the greatest appetite to proceed. So that is the basis of our conclusion rather than allowing the whole issue of boundaries to become, I suspect, a rather time-consuming battleground in the immediate future.

  12. You said in the explanatory notes in paragraph 38: "For various reasons it may not be appropriate for directions to be given in relation to two or more regions at the same time", and this is in terms of the local government review. I think you have partly answered this but is that mainly for pragmatic reasons like the burdens on the Boundary Committee, or is it for other reasons? When you say "for various reasons it may not be appropriate", what does that mean?
  (Mr Raynsford) We are primarily concerned about the pressure on the Boundary Committee and the fact they would have to have a programme of work. If there are too many reviews going on simultaneously it is difficult to see this being conducted with the degree of thoroughness and impartiality which we would expect because it would require additional members of the Committee to be appointed to carry out reviews rather than using their existing staff. So these are predominantly pragmatic reasons.

  13. On the question of taking a decision as to whether the response shows that there should be a referendum or not, you have indicated you will publish all the responses but will you have clear criteria developed in advance? Should it be the Secretary of State who is taking the decision? Will there be clear criteria so one can see it is not just a political decision but based on a fairly careful trawl of all the various bodies and people that ought to respond? Secondly, should that decision as to whether the consultation shows that there is a big demand or not rest with the Secretary of State, or should it be somebody more objective?
  (Mr Raynsford) I think there are two issues here: firstly, the criteria which we have spelt out in our initial consultation document and then in the soundings exercise how we intend to measure the responses we get. We will, as I have said already, listen to the views of all the representative bodies in the region plus any who wish to respond such as businesses and voluntary organisations, and that is the broad approach we have adopted. I should just add that clearly membership organisations who have consulted their membership and come back with evidence of the views of a wider group than just the members of the committee of the organisation will have a greater weight attached to that and we have said that quite openly, and we have encouraged bodies to conduct surveys where they think this would be appropriate. I have mentioned Durham County Council because we have recently seen the results of a survey they have conducted which highlighted a significant interest in holding a referendum, but also said to us that a significant number of people had not heard about the Government's proposals which highlighted the need for us perhaps to do more to try and reach those people.

The Committee suspended from 17.57 to 16.07 for a division in the House of Commons


  14. If we could resume.
  (Mr Raynsford) I think I was half way through my answer because I divided your question into two parts and I have not dealt with the question of whether or not it is right for the Deputy Prime Minister to take a decision and, if so, on what basis he would take the decision. The key point I would make here is that we are talking about quite an important decision which is not just going to be triggering a referendum, it is going to be triggering a review of local government.[1] It is difficult to see how that could be done by a body which was not ultimately accountable to this Parliament for decisions on such issues, and that is why I think it is right that it is ultimately the Deputy Prime Minister who takes that decision. However, it must be a transparent decision and that is why we have talked about making sure the evidence is public. That was our conclusion. There is no other body we could envisage that could ultimately carry the accountability for not just the choice of a referendum but the future of local government within that region. He is the Secretary of State responsible for both matters and it seemed appropriate that he should take that decision.

  15. Perhaps I had not looked closely enough at the Bill but when you say accountable to Parliament, which I entirely understand, will there be another trigger point before the referendum goes ahead at which Parliament has a say?
  (Mr Raynsford) The two triggers are in a sense, firstly, the evidence showing an appetite for having a referendum and then, secondly, there has to be a reconsideration after the Boundary Committee has published its recommended reorganisation proposals for local government, because the Secretary of State is not permitted under legislation to proceed if he believes that there has been a material change in the views about the merits of having an elected regional assembly in the intervening period, so the government will be required to review the position before it can give the final go ahead for the referendum.

  16. Can he give the final go ahead at that stage without coming back to Parliament?
  (Mr Raynsford) My understanding is that Parliament will trigger the referendum itself because the order for the referendum is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure, so the Secretary of State will come back to Parliament when he has taken that decision.

  17. My final question is on the referendum itself. There is no provision for issues like a turnout threshold, for example, in the referendum; what if there is a ten per cent response in the referendum itself—not in the consultation period?
  (Mr Raynsford) We considered that issue in some detail and indeed debated it during the House of Commons consideration, particularly in committee. Our conclusion was that the disadvantages of a threshold outweighed the potential advantages. Let me just run through them. Firstly, it is not precedented, other than in the 1970s when a threshold was imposed on the devolution proposals and effectively prevented Scotland having a devolved Parliament for a period of 20 years, although a majority of Scots had voted in favour of devolution, because the threshold was not satisfied. I think that is a rather important object lesson, that one can end up with an outcome like that which caused considerable resentment north of the border. If one looks at more recent experience in some other countries—and I know one should not always look abroad but occasionally it is instructive—in the former Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbia, and more recently in Montenegro, we have had a curious constitutional position of people being elected by quite large majorities for senior positions in their country and not being able to take office because of a threshold. So there are serious disadvantages with thresholds.

  18. It depends where you put it in a way.
  (Mr Raynsford) This is where we come into the area of what is the basis for a threshold and any figure is bound to be, to some extent, a random one. One will hear arguments in favour of a 25 per cent threshold, which was put forward in our Committee; a 40 per cent threshold, which was the one that applied in the case of the 1970s referendum; a 50 per cent or even higher threshold, and I do not know of any sound basis for deciding what is the appropriate one, so our view is what we must do is try to encourage maximum participation. In the legislation there is specific provision for the Electoral Commission to play a role in trying to extend awareness and knowledge about the issues because, as in other aspects of our democratic life, none of us can be comfortable if there is a low participation rate. I am certainly concerned as the Minister responsible for local government about the relatively low turnout in local authority elections currently, and we are doing what we can through a range of measures to try and increase turnout.


  19. If I could pick up on your answer to Lord MacGregor an important point which is not to do with the legislation but the consequences that you were talking about is in respect of boundaries. I take your point about the controversy that quite often surrounds boundaries. Coming from Humberside I am very familiar with the sort of arguments that arise. If I can just clarify what I think you were implying in terms of the future. You said you were going to be pragmatic about it if there was a controversy about boundaries and there may be some pressure for change. Can I clarify what you are saying in terms of the legislation. It will proceed on the existing boundaries of the Government Offices of the regions. If there is a referendum yes/no, if legislation is introduced in Parliament to provide for regional assemblies, it will be assemblies within those specified regions, but it would be subsequent to that that one might be willing to review the boundaries of those regions?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is correct and that is spelt out in our White Paper. I cannot off the top of my head remember precisely the paragraph but we do make provision for some adjustments at a future date and we do not rule that out.

1   Note by the witness: The Bill provides that, before an order is made causing a referendum to be held, the Boundary Committee must first have made recommendations on a review. Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market Back

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