Select Committee on Constitution Fourth Report


Letter from the Deputy Prime Minister, the Rt Hon. John Prescott MP, to Lord Norton of Louth, Chairman of the Constitution Committee


I am writing to you to draw your attention to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, which was taken through its House of Commons Committee stage before Christmas and had its Report and Third Reading in the House of Commons on 23 January. It is due to be introduced into the House of Lords in the week commencing 27 January.

The Bill and its Explanatory Notes are enclosed. A short summary of the Bill is at annex A.

The Bill paves the way for the establishment of elected regional assemblies, in accordance with policies set out in the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions. Once established, elected assemblies will be responsible for setting priorities, delivering regional strategies, allocating funding, economic development, skills and employment, spatial planning, housing, transport, environmental protection, tourism, culture, sport and public health. Assemblies will be based on the existing administrative boundaries used by the Government Offices of the Regions and Regional Development Agencies. They will have between 25 and 35 members, including a leader and a cabinet of up to six members chosen by, and wholly accountable to, the full assembly. The voting system will be the Additional Member System form of proportional representation, which is also used for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Greater London Authority.

The purpose of the current Bill is to allow the Government to call referendums on the establishment of elected regional assemblies, and to ask the Boundary Committee for England to carry out structure reviews of two-tier local government in those regions where a referendum is to be held. In introducing the Bill, we are following the precedents of the Bills setting up the Scottish Executive, the National Assembly for Wales and the Greater London Authority. As in those cases, the Government set out the policy in a White Paper and has introduced legislation to enable referendums to be held. Where the people in the regions vote in favour of directly elected assemblies, we will take the first opportunity to introduce legislation to create them.

Clauses 1-4 of the Bill were considered to be of 'first class constitutional importance' and so the Committee stage of these clauses was taken on the Floor of the House of Commons. (The other 25 clauses and the schedule were taken in Standing Committee.) We consider that the Bill has a number of constitutional implications, either directly or in the way that it prepares the ground for elected regional assemblies, and we thought you would find it helpful if we were to set these out. They are:

(a)  Although the constitutional principle is now enshrined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, this Bill makes specific provision for regional referendums. Not all English regions will have a referendum at the same time. The Bill also contains the referendum question and preamble, which we are amending to take account of Electoral Commission comments. As a consequence, the Bill implies a potentially asymmetric model of regional government: that is, regional assemblies will not necessarily be established at the same time across England;

(b)  The Bill makes provision for the Government's intention that there should be a single tier of local government in a region where an elected assembly has been established;

(c)  The Bill gives an additional statutory status to regional boundaries. The existing English regions are defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. They form the boundaries of the Government Offices of the Regions, the regional chambers and other regional bodies, including Government agencies.

More detail on the Government's position on (a) to (c) is at annex B.

Clearly, it will be for you and your Committee to decide the extent to which you wish to examine this Bill. Nick Raynsford would be very happy to meet you to discuss the Bill before you decide the scope of any inquiry or during the course of an inquiry.

Copies of this letter go to the Chief Whips and Leaders of both Houses.

23 January 2003

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