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Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I am afraid that the right reverend Prelate is misinformed. The latest "state of the nation" survey, undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, recorded in the south-east the highest score requiring regional government.
The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford: My Lords, those who represent the people in local government in the south-east of Englandand yesterday I was in one of our local borough council officesare very closely in touch with the views of their people. If ballots were held, the people might express a different opinion.
I want to know how the results are going to be interpreted and what the implication is for the rest of us in the development of these policies. The matter is very serious and significant, and it is very important that the Government respond.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I intervene as someone who strongly supports the Government in their intentions on regional government. The Opposition have again today said that they regard regional governmentand I hope that I quote them correctlyas "complete nonsense". I personally believe that that position is complete nonsense.
The fact is that regional government is with us to stay, and the issue is how we have democratic institutions that match that regional administration and government and can hold it accountable. I believe that history will regard us harshly if we try to sidestep the challenge to ensure that our democratic institutions match the administrative reality.
Those issues, however, have been debated at some length in the House already. My intervention today is made as somebody who lives in the north-west region, as somebody who lives in Cumbria, and as somebody
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who has the privilege of chairing what is known as the Social Responsibility Forum in Cumbria. That body brings together all the Churches of Cumbria, stretching from the Society of Friendswhich I hope will not mind being described as a Churchto the Roman Catholics, including even some of the charismatic Churches as well.
Carrying that responsibility last year, and having listened to the very well informed and concerned discussions that have taken place in that forum on a number of occasions among people who are in their professional work closely in touch with a far wider range of the population than simply the churchgoers themselves, I am able to say that the Government's decision not to proceed with the order for the north-west today will be warmly welcomed, with considerable relief. It is a wise decision and I congratulate the Government on having the courage to make it.
I shall briefly highlight some of the reasons why I believe that it is a wise decision. As currently envisaged, the referendum would give people a say on whether they want to be part of an elected north-west regional assembly, but the reality is that they have never been consulted on which region Cumbria should be in. Many Cumbrians, particularly those from the north of the county, feel little affinity with the north-west region as it stands, but see themselves as much closer to areas of the north-east region, particularly Northumberland, which has many similar concerns and issues. Our principal regional hospital is in Newcastle; our television in the north of Cumbria is Border Television and Tyne Tees Television. Those are two examples of the social reality that I am describing.
The voice of Cumbria, on an elected north-west assembly, would be very smallperhaps two to three seats out of about 25. That causes considerable anxiety among many Cumbrians, who fear that their concerns may be marginalised by a metropolitan power base. That relates to the point that I have just made, as Cumbria would have a stronger voice in the north-east, where the population base is much smaller than it is in the proposed, huge, north-west region.
A truly democratic referendum, as I am sure my noble friend would agree, would surely rely on securing a reasonable turnout to vote. That will happen only if people are properly informed about the referendum and feel that they can understand and engage with the issues. Yet the consultation process to date is regarded by many as having been totally inadequate. The Boundary Committee was supposed to leaflet every household in Cumbria early this year to consult on proposals for part two of the referendumoptions for unitary local governmentyet this was not effectively done.
Publicity for the referendum has so far been poor. Here I must differ from the perceptions of the noble Baroness who spoke for the Opposition. It is our experience, in the Social Responsibility Forum, that few public meetings have been organised. Indeed,
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Churches Together in Cumbria is having to fill the gap. Much more work needs to be done by the Government to ensure that the issues and options are understood.
The process for counting the vote in part two of the referendumas things stoodwould have been unsatisfactory for the people of Cumbria. The Cumbria and Lancashire votes were to be counted as a single entity because one of the options for unitary local government straddles the county boundary. But the population of Cumbria is less than half a million, while that of Lancashire is more than 1.1 million. The feeling is that Cumbria's voice would not be heard fairly. In an extreme case, even if the entire population of Cumbria were to vote for one option, something else could be imposed on them by the Lancashire vote.
My last point is this. The preferred option of four of the current Cumbrian local authoritiesAllerdale, Copeland, Carlisle and Edenand of many people within the county is for three unitary authorities in Cumbria, based on the pairing of existing district councils, which has not been included in part two of the proposed referendum at all. I do not want to put it too strongly, but this seems to us to be fairly certain to guarantee a high level of discontent, whichever of the two options is chosen.
As he has made the wise decision, I ask my noble friend to take these points and considerations on board in looking to the way forward. For example, he could consider an option put to me yesterday by a noble Lord who is a close friend and colleague. It is a very sensible idea that envisages a statutory requirement for any north-west regional assemblyif it were to go ahead in the way that the Government are proposing at the momentto have a special consultative committee for Cumbrian affairs.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend Lady Hanham, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we need a debate about this issue in this House as soon as possible. Therefore, I do not intend to detain the House very long today on these issues. Some of the speeches that have been made were of a more general character and we need a debate on the powers of the regions in the Bill that is being published today and on other issues, particularly the issues of boundaries. Noble Lords will know that I have made many speeches in this House about the eastern region, to which Essex does not belong. Essex is much more related to other parts of the country. I shall not go into that today.
I am concerned that over the past year we have had a considerable number of debates on postal voting and the regional assemblies. From these Benches, my noble friend Lady Hanham and I have consistently said that it will all end in chaos. That is where we are today: in chaos. We are in the most chaotic situation. I want to highlight one area.
As most noble Lords know, I am very involved in local government. Local government delivers services. It cares for hundreds of thousands of elderly people in their homes, it looks after children in need, it supports schools, it repairs roads and it looks after libraries.
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Local government will be in limbo in the two regions that are now being deferred. Noble Lords do not know what has been going on over the past two years in, say, Cheshire. Cheshire does not want to be in a north-western region. Local authorities in Cheshire have been organising a big campaign to which a lot of energy and resources have been devoted. They have had to neglect the basic services areas that I just mentioned.
Lancashire, Cumbriawhich has just been mentionedand the metropolitan areas of Yorkshire have been spending time on this regional assembly, which has now been deferred. What is going to happen? Are they to sit there for the next month or year, or five years, waiting for a possible referendum to the detriment of all the people to whom they are providing services? These people want to know. Why did the Minister not suggest that we have the ballots by conventional methods with people going to the ballot box? There needs to be an end to the doubt about what is happening in local government.
Local government is about services. In the north-west there would probably have been a 75 per cent No vote. Let us have that ballot and let the people in the north-west vote No so that they can get on with their business again. Let us have a ballot in the east of England. There would be a 90 per cent No vote in the east of England. Let us get it out of the way and get on with our business again. This is the real problem. It is uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.
The Prime Minister's mantra is education, education, education. In local governments throughout the England, it is uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. That is no good. Local government is for people and services. I hope the Minister will comment on that today. The uncertainty must be ended. It may be ended in the north-east on 4 November. It will not be ended in the rest of the country. Local government must know so that it can get on and support services for the people. I would like the Minister to comment on that area today. Please let us have a debate as soon as possible in September about the whole issue.
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