Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Hamwee: While we on these Benches have sympathy with some of the remarks of the noble

7 Oct 1998 : Column 441

Baroness, Lady Miller of Hendon, in a speech delivered at rather break-neck speed, I am not sure whether she was speaking to the first group of amendments or if some of her comments perhaps strayed into the next group.

Let me ask one straightforward question in relation to Amendment No. 1 which proposes that the division specified in the schedule will only apply for the purposes of this Act. Can the Minister confirm that it would not be possible to bind a future parliament--or, indeed, this parliament in future legislation--and that the regions which might apply for any future changes will be dealt with by that future legislation?

Lord Whitty: In view of the progress we have seen recently on other Bills, I have no objection to the speed with which the noble Baroness presented her case today. We are slightly in danger of being somewhat premature, not only on the first amendment to this Bill. Most of what the noble Baroness said related to an entirely different Bill which has to be produced.

The first amendment applies to Clause 1, which is about the establishment of RDAs and their geographical areas, and nothing else. Together with Schedule 1 it defines the English regions for the purposes of RDAs, and nothing else. I am glad that the noble Baroness accepts that it was sensible and expedient to use boundaries which were already there for that purpose.

Neither Clause 1 nor Schedule 1 relates to the establishment of regional assemblies. This Bill is not concerned with making RDAs accountable to regional assemblies in the first place. It is true, as the noble Baroness indicates, that the Government have embarked on an ambitious programme to modernise the constitution and to devolve power. As such I have sympathy for the longer-term view which lies behind these amendments, but not for the reference to Balkanisation, as expressed by the noble Baroness. We see this not as Balkanisation but as the modernisation of our democracy and the decentralisation of power to people in the regions.

It is not for me to say, as the noble Baroness asked me, what we thought the Conservative Party had agreed to. That is a matter for the Benches opposite. However, we made clear our intention that in time the people in the regions of England will have the opportunity to decide whether they wish to move to a more decentralised form of government. But it is at that time, and not now, that there will be a case for putting our RDAs into a regional democratic framework and for considering the boundaries of that democratic framework. In such a framework, the elected representatives would take decisions about what an RDA can do and be accountable for the actions of the RDA. Indeed, that is the framework envisaged in the legislation on Wales, in the legislation before the House on Scotland and what will be in the legislation for London. It is an approach which I personally favour. However, as far as concerns the rest of the English regions, that is not a decision we have to take on this Bill. For the present, the RDAs will be non-departmental public bodies, like so many others, accountable to Ministers and ultimately to Parliament for what they do.

7 Oct 1998 : Column 442

The framework of the Bill, including the financial framework on which there are later amendments, reflects that.

Of course, RDAs will be significant bodies in each region and they will have important powers. We feel that they should have regard to the views in the region and give an account of themselves to the region, but their formal accountability will be to the Secretary of State and to Parliament. It is also important to emphasise that it is clear in the drafting of the Bill that the regions are for the purposes of the RDAs only. Many of the underlying concerns expressed by the noble Baroness were on an assumption that the regions would be for other purposes as well. That is not the position in the Bill. If and when regional assemblies are established, there will clearly be a need for new primary legislation to establish them. Parliament will then have the opportunity to consider the extent and the boundaries of the regions proposed in that context. We are not committed to using these precise boundaries for regional assemblies at a later stage.

Amendment No. 1 is aimed at limiting the Bill in the way the Bill is already de facto limited. It reflects a concern that the areas of the RDAs specified in the Bill should not be used as a precedent. They cannot be used as a precedent. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has just said, Parliament cannot tie the hands of future legislators in the way the fear lying behind the amendment suggests. We therefore do not think that the amendment is necessary. It does not pre-empt any future legislation. It is not the Government's intention that it should in any way do so.

The more substantive amendment, Amendment No. 68, relates to the role of the Boundary Commission and requires that in this legislation the Boundary Commission should determine bodies--that is, regional assemblies--which will be set up under entirely different legislation some time hence when that legislation comes before Parliament. The Boundary Commission does, by and large, determine electoral boundaries, but that too is a matter for consideration when that legislation emerges. In considering the Bill, we cannot make a sensible judgment about what the appropriate mechanism for determining future boundaries for future democratic bodies would be.

I trust that I have given sufficient assurance to the noble Baroness that we are not pre-empting future legislation. If we tried to, we could not constitutionally do so. I therefore hope that she will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Miller of Hendon: I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the noble Lord the Minister said; namely, that there is a fundamental flaw in Amendment No. 68. I certainly should have said that it was a probing amendment. I have listened carefully to the Minister's reply. I understand that he cannot commit himself, which is why I offered three choices and suggested in one of them that he might like to discuss it with me and with my noble friend Lord Bowness. I want to make it clear that, while we agree that these are the boundaries totally appropriate for the Bill because of the time schedule, we did not want it to go without note that

7 Oct 1998 : Column 443

we very much hope that when the Government come to the further Bill they will certainly go through the normal procedure of the Boundary Commission. In those circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Bowness moved Amendment No. 2:

Page 1, line 8, leave out second ("the").

The noble Lord said: Perhaps I may take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment to his ministerial position in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. In moving the amendment, I hope that the noble Lord and the Committee will allow me to pose some questions to the Government so that we are all aware of the background and the present position against which we are debating the Bill.

It is certainly our contention that, rather than empowering the regions and the local authorities within the regions, the Bill is a highly centralising measure giving considerable power to the Secretary of State. As evidence of that, even though the Bill has yet to pass through your Lordships' House, advertisements for members and chief executives of regional development agencies were published some time ago by the Secretary of State. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell the Committee precisely what is the position in that regard, what is the position with regard to the various selection procedures and where they stand in advance of the Bill passing into law.

These questions are particularly relevant to this group of amendments since appointments and indeed the advertisements which sought applications must have been made on the assumption that the areas of the RDAs will be precisely as set out in this yet unpassed Bill. Likewise, the amendments about membership may have already been prejudged. It appears, although I should like to think that it is not true, that there is not even a pretence that due consideration will be given to observations or amendments that your Lordships may care to make on these various provisions. But perhaps I will be told that I am wrong in that regard.

I turn to the first group of amendments, which seeks to remove the straitjacket of the first schedule. My noble friend Lady Miller of Hendon indicated that we understand and accept the Government's desire to use the existing Government Office boundaries for the purpose of the Bill. However, accepting and understanding does not necessarily mean that we agree. We are well aware that, with one exception, the proposed areas coincide with the areas of the Government Offices for the Regions. I submit that the area chosen by a government as convenient for the delivery of government services is not necessarily the best area for regional initiatives and co-operation. For such things to work, communities need to be working with their neighbours in groupings with which they feel comfortable.

7 Oct 1998 : Column 444

We all know and understand how difficult it is to divide England into regions. There is not an obvious regional grouping. There is not a conscious regional identity in every part of England. Indeed, some areas may see themselves as part of one area for one purpose and part of another area for others. But decisions have to be made if there are to be bodies such as the regional development agencies. I understand and accept that. Clearly, the discussion and argument cannot be allowed to become extended.

We have all seen the argument that resulted from the considerations of the Local Government Commission over the make-up of new authorities. It was in an attempt to try to meet the Government's needs to get on with this measure and to find some kind of expedited procedure that time limits and reference to the Boundary Commission are included in the amendment. We have spent considerable time since the Bill was originally presented doing that. The Government may say that if the amendment were passed it would delay the introduction of RDAs until next autumn. I suppose that, if we have already advertised for the members and the chief executives, that is a long wait. But perhaps the time spent between the presentation of the Bill and now would have been better spent on some kind of exercise as envisaged in the amendment.

My noble friend Lady Miller has already referred to the suspicions about determining the regions of England for other purposes and I heard and accept the Minister's reply. However, the Government are decreeing that the RDAs follow the model of the Government Offices. If local interests are to have any input they will have no alternative but to form a regional chamber following the boundaries that are suggested in the Bill. Then, lo and behold, if the Government are ever minded to proceed with their proposals for regional assemblies, the mould will have been cast, whatever the Minister may say about the Government's intentions at the present time.

All that will happen without there having been any consideration as to whether or not the boundaries set out in this schedule to the Bill best suit the purposes of the Bill or the communities which the bodies we are setting up are supposed to serve. There has been no local input, and no local determination. It is as provided by the Government on the say-so of the Secretary of State, notwithstanding that this Bill is advertised as a great decentralising measure. The Bill does not even provide any real power for review, save only the limited power in Clause 25, to which we shall come later today.

I am extremely concerned that unless there is some mechanism whereby boundaries can be determined by reference to the normal traditional methods of deciding which communities are best put together with each other for particular purposes we may find that within the regional development agencies there are areas which do not fit well together, and that cannot be good for the regional development agencies or for the purposes for which the Government seek to set them up. I beg to move.

7 Oct 1998 : Column 445

3.45 p.m.

Lord Mottistone: I should like to follow on from my noble friend, whose views I very much support, I ask the Government to give very careful consideration to the flexibility that will be needed over the years in making adjustments to the composition of some of the regions and their development agencies. I can certainly see that this may well become necessary for the Isle of Wight sooner rather than later. In writing to Mr. Richard Caborn, the Minister's colleague, on the 4th March of this year--a copy of which I sent to his predecessor the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman--I made the point that the Isle of Wight was significantly different from the prosperous mainland counties of south east England.

In an appendix to that letter I gave many examples of those differences, showing that the Isle of Wight is one of the poorest areas of the country and the south east region is one of the richest. The Isle of Wight's GDP per head in March of this year was £6,290, whereas the GDP of the south east region was £10,875. Our unemployment rate at that stage was 10 per cent. and in the south east region it was 5 per cent. These are but two examples showing how extraordinarily different in all sorts of ways our island is from this very wealthy part of England.

Added to that, we have the difficulties of dealing with people on the mainland in administrative matters like development agencies because of our separation from them by sea. If we are to be compared, we need to be compared to the islands of the United Kingdom and not to the mainland of south east England. In corresponding with the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about whether the efficiencies of the magistrates' courts committees of the Isle of Wight and of Hampshire will be improved if those two committees are merged, I am happy to say that the noble and learned Lord said, among other things, that in considering the matter he recognises that the Solent presents a challenge which has to be surmounted. That is a step forward for a government department. Government departments tend to say "We must ignore it" rather than "We must accept it as a challenge and do something about it".

It is this recognition of the challenge, and with it positive steps to make the sorts of adjustments for islands that, for example, Scotland and Canada make, that we are seeking from English departments of state and English regional bodies. Whether they are regional authorities or regional agencies does not matter. It is easy to say all of that, but very much harder for people with mainland mentalities to put into effect over a continuing period of time.

I have been told by our Member of Parliament, Dr. Peter Brand, that the chief executive and chairman designate of the proposed South East Regional Development Agency, are indeed doing their best to be helpful. I am delighted to hear that even if, as we have heard earlier, they have been pre-empted in their appointment or prospective appointment. The point is not so much what is going to happen tomorrow, when they are able to say that they are very enthusiastic and will do everything they can and listen to all our

7 Oct 1998 : Column 446

arguments as to why we are different, but what it is going to be like in five or 10 years' time. Will this good attitude continue into the foreseeable future?

Our past experience in this area has not been helpful. For example, in the 1970s and 1980s our Isle of Wight district health authority was subordinate to a regional health authority based in Winchester. It built us a new hospital, which was opened in the mid-1980s. It is generally satisfactory inside but its exterior is metal. When it was being designed the local island people concerned questioned this because the whole of the Isle of Wight is vulnerable to sea mists on calm days and to the dampness of the prevailing south westerly winds when it is blowing. The regional health authority rejected such interference in its plan. Indeed, during the building of the hospital it forbade representatives of the Isle of Wight county council and its district health authority from even going to the site and giving any sort of practical advice. Noble Lords who live in the south of England may have seen during this past week pictures on their television screens of this very hospital and its metal cladding on the outside. The metal cladding, after about 15 years from being built, is already severely rusted. Noble Lords may have heard that it will cost several millions of pounds to put right. This is an example of a region not listening to local attitudes and problems. It does not understand the way of life of the people who live on our particular island.

One could go on. There is another aspect which applied to the regional health authority--forgive me for involving it but it is an example of a region and, with respect to the Government, they do not know what a region in England is going to be like because there has never been one. The region also paid very little regard to, and certainly did not take advantage of the fact, that in the run up to the association which people were trying to build in the early 1980s between the social services department of the county council and the health authority (which was a continual problem on the mainland because the boundaries between the health authorities, health districts and the counties were always different) in our case we did not have that problem. There was a great deal to learn about the co-operation between those two authorities, but the regional health authority was not remotely interested and did not recommend taking advantage of this to the Department of Health and, in consequence, a good point was lost.

Another example which is rather closer to the Minister's department is the lack of care in presenting matters concerning islands. This can easily mislead those who are not familiar with them. In their consultation paper Access to the Open Countryside, on pages 7 and 8 the Minister's own department shows, in three separate maps, the Isle of Wight actually connected to the mainland, wiping out most of the Solent which, as I told your Lordships earlier, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor recognises as a challenge. Even if uninformed persons realise that it must be a mistake, that sort of error causes them to think that separation by sea is much less of a problem than it really is and much less of a problem than we endeavour

7 Oct 1998 : Column 447

to inform not only regional bodies but central government. This problem is accentuated by people who do not take enough care to understand it.

One cannot rely on English regional bodies always grasping accurately what the island differences really are. Therefore, please let us have the composition of the regions easily and independently altered by the Boundary Commission. It may be best if the Isle of Wight is eventually a region on its own with its own agency, as indeed are very many other islands in United Kingdom waters and in the Commonwealth of similar or even smaller populations.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page