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Lord Whitty: My Lords, I do not believe that that is true. With regional planning guidance, regional transport strategies and the creation of the RDAs, many economic, planning and strategic decisions are now dealt with at regional level. The point of going beyond the regional chambers is to democratise that process. The noble Lord would be right to say that nothing much has changed in terms of the democratic accountability of those decisions.
We want to go further than the regional chambers, but we only wish to do so when there is popular support for that move. We made a commitment in our manifesto to move towards directly-elected regional government where it was demonstrated--through referendums--that the people of the regions wanted it. I should make it clear today in this House that that commitment still holds. There is no blueprint for directly-elected regional assemblies, or a time-scale for their introduction. However, we are committed to that outcome.
The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, called this a programme of "rolling regionalism"; indeed, to some extent, that is what would happen. There is a greater enthusiasm in the northern regions than there is in the southern regions. Therefore, it is likely that the northern regions would be the first to adopt the structure. I should not compare that exactly with the process of accession to the European Union, where a number of criteria are set by the existing members for potential members. The key criterion in this case will be the will of the people of the region concerned, as expressed through a referendum and a democratic vote.
Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, that is very interesting. How does the Minister view the impact of that process on central government and on the democratic structure of central government? Will we reform the House of Lords further? What will we do in relation to the House of Commons? How will it "gel" with that? If we are to have democratic regional government, how will it impact on central government?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, my noble friend takes me much further than this debate. Clearly, there is an impact on the role of Parliament if we devolve more decisions to the regional level. Like the right reverend Prelate, we are not in favour of an English parliament. We are, however, in favour of devolving some central government functions to the English regions. That, therefore, slightly alters the role of Parliament in overseeing the decentralisation of power within this country.
As to the structure of the House of Lords, I am not in a position to make pronouncements on such matters today. Your Lordships will know that there are proposals in the Wakeham committee's report for direct election to the House of Lords which would be based on a regional structure which, broadly speaking, as I understand it, would follow the structure of the devolved English regions.
Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, I hope that I may press my noble friend a little further. How many elected members do we have to have in the United Kingdom before we have a properly elected democracy?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I am not sure whether my noble friend's question relates to the number of elected Members in the House of Lords. I could not possibly make a pronouncement on that matter at this stage. However, if we are talking about elected persons throughout the United Kingdom, the numbers involved at regional level would reflect the powers at that regional level. The numbers would not be very different from the numbers who take part in the regional chambers at the moment.
I do not share the concern which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and others expressed that we have far too many elected politicians in this country, or the concern of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford that we do not have the right quality of people coming forward. If there is a clear decision-making structure at regional level, appropriate people who are qualified and talented will come forward to fill democratically elected positions. At the moment the problem is that far too many decisions are taken which
The absolute number will depend on the propositions that arise region by region. It will also depend on the other issue which has been raised; that is, the reorganisation of local government. We have indicated that although in principle we are in favour of moving towards unitary local government structures, there is no presumption that all regions will have moved to unitary local government prior to the creation of elected regional government. It ill behoves the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was a member of a government who did not complete the reorganisation of English local government, to press us now to do that instantaneously. The reason we are not saying that it is a precondition for local government to have been reorganised before we introduce regional government concerns the central point about regional government, underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, namely, that the power will not be taken away from local government but from central government. It is a devolvement of power, not a dragging upwards of local government--
Lord Bowness: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. In view of what he says, can he share with your Lordships how he envisages the regional assembly working? Does he see it as the London model, strictly constrained by government guidelines with policy approved by the Secretary of State, or does he see it in terms of a Welsh model, perhaps exercising the functions of secondary legislation?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord has a tidy mind and he wishes to see structures which are precisely the same across the whole of the United Kingdom, or at least within England and Wales. That is not the view of the Government. London is unique as a world city which virtually constitutes a region. It is not a model for anywhere else but it is an important structure for a city region.
We are now talking about a different structure within England, which is a national identity. Therefore, one is breaking up a national identity as compared with the situation in Wales. It is, however, clear that the scope of regional government is not as wide as the scope of the Welsh Assembly. We are talking about having a role in strategic matters, economic development, planning, transport and environmental assessment, not taking over the whole of what are currently national government responsibilities within the regions, and certainly not--I was making that point when the noble Lord intervened--taking powers away from the counties and the unitary authorities within the regions.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I was just about to explain. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, asked why we needed bodies of this size. I mention the field that I know best. In the case of transport policy, it is not possible to deal with the M6 going through Staffordshire--a concern of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts--on a county basis. One needs to take a much wider approach. Similarly, as regards the development problems that he has encountered in the West Midlands--I assume, on his way home to North Wales--which cause additional pressures on the transport system, one cannot address those problems on a county by county, let alone district by district, basis. One can only tackle them on the basis of a larger, coherent economic region. That is what we are trying to establish and the powers I mentioned are the kind of powers we wish to devolve to regional level, subject to democratic accountability.
Lord Sheppard of Didgemere: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if devolution is to work central government must at some time let go? If we take as an example something which does not cross too many boundaries, what about the London Underground?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, that is precisely what I am saying. At the moment a substantial part of national government's regional responsibilities--operating to some extent through the Government Offices--is not subject to any degree of accountability at the regional level. We intend to pass those powers down to the regional level. Of course, standards and some regulations will be set at national level. However, the idea of democratising structures is not to give a new empty structure of local and regional government but to provide a real and effective devolution of power.
There has been some discussion on what the scope and the size of those regions should be. I believe that I have replied to that point in general terms. However, there will be queries about particular aspects concerning which county is within which region. Before the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke, I had thought that Essex was already a glorified county council and--I hesitate to use the term--kingdom even, particularly in the light of his irredentist remarks about wishing to take back London. I recognise that there will be tensions within the regions. We believe that the Government Office boundaries that we have set are sensible and we have taken government decisions to consolidate those boundaries. However, in the course of the democratisation process, other options may arise.
My noble friend Lady Rendell referred to Cornwall. Cornwall is a special case. It is a special county and perhaps deserves special status and special respect. A degree of creativity is involved as regards the Cornish convention, almost as much as in the case of the North East, the Yorkshire, and the North West conventions. It is not, however, in the terms that I have described,
I have no difficulty in defending the fact that there is an asymmetric development of devolution. It is asymmetric in two senses in that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different kinds of powers. The English regions will have different powers from the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament. The development is also asymmetric in terms of time-scale. Some English regions will take powers before others. We would not devolve those powers to those areas which were not subject to directly elected assemblies. There are other European examples of asymmetric devolution. Spain has been cited. If the north-east of England had the same degree of success in its devolution as the north-east of Spain, in the context of the Catalonion government and the City of Barcelona government, I am sure that the right reverend Prelate and his flock would be well pleased.
I believe that we are on the right track. It is not as tidy a track as some noble Lords might wish. Progress may not be as rapid as some people, particularly in the northern regions of England, would like. None the less, as the Deputy Prime Minister made clear in Glasgow recently, we are committed to bringing forward the opportunity for English regions directly to elect their regional governments. At that point, the responsibility for various aspects of economic, strategic and planning policies would fall to those regions. We would hope that all the English regions would eventually take up that option. However, the decision will be theirs and it will be facilitated by this Government. We intend within the next few months to bring forward a Green Paper on these issues: the scope, structure and nature of devolution; and the nature of the electoral process for the English regions.
I welcome the debate. I thank the right reverend Prelate and all noble Lords who participated in it. We have touched on a number of issues which are of great importance to the English regions, many of which will no doubt be discussed during the coming months and years as we debate, region by region, how fast and in what manner we shall go down the road of further democratisation of our hitherto somewhat centralised constitution.
The Lord Bishop of Durham: My Lords, first, perhaps I may thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for so clearly restating the Government's position. Of course, I wish that he could have gone further today because I am impatient as regards this issue, as are many people in some of our regions. I shall look out for its appearance in the Green Paper, in the party manifestos at the general election and, it is to be hoped, within the legislative programme of the next Parliament.
Finally, perhaps I may express thanks to those who disagreed with me. I do not think that I have ever been so courteously criticised in all my life. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, spoke of the cold bath. He should see the ice cubes in the baths into which I sometimes have to climb in some of the circles in which I move. I thank those noble Lords for being so generous and for leaving unscathed my central argument; namely, that the existing government presence in the regions is unaccountable, costly, fragmented and deeply frustrating to those of us who operate in the regions. I stand by that argument. I am grateful to all who contributed. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.