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Lord Waddington: My Lords, has the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, been consulted? Because I have not.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, the answer is no. As far as I am aware, Members of this House have not been consulted, even though they may live in the areas concerned.

Lord Waddington: Why not?

Lord Greaves: Presumably because we are not representative, my Lords. I share the noble Lord's concern. I certainly intend to make my views known before the deadline. I have found out because I am a part of the political process; I talk to politicians and we discuss the matter in the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, the whole consultation process is entirely unsatisfactory.

We are told that this is what happened in Scotland. But in Scotland there was a convention that had existed for years; there was a broad degree of detailed consensus over what form the Scottish Parliament would take; there was an agreement between at least two of the political parties there and everyone was clear as to what would happen. That is not the case in the English regions.

As to the powers to be devolved, my noble friend Lord Newby was worried that any regional assembly would become a mouse; my honourable friend in the House of Commons, Ed Davey, described it as a paper tiger; and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred to a corrupt octopus. Together with my pig in a poke, we have a menagerie that would do well in Blackpool Zoo.

There is a wide-ranging concern among both supporters and opponents of regional government that the bodies, when set up, will not amount to very much. They have been described as being like the GLA without the Mayor. I am not sure what the GLA would be like—perhaps my noble friend will tell me—without the Mayor and an executive to scrutinise legislation.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred to Lancashire County Council, which has voted unanimously against the present proposals. Some people will say, Well, it would, wouldn't it, because "turkeys do not vote for Christmas". However, that

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does not mean to say it is wrong. The Labour leader of Lancashire County Council, Councillor Hazel Harding, stated in an article she has written that:

    "We looked back on the centralisation of power by recent governments. We saw huge advantages in the wide-ranging powers at first proposed. It was to have been a genuine 'government' for the North-West with a good deal of Westminster's spending power devolved locally—money that was to be spent according to local need, not dictated by distant Whitehall.

    So what a disappointing surprise to unwrap the White Paper and find it contained such a poor degree of devolution that we could not support it".

She went on to point out that the North West Assembly would control a budget of 730 million—which sounds a lot at first—and have influence over another 1.3 billion. But total public expenditure in the region is currently 32 billion, so even the amount it could influence would be only 3 or 4 per cent of the total, which seems a little on the low side to put it mildly. I was a member of Lancashire County Council for 24 years. Led by its then leader, Louise Ellman, the county was the pioneer in the region in campaigning for elected regional government. If Lancashire County Council is opposed to the Bill, I believe that the people of Lancashire will be opposed to it. If the referendum is close in the rest of the region, the Government may find it difficult to get the proposal through.

As regards the coupling of these proposals with local government reorganisation, it cannot be right that the future structure of local government in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire—I speak of the region in which I live and know best—may be determined by the votes of the larger number of people who live in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.

The Minister was very strong on this point in his opening speech. He said:

    "If there is not unitary local government, there will be no regional assemblies".

He indicated that unitary local government is,

    "an integral part of the regional assembly package";


    "We are not prepared to add an extra tier . . . It is not possible for us even to contemplate separating the two".

That does not sound like the approach that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, normally takes in this House. I know that he is acting on orders from on high. But this House has every right to de-couple the reorganisation of local government from the Bill if it wishes to do so. I believe that it would be right to stand firm on that. It would not be right to reject the Bill, as my noble friend Lord Shutt said. The Labour Party manifesto at the last general election included the clear commitment:

    "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".

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If, as a House, we stand firm on this matter as the Bill completes its remaining stages and de-couple those aspects, we are doing no more than supporting the Labour Party manifesto. I do not believe that that would represent a constitutional crisis.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? Does he not agree that predominantly unitary local government is not established in the North West; and, therefore, not to proceed with a referendum for an elected assembly would actually be in accordance with the Labour election manifesto?

Lord Greaves: My Lords, that is arguable. In many of the discussions that took place in the lead-up to these proposals, the "predominantly unitary" argument was being used. The compulsory abolition of non-unitary local government came very late in the proceedings. At that time, the Government accepted that the North East was predominantly unitary and that the North West just about qualified. It all depends on whether the decision is based on area or population. In terms of population, the North West already has predominantly unitary local government.

I hope that I can make just two more points without being interrupted again—much as I enjoy interruptions from the noble Lord. I want to examine the question of tiers. There is an assumption that tiers of democratic local government are in themselves somehow undemocratic and undesirable. Yet if we look at the present situation, we see that we do not have two-tier, but multi-tier, local government. Where I live in Lancashire, we have district councils and we have the county council. But we also have a fire authority and a police authority—which is more than the county council, because it is the county council plus two unitary authorities. In the health service, we have a whole series of tiers: we have trusts delivering services and we have the area health authority, which is smaller than the county but bigger than the districts. At regional level, we have a huge number of quangos.

In the House of Commons, my honourable friend Edward Davey quoted research from Councillor Chris Foote-Wood, a colleague of mine in the North East, who had found over 172 regional and sub-regional quangos in the North East and 71 Government Office North East partnerships. There is a huge number of separate organisations which may or may not work together—some cover regions and some cover only part of the regions. We already have lots and lots of tiers. What matters is how efficient and democratic these bodies are, how good the services are and—in new Labour speak—how much best value there is.

Do people in Lancashire believe that the situation in Blackpool and Blackburn, which are now unitary, is significantly better than that in the rest of the county which is still two-tier? I have seen no research and no evidence that that is the case and I do not believe that it is. The idea that the efficiency of government is determined by the number of tiers is nonsense. As my noble friend Lord Shutt said, what matters is appropriate government at the appropriate tier.

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We shall be looking to improve the Bill as it goes through this House. I hope that when it leaves this House, I shall be able to give it at least two full cheers rather than one and a half.

6.21 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, back in his seat. We have been thinking about him a great deal in recent weeks; it has not been easy, and we welcome him back to our debates.

I predicted that the Bill would receive a lively yet interesting Second Reading, and it certainly has. The size of the Bill belies the constitutional importance of the changes it presages. My noble friend Lady Hanham, who will lead from these Benches, opened with a characteristically spirited and informed speech. Her knowledge of local government and the currency of her experience will result in a powerful contribution to the Bill's following stages, and I look forward to working with her.

The Second Reading speech of the Deputy Prime Minister made interesting reading. It contained much convolution, some contradiction, considerable distortion and very little hard information on the detail of how regional government will actually work. More crucially, the very people who will be expected to vote for or against regional government will have to do so without knowing what they are voting for. However, I was struck by the opening paragraph of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech on Second Reading. It displayed one of the false premises that underpins the Bill. He said:

    "When the Government came to power in 1997, we had one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. It had no regional democratic accountability and ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 188.]

Apart from the fact that we have parish, town, district, county, national and European government, with representation in all parts of our relatively small country, I am sure that doctors, nurses, teachers, policemen, firemen and prison officers—to name just a few—will testify that the Government's centralist tendency has increased massively since 1997.

I was also struck by the briefing for this debate from the Royal National Institute of the Blind. It welcomed the principle of regional government which would result, it said, in taking decisions closer to the people. How wrong that perception will prove in practice. The reverse is true. Government will be more, not less, distant from local people. However, I support the RNIB and its concerns. If regional government is to be established, we have to make sure that the interests of those with disabilities are protected.

However, to say that Conservative governments before 1997 ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions is a travesty of the facts. Let me place on record just a few of the economic regeneration programmes which transformed many parts of our country when we were in office. Here I agree with all that my noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth said. I hope he will

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forgive me for being present in the Chamber when he spoke, but I heard and saw his speech on one of the monitors.

Billions of pounds were spent de-polluting vast areas of land and preparing them for development on Teesside and throughout the Docklands area in London. There were major developments in Tyneside, Teesside, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool, Gateshead, Docklands, the Black Country, Don Valley, Plymouth—I could go on. We introduced City Challenge programmes, the Safer Cities programme, city technology colleges and specialist schools that boosted education and training in urban areas. The single regeneration budget was introduced to tackle the poorest areas of the country and there were special centres to boost employment opportunities.

All the development projects involved the refurbishment and new build of housing, the preservation and creation of new jobs, increased economic and business activity and massive inward investment, which was attracted into our country.

Those are just a few examples of what the Conservatives did for the regions of our country. Those programmes were backed with billions of pounds. The development corporations did an excellent job. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, they were focused and their boards included a mix of local councillors, business expertise, the voluntary sector and local community leaders. Because the area improvements were based on ideas and plans created by local communities, the feeling of ownership in those areas and involvement at grass roots was very strong.

Each regional area had a sponsor Minister, who promoted the area for which he was responsible. They acted as the eyes and ears for the community, through liaising with nationally and locally elected members, businesses, the voluntary sector and the local community generally. I was proud to have been associated with Teesside, where I witnessed the most dramatic transformation in the physical, social and economic environment. I am delighted to continue to be involved with development projects in that area, although I have no pecuniary interest to declare.

I will not accept from this Government—and certainly not from the Deputy Prime Minister—the accusation that we ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions.

The greatest claim for the Bill is that it will result in bringing government closer to the people. That is a distortion. Where two-tier government exists, one tier will disappear if regional government is to be established. If the district councils are abolished in a region, a tier of really local government will be removed. If the counties are abolished, government will move on up to a regional level. We all know from the White Paper that not much power is being ceded from on high. It will pull power away from the truly local level.

However one looks at it, government will move further away from the people. The excellent speeches of my noble friends Lord MacGregor, Lord Hanningfield and Lady Wilcox made the case for

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county councils, although I noticed a mild threat from my noble friend Lady Wilcox of a possible UDI for Cornwall. The elected representatives will have much larger constituencies, moving from electorates of approximately 6,000 or 7,000 to electorates of between 150,000 and 200,000, with a mix of directly elected councillors and those selected by political parties under a list system.

Costs will be phenomenal. We already have on record the experience of Scotland, Wales and London, which have built—or are still building—large, expensive monuments for themselves on prime sites. They have spawned large and expensive bureaucracies. Because of the greater travelling distances, more substantial and costly support services are needed to sustain the staff and elected representatives. The running costs have increased enormously.

Imagine the distances that will have to be travelled in the South West if the region is run from Bristol. Even without regional government, Cornish councillors already have to travel miles to carry out their work. The size of the south-western region is absurd. What is the community interest between the people of Hereford and Stoke-on-Trent or Wellingborough and Chesterfield? Why must the choice be one of regional government only at the expense of a tier of local government? One answer is: because the Deputy Prime Minister said so.

On Second Reading in the Commons, the right honourable Alan Beith invited the Deputy Prime Minister to comment on the following:

    "If the boundary committee decides to make local government more remote by providing single-tier county local government, people will be invited to vote against the local government system that they want to get the region that they want. To make matters worse, the decision will be taken by voters who are not affected by the proposals and who live in those parts of the region that already have single-tier government".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 191.]

The Deputy Prime Minister's reply was, unsurprisingly, not very enlightening. I hope that the Minister will respond to Alan Beith's point in his reply.

In response to another question, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

    "Elected assemblies will take functions down from central Government, not up to local authorities".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 189.]

My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to that matter. What the Deputy Prime Minister said is patently not the case, however. Has he actually read his own proposals? Of the 10 powers listed in the White Paper, eight are ceded from county councils.

The inevitable tension in the regions between urban and rural interests is a matter for real concern. With the exception of Scotland, voter turnout for referendums has been poor, whether for town mayors or devolution. Only 12 per cent of the people voted for a mayor for Bedford, while 25 per cent voted for a Welsh Assembly and approximately 17 per cent voted for the Mayor of London. That cannot be described as the will of the people. As if to cock a snook at the system, a healthy number of people in Hartlepool voted for a man in a monkey suit.

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I share two more concerns. First, there is a lack of a threshold below which constitutional change should not take place. Secondly, without such a threshold, the urban vote will overwhelm the rural vote, especially if there is a low turnout. How can the Government stand by and treat rural voters with such contempt? Again, that is not surprising, because that is what they have done since they came into power in 1997.

The role, powers and functions of regional government should be determined through consultation ahead of any vote. My noble friends Lord Brooke and Lord Bowness made that point powerfully. Ministers must tell us against what criteria they will assess the level of interest in regional government. How on earth can that level of interest truly be relied on if the information that people should have to express an interest is simply unavailable?

Much constitutional change has taken place since 1997, mostly ill thought-through and much of it taken in isolation, by pursuing a piecemeal approach to legislation. This Westminster Parliament has been seriously weakened. Apart from the contempt for Parliament shown by the Prime Minister and his Executive, Members in both Houses find daily that we are prevented from asking questions about Scottish issues and that our ability to ask questions about Welsh and London matters is considerably limited. If regional government should come about, even more areas will be out of bounds to the Westminster Parliament. In a sentence, Parliament is weakening, the Executive are strengthening and the axis for decision making is moving to Brussels.

I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who asked where all that leaves the integrity of an English parliamentary voice. I refer to the whole of England, not to an England fragmented into artificial regions. As my noble friend Lord Waddington asked, what will be the constitutional consequences for the United Kingdom Parliament?

A decade or so from now, we will reap the whirlwind of such ill-thought-through constitutional change. We are already witnessing a weakening of the United Kingdom Parliament and, by default, a strengthening of the Executive. We are facing the loss of our county councils and, possibly, the Lord Lieutenancy. Worrying changes have been made to the local magistracy, and there has been greater movement towards federalism through the proposed Convention on the Future of Europe.

As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, it is fashionable to deride the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but today they made some powerful points. Indeed, they usually do. We need to be very cognisant about what we are sleepwalking into by some of these ill-thought-through constitutional changes.

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Contrary to the claims of decentralisation for the Bill, the Government have retained throughout a draconian hold on central control. I agree with my right honourable friend David Davis in another place, who said:

    "We reject regional assemblies not because we oppose devolution, but because we support it. We reject them not because we oppose economic development, but because we support it. We reject this Bill not because we oppose democracy, but because we support it".—[Official Report, Commons, 26/11/02; col. 204.]

Despite voicing many concerns about the Bill with which I agree, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, said that the Liberal Democrats will nevertheless vote with the Government. At least for the people of East Anglia, where she and I come from, the consequence will be the sacrifice of a tier of government. The Liberal Democrats will have to stand to account if that turns out to be the case.

Noble Lords should not be fooled. Regional government sounds attractive to many people because they believe that money will flow generously to the regions. It sounds attractive to others because they do not fully realise that the sacrifice that they will have to make is the loss of their own local authorities. However, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said, those who believe that money will flow generously to the regions are extremely misguided indeed. As we all know, the resources would be dissipated in the expensive abolition of county and/or district councils, by increased bureaucracy, and, from what we have seen so far of devolution, by much self-indulgence. Nationally, the Executive will remain all powerful. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, and what he will undoubtedly say again in a very spirited way, Whitehall will continue to think it knows best.

There are many hours of business ahead of us on this Bill. I say again how proud I am to serve in the second Chamber, which always takes its scrutiny role so seriously and constructively. I look forward to working with my noble friends, with the Minister and with other noble Lords over the next weeks and months.

6.37 p.m.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I should like first to thank noble Lords who referred to my recent absence. I have received much comfort from all the messages I have had in recent weeks.

Before dealing with as many of the points raised as possible, I should also deal with a few summary points on cost. It is far too early to put any figures on the cost of local government reorganisation. I do not think that anyone has attempted to do so. The best estimates of the cost of a referendum vary according to population size: about 2 million in the North East, and 3 million in the South East. The latest estimated cost of the Boundary Committee's review of local government in regions chosen for referendums is slightly different from the estimate given to the Commons and in the Explanatory Notes, at between 750,000 and 3.2 million. The costs of conversion to unitary authorities will depend largely on the current mix in

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the region under review. The set-up costs for regional assemblies, including the costs of the referendum and elections, would vary from about 15 million to 30 million. The running costs would be about 25 million. That is a gross figure, not net, because much of that money is already spent by quangos and other bodies in the area.

I should like to deal with one point that no one has mentioned, but which is a useful pointer. I saw in yesterday's Birmingham Post that the West Midlands Regional Assembly has decided to say, "Please do not put us in the first tranche of referendums". My personal view of the West Midlands has always been that while many people there fancied regional government, there was no great push for it. I was therefore not surprised to see that report. However, if soundings suggested that there should be a referendum, a referendum were held and the electorate said no, the issue could not be raised again for at least five years. The Bill provides for that. One cannot hold referendums willy-nilly where there is a head of steam but no substance or where there is no support. That has to be put on the record, because that is firmly in the Bill.

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