Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I want to take up one of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made. He made many good points and reasonable points. But he referred to living in the real world and said that we were all agreed on the fundamentals. I hope that I always live in the real world. I meet many people and talk to many people. Their world seems to be my world. I hope the noble Lord will agree that I, like him, live in the real world. He said that we are all agreed on the fundamentals. But the debate has demonstrated that we are not all agreed on the fundamentals. That is the whole point of the discussion. He seems to think

13 Mar 2003 : Column 1457

that today and over the next three or four days in Committee we are discussing an issue which has been agreed.

That is not the idea. The idea of scrutinising the Bill is to seek to improve it. I believe that the amendment does that. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, may not agree with the contents of the proposed new clause but we should try to understand and improve the Bill. I give an example. He said that provided the people agree, the Government will have referendums in three regional areas. Let us suppose that the people in those regions agree and set up regional authorities. They say, "This is a good idea. We want to set up other regions". However, the other regions may not agree with the boundaries. They may say, "We would agree with the regions if you had not already given what we consider should be part of our region to someone else". The method of setting up regions on the basis of present administrative regions and on the basis that they would be more democratic is absurd and undemocratic. It will not enable regions to be set up which are convenient to the working of ordinary people and of good devolved government.

We are not all agreed on the fundamentals. Indeed, what the Minister may argue are fundamentals are certainly not fundamentals. If we are to have regional government—I repeat that I am agin it—we should start with a blank sheet and decide exactly what the boundaries of the regions will be.

Cornwall has been mentioned. I have to say that Cornwall would be far better served by good devolved local government than by being part of a regional government. What Cornwall wants is not just a new country called Cornwall— that would be absurd—but the ability to do what is right for Cornwall. It must have far more powers and the wherewithal to do so. That is what Cornwall really wants. Some people down there may not know it. I want local government properly resourced, near to the communities which are served and able to co-operate with local government to provide greater services.

I hope that I do live in this world. But we are not agreed upon the fundamentals and unless the Minister is prepared to move sharply on the issue and start on a blank piece of paper so far as concerns the geographical areas, the whole matter will be a complete and utter failure in the long term.

Lord Rooker: At the risk of embarrassing the noble Lord, I thought that the most telling intervention came from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, when he told the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that because I had said something, it was going to happen and, therefore, it had to be accepted. I hope that that will be the flavour of the remainder of the debate.

I give a pledge to the Committee that I shall do my best to answer only the amendments tabled. I shall be ruthless with myself. I apologise for my earlier intervention when the noble Baroness was introducing the amendment. However, I thought it right to put the matter in context. These boundaries have not appeared since 1997. It is true that they have been used

13 Mar 2003 : Column 1458

since 1997 for other purposes: for the European elections; and the regional development agencies. The word "incoherent" was used in relation to the boundaries. Therefore, I thought it right and not party politically churlish to remind the noble Baroness that those are boundaries set up by a Conservative government. We have not sought to interfere with them. They have been used and added to for many other functions. As the noble Baroness said in an intervention, other organisations changed their internal arrangements to fit in with them because it was administratively convenient.

I wish to make this clear. It cannot be "big" local government because the powers scrutinised by the assemblies will be from central government. Power is not going up; it is all going down. I treat the proposed new clause seriously. I do not think that I shall be minded to accept it; I shall give reasons why. However, I have to assume that those who are fundamentally opposed to regional government will still vote against the proposal. I am not sure of the purpose of the new clause. If you are against regional government you can propose processes for setting up or delaying the boundaries but I assume, therefore, that at the end of the day the Conservative Party will vote against the proposal.

Baroness Hanham: On that point alone, it does not matter whether or not the Conservative Party is in favour of regional government. In this Chamber we are considering government proposals on a policy they have developed and are about to put to the electorate. Whether or not the Conservative Party believes in regional government, it seems perfectly proper to accept government policy at face value but to ensure that it is at least as coherent as possible.

Lord Bowness: In view of the Minister's remarks about powers, when we debate the next amendment perhaps he will particularise the powers proposed to be devolved from central government to the regional assemblies. At Second Reading, the noble Lord gave the example of housing. It sounded suspiciously like breaking up the Housing Corporation or, if not, taking the existing housing functions from existing local government. Perhaps those points will be answered in the next group of amendments.

Lord Rooker: As I probably stated at Second Reading, the answers are set out in the sustainable communities plan. There is no secret about the proposal on housing.

Lord Bowness: With respect—I do not wish to interrupt the noble Lord too much—the functions quoted as going to regional assemblies are those at present carried out by local authorities of one kind or another. They are not central government functions.

Lord Rooker: The noble Lord has a fundamental misunderstanding. Between today and the following days in Committee, I invite him to read the Government's policy statement in a White Paper—

13 Mar 2003 : Column 1459

there is no secret—published in May 2002. It is available in the Printed Paper Office. It sets out exactly government policy, clearly thought through. It puts forward a proposal. The Bill is based on it. It is a paving Bill because it sets up only the preparations for the regional assemblies.

We believe that the consultation proposed by the new clause would be unproductive, expensive and time consuming. It is likely that no more agreement would emerge from that process than there is on current regional boundaries, for the reasons that we have heard today. There will always be arguments on the margin; people will argue about how many regions there should be in the country, whether the London boundaries should remain the same, and so on.

The current boundaries are well established, whatever disputes there may be about the margin and numbers and whatever arguments there might be about one part of a county looking north or another part looking south. The boundaries have had a good deal of acceptance and recognition over several years, and they are used by many organisations, as well as by the Government.

12.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Does the Minister accept the distinction between what is proposed and the administrative boundaries as they are at the moment, with good county government and good spread, and local district and parish government below them? The distinction is real and it is what we are here to discuss. If regional assemblies are introduced, local government will be vastly changed and vastly removed from local people. Therefore, administrative areas without county councils and with vastly amalgamated district councils are a very different proposition indeed.

Lord Rooker: That is another point that we will debate later on. We are not prepared to introduce new tiers of government. I made that clear on Second Reading. We are not having any new tiers of government.

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Rooker: No, hang on a minute. The implication of the intervention from the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is that we would have regional assemblies provided that we leave everything else as it is. That would imply another tier of government, as the merchants and the media have said. I have read in the past few days, in the forgers' gazette parading as the Daily Mail, that we are introducing another tier of government. We are not. If we had to introduce another tier of government we would not introduce this Bill, and if it was amended in such a way we would not proceed with it.

We are not prepared to introduce another tier of government. That is why, if regional assemblies are to be introduced after a referendum, we need first to

13 Mar 2003 : Column 1460

consider what will be needed to create unitary authorities, so that there is only one tier of government in addition to regional assemblies. Before people voted in a referendum for a regional assembly, they would know all the details of that process; they would know where the boundaries were, what the unitary authorities were, and what changes were proposed to the functions of local government.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page