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Lord Bowness: If anyone is to be convinced that the Bill is an exercise in devolution, not local government reorganisation, it is vital that powers are spelt out clearlycertainly before any referendum is held.
The Minister chided me earlier, suggesting that I had not read the White Paper. While it is true that I do not have my copy, that has been remedied by the Printed Paper Office. Its contents are just as I remember from my original reading of them. The White Paper makes it clear that the powers of an elected assembly are at best marginal. It is important to take account of the summary:
The Minister earlier listed the number of public bodies active in the North East as some justification for establishing regional organisations. The list of central government departments and agencies with regional and local offices, presumably prayed in aid of the argument, includes the Court Service, Crown Prosecution Service, Forestry Commission, Highways Agencywhich we know is not going over because that was said on Second Reading, HM Land Registry, Inland Revenue and Passport Agency. There is no suggestion that any of them will be involved or be subject to regional assemblies. They have regional offices in the same way that any organisation might have branch offices.
Lord Rooker: I did not say that they were going over. I gave that as an example of other organisations that have used the boundaries for their purposes. I did not say that they were going over to the elected regional assemblies.
The organisations that will be subject to democratic control from regional assemblies include the Countryside Agency, Environment Agency and English Nature. The White Paper, from which we are supposed to draw comfort and be informed, makes clear the formidable role that a regional assembly will have in connection with the environment. It will have the right to be consulted by the Countryside Agency, Environment Agency, English Nature and other relevant public bodiesand to consult them in turn. That is not devolution in my terms.
If those examples purport to justify establishing regional assemblies, then although we are told that there will be no additional tier of government, the truth is that there will be no additional tier of local government. The Government in their wisdom will reorganise local government, make it much larger than it is currently and transfer functions from existing local government bodies to the new assemblies. The new assemblies will not be a devolution of government from the centre. If they are going to be statutory local authorities, they will be subject to the same controls as existing local authorities. I draw Committee Members' attention to the definition of local authorities in Clause 23 of the Local Government Bill which appeared recently in the Printed Paper Office. It includes all the existing local authorities with which your Lordships will be familiar. Clause 23(1)(o) also includes:
Under subsection (2) those are levying and precepting bodies. The White Paper says that regional assemblies will raise their finances independently and not by a levy on central government. They will therefore be local authorities and not devolved assemblies. If the Government wish to prove me wrong, they will publish the powers before the referendum.
Lord Waddington: It is only through such debates that we begin to get the picture and some idea of what job, if any, the elected members of the regional assemblies will have. On 5th March the Minister said that there were no new powers or funds. He was underlining what he has said again today: there will be no new powers devolved from central government to the elected assemblies. He has said today that no new powers will be taken from local government and given to the elected assemblies. That is not strictly true, because we know that it has already been decided that planning powers should go to a regional level.
Apart from that matter, the Minister says that no powers will be taken from local government and given to the regional assemblies. What on earth will they have to do? The assembly members will be paid and people are entitled to know what salaries they will receive and what the chief executives will be paid. The bill for the assemblies will be footed not by central government but by council taxpayers, who are already
We will be debating the referendum question on Clause 2. The wording of Clause 2 on the statement that must precede the question on the ballot paper makes this proposal sound far more attractive than the facts warrant. I know that the Electoral Commission has approved the wording, but it has nothing to rely on except the extremely vague wording on page 34 of the White Paper to which my noble friend Lord Bowness referred. It is wrong that anyone should be asked to vote in a referendum for a regional assembly without the powers or lack of powers that it is to exercise being spelt out at least in a draft Bill if not in legislation.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: This is a cart-before-the-horse Bill. How on earth can we ask people to vote for something if they do not know what they are voting for? That is what the debate is about. When people are voting for something, especially a major change, they should know exactly what they are voting for. The Minister may believe that only opponents of regions are concerned about the matter, but the Campaign for the English Regions is also concerned. It sent me a large brief, but it is only necessary to quote one paragraph. It states:
If the people in favour of the regions are concerned about the Government's policy, surely the Minister should consider what they are saying and ensure that before people vote they know what they are voting for and are not being asked to buy a pig in a poke.
The Earl of Caithness: I support the amendment. As I said on the first amendment, the two crucial issues are the size and functions of the region. It is crucial that those who are to take part in the referendum know exactly what they are voting for and the implications. Now that the full implications have been realised north of the border, many of the people who voted would not now vote in the same way. All sorts of functions such as planning and culture have been lost at a local level and have gone to a regional level.
That has been a disaster for all sorts of small community-based interests, which have been doing a great deal of good work for a long time but now find that their finances have changed and that they are not able to continue. Where planning is carried out on a regional rather than local basis it is a recipe for disaster because locals do not feel involved in controversial decisions. To give an example, windmills for
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I also support these amendments to define the powers and functions of the proposed assemblies. I know that the Minister wishes to avoid all discussion of the Bill's European dimension. I noticed, for instance, that he did not take the opportunity I offered him to answer my basic question at the end of my remarks on Second Reading. I can of course persist.
To be more specific and to give the Minister a much easier question to answer on the European dimension with reference to the amendments, what will be the interface between the new regional assemblies and Brussels? I presume that Brussels will continue to send back some of our taxpayers' money in the guise of EU regional aid. What role do the Government see for the new regional assemblies in that process? Do the Government ever foresee them having powers to raise taxes, for instance? Would those taxes be confined to the regions, or can the Government foresee part of them being passed to the tentacles from Brussels?
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