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Lord Waddington: As the Committee has heard, Amendment No. 16 would enable a referendum to go ahead without the voters being told that if they vote yes they will get unitary government. We have heard that the Liberal Party is in favour of a third tier of government in those parts of the country where there are currently county councils. I am glad that the Liberals say that frankly. I am not in favour of more government.
I do not want unitary authorities in Lancashire. Unitary local government in Lancashire would very likely mean three local authorities centred on big towns. Each of those authorities would be dominated by urban interests, with the interests of the country dweller and the people living in small towns being ignored. I do not want unitary authorities to take the place of Lancashire County Council.
Neither do I want regional government. I want the present local government structure to remain, which means local government as near to the people as possible and excellent small local authorities, such as Ribble Valley, continuing to flourish.
The Bill is a disgrace, because it will mean local government further from the people as the price that has to be paid for regional assemblies with nothing to do. There could not be a bigger scandal than that. I therefore oppose the amendments, because they would make it easier for the Government to achieve their aim of foisting pointless regional government on us. With the Bill as drafted, I hope that the proposals for local government change will make plenty of people in Lancashire wake up to what is going on and think furiously before being daft enough to vote for a regional assembly.
The Earl of Onslow: I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington. I am privileged enough, I think, in the event of riot to command the militia in Guildford. Luckily for the good burgesses of Guildford, Denis Healey disbanded the local militia battalions, so I am out of a job.
There are distinct differences between Guildford and Surrey. Long may they remain and long may they both be distinct. We do not want to be part of the South East region. That is a bad idea. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to spheres. There is another word for spheres, and that is balls. It is unfortunate that the Government are trying to reintroduce heptarchy by the back door. That should not be done and I shall do anything I can to slow it down or turn it spherical.
Baroness Blatch: We are discussing the Bill in two ways. First, we are going through the normal parliamentary process. The endgame that we would like would clearly be contrary to the Government's manifesto. This House loyally always honours the Government of the day. We therefore take the second tack. If this Bill, in its present form or in a modified form, is to be enacted, we would like certain things to be considered to make it work in a way that we would prefer.
I am baffled by these amendments because the noble Baroness has insisted that there should be only one condition, that the Secretary of State considers the level of interest in the regionend of story. If the Government are to go ahead with this in the way that they wish, I would like the number of conditions to be increased. Subsection (5) states:
The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has put her name to a raft of amendments to Clause 12, although she ends by opposing the Question that Clause 12 stand part of the Bill. The noble Baroness appears to be arguing for unconditional regional government: "Let us have regional government and not worry too much about the nature of it". I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington that if this measure is to go ahead, I would like the issue of the boundaries
Lord Greaves: My noble friend and myself are quite surprised by the reaction to these amendments from the Conservative Benches. We thought that this was an issue on which we might agree. I shall explain why. It may be the amendments that we have tabled are not well drafted, although they are simple; and it may be that noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have not understood our intentions.
We want to decouple the issue of the reorganisation of local government from the issue of whether there should be a regional assembly. The Government are saying that in order to have a regional assembly there has to be local government reorganisation whether one likes it or not. We say that those are two separate issues and that they should be dealt with separately; they should be decided upon separately by local people.
In the North East, for example, the vote on whether to have a regional assembly will involve everyone in the North East: Northumberland, Durham and the metropolitan areas of Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland. A vote across the whole of the North East on the two issueswhether to have a regional assembly and whether to reorganise local government in Northumberland and Durham onlymay be decided by people in those five metropolitan districts. The decision on what form of local government there will be in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in Alnwick, in Durham or in other parts of County Durham may be made by people who do not live in those places. That appears to be fundamentally undemocratic.
The Government may be right and it may be sensible to go to a system of unitary local government in those areas if there is a regional assembly. There is an arguable casemaybe an overwhelming casefor that, but on democratic grounds that should be decided by the people who live in those counties and not by those who do not live there. Therefore, we are seeking to decouple the two issues. The reason for seeking to delete subsection (5) is to restrict the referendum on regional government to regional government. After the regional assembly has been elected, if it is thought necessary there could be a review of local government, but it should be down to the people who live there.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, does not want to see any changes in Lancashireand that may be what happens. The good people of Lancashire may well agree with him. Lancashire County Council certainly agrees with him to the extent that the Labour Party in the region is tearing itself apart. Lancashire County Council has resigned from the existing regional assembly. There is talk of Cheshire following, but I have no idea whether that is true or not. However, Lancashire has voted to do that. Already a certain amount of mayhem is being caused by the proposals and the arguments are taking place among people in the Labour Party.
The purpose of the amendment is to decouple the conditions. It may not be the perfect amendment; it may not be exactly the right way to do it. Indeed, my noble friend and I have tabled further amendments on this and my noble friend has said that we would like to remove Clause 12 altogether because it creates the mechanisms for the reorganisation of local government. In our view it does not belong in the Bill. Whether or not the interpretation of what we are doing is as noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have said or whether it is our interpretation, the intention is clear: it is to decouple the two conditions. I hope that later we can find common cause on that.
It is extraordinary that the only arguments that the Minister has so far put forward are practical, political arguments: if we do not do this, the Bill will not go through. Perhaps the Sun newspaper or the Daily Mail runs government policy nowadays. It sometimes looks like that in many areas, but I hope that in this area that is not the case. Winning the referendum is crucial. Unless this matter is decoupled, I do not believe that you can win a referendum in the North West. I believe it is the other way around.
Lord Rooker: If this measure is decoupled, there will not be a referendum because there will not be a Bill. We shall take it away. That is the price to be paid. It is as simple as that. I do not think that the noble Lord has understood how serious this is: decouple and we shall not proceed. If you want to kill the Bill, carry on.
Lord Hanningfield: I do not necessarily agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said, but surely it cannot be possible for Manchester and Merseyside to out-vote Lancashire, Cumbria and the other counties and create a regional assembly against the will of that great geographical area which does not want one. There must be some way to allow people to vote differently so that those great counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Cumbria do not have to be dominated by an urban unitary area that could out-vote them. Surely that would be against natural justice and the way in which democracy should work in this country.
The Minister's attitude is not acceptable. I do not believe that it is his personal attitude, but he has his instructions. We are being threatened that if we do what we believe is right, the Government will take their bat and ball home. If it comes to that, do not blame us. The responsibility would clearly rest with the
I do not know why the Government take that view. As my noble friend Lord Shutt and I pointed out at Second Reading, the Labour manifesto at the last general election, Ambitions for Britain, said that,
But it is clear that the policy on which the Government were elected was not that 100 per cent unitary government would be mandatory in places holding referendums on regional government. At the last general election, the Labour Party went to the country with the policy that there had to be predominantly unitary local government. At some stage since then, a smarted-suited young researcher or policy adviser, or perhaps the Prime Minister, came up with the idea that all government must be unitary. If one listens to the rumours and spin and reads the newspapers, it came from 10 Downing Street because people started to panic about the threat of more tiers and what the Daily Mail would say. The policy was changed.
Now the Minister in this House brow-beats usit is the only way in which it can describedthat if we vote against him, he will withdraw his legislation. If he wants the legislation, he will have to bend a little. The Liberal Democrats will not be brow-beaten in every instance. If he is saying that if your Lordships' House stands firm on such issues he will not get his legislation, then we might as well all pack up and go home.
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