Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord Rooker: My Lords, it would become a unitary county council. We do not have to invent that form. A unitary county council is already in existence and so what is the difference? What would be the difference between that form and what is in place in Herefordshire?

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I hope that Hansard will show clearly—as I have endeavoured to make it clear—why we have approached the matter in this way. I assure the House that it was not done lightly and certainly did not intend to suggest that this was a murky deal, as one noble Lord put it. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in that they wish to see a future for regional government. We want a future that gives people choice.

7 Apr 2003 : Column 29

Much has been said about the counties, and rightly so. Their future depends on the referendums and, first, on a referendum on whether the local people in any given region want to go ahead with regional government. Furthermore, I have sought to make it clear that I would have preferred to see the two-tier option retained. I shall return to that matter in a moment.

Building on the last point made by the noble Baronesses, there is the possibility of setting up a form of unitary government on the boundaries of an existing county with the powers of the unitary authorities—although of course one can never be absolutely accurate when attempting to give a two-line summary—that is, with the powers of counties and districts effectively tied together.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to ask the noble Baroness a question. Does she agree that if a unitary authority were based on the county boundaries, the district authority would have to be removed and its functions and powers absorbed into the county? One way or another, under the Liberal amendment, local people will lose either their district authority or their county.

Baroness Hamwee: Yes, my Lords, of course; I have never suggested otherwise. On previous occasions I have spoken forcefully about the importance of districts because they are local. Although we have not discussed the position of parishes in this debate, if a noble Lord tests me then I shall discuss the position of community councils and parishes as well. Of course that is right.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, got it absolutely right. If the Government are determined not to resile from their position, it would be better to provide the options. He asked why all the viable options could not be listed in the legislation. My Amendment No. 12 provides for "at least two options", but given that the options would be different for each area, it would not be practicable to list all the detailed options.

I turn now to the reorganisation of local government. I understand very well, although I have not lived through it myself, how agonising that can be and how agonising it was during the 1990s. I do not think the Conservatives should be as proud of that reorganisation as they appear to be indicating today.

As my noble friend Lord Greaves said, he and I have different perspectives on this matter. There is not as sharp a distinction in our objectives as one might think. It is a matter of judgment whether to allow the Bill to be killed, which the Minister has been very clear about, or to keep the original form of the Bill. I cannot emphasise too much that it is also a matter of judgment when to negotiate over what might be on offer to achieve what is likely to be the best outcome.

My noble friend Lord Greaves—he is still my noble friend and I hope he is still my friend as well as being noble—said that the referendum has to be won and is not there for the taking. I agree. The referendum in

7 Apr 2003 : Column 30

each region must be won. It goes without saying that it is a matter of considerable sadness that my noble friend and I disagree on this issue. He finds himself behind me. We will be together, not in parallel, on an awful lot of issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, described reorganisation as sometimes vicious. He rightly referred to the unhappiness and uncertainties that can be caused for staff, among other people. I accept that, but it must also be accepted that for reasons such as resources, reorganisation is not in prospect for most regions for some considerable time. It does not do our colleagues in local government any good—I count staff and officers among colleagues—for them to worry that what we are discussing is galloping over the horizon and will threaten their future in the next few weeks. That is not the case.

The Minister has been clear about the position. I am grateful for his recognition that the vote on local government should be local and not region-wide.

We want the prospect of regional government brought forward, with voters being given the vote regarding regional assemblies and options for local government. The first amendment about the purpose of the Bill was tabled to explain the issues to the House at the start of the Report stage. I shall move Amendment No. 12 when we reach it. At this point, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil moved Amendment No. 2:


    Page 1, line 7, at end insert "provided that in any order made under this subsection, it shall be made clear what will be the powers and functions of the assembly proposed, and how it will be funded"

The noble Lord said: My Lords, perhaps I should repeat my apology for having mistimed my entry because I thought this was a different Bill. I have been surprised on a past occasion by your Lordships going, for once, rather faster than is customary and therefore missing my cue. I apologise for any inconvenience I caused.

When the Bill came forward, I wondered what on earth it was for. There was so little accompanying information. My guess was that the local government offices of the different regions which have been established probably needed some garments of democratic respectability to explain what they were at. I still think that there may be something in that. On the other hand, I have had the benefit of considerable guidance from my noble friends on the Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Waddington. My noble friend Lady Blatch made no secret of the fact that she thought the Government were bent on a whole-hog reorganisation of local government which they needed to explain much more thoroughly.

My noble friend Lord Waddington, as is his practice, put his finger on the key question. If these assemblies are not to have any new powers or enjoy the benefit of new funds, what on earth are they going to do? My noble friend asked that question very clearly but did not receive a clear answer from the Minister

7 Apr 2003 : Column 31

who is more capable than many Ministers I have known of giving perfectly clear answers when he wants to. If he cannot find one—if there is not one available—not even his love of clarity is sufficient to meet the requirement.

I have assembled, in the best way I can, some information I gleaned from reading at least parts of the Committee stage. I shall be bold enough to remind your Lordships of some eight or nine items. First, this is not another tier of local government. I had always suspected that that was exactly what it would be, but I still do not know what it is. When the Minister told us that the work of existing regional bodies will be brought under democratic control, I wondered which regional bodies he had in mind, what they had been up to and why they needed this sort of discipline. I am still curious to know.

We have also been told by the Minister that the bodies are strategic. I do not think I recall being told whose strategy they have adopted or of what it consists. Here is another slight gap. As one who adheres to the belief that small is beautiful—unfashionable though that is—I was slightly comforted to be told that the assemblies will be very small. I wondered about that. We are told that they will be paid. But why will they be very small when they are representing larger areas? In other words, they will surely have very large constituencies indeed.

The next point I noted is that they will be legally distinct from a local authority. What on earth are they going to do? They are not part of central government—or are they? My original suspicion was that they will be put there to give a cloak of decency to the local government offices which the Deputy Prime Minister has been so busy setting up.

The next piece of information, which, again, I make little comment on—

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Lord has said this before, but it simply is not true. The regional offices of government were set up in principle and in function by the previous administration. They are nothing to do with the Deputy Prime Minister and nothing to do with the present Government. It is true we have added other departments to them, but the regional government offices were cherished bodies set by the previous Conservative government. The noble Lord must not keep saying it. I know he likes to have a dig at the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is nothing to do with him.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I accept what the Minister says. However, it seems to me that the regional government offices have had new life breathed into them under the direction of the Deputy Prime Minister. They have certainly grown from having a weak influence to being much more robust. Obviously, they need some sort of democratic clothing, with which the Government are kindly going to provide them, with Parliament's agreement.

7 Apr 2003 : Column 32

The Minister told us that the assemblies would be only a modest advance in democratic accountability, in spending large sums of public money. That has not really been explained to us in any way; we still need to know what the bodies are, and why they need the extra degree of control. We are told that it cannot be "big local government", because it is not local government. The Minister could have gone further with that explanation. We are also told that no existing unitary authority will have its boundaries interfered with. Only when the structure is two-tier are the Government likely to intervene. However, I still do not know to what extent the fears expressed by my noble friend Lady Blatch, that this heralds a wholesale intrusion into the present framework of local government, are justified or not. One suspects that my noble friend has got it right.

We are told, too—and I take comfort from this, although I do not understand what it really means—that no case has been made out for another tier of elected people. What will the new framework of assemblies constitute, other than another tier? After all, it is new—we do not have it at the moment. When I sought an explanation from the Government, I failed to get anything satisfactory.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page