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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am with the Conservatives with regard to clarity for the voter, but I am troubled by the precise wording of the amendment as a whole, not only the term "precept". I entirely agree with the noble Lord, but I would not have put the proportion who understand that term as high as half of council tax payers.

The phrase "no new powers" became a mantra at the last stage, but it was shorthand. The regional assemblies do not exist, other than as voluntary chambers associated with regional development agencies. There are no elected assemblies, so there is no such body that could have any powers.

Let us leave aside our arguments about how extensive the powers of the assemblies should be and simply consider what is said in the first bullet point, which relates to being,


There will have to be powers to carry out those activities, or even to respond to central government's points about those activities. It would be extremely

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difficult to extend the powers of regional assemblies at a later stage, as we would like to see happen, if a referendum were undertaken on the basis that that could not happen, but one would have to read that into the proposals. I am concerned about precluding the possibility of tax raising or tax varying. I recognise that that issue may be even further in the distance, but I certainly would not like to rule it out.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the more we hear about the Lib/Lab version of what the Bill is about—we have not heard much which lifts the lid on a proper understanding of the Bill—the more it becomes a Trojan horse. If the Bill is passed in such a way that additional powers can be added, it really will become a Trojan horse.

The noble Baroness said that an assembly will be a completely new body and will need powers in order to carry out its functions. I have read and re-read the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. An assembly will have powers to talk about matters—it may become an advisory body, an arm of government, a talking shop—but if it is to have real authority it will need powers to take action and to decide and determine matters. I have asked the Minister but, as open and as honest as he is, he has not yet given an example of a free-standing power to determine matters.

These powers cannot come from local government—we are told that no powers will be removed from local government—and we have not been told of a single real power which will be delegated down from national government. The assemblies may have "an influence on" or "a part to play in", but the words used in the document do not smack of powers. It would be helpful, if nothing else, if the amendment elicits from the Government and their bed partners, the Liberal Democrats, what is envisaged for the assemblies.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, the amendment is defective in one or two ways. First, it states that,


    "any regional assembly established will have no new powers".

However, if the Government believe in regional government, they should be giving many more powers to the regions. Those powers should not come from local government—I have made that clear on a number of occasions—but they could come from the quangos. It is disgraceful that in this country £50 billion of public money is being administered by people who are virtually unaccountable to the public at large and to people who pay their taxes.

If we are to have realistic regional government, which I do not believe in anyway, the powers of some of these quangos should be transferred down—preferably to local government but, if we are going to have regional government, to regional government.

The other issue that concerns me is that the amendment contains the words,


    "except for that which they raise by a precept from council tax payers in the region".

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I do not believe that they should have precepting powers. Time and time again I have said that precepting is the most irresponsible way of raising money. It raises money from council tax payers without being accountable to them. That cannot be right. When the precept comes in, the people who will take the blame will not be the elected members of the assembly but the elected members of the local council. That cannot be right.

In my area, Berkshire and Reading, the Thames Valley Police Authority was set up under the Police Act 1964, much against my will. I wish that we could have the watch committees back again. The measure was supposed to improve policing throughout the whole of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. However, we now have policemen in Reading having to ask the general public the way to wherever they are going.

The reason I mention the Thames Valley Police Authority is that it has just increased its precept by 41 per cent. The people who will carry the can are the local authorities. That cannot be right. Therefore, I believe that if these regional authorities are to be realistic, and if the Government are serious about them, they have to have their own money raising powers. They must be responsible to the electorate for spending that money. Any other way, frankly, just lets them off the hook, and that is not good enough.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I would not have spoken had it not been for the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She seemed to say that she objected to the amendment as it would prevent the Government giving new powers to the regional assemblies. That is precisely what worries us. That is the justification for an amendment such as the one we are discussing. Are we really going to ask people to vote for regional assemblies when, at the drop of a hat, the Government could decide to delegate to them powers which at present are in the hands of local authorities? I certainly do not want to see that. If any justification for this amendment were needed, it is given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who showed that she had in her mind the idea that in due course there should be given to the regional assemblies powers which at present are in the hands of local authorities. That is a horrible prospect.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I know that we are on Report, although not many of us have acknowledged that, but I must make it perfectly clear—I hope that I made it clear at an earlier stage—that we on these Benches do not envisage, and would not support, regional assemblies taking powers up from local government. We have said throughout that they should take powers down from central government and exercise powers which, as the noble Lord has just said, are in the hands of quangos at the moment.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, the noble Baroness therefore agrees that she is unhappy with the amendment because new powers could be given to the

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regional assemblies which are not envisaged at the present time by the Minister. Is that right or is that wrong?

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I hope that that is right, frankly, because this is the most defective clause of the Bill so far. We certainly hope that any regional assembly that is established will have new powers. That is why we want to set them up. Otherwise, what is the point of setting them up? I cannot think of a more negative matter to be put on a referendum sheet for people to vote on than this blinking clause. Of course regional assemblies should have powers; that is why we want them.

As regards the regional assemblies having no new money, I know the Minister has said that no new money will be available but there is such a thing as economic growth. We hope that in 10, 20 or 30 years' time economic growth might have produced a few more bob. There may well be some way—or it may be important that there is a way—in which some of that economic growth can be used by that tier of government, if that is appropriate. Obviously, that should not be done if it is not appropriate.

I have reservations about precepting council tax payers as that muddies the distinction between local government and regional government. I would hope that the regional resource comprised money from a different source than the council tax payer. But if there is no other possibility, perhaps it is right that a regional authority—I shall give way to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in a minute—should be able to precept as that would enable it to say that a matter was so important that it must have the resources to deal with it when that resource has not been granted by central government.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord is voting with the Government on many of the main parts of the Bill, including the power to precept. It is not good enough for the Liberal Democrats to say that they do not actually like the idea of precepting on local taxpayers, as in fact they are giving the Government succour in voting for exactly that.

9 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, there is all the reason in the world to have provision to do something. Whether one uses it is another matter based on whether there is subsequent cause. As I understand it, the Scottish Parliament has precepting powers on the taxpayers of Scotland. In its four years so far, it has decided not to use them. It has decided in its wisdom that it has the resources under the Barnett formula and everything else to cope with the governance of Scotland, and has chosen not to put extra money on taxation in Scotland.

I hope that the same will be the case so far as regional government is concerned. Even if it is not, I can see the point of having a backstop. If people want to raise money for their region that they think will be so valuable there, they ought to be able to say, "We

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have the power to do this. If we can't get something from central government, we shall have to use the backstop power".


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