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Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I shall certainly pay every attention and regard to what the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord McNally, say. It is true that there are many attractions to self-regulation as the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, says. He has substantial and gloomy experience to indicate the disadvantages sometimes of endless Second Reading speechesnoble Lords who say, "I shall not be able to be present at the end of the debate, but nevertheless I am going to offer you my chosen morsels". There are aspects, even in such an immaculate body, that might be capable of improvement.
Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, many noble Lords want to speak so perhaps we can keep questions short. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will speak first followed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, who caught my eye.
For my noble and learned friend to tell the House that representations have to be in by next Friday is not very sensible, given the mood in the House. Perhaps I may follow the statements made by the noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Tordoff. There is a case for considering what we want the Speaker to do before deciding on the kind of person and electoral system required. I urge my noble and learned friend, in the interests of the Government as much as anything else, to take on board the necessity of ironing out this matter before reaching the stage of placing proposals in furtherance of the aim.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, that is a perfectly reasonable approach. My noble friend Lord Richard, of Ammanford, said that we must disentangle the principles that I am trying to put before your Lordships from the manner of the announcement. Returning to the observation made by the noble Lord, Lord Denham, if there was discourtesy, I regret it. I apologise for it if your Lordships saw it in that way.
We may be able to disentangle some of these matters. The Government are perfectly entitled to set out their policies in the same way as they do in a manifesto. I agree with what the noble Lord has saidechoed by many of your Lordshipsthat we need some consultation in as great a depth as possible, but not, to echo the noble Lord, Lord McNally, at as great a length as possible. I did not say that representations had to be in by next Friday; I said that if by Wednesday 25th June I were able to report on a consensus, if circumstances allowedI underlined that wordI would report again to your Lordships. My door is always open. If your Lordships have proposals they will be given respectful attention. I repeat again that as an independent House we should not be content to tolerate a Speaker imposed upon us, dependent on which government win an election.
Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, perhaps I may follow the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Richard. He made points with which I have substantial agreement. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord President of the Council detect an uncharacteristic and uncomfortable lack of empathy between himself and this House, which normally has the greatest respect for him? Does he not understand that the reason for that is probably that all the measures comprised in the package presented on
However, the fact is that they have not been considered in the light of the consideration offered by the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Marsh. The overwhelming fact is that this package of proposals, whatever their intrinsic merits, arrives in the form of a pre-emptive bunch of products, produced as a mismanaged political change of governance. They would not have been introduced in that way in those circumstances except for that background. My concern is that sound measures, designed to enhance the independence of our judicial system, may well be pre-emptively tainted by the turbulent political circumstances in which they have been introduced and by the haste with which they are now being followed.
Is the noble and learned Lord aware that practically the whole of the Lord Chancellor's private office, which is next to the room that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mayhew, and I occupy, has already decampeddone a runnerto some building we know not where? That may be a perfectly sensible thing as part of a sensible change in the structure of government, but it is part of a regime change in which everything is happening with the utmost speed. It risks destroying the necessary confidence for the fundamental constitutional changes being proposed.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, on that last point, I cannot remember how many times noble Lords have urged me and my colleagues to free up some of the accommodation presently occupied by the Lord Chancellor's Department. I am not sure that that was the best point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, as he used to tell me when he sat as chairman of Glamorgan quarter sessions when I appeared in front of him.
I am pleased that the noble and learned Lord said that in principle there is much to be commended in the package of proposals. I accept that there are feelings of mortification and disappointment and a feeling of discourtesy. If there was that feeling I regret it and apologise for it. In the interests of the long-term constitutional future of this country and of this House, I hope that we can do as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, suggests and attend to the principles that he commended.
Baroness Strange: My Lords, without wishing to tangle with my noble and learned friend, the honeyed-tongued Leader of the House, does he agree that in this House we do not have a Speaker, we do not have a presiding officer, but we have a Lord Chancellor whom in the past we have loved and revered and whom we look forward to loving and revering in the future?
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer, and, indeed, Lady Falconer, I am certain that he looks forward to the continuing love and cherishment which has been offered. I am sorry to intrude on the noble Baroness's view, but we have a Speaker: he is the Lord Chancellor and he is described as the Speaker in our Standing Orders. This country has a supreme court: it has had one since the Supreme Court Act 1835.
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement made today in another place by my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:
"During the past six years, we have carried out a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change. We have decentralised government and transformed our political system through devolution to Scotland and Wales; we are continuing our reforms of the House of Lords and modernising local government; we have restored democratic city-wide government to London; and we have set up strong regional development agencies in England which have helped increase investment and employment in all our regions to record levels. We have strengthened regional policy and helped to create a network of eight voluntary regional chambers.
"In May 2002 we published our White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. It set out our plans for elected regional assemblies in those regions in which people wanted them. It contained proposals for a new regional tier of government which would take powers and responsibilities from central governmentnot from local authorities.
"Elected regional assemblies will bring greater democracy and a new political voice to the regions. They will reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it, and willabove allprovide regional accountability.
"Last month, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act became law. Today I am taking the first steps under that Act to deliver our undertaking to hold the first regional referendums during this Parliament. We have no intention of forcing elected regional assemblies on any region. However, it is clear to me that in some regions voters want this opportunity. I intend to give them that choice.
"The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act sets out what must happen before I can call any referendums. First, I must consider the level of interest in the region in holding a referendum. Secondly, the Boundary Committee for England must have made recommendations on options for unitary local government in those parts of the region which currently have two tiers of local authorities.
"On 2nd December 2002 we started a soundings exercise in the eight regions outside London. We gave the soundings document a wide distribution, and asked for responses by 3rd March. The House will recall that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was amended in the Lords in April to allow for a second question in the referendums on the options for unitary local government. The soundings exercise was extended to take this into account, and we asked for further responses by 16th May.
"In assessing levels of interest, I have considered all relevant responses. I have today published a summary of the responses and other evidence that I have considered. That document has been placed in the Library and made available in the Vote Office.
"In total we estimate that at least 50,000 people were involved in the soundings exercise; a lot more than in a typical opinion poll. Over 7,000 direct responses were from individuals. The rest came from organisations or individuals responding in a representative capacity, for example through surveys or petitions. Although these responses represented the views of many individuals, they were each recorded as single responses.
"Taken together with other views, information and evidence, these figures show that there is insufficient evidence in the West Midlands, the East of England, the South East, the South West and the East Midlands to justify a referendum being held now.
"The picture is quite different in the three Northern regions. In the North East and North West over half of all respondents wanted a referendum, and in my own region, Yorkshire and the Humber, almost three quarters said "Yes". In all three northern regions there was significant and widespread interest in holding a referendum from the business community, trade unions, local authorities and the voluntary sector.
"Taking all the evidence together, I am satisfied that interest in a referendum is high in all three regions. Therefore, I am pleased to announce to the House today that it is my intention to hold referendums at the first opportunity in the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.
"I expect that opportunity to come in the autumn of 2004. I have therefore today directed the Boundary Committee for England to carry out a local government review in each of these three regions. These reviews will cover the existing two-tier areas of Durham, Northumberland, Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire County Councils. The Boundary Committee will recommend at least two options for structural change in relation to each area, and voters in those areas will be given a choice as to which unitary option they prefer.
"Building on the proposals in the regions White Paper, we intend to publish a draft Bill setting out the powers and functions for elected regional assemblies in those regions that want them. If the people vote "Yes" in the referendums, we could have the first elected assemblies up and running early in the next Parliament. This will be another significant step on the road to regional government for England.
"It will take forward the Government's commitment to develop a strong regional voice in all eight regions. The regional chambers, the RDAs, and the Government Offices will all continue to ensure that there is a distinctive regional voice from every regionwhether or not there is an elected regional assembly.
"This Government remain committed to a strong regional policy which will benefit the country as a whole. We are offering the people of the three northern regions an historic opportunity; an opportunity we offered the people of Scotland, Wales and London before them; an opportunity for the northern regions to choose how they are governed.
"This is an opportunity to strengthen democracy and reduce bureaucracy, an opportunity to gain a new political voice and for greater prosperityfor more growth, more jobs, more investment. It is an opportunity for those regions that have the desire for change to determine their own future.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this unsurprising Statement to the House today. I say "unsurprising" because it has been clear from the very first discussions that took place on this matter that the Deputy Prime Minister was hell-bent on ensuring that regional government in the areas in which he believed that he could achieve a voteany sort of votein favour would be implemented, whatever happened. I cannot extend the usual courtesy of thanking him for letting me have previous sight of the Statement. It has taken me until 3.45 p.m. to get the Statement from another placenot from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I managed eventually to get a copy from the Minister's office or through the Whips' office at the same time.
The paper on the soundings exercise to which the Minister refers, which gives extremely interesting details of the results of that exercise, is embargoed. It was embargoed until the start of the Statement today. It was only with the most extreme efforts that I managed to get a copy of the document.
The normal courtesies that are extended to the opposition clearly have misfired or miscued in my case. The other opposition party may have fared better, but I should like to place on record that I do not expect very much from the Government, but I do expect an opportunity to see what I am going to talk about.
There has not been a strong response to the soundings exercise, which, as the Statement says, was implemented in December and was to be finalised in March. It was extended in March and then again, we understand, into May, because of the derisory result that was emerging. When I checked the ODPM's website in early April, there had been 7,000 responses in total. I am told that a month later there were 8,000. We are now told that there were 50,000 responses; that is, replies from the whole country. Only 7,000 of those replies have been received from individuals. It emerges from the paper to which I have now been made privy that in the North West there have been 3,611 responses in favourand one should bear in mind that most of
The Deputy Prime Minister tries to hide behind the fig leaf that a MORI poll would have produced the same sort of result, but a soundings exercise conducted in the way that this one has been deserves to produce the sort of results that it has. It is therefore hard to see how the Deputy Prime Minister has come to the conclusion that there was "high" interest in the three regions that I have mentioned and could possibly justify his decision to go ahead.
If a judgment can be made by the Deputy Prime Minister on the soundings with such a paltry turn-out, will the Minister tell us what level of participation in a referendum would be so low for him to decide that there would be insufficient support for regional government to be introduced? Is it still the intention that that decision, following a referendum, will be for the Deputy Prime Minister to make alone? If that is so, and we reside on the result from these soundings, that decision would be made on a very low basis indeed.
That matter was discussed at great length in this House, as was also the question of how people were to be informed of what regional assemblies will actually do. The Minister listed the matters that regional government will be able to tamper with. However, he tried to give the impression that there will be significant powers for regional assemblies, when it has been clear all along, and still is, that they will be nothing more than scrutinising talking shops.
We proposed during discussions on the Bill in this House that a draft Bill should be introduced. I am glad to hear from the Statement that that will be done. Perhaps I may ask the Minister when we can expect that and whether it will be laid before the House for discussion.
Is it also still the case, as the Minister repeatedly said during the process of the Bill, that any regional assembly will have "no new powers and no new money" or is there yet to be a power of precept and if so, for what purposes? What will the regional assemblies cost the council tax payerfirst, to set up; secondly, to run; and thirdly, to pay those who will be their elected members? Has that yet been worked out? It had not when the Bill was passing through this House.
As the Minister said, there will be two questions, but the real question today is why a referendum for regional government is so important when the Government will not commit themselves to one for the far-reaching European constitutional convention. On that matter, the public can be stirred, but it seems to be in the deepest slumber over regional government.
The proposals are so far from a priority in the minds of any of the electorsthe sounding exercise demonstrates that per adventure in the abysmal response that it has generatedthat one wonders how the Government have the gall to go ahead with them. Even the business community, represented by the CBI,
The outcome of the proposals, if they come about, will be the demise of the county councils, the second tier of government for the past 1,000 yearsbut then, this Government seem to be impervious to 1,000 years of history in any respect. It is certainly our view that the public could be misled over the value of regional government. It is now up to the Government and the careful scrutiny of Parliament to see that they are not. It is also up to the good sense of the public to see through this charade.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Statement. We welcome it because we support devolution where people want devolution. It is right for the Government to enable that decision to be taken on a local or, perhaps I should say, regional basis. I can assure the noble Baroness that I, too, have had the Statement for only a short time, although I heard news of it from the "Today" programme this morning. My decorator, who arrived when I was listening to it, thought that I was mad to be interested.
We support regional democracy and the move away from the quango state that regional assemblies would enable. We are also glad that our proposals for a second question have been accepted, given that the Prime Minister is not prepared to retain two-tier local government.
The story really begins here. Does the Minister agree that the referendums need to be won? Does he agree that that may be a harder exercise than dealing with the legislation and the soundings? The soundings exercise addressed the level of interest in holding a referendum. Many of us were somewhat sceptical as to whether that would be read by respondents as indicating interest in the holding of a referendum as distinct from interest in there being a regional assembly. I do not suppose that I will be able to tempt the Minister to speculate on that today, but perhaps he could tell the House what is meant in the Statement by "relevant" responses, which are those which have been taken into account in assessing the soundings.
Does the Minister also agree that it is important to be clear about the powers and the functions of the proposed assemblies? The Minister knows that we on these Benches believe that they should be greater. We regret, for instance, that it is not proposed that the regions will be able to hold the Highways Agency, the Environment Agency and the Learning and Skills Councilsto mention just threeto account at regional level. Does he agree that even if supporters of the principle disagree on the detail, it is important to work together and simultaneously for as much devolution as possible? We will have the draft Bill before the referendum. Can the Minister tell the House not only when it will be published butto go further
We note the response to the soundings exercise in those regions that are not among the three that will have early referendums. The Minister will recall the concern expressed during the passage of the Bill about levels of uncertainty and anxiety in those other regions. Could he take the opportunity today and whenever possible to reassure those other regions that proposals for a regional assembly, while not ruled out, are not just around the corner for them? That means that life could continue as always in those regions.
Coming from London, I cannot help but observe that the White Paper told us that the new regional assemblies are not to have an executive mayor. I hope that during the passage of the Bill the door will not be closed to issues of structure, such as the need to ensure that there are enough members of the new assemblies to ensure representativeness and to carry out the executive and scrutiny functions.
Finallyand in view of the preceding Statementcan the Minister confirm to the House that responsibility for the matter will remain in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and not move to the new Department for Constitutional Affairs?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am grateful for those responses. I apologise if anyone feels that they did not get stuff on time. I am not exactly sure of the situation. I assume that my right honourable friend stood up at 3.30 but the Statement would have been made available to the Opposition Front Bench before then. I do not know why it was made available to the noble Baroness at only quarter to four. I apologise for that.
I take the House seriously and always remind civil servants and colleagues, "Don't forget the House of Lords, by the way". I do so because of what previously happened in relation to the Bill and the soundings. I had my tongue in my cheek when I read one half of the sentence because, as noble Lords know, during the passage of the Bill, noble Lords were not on the list for the soundings distribution.
The 50,000 figure has been challenged so I shall explain it. Total responses logged are 8,465. Of those, 7,132 were from individuals in their private capacities. The balance of 1,513 were from organisations including Members of Parliament, Members of the European Parliament and local authorities. Twenty-eight opinion polls and surveys, and nine petitions were supplied; 37,243 people were consulted via opinion polls or surveys. There were 1,411 signatures to petitions. At least 7,800 people were involved in providing views by way of focus groups, votes at meetings and responses to circulars. The total involved in that way is 46,459; if that is added to the 7,132 direct individual responses the number is 53,591. I call that more than 50,000 people issuing a view. One cannot
This is the first time people have been given a choice about their government structureI almost said their local government structure but it is not that, nor is it about central government structurein England. When the Tories abolished Berkshire county council there was no referendum or choice for the people beforehand. To listen to the Opposition, anyone would think that no one had ever abolished a county council. Let us get the facts right. I do not believe that Berkshire county council was ever Labour but there was no referendum for the people of Berkshire. If there is a "yes" vote and the assemblies are set up, the test will be whether they are abolished by another government. The track record is not very good. The Conservatives opposed the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, and changed their mind. I understand that they opposed democratic city-wide government for London and later changed their mind. We must not forget the valuable contribution of the 150 Tory councillors represented on the regional chambers; I am sure that they will have a word or two to say about the valuable contribution they are making.
Most of the other answers I can provide are basically those I gave during the passage of the Bill. Nevertheless, I shall do my best. I shall not fall into the trap associated with the turnout level. We discussed that in Committee. If we put any figures on a turnout level, that would be an open invitation for those who want to frustrate the objective to call for an abstention in order to manipulate the outcome. We shall wait and see what the people's choice is; that is what matters at the end of the day. It is true that there will be no new powers, no new money and no new tier of government. That is the mantra and that remains exactly the same.
The costs I gave during the passage of the Bill are unchanged. The set-up costs are approximately £30 million. The running costs are about £25 million a year, some of which will be offset by amalgamations and regional office changes. I believe I gave a figure of about £5 million.
On the draft Bill, I cannot go much beyond the Statement save to say that our intention is to produce a draft Bill before the referendums. We cannot currently provide a timetable; to be honest, it is too far ahead to calculate parliamentary counsel resources. Iand, I believe, everyone elsewould be happier if a draft Bill were published a decent time beforehand. The question is, not knowing the date of the referendum, other than autumn next year, could there be parliamentary scrutiny beforehand? That could mean the summer. I could not possibly prejudge that. For the avoidance of any doubt, the production of a draft Bill will not delay the referendums; I make that abundantly clear. Having a draft Bill will not act like a veto or a trigger for the referendum. We have already saidand I mean thisthat through the letterboxes of each of the houses and dwellings in the regions will come information about what the regional assemblies