Select Committee on Constitution Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness(Questions 20-33)

THURSDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2003

RT HON NICK RAYNSFORD MP

  20. Can we put on the record—and effectively it derives from and is implicit in the White Paper—obviously we are talking here about legislation for a referendum, it will be up to Parliament to legislate for the assemblies themselves and the powers that those assemblies would have. The White Paper talks about the specific functions that will be given to a regional assembly and therefore the presumption must be that each assembly would have uniform powers. Parliament could of course legislate for different powers but the Government's policy is that they would be equal in terms of functions and powers?
  (Mr Raynsford) That is correct, that is certainly our intention.

Lord Acton

  21. Mr Raynsford, I wonder if I could ask about funding for regional chambers in part IV of clause 23(i): "The Secretary of State may make a grant to any person in respect of expenditure incurred in connection with the activities of a regional chamber." Forgive me, but I do not know what that means.
  (Mr Raynsford) Under the Regional Development Agencies Act we established not just regional development agencies but bodies known as regional chambers in each of the English regions to exercise a degree of scrutiny over the activities of the regional development agencies. These chambers are made up of representatives of local authorities within each region but also representatives from the business community and the voluntary sector so that they are wider than just local government, and the obvious question has arisen as to how they can perform their scrutiny role without some financial support. We have been giving them modest financial support and we intend to maintain that but there has not been a specific legislative provision to enable us to do so and that is what we are giving ourselves in this legislation.

  22. So "any persons" means "chambers"?
  (Mr Raynsford) The chambers are differently constituted in different regions.

  23. Asymmetrical.
  (Mr Raynsford) In some cases we are paying the money to a single local authority which acts as the postbox for the chamber. In others they have already been constituted as corporate bodies and therefore can receive funding directly. Parliamentary Counsel could not find a neater way of encompassing that range of agencies than the wording that is included in the legislation. It does not mean we intend to arbitrarily give money to anyone.

  24. It is gloriously neat but it could possibly be even neater.
  (Mr Raynsford) I hope that my explanation reveals there is no malign intent here.

Lord Acton: Thank you.

Lord Morgan

  25. I apologise coming back again, Mr Raynsford, but we had an inquiry into devolution, as you probably know, which was published, and we were struck by the asymmetry of that particular settlement, an asymmetry in some ways almost verging on instability in as far as the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies were so different in power, and there are now pressures for reconsidering that settlement under the Richard Commission and so on. Now we are going to have rather different sorts of authority within England as well. Bearing in mind that we could envisage all sorts of decisions, for example, I suppose, another foot and mouth outbreak, where some of the English regions might have to adopt the guise of the different Scottish or Welsh Assemblies, are you concerned that the pragmatism would make a patchwork that would be unsustainable?
  (Mr Raynsford) No I am not, for two reasons. If I can again give the wider European context. We looked quite closely at arrangements in other countries and certainly in Spain, for example, there has been an asymmetric approach to devolution with a greater degree of autonomy given to the Basque province and to Navarra, a large measure of devolved autonomy (but not as great as to those two regions) to other regions such as Catalonia and Galicia and in the south Andalucia, and then a modest degree of devolved autonomy to some of the central regions that do not feel the same need. There is a very interesting parallel, if I can draw it, which is the distance from Madrid which seems, once again, to be the critical factor in the amount of devolution that those Spanish regions have aspired to. So Castilla La Mancha and other regions very close to Madrid do not appear to have the same need for autonomy as some of the more far flung regions. Our view is that probably reflects a similar pattern to the United Kingdom where Scotland has felt a real need for a large measure of devolved autonomy. I do not believe that the English regions aspire to the same level. Some of the regions I have outlined do want to have a greater responsibility themselves through an elected assembly, others not, but it is certainly not an aspiration to the same degree that the Scots enjoy.

  26. I am very sympathetic to that. Just a last question, when we discussed these matters, including Spain, in Edinburgh we had a discussion, and my understanding was that although the degree of autonomy varies enormously between Catalonia and other regions, there was a strong financial control, and their financial autonomy in Catalonia was far less; and to some extent the variety in constitutional practices was less ominous than it might seem.
  (Mr Raynsford) It is very difficult, because of the different constitutional frameworks that apply in different countries and the relationship between different tiers of government, to get an entirely accurate read across. I have certainly been challenged by my reading of arrangements in some other European countries to try and fully understand the different relationships and to get a sense of the degree of devolved power that in reality applies. I think it is right to say that, in general, Catalonia does enjoy a greater degree of autonomy, even though in some respects it is constrained, than some of the more central Spanish regions.

Lord Elton

  27. I have three questions. The first is on what the Lord Chairman asked you about boundaries. I would like to go a little further because I am not sure I quite understood what the implications are. As I understand it, if there is a referendum in a region and the decision is 60/40 in favour and the 60 are predominantly in the north and the 40 are predominantly in the south, the proposal is that you would then go ahead and create unitary government/unitary authorities in the south reorganising all that, get the thing running, and still hold out the prospect that you might review boundaries and get some form of succession. That seems to invite instability and I do not suppose it is what you have in mind.
  (Mr Raynsford) It is not and I can only apologise if I did not explain our proposals more clearly. The proposals involve initially assessing the degree of interest in holding a referendum for the region. For the reasons I outlined, I felt it was right to take a broad view rather than relying on a mechanistic measure, for fear that one might otherwise be influenced by disproportionate support in one part of a region rather than another. When we get to the stage where a referendum is held, by that stage the local government review will have been complete, the Boundary Committee will have put forward its recommendations, and we will publish those so that everyone in all parts of the region will know exactly what the consequences will be if they vote in favour of an elected regional assembly.[2] We believe this is a safeguard which ensures that those parts of the region that might not like the idea of reorganisation of local government would have the opportunity of expressing their view clearly, knowing the consequences. We have been criticised by some enthusiasts for regional government who believe this might make it more difficult to win a referendum in certain regions because there will be a natural view of some people who would like to keep their historic local government structures. We still think it is right that information should be available and that people should make a vote in the full knowledge of the consequences, but that vote has to be a vote for the whole region. It would clearly be a recipe for total confusion if we were then to say the outcome will lead to a boundary redistribution based on the proportion of votes cast in particular areas. When I was referring to boundaries, it was to the reference in our White Paper which says that while we intend to start on the basis of the existing regional boundaries—because they are there, they are in existence, the Government Offices operate to those regions and it is a pragmatic way forward—we have not worked out in the longer term any review. I am pleased to say Mr Scotter has now found the reference and it is in paragraph 65 where we say that the Government has not completely ruled out in the longer term the possibility of adopting boundaries for regional assemblies that do not follow the existing boundaries. It is not something that we are proposing in the short-term; it is an option which is there in the future. I have indicated in response to an earlier question the fact that the South East is a particularly interesting example of an area where there is not any great sense of regional identity at the moment and it might be—and I say no more than might because there is no policy commitment to do this—it might be appropriate to review this at a later date.

  28. The next thing I was trying to think through was your statement that the decision should be financially neutral. Presumably that is part of the information that the electorate will be given and that amounts to a fairly long-term commitment, does it not? It is not just going to be neutral at the moment. Is that therefore a policy aspiration or commitment to simply translating the existing—and I cannot remember the term—needs assessment criteria geographically from one authority to its successor, and how far will that remain binding in the future?
  (Mr Raynsford) The commitment is that the Government does not intend to vary the amounts transferred from central government to the regions at any stage depending on whether or not there is an elected regional assembly, so each region will continue to receive funds from government on the same basis as now. Obviously if there are changes those changes will apply equally to all regions irrespective of whether they have an elected regional assembly or not. We expect there will be consequences. We think there are advantages in having a greater degree of devolved autonomy, that this will help to stimulate regional economies, and it may well be that those regions with an elected regional assembly will see greater economic growth. Those who oppose the policy might take the opposite view and feel there would be a block to economic development. I would not want to give an indication as to what the long-term outcomes will be in terms of the economic performance of the regions but the commitment is in relation to government money going from central government to the regions. We do not want this to in any way prejudice the decisions of people locally because we would not think it was right they should believe they would get either more money or less money for their region from government as a result of their vote.

  29. Thank you. Finally, a rather smaller question. You mentioned that London would have different housing powers. Is that an outcome of scale or the existing arrangements?
  (Mr Raynsford) It is an outcome of two factors. One is that we have addressed the English regions at a slightly later date than the deliberations that led to the creation of the Greater London Authority, and in our view there is a case for achieving a pulling together of two separate streams of money that go into the regions, one via the Housing Corporation (designed to support registered social landlords) and the other via the Government Offices (designed to support local authority housing investment). We think there are merits in pulling these two together and having a single stream for each region with the allocations being based on a regional assessment of what the priorities are and the proportion that should go to any individual area. In a sense that is progress in government thinking in the intervening period, but there is a second factor, which I am very conscious of as a London Member of Parliament, and that is in the 1960s and 1970s under different administrations both at central government level and at County Hall and at local authority level there was a lot of tension between the old Greater London Council, which had extensive housing powers, and the individual London boroughs. Even when they had the same political party in charge they often squabbled about those powers and we were keen not to re-create when creating the Greater London Authority the kind of tensions that existed between the GLC and London boroughs. And because the London boroughs were housing authorities in their own right, we felt it was right that the GLA should not be given extensive housing powers. It has powers in relation to planning of housing but not in terms of housing management or development. Those were the reasons for the decision and I hope that explains why that particular difference exists.

Chairman: I know we are up against time because you have got to be away in a couple of minutes so I will take a final question.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

  30. I will try and keep it brief. My question is about the Boundary Committees, as they are now called instead of Commissions, which come under the Electoral Commission. You did say that they will come back as reconsiderations and the Secretary of State might determine that things have actually changed. However, if things have not changed, once the Boundary Committee has taken that decision, that will be final, it will not be subject in any way in terms of the detail of it to Parliament or to the Secretary of State as local government boundaries used to be?
  (Mr Raynsford) It will be subject to the Secretary of State who will have to then implement the final reorganisation, but it is our intention that we do not wish to interfere in detail with the conclusions of the independent Boundary Committee. We might ask the Boundary Committee to consider issues again[3]but we would certainly not want to substitute our judgment for the Boundary Committee's for obvious reasons of avoiding suspicion of political motive.[4]

  31. The other point also relates to the Electoral Commission and the question of the process of the referendum. I assume the process comes under the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act and they will presumably then be overseen by the Electoral Commission and that will also relate to the amount of expenditure. I am not quite certain how the expenditure is going to work.
  (Mr Raynsford) You are absolutely right that we have been closely involved with the Electoral Commission throughout this process. The referenda will be held under powers in the Bill that you are about to examine but they conform with the principles of the PPERA (Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000), and the Electoral Commission has been closely involved, for example, in the framing of the question and the preamble which it proposed. We have amended the Bill in the Commons to take account of the recommendations from the Electoral Commission on how the question should be posed. On the issue of finance that you raised, the Electoral Commission has got a remit to give financial assistance to yes and no campaigns if registered. One of the issues we are discussing with them at the moment is whether there should be a specific lower limit in relation to regional referendums because currently there is a limit set in the PPERA which covers national referendums. I have written to Sam Younger, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, to raise this issue because we welcome their views on whether we should recommend a specific limit or simply leave it to their discretion.

  32. What would happen if there were yes or no campaigns, what is the position financially?
  (Mr Raynsford) Once again we have taken soundings from the Electoral Commission and we have incorporated in the Bill a power which allows the Electoral Commission itself to provide information on a strictly neutral basis where there is not a registered a yes or no campaign. Where there are registered yes or no campaigns the Electoral Commission will be able to provide financial support for them to inform the public. Where there is not a registered yes or no campaign the Electoral Commission will have the powers itself to provide impartial information to the public.

Chairman

  33. Can I put one final question to you which really derives from a wider concern we have about Bills. We are keeping an eye on measures to make sure there is not a bit of centralisation here and centralisation there. One point in respect of this Bill to give you an opportunity to respond to the point that may be made, while it may not be by its nature a centralising measure, nonetheless, there may be some element of central control, for example through the proposal that targets will be agreed with government. Some might argue that still gives central government the opportunity to use regional assemblies essentially as agents because as mentioned in the White Paper incentives are built in if they exceed the targets that are agreed. Can I give you a chance to respond to that particular claim that it might still be a measure through which power is retained at the centre.
  (Mr Raynsford) This is one of these issues with which I wrestle virtually every day of my ministerial life because as Minister for Local Government I have been seeking to extend devolved autonomy to local authorities but within a framework which helps to drive up standards. There is a curious ambivalence on the part of the British public which on the one side shows very clearly when asked the question that they would like to see greater power devolved to local bodies. They have a sense of identity with their local representative bodies and generally, although they may be critical of one or two individually, favour the idea of them having more power to take decisions locally rather than those decisions being taken by central government. At the same time, when things go wrong it is to central government they look and in many areas (and I mention health very obviously as an example) there is an absolute presumption that they want to see standards of service delivered throughout the whole country and they want to see government acting to achieve that. That does extend across a lot of other services as well. If you look at education, there is a presumption that central government ought to be doing more to ensure that educational standards are raised in all areas than perhaps two decades ago when it was accepted that there was a greater degree of decentralised control over education policy. We have to try and find the right balance between these pressures. What we have sought to do in this particular set of proposals in the White Paper, not in the Bill because it would be the subject of substantive legislation, is to provide a wide measure of autonomy, so the block grant allows the regional assembly to allocate finance according to its own decisions. But my colleagues in other government departments do want to have a certain ability to ensure that their budget is not entirely snaffled for the benefit of something else, and a relatively small number of high level targets does allow the opportunity for a degree of central involvement without detailed control. It is a compromise. We think it is a sensible balance but I would not pretend that there are not alternative views as to how this conundrum can best be addressed.

Chairman: I read into that that there have probably been some interesting discussions within government. Minister, we are extremely grateful to you for finding the time to be with us and answering the questions that you have. It has been extremely helpful and we are very grateful indeed. Thank you very much.


2   Note by the witness: The Government intend to publish a summary of their proposals for elected regional assemblies and for reorganisation of local government in the region. Back

3   Note by the witness: The Bill provides that, before making an order, the Secretary of State may direct the Boundary Committee to supply him with additional information or advice. Back

4   Note by the witness: Under clause 15 of the Bill, the Secretary of State will give effect to recommendations of the Boundary Committee, by order, subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. So Parliament would have an opportunity to scrutinise the proposed local government reorganisation. Back


 
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