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House of Lords

Tuesday, 15 June 2010.

2.30 pm

Prayers-read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Introduction: Lord Bishop of Derby

2.37 pm

Alastair Llewellyn John, Lord Bishop of Derby, was introduced and took the oath, supported by the Bishop of Salisbury and the Bishop of Leicester, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.

Lord Mandelson took the oath.

Elected Mayors

Question

2.44 pm

Asked by Baroness Quin

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Hanham): My Lords, the Government have made a clear commitment to create directly elected mayors in the 12 largest cities, as set out in the coalition agreement. The Government believe that mayors are an effective model, but it will ultimately be for local people to decide what is best for their city.

Baroness Quin: I thank the Minister for her reply and congratulate her warmly on her appointment. Will she confirm again that the Government have no intention of imposing elected mayors on authorities, particularly given that many good local authorities and many areas of the country have shown little interest in the system? Does she agree that it would be inconsistent for the Government on the one hand to declare the merits of, and their belief in, localism, and on the other to adopt a "government knows best" attitude in this matter?

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I can confirm that localism is one of the major planks of the Government's policies, our intention being to put things down to as low a level as we can. With regard to the 12 cities that have already been named, we expect to engage with local government and other interested parties as the policy is considered. The policy on locally elected mayors will be subject to confirmatory referendums each time.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I warmly congratulate the noble Baroness on her appointment. Her many years of experience in local government will be a great help to this House and to the Government. Does she agree that the creation of single-person executives requires close attention to be paid to checks and balances to prevent abuse of power? What discussions are being had on term limits such as those in other countries?



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Baroness Hanham: I thank my noble friend for her very kind comments and welcome. The intention is to give mayors powers, but those powers will be subject to scrutiny by elected councils, which will have full scrutiny over what is being done. The terms of mayoralties have not yet been finalised.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I add to the congratulations to the noble Baroness on her appointment. I fondly remember working opposite her on many occasions when she was a stout defender of traditional London boroughs and structures of local government. The Mayor of London today has made a power grab to take over the London region of the Homes and Communities Agency, the Olympic Park Legacy Company, the Royal Parks Agency and the Port of London Authority. It has also sought greater powers over traffic control and awarding rail franchises on routes into London and the allocation of the adult skills budget in London, and to have a greater say in health provision in the capital. Are those proposals supported by Her Majesty's Government and, if so, will they be the powers on offer to the other prospective city mayors?

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I appreciate that the Mayor of London is looking for greater powers and devolved policies. As the noble Lord will know, we welcome the contribution that the Mayor of London makes, and the new Government have already committed to genuine decentralisation of power. That may mean transferring further powers to the mayor, but that matter is still under consideration.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: My Lords, I, too, very much welcome the noble Baroness to her position. She has great experience in local government and the health service, and we warmly congratulate her.

The noble Baroness talks about the Government's commitment to localism; she has mentioned that twice already. In the past three weeks, the Government have introduced legislation to take education powers away from local authorities. The Secretary of State has announced that council tax will be capped. Local authorities are being required to publish minutiae of information; if they do not, legislation is promised. The 12 largest local authorities will essentially be forced to go down the elected mayoral route. Is not the only freedom that the Government are giving to local authorities the freedom to do what they are told by their boss?

Baroness Hanham: Again, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. No, I do not think that what he said is true. Local authorities will find that they have greater flexibility and power once localism is introduced. We have already indicated that there will be a freeze on council tax for two years. That is something that local authorities have known they would have to implement for some time. I do not accept that there is more central control. There could hardly be more central control than there was under the previous Government, and we certainly expect to make it less.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: Does my noble friend remember that health control for the whole of London by the regional assembly has been considered for

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many years, going back even to LCC days? Certainly, it was greatly considered in GLC days. Does she not think that it is more suitable for this regional authority to have an interest in public health but not necessarily for it to be running the health service, which is quite capable of running itself in London?

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am not sure whether any decision has been made on running health services in London. That is in any case beyond me and in the hands of another Minister.

Lord Filkin: My congratulations, too, to a good local government friend in the Minister. Does she agree that turkeys do not vote for Christmas-and, if so, does she think that there is a need for someone to make the case for change to the leadership structures of local government?

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am slightly confused by the question. If it relates to the mayors-I just raise my eyebrows and look at the noble Lord-then of course discussions are going to take place. This policy is newly announced and discussions need to take place with local government, as I have already indicated.

Parliamentary Constituencies: Boundaries

Question

2.50 pm

Asked By Lord Grocott

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord McNally): My Lords, the Government have announced that legislation will be introduced to provide for the creation of fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. Further details will be announced in due course, and we will of course seek to frame the legislation in a way that ensures that the boundary commissions can complete their task in a timely, fair and thorough way.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, that was an Answer to a question but not to the one that I asked. The Question was what the Government's estimate is of how long it will take to undertake a full review of parliamentary constituencies-a simple and straightforward question, I would have thought. Is the Minister aware that the previous review took six years and eight months? That was quite proper; it gave local people the opportunity to appeal and for full local inquiries, part of the localism that the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, rightly referred to as being a crucial part of this Government's objectives. I appeal to him to ensure that there is no short-circuiting of local democracy and no denial of local people's rights to appeal. If there is any short-circuiting of the appeals procedure in the established parliamentary Boundary Commission, then if this is the new politics, I for one prefer the old.



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Lord McNally: The Answer drafted by my department was even vaguer than the one that I gave, so I feel rather hurt because that one was all my own work. It answered the Question, too: the previous review lasted nearly seven years but this one will be done in a timely, fair and thorough way. We will see when it ends whether it has fulfilled those criteria; I suspect that it will.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: Is my noble friend aware that many people are confused, sometimes to the point even of failing to vote, by the frequency with which constituency names are changed? Is he further aware that, remarkably, the constituency of Aberavon has borne the same name over at least the 42 years for which it was represented by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morris of Aberavon, after he had defeated me in 1959? More than that, is he aware that it bore the same name when Ramsay MacDonald represented it in the 1920s, and that it bears the same name today? Will he pass that observation on to the Boundary Commission?

Lord McNally: I fully endorse that. I have great confidence in the independence of the Boundary Commission. I have to say, with some bitterness, that when the Boundary Commission decided to put Stockport Town Hall, Stockport market and Stockport's major municipal buildings into Denton and Reddish in 1983 I doubted its sanity, but I am sure that the message about consistency in names and the preservation of historic names is important.

Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords-

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: Would the Minister give an assurance that the interests of the constituency in terms of geographical area covered will be given due regard by the Boundary Commission, because some constituencies could be almost half the size of Scotland? Could he also give an assurance that the Boundary Commission will be asked to have regard to those areas of dense population where everyone knows that the number of people who register is far below those entitled to vote, because those not failing to register are not necessarily spread evenly across the country?

Lord McNally: Yes, of course the Boundary Commission will be taking all those considerations into account. I understand the concerns about registrations to vote, which are extremely important. As I think was mentioned in a question yesterday, 92 or 93 per cent registration is not bad as an aim, but there is no doubt that there is difficulty about registration. My brief says that,

There are similar bad figures for ethnic minorities. Those have to be looked at, and I am quite sure that that and other considerations will be taken into account by the Boundary Commission.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: The Minister will recollect that, during the general election, much was said about seeking to achieve an equal number of constituents in each constituency. How harshly is that rule to be applied? Does it mean that a time will come when mountain ranges, rivers and county and borough

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boundaries will count for nothing, and that there will be total arithmetical correctitude but no soul, no character and no history for such constituencies?

Lord McNally: No, that would be an absurd objective, but we have to come to a realisation that when a Government are elected on 36 per cent of the vote but are given a healthy 60-seat majority in the House of Commons, the electoral system has got out of kilter. I might also mention that when 23 per cent of the electorate return only 57 MPs, there are signs that perhaps that system is in need of examination. Of course, when the Boundary Commission comes to look at this, the kind of historical and geographical issues to which the noble Lord referred will be taken into account. I am actually quite surprised at the scepticism from some parts of the House. There is nothing up the sleeve; this is a rational approach to a distorted system.

Lord Tyler: As my noble friend has indicated, this is part of the general objective of trying to make sure that there is equal value for every citizen's vote, as is the electoral reform to introduce a fairer voting system. Can he reassure us that the Government intend to make sure that this exercise and electoral reform proceed in tandem, and that the programme or timetable to which he refers will indicate an outcome and complete the process before the next general election?

Lord McNally: That is our intention.

Lord Bach: My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the Conservative-Liberal coalition's plans to reduce the size of the Commons will make it smaller than at any time since the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832? I remind him that the population is now 61 million; in 1832 it was 17 million. Does he, as a former Member of Parliament, as he mentioned, and as a Liberal Democrat really believe that the citizens of the United Kingdom have suddenly become overrepresented in the House of Commons?

Lord McNally: The size of the constituency is a matter for discussion. In the present House of Commons, as is well known, it ranges from around 100,000 people to just over 20,000. There are reasons for those extremes but within them there is plenty of room for discussion of what would be a reasonable size of constituency for a Member of Parliament to look after. As well as the differences in population since 1832, there have been great changes in the communications and facilities open to Members of Parliament, and to the staff and assistance that Members of Parliament get.

Transport: Savings

Question

3 pm

Asked By Lord Berkeley



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Earl Attlee: My Lords, I can reassure the House that this Government take their environmental obligations very seriously. The Department for Transport is focusing on improving efficiency while protecting priority areas, including green initiatives. The savings will include £112 million from direct departmental spend, £100 million from Network Rail, £309 million from local government grants, a proposed reduction of £108 million from the Transport for London grant and the deferral of £54 million from lower priority schemes.

Lord Berkeley: I am very grateful to the noble Earl for that breakdown of the first cut of the big cuts. I refer him to the coalition's programme for government, which confirms what he said-that there is a joint ambition to create a low-carbon economy. Could he then tell the House why, in that list of cuts he quoted, there was nothing about a Highways Agency reduction in construction? Will we see road building continue while all the sustainable forms of transport are cut?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his question. I can reassure him that the Highways Agency will take its fair share of reductions in the DfT's direct spend, including £37 million from the deferral of planned spend in 2010-11 on a small number of Highways Agency schemes. Together, these savings represent a reduction which is in proportion to that being made to Network Rail and local government funding.

Lord Bradshaw: Does my noble friend the Minister recollect that two weeks ago, in the debate on the Loyal Address, I put forward a large number of economy schemes which do not affect front-line services? I have had no response to this and I would obviously like one. When people take part in debates in your Lordships' House, can they expect prompt and proper answers from the Government?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I hope to encourage the usual channels to give us a major transport debate, when I will be in a position to answer all the noble Lord's questions.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I welcome the noble Earl to the Front Bench and congratulate him on his appointment. There was a time when the name Attlee brought transports of delight to this side of the House, so I look forward with optimism to the future. Will he confirm that in striving for a greener economy, it ill behoves the Government to cut the number of new carriages to be made available to Thameslink and the carriages that would therefore become available to the hard-pressed north-west railway system? Does he recognise that cutting back on rail transport will produce discomfort for passengers and do nothing to reduce carbon?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's concern and will write to him on the detail. However, he will recognise that ring-fencing or protecting expenditure in one area only increases the reductions required elsewhere.

Lord Lea of Crondall: Further to the point made by my noble friend Lord Davies on carbon, is it not the case that the transport coefficient of growth is very

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positive, and that if we want to reduce the transport coefficient of growth, the price of carbon may be part of the answer? However, the price of carbon is a sort of poll tax on wheels because it is very regressive. Will the Government publish information on the regressive nature of different forms of carbon taxation?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I think that I will have to consider very carefully before answering that question.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of BALPA. How is aviation affected by the cuts proposed? Where do the Government consider that airports should be extended and new airports sited?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have decided to cancel the third runway at Heathrow and will refuse to allow additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted because they are not sustainable.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: My Lords, I join those who have congratulated the noble Earl on his appointment and thank him for the courtesy he extended to me when I was sitting in the place that he now occupies. Perhaps I may start with an easy question for him. Does he agree that the maintenance of the commitment to electrify large parts of the railway system, as announced by my noble friend Lord Adonis, and the commitment to build High Speed 2, are both very sustainable and green forms of transport which the new Government will follow?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, we are committed to High Speed 2, but the noble Lord will understand the problems with expenditure on electrification in the current economic climate.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, does the Minister understand that certain services in the north of England, particularly commuter services around Manchester and those based in Leeds, already have a totally unacceptable degree of overcrowding? That does not take place just in the London area. Is it not absolutely essential that new carriages are provided?

Earl Attlee: My Lords, I accept that new carriages are desirable, but we have an affordability problem due to the current economic climate.


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