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Lord Greaves: Presumably because we are not representative, my Lords. I share the noble Lord's concern. I certainly intend to make my views known before the deadline. I have found out because I am a part of the political process; I talk to politicians and we discuss the matter in the House. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, the whole consultation process is entirely unsatisfactory.
We are told that this is what happened in Scotland. But in Scotland there was a convention that had existed for years; there was a broad degree of detailed consensus over what form the Scottish Parliament would take; there was an agreement between at least two of the political parties there and everyone was clear as to what would happen. That is not the case in the English regions.
As to the powers to be devolved, my noble friend Lord Newby was worried that any regional assembly would become a mouse; my honourable friend in the House of Commons, Ed Davey, described it as a paper tiger; and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, referred to a corrupt octopus. Together with my pig in a poke, we have a menagerie that would do well in Blackpool Zoo.
There is a wide-ranging concern among both supporters and opponents of regional government that the bodies, when set up, will not amount to very much. They have been described as being like the GLA without the Mayor. I am not sure what the GLA would be likeperhaps my noble friend will tell mewithout the Mayor and an executive to scrutinise legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred to Lancashire County Council, which has voted unanimously against the present proposals. Some people will say, Well, it would, wouldn't it, because "turkeys do not vote for Christmas". However, that
She went on to point out that the North West Assembly would control a budget of £730 millionwhich sounds a lot at firstand have influence over another £1.3 billion. But total public expenditure in the region is currently £32 billion, so even the amount it could influence would be only 3 or 4 per cent of the total, which seems a little on the low side to put it mildly. I was a member of Lancashire County Council for 24 years. Led by its then leader, Louise Ellman, the county was the pioneer in the region in campaigning for elected regional government. If Lancashire County Council is opposed to the Bill, I believe that the people of Lancashire will be opposed to it. If the referendum is close in the rest of the region, the Government may find it difficult to get the proposal through.
As regards the coupling of these proposals with local government reorganisation, it cannot be right that the future structure of local government in Cumbria, Lancashire and CheshireI speak of the region in which I live and know bestmay be determined by the votes of the larger number of people who live in Greater Manchester and Merseyside. There is something fundamentally wrong about that.
Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? Does he not agree that predominantly unitary local government is not established in the North West; and, therefore, not to proceed with a referendum for an elected assembly would actually be in accordance with the Labour election manifesto?
Lord Greaves: My Lords, that is arguable. In many of the discussions that took place in the lead-up to these proposals, the "predominantly unitary" argument was being used. The compulsory abolition of non-unitary local government came very late in the proceedings. At that time, the Government accepted that the North East was predominantly unitary and that the North West just about qualified. It all depends on whether the decision is based on area or population. In terms of population, the North West already has predominantly unitary local government.
I hope that I can make just two more points without being interrupted againmuch as I enjoy interruptions from the noble Lord. I want to examine the question of tiers. There is an assumption that tiers of democratic local government are in themselves somehow undemocratic and undesirable. Yet if we look at the present situation, we see that we do not have two-tier, but multi-tier, local government. Where I live in Lancashire, we have district councils and we have the county council. But we also have a fire authority and a police authoritywhich is more than the county council, because it is the county council plus two unitary authorities. In the health service, we have a whole series of tiers: we have trusts delivering services and we have the area health authority, which is smaller than the county but bigger than the districts. At regional level, we have a huge number of quangos.
In the House of Commons, my honourable friend Edward Davey quoted research from Councillor Chris Foote-Wood, a colleague of mine in the North East, who had found over 172 regional and sub-regional quangos in the North East and 71 Government Office North East partnerships. There is a huge number of separate organisations which may or may not work togethersome cover regions and some cover only part of the regions. We already have lots and lots of tiers. What matters is how efficient and democratic these bodies are, how good the services are andin new Labour speakhow much best value there is.
Do people in Lancashire believe that the situation in Blackpool and Blackburn, which are now unitary, is significantly better than that in the rest of the county which is still two-tier? I have seen no research and no evidence that that is the case and I do not believe that it is. The idea that the efficiency of government is determined by the number of tiers is nonsense. As my noble friend Lord Shutt said, what matters is appropriate government at the appropriate tier.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, back in his seat. We have been thinking about him a great deal in recent weeks; it has not been easy, and we welcome him back to our debates.
I predicted that the Bill would receive a lively yet interesting Second Reading, and it certainly has. The size of the Bill belies the constitutional importance of the changes it presages. My noble friend Lady Hanham, who will lead from these Benches, opened with a characteristically spirited and informed speech. Her knowledge of local government and the currency of her experience will result in a powerful contribution to the Bill's following stages, and I look forward to working with her.
The Second Reading speech of the Deputy Prime Minister made interesting reading. It contained much convolution, some contradiction, considerable distortion and very little hard information on the detail of how regional government will actually work. More crucially, the very people who will be expected to vote for or against regional government will have to do so without knowing what they are voting for. However, I was struck by the opening paragraph of the Deputy Prime Minister's speech on Second Reading. It displayed one of the false premises that underpins the Bill. He said:
I was also struck by the briefing for this debate from the Royal National Institute of the Blind. It welcomed the principle of regional government which would result, it said, in taking decisions closer to the people. How wrong that perception will prove in practice. The reverse is true. Government will be more, not less, distant from local people. However, I support the RNIB and its concerns. If regional government is to be established, we have to make sure that the interests of those with disabilities are protected.
However, to say that Conservative governments before 1997 ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions is a travesty of the facts. Let me place on record just a few of the economic regeneration programmes which transformed many parts of our country when we were in office. Here I agree with all that my noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth said. I hope he will
Billions of pounds were spent de-polluting vast areas of land and preparing them for development on Teesside and throughout the Docklands area in London. There were major developments in Tyneside, Teesside, Leeds, Bradford, Liverpool, Gateshead, Docklands, the Black Country, Don Valley, PlymouthI could go on. We introduced City Challenge programmes, the Safer Cities programme, city technology colleges and specialist schools that boosted education and training in urban areas. The single regeneration budget was introduced to tackle the poorest areas of the country and there were special centres to boost employment opportunities.
All the development projects involved the refurbishment and new build of housing, the preservation and creation of new jobs, increased economic and business activity and massive inward investment, which was attracted into our country.
Those are just a few examples of what the Conservatives did for the regions of our country. Those programmes were backed with billions of pounds. The development corporations did an excellent job. Unencumbered by bureaucracy, they were focused and their boards included a mix of local councillors, business expertise, the voluntary sector and local community leaders. Because the area improvements were based on ideas and plans created by local communities, the feeling of ownership in those areas and involvement at grass roots was very strong.
Each regional area had a sponsor Minister, who promoted the area for which he was responsible. They acted as the eyes and ears for the community, through liaising with nationally and locally elected members, businesses, the voluntary sector and the local community generally. I was proud to have been associated with Teesside, where I witnessed the most dramatic transformation in the physical, social and economic environment. I am delighted to continue to be involved with development projects in that area, although I have no pecuniary interest to declare.
The greatest claim for the Bill is that it will result in bringing government closer to the people. That is a distortion. Where two-tier government exists, one tier will disappear if regional government is to be established. If the district councils are abolished in a region, a tier of really local government will be removed. If the counties are abolished, government will move on up to a regional level. We all know from the White Paper that not much power is being ceded from on high. It will pull power away from the truly local level.
Costs will be phenomenal. We already have on record the experience of Scotland, Wales and London, which have builtor are still buildinglarge, expensive monuments for themselves on prime sites. They have spawned large and expensive bureaucracies. Because of the greater travelling distances, more substantial and costly support services are needed to sustain the staff and elected representatives. The running costs have increased enormously.
Imagine the distances that will have to be travelled in the South West if the region is run from Bristol. Even without regional government, Cornish councillors already have to travel miles to carry out their work. The size of the south-western region is absurd. What is the community interest between the people of Hereford and Stoke-on-Trent or Wellingborough and Chesterfield? Why must the choice be one of regional government only at the expense of a tier of local government? One answer is: because the Deputy Prime Minister said so.
The inevitable tension in the regions between urban and rural interests is a matter for real concern. With the exception of Scotland, voter turnout for referendums has been poor, whether for town mayors or devolution. Only 12 per cent of the people voted for a mayor for Bedford, while 25 per cent voted for a Welsh Assembly and approximately 17 per cent voted for the Mayor of London. That cannot be described as the will of the people. As if to cock a snook at the system, a healthy number of people in Hartlepool voted for a man in a monkey suit.
I share two more concerns. First, there is a lack of a threshold below which constitutional change should not take place. Secondly, without such a threshold, the urban vote will overwhelm the rural vote, especially if there is a low turnout. How can the Government stand by and treat rural voters with such contempt? Again, that is not surprising, because that is what they have done since they came into power in 1997.
The role, powers and functions of regional government should be determined through consultation ahead of any vote. My noble friends Lord Brooke and Lord Bowness made that point powerfully. Ministers must tell us against what criteria they will assess the level of interest in regional government. How on earth can that level of interest truly be relied on if the information that people should have to express an interest is simply unavailable?
Much constitutional change has taken place since 1997, mostly ill thought-through and much of it taken in isolation, by pursuing a piecemeal approach to legislation. This Westminster Parliament has been seriously weakened. Apart from the contempt for Parliament shown by the Prime Minister and his Executive, Members in both Houses find daily that we are prevented from asking questions about Scottish issues and that our ability to ask questions about Welsh and London matters is considerably limited. If regional government should come about, even more areas will be out of bounds to the Westminster Parliament. In a sentence, Parliament is weakening, the Executive are strengthening and the axis for decision making is moving to Brussels.
I agree with my noble friend Lady Seccombe, who asked where all that leaves the integrity of an English parliamentary voice. I refer to the whole of England, not to an England fragmented into artificial regions. As my noble friend Lord Waddington asked, what will be the constitutional consequences for the United Kingdom Parliament?
A decade or so from now, we will reap the whirlwind of such ill-thought-through constitutional change. We are already witnessing a weakening of the United Kingdom Parliament and, by default, a strengthening of the Executive. We are facing the loss of our county councils and, possibly, the Lord Lieutenancy. Worrying changes have been made to the local magistracy, and there has been greater movement towards federalism through the proposed Convention on the Future of Europe.
As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, it is fashionable to deride the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and my noble friend Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but today they made some powerful points. Indeed, they usually do. We need to be very cognisant about what we are sleepwalking into by some of these ill-thought-through constitutional changes.
Contrary to the claims of decentralisation for the Bill, the Government have retained throughout a draconian hold on central control. I agree with my right honourable friend David Davis in another place, who said:
Despite voicing many concerns about the Bill with which I agree, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, said that the Liberal Democrats will nevertheless vote with the Government. At least for the people of East Anglia, where she and I come from, the consequence will be the sacrifice of a tier of government. The Liberal Democrats will have to stand to account if that turns out to be the case.
Noble Lords should not be fooled. Regional government sounds attractive to many people because they believe that money will flow generously to the regions. It sounds attractive to others because they do not fully realise that the sacrifice that they will have to make is the loss of their own local authorities. However, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said, those who believe that money will flow generously to the regions are extremely misguided indeed. As we all know, the resources would be dissipated in the expensive abolition of county and/or district councils, by increased bureaucracy, and, from what we have seen so far of devolution, by much self-indulgence. Nationally, the Executive will remain all powerful. Contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, and what he will undoubtedly say again in a very spirited way, Whitehall will continue to think it knows best.
There are many hours of business ahead of us on this Bill. I say again how proud I am to serve in the second Chamber, which always takes its scrutiny role so seriously and constructively. I look forward to working with my noble friends, with the Minister and with other noble Lords over the next weeks and months.
Before dealing with as many of the points raised as possible, I should also deal with a few summary points on cost. It is far too early to put any figures on the cost of local government reorganisation. I do not think that anyone has attempted to do so. The best estimates of the cost of a referendum vary according to population size: about £2 million in the North East, and £3 million in the South East. The latest estimated cost of the Boundary Committee's review of local government in regions chosen for referendums is slightly different from the estimate given to the Commons and in the Explanatory Notes, at between £750,000 and £3.2 million. The costs of conversion to unitary authorities will depend largely on the current mix in
I should like to deal with one point that no one has mentioned, but which is a useful pointer. I saw in yesterday's Birmingham Post that the West Midlands Regional Assembly has decided to say, "Please do not put us in the first tranche of referendums". My personal view of the West Midlands has always been that while many people there fancied regional government, there was no great push for it. I was therefore not surprised to see that report. However, if soundings suggested that there should be a referendum, a referendum were held and the electorate said no, the issue could not be raised again for at least five years. The Bill provides for that. One cannot hold referendums willy-nilly where there is a head of steam but no substance or where there is no support. That has to be put on the record, because that is firmly in the Bill.
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