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Lord Rooker: I do not accept that. The one thing that I am trying to avoid is answering specific questions about specific places, some of which I have heard of and know where they are. But I do not always know whether they are unitary or not. So I do not want to fall into the trap of commenting on particular areas.
This will not happen overnight. This is not the Big Bang. On the basis of the soundings, the Deputy Prime Minister may agree that a region or regions should proceed to a referendum; but the Boundary Committee will then be asked to carry out a review, which, as I have said, will take a year to complete. There will then be a gap before the referendum is organised. Let us say that there is a "Yes" vote. Nothing can happen until Parliament has passed a completely separate Bill setting up the regional assembly, with all the rules that will be required. Therefore, it is not a five-minute process. But there are enough quality people in local government to ensure that professional services are maintained. There might be political warfare and people jockeying for position but, given the checks and balances that exist through the Audit Commission and other local government assessments, I cannot possibly see how services could collapse in the way that is suggested. I do not accept for one minute that that would be permitted.
Lord Waddington: We have been all the way round the houses but is it fair to suggest that the Government are saying that in county areas a unitary authority structure is the price the people living there will have to pay if they want regional government, whether the Government of this country think that unitary government in that area is right or wrong for the people in that area? That puts it fairly, does it not?
Lord Rooker: I am tempted to say yes, but I qualify that given the noble Lord's final few words. I sensed a bear trap in the final few words. I have made clear I cannot make it clearerthat unitary local governmentin what shape I do not know, as the Boundary Committee will have to review itis the political price to be paid for having elected regional assemblies. That is the Government's policy on which the Bill is based. It is not based on anything else at all. Without the one, the other cannot take place. I made that clear when I began to read what I thought would be a two-minute speech. The relevant brief has three paragraphs and is straightforward. We believe that the local government review of the regions should be carried out before the referendum so that voters are
Baroness Blatch: This is a terribly important debate. The Minister unwittingly just blew the lid on the Government. If his brief contains three paragraphs to address this particular aspect of the Bill, the Government have totally misread the importance of it. I cannot believe that the noble Lord is as naie as he appears. He refers to a year's work on the part of the Boundary Committee in considering different options for a region such as amalgamating shire districts or getting rid of county councils. There is not one area in the countryI shall not discuss specific areasthat does not have a number of county councils and a much larger number of shire districts.
The Government say that they have no plans for reorganising local government. We know that they have no specific plans as they have passed the buck to the Boundary Committee. Whether the people vote yes or no, the work of dividing and ruling people at a local levelwhich we think is absolutely unnecessary if the Government simply want to devolve a bit of power from central governmentwill be gone through with all the pain and anxiety that that entails. That will be costly and painful and will be divisive. At the end of that process, people may vote no. If the noble Lord thinks that we are exaggerating, he has only to see what will happen when Mr Prescott decides which region will be approached.
My next point is very important in this context. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to Skipton. In vast areas of the countrycertainly, Northumberland is one of thempeople may vote no in a referendum. However, people in urban areas may vote yes. If the noble Lord thinks that losing their shire districts is the price rural areas must pay for having democratically voted no but then being outvoted by people in Newcastle, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, a large shock awaits him.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: I suspect that in places such as Skipton and other rural areas concern about the local government situation could produce a huge turnout as it is a matter that people understand. In the metropolitan areas nothing is going to happen to local government, and perhaps there is less concern about the matter. We all know that, although people are keen to have the opportunity to vote, they are less keen on actually voting. There could be high turnouts in areas where the real concern is local government reform, not the real issue of democratising the regions.
Lord Rooker: All I usually ask for is a set of bullet points. I cannot read a narrative text; it is as simple as that. In future, I shall not count the number of paragraphs in my brief. However, I could have turned the page and read out more brief.
The nub of the matter is clear, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, earlier. The two matters we are discussing are so closely linked in terms of the Government's policy that without one the other will not occur. As I say, that is not a threat. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I have read the remarks of commentators who refer to the well-known propensity for very low turnouts in urban areaswhere the electoral register is not as good as it could beand to the well-known propensity for higher turnouts in non-urban areas. That will create some interesting battles in the regions.
I do not accept for one moment that what appears to be a smaller population in one area will necessarily be outvoted by what appears to be a larger population in another. One has only to consider the different rates of turnout in different areas to appreciate that much work would have to be done to increase turnouts in urban areas in order to outvote rural areas. At the end of the day it is up to people how they vote. I accept that it is the Government's duty to put before the electorate all the consequences of a yes or no vote. That is what we shall seek to do. But if subsection (5) is removed, it will be impossible to do that.
The Earl of Caithness: I listened with great care to what the Minister said. I commend him for fighting the battle almost single-handed on his Benches. Why are the Government preventing the Boundary Committee from looking at the unitary boundary and asking it to consider only counties and districts? Taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, it might be logical and sensible to alter the unitary boundary. Why cannot the Boundary Committee alter the unitary boundary?
Lord Rooker: That is an important issue. However, we shall discuss the matter later in more detail. We are debating the Second Reading aspect of the Bill. There are plenty of amendments tabled on which I can seek further information before we reach them. My understanding is that we do not want to cause more disruption than is necessary to the existing local government framework. That is why we gave a commitment that existing unitary authorities would not have their boundaries interfered with. That seems to me common sense and is part of the Boundary Committee's remit.
I appreciate that common-sense points have been made in regard to different parts of England with different boundaries and different histories. What has already happened in terms of previous boundary reviews is important in this regard. I shall ensure that
Baroness Hamwee: I hope to start on a non-contentious point. My noble friend Lord Greaves explained more clearly than I did that our amendments are not intended to be an attack on later Conservative amendments regarding further conditions.
The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of votes in different areas. Our Amendments Nos. 40 and 47 relate to that. With universal franchise in this country, I am staggered that the Government are working on the basis that there will be differential turnout. That is appalling. That is the clear implication of the Minister's remarks. By telling us that there simply will not be a Bill, the noble Lord persuaded the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, of the validity of our amendment. I hope that it may persuade the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.
These are entirely separate issues. There may be arguments for local government review but they should not be confused with the functions and powers of regional government. If local government and regional government are separatewe believe that they are different types of governmentto confuse the two in this way is a recipe for disaster.
My noble friend Lord Shutt referred to pumping in democracy to the existing regional tier. That is what we on these Benches seek to do. The Minister has been entirely consistent. He told us at Second Reading of the consequences of decoupling these issues: that there would not be a Bill. He explained the consequences: he has not explained the reasons. He says that the Government do not have a plan for local government. If that is so, why not? But it seems to me that they do. That plan is inherent in the Bill. It is central government plus two tiers and you can take your pick as to which those tiers will be.
We have touched on some of the nonsenses; I shall refer to another one. My noble friend has even given me a diagram which is as good as a White Paper, as we have been told. We have the existing unitary authority of Blackpool. Under these arrangements Wyre and Fylde cannot go in with Blackpool. That part of the Lancashire coast is built up almost all the way along. There is not that much of a division between Blackpool and Lytham St Anne's. My grandmother is probably revolving in her grave. When she went to the Lancashire coast from Manchester she went distinctly to Lytham and not to Blackpool. However, the reality is that the situation is a nonsense.
I am picking up words used by the Minister. He said that the White Paper is a mechanism. Yes, it is, but the White Paper is not the commitment; the manifesto is the commitment. That is why we are all so exercised by the White Paper. He said that this is a mantra. Yes, it is. It is not an intellectually coherent argument. My noble friend Lord Greaves said that repeated assertions do not make the point better or worse. The Minister may care to reflect on that because repeated assertions today have made the point worse.
The question to electors should be about regional government alone. The referendum should be about regional government alone. I hope that there can be some discussion on what underlies government policy. I profoundly hope that these Benches can find a way to support the Government's overarching policy which is so threatened by the way they are going about it.
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