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Lord Waddington: My Lords, it cannot be said too often that the present regions were never designed as electoral units. They were never created with elections in mind. They were purely areas drawn on a map to show what would be the area of responsibility of particular Government Offices of the Regions. That has to be borne in mind the whole time.
It is therefore hardly surprising that, when the Government come along with the bizarre idea of having elected regional assemblies, they should find that the regions drawn on the map for purely administrative purposes do not make sense when one considers having elections. Time and again, we have pointed out to the Government the absurdity of some of the regional boundaries when it comes to elections, such as having Banbury in the south-east region, Watford in the eastern region and Cheltenham in the south-west region.
I do not suggest that the Government should necessarily use the mechanism at hand under the 1998 Act to change all the regional boundaries, but they cannot deny that machinery is already at hand to get rid of the more obvious anomalies. I cannot for the life of me see why, when the Government acknowledge that considerable time is bound to elapse before any of the referendums can take place, they do not address some of the most obvious anomalies.
There is always the Cornwall question. Do the Government really want to embark on the exercise knowing perfectly well that it is anathema to the people of Cornwall to be embraced in one south-western region and ruled from Bristol? One has only to go down there to know how unpopular such a notion is. We need a plain statement from the Government as to why they think that such administrative boundaries are apposite for elections, why they are not prepared to iron out some of the most obvious anomalies, and why they are prepared to go ahead without getting rid of the most obvious anomaly of all, which is Cornwall being included in the south-western region of which it feels in no way a part.
The mechanism is there. I cannot see why a great deal of time need be spent dealing with some of the most obvious anomalies using Section 25. I will not be fobbed off by the Minister saying, "Well, I am asking for everything to be put into the melting pot and a new map drawn". I am saying that the Government have no excuse for ducking the need to get rid of the most obvious anomalies. They should get on with it right away by using Section 25 of the 1998 Act.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I want to speak along those lines in support of the amendment. We tabled it because it is simple. Totally contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, it is not designed to take some time. It addresses some of the most silly situations currently in the boundaries. We accept, of course, that the Minister has said several times that
We had a similar debate on the Bill about the regional development agencies. Several of us made the points then, certainly in relation to the East and South East where the boundaries are most difficult. I repeat what I have said before, which is that Essex and Hertfordshire, much as we love Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, have much more in common with the South East and London. Everything would be much better for the RDAs in terms of economic development and planning processes if action were taken now. The Minister himself has been putting forward development proposals for the South East which will always include Essex. It would be much better if we were included with those counties. So in addition to sorting out the boundaries for the referendums, Amendment No. 3 could help in relation to the RDAs.
Many of us were involved from the outset and saw how the then Conservative government created the government offices. There were government offices all over the place in the Eastern regionin Bedfordshire, in Cambridge and some in Suffolkbut they were centralised in Cambridge. It made sense to do that. At one stage, for many purposes, Buckinghamshire was included in the Eastern region. It was then moved into the South East. It would be better for everyone if this issue, which concerns not only this Bill, were addressed now. If we are to have referendums, they should be based on sensible regions. As we have said, regions in other countries were created for historical reasonsthey may at one stage have been countries themselves or served some other particular purpose. We do not have such a history in England.
We should make some sense of the proposals. That is an easy request for the Minister. He would make many of us happier if he said today that he will examine the boundaries, both in terms of the Bill and in order to make sense of the arrangements. It is an easy one and I hope that he will give us some satisfaction.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, this is a good example of a case in which the Government have the choice of rushing legislation or getting it right. They clearly want to rush it. We have been told that it would be impossible to delay the proposals for even two or three weeks. I have been given that type of bureaucratic hogwash by officials and politicians for the past 35 years but I do not believe any of it.
In Committee various amendments on boundaries were proposed. In the morning, we discussed at great length a Conservative amendment which was not satisfactory because it contained all sorts of impractical detail. In the afternoon, we discussed a Liberal Democrat amendment which I moved on behalf of these Benches. I thought that we had come to some agreement that the essence of the amendment that I had moved would be acceptable also to the
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I tend to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that there is no real reason why this legislation should be rushed. There is absolutely no reason why we should have the first referendum during the life of this Parliament. We do not even know what the life of this Parliament will beit could end next year. So there is no rush about it.
The present regional boundaries were set up in 1995 to cope with the decision which I believe was made at Maastricht that there should be direct relationships between the regions and the Commission over the disbursement of the social and economic development funds. If the Government really want to develop regionalisation, it seems absurd not to have looked at the boundaries that were created in 1995 for a specific purpose. It would satisfy people across the country, and indeed satisfy Members of this House, to hear the Government say that they will look at the present regional boundaries to ensure that they are the very best boundaries to suit their purposes. I think that people would feel a lot happier and be much more trusting of the legislation if the Government did that.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, we spent a lot of time discussing this issue in Committee. One of the points discussed, with which I think the Minister had some sympathy, was the boundaries of the metropolitan areas. At that stage those boundaries were inviolate and could not be examined, although the council and district boundaries could be examined. In his reply, will the Minister tell us what further consideration he has given to the matter and what are his current thoughts?
Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville: My Lords, I shall be very brief. I can remember when the Cabinet committee was discussing the introduction of government offices in English regions. I remember thinking to myself that the move potentially served the purposes of the Labour Party and that no good would come of it. However, even I never dreamed that the Government would throw the whole of English local government in the air just to see what sort of kaleidoscope reached the ground.
On the first amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, answered a question that I put to him about lessons which might be learnt from the disappearance of local government by giving me an answer that bore no relation to the question I had asked. However, we are back with a lesson on this occasion, too, in the context of anomalies. It was a matter of pride among English cartographers that they always did their own mapping and did not copy earlier maps. The great John Speed mapped Wiltshire within a dozen miles of where I live. A village called Burcombe was on either side of what is now the A30. John Speed called the part
Baroness Maddock: My Lords, it is some time since my noble friend Lady Hamwee spoke. One of the issues that she hopes the Minister will address is what will happen under the Bill. As we on these Benches understand itand the point has been reiterated todaythere will be a draft Bill before referendums are put in place. Although we understand that the boundaries issue will be addressed in that Bill, our deliberations would be greatly assisted if that could be made quite clear. The boundary issue is more important in some parts of the country than in others. People in my own area in north-east England are quite clear that they live in the North East, and they want a referendum as soon as they can have one.
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