Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill
Lord Rooker (Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister; Labour)
My Lords, the debate has lasted longer than I expected. If anyone else wishes to speak they should do so. I certainly do not want to stop it.
To all who asked about our thinking since Committee stage, at the risk of repeating myself and boring the House—because this is the same debate as we had in Committee—I point out that, as we and the White Paper have made clear, a revisitation of the boundary issue in the undetermined future is not ruled out. However, that is not part of this Bill. I want to make it absolutely clear that we currently have no plans for changing the regional boundaries or the number of regions.
Noble Lords seem to think that such a change is simply a five-minute job on the back of an envelope and will not delay anything. They also seem to think that just one regional boundary can be changed and the others can be left alone. If the boundary is changed for one region, it will mean a change for another; and there is a knock-on effect.
I do not want to upset the Front Bench opposite. Incidentally, I was about to say that the vigorous, sustained political attack from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, means early promotion to the Front Bench for him. It will certainly remove the blot on his copybook that occurred earlier this afternoon.
My basic point is that any walking down this road means that the situation would be exactly the same as in earlier debates: no referendums next year, no referendums this side of a general election. It kills the Bill. That is the consequence of even looking at the boundaries. If this Bill receives Royal Assent and the soundings indicate a region or regions where there is a desire to hold a referendum, one of the first actions of the Secretary of State will be to ask the Boundary Committee to review local government structures within the region. If it does not know what the region is, it cannot do that. That means no referendum next autumn.
That is part of the plot. The plot is to stop the referendums. I understand the issue. The Conservative Opposition is against the Bill in principle. I am not criticising the amendment. This is a natural point to raise. The regions do vary in size in terms of both population and land area; they vary in the way in which they are governed and in their structures. England is not the same all over and it is right that they should vary.