Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill
Baroness Hanham (Conservative)
My Lords, we return to a matter discussed on Report and extensively at previous stages. It is the desirability of ensuring that there is not only a reasonable turn-out for the elections but also a sufficient majority in favour of what is, after all, a significant constitutional change—the breaking up of England into regions and the abolition of the county councils.
On Report we put forward a schedule for addressing the problem but recognised the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that the wording leading to a possible difficulty over deciding whether a threshold had been reached was ambiguous. We believe that the amendment to the schedule put forward today now makes clear where and how a threshold will be achieved.
Most reasonable people would say that changing the constitution of the country is no small matter and that, even if there is disagreement among us as to the value of such changes, there should be no disagreement about the significance of what is being proposed.
The county councils have been the mainstay of local government for centuries. People do care about them. I am sure that noble Lords, like me, saw the letter in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday from a correspondent who was incensed because, in a previous edition, Barnsley had been located in Lancashire instead of Yorkshire. She minded and there will be thousands, if not millions, like her. Representation will be limited and at a distance far more remote than the county councils. The reorganisation of local government will in itself have a major impact on how services are run and by whom.
As we said at the previous consideration of the Bill, regional assemblies will potentially weaken our central Parliament, not because very many responsibilities will be passed down but because there will be more room for the Government to disclaim any liability for those which are. I refer to the Scottish/London syndrome where questions asked in this House and in another place are not answered on the basis that the Government have ceased to be the responsible body.
If the Government are confident of their ability to persuade the voters that these changes are necessary, then they must accept that a vote in support on a small turn-out of voters will not be sufficient to gain acceptance for these proposals. I beg to move.