I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 2, line 20, leave out from beginning to end of line 22 and insert
'Any order made pursuant to section 1 shall direct the Electoral Commission to determine the question or questions to be put in the referendum.'.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 28, in page 2, line 20, leave out 'question' and insert 'questions'.
No. 29, in page 2, line 21, leave out 'is' and insert 'are'.
No. 55, in page 2, line 22, at end insert—
'(1A) A supplementary question shall be asked of persons eligible to vote whose address on the electoral register is in the administrative area of a district council for any area in which both district and county councils have functions.
(1B) The supplementary question referred to in subsection (1A) is—
(a) Xdo you agree with the proposals to reorganise local government in your area into unitary authorities which the Government intends to implement if an elected regional assembly is established".'.
No. 19, in page 2, line 23, at end insert
'(the (insert name of region) region comprises (insert names of all counties, metropolitan boroughs and unitary authority districts within the region))'.
No. 30, in page 2, line 23, at end insert—
'( ) Do you agree with the recommendations of the Boundary Committee for England to reorganise (insert name of county council) and (insert name of district council or district councils) into a single tier of local government for your area?'.
No. 11, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—
'(2) The question on the ballot paper shall be preceded by a statement, in a form to be prescribed by the Electoral Commission, conveying such information as the Electoral Commission believe is requisite to enable electors to understand the question and to ensure that electors understand the conclusions of the Boundary Committee review of the region.
(3) The statement to be prescribed under subsection (2) may not include any statement about the intended functions or powers of the proposed elected assembly unless such functions and powers are defined in an Act of Parliament.'.
No. 31, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2).
No. 54, in page 2, leave out line 26 and insert—
'This referendum is advisory only.The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly for the'.
No. 49, in page 2, line 27, leave out from second 'region', to 'be' in line 30 and insert
'If an elected assembly is established, it is intended that—
(a) the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies, including regional economic development; and
(b) local government would'.
No. 50, in page 2, line 29, leave out from 'development' to end of line 33.
No. 20, in page 2, line 33, at end add
'It is not proposed to establish an elected regional assembly in any region until at least three regions have voted in favour of the establishment of such assemblies in referenda conducted pursuant to section 1 above.'.
No. 22, in page 2, line 33, at end add—
'In the [insert name of region] region this will entail the abolition of [insert names of local authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee report to be abolished] and the creation of [insert number of new unitary authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee report to be created] new unitary authorities.
The table below shows how the new unitary authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee will relate to the authorities to be abolished—
|Name of new Unitary Authority||Old authority areas or parts of old authority areas included|
|[insert name of each new Unitary Authority as recommended by the Boundary Committee]||[insert name of each constitutent existing local authority district or ward]'.|
No. 38, in page 2, line 33, at end add—
'The Boundary Committee has recommended to the Secretary of State that if an elected regional assembly for the [name of region] region is established, the electoral districts which would return directly elected members to the assembly would be as shown below:
|Name of Electoral District||Description of areas included||Approximate number of electors|
|[insert name of each electoral district recommended by the Boundary Committee pursuant to s.19(3)]||[insert description of the districts/wards or other administrative units included]||[insert approximate number of electors in each proposed district]|
No. 51, in page 2, line 33, at end insert—
'(3) In those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils the following additional question shall be asked—
Do you agree with the proposal to reorganise the county and district councils in your area into a single unitary tier of local government.'.
Clause 2 deals with the question to be put in a referendum and the preamble, so called. That is a piece of Government spin that will be placed on the ballot paper by primary legislation.
This is a mixed bag of amendments grouped together and covering a number of issues. Some of them deal with the procedure; some of them are substantive in the only sense possible, given the architecture of the Bill: they seek to amend the preamble, making substantive changes to the Government's stance, as expressed through the preamble. The preamble is a one-paragraph summary of what an elected regional assembly will be, as the Government would like electors to see it. No doubt some of my hon. Friends will want to comment on the wording of the preamble.
Amendment No. 39 is a pretty uncontroversial proposal. It proposes that the Electoral Commission should determine the question or questions to be put. The purpose of the referendum is made clear by clause 1. Surely the whole purpose of creating the Electoral Commission and giving it a role in dealing with referendums is to ensure that an impartial body not connected with Government, who are highly partial in relation to these referendums, should frame the question.
As it happens, we do not have an objection to the wording of the question proposed in the Bill—it would be rather difficult to have an objection to it, as it is a simple and straightforward question. However, we believe that an important principle is at stake for future referendums, which must be dealt with.
My hon. Friend says that he does not have an objection to the question. May I point out to him that those of us who live in Suffolk have a strong objection, because if the question were asked in relation to East Anglia, it would suggest that Rickmansworth was in East Anglia? When one refers to a region that contains both Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as if it were East Anglia, the question itself is entirely wrong.
My right hon. Friend is right, but unfortunately, as he knows, we have already had the debate on the possibility of revisiting the regional boundaries and, despite heroic efforts on the part of the opposition, have lost that argument to the Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it shows the Alice in Wonderland state of the Conservative party when Mr. Gummer, who was the architect of the regions, now describes them as preposterous?
Not at all. As the Minister well knows, the regions were created for an entirely different purpose and are completely unsuitable for the arrangements that the Government propose.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the regions were created by putting together what had always been Government sections, and that they were created because the previous Government had had a series of regions, none of which were coterminous for any single purpose. The regions were created for the sake of clarity. An elected assembly ought to cover an area that people recognise as being an electoral area. Nobody in Rickmansworth has anything to do with Trimley St. Mary in my constituency.
My right hon. Friend is right. That is our fundamental objection to the Government's proposals: the regions that are being used as the basis for elected regional assemblies were created for quite a different purpose, and do not deliver the sense of identity that is required if the Government's agenda is to have any chance of success.
Amendment No. 11 would give the Electoral Commission the slightly more difficult task of writing the preamble to the question. I am extremely sceptical about the idea of a preamble on the ballot paper, but if there is to be a preamble, it must be written by a body other than the Government, who are highly partisan in the matter.
The preamble as drafted in the Bill is highly contentious. It goes well beyond the supply of information, which is what the Government would have us believe it does. It states that regional assemblies
Xwould be responsible for a range of activities", yet we have not seen those powers enshrined in any legislation. Indeed, in the Standing Committee yesterday the Minister conceded to my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter that the regional assemblies would have influence on central Government, not responsibility in the sense that most electors would understand it.
The preamble states that the activities would be activities
Xcurrently carried out mainly by central government bodies".
The Minister knows that that is highly contentious. Many Opposition Members believe that the regional assemblies will suck more power up than will be devolved to them from central Government. The reference to local government reorganisation in the last couple of sentences of the preamble will not be intelligible to any ordinary elector, unless he happens to be an aficionado of local government terminology.
Under amendment No. 11, the Electoral Commission would be required to draft a preamble that conveyed the information requisite to a proper understanding of the question and a proper understanding of the boundary committee conclusions for the region. I do not see how that could be contentious.
The amendment would also specifically exclude any speculative statements about the functions or powers of elected assemblies yet to be created by Parliament. We simply do not know about that, and it is arrogant of the Government to pretend that simply because they include something in a White Paper or consultation document, they will be able to secure its approval in this place. Many regional referendums might take place after the next general election, and even if the Government can get their proposals through this place, they certainly cannot guarantee their unscathed delivery through the other place.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are prejudging the decision of Parliament by including this passage in the preamble:
XAn assembly would be responsible for a range of activities that are currently carried out mainly by central government bodies"?
Until the Bill dealing with the powers of regional assemblies has been introduced, we will have no idea of what they will entail.
In a strict sense, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Even the Minister who is promoting that agenda concedes that the provisions deal not with responsibilities as ordinary people understand them, but with abilities to exercise some influence on central Government. That is precisely what the Minister said yesterday.
The hon. Gentleman obviously was not listening when I responded to Mr. Curry, who raised that question earlier. I pointed out that there were a number of significant powers and responsibilities. When I raised the matter in Committee last week, as the hon. Gentleman said—
Indeed. I said that the role of the elected regional assembly would be to influence government and that there would be a combination of direct delivery powers and considerable powers of influence. It is certainly not true to suggest that the assemblies will not have powers.
I do not see any evidence of that in the preamble as it is currently drafted, which states:
XAn assembly would be responsible for a range of activities that are currently carried out".
Perhaps the Government will table an amendment on Report saying that the assembly will not only be responsible for a range of activities, but will have the ability to influence central Government in respect of another range of activities. However, that is not what the Bill says.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Minister has just made his case for him? People voting in the referendums will not know where an elected regional assembly has influence, power, responsibility or decision-making ability. It is all in the lap of the gods. The Minister waves his White Paper in the air, but White Papers and draft Bills do not bind anyone. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need an Act of Parliament to spell out the responsibilities, powers and functions of the elected regional assemblies? Failing that, people will be voting in the dark.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Electors will be invited to vote for a pig in a poke. That is one of the major problems with the Bill.
I must make a little progress.
The Government's reluctance to introduce a Bill that Parliament can scrutinise, so that we can ensure in legislation that everyone understands precisely what the powers and responsibilities of regional assemblies will be, contrasts with their insistence that, before they can conduct a referendum, they must carry out a process of local government organisation review in each region. By their own admission, that process will take a year. Why can they not parallel-track with their current proposals the Bill to implement the regional assemblies, so that we will all know exactly where we are when the question is put?
The hon. Gentleman may recall that, when the House debated the Greater London Authority Bill, we found that its measures on the powers of the authority were very different from those in the White Paper that was published before the Bill was introduced. In the Bill, the powers of the Greater London Authority were very circumscribed, as many powers were retained by the Secretary of State. Indeed, the Bill mentioned the Secretary of State more times than the Mayor himself. He is therefore making exactly the right point, as people will be voting for an assembly that will not have the powers that the Government set out in the White Paper.
That is precisely what Opposition Members fear. We would prefer the Electoral Commission to write the preamble, but if the Government resist that proposal, the next few amendments would introduce specific improvements to help the existing preamble to be clearer and fairer in putting the situation to the voter on the day of the referendum. I would prefer the Electoral Commission to draft the preamble, but if it cannot do so, I would rather I did it than the Government.
Many interventions have concentrated on the function of the regional assemblies, but does my hon. Friend agree that the first line of the preamble,
XYou can help to decide", is also important, because it gives no information as to the degree of the decision-making function of the person who is asked to vote? Does he agree that there is a great deal wrong with that statement?
I do indeed. If my right hon. Friend looks at some of the other amendments, he will see that they seek to remove the first line from the preamble.
If the Government resist the proposal to allow the Electoral Commission to write the preamble, the other amendments would make improvements. Amendment No. 19 would provide information about the region in the interests of ensuring clarity for the elector. The regions that the Government are using are so arbitrary and unconnected with people's everyday lives that voters simply will not know the extent of the regions in which they live. Of course, I concede that someone who lives in Manchester is likely to understand that they live in the north-west region, but I am prepared to bet the Minister that if he goes out on to the streets of Manchester and names at random a few communities on the periphery, people will not know whether they are included and will not have any idea of the extent of the region in which they live.
We therefore propose that the preamble should include specific information about the extent of the region. It is not appropriate to ask whether people are interested in a referendum on a regional assembly when we do not even know at this stage whether people understand what region they live in and what other communities are included or excluded. We need some transparency, including more detail on the ballot paper than the name of the region, which is all that the Government propose that it should include.
Amendment No. 22 seeks to insert in the preamble detail of the boundary committee recommendations. Again, it is vital that before electors make their decision about how to vote, they understand precisely how they will be affected by the boundary committee's recommendations. That can only be achieved by setting out the information in a simple tabular format, with the names of the proposed new local government units on one side of the table and those of the old local government units, or those parts that are included in the new region, on the other. That will ensure that each elector who at least knows which local government unit he currently resides in will also know which one he belongs to if the boundary commission changes proceed.
Amendment No. 38 would do the same for electoral areas in a region. That is another Government omission. The Government propose that, although the minute detail of the changed local government structures will be known to the elector if he takes the trouble to find out about them when he votes, he will not have any information about the likely electoral divisions in the region. I suggest that those divisions are equally important to him, as he will need to know how his community will find its voice in any putative regional assembly. He will need to know about the split between rural urban influences in any such assembly.
The Minister is defending an utterly illogical position. We are being asked to engage in a referendum with no Act defining the powers of the regional assemblies and no electoral districts telling people how their limited influence on the assembly will be exercised or with whom they will be grouped in exercising it. However, a boundary committee is an absolute requirement and the full detail of the local government reorganisation must be worked out in advance of the referendum. I suggest to him that electors will not be making an informed decision unless they understand the detail of the local government reorganisation and the electoral divisions in the region, and the powers that such a regional assembly will have.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, although those specific details do not appear in the amendments, because that would be to take a step too far at this stage, without them it will be impossible to know what the transitional and future establishment costs of any future configuration of local representation will be? To lay the charge of the administration at the door of local people through their council tax and other taxes, without their knowing the cost of those changes, would represent a considerable absence of information in their decision making.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will recall that the Labour manifesto at the 1997 election, which committed the Labour party to going down the route of elected regional government, said that it would do so only if it could produce an independent auditor's report confirming that no additional public expenditure would be involved. That commitment has been quietly dropped. It will be blindingly apparent to all my right hon. and hon. Friends that the local government reorganisation that the Government are making a prerequisite for elected regional assemblies will indeed involve a significant additional amount of public expenditure.
Amendment No. 54 would change the opening lines of the preamble to deal, in part, with the point raised by my right hon. Friend Mr. Jack. The words inserted by the amendment would say explicitly to the elector, whom the Government would like to mislead by saying
XYou can help to decide whether there should be an elected assembly"—
[Interruption.] Well, it would be misleading. Under the amendment, the elector would be told:
XThis referendum is advisory only. The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly."
By changing those lines, we would introduce clarity and a bit of honesty into the preamble that is to be put to the voters.
Amendment No. 20 is something of a probing amendment.
It is not a wrecking amendment; it is a probing amendment. It proposes a clear statement in the preamble against a single-region settlement. The device that we have used is to write a Government intention into the preamble. The purpose is to get the Minister to address the issue of critical mass. Part of the argument for regional assemblies is, and has always been, that they would provide a counterweight to the centralised, London-focused system of national Government. We have no argument with the desire to devolve power downwards, so long as it is downwards, so long as it is devolved to coherent units, and so long as it is power, and not just responsibility without any real power, which would allow the Government to keep the power and lose the accountability. That is what we fear will happen here.
If we had a one-region solution, with one region opting for elected regional government and no other region following, we should not have a critical counterweight. There is a need for critical mass if this function is to be performed. I therefore invite the Government to consider setting some kind of threshold, so that, if we are to have elected regional assemblies as part of our constitutional settlement, there cannot just be one, or—I would suggest—two. Before the assemblies are established, a number of referendums need to be conducted and won.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he conceives of London as having a role in this concept? Does he believe that the people of London should be involved in this process? Or does he believe that the fact that a quasi-regional body already exists in London means that one region already has an assembly, and that that should be taken into account when making the calculations set out in the amendment?
The Minister would, I think, struggle to argue that a devolved assembly in London helps to provide a counterweight to London. That is the argument that has been advanced for elected regional government in other parts of the country.
The hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that, when we were debating the Greater London Authority Bill, we challenged the Minister on many occasions by saying that he was creating regional government. He insisted at the time, however, that it was city-wide government, and local government. He would not allow it to be linked to the regional agenda, as we were trying to do.
I shall not intervene in this lovers' tiff between the Liberals and the Government. No doubt they can sort it out afterwards.
I contend that it would be very odd if we ended up with a dramatic change in our constitutional arrangements, the end effect of which was simply that one region was the odd man out in an otherwise unitary England. These proposals highlight the inappropriateness of changing our constitutional arrangements for one, or perhaps two, regions.
I must make some progress. The right hon. Gentleman will have a chance to make his own contribution in due course, and I look forward to it.
Amendment No. 55 and the amendments tabled in the name of the Liberal Democrats deal with the possibility of separating the testing of opinion on local government reorganisation from the testing of opinion on regional elected assemblies, and propose that, in two-tier authorities only—where change to a unitary structure will be required—a separate question should be put to the electors, asking whether they are in favour of the unitarisation of their local government arrangements. That seems eminently sensible. It would allow the Secretary of State, when making his decision following the advisory referendum, to know whether there was support for the idea of an elected regional assembly, and to balance that support against the strength of opposition to the reorganisation of local government in the parts of the region that would be subject to it.
The Liberals have argued against compulsory unitarisation of local government, and we have a great deal of sympathy with their argument. Unfortunately, they have drawn the wrong conclusion. They would be happy to introduce yet another tier of government, more elected politicians, more expenses, more headquarters buildings, more tax, more spending and more bureaucracy. So the Liberals have identified the issue, but drawn the wrong conclusion. We draw the conclusion that the Government's proposals are fundamentally flawed and do not present a stable, sustainable solution for government below the national level in England. This amendment would not directly address that issue, but it would allow the Secretary of State separately to measure opinion in those areas. I shall leave the Liberals to say more on that in due course. I commend this diverse group of amendments to the Committee.
Given that Mr. Hammond was so kind about some of our amendments, even though he could not bring himself to support all of them, I shall start by saying that the Liberal Democrats support his amendment No. 39. The idea that the Electoral Commission should draw up the questions is eminently sensible. I have to say that, when his party was in government, it was not very keen on the idea of sub-contracting out decision making to an independent body. If it has had a conversion in favour of restricting the power of the Executive, however, we welcome that.
In approaching the clause and in considering the question and the preamble before us, we should reflect on the advice that the Electoral Commission has proffered to Parliament and to the Government. Although the Minister is aware of the advice that has been sent to him, I shall read it out. I think that he will use it as a defence, but I hope to show that it is weak. The commission
Xtakes the view that, as the issue is complex and potentially unfamiliar to many voters, the intelligibility of the question is dependent on the inclusion of a preamble providing extra information. Given that a preamble is to be provided, the proposed question meets the Commission's assessment guidelines."
In other words, the preamble is essential, otherwise the question would not be intelligible.
That is a good question. I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the Electoral Commission's assessment guidelines on questions. There are 10, although I am afraid that they do not consider reading age, so that does not help him. However, they refer to the question being well structured and not too long. That might help him, and I am more than happy to show him the guidelines if he has not seen them.
The hon. Gentleman has talked about the importance of the preamble and quoted the Electoral Commission's advice, which he says is important. In quoting that advice, he has shown why it believes that a preamble is necessary. Will he now tell us why he has tabled amendment No. 31, which would delete the preamble?
I do not know whether the Minister was listening properly, but I said that I would come to that. I do not think that the Electoral Commission will be given enough scope to analyse the issue properly. I shall return to that, as we need to refer to other primary legislation.
What is particularly interesting is the fact that the Electoral Commission advice goes on to suggest that the Government's proposed preamble is not that intelligible. The Minister ought to listen, as the commission is an independent body that was set up by his Government and it has criticised his preamble. The Electoral Commission has suggested an alternative, which we have set out in our amendment No. 49. He may want to intervene on this point: will he accept that amendment, which would put in the Bill, word for word, the advice proffered by the Electoral Commission?
No, because we believe that it is right to listen to the views expressed in the House as well as those expressed by the Electoral Commission before deciding on an appropriate amendment to table on Report, which will no doubt pay considerable heed to the commission's views. It would be wrong to pre-empt Members of the House, who have an opportunity in the debate to influence our thinking. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that.
That is a very odd argument. I thought that the House was giving the Minister its advice now. We already have the Electoral Commission's advice so, presumably, we ought to vote on this now rather than delay any further. I am surprised that he wants to wait until we consider the Bill on Report, but if he insists, we shall table our amendment then.
As to whether we should take the Electoral Commission as the final word on the matter, I am afraid that I do not think we should. We should consider what the Electoral Commission is allowed to do. It is allowed only to comment on the particular question in the Bill and any subsequent preamble. It is not able to take a view on how many questions ought to be included in a referendum to put across the point being made and the issue on which people are being asked to give their opinion. If the Electoral Commission had been asked to do that, my view is that, rather than go for a preamble and a question, it would probably have gone for two questions, as that is what is being asked.
The Government have not allowed that issue to be debated by the commissioners either in respect of the underlying legislation that set up the Electoral Commission or, as I understand it, in any other directions to the commission, so I must press the Minister. Are the Government prepared, before the Bill is considered on Report, specifically to ask the Electoral Commission whether two questions would be clearer, more intelligible and more sensible as a way forward to decide those matters than one question and the preamble?
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a dangerous precedent will be set if that is not done? Are we to have general elections involving a preamble to explain why this or that Member might or might not be suitable for this or that constituency? If we are to have a referendum on, let us say, the euro, will there be a nice explanation of why it would be good or not so good for Britain so as to enable people to make up their minds? Is not that a serious constitutional concept?
The right hon. Gentleman has a smidgen of a point, although he stretches his argument a little far in relating it to the general election. I do not think that even this Government would go that far, but I take his general point that we in the House must be careful before accepting preambles linked to questions that we ask the electorate. We must think carefully about whether we could discard the preamble and just ask the electorate—the grown-up, mature electorate—the questions. Trying to hide a question in a preamble is not transparent or open.
The debate is about the fact that the Government are trying to hide the issues from the electorate. Because the Electoral Commission did not have power to consider the issue more widely, I am not sure that the advice I read out can be the last word.
Is there not another point to be made? In a sense, the last place where a preamble needs to appear is a ballot paper. One would hope that most of those voting in person would have made up their minds about the arguments before entering the booth. How many people arrive at a polling station not knowing how they will vote? Is it not more important to convey proper information to the electorate in advance about what is involved—the powers, the functions, the districts, the geography, the whole works—before they reach the stage of voting?
I agree to an extent, but let us remember the reason for the preamble. Something is being hidden from the electorate. If they were asked two clear questions, no preamble to either would be needed. Someone, somewhere, is trying to hide something from the voters, and what worries me most is that lack of transparency.
Surely the reason for a preamble rather than a question is that voters are being given no choice on the second, hidden part of the question.
Indeed. In fact, I was going to invite the Minister, if he is not prepared to ask the Electoral Commission whether two questions would be preferable, to make a slightly different inquiry about whether a second question would obviate the need for a preamble. If we knew on Report that the Minister had made that inquiry and had received assurances—which, of course, he would publish, being such an open and transparent Minister—we would be much more likely to accept the clause. Is the Minister going to tell us that he will do that?
The Liberal Democrats continue to astonish me. The hon. Gentleman will know, because there is already advice from the Electoral Commission, that we have consulted the commission. It has made its recommendations, which we will heed carefully because we think them sensible. However, we will wait to hear all the opinions expressed in the debate before making a final decision on how the preamble should be framed and whether amendments will be necessary on Report.
The Minister is very able and is respected in all parties, but he knows that the original Act did not enable the commission to say that two questions would be better in this instance. It was only able to comment on the one question and the preamble, and the intelligibility of those. I am challenging the Minister on whether he is prepared to return to the commission to clarify the point. If he is so worried about how the House feels, as he ought to be, he should reflect its concern by doing as I suggest.
Amendments Nos. 28, 29, 30, 31 and 50 are linked in many respects. They are all intended to secure that second question. If the Minister is not prepared to go to the Electoral Commission, let us try to put that question on the ballot paper ourselves. Not only would it provide greater clarity, and avoid potential allegations that the Government are trying to hide something from the electorate; it would, in my view, bring about greater democracy.
We should give the electorate the chance to make their decision in separate questions. As my hon. Friend Matthew Green said earlier, we want people to have power to make decisions about the government they want. We want them to have not just the power to vote for a regional assembly, but the power to decide what structure local government should have in their areas—to decide whether they want unitary authorities, and whether they want county and district councils to be restructured.
Does my hon. Friend also accept that separating out the question would increase the number of people who are likely to vote yes to regional government, because they would not be diverted by the issue of whether they want a change to local government? The proposal would therefore assist the Minister in his aim of achieving regional government.
Absolutely. If the proposal were accepted, the Minister would for once be saying that the Government were going to trust people. They would not be imposing a restructuring of local government in the manner of the previous Conservative Government; they would actually be asking people in those areas what they think.
My personal opinion is that it would be better to see some reorganisation and to move to unitary government, but I see no reason why I, the Minister or anyone else in the House should foist that on people. If people do not want to pay more—the issue that seems to concern the Conservatives most—they will vote for unitarisation.
The problem is worse than that. First, the people concerned will be asked to vote for a specific scheme of unitary government that is not necessarily the one that they would choose; secondly, the decision will be made not by them but by the great majority of people who already live in unitary areas, such as those in the northern regions. Those people have no interest in the outcome, but because they are voting on the regional issue they will determine what kind of unitary system the minority, who currently live in two-tier areas, will get.
My right hon. Friend is of course exactly right, and he brings me to the final amendment that I wish to speak to.
What we are trying to do is to amend the Bill so that it is in line with our views and our policy. We voted for it on Second Reading because unlike the Conservatives, we are in favour of regional devolution. We want to democratise existing regional government, but it was the Conservatives who set up a whole series of quangos that govern the lives of our constituents. Those quangos cannot be held to account, so we need regional democracy, which is why we support the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman was very generous to me, so I shall be generous to him.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I understand his aspiration, but if, as we must anticipate, he is unsuccessful in achieving it and the Government proceed with the Bill on the basis that the price for elected regional assemblies is the compulsory unitarisation of all local government in the regions, will the Liberal Democrats support that process, or will they join us in opposing it?
The hon. Gentleman and Mr. O'Brien are anticipating not just tonight's voting, but voting in another place. I can assure the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that we will urge our colleagues to amend the Bill to make it more democratic, and I hope that he will ask the same of his. My concern is that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the other place may be trying to wreck this Bill, and that they do not in fact want to democratise regional government. That is the issue before us.
The right hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member, and it is a delight to let him in.
That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman. I invite him to speculate, were there to be a second question, on the size of the preamble that would seek to explain to the electorate the various alternatives that local government might imply for them and their families.
Well, we do not have to look very far to deal with the right hon. Gentleman's concern about the preamble becoming too long. We need look no further than amendment No. 51—I was about to discuss it—which would insert a second question for those affected by local government restructuring. To them, the county councils and district councils that would be mentioned in it are very real, because they have voted for them for several decades. If that question were provided for those people, a preamble would not be necessary because the question would be so clear.
Amendment No. 51 not only deals with the problem mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed: ensuring that the referendum result is fair, and that people from the majority part of the region are not imposing local government restructuring on the minority part; if amendment No. 51 were accepted, we would be more likely to get what the Government desire: a yes vote in the referendum on the regional assemblies. By decoupling the issues and creating greater democracy, we are more likely to gain the people's trust and then get the right result for the Government.
I support the idea of decoupling the issue of local government reorganisation from regional government, so the principle behind the amendments is one that I understand and support. However, the way in which they are phrased does not attract me, because they involve a choice between one solution of unitary government—the one that the boundary committee recommends—and the status quo, which would still leave the areas concerned with two tiers.
One way of dealing with that might have been to have a separate question for the areas affected by local government reorganisation, to the effect that there was a choice between one or other form of unitary government. One of the Liberal Democrat councillors in the north-east, Chris Foote-Wood, has proposed such a formula for a second question. Since I, like Mr. Davey, am a supporter of unitary government, that might have been one way of dealing with it.
I hope that my Front-Bench colleagues will not close their minds to the possibility of decoupling the issue from the main debate on regional government. Failure to do so would send a message that regional government had something to do with local government, whereas—as my right hon. Friend the Minister knows—those of us who have been keen on regional government for a long time see it as something important in its own right, something that could be supported on its own merits and something that would bring a new form of democracy to our country.
I do not accept any of the arguments of Mr. Hammond. It is a shame that someone with the historic name of Runnymede in his constituency title should be so resistant to any constitutional innovation, and I am disappointed by his narrow-minded attitude to regional government. However, I hope that the Government will look at the ideas behind the Liberal Democrat amendments, even if, like me, they are not attracted by the specific amendments.
I want to refer to the comments made by Conservative Members about their fears about the destruction of the counties, and they often refer to the idea of the historic counties. Having been born and brought up in the historic county of Northumberland, and representing now two towns in the historic county of Durham, I know perfectly well that the historic counties have not existed for a long time. Indeed, they were effectively destroyed by the then Conservative Government in the 1970s. I do not recall the Conservatives taking into account at the time the feelings of identity that people had with those historic counties. Their argument about counties is misplaced, and the previous Conservative Government compounded the matter by some of the decisions they took, understandably, to allow unitary areas in other parts of the former historic counties. We should not be attracted to their points of view. None the less, I urge my hon. Friends to accept that it is important, in the campaign to establish regional government in this country, that a clear distinction be drawn between the role and functions of regional government and those of local government. It is possible to believe strongly in the need for stronger and more effective local government—as Labour Members do—without that contradicting the principle that we must have an equally strong regional democratic government in those areas that want it.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge argued that it would not be possible to have regional government in only one area of England. I found that argument incomprehensible. At present, we already have what is referred to as an asymmetrical form of devolution in this country. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly each have their unique powers, and a special arrangement is in place for London. A number of special arrangements exist: if such an arrangement suited the people in north-east England, for instance, why should they be denied something to which people elsewhere in the UK have been given an entitlement?
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seemed to take the view that England must be standardised. That is entirely wrong. Indeed, that standardisation approach has bedevilled previous local government reorganisations, as it does not take account of regional and local feeling.
Does not the right hon. Lady accept that the Government are offering devolution only on their own terms? Other parts of the UK may not want to adopt the standard model—for example, they might prefer central Government powers to be devolved to upper-tier authorities such as county councils. If people in the north-east want, and vote for, regional government, that would be okay for them. However, that may well be the exception and the Government would not allow others a different form of devolution.
I do not accept that. The Bill allows a certain form of regional government for areas that decide that they want it. However, why should not a future Government listen to different proposals that may come forward from areas that decide otherwise? As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton noted, there is no reason why a future Government should not produce proposals for unitary local government in areas that do not want to move to regional government. That is another reason why the two issues should be decoupled.
The point that the right hon. Lady makes is contradicted by the specific example of planning. The Government propose that regional planning will be conducted either by the elected regional assemblies or by unelected—nominated—regional planning bodies. People will not have the option to say that the devolved planning responsibilities in their region should be conducted at a sub-regional level or by counties. That option is simply not available.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about one aspect of this decentralisation process. However, although I believe that the proposals will suit my part of the country, the north-east, it is perfectly possible that, in the future, different proposals could be formulated that would suit other parts of the country. It is absurd of the hon. Gentleman to see the decentralisation process as a one-off event that closes the door on any future innovation.
I want to substantiate the point made so well by my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley. If people in north Cumbria—the old county of Cumberland—had to suffer regional government, they might prefer to be part of her north-east regional assembly than a north-west assembly. How would that be tested if, as my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond asserts, there is no possibility that one region of England can go it alone?
I strongly support the Government's approach of proceeding on the basis of the regional boundaries that we have because that is the way to make progress with regional devolution. However, I am perfectly relaxed about the prospect of having an elected assembly in the north-west and one in the north-east or even not having an elected assembly in the north-west and yet there being a sufficient desire to reopen the boundary issue at some point. My perspective is different from that of the hon. Gentleman; he seems to imagine that regional boundaries are prisons from which one cannot escape. That is an absurd notion. Why should a north-western region not co-operate with the north-east over transport links and economic links in border areas of the regions?
This is not an entrapment mechanism; it will enable regions to look at their needs and to co-operate. The devolved structures in European countries and elsewhere in the world often have structures that allow regions to co-operate with each other. To see regions as something from which one can never escape or to believe that it is impossible for them to have a dialogue with central Government or other regions is an absurd way of viewing the situation.
I hope that we can make progress on the Bill. Despite hoping that Ministers will look at local government reorganisation somewhat differently, I strongly support the Government's overall approach to the issue.
It is important, when considering the referendum question, to recognise that the regions were first established for the convenience of Government to deal with elected counties in particular and unitary authorities. That is why they are drawn as they are—it is for the convenience of Government, while counties, districts and unitary authorities are the elected convenience. If we turn that round and take away the elected counties, we are doing something very different. That is why I draw a distinction between the regions as a Government convenience—it was more convenient to have a common Government local region rather than having different regions for different purposes—and the Minister's suggestion that the regions to which individuals naturally show some allegiance are convenient for Government. Historically, people did not do that because they were in a county or district, depending on the issue, or a unitary authority.
In a moment.
In many parts of the country, the region itself holds no particular attraction. I agree with Joyce Quin. I am sure that in the north-east and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the north-west, there will be those who see some connection between themselves and a place called the north-east. We have all found that in our travels around the countryside, and in our business and political life. However, I hope that she will accept from me that that does not exist for some regions. I am not trying to have a row with the Minister for Local Government and the Regions. We can have a bit of badinage, but he knows perfectly well whether there is a connection between Rickmansworth and my constituency. Rickmansworth is to a great extent part of greater London, with which it connects itself and has no connection with my part of the country.
It is likely that if there were a referendum, most of the people of the so-called eastern region would vote no to the first question put to them. They would be more likely to vote no if there were not a second question. Even more antagonism is created by the idea of local government reorganisation of the kind we know that the Government have in mind.
In my constituency, before the last general election, a proposal was floated—and chatted out by the local Labour party—that there should be a new unitary authority called Greater Ipswich. If there is one thing that the people of Felixstowe like less than the idea of being part of a region called East Anglia that includes Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, it is becoming part of Greater Ipswich. Anyone who has ever experienced the complete incompetence of Ipswich borough council will understand why the people of Felixstowe do not want to be part of it. The Minister may make faces, but one reason that people do not want that change is that their council tax will go through the roof.
Another thing that my right hon. Friend's constituents may not like is the fact that they could be asked such a question at a time when they did not know where the seat of regional government was to be. If they would not like to be part of Ipswich, they would probably not like to be governed from Cambridge—part of which I represent—or still less, from the big new city the size of Milton Keynes that the East of England planning body proposes to establish in the eastern region. Perhaps the East of England is proposing the Brasilia option.
Without following my hon. Friend too far down that route, I merely note that although the East of England planning authority is proposing the establishment of that new city, it is unwilling to tell us where it would be, in case the proposal is unpopular with anyone who lives there at present.
If two questions are not included in the referendum, the Government will get a much lower vote in a number of areas. People can see the difference between the two questions. I shall vote no to both of them, but that will not be true of everyone in my constituency. Obviously, I want to give the proposal a fair wind; I should not dream of doing otherwise—I want people to have the chance to choose. I am sure that the vote will be overwhelmingly against it, but we should let people have the chance.
What is wrong with asking two questions when the alternative is the interesting preamble to the referendum question set out in clause 2(2)? I want to make some points about the preamble, Mr. Winterton—[Hon. Members: XSir Nicholas."]—I beg your pardon, Sir Nicholas.
Mr. Gummer emphasises the importance of giving people choice. Will he tell the House how much choice he gave people at the time of the Banham review, over which he presided? Was there an option for a referendum in any electoral district of the country under the Conservative Government's reorganisation?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, because I have told him privately on several occasions, I neither wrote the terms of the boundary commission's operation, nor did I approve of the way in which they were drawn up or of the people who drew them up. If he thinks that I shall defend the structure, he has another think coming—I have never done so anywhere.
Happily, we are not discussing the Banham review but the Bill. I realise of course that the Minister would like to discuss something else because he does not like the Bill. That is the problem. I always know when the right hon. Gentleman does not like what he has to do; his smile becomes broader and deeper and he becomes more avuncular and much more charming than he ever is when he is really keen on something.
The right hon. Gentleman is not keen on the Bill and the reason is the extremely peculiar piece of writing to which I referred. I am sure that he did not write the statement himself—it is not elegant enough. Why was it included? Because the Government are very afraid that faced with the simple question,
XShould there be an elected assembly for the region?"— the East Anglian region, or wherever it is—many people will say, XI don't know", or even worse, XI don't care". So we have to start with a bit of indoctrination explaining why people should know and care.
I do not know whether the Minister has noticed how long it normally takes people to vote at a polling station, but if they all have to sit down and read and understand the statement—
I do not know. Indeed, those who are unfortunately disabled in one way or another may need the normal arrangements that help them to vote to be extended in some way, and I do not know what the Minister would do in those circumstances. Will someone be there to read the preamble to anyone who is partially sighted, for example? That is a serious question. This is a different kind of voting from that which we have had before.
None of us can entirely know what is going on in No. 10 Downing street, so I should not like to follow the hon. Gentleman down that path.
The preamble exists because the Government are uncertain that the public will understand what they are being asked to do. The preamble might be justified if it helped to make things certain, but it does not, which is why I support the amendments that relate to the preamble's wording.
First, the preamble says:
XYou can help to decide whether there should be an elected assembly in" whichever region it is. That may or may not be true, but it is certainly not what the public think help means. They think that, if they mark their crosses on the ballot papers and there are more crosses in favour than against, they will have helped to create an elected regional assembly, but that will not happen. What will happen is that the result will be communicated to the Secretary of State, who will decide, so the public are only helping to advise the Secretary of State.
The referendums will be advisory. At the very least, the preamble, if we are to have one, must say that the referendums are advisory and that the public are partially helping and making a bit of a contribution. However, even fewer people will vote when they understand that, but saying it is worth while.
The preamble then says:
Xthe regional assembly would be responsible for a range of activities".
I am always suspicious when people use the phrase Xa range of activities". What the blazes does a range of activities mean?
I noted the fact that the Minister referred to a number of very real powers, but he did not mention what those powers would be. He also said that there would be a number of opportunities to advise, but which opportunities, which circumstances and would anyone bother to listen? All that is unclear. The preamble is a load of old guff and, what is more, those reading it will realise that it is.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the people who will vote in the referendums do not need a preamble? What they need is an Act of Parliament to be passed, spelling out the functions and responsibilities of the elected regional assemblies, and an executive summary to be made available to them so that they know exactly what they are voting for.
The Government do not want anyone to be too certain about the powers because they may not wish to provide so many powers, or they may wish to be more vague about them, so that they can find out who voted for the regional assembly before defining them. I noticed that, when the person whom the Government had hoped would not be chosen was elected as Mayor of London, he got rather less power than the mayor might have got if another gentlemen had won. I think that that is what this is all about.
The Bill is about not defining the powers too precisely so that the Government can see what happens. Indeed, my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter should remember that, if they were defined in an Act of Parliament, there would not be much give and take at the edges. If they are defined simply by a few words from the Minister and Labour party headquarters and by a comforting remark from the Prime Minister, no doubt, the powers can be adjusted according to region.
Do we know whether the powers will be the same in every region? Or perhaps those regions that generally seem to be on the Government's side may be given a bit more power and those that do not support them a bit less? A real, constitutional reason therefore exists for saying that the preamble is a fudge designed to make sure that the Government do not get hoist with their own petard.
My last point is in relation to the reorganisation of local government as hidden in this preamble. I have said that I would like two questions, but I do not know who will understand this preamble. A single tier can mean a range of things. In Suffolk, people would generally prefer the counties. Whatever the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said, in Suffolk, when the local reorganisation to which she referred took place, the historic county was replaced, because, in the 1870s, it was divided into two—East and West Suffolk—and the historic county came back into operation in 1974. I want to remind her of her history, however, because the proposals of the then Conservative Government were much closer to the historic counties than the proposals put forward in the Redcliffe-Maud report, which was a very socialist report—I think that you and I, Sir Nicholas, are the only two Members present who can remember those great days. That report would have swept away many of the structures that we are discussing, and would have been a recipe for a new socialist Britain, much of which, happily, we managed to defeat.
The fact of the matter is that those of us who live in historic counties do not want to lose them. I know that because of my experience in local government reform. I did not choose that task—it was one of those things that was handed on—and I have always believed that local government reform is a disaster for anyone who does it, in any circumstances, ever since it has been done. This Government will find that as well. It is one of those things: a fact of life. It is no good thinking that is a party political question. Whatever the Minister says about the last Government, local government reform is always difficult because there are lots of people out there who want something totally different from lots of other people, and there is no way of satisfying everybody. The Minister will be very unpopular, and nobody will like the reforms much, but that is the nature of local government reform, not the nature of the Bill.
This Bill and question, however, are worse than most. That is because they do not do the job that the Minister wants. He should think about his love of history and the accumulated wisdom of the past, about which I have heard him talk on a number of occasions, and say to himself, XIsn't it odd that this will be the first kind of referendum that needs a whole lot of guff before we can get anybody to vote on it?" Would it not be better to throw it out and replace it with two simple questions? The first question should ask whether there should be an elected assembly for the East Anglian region—I use my region as an example—and list the counties of which that region would consist. Everybody would then know what was being talked about. When one refers to East Anglia in Suffolk, people think that that means Norfolk, Suffolk and possibly Cambridgeshire. It certainly does not include Essex, as we never include Essex in any circumstances, and none of us has ever thought that Bedfordshire was in East Anglia.
The second question would be very simple: should the local authority now be a unitary authority called, for example, Greater Ipswich? One of the reasons my majority increased at the last election was that I mentioned, because I thought it right, to everybody in Felixstowe that the Labour party wanted a Greater Ipswich. The vote on that subject was very satisfactory. I cannot therefore promise the Minister that he will make progress very fast in that area.
I entirely share the right hon. Gentleman's love of history. He has commented on the possible electoral consequences of his actions, so does he think that the Labour party's remarkable electoral success in Berkshire in the 1997 election owed anything to his decision to abolish the historic county of Berkshire?
The Labour party's success in Berkshire owed more to its success in the United Kingdom as a whole. As the Minister well knows, there is no indication that the Labour party did better in Berkshire than elsewhere. After the next election, it is unlikely that the Labour party will be able to point to any part of Berkshire that is represented by a Labour Member. That will have nothing to do with electoral reorganisation either.
There is no doubt that my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond was wrong to say that the proposal was like buying a pig in a poke. If we buy a pig in a poke, we at least find the pig and the poke. With this proposal, we do not know what we are buying. When we buy a pig in a poke, we know that we are not getting a horse. With this proposal, we have no idea. Decent constitutional needs require simple constitutional questions, so can we have two simple questions in all parts of the country? In most parts of the country, people will say no, but let us ask them, trust them and not give them guff.
I shall try to heed your instructions, Mr. Winterton.
Mr. Gummer, in his tigerish manner, suggested that the politics of identity were important. He hit on an important truth. We often define our identity not so much in terms of whom we associate with but of whom we do not want to be associated with. I served for a couple of years as a junior Minister in Northern Ireland, and I am well aware of the truth of that, sad though it may often be.
I grew up and spent most of my young life in Huyton. Until I was a young man, it was part of Lancashire but, in 1974, it was put into Merseyside. I slightly disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on this point. Although a Conservative Government introduced the legislation, it made more sense for the people of Huyton to be in Merseyside than it ever did for us to be in Lancashire. That is as true today as it was then.I now live in Prescot. It used to be in my constituency but, because of the vagaries of boundary changes, it no longer is. Many people who live there consider that they live still live in Lancashire. Because there is no natural border with Lancashire, they have a somewhat vain hope that they will return to it.
I should have said at the outset that I intend to support the Opposition's lead amendment—amendment No. 39. There should be a second question on the ballot paper in my part of the world. People should be asked whether they would prefer to have a Greater Merseyside assembly or authority. I shall try to work out the details of the question, but my current argument is that that option should be available.
I noted that my right hon. Friend the Minister was anxious to preserve the position of London. He challenged the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman several times on the implications of their amendments for that city. If the arrangements in London—possibly minus Ken Livingstone—are satisfactory for people there, why can we not have something similar on Merseyside? For that matter, why can the people of Manchester or Newcastle not have something similar if they so wish?
I made it clear that I object in principle to the whole process. However, the Bill received Second Reading, although not with my support because I abstained, and the Government's majority means that it is almost certain to end up on the statute book. As the argument develops, I think that more people will share my view. If I can convince the people of Merseyside to support me, I hope that they will have the ability to say, XThis is the future we want." Current arrangements allow them some control over their transport and that would continue under the process that I advocate. No doubt they would want to have some influence over policing. We have a good relationship with the chief constable and all the local authorities have a good relationship with the police through partnership arrangements. They would want to have local control over other things as well.
I object to the Government's proposal because there is no natural sympathy between the people who live on Merseyside and the people of Manchester. There is no connection between the people of Cheshire and the people of Merseyside. There are connections for those people who have moved around, but they are different places with different histories, different backgrounds and, let us be honest about it, possibly different aspirations. The same is probably true of Lancashire. I cannot begin to describe what a strange relationship we have with Cumbria. It is a wonderful place. I love the people and am keen on my right hon. and hon. Friends who represent it, but there is no natural connection with my constituency other than the fact that we love to go there for our holidays, for a day out or to go camping or walking.
I have grave doubts about the process, but my right hon. Friend could persuade me and some of my colleagues who are beginning to share my view to take a different approach if he at least gave the major urban areas the opportunity to carve out their own identity. Frankly, the one-size-fits-all arrangement will not suit Merseyside. I hope that he has listened carefully to my comments. I will support the Opposition on the amendment. I hope not to be put in that position repeatedly and that my right hon. Friend will give me a reason to support the Government again on this matter.
I pay tribute to Mr. Howarth, who has held a consistent and reasoned view on the legitimate question of marrying identity with what feels right so that the local government configuration serves the mutual interests of belonging and accountability. He and I debated that recently on a north-west television hustings programme. Some 800 calls were taken during that half-hour programme. I know that the Minister is keen to establish whether there is support for regional assemblies and that he wants to take soundings on them. The idea of the programme was to test support for a north-west regional assembly. I argued against it and said that there was no need or demand for it. As it happens, my view came out on top. It might help to bear that in mind in terms of soundings.
I endorse the points made so ably by my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond and will vote accordingly. Speaking as the only Member whose constituency, Eddisbury, is named from the original hundred, it is clear that what the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East said about identity as the core will be uppermost in the minds of people who have to consider the decision. Those of us who are privileged and proud to represent seats in Cheshire—I say this, knowing very well that you are one of those, Sir Nicholas—are in no doubt about people's sense that they come from a county rather than from the north-west. No matter that some counties are only 25 years old and others are many hundreds of years old—or indeed that, following one reincarnation, some have been returned to their original state.
I say that by way of providing a background to consideration of clause 2 and the referendum question. Joyce Quin was unable properly to respond to that question because there will not be only a Xone size fits all" approach but a difficult, desynchronised process intended to deal with the Government's proposed devolution arrangements for England. England is the entity being considered, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland already having been addressed.
The failure to give the people of north Cumberland, the residents of the old Cumberland county, the option of saying whether they feel it appropriate to be in the north-west, the north-east or perhaps a newly named north region is a major hole in the Government's proposals. Endorsing the erudite arguments of my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer, it demonstrates why there should be two referendum questions, not least because that addresses so many of the questions asked in interventions.
Despite the Minister's attempt to claim otherwise, the preamble will not meet the requirement under section 104 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 that the Electoral Commission consider the intelligibility of the wording of the referendum question. The preamble begins:
XYou can help to decide whether there should be an elected assembly in the . . . region."
That does not give the reader a sense that there is a real choice, as it would if it were rephrased—if it is to remain. I endorse all the arguments as to why it is guff. Any preamble should read, XYou can help to decide whether there should or should not be an elected assembly." It would then be clear that there was a choice.
The reason for my suspicion, and for my endorsement of the amendments, is the fact that the chief executive of the existing north-west regional assembly, a certain Mr. Steve Machin, has already conducted an exercise in which he sent out postcards that could be returned if the recipient were in favour of a north-west region. There was no option on the card to suggest something else or, more important, to state a preference for the status quo.
Hey presto, the exercise is now being prayed in evidence by Mr. Machin and all those who are desperate for the establishment of a north-west region to justify their jobs, so there seems to be a high percentage of support for the proposal. Having corresponded with Mr. Machin, I have placed on record my view that that was an illegitimate way of securing support for the north-west region that he is so anxious to establish. He wrote back, saying, XWell, if you can get sponsorship for your question, we would be very happy to conduct a similar exercise."
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. Even while protected by the privileges of the House, I shall only go so far as to say that I dare say he will share my aspiration that the Minister will conduct close, careful scrutiny of events in the north-west assembly. I gather that he has made a commitment on the Floor of the House that if there has been any use of public money for such arrangements, it will be regarded as a serious matter which could have consequences. Without evidence and absolute proof, it would be wrong to do anything more than simply ask the Minister to be aware that this matter needs deep consideration and close scrutiny.
I shall soon conclude to allow others to speak, but I back the amendments tabled by my colleagues. There is no clear popular demand for north-west regional government. The process of taking soundings requires trust and must not be nobbled—one argument must not be favoured over another. It is therefore extremely important that we note the behaviour of some of those who are strong advocates of regional government in the north-west, as their actions and approaches have undermined my faith that the process has been undertaken in good faith.
I shall do my best to meet your requirements, Sir Nicholas.
I am in favour of a regional assembly for my own region, the north-east, and therefore strongly oppose amendment No. 20, which is a clear Conservative fiat determining that even if the north-east voted by a large majority for a regional assembly and the legislation was in place, it would be denied the opportunity to have one, which is quite wrong. However, I make a plea to the Minister on behalf of my constituents and people in other parts of the north-east in the remaining two-tier areas who are a minority of the population. The Labour manifesto referred to Xpredominantly unitary" local government in regions that are to be allowed to proceed to a regional assembly. That condition is already satisfied in the north-east.
In its present form, the Bill would require areas where it has proved difficult in the past to create unitary local government to have it. That decision would require the people in the region who wanted a regional assembly to vote for unitary government, whether or not they wanted it in that form. However, the Bill ensures that the decision about whether they will get an assembly is made by the vast majority of people who live in areas that already have unitary government. That majority would be confused by the question and would have no desire to determine the local government of the remaining two-tier areas—they would not be in the least interested in the fate of local government in areas in which they do not live.
I shall underline for the Minister's benefit the difficulties experienced during previous attempts to create unitary government in Northumberland. The county is too large and diverse to be a single-tier authority—it stretches from Berwick in the north across to Haltwhistle in the west—so there is strong opposition to the proposal. If a unitary Northumberland were the only option, some people might choose it to keep the name XNorthumberland" and the association with the county, but it is a very large local government unit. The alternative of reducing six districts to three is often criticised from the centre because their population is relatively small, even though they cover a huge area. Either way, we are likely to face a worrying system of unitary government to which a section of the population is strongly opposed on fairly good grounds. We would be asked to decide the question of a regional assembly in the light of a wholly separate question. As Joyce Quin pointed out, that gives the confusing impression that this is all about local government powers: it is not—it is about central Government powers and how they can be devolved effectively.
The Minister and the Government will put a lot of people in rural Northumberland in a difficult position if they tell them that they can have a regional assembly only if they have a particular system of unitary local government. If they do not want that system, they cannot have a regional assembly. Slightly more realistic, perhaps, is a situation in which people may not bother voting because their local government system will be decided by people in Tyneside, Teesside, Hartlepool and all the other unitary areas that make up the majority of the north-east's population. In fact, their votes may be crucial to our getting a regional assembly or not—it may be a close-run thing. In that case, they should be allowed to vote on whether they want a regional assembly. They may well have strong views—in my case, I am strongly in favour of an assembly—and we must not allow that choice to be subverted by a decision on an issue which the Minister must know has been difficult to resolve in previous local government reorganisations.
There may well be a route to a workable system of unitary local government, but I can hardly imagine a worse way of going about it, or a worse way of hobbling the campaign for a regional assembly, than a decision that has nothing at all to do with it.
I shall do my best, Sir Nicholas. I wish to comment on two aspects of the amendments, which I shall vote against.
The first aspect is the proposal to ask the Electoral Commission to come up with the wording of the question and any necessary preamble. I am proud of the fact that we live in a parliamentary democracy, and I believe that the wording and the preamble should be agreed here in Parliament, not delegated to a less accountable body, even one as highly regarded as the Electoral Commission.
The other amendments on which I shall comment—at slightly greater length, if you will forgive me, Sir Nicholas—are those relating to the preamble. Mr. Gummer, in particular, questioned the need for a preamble. I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman. He will be delighted to know that this time next week, I shall be celebrating Christmas in his constituency—[Interruption.] I shall not be going to his house, he will also be pleased to know.
If we do not have a preamble, the Government will be accused of hiding our motives. It is important that it be spelled out clearly to the electorate that they have a choice between the status quo and replacing the two principal levels of local government with a unitary authority and a regional assembly. That seems clear, but I draw the attention of the House to clause 8, dealing with the provision of information to voters. I agree with Mr. Streeter. It would be wrong to have a long preamble. The choice should be made clear to voters in advance. Clause 8 makes provision for that, especially in subsection (2), which states:
XThe Electoral Commission may take such steps as they think appropriate to provide for persons entitled to vote in the referendum such information as the Commission think is likely to promote awareness among those persons about the arguments for and against each answer to the referendum question."
That places a requirement on the Electoral Commission to provide exactly the information called for by the hon. Member for South-West Devon.
I contrast that with the approach of the Opposition. Mr. Hammond, who has just left the Chamber, spoke about clarity and honesty. The amendments that he tabled would add a whole essay to the preamble. Amendment No. 54 would make it necessary to tell people that the referendum was advisory. Amendment No. 20 would inform them that there would be no action until three regions had voted for a regional assembly. Amendment No. 22 would provide a detailed description of local government reorganisation. Under amendment No. 38, the constituency of the directly elected members would have to be set out. Amendment No. 23 would explain the threshold that the Opposition wish to impose. All those together amount to an incomprehensible essay. I hope that, given his comments, the hon. Member for South-West Devon in particular will vote against this group of amendments.
Finally, I shall add a comment of my own on the preamble, which I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider and deal with on Report. Subsection (2) states:
XWhere it is proposed to establish an elected regional assembly, it is also intended that local government should be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils."
I fear that that may be confusing to electors who live in areas with three tiers of local government, because it does not make it clear that parish councils would not be included in that reorganisation into a single tier. I am sure that most hon. Members would understand the provision, and later in the Bill the meaning is made clear, but as a preamble to the referendum question, it may be confusing to electors. I ask my right hon. Friend to reflect on that.
I shall also be brief, Sir Nicholas, in the hope of winning your praise as well.
I should like to focus on one issue relating to the amendments: getting maximum information to the people who may be voting in the referendums. I think that it was Ernest Bevin—I know that the Minister has modelled his political career on this Labour bigwig—pleaded many years ago with the Labour party not to send him naked into the negotiating chamber. If the Bill is enacted, we will be sending our constituents blind into the ballot box and they will be voting on a series of questions about which they have inadequate information. We all want to trust the people, but before we can trust them to make a decision, we must inform them and ensure that they have the requisite information to make an informed choice. We have to spell out exactly what they would be voting for, but the preamble and question as they are configured in the Bill simply do not do that. What people know as they take part in referendums in years to come will be dwarfed by what they do not know about the new elected regional assemblies and local government reform.
Clause 19 gives us a clue about some of things that people will not know, as the information will be available after a referendum. For example, they will not know about
Xthe electoral areas into which the region is to be divided...the number of electoral areas or the name by which each electoral area is to be known".
We know how significant the name of a district or constituency is to local people. They will not even know
Xthe total number of members to be elected to the assembly", so they will not have a clue what the assembly will look like. Perhaps even more worryingly—it is vital to spell out this information in a preamble or in some other way—people will not know about the precise powers, functions and responsibilities of what they are voting for.
When I approached the Standing Committee some weeks ago, I very naively assumed that strategic transport decisions would be taken by the elected regional assemblies. I did so because I thought that that was what the White Paper said. It states that a transport strategy
Xwill spell out plans to address congestion, improve public transport and road links, and ensure that the transport system supports sustainable economic growth".
That appears to make it fairly clear that the regional assemblies will have significant decision-making ability and power in relation to transport decisions. In the Standing Committee, I asked the Minister whether the regional assembly would make decisions on where road bypasses were installed. He said no and told me that that would remain the province of the Government. Unless we spell out what is happening, many people will vote for an assembly in the belief that the bypass that they have wanted for years is within their grasp because of the impression that local people will have power over such decisions. That is complete balderdash, as that is not what the Bill would give them.
Unless we can spell out exactly what people will get, we will be leading the electorate up the garden path. I still do not believe that that explanation can be given in any form of preamble, as it will come at the wrong time. The ballot paper is not the right place for such information. I believe that we need an active Parliament that clearly defines all the powers, and that an executive summary should be sent to each potential elector well in advance so that he or she can make an informed and coherent decision. Unless the Minister can deliver on that tonight, I shall vote in support of the amendments.
I wish simply to underline all the comments that have been made about the importance of local government's delivery of services. I think that we will lose a great deal in that regard. Most people do not know that every single local authority has nominated a member of our regional chambers who will take decisions every day on the important strategic issues, including waste, transport and a range of other things. We will lose that under the Bill. I would rather ensure that every local authority was indirectly elected under the existing system than see its replacement by 30 people who have neither the dedication of local government councillors nor the desire to fight for a seat in this House. What sort of people will they be to take over those functions?
In order to be brief, I wish to speak mainly to amendment No. 55 and about its recognition of the importance of the county and district set up, primarily as it exists in Somerset.
The south-west region is very much a man-made construct that is of modern hue and has no connection whatever with anyone in Somerset. As the Bill stands, when a local voter goes into the polling booth, should the referendum ever take place, he will be confused even by the question of what region he lives in. Somerset is the county of cider, cricket, the renaissance of the Wurzels and Somerset clotted cream, rather than that of Devon.
Somerset clotted cream is, as we know, far superior to that of Devon.
The voter will also wonder, when he walks in to the polling booth, what a single tier is. He will not know that local authorities represent a single tier, because he has lived under the administration of Somerset county council and Taunton Deane borough council. Will he be aware, as he votes, that Bristol, Swindon, Torbay, Exeter, Gloucester and Plymouth are already unitary? Will he also be aware that he is at a disadvantage compared with his colleagues in the north of the so-called region of which he is part? Will he have thought that the urban areas will have different needs? The Liberal Democrats who control Somerset county council keep telling us that the area is rural, although they never do anything about that. Will the voter also be aware that, if there are to be unitary authorities in Somerset, Taunton would be part of the west Somerset unitary authority—which, ironically, would be good for the Conservatives? Although I get on very well with my hon. Friend Mr. Liddell-Grainger, I am not sure that the people of Taunton get on well enough with the people of Bridgwater to want to be in the same local authority.
A regional area is a construct that has no relevance whatever to anyone in Somerset. That is not surprising, because the regional development agency, on which the regional assembly would be based, has been completely useless to the people of Taunton. When I wrote to the RDA asking what contribution it had made to the Taunton constituency, it tried to dress up its contribution, but in fact the money that it had spent had been given to it by English Partnerships. The real keystone, the Government office for the south-west, was, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer said, for the convenience of Government. He also talked about an elected convenience of local authorities. In fact, we miss the point if we have regional assemblies based on a regional construct, because what we need is democratic ownership. That is why I shall be voting for the amendment.
I firmly believe that the terms of amendment No. 39 should be supported. In relation to the preamble, anyone would find it difficult to agree on a word that everyone would be satisfied with, but simple questions are what referendums are about, and we should have two such questions: one on the regional assembly and one that makes people aware of what the local government implications are. My constituents would certainly not welcome finding the borough of Fylde subsumed into a city of the Fylde, dominated by Blackpool. There is antagonism of an historic nature there, and people need to be alerted to the situation.
I agree with the comments that have been made about the need to ensure that people have full and adequate information before they reach the ballot box. Having this type of statement in the preamble is not the place to debate the issues of the moment on this matter. If, however, the amendments are lost and this statement does appear, the Minister should tell us at what reading age it has been aimed. I would like to know why, for example, no alternative form of display for this information has been proposed. It could have been displayed perhaps not in a paragraph but in bullet point form. Perhaps the skills of tabloid journalists could have been applied, in a positive sense, to convey a lot more information to people, so far as the text is concerned. The enthusiasm for regional government was demonstrated to me last Friday when I met members of the north-west CBI. In an altogether random but none the less interesting straw poll of about 60 business people, only two voted positively for this proposal. I believe that the use of two straightforward questions is the way forward.
We have had an interesting debate that has focused on three main issues: whether there should be a preamble and whether there were precedents for it; the use of a single question linking the issue of the regional assembly to the unitary local government arrangement, as against the preference of some Members for two questions; and the definition of regions. I shall try to deal with all those points while responding on the amendments tabled by Mr. Hammond.
Amendment No. 39 would require any order made under clause 1—that is, one to hold a referendum—also to direct the Electoral Commission to determine the question or questions. Amendment No. 11 would also leave the form of the preamble to the Electoral Commission, but Parliament, through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, gave a specific role to the commission. What we propose is entirely consistent with that role, which is to comment on the intelligibility of UK national and regional referendum questions and to be consulted when the question or preamble is set by subordinate legislation.
The 2000 Act does not give the commission the responsibility to set the question and understandably so, as it is meant to be above the political fray such as that which we have seen today over the form that the referendum question should take. As my hon. Friend Jim Knight emphasised, such decisions should ultimately be taken by an elected Government who are answerable to an elected Parliament.
As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge explained, amendment No. 11 has other implications.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, as he has little time. If he rejects the notion of the Electoral Commission setting more than one question, will he at least allow the possibility of there being more than one?
I shall come to that in a moment. I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me, as I want to try to address the point through a series of logical steps. Otherwise, I will not be able to cover the ground in the relatively short time available.
I have sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge on the importance of the electorate understanding the conclusions of the boundary committee review of their region. We also believe that voters should be aware of the implications for local government when they cast their vote, but our approach has been to keep the preamble relatively short and general, highlighting the intention to move to wholly unitary government if an elected assembly is to be established.
However, I can assure the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House that we also intend to put out a factual statement to voters in the run-up to a referendum, which would include more detailed information on the local government changes recommended by the boundary committee. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I can say in response to the questions raised by a number of Members that we would be perfectly prepared to consider having a map to set out the whole region and illustrating it with further information on the number of counties and other districts in that region, if that would be helpful. We want to ensure that electors are fully informed of the implications.
Accepting amendment No. 11 would also mean that no statement on the intended functions or powers of the proposed assembly could be included in the preamble unless those functions and powers were defined in an Act. This is just another example of the Opposition's delaying tactics, which we have rejected. I believe that the Liberal Democrats have rejected them too.
The Minister has conceded readily that conducting the boundary review will take approximately a year. Does he really think that it would be impossible for the Government to get their act together and put the legislation to set up the assemblies through Parliament within a year?
As I have made clear to the hon. Gentleman in many previous exchanges, we are following exactly the same precedent that was adopted in the examples of Scotland, Wales and London whereby a referendum was held to determine whether the Government should legislate to allow the creation of the relevant Parliament or Assembly. We are following exactly the same procedure and we will ensure that information is made available in a comprehensive form, so that people are fully aware of what they are voting on. We intend to publish a statement on the proposed powers of the elected assembly based on our White Paper proposals so that electors are properly informed before they cast their vote.
Xcarried out mainly by central government bodies," especially in respect of regional economic development? The only transfer of a central Government responsibility for regional economic development in the White Paper is the appointment of the chair and members of a regional development agency. Everything else is already done either regionally or locally.
The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to a hugely important issue—the appointment of members of regional development agencies and the oversight of their work. Their work is crucial to economic development in regions, and we are giving the elected regional assemblies that role and responsibility as well as oversight of a number of other areas. [Interruption.] I have not time to elaborate on that this evening. In response to an earlier intervention, I have already given the details of the powers in relation to housing and I could give details about a number of other matters, but time is limited. Let me simply stress that the powers relate coherently to regional functions that must be discharged in a region. Powers relating to economic development, transport planning, housing planning, wider land use planning, environmental planning and cultural issues, for instance, are best discharged at regional level and will form the substance of the work of the elected regional assemblies.
The Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 28, 29, 30 and 51 ask for a separate question on local government reorganisation. Amendments Nos. 30 and 51 set out two different formulations for the question. That is a fairly typical Liberal Democrat approach: whenever there is a chance of being simple, avoid it and try to be complicated. Let us have a proliferation of questions and a proliferation of talking shops!
I remember only too well the parallel situation involving the Greater London Authority. The Liberal Democrats wanted two questions then. They wanted to separate the mayor from the assembly: they did not want a mayor and an assembly working together. They always go for two questions rather than one if they can. It is a sad comment on the Conservative party—and it is probably why, according to the opinion polls, it now has only 27 per cent. support—that it has followed the Liberal Democrats down this fruitless path. Both parties are completely out of touch.
I disagree with both of them. The move to a single tier of local government is an integral part of the regional assembly package. Without rationalisation, a regional assembly will add complexity to the structure of government and lead to an undesirable proliferation of tiers of government. We want a clear division of responsibilities between different tiers of government, and clear lines of accountability between those tiers and the voters. In all parts of the United Kingdom where we have devolved powers to Parliaments or assemblies—Scotland, Wales and Greater London—local government is unitary, and it is entirely logical to have a unitary framework of local government in any region that opts for an elected regional assembly.
Amendments Nos. 19, 22 and 38 would all add information to the preamble. I have some sympathy with what the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge is trying to achieve, at least in the first two amendments. He wants to ensure that voters know which local authorities are in their regions, and what local government changes would be intended to result if an elected assembly were established. I am, however, less impressed by the wording. Why does the hon. Gentleman want to list countries rather than counties, and why has he left out non-metropolitan districts? But I will pass over that. I have already given an assurance that we are happy to consider including a map and an appropriate description, which will ensure that people are properly informed.
Amendment No. 38 is slightly different. It seeks to set out in the preamble what the electoral districts would be for directly elected members of an assembly. It is somewhat confused, in that the Electoral Commission, rather than the Boundary Committee, will advise on electoral areas. Clause 19 provides that the commission should give that advice after a referendum has been held and when an elected assembly is to be established.
No, I have no time.
By contrast with amendment No. 11, the Liberal Democrat amendment No. 31 would remove the preamble altogether. That is a curious proposal, as I have already pointed out. [Interruption.]
The Liberal Democrats' wish to remove the preamble is curious, given their strong advocacy in the debate for the Electoral Commission's proposed preamble; but I do not expect consistency from the Liberal Democrats.
Amendment No. 54 tries to redraft the first sentence of the preamble and emphasises the fact that the referendum is advisory, but our intention is to be guided by the referendum result. If people do vote yes, we intend to establish an assembly; if they vote no, we intend not to do so. That is why, in the wording of clause 2(2), we have said:
XYou can help to decide".
By not stating, XYou can decide", clause 2(2) already reflects the fact that the referendum is advisory. The Electoral Commission considered the wording and was content with this approach. Through other amendments, hon. Members are seeking to place great store by the commission's views on the wording of the question and of the preamble. So I trust that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge will not press amendment No. 54 to a vote.
Amendment No. 49 seeks to replace the current wording of the preamble with that proposed by the Electoral Commission. As I have said, we take the commission's views very seriously indeed, and we will consider its comments carefully, along with some comments made during the debate, including those of my hon. Friend Jim Knight, who made a valid point about parish councils. We will consider all such comments before deciding whether it is appropriate to amend the Bill, and if so, at what stage.
Amendment No. 50, which was moved by Mr. Davey, would delete from the preamble any reference to local government reorganisation. I imagine that he intends it to be consequential on his other amendments, which add a separate question on reorganisation. I have already explained why we do not regard that as appropriate. We do not accept the Liberal Democrat wish for a continued proliferation of tiers of government, and for more talk, more talking shops and more politicians. We want streamlined structures, we want clarity, and we want action, not words.
I turn to amendment No. 20. We have already discussed, under clause 1, the issue of a threshold. Now, the Opposition want to set another hurdle before elected assemblies can be established. If the amendment were accepted, three or more regions would have to vote in favour of an assembly before any could be established. We all know that interest in having an elected regional assembly varies in different parts of the country. My right hon. Friend Joyce Quin rightly made the point that if individual regions want an elected assembly, there is no reason whatsoever why they should be denied. It is a classic comment on the views of the Conservatives that they would deny individual regions the opportunity of an elected regional assembly. No wonder they have such little representation in the north-east.
We heard an extraordinary contribution from Mr. Gummer. In a speech that reminded me of medieval theologians debating angels dancing on the head of a pin—given his very real interest in theology, he will probably consider that analogy carefully—he tried to justify his own current rejection of regions that he himself designated, as Secretary of State, in the mid-1990s. He ended up disowning the whole process of local government reorganisation over which he presided. That is the most extraordinary example, certainly since the time of Mr. Tony Benn, of a former Secretary of State disowning virtually everything that he himself actively promoted when in government. His own legacy was dismissed as—in his own words—a Xload of old guff".
I do not see a variation of interest as a reason to hold back progress in the regions where interest is most advanced. If people in one or two regions vote to establish a regional assembly, I see no reason why the Opposition should deny them that choice. We believe in letting people in the regions make a choice, and we want them to determine the future of their regions. The Opposition want to hold them back, and the Liberal Democrats want simply to delay and to have endless talking shops. So I urge the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge to withdraw his amendment, and if he does not I urge the House to reject it.
I will do no such thing. I realise that the Minister was under time pressure, but he has not replied to the important point that my hon. Friend Mr. O'Brien made about the north-west regional assembly. I hope that he will write to him on it. I should also tell the Minister that, before trying to score a point out of a printing error, it is always a good idea to get the latest version of the Order Paper, rather than yesterday's version.
We can sum up what the Minister told us at the end of this debate, which has been about making information available, ensuring that it is fairly presented, and ensuring that the significance of the question is correctly understood by electors.
At the end of the debate, the Minister has conceded that the only significant power that will be devolved down from central Government to the newly elected regional assemblies will be the power to appoint the chairman of the regional development agency. I suggest to the Minister that if he had the honesty to put that in the preamble rather than talking about
Xactivities that are currently carried out mainly by central government bodies" he would find that the level of interest—however low it might already have been—would decrease still further.
The Minister has simply failed to address the concerns that have been expressed from my right hon. and hon. Friends and the concerns with which the amendments seek to deal; making sure that electors have the information that they need to deal with the question and that any preamble is presented fairly and objectively. It should be prepared, ideally, by an independent body; if not, it should at least at least include proper, factual information and not a lot of Government spin. If the Minister wants to know the definition of Xguff", he only has to look at his own words. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the amendment tonight.