My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)
moved Amendment No. 18:
Page 2, line 1, leave out subsection (6) and insert—
"( ) The Secretary of State may make the order at any time during the period of two years starting with the date on which he gives a direction under section 12 in relation to the region so long as before he makes the order he has no cause to think that that level of interest has changed materially."
"The first condition is that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".
However, when one turns to subsection (6), the clause states:
"The first condition is taken to be satisfied if . . . for the purpose of giving the direction he considered the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".
My understanding is that the provision in subsection (6) should be a test of how subsection (4) is achieved, but no light is thrown on that whatever. We do not know how it will be done or the criteria on which it will be determined. We do not know how the level of interest will be measured. The preamble to that paragraph says:
"The first condition is taken to be satisfied if—".
I emphasise the word "if". One would expect there to be a test, and some indication of how that would happen.
Will the Minister clarify the point and explain what seems to us a pointless complication? Either the clause should stop at subsection (4), so that the Secretary of State needs to accept the first condition that he must consider,
"the level of interest in the region", and get on with it and not tell Parliament how he comes to his view, or my amendment should be accepted and we should set out in the Bill how that will be achieved.
We regard the issue as important because the Bill, skeletal as it is, gives birth to a large amount of executive action that does not need parliamentary approval. For that reason, we think it important that the Minister should help Parliament to understand how the action will be tested. Ahead of the passage of the Bill and without any approval from Parliament, a soundings committee has been established and has completed its work, but we are finding little evidence of what happened out in the regions. However, on the basis of those soundings, according to subsection (4), the Secretary of State—Mr John Prescott—is able to say that, in his opinion, the level of interest in a region has been established, without telling us how that has been achieved. I beg to move.
The soundings exercise has been discreet, to use an uncontentious term. One would not want it to be as discredited as it may be in danger of becoming. However, the amendment does not make it clear how the Secretary of State can judge if there is a substantial decrease in interest in the holding of a referendum. In other words, how is the Secretary of State to assess whether apathy is breaking out?
Let us suppose that a referendum takes place in one part of the country that shows that there is minimal interest in regional government there, and that referendum takes place a year after the machinery has been set in motion to hold a referendum in another region. Surely, it would be ridiculous for the Secretary of State to waste everyone's time and money on having a referendum in a second region, when the referendum in the region, where the Secretary of State presumably believed there would be the most enthusiasm for regional government, had resulted in a resounding "No". At that stage, the Secretary of State should pause and ask himself whether the game is worth the candle.
I shall do my best to answer those questions. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is making a purely hypothetical point. I suppose that Committee stage is designed to test out the hypotheticals, but it is somewhat mischievous of him to raise that point.
Clause 1 sets out the conditions to be followed in order to cause a referendum to be held in any English region on establishing an elected assembly. The first precondition is in subsection (4), which provides that the Secretary of State must be satisfied of,
"the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".
Subsection (6) provides that the pre-condition is deemed to be satisfied if three requirements are met, including that the level of interest in holding a referendum has been considered before giving the direction under Clause 12. If any of the requirements were not met, subsection (8) would require him to consider the views expressed, the information and evidence provided to him and any published material that he thought appropriate in order to satisfy the first precondition. In effect, a new soundings exercise might have to be conducted.
Amendment No. 18 would remove subsection (6) of Clause 1 but would then replace it with almost identical wording. We believe it important that the Secretary of State is able to consider the level of interest in a referendum before directing a local government review which involves enormous resources. As we discussed last week, depending on the size of the region and the number of unitary and two-tier authorities, the boundary review could take six to 12 or so months and cost a considerable sum. Clause 12 enables the interest level to be considered before a local government review is directed. In regions where there is very little interest, a referendum would not be justified. A review would therefore not be held and that expense saved.
So it makes sense for Clause 1(6) to make explicit reference back to that consideration. That is what Clause 1(6)(b) actually does. Otherwise, against what is the Secretary of State supposed to measure the "material change"? There would be nothing against which to check it. As I think I said at the end of our deliberations last Thursday, when the Secretary of State has made a judgment on the soundings—which will, of course, be after Royal Assent to this Bill—he will announce that judgment to Parliament and provide the evidence on which it is based. As I said, the soundings exercise has been formally completed. However, as I also said, we will take on board any reasonable points made during the Bill's passage. Nevertheless the assessment, which involves considerable work, has started.
We shall publish a summary of the responses to the soundings exercise. I do not know whether the assertion that the soundings were "discreet" means that they were done with so much discretion that no one knew about them or whether they were a discrete operation within government. I shall take the more positive view that they were a discrete operation within government and were not done so discreetly that no one knew about them. People knew about them. That will be made clear when we publish a summary of people's views.
I hope that I have sufficiently explained the position to enable the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to withdraw Amendment No. 18. If so, we can proceed to the meat of the Bill.
I was interested to hear what the Minister was going to say about Amendment No. 18, and I listened with great interest to what he said. It is true, I think, that some of the soundings have been carried out very discreetly indeed. Many people did not know that soundings were taking place. Indeed, as I pointed out at col. 1542 of the Official Report for 13th March, people who wished to take part in those soundings were actually excluded from them. Since our last sitting, I have had a number of reactions to what I said and to the very helpful response of the Minister. I shall be sending him the evidence which is now reaching me about those who were excluded or discouraged from attending some of the soundings meetings.
My question is this. If it is shown that the soundings so far have not been held in conformity with what is just, fair, reasonable and necessary to produce a proper result, will the Minister agree that soundings should take place again in those areas so that those who are opposed to holding a referendum at all or opposed to regional assemblies will truly have an opportunity to put their point of view?
First, as I have repeatedly said, the soundings are not about whether to have a regional assembly but about whether to have a referendum with a view to examining boundary changes for regional assemblies. As I said last week, if my noble friend can provide evidence about how the soundings were conducted, that would be fine. However, if people have been unable to express their views, it would be even better if he could send in those views. Although 3rd March was the formal closing date, Parliament is still considering the Bill and debating these issues. As we have said that we will not announce our judgment until after Royal Assent, it would be wrong to say that further views will not be taken into account.
First, those who feel aggrieved because they were prevented attending meetings have the right to complain. That is one issue and can be addressed in the appropriate way. Secondly, they can also send in their views. People should not wait until the process is finished and then say that they want more soundings. As that would be unreasonable and could be considered a delaying tactic I could not agree to it. All I am saying is that if you have a view, send it in.
I know that we debated the subject of the soundings earlier and I do not want to prolong the debate, but I do not believe that we ever tested out how the general electorate were to know about the whole matter of the soundings. "Discreet" can also mean "silent", as well as all the other words that the Minister used to describe it. If there is any evidence at all of the soundings exercise taking place, it is very limited, but it seems to confine itself to the regional assemblies sending out the odd newsletter. It is not the regional assemblies who will vote on the matter but the electorate. I believe that we need to test out a little more how the soundings exercise is encompassing the electorate.
Moving on to the amendment, it is possible that, as a result of these rather dubious soundings exercises, the Deputy Prime Minister will decide at some stage that there is sufficient interest. For one or two reasons, he may not make an order for a fairly long time. By then, all the evidence may have changed and people may have completely different views. Indeed, if the electorate were tested, a different view might result from that.
Therefore, here we are not talking about the immediate soundings, which have now concluded, but whether the Secretary of State would take another round of soundings if there were a fairly long gap between these soundings and an order being made.
I want to pick up a point made by my noble friend about the soundings exercise which worries me greatly. I shall refer later, during debate on other amendments, to a most extraordinary letter written by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to Lancashire County Council. One passage in that letter reads:
"The Lancashire County Council will be aware of the high level of public interest in the North West region with regard to a referendum on elected regional government".
That statement is entirely unsupported by the evidence. I know of not a single well-attended meeting; I know of no reputable letters to the press; and I know of no campaigns or anything at all which suggest that there is a high level of interest.
I also have in my possession a letter written by the CBI to people who are interested in this issue. The CBI points out that it recently withdrew from the North West Regional Assembly because it was obvious that the assembly had not the faintest knowledge of development issues and was wasting its and everyone else's time.
I want to know whether the Secretary of State will place any reliance on such obviously self-serving statements emanating from so-called "assemblies". I should have thought that common sense dictates that one can listen to representations from all kinds of people but the last representations to which one should pay attention are those emanating from bodies which have a vested interest in seeing that there are elected regional assemblies and which campaign to bring them about, even though they know perfectly well that in an area such as the North West there is no interest in the matter whatever.
Before my noble friend rises to reply, I want to say that there is much interest in the North East. In fact, I read in one local newspaper that the Deputy Prime Minister had received responses from the North East assembly members, local authorities, MPs and MEPs, public, private and voluntary sector bodies, political parties, the arts, universities, colleges, black minority ethnic communities, faiths, charities and trade unions, the health sector and transport bodies. Probably the only thing not to have been consulted is the ship's cat at Swan Hunter.
I can understand the exchanges that took place on the previous occasion that we were in Committee, when my noble friend Lord Stoddart and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said that Peers had not been consulted. But I was consulted—through the political party. I can understand my noble friend Lord Stoddart not being consulted through his political party because he belongs to none, but I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, did not attend the Conservative Party's meetings. I can understand that Cross-Benchers say that they have not been consulted because they are not affiliated to a political party. However, I cannot understand the Liberal Democrat Members of this House saying that they have not been consulted because I assume that they can attend their political party meetings. Therefore, it is a nonsense to suggest that there has not been proper consultation. Everyone in the North East has been consulted.
It is said that there is a great movement in the North East for an elected regional assembly. There is also a movement against such an assembly in the North East. I believe that the chairman or chief executive of one body—someone called Herron—was one of the metric martyrs. I believe that has more to do with the European boundaries than it has to do with the regional assembly. Therefore, I can assure my noble friend that there is a great deal of interest, and many people and organisations in the North East have been consulted.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon, and many other people have suggested that there is a great deal of interest in having a regional assembly in the North East of England. But, two weeks ago, the principal regional newspaper in that area—The Journal—conducted a poll on the state of the region. The straight question put to those who took part was: "Are you in favour of regional government?" Forty-five per cent of respondents were against, 35 per cent for and 20 per cent did not know. That appears to be the up-to-date position in the North East of England.
I want to stick to the amendments, if I can, otherwise I shall make the same speech about 10 times. I know that Parliament is no longer reported in the media as it used to be, but the Bill has not turned up here out of nowhere; it has come from the House of Commons, where it was debated at length freely and not behind closed doors. Those who have an interest in these matters will clearly be aware that that was happening, and people cannot claim that they did not know what was going on in Parliament. That is my first point.
Secondly, the distribution list for the soundings document was extensive, although it could probably have been more so. I have not seen, and to the best of my knowledge nor have other Ministers, any of the responses to the soundings because at present they are being analysed by officials. A judgment will not be made until after the Bill has received Royal Assent. Therefore, there will be no issues relating to what the Secretary of State may think or do. Those who send in their views are obviously at liberty to publish them. That is right and it will be known if people do that.
The issue concerns soundings about whether or not to hold a referendum on an elected regional assembly; they are not soundings about a regional assembly. The two things are different. If, as a result of the soundings, and following Royal Assent of the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister makes a judgment that there should be a referendum in at least one region—that is, the boundary review is triggered in advance of the referendum—that will cause another Bill to go through Parliament in order to set up the regional assembly.
Therefore, I cannot give an answer to the noble Baroness's question about the gap between the initial soundings that we are carrying out now, leading to a judgment after Royal Assent perhaps later this summer, and what might happen the second time round if there is a referendum—I do not know how many referendums there will be. We are talking about a period which extends well beyond this Parliament and across the next general election.
There may be a case for saying that we cannot rely on soundings taken three or more years ago as the situation has changed. We shall introduce legislation to set up a regional assembly on the assumption that a referendum produces a "yes" vote and we shall see how that goes. It could be held to be unreasonable to use soundings that were taken in advance of any regional assembly being set up. One may be set up, but soundings may change and therefore another exercise might be carried out. That is a purely hypothetical question for us to consider this morning.
The noble Lord would start the day happily for us and get us all in a good temper if he would at least give the undertaking that he will advise his Secretary of State to put in the waste paper basket the ridiculous self-serving statements from assemblies which are campaigning for regional assemblies. Surely it is ridiculous that any attention should be paid to them at all.
I give my colleagues in the department lots of advice as a result of the deliberations in this House. I have to spell out the facts of life we must deal with. It is good education for them to listen to things that are said. It is true that the soundings are about whether or not to have a referendum and not about being for or against regional assemblies. If people write in on that basis clearly it is outwith the soundings.
The soundings exercise is quite specific regarding whether there is a desire to have a referendum. It is an entirely different matter if people are already out there campaigning on the assembly issue. That cannot feature in a judgment of the soundings when the Secretary of State makes a Statement to Parliament, which presumably I would repeat in this House. The judgment must be based on the specific issues raised in the soundings about having a referendum, not about having a regional assembly.
I know the noble Lord understands this point because we have made it previously. He has always respected other arguments in debates. We thank him for that. The Bill gives us no detail. Therefore, we can deal only with hypothetical situations that may arise. We have absolutely nothing else to go on. We have a White Paper, much of it jargon and difficult to understand. We have asked in earlier debates about what this or that means; we have been told to wait and see. So we simply do not know.
It is not true to say that the soundings are not about a referendum. They are about a referendum. They are not for a referendum, which is the noble Lord's argument. This is not about whether this is a vote for or against a referendum, but, "Do you want a regional assembly?" We know that the question will be, "Is there any interest in this area for a regional assembly?" We also know that we shall not have some scientific understanding of what those soundings mean.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon, talked eloquently about the North East, an area for which I have enormous affection. I was sponsor Minister for the North East for a long time. I know many people there. I must say with some sadness that there is enormous pressure on this House to complete the Bill by 8th May.
We all know that the North East is the only area on which the Government are concentrating at the moment. We know that there is a preponderance of Ministers from the North East. Further, when the noble Lord, Lord Dixon, explained who responded to the soundings, we noted that Joe Public did not feature in any example he gave. A good number of organisations mentioned by the noble Lord were government-sponsored, and chief among them, actively campaigning and I believe illicitly spending taxpayers' money, is the North East Assembly.
I am sorry, but Joe Public does not know about this matter. Personally, as a Member of this House, if we did not happen to have a Bill before us that tells me these things I would not know about the soundings either. Of course the political parties in the North East know all about them, but the political parties in many other parts of the country have not been formally approached. It is simply not true to say that there has been proper public consultation consistent with the conventions on how one should consult. As my noble friend Lady Hanham said, this is about the electors—the people in the streets up and down our country who will be exercising their votes.
The most important constitutional point I want to make is that we know nothing about this part of the Bill or that an exercise has taken place. I must say to the noble Lord that I would not have used the word "discreet" because this has been a nonentity for large parts of the country. People are unaware of the soundings; they do not know of meetings being held; they know very little; their opinions are not sought. I would not have known. The noble Lord has given a fulsome apology that Peers in this House were not part of the consultation. That was absolutely extraordinary. Until the situation changes by diktat, we are Members of Parliament. We should have been informed and our opinions sought.
I return to the constitutional point. This part of the Bill triggers some serious, expensive, extremely painstaking and lengthy reorganisation on paper of local government as to the level of interest in an area determined by the Secretary of State on the basis of his own opinion. Therefore, the level of interest, as set out in the Bill, is absolutely crucial. We want a more scientific measurement of that interest; we want to know whether—as stated on the face of the Bill—Section 12 can be triggered up to two years later. Up to two years later there may well be a different opinion.
The noble Lord says there is nothing to measure the interest against. That is a give-away. The soundings have taken place: there must be something to measure against. That becomes the basis against which either interest has flagged or interest has increased. Therefore, there must be something to measure against. It would be very helpful if we, as parliamentarians, had some understanding of what that level of interest was; how it was measured; and whether large tranches of the country were left out of the consultation.
I cannot over-emphasise the importance of this matter. We know that there is pressure on this House and on those who are working hard to finish the Committee stage by Monday so that the Bill can be on the statute book by 8th May. There is also a rumour that Mr Prescott is ready to go. Guess in which part of the country? The North East, where all his friends are and where there have been conversations with activists who are pro-regional assemblies and where the man in the street is not being given a chance. The only time Joe Public was asked for his opinion—my noble friend Lord Elliott of Morpeth, who lives in and knows the North East very well, gave this away—occurred when a respected local newspaper ascertained that more people were against a regional assembly than for one.
The noble Lord will say, "That's all right. They will be able to express that view in a referendum". But what the referendum triggers is absolutely crucial. We want to know more about it. The amendment cannot be taken in isolation. It is part of a package of amendments. We want to know what the criteria are; we want to know how interest is measured; and we want to have before Parliament a scientific understanding of what those soundings told the Deputy Prime Minister and on what basis he will determine which part of the country, to start with, shall be given an opportunity to vote, not for a regional assembly but to vote about a regional assembly. This is so important that I seek the opinion of the Committee.
I apologise; I missed the fact that it had been pre-empted. I thought that I was jumping the gun on the Liberal Democrat amendment.
Amendment No. 24 would ensure that the Secretary of State could call a referendum in a region only if he had first issued a certificate stating that there had been no activity by the regional chamber or development agency during the course of the previous year intended to influence the result of the referendum.
We know that such activity takes place. I know that the Minister must be circumspect because, if there is to be any judicial review of that activity, it would be entirely wrong of him to say anything now. However, I am not asking him to judge whether I am right or wrong about the existence of such activity. The amendment simply states that a certificate should be issued. If it turns out that I am right—that such activity has been taking place, that it is illicit and precedes Parliament's authority, and that it has involved public funding—that is serious. That creates a prejudice in favour of regional assemblies that does not favour those waiting and acting lawfully until there is authority by Parliament to engage in the debate about whether there should be a referendum to determine whether a regional assembly is set up.
It is common sense that taxpayers' money should not be used to fund a "Yes" campaign. It should not fund such a campaign once it is lawful, because, unless there is a level playing field for opponents and supporters of a regional assembly, the referendum would be considered one-sided, as happens in European campaigns. That would be unjust and unfair to the electorate as a whole.
Even if a majority favoured regional assemblies, it would be better to spend money on public services rather than on costly campaigns, certainly at this stage. As the noble Lord said at many of our meetings, we are well ahead of an actual regional assembly being set up. If a "Yes" campaign gathered momentum at this stage, it would trigger spending of large sums of money until the electorate vote on whether they want a regional assembly. A failsafe way to prevent such behaviour would be to disallow a referendum if any illicit campaigning had taken place. It would render the referendum abortive; therefore, another one would have to be held. I beg to move.
I support the amendment. It would provide a useful safeguard against malpractice. I am bound to say that some things have happened recently concerning the North West Regional Assembly that incline one to believe that safeguards may be necessary. I referred a short time ago to a remarkable letter addressed by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to the chief executive of Lancashire County Council. In paragraph 3 of the letter, the writer seeks to rebut the charge that the North West Regional Assembly has been using public money to campaign for elected regional government, but he seems to make a poor fist of doing so.
The chief executive quotes a resolution passed by the North West Regional Assembly on 11th January 2002,
"we, the North West Regional Assembly declare our intention to become an elected Regional Government".
He then quotes from a press release apparently issued immediately after the resolution. It referred to the fact that the resolution was a decision,
"to campaign for a referendum in the Region at the earliest opportunity to give people in the North West their say on whether they want directly elected Regional Government".
Extraordinarily, he then says:
"The press release was no part of a campaign".
Well, he could have fooled me.
I was shocked to discover that Lancashire County Council gave £47,470 to the North West Regional Assembly, which it now refuses to return. It even has the effrontery to assert that Lancashire County Council cannot withhold its payments for 2003–04. I hope that the extraordinary behaviour of the North West Regional Assembly will be widely publicised and that every council taxpayer in Lancashire knows of the assembly's use of their money.
I wish to ask the Minister this: I am at a loss to understand what right regional assemblies set up under the 1998 Act have to call themselves assemblies. I see nothing in the Act to suggest that they can. I am afraid to say that the behaviour of the North West Regional Assembly shows that it is all too easy for such a body to use a change of name to fool the public into believing that it represents them, when it represents nobody but itself. That nonsense must be stopped. I would like a straight answer to that question.
The Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 provides for the setting up of chambers but there is nothing whatever in that Act to suggest that those chambers can masquerade as assemblies. Yet that is what they are doing, and it is obvious why. They are masquerading as assemblies because, as such, they look like the heirs apparent to elected assemblies. They are lying to the public.
Buried in the labyrinthine corridors of the huge empire now improperly known as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—no office was ever so elephantine in its dimensions—are the Government Offices for the Regions. What do they do? What is their relationship to this? Are they promotion agents for regional government? From some points of view, regional government would be satisfactory. It would take government much further away from the people and make it even more difficult to understand.
I understand that governments live in an atmosphere of muddle. But my noble friends have persuaded me that, in this case, it is not muddle, it is deliberate camouflage. By masterpieces of conjuring, they are going to impose regional government on us all without explaining it, and without any knowledge on the part of the vast majority of the electorate.
It is important from the Government's own point of view that they get this right. Referendums will not be seen as binding or fair if, before they take place, a great accumulation of money has been spent on one side of the argument. That happened in Wales. Much money was spent to promote an assembly for Wales, and only a minute fraction of it was spent on the opposite campaign. Much of the money spent on the "Yes" campaign came from public sources. So taxpayers and ratepayers who opposed a Welsh assembly were forced to pay for propaganda against their own point of view. That simply cannot be fair; it cannot be allowed to happen. That is why the amendment is so important.
I know that the Minister is aware of the problem and has tried to deal with it. The Minister responsible for local government has already made a statement that public funds may not be used to campaign at this or any other stage on one side of the argument. Mr Herron, who was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dixon, and others have taken out actions against local authorities that have engaged in one-sided propaganda using ratepayers' money. I know that the Minister is concerned about it, and I hope that he will give assurances that he will stamp on any authority or person using public money on one side of the argument.
It is legitimate for people to engage in an argument at this stage, if they use their own money or money that they have collected. That is legitimate, and I would support it. However, I am certainly against the use of public money on one side of the argument. It happens far too much. It happened in Malta, for example, where they have just had a referendum. The European Commission and the Maltese Government spent 20 times as much public money, including some of our taxpayers' money, on one side of the argument and still did not get a majority of the electorate to vote for their point of view.
We debated this briefly on the previous day in Committee. I have struggled to find it in Hansard, but I am fairly certain that I recall the Minister saying—he will correct me, if I am wrong—that investigations of the regional assemblies by the Minister for Housing had indicated that public money had not been used to campaign. However, I know of no money spent by regional assemblies that does not come from the taxpayer.
Can the Minister say where any additional money comes from? I am sure that he said that they were satisfied that it was not taxpayers' money. I meant to challenge him at the time, and I wonder how he could be so sure, when my inquiries have shown that regional assemblies are basically funded by government and local government.
The debate has raised two questions. The first is whether there is a problem, and the second is whether the amendment is an appropriate way to deal with any such problem.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I have followed with interest the arguments between Lancashire County Council and the North West Regional Assembly over publicity and campaigning and whether the regional assembly has transgressed the line between the two. It is a matter of distinguishing between legitimate publicity and impermissible campaigning, to use the words in the letter from the North West Regional Assembly to Mr Trinick, the chief executive of Lancashire County Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred. Local authorities—the North West Regional Assembly is not composed only of local authorities, but it is basically an assembly of local authorities in the region—have always to ask themselves that question, when they take a view on a matter of public controversy and wish to promote that view. It is not an unknown problem, and local authorities throughout the country deal with it week by week. It is not a difficult problem; it is simply distinguishing between legitimate publicity and impermissible campaigning.
In Lancashire, it is not just a question of whether and in what way the North West Regional Assembly has transgressed the line; it is also a question of whether Lancashire County Council and other local authorities in the region have also transgressed. I am not sure that Cheshire has taken a clear position in the way in which Lancashire has; perhaps it has. My district authority, Pendle Borough Council, has decided that, given the information to hand about what is in the Bill and the White Paper, it does not wish the North West to go ahead in the first tranche of referendums. In effect it is the same position as Lancashire County Council has taken up .
So, what can the borough council do? There are motions on which it can vote, and it can issue press statements giving its view. Is that illegitimate? If so, it calls into question a large amount of the publicity activity carried out by local authorities throughout the country week by week. The leader of Lancashire County Council has written articles condemning the Bill, saying that Lancashire wants no part of it and disagreeing with the position taken up by the North West Regional Assembly.
Certainly. The point that I was about to make—I suspect that it is the point that the noble Lord was about to make—is that there is a distinction between activities undertaken by individuals who happen to hold a position in an authority and the activities of the authority itself. A great deal of the promotional activity of the North West Regional Assembly has been undertaken not by the assembly but by, for example, Derek Boden, the leader of the North West Regional Assembly. He has the right to campaign in the region as an individual, even if, at the meetings at which he speaks, he describes himself as the chairman of the North West Regional Assembly.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Surely, one can assume that a statement in a press release that the assembly is campaigning for a referendum in the region is correct.
There is an important distinction. The assembly does not have the authority, whereas the local authorities have authority in their own right. They are elected authorities, and that gives them the authority to concern themselves with their own institutions. The assembly represents lots of other bodies, including some of the local authorities in the region. I understand that Lancashire County Council has withdrawn, but the assembly speaks in the name of all the other bodies. It does not have the authority to spend campaigning money in that way.
As I understand it, the laws restricting overt campaigning by the regional assembly are the same laws as restrict overt campaigning by local authorities. I think that that responds to both interventions, but, if I am wrong about that, I will be pleased to be corrected.
I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who asked what right the North West Regional Assembly had to give itself that name. A long time ago, when it was originally formed, I was a member of the North West Regional Assembly, representing one of the local authorities. It was called a regional assembly long before the concept of regional chambers was put into the law of the land, and it merely continued with the same name. I am not sure that there is a huge issue of principle there.
I do not know whether the North West Regional Assembly has stepped over the line. Equally, I do not know whether Lancashire County Council has stepped over the line or whether Essex County Council has stepped over the line in opposing what is proposed. If local authorities step over the line, there are remedies and ways they can be stopped. That is what should happen.
My second question is: is Amendment No. 24 the way to deal with a problem? I think not. It is clumsy; it is over the top. To conduct an investigation to determine whether two particular bodies in the region—not all the other bodies in the region might be involved in campaigning, including local authorities—have carried out activities which they do not have the power to carry out seems clumsy and over the top. The amendment is a way of raising the issue in Committee, but it is not sensible to include it in the Bill.
I have an implicit trust in the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the Minister in charge of the Bill in this House. I would believe almost anything he told me under any circumstances. However, I have past experience with some of his colleagues and I am conscious that some of them are associated with legislation introduced by this Government. I incline my head towards the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley. I recall that during discussions on the National Lottery etc. Bill, which the then opposition welcomed, it was said that if we had a desire to redistribute lottery funds in different directions, there would be a debate in the House of Commons and the Government would take note of that.
When the present Government were elected in 1997, they immediately consulted on whether there were other uses to which lottery funds might be put. Not surprisingly, of 600 responses to the consultation, 540, I believe, were from producer-interests not then in receipt of lottery funds who said it would be an extremely good idea if lottery funds were distributed to them. In a sense it was a question answering itself.
I have some sympathy with the scepticism my noble friend Lady Blatch shows towards the process we are going through. Some Members of the Committee were present at the exhibition of Durer at the British Museum today where I learnt for the first time that although the elephant was to be found in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, the rhinoceros has not been seen in Europe since the third century. Yet Durer, on the basis of information given to him by travellers from distant lands, was able to produce a fairly accurate picture of a rhinoceros.
If it is true that while debating a Bill entitled Regional Assemblies (Preparations) regional assemblies are already in existence—as my noble friend Lord Waddington implied and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, did not seem to deny—the mythology that they are associated with Durer's rhinoceros is in some danger of being repeated. I am happy to support my noble friend.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, for his first few sentences. This is an important issue and one which I hoped I had laid to rest, both at Question Time and in previous debates. But I failed; I shall therefore try again. There is an important distinction to be made on Amendment No. 24, which refers to the period of 12 months before the referendum. It states:
"neither the Regional Chamber nor the Regional Development Agency . . . have carried out any activities which they do not have power to carry out".
That is important.
The Government genuinely believe that the provisions are unnecessary. The two organisations mentioned—I shall deal with them separately—are quite different in their responsibilities and their origins. The regional development agencies are non-departmental public bodies of the Department of Trade and Industry. They act within the constraints of legislation under which they were established—namely, the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. Because of their status they are audited by the National Audit Office and they are subject to the scrutiny of the Public Accounts Committee. As a former member of the Public Accounts Committee—indeed, the only Select Committee on which I served—I am a big supporter of the National Audit Office and the kind of scrutiny it carries out. It is an excellent committee. Its members hunt as a pack. There are no party divisions in the PAC. As no Minister appears as a witness, they coalesce to give the civil servants a bashing. That is basically the theory.
My point is that the regional development agencies are not in a position to carry out activities outside their powers. To ask the Secretary of State to issue a certificate when the PAC and the National Audit Office are their watchdogs is way beyond what we should be doing.
The regional chambers are a different kettle of fish. They are not statutory bodies; they are voluntary bodies. They have been designated for the purposes of the 1990 Act, but they are not statutory bodies. Each has its own constitution. They receive grants—
"If the Secretary of State is of the opinion . . . that there is a body which is representative of those in a regional development agency's area with an interest in its work, and . . . that the body is suitable to be given the role of regional chamber for the agency, he may by directions to the agency designate the body as the regional chamber for the agency".
Therefore, by designating the body, it is actually a statutory body.
I shall take advice, but I disagree with that. The matter of the designation does not alter the voluntary nature of the body. They are as different as chalk and cheese from the regional development agencies in the legal framework in which they are set up.
The money aspect obviously concerns Members of the Committee. The voluntary bodies—namely, the chambers—receive grants from central government and have the powers to act as the regional planning bodies under the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill currently being discussed in another place. In addition, they receive funds from local government. I do not know from where else they might receive funds. I believe it will be just central and local government.
What they do with the local government money is entirely up to them. I repeat that if it is misspent and misused, the complaint ought to be to the district auditor. What they do with the grant from my department is different altogether. After the allegations were made, Nick Raynsford, the Minister in charge of the Bill in another place, made it clear and put it on record that,
"The accountable body [the chamber] may not use any grant paid under this funding agreement"— from the department—
"for expenditure falling within any of the following categories—
(a) expenditure on activities of a political or exclusively religious nature e.g. campaigning for, publicising and promoting the case for an elected regional assembly".
I know that it is almost Orwellian that they are chambers which are converting themselves into assemblies. They are voluntary bodies; in effect, they could probably call themselves whatever they want. All the concentration seems to be on "our friends in the North". But the regional chamber in the South East is in no way "our friends in the South"; it is "your friends in the South", if I may put it in that colloquial way. It is a Conservative-led regional assembly in the south-east of England.
It is the chamber but has decided to call itself the regional assembly for whatever reason. The reasons may be those given by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I do not know. I have had no contact with it and I have not seen any of its correspondence. So far as I know it is not in favour of elected regional assemblies. It is calling itself the regional assembly, but it is the chamber. It is entitled to do that. What it cannot do is spend the money from the taxpayers—by which I mean my department—on such campaigning. What it does with the money from the council tax payers that comes from local government is another matter. If that is considered to be wrong, as I have previously said from this Dispatch Box, a complaint should be made to the district auditor and the necessary inquiries will be made.
I do not know whether any complaints have been made. As regards my department, I know of no chamber going outside it. They have been informed of what Nick Raynsford said and we expect them to follow that.
Essentially, the chambers are voluntary bodies and can call themselves what they want. While it might be thought Orwellian or slipping through under the door to call themselves regional assemblies in advance of being set up, that is their choice. However, despite all the correspondence from and debates with Members on the Benches opposite, it is clear that open warfare is going on in those regions. That both underlines and undermines our previous debate; namely, that no one knows anything about this Bill. We see county councils having a go at each other and exchanging letters in the press. How can it be said that no one knows about this legislation?
I think that the amendment is unnecessary. While I understand why it has been tabled, I say again that the two bodies are quite different. Furthermore, as regards the regional development agencies, the Committee should rely on the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee to ensure that the rules are followed. Once more, I emphasise the fact that the district auditor should look at any complaints concerning the alleged misuse of local government money.
The Minister has been extremely helpful in clarifying the amendment. I am no longer as concerned as I was about the RDAs. However, I am still concerned about the regional chambers or assemblies—whatever they like to call themselves.
First, I do not share the relaxed attitude adopted by the Minister that it is possible to separate completely the grant given by his department to these bodies and the council tax moneys given to them by local authorities. How can regional chambers be condemned for spending the grant given to them by the Minister when he is not prepared to condemn them for spending council tax money on an illicit purpose? Will the Minister condemn any regional chamber or assembly for spending money in the way set out in the amendment that derives either from his department or from the local council tax?
Secondly, can the Minister go into a little more detail about the role of the district auditor? If a situation arises where money has been used wrongfully in lobbying either for or against an elected regional assembly, the matter is referred to the district auditor. What happens then? Has provision been made to provide a brake on the proposed referendum? Perhaps I may take the Minister with me on this point. Let us take a situation where money has been used wrongly and the matter sent to the district auditor, whereupon the auditor rules against the regional chamber. What happens then? Surely at that point one ought to say, "Right, let us stop whatever we have been doing. Let us take a break so that everyone can get back onto an even keel".
I am being invited to condemn the illicit spending of public money and I do so quite freely. By separating the two organisations and making that separation clear, I do not, by implication, support the misuse of money coming from local authorities. In no way do I seek to do that.
There are two avenues of complaint; namely, if the allegation that the money has been misspent is firm, then there is an avenue for complaint. I suggest that the district auditor should be used because that is the correct avenue. However, I am unaware of anyone having made a formal complaint. Again, I do not say that because we have issued a directive as regards my department's money, it is therefore good to misspend moneys from council tax payers; far from it.
Looking at the big picture, it would be unreasonable for organisations to be out of the starting blocks campaigning for something that has not yet even been approved by Parliament and using either taxpayers' or council tax payers' money. People rightly would be suspicious and complain about that, in particular if the body concerned was to change its name and give a false impression. However, if that is what has happened, then I do not know about it. No one has contacted me in that regard.
If someone makes a complaint to a district auditor—I know about this because in the past I have done so myself as a Member of another place—the matter is looked at. If a prima facie case is made for an investigation, it will be done. Believe me when I say that an investigation by the district auditor is very onerous on those who are the subject of such an inquiry. It is taken extremely seriously by chief executives of local authorities and, it is hoped, would be taken equally seriously by a regional assembly. An adverse report from a district auditor is quite a serious matter and certainly would be made known to the public. It could damage the reputation of the individuals concerned; it could damage the organisation and it could even damage what the organisation was seeking to campaign about.
However, so far as I know, no one has made any allegations. We have invited such allegations on more than one occasion and I do so again today.
I am grateful to the Minister for his first answer. Perhaps I may press him a little further on his second response. Let us assume that after a thorough investigation the district auditor finds evidence of misdeeds. Does the Minister agree that, because of the misspent money, that would be the time to halt the process of the referendum?
I cannot answer the noble Earl because, to be honest, the response must come from my learned friends. I simply do not know; there are too many hypotheticals in the question.
The central issue is that the amendment talks about a period of 12 months before the order is laid. The period for the referendum itself—that is, the contest for the "Yes" vote or the "No" vote, if I may put it that way—is very short. I think the Referendum Act 1975 stipulates something in the order of 10 weeks. So to lay the order 12 months beforehand presents a problem as regards interference with the timing.
As I have said, I do not know the answer to the question put by the noble Earl. We are still in Committee. I shall seek to obtain better advice on it so that, if not at this stage then on Report, I will be able to respond to him more fully. The noble Earl is entitled to as good and detailed an answer as we can give, but I am not in a position to do that off the top of my head.
I have a brief question which has not been raised in this debate. Indeed, it goes slightly further than the amendment. I do not wish to impute any dishonour to the bishops in this matter, but one does hear that a number of these assemblies, or however they are known, are chaired by bishops of the Church of England. In those circumstances I think it regrettable that so far no right reverend Prelate has helped us in our deliberations on the amendments.
Does the Minister have anything to say to the Committee about the involvement of bishops in this matter? It could be that their presence would influence the outcome of a referendum. For some of us, the duties that they have been undertaking appear to go beyond what is normally regarded as the divine.
So far as I know, as citizens, bishops have the right to vote. They do not hang up their democratic rights when they take on the role of a bishop. As I recall, the Constitutional Convention that operated in Scotland, where the level of political debate was so much more mature than in England on issues of voting systems, was chaired by a member of the clergy, although I cannot remember his precise role. The bishops are here to speak for themselves.
I think that there is an issue on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Some of the meetings have been chaired by bishops. At those meetings, only one side of the argument has been put. Anyone suspected, if I may put it that way, of wanting to put the other side of the argument has been excluded. That is the problem here. Bishops are held in high regard and are respected. One would expect them to see to it that both sides of the argument are put. However, that has not been the case.
So far as I am concerned, he is a member of the clergy. That was the point I sought to make; I was not going to detail the circumstances in Scotland.
I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I do not know who chaired those meetings or whether anyone was prevented from speaking. I cannot answer for the Government on these issues because we are not responsible for them. There are avenues for dealing with complaints about the process.
I do not know whether the allegations have been made against right reverend Prelates who are Members of the House or against other bishops. When they are in their places in due course, one assumes that they will speak for themselves. There is a Starred Question on this issue on the Order Paper today. Perhaps one of them will turn up to speak to it.
I do not intend to enter the discussion about the role of the bishops except in so far as it is interesting to note that a number of them have spoken in this House in favour of regional assemblies. It is depressing not to see at least some of them taking part in our debates because they have been involved in this issue.
The only further point I would add, without getting into the nuts and bolts of the point made by my noble friend Lord Pearson, is that it is not bishops as individuals that we are talking about but bishops in their role of leading the conventions. There is no law against that; under the law they are free to take the chair. But we have heard—again it is rumour and I cannot confirm it—that, in order to attend convention meetings chaired by bishops, one has to express an interest in having regional government. That also smacks of being one-sided.
My amendment relates to one-sided campaigning. The Minister said that it relates to process and that we are not here to talk about process, but most of the amendments on the Marshalled List relate to process and to ensuring that it is as fair as it can be in enabling people to make up their minds, quite freely, whether or not they want local government upheaval and the introduction of regional assemblies.
My noble friend Lord Waddington has given an enormous amount of evidence that campaigning is taking place. We know that it is taking place in the North East. We also know that the "Yes" lobby has access to public funds. There is a question mark as to whether it is using public funds to—
Does the noble Baroness accept that campaigning is taking place on both sides? There is a campaign against a regional assembly in the North East and there is a campaign for one. There are two sides.
I know that. Such has been the intensity of the "Yes" campaign in the North East that it has driven-up "No" campaign activity. But the "No" campaign has no recourse to, and no authority to use, public funding. It has to campaign privately and it must raise its own funding. A number of noble Lords have equated it to European elections where, if you want to oppose something, you have to find your own funding; if you want to support it, you have recourse to public funds. That is the point I am making about the one-sided nature of the system. My next point would have been that the "No" campaigns do not have access to public funds.
As to the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I do not know whether bodies are overstepping the line in terms of legality. My amendment seeks to address that issue. It seeks to ensure that, before making an order, the Secretary of State should satisfy himself that there has been no illicit activity.
The Minister quite rightly pointed out that there are remedies for deciding whether or not moneys have been spent properly—that is, legally—through the district auditor and through the Public Accounts Committee. I am not arguing against that. But if the Public Accounts Committee or the district auditor were to find that there had been wrong-doing, there still would be no obligation on the Secretary of State to take that into account when determining whether or not an order should be made. But, if wrongdoing has been established by the district auditor—and I know that the district auditor is being asked to look into expenditure in the North East—that should indicate to the Secretary of State that the procedure has been unfair and has created an unlevel playing field.
The Minister pointed out, again quite rightly, the distinction between the regional development agencies and the chambers. It is true that they are different and that the regional development agencies gain their authority directly from primary legislation, but it is not true to say that the chambers are not statutory bodies. They are established under, and derive their powers from, the Regional Development Agencies Act, as my noble friend Lord Waddington pointed out. They receive public moneys, are accountable to the Public Accounts Committee and to Parliament, and have direct formal and informal links to the regional development agencies. So that is not an argument against the amendment.
The Minister referred to bodies in the South East and the South West being in Conservative hands. I hope that I will never be accused of talking about this Bill from a party political point of view. I regard it as being so constitutionally important that it overrides and subordinates totally the issue of party politics. I do not care whether the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or whoever controls these bodies; my concern is the constitutional arrangements of this country. If members of the public are to be invited to express a view on whether or not they want a regional assembly in their area, public money should not be spent by bodies with a vested interest on campaigning for a "Yes" vote while those without all the information necessary to make a decision are left to their own devices to create an opposition body.
The amendment seeks to ensure that, if there has been one-sided activity by bodies with a vested interest in a "Yes" vote—and if that activity has created a distortion— the Secretary of State should be obliged to make a judgment on that issue before making an order under Clause 12. I commend the amendment and wish to test the opinion of the Committee.
The Minister is quite right to say that the bishops can speak for themselves. For the record, just over a year ago the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham raised the subject of regional government in a debate. I took part in that debate. I disagreed with the right reverend Prelate, but he did speak for himself.
I repeat my point about the haste with which we are being pressured to complete the Bill. In a sense it underlies what I consider to be the very serious constitutional point addressed by my amendment.
We know that the Government would like nothing better than to have a regional assembly up and running in the shortest possible time: that means the Bill completing its passage by 8th May; an announcement then being made—as we all believe will happen—that the North East has expressed an interest in having a regional assembly; the Boundary Committee then getting on with its work; and a regional assembly being up and running within a year to 18 months.
Will the noble Baroness please accept that that is simply not so? I have made it abundantly clear that a regional assembly cannot be set up until after the next general election. The time required for the boundary review, for the referendum and for progress on the main Bill mean that there is no prospect whatever of a regional assembly being up and running this side of the next general election.
First, we do not know when the next general election will take place. I do not doubt the noble Lord's word; I accept it, as I always do. I believe that he made that statement in good faith.
Will he go one step further and say that there will not be a Clause 12 order within the next 12 months? I do not think that he is able to go that far. Nor do I believe that he is able to say that there will not be a clause 12 order in indecent haste this side of the Summer Recess. I hope, therefore, that I can be forgiven for repeating that, given the dearth of information in the Bill and our constant search for detailed information in the White Paper, we have to make assumptions. One is that there is a great deal of pressure for the Bill to complete its passage quickly. If what the Minister says is true, what is the hurry? Why is there such haste? There can be only one reason; namely, to determine one or more areas of the country as having expressed an interest in having regional government.
The amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish an independent report considering the constitutional and practical effects that regional assemblies will have on the functioning of Parliament. That is to be done before a referendum is held.
As we on these Benches have said so many times, it is clear that the Bill has the greatest constitutional significance. It would be foolhardy to embark on such a project without fully weighing up the implications of regional assemblies for our historic Mother of Parliaments.
It does not need pointing out to those present that the authority and powers of the Westminster Parliament have taken a pretty severe bashing over the past decade. We can no longer, in this House or in another place, ask questions about Scotland—that is an issue for the Scottish Parliament. We can no longer, as Members in this place and another place, ask questions about Wales—that is a matter for the Welsh Assembly. We now cannot ask questions, in this House or in another place, about London—that is a matter for the Mayor of London.
Wales has its own Assembly, Scotland its own Parliament, and England is to be carved up into nine regions. London has already gone, and the rest of the country is to be carved up into another eight regions. In the worst of all possible worlds, we will get a patchwork, with not all regions having regional assemblies. The emasculation of this place as a parliament will be serious.
At least we should make sure that any decision that is taken is conscious—an intentional decision made on the basis of knowing all the information. The process in which the people of England are to exercise their power to vote should be open. From what is known of devolution so far, we know that the emasculation effect will be very real.
The task would also serve to focus the minds of those in local and, more especially, national government on what powers would fall into the remit of regional assemblies and what would remain the responsibility of Westminster. We are still not sure. We have still had no definitive answer as to what specific powers will pass from the Westminster Parliament to the regional assemblies. Most of us on this side are sceptical about what the Minister has said; we know that he is answering for the department, so this is not a personal criticism. We know that powers will be ceded upwards from local authorities to the regions.
Let us take the Government at their word. They say that real powers will be ceded from the Westminster Parliament to the regional assemblies. Indeed, that is the kind of regional government that the Liberals support, although they will not achieve it through this Bill. If powers will be ceded from the Westminster Parliament, it is fundamental, basic and seriously constitutionally important that we should know what that means for the nature, the character, the powers and the functions of a United Kingdom Parliament.
We can see already that the clout of the United Kingdom is seriously at risk. We belong to the European Union as an entity, as the United Kingdom, but when a viewpoint is being put in Europe on behalf of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament could say that it does not agree with that line. As my wonderful late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish predicted in this House, it is only a matter of time before Scotland wants its own voice around the European table. But as we split up into regions, we know that some regions of this country, such as the North-East and the South-East, are more pro-Europe than others. Because of their geographic proximity and the way in which the grant system has worked in their favour, there is an empathy. We should not sleepwalk into what I regard as a constitutional situation; we should have thought it out in advance.
Since 1997, we have passed a good deal of constitutionally important legislation. We tend, as a parliament—and this is a fault—to take each proposition in isolation. We have not really thought through the ramifications of many of these constitutional changes as they will impact on the integrity of the United Kingdom as a whole. I cannot tell your Lordships just how seriously I regard that issue. Before the people of this country are asked to choose whether they want a regional assembly without understanding the ramifications, there should at least be some definitive explanation from the Government as to how they see Parliament serving this country as a United Kingdom parliament when one area, or more, has a regional assembly. So far, we have a vague idea at best. I am stunned that so little is known about the precise nature of what we are embarking upon with the Bill and the constitutional consequences.
The Minister said that one would think that the Bill had not been through the House of Commons. As a Front-Bench Member in opposition, and even when I was a Minister, I never learned a great deal from Bills that came to this House from the House of Commons, where the guillotine and the pernicious system called the knife are used and large tracts of a Bill are not discussed at all, even cursorily. With regard to the Scottish and Welsh devolution Bills, I am very proud to say that I belong to a part of the Parliament and a part of the parliamentary process that discussed each Bill from the first letter of the first word of the Bill to the last letter of the last word of the Bill, and at every stage of the parliamentary process, without filibustering and without wasting parliamentary time. That cannot be said for another place. Those Bills were barely discussed in another place and the people were asked to vote in a referendum without knowing the detail of how devolution would work in practice.
I cannot overstate the importance of this issue. I regard this as a key amendment to the Bill. I beg to move.
"The Bill offers, for the first time in our history, opportunities to the English regions similar to those offered to Scotland, Wales and London".
Of course, that was absolute nonsense, but at least it shows that the Government are putting forward the Bill as some sort of answer to Scottish devolution. It is a pretty messy and unsatisfactory answer when, at the end of the day, some parts of the country may have elected regional government and some may not.
What is certain is that if the Deputy Prime Minister was anything like right and if, in time, real powers are devolved to the regions from our Parliament at Westminster at the same time as powers are seized from Parliament and given to Brussels, the role and standing of our Parliament at Westminster will change out of all recognition and will be greatly diminished. Some may wish this to happen but I doubt if there are many. The trouble is that we are, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, sleepwalking into these changes. It is absolutely shocking that these changes should take place without any sort of realisation or any attempt to explain to the public what the end result may well be. It is high time there was a full inquiry on the implications of these changes.
I am most grateful to my noble friend Lady Blatch for tabling the amendment, which gives me an opportunity to repeat my question about how the Bill takes forward the European Union's plan for a "Europe of the regions", to the detriment of our national Parliament. How much of our remaining sovereignty will the Bill cede to the corrupt octopus in Brussels? The Government would like to pretend that it will not cede any sovereignty.
I asked those questions on Second Reading on 20th February at cols. 1302–06 and again in Committee on 13th March at cols. 1455–56, 1471 and 1505–06. In the absence of any real reply from the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, who had joined me in this line of questioning, was good enough to press the Minister at cols. 1508–09. He asked the Minister whether he was unable or unwilling to answer our questions. The Minister replied:
"No. I rest my case on what I said and my references to the White Paper. I cannot go beyond what is in the White Paper regarding any of the questions that were raised about the council of the regions"—
I think he may have meant the Committee of the Regions—
"the Chancellor's article—which I have not read—the European Union or regional offices. Either something is in the White Paper or the Government have not yet pronounced on it. If we do so in due course, we shall let the House know".—[Official Report, 13/3/03; col. 1509.]
I can but hope that the Government have thought about this vital question and are now in a position to let us know the truth of the matter.
By way of background, we should recall how the Minister attempted to head off our line of questioning on Second Reading. He said:
"There is no requirement from Brussels, the European Union or anywhere else for England to have a structure of regional government. We are not implementing some plan or plot hatched up by Johnny Foreigner to seek to bring in EMU by the back door or in some way channel funds into different regions. There is no EU requirement that member states should have elected regional government. This is a United Kingdom policy to meet United Kingdom needs".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1251.]
I think the Committee will agree that that is a firm assurance, but it clearly does not square with the Government's policy as set out in paragraphs 8.19 and 4.31 of the White Paper, which I placed on the record on 13th March. To achieve absolute clarity and to help the Minister with his reply, I fear it is worth placing the salient part of paragraph 4.31 on the record again. It says that the assemblies,
"will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods. This would mean that the assembly will chair the programme monitoring committee, play a key role in drawing up the single programme documents, and lead in negotiations on these programme documents with the European Commission".
I should like to pin the Minister down. Do the Government intend to implement that part of the White Paper? Will the proposed regional assemblies take over responsibility from central government—from this Parliament—for extracting and spending funds from Brussels? That is my first simple question. I trust that the Minister can answer it with his customary clarity.
Assuming that the Government intend to follow their White Paper, my second question is also simple. Will this Parliament or the Government of the day enjoy any control over the amount of money that the corrupt octopus in Brussels—or the European Union, as the Minister may prefer to call it—sends to the proposed regions? Will the United Kingdom be able to limit the amount of EU aid that is given to our regions? As I have said before, EU aid is a fraud in any case, because only half of what we send to the crooked filter in Brussels comes back to us as EU aid, and always on projects designed to enhance its own image.
Be that as it may—and it is—my third question is one that I have asked before without getting a reply, but hope springs eternal, so I shall try once more. Will the new regions come to have their own tax-raising powers? If so, how will those powers relate to Brussels? I hope that the Minister will regard that question as esoteric and fanciful, in which case he will be able to confirm that the proposed regions will not have such powers.
I repeat my three questions. Do the Government stand by paragraph 4.31 of their White Paper? Will the UK have the power to limit the amount of money thus sent by Brussels to the proposed regions? Will the proposed regions have their own tax-raising powers, and, if so, how will they interface with Brussels? Those three questions seem pretty important to me, because the answers will show how much of our remaining sovereignty the Government are prepared to cede to Brussels under the Bill. It is also information that should clearly be put before the voters in any referendum.
I sometimes think it would be helpful if we adopted a new acronym to save time and referred to the corrupt octopus in Brussels as the COB.
We keep being told that we cannot ask questions in this Parliament about Scotland and Wales. That is partly true. We cannot ask questions about those matters that are devolved, as opposed to those matters that are reserved to this Parliament. There is an important difference, which is clearly relevant to the Bill if any matters are going to be resolved. We are also told that we cannot ask questions about London. At Question Time I sometimes think I am in a meeting of the Westminster parish council rather than a chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament. We have lots of questions about holes in the roads outside this building, the closure of streets in London, congestion charging and all the rest of it, not to mention the Tube.
Does the noble Lord accept that London is the capital city of this country and the flow of traffic and the ease with which people can get through it and around it are important not simply to Londoners but to the rest of the country? It is a traffic hub for railways and roads. Interest in London is not confined to people in London. Substantially, our questions on these matters are answered with, "This is a matter for the Mayor of London".
As an adopted Londoner for part of the week nowadays, I think the noble Baroness makes my point for me. We are allowed to ask questions about London and to discuss them at great length. I sometimes think that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is a London commissioner in this House. I am not objecting to the capital city of this country being discussed here, just as I do not object to anybody from any other part of the country wishing to raise matters. I am merely saying that the repeated mantra that we cannot ask questions or discuss these matters is not true.
There is an important truth at the heart of the amendment, although we cannot support the amendment. In the words of the noble Baroness, we are asked to take each constitutional proposition in isolation from others. There was an attempt, spearheaded in many ways by the Liberal Democrats, when we and the Labour Party were in opposition, to put together a constitutional package that included lots of useful and desirable things such as the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a move towards proportional representation. An important part of that was the body known as the Cook-Maclennan committee, which produced the Cook-Maclennan report.
One of our great disappointments—it will not be shared by the Conservatives—has been that the Government, in their constitutional legislation, have come forward with a piecemeal approach and not presented each item of it as part of a wider package or vision for the fundamental reform of the British constitution that our party believes has been and remains necessary. We applaud some of the work done and some of the legislation. We applaud the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. We regret that the Government seem to have substantially run out of steam on their constitutional agenda. The Bill is the last fairly feeble spluttering of that agenda before it finally runs into the sand. It is no secret that we want to beef it up and get it going again.
There is a kernel of truth at the heart of the amendment, which is that neither the Government nor Parliament are at present looking at the constitutional package as a whole and seeing what the effects will be. Those effects would include the relationship of this country to the European Union, or the COB as the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, would prefer to call it. We will disagree on how we think that things ought to go. That does not mean to say that there ought not to be such a comprehensive look, but there has not been and we have to take the Bill as it is.
We do not know what an independent inquiry would be or how it would be set up. The noble Baroness talked about why but not how it would happen. We have to make our own judgments into such matters, which we can perfectly well do. Particularly, we will be able to do it if and when we ever get to a Bill to set up regional government rather than this preparations Bill. The amendment seems premature. If such an independent inquiry were to take place, it ought to be in conjunction with definitive but substantive legislation rather than this paving legislation. On those bases, we would not support the amendment.
I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, with some interest. I understand in a way why he might not support the amendment, yet it seems that there is nothing between his argument and that made by my noble friend on the Front Bench in moving the amendment.
For the whole of my life, I have seen a steady process of accretion of power into government. My noble friend Lord Pearson talked about the Government perceiving that as UK policy to meet UK needs. In my view it is not UK policy for UK needs, but government policy for government needs. I make a clear distinction between government and Whitehall, between Parliament and the people of this country.
Behind all the provisions, we do not see a process of real and genuine devolution. The impact of the Bill, if it is passed and the country then accepts it with regional referendums and we finish up with a full regional structure, will mean that there are that many fewer local bodies in the country with which Whitehall has to deal. The counties will go and the districts will go in the shire areas. We will then have nine regions outside London, London itself and a unitary structure down below.
That is the constitutional effect. Having said that, in the process we will continue the gradual turn of the thumbscrews that has gone on for so long. We will see increasing power in the legislation establishing the new bodies, so that the Government can take more detailed control over what they want the local bodies to do. In a way, the Bill is part of that. It is only paving legislation, but two other Bills are coming through. The Local Government Bill is about to come before us, and another deals with planning and compulsory purchase. That Bill anticipates this Bill in a sense.
With the greatest respect, it does no such thing. The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill would operate whether this Bill was ever enacted or not. It is not dependent on it.
I am happy to have that reassurance, but it almost makes my case worse rather than better. What we are seeing is an increasing ability for the Government to control and direct local authorities, one that has gone on for so long, being extended. If it is not dependent on the Bill, that almost makes it worse because there will be control over existing authorities. One has only to look at what is happening with local government finance, where there is increasingly detailed control and direction, and the physical allocation of more and more of an authority's budget to specific government requirements. That is what is really going on.
If, at the same time, large parts of the country's business are outwith Parliament's control because of the constitutional precedents that have already been set vis-a-vis Scotland, London and Wales, and there is less and less for Parliament to do, that may be greatly to the Government's convenience. However, I doubt that it is really what we should be doing.
I shall return to the amendment, which contains the seeds of an interesting idea. It calls for an,
"inquiry into the constitutional and practical effects of regional government on the United Kingdom parliament".
However, I am afraid, and my noble friend would agree, that it says nothing about what should happen as a result of that inquiry. If the inquiry is not subsequently debated and its implications accepted by Parliament, there is no point in having it. I make the argument badly. If Parliament does not consider the report and either accept or reject it, there is no point in having the inquiry. That is the point to which we need to come. It is on that that there is congruence between what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and by my noble friend when she moved the amendment.
I hope that my noble friend will not press the amendment at this stage for that reason. Unless we have the power to get some control over the consequences of the cumulative Bills that are going through—piecemeal legislation that is not being considered as a whole—frankly we are missing an opportunity. At the moment, the amendment does not go far enough.
I can understand the Conservatives being concerned about the constitution. I noticed earlier a couple of noble Lords who were Cabinet Ministers when I was next-door in the House of Commons and the Maastricht Bill went through. I cannot recall the Conservative government tabling an amendment about the effect that that Bill would have on the constitution. They did not even suggest a referendum. I can understand why they did not have a referendum on the Maastricht Bill—they could not even get the present leader of the Tory party to vote in favour of it. To come along now and make that suggestion is, quite honestly, another delaying tactic. The Conservatives are opposed to regional government. They have been honest about that. Why did they not vote against that at Second Reading? If the amendment were agreed to, it would delay the referendum.
I turn to the northern region. The noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred to a poll but I will refer to another two polls. The first is the County Councils Network/ICM poll of the northern region. On support for holding referendum, it found that 60 per cent were in favour and 21 per cent against and on support for establishing an assembly, 51 per cent were in favour and only 13 per cent were against. The Durham county council consultation received 7,000 responses and found that 66 per cent were in favour of a referendum and only 24 per cent against. On establishing an assembly, it found that 66 per cent were in favour and only 24 per cent against. That shows the feelings of the people in the North East.
Having been involved in that poll, I point out that one needs to see the whole poll before quoting any part of it. That is the same with any poll. In the poll, people were not against having a referendum. When one asked whether or not they wanted a region, the cost of the region or what the region would be in terms of area, the percentages went down. It might be appropriate to quote the whole poll rather than just parts of it.
My noble friend Lord Dixon discussed the Maastricht Treaty and I must respond. If only the Conservative government had listened to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and myself during that debate and not voted against—and persuaded others to vote against—the amendment that we had tabled to have a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, how different things would look now. We would probably not have this Bill before us.
However, we all know that the sinner who repenteth has a place in Heaven. Perhaps the sinners are repenting and understanding exactly what powers were given away through the Maastricht Treaty and what more powers will be given away shortly if the Convention on the Future of Europe has its way. I shall return to that in a moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, referred to the corrupt octopus in Brussels. Frankly, that is a telling description. It is corrupt and we all know that for the past six years it has not been able to get its accounts agreed by the auditors. Corruption is going on. Estimates of the level of corruption range from £2 billion to £6 billion a year. If that is not corruption, I do not know what is.
The noble Lord raised a question about the taxation powers of regional assemblies. Presumably, the intention is not that the regional authorities should have tax-raising powers—I believe that the White Paper says this. Presumably, they will have precepting powers and local authorities need to watch their finances if some of them will be filched by regional authorities. I seek the Minister's view on that. If they are not to have tax-raising powers, they would be inferior to Scotland, which is close to the North East. The fact that they would consider themselves to be inferior, as Wales is now doing, would mean that they would press for tax-raising powers. If they are to be significant regional entities, they probably need tax-raising powers. However, that is an argument for another day.
At the risk of making a rod for my own back and giving my noble friend indigestion over lunch, those bodies will have the powers to precept local authorities although they will not be able to change the business rate.
Well, yes. The Minister knows perfectly well that I believe that it is completely outrageous that central government should distribute the business rate. That should be returned to local authorities. If that were done, they would have more independence than they currently have. Indeed, I go further—I do not want to develop this point too far—and believe that we should also give local authorities tax-raising powers. I should like them to be able to introduce a local income tax, but that is another issue.
The noble Baroness pointed out—the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also touched on this—that this House and another place have no part to play in relation to a large number of issues in which they used to play a part. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said "Well, yes". We can ask questions but the problem is that we do not get any answers. The Government always say, "We cannot answer that question because it is not a matter for us; it is a matter for the regions or the Mayor of London". We can ask questions but we cannot expect, and do not get, a reply.
That brings me back to Europe. We always seem to get back to Europe these days, whatever we are discussing, because the tentacles are spread so far and wide. On the regional map in Brussels, England is not mentioned.
I have seen this map—I went to get a copy of it—and "England" is clearly stated on it. I was worried about what my noble friend said. I will show him a copy of the map, which I have with me. It is a European Commission map and it contains Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and all the regions. Overprinted on them—it is true that one needs 20:20 vision and one's Varilux spectacles must be very clean—"England" is clearly stated.
The Minister has seen a different map from that which I have seen, which has not got "England" on it. Perhaps the pressure that some people have applied reminded the European Commission that there is a place called England and a people who live here, and whose ancestors have lived here for a very long time. I am not one of them—I was born in Wales. They are proud of England and believe that it has a great history and hope that it has a great future. Unfortunately, that is somewhat doubtful.
The Minister and others accuse us of harping on about Europe and the European dimension—but there is a European dimension to the question, and it is ongoing. Yesterday, there was a meeting of the Standing Committee on the convention in another place, where we discussed the eighth progress report from United Kingdom representatives. Unfortunately, it had to be terminated prematurely because of the large number of Divisions in the House of Commons.
The European convention is clearly considering the matter of regions, including whether regions should have the ability to appeal to the European Court of Justice if they feel threatened or that the national government have treated them badly or illegally. There is a European dimension to the question, therefore. I hope that the Minister will read that report, because he will see that there is great interest in Europe as to how our regions can be broken down.
When the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, reads the Official Report tomorrow, he should bear in mind, in relation to his earlier remarks, that Clause 1 of the Scotland Act 1998 states that there shall be a Scottish Parliament. There is a huge distinction between that assertion and confirmation on the one hand and creation of assemblies on the other. They are not in a pari passu position constitutionally.
Before we go on with that point, I return to the map that the Minister says he has seen. That map shows Scotland, which has a parliament, and Wales, which has an assembly. Does it show London? We do not know what the nature of the creature is. At an earlier stage, the Minister said that it was neither a parliament, as in Scotland, nor an assembly, as in Wales, nor a government, as in London—it is different. So what is it?
I want to address one point before I wind up the debate—sorry, before I answer this part of the debate. I must correct myself, before the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, intervenes. I was perhaps equivocal in response to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. I want to get that point out of the way, so that it does not create a diversion later. That Bill gives the authority to pay the regional planning bodies, but it is not dependent on their being elected regional assemblies. That was my main point. The regional planning bodies can be elected or not elected under that Bill; it is not relevant to the Bill that we are debating. It is simply a mechanism for paying the bodies for doing some work.