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LID-DEM QUITS FRONT BENCH OVER DEAL WITH GOVERNMENT ON REGIONAL ASSEMBLIES

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By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley ...
By LGCnet political correspondent Robert Hedley

The man largely responsible for building the Liberals' - and later SDP and Liberal Democrat - success in local government left the front bench, and later the chamber, in protest over a deal done by the Lib-Dems with the government over the form of local government in areas where elected regional assemblies are established.

Lord Greaves - former driving force behind the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors - said during report stage of the Regioanl Assemblies (Preparations) Bill that he believed the possibility of two-tier government alongside an assembly should not be ruled out. To do so, he said, would set back the cause of regional government in the north west of England for many years.

He regretted that his colleague Baroness Hamwee, chair of the Greater London Assembly, was moving an amendment - accepted by the government - to give voters in two-tier areas a vote on what form of unitary local government should be established. The Boundary Committee willbe asked to present at least two options for unitary government - which would only be introduced if the region voted in favour of establishing an elected assembly.

The amendment was approved by 129 votes to 79.

Baroness Hamwee said Liberal Democrats had long been enthusiasts for regional government, but the government had made clear that had they pressed for every change they wanted - in particular, the retention of two-tier local government - the government would have resisted.

'That would have meant that the Bill, the first step towards regional government, would have been lost or that the Parliament Act would have been applied and we should have had the Bill in its original form ahich is not one which we regarded with any great enthusiasm', she added.

Baroness Hamswee emphasised she did not believe the reorganisation of local government should be part of the introduction of regional government. Under the compromise, only residents in two-tier areas would be able to vot e on the form of unitary government. It was clear the retention of two-tier government was not possible, but the change meant that the big connurbations could not dictate to other areas the form of local government in their area if regional government went ahead.

Conservative frontbencher Baroness Hanham said the amendment was the nail in the coffin of county councils, finally dispelling any possibility of the status quo. 'Having accepted the amendment, it is clear that the government no longer see ant role for the counties in their present form, despite declaring that they were neutral on their continuation', she added.

Lord Greaves said he could not support the amendments tabled by Baroness Hamwee and had withdrawn from the team on the Bill.

He commented: 'The crunch is whether people in areas that are to have referendums on regional assemblies, as proposed by the government, have the democratic option to decide for themselves and not be told by the minister, 10 Downing Street or anyone else that two-tier local government is not allowed. I would hardly refer to the proposal as regional government as the proposals are such feeble affairs...It is the issue on which, I believe, the negotiated deal sells the pass'.

Conservative Baroness Carnegy praised Lord Greaves and said: 'It is clear that the Liberal democrats are now the little friends of Labour in England, as well as in Scotland' and that there had been 'a murky deal' behind closed doors.

When local government became single tier in Scotland, it was done openly through primary legislation in a Bill separate from that establishing the parliament. In England, no one knew what powers and responsibilities the assemblies - on which people were to vote - would be.

Baroness Blatch, deputy Conservative leader in the lords and former leader of Cambridgeshire CC, said Lord Greaves had been 'very courageous and highly principled'.

She declared: 'Let the Liberal Democrats go out around the country and explain to the people. We are still at report stag e of the Bill; it has another stage to go before it goes to the commons for them to consider what we have had to say.

'At this early stage of the Bill, to sell local government down the river is unforgiveable. I hope that local people are listening to that message. They have handed the government local government reorganisation on a plate and it will not receive our support'.

Conservative Lord Hanningfield supported what had been said by Lord Geaves. Reorganisation of local government did not come lightly. In a large county with two tiers, 40,000 people might be employed. They would be conscious of their jobs and their future.

He had gone through local government regorganisation in the 1990s and Lord Greaves remebered it from the 1970s.

'It takes a great deal of work and discussion. The concern is not only political; it exists among people working in local government who look after the elderly, run schools and provide other such services', added Lord Hanningfield.

A Conservative attempt to have the Boundary Committee review the boundaries of the regional development agency areas before a referend on elected assemblies was held was defeated by 160 votes to 111.

Another Conservative amendment - to have the government produce a draft Bill setting out the functions, powers and responsibilities before any referendum was held - was defeated by 151 votes to 113.

Hansard 7 Apr: Column 14 - 75; 91 - 125

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