Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill
Baroness Blatch (Conservative)
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.