My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 1, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 12 with which it is grouped. It will be fairly obvious to noble Lords that the two amendments have been drafted by different hands. Amendment No. 1 is far less detailed—indeed, I may say far less refined—but it enables me to explain the approach of these Benches at this stage.
At the previous stage, we made it clear that we had considerable problems with the Bill. I want to be clear with noble Lords that we have discussed with Ministers and found a way which, if the House agrees, will take forward the possibility of regional government in a way which we, certainly, regard as far more appropriate.
I should also like noble Lords to be clear as to why. The Minister has made it plain that if we had pressed for every change that we wanted, including—indeed, in particular—the retention of two-tier local government in regions which opt for regional government, Her Majesty's Government would have resisted that approach. 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 which, as I have said, is not one which we regarded with any great enthusiasm.
We have long been enthusiastic on these Benches for regional government where it is wanted. We are aware that here our policy differs sharply from that of the Conservatives, although I have absolutely no doubt that they, too, are anxious to improve the Bill. In some cases, improvement to the Bill in their terms would not be quite the same as our terms. However, I accept that we have expressed similar thinking on some amendments.
We differ from Her Majesty's Government, in particular, in that we do not regard the reorganisation of local government as appropriately dealt with as part of the introduction of regional government. We still regard it as a separate issue. However, we are clear, and the Minister was clear with the House at the previous stage, that No. 10 has set strict constraints on what it is possible to do regarding local government—the number of tiers or, as I have often said, perhaps tediously, spheres. It is important to take forward the prospect of regional government and to build on past co-operation between these Benches and the Labour Party—Her Majesty's Government—on matters of constitutional reform.
The simple aim in Amendment No. 12 is to give people living in two-tier areas a say about local government structure. Therefore, we propose two questions—technically, as noble Lords will see, two ballots. Residents in those areas will be asked a second contemporaneous question and will be given a choice between at least two options for local government in their area. All the options will be for unitary government. It is clear that the retention of two-tier government could not be achieved.
That means that only those affected will be entitled to vote. Therefore, the big conurbations cannot dictate to other areas the form of local government in their area if regional government goes ahead. I accept that voters in urban areas, which are now unitary, could impose a change by the outcome of the question regarding regional assemblies. But which change will be a matter of local choice. For the first time ever local people will have a vote with regard to their form of local government.
There are three additional points, some of which we shall cover later in more detail. It is appropriate to refer briefly to them as they are part of our overall approach. The Government have agreed that the boundaries of existing unitary authorities can be considered by the Boundary Committee for England if those councils wish them to be considered. That will mean that possible nonsenses, to which some of your Lordships referred at the previous stage, can be avoided.
I turn to the publication of a draft powers Bill before the first referendum. I am assured that the Government will do their best to have a Bill published with a view to pre-legislative scrutiny. I understand that the Government by definition cannot foresee the unforeseeable—for instance, urgent matters coming out of nowhere that may take up parliamentary counsel's time—but I have no doubt of the Government's good faith in this matter.
There is confirmation that the White Paper is not the final word on powers to be devolved. On 25th March the Minister gave a helpful answer to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, confirming that,
"the Government are keen further to decentralise responsibility for policy and delivery where this will improve regional outcomes. There are likely to be further proposals for the decentralisation of responsibilities to elected regional assemblies as time goes on".—[Official Report, 25/3/03; col. WA 67.]
I believe that the answer referred to paragraph 4(5) of the White Paper. Last time we were all exercised in trying to hunt down that point. Indeed, the Minister responsible for local government has confirmed that after some years' experience of the Greater London Authority, its powers will be reviewed and it would be logical for such a review to consider the powers of regional assemblies also.
Turning to how Clause 12 will work, subsections (1) and (2) require that if there is a referendum about establishing an elected assembly, there must also be a referendum in each county area, the second referendum being about the government options for unitary local government in the county area. Subsections (3) and (4) define a county area, which in the main will be the existing area of a county council—of course containing districts—but recognising that some of the proposed options for single-tier authorities may mean reorganisation across county boundaries. In that case the clause provides that all county areas affected may be combined into a single county area for the purposes of the referendum and voters in that combined area will vote on a common referendum on the local government structure.
Subsection (5) requires the government options to be based on recommendations by the Boundary Committee for England and must include, as I have said, at least two different unitary options. The Government propose an amendment to insert a new clause requiring the Boundary Committee's recommendations to contain two or more options. These amendments, taken together, mean that options put to voters will be based, as we have already discussed, on an independent review. As part of that review people will be able to make their case for a particular structure.
Subsection (6) means that wherever there is a referendum about whether to establish an elected assembly, the local government options have to be put to voters on the same day. In practice that may mean a single ballot paper, but that is not a matter that we need to consider now.
Subsection (7) prevents the Secretary of State from making an order to hold the referendum until six weeks after he has the Boundary Committee's recommendations, in order to give an opportunity for people to make representations about the recommendations.
Subsection (8) gives the Secretary of State, with Parliament's approval, the power to vary an order for a referendum about local government, independently on an order for a referendum on an elected assembly—for example, to make minor corrections to the description of the options for a county area—but he cannot revoke an order for a local referendum without also revoking the order for the regional referendum. In other words, the Secretary of State cannot cancel a local government referendum while a regional one is taking place.
Subsection (9) allows the Secretary of State to make an order about local government referendums, setting the rules, the way in which the options are set out and other matters. An order-making power is needed because the options, of course, will vary from region to region. Compared with putting the arrangements on the face of the Bill, it provides a little more time to work out the best arrangements for local referendums. Subsection (10) includes lists of specific matters for the order.
I do not intend to press the "purpose" clause—Amendment No. 1—which was described to me late last week as "post-modern", unless the Minister thinks that this is very classical and something that would benefit the Bill. In due course, I shall move Amendment No. 12 as a significant strengthening of the Bill. It may not be regional government as we on the Liberal Democrat Benches would have chosen, but it is much improved from what was on offer two weeks ago. I am most grateful to the Minister for the work that he and his officials have undertaken to enable us to arrive at this point. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment which appears to be an important step forward, allowing people the opportunity to say what form of unitary local government they want in their areas. I rise for one reason. I have had the opportunity to read the full letter written to interested Members by the Minister. I thank him for that letter. He has intimated his preparedness to accept the amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, but I notice that subsection (5) of Amendment No. 12 says that the Boundary Committee should be required to set out "at least two options". The Minister in his letter says that he has it in mind to ask the Boundary Committee to produce two recommendations or more if it thinks appropriate. Would it be simpler to ask the committee to list all viable options? I am unsure why it should be limited to two. I am glad that the Minister does not accept that that is the right result. I cannot see why there should not be a requirement on the committee to list all the viable options.
My Lords, for the avoidance of doubt the letter said "at least two options"; it did not foreclose on any other options. There is a choice. It is up to the Boundary Committee to do that and not the Government. The words "at least" allow for the possibility of more.
My Lords, I am a little less sanguine about this amendment than my noble friend Lord Waddington. I see more mischief in it than he has. Over the weekend there was a small amount of publicity that I assume arose from the Liberal Democrats' publicity drive, crowing that, as a result of the agreement by the Government to take up their amendment on restructuring unitary government, regional government was now assured. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has now reiterated that. As we knew from the Liberal Democrats, that is what they have been out for all the time. Their views on these proposals are now nailed to the mast, although there has been little doubt about that all along.
What do the amendments amount to? In all honesty, they are the nail in the coffin of the county councils. They finally dispel any possibility of the status quo—I acknowledge that the Minister has not been in favour of that—in terms of the local government structure continuing. I thought that that was an option under regional government in which the Liberal Democrats were interested, with the county councils being protected. Having accepted the amendments, it is clear that the Government no longer see any role for the counties in their present form, despite declaring that they were neutral on their continuation.
The amendment follows on from one tabled in Committee when the Liberal Democrats sought to have a second question asked in county and district areas only: whether the electors were in favour of county and district councils being organised into a single unitary tier of local government. It was one that sought to decouple the reorganisation of local government from the question on regional government. As worded, it might just have had our support because it would have elicited a "Yes" or "No" answer. It was also designed to prevent county and districts being overwhelmed by a vote from the metropolitan and shire areas, a point mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.
But the amendment goes far further than that. It asks for views on options for the reform of local government only. There is no chance to vote against reform. Even before a vote on regional government has been decided, voters are asked to decide how the counties and districts should be divided up to form unitary government. As I understand it, there will not even be a second question that asks, "Are you in favour of local government reform?". The two questions will be, "Are you in favour of regional government?" and "Which form of regional government are you going to vote for?", under which there will be several options.
Under the second question there is no possibility that county councils, in particular, can survive in their current form—even if an option were put forward to make a unitary from their boundaries. I recall that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who, I notice, is not in his place today—I beg his pardon; he is present. He seemed to have some feeling for the counties' position. But, if he has accepted this amendment as likely to help him out, I say to him that he has been sold a pup. Unitary government will willy-nilly come out of this. County councils cannot survive, and it is the Liberal Democrats, along with the Government, who will have ensured their demise.
We have tabled amendments both in Committee and today to ensure that information is available about the powers, structures and costs of regional government. But similar information, not just maps of boundaries, will now have to be made available for unitary authorities, since now we have no idea what unitary government will do. In general, it will have to absorb the powers and responsibilities of county councils, taking on, for example, social services, waste disposal, highways and the other county council responsibilities. Any unitary county council left will provide only its share of those services. It will not provide them for its related districts, as in the past.
The alternatives offered here are as puff and smoke. We are totally opposed to what the amendments will do.
My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I fear that I have put my case very badly. I am not quarrelling with the case that she put forward. I do not want to see any local government changes at all. I certainly do not want to see the disappearance of counties. But, assuming that the Government will not resile from their determination to use their voting power to ensure that the price of having a referendum is to have unitary local government, does not my noble friend agree with me that, if we are eventually left in that position, it is better that local people should have the opportunity to choose what form of unitary government they should have than be denied it? I will certainly not vote for this amendment if it will foreclose the opportunity for us to insist once more that there should be no change in the local government structure at all.
My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, noticed that I am in my place, but she did not remark on the fact that I have moved my place since Committee stage. It is with very great regret that I say that the reason I have done so is that I cannot support the amendments tabled by my noble friend today. There has been some vigorous discussion about the matter. My view turned out to be a minority one within our team in this House and in the House of Commons. With considerable regret, therefore, I have withdrawn from the team on this Bill.
I live and am politically active in a two-tier area, so perhaps I look at life from a perspective different from that of those from London and metropolitan areas—or some of them anyhow. I declare that as an interest. Like my noble friend, I shall refer to other amendments on the Marshalled List that are part of a package negotiated between members of my party and the Government—there is no secret about that. The meaning of the amendments moved by my noble friend can be understood only by looking at them in the context of the package.
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 wish to refer to the proposal as regional government, as the proposals are such feeble affairs. We debated that issue vigorously in Committee. It is the issue on which, I believe, the negotiated deal sells the pass.
"If this measure is decoupled, there will not be a referendum because there will not be a Bill. We shall take it away. That is the price to be paid. It is as simple as that . . . If you want to kill the Bill, carry on".
Later the Minister referred to those words as being his "mantra". Throughout the three days of Committee stage he kept saying that it was the mantra and that was that. On behalf—I thought—of my own party, I said:
"We now have threats, bluster and blackmail from the Minister—not rational argument".
"The Minister's attitude is not acceptable . . . We are being threatened that if we do what we believe is right, the Government will take their bat and ball home. If it comes to that, do not blame us. The responsibility would clearly rest with the Government. It is arrogance of the highest order".
Later I said that the Minister was browbeating us:
"The Liberal Democrats will not be brow-beaten in every instance. If he is saying that if your Lordships' House stands firm on such issues he will not get his legislation, then we might as well all pack up and go home".—[Official Report, 13/3/03; cols. 1515-16.]
I repeat those words at some length because I believed then that I was speaking on behalf of my party. After I spoke, I was not given an indication that I had not been speaking on behalf of my party. But I believe that my party has, regrettably, now agreed to be blackmailed, bullied and browbeaten.
Even if a compromise on the Bill were necessary at the end of the process, it was wholly wrong not to test the opinion of the House, at the very least, on those important issues and to negotiate from strength on that basis instead of having the negotiations that took place. I do not blame my noble friend Lady Hamwee for what I think is a very sad series of events. I blame Ed Davey and my colleagues in the House of Commons, and I am happy to stand up in public and say that. I believe that in my part of the world, and in other parts of the world, too, Liberal Democrats will believe that they have been let down on this issue by their parliamentary representatives. In the press statement which the party put out, Ed Davey is quoted as saying:
"These concessions prevent the absurd situation whereby voters unaffected by local government reform would effectively be imposing changes on voters elsewhere in the region".
That is not true. The amendments do not prevent that. All that they do is give those voters a choice. If they believe that unitary government is some form of hell, it gives them a choice of two kinds of hell. That is not the kind of choice that we should be giving sensible and rational voters—certainly not in my part of the world.
My Lords, am I right in thinking that members of each House may freely attack each other on neutral ground, but they may not do that from behind the ramparts of the privilege of their own House?
My Lords, my understanding is that the Companion states that one can criticise members of the House of Commons, as long as it is done on factual matters, matters of issue and principle, and not as a personal attack. I hope that I am not in any way making a personal attack.
I am merely quoting what has been put out in a press statement by my party, and explaining why I find myself very troubled indeed not to be able to support what my party is saying on this issue. The press statement continues:
"The Government's original proposal of only one ballot question meant a 'Yes' vote in the regional referendum would automatically have led to unitary government, as proposed by the Boundary Committee for England".
That is still the case and nothing has changed.
Finally, the press statement says that this,
"significantly improves the chances of referendums on regional assemblies actually being won".
I do not think that the situation in the North West is any different. It will make it much more difficult in one important respect for any referendum in the North West to be won. There is already a united Conservative Party that will be campaigning against it. The Labour Party in the North West is already split, and will not be campaigning for the referendum in any united way. I had hoped that the Liberal Democrats would be. I have no doubt that the Liberal Democrats in the North West will be split down the middle on this proposal. There will be as many campaigning for a "No" vote as for a "Yes" vote. If there is going to be a referendum, the Government has to win—it is not there for the taking. I believe that the chances of a referendum being won are receding by the minute—certainly in the North West, which is the region that I know.
If the Government hold a referendum in the North West, and they lose, they would set back regional government in our region for a long time. I regret that the amendments that are being moved by my noble friend Lady Hamwee, and later by the Minister, do nothing to help us—or them—to win a referendum in the North West. I now do not genuinely know what side I will be on in that referendum, which is again why I am sitting here and not on the Front Bench.
My Lords, I have not spoken before on the Bill, but the issue has now been widened, far beyond the question of regional assemblies, to a constitutional issue. It is clear that the Liberal Democrats are now the little friends of Labour in England, as well as in Scotland. I am surprised to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, about what has happened. It is to his eternal credit that he has made quite plain what has been going on. It looked to me, when I received a letter from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to explain the Government's view, that there had been a murky deal between them and the Liberal Democrats behind closed doors. However, the noble Lord has explained more to us.
It is an enormous matter to suggest that people in a referendum should change their local government arrangements, linked to an assembly decision, without conceivably having enough information to know what they should do. When local government became single tier in Scotland in preparation for the Scottish Parliament, it was done openly through primary legislation in a separate Bill. People knew the ins and outs of what was happening. It was not subject to a referendum.
This is a completely different way of approaching the issue. To think that the county councils are likely to be abolished in that cause before local government elections, for purely political ends, is something that the public should be aware of.
My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lady Hanham. I join her in saying that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has been very courageous and highly principled. One of the great strengths of this House is that when Members of this House feel strongly about something, and consider it a matter of principle, we have a reputation for always respecting individuals' consciences. Certainly we do in this instance. We are sad at the story that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
I rise briefly to ask what is at stake. We now know—and always did—that the Government's price for regional government was to have single tier government. There was much unease on both the Liberal Democrat Benches and ours when this was being discussed. It seemed to us that to ask one question, which then invited wholesale reorganisation of local government, was wrong. There is now a shabby compromise, where the second question on the ballot paper will be, "Which way do you want to die?" "Do you want regional government?" requiring a straightforward answer, "Yes" or "No". If you answer "Yes", then you will get a shabby compromise and you will have to say whether you want to die by hanging or by the electric chair. You are going to get single tier government whether you like it or not.
Make no mistake, that is what is at stake, both in Amendment No. 1 and certainly in Amendment No. 12. We believe that this is the death knell for county government for the following reasons. In practice, one can conceive of it being a less serious reorganisation for districts to absorb the functions of the counties, although it would be a major upheaval. We know that planning is being taken from the counties anyway, and we also know that transferring education to learning and skills councils is only a step away. All that would be left would be easily absorbed by the district councils.
It becomes a clear operation from the point of view of the Government. I say that because I have been listening to Labour politicians for a long time, and I know that their desire has been to see the end of county government. It is impossible to envisage the upheaval that would be caused in the unlikely event of counties becoming the regional single tier. County government has neither the reputation nor the functions and powers of district councils.
It would not just be a question of reorganising local government, there would be completely new kinds of county councils. They would not be the kind that we know at present. Instead of losing districts and having counties as single tier government, it would be much more likely in practice that one would lose the counties, and there would be single tier government at district level. Even at that level, many of the districts are too small to be unitary authorities. Local people would lose their district councils as they now know them, in favour of a considerable merging of district councils across the country. We know what a pain that would be. Whichever way one looks at it, local government will be moved further away from the people.
My final point is purely political, and I make no apologies for that. Let the Liberal Democrats go out around the country and explain to the people. We are still at the Report stage 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 unforgivable. 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.
"we should learn lessons from the past when we go in for such changes. In the forthcoming period and during the passage of the Bill, I hope that we will be able to show that we have done that".—[Official Report. 20/2/03; col. 1330.]
If the consequence of these amendments is the disappearance of the county councils, it is for the Minister in responding to the debate to indicate in what way he has learnt from the past in that regard.
My Lords, I support what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Reorganisation of local government does not come lightly. In a large county with two tiers, 40,000 people might be employed. They will be conscious of their jobs and future. I went through local government reorganisation in the 1990s and in Committee the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that he remembered it in 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.
As a result of these proposals, during the next year there will be even more chaos as people increasingly fight over two, three or four options. The whole idea is crazy. I do not believe that people understand what local government reorganisation is like. It is vicious. Districts fight districts, and perhaps counties fight counties. We will have a year of such chaos.
It would have been much simpler to have allowed a question such as, "Do you want to retain your local government structure as it is?". We have heard the Minister say on several occasions that there must be two tiers or nothing. But regional government in other countries works well with three tiers. The Minister and the Government should rethink the whole issue.
The amendment makes the situation worse. It would cause more chaos, unease and unhappiness for staff. I could not oppose anything more in the Bill. The Bill was difficult before we began our deliberations; this proposal makes it much worse. It will cause chaos and heartache throughout the whole of local government.
Yes, that is right. Before the noble Baroness carries on, perhaps I may point out that she raised the matter. She talked of a shabby compromise given away by the Liberals at too early a stage. That is what she said, the implication being that it would not have been so shabby had they done so later on. That point was also made by another noble Lord.
I do not want to mislead anyone. If the soundings are positive, in order to have a referendum in the autumn of next year—not this year—I made it abundantly clear that the Bill would need Royal Assent early. Indeed, I was even told the date in the Chamber. I was told by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that it was 8th May. She had got the date from her Front Bench meeting and discussions with the usual channels. The noble Baroness did not get it from me.
That being the case, noble Lords can work it out. A government defeat in this House in order to make them listen again and then the possibility of ping-pong between the Houses would mean no Royal Assent by that date. There would be no possibility of a referendum next autumn. That is the policy of the Tory Front Bench because they do not want the Bill anyway. They will do anything to wreck the Bill. For example, on the surface, the proposed change looks modest, sensible, considered and mature, but they know that it will wreck the chance of having a referendum in the autumn of next year.
Perhaps I may finish this point, then I will gladly give way. I set out the dates during the Committee stage. No referendum next year also means no referendum possibly before the next general election. That point was also made clear. It would mean that the objectives of the Tory Front Bench had been achieved. To that extent, doing the deal early stops that.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I need to correct the noble Lord. If the Bill received Royal Assent on 8th June instead of 8th May, for example, the referendum would be held one month later next autumn—or one month earlier if it received Royal Assent on 8th April.
It would be only days if it were simply a matter of ping-pong between the Houses. We obtained the date of 8th May from the Minister's own offices in this House—the usual channels. There is no argument, no intellectual support or defence whatever for 8th May being the last date in order for a referendum to be held in the autumn. It could be held in the autumn if the Bill received Royal Assent on 18th May, 8th June, or a matter of days or weeks later. The noble Lord's argument is not defensible.
My Lords, it is, but I shall not now go into the detail of the steps that need to be taken to set up a referendum. I did so in Committee. The procedure takes into account dates when Parliament is sitting to enable proper consultation to take place and notice to be given in relation to all the stages. The date has been worked backwards. We do not really want the referendum on Christmas Eve, thank you very much. Therefore, we have had to take a sensible approach to setting a date.
I make that point only because the consequences of at least two of the speeches would be a knock-down battle in this House where it is clear that the Government do not command a majority in order for them to reconsider the issue and come forward with another solution. The time taken up by ping-pong would not allow that to happen. The effect would be to knock out the possibility of a referendum and even to kill the Bill.
My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that I stand condemned of the most appalling naivety? I had not the slightest idea of all the comings and goings between the Liberal Front Bench and the Government. If I had known more about that, I would have thought twice before speaking. I have to tell the noble Lord that I am entirely persuaded by the oratory of my noble friend.
My Lords, I fully accept that the comment which the noble Lord made in his intervention during the speech of his colleague was valid. Ultimately using the will of another place—if it were minded to take the same view—the consequence will be to give more choice to people within the parameters. That is what the amendment seeks to do. I do not want to debate whether there should be unitary county councils because it is for the Boundary Committee to come forward with options. Nothing is excluded and it is for the Boundary Committee to consider the issue. Therefore, I do not accept that the intention is deliberately to snuff out county council government in this country.
In any event, the Bill represents a pilot scheme because we will not have national referendums on regional assemblies. We have made that clear. We know that a region or a small number of regions will have referendums and there is no possibility of regionally elected government in this country before July 2006. I made that point in Committee.
I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has had to move himself to the Back Benches, but I have to tell him that he has written the election addresses of most of the Tory opponents of his Liberal Democratic colleagues in local elections. However, that is his responsibility and he will have to bear the cost.
I have great respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, but no analogy can be made with Scotland. However, she was good enough to point out that after going through the processes for setting up unitary authorities, local people were not given a chance to say whether they agreed. Using the noble Lord's words, giving people more choice as regards local government structure must be an important step forward, although I accept that it will take place within the framework of the big picture. Nevertheless, offering more choice cannot be a bad thing.
If the House is minded to accept Amendment No. 12, the Government will move consequential amendments at Third Reading. I shall explain those in detail when I move them. Given that, I do not intend to make a long speech at this point because, in moving her amendment, the noble Baroness explained how it will work and, indeed, she referred to some of those consequential amendments. We have said all along that we are not going to introduce three-tier local government. That is our mantra, if you like. We propose a two-tier system, not one with three tiers. If we had come forward with a proposal to introduce three-tier government, I flatly refuse to accept that we would not have been attacked by the Conservative Front Bench, by Members in another place and by business outside for overloading the layers of government in this country. I know what would have happened and I do not accept the argument that it would have been welcomed in the form that it has been put to the House today.
We think that there is no question that unitary government will offer streamlined government and that such a system will not take local governance further away from the people. Furthermore, the amendment certainly does not seek to deprive voters of the opportunity to learn about our intentions because, as I repeated several times, we shall do our best to introduce a draft Bill before the referendum takes place. In any event, we guarantee that details of the consequences of any changes to local government structure will be put before the electorate, and that those will include setting out the options detailing the proposed powers of the regional assemblies. People will know, first, exactly what they are voting for in the referendum and, secondly, what will be the consequences on other elements of local government depending on how they vote.
We shall require the vote to be taken in each county area to ensure that only those in the affected two-tier areas will be offered a vote in a referendum on the options for unitary authorities. That is an important point. To be honest, a powerful, logical case was put to me on this point. I squirmed as I listened to the speeches in which the point was repeated several times; namely, that it would be unfair in those areas where nearby large urban areas that would not be affected by the relevant local government structure could considerably outvote the electorate in two-tier areas and thus reach a decision on their behalf. That did not seem fair. The form of unitary government we intend to introduce in the event of there being an elected assembly therefore will not be dictated by voters who would be unaffected by any local government reorganisation. The amendment is fully consistent with what we have said all along about the Bill: there will be no new tier of government. That is why I am more than happy to support it.
Assuming that the amendment is carried, a number of other changes will need to be made to the Bill. Government amendments that I shall move later will ensure that the principle of the amendment can successfully be put into practice. In particular, I shall bring forward amendments to Part 2 of the Bill to provide that the Boundary Committee will make recommendations setting out two or more options for each county area. These are basically provided for in Amendment No. 48, which seeks to insert a new clause immediately following Clause 14.
The amendments will also make provision to allow the Secretary of State to direct the Boundary Committee to come forward with different recommendations or to carry out further reviews if that is necessary, perhaps to deal with representations made on the original recommendations. In that event, we intend to specify that a period of six weeks should elapse between the receipt of recommendations and the order for the second referendum, which is allowed for in subsection (7) of Amendment No. 12. The period needs to be extended to allow for further representations to be made on the committee's revised recommendations. The amendments will require a certain amount of tidying up of the references to Part 2 in the proposed new clause set out in Amendment No. 12, in particular to subsections (5) and (7). I shall bring forward relevant amendments at Third Reading so that those subsections will contain forward references to the main direction-making power set out in Part 2 and the new one to be introduced by Amendment No. 48.
We have debated this issue for several hours over the course of our discussions on the Bill. I make no complaint about that because it is the point of principle on which the Bill is based. I did not intend in any way to be threatening when I said to the noble Lord that it is a simple fact that this is a government Bill. If any dislocation had taken place, the Government would not have proceeded with it. That is the choice of any Member in charge of a Bill, whether it is a Private Member's Bill or a piece of government legislation. If a point substantially changes the heart of a Bill, a decision must be made about whether to proceed. I made it abundantly clear that we would not have proceeded unless we could introduce a unitary form of government to sit alongside the elected regional assemblies.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he would be kind enough to answer one question. During the course of our debates I think the Minister said that, if it was rational, the county council boundary could form a unitary authority. He went on to say that it would be up to the Boundary Committee to decide how unitary authority government is formed.
Can he confirm that if a unitary authority was established from a county council boundary, that county council would no longer hold the powers it has at present and that it would adopt those of the unitary structure?
My Lords, it would become a unitary county council. We do not have to invent that form. A unitary county council is already in existence and so what is the difference? What would be the difference between that form and what is in place in Herefordshire?
My Lords, I hope that Hansard will show clearly—as I have endeavoured to make it clear—why we have approached the matter in this way. I assure the House that it was not done lightly and certainly did not intend to suggest that this was a murky deal, as one noble Lord put it. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in that they wish to see a future for regional government. We want a future that gives people choice.
Much has been said about the counties, and rightly so. Their future depends on the referendums and, first, on a referendum on whether the local people in any given region want to go ahead with regional government. Furthermore, I have sought to make it clear that I would have preferred to see the two-tier option retained. I shall return to that matter in a moment.
Building on the last point made by the noble Baronesses, there is the possibility of setting up a form of unitary government on the boundaries of an existing county with the powers of the unitary authorities—although of course one can never be absolutely accurate when attempting to give a two-line summary—that is, with the powers of counties and districts effectively tied together.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to ask the noble Baroness a question. Does she agree that if a unitary authority were based on the county boundaries, the district authority would have to be removed and its functions and powers absorbed into the county? One way or another, under the Liberal amendment, local people will lose either their district authority or their county.
Yes, my Lords, of course; I have never suggested otherwise. On previous occasions I have spoken forcefully about the importance of districts because they are local. Although we have not discussed the position of parishes in this debate, if a noble Lord tests me then I shall discuss the position of community councils and parishes as well. Of course that is right.
The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, got it absolutely right. If the Government are determined not to resile from their position, it would be better to provide the options. He asked why all the viable options could not be listed in the legislation. My Amendment No. 12 provides for "at least two options", but given that the options would be different for each area, it would not be practicable to list all the detailed options.
I turn now to the reorganisation of local government. I understand very well, although I have not lived through it myself, how agonising that can be and how agonising it was during the 1990s. I do not think the Conservatives should be as proud of that reorganisation as they appear to be indicating today.
As my noble friend Lord Greaves said, he and I have different perspectives on this matter. There is not as sharp a distinction in our objectives as one might think. It is a matter of judgment whether to allow the Bill to be killed, which the Minister has been very clear about, or to keep the original form of the Bill. I cannot emphasise too much that it is also a matter of judgment when to negotiate over what might be on offer to achieve what is likely to be the best outcome.
My noble friend Lord Greaves—he is still my noble friend and I hope he is still my friend as well as being noble—said that the referendum has to be won and is not there for the taking. I agree. The referendum in each region must be won. It goes without saying that it is a matter of considerable sadness that my noble friend and I disagree on this issue. He finds himself behind me. We will be together, not in parallel, on an awful lot of issues.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, described reorganisation as sometimes vicious. He rightly referred to the unhappiness and uncertainties that can be caused for staff, among other people. I accept that, but it must also be accepted that for reasons such as resources, reorganisation is not in prospect for most regions for some considerable time. It does not do our colleagues in local government any good—I count staff and officers among colleagues—for them to worry that what we are discussing is galloping over the horizon and will threaten their future in the next few weeks. That is not the case.
The Minister has been clear about the position. I am grateful for his recognition that the vote on local government should be local and not region-wide.
We want the prospect of regional government brought forward, with voters being given the vote regarding regional assemblies and options for local government. The first amendment about the purpose of the Bill was tabled to explain the issues to the House at the start of the Report stage. I shall move Amendment No. 12 when we reach it. At this point, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment No. 1.
My Lords, perhaps I should repeat my apology for having mistimed my entry because I thought this was a different Bill. I have been surprised on a past occasion by your Lordships going, for once, rather faster than is customary and therefore missing my cue. I apologise for any inconvenience I caused.
When the Bill came forward, I wondered what on earth it was for. There was so little accompanying information. My guess was that the local government offices of the different regions which have been established probably needed some garments of democratic respectability to explain what they were at. I still think that there may be something in that. On the other hand, I have had the benefit of considerable guidance from my noble friends on the Front Bench and my noble friend Lord Waddington. My noble friend Lady Blatch made no secret of the fact that she thought the Government were bent on a whole-hog reorganisation of local government which they needed to explain much more thoroughly.
My noble friend Lord Waddington, as is his practice, put his finger on the key question. If these assemblies are not to have any new powers or enjoy the benefit of new funds, what on earth are they going to do? My noble friend asked that question very clearly but did not receive a clear answer from the Minister who is more capable than many Ministers I have known of giving perfectly clear answers when he wants to. If he cannot find one—if there is not one available—not even his love of clarity is sufficient to meet the requirement.
I have assembled, in the best way I can, some information I gleaned from reading at least parts of the Committee stage. I shall be bold enough to remind your Lordships of some eight or nine items. First, this is not another tier of local government. I had always suspected that that was exactly what it would be, but I still do not know what it is. When the Minister told us that the work of existing regional bodies will be brought under democratic control, I wondered which regional bodies he had in mind, what they had been up to and why they needed this sort of discipline. I am still curious to know.
We have also been told by the Minister that the bodies are strategic. I do not think I recall being told whose strategy they have adopted or of what it consists. Here is another slight gap. As one who adheres to the belief that small is beautiful—unfashionable though that is—I was slightly comforted to be told that the assemblies will be very small. I wondered about that. We are told that they will be paid. But why will they be very small when they are representing larger areas? In other words, they will surely have very large constituencies indeed.
The next point I noted is that they will be legally distinct from a local authority. What on earth are they going to do? They are not part of central government—or are they? My original suspicion was that they will be put there to give a cloak of decency to the local government offices which the Deputy Prime Minister has been so busy setting up.
The next piece of information, which, again, I make little comment on—
My Lords, the noble Lord has said this before, but it simply is not true. The regional offices of government were set up in principle and in function by the previous administration. They are nothing to do with the Deputy Prime Minister and nothing to do with the present Government. It is true we have added other departments to them, but the regional government offices were cherished bodies set by the previous Conservative government. The noble Lord must not keep saying it. I know he likes to have a dig at the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is nothing to do with him.
My Lords, I accept what the Minister says. However, it seems to me that the regional government offices have had new life breathed into them under the direction of the Deputy Prime Minister. They have certainly grown from having a weak influence to being much more robust. Obviously, they need some sort of democratic clothing, with which the Government are kindly going to provide them, with Parliament's agreement.
The Minister told us that the assemblies would be only a modest advance in democratic accountability, in spending large sums of public money. That has not really been explained to us in any way; we still need to know what the bodies are, and why they need the extra degree of control. We are told that it cannot be "big local government", because it is not local government. The Minister could have gone further with that explanation. We are also told that no existing unitary authority will have its boundaries interfered with. Only when the structure is two-tier are the Government likely to intervene. However, I still do not know to what extent the fears expressed by my noble friend Lady Blatch, that this heralds a wholesale intrusion into the present framework of local government, are justified or not. One suspects that my noble friend has got it right.
We are told, too—and I take comfort from this, although I do not understand what it really means—that no case has been made out for another tier of elected people. What will the new framework of assemblies constitute, other than another tier? After all, it is new—we do not have it at the moment. When I sought an explanation from the Government, I failed to get anything satisfactory.
My Lords, does the noble Lord remember that when we discussed the free posts for the mayoral election in 2000, the Government maintained that their position was justified because, although London had more inhabitants than Scotland, this was only a local election? Does that not suggest that the concept of the region is not yet securely embedded in Government minds?
My Lords, I am indebted to the noble Earl, who is obviously thinking along similar lines to myself. I said at an earlier stage that sometimes Government language is a little confusing. Some of the phrases that I quoted, which were aimed at explaining what the Government were at, left me in a confused state of mind. I would not wish to suggest that the noble Earl is ever confused, but if it could ever be said of him that he suffers from a confusion of mind, I can only say that he has my full sympathy, because I am suffering from exactly the same disability. I am much obliged to him for his intervention.
I have looked for an explanation of this Bill in all sorts of strange places, including on the Liberal Democrat Benches—although I did not look for one from the noble Earl, Lord Russell. I picked up a quotation from the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, who I am glad to see has returned to his seat. He said: "On these Benches"—a phrase that Liberals tend to use to emphasise their separateness from the rest of us—
"regional government is about democratising that which is in the regions already and further devolving from central government".—[Official Report, 13/3/03; col. 1444.]
I have read those words several times but they shed no light at all on the confusion in my mind. In fact, I felt even more at a loss to understand what the noble Lord really had in mind. If he wishes to intervene, I would be more than grateful.
My Lords, the noble Lord referred to the government office. We have one in Yorkshire, in Leeds. Democratising that which is there means that those powers that are dealt with by the government office in Leeds would be further devolved to the regional assembly, which would be based somewhere in Yorkshire. Furthermore, as was indicated in the answer to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, the Government are now saying that further matters will be devolved. That provides some reassurance to those on these Benches, that the process will not stop with government offices, such as the one in Leeds. I also hope that as time goes on, some matters that are currently dealt with by quangos will be dealt with by the region.
We on these Benches are clear about the duty and responsibility of local government and what is appropriate when decisions are appropriately made on a regional basis. That is why, with some misgivings, we are now supporting this Bill.
My Lords, it would be churlish on my part if I did not thank the noble Lord for the lucidity of his explanation. It is entirely due to my own deficiencies, but it will take some time before I can digest the meaning that I am sure is hidden in his words.
Before I sit down, I should like to be a little eccentric and refer to the amendment that I have tabled. It is quite a modest affair. When a new organisation is established, surely it is not asking too much to ask what it will do, how much money it will have and how it will get that money. That is the substance of the amendment that I tabled, in the—probably—vain hope that it will help the Government to elucidate their plans. It is not so long since they were in opposition, and they must still retain some shreds of sympathy for those of us who sit on the Opposition Benches and wonder what they are at. The Government are in the proud position of having an opportunity to explain.
I would like to know what powers the regional assemblies will have, what duties they will be under and what funds will support them. That last point is not unimportant. I very much hope that the Minister, who I have always found to be helpful in my exchanges with him, will be able to illuminate us. I thank him most warmly beforehand for what I am sure he will try to do. I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend has highlighted the complete inadequacy of the provision in Clause 2. Noble Lords will remember that, before the question on the ballot paper, there is to be a statement intended to tell the voter precisely what powers the elected assemblies will have.
Clause 2(2) states:
"the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies, including regional economic development".
I shall not be alone in arguing that that statement is hopelessly inadequate and, in many respects, thoroughly misleading. For instance, no one would think from that bland statement that there will be no more money for the regions which opt for an elected assembly, and yet we have referred more than once during our deliberations to page 45 of the White Paper, where it is stated quite bluntly at Chapter 5.4 that there will be no inconsistency of treatment between those regions where there is an elected assembly and those regions where there is not. In other words, there will be no more money if you vote for an elected assembly. Why that is not in the bland statement in Clause 2(2) I do not know. I therefore support the spirit of my noble friend's amendment.
We shall address the question of what should be in Clause 2(2) in later amendments, but we should not lose sight of what my noble friend said. As it stands, the Bill is quiet inadequate and does not begin to tell the prospective voter what on earth these assemblies will be about.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, began his speech with an apology. It certainly caused me no inconvenience that he spoke at the wrong time to the wrong debate. I thought it amusing. As the noble Lord said, it is such a rare occurrence for a Member of Your Lordships' House to move quickly that I found it a good moment.
I am sorry that the noble Lord does not understand the Government's policy. He said that he has done a great deal of research but it is obvious that the one document he clearly has not read—although his noble friend Lord Waddington has—is the White Paper which, at this early stage in the process, answers in detail many of the questions the noble Lord has raised. I do not believe that at the Report stage we should go over again many of the points that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, raised in Committee.
It is the Government's intention that there should be clarity and transparency in this process. I see that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is nodding in agreement and smiling.
My Lords, there is no hidden agenda. We are at an early stage in the process. We want everyone—including, most importantly, the voters—to understand the regional assemblies, their powers and their structures. That is why—and my noble friend Lord Rooker and I have made this point on a number of occasions—we propose to publish detailed information about the new assemblies prior to every referendum, if there is to be one. We have made this commitment on a number of occasions and we will stand by it. I repeat, we will give the electorate full information about the powers and functions of, and everything else related to, the regional assemblies.
My Lords, I did not intervene in the debate because, as the Minister quite rightly said, I did not want to go over old ground that has been covered in Committee. I am sure that the House wishes to get on. But I should like an answer to one question. The Minister and his noble friend Lord Rooker have said several times that regional government, regional authorities, regional assemblies will not mean more powers being taken from local government. If that is so, why do the Government want precepting powers in the Bill? If local governance is not going to be pushed upwards to the regional authorities, it is quite wrong that rate payers should be saddled with paying the costs for services which are rightly national or regional. I hope the Minister will be able to answer that question. I am sure that the House will be interested.
My Lords, I am attempting to explain the Government's position and commitment to communication in relation to the regional assemblies. By "communication" I mean explaining to people what the regional assemblies are for and how we propose to deal with them. I shall deal later with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.
My Lords, how can I forget it?
The powers, functions and funding arrangements will be outlined in a Bill that your Lordships will have every opportunity to debate at enormous length. The Bill will be introduced into Parliament once at least one region has voted in favour of a regional assembly. This will ensure that parliamentary time is not wasted and follows the precedent set with the establishment of the Greater London Authority, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.
Importantly, we said in Committee that we would do our best to publish a draft Bill to establish elected regional assemblies before the first referendum or referendums. That important commitment still stands. We shall publish a draft Bill containing the information needed before a referendum. We shall discuss the more specific amendments relating to this issue when we come to them.
I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that there is no hidden agenda. We are not bringing forward ideas that we are not prepared to stand by in public. We are at the early stage of the process. The document Your Region, Your Choice contains a great deal of information. Members of the House have said, "Fine, but it does not contain enough information". We agree. That is why it is important not only to publish a draft Bill—we shall do our best to do so—but to publish enormously detailed notes for voters and the general public so that they have an understanding of what is happening. That will go a long way towards answering the legitimate questions that have been asked.
As to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, about the funding of the assemblies, as well as the programme expenditure for which they are responsible, regional assemblies will receive a general grant from central government to meet most of their direct running costs. However, we believe that the people in any region with an elected assembly should make some contribution towards its running costs, whether or not an assembly raises additional money in the region for programme expenditure.
The level of general grant will be set to take account of this contribution. We also believe that an assembly should be able to raise some extra money within the region if it believes that that is desirable—for example, to increase funding for economic development—and likely to be supported by the region's voters.
We shall expect council tax payers in any region with an elected assembly to contribute the equivalent of around 5 pence per week for a Band D council tax payer. A regional assembly may have plans, will need additional moneys to realise those plans and will get that from the precept on council tax payers.
I hope that I have answered the points that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, raised. Most importantly, though, I very much hope that—
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene but we do not have the opportunity to come back at any later stage. This is Report stage. That is why noble Lords should be allowed to ask final questions. With regard to the answer the noble Lord gave concerning precepting, it does therefore seem that regional assemblies will be able to take money from local authorities and from local council tax payers for matters with which they may not agree; in other words, depriving local authorities of money which they might otherwise wish to spend on their local services. I am not satisfied to find that regional assemblies, without having direct representation, will be able to raise taxes locally, because that is what it amounts to.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I do not wish to address the House on procedure but my understanding is that at Report stage if a noble Lord wishes to elucidate an answer, he or she has every right to intervene further. It could be argued that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, is doing just that.
I repeat a sentence I read out a moment ago. The level of general grant will be set to take account of this contribution. We also believe that an assembly should be able to raise some extra money within the region if it believes that that is desirable—for example, to increase funding for economic development—and likely to be supported by the region's voters.
As I said, I hope that I have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Peyton. He asked many detailed questions further to carrying out his research. In my view those will be answered by the further in-depth information that will be published by the Government not only in terms of explanatory booklets but also, we hope, in terms of a draft Bill which, as I said, we very much hope to be able to publish before the first referendum.
My Lords, I know the noble Lord for his intelligence and for his courtesy. I believe that had there been good answers to the questions that I raised, he would certainly have given them. There are two possible explanations: one is that the Government do not as yet know them themselves; the second is that they have not told the noble Lord, in which case he is in a very unpleasant and difficult position. Of course he has my utmost sympathy because I have found myself not always on the best of terms with my Front Bench, extraordinary as it may seem.
There are two points to which I should like to refer very briefly. First, I welcome the noble Lord's assurance that the Government have no hidden agenda and that there are no surprises to come. That is most interesting. The second matter, which rather puzzled me, was that the noble Lord said that we were at the early stages of a process. Processes can lead anywhere. People who initiate processes are the last to be able always to indicate or prophesy their fulfilment or their conclusions. So I am not entirely comforted by that; my worries are still very much there.
I should have liked—I hope that my noble friend is listening to every word that I am going to say now—to have sought the opinion of the House on this particular amendment which has the merit of clarity and of being easily understood. That is rare on occasion in your Lordships' House. But on the other hand, just as I was beginning to steel myself to thinking that we ought to have a Division, I met the terrifying glance of my noble friend Lady Hanham on the Front Bench. I read from that that if I wished to escape alive from your Lordships' House this afternoon I had better not ask for a Division. Therefore, with great regret, I ask permission to withdraw the amendment. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
moved Amendment No. 3:
Page 1, line 7, at end insert—
"( ) Before making an order under subsection (1), the Secretary of State must exercise his powers as defined in section 25 of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 (c. 45) (power to alter regions) to review the boundaries of the regions as specified in Schedule 1 of that Act."
My Lords, a very fierce Baroness Hanham gets to her feet.
In Committee I introduced an amendment which would effectively have forced the Secretary of State to ignore the boundaries as defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act and to ask the Boundary Committee to start from scratch, inviting submissions from local authorities and any other relevant interested parties about the creation of regions which were compatible in size and which reflected the needs and identities of local communities.
It would be fair to say that my amendment met with a mixed response. I received considerable support from some who felt that the 1998 regional boundaries, which had, after all, been created for administrative not constitutional purposes, were less than satisfactory. They were adamant that the boundaries were nonsensical and that these regions had no obvious unity or cohesion for election purposes. I was faced with allegations from the Government that it was merely a wrecking amendment designed to be an impediment to any progress on the establishment of regional assemblies as any such comprehensive review would take at least a year.
I spent a little time rereading that debate and I have listened to both the support and the criticisms. In response I have tabled Amendment No. 3, which is intended to be something of a compromise. The Minister said that he had not ruled out any future change in boundaries of regions. Not surprisingly, I and many other noble Lords thought that it would be far preferable to review the boundaries at the beginning before making substantial changes in terms of local government reorganisation and restructuring and incurring large costs by setting up the administrative machinery of regional assemblies.
Amendment No. 3 follows that commonsense approach of reviewing boundaries at the start rather than making changes later. As the current boundaries reflect those defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, our amendment refers to Section 25 of that Act which states that:
It goes on to explain that he cannot alter the number of regions. He should, however,
"take such steps as he considers sufficient to secure that members of the public who may be interested in the proposed order are informed of it and of the period within which they may make representations to him about it".
He must also consult the RDAs, the local authorities that will be affected and such other persons as he thinks fit. Any order made under this section must be laid in draft before both Houses and approved by affirmative resolution.
The Secretary of State therefore already has the power to alter regions under that section of the RDA Act 1998. I believe that the section is eminently sensible and well drafted. It does not, of course, go so far as my previous amendment, but it would ensure that the anomalies could be ironed out. Where areas such as Cornwall or Cumbria had particular concerns, the Boundary Committee would have to take them into account.
The steps to be taken are straightforward. The process need not be that over-expensive or time-consuming. The power rests not with another body, but with the Secretary of State himself. If the Government were committed to listening to what the people wanted, they would agree to the amendment. It concedes some flexibility. The boundaries are not set in stone, and nor should they be. The Secretary of State must at least have a look at the possibility of altering the regions before he kicks off the whole process of regional assemblies. Indeed, he might even be persuaded that the number of regions was wrong and should be increased. If so, he could take action to do that.
Boundaries by their very nature are contentious. Those on the periphery will always feel more affinity with the town just across the border than with the central city of the region, which may be two hours drive away. Paragraph 6.4 of the White Paper states that,
"the Government believes that a prolonged debate over the composition of individual regions is likely to generate a good deal of fervour, but with no obvious prospect that boundaries that are more widely acceptable or practicable would emerge at the end".
However, as I said before and as we discussed in Committee, the regions are incorrect. They are completely unbalanced in terms of population and geography, for example. We have had long discussions on the absurdity of each boundary and what it included.
It is frankly irresponsible to avoid consideration of a review of boundaries in the expectation that no preferable boundary arrangement is likely to be discovered. The Government have a positive duty to undertake a review. The power to do so already exists in a previous Act of Parliament. They have consistently said that regional assemblies are about choice and will not simply be imposed. To fail to consult on boundaries would incur great resentment and make people feel that they had been forced into a region for which they had no affinity. I beg to move.
The noble Baroness talked in terms of the Secretary of State reviewing the regions. I hope that the Minister can help us on how many years—I suspect that it would be years—would be required to review the boundaries of the regions, which I read as meaning all the boundaries of all the regions. It would be a matter for the Boundary Committee of England, not for the Secretary of State to design when he was having a leisurely bath one morning.
I hope that the exceptional circumstances to which the White Paper refers, in paragraph 6.5 on the possible alteration of regional assembly boundaries, and to which the Minister referred in Committee can be interpreted quite widely by the Government. It is perfectly clear that there are areas in which boundary considerations outweigh almost everything else. It is also clear that there are some regions where there is a great deal more interest in regional government. I do not expect the Minister to be geographically specific but I can say that, in my assessment at any rate, those areas are ones in which boundary considerations are not as great as in others.
I learned only recently that a full Bill, to which the noble Lord, Lord Evans, has just referred, would have to deal with the issue of boundaries. It is most important that the matter is not wholly off the agenda once we have dealt with this preparations Bill. What concerns us is that the exercise would be very prolonged. I accept that Amendment No. 3 is different, but I was concerned by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness in Committee on creating such an extended programme as to take regional government off the agenda, in effect. I fear the same with this amendment.
My Lords, it cannot be said too often that the present regions were never designed as electoral units. They were never created with elections in mind. They were purely areas drawn on a map to show what would be the area of responsibility of particular Government Offices of the Regions. That has to be borne in mind the whole time.
It is therefore hardly surprising that, when the Government come along with the bizarre idea of having elected regional assemblies, they should find that the regions drawn on the map for purely administrative purposes do not make sense when one considers having elections. Time and again, we have pointed out to the Government the absurdity of some of the regional boundaries when it comes to elections, such as having Banbury in the south-east region, Watford in the eastern region and Cheltenham in the south-west region.
I do not suggest that the Government should necessarily use the mechanism at hand under the 1998 Act to change all the regional boundaries, but they cannot deny that machinery is already at hand to get rid of the more obvious anomalies. I cannot for the life of me see why, when the Government acknowledge that considerable time is bound to elapse before any of the referendums can take place, they do not address some of the most obvious anomalies.
There is always the Cornwall question. Do the Government really want to embark on the exercise knowing perfectly well that it is anathema to the people of Cornwall to be embraced in one south-western region and ruled from Bristol? One has only to go down there to know how unpopular such a notion is. We need a plain statement from the Government as to why they think that such administrative boundaries are apposite for elections, why they are not prepared to iron out some of the most obvious anomalies, and why they are prepared to go ahead without getting rid of the most obvious anomaly of all, which is Cornwall being included in the south-western region of which it feels in no way a part.
The mechanism is there. I cannot see why a great deal of time need be spent dealing with some of the most obvious anomalies using Section 25. I will not be fobbed off by the Minister saying, "Well, I am asking for everything to be put into the melting pot and a new map drawn". I am saying that the Government have no excuse for ducking the need to get rid of the most obvious anomalies. They should get on with it right away by using Section 25 of the 1998 Act.
My Lords, I want to speak along those lines in support of the amendment. We tabled it because it is simple. Totally contrary to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said, it is not designed to take some time. It addresses some of the most silly situations currently in the boundaries. We accept, of course, that the Minister has said several times that different parts of the country might not have referendums in the near future so the problem does not matter.
We had a similar debate on the Bill about the regional development agencies. Several of us made the points then, certainly in relation to the East and South East where the boundaries are most difficult. I repeat what I have said before, which is that Essex and Hertfordshire, much as we love Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, have much more in common with the South East and London. Everything would be much better for the RDAs in terms of economic development and planning processes if action were taken now. The Minister himself has been putting forward development proposals for the South East which will always include Essex. It would be much better if we were included with those counties. So in addition to sorting out the boundaries for the referendums, Amendment No. 3 could help in relation to the RDAs.
Many of us were involved from the outset and saw how the then Conservative government created the government offices. There were government offices all over the place in the Eastern region—in Bedfordshire, in Cambridge and some in Suffolk—but they were centralised in Cambridge. It made sense to do that. At one stage, for many purposes, Buckinghamshire was included in the Eastern region. It was then moved into the South East. It would be better for everyone if this issue, which concerns not only this Bill, were addressed now. If we are to have referendums, they should be based on sensible regions. As we have said, regions in other countries were created for historical reasons—they may at one stage have been countries themselves or served some other particular purpose. We do not have such a history in England.
We should make some sense of the proposals. That is an easy request for the Minister. He would make many of us happier if he said today that he will examine the boundaries, both in terms of the Bill and in order to make sense of the arrangements. It is an easy one and I hope that he will give us some satisfaction.
My Lords, this is a good example of a case in which the Government have the choice of rushing legislation or getting it right. They clearly want to rush it. We have been told that it would be impossible to delay the proposals for even two or three weeks. I have been given that type of bureaucratic hogwash by officials and politicians for the past 35 years but I do not believe any of it.
In Committee various amendments on boundaries were proposed. In the morning, we discussed at great length a Conservative amendment which was not satisfactory because it contained all sorts of impractical detail. In the afternoon, we discussed a Liberal Democrat amendment which I moved on behalf of these Benches. I thought that we had come to some agreement that the essence of the amendment that I had moved would be acceptable also to the Conservatives. Although the wording is different, I cannot discern a difference in meaning between the Conservatives' Amendment No. 3 and the amendment that I moved in Committee. So I am not quite sure why we are not supporting the Conservatives' Amendment No. 3.
My Lords, I tend to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that there is no real reason why this legislation should be rushed. There is absolutely no reason why we should have the first referendum during the life of this Parliament. We do not even know what the life of this Parliament will be—it could end next year. So there is no rush about it.
The present regional boundaries were set up in 1995 to cope with the decision which I believe was made at Maastricht that there should be direct relationships between the regions and the Commission over the disbursement of the social and economic development funds. If the Government really want to develop regionalisation, it seems absurd not to have looked at the boundaries that were created in 1995 for a specific purpose. It would satisfy people across the country, and indeed satisfy Members of this House, to hear the Government say that they will look at the present regional boundaries to ensure that they are the very best boundaries to suit their purposes. I think that people would feel a lot happier and be much more trusting of the legislation if the Government did that.
My Lords, we spent a lot of time discussing this issue in Committee. One of the points discussed, with which I think the Minister had some sympathy, was the boundaries of the metropolitan areas. At that stage those boundaries were inviolate and could not be examined, although the council and district boundaries could be examined. In his reply, will the Minister tell us what further consideration he has given to the matter and what are his current thoughts?
My Lords, I shall be very brief. I can remember when the Cabinet committee was discussing the introduction of government offices in English regions. I remember thinking to myself that the move potentially served the purposes of the Labour Party and that no good would come of it. However, even I never dreamed that the Government would throw the whole of English local government in the air just to see what sort of kaleidoscope reached the ground.
On the first amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, answered a question that I put to him about lessons which might be learnt from the disappearance of local government by giving me an answer that bore no relation to the question I had asked. However, we are back with a lesson on this occasion, too, in the context of anomalies. It was a matter of pride among English cartographers that they always did their own mapping and did not copy earlier maps. The great John Speed mapped Wiltshire within a dozen miles of where I live. A village called Burcombe was on either side of what is now the A30. John Speed called the part to the south Burcombe. Because he did not know the name of the north side, he simply wrote on the map, "Query". It so happens that if you look at any Wiltshire map made from then onwards, the word "Query" still appears to the north of the road, even though English cartographers said that they never copied earlier maps made by other people.
I follow my noble friends who have spoken about anomalies. It would be a great pity if, like John Speed's "Query", anomalies remained on our regional maps for ever.
My Lords, it is some time since my noble friend Lady Hamwee spoke. One of the issues that she hopes the Minister will address is what will happen under the Bill. As we on these Benches understand it—and the point has been reiterated today—there will be a draft Bill before referendums are put in place. Although we understand that the boundaries issue will be addressed in that Bill, our deliberations would be greatly assisted if that could be made quite clear. The boundary issue is more important in some parts of the country than in others. People in my own area in north-east England are quite clear that they live in the North East, and they want a referendum as soon as they can have one.
My Lords, the debate has lasted longer than I expected. If anyone else wishes to speak they should do so. I certainly do not want to stop it.
To all who asked about our thinking since Committee stage, at the risk of repeating myself and boring the House—because this is the same debate as we had in Committee—I point out that, as we and the White Paper have made clear, a revisitation of the boundary issue in the undetermined future is not ruled out. However, that is not part of this Bill. I want to make it absolutely clear that we currently have no plans for changing the regional boundaries or the number of regions.
Noble Lords seem to think that such a change is simply a five-minute job on the back of an envelope and will not delay anything. They also seem to think that just one regional boundary can be changed and the others can be left alone. If the boundary is changed for one region, it will mean a change for another; and there is a knock-on effect.
I do not want to upset the Front Bench opposite. Incidentally, I was about to say that the vigorous, sustained political attack from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, means early promotion to the Front Bench for him. It will certainly remove the blot on his copybook that occurred earlier this afternoon.
My basic point is that any walking down this road means that the situation would be exactly the same as in earlier debates: no referendums next year, no referendums this side of a general election. It kills the Bill. That is the consequence of even looking at the boundaries. If this Bill receives Royal Assent and the soundings indicate a region or regions where there is a desire to hold a referendum, one of the first actions of the Secretary of State will be to ask the Boundary Committee to review local government structures within the region. If it does not know what the region is, it cannot do that. That means no referendum next autumn.
That is part of the plot. The plot is to stop the referendums. I understand the issue. The Conservative Opposition is against the Bill in principle. I am not criticising the amendment. This is a natural point to raise. The regions do vary in size in terms of both population and land area; they vary in the way in which they are governed and in their structures. England is not the same all over and it is right that they should vary.
My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but I am becoming a trifle confused. I have not read anything in the Bill which says that it will cease to be valid if its provisions are slightly delayed. There is nothing in the Bill resembling a sunset clause. The Minister is imposing his own from the Front Bench in saying that this is government policy. As I read the Bill, a year or two, or five, could perfectly well be taken to review the boundaries if that were so wished. Unless Parliament repeals the Bill, it will remain active.
My Lords, I am not making this up as I go along. I set out the policy clearly in Committee, as best I could given the present detail, working back from obtaining, if desired, a referendum next autumn. If that timetable is not met, there will be no referendum. There will be no prospect of regional government in July 2006 at the earliest. There will probably be no prospect of a referendum the year after. Then, there will be all the fuss about a possible general election after four years. There will be all those difficulties. This simply kills the idea stone dead. Noble Lords can shake their heads and disagree all they like. That is the policy. The policy is: if there is a desire for regional elected assemblies and a desire to have a referendum to bring them about, the best available opportunity that we have worked out, going through all due process, is to aim for referendums by next autumn. It will take us that long to do it. The noble Lord wants to intervene again. That is fine, but I have not started addressing the amendment.
My Lords, it is government policy. I make no apology for that. It helps the House in coming to an informed decision, where there is a timetable involved, to know what the policy is. In answering what can be a good, sensible, mature case—namely, to examine the boundaries—I have to explain why we do not agree with the amendment. The reasons are different. They are not reasons of principle—because we have said that we do not rule out looking at the boundaries in future. They are reasons of practicality—to try to achieve the objective that, if the people of this country indicate that they want regional government, they should have an opportunity to vote in a referendum to bring it about. That is another answer to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that there will be no consideration. It is only a couple of weeks since the debates in Committee on the metropolitan boundaries.
There have been a large number of references to Section 25 of the Regional Development Agencies Act. It is as though the Secretary of State could just go out, willy-nilly, and redraw boundaries himself. First, he cannot add to the boundaries. In moving the amendment, the noble Baroness said that he could not increase the number, but went on to talk about changing the numbers, as did another noble Lord. If there is nothing fixed about the boundaries, why is anything fixed in regard to nine regions? If you open up the can of worms, there has to be flexibility in asking whether we have the right number of regions? That is not provided for in the regional development—
Yes, my Lords, that would naturally follow—which also rules it out. But, as I say, we have not ruled out in the longer term the possibility of adopting boundaries for regional assemblies that do not follow the existing regional boundaries.
A key aim of elected regional assemblies is to bring under democratic control and scrutiny the work of existing regional bodies. A significant number of these—not all—are based on the existing regions: the Government Offices, the regional development agencies and other parts of government operate to these boundaries. Redrawing them now would create tremendous upheaval. It would indeed stop the process in its tracks, which is the intention behind this otherwise sensible and mature amendment. It would certainly delay the first referendums. It might necessitate holding public inquiries. It is not something that Ministers can do at a stroke.
It is interesting to note the long-distance considerations in previous Cabinet discussions when the boundaries were set up at the time of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. It was highly optimistic on the part of those involved to assume that at some point in the future there would be a Labour government. I can assure noble Lords that we in opposition did not think that. In those days things were looking pretty bad.
So there is a real problem. The existing boundaries are a reasonable size. They vary in population, as the country varies, and in geography and demographic weight. So what? We do not want everywhere to be the same. I understand that people feel very strongly about this, but in terms of how many years it would take to review all the regional boundaries—at the risk of frightening everyone and having it said that I am using extreme language—we have no experience in terms of how the review would be carried out, but we have to look at the timetable for the review of the parliamentary boundaries. In our view, a major review takes several years. This cannot be done in a few months. That is contrary to the Government's policy—for which I make no apology—of being able to let people choose whether or not they want the opportunity to have elected regional government. Therefore, having had the same debate twice, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.
My Lords, I was interested in the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who I understand is considered something of a black sheep at the moment. He rightly drew attention to an amendment in his name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in Committee suggesting, in relation to page 1, line 7, that a referendum should be held after the Boundary Committee for England had reviewed the number and boundaries of the regions specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 and reported its recommendations to the Secretary of State. That is practically identical to what I am proposing today. Yet, somewhere along the line in the grubby backdoor discussions that have taken place over the past couple of days, the Liberal Democrats have lost even their enthusiasm for putting forward amendments to review the regional boundaries.
My Lords, perhaps I can elucidate. The amendment was moved in order that it could be spoken to. We did not vote on it at that stage. It was withdrawn. The noble Baroness seems to suggest that it might not be possible, even while talking among one's own colleagues and talking with people on other Benches, to review what is the right way forward.
As I said, I have become clear that this is not an exercise to review the boundaries of the regions—which I read as not being possible to pick and choose, nor something the Secretary of State could do in his bath one morning when he had nothing else to think about. I want to make it clear that this is not because there are grubby deals going on in murky, smoke-filled corridors, and otherwise. One can actually think about what one is proposing as the debate continues. After all, that is one reason for having more than one stage.
My Lords, as I pointed out in Committee, the noble Baroness was not even speaking with the same voice as her colleagues in another place. Perhaps they have also changed their minds. I assume they have.
The noble Lord repeatedly says that we want to delay the Bill. In fact, we are not much in favour of it, but it will be a Bill and it needs to make sense. When considering regions, one of the areas that needs to make sense is the regional boundaries. That is why I have pushed the issue not only in Committee but also at this stage.
In reality, the Government will never be able to look at the boundaries again. Once a regional assembly is in place, that will set the boundaries for evermore. They will not be able to review them. The Minister's idea that perhaps at some stage, somewhere down the line, a boundaries review might take place seems, in reality, just Cloud-cuckoo-land. As we have pointed out, any reform of boundaries or local government will be appreciated. Regional government is not local government; it is defined as something else. But any time that issue is considered at a later stage, there will be even more difficulty and more problems than if it was looked at at this stage.
I understand the view of the Minister; I hear what the Liberal Democrats say; but I should like to test the opinion of the House.
moved Amendment No. 4:
Page 1, line 7, at end insert—
"( ) No order under subsection (1) shall be made until a draft Bill setting out the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements of elected regional assemblies has been published by the Secretary of State and laid before both Houses of Parliament for scrutiny."
My Lords, this amendment returns to a core theme of our debates on the Bill. We have discussed this matter at Second Reading and in Committee. Many comments have been made by the Minister and others on this theme. Voters should have such information and knowledge before a referendum.
The Government published the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, about which we have heard much and which we have all read in considerable detail. Over the past few days we have asked for more information about the powers and responsibilities of any regional assembly, along the lines of the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Peyton.
The amendment is tabled to try to gain a commitment from the Government that they will publish a draft Bill. We would like to have seen legislation in place and our original amendments were along those lines. During Committee—one has to be realistic—we were accused several times, as we have been in the past few days, of moving amendments to wreck the Bill. We all acknowledge that the Government will achieve their Bill and that at some stage we shall have a referendum—maybe at the end of next year if all the information is ready by then. The Government want to hold a referendum in one or more regions. Therefore it is vital that people know what the assemblies will do. There is much uncertainty about the situation.
The amendment seeks to put on the face of the Bill that there should be a draft Bill stating the powers and responsibilities of regional government. That is along the lines on which the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has spoken of and I hope she will support it now. I believe the feeling of the House is that the Government should say where we are going.
There is little knowledge of this subject. In a MORI poll in the South East of England—I do not believe much in polls—80 per cent had no idea about regional government. When asked what they thought a regional government would do, 90 per cent put education first. I do not believe that that is one of the powers that will be dealt with by regional assemblies.
In tabling this amendment I hope that the Government will assure the House that they will bring forward a draft Bill before any referendum takes place and that such a provision will be put on the face of the Bill. I beg to move.
My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord spoke to Amendment No. 57 which is grouped with this amendment. It is a more extreme amendment that would stop the Act coming into force before a draft Bill was in place. That is not a position to which reference has been made. I am sure that there are constitutional niceties about that on which other noble Lords, better qualified than I, can comment. If Parliament wills this Bill to become law, it is a little odd for it to be conditional on the publication of a government draft Bill.
On the main point, as I made clear, we are keen to see a draft Bill that will spell out, in greater detail than is implied in the assurances given by Ministers, the information that will be published at the time of a referendum. That has been a part of our discussions with the Government.
My Lords, that is helpful. Amendment No. 4, a matter of considerable concern to us, was a subject of the package that has been described. We have had assurances, including from the Dispatch Box this afternoon, that the Government will do their best to publish a Bill with a view to it being subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I have said before, but perhaps I had better repeat it, that I understand that the Government, by definition, cannot foresee the unforeseeable, which may make it impossible—if I can put it as high as that—to be able to pursue that. I have faith in the Government. They have every intention, as matters stand at the moment and as they are foreseen, of producing a draft Bill and we shall get stuck into that.
My Lords, I put down two Written Questions on the powers and responsibilities, one to the Minister's department which he kindly answered. He referred me to the White Paper, but I am not much clearer about what powers will be transferred although it is clear that a few functions and a few advisory roles will be transferred. On 17th March I also put down a Written Question to DEFRA to which I have received no reply. Can the Minister tell me why the Government do not reply to Written Questions when there are important legislative matters before the House to which their replies are relevant? It makes it that much harder to contribute to the debate.
I can only presume that none of DEFRA's powers will be transferred to the regional assemblies, only a few advisory functions. I therefore support what my noble friend said in moving Amendment No. 4. Unless one knows what the powers, functions and responsibilities are, the electorate voting in the referendums will certainly be no wiser than we are now.
My Lords, the noble Earl's final point gives the game away—
My Lords, we were all being very polite, looking across at our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches to see whether anyone there wished to speak. I make only one point—across the House to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. My understanding was that the Liberal Democrats, both at Second Reading and in Committee were very concerned that, if people were going to vote in a referendum, they should at least understand the powers, functions and responsibilities of the new assemblies. If that information is not in the Bill, there is no guarantee at all.
The Government said that they have made their best endeavours. But there is a contrast between the very genuine, very open and extremely honest way of responding from the Dispatch Box of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the utterances of his ministerial colleagues in another place, which are enough to make us suspicious that we might not see a draft Bill before a referendum is held. Therefore, to serve the public, there should be a requirement. It is not impossible to do it. There is time to produce a Bill, especially if the Government know exactly what the powers, functions and responsibilities will be, as they have claimed several times. If there is not much doubt about that, the Bill should not be delayed.
I should like to think that the Liberal Democrats would join us in insisting that the public are at least assured in the Bill that, before a referendum is called, a draft Bill will be available to them with all the information that they require. I therefore support my noble friend wholeheartedly.
My Lords, I am sorry that I jumped the gun; it was a genuine mistake. I have explained to my colleagues in another place how the system in this House works, and they never believe me. In response to the final words of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, we are confident that when people vote in a referendum they will be aware of the functions, powers and plans for the elected regional assembly. It is true that even a draft Bill is not an Act at that point, but a clear statement will be available to the electorate. I do not know how long it will be—certainly not as long as the White Paper. It will set out the issues central to the debate that takes place and what people want to know about the new body before choosing or not choosing to have an elected regional assembly.
I am not hiding behind the fact that we do not need the Bill to do that. A clear statement of how the Government intend to take forward the changes would be fine. I fully accept that Ministers' words are not legislation. Words spoken in Parliament can now be taken into account in court cases in a way that previously they could not be. But we are being genuine. As we said in Committee, and as Nick Raynsford said, we will do our best to publish a draft Bill to establish the regional assemblies. We would really like to be able to do that and to have the draft Bill scrutinised—obviously there is a key role for parliamentary scrutiny. It would be fine if we could make the draft Bill available for that. But we would not want to allow problems in doing that to delay the first referendum or referendums. By the first referendum, our statement on which the Bill will be based will be available to the electorate.
I have not been asked a specific question on the following point, but it comes to mind immediately. If we make a statement to the electorate on their area and on what the regional assembly's functions will be, it will still be up to Parliament to pass the Bill. Parliament would have to do that knowing that there had been a referendum. There would be a Bill only if there was a "Yes" vote. Therefore, one would expect that Parliament would work on the basis that the referendum was based on a certain set of parameters. That is the basis on which we would go forward.
We wish to do our best, but I cannot forecast what will happen between now and when the drafting starts. Sometimes parliamentary draftsmen have an infinite capacity to come up with a quick amendment overnight. But it is more difficult to produce a Bill over a weekend, a week or a month. It is a valuable commodity. We must make sure that the draftsmen can prioritise their work within the legislative programme. It is simply not possible to be as precise as noble Lords and noble Baronesses would like.
I apologise on behalf of the Government for the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has not received a reply to his Written Question. Frankly, there is no excuse for there not having been an Answer in the past few days—I am certain of that. I shall insist that a reply is available to the noble Earl before today's proceedings finish; otherwise, I shall not finish. There is a difficulty. Questions relating to legislation must have a degree of priority. The noble Earl should have had the Answer by now.
I cannot be more precise. Nick Raynsford sent the letter to his colleague in another place. Our commitment stands. I cannot guarantee anything except that, before a referendum takes place, a statement about the powers and the functions of the assembly will be available to the electorate. I cannot provide details on that now, because I can only rely on the White Paper and there is obviously much more work to be done. The electorate will not go to the polling stations not knowing what they are voting for.
My Lords, this is a crucial part of the whole debate and the whole Bill. As I said when moving the amendment, we are concerned at being told that we will have a referendum at the end of next year and that it does not really matter what the boundaries are, what the regional assembly will do, or what it will cost. Nothing seems to matter, except having the referendum at the end of next year.
We all think—on my side of the House, certainly—that, if we are going to have a referendum, the public must have the relevant information and have secure knowledge of what a regional assembly might do. Governments can change their view. I have often said that, even when the Conservatives were in power, policy could be changed just by changing the Minister. Who is to know whether the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be the Minister at the time of a referendum next year? Who knows whether the Deputy Prime Minister will be running this part of the show?
We do not doubt the noble Lord's commitment, and we accept what he says about what he thinks that he will able to do. But the public should know what the regional assemblies will do. We have had two Bills relating to local government in the past five years. That has worked reasonably well. As the Minister said, they can be scrutinised. However, I suspect that someone somewhere is beginning to write the Bill even now.
We should insist on the amendment. The public must be aware of the functions and responsibilities of the assemblies and the way they will be run. We should test the opinion of the House.
My Lords, this amendment is grouped with Amendments Nos. 6 and 8. We are now going to talk about the soundings. We have had a number of statements from Ministers about the soundings. We know that in a very short time now we shall at least hear the result of the soundings. Whether we shall hear it area by area, or only from the area that the Secretary of State selects for having a referendum, we do not know—and there is a great deal that we do not know. We also do not know what the Secretary of State will regard as a level of interest. One could have a level of interest as low as 1 per cent, which in a region that has eight million voters could be considered rather a lot of people, but would still only be 1 per cent. In an area that has only 2½ million people, the 1 per cent would be fewer in number. Whether that would constitute a level of interest, I do not know. There is no definition of a level of interest.
The Secretary of State must reasonably expect that a referendum in a region would yield a "Yes" vote before he calls a referendum. That is the purpose of the amendment. He ought to have at least a feeling that, on the basis of the evidence collected, the likelihood would be that if a referendum were called it would receive support. The Minister may argue against that, but the Secretary of State could not say that there is a level of interest as defined by him for a referendum to be called—and incur all the expenditure that goes with it—without any understanding as to whether there would be a reasonable outcome.
Nobody is asking the Secretary of State to predict the outcome. Nobody is asking him to back only a sure-run thing. However, there really ought to be, on the basis of the evidence, at least a fighting chance that an election could be won. The Government might argue that the whole point of a referendum is to test public opinion. In that case, why bother about a level of interest? Why not test public opinion in all eight areas? We know that they cannot all be done at once, because the Government say that that is not possible—it would overburden the Boundary Committee and all those people who have to be involved with reorganisation of local government. Therefore, it is only likely to be one, two or at the most three. If that is the case, will the Government tell us not only the level of interest in the particular region or regions that are going to be selected, but what the level of interest is in all of the regions at the same time? They have all now been sounded. It would be helpful if the Minister could say whether there has been any increase in the number of responses from 4,000, which we were told of at the Committee stage. If one is talking about 4,000 responses from the whole of the country, then one really has to question what constitutes a level of interest in any region.
Calling a referendum triggers an extremely costly process—we have heard that almost to the point of tedium. That is not a personal criticism of the Minister, but he does have to keep repeating it, because we have to keep pressing the point. We have heard time and time again that the process is going to take a long time—that there could not be a referendum until next autumn. Whether it will be a particular date in the autumn, I do not know. It could be in September, October or November. It will not be at Christmas, because we have just been told that that would not be a good time. That means that this Bill could be passed in May, June or July, and still allow a referendum to take place in the autumn. We also know that the earliest possibility of a regional assembly being set up is 2006.
So we know that it is a long drawn-out process, and will be very expensive. We know that the costs at this stage cannot be precise, because they will depend upon the level of upheaval in local authorities. We certainly know today from the Government, with Liberal Democrat support, that there will be a second option of local government reorganisation. We know that it goes hand in hand with regional assemblies, since the Liberal Democrats have supported the Government, and is now a fait accompli. Therefore, we know that there will be reorganisation. That will involve either abolition of county councils and keeping all the districts, or abolition of county councils and a serious merging of a number of districts, or abolition of the districts and turning the counties into unitary authorities.
We know that there will be major upheaval in those areas that vote for a regional assembly and that it is a long and costly process. We also know that there will be much anxiety in those areas among people for their jobs and their futures. There will be a great deal of campaigning on both sides. It will not be simply on party political lines. It will be town and country; it will be council versus council; and it will be councillor versus councillor.
The Bill should provide an assurance that the Secretary of State will not call for a regional assembly referendum in an area where the evidence does not justify the enormous expenditure that will be incurred by the Boundary Committee, the desk exercise of drawing up the required options—and we now know that there will be at least two, possibly three or more—for local government reorganisation, and the referendum itself. That is important. We do not know in what format we are going to be told. We do not know whether there will simply be a statement to both Houses of Parliament. We do not know if there will be a ritzy glitzy presentation somewhere in the country, where Ministers will meet with the public and have a staged announcement. We have heard a rumour—and I confess that is all it is—that there is to be a major announcement in the North East in a very short time. Whatever it is—and I make no judgment—it would be helpful to know what format the notification will be. Will it be by statement? Will it be by something more formal to both Houses of Parliament? Will it be announced to Parliament before anybody else? Will it affect all eight regions of the country? Will we know region by region what the level of interest is? I believe that the level of interest should be such that there is more than a probability that it is for a referendum for a regional assembly. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a deeply flawed Bill, but, in my view, no part is more flawed than that which gives the Secretary of State power to order a referendum if he has considered the level of interest in the holding of one. What level of interest is he going to consider sufficient? The Bill does not say. We have never been told.
We are told that the Secretary of State will consider the result of the sounding exercise in a particular region. However, what is the good of that if we are not told what kind of outcome in the sounding exercise he will consider sufficient to justify a referendum? Again we are not told that. And what is the good of a sounding exercise if only a handful of people and organisations have ever heard of it? I have not met a single person in the North West who has heard of the sounding exercise there.
To put it mildly, there is a real risk of the Secretary of State being misled by the result of a sounding exercise, attaching importance to the loud voices of a few fanatics and ignoring the lack of interest of the vast majority. He may, in the North West, for instance, heed what emanates from the regional convention. However, I remind him of the excellent comments made by Chris Moncrieff, formerly of the Press Association, who told us that far from there being a strong popular body in the North West calling itself the North West Convention, there are a handful of people operating from a dilapidated garage at the back of a pub. That must be the case, because I have never heard of anyone who has any business with the North West Convention. We know only that for some remarkable reason it is chaired by a Church of England bishop. No one has heard a word of it or a word from it.
I spoke in an earlier debate of how all parties on the Lancashire County Council oppose the holding of a referendum. A few hours ago, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who moved first from the Front Bench to the Back Benches and then from the Chamber—I am not surprised in view of what he said today—talked eloquently of how the Liberal Democrats in the North West will be in disarray, having to his mind been sold down the river by their own Front Bench. Yet we run the risk of the council tax payers in the North West being put to the considerable expense of local government reviews and a referendum when the outcome—a "No" vote—may be obvious. And that despite the fact that in the sounding exercise there appeared to be a number of enthusiasts rooting for a referendum.
What matters is whether people want an elected assembly. It is always artificial and ridiculous to talk about the level of interest in a referendum. What matters is whether people want an elected assembly, not whether they want a referendum. It seems to me that the only sensible way of dealing with this is by requiring the Secretary of State to satisfy himself that it is more probable than not that in any referendum there would be a majority in favour.
It is the kind of question that others have to ask themselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, now sitting on the Front Bench, will advise her noble friend. Is it right to authorise a prosecution in this case? Is it more likely than not that a jury will convict? Why on earth should not the Secretary of State in this case be required to ask himself a simple question: is the game worth the candle? Is it more probable than not that if there is a referendum, money will not have been wasted on a local government review and a majority of the people in the region will vote for an elected assembly?
If he is not so satisfied, he is at great risk of wasting public money. Certainly, it is ridiculous that he must only inquire of himself whether there is an unspecified level of interest in the holding of a referendum. That is not the real question in any event, as the Minister, who has been most sensible throughout all our deliberations, knows perfectly well. What matters is whether the people want an elected assembly. If the Secretary of State is not satisfied in his own mind that it is more probable than not that they will vote for the elected assembly, he has no right to waste public money on local government reviews and on the holding of a referendum.
My Lords, there is a real danger that the soundings exercise, which does not seem to have gone far, has hit only organisations. The Secretary of State sent out the exercise to a few organisations and we are not sure which ones. However, the organisations will not be voting in favour of a referendum; it will be the local electorate. There appears to be a great paucity of information on what the local electorate feel.
The important aspect is whether a majority of the electorate is in favour, but we also need to know the outcome of the soundings throughout the system. That includes the regional chambers and probably the local authorities. It certainly includes the business community because I know that on the whole it is largely against proceeding, as are the voluntary organisations.
While their views should not be those which decide the issue—that should be the electorate—we need to know how the soundings exercise is divided up among those organisations and the electors. It is important that the exercise, which has been shrouded in timidity and secrecy, is brought to this House and that we know on what basis the Secretary of State intends to make his decision.
My Lords, will the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, explain to me how in practical terms one would consult with the electorate in a region without having a referendum? Surely, that is what the referendum is designed to do. While I have sympathy with the theory behind the noble Baroness's problems, I fail to see any practical way in which one could discover the electorate's wishes without having the very referendum we have set out to provide.
Furthermore, will the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, accept that it is difficult to imagine why on earth the Government would proceed with a referendum in a particular area if they thought they were likely to lose it?
My Lords, we understood that the soundings exercise was intended to test the views of the people in a region. The way in which those views are tested seems to be a matter of the Government's policy. Equally, before the Secretary of State makes a decision, it must be possible to identify whether he has consulted electors; whether organisations have consulted electors or just a plethora of others who turned up on the day for the ride; or whether he merely consulted business and voluntary organisations which may or may not reflect the wishes of the electorate.
If the policy and these proposals stem from the soundings exercises, the sounding exercises must be robust; the description as to where they have taken place must be robust; and the answers must be robust. This House, together with another place, must be able to see them.
My Lords, there are ways in which public opinion can be tested. In the north-east of England, which I know rather well, we have a principal newspaper, the Journal, which ran a campaign in favour of a referendum and in favour of a regional authority. The newspaper has done a good deal of work on this, and I have mentioned before in the course of our debates the results of that work.
Some 45 per cent were against the proposal for a regional assembly, while 35 per cent were for it. A breakdown of the inquiry revealed interestingly that in Tyne and Wear, a densely populated area situated at the bottom end of the region and governed by a unitary authority, 39 per cent declared that they were in favour, while 41 per cent were against. But in Northumberland, a vast and lovely county that is not nearly as densely populated as Tyne and Wear, 27 per cent were in favour of a regional authority while 53 per cent were against it. That speaks volumes for what would happen if eventually a referendum was held to decide on whether we should have a regional assembly.
Ways can be found of measuring public opinion, some of which have been tried in the north-east of England.
My Lords, at col. 1542 of Hansard for 13th March last, during the proceedings in Committee, I raised the matter of having received a number of complaints about the way in which the sounding exercises had been carried out. In response, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, invited those who wished to lodge complaints to send them to him. I know that he has now received several complaints, copies of which have been sent to me as well as to other noble Lords.
It appears that the whole thing has been deeply unsatisfactory. In my own view, the sounding exercise has been a complete farce. I wrote to the Minister and I know that he has received my letter. In it I said that the constitutional conventions—which pretended to be semi-official—even if they have done the job properly, have certainly misled people, in particular given that in many cases they have been chaired by influential figures such as bishops, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, informed the House a few moments ago. There is no question but that this sounding exercise has not achieved and could not possibly have achieved what was intended because it simply has not been conducted properly. People up and down the country have not been given the opportunity to put forward their views as regards whether they want to be involved in a referendum—which was what the sounding exercise was all about.
I shall repeat what I said to the Minister in my letter: the sounding exercise has become so discredited that, although I am afraid it would delay matters, we ought to hold another exercise, one that is carried out properly and ensures that everyone in England who might be affected by the proposals knows that the exercise is taking place and is given an opportunity to participate in it. Furthermore, opportunity should be given for people to discuss what it is all about. We should not have a system under which certain self-appointed people have taken on the task of trying to represent the views of an area to the Minister. In fact they have consulted on only a very narrow basis, thus preventing many others from embarking on the consultation at all.
I wish to make one further point, although perhaps it does not directly concern the amendment before us. The Minister and I had a dispute about the EU map of the administrative areas in England. It appears that we are in possession of different maps issued by the same organisation, the European Commission. My map does not show that there is such a place called "England", but the Minister insists that England is included on his Commission map. Of course it may be that the Commission has now moved on and caught up with the fact that there is a country known as England, and has corrected its maps accordingly. Perhaps the Minister would not mind commenting on that.
My Lords, I intend to raise a somewhat tangential point, but I suspect that, having listened to this debate, the Minister might find himself in agreement with me on it. I rise to say only that we would not be having this debate had we had at some point in the past a Bill setting out a formal procedure for holding referendums. That suggestion has been carefully avoided every time it has been raised.
The fact is that, under the terms of this Bill, half of a small minority plus one can bring about a profound constitutional change in this country. The Minister can do his best to assess the view held in a particular region using consultation, opinion polls and so forth, amounting in effect to a campaign. But, as we saw in Wales before it secured its assembly, despite doing all that, it does not make a great deal of difference as to whether the electorate will turn out to vote. As a separate issue, we ought to put into legislation a form of procedure governing the way in which referendums are held and further governing the number of votes required to bring about any form of major change.
I know that an amendment has been tabled which we shall reach in due course, but this matter is extremely relevant to the debate on the amendment before us. I say that because we would not be considering the concerns that have been expressed on the matter if such a formalised procedure, one agreed by everyone in the first instance, had been set up.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness who spoke from the Liberal Benches. How on earth do you test public opinion other than by holding a referendum? If you want to test public opinion then you have to hold a referendum about holding a referendum.
I have been informed that the people consulted in the North East were—
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. Does he not agree that, during our debates at the previous stage, he went to great pains to intervene in my remarks to tell me that people have been sounded out in his area? He went on to give the results of that sounding exercise. Thus the idea that people cannot be sounded out simply is not true. The noble Lord himself gave evidence that that was the case.
My Lords, I shall go to great pains for the noble Baroness once again and repeat what I said in Committee. I sought to make the point that if you want to test public opinion, the only way that that can be done is by holding a referendum.
My Lords, surely the noble Lord understands that that is not what the Bill says. He will agree with me that it would have been perfectly possible to have brought forward a Bill in which no provision was made for the Secretary of State to take account of a sounding exercise. However, the Bill states that he must do so. Will the noble Lord please address himself to that and not to a fanciful Bill that does not exist.
My Lords, it would cost twice as much to hold two referendums.
I said in Committee that, in the North East, I had been informed that the people who responded were the members of the North East Assembly, local authorities, local MPs and MEPs, private, public and voluntary bodies, political parties, arts bodies, universities and colleges, black and ethnic minority communities, faiths, charities and trade unions, the health sector and transport bodies. Most declared that they were in favour.
The noble Lord, Lord Elliott, referred to the Newcastle Journal. He may have been referring to the newspaper's own opinion poll, but I do not know where the figures came from. However, I have the figures that were released by Durham County Council, one of the two-tier authorities that everyone is trying to protect in case it is forced to accept a unitary authority.
The council released the results of its sounding exercise, which produced 7,000 responses. Support for holding a referendum was 66 per cent in favour; only 24 per cent against. Everyone is trying to save the two-tier authorities from regional assemblies and one-tier local government, but the interesting thing is that support for establishing a regional assembly was 66 per cent; and only 24 per cent were against. As many people as possible have been consulted.
Some noble Lords said that they had not been consulted. I was never consulted as a Member of the House, but I was consulted as a member of a political party, because I attend my party meetings. At one party meeting that I attended, a soundings document had been circulated for political parties to respond to, and we gave a response. So there is a great deal of support in the North East for a regional assembly.
"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".
That is not an objective test; it is a subjective test. On the intervention made by the Liberal Democrats, I remark that, as I understand it, the Crown Prosecution Service proceeds to a prosecution only if it considers that there is a better than 50:50 chance of success. I of course acknowledge that it will not know how the case will turn out until it has been tested, but it judges that on the basis of its assessment.
In the run-up to the 1964 general election, there was a Labour Member of Parliament called, I believe, Collins. He constantly asked Home Office questions about prisons and constantly pressed Home Office initiatives. On one such occasion, he argued for the abolition of the roll-call in prisons. After that appeared in the press, one prisoner wrote to the press to say how absurd that was and to ask what would be done instead. The prisoner postulated, hypothetically, the governor and a senior prison officer, walking around the prison grounds and the governor saying in conversation, "I say, Jack, there seem to be fewer prisoners around this week than there were last week".
On the same basis, I postulate the Deputy Prime Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, travelling through a region such as Yorkshire or the West Midlands and the Deputy Prime Minister saying after a while, "I say, Jeff, I tell you something: there seems to be quite a lot of interest in holding a referendum in this region". As I understand it, that would qualify as consideration—the Deputy Prime Minister would have considered the level of interest and, on that subjective basis, fulfilled the condition in the Bill. However, that does not sound like an an objective test.
Incidentally, Mr Collins' story ended happily: he became Parliamentary Secretary at the Home Office after the 1964 general election. But under the Bill, it seems increasingly likely that the subtle soundings might have been better conducted a little later in the parliamentary process than they were.
My Lords, in answer to one question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, I do not have a precise figure, but we have now received more than 5,000 responses, so the figure has slightly improved since Committee, although I do not know the exact figure. We are still receiving results, as we have made clear during the Bill's passage.
Having perused the Marshalled List, judging by later amendments, we may have this debate about four times—certainly more than once. I do not know that I can say anything different to what I said in Committee: the Secretary of State cannot operate on a hunch; he must come to Parliament to make a Statement about his judgment on the soundings.
A later amendment provides for publishing the results of the soundings. People were told that unless they demanded confidentiality for some reason, the results would be publicly available. We shall publish a summary and, of course, we shall do so for the whole country. The whole point is that the Secretary of State must make a judgment. Please do not hold this example against me, but let us say that he judges that the soundings show that there is interest in holding a referendum in at least one region. In order to say that, he must be able to say that there is not such a level of interest in the other eight regions—or, rather, seven, because London does not count for that purpose. So he will not make a judgment only in the area in which he judges that the soundings show that there is interest in holding a referendum. I choose my words carefully, because that is what is involved—interest in holding a referendum, which may not be the same as interest in having an elected regional assembly. That goes to the heart of Amendment No. 6, which would amend the condition so that the Secretary of State must prejudge the result of the referendum before he forms a judgment on the soundings.
I repeat that Ministers have not seen any results of the soundings and have no figures at present, but when making a judgment on the soundings shortly after the Bill receives Royal Assent, the Secretary of State cannot be expected to work out whether the referendum would be successful. First, that is not his job; secondly, the public, who will make the final decision on a referendum, will not have the available information because we shall not have had the boundary review, which is, as I said, nine months or a year down the road. So he cannot then prejudge whether there would be a successful, or "Yes", vote in a referendum. Amendment No. 6 is impractical in relation to the process. Given the timing of the Boundary Committee's recommendations, for a start, that does not make sense.
It has been asserted that a regional assembly referendum is advisory, to give an expression of view of those in a region about a regional assembly. The purpose of the referendum is to determine whether people want an elected regional assembly.
The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that we need rules. I was in another department when the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 was passed, so I must be careful to name its title correctly—although naturally I voted for it. Along with another place, the House passed that Act, which lays down many ground rules.
As we have made clear when discussing the Bill, although certain duties are left to the Secretary of State, the Electoral Commission, which was set up under that Act, is required to make judgments on questions, the legibility of the argument, the preamble, and so on. So it is not a question of doing it as we want or making it up as we go along. There are ground rules for referendums on the statute book. It is true that the Bill represents a unique departure—we have not done anything such as this for local government—but I count that as a plus, not as a minus.
Amendment No. 6 is the main amendment in the group. The others are consequential. The way that the groupings have been arranged mean that our next debate, on Amendments Nos. 7 and 42, will cover some of the same ground. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, constantly referred to the letter that he wrote to me; he never once mentioned that he had received a reply. But he has—I hope.
Yes, my Lords, that is right. I was sweating a bit because there is no date on the letter; I keep being told not to date my letters because they can take a while to leave the office. The third paragraph of my reply states:
"When assessing the response of any organisation to our soundings exercise, we are looking at how representative the response is, and the reliability and robustness of any surveys or opinion polls that they have conducted. We made it clear that the response of organisations would be strengthened if it was clear that they had consulted widely".
I do not know why the chairs of some of these organisations have not graced us with their presence in these debates. I have not held any discussions with anybody; I have obviously seen the letters which have been sent in, and they will receive a reply. If the allegations undermine the reliability and robustness of what organisations are sending in, they are making a rod for their own back. That will not count very well, and it does not matter who is chairing the organisations. If people have been denied opportunities, or the reliability and robustness of the surveys have been fixed, as it were, we need to know how they have been conducted and that there has been wide consultation. I see nothing wrong in that.
I cannot comment on the opinion polls—
My Lords, I am most obliged to the Minister for giving way. I have received his letter, as a matter of fact; it is dated 7th April, so I have not had time to assimilate exactly what he said. Perhaps at a later stage I will come back after I have assimilated what he said to see whether there is some light in it.
My Lords, there is so much light in the letter—it has only five paragraphs. I am tempted to put it on the record, but I will not. I am sorry it was late. However, it is obviously relevant to the Bill and to the debate to get replies to noble Lords. That is why I am distressed at what the noble Earl said about his delayed answer from DEFRA, which is being dealt with. From that point of view, it is important. My noble friend can come back when he has had time to assimilate the gems in the other paragraphs, the ones I am not quoting.
Frankly, asking the Secretary of State to prejudge the result of the referendum when he makes a judgment on the soundings is wholly impractical, if only—and this is a substantial reason—because the work of the Boundary Committee is such that he could not form a judgment because he would not know what options it was suggesting for the consequential changes in local government. Therefore, I hope the amendment will not be pressed to the vote, but I somehow fear it will be.
My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right—this is unique, and for that reason we are looking for ways in which to safeguard the public interest. My noble friend Lord Waddington was right when he said that as many people as he has asked had not heard of the soundings exercise. That applies in many parts of the country. My standard question is, "Who knows about regional government and have you had any contact whatsoever with any organisation sounding out your views on a regional assembly?" I have yet to have a positive answer.
The Minister said that the Government would measure the robustness of some of the responses. At some meetings—we have had evidence of this during the course of our debates—unless people wishing to attend the meeting professed an interest in having a regional assembly, they were not admitted. If that is the case, and there is not to be an investigation into such allegations, how is the Secretary of State to know that this happened?
I should like to refer to the Constitution Committee's report which we had on the first day in Committee. It expressed a concern affecting a principal part of the constitution, in which it took a fairly high interest. One of its concerns was the lack of criteria that would have to be met to trigger a referendum in a particular region. The Bill will give the Secretary of State the power to trigger a referendum. He will do so on the basis of a level of interest. The level of interest is not defined; we have had no clarification or enlightenment from the Minister in his reply to us, so we simply do not know on what basis he will trigger a referendum.
The Constitution Committee was also concerned about the public participation in consultation. The map referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, could be prophetic. It could be a picture of the country when the Bill has materialised and fulfilled the Government's ambitions of having regional assemblies and single-tier local government below them. If that were the case, Scotland, Wales and Ireland would have country national government but England would not. England would be fragmented into nine parts and would, I believe, lose its integrity as a country.
The Minister has not told us exactly what the soundings are, what they are meant to be, the level of interest or the measurement. As my noble friend Lord Brooke said, it will be a subjective judgment on the part of the Secretary of State.
Having been a Minister and sat where the noble Lord is sitting, I am staggered that he is in the middle of passing through Parliament a Bill of this magnitude, of very high constitutional importance, and he says that the department— either the officials or his ministerial colleagues—have not even allowed him to have any information about the responses.
My Lords, that is a very unfair and, if I might say so, underhand way of putting the way I responded. The Bill is going through Parliament; we have made it quite clear that only after Royal Assent will a judgment be made. It would be quite wrong, while the Bill is going through Parliament and while the soundings are being assessed and still being received, if Ministers started nitpicking over issues before the assessments had been made. When they are made, they will be put before Ministers, and that will be the right time. It would quite wrong, while we are in the middle of the Bill's proceedings, to start sifting through individual assessments. One would not be able to read the lot, anyway, so we would have to look at summaries and then maybe dip into them after the assessment analysis has been completed. It is not a question of not being shown. I get shown what I ask for, and in this case, we have agreed it would be quite wrong for Ministers to have that level of detail at present.
My Lords, my point was that the Minister was saying he does not even have any knowledge of them. If that is the case, I really am staggered. I am certainly not saying that the noble Lord should prejudge. In fact, we are alarmed that the consultation process was so short. It finished on 3rd March when the Bill had hardly started its proceedings in this House. Therefore, the consultation could have continued for a little while yet and the judgment could have been made when the Bill received Royal Assent, if that is when Ministers will be making judgments. It would not take very many hours to sift through 5,000 responses.
The Minister is not able to say what the level of interest would be. He has not said whether we will know it region by region. He has said that the level of interest in one area could be determined and a referendum called, but it is possible and, I should have thought, even probable, that the level of interest in one or more areas of the country could be comparable. In that case, if it is more than the two or three areas that the noble Lord feels are important when it comes to calling a referendum, another judgment will have to be made, about which we know nothing. We do not know what criteria will be applied. Answers to pertinent questions will not be available until after the Bill receives Royal Assent. I call that very undemocratic. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
moved Amendment No. 7:
Page 1, line 12, at end insert—
"( ) The second condition is that the Secretary of State has concluded on the basis of evidence available to him that there is substantial support from the business community, regional chambers, local authorities, cultural and voluntary sector and local electors within the region for the holding of such a referendum and such evidence has been laid before both Houses of Parliament."
My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 7, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 42. The amendments seek to make explicit on the face of the Bill precisely who must be consulted by the Secretary of State before he calls a referendum. The list includes business, the culture and voluntary sectors, regional chambers and local authorities. We believe the amendments bring clarity to the otherwise vague requirement for the Secretary of State to consider the level of interest in a region.
We have learnt from experience—and certainly from what has been said in our debates—that it would be unsatisfactory to leave the soundings exercise entirely to a subjective judgment of the Secretary of State. Before a major constitutional question is put to the electorate of a region in a referendum, it is right that Parliament should scrutinise the consultations carried out by the Secretary of State. If I have understood the Minister correctly, we shall get an opportunity to do so, but we have not yet heard of the format under which that will take place.
The amendments ensure greater transparency. In Committee, the Minister agreed about the importance of openness and promised that a summary of reasons for the Secretary of State's decision would be published. Will there be an opportunity to scrutinise the basis for the taking of that decision and can the Minister give any further assurances on Report? I beg to move.
My Lords, all my assurances will be kept. I have no new assurances to give and I do not need to qualify the assurances I have given already. I hope that that will be helpful.
The bodies specified in Amendment No. 7 which were in a position to comment on the level of interest in a region have been able to put forward their views as part of the soundings exercise. I am informed that many such bodies are among the 5,000 or so which have responded.
In Committee, I said that the Secretary of State would explain to Parliament his decision on which region or regions should undergo a local government review, with a view to holding a referendum, after the Bill receives Royal Assent. We intend to publish a summary of the views received during the soundings exercise.
Amendment No. 42, which the noble Baroness did not say much about, is similar to a group of amendments debated in Committee. Its effect would be to exclude—this is perhaps nitpicking, but we are talking about legislation—the consideration of views, information and evidence from other groups, including non-council tax payers, trade unions, the Local Government Association and the Isles of Scilly local authority.
Since last year we have actively sought the views of individuals and organisations. We do not believe that the amendment is needed. Many of the bodies listed in Amendment No. 7 have been covered and have had ample opportunity to submit their views. I hope that they have all done so and that no one will be missing when we look at the final list.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Quoting from his letter, in his earlier reply to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, the Minister explained how the responses would be judged. It is interesting that the consultees were not told how their responses would be judged. For instance, if a voluntary sector body had been told that the quality of its response would be judged on how it had communicated and taken soundings from other people in its organisation, we might have seen a great deal more activity.
A body that I know of was approached but could not afford to take the necessary kind of soundings. Its reply will be considered as simply a statement from a particular voluntary organisation and will be judged as not having taken more soundings. However, the Secretary of State could subjectively—we do not know—simply say that because the body represents ", its reply must be the view of "'s members; its membership is Y and therefore that must be the view of that many people. We do not know the answers to these questions or how the replies will be judged.
What we have been told about this issue is unsatisfactory. I take on board what the Minister said about Amendment No. 42. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 9 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 10. The amendments are required to tidy up the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to Clause 1(6) which was agreed to in Committee. The Government do not seek to overturn the amendment. We are happy to retain the revised Clause 1(6) within the Bill provided that we can make these two small changes to Clause 1. The amendments are designed to remove slight inconsistencies and to give full effect to the noble Baroness's amendment.
Amendment No. 9 seeks to make a small improvement to the drafting; Amendment No. 10 addresses an inconsistency between subsection (8) and the new subsection (6) in Clause 1. I can go into further detail if required but I hope that there will not be need to do so. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 10:
Page 2, leave out lines 10 and 11 and insert "If the Secretary of State has cause to think that the level of interest has changed materially as mentioned in subsection (6), that subsection does not apply but he must not make an order under subsection (1) unless for the purposes of subsection (4) he considers—"
On Question, amendment agreed to.
[Amendment No. 11 not moved.]
moved Amendment No. 12:
After Clause 1, insert the following new clause—
"LOCAL GOVERNMENT REFERENDUMS
(1) This section applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section 1 to cause a referendum to be held in a region about the establishment of an elected assembly for that region.
(2) The Secretary of State must by order cause a referendum to be held in each county area in the region about the government's proposals for the structure of local government in that area.
(3) A county area is an area in the region in relation to which both a county council and one or more district councils have functions.
(4) But if the government's proposals for a county area include an option providing for a local authority whose area includes any part of the area of more than one county area, the county area for the purposes of this section is the combined area of each of those county areas.
(5) The government's proposals for the structure of local government—
(a) are such of the recommendations of the Boundary Committee for England made in pursuance of a direction under Part 2 of this Act as the Secretary of State thinks appropriate subject to such modifications (if any) as he proposes to make in pursuance of section 15(3);
(b) must include at least two options for structural change (within the meaning of Part 2 of the Local Government Act 1992) in relation to each county area in the region.
(6) The date of a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2) must be—
(a) specified in the order;
(b) the same date as the date specified in the order under section 1.
(7) An order under subsection (2) must not be made before the end of the period of 6 weeks starting with the day on which the Secretary of State receives the recommendations of the Boundary Committee in pursuance of a direction under Part 2 of this Act.
(8) The Secretary of State by order—
(a) may vary an order under subsection (2);
(b) must revoke such an order if he revokes the order under section 1.
(9) A Minister of the Crown may by order make such provision as he thinks appropriate in connection with a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2).
(10) An order under subsection (9) may—
(a) make provision for the creation of offences;
(b) apply or incorporate with or without modifications or exceptions any provision of any enactment (whenever passed or made and including this Act) relating to elections or referendums;
(c) modify any provision of Chapter 2 of Part 7 of the 2000 Act as it applies to a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1."
My Lords, the noble Baroness spoke fully to this amendment with Amendment No. 1. Since then, after reading it carefully, as a member of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee I should like to ask the noble Baroness about the four order-making powers in the amendment, with which I am sure she is familiar.
Subsection (2) relates to the order that the Secretary of State may give to trigger a referendum. Under subsection (8), he may, by order, vary or revoke the order. Under subsection (9) he may make such provision as he thinks appropriate in connection with a referendum. Of particular importance among the features of that order is that, under subsection (10), he may make provision for the creation of offences.
I am sure that the noble Baroness is familiar with her amendment and I should like to ask her what status these orders will have. Will they need parliamentary approval? If so, will that be by negative or affirmative resolution? I should like the noble Baroness to comment particularly on the order under subsection (9) because that makes provision for the creation of offences.
The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee has not had time to consider the amendment because it has only recently been tabled. That is why I am asking these questions.
My Lords, Clause 27(1) states:
"A power in this Act to make an order or regulations must be exercised by statutory instrument".
Clause 27(2) provides for that to be by affirmative resolution and states that,
"a statutory instrument must not be made unless a draft ... has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House".
That applies to the orders which are referred to in my amendment as well as to those which are already in the Bill.