Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill

– in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 8th April 2003.

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Votes in this debate

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

moved Amendment No. 24:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—

"PROVISION OF INFORMATION TO VOTERS

(1) Information shall be circulated to voters before any order is made for a referendum providing details of—

(a) the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements of elected regional assemblies;

(b) the costs incurred by the boundary committee and the forecasted costs of any subsequent local government reorganisation;

(c) the administrative and initial starting costs for the establishment of regional assemblies;

(d) the predicted annual costs for the running of regional assemblies."

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I rise to speak probably for the last time on this type of amendment, asking for information about powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements, about the costs forecast to be incurred by the Boundary Committee—we know that the Government have done work on this—the administrative and initial starting costs for the establishment of regional assemblies and the predicted annual costs of the running of the regional assemblies, on which the Government have also done some work. The amendment would ensure that voters are able to make an informed choice, when they vote in a referendum on the options. The relevant information must include information about costs and the sources of the money.

I shall not dwell on the first part of the amendment. The case that voters should be informed about what they are voting for is irrefutable. I am sure that the Minister will agree with that, as he has done all the way through our deliberations on the Bill so far. The rest of the amendment relates to the provision of information about the costs of creating an elected regional assembly. Information about the cost of an elected regional assembly is important. It was important enough for the Labour Party to include in its 1997 manifesto a commitment that the exercise should be "cost-neutral". We support that proposition, and I would be interested to know whether the Minister holds to that manifesto pledge. Do the Government now believe that it is right that the reorganisation should divert funds away from investment in our public services? We should make no mistake about it: if the scheme is not cost-neutral, the only money that could be provided for it is money that could be spent on public services.

I have no doubt that the Minister will say that it is difficult to calculate the costs accurately. That is not what the amendment asks for, and, anyway, I agree. However, that does not mean that no attempt should be made to do so, and, as I said, we know that the Government have done something about it.

We have been through reorganisations before. I hope that we have all learnt a lot from them. There is information from the previous round of local government reorganisation—10 years ago—that has been independently analysed. The work of the Local Government Commission, as analysed by Professor Michael Chisholm, suggests, for example, that the costs of local government reorganisation would be well over £2 billion. That figure is widely regarded as an under-estimation of the true cost.

The Government might also argue that, although there will be initial costs, there will be savings in the long run. Again, it is difficult to see how they reach that conclusion. Local government reorganisations tend not to cut costs. The reform of local government in the early 1970s led to an increase in staffing of nearly 5 per cent and to the spiralling costs that led to the financial crisis that precipitated the Layfield inquiry.

If one applies to West Sussex the Ernst & Young model accepted by the Local Government Commission to assess costs and savings associated with reorganisation to a unitary authority, one can see that only on the basis of a unitary county would the transitional costs be repaid within a reasonable timescale. Even if one inflated the savings estimates from the model by 10 per cent and reduced the cost estimates by the same amount, one can see that reorganisations into more than one unitary tier of government do not pay the transitional costs.

Where will the money come from to pay for the transitional costs? In the previous round of local government reorganisation, according to Chisholm, upwards of 30 per cent of the costs of reorganisation were met from local authority reserves and revenue accounts. Is that to be the case again? The answer is clear: local people will, in the end, be asked to pay. They will pay through their council tax, and they will pay through a reduction in the quality of service delivery. The Government will, no doubt, have their own figures. I would be glad to hear them and would welcome a chance to examine the cost models on which they are based.

It is important that we have a debate on the matter. People must be provided with the information that will enable them to make an informed decision. That is the purpose of the amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised if I return to the question of powers. Yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said that he would not adjourn the House until I got a reply to the Written Question that DEFRA refused to answer. Sadly, I did not hold the Minister to that. If I had, we would not have adjourned, and we would have lost today's business. I have still not got a reply.

I leave it to your Lordships to decide whether that is deliberate obstruction or sheer incompetence on the part of the Government. I do not know. It is difficult to take part in a debate about an amendment relating to powers, when I do not have the Answer to my Written Question. I hope that the Minister will regain his touch. Perhaps, he should be in charge of more than one department. He got me a quick reply from his department; if he ran more than one department, we might all get quick replies. I shall have to come back to the matter when I have the information to hand.

Paragraph (d) of the amendment refers to the costs. My noble friend Lady Blatch has made all the relevant points, and I agree with her that the people who will pick up the tab will be the council tax payers, which will mean a reduction in services.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lord Caithness on the question of powers. I speak in the light of yesterday's experience, which was such a sad occasion for me. I started by giving the Government every chance to illuminate the darkness of my mind and clarify, I think, eight or nine points that I raised. Noble Lords will imagine the depths of my sorrow, when I received absolutely no enlightenment.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Temple Guiting, who replied to the debate, would have done his utmost to help me; he is always helpful. On this occasion, however, either no one told him what the answers were or there were no answers because nobody had even worked them out. I acquit the noble Lord of any intention to disappoint me.

I notice that the amendment moved today by my noble friend Lady Blatch, with her customary eloquence, is very similar to the amendment that I moved yesterday. I can hardly resist the temptation to express something of the disappointment and mortification that I felt when my amendment of yesterday and the remarks that I made then evoked no attention from my Front Bench, except a desire to get on with the business. I had not, at that point, obstructed the business—but be that as it may.

Today, I shall resist the temptation to repeat all my questions of yesterday. I shall content myself with this semi-simple question: what powers will the assemblies have? There is a second question: where will they come from? We cannot just manufacture powers. The new powers that we are to give to the assemblies must come from somewhere. That will cause Ministers great discomfort. I cannot recall a government being anxious to shed powers. It is rather to the taste of Ministers to enlarge their empire, not to shrink it. I mean no disrespect to that very important personage the Deputy Prime Minister, but he is the last Minister who is inclined to shrink his empire, which now stretches over many pages in the Civil Service Yearbook. It is a record size; he has 120 columns.

Where are the assemblies' powers going to come from? Which Ministers are going to say, "We have more powers than we need, so we will give them to these worthy assemblies"? There are difficulties: no one has decided how many members will be in the assemblies and where they will come from. A great deal is undecided. It would be nice if one or two of the Minister's colleagues were to say, "We realise that this is an important occasion for self-sacrifice and we are prepared willingly to part with some of our powers". The answers to those questions would be fascinating. I assure the Minister that if he will be so gracious as to let me have a reply I shall maintain a peaceful silence thereafter.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 3:30 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, the Minister still owes me a reply to a question I posed some time ago. I asked what would happen if there was a local government review followed by a referendum resulting in a no vote and who would bear the thrown-away costs. The Minister was unable to give me an answer when I last posed the question. Will he now assure me that unfortunate council tax payers will not bear the cost of such an abortive review?

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, yesterday my noble friend Lord Peyton referred to my "terrifying glance". I hope that by now he has decided that I am less of a Rottweiler. I am delighted that he has returned to this tack today in his eloquent fashion. One of the most important aspects of the Bill is what information will be available to voters about the proposed role of regional assemblies before the election takes place.

We discussed at great length whether a regional assemblies Bill should have been produced before this Bill. We now have a commitment from the Government that a draft Bill will be published if possible. I hope that we will yet have a commitment that it will be produced. It has taken us hours to unpick what the regional assemblies will amount to. Had that information been available at an earlier stage we could have saved a great deal of time.

The voters must know before they start to decide how they are going to vote in a referendum what regional assemblies are going to do; what their responsibilities will be; and where they will fit constitutionally within the system. We have heard from the Minister that regional government will not be a local authority. It is another completely odd governmental arrangement. We must also know about the costs that will result from a vote in favour of regional government which untangles again the Boundaries Committee. We also need to know the administrative start-up costs for the establishment of the regional assemblies. In the past we have had explained the costs in terms of London and Scotland; it is important that the voters know what they are in for.

Those are at least four of the main elements of information that we require. We have also discussed other information which the Minister has indicated will be available to voters in advance. I hope that the Minister will give us the reassurance we seek that all the information we have asked for will be made available to voters prior to any order for a referendum.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the importance of information cannot be exaggerated. We have debated it before and I believe the Minister agrees and will remind us of the different roles of the Government, the Electoral Commission and the participants campaigning on both sides. To take up the last comment of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham: is the list complete? The costs are mentioned, but they are one side of a debit/credit account. One is going over a line about information into political argument for and against regional assemblies and the cost benefit analysis of a strategic regional tier and improved decision making closer to where the implications will be felt. Can the list be complete in legislation? I am sure that the Electoral Commission will want to draw many matters to voters' attention.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, there is a saying by Raymond Chandler that if you are writing a thriller and are in doubt as to what should happen next, you should always have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand. The Minister has been admirable in his response to our debates throughout Committee and Report stages, but when confronted with Raymond Chandler's problem he has a habit of falling back on the White Paper.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that my exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Evans, on the Prime Minister's and the Deputy Prime Minister's reference to regionally elected assemblies was a try-on. I should have realised that Ministers like the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are above having their forewords and prefaces checked by civil servants to make sure that they are not speaking nonsense from which the Government have to resile at a later stage.

The Minister may not always be with us, as I have remarked previously. His confidence that everyone will know exactly on what they are voting in a referendum would not necessarily be sustained if another Minister were in charge of the proceedings at the time we arrived at them. I strongly support the amendment.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I take on the last point of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. Forewords are always slipped in at the last minute after the work has been done. They can pass one by. I guarantee, however, that they are read. The last time I was invited to sign one, I said, "I'm not having my name on that and you can take the photograph out as well". I am not saying what it was. It was a purely factual document; not policy. I assure the noble Lord that Ministers read forewords.

I take issue with the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on one point. The Government are not starving public services of money. I shall not recite what happened to public services in the 1980s and 1990s, but the modest amount of public expenditure involved here does not starve public services of money. I have no doubt that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will produce tomorrow some more up-to-date figures on the vast legitimate expenditure on public services. The noble Baroness need not worry on that score.

I do not want to get off on the wrong foot, but the amendment's main purpose is to delay. It can sound sweet because everything looks great until you read it. It states that,

Xbefore any order is made"— which is the phrase on which it all hangs—information needs to be placed before the public.

As I have repeatedly said—and I am happy to confirm it again today—the Government intend to publish a summary of our proposals for elected assemblies prior to any referendums. I have given a commitment that the Government will do their best—will do their damnedest—to publish a draft Bill before the first referendums.

The amendment would require the information to be circulated before the order was made, rather than before the referendums, which substantiates the fact that it is a delaying tactic. We must publish our statement before the 28-day period in which publication of material is restricted, but do so close enough to the referendum so that it is fresh in people's minds. The order can be made many weeks before the referendum, so to publish this or similar information would not be productive for the electorate.

I am going to fall back on the White Paper, on which the Bill is based. This is only the paving Bill. The answer to many of the questions posed in many of the debates during the Bill's passage will be found in the main Bill. However, we will not have the main Bill unless there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum. If potential voters want to know about our proposals sooner, it is Recess reading for the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, of the White Paper. The noble Lord need not be frightened off by the large publication as there is a 12-page summary document. I recommend that it can be read on the Tube on the way home and will give him the most up-to-date information that he can require in order to make a judgment and keep his promise to say nothing else today.

Photo of Lord Peyton of Yeovil Lord Peyton of Yeovil Conservative

My Lords, the Tube is far too hazardous a place for me to read such subversive and unclear literature. The White Paper is the sole weapon which the Minister has waved at us all—and he is waving it at me now. I can assure him that I am totally untempted and unattracted by it.

I will keep my vow of silence if the Minister will answer the simple question which I dared to ask him: whose powers will be given to the assemblies?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the short answer is that they will be powers from Ministers and not from local government because the statutory functions of local government are not changing. Yes, Ministers will lose some powers as a result of this. There is no question about that. It would not be possible for the assemblies to have the power to vary among their budget heads unless the powers came from Ministers. It is the only place the powers can come from.

From a statutory point of view, the powers will come from the main Bill. But they will come from Ministers, who will lose powers as a result of the elected regional assemblies. We are happy to do that because we believe in devolving some of the decision making from the centre. It is being taken away from Ministers.

I apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, because I earlier asked colleagues whether he had been sent an Answer to his Question. I was reliably informed that it had been delivered this morning. That is being checked now. I shall not apologise two days running for DEFRA because the situation is quite unacceptable, but I was assured that the Answer was delivered to him this morning. I am hoping that that Answer, or even a copy of it, can be placed in his hands while he is in the Chamber.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, that the powers will come from Ministers, not from local government.

I apologise if I did not answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. He asked about the costs of the review if there is a "No" vote in the referendum. It will be up to individual local authorities to decide how much they want to spend putting evidence to the Boundary Committee. Obviously there is an expenditure there. It will be up to them also whether they are for or against an elected assembly. There is no policy on this; it is up to local authorities. The consequence is that local authorities will make their own decisions on spend and will have to stand by the result of the referendum, whatever that is. Whether they are for or against the referendum, they will put their views to the Boundary Committee in respect of local government changes. We do not intend to underwrite any potentially excessive expenditure by local authorities—

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative 3:45 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, surely the Minister is wrong to suggest that it is a voluntary matter for the local authorities. Let us take the case of Cheshire where the county council has stated firmly, as has Lancashire, that it is completely against a referendum. If as a result of the sounding exercise the Secretary of State decides that there will be a referendum and therefore a review, Cheshire will have to service the Boundary Committee and provide it with all the information it requires. It is not a voluntary matter; it is expenditure thrust on the Cheshire County Council as a result of the Minister's decision. Why, therefore, should not the Minister pay if the referendum, which Cheshire never wanted in the first place, resulted in a "No" vote?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I do not know what vote and what debate has taken place in Cheshire County Council to substantiate that. But that is not the point. Local authorities provide evidence and service committees, public inquiries, planning appeals and parliamentary boundary reviews. It is part and parcel of the function of local government. They decide how they want to present their case and they control the costs. It is not a matter that the Government should underwrite.

If there is a "No" vote—

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I am sorry to come back—

Noble Lords:

No!

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, no, let me put my question first. Surely, it is plainly inaccurate to say that the local authority controls the cost. The local authority is obliged to service the Boundary Committee once the Minister has said that there is to be a boundary review. There is nothing voluntary about it. Those costs are incurred directly as a result of the decision of the Secretary of State that there should be a referendum and therefore there has to be a boundary review.

Photo of Baroness Nicol Baroness Nicol Labour

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is out of order in making a second speech—indeed, a third speech—without asking the leave of the House. This is Report stage. If he has questions to ask the Minister, he must ask them after the Minister has finished. I have checked the Companion and that is the rule.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I do not know all the rules, but the fact is that I cannot alter the answer. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, does not like the answer, but I cannot give it any other way. The local authorities are in charge of the costs of what they do as regards the boundary review. They decide how strong a case they will make, the costs of the briefs and what they will do in terms of submissions. That is wholly within their control and it is not a matter for the Government.

I hope that this is taken on board because it will happen whatever Minister is around at the time. The Government will issue a statement about the powers and the options for local government reorganisation. This amendment does not provide for everything in any event. The local government options are important but the statement proposed by the amendment would include costs incurred by the Boundary Committee. Those costs will be known, but what is the relevance of the costs of the Boundary Committee to whether voters want an elected assembly?

It may be interesting to have the information, but that factor will not weigh upon whether the voter votes for an elected assembly. The money will have been spent anyway and having the information will not mean that the voter can vote to stop the expenditure. He cannot change the decision. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the costs have been incurred and the money spent. I cannot therefore see the relevance of having them.

I would not nit-pick over everything. Not every situation is contained in the amendment and I suspect that by the time the amendment was tabled the Government's proposal to accept the amendment from the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, yesterday would not have been known. The menu could therefore have been extended.

I can assure the House that all reasonable information required to allow voters to make an informed, mature choice as to whether they want to vote for an elected regional assembly will be made available. It will be based on the powers and functions of the assembly, its size, consequences of local government reorganisation and so forth. Perhaps not all the necessary consequences of costs will be included, but certainly it will include what will happen to the local government in their area.

Along with what the assembly will do, and its powers, those are the matters that voters will want to know about before they decide whether they want a new structure—a new political animal, if you like. Voters will want us to keep our eye on the ball and address the main issues so that they can make informed choices. They will not want to be driven down the road of decision-making with 20-odd paragraphs detailing what the Boundary Committee may have spent on cups of tea or cakes and biscuits. All that is totally irrelevant and demeans the value of holding a referendum on such an important issue. I hope, therefore, that the amendment will not be pressed.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative

My Lords, perhaps I may thank the Minister for having kicked enough people to enable me to receive the reply that I have been seeking. It has taken since 17th March for the department to regurgitate four paragraphs from the White Paper, which tell me nothing.

However, when it comes to powers, one other paragraph in the reply may interest noble Lords. Discussions have been held with regard to flood defence arrangements. I can tell your Lordships that those powers are not to be transferred to the regional assemblies.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, in responding to this amendment the noble Lord said that the one thing the Government are not doing is starving public services of money. I invite the Minister to talk to headteachers up and down the land.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, let me complete my remarks. The Government have talked about a "headline" sum of money exceeding, it is true, the rate of inflation that has been made available to education. What they have not taken into account is the cost of the 1 per cent increase in national insurance contributions, the massive additional sums employers are being forced to contribute to pensions for teachers, the incremental drift that is in place as a result of policies introduced by this Government, and new burdens on local government. None of those costs has been taken into account. I believe that noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches may agree with that point. No doubt they, too, have been hearing from schools right across the country, as I have done. If any more money is to be made available other than to provide a neutral effect to implement these policies, then that would come from public services.

The noble Lord said that the main purpose of the amendment was to introduce delay. If giving information to the people who require it and if giving that information at the outset of the exercise so that they are in a position to understand the nature of the animal for which they are going to have to make sacrifices is regarded as a delaying tactic, then that is his view. As he has done on a number of occasions already, the noble Lord will admit that once it has been determined that a region shall hold a referendum for a regional assembly, the exercise to be undergone will be long, painful and expensive. People need to know for what it is that they are going through all that. If they do not have that information at the beginning of the exercise, then it would be a confidence trick not to give it to them until the point at which they are about to vote.

My noble friends Lord Peyton and Lord Caithness have been extremely patient. They have talked about powers and responsibilities on a number of occasions. I can tell the Minister that we have read and re-read the summary document and every single word of the White Paper. I turn to that document in my effort to seek answers. I do so because the one thing that these documents do not give us are answers to the questions that we have asked relentlessly throughout our debates on the Bill and will continue to ask until it has passed through this House.

I have mentioned previously paragraph 3 of the summary to Chapter 4, which states that:

XAssemblies will be given a range of powers to help them to deliver these strategies".

We have made the specific point: give examples of actual powers that will be passed down from national government to the regions; powers that are freestanding to do things and to determine them.

However, qualifications are added to that statement. Box 4.1 in Chapter 4 states that,

Xskills and employment—which will set out how an assembly and its partners will improve the skills of the workforce and ensure that everybody has access to job opportunities".

That is a function of the county councils, the learning and skills councils, the sector skills councils, the national Learning and Skills Council, the national council for sector skills and some local authorities—not including job centres and so forth. What specific power will the new assembly be given? Will it have the power to second-guess, or perhaps the power to make all those bodies do its bidding? What will be the powers?

I turn to transport. Box 4.1 states,

Xtransport—which will spell out plans to address congestion, improve public transport and road links, and ensure that the transport system supports sustainable economic growth".

That is a function of the county councils and, where they have the appropriate responsibilities, the unitary authorities. Will the new assemblies second-guess those bodies, will they take powers from them or will they do something else?

In regard to waste management, Box 4.1 states,

Xwaste—which will set targets and indicators for regional waste management capacity and disposal, including for the recycling and recovery of waste".

Waste management is a county council and a unitary authority function. It is not a national function; it is a local government function.

I turn now to housing. Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches find this amusing, although they are supposed to care about local government. Box 4.1 states,

Xhousing—which will deal with all aspects of the housing market and social housing in the region".

That is a function of district councils and, in part, a function of county councils—as well as, of course, unitary authorities where they exist.

My final example is health improvement, on which Box 4.1 states,

Xhealth improvement—setting out a long-term public health strategy, which assemblies will agree with the relevant Regional Directors of Public Health".

There is already in place a long-term strategy for health matters throughout the regions of the country. What form is the new strategy to take? Furthermore, we have in place the primary care trusts and the regional strategic authorities. What will their functions be if the new regional assemblies are going to second-guess them? What powers will the regional assemblies be given in respect of this area?

Those voting for this amendment will be voting for information to be made available before an order is made so that, throughout the reorganisation exercise, the nature of the regional assembly, its powers, functions and predicted costs will be made known. That guarantee will be put on to the face of the Bill which will require the Deputy Prime Minister and/or his replacement to honour that commitment.

Those who vote against the amendment will be denying any guarantee that such information will be made available to the people who really matter; the people in the regions.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 24) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 114; Not-Contents, 164.

Division number 1 Private Parking: Ports and Trading Estates — Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill

Aye: 112 Members of the House of Lords

No: 162 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 4:08 pm, 8th April 2003

moved Amendment No. 25:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—

"REFERENDUMS EXPENDITURE

After paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 14 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41) there is inserted— "(2A) In the case of a referendum held under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 an overall limit shall be placed on the total permitted spending by all permitted participants campaigning for and against the proposition, and that limit shall be equal in respect of each side and subject to a formula by which the overall ceiling is no more than £1 million.""

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I return to a matter that we raised earlier in Committee—the restrictions, if any, to be placed on the amount of money that can be spent by or on behalf of candidates during any referendum campaign. I am grateful to the Minister for writing to me following our last discussion on this matter. He answered a number of my questions but I should like to raise one more point that he did not clarify. He has made it clear that the institutions of the European Union can contribute to the referendum campaign. That was one of the matters about which I asked him. However, it is not clear how much will be allocated to participants—that is, the candidates who are standing and the list candidates as well.

In his letter to me, the Minister said that Section 117 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000,

"provides that no individual or body can incur referendum expenses of more than £10,000 during the referendum period unless they are registered as a 'permitted participant'".

I imagine that a "permitted participant" would include a candidate. I am not clear, therefore, about the rationale regarding the money available. I understand that for all other elections, there are various formulae. I have spared the House by not going through the formula for each aspect of elections because I do not think it would be very instructive. What is instructive, however, is that there is a formula. It relates to the amount that the constituency member—that is, a candidate—can spend, which is usually per head, and how much is available to the subsequent list members.

A very rough calculation of the amount available for the Greater London Assembly elections leads me to the view that that figure was under £1 million. There needs to be an upper limit on expenditure and probably also on total expenditure. I am concerned that companies will be able to put in money without having to appeal to their shareholders.

If there is to be a formula, does the Minister yet know what it will be? If not, will the noble Lord consider that that expenditure should not be more than £1 million—which is a lot of money in terms of promoting people's futures?

The Minister told me that he would let me know before Third Reading if he had any further views. I have returned to the point a bit sooner and if he can give any further information, I shall be grateful. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I will give the noble Baroness the latest information and will honour my commitment to come back with more before Third Reading.

Amendment No. 25 seeks to set the overall limit on the total permitted spending by all participants campaigning for or against elected assemblies. Let us be absolutely clear that we are not here talking about candidates but about campaigns for or against an elected assembly.

The noble Baroness wants a ceiling of £1 million and cited the rough basis for that figure. I shall not quite quibble with it because, from her point of view, there is some logic to it. As my noble friend Lord Evans explained in Committee, that approach is at odds with the one taken by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Schedule 14(2) to that Act allows for an order to be made setting limits on expenditure incurred by individual permitted participants—either by themselves or on their behalf. It envisages that that might be done by setting limits for different categories of permitted participant—as has already been done in respect of UK-wide referendums.

Moreover, my noble friend explained at length that the amendment would result in an unworkable solution in terms of both timing for setting individual limits and enforcement of the limits. I will not repeat those reasons now as they are on record from the Committee stage.

Schedule 14(2) to the 2000 Act contains a provision to set different limits in relation to referendums held in parts of the UK. My right honourable friend Nick Raynsford, Minister of State with responsibilities for local government, wrote to Sam Younger, chair of the Electoral Commission, seeking its views on whether different limits should apply for regional referendums—and if so, what they should be and why. The commission has not yet undertaken detailed work on appropriate levels for regional referendums but has suggested that its officials work with those of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which we think is a sensible way forward.

We also need to reflect with the commission on how regional referendums should interact with local government referendums. We envisage putting out proposals for public consultation before making any order—and Parliament will of course have the opportunity to scrutinise in due course any order made under Schedule 14(2) to the 2000 Act.

I assure your Lordships that we shall look carefully at the whole issue—this is new territory—and seek to work very closely with the Electoral Commission. In light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Baroness will be satisfied. I repeat my commitment to contact her before Third Reading if I have more up-to-date information.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, I am very grateful for the Minister's reply and for the correspondence that has ensued through the course of the Bill. The Minister has sought to keep us up to date. Even though my noble friend Lord Caithness was absent, at least there was an intention to keep him informed. We all appreciate that courtesy, so I wanted to place our thanks on record.

I do not propose to pursue the amendment. I want only to leave on record that one aspect of the campaign must not be overwhelmed by another simply because extra money is available from different sources. There must be some way of ensuring equality in giving the right to spend to a certain limit but no further. If the Minister agrees, perhaps he will ensure that aspect is discussed with the Electoral Commission, so that both parties are on a level playing field as far as money is concerned. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 6 [Combination of Polls]:

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour 4:15 pm, 8th April 2003

moved Amendment No. 26:

Page 3, line 24, after "section 1" insert "or (Local government referendums)(2) with one another or"

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 26, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 28, 34, 58 and 60. These amendments are all consequential on there now being local government referendums. Amendment No. 26 enables the regional referendum poll to be combined with the polls for local government referendums.

Subsection (6) of Amendment No. 12 moved yesterday by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, required that the two referendums must be held on the same date. It makes sense to enable the polls to be combined, to reduce bureaucracy and duplication of effort—which would be the case if the polls had to be run in parallel. Under the amended Clause 6, it would also still be possible to combine these polls with other polls for local or general elections or for local mayoral referendums.

Amendment No. 28 amends Clause 7. It simply ensures that the Electoral Commission can encourage voting in relation to regional referendums and local government referendums. Amendment No. 34 amends Clause 9. It ensures that a Minister of the Crown can make provisions for the payment by the Electoral Commission of charges and expenses in connection with both types of referendum.

Amendment No. 58 amends Clause 28. It ensures that Parliament can provide for any expenditure of a Minister of the Crown in connection with regional referendums and local government referendums. Amendment No. 60 amends the Long Title so that it reflects the holding of referendums about options for implementing the recommendations of local government reviews.

I urge your Lordships to support these sensible tidying amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 27:

Page 3, line 35, leave out subsection (3).

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak to Amendments Nos. 35 and 41. In moving her amendment for a second referendum question, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, explained that her amendment provided for the Secretary of State, by order, to make provision in connection with the holding of the second referendums. She explained that such a power was needed because the options which will be put to voters in two-tier areas will vary from region to region, and because we would need time work out, in each case, the best arrangements for the new local referendums. Nevertheless, before making such an order, it is important that the Electoral Commission should be consulted. Amendment No. 41 provides for this by making suitable provision in Clause 11 of the Bill.

Amendments Nos. 27 and 35 are consequential amendments, which tidy up the Bill, so that the various obligations on the Secretary of State to consult the Electoral Commission are all set out in one place. Noble Lords will recall that such requirements exist in relation to the Secretary of State's order-making powers under Clause 6—XCombination of polls"—and Clause 9—XExpenditure". Amendments Nos. 27 and 35 remove the separate requirements from those clauses and brigade them together in Clause 11. I emphasise, however, that the amendments in no way diminish the obligations on the Secretary of State to consult the Electoral Commission.

I shall move Amendments Nos. 35 and 41 in the appropriate places. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 7 [Encouraging voting]:

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

moved Amendment No. 29:

Page 4, line 5, at end insert "provided that anything they undertake to encourage voting does not disproportionately favour one of the possible referendum outcomes to the detriment of the other"

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Amendment No. 29 would provide that nothing the Electoral Commission undertook to encourage voting disproportionately favoured one of the outcomes. The amendment would ensure fairness. As the Minister knows, because we said it previously in the debate and because legal challenges are currently being made, public money is being spent on arguing for a referendum. We know—or, at least, no one has convinced us otherwise—that the few examples of those who are campaigning against referendums are doing so at their own cost.

It is not unreasonable to believe that a similar imbalance may carry on when the Bill becomes law and campaigning and the use of public money becomes legitimate. The amendment would make it clear that the Electoral Commission must be entirely impartial as it encourages voting in the referendum.

There are people in the North East who believe that the playing field is not level. I know that the Minister will say, with every good intention, that there is no intention that anything other than a level playing field should prevail. However, given that people are uncertain and losing confidence, it is important to have a requirement on the Electoral Commission that can be seen to be a legal requirement as well as one of good intent.

The Electoral Commission is an independent body with a sensitive role; it will not be the first time that it has engaged in such a role. It would be very easy to influence the outcome of the referendum as it works to boost voter turnout. Anything that can be done to boost voter turnout is important, and it is important to make the commission's role in that clear. I have every confidence in the commission and in the Minister, when he tells us of the Government's intentions for it to remain neutral. The amendment provides the legislative back-up to justify its neutrality in this context, giving more confidence to local people in the process. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, this is an important amendment. The noble Baroness referred to the fact that, in the North East, there has been a grave suspicion that public money from council tax payers has been used to support one side of the argument.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and Mr Raynsford, for reacting positively to suggestions that government money was being used on one side of the argument. They made it absolutely clear that they do not approve of government or taxpayers' money being used on one side of the argument. That is very welcome, but a fear remains that in some parts local authorities are using public money.

Neil Herron, of the metric martyrs association, is taking action against Sunderland Borough Council on the grounds that it has participated in an organisation campaigning for regional assemblies to be established. I well remember that in the Welsh referendum, the money and the opinion expressed in the newspapers was skewed towards the "Yes" campaign, and there were accusations that public authorities had used public money in advance of the referendum and, in some cases, during the referendum.

This is an important amendment, which enables this House to establish that it believes that any referendum should be carried out very fairly, without rate payers' or taxpayers' money being engaged on any one side of the argument. It also gives the Government the opportunity to reiterate that they will not allow, under any circumstances, government money to be used on one side of the argument. I can only hope that, if they have any influence with local authorities, they will prevail on them to take the strong, fair and legal line that the Government themselves are taking.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, was right to draw attention to what is happening in the North East. However, jiggery-pokery is also being practised in the North West. I had occasion earlier to draw attention to a letter addressed by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to Lancashire County Council. The council had told the assembly that it had reason to believe that money that it had given the assembly was being wrongly spent on campaigning. The assembly had the effrontery to write back to the council, admitting that it had passed a resolution, saying,

Xwe, the North West Regional Assembly declare our intention to become an elected Regional Government", and had immediately afterwards issued a press release saying that it was campaigning,

Xfor a referendum in the Region at the earliest opportunity to give people in the North West their say on whether they want directly elected Regional Government".

Rather unconvincingly, when it was pointed out to the assembly that if it was so campaigning it would be acting illegally, the assembly tried to go back on what it had said in the press release. That was hardly convincing, given the plain wording of the press release.

Obviously, therefore, we need to be very watchful. We must learn from that unfortunate experience.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour 4:30 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, in Committee, when we debated an identical amendment, my noble friend Lord Rooker said that he agreed with the whole thrust of the noble Baroness's case but argued, nevertheless, that her amendment was unnecessary. I believe that the noble Baroness is really looking for reassurance today that the Government agree with the position she has taken. I hope that I shall be able to reassure the noble Baroness.

As my noble friend said in Committee, the Electoral Commission is an independent body that takes a fair and responsible approach to all its statutory duties. It should not be seen to favour one outcome of a referendum over another. Under Clause 7, we consider that the commission would have a public law duty to act in a reasonable and balanced way. It could be subject to challenge by way of judicial review if it acted in a biased way. The power is simply to encourage voting; it is not to encourage any particular outcome.

However, Amendment No. 29 might positively encourage the commission to act in a biased way. If the commission has information that one particular result in a referendum is more likely than another, is it actively to persuade voting the other way? Indeed, the amendment would seem to imply that the commission can favour one of the possible outcomes of the referendum provided that it acts "proportionately", whatever that means. But crucially—I stress the word "crucially"—Clause 7 should only be about getting people to turn out to vote, not influencing for whom they vote. The commission should, quite rightly, do this in an unbiased way.

I should respond to the interventions made by the noble Lords, Lord Waddington and Lord Stoddart of Swindon. The amendment relates to Clause 7, which is solely about the role of the Electoral Commission. It has nothing to do with the activities of other bodies. During proceedings on the Bill, both in Committee and on Report, we have heard many stories about the activities of the North East and of the North West, but, so far, there is no evidence in that respect.

However, I can tell the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, that the Government would not under any circumstances use money to favour one side over another. I believe that that was the substance of his intervention. With that explanation, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, as always, we shall want to reflect upon the noble Lord's response. I believe that he has given us a good deal of what we wanted by way of these amendments. I thank the noble Lord, and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 8 [Provision of information to voters]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) will apply for the purposes of a referendum on regional assemblies. Consistent with the provisions of that Act, Clause 8 of the Bill is currently drafted to permit the Electoral Commission to step in and ensure that voters have the information they need in order to make an informed choice when they vote about whether they want an elected assembly. It limits the Electoral Commission's role to situations where it has not otherwise appointed "designated organisations" in relation to each possible outcome at the referendum; in other words, where it has not designated yes or no campaigns.

With the introduction of the second referendum into local government reorganisation, upon which we agreed yesterday, we need to establish the rules that will apply. The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, permitted the Secretary of State to establish such rules by order. We shall be talking to the Electoral Commission about how these referendums should be run. There are a number of options available.

It is possible that we shall apply some or all of the PPERA rules. Alternatively, as these are local referendums, we might establish something more akin to the rules that apply to the mayoral referendums. We might do something different again. We want to discuss such matters with the Electoral Commission. But in advance of establishing those rules, it seems prudent to allow the commission sufficient scope to ensure that voters in each local government referendum have sufficient information to make an informed choice—if, for example, the information would not be made available in other ways. In effect, it is a consequential amendment arising from the decisions made yesterday. Quite clearly, there remains work to be done with the commission as regards finding a satisfactory way forward. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, as we now find ourselves "muddled" on these two referendums, perhaps the Minister can enlighten us on one point. I do not know whether the Minister has had time to think about this, but is it the Government's intention to have two separate questions on two separate ballot papers? If that is the case, they will be separated and people will be able to see that they are voting on two entirely different matters and on a different referendum. Alternatively, is it the intention to introduce this as a second question tied up with the first referendum?

It is an important point. We have many concerns, but one of the problems with the second question is that there does not seem to be any way of voting against it; in other words, there is no way for someone to say "I don't want this local government reform"—or, indeed, any of it. People will just be asked to choose an option. It should be made clear that these are two separate entities, even though they may be taking place on the same day.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Baroness's question because no decisions have yet been made. However, I shall base my response on past experience. As my noble friend Lord Evans said when moving earlier amendments, essentially we want the referendums to take place on the same day and in the same polling booth. We do not know the degree of the questions or of the options on the local government referendum—at least two choices, possibly more—or, indeed, how they will be set out and deployed in the length of a ballot paper.

As is normal, I suspect that it may involve two separate ballot papers, one being a different colour to the other to make clear that difference. They may be put in the same ballot box and then separated later, or placed in separate boxes. I simply do not know. It may be wholly impractical to put all the information on one paper because we would not know the exact layout of the local government options. This is a matter for consideration. The layout must be clear to voters.

As regards the regional referendum, this will clearly be a case of whether the voter is in favour, or not in favour, of the proposal. With the local government referendum, it follows from the whole thrust and the pattern—does it not?—that there will be two or more options from which to choose. It is up to the elector which option, if any, he or she chooses. I cannot envisage how there could conceivably be any other way forward. There will be two or more options, one of which must be chosen if people so wish. Alternatively, they could abstain.

I have just been given some further information. I shall read out the advice in this briefing note, in the knowledge that what I have just said may be completely contradictory. On the question of whether there will be two ballot papers or one, I am advised that either approach is possible. I think I said that. My briefing goes on to say that we are discussing the matter further with the Electoral Commission—good! As for which approach is appropriate, I am advised that that may depend on the number and length of the local government options. Indeed, that is what I just said. Clearly, further work is required on the matter.

By and large, the answers are self-evident. It depends to a certain extent on the nature of the options for local government; in other words, how many there are in a particular area. They will vary. It is a county-wide, local referendum, which may be different in the same region. Such considerations are a matter for the Electoral Commission. People must be able to understand the information supplied.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the arrangements sound fairly complicated, especially if the options for local government are to be spelt out precisely. For example, in a large region many changes may be made to the boundaries of district as well as county councils. It will not simply be that " is abolished and Y is instituted. Many other changes would need to be understood. First, will those arrangements be approved by an order before Parliament? Will there be an order before Parliament to ascertain whether there will be separate ballot papers and what will be on them? Secondly, will the advice of the Electoral Commission be sought in terms of approving the arrangements?

Did the Minister really mean that the regional assembly vote is straightforward: that one is either for it or against it? During the previous debate, the noble Lord rightly made this point: that there is a link between whether one wants a regional assembly; and the price for having that regional assembly. There is a link between the two votes; one is linked with the other. The answer to a regional assembly vote could be "Yes" because one of the options is satisfactory, or "No" because the arrangements are not satisfactory. Simply being for or against a regional assembly is not entirely without complication. There is a link with the other question.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, we have the advantage of the first question in the Bill. That is a straightforward "Yes" or "No". The consequences will now be made clearer because of the second referendum. The alternative originally was to have a "Yes" or "No" and, in publications produced by the Government and others, to spell out that the consequences of having an elected regional assembly is single tier local government. In order to give a greater choice of options for the form of single tier local government, the situation is necessarily more complex.

The noble Baroness asks whether there will be an order. As we discussed yesterday, the order will be subject to the affirmative resolution including the text of the options to appear on the ballot paper and any extra information such as maps. The Electoral Commission's views will be sought and put before the House with the order. All these matters will come back to Parliament.

In order to make a rod for my own back I shall give an example. I had it ready to use yesterday but there was not a suitable time. I believe that it would be useful to have it on the record. I want to be as open as possible. I asked for an example of a region where there were some complicated options—perhaps across a county boundary. I have chosen a region where I understand that the chamber has specifically requested not to be part of the first tranche. Whatever the soundings—I do not know what they are—the regional chamber of the West Midlands has said that it does not want a referendum; it does not want to be in the first tranche. I do not wish to refer to the two areas which we have always debated because I have to give examples of how the local structure might be joined together and it might mislead.

I hope that the example I give will help. Noble Lords may chastise me, saying that it was not helpful and it would have been better not to have known about it. The example is purely hypothetical. It does not mean that the West Midlands will be among the first regions to hold a referendum. I have stated that the chamber has asked that it should not be. Nor shall I say anything about the unitary structure of the West Midlands. That would be a matter for the Boundary Committee if it were asked to do a review of local government.

Let us suppose that following a review there is a set of recommendations for Worcestershire; that is, the area currently comprising of the district councils of Malvern Hills, Worcester, Wychavon, Wyre Forest, Bromsgrove and Redditch. The recommendations involve two options: the first for a single unitary authority based on the current county boundary; the second for two unitary authorities, one comprising the current districts of Malvern Hills, Worcester and Wychavon and another comprising the districts of Wyre Forest, Bromsgrove and Redditch. In this case, Worcestershire would be treated as the county area and voters in that area would vote for which of the two options they preferred. In similar circumstances, there would be separate votes also in Warwickshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, the other county council areas of the West Midlands. I simply take the county of Worcestershire as an option.

Let us look at an alternative scenario in which two options are on the table—a single county unitary for Worcestershire and a two-unitary solution—but where the two-unitary solution included the creation of an authority which crossed the county line and took in part or all of the area of the district of Stratford-on-Avon which is currently part of Warwickshire. There would also be other options on the table for Warwickshire in order to take account of that. The county area in this case would be the combined areas of Worcestershire and Warwickshire and the referendum would be held on a combined basis in the two counties to see which option people favoured.

That is an example where the Boundary Committee may put forward an option which crosses a county boundary in the same region. We are not talking about regional boundaries. The option would be in the two-county area as opposed to the single county area and would be accompanied by maps and visuals. I hope that that is helpful to the House. It is intended to be so.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 4:45 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, with the leave of the House and before the noble Lord sits down, I found worrying one remark by the Minister. He said that he cited the region because the regional chambers had said that they did not wish to be in the first tranche. He said also that that does not mean that it will not be in the first tranche—so it was not a good reason. That singles out the region in a worrying way. Had other regions known that, they may have been wise enough to have said, "We don't want to be in the first tranche either".

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the noble Baroness reads far too much into it. I asked officials yesterday morning for an example which would flesh out how the system would work. I asked specifically not to be given an example from the north-west or north-east region because we would have to give hypothetical details about which district might join with which in two areas which have been debated constantly since Second Reading. I asked for an area on which there has been no debate. As far as I know, there has been no hypothetical issues with regard to the West Midlands. Yorkshire and Humberside have been mentioned.

I read in the Birmingham Post—I have had no correspondence with the chamber—that it had said, "We do not want to be part of the first tranche". It is a matter for the Deputy Prime Minister whether he follows that judgment depending on the soundings. I have no knowledge of the soundings. It is no good giving an example of invented names from a county which does not exist. One has to give examples of real places in order to explain how the system may work in one circumstance or another. I fail to see how one could give examples of other than real places. The example is purely hypothetical. It is based on an ad hoc arrangement. The Boundary Committee could put forward an entirely different arrangement. That is up to the Boundary Committee, not me or my officials.

I asked for an example of a scenario where the county line might be crossed. The county area has to be defined. It is a county council if it is within the one county. However, the Boundary Committee has flexibility to make sensible arrangements for single tier local government. It may say that in certain areas it is a good idea to cross a county boundary. What would be the consequences of that for people having a referendum on the local government issue? Please do not read too much into it. It is too late to start campaigning or writing to all the regional chambers. That is not why I gave the example.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall not read too much into it. The noble Lord has been extremely helpful. However, my noble friend Lady Seccombe may be put out by the remark that there was no mention of the West Midlands. My noble friend mentioned it in some detail in her Second Reading speech as did other noble Lords.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 31 not moved.]

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 32:

Page 4, line 27, at end insert—

"(4A) Subsection (4B) applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section (Local government referendums)(2) to cause a referendum to be held about the government's proposals for the structure of local government.

(4B) The Electoral Commission may take such steps as they think appropriate to provide for persons entitled to vote in the referendum such information as the Commission think is likely to promote awareness among those persons about the arguments relating to the options in those proposals."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 33 not moved.]

Clause 9 [Expenditure]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendments Nos. 34 and 35:

Page 4, line 38, leave out "section 1" and insert "this Part"

Page 5, line 7, leave out subsection (3).

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, my understanding is that Amendment No. 35 pre-empts Amendment No. 36.

Photo of Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Baroness Thomas of Walliswood Liberal Democrat

My Lords, that is quite right. I cannot call Amendment No. 36. I call Amendment No. 37.

[Amendment No. 36 not moved.]

Clause 10 [Exclusion of legal proceedings]:

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

moved Amendment No. 37:

Page 5, line 11, leave out "No court shall" and insert "A court shall only"

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, for the purposes of speaking to Amendment No. 37, I shall repeatedly refer to cols. 558–64 of the Official Report of 24th March.

When I sought to query why Clause 10 states that,

"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot papers", and so on, I took it to mean that no court should entertain any proceedings. That is what the words say and that is what I believed they meant. I then turned to the Explanatory Notes to see whether I had misunderstood the position. One argument put forward in support of the provision, which I have never believed is a valid argument in this Chamber, was simply that it has been done before. Reference was made to the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act, but the Act that is truly pertinent to the debate was passed 28 years ago. The Minister has quite openly agreed that this Bill addresses a unique provision. I should therefore like to consider my Amendments Nos. 37 and 39 in that light and on their merits.

If the Bill—in a free-standing clause which does not refer to any other clause—states that,

"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the . . . ballot",

I shall take it to mean just that. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, at col. 559, said:

"the clause does not rule out any and every challenge to a referendum result being looked at by the courts".

But as the Bill states that,

"No court shall entertain any proceedings", it does rule out any challenge regardless of whether it is minor or major. The noble Lord, at col. 560, went on to say:

"The clause is certainly designed to cut out less serious challenges".

Not only does that contradict the noble Lord's first statement, but there is no reference to either serious or less serious offences being brought before the court. Indeed, as I keep repeating, the Bill states:

"No court shall entertain any proceedings".

The noble Lord went on to say that,

"an alleged serious error could be challenged in the courts", but he could not give an example. How can it be challenged in the courts if no court will entertain the proceedings? He went on to say:

"Court challenges take time. Undue delay could result in difficulties as regards introducing the main Bill to set up the assemblies".

If a wrong has been done and a remedy has to be sought in court, that wrong must be remedied regardless of whether it delays this or any other Bill. It is not an argument to say that a court challenge should not be allowed because it might delay this Bill or the later assemblies Bill.

The noble Lord went on to repeat:

"We recognise that the clause may not prevent all challenges, particularly those of a serious nature".

Again I say that that cannot be the case.

The noble Lord also said that my Amendment No. 72 in Committee was a "little dodgy" because it imposed a rather short time scale. I have taken him at his word and extended it to three months, which I think is probably more reasonable. I think that it would be wrong to make the time scale any longer as it could allow for very much delayed vexatious challenges. Neither the Minister nor we would want that.

The noble Lord, at col. 561, went on to say that he hoped that,

"Members of the Committee accept that the clause does not prevent serious challenges".

However, as the provision states that,

"No court shall entertain any proceedings", serious or otherwise, I do not believe that that is the case. As long as those words remain in the Bill, I think that there will have to be a very good explanation as to why we should accept what the Minister has been advised.

The noble Lord, at col. 563, went on to say:

"Therefore, some case law does exist but no ouster clause of this kind has ever been considered by the courts, and that is a problem".

We had a debate about the ouster clause, but I still do not believe that it impacts on how we approach Clause 10. In the middle of the night when we were discussing this amendment in Committee, when he had finished his duties as the Deputy Chairman of Committees, my noble friend Lord Elton leapt to his feet to resume his place on these Benches. He admitted to me that he had never before sat through such a confusing and extraordinary debate. When able to speak in the debate, at col. 564, he said:

"I have been longing to join in this debate. If the words in the Bill do not mean what they say, surely words should be found that mean what the Government intend. Could we have words that say what the Government intend so that people like the noble Lord and myself, who are not lawyers, can understand what they mean so that we do not have to pay vast sums of money to lawyers to tell us what they mean?".

In winding up on the amendment, I said:

"The public will have to make sense of what it means".

We in this place are part of the Westminster village. We are accustomed and privy to legalese on a daily basis. However, it is the public who will have to understand what the Bill means. As I said then:

"If at the end of the day we say, 'Do not worry about reading the words on the page, the Minister says that they mean something else and when it says that no court shall entertain any proceedings, do not believe that because they will entertain some proceedings as long as the proceedings are serious because that is what the lawyers advise'".

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who had almost but not quite the last word on that amendment. She said:

"It is so serious that one will want to read the debate".—[Official Report, 24/3/03; cols. 558–64.]

I have read the debate. I still think that my amendments are worthy of consideration. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I have the gravest doubts as to whether the wording of Clause 10 could exclude proceedings for fraud. However, the fact remains that Amendment No. 37 can do no harm. Certainly it would make the matter a lot clearer. I cannot see how it could do any harm. I therefore urge the Minister to accept it.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the point is indeed serious. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said that the Government will come back with an amendment to the clause, I think that it would be more useful to consider what the Government are working on. I have one observation to which the Minister need not reply. Given that the role of the courts which cannot be ousted is that of judicial review, and given that the period for applying for a judicial review is, I believe, six weeks rather than three months—which is the period mentioned in Amendment No. 39—I should like to know how the provision fits within the context of the overall law of judicial review. One has to be extremely careful about the unforeseen consequences of this type of provision.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I am grateful for the initial remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. Yesterday—when I was criticised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for even raising the issue of Clause 10 in relation to Clause 5, although I was at the time speaking to Amendments Nos. 38 and 40, I think—I made a firm commitment that we would come back at Third Reading with government amendments to Clause 10. That said, I hope that we do not need to prolong the issue. I am not a lawyer and therefore I must operate on the best advice I am given. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is absolutely right: at present there is no evidence that the courts could be ousted from considering, say, a fraud case concerning, for example, a returning officer.

It appears that Clause 10 imposes a blanket ban but it does not. That is what I am told. In this type of situation we non-lawyers find out how lawyers make their money. We are dealing with something that appears to be absolutely straightforward with no qualification whatever. It looks like a blanket ban but we are told that it is not. There are circumstances in which the courts would hold the right to look into something.

Therefore, we shall return at Third Reading with an amendment which not only relates to fraud but focuses on issues such as the type of legal challenges that can be made, the type of court that would have jurisdiction and possibly a time limit in bringing proceedings. There are a number of options, including something along the lines suggested by the noble Baroness in relation to the timing of legal challenges. But we need to consider the matter very carefully because Third Reading will be our last opportunity to get it right.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour 5:00 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, and in the light of what he has just said, will he be able to ensure that the amendments that he might propose are available in time for other people to take some advice and, if necessary—if they believe it desirable—to table amendments to his amendments?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

Yes, my Lords. As someone said yesterday, when a Bill is published, there are notes on the clauses. However, I regret that when the Government or others come along with substantial amendments which the Government accept, the Explanatory Notes for those amendments are not necessarily available. In this case, I shall not be able to stand here at Third Reading with amendments to Clause 10 unless I or the Government have been able to publish an English translation with legal footnotes and back-up explaining exactly what those changes mean.

Frankly, if I am not up to the task, I shall plead with my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General to come along to help out. I hope that, if I can obtain an English translation explaining what we are trying to achieve with the necessary precedents, I shall be able to cope and give people comfort. However, I shall not return with amendments unless a satisfactory explanation has been given in advance. By definition, that explanation must allow for the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart.

I do not have any idea of the timetable, although I have a vague idea in my mind about the date of Third Reading. I thought that it would be on 28th April in order to meet the requirement for Royal Assent to be given on 8th May, as I was told by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. But there is sufficient time. I know that the recess is in the way but, if there is time to dream up the amendments, there is time to dream up a translation that we non-lawyers can understand.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, with regard to the so-called "information" that I had, I am sorry that the noble Lord does not receive such information from his own party. It seems that his party gave us the information before giving it to the noble Lord.

I consider the Minister to be more than equal to the task of taking the Bill through the House. I have the utmost admiration for the feisty way that he has done so and for the fact that he has been courteous and incredibly patient with some of us who have been more than a thorn in his side throughout the proceedings. But that is the stuff of politics, and the strength of this House lies in the way that we operate.

However, one thing surprises me. With the benefit of parliamentary counsel, which is considerable, and with the benefit of officials who take away the Committee stage of a Bill, consider all the pros and cons that have been argued and return with a reasoned, properly explained note, it should not be necessary to engage the Attorney-General, who has a million other things with which to concern himself—not least the Iraq war—to deal with this one amendment. The advisers in the department should have an answer to this question.

Perhaps I may give a parallel example. If a parent received a notice that no appeal would be entertained for questioning a grievance about a pupil in school, the parent could be forgiven for believing that that would deny him an appeal against the grievance about his child. A serious case would be considered but not a minor or vexatious case. That cannot be the explanation for Clause 10. As I said, the clause is free-standing. There is no reference to schedules, and there is no link to any other clause in the Bill. It simply states:

"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the . . . ballot".

It will have to be a very good explanation indeed.

Frankly, from what the noble Lord said, I consider the clause to be otiose. I believe that it is redundant, that it could come out of the Bill and that whatever is on the statute book could prevail. The amendment that the noble Lord will bring back at Third Reading might take that into account. But if an amendment is tabled to the clause and if the clause remains part of the Bill, I shall take it as read that it will at least achieve the purpose and aim of my amendments. If that is not the case, I shall be very worried.

I listened to yesterday's debate but was not sure whether the amendments were intended to comfort my concerns about Clause 10 or to comfort the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I had intended to press the amendments but I shall not do so today because I believe it is important to give the Minister an opportunity to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading.

So far as I am concerned, at present the Plain English Campaign, myself and others who read the clause—especially those who are not used to legalese—will have no doubt in reading what is actually plain English:

"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot".

Therefore, in eager anticipation of Third Reading, which I believe is to take place on the 28th—at least, that is the date which I have been asked to put in my diary and which has rather scuppered my holiday—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 40:

Page 5, line 14, at end insert—

"(b) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2) of section (Local government referendums) as certified by a person appointed for the purpose in pursuance of an order under subsection (9) of that section."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 11 [Supplementary]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 41:

Page 5, line 27, at end insert—

"( ) No order may be made under any of the following provisions unless the person making the order first consults the Electoral Commission—

(a) section (Local government referendums)(9);

(b) section 6(1);

(c) section 9(1)."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Local government review]:

[Amendment No. 42 not moved.]

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 43:

Page 6, line 42, leave out subsection (7).

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 43, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 44. Amendment No. 43 would eliminate a redundant subsection from the Bill. In effect, the clause in question enables the Secretary of State to prepare to direct the Boundary Committee to review local government in a given region before the ink has even dried on the statute book—indeed, I think that it probably already has done. It gives the Secretary of State power to consider views, information and evidence about the level of interest in a given region in holding a referendum. It also enables the Secretary of State to consider a number of factors that might influence which region or regions he directs the Boundary Committee to review. Therefore, it is a question of leaving out subsection (7).

With regard to Amendment No. 44, if noble Lords cast their eyes over Part 3 of the Bill, they will see that the whole of Clause 20 is devoted to the way that the Electoral Commission will be required to prepare and submit its advice. We on this side of the House see no reason why the transparent process that the Bill requires the Electoral Commission to follow is not applied to the work of the Boundary Committee.

As the Bill stands, a direction to the Boundary Committee will simply specify the date by which a review of local government structure will begin in a given region and the date by which the Boundary Committee will have to make its recommendations. The Bill states that a direction may require the Boundary Committee to start and finish its work by certain dates. Such wording implies that even this sparse information may, if the Secretary of State so chooses, be omitted from any direction he gives the Boundary Committee.

The amendment simply seeks to ensure that the review process is open and transparent. It lays down a set of steps that must be included in any direction to the Boundary Committee. Those steps provide a safeguard for people living in areas in which local government reviews will be carried out. They ensure that people are aware of the Boundary Committee's remit; the timescale to which it will operate; and the consultation opportunities that they will have to take part in the review process.

Local government reorganisation is likely to have more of a direct impact on people's lives than decisions about the electoral areas in which they live. There is no doubt that plans to abolish county and district councils, many of which have long histories of serving their local communities, will cause significant and prolonged disruption to the delivery of vital public services—a matter to which we again return.

That disruption will start from the moment that local government reviews are announced. The uncertainty that such reviews inevitably breed will deliver a blow to the morale of the councils affected and will distract councillors and officers from the essential task of delivering efficient, effective public service.

To minimise that uncertainty, there needs to be a clause that maps out the review process from start to finish. By their nature, reviews are lengthy and complex, but the longer they drag on, the more levels of uncertainty arise. The amendment would simply ensure that the Boundary Committee's work was open to public involvement and scrutiny.

We believe that the Boundary Committee would welcome any attempt to increase public participation in its work. Local people have an inherent understanding of their local communities and are best placed to inform the Boundary Committee's recommendations to the Government. I therefore hope that your Lordships will endorse my arguments by supporting the amendment. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, Amendment No. 43 seeks to delete Clause 12(7). It would mean that the Secretary of State could not do anything in connection with his consideration of the level of interest or of the factors set out in Clause 12(5)—such as the implications of carrying out a review in two or more regions at the same time—until the Bill had received Royal Assent.

We want to enable regions that want a referendum to be able to hold one as soon as possible. Conducting the soundings exercise on level of interest while the Bill is before Parliament minimises delay in the process. Debate on the Bill in Parliament has also raised publicity for the proposals, which we hope will encourage people to send us their views. The amendment is clearly intended to undo all the work undertaken for the soundings exercise that we initiated last year.

The approach taken in subsection (7) is well precedented—for example, by Section 4 of the Local Government Act 2000. We are not prejudging Parliament. No decisions on the region or regions to go ahead will be taken until the Bill has received Royal Assent. I do not think that I must make the case for having started the soundings exercise, because we have done so repeatedly throughout our debates.

From previous debate, your Lordships will know in respect of Amendment No. 44—a proposed new clause, in effect—that we entirely agree with the sentiments behind it and that in fact, by importing the requirements of the Local Government Act 1992 into this Bill by means of Clause 14, we have ensured that the Boundary Committee will consult widely and that local people will have an opportunity to comment on the process and the recommendations.

The consultation requirements with which the Boundary Committee will have to comply are set out in Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992. I assure noble Lords that they are the same requirements as were applied to the structural reviews of the 1990s and that will apply to other structural and boundary reviews carried out by the Electoral Commission in future.

So the Boundary Committee will be required to take steps to inform all interested parties about its draft and final recommendations and of the period within which they can make representations. It must already deposit copies of recommendations at the principal office of any principal council. If the South West were to be reviewed, the Secretary of State would expect to ensure that suitable steps were taken to provide for copies to be deposited at the office of the Council of the Isles of Scilly. In practice, all past reviews have published full reports and the Boundary Committee would doubtless do the same.

Noble Lords suggested that those requirements should be in the Bill, but it is not our practice to repeat provision for the same procedures and arrangements in new legislation when those procedures are already set out in statute—not least so as to avoid confusion. I thought that we all agreed early on that we should not write the same thing into a Bill twice. If it is contained in another Act, refer to it, do not repeat it. Otherwise, the risk of confusion is too great.

I therefore hope that noble Lords will accept that to have repeated all the relevant parts of the 1992 Act would have added greatly to the number of clauses in the Bill to no advantage whatsoever. To repeat these provisions would suggest that we should repeat them all. That would be nonsense. However, the spirit is included in the legislation that is on the statute book. I therefore hope that the amendments will not be pressed.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative 5:15 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's response, especially to Amendment No. 44. However, it does make me think that all of our discussion would be remarkably helped if there were an idiots' guide somewhere that mentioned which other Acts of Parliament could be applicable. In Bills, there is only a flat statement, which we must then unpick before we discover that provision can be found in other legislation. I do not know how many Acts there have been concerning local government reviews and local government boundaries—I have not bothered to count them—but there are many. As we have already discussed, other Acts are involved, such as the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

I must accept, because I have not checked, that what the Minister said is correct—that that is what would be implemented, that that is what is written into subsection (8)(a) and (b). I never disbelieve the Minister; I assume that that is what is said; and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]

Clause 13 [Local government review: supplementary]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 45:

Page 7, line 13, leave out "what structural change is most appropriate" and insert "appropriate structural change"

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, in moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 46 to 48 and 51 to 53. Those are essentially consequential amendments to our decision yesterday to allow a second referendum on local government reorganisation. I hope that it will not be necessary to labour that point, although I shall do so if required.

Amendment No. 46 signifies a change of policy. I owe the noble Earl, Lord Caithness an apology—I intended to give it to him last night, but the opportunity did not arise. During the course of an exchange yesterday, he asked me about existing unitary authorities having their boundaries changed, when we had clearly said that that was a no-go area. As I was answering him, I thought that the answer that I was giving him could not be right, because of the implications of the second referendum. I did not have an opportunity to refer to my note, which reminded me that I had said something wrong, because we had changed policy.

Amendment No. 46 represents that change of policy. It significantly changes the policy with which we started, because it changes the basis on which any review is conducted. That responds directly to the concern raised by the noble Earl and others—in particular, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt. The Boundary Committee should be allowed to consider the boundaries of existing unitary authorities. Although the Government remain concerned to limit the impact of reviews and continue to believe that there is no general need to review the boundaries of unitary authorities, we are prepared to concede that there may be circumstances in which that makes sense. Indeed, in Committee, we were given an example in which there appeared to be a consensus.

Amendment No. 46 therefore allows the Boundary Committee to consider unitary boundaries with a view to expanding them to take in part of a two-tier area. We propose to amend the guidance that we intend to issue to make it clear to the Boundary Committee that we would expect it to exercise that discretion only when there were pressing reasons to look at unitary boundaries.

We do not intend this relaxation in the parameters of the review to degenerate into a free-for-all, in which every unitary authority bids to expand its boundaries. I shall not name any of them, but there are some close to home. Therefore we want the Boundary Committee to be satisfied that both the unitary authority and the adjoining two-tier authorities are persuaded of the need to adjust the boundaries.

Amendments Nos. 45 and 48 provide for the necessary changes to ensure that the Government are in a position to allow voters at a second referendum to vote on different options for unitary local government. It provides that instead of a simple coming forward with recommendations for the best unitary structure, the Boundary Committee must make recommendations for at least two options in relation to each county area. It will assess the options against the same criteria as it would otherwise have used, and which are provided for in Clause 13(8). It is most important, therefore, that all the options presented in its recommendations must have regard to the interests and identities of local communities and the need to secure effective and convenient local government.

Amendment No. 48, alongside the amendments moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, establishes a transparent process by which the Secretary of State will proceed once he has received the committee's recommendations. He will have to allow six weeks before laying an order for the second referendum. During that period, he will be receptive to representations as he makes up his mind about the proposals that he will put to voters. Where necessary, he may direct the Boundary Committee to provide him with additional information or advice. He will also be able to reject any of the options and direct the committee either to make different recommendations, or to carry out a further review. If he does so, he will have to wait a further six weeks after receiving any new recommendations before he can make a referendum order.

He will decide which of the committee's recommendations he is going to put to the voters before he makes an order and, in the light of any representations received, whether to modify those recommendations. He will then make an order setting out the options in the form of a question to the voters and seek the Electoral Commission's views on the intelligibility of the question and on the supporting material, as I explained previously in the debate on Amendment No. 17.

The other amendments in this group make minor technical adjustments to the Bill to facilitate the changes that I have just described, which follow from the agreement of the House yesterday on the noble Baroness's amendment. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 46:

Page 7, line 20, at end insert "unless it has the effect that any part of the area of a relevant local authority becomes part of the area of a local authority which is not a relevant local authority"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 14 [Review procedure]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendments Nos. 47 and 48:

Page 8, line 21, second column, at beginning insert—

"( ) In subsection (1)(b) omit "under this Part";"

After Clause 14, insert the following new clause—

"BOUNDARY COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

(1) This section applies in relation to recommendations made by the Boundary Committee in pursuance of section 12(1)(b).

(2) The recommendations must include at least two options for structural change in relation to each county area in the region.

(3) At any time after he receives the recommendations the Secretary of State may—

(a) direct the Boundary Committee to supply him with additional information or advice;

(b) reject one or more of the options.

(4) If the Secretary of State rejects one or more of the options he may direct the Boundary Committee either—

(a) to make different recommendations, or

(b) to carry out a further local government review of the region and to make further recommendations.

(5) If the Secretary of State acts under subsection (4)(b), sections 12(8) to (10), 13(3) to (8), 14 and this section apply for the purposes of the further review and recommendations.

(6) For the purposes of subsection (5) it is immaterial whether the Secretary of State has considered any of the matters in section 12(5).

(7) County area must be construed in accordance with section (Local government referendums)(3)."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 15 [Implementation of recommendations]:

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 49:

Page 8, line 45, at end insert—

"( ) a majority of those voting in each district and county area voted in favour of an elected regional assembly,"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, this amendment refers to the first referendum question: should there be an elected regional assembly for such and such a region? We have been concerned throughout this Bill that the county and district areas might be overwhelmed in a referendum on a regional government. The disparity between the numbers in the counties and districts against those in the large metropolitan areas might mean that even if they voted 100 per cent no, it could have no effect on what would be their own future and their being subjected to a local government review. Those would be the areas where it was carried out. It is not about whether they have a review, or what sort of local government they want. It is on the question of whether they believe that they want regional government at all.

This amendment would ensure that where a referendum took place the returning officer had to ensure that in the vote there was a majority of those voting in the county and the district areas in favour of regional government before he could declare that referendum a success—if other parts of the region voted in favour. It is a simple amendment, but it is not simple in its aim. It seeks to make sure that those county and country areas are not engulfed by the metropolitan areas. We have looked during this Bill at some of the disparities of numbers that are apparent in the White Paper. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, I attach the greatest importance to this amendment. I referred earlier to a letter written by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to the clerk to Lancashire County Council. In that letter, dated 17th March, the chief executive said:

XLancashire County Council will be aware of the high level of public interest in the North West region, with regard to a referendum on elected regional government."

The chief executive certainly does not lack effrontery, because when he wrote that letter, he must have known that Lancashire County Council had issued a statement saying that all parties on the council were against a referendum on regional government.

That letter and the remarks of the chief executive highlight the absurdity of the present situation. There is a real risk of the Secretary of State resolving that there should be a referendum in the North West, although Lancashire and Cheshire are against it and Cumbria is at the best ambivalent. That is happening simply because noises in favour are emanating from the North West Regional Assembly, reflecting some support in the Merseyside and Manchester conurbations. There is real risk of a referendum resulting in a yes vote in favour of a regional assembly, simply because of the overwhelming voting power coming from the conurbations of Merseyside and Manchester, and in spite of the fact that the people in Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria have voted almost overwhelmingly against.

Why should the people of those counties be saddled with a regional assembly in the North West because of a big vote in favour in the conurbations but minimal support throughout the rest of the region? It would be a travesty of justice, and a travesty of democracy if the council tax payers of Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria were saddled with the cost of this completely pointless elected assembly and had to pay the salaries of members of an assembly who we now know would have precisely nothing worthwhile to do. No doubt they would find work, because work is always found for idle hands. No doubt they would find some justification for their existence. It would be a travesty of justice and democracy if the people of Lancashire had to pay for that frolic. I commend the amendment to the Minister.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat 5:30 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, as I understand it, "each" in this context is a synonym for "every". It seems that that is not being denied. I wanted to be clear about that in case I was going down the wrong road. If I am right, as I appear to be, any one district or county area would have a veto on the decision of the whole region. The amendment suggests that there should not be a regional referendum, but referendums in each district—and each county area, although I do not think that would be necessary, because there would be results from the districts anyway.

That is nothing like any way in which we have ever voted before and I do not think that it is how we should go about it. Under these proposals, if any single small part of Wales or Scotland or a London borough had voted against the new constitutional arrangements, they would not have happened. It might be quite hard to elect MPs under such a system. If one ward voted against, what would happen to the MP? I shall not go down that route, because it is not quite equivalent.

Making such a provision for referendums goes to the root of what regional referendums are about in a way that we cannot accept. It would mean that there would not be a regional referendum.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, is she opposing the amendment on the ground that a small, insignificant district area could hold the whole region to ransom simply by not having a majority in favour, or would her argument still apply if any part of a region, however large—for example, a county area, or perhaps across two county areas—was against? Is the noble Baroness arguing against the idea in principle, or is her argument based on one small, insignificant district council area?

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I am arguing against the idea as a matter of principle, large or small. Of course, if the large areas vote against, that will have an impact on the outcome of the whole referendum. On a similar—though not identical—amendment in Committee, the Minister said that if there was a tiny majority, the Secretary of State would think very hard about whether to proceed with setting up a regional assembly.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I support what my noble friend said. It is a great pity that the specific argument of a small district council area within a region was used to oppose the amendment when the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is in fact against the amendment in principle. What she said about larger areas, such as a whole county area, is simply not true. As my noble friend Lord Waddington made absolutely clear, if the whole of Northumberland, the whole of Cumbria or even the whole of Lancashire and Cheshire together voted against a regional assembly, they could still be outvoted by the metropolitan urban areas.

The fact that we now have two-tier questions on the ballot paper—one about regional assemblies and the other about the particular shape of the single-tier authorities below the regional assemblies—makes no difference. Everybody is going to answer the regional assemblies question, so if all those in a two-district area in some of the region voted against any option in the regional assemblies or even did not fill in the ballot paper but voted against the regional assembly, they could still be outnumbered by the others. That does not remove the risk of being outvoted by the urban areas. One has only to think of places such as Greater Manchester, Newcastle or—if we may be allowed to use the West Midlands again—some of the more densely populated areas there. We know that the largest area has over 8 million people in it. If all the country areas in that region voted against an assembly and all the densely populated areas voted for it, the country areas would lose. The noble Lord is going to say that we should not pre-empt how people are going to vote. We do not know until they have cast their vote. However, a small percentage of urban voters can outnumber a high percentage of rural voters. Even if turnout in the rural areas is very good and turnout in the urban areas is very poor, there could still be an overwhelming majority of urban voters outvoting and overwhelming the rural voters.

I am sorry again that the county and rural areas are not being supported by the Government or the Liberal Democrats, but we shall continue to do that. I support my noble friend.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I hope that Hansard will make it clear that I deployed a number of arguments in support of our position.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, there may very well be a case for some rural weighting, but I am not sure that the amendment would achieve a fair balance. If the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, really believes that urban dwellers are any more in favour of regional government than those in rural areas, I think he is making a big mistake. People in urban areas are just as concerned about the imposition of yet another tier of government, which they will have to pay for and from which they will get no benefit.

I do not know how to achieve rural weighting. There are circumstances in which there should be rural weighting, but I do not believe that one area should be able to veto the whole decision.

I am an urbanite and I know that people living in our towns and cities no more welcome the Bill than do people out in the counties and the districts. I would probably not support the amendment. I am so diametrically opposed to and hateful of the Bill that I have been prepared to support Opposition amendments all the way along, but I am very hesitant on this one.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I do not know what would happen if there were a Division on the amendment. My noble friend did not say that he would come and support me.

Throughout our debates, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has spoken with great confidence and certainty about the views of the electorate in Lancashire and Cheshire. I am not sure there have been any local votes there on the issue yet.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, both Lancashire and Cheshire County Councils have issued statements saying that all parties are against a referendum.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I also said earlier that I was not aware—and please do not send me any paperwork on it—of councils having had any resolutions, debates or votes on the issue. A statement issued by the party leaders is very different from having a genuine debate after mature consideration of what is in the Bill, although I know it is not enough.

All along I have sought not to overplay the elected regional assemblies. I do not want to underplay them. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is definitely a two nation Tory. There is no doubt about that. She sees the two nation split as urban and rural. She cannot conceive of anyone in Manchester asking what is in the proposals for Manchester. She automatically assumes that urban means you go for it because you get control. That is the kind of language that we have tried to get rid of. We are trying to build one nation. That is why we want a regional referendum, not one carried out on a district basis, setting off one part against another. That is the theme throughout all the noble Baroness's speeches, which I regret, because I do not think society is like that.

This is a bit of a nit-picking point, but the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about it at the start of her speech so that she could be clear about the words. Technically, under the amendment there would have to be a majority in each district and county area, including those districts that are already unitary. Somehow, I do not think that is what the noble Baroness intends. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made a similar proposal in Committee. I spoke at length then, and it would probably not be best to have another debate on thresholds, so I shall cover generally only the main points.

We believe that the fairest and simplest measure of the referendum result is the votes cast across the region. We have debated the boundaries, the shape of the regions, their differences and the soundings. We followed that precedent in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We do not think that it would be fair if people who did not vote could effectively veto a "Yes" vote by those who did.

Secondly, it is wrong that the desires of those who vote should be thwarted by those who, for whatever reason, do not bother. The thresholds give an additional, perverse incentive for those opposed to the proposal to stay at home.

Thirdly, we must all encourage as many people as possible to vote. I know that it is difficult. People can get switched off; they can be asked to vote too often; they can argue that they do not understand, but in a democracy we have a job to alert people to the fact that their views count in this case. They count even more than they did at the beginning of the Bill, following the strengthening that we did yesterday.

Clause 7 enables the Electoral Commission to,

"do anything they think necessary or expedient for the purpose of encouraging voting at referendums".

They may encourage voting, not the decision. We dealt with some of the issues relating to that in Committee.

Yesterday we debated the amendments of the noble Baroness opposite, which will give local people a choice on the structure of unitary local government in their two-tier areas. It is true that one follows the other—we have not hidden that. Elected regional assemblies mean single-tier local government. People now have a choice about the shape and structure of the single-tier authority and its components. The Government supported that amendment, which is now part of the Bill. It will be welcomed by people living in England's districts and counties.

This is not an urban versus rural issue, however much the noble Baroness tries to stir it up to make it so. She can keep goading the Liberal Democrats, with whom her party has obviously fallen out of love during the passage of the Bill, all she likes. The noble Baroness nods. I should not have said that.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

No, my Lords, the noble Lord should not have said that. With the leave of the House, does the noble Lord agree with me that the very urban areas that we discussed such as Greater Manchester and other unitary authorities have nothing to lose and nothing to gain in this debate? There will simply be another tier above them. The noble Lord says that rural areas have nothing to lose. But, whichever way rural areas vote, if there is a vote for a regional assembly, which may or may not be enhanced by the density of voting in urban areas, they stand to lose at least one or more of their district councils and all their county councils. Am I right in saying that, whatever happens, they will lose some of what they regard as their local government?

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, the assumption is that everybody thinks that everything is perfect. I spent part of yesterday listening to teenagers talk about life in rural areas for people of their age, including jobs, education, housing, and the problems of being denied opportunities to start businesses. They were generally having a good moan to the powers that be here in London at a meeting of the rural forum in one of the departments. If everything were perfect in rural areas, I would not have heard everything that I did yesterday in the queries and good positive suggestions made. We should not be against change in the principled way that the noble Baroness is. She wants everything set as if the chocolate-box image of the countryside existed. Life in those areas is not like the image that the noble Baroness presents. Therefore, within the context of the changes to the regional pattern of the country and the devolution of power from Government, we are giving an opportunity for people to have a greater voice.

The constant theme has been the counties. The two northern counties have been mentioned constantly, with reference to Manchester and Newcastle. Of the eight regions outside London, four have a majority in two-tier areas and four have a majority in unitary areas—it is split. But the concentration is always on the one area as though the whole country were like that. It is not. As I repeatedly said, in the East Midlands and the Eastern region the argument would be the exact opposite. Yet I could make the same speeches proposing these changes. The noble Baroness could not make the same speeches opposing them. I am not seeking to tempt her and I apologise for goading her. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press this amendment. It is not justified.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, the Minister is a very brave man if he issues a challenge to my noble friend Lady Blatch, because she might very well take it up. It is my job to reply, so I am leaping in just in case the Minister has to defend himself further. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out that the amendment was probably not perfect. Despite what the Minister has said, I am still concerned about the imbalance that could result from the vote on regional government, specifically because counties and districts are the areas where new unitary structures must be created. Therefore, in a way, it is important that counties and districts are perhaps even more in favour of regional government and the consequential review of local government than the metropolitan areas are. I do not intend to pursue the amendment today, but I do not promise not to return to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

moved Amendment No. 50:

Page 8, line 45, at end insert—

"( ) in any such referendum, the proportion of those actually voting for the proposition is equal to, or greater than, the proportion given in Schedule (Proportion of electors required to secure a majority) for the relevant percentage of the eligible electorate certified as having voted,"

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, halfway through the previous debate, I thought that the Minister was answering the question on thresholds, but I think he recovered ground and started again. This amendment would insert a new subsection. Amendment No. 59, which is grouped with it, seeks, more importantly, to insert a new schedule. The amendments touch a critical issue: what forms a majority in a referendum? We considered the matter briefly in Committee, but it is essential to probe further.

When such debates have taken place on other Bills, it has inevitably been claimed that amendments such as these are aimed at making it harder for a referendum to pass. Doubtless, we shall hear that from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, if from nowhere else. If they were willing to sell out the future county councils in return for undisclosed promises, sadly we cannot expect them to require a reasonable majority before the abolition of counties. Frankly, the refusal to accept a reasonable threshold test, just like the refusal to accept a plain, straightforward question, has always seemed to say most about the lack of confidence that the exponents of a referendum have in their case.

The Bill embraces very major constitutional change. That change must be made only if it carries not only the majority of voters but substantial public backing. The change in this referendum, as now acknowledged on all Benches in this House, is likely to lead to the abolition of many counties, particularly those in the areas of change. The counties are the oldest administrative divisions in our country, going back as far as Saxon times. They operate effectively, are sensibly sized and provide the traditional roots for every family in the land. People talk about being Cornishmen or from Lancashire or Norfolk. Are not those the instinctive and instantly understandable ways in which the vast majority of people define their being? No one outside the bunker of the Deputy Prime Minister believes that counties and people's associations with them are not important. The referendum to be held under the Bill points only to the abolition of historic counties.

Regional assemblies will weaken our central Parliament, and my noble friend Lady Blatch referred to that fact earlier in our debates. Such constitutional change should not be made on the basis of a bare majority of a tiny turnout in a vote on confusing questions. That is why many other countries require a threshold beyond a bare majority when issues involving constitutional change are at stake. Australia requires a majority of voters nationally and in at least four of the six member states. In the past, New Zealand required a 60 per cent "Yes" vote. In Italy, referendums succeed only if the turnout exceeds 50 per cent.

It is far from frivolous to suggest that we should have thresholds in relation to a matter as far-reaching as that dealt with by the Bill. In a general election-type turnout, a majority of one is sufficient, but the problem occurs at the other end of the spectrum. Given some local election turnouts, one must ask whether a majority of one in a referendum with a low local election-type turnout would give a verdict that was clear and conclusive enough to justify irreversible change. We doubt that, which is why, in Amendment No. 59, we propose a new schedule, in the form of a table.

The amendment would ensure that we avoided a situation in which a majority of one on a dismal turnout would be enough to abolish our historic counties and impose a new layer of bureaucracy. It links turnout to majority. The lower the turnout, the more significant the majority needed. If the turnout is at the level of a strong local election turnout—over 45 per cent—a simple majority will do. However, as the turnout drops—by 5 per cent—so the number required to vote for the proposition increases—by 4 per cent—until, on a turnout of less than 30 per cent, the support of two-thirds of those voting would be needed.

I did not need to carry on with the table. The Government or the Liberal Democrats may wish to argue otherwise, but I hope that it is unlikely that turnout would drop below 30 per cent, although it was less than that in London. I am happy to leave the figure at two-thirds, which is a sufficient majority to affect constitutional change in many countries. Some of your Lordships may say there are cliff edges. That is the case, to some extent. It would be possible to add further sub-divisions to avoid that, but it would complicate the table.

The advantage of such a table is that it combines turnout and majority. That is significant. Including such a table would provide a major incentive to both sides to achieve a good turnout. Noble Lords will see readily from the table that, if some "Noes" do not vote, because they believe that that is the same as voting "No", they will be mistaken. Every "No" who abstains and, therefore, causes the percentage of the poll to drop will, by not voting, increase the proportion voting "Yes". Therefore, the usual accusations made about thresholds are not valid.

If those who say that they favour having a regional assembly were to abstain in the same way as the "Noes", the proposition would be difficult. However, on the assumption that all "Yes" supporters vote and that the regional assemblies are wanted as desperately as those on the Benches opposite say that they are, the figures proposed in the table will ensure that neither side can disproportionately influence the result by not voting.

I do not pretend for a minute that the table is the only solution. I am ready to take guidance on it. Some have said that I am being too generous about a proposition that we oppose in principle—namely, regional government—while others say that we are creating difficulties. That suggests that we have probably got things nearly right. The table is clear and unequivocal. Everyone will know the rules of the game. They will know the criteria against which the result will be measured. That is the sensible way to proceed, in what may be several referendums.

I hope that I will not be told that I am being disruptive; I am certainly not attempting to be so. I hope that we can have a sensible debate about what constitutes a sufficient majority in a referendum of such importance. If there is a possibility of low turnouts for referendums that push through change of major constitutional significance, we must address the issue of turnout against majority.

What we face is the abolition of our 1,200-year old counties to allow the Government to embark on an experiment in the constitutional unknown. That decision requires a clear question and a conclusive result. Amendment No. 59 would contribute to the achievement of that conclusive result. Surely, that is in the interests of those on all sides of the debate, if they want any regional assembly to carry wide acceptance. I commend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has made some interesting points, some of which I agree with. However, we must be careful. If, in this country, we are into having referendums—we have several of them—we must be consistent. We cannot just change the rules for a referendum when we dislike the particular issue before us. The noble Baroness referred to that, when she said that she thought that she had got the thing about right, as her party did not like the idea of regional government.

When I was a local councillor, a previous government—supported by the noble Baroness—told us that, if someone did not bother to vote on whether people should be able to transfer their home, it would be treated as a "Yes" vote. One cannot change one's mind and have different rules just because one dislikes a particular thing or because one wants something in particular to happen. The noble Baroness is right to say that other countries have higher thresholds for referendums and that there are rules for them. However, at this stage of the progress of the Bill, we should not try to change the basic rules that we have for referendums. Some of us on these Benches could make other arguments if we were to make such general changes.

We are getting near to the end of the Report stage, and I must make it clear that, right from the beginning, we have said that we support regional government. As a party, we have talked about it since the time of Gladstone. It has been in various documents that we have published. We have been clear about it and about where we stand on the constitution and any changes to it. Our party has discussed the issue over many years. We have been accused of being muddled, when the opposite is true. We are the only party that has consistently held the same view of constitutional matters for a long time. We hold those views so dearly that, in the run-up to the previous election, we worked with the present Government, before they were elected, to bring some of those things to pass, and they have come to pass. Our attitude to this Bill has been precisely consistent with that. We have been consistent and clear about where we stand on constitutional issues.

As I said, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, in moving the amendment, made some valid points with which I agreed. However, we cannot start messing about in the Bill with how we deal with turnouts for referendums. My noble friend Lady Hamwee and the Minister pointed out that, if, at the end of the day, there has not been a high turnout and the results are skewed in one area, the Minister has the option of examining the results and deciding what should happen. On these Benches, we support that.

I am pleased that the Report stage has gone more quickly today. I hope that we will be able to resolve the outstanding issues at Third Reading.

Photo of Lord Monson Lord Monson Crossbench 6:00 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has made a convincing case for the amendment. She has given us many interesting examples of precedents set in other respected first world countries. I am sorry that the internationalists on the Liberal Democrat Benches have not paid more heed to that.

The amendment is very modest. Regional assemblies represent a definite constitutional change. Assuming a turnout of 25 per cent, which is possible and quite likely, because people are punch-drunk with elections nowadays, if such a constitutional change were to be pushed through with the support of less than 13 per cent of the electorate—which would be the case if only 51 per cent of those voting supported the change—it would be intolerable. All the amendments do is raise the hurdle rate in such a case from approximately 12.6 per cent to approximately 16.6 per cent; a very modest safeguard.

However, I must point out a slight flaw in the drafting of Amendment No. 59. As drafted, if exactly 40 per cent of the electorate voted—that is statistically unlikely, but it could happen—it is unclear whether the threshold would be 54 per cent or 58 per cent. Similarly, if exactly 35 per cent of the electorate voted, it is unclear whether the threshold would be 58 per cent or 62 per cent. That matter needs looking at before the next stage. Apart from that I support the principle of the amendments.

Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative

My Lords, I have not intervened at any stage of the Bill and I apologise to the House for doing so at this late time. I have listened with great interest to the arguments advanced and I have been particularly impressed by my noble friend Lord Waddington's stoic defence of the interests of the North West, whether it be Lancashire or Cheshire. I want the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to be under no illusions—speaking as someone from North Yorkshire—that feelings are equally strong in North Yorkshire as in the North West. It is for that reason that I rise to support my noble friend's amendments.

The percentage of turnout at local or general elections is largely irrelevant. It is regrettable when it is low, but the important thing is that an election takes place, simply to allow the democratic process to continue. But when we are contemplating a change of this magnitude—as my noble friend Lady Hanham said, the county councils go back for many years and are of great historical importance—I see no reason why we should not impose a threshold. It seems logical and it will be wholeheartedly supported in the regions. I know that I will be speaking for a great number of people in the north-east of England when I say that these amendments will be extremely welcome.

Photo of Lord Swinfen Lord Swinfen Conservative

My Lords, the Labour Party itself introduced a precedent for such amendments when it wished to give devolution to Scotland in the late 1970s. At that time a minimum proportion of the electorate had to vote. If that proportion was not reached, even if there was a majority in favour of devolution, devolution did not take place, as happened at that time.

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I find this one of the strangest amendments ever tabled. It says that there will be a referendum and the Electoral Commission will suggest that people vote because we agree with people voting, but we cannot tell them what the value of their vote will be until tomorrow, because if not enough folk turn up it will not have that much value if they want to vote in favour of the proposal. It is almost like saying to voters on 1st May, "If you don't have a 30 per cent turnout in your ward and the winning candidate doesn't have 66 per cent, you won't have a councillor tomorrow, or an MP for that matter".

I do not believe that this is the right way to proceed in a democracy. I am not keen on referendums but this is one of the many hurdles. I should have thought that the Tories would be overjoyed with this Bill because of the hurdles. Throughout my lifetime, all the changes of a constitutional nature under Conservative Governments have not been tainted with referendums at all, whether it was the abolition of my urban district of Elland in 1973 or the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council in 1986—

Photo of Lord Shutt of Greetland Lord Shutt of Greetland Liberal Democrat

And more, my Lords. There we are. I would not entertain this amendment.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I painfully remind the noble Lord that eventually we paid for that policy at the ballot box and that history may repeat itself for the present Government. The Minister will remember that at a previous stage I asked him whether the result of a vote would be binding—I cannot recall the answer.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I now know that it is not. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddocks, reminded us that the result of the election is not binding. So what the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said was a consequence of the amendments is also a consequence of the Bill as drafted. The Minister may take a subjective judgment that the turnout was not robust enough to establish a regional assembly, so when those people vote they still do not know what the outcome of the election is to be. That is why Clause 2 states that they may "help to decide" and not that they will decide by their vote.

At least my noble friend Lady Hanham is putting an objective test that, depending on the turnout, a defined percentage will have to be reached. We all know that in local government, county district and unitary authority elections across the land, however low the turnout, a majority of one or more is enough to secure the election of a councillor. But in this election that is not the case. If there are 8 million electors in one area—sorry, the population is 8 million, so I do not know what the number of electors will be, probably 5 million or 6 million; so, if 5 million or 6 million are entitled to vote for an elected assembly and a small percentage do so, they may or may not get one.

I believe that under the rules if there is a marginal "No" vote, the Minister can regard the election as null and void for whatever reason, because the result is not binding, and run another election, because the Bill gives him the power to do so. It is much better to accept an amendment along the lines of my noble friend's. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that we need to look at the interaction between the percentage of voters and the proportion required because exactly 35 per cent or 40 per cent of the electorate may vote and people need to know what that provision means. But the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has been defeated by that of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and from the Minister's indication of assent to me.

It is far preferable to have at least a known level of support for this constitutional change. I support my noble friend.

Photo of Lord Dixon-Smith Lord Dixon-Smith Conservative

My Lords, if I were the Minister I would welcome the amendment because it would formalise my discretion. Having my discretion formalised would mean that, if subsequently I took a decision it would not in fact be discretion because it would be in the Bill and I would not have to argue for it, but I would be in a position where we had established the way in which the vote should be decided in the case of a low poll. It would be a high poll in the local government election and one would probably finish up somewhere in the middle of the range.

The fact of the matter is that 21.7 per cent of the electorate can bring about a major constitutional change if only 35 per cent vote. If 30 per cent vote, 20 per cent can bring about major constitutional change. Below that, it is 20 per cent and 13.2 per cent. On a 10 per cent poll, 6.66 per cent of the electorate can bring about major constitutional change. That is the effect of my noble friend's amendment.

I would have thought that the Minister might find that a reasonable limit on his discretion. I want to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that this is not the right time to introduce this change. We have had a number of referendums in this country and the big problem we have had—and it goes back to when we were discussing the Scotland Bill—is that we had no formal procedure for them. If we had acted at that stage, we would not be having this argument now .

However, having started down this road, there is an argument that says that this is not the right time. It will never be the right time. If it is never the right time, we will never do it, but we should have done it long ago.

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, we in this country are suffering from a bout of "referendumitis". In this Bill, not only have we set up arrangements for a referendum on whether we should have regional assemblies, but we have also extended the range of referendums by having one on local government boundaries. We seem to be making it up as we go along.

At the same time, the Government are refusing a referendum on what might be the greatest constitutional change we shall have. That is the result of the Convention on the Future of Europe where there are far-reaching proposals for a change in our constitution and that of other countries. I do not know where we are going on referendums, but it is certain that where constitutional change is involved a simple majority is not good enough. Any golf club which wants to change its constitution must have a 66 and two-thirds majority. Indeed, any organisation worth its salt before it changes its rules and constitution will need far more than a 50 per cent majority. Even the National Union of Mineworkers has a 55 per cent majority rule before people can go out on strike. It is therefore clear that when we want to change the constitution we must have an overwhelming majority. Indeed, if a building society or other business wants to sell its business, it needs a 75 per cent majority.

Here we are, in our great Parliament, talking about changing constitutions with a mere 50 per cent when perhaps only 40 per cent of the electorate are voting. The people who say that we need to get to grips with this problem are right. Whether the amendment gets to grips with it, I do not know. It needs to be considered.

In the House of Commons in 1979—the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will remember it as well as I do—some of us introduced an amendment to the Scotland Bill which provided that 40 per cent of the total electorate voting yes would constitute a majority. It may well be that that simplistic arrangement might work better than the convoluted arrangement in the amendment before us.

I believe that if we are to establish referendums, and if we are serious about it, we should lay down rules which, as regards referendums on constitutional matters, will be standard and understood and will ensure that constitutional change is supported by the large majority of the country.

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:15 pm, 8th April 2003

My Lords, we have had a much more interesting debate than occurred in Committee when we discussed an amendment in my name similar to that of my noble friend Lady Hanham. Some people on the Labour Left-wing and the Liberal Democrat Party by negating the amendment wanted to reduce debate at this stage, but clearly they have only increased the quality of the discussion. This has been a much better debate and a better-argued one.

I was particularly taken by what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, said, based on his experience of another place. The amendment I tabled in Committee was relatively simple in comparison to the effort my noble friend Lady Hanham has made to try to achieve a working compromise for a sensible Bill. But I like the proposal put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, because it is equally simple.

It is clear that, despite the letter of 3rd April kindly sent to me by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in reply to the comments I made in Committee, this is a matter that we need seriously to address. It is a key issue in the Bill because we are dealing with a constitutional change. It is a change for which the Government are not taking responsibility: they say that they do not want to change local government and that it is a matter for those who take part in the referendum. If there is a referendum, however small a percentage of the electorate vote, the smallest majority of that will effect a constitutional change. There is no option for those who live in a two-tier system.

I hope that we will read with care what has been said today—there have been many good arguments—and come back at a later stage with a final amendment.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville Conservative

My Lords, I was not intending to speak, but I am provoked by the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. I am sorry to say that because I am very fond of her. She and I have been and are colleagues in other enterprises. I take exception to what she said in her speech on two counts.

Her doctrine was essentially that of unripe time. I echo what my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said on that matter. I remember the period in another place between 1997 and 2000 when the Government made up the referendums as they went along. I remember challenging Miss Glenda Jackson who was then in charge of a particular Bill on the Government Front Bench. I asked her when the Government were going to put together a formula which would be consistently followed in each of the referendums. She said that those matters were outside her purview and would have to be decided by people greater than she.

We then experienced the results in the Welsh and London referendums and saw relatively low levels of interest in both. Only in 2000, when all those referendums were out of the way, did the Government come around to formalising matters in the 2000 Act. Therefore, doctrine of unripe time does not in my view apply. It seems perfectly proper that we should examine these matters if that is the example which the Government set in the first instance.

I have a second reservation about what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said. It was that the Liberal Democrat objection to parties being elected to power at Westminster when the party achieves only 43 per cent of the vote seems to run counter to the objections that she is raising to these patterns today. I merely make the remark philosophically and temperamentally.

Yesterday the Minister said (at col. 101 of the Official Report) that the electorate is now much more savvy about matters such as the ones we are discussing today. However, a turnout of 25 per cent, based on the results in Wales and London, seems to be a perfectly reasonable supposition as regards the kind of vote we shall see in these referendums. Twenty-five per cent is not a respectable total vote for introducing massive change, particularly when one goes down to what would be the even majority. It is right that the hurdle should be higher, as my noble friend Lady Hanham has proposed in her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hamwee Baroness Hamwee Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I wish to make a minor point. I shall say very clearly the name of my noble friend Lady Maddock. I am sure that she will be grateful if noble Lords take note that she is not plural; she is very singular indeed.

Photo of Lord Dixon Lord Dixon Labour

My Lords, I wish to speak briefly on this issue. I hope that a referendum will be held in the North East. How are we to explain to people living in the north-east of England, close to the Scottish Border, that restrictions will be placed around the numbers of people voting for or against, when the Scottish Assembly has been set up next door which was not subject to those kinds of restrictions?

What the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said was perfectly true. If these were the first ever referendums, then possibly there would be a stronger argument, but certainly not at this point. It would be totally unfair to the people of the North East if they do decide to hold a referendum. I hope that my noble friend will resist these amendments.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, to get it out of the way, I shall declare an interest. In 1978 I voted for the 40 per cent rule. I did so for a reason. Some of my noble friends in this House may well have been in the Chamber in another place that night. It was one of probably only two occasions during my 27 years in another place where one speech made to a full House changed the vote. It was the speech made by George Cunningham, who moved the amendment. That speech was an absolute classic. The place was packed and most Members were against the proposal because it looked so arbitrary.

I shall not go into the details, but George Cunningham's speech completely changed people's minds on how they would vote that night, and I was one of them. So I plead guilty. The result was a botched referendum in Scotland, which resulted in a "Yes" vote that could not get over the hurdle. That may have been the other side of the coin referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch: we paid the political price for it and learnt the lesson.

We are now in the position where we are following the precedent set in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in London. It would be absolutely crazy and unfair if we were to change the rules for any proposed regional referendums when we have already held referendums in so many other areas of the United Kingdom.

It is true and I can confirm that the referendums would be advisory. There is no issue about that. When we originally discussed this matter in Committee I also remarked that if the turnout was very low—I cannot put a figure on it—and the majority was very small—again, I cannot and will not put a figure on it—the Secretary of State would have to consider the result and think long and hard about the way forward. On the other hand, because the referendum would be advisory—

Photo of Lord Stoddart of Swindon Lord Stoddart of Swindon Independent Labour

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I am very interested in what he has just said. I say that because in Wales the majority was only 6,000, barely adding one percentage point to the "Yes" vote. I shall keep the noble Lord to his comments.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend is interested in what I am saying, but I am not seeking to goad anyone. I am repeating the remarks I made in Committee. Indeed, my noble friend has been in the Chamber for most of the six days that we have debated this Bill. Perhaps he was out of the Chamber at the time. Because the referendums will be advisory, the Secretary of State will have to make a judgment, go to another place, make his views known and be tested on them.

I am not going to say what I was about to say because that will just wind noble Lords up. If a referendum is advisory, the result could be looked at in another way: the Minister might be on the borderline and make an irrational decision which would be absolutely crazy. However, the point I seek to make is that the referendums would not be binding.

I shall contradict only one point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. If there were a "No" vote on a small majority, the Secretary of State could not then order another referendum. For heaven's sake, yesterday we debated for over an hour the question of whether a five-year gap before holding another referendum after a "No" result would be sufficient. How, then, could the Secretary of State order on a whim another referendum because he did not like the result? Last night we debated whether the gap should be five years or 10 years. Obviously memories are short.

We have already debated this. It is our view that there is no obvious way of deciding what should be the threshold. Our previous debate on Amendment No. 49 concerned votes in the counties and districts, and served as a form of threshold, which is why I have used the term. It provides a hurdle, a point at which to assess a decision. It would not depend on a straightforward and simple majority vote. It would serve as a threshold in a similar way to the proposed arithmetical figures.

Because there is no obvious way of setting a threshold level other than by a simple majority—which is the tried and tested way of doing things in this country—we want to stick to it. Otherwise an unfair advantage is given to those people who do not choose to vote. We want to encourage more people to vote.

It does not work in the same way in a general election. It has been a while since we had a perverse result, where a party wins the overall majority of votes in the country but secures only a minority of seats in another place. It has happened, but it did not bring about the constitutional rows that I thought it should have done at the time. If it happened today, however, I am sure that something would be said.

There are certain perverse issues attached to going for a simple majority, but to find a working threshold that is acceptable to most people is difficult. This was tested in another place and several amendments were tabled regarding what percentage of the electorate had to vote. The majority of the proposals varied between 25 per cent and 50 per cent.

I do not rest my case on the point, but we have examples of other countries which have put in place rules on referendum thresholds. No one has mentioned what happened recently in Serbia. Its threshold led to the most perverse difficulties when the Prime Minister sought to form a government. As I have said, thresholds can work in very perverse ways.

We need to set our minds to the task of maximising the number of people who freely want to vote on the basis of the information made available to them. We want to switch them on and enthuse them about the issues. That may be difficult in some cases, on the basis of what I have said in the past. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, also made the point: no new powers, no new money, but some people are willing to enthuse about the chance to give a voice to their region and the chance to have a say in the allocation of the existing massive levels of public expenditure. It is up to those involved, but persuading the maximum number of people to go out to vote either way is extremely important.

What happens at Third Reading is up to noble Lords, but I cannot see any formula that will work better than a simple majority, bearing in mind that the Secretary of State will have to make a judgment based on the turnout and the majority, and taking into account whether the result is clear cut. He will have to decide whether a "Yes" result has provided a sufficient steer for him to decide to proceed on to the publication of a Bill and the setting up of an elected regional assembly. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Photo of Baroness Hanham Baroness Hanham Conservative

My Lords, the amendment has generated a fascinating debate on the whole matter of what justifies the acceptance of a vote. I am grateful for having been credited with working out the schedule proposed in Amendment No. 59. However, in all honesty I have to say that it is a slightly attenuated schedule originally put forward by my late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I bow to no one in saying that my brain would be a pea in comparison to his brain. He worked out the table. I hope that noble Lords will accept that it was the effort of someone who had very considerable experience in this area. At the time I believe that Lord Mackay was trying to influence the debate on the ultimate form of the Scottish Assembly. We know now that some of those Assembly votes were quite derisory, as indeed they were for elected mayors.

I worry a lot when I think that the Secretary of State will have to make the decision about the threshold below which a referendum decision will not be accepted. The current thresholds where the referendum decision has been accepted are pitiful. My noble friend has already referred to the fact that turnout in London was 27 per cent; it was lower than that in Wales, and we have already heard about the monkey that was voted in with about 13 per cent. On those bases, our constitutional arrangement for referendums is laughable. The percentage of the vote in favour was not justifiable. If we want something that is lasting and enduring, we must at least try to establish that its original base was correct and there was sufficient support when it was originally introduced to justify changes being made.

As my noble friend Lord Peel reminded us, the county councils have been the senior level of government for many years; they have been the base of government in the rural areas. For them, this is a hugely important time—it is a watershed for some of them. It would be absolutely wrong for county councils to be disestablished on the basis of a frivolous and trivial vote.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, from which I take considerable heart. I have taken note of the points, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Monson, about the result of the way in which the schedule works. I should like to consider those points further and decide whether to bring the matter back at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 51:

Page 9, line 5, at end insert "or (Boundary Committee recommendations)(4)"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 52:

Page 9, line 8, leave out subsection (4).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 16 [Application of 1992 Act]:

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 53:

Page 10, line 8, at end insert "but references to a local authority do not include references to a parish council"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 19 [Advice of the Electoral Commission]:

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour 6:30 pm, 8th April 2003

moved Amendment No. 54:

Page 11, line 7, after "direction" insert "—

(a)"

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

My Lords, government Amendments Nos. 54, 55 and 56 all relate to Clause 19 on the advice of the Electoral Commission on elected matters. They are necessary because of the situations that may arise now we will be having local government referendums in parallel with regional referendums.

Amendment No. 55 gives the Secretary of State discretion to require that the commission give advice in relation to a specified number of options. Let me give noble Lords an example of when we might need to do this. There could be a legal challenge to the result of a local government referendum but the regional referendum was not subject to challenge and showed a clear majority in favour of an elected assembly. In that situation, we might want the Electoral Commission to be able to start work on advising on electoral matters for the assembly. But it would need to do so on the basis of different potential local government options being implemented, since the Secretary of State would not be able to confirm what would be implemented in the area subject to challenge. That is why we need to be able to direct the commission to come up with advice based on different options.

Amendment No. 55 is consequential. Amendment No. 56 enables the Secretary of State to vary the direction outside the two-year period. This is in case the result of a repeat referendum is not available until after the expiry of the two-year period. Such a result would clarify the future local government structure and would warrant a revised direction. These are necessary amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 55:

Page 11, line 8, at end insert—

"(b) may require the advice to be given in respect of a specified number of options."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Labour

moved Amendment No. 56:

Page 11, line 9, after "varied" insert "(whether or not within the period of two years mentioned in subsection (2))"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 23 [Funding for regional chambers]:

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

moved Amendment No. 56A:

Page 12, line 22, leave out "any person" and insert "a regional chamber"

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I can be brief on Amendment No. 56A. It seems like a small point, but on rereading the Bill, I saw that it said:

"The Secretary of State may make a grant to any person in respect of expenditure incurred in connection with the activities of a regional chamber".

That does not explain whether such a person is from the regional chamber, totally independent of the chamber or from another body.

A regional chamber that commissions work, establishes a partnership with an individual and/or another body or wishes some activity within its remit to be carried out by another person should commission that project and grant the money for it. If there is to be government funding,

"in connection with the activities of a regional chamber" the chamber must make the case for that activity. It must set out the cost of the project for which it is accepting bids. The grant should be made out to the chamber, which should then allocate the funding to whoever is carrying out the activity.

This is important because, as the Bill stands, any person could claim that he is carrying out work which is an activity of a regional chamber. It might be a self-appointed person—we really do not know. There is a great overlap of activities between regional chambers, regional development agencies, regional assemblies and many other bodies in the region. Therefore, it should be made explicit that the regional chamber should make the case for receiving a grant from the Secretary of State and should then allocate the money to the person carrying out the activity. I beg to move.

Photo of Lord Waddington Lord Waddington Conservative

My Lords, in reply to the amendment, I hope that the Minister will remind us why it is thought necessary at this stage to take the power to make a grant to a regional chamber considering that we have had regional chambers for some time now, and they seem to have got on quite nicely without any grant from the government.

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

My Lords, I can be as brief as the noble Baroness was in moving the amendment. Part of the explanation is in paragraph 74 of the Notes on Clauses. However, I have a better, plain-English version, which I will put on the record.

Amendment No. 56A would require the Secretary of State to make the grants to the chamber rather than any person. This would be completely and utterly impractical. We do not currently pay grants directly to the seven chambers which are unincorporated associations because that would mean the grant would be recovered from the pocket of one or more members of the chamber should recovery prove necessary. Instead, we pay the grant for unincorporated chambers to an accountable body. An accountable body may be a local authority or an organisation such as a regional local government employers' association, which has legal standing. For example—I can list these all, if need be—we pay the grant to an east of England local government conference and to the Wakefield metropolitan borough council on behalf of its regional chambers. The Bill as drafted would allow us to continue these different secure routes for the funding of the chambers. Some are incorporated, some are unincorporated and some are about to become limited companies—but the accountable body in each case is not the chamber. For example, Northumberland County Council is the accountable body in the case of the North East Assembly.

Currently, we make the grant for activities under the regional chambers fund such as in respect of scrutiny of the chambers' regional development agency under Section 126(1) of the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996:

"The Secretary of State may, with the consent of the Treasury, give financial assistance to any person in respect of expenditure incurred in connection with activities which contribute to the regeneration or development of an area".

The words "any person" in the Bill follow that precedent. Grants are made to the legal "any person", therefore the entity—not to any Tom, Dick or Harry.

I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, to paragraphs 73 and 74 of the Explanatory Notes, which refer to the funding of regional chambers. It would be ridiculous for me to read that guidance into the record but it explains the reasons for the clause.

Photo of Baroness Blatch Baroness Blatch Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, I know that the Minister has fought his corner very hard to achieve more clarity in some of the legalese before us. I am sure that the noble Lord is as frustrated as I ever was as a Minister, when the argument is made that because certain wording was used for a previous statute, new legislation must abide by it.

In plain English, the Bill says that the Secretary of State may make a grant to "any person". If it said—as the Minister explained and the Explanatory Notes make clear—that grants will be made to an accountable body, that would make more sense. At least that would smack of accountability and indicate that the body receiving the funding would be accountable. The fact that the words "any person" have appeared in previous statutes is no answer. I am not happy, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 25 [Commencement]:

[Amendment No. 57 not moved.]

Clause 28 [Expenditure]:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 58:

Page 13, line 35, leave out "section" and insert "Part"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 59 not moved.]

In the Title:

Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Minister of State (Regeneration and Regional Development), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Minister (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Housing & Planning)

moved Amendment No. 60:

Line 4, after "consideration;" insert "for the holding of referendums about options for implementing the recommendations of such reviews;"

On Question, amendment agreed to.