My Lords, the government amendments to Clause 2 are minor, technical ones that make good our undertaking to the House on Report to tidy up the clause. Clause 2 provides for referendums on the structure of local government. Specifically, it requires the Secretary of State to put at least two options for unitary local government to a referendum.
Clause 2(5) requires that those options are based on the recommendations of the Boundary Committee. It does so by means of a reference to recommendations,
"in pursuance of a direction under Part 2 of this Act".
In fact, it is possible to be more specific, because the options put to the electorate will be based on recommendations made in pursuance of a direction under either Clause 13(1), which provides for the Boundary Committee to make recommendations to the Secretary of State following a local government review, or Clause 16(4), which provides for the Boundary Committee to make further recommendations if so directed by the Secretary of State following his rejection of its original proposals. As we said on Report, that should be made clear on the face of the Bill. The first government amendment to Clause 2 does just that.
Similarly, the reference to,
"a direction under Part 2 of this Act", in Clause 2(7) should be made more specific. Again, the reference should be to directions under Clauses 13(1) or 16(4). The second government amendment to Clause 2 deals with that. It does not alter the substantive effect of the clause, which will still require the Secretary of State to wait six weeks after receiving recommendations before moving an order for a referendum. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his explanation. As he says, it gives rise to the second question, which we discussed on Report. I shall raise the point I wish to make under the next amendment. I thank the Minister for moving Amendment No. 1. While we are all still friends, I thank him very much for all the correspondence over the Recess regarding various amendments.
My Lords, I wish to ask a question about when a referendum is called by the Minister. My understanding is that, when we discussed the Bill throughout the 7th and 8th April, the triggering mechanism—that is to say, the soundings exercise—was discussed at length. Although I was astonished, I took advice that I was always given as a young person: if you write a letter in anger, you should deliver it only after reflection. So the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has been spared the letter that I would otherwise have written.
Nevertheless, the question remains: on 9th April, following two days of full debate, including very extensive debate on soundings, I discovered that a Written Question had been answered in this House on 7th April and was printed on 8th April. I picked up my Hansard on 8th April to discover that, in the light of amendments agreed, the soundings exercise had been extended until 16th May. We went all the way through the debate on 7th and 8th April. When I asked at the Clerks' office when the Question was submitted, I was told that it was submitted on 8th April. I said that it was almost impossible that that was done on 8th April simply because I picked up my copy of Hansard at 8.15 a.m. on that day.
The department knows that I have been asking questions about the matter during the Recess. It appears that not only had the policy decision been made during our discussions at least and the actual administrative arrangements put in place, but the Written Question must have been tabled on 7th April for it to be in print by early on 8th April. It would be helpful for the noble Lord to let me know, first, why the Committee was not informed that the soundings exercise was to be extended and when that decision was taken, but also when the Written Question was submitted to be answered in Parliament.
My Lords, first, the noble Baroness's question is not completely relevant to the government amendment. Secondly, my noble friend Lord Rooker made clear throughout the passage of the Bill that the consultation period would be left open until the last possible moment. But we shall look at what the noble Baroness has said, and my noble friend Lord Rooker or I will write to her if there is substance in it.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, my question is relevant in that it relates to the triggering mechanism for deciding whether or not there should be a referendum. But, if the Minister thinks that it is not relevant to this amendment, it is certainly relevant to the next one. Unless the noble Lord wishes me to repeat my question, it would be helpful to have the answer. The department must know when the soundings exercise will be completed.
On another point that the noble Lord mentioned, it is of course true that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said time and again during our debate that the consultation period ended on 3rd March. So far as concerns the public, that is when it ended. But the noble Lord went on to say that if other responses trickled in—and some were trickling in—they would be taken into account, which is true. That is very different from a formal reopening of the soundings exercise. It is now formally reopened. Those who made submissions prior to 3rd March, including me, are being written to again and asked whether they wish to reflect on their responses and change them if necessary.
It is relevant because it is the triggering mechanism for deciding whether there should be a referendum. If the Minister thinks it is not relevant to this amendment, it is certainly relevant to the next. It would be helpful to know the answer. The department must know when the soundings are completed.
On another point that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said time and again during our debates that the consultation period ended on 3rd March. As far as the public is concerned, that is when it ended. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, went on to say that if other responses trickle in, and some were trickling in, they would be taken into account. That is very different from a formal reopening of the soundings exercise, which is now formally reopened. Those who made submissions before 3rd March, which includes myself, were written to again and asked if they would like to reflect on their responses and change them if necessary.
It is relevant and whether it is relevant to this amendment or the next, it would help to know why the Committee was not informed of the extension. It would also help to know when that Question was submitted because one of the answers I was given is that the Government have special arrangements. They must be very special if the Question was submitted on the 8th and printed and in the office for collection by 8.15 a.m.
My Lords, in moving this amendment I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7 and 11.
At the Report stage of the Bill, your Lordships agreed to amendments to introduce a second referendum in areas with two-tier local government. This local referendum would be about voters' preferences between options for single-tier local government. I undertook to consult the Electoral Commission on the wording of the two questions. My right honourable friend Nick Raynsford, the Minister in charge of the policy, wrote to Sam Younger on 10th April and we received the commission's reply on Thursday 17th April. They made their comments available on the website.
These six amendments—five to Clause 3 and one to Clause 6—give effect to the Electoral Commission's suggestions. Amendment No. 3 to Clause 3 gives effect to the commission's suggestion to delete the last sentence of the preamble to the question about elected assemblies, which explains that a second referendum is taking place in areas with two-tier local government. The commission feels that it is unnecessary and that to include it may potentially confuse voters in areas that are not affected by local government restructuring.
Amendment No. 4 is a tidying amendment to make the reference to the local government referendum question refer to the order made under Section 2(2).
The Electoral Commission makes it clear that its comments are based on an assumption that there would be a single ballot paper. The Government's aim would be to have a single ballot paper in most circumstances. However, we need to provide for the possibility that we may have to hold a further local referendum, on its own, in the event of a result being overturned by the courts. We might also need separate ballot papers if the local government options are numerous—for example, where county areas are combined because one option crosses their boundary. Noble Lords will recall I tried to explain how that would work on Report. The ballot paper could be extensive. In that case, laying out a single ballot paper with adequate provision for partially sighted people would make the ballot paper unwieldy and in these circumstances it would be better to have two ballot papers.
While we consider the Electoral Commission's comments to be sensible where there is a single ballot paper, we believe provision should be made for circumstances where there is a separate ballot paper for the local referendum. In its advice the Electoral Commission states that, in the event of a local government question being asked on a separate ballot paper, further explanation would be needed in the preamble. Amendment No. 5 makes it clear that the change made by Amendment No. 6 applies only where there is a single ballot paper.
Amendment No. 6 removes the first sentence of the preamble to the local referendum question, which explains that local government will be reorganised if an elected assembly is established in the region. The Electoral Commission believes that this sentence contains unnecessarily detailed information and that the preamble should focus on the main issue—local government reorganisation—in order to minimise the risk that the voter has to read the preamble several times to understand it.
Amendment No. 6 also removes the sentence that explains that such reorganisation will go ahead only if an elected assembly is established for the region.
Amendment No. 7 reinserts this sentence at the end of the preamble. It also sets out the text of the preamble for the local referendum should separate ballot papers be used for local government referendums.
Amendment No. 11 to Clause 6 enables the Secretary of State to vary the wording of the preamble to the local referendum question if a further local referendum is held, following one which is declared or held to be invalid. It requires the Secretary of State to consult the Electoral Commission on the varied wording before laying an order for that referendum. It also requires him to lay before each House a report stating the views expressed by the commission on the varied wording when the order causing the further referendum is laid. This provision is needed because the ballot paper may need to explain the circumstances of any further local referendum. I trust your Lordships see the merit of giving effect to the Electoral Commission's suggestions as proposed. It makes them easier to understand.
I will move the other amendments I have spoken to in due course. My noble friend Lord Evans will move Amendment No. 11 when it is called. I beg to move.
My Lords, I suppose we ought to be grateful to the Electoral Commission in that it has done its best to make this almost incomprehensible question more comprehensible and less of a mouthful.
We have, through the course of what was agreed between the Government and the Liberal Democrats at the last hearing of this, made things far more difficult for voters than they were going to be originally. The new version leaves unresolved how people are going to understand that the words "into a single tier" mean that in those parts of the region that have county and district councils, the county council will vanish. Whatever the proposals, and even if the boundaries of a county council are one of the options, that is still unresolved.
Even in the instructions to the Boundary Committee the is explanation about this is vague. However, it is one of the most important points that the Government are going to have to bring themselves to spell out. We might touch again on what we discussed about the information that is going to be made available to voters. As every complexity becomes worse, it becomes more essential that proper information is put out by the Government so voters can understand what they are doing.
My noble friend Lady Blatch mentioned the letter on the soundings exercise and it is fair to say it has still not had a satisfactory explanation. One of the rationales behind that letter was that it might be difficult if people were going to have to understand or there was going to be a possibility of counties being combined or whether there was going to be a another form of local government review which did not end up with the single tiers not crossing boundaries. It is causing confusion. The fact the letter was sent out asking people if they thought the whole thing was better or worse does not seem to have assisted that problem.
The decision for there to be a second question, which is now going to include options which may or may not cross boundaries, introduces another interesting point and one that is not resolved in the instructions to the Boundary Committee. That is whether the proposals being put forward by the Boundary Committee will be subject to a local inquiry. The document is silent on this point except that it suggests that the Boundary Committee may want to have public meetings—which we all should have—consult Members of Parliament, local authorities, other public bodies and that it may want to publish its proposals in the press.
This is what it would do under any other local government boundary review. However, any other parliamentary review would be subject to a local inquiry if there were disagreement about the proposals. Under the circumstances now pertaining, this matter becomes even more important since the need to put forward two or more options might lead the Boundary Committee to assume that this was a way by which its proposals could be challenged.
The basis on which the Boundary Committee will carry out its work is not to be on geographical or local interests particularly, but it can include the performance of the authorities concerned in terms of best value and high performing councils, and the impact on voluntary organisations, business involvement and all the other paraphernalia which surrounds the value for money.
That will leave the way open for considerable disagreement. Therefore, is it the intention of the Government that those differing views be tested out thoroughly through a local inquiry? If that is not to be the situation, that needs to be made very clear in whatever information is provided by the Boundary Committee to those with whom it is in contact because I believe that it will be a break from the normal procedures. If there is to be room for a local inquiry, it will need to be made clear that several options are being considered.
There is a very real possibility if the latter is to be the case that electors, organisations and affected authorities will not feel that they have had proper consideration of their case, and the judicial process may very well be invoked. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify this point, which is not one that has been concentrated on before.
Finally, I could have sought to amend the question, but decided against adding to this part of the debate. However, our view is that either in the preamble or question it should be made clear that the referendum is not necessarily the final say in the matter: the Secretary of State is. It is on his decision whether the regional assembly should proceed and we believe that that should be made clear.
My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's comments. However, my noble friend is right. The key to making this exercise work is clear information for the voter, as well as the implications of the potential vote. I thank the Minister for his letters during the Recess. In respect of the soundings exercise, the second sentence of the first paragraph of the Minister's letter to me dated 16th April states:
"When the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill reached the House of Lords, you were sent a copy of the soundings exercise document, which was accompanied with a pro forma that could be used for responding".
I know that the noble Lord is not personally at fault, but I believe that I am not alone in not having received that document. I was grateful to receive the document of the 16th April with the pro forma, but it would have been helpful if his department had not made such a mess in sending it out in the first instance.
My Lords, the points raised by the noble Baroness perhaps take us back a stage to how local government structure should be dealt with as part of the exercise leading to the establishment of regional assemblies. I shall not repeat the arguments made at earlier stages. These Benches made it clear that we do not believe that the two matters should go hand in hand. But, given that that is the intention of the Government, we welcome their agreement to give local people choice in the matter of their own local government structure.
I do not believe that the Boundary Committee will put forward options which are unworkable or are problematic in some way. I shall be interested in the Minister's comments about an inquiry. However, it seems to me that it does not recognise that the thrust of these amendments is to support the decision which your Lordships made about giving people a choice as to the structure of local government in their own area.
I agree with the noble Earl about the necessity for clear information for voters. But that is not a matter that can be resolved fully by what is on the referendum paper. There is much more to be explained than can be included in what is essentially a ballot paper.
My Lords, I, too, should like to clarify one or two points with the Minister. The day after Report stage I went to Essex County Council where I am leader. I had received a letter asking me to comment again on the soundings exercise and that because of the new clauses we had until 16th May to respond. I was most surprised and I think it was discourteous to Members of this House not to have been told the previous day that the letter, which I received as leader of Essex County Council, had been sent.
My noble friend Lady Hanham said that the Secretary of State will finally decide. All the correspondence that the local authority now receives implies that the referendum will be binding; that is, "You will decide if you want a region or not". Therefore, the discussions in Committee and on Report, when the decision was ultimately left with the Secretary of State, now seems to have disappeared. I am now unsure as to how the Bill stands. The correspondence definitely states:
"You will decide whether you want a region or not and your vote in the referendum will actually decide that".
I should like the Minister to clarify that position. It is obviously important whether the Secretary of State will still have the power to not establish a regional assembly if the people vote for it.
In line with that, what is the position of the Secretary of State when there is a vote on two types of reorganisation? If the majority of people vote in a referendum for one reorganisation system, presumably the Secretary of State would go along with that model and not choose the other model. That is unclear. In the initial stages of this discussion, all the power rested with the Secretary of State. I am now unsure of the position. At this stage, that should be clarified.
My Lords, I have just handed the Opposition Front Bench a note stating that I shall accept Amendment No. 8 when we reach it. Therefore, I am amazed to be hearing all these speeches, which are going back to Second Reading issues almost. I am trying to be as helpful as possible as regards the points raised by the Opposition. All the points that I have made during the Bill are operative. None of them is inoperative.
I never said the closing date for the soundings was 3rd March. That was the announced date. I constantly made it clear that once the Bill was before Parliament we would be open to comments from parliamentarians or anyone else. Turning to the point concerning the letter—talk about making a mountain out of a molehill! We made a substantial change to the Bill following the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. We knew that we would accept the amendments before coming to the Chamber. The planning had been done. It was abundantly clear. There was no issue about that. Therefore, we made the appropriate preparations to determine the consequences of accepting that amendment. In any effect, there were consequential amendments. We had to inform those people who contributed to the soundings exercise should they want to comment further. On our part, that seemed fair enough.
Therefore, on 7th and 8th April at Report stage, Written Answers were organised so that everyone had the right to know what was occurring and, therefore, had the chance to comment again if it was thought appropriate. On 16th April—which is on the record—it was not discourteous not raising the matter. At the time that I was making the speeches in the Chamber probably I was unaware of the date. We were busting a gut as it was. Yes, I signed the letters, but I am uncertain as to what precise date and hour that I signed. I signed the letters during the course of the Bill which was on the Floor of this House on two consecutive days when we were making substantial changes at the request of one opposition party. The other opposition party does not want the Bill anyway.
I was trying to ensure that those outside who were following our affairs could have the most up-to-date information should they want to comment further. The letters were prepared and sent out. Therefore, a parliamentary Question and Answer were prepared so that Parliament was informed in a similar way. There is nothing discourteous in that at all. I do not know why a meal is being made of this now.
My Lords, I was not complaining about the letters signed by the noble Lord. The Question for Written Answer was signed on 7th April and we were not informed. The noble Baroness who tabled the Question is in her place. I was told by the Clerks—who took a long time to check this during the Easter Recess—that in fact it had been tabled on 8th April. But it could not possibly have been tabled on that day. The policy decision must have been taken at the latest on 7th April and the Question tabled on that day for printing on 8th April. I wish simply to make that point. Furthermore, it was the noble Lord personally who signed the response to the Question.
My Lords, it was my responsibility to sign the response to the Question. What I do not know without checking—although to be frank no one will be able to tell me—is at what time of day I signed it. It is not possible for me to specify the exact time at which I signed the response, but the fact that it was printed in Hansard on 8th April leads me to believe that I must have signed it late on the 7th, but I cannot be certain. I do not know.
The fact is, however, that we produced the information for the House and for everyone else concerned as soon as we could in a practical way. Given that, I do not know why the noble Baroness is making such a meal of this. I know that she does not want the Bill to proceed. That is axiomatic.
I shall answer the points raised in the debate. We have to leave the arrangements to the boundary committees. They are independent bodies and they have a remit. How they choose to go about finding the best options for local government in the regions is up to them. It is inconceivable that they would do that without listening to the views of local people and organisations. However, how they propose to gather those views is entirely up to them. Furthermore, I am certain they will ensure that their work is judge-proof. They will not fall into the trap being laid for them by the Opposition Front Bench, which does not want the Bill because it does not want to see elected regional assemblies in the first place.
We should trust the boundary committees on the basis of the work they have done so far. With the knowledge available to them from the Electoral Commission, they will come up with options to put before the electorate in a clearly understandable fashion, having taken soundings and listened to the views of all those involved.
Turning to the point raised about whether the referendum results would be binding, to the best of my knowledge—although I stand to be corrected—the word "binding" has never been used because they would not be binding. I have always made that clear. Noble Lords will see that on page 2, line 24 the preamble states:
"You can help to decide . . . ", and goes on to detail the nature of the referendum. However, if the outcome is a clear majority one way or the other, or even if it is unclear, it would be a brave Secretary of State who decided not to accept the result.
I do not know why noble Lords are introducing red herrings. They are seeking somehow to delay the Bill. It is clear that ultimately the Secretary of State must make a judgment both on the work of the boundary committees and on how to proceed following the results of the referendums. That judgment will now be somewhat more complex because of the options being offered in two-tier areas. I see no difficulty in that.
For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat the point that we shall ensure that the consequences of what people are voting for will be explained in an understandable and readable fashion before any referendum takes place. By that I do not mean an hour or a day before, but in good time. People will fully understand the powers being conferred and what the assemblies will do, as well as the consequences for local government in their area, if they choose to vote in favour.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, would he address himself to the question that I asked him? Will the local boundary committee have the power to hold a local public inquiry on its proposals, whether one, two or four options are introduced? This is important because it is a normal element of the procedure for every boundary committee review. The committee should be able to hold a local inquiry for those who wish to put forward their views and to discuss them in detail. I do not refer simply to consultation, but to a proper, formal inquiry. That was the question I put and I would be grateful if the Minister, who is unusually acerbic today, could answer it.
My Lords, I am cheesed off, having been ultra friendly and having wrung an extra little concession out of my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford as late as twenty past two this afternoon. I did that because I thought it would aid the progress of the passage of the Bill. Furthermore, I acknowledge the powerful arguments in support of the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. This morning I had a long discussion with my right honourable friend in the spirit of wishing to be helpful to this House. However, being helpful has got me a slap in the face on other amendments. I can say honestly that I will not do it again on this Bill.
Let us return to the function of the boundary committees. They will prepare a proposal covering the options for their region. Obviously more than one option will be put forward. They will do that in line with the statutory criteria. The options will be published in draft form so that people can consider the initial ideas for a possible way forward. The committees will publicise those recommendations and invite specific representations from all and sundry to put forward their views. As a part of the process, although it will be entirely up to them, they may set up or attend informal public meetings. There is no formal provision for a judicial public inquiry as there is for parliamentary boundaries, often involving London-based lawyers who take charge of inquiries being held in the Midlands and the North—or at least that has been my experience.
It will be for the boundary committees to decide how they organise their consultations because they must listen to the views of all those concerned in response to their draft recommendations. They must go out into the regions to do that because it could not possibly be done using only correspondence from London. However, it is up to the committees themselves to make their own arrangements. It is not for the Government to tell them how to conduct their consultations. Ultimately, the committees will have to produce final reports for Parliament to consider.
I shall make one further point. As regards local government reviews, formal public inquiries are not provided for in the procedures set out in the Local Government Act 1992. The inquiries in which Members of another place are involved are highly formal procedures. However, that does not alter the fact that informal inquiries and meetings organised and perhaps chaired by boundary committees or by others on their behalf will have as much validity as any parliamentary boundary review inquiry that I have ever experienced.
My Lords, I have just said that the boundary committees can either themselves set up or attend informal public inquiries. However, the legislation under which we are working, the Local Government Act 1992, does not allow for formal public inquiries to be held in regard to changes to local government.
moved Amendments Nos. 4 to 7:
Page 3, line 34, after "of" insert "an order under"
Page 3, line 39, at beginning insert "If the same ballot paper is used for both a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 and a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 2(2)"
Page 3, line 42, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 4.
Page 4, line 5, at end insert "There will be no such reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established.
(4A) If the same ballot paper is not used for both referendums as mentioned in subsection (4) the following statement (in as nearly as may be the following form) must precede the question on the ballot paper used for a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 2(2): "If an elected assembly is established for the (insert name of region) region, it is intended that local government will be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils.
Your part of the region currently has both county and district councils. You can help to decide how local authorities in your part of the region will be reorganised into a single tier. There will be no such reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established."."
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 6 [Further referendums]:
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, but I have to say that this is not a momentous concession. Although the noble Lord was uncharacteristically acerbic in his response to my noble friend Lord Hanningfield, it was not my noble friend who spoke to this amendment on Report; I did so. On 7th April my noble friend was away sick and so I introduced Amendment No. 22, which stated:
"Page 3, line 15, leave out "five" and insert "ten".
The debate is recorded at cols. 116 to 124 of Hansard. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, responded. I should say to my noble friend that if the argument was persuasive, then I accept the compliment. The argument for a longer gap is overwhelming. We would have liked it to have been a gap of 10 years.
I believe that the noble Lord is still insisting that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield took this amendment, but a glance at Hansard will show that I spoke to it on his behalf. I shall give way.
My Lords, I do not care who took the amendment. However, at some stage—I suspect in Committee rather than on Report—the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made a powerful speech on this issue. He mentioned the problems that could arise if a second referendum were held in under five years. He spoke as the leader of a county council in a very powerful and practical fashion. The reverberations of that speech were reflected in the discussions I had this morning with my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford—not, I regret, the points made by the noble Baroness.
My Lords, I used the same arguments as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield but they were not sufficiently persuasive for the Minister to concede the point at Report stage. The arguments have not changed between Report stage and Third Reading. At the end of the proceedings on 7th April I said that if the Government would not accept 10 years I would consider returning with an amendment for seven years, which I am now doing. As I said, I am grateful to the Minister for accepting that there should be a seven-year gap.
During the debate at Report stage the Minister twice said:
"For a second referendum to take place, the soundings would have to be more decisive than the soundings that triggered the first referendum".—[Official Report, 7/4/03; col. 121.]
Given that the Minister and the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrats refuse to accept a constraint on the Secretary of State that in determining whether the soundings have shown a sufficient level of interest for a referendum to be called there should be some evidence that it was more likely to produce a positive result and if the soundings on a second referendum would have to be more decisive, it would be helpful to know how decisive the first soundings would have to be.
What the Minister has said today and on previous occasions in regard to whether a "Yes" vote in a referendum with a majority of only one or more will be decisive is causing great concern among our colleagues in local government. The Bill states that it will not be; that it is a matter for the Secretary of State to make a judgment. The Minister has again said that if there is a slight majority it will be a matter for the Secretary of State. He also said that, when faced with a "Yes" vote—however slight—it would be a brave Secretary of State who did not say that that side had won.
We accept that. It has been that way in local government since Adam was a boy where there is a majority of one. Sometimes, if there is no majority at all, a coin is tossed to decide who wins. But there is always a decision based on a vote. We understand it will be different with these referendums and that there will be a subjective decision by the Secretary of State. I say "subjective" advisedly because the Minister has given no indication whatever of what will weigh in the Secretary of State's mind in deciding whether or not the result of a referendum is definitive.
Those voting in a referendum—either for or against—will expect the result, whatever it may be, to be definitive. We now understand that it will not be definitive. Although we welcome the fact that the Government have conceded that there should be a seven-year gap rather than a five-year gap before the procedure can be repeated, it would be helpful to know what will help the Secretary of State to decide whether or not a "Yes" vote is definitive. If a "Yes" vote is not to be definitive, under what criteria will the Secretary of State make that judgment?
It is not good enough to say that we are being difficult for the sake of it. Ultimately, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, people throughout the whole of the country—especially those in areas where a referendum is to be called—will need to understand what will be up for judgment; what criteria will be used by the Secretary of State in making those judgments; and what their votes are worth. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a good amendment. I would have preferred a 10-year period but, nevertheless, we should be grateful for the fact that the Minister has moved on the matter. Seven years is certainly a much better period than five years.
The other point I should like to make—I was tempted to table an amendment but, when I thought about the matter, I realised that the problems involved would be difficult to resolve—is what will happen if an elected regional assembly turns out to be an absolute disaster so far as the people are concerned. If the local authorities and the general public believe a regional assembly to be a complete and utter waste of money, that it is interfering in all kinds of matters in which it should not interfere and in which it did not have the power to interfere before it was set up, what remedy will be available to the people of the area?
The Minister will say, "Well, we are a listening government". I am not at all sure about that but, nevertheless, the Government boast that they are. If there were resolutions from local councils, for example, and representations from ordinary people that the elected regional assemblies were not doing the job that they were expected to do and were exceeding what was expected of them, would the Government be receptive to holding another referendum to ascertain whether regional assemblies should be abandoned and a different kind of local government, with real powers, re-established?
My Lords, I am new in this place. We have had Committee stage, we have had Report stage, we are on Third Reading; I will not deviate from the amendments before the House. I gladly accept this amendment on the strength of the arguments made at previous stages. I doubt that we would have accepted 10 years. Seven years is a modest period. It gives almost a guarantee that where there is a "No" vote in a region there will not be any activity for, say, five years because one would have to carry out soundings and so on beforehand. That will give the period of stability for local government which I believe was the kernel of the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, when he initially chopped me to pieces.
As regards the other points, we have, with respect, debated them before. They are not relevant to the amendment and we are at Third Reading.
My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall ask the Minister a relevant question. The noble Lord has not answered the question in regard to a "Yes" vote. He described it as a deviation. My amendment increases the gap from five years to seven years following a referendum "No" vote, but what happens where there is an extremely narrow "Yes" vote which the Secretary of State regards as insufficient to establish a regional assembly? The Minister has said on a number of occasions that that is feasible and possible because the Bill allows for it to happen. So what will happen following a referendum which does not result in a "No" vote but in a "Yes" vote which is not sufficiently robust to establish a regional assembly? Could the gap be one year, two years, three years, four, five or six years, or would it also be bound by the seven-year gap?
My Lords, the answer is to be found on page 5 of the Bill. Clause 6(1) states that subsection (2) applies if a referendum is held in a region under Clause 1 and,
"(b) a majority of the votes cast . . . is against there being an elected assembly for the region".
No further order may be made in relation to that until the end of a period of five years. That five years has now become seven years. Everything else remains as it is.
My Lords, Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 are minor technical amendments to remove any doubts that might otherwise exist about the meaning of subsections (4) and (5). Those subsections provide that when the result of a local government referendum has subsequently been ruled invalid, it can be rerun. Obviously, it makes sense to rerun the referendum only in a county area in which the result has been successfully challenged, rather than throughout the region.
I take a practical but, of course, purely hypothetical example. If there were a referendum in the West Midlands and separate proposals were made to the voters in each of the county areas of Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire and, following referendums, the results in Worcestershire were challenged and held invalid, we might want to rerun the referendum in that county area, but there would be no reason to rerun the referendums in Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire. We want to avoid any suggestion that, because subsections (4) and (5) both make reference to orders "under section 2(2)", and because that subsection requires a referendum in each county area, we would hold referendums throughout the region again. That would be plainly absurd. Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 ensure that, in my hypothetical example, we would need to rerun the referendum only in Worcestershire. I beg to move.
My Lords, with reference to the Minister's hypothetical world, one reason why the letter was sent out about the soundings exercise was that there was a possibility that local government review or reform might take place across or including county councils. How many county councils or county areas will be reinvolved in the subsequent referendums, if necessary? If the one in Warwickshire went wrong, what would happen with the neighbouring areas that might be involved with the cross-cutting and cross-thrusting?
This is a difficult technical amendment. Presumably, the rationale behind any local government reform will be that it works across the region, across the counties and district areas in their totality. It seems extraordinary that one could rerun a referendum in one county area.
moved Amendments Nos. 10 and 11:
Page 5, line 18, after "held" insert "in that county area"
Page 5, line 33, at end insert—
"(7A) For the purposes of a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (5) the Secretary of State may by order vary the terms of the statement set out in section 3(4A).
(7B) Before an order under subsection (7A) is laid before Parliament in pursuance of section 29(2) the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission as to the wording of the statement as so varied.
(7C) At the time when the order is so laid the Secretary of State must lay before each House a report stating any views which the Commission have expressed in response to the consultation as to the intelligibility of the statement as so varied."
On Question, amendments agreed to.
Clause 10 [Expenditure]:
moved Amendment No. 12:
Page 7, line 22, at end insert—
"( ) Counting officer includes a person appointed in pursuance of an order under section 2(9) for the purpose of certifying the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 2(2)."
My Lords, Amendment No. 12 is consequential on the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on Report. It makes it clear that the term "counting officer" includes any person appointed in pursuance of an order under Clause 2(9). That subsection enables a Minister of the Crown to make provision by order,
"as he thinks appropriate in connection with a", local referendum.
Counting officers for the purposes of regional referendums are defined in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—the PPER Act. Clause 12(5) states that expressions used in Part 1 of the Bill and in Part 7 of the PPER Act have the same meaning. However, local referendums will not fall under the PPER Act. Therefore, the amendment is necessary to ensure that the term "counting officer" used in Clause 10 applies to counting officers for local referendums, so that the necessary expenditure provision can be made. The amendment is essentially a tidying amendment. I beg to move.
moved Amendment No. 13:
Page 7, line 32, at end insert—
"unless the proceedings are brought in accordance with this section.
( ) The proceedings must be brought by a claim for judicial review.
( ) The court must not give permission for the claim unless the claim form is filed before the end of the period of six weeks starting with the certificate date.
( ) The certificate date is—
(a) the date on which a certificate as to the matters mentioned in subsection (1)(a) or (b) is given by the Chief Counting Officer, counting officer or other person mentioned in subsection (1)(b);
(b) if there is more than one such certificate in a referendum the date on which the last such certificate is given."
My Lords, Amendment No. 13 seems to have been grouped with Amendment No. 14.
We have had several debates on this matter, and I hope that I can now satisfy noble Lords that the ouster clause is worth having and is more understandable with the amendment. The amendment tackles the problem of the clause. It was always a problem that the clause stated that "No court shall entertain", as I would then have to explain to noble Lords how the court could, in fact, entertain. That was very difficult to explain. There is some doubt about whether a challenge would be considered if the clause were left as it stands. We do not want that doubt to exist.
The amendment will make it clear that the courts can consider fraud committed by a third party. I hope that dispels some of the less well-founded doubts of noble Lords. The amendment will ensure that courts can consider any challenge to the certificate of the number of ballot papers or votes cast so long as two simple conditions are met. First, the proceedings must be brought by a claim for judicial review, which means that a challenge must be considered by the High Court. Secondly, the claim must be brought within six weeks of the count being declared.
I said on Report that I would give noble Lords a plain English explanation of the revised clause. I hope that, with this amendment, it makes sense. In short, legal challenges to referendum counts can be brought by way of judicial review within six weeks of the count and on any grounds. I hope that noble Lords accept that the amendment addresses the concerns expressed during the passage of the Bill and that the impact of the amended ouster clause is clear.
Various periods of time during which a challenge might be allowed have been proposed as we have debated the Bill at its different stages. We need to be able to get on reasonably quickly with establishing an elected assembly when a region has voted in favour. A period of six weeks strikes the right balance between allowing for the challenge and the need to get on with establishing the assembly. The amendment makes clear the terms under which the legal challenge may be brought and makes it clear that the courts could consider a challenge in the case of third-party fraud. It improves the Bill in the way urged by noble Lords. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful that my amendment has been grouped with Amendment No. 13.
I should preface my comments by saying that we are grateful that the amendment responds to the arguments that we put all the way through the Bill that there should be a possibility of legal challenge. The fact that the clause began by stating:
"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning", suggested that there was no possibility of a legal challenge.
We believe that we have won the argument, because the welcome amendment introduced by the Minister allows for a challenge. The challenge is restricted in the way we accepted when we first tabled our amendments in Committee and on Report, and which we accept now. The timing is about right; I originally suggested a much tighter timescale, but the newly proposed timescale is reasonable. However, we are still misled by the Bill.
The clause is headed, "Exclusion of legal proceedings". That means that the clause describes the exclusion of legal proceedings, which is a messy way of expressing it. Paragraphs (a) and (b) are introduced by the statement:
"No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning".
One has to get to the bottom of the clause, as amended by the Government's amendment, before one finds the exemptions, which are very extensive. The court will entertain challenges subject to certain exemptions.
My Amendment No. 14, headed, "Legal challenge", states:
"A court shall only consider proceedings for questioning—
(a) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 as certified by the Chief Counting Officer for the referendum or by a counting officer, or
(b) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2) of section 2 as certified by a person appointed for the purpose in pursuance of an order under subsection (9) of that section, if—
(i) the proceedings are brought in accordance with this section, and
(ii) a claim if filed within six weeks from the date on which a certificate in relation to subsection (1)(a) or (b) is issued by the Chief Accounting Officer, counting officer or other person mentioned in subsection (1)(b)".
Therefore, it is very clear that there is such a thing as a legal challenge. I repeat that the proposed new clause is headed "Legal challenge". It states that,
"A court shall only consider proceedings for questioning" if the following conditions are met. The proposed new clause further states:
"If there is more than one such certificate for a referendum, the date on which the last certificate is issued should apply".
Even the words,
"the last certificate is issued should apply" are missing from the government amendment. I speak in the interests of what I call plain English. I do not think that the wording of the Bill as amended by Amendment No. 13 is at all clear. As I say, it is headed, "Exclusion of legal proceedings" and states that,
"No court shall entertain any proceedings".
It is rather messy. It is only when one reaches the end of the clause, as amended by Amendment No. 13, that one realises that a legal challenge is possible subject to certain restrictions.
I am grateful for the Government's change of heart. The Minister has shown himself to be on the side of the House as regards the matter we are discussing. Previously noble Lords on all sides of the House showed their concern about the matter. The Minister has fought his corner extremely effectively. However, as I say, I believe that my Amendment No. 14 is clearer and is much more encouraging for local authorities or, indeed, for the electorate if they have concerns about a legal challenge as it constitutes a positive rather than a negative statement. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am sorry. I was not trying to trip up the noble Baroness. I was trying to make clear which amendment I was speaking to.
We on these Benches are also grateful to the Minister for clarifying the matter. I certainly feel considerably more comfortable about the clause than I did at an earlier stage. The noble Baroness criticised the wording of the clause. I suppose it is almost inevitable in the case of a government amendment being tabled at this stage that rather than deleting the whole clause and starting with the words,
"Proceedings shall only be taken if", the amendment is added to the existing wording of the Bill. I suppose we should expect that.
Will the Minister confirm that the heading of Clause 11, "Exclusion of legal proceedings", does not have legal force? Perhaps the clause could be headed simply "Legal proceedings" or with words that are a little less misleading to someone reading the clause headings. As I say, we on these Benches thank the Minister and his colleagues for tabling the amendment.
My Lords, I have to oppose Amendment No. 13 for the reasons given by my noble friend Lady Blatch. I shall support Amendment No. 14. It seems to be common ground that Clause 11 cannot stand. I do not quite take the point that has just been made that at this stage of the Bill it is better to seek to retain and amend a clause rather than remove it, especially when the clause in terms is the exclusion of legal proceedings and the substance of the amendment is to confer a form of legal proceedings.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I must have gabbled. I said that I supposed it was inevitable that Amendment No. 13 was tabled in the way that it was rather than that it was better done in that way. I was merely referring to human nature rather than to any precise legal detail.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I was not trying to be provocative. I hope only that the point that I made would commend itself as reasonable, particularly in view of the fact that Amendment No. 14 is well drafted, is an integral whole and is wholly intelligible. In the circumstances, as something has to be done about Clause 11, which cannot stand anyway, it seems to me that it is far better—I am not trying to make a cheap point about this—to have a clear, well drafted clause which in its entirety is readily enforceable and readily understandable rather than Amendment No. 13.
My Lords, I come briefly to the defence of the Minister who seems to be having an unduly difficult time since we began Third Reading. It seems to me that he has made a sensible concession in Amendment No. 13 which is not only acceptable but is logically preferable to other phrases. Normally there will be no legal challenge. There is an exception made in Amendment No. 13 as drafted. We should accept Amendment No. 13 and regard it as an entirely acceptable form of words.
My Lords, I am grateful for the right reverend Prelate's support. I hate to contradict lawyers, but I believe that what the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, said was incorrect.
I could discuss at length why Amendment No. 14 is not as clear as Amendment No. 13. We think that a challenge by way of judicial review should be the only means for questioning referendum results. The proposals in Amendment No. 14 would open up a can of worms.
I do not want to worry anyone unduly but I should point out that parliamentary draftsmen may carry out some technical "tidying up" of legislation before it is finally printed.
Clause 11 is headed, "Exclusion of legal proceedings". I am told that that heading is appropriate as the function of the clause is to set out when legal proceedings cannot be entertained. Amendment No. 13 states:
"The proceedings must be brought by a claim for judicial review.
The court must not give permission for the claim unless the claim form is filed before the end of the period of six weeks starting with the certificate date".
It could be argued that the heading is correct in those circumstances. However, if the heading needs to be changed, that can be done when the Act is finally printed. Such a change would not affect the Bill, or the final Act, in any way, shape or form. Sometimes the page numbering of a Bill is changed when it is printed as an Act. It is quite normal for such technical tidying up to take place. It may comprise only a change in the numbering of new clauses. Such new clauses may not necessarily be given a number in this House and may be inserted in the wrong place in the Bill. Parliamentary draftsmen put them in the correct place in the final Act. I do not want to make a big issue of that matter as it is not a matter that warrants making a big issue of.
As I said I would, I have tabled an amendment at Third Reading to make the clause clearer. Clause 11 begins with the words,
"No court shall entertain any proceedings" and then Amendment No. 13 lists exceptions to that. However, the exceptions comprise negative statements, as it were; that is, there is a reference to a six-week period and,
"The proceedings must be brought by a claim for judicial review".
Amendment No. 13 does not leave the door open, as does the wording of Amendment No. 14.
I shall resist the temptation to speak to Amendment No. 14 at length as I was informed only within the past 30 seconds that Amendments Nos. 13 and 14 had been grouped.
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord has only just been informed of that. The note that we received from the Public Bill Office stated that it had made a mistake and that the amendments should have been grouped. It makes sense that the amendments should be grouped as they concern exactly the same issue. I should have started my remarks by saying that I speak before the noble Lord sits down and with the leave of the House.
I am baffled by what seems to be a complete passing-over of the fact that Amendment No. 14 states:
XA court shall only consider proceedings for questioning".
The right reverend Prelate seemed to think that I had put that the wrong way round. In my amendment, one can make a challenge only if certain factors occur, and those factors are set out very clearly. In a way, we are dancing on the head of a pin, because my argument was that I thought the amendment plainer and more straightforward. It would also be encouraging for people who had a concern that something had gone wrong, as they could look straightaway and see whether they fell into the categories and could proceed.
I have to say that I do not know of a single example of what the noble Lord mentions in relation to a heading such as "Legal challenge". I accept what he says about mistakes, if pages need renumbering, or if there is a reordering of words in a paragraph. However, if "Legal challenge" were completely changed in the printing of a Bill, I would find it extraordinary. In this House and another place, hours are spent debating whether to change titles of clauses by amendment. Titles are voted on one way or another. The idea that we would pick up the Bill when it goes to print again and suddenly find that headings of various clauses would be different is rather worrying.
My Lords, that was an intervention. I do not want to make a meal of the subject but, in 27 years in another place I have never known any amendment to be made to the side-title of a clause. Parliamentary Counsel decide them, not Members of Parliament. The side-titles to clauses are not part of the Bill, but part of the work of the Parliamentary Counsel. If the House has made a change to a clause and Parliamentary Counsel think that the side-title needs changing, it is fully within their competence to do so before the Act of Parliament is printed. Frankly, the nods that I am getting from those other than the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, satisfy me that I am absolutely correct on that.
moved Amendment No. 14:
Leave out Clause 11 and insert the following new Clause—
(1) A court shall only consider proceedings for questioning—
(a) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 as certified by the Chief Counting Officer for the referendum or by a counting officer, or
(b) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2) of section 2 as certified by a person appointed for the purpose in pursuance of an order under subsection (9) of that section, if—
(i) the proceedings are brought in accordance with this section, and
(ii) a claim if filed within six weeks from the date on which a certificate in relation to subsection (1)(a) or (b) is issued by the Chief Accounting Officer, counting officer or other person mentioned in subsection (1)(b).
(2) If there is more than one such certificate for a referendum, the date on which the last certificate is issued should apply."
moved Amendment No. 15:
Page 12, line 5, 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,"
My Lords, we return to a matter discussed on Report and extensively at previous stages. It is the desirability of ensuring that there is not only a reasonable turn-out for the elections but also a sufficient majority in favour of what is, after all, a significant constitutional change—the breaking up of England into regions and the abolition of the county councils.
On Report we put forward a schedule for addressing the problem but recognised the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that the wording leading to a possible difficulty over deciding whether a threshold had been reached was ambiguous. We believe that the amendment to the schedule put forward today now makes clear where and how a threshold will be achieved.
Most reasonable people would say that changing the constitution of the country is no small matter and that, even if there is disagreement among us as to the value of such changes, there should be no disagreement about the significance of what is being proposed.
The county councils have been the mainstay of local government for centuries. People do care about them. I am sure that noble Lords, like me, saw the letter in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday from a correspondent who was incensed because, in a previous edition, Barnsley had been located in Lancashire instead of Yorkshire. She minded and there will be thousands, if not millions, like her. Representation will be limited and at a distance far more remote than the county councils. The reorganisation of local government will in itself have a major impact on how services are run and by whom.
As we said at the previous consideration of the Bill, regional assemblies will potentially weaken our central Parliament, not because very many responsibilities will be passed down but because there will be more room for the Government to disclaim any liability for those which are. I refer to the Scottish/London syndrome where questions asked in this House and in another place are not answered on the basis that the Government have ceased to be the responsible body.
If the Government are confident of their ability to persuade the voters that these changes are necessary, then they must accept that a vote in support on a small turn-out of voters will not be sufficient to gain acceptance for these proposals. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend on this amendment, as I did at the previous stage. I do so for the very sensible reason that there can be no doubt that the potential implications of regional assemblies in terms of their impact on local government will be enormous. As my noble friend said, county councils, which have served this country so admirably and so well, could be vanquished for ever.
I believe that the decision to allow such fundamental changes to take place, not to mention the enormous political implications, simply cannot be taken this lightly. It seems to me—I know that I speak for many in my part of the world in North Yorkshire—that it will be not only reasonable but, indeed, essential for a level of electoral threshold to be imposed in order to inject some genuine credibility into such basic and fundamental changes. I do not know whether technically this amendment is the right one but I know that my noble friend has taken much advice on this matter and I have full confidence that she will have got it right.
At Report stage, the Minister accused my noble friend Lady Blatch of being a,
"two nation Tory . . . [who] sees the two nation split as urban and rural".
With the greatest respect to the Minister, I believe that that is nonsense. My noble friend was rightly speaking for those of us who care passionately about local accountability, which has for so long been a fundamental ingredient of our whole democratic process and must not be given up lightly. The Minister said:
"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".—[Official Report, 8/4/03; col. 177.]
But that is precisely what will happen because many, particularly in rural areas, in effect will be disenfranchised.
How on earth can local accountability be enhanced by a system that allows for one regional assembly member to represent—I do not know how many it is—160,000, 200,000 or 250,000 constituents, compared with the present figure of 60,000? That is four or five times the number of constituents of a Member of Parliament. In my view, that is not local accountability. How can local accountability be enhanced when the whole decision-making process is moved to a centre which has no ties or identity with so much of the region in question?
My local newspaper, the Darlington & Stockton Times, commented recently:
"The one thing that has been established is that the people of North Yorkshire believe that they alone should be allowed to decide on the shape of local government in the area".
The newspaper went on to raise what I regard as another important and perhaps often forgotten point. It said:
"Apart from the loss of local democracy, the economic loss the county town would suffer would be a body blow".
Finally, it said:
"In this part of the county regional government does not mean more relevant and accountable government. It means a more distant administration—and a Labour one".
Surely that is the point. That is what really lies behind the Government's referendum and regional government plans. It is—if I can put it as bluntly as this—straightforward, unadulterated political gerrymandering. It does absolutely nothing to enhance local democracy and local accountability. Consequently, I hope that people will realise before it is too late the damage that it could do to the whole political and democratic process in this country.
I suppose that if regional assemblies were to be accompanied by genuinely devolved decision-making powers, there could perhaps be more of an argument in their defence. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—I see, and I am not surprised, that he is not in his place—has already demonstrated by his comments and indeed his actions during Report stage, what the Government are actually proposing is nothing much more than a shuffling of the local government pack at the expense of well-established, highly regarded county councils for blatant political gain, with no extra powers for the local administration. That is why it would be wrong to make comparisons with Scotland or indeed with Wales.
At least Amendment No. 15 brings a degree of credibility and indeed accountability to the proceedings. It brings a safeguard, thus ensuring that a low turnout with a small majority would not be allowed to hijack the present system which has served us so well for so long. I should hope that, regardless of political persuasion, everyone will appreciate the damage that that could inflict on the political and democratic process in this country. This amendment goes some way towards addressing that. I urge noble Lords to support it.
My Lords, very briefly, I wish to support Amendment No. 15, not only for the reasons that have been given, but in particular because a low turnout makes a mockery of any pretence at a democratic process. There comes a point when it makes a nonsense of the whole thing. The whole thing here is setting up regional government. It is a very important step to be taken and one which should never be taken on a low turnout. Amendment No. 17 provides the machinery of safeguard against a low turnout. As my noble friend has just said, he has not been into the mechanics of the machinery—and indeed nor have I. However, I am wholly satisfied, and I am sure that your Lordships will be, that due care has been taken to protect an acceptable minimum which would square with any concept of a democratic process. I support the amendment.
My Lords, Amendment No. 15 is ingenious but confusing. It might add less to the confusion if noble Lords did not assume that the counties will be abolished. We do not know what the Boundary Committee will put to local people for their choice. One of the options may be a unitary on the boundaries of the current county. In any event, the loyalty that one has to one's county and to one's roots is not necessarily destroyed by a change of administrative arrangements. I am sure that the Conservatives would say that. I am also sure that many people still regard themselves as living in Berkshire although there is no administrative county of Berkshire. I regard myself as a Lancastrian although I come from Manchester and they are separate administrations.
Our main objection to Amendment No. 15 is that it would do nothing to encourage participation in the political process and would do everything to send the message, "If you do not agree, or if you do not much care, or if it is a bit of trouble to go out and vote, stay home". It does not send the message, "Engage in the issue. Find out what it is about. Talk to people". The message is, "Stay home". I want no part in what would effectively be a call to those who have that precious democratic tool, the franchise, not to use it.
In St Stephen's Hall there is a statue of a previous Viscount Falkland and his sword is broken. A suffragette chained herself to the statue to protest that women should have the vote and the only way to release her was to break the sword. People have died for the franchise. They did not die for the right to abstain. Yesterday I met someone who has spent a good deal of time in Zimbabwe. She talked about friends who had queued for three days to vote but were then denied the vote. I put the point dramatically because I feel it strongly. I think that it is a dramatic point of principle. By all means, go out and campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum, but do not campaign for or send the message, "Don't vote".
There is a very good reason why there is almost no precedent for a threshold. It is because votes, not abstentions, are what democracy is about. I am sure that many noble Lords will have been campaigning in the current elections. I would be surprised if noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have not been saying on the doorstep, "If you do not like what is being done by the current local council, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, go and vote for other representatives. You cannot complain if you do not vote". We regard the proposal as anti-democratic and we want no part in it.
My Lords, there is a precedent. It was set in 1979, in the Scottish referendum on devolution. In fact, the barrier was set at 40 per cent of the electorate rather than 40 per cent of those voting. Consequently, a threshold higher than 50 per cent had to be achieved. In the case of the Scottish referendum it was not achieved, and we did not have Scottish devolution until the last Parliament. So there is a precedent for this, and I think that it is probably a good one, although perhaps it was rather a blunt instrument. Amendment No. 15—I do not want to be long about this—seeks to hone that 40 per cent blunt instrument.
Democracy is just as much about disinterest as anything else. People in a democratic society are entitled to be disinterested in the franchise. The amendment ensures that as disinterest increases, the barrier to imposition of the minority view is increased. That is important, and it is not good enough when perhaps only 25 per cent of the electorate have voted that a simple majority should be able to carry a serious constitutional change.
My Lords, I do not believe that radical constitutional change should be brought about in this country on a low turnout by a narrow majority of people. There should be a clearly demonstrable surge of support for the sort of constitutional change that is envisaged by the Bill. It is a terrible Bill because it sets about undermining the very careful balance that we now have in local government. The county councils are a living demonstration of the fact that we have machinery to ensure that the countryside interest is properly acknowledged and represented. I have said many times before that one only has to look at what would happen in the North West to see what an abominable proposal this is. There is no way that there can be an elected body for the whole of the North West region without ensuring that that elected body would be dominated entirely by urban interests. That is the mathematics of the matter. One only has to look at how the concentration of votes is in the two conurbations of Merseyside and Manchester. No one in this place can fail to acknowledge what a radical constitutional proposal this is, and how damaging it may be. Such a change should not come about on a tiny turnout by a narrow majority of voters. The amendment aims to avoid that abomination.
My Lords, I regret the Bill and I support the amendment on slightly different grounds from those that have been stated so far. The reality is that the continual corrosive effect over many years of structural legislation to change local government has immensely damaged it. The local government that I knew when I was first elected many years ago no longer exists. The structure is not the same.
However, we are not discussing that. One can very much regret that and one can regret future change, but we are discussing the use of referendums and whether they should have floors below which no action is possible. The Government bring in a referendum when it suits their convenience, rather than legislating directly and taking total responsibility for their actions. They want to and intend to bring about a change, but they do not wish to be held responsible for it. They want to be able to say, "The local people decided this, so we will introduce a referendum. The referendum may not go the way we want, so we will have another in seven years' time, and we will leave the question open forever. We will keep rolling the question forward until the public comes up with the answer we want".
They could come up with it on a very low turnout because it would suit the Government's convenience. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we do not wish to discourage people from voting. An abstention could be taken as a general acceptance of the proposition, or a statement of satisfaction, even if the reality is that it is a statement of no interest and "don't care". It is also probable that turnout in the planned referendums will be low because the majority of people, having been so battered over local government structure for so long, no longer care about it any more.
The problem is that the Government are using the public to take responsibility that ought to be Government's responsibility. Putting a floor into the referendums would mean that people would have to come out and take sufficient interest in the matter. It should have been done in the Scottish referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has mentioned the first Scottish referendum. I well understand why the Government are frightened of floors because they were beaten by the floor that they established in that referendum. On constitutional issues of major change it is right that there should be a floor. The floors in the amendment are, if anything, weak, but they are better than nothing—and as such I support them.
My Lords, I assume that there are noble Lords opposite who are going to go out on Thursday in the Conservative cause. When the counts are made just after ten o'clock, and they find there has been a very low turnout, although they have won the seat, they will say to the returning officer, "No, that does not count".
I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that the last thing that any of us should have a hand in is to give people the impression that non votes count as much as votes. I find it extraordinary. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith to the extent that the turnout for local government elections is in general appallingly low. Seats change hands in the City of Birmingham on a turnout of 12 per cent. I find that astonishing and appalling. It is no good blaming the electors for that. The political parties are supposed to be the experts. Those of us at each end of this building are supposed to have some experience in explaining to people how to exercise their democratic right. All of us are guilty of failing abysmally if there is that kind of turnout.
I also wish to challenge what the noble Lord has said. The Government do not want a particular result from any ballot on regional assemblies. That is why it is being done this way. There are many criticisms to be made of this paving Bill, but if the Government want to establish regional assemblies the length and breadth of England, willy-nilly behind the backs of the electors, they have the votes to do so down at the other end of this building. Where soundings indicate that there is enough interest to have a referendum and to say to people within a region—we have had arguments over what constitutes a region—XDo you or do you not want this form of regional government?", and the price is this, that or the other, I see nothing wrong with that at all.
My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord has the issue around his ears. It is just not the case. The whole purpose of the Bill is to give people within the regions the opportunity to express a view on whether they do want regional assemblies or whether they do not. That is what it is all about. It is not seeking to impose that. I have strong views, and I will come clean with your Lordships. I am delighted that the consensus in the West Midlands is that they do not want to be in the first wave of those who want a referendum on whether or not to establish a regional assembly. I am not alone in Birmingham and the West Midlands in my belief that there is little or no interest in that at the moment. Whether that could be or should be built up is another matter. However, the answer to that depends on the people living in that region and not on Ministers or Whitehall.
My Lords, rather to my surprise, I rise wanting to support the amendment for the reasons well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. It is a modest safeguard against the imposition of a minority view in the radical change to the way in which local government is organised. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, that it is comparable with local elections in the city of Birmingham; it is not.
We are entering a completely new world and like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I am deeply concerned about areas where there are huge tracts of empty countryside with relatively few people. That is true of the North West, the North East and the West Midlands. Hereford and Shropshire are the most sparsely populated counties in England, but the West Midlands is completely dominated by the Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent/Potteries conurbation.
The amendment represents a modest way of ensuring that a small vocal urban interest group is not in a position to impose its will on a large area where the majority has a different interest. It is a strange mechanism and I am not sure whether I approve of it, but in this case it is probably a wise safeguard.
I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has misread its implications for the electoral process. I do not believe that if it were to be introduced it would say to people, "Don't bother to vote". In fact, it would be saying the opposite: "You must vote if you want anything to be achieved". There has been a complete misunderstanding of the effect of such a provision if it were to be introduced.
I find myself wanting to support the amendment because I believe that it is a valuable and necessary safeguard if we are to take this radical step in the way in which local Government is arranged in this country.
My Lords, I shall speak against the amendment. If the Bill were the first to be introduced to devolve power from Parliament, I could accept the points that have been made. However, this is the fourth Bill: we had the London, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Bills and no such pressure was brought to bear on them.
It is interesting to note that when we first debated the Bill the Conservative Opposition stated that it gave no powers to the regions and that it was useless. They said that neither the Government nor the local authorities were giving up any powers. Now it has become a major constitutional Bill and they want thresholds. I say to my noble friend Lord Stoddart that the threshold put on the Scottish Bill in 1978 delayed Scottish devolution for 12 years.
I hope that the amendment will be rejected. I see no reason why, if the people in the North East want a regional assembly, they should be tied to thresholds when Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London were not.
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I respectfully ask him whether he would accept that, if the Government did not want to have regional assemblies, they would not have introduced the Bill.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Corbett has just explained that. If the Government were adamant that they wanted regional assemblies they could introduce them without going through the process of referendums. They are having referendums in order to ask the people in the regions whether they are agreeable to regional assemblies.
My Lords, technically that answer is right. However, a number of Ministers are on record as saying that they would like regional assemblies. Therefore, we know that the mechanisms for obtaining them give people a say locally.
I rise to make only one small point in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She accused those of us on these Benches—indeed, anyone who has spoken in favour of the amendment—that somehow or other we have made the assumption that county councils are more vulnerable than district councils. We stand by the belief that county councils are more vulnerable.
It is true that if the counties of Cornwall and Devon were to remain unitary authorities they would first have to subsume all the local powers of district councils because they would become the unitary authorities. The local government for people throughout the whole of Cornwall and Devon—and this applies to other regions in which there are large country areas—would be distant. The region would be run from Bristol but the county areas would become the county councils and would deal with the pavement politics that are dealt with by district councils.
They are most vulnerable. In Cambridgeshire, where I come from, if the counties were to become the unitary authorities they would have to subsume powers and considerable powers would move upwards to the county councils, although we have been told time and again that powers will not move upwards. They would lose all their local authorities throughout the eastern region.
At the beginning of our debates, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, expressed real reservations about the survival of county councils. When it comes to looking for the size of regional authorities, I suspect the likelihood will be that counties will go and many of our district councils will be merged into becoming larger district councils which will form the unitary authorities. If Berkshire county council had become the unitary authority—the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee—a serious amount of local government would have been lost in Berkshire.
My Lords, my brief and views have not changed on this issue—and this is the third or fourth time we have addressed it. It appears to be implicit in the amendment that a turnout of as low as 5 or 10 per cent is acceptable. The amendment provides that on a turnout of 30 per cent there must be a 66 per cent majority. Intellectually, it is obviously the case that the Front Bench opposite will be prepared to see a turnout as low as 5 per cent and still get a result. Therefore, there is nothing intrinsic about the figures we have in front of us.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, referred to the first Scottish referendum in which there was a figure of 40 per cent. If that figure was not reached, no matter what the vote—and in that case there was a majority vote in favour of devolution but not a 40 per cent turnout—the proposal would fall. It was deemed that anything less than that and it would not work.
Yet it is envisaged in the amendment that on a turnout which could be anything below 30 per cent a result would be achieved provided that the majority of those voting was 66 per cent. Therefore, let us not hear the argument that there is something holier than thou in the amendment. That is not the case.
I do not want to labour my next point because only two or three Members mentioned it. The counties are not affected and the reference to Berkshire is a good example. The lord lieutenancies and so forth will remain, whatever happens. I accept that the county councils have a different governing structure, but once or twice people slip it in as though one is the same as the other. That is not the case. We are not ripping up England's history or destroying England's county structure. The cricket teams will remain—including Middlesex, I suspect—whether or not there is regional government.
I must make another point just because of the tales of woe and fear implicit in some of the speeches. As I said in Committee and confirmed on Report, the earliest conceivable date on which an elected regional assembly could be up and running is July 2006—the other side of a general election. It will not happen this side of any proposed date for a general election, subject to a referendum, or referendums, next autumn. That point must be taken on board and I have repeatedly made it clear. I have given the timetable previously, indicating that it will not be possible to have an elected regional assembly up and running before July 2006. We are therefore not rushing this matter.
If there had been the will, there could have been a Bill setting up regional assemblies. There is no question of that. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that the Government are unfair; they are asking the people to decide when it is their job. In this case, we do not believe that it is.
I do not accept that there is an intrinsic argument about turnouts giving power. I freely admit that over many years my personal preference has been in favour of PR systems. I used to find it difficult to explain to people in this country and abroad how we in this country could have a huge majority in Parliament—perhaps 142—when in three consecutive general elections the number of people who voted for the governing party was never more than 43 per cent. There are many paradoxes in our electoral system which we must sometime learn to live with.
An interesting analogy has been given in relation to the counties. As has been mentioned, currently we have one existing single-tier county council, which is Herefordshire. That is pretty rural. I suspect there is no doubt that it is more rural than anywhere in the country—
You see, they are making up the rules as they go along. It is because it is very small. It abuts (does it not?) Wales where the Conservative Party abolished the county councils. I shall not take lectures from noble Lords opposite about the abolition of county councils. My knowledge of history is not good but county councils were abolished in Wales. Wales is predominantly a rural country; there is no question about that. Clearly, where it abuts Herefordshire—I do not know this in great detail—there are district councils because that is the structure. So far as I can see from my own knowledge, which is scant, it works quite well having district councils in a rural area on one side of the border and county councils in a rural area on the other. I accept that there is a difference because of devolution in Wales. However, the idea that there is one stamp which works, the status quo, which is what the Conservatives seek to preserve because they are opposed to the Bill, I do not accept for one moment.
The arguments have not changed. I agree that people want to put in barriers. As I said originally, there is unfairness where it can happen that people who do not vote make the decision. It is worse than that. One can positively abstain and affect the decision. That is wrong in a democracy. My noble friend Lord Dixon made clear that we are not saying that the regional assemblies are regional government or home rule for the regions. There will be no new powers, no new money and no new tier of government. This will be a different way of scrutinising the vast amounts of government expenditure—billions of pounds—and decisions made at a more local level than here in Westminster. However, given the precedents of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London, it would be outrageous if we were to put in barriers for English regional assemblies which were not there for the other parts of the United Kingdom when powers were devolved to them. That would be almost impossible to explain and impossible to justify.
My Lords, there are no surprises left in these discussions. Indeed, the fact that the Minister has decided not to support the amendment is no surprise either. As he said, we have discussed these matters pretty thoroughly and fundamentally all the way through the passage of the Bill. However, it is extremely interesting that he reiterated the fact that this regional government will be simply a scrutiny area. That is what he said, so that is what I presume he means. Therefore, the only powers that any elected regional assemblies will have will be to scrutinise. We have discussed that before. The fact is that this will be a completely toothless tiger.
However, I do not think we can assume that that is where the Government will leave the matter. The electorate at least needs to be sure—I hope that ultimately it will be sure—what it is voting for. It is clear that it will not be sure under the current circumstances. There is nothing in the Bill to indicate what it is voting for except what we have managed to pick apart and pick out during this very long process. Whatever the Bill does it divides up England into a series of administrative units, administrative regions. There is no point in the Minister shaking his head. That is exactly what it does. If it does not do that there is not the slightest point to all the efforts put in by the Minister and everyone else during the passage of the Bill.
The shake of the head, the Minister will say, is because it will be for the electorate to decide whether it wants such an administrative region. If the electorate wants it, our view is that it should demonstrate that. Whether it be the first or last to take a decision, it should demonstrate that it wants this new beast in a form and number which is sufficient to indicate support for it.
I am extremely conscious that the London local government, the GLA, was elected on less than 20 per cent of votes. That is, about 16 per cent of voters in London physically wanted an elected assembly. It is right that the schedule I have produced would still envisage the possibility of less than 30 per cent. However, it would state that there then had to be a reasonable majority of that 30 per cent or under to ensure that there was at least an indication of majority support of those electing and taking part.
This is not a recipe for encouraging abstention. From this side of the House there will be urgent efforts to ensure within the regions that a no vote is encouraged. That is what democracy is about: voting in favour or voting against this devolution. If people choose to abstain, they are entitled to do that. However, we shall want to encourage them, as will everyone, to have a view and to make it known. We still believe that there should be some criteria, more than just one vote, which would enable this new form of administration to be elected.
The Government have always insisted that county and district councils cannot exist beneath an elected regional assembly. We have heard time and again that two tiers of local government beneath an elected regional assembly would represent one tier too many.
On the basis of that detailed and rigorous argument the Government plan to launch into a costly and highly risky local government reorganisation. It is costly because the reorganisation of local government does not come cheap. We are talking about spending billions of pounds not on the establishment of elected regional assemblies, not on improvements to public services, and not even on streamlining bureaucracy.
The local government reform that took place in the early 1970s led to an increase in staff of nearly 5 per cent and spiralling costs. Those costs were met by local people. The evidence from the last round of local government reorganisation suggests that upwards of 30 per cent of the costs of reorganisation were met from local authority reserves and revenue accounts. I know that in Essex the establishment of unitary authorities in Southend and Thurrock was very expensive. The Government plan to replace excellent authorities with new authorities. Why do they want to do that? It is not to secure better public services or to cut the cost of delivering public services, but because their view is that one tier is one tier too many.
Who will vote for the abolition of these authorities? It will not be the people affected. In many parts of the country, people who already live in unitary authority areas will effectively have the power to secure the abolition of county and district councils.
During the previous debate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that there might be a unitary solution for counties. However, I want to repeat what my noble friend Lady Blatch said. Unitary counties are not county and district government. In a large geographical area, people are well represented by a county and district system. That gives local people the chance to take local planning decisions and provide their own recreation services; it gives the county a strategic view over a large geographical area, such as Northumberland. To have only a unitary choice is no real choice. For example, in the North East 69 per cent of the population already lives in unitary authority areas, so the residents of county areas are outnumbered by 2:1.
Let us be clear. The effect of the Government's previous amendments, passed in collaboration with the Liberal Democrats, is not to provide voters with power to determine whether their local authority stays or goes. They will all go. It simply gives people a choice of how their local authorities go. The decision whether local government reorganisation takes place remains tied to the decision on elected regional assemblies. It therefore remains the case that people living in large towns and cities will have a veto over how local government should operate in rural areas.
It is unfair that citizens affected by reorganisation do not have the choice about whether it goes ahead. Citizens in two-tier areas, as service users, will experience first-hand the upheaval and disruption of creating new unitary authorities. They should have some right to determine whether a single tier of local government will serve their area more effectively.
Ultimately, the Bill is about holding the referendums; it is about giving people choice. The amendment would mean that if the majority of people in a region wanted a regional assembly they could have one. At the same time it recognises the legitimate concerns about service disruption that people living in two-tier areas might suffer. It enables them to retain their existing authorities if that is what they wish. The amendment provides real choices for people in rural areas to be treated equally to people in urban areas.
I have said previously that many people who participate in these debates do not understand the problems of rural areas and rural representation. If there is deprivation in this country, it is often in rural areas. To deny them two tiers of local government is to do them a great disservice.
If the Government are really in favour of choice, they will accept the amendment. I know that it is late in the day, but there is still a chance for the Government to think again. I make what is perhaps the last plea for the people of Northumberland and of Durham—perhaps of Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire—to have that choice of two-tier local government, which has served them so well and which most other countries in Europe, the United States and the rest of the democratic world, retain. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is the nature of any democratic decision that the voting base must be defined. There are sometimes choices. Especially where a vote will have more than a single effect, it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone about the choice of that base. I am not at all surprised by the Conservative amendment. To them, regional government is not a good thing in principle. It is not part of the equation that they would apply. We on these Benches believe in principle that it is a good thing—subject, obviously, to the detail; we have spent much time discussing powers that are not part of the Bill but which we regard as important.
It is now proposed that county areas are to have a choice about their future structure—albeit limited to unitary structure. As I have said today and previously, we would much have preferred the retention of two-tier government where people want it, but this is the best offer available. We do not regard the provision as the imposition by other parts of the region in as extreme a fashion as was painted. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, talked about a veto, but it is not a veto over local government as I would normally understand the term. It is giving people a choice locally that they have never previously been given.
We would view with great concern one county area being able to block a majority vote for regional government taken across the region—or, indeed, a majority in every other county area in the region. As I read the amendment, that is what it would amount to, so we cannot support it.
My Lords, I was going to fire a parting shot at this dishonest Bill under the Motion that the Bill do now pass, but I am advised that such interventions are now discouraged. As your Lordships were spared my interventions on Report, I should say in supporting the amendment why I think that the Bill is dishonest and why, therefore, it must be a good thing to have a majority of people in a county supporting a referendum, if one is to take place.
My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. He said that interventions on Bill do now pass are discouraged. I do not know who is discouraging him, but whoever it is does not understand that it is the tradition of this House for Members to be able to speak on Bill do now pass. I assure the noble Lord that this Member intends to do so.
My Lords, yet again I am most grateful for that intervention, but having consulted the Table, which is now advising the Government Bench, I find that unfortunately the rules have changed during the past year or two. The latest Standing Orders, or whatever they are called, discourage one from speaking on Bill do now pass.
To return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, what I have to say fits with the amendment—which may be for the convenience of the House, because of the time saved—because it must be true that if a majority of people vote for something, it is likely that they will understand it. My point in support of the amendment is that the Bill, and especially the question to be put to people proposed by the Bill and supported by the Electoral Commission, is likely to ensure that they do not understand for what they are voting.
"We are not implementing some plan or plot hatched up by Johnny Foreigner to . . . in some way channel funds into different regions".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1251.]
That wording is not precise, but I think we get the gist of the Minister's statement: that the Bill, and the whole exercise of regionalisation, have nothing to do with the European Union's project for the Committee of the Regions.
On Second Reading, and especially in Committee, the Minister did not confirm—I should be grateful if he would do so at this last opportunity—that paragraph 4.31 of the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, which, amazingly, I notice, is subtitled, "Revitalising the English Regions", which must be unlikely, states clearly that the assembly, if it is voted for,
"will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods".
In other words, regional assemblies will take over the role of central government in negotiating with Brussels for the money that they will be allowed to spend.
My Lords, excuse me for interrupting, but the situation is getting beyond a joke. My noble friend Lady Nicol offered the noble Lord guidance on what many of us who have been in the House for many years believed we were supposed to do at Third Reading. By any standards, the noble Lord's speech bears no resemblance to any of the guidance to which many of us have stuck for many years. As the noble Lord is aware, I get enormous pleasure and interest from his speeches. But, on occasion, he ought to show respect not merely to noble Lords but to his own Front Bench colleagues, who moved what we were told was a very serious amendment. He is deviating from it to a degree that my mathematics does not even enable me to calculate. The House is so far from being in order that, if points of order could be raised here, I would raise one.
My Lords, the noble Lord's mathematics may for once have run away with him. I am about to return very briefly to the point, but it would be quicker if I were not interrupted. The question that the Electoral Commission proposes to put to the people is whether there should be an elected assembly, et cetera. If an elected assembly were to be established, it is intended that it would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies, including regional economic development.
The amendment must be right because, if enough people understand that included under the Bill is the cession to Brussels of regional development, there is a very good chance that they will vote against it. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will see that my intervention is rooted in the amendment. I thought that they would be grateful that they did not get this or a longer peroration at the debate on the Question whether this Bill do now pass. I support the amendment.
My Lords, if the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will forgive me, I shall refer to a point that she made on my noble friend's amendment, which I support very strongly. She said—I paraphrase—that they would prefer it if local government were not asked to pay the price for regional assemblies. That is what the Liberal Democrats are voting for. They have supported the Government in establishing regional assemblies, which will not even have regional government. The Minister told us that there would not be regional government, that there would be neither new powers nor new money, and that local government must pay the price for it. It is all very well to say, "This is what we would not like"; those words read well on the page. But, when one goes into the government Lobby to vote for regional assemblies with no new money, no new powers and in favour of local government going through wholesale constitutional structural change, you must live by what you vote for.
My Lords, further to that little political homily, you are also voting for the opportunity to scrutinise and to question billions of pounds of current public expenditure where there is no opportunity at regional level for local representatives to raise issues. It is allegedly done in this place. As a Parliament, this place is a farce in terms of controlling or scrutinising at that level of detail. Our function is different. Therefore, there is a role for voting for that. Nobody will accuse me of overplaying the role of elected regional assemblies. But I will not underplay the different kind of function that they could carry out, which does not exist at present—finding out and perhaps changing priorities in some of the budgets at that level.
Although there will be no new money, there is already billions of pounds of public expenditure. I have always said, and everybody knows it, even though the meaning has been twisted, that there is no new money just for having an elected regional assembly. But people would not pass up lightly the opportunity to get to grips with, and to look at, priorities in a region for existing expenditure of billions of pounds.
The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke with his customary good sense and experience of local government. I accept that he speaks with vast experience, particularly in how he attacked the former Conservative government for their local government reorganisation. That was very brave, and I hope that the noble Lord will continue on the Front Bench as a result of it. But, in some ways, he was arguing for the opportunity to have three tiers of government under the national framework. That is the implication of leaving the door open for three tiers of government. As I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that if we had come forward with a proposal leading to an extra tier of government there would not have been a massive national campaign by the Conservatives, the CBI and business about extra layers of government and more bureaucracy. Now I will have that denied, will I?
No, my Lords, the noble Lord is contradicting himself. He has said emphatically in this Chamber that it is not regional government. If the noble Lord is saying that there would be three tiers of government, it is a very different kettle of fish from what he has been proposing at four stages of the Bill.
My Lords, the noble Baroness is playing with words, as she has done today. Normally, she is a little gentler, but today she has gone over the top. I shall stop being friendly towards her in future. It is known what I mean by three tiers. I have said that they would not involve service delivery—I do not argue otherwise. There would have been a large national campaign; we were not prepared to have that political argument.
The price for elected regional assemblies is single-tier local government. As I said at Second Reading, if that were not the case, we would not proceed with the Bill. On offer is elected regional assemblies with a single tier of local government beneath, not two tiers; otherwise, we would not proceed with the Bill. That is not a threat; it is not an argument against Parliament. Parliament can decide what it wants. But it is a government Bill, and we would decide whether or not to proceed with it.
I must make absolutely clear what is on offer in this amendment. It is fundamental in that it is designed specifically to frustrate the Bill. It is also a little unfair. It was not quite put this way, but the majority of the population of four regions is rural, and in four the majority is urban. But I accept that normally soundings show that an overt desire for regional elected assemblies is expressed mainly in areas with single-tier authorities. But if this amendment were accepted, a region with perhaps four, five or six counties, one county voting against an elected regional assembly could frustrate the other four or five counties that expressed a clear view in favour of one. Where is the democratic fairness if one county gets a veto over all the rest? It would be very unfair.
That is not the other side of the coin of the urban-versus-rural argument. I do not accept that everyone in either urban areas or rural ones will vote the same way. That is why I said that the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, operated as a two-nation Tory because she saw the situation in black and white—you were rural or urban, and you were set against each other—which is not the intention of the Bill. The amendment is designed to frustrate the Bill. But that has been the intention of the Conservative Opposition all along.
We have made changes to the Bill. Those changes have been shown, by and large, through votes to satisfy the majority of the House. Where the single tier is to be arranged, those who decide will choose the form of the single tier. I do not know what it will be. It will be up to the Boundary Committee to come forward with that in the way that we discussed. It would be very unfair if the amendment were carried, because we would be pulling a fast one. Noble Lords could not go on the stump to defend the ability of one county to stop in their tracks another three or four counties voting the other way. From a democratic standpoint, it would be completely indefensible.
My Lords, I am speaking to this amendment. That is not what this amendment says. It would enable one county to veto the rest. If the Tories wish to change their policy and return with something else, I shall debate it. But this amendment says that one county voting against an elected regional assembly could decide, irrespective of what every other county voted. Where is the fairness in that? It cannot be fair; it is absolutely disgraceful to try to defend it. There are no new arguments to be made and there are no new arguments I can make.
Contrary to what my noble friend Lord Stoddart has said, I intend to abide by the strictures I have been given, irrespective of how it is written down. Once I sit down, having made this short contribution, I do not intend to stand again. Therefore I thank the team of officials who have supported me, the staff in my Private Office and my noble friend Lord Evans. I also thank the Opposition for the pleasantries and the spirited way in which they have taught me a few things about this House—I am learning every day.
My Lords, I am not giving way to the noble Lord because I intend to sit down. I shall not answer the Europe argument because I have done that already. I thank noble Lords on all sides of the House for the way in which they have helped scrutinise the Bill. It justifies what I have said since I have been in this House—scrutiny of Ministers in this House is much superior to that in another place. I am collecting evidence as the months go by for this. I have no problems saying that—it does not cause me any difficulties. However, I certainly hope that this amendment is not carried.
My Lords, I am becoming concerned about the kind words the Minister keeps saying about me—he will be doing me a disservice on this side of the House.
Fortunately, they are about my knowledge and involvement in local government. That is in the spirit in which we moved this last amendment. In Committee, on Report and now today, we have been told consistently that there is no new money. There will have to be new money. Reorganising local government will cost a lot of money. Local government officials are already talking to Treasury officials and I do not think that the Treasury share some of the views we have heard from the Government Front Bench during this debate. It will cost money. It will not be a case of "no new money"—a considerable amount of money will be spent on reorganising local government. I have been through this before. We heard the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talk of his experience of the 1970s. The reorganisation of local government is very expensive.
Local government is about providing services. It delivers services to thousands of people every day. I have said that in Essex every day we deliver services to 20,000 people in their homes, in care, and noble Lords can multiply that to reach a figure for the whole country. Those services will be disrupted. Elderly and disabled people will not know where their care will come from. Staff will be concerned. I have addressed meetings of staff who are concerned about local government reorganisation. We have taken local government reorganisation far too lightly during these debates.
Whatever the Government wanted in regional government, they should not have embarked on a wholesale reorganisation of local government. It was contrary to what they promised when they first came to power. They said that they did not want local government reorganisation, which pleased me because it was a nightmare during the Conservative period. I admit local government organisation was not a great success. It does not win friends and it is of no help to services.
With this amendment, I was, at this last stage, trying to do something for the Northumberlands, the North Yorkshires, the Cumbrias and the Lancashires, who look to be under threat in the coming months. There will be a tremendous amount of disruption. We are making a last-ditch attempt to get the Government to acknowledge the problem and give these areas a chance to keep their two tiers. That would be the best outcome. The Government have proceeded with this Bill in a way which has caused more harm than if they had kept the two tiers. They have made a fundamental mistake and they will realise that in the months to come. There would have been greater acceptance of regional government if they had kept the two tiers. They will live to regret it. At this stage we have to test the feeling of the House.
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.
Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Rooker.)
My Lords, the Minister said that he will say no more so I am taking the risk of not being answered back. On behalf of my trio of Front Bench colleagues, I should like to thank both Ministers for their general courtesy, good humour—although I thought the Minister a little tetchy today but, in general, he has been in fairly good humour—and friendliness throughout the passage of the Bill.
I cannot say that we are satisfied that amendments have been made which, at the outset, I believed both we and the Liberal Democrats wished to see in this Bill. Of course, we all know the reason for that. It is because the Liberal Democrats have chosen not to support us in the areas which would have made this Bill more acceptable.
However, we have had commitments from the Government to ensure that proper information is provided to voters as to what they are voting about and that the soundings exercise will be brought to this House at the same time as any referendum decision is being taken. The Minister made, as best he could, a commitment that he would try to ensure that there would be a draft regional assemblies Bill before any decisions regarding referendums had to be made. If that could not be obtained by amendment, I believe that we have obtained it by commitment. We have probably obtained useful acknowledgement from the Government of some of the difficulties.
The issue has been hard fought and it has been very interesting times. Again, I thank the Ministers and their officials for their help.
My Lords, I, too, repeat the thanks, even though our experiences have been rather different. But the thanks are the same and very genuine. We think that it is important to be starting on the road towards strategic regional government. The Minister said that the number of quangos that we have and the spending power that they have go without adequate scrutiny. We fully agree that scrutiny of the spending of those billions of pounds is very important and a step on the way to full democratic accountability.
We said throughout that we regard issues of regional and local government as separate. We stand by our view that it is better to accept the solution to agree what is on offer; that is, to give people choice as to the structure of their local government. That is better than to lose the opportunity for regional government.
The issue now is to get the powers and functions of regional government right and to go out and win the referendums.
My Lords, during the previous amendment when I said that I intended speaking on Bill do now pass, the Minister pointed out that that would be incorrect. However, because the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Hamwee, have spoken on Bill do now pass, it seems to me that I am in good company. Therefore, I shall say a few words although I had been prepared to accept the view which the Minister put forward.
I reiterate my complete opposition to this Bill, which I expressed at Second Reading. It will not make for better government and, indeed, it is clear that it will blur the relationship between central and local government. A few useful amendments have been made during the passage of the Bill but it largely remains as it was when first introduced to the House. Something which worries me very much, and ought to worry local authorities, is that although the Government say that no powers will be taken from local government in the Bill, nevertheless there are powers for the elected regional authorities to precept on the local authorities. Local authorities ought to take due notice because they will find that their ratepayers will pay additional rates without having voted for the authority which will be spending that money.
I wish to make only one other point. During the long discussions on the soundings exercise, there was no question that a number of local authorities, Sunderland among them, were in danger of using their ratepayers' money to promote the idea of elected regional assemblies. Many members were concerned about this and it was left to Mr Neil Heron to challenge the local authority in Sunderland for using council tax payers' money. From a letter received by Mr Heron, it has become clear that if the organisations supporting regional government had used any such money for those purposes, that would have been illegal. The local authority in Sunderland should have been aware of that. I am sorry that it was not.
One of the problems with local government these days is that authorities are run on a cabinet basis and thus most councillors are sidelined. It is most unfortunate that the local authority—
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. While he is correct to say that it is possible to make speeches on Bill do now pass, the Companion makes it clear that they are intended to be formal. Although the noble Lord may not be technically outside the Companion, nevertheless he is abusing the conventions of the House. I would suggest to him that this does not do the House any good. One of these days, it will lead to our having to have a Speaker to stop this kind of thing from happening.
My Lords, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, thinks that I am abusing the procedures of the House. It is not something that I would do intentionally and, indeed, I do not think that I am doing so now. In any event, I was about to bring my remarks to a close when the noble Lord interrupted me.
Local authorities and local councillors ought to be on the ball when it comes to spending council tax payers' money. It should not be left to members of the public to draw the attention of councillors to abuses of the system; councillors should be doing that themselves.
On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.