§ Lords amendment: No. 1.12.47 pm
§ The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford)
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
§ Mr. Raynsford
We have before us 35 amendments arising from consideration of the Bill in the other place. On the surface, that number may seem large, but in fact it mainly reflects just one extension of our policy: to give people a choice about their regional governance arrangements. That emerged from discussions that initially began in Committee in this House, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) raised the issue. Subsequent discussions between us and the Liberal Democrats led to the Liberal Democrat amendment that was moved in the other place.
We agreed that those living in two-tier areas should have a say in the form of unitary local government introduced in their area if an elected assembly is established, but our fundamental principle of unitary local government where there is an elected regional tier remains unchanged. I shall explain that further when we come to the next grouping, when we can debate the matter fully if hon. Members wish to do so. The other 18 amendments in that group and the 10 amendments in the final group simply give effect to the main amendment.
We have listened carefully to the debate on the ouster clause, both in this House and in the other place.
§ Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)
Although my right hon. Friend has pointed out that later we shall be able to consider in detail the amendment to which he referred, I warmly welcome the fact that the Government listened to representations on the issue and that they have acted in a way that gives people in the two-tier areas a real choice over their future.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment. I also pay tribute to her tireless work over many years to promote the cause of regional government, especially in the interests of her own 306 region, the north-east, where I know that she has been extremely active. We have sought to listen carefully on that point and, indeed, other points. We believe that the Lords amendments will improve the Bill, and we approach them in an entirely non-partisan spirit.
The ouster clause was a difficult issue, and the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) will give further consideration to it when we deal with it later. Once again, we have tried to find a practical way to meet the policy commitment to ensure that the results of a referendum could not be challenged purely as a result of a frivolous or unserious criticism, while retaining the opportunity for legal consideration if serious malpractice occurred. That has been our objective from the outset, and our new amendment is designed to achieve that.
I turn to the first group of Lords amendments, which reflects amendments originally proposed by Conservatives in the other place. The Bill has faced vigorous debate and careful scrutiny in the other place, as it did in the House, and the amendments agreed to there improve and enhance the Bill, while remaining true to the principles that we have always advocated. So the Government will support all 35 Lords amendments, irrespective of whether they were originally proposed by Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or the Government. I hope that that demonstrates both our willingness to listen to constructive criticism and to respond positively in a non-partisan spirit to proposals that will improve the Bill.
Lords amendment No. 1 reflects an amendment moved in the other place by Baroness Blatch, who sought to simplify clause 1(6), to make it clearer how the level of interest test works. The Government are happy to accept Lords amendment No. 1. Lords amendment No. 2 is necessary to tidy up subsection (8) in the light of the changes to subsection (6). The current wording at the start of subsection (8) would no longer work, because subsection (6) no longer sets out the conditions or criteria that can apply or not apply.
Lords amendment No. 2 is the neatest formulation that we can find to clarify clause 1, in addition to what it says in subsection (6), to allow an order to be made without active consideration of the level of interest. The Secretary of State can also order a regional referendum once he has considered views, information and evidence, as set out in subsection (8).
Clause 5 sets out the minimum period, following a no vote in a referendum on establishing an elected regional assembly, before a further referendum can be held. Lords amendment No. 10 was tabled by the Conservatives and accepted by the Government on Third Reading in the other place on Monday. It changes the minimum period from five to seven years. The Government listened carefully to the arguments adduced in support of that amendment, particularly by Lord Hanningfield, and were persuaded by them.
Lengthening the minimum period by two years will ease the possible distraction to local authorities of a local government reorganisation without imposing an unduly long period before the population of a region can be given an opportunity to change its mind about 307 establishing an assembly. In effect, there will be at least five years between a referendum and the point at which the Government might initiate the process for a further referendum. That five-year period has always been our policy objective.
We were conscious of the fact that the preliminary soundings would shorten that five-year period in practice, so the extension to seven years is designed to achieve the policy effect, while recognising the practicalities. That is an entirely sensible way forward. [Interruption.] The Opposition try to make fun of that, but they originally proposed 10-year or even 20-year minimum periods, which were clearly designed to obstruct the possibility for regions to have the opportunity to reconsider the issue in the light of experience.
Those proposals were not acceptable to us because they did not allow for the fact that views might be reasonably expected to change over time, particularly in the light of experience where elected regional assemblies are set up. We were not happy with those amendments when they were moved in Committee, and Lords amendment No. 10, with the seven-year period, keeps to our original policy objective, while allowing for the practicalities that I have already outlined.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
I am sure that, just for the record, the Minister would like to remind the House that the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment that would have extended the length of time to six years. In Committee, the Minister ridiculed that amendment, but it seems as though it is close to the final outcome. I do not want to make too much of that, but, for the record, we should remind the House that that happened.
§ Mr. Raynsford
As I said at the outset, we have tried to approach the issue in a wholly non-partisan spirit. We could not see the logic of the six-year period, and I pointed out in Committee that five years is the normal period for the duration of a Parliament, so there is good precedent for such a period. We could not understand the basis for having a six-year period.
As a result of further consideration—we listened to a point that was made in another place—there will be a period during which soundings have to be taken before a referendum can be initiated. That period could be up to two years, which is why we have agreed to the seven-year period, so there is good logic behind the proposal. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will know from other instances in the Bill, we are always happy to engage in constructive debate and to make practical improvements to the Bill, and in no way do I wish to sound churlish about his contribution to improving the Bill. I urge the House to agree to these Lords amendments.
§ Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge)
The Minister very nearly got through the first group of Lords amendments with a straight face. As he said, Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 were, in one case, introduced by my noble Friends in the other place and, in the other case, by the Government, as a tidying up exercise. They are good amendments, which represent 308 an attempt to make marginally more intelligible the very complex language of clause 1, and they are certainly an improvement.
Sadly, all this is still slightly academic because clause 1(9) will still allow the Secretary of State to cancel a referendum at any time if he considers that it is not appropriate, having ordered it to take place. In other words, if the Secretary of State determines that the process is not going the way that he had hoped and it does not look as though he will win his referendum, he can pull stumps and cancel the whole show. That would be regarded, in everyday language, as somewhat loading the dice in the Deputy Prime Minister's favour. Up to the last minute, he can cancel the referendum if he feels that he is losing the argument.
I am waiting for the Government to introduce a Bill that would provide a similar facility for general elections. It would be very convenient for the Prime Minister if he were able to call a general election and, two and a half weeks later, decide to cancel it by order because it did not look as though things were going quite the right way.
Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 improve the language of the Bill because they slightly clarify the intention without fundamentally changing the meaning of clause 1. Lords amendment No. 10 is different. As the Minister has acknowledged, my hon. Friends and I argued for a 10-year gap between referendums. We deployed precisely the same logic as Lord Hanningfield deployed in arguing in the other place that the sword of Damocles hanging over the structure of local government is bound to be debilitating to local government and to impact negatively on its principal business, which is to get on with delivering good quality services to the people whom its tiers serve.
It is simply not desirable to have local government areas where a referendum has been held, perhaps the argument for an elected regional assembly has been lost by a modest margin, and it is clear to everyone that the Secretary of State will seek to go around the loop again at the earliest opportunity and put the question to a referendum again as soon as he is able to do so. In those circumstances, a short period will create a very high degree of uncertainly, possibly making it difficult for local authorities to recruit and retain good staff, when everyone can see on the horizon at least the possibility of reorganisation or abolition of those bodies, so we argued for a 10-year period.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)
I wish to try to reinforce my hon. Friend's point. Northumberland county council and the local district councils already have a problem with recruitment and retention, and people are looking over their shoulders and wondering whether they will have a future in a few years' time. That is causing considerable problems to local authorities today.
§ Mr. Hammond
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. I have heard some of the anecdotal examples quoted from the north-east, and there is a very real problem. The problem is not theoretical; it is having an impact right now on the ability of local authorities to carry out what I assume is the Government's shared objective with local authorities and, indeed, the 309 Opposition—delivering good quality services to local people—and they are not being helped by the introduction of further uncertainty.
I remain of the view that 10 years would be a sensible period. Clearly, however, seven years is better than five. The Government vehemently defended their five-year proposition in this place, however, and as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has mentioned, they vigorously resisted his suggestion that a six-year period might be worth exploring. I am not sure why the Government, having vigorously rejected 10 years and six years, have concluded that seven years is acceptable. Five years was not selected by the Government as a random figure—it was not just plucked out of thin air—and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said in Committee:A five-year period strikes the right balance … We want to strike the right balance and we believe that an interval of five years does that."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 3 December 2002; c. 36.]He continued:I think that the question of precedent was addressed in the debate, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to be given additional justification … he should be made aware that a five-year period is the provision within the Local Government Act 2000 for repeat referendums on mayoral constitutional arrangements … There is another obvious logical reason why we decided on five years; that is the maximum period for the life of a Parliament. Therefore, we believe that five years is appropriate. There is a precedent for it and, above all, it is the right period of time … I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is now satisfied that five years is better than six."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 3 December 2002; c. 38–9.]The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), said much later:The Government have not plucked that five-year figure from the air. As Members will know, five years is the maximum interval between general elections and is also the standard interval for European parliamentary elections. I believe that five years is the right interval."—[Official Report, 23 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 491.]
It seems to me that the Government's stance is in strange contrast to their intransigence in the face of the range of suggestions and the rationale put forward at an earlier stage. The Under-Secretary mocked us in Committee when, after suggesting 20 years, we tried 10 years, to see how the Government would react. He remarked that the Opposition had changed their mind and by doing so had proved his point that five years was the optimum period. The Government are therefore also capable of changing their mind.
On balance, therefore, seven is better than five but not as good as 10. What a display of synthetic self-righteous indignation we had to go through in Committee—I include the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton in that—to reach the compromise of seven years. In future, when Ministers say that they have not plucked a figure out of thin air, that they have considered the matter long and hard and that they genuinely believe that it is the right solution to the problem, we will know exactly what they mean.
§ Mr. Davey
We should welcome the Lords amendments. The hon. Member for Runnymede and 310 Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was right that we had a tough debate in Committee on this issue and that various propositions were put forward. The Government resisted them at the time, as they resisted every Conservative and Liberal Democrat amendment on all aspects of the Bill. They listened to the weight of our argument, however, and while they tried to stare it down at the time, they were forced to consider it.
In the other place, those arguments were strengthened. In this case, an argument from a Conservative peer persuaded them, and I am glad that Ministers reflected on those arguments and changed their mind. It is a matter of judgment, as I said in Committee, as to whether the period should be four years, five years, six years or seven years. It is question of striking the balance. In the Minister's initial statement, he tried to suggest that there was logic behind seven years. I am not sure whether I am convinced that there is logic; I think that it is a matter of judgment. If the House decides on seven years, I think that that is probably better than five: it means that the problems of instability in local government, to which the noble Lord Hanningfield referred in the other place, will be dealt with properly. It would be interesting if the Minister were to explain a little more of the logic of seven years, for the record. Therefore, should the House ever have to return to the point, we will at least be able to review the argument that was put at this time.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I am pleased that there is broad agreement to the amendments. No Member objected to amendments Nos. 1 and 2, although the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) raised a question about clause 1(9), which, of course, is not being amended. I should therefore correct his unfortunate impression that the Government would use that subsection to postpone a referendum if they felt that the right outcome was not likely: that is neither the intention nor the scope of the power, which allows the Secretary of State to vary or revoke an order if he thinks that it is not appropriate for a referendum to be held on the date specified.
I explained in Committee, and perhaps I should explain again for the benefit of the House, that the date might have been fixed some time in advance because of the process involved, and that other circumstances might make it wise for the date to be varied and for postponement to take place—for example, a couple of years ago elections were postponed because of foot and mouth disease. The other obvious example would be a major state funeral, or an event of that nature, clashing with the date pre-arranged for a referendum.
The other crucial safeguard is that any amendment must be made by an order subject to affirmative resolution. The somewhat underhand approach suggested by the hon. Gentleman is therefore not possible, so I hope that he will accept that it is necessary to include the safeguard in the Bill for good reason. It is not the subject of the Lords amendments, so I hope that we can pass over the issue rapidly.
§ Mr. Peter Atkinson
I understand the Minister's explanation, and I understand why it may be necessary to vary the date of the order, but I cannot understand why he would feel it necessary to revoke it.
§ Mr. Raynsford
There might be a significant change of circumstances between the date on which the 311 referendum was initially set and the date on which it was due to take place. The opportunity to postpone or revoke is therefore a necessary safeguard, but it is subject to affirmative resolution. If a Government wished to revoke, they would have to explain why. I can envisage circumstances in which, rather than postponing, it might be necessary to start from scratch and begin the soundings exercise again before a referendum was held—for example, where new evidence had come to light about whether there was a real interest in holding a referendum in a region. That is a necessary and useful safeguard, but the Government would have to justify the use of the power for that purpose. I hope that hon. Members will accept that there is nothing nefarious about that. The provision is entirely sensible and pragmatic to ensure efficient administration and to avoid possible illogicalities in the implementation of the policy intent.
§ Mr. Hammond
The Bill clearly allows the Government not only to vary the date but to revoke the order. I thought that, in the Minister's initial response, he was reading into the record a limitation on that scope, making it clear that the Government would never use that to cancel a referendum that had been ordered, but in responding to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) I fear that he went backwards and confirmed that the Government could cancel a referendum that had been ordered.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I thought I had already made it quite clear that the purpose of the power is simply to allow for a change of circumstances that might make it inappropriate for the referendum to proceed. One such circumstance would be a clash of dates, and that point has been widely accepted.
The second circumstance that I set out was if, in the period between the initial date set for the referendum and the point at which the Secretary of State chose to introduce an order, it became clear that a material change in circumstances had occurred that might necessitate a further soundings exercise before the referendum. We have been through all these issues in considerable detail, because there is a process between the initial indication that a referendum will be held and the holding of the referendum. That process involves the boundary committee conducting a review of local government boundary arrangements and making recommendations for a wholly unitary structure of local government. That is a time-consuming process. In that time, circumstances can change, and it is obviously sensible to have provision to cope with that. I have explained why the provision is in the Bill. It is not a nefarious or suspect process; it is there for good administrative reasons.
§ Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)
I would find it easier to accept my right hon. Friend's arguments if we were clear about the objective basis by which the Secretary of State would determine the level of interest in a region before the referendum process was set up. In Committee, my right hon. Friend repeatedly failed to explain what the objective basis would be. If we do not know what the objective basis is, how will we know whether it has changed?
§ Mr. Raynsford
I did not repeatedly fail to give assurances. My hon. Friend may have repeatedly failed 312 to listen to the assurances, but that is a different matter. The Secretary of State is required to take soundings, and he will have to have regard to those soundings and could certainly be subject to legal challenge if he acted in a way that indicated that he had not had regard to them. In the circumstances that I have just described, an event could take place in the period during which the boundary committee was conducting its review—I have already referred to foot and mouth disease—that would make it inappropriate for the referendum to proceed on the given date. Indeed, a delay would be inevitable. If there were any suggestion that, as a result, the basis on which the Secretary of State had taken his decision about the soundings was no longer valid, he could be open to challenge if he had not had regard to evidence suggesting a change in the circumstances that had led him to call a referendum.
Those are the circumstances—I do not think that they will happen often, but they could—that might require the Secretary of State not simply to postpone the date of a referendum, but to begin the process again. Obviously, there could be other circumstances—I hate to envisage them happening—in which a prolonged delay resulting from a major war or event of that nature would make it inappropriate to hold a referendum and wrong to postpone it indefinitely. Therefore, for practical reasons, there must be a power to terminate as well as to postpone. However, I hope that the House will recognise that there is a real safeguard, because the Secretary of State will be able to use the power only by means of an affirmative resolution. The House will have every opportunity to reject an order if it does not believe that there is good logic behind it.
§ Andrew George (St. Ives)
I appreciate that the Minister and his Department are optimistic that regions will proceed along the lines of the boundaries proposed, but to what extent do the Lords amendments, which I support in principle, allow for the fact that, as I and colleagues confidently predict, the Government will not succeed in achieving regional assemblies on the boundaries as currently proposed for certain areas? Do the material changes referred to in the amendments allow for the likelihood that certain regional assemblies will not be set up in the way that the Government hope by containing provisions for new boundaries to be proposed?
§ Mr. Raynsford
I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in the boundaries for understandable reasons, but none of the amendments that we are considering today impacts on boundary issues. The Government have made clear their policy intention to proceed on the basis of the existing Government office boundaries. We have not precluded a further look at these matters in the longer term, but, in the short term, we are proceeding on the basis of the existing Government office boundaries.
Other amendments in this group relate to the period between referendums. I make it clear once again to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that our objective has always been that there should be a five-year period between referendums. That was the basis on which we opposed his amendments in Committee and on which we rejected the Liberal Democrat amendments.
313 As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) rightly pointed out, we considered the possibility that the practicalities and mechanics leading up to a referendum would bite into that five-year period. Lord Hanningfield made that point in the other place. The process of taking soundings and commissioning a boundary review could take up to two years out of the five-year period. In practice, rather than there being a five-year gap between referendums, there would be a three-year gap between a no vote and the beginning of the process. We accept the argument that that would be too short, would be disruptive and would have an adverse impact on local government.
To stay true to our objective of a five-year period between disruption, we have accepted the amendment that allows for a seven-year period between referendums, because the preliminaries could take up to two years. It is a practical, pragmatic response. That is the logic, and there is sense behind it. I hope that hon. Members, who have broadly welcomed the outcome, will not continue to quibble about the precise way in which we are acting. It is a sensible response to genuine concerns voiced in this House and the other place.
§ Mr. Hammond
The Minister is now defining his objective as achieving a five-year window between, as he puts it, disruption. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has given a clear example of the way in which disruption is continuous if the threat remains hanging over local authorities. Does the Minister not believe that the threat of reorganisation will make it difficult, if not impossible, for local authorities to recruit and retain good staff in the intervening period?
§ Mr. Raynsford
I do not accept that, because the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was making the point that we are currently engaged in a soundings exercise. That has naturally caused concern in authorities in two-tier areas, such as in his region, where, it is fair to say, as I have always said without anticipating the outcome of the exercise, objective evidence suggests that there probably is significant interest in holding a referendum. That is why we have accepted the amendment, as it deals with part of the period of up to two years leading to a referendum. However, once the referendum has been held, there will be a guarantee that there will be no further possibility of change for five years. That is the safeguard against the fear that the hon. Gentleman raised.
§ Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)
I did not serve on the Committee, but I have taken a close interest in these matters and was proud to launch "Devon says no to regional government" last Friday. In the five-year window that the Minister is describing, how can he guarantee to those of who are sceptical about this regional odyssey that untold pressure will not be brought on councils in areas that rejected the referendum first time round or voted no? Will he guarantee that they will not be penalised in the intervening period and that no Government money will be used to soften them up for round two, which, if he 314 had his way, would be replaced by rounds three and four at five-year periods until an area was subjugated to following his line?
§ Mr. Raynsford
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not serve on the Committee because that might have helped to allay some of the paranoia that clearly affects his judgment. We have absolutely no intention of bringing pressure to bear; there will be a choice. Each region will be free to express its views in a referendum and we repeatedly made it clear that we do not expect all regions to express similar interest in an elected regional assembly. We do not wish to impose something universally. In fact, the Conservative party suggested that referendums should be held in every English region. That is not sensible because we know perfectly well that there is not a great deal of interest in some regions and we intend to hold referendums only where there is clear interest. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contain his anxiety and realise that we are extending choice. We shall give people the opportunity to have an elected regional assembly if they wish, but we shall not impose one if they do not want it. We certainly do not intend to bring pressure to bear on individual local authorities to support an elected regional assembly in their region.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I see that the hon. Gentleman cannot contain his excitement, so I shall give way once again.
§ Mr. Swire
On the subject of regional government, I assure the Minister that I can contain almost everything. My party suggested that if a referendum is held in one area, referendums should be held in all areas because we believe that anything that involves such constitutional change should be subject to a referendum. I am still not happy because an area such as mine in Devon might well vote no the first, second and subsequent times, but be swamped and outvoted by other areas in the artificial creation that is the south-west region, such as the urban areas of Bristol and Swindon.
§ Mr. Raynsford
There is probably little hope of dissuading the hon. Gentleman from the paranoia that has engulfed his approach to the issue. It is somewhat illogical for him to support an organisation called "Devon says no" while clearly advocating that a referendum should be held in Devon and everywhere else. He has not followed through the logic behind his position.
§ Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)
Surely the real difference between the proposals of this Government and the previous Tory Government is that we will give local people a say in their regions. Under the Conservative Government's county council reorganisation, Tyne and Wear county council was abolished despite the fact that no local person had any say.
§ Mr. Raynsford
My hon. Friend makes a fair and valid point. We are giving people a choice over whether they want an elected regional assembly and, if they do, a choice of the best form of local government reorganisation to accompany that. That is very different 315 from the actions of the Conservative Government when they abolished county councils such as Berkshire without giving people one iota of choice about it or any opportunity to express their opinions. The Conservatives abolished the Greater London council without giving people a choice. It is sheer humbug for Conservative Members to talk about giving people choice because they did no such thing when their party was in government.
§ Mr. Hammond
Will the Minister desist from saying that he proposes to give people choice about the form of local government reorganisation? He proposes no such thing. He proposes to allow people to express a preference among different forms of unitary local government reorganisation, but that is not a choice about the form of local government reorganisation.
§ Mr. Raynsford
The hon. Gentleman should not try to put words in my mouth. I made it quite clear that we will allow people to choose the form of unitary local government that is most appropriate for their area. A proliferation of tiers of government is not right; indeed, I thought that the Conservative party thought it inappropriate to introduce more tiers. If people want a regional tier—it is their choice—it is right for local government to be reorganised into a single unitary tier so that there would be no more than two tiers of government below the national level—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It looks as though we are going very wide of the Lords amendments. Perhaps hon. Members could restrain themselves.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to tempt me down paths that you, Mr. Speaker, would not regard as appropriate.
§ Mr. Atkinson
I hope not, although I might be treading on thin ice. I was hoping to explain to the Minister why my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and I are paranoid about the issue. The Minister said that there was strong interest in north-east England, but I refer him to a written answer that he gave me on 18 March to a question about the level of interest that resulted from his soundings exercise. He said that there had been 4,500 expressions of interest nationally, of which only 300 had come from the north-east. If he thinks that 300 replies from more than 2 million people represents an expression of strong interest, no wonder my hon. Friend and I are paranoid.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I cannot speak for the paranoia of the hon. Gentlemen. They will have to answer for that to their electorates; the people of East Devon and Hexham might well say no to them in due course.
The soundings exercise was designed to elicit responses from people and organisations. We made it clear that organisations, especially representative bodies, that sounded out their members' views or that 316 wished to express the views of a wider group should state that in their response so that their views could be given more weight than responses by individuals.
As the hon. Member for Hexham knows, owing to a Lords amendment that we shall consider in the next group, we considered it right to extend the soundings period to allow people a further opportunity to comment in light of the change. We have therefore not completed the soundings exercise and it would be premature to comment on the level of interest expressed. I shall report back to the House when the extended soundings exercise has been completed, although I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there have been more responses than the numbers that he cited because we had received 5,500 by the end of the initial period, many of which came from organisations that had consulted widely, meaning that their responses covered the opinions of more people than would be indicated by the number of immediate responses. The exercise is important and we must await its outcome and responses to the extended soundings.
It is sensible to allow five years between a no vote in a referendum and the time at which it is possible to reinitiate the process through soundings and a boundary committee consideration before holding a further referendum. That was why the period was extended from five to seven years. That is sensible and it meets our original policy objective of allowing five years without the prospect of reorganisation, which will be welcomed by local government. I hope that Opposition Members will not quibble about terminology and about what might have been said at different times but will instead welcome the proposal as a positive and constructive response to sensible comments made by people who want the best possible legislation to allow the people of England to have an elected regional assembly, if they wish, with the minimum of dislocation.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I hesitate to give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I hope that he will not stray wide of the main subject of the amendments.
§ Mr. Swire
I am grateful to the Minister for attempting to cure my paranoia. A region such as the south-west may reject the idea of regional government in a referendum, after which there will be five years before it is invited to reconsider. Will the unelected regional assembly disappear during that period?
§ Mr. Raynsford
There are no proposals to abolish the regional chambers—or assemblies, as they are usually called—that were brought into existence because of the creation of regional development agencies. The chambers' purpose is to provide a framework for representatives from local government and from regions' other interests to oversee the work of RDAs. It is right that such a body should exist and one of an elected regional assembly's remits will be to take control of, and have oversight of, economic development activity and the work of RDAs. If that were to happen, the non-elected regional assembly would cease to exist. But where there is no elected regional assembly, or where people have voted against it, it is obviously sensible to continue to have a body that brings together 317 representatives of local government and others to maintain an oversight of the activity of the regional development agency. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so hostile to such a sensible arrangement to ensure the articulation of regional concerns about matters of economic development, which are important in every region. We have given more than sufficient time to this group of amendments—
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
There is a lacuna in the Minister's argument. Given that in many cases there will be elected regional assemblies, but there will be considerable public scepticism as to the merit of their continuation, why should not the principle of a periodic referendum, which the right hon. Gentleman so warmly commended in the other context, apply in this context?
§ Mr. Raynsford
There is no amendment from the other place on our amendment paper today that covers that issue. I would not wish to incur your wrath, Mr. Speaker, by going on to that territory. Suffice it to say that the issue was debated at length in Committee and decisively rejected. I hope that the amendments will now be agreed.
§ Lords amendment agreed to.
§ Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.