HL Deb 07 April 2003 vol 647 cc91-124

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, in calling Amendment No. 13, I should draw the attention of the House to a small mistake. The amendment should read: Page 2, line 20, after 'second region' insert the words printed on the Marshalled List.

Clause 2 [Referendum question]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 13: Page 2, line 20, after "region" insert "with the reorganisation of local government into a single tier in those areas which currently have county and district councils

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 13, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 15. The importance of these amendments is to make it clear in the question on the ballot paper at the referendum that a vote for a regional assembly means single-tier local authorities.

Throughout the debate, we have believed that it is not enough simply to have an explanatory note. One is voting either for or against a regional assembly. However, when voting for a regional assembly, one is accepting that one is also voting for single-tier local government. It makes it more of an issue if the person casting the vote knows what he is voting for, rather than having an explanatory note—we know not everyone reads the small print—which states, "By the way, when you are voting 'Yes' for the question on the ballot paper, you are voting for a single-tier assembly".

We know from Divisions earlier today that there is likely to be a second question. It will therefore be interesting to debate how explicit that second question is. Those voting in areas where there are two tiers will be given two votes; the first for or against the assembly and the second as to which way they want to "die", as I said earlier. I accept that those in single-tier authorities, where the unitary authorities presently exist, should not be given an undue influence over rural areas. However, that fear is not removed because they will still have the overwhelming might to express their view and preference for or against a regional assembly. When the votes for a regional assembly in a unitary authority are coupled with the votes for an assembly in the rural areas—even if that vote for an assembly is a minority vote in the rural areas—the urban areas will still win out. That concerns us. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I understand the reasoning behind the noble Baroness's amendment. I believe that she is right; the words in question should be located where she suggests rather than as proposed in the Bill. However, the wording is not as clear to the average voter as it might be. I cannot think offhand how it can be made clear, except that there would be a marginal improvement if "both" were to be inserted before "county" in the second line.

It is important that those who have a vote should understand exactly what is entailed. My suggestion could always be incorporated at Third Reading and if the noble Baroness were to press the amendment, I would support it. However, she might care to reflect on that.

8.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Blatch for speaking to the amendment on my behalf. We have discussed at length the form of the question. As my noble friend said, this matter needs to be rationalised into one question so that people understand completely what it is that they are being asked to vote for. They will be asked not only to vote for regional government or whether they want a regional assembly; they will be asked whether they want a regional assembly and the reorganisation of local government.

We tabled a different amendment on the last occasion in which we included the word "should", but the point remains the same; namely, that people should be very clear about what it is they are voting for. Therefore we believe that this amendment makes the matter much more rational.

I shall take up the points that have just been made. Perhaps we could consider those as well.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, we are not trying to hide the policy of introducing elected regional assemblies and single-tier local government. While I acknowledge the fears expressed by both noble Baronesses that people will not understand what is happening, given the debate and the information to be made available I am absolutely certain that they will.

The position has changed since these amendments were tabled. We have accepted Amendment No. 12 moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which means that there will be a second, separate question. So voters in a two-tier authority area will be well aware of the implications of voting for an elected assembly when they come to vote in a regional referendum. Furthermore, the Government have tabled Amendment No. 16, which we shall discuss in a later grouping. That amendment amends the preamble to the first question so that all voters will know that those in two-tier areas are being asked a separate question about their preferred option for a single tier of government in their area.

The preamble to the referendum question also alerts voters to the fact that, should an assembly be established, local government would be reorganised into a single tier in those areas that currently have both a county and a district council. I believe, therefore, that the amendment is unnecessary.

For the sake of completeness of the record I shall finish the point with regard to Amendment No. 15. The amendment would delete the second bullet point of the preamble to the referendum question. which informs the voter about the reorganisation of local government into a single tier in those areas that currently have both a county council and a district council, should an assembly be established.

As I have said, we have already accepted an amendment which means that now there will be a second question on local government reorganisation. I have repeated many times that we are firm on the proposal that one tier of local government will be removed. That is an integral part of the package. No attempt is being made to hide the policy. I do not know how many times we shall have to make it clear on the ballot paper that there is to be only one tier of local government. Now that the second question has been agreed, it will be made abundantly clear to all concerned.

The amendments are not necessary because they would simply repeat what will be set out in the first place.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, I should like to mention a point that has not been raised so far during the debate. Most of the people I know who live in two-tier areas will not want a unitary authority; they will want to keep two tiers. They will not want to choose from any of the three options and so they will vote "No" to them all. We could organise—indeed, I think we will do so—a write-in demanding to keep the status quo. What would happen if a write-in on ballot papers declaring the wish to retain the status quo exceeds the votes cast for any of the options? I do not think that people in two-tier areas such as Northumberland, Cheshire and Lancashire will vote for any of the options for unitary authorities. As we heard earlier, voters in those areas will want to retain the status quo. What will be the Government's view on such a result?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is a very hypothetical question to which I do not have the answer. To be frank, I just do not think that the electorate would operate in that way. If people do not want any of the proposed changes to the structure of local government, which would be directly connected to the choice as to whether they want a regional assembly—that is the most important point and will be uppermost in their minds—they will vote "No" to the referendum question.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, one issue arising from the second, preferential question, is that people may want to say no to that; they may not want a preference; they may say no to both preferences, or however many preferences there are; but say yes to a regional assembly. Will the regional assembly question be considered totally and utterly separately from the other questions? The idea that everyone will know that to vote yes to the assembly and no to the options will get them a regional assembly with their non-option—the option that they do not choose is—wrong.

Does the Minister really believe that voters in an area where there is a two-tier authority will know that those in an area with a single-tier authority will have a different ballot paper? That is just not the case. In the closest town to where I live in Cambridgeshire, there is sometimes an election for town councillors when the other parts of the district do not have one. People are completely unaware of that. They do not know about other people's ballot papers; they are simply given information about their ballot paper—pamphlets through the door and information from the political parties about what they are expected to do at their polling station. They will be unaware of the other complexities of the proposed vote.

Now that the Liberal Democrats have supported the Government in saying that there will be a referendum and reorganisation of local government allied to it, it is important for the Minister either now or at Third Reading to make clear what will happen if people vote differently: either for a regional assembly but no to those preferences or, as my noble friend suggested, for a regional assembly but writing on the ballot paper that they do not want their local government to be reorganised but prefer the status quo. Will that be a spoiled ballot paper?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I realise that Members of the House do not get a vote in general elections, but they get a vote elsewhere. So the noble Baroness will be familiar with a ballot paper. Generally speaking, words written on a ballot paper mean that the ballot paper is not even counted.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, they sometimes are. I gave an example of that—it occurred in Reading, I believe—during earlier consideration of the Bill. The members of the political parties get together with the returning officer. If they come to the view that they know what the person filling in the ballot paper meant and that is agreed between the parties, the vote is accepted. In the case of my example, that ended up in court, the courts found against the result of the ballot and it had to be rerun. So I am sorry, but sometimes when ballot papers have strange markings on them they can be considered by the parties involved.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that involved a ballot between people. I have been a counting agent as well as a Member of Parliament, so I know exactly what the process is. The returning officer will have a chart. One always thinks that one has covered every eventuality of what people could do to a ballot paper. There is a list, but someone always thinks of something new to do. People writing in—effectively discounting their vote, although I am not giving a legal view—are effectively abstaining on the second question. They will know the consequences of that, because it will be made abundantly clear to them that there is a choice of whether to use the second question: if people do not want to use it, that is their choice.

Baroness Blatch

Then, my Lords, I come to my last question. If they vote yes to a regional assembly but no to each of the preferences on the ballot paper, is that considered to be a vote for or against the regional assembly?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, for the individual concerned, there is one answer, but the total number of votes cast—the "Yes" votes and "No" votes to the first and second question—will determine the answer. There will be a majority. There is hardly likely to be a dead heat. I am not saying that that it is impossible; but I certainly hope that it does not happen—especially now, having said that. The majority view will prevail. We have made that clear.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that was not my question. My question is this: if they vote for a regional assembly but against each of the options, that is a non-choice. They cannot have a regional assembly with no reorganisation of local government, but that is how they could democratically vote, having been given two separate questions. If they vote for a regional assembly but against all the options for reorganising local government, how will their vote be counted?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am sorry, I misunderstood the noble Baroness's question. She is talking about the total result of all the votes counted.

Baroness Blatch

No, my Lords, I mean the votes of an individual.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I have already answered that question.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord has not answered that question. Is it a spoiled vote or is it a vote for a regional assembly with no change to local government, because that is what the vote means?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, if people cast a yes vote for the first question in the referendum, it makes you wonder why they would vote no for all the options on the second question, voting for a regional assembly while knowing the consequences are for single-tier authorities. There are two separate referendums, so there are two votes. There is not a vote against the local government options. In other words, there is a vote for or against having a regional assembly. If the options are all dismissed, that would count as a no by an individual. There may be people, by the way, who vote yes for more than one local government option. What is the answer to that?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is the Minister's job, not mine. I have just been corrected by my noble friend Lady Hanham. As I understand it, there will be two separate referendums.

Baroness Maddock

Yes, there will be two referendums.

Baroness Blatch

Thank you very much.

That is a very clever way of saying to the people, "You have a choice between the Government's terms and the Liberal Democrats' terms, but you have no choice about whether you would or would not like to have a regional assembly, with or without a reorganisation of local government".

I now understand that there will be two separate referendums so votes will be counted separately on the assembly question and the other one. The more I think about it, the more of a confidence trick it is. I hope that the Liberal Democrats will defend that in the regions. My goodness, the people there really need to know how the Liberal Democrats are preventing local people having a real choice of a regional assembly, with or without a wholesale change of their local government.

The Minister expects a great deal of the people. How does he think that doing it this way will make it easier or better for voters in an area? I noted his comments about my Amendment No. 15, and I will look at it again. I shall certainly take on board the point of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and will consider coming back on Third Reading. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 14: Page 2, line 28, insert— any regional assembly established will have no new powers and no new money, except for that which they raise by a precept from council tax payers in the region.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to put a new second bullet point in the preamble. It is straightforward, because it reflects the assurances which we have received time and time again from the Minister in Committee and previously at Second Reading. We have spent much time talking about the provision of information for voters and the need to make them fully aware of the functions and powers of regional assemblies and about the local government reorganisation which is part and parcel of the same package. This cannot all be left to the preamble, nor can it simply be posted in the polling station. We have heard about the information leaflets to be put through letter boxes to boost awareness in the campaigning weeks before a referendum. We support that as an essential element of the procedure of informing voters.

Amendment No. 14, however, is crucial for a number of reasons. It would state on the face on the Bill, in very few words, the text which must be inserted as a second point in the preamble and which reflects the fundamentals of the regional assemblies under consideration.

Leaflets through letterboxes more often than not get ignored. A draft Bill, which we discussed, if published before a referendum, although accessible to voters, may not be studied or noticed by them. We would like the preamble to state expressly that, as the Minister has told us many times, no new powers and no new money will be associated with regional assemblies. We did not know that for certain until we were assured of it a few weeks ago. Many of us were under the misapprehension that the assemblies might have new powers, although the misapprehensions were not very strong, because we kept on coming up against the same point that there would be no new powers. Voters may well think that they should vote "Yes" in a referendum, because it will mean that more funds will be diverted to their region.

I hesitate to mention the North East again, but there certainly is or has been a presumption there that the Barnett formula will be changed in the north of England's favour. It is very clear now that that is not what is being proposed. It would seem sensible, to say the least, if a referendum took place at any stage in that region, that people clearly understood—because it was laid out before them—that that was not an option. It is of the utmost importance that the reality should be made plain to every voter and set out clearly in the preamble.

Any additional funding will be possible only through precepting powers. Council tax payers would therefore bear the brunt, and they should know that before they vote "Yes" rather than hearing about it when they have made their choice. It might be helpful if the Bill pointed out that, where there are precepting powers, the 5p to which the Minister referred is not there for evermore. Voters in London were beguiled into believing that there was going to be a precept of 3p in the pound per week. They have been sadly disabused of that.

People believe that there is extra funding, and they should have it made clear that there is none. If it is not made clear, it may lead to resentment that they did not know what the facts were before they ticked the box. If people do not know the reality of what they are voting for, the validity of a vote in favour of a referendum is questionable. I beg to move.

Lord Monson

My Lords, although the amendment is excellent in principle and perhaps vital, I am again worried about the clarity and ambiguity of the wording for the voter. Nearly all of us understand the meaning of the word "precept", but it is realistic rather than patronising to suggest that barely half the electorate understand it. Would it not be an improvement and help the voter if the words "a precept" were deleted and "additional council tax" put in instead?

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am with the Conservatives with regard to clarity for the voter, but I am troubled by the precise wording of the amendment as a whole, not only the term "precept". I entirely agree with the noble Lord, but I would not have put the proportion who understand that term as high as half of council tax payers.

The phrase "no new powers" became a mantra at the last stage, but it was shorthand. The regional assemblies do not exist, other than as voluntary chambers associated with regional development agencies. There are no elected assemblies, so there is no such body that could have any powers.

Let us leave aside our arguments about how extensive the powers of the assemblies should be and simply consider what is said in the first bullet point, which relates to being, responsible for a range of activities". There will have to be powers to carry out those activities, or even to respond to central government's points about those activities. It would be extremely difficult to extend the powers of regional assemblies at a later stage, as we would like to see happen, if a referendum were undertaken on the basis that that could not happen, but one would have to read that into the proposals. I am concerned about precluding the possibility of tax raising or tax varying. I recognise that that issue may be even further in the distance, but I certainly would not like to rule it out.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the more we hear about the Lib/Lab version of what the Bill is about—we have not heard much which lifts the lid on a proper understanding of the Bill—the more it becomes a Trojan horse. If the Bill is passed in such a way that additional powers can be added, it really will become a Trojan horse.

The noble Baroness said that an assembly will be a completely new body and will need powers in order to carry out its functions. I have read and re-read the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice. An assembly will have powers to talk about matters—it may become an advisory body, an arm of government, a talking shop—but if it is to have real authority it will need powers to take action and to decide and determine matters. I have asked the Minister hut, as open and as honest as he is, he has not yet given an example of a free-standing power to determine matters.

These powers cannot come from local government—we are told that no powers will be removed from local government—and we have not been told of a single real power which will be delegated down from national government. The assemblies may have "an influence on" or "a part to play in", but the words used in the document do not smack of powers. It would be helpful, if nothing else, if the amendment elicits from the Government and their bed partners, the Liberal Democrats, what is envisaged for the assemblies.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the amendment is defective in one or two ways. First, it states that, any regional assembly established will have no new powers". However, if the Government believe in regional government, they should be giving many more powers to the regions. Those powers should not come from local government—I have made that clear on a number of occasions—but they could come from the quangos. It is disgraceful that in this country £50 billion of public money is being administered by people who are virtually unaccountable to the public at large and to people who pay their taxes.

If we are to have realistic regional government, which I do not believe in anyway, the powers of some of these quangos should be transferred down—preferably to local government but, if we are going to have regional government, to regional government.

The other issue that concerns me is that the amendment contains the words, except for that which they raise by a precept from council tax payers in the region". I do not believe that they should have precepting powers. Time and time again I have said that precepting is the most irresponsible way of raising money. It raises money from council tax payers without being accountable to them. That cannot be right. When the precept comes in, the people who will take the blame will not be the elected members of the assembly but the elected members of the local council. That cannot be right.

In my area, Berkshire and Reading, the Thames Valley Police Authority was set up under the Police Act 1964, much against my will. I wish that we could have the watch committees back again. The measure was supposed to improve policing throughout the whole of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. However, we now have policemen in Reading having to ask the general public the way to wherever they are going.

The reason I mention the Thames Valley Police Authority is that it has just increased its precept by 41 per cent. The people who will carry the can are the local authorities. That cannot be right. Therefore, I believe that if these regional authorities are to be realistic, and if the Government are serious about them, they have to have their own money raising powers. They must be responsible to the electorate for spending that money. Any other way, frankly, just lets them off the hook, and that is not good enough.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I would not have spoken had it not been for the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She seemed to say that she objected to the amendment as it would prevent the Government giving new powers to the regional assemblies. That is precisely what worries us. That is the justification for an amendment such as the one we are discussing. Are we really going to ask people to vote for regional assemblies when, at the drop of a hat, the Government could decide to delegate to them powers which at present are in the hands of local authorities? I certainly do not want to see that. If any justification for this amendment were needed, it is given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who showed that she had in her mind the idea that in due course there should be given to the regional assemblies powers which at present are in the hands of local authorities. That is a horrible prospect.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I know that we are on Report, although not many of us have acknowledged that, but I must make it perfectly clear—I hope that I made it clear at an earlier stage—that we on these Benches do not envisage, and would not support, regional assemblies taking powers up from local government. We have said throughout that they should take powers down from central government and exercise powers which, as the noble Lord has just said, are in the hands of quangos at the moment.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, the noble Baroness therefore agrees that she is unhappy with the amendment because new powers could be given to the regional assemblies which are not envisaged at the present time by the Minister. Is that right or is that wrong?

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I hope that that is right, frankly, because this is the most defective clause of the Bill so far. We certainly hope that any regional assembly that is established will have new powers. That is why we want to set them up. Otherwise, what is the point of setting them up? I cannot think of a more negative matter to be put on a referendum sheet for people to vote on than this blinking clause. Of course regional assemblies should have powers; that is why we want them.

As regards the regional assemblies having no new money, I know the Minister has said that no new money will be available but there is such a thing as economic growth. We hope that in 10, 20 or 30 years' time economic growth might have produced a few more bob. There may well be some way—or it may be important that there is a way—in which some of that economic growth can be used by that tier of government, if that is appropriate. Obviously, that should not be done if it is not appropriate.

I have reservations about precepting council tax payers as that muddies the distinction between local government and regional government. I would hope that the regional resource comprised money from a different source than the council tax payer. But if there is no other possibility, perhaps it is right that a regional authority—I shall give way to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, in a minute—should be able to precept as that would enable it to say that a matter was so important that it must have the resources o deal with it when that resource has not been granted by central government.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord is voting with the Government on many of the main parts of the Bill, including the power to precept. It is not good enough for the Liberal Democrats to say that they do not actually like the idea of precepting on local taxpayers, as in fact they are giving the Government succour in voting for exactly that.

9 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, there is all the reason in the world to have provision to do something. Whether one uses it is another matter based on whether there is subsequent cause. As I understand it, the Scottish Parliament has precepting powers on the taxpayers of Scotland. In its four years so far, it has decided not to use them. It has decided in its wisdom that it has the resources under the Barnett formula and everything else to cope with the governance of Scotland, and has chosen not to put extra money on taxation in Scotland.

I hope that the same will be the case so far as regional government is concerned. Even if it is not, I can see the point of having a backstop. If people want to raise money for their region that they think will be so valuable there, they ought to be able to say, "We have the power to do this. If we can't get something from central government, we shall have to use the backstop power".

Lord Rooker

My Lords, two or three weeks ago, open negotiations were going on in this Chamber between the two opposition parties. Quite clearly, that little love-in has come to an end.

I honestly have more faith in the electorate and what they know than some speakers tonight. It is true that not everyone takes an interest every day in the minutiae of tax and government. Perhaps after Wednesday they might take a bit more interest for a few days. That is not a leak—I do not know anything. People are interested in what they are interested in. When someone says, "Oh, it's too complicated. The people"—meaning those who are not as clever as us—"don't understand", I say, "Hang on—I can't fill in a football pools coupon or read a knitting pattern". There are millions out there who can, because they want to—because they are interested.

These days, thanks partly to the efforts of the Conservative government as a consequence of bringing in the poll tax, councils are forced to explain in a much more clear and identifiable way how the money is raised and where it is spent than they ever were in the past. Frankly, they get better at it every year in terms of what they send to the electorate. Most of it might not be read, but it is made available to the public—to the taxpayers. If they are interested, they will read it.

Most of the ignorance that I have found about such matters is from some of the clever-clog journalists in this place. I remember someone—I shall not name him, because that would be unfair—who wrote a long piece during the poll tax row about the fact that council tenants did not pay rates, and so did not understand it. That is a classic example of gross ignorance. Someone simply made an assumption that was, of course, utterly wrong. He thought that he knew better, and that those outside this place did not understand what was going on.

It is very nice to see an attempt to place my words in the Marshalled List. The last time I had an amendment stuck in a piece of legislation was 1977, and I am not looking to replay that. I am very flattered, because the point—no new powers, no new money—is finally being conceded in principle.

I freely admit that I have deliberately sought not to overplay the role of the regional assemblies. No one can accuse me of overplaying that. On the other hand, it would be quite unfair if it were thought that I were downplaying their role. It is not as though they will not have any powers. They will take powers from central government, its agencies and quangos, and will have responsibilities in some key areas, such as housing, jobs, planning and transport. Elected assemblies will bring decision-making under closer democratic control and offer the regions a distinct political voice. That is a very important aspect of the package.

It is true that, compared with regions without elected assemblies, assemblies will not receive any additional money other than what we have outlined— that is, small help with the initial set-up and running costs and in relation to the precepting power. However, they will be responsible for significant budgets and have influence over the expenditure of a range of public bodies in the region. Additionally, the elected assembly will have flexibility in how to spend that money—enabling it to change priorities, to address the priorities that it thinks are greater and to bring democratic control over the allocation of that money. So while it is true that there will be "no new money, no new powers", it is untrue that there will be "no money, no powers". As I said, the assemblies will not be service delivery agencies.

The preamble which sets out the responsibilities of the assembly is more informative than Amendment No. 14. As I have repeatedly said, before any referendum, the Government will issue a statement setting out our proposals for elected regional assemblies. I am not able to give the details of the contents of that statement, but as I have repeatedly said, people will not go into the polling booth without knowing what they are voting for and, more to the point, the consequences of what they are voting for.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister will oblige the Liberal Democrats by incorporating in an amendment at Third Reading a clear statement that there will be no question of the delegation of powers to regional assemblies from local authorities. As the Liberal Democrats have said that that is their policy, perhaps—if the Minister would be kind enough to table an amendment to that effect—they will for once follow their opinions with their votes.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, this is where we part company with our colleagues. As I have also made clear, we have no plans to take statutory powers from local authorities and to give them to the regional assemblies. That is the Government's policy. That is the position. We do not need to include that in the Bill because it is something that we do not intend to do. We have made it clear that we are not taking powers from local authorities and giving them to the regional assemblies. We have already had debates about that and I am happy for the opportunity to make it even more abundantly clear.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, absolutely nothing in the Bill prevents that. Those powers could come from anywhere. The Minister said, "No new powers", but the Government have been equivocal about it. They said, "We said no new powers, but of course they will have powers to do X and Y". The Liberal Democrats have said that they want new powers. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, wants to give them lots more new powers. As my noble friend Lord Waddington said, the Government seem to agree absolutely that no powers whatever will be taken from local government and given to the regional assemblies. The Liberal Democrats seem to agree with that. If that is so, point me to the part of the Bill that prevents the regional assemblies assuming local authority powers. In fact, the noble Lord has already mentioned one such power—housing.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, none of the statutory housing powers held by local authorities will go to the regional assemblies. I have already made that clear. There is no authority to do it. It is government policy that that will not happen. The point is that the assembly cannot take the powers. The assembly will not have the statutory authority to take powers from local government. As has been made quite clear in the legal definitions affecting these bodies, local authorities' statutory powers belong to local government.

Basically those statutory powers cannot be removed from local government unless this House and another place agree to remove them. That is the point. The elected regional assemblies will have no power of their own to take powers from local government. I cannot spell it out any clearer than that. The Government have no policy to change that. Let there be no doubt about that, either in local government or in this House, between the various parties. The statutory powers of local government will remain with local government—and I hope that that note does not say the opposite.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am sorry to ask the Minister to give way again, but he must surely understand our concern about this matter. Certain powers have already been taken away from local government and given to the regions; namely, planning powers. Surely the Minister can understand how much happier we should be—the Bill contains various provisions allowing, for instance, for statements on the ballot paper as to what will happen if people vote "Yes"—if he could be a little more forthcoming and say that in some way or other the Government will state plainly that there will be no more transfer of powers from local authorities to the regions such as the Government have already carried out in the case of planning. We are surely entitled to that.

Lord Rooker

Yes, my Lords, but I have answered this point at least three times. The changes in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill before another place have nothing whatever to do with elected regional assemblies. Those changes will take place if this Bill disappears tomorrow and is not brought back. It is not a consequence of this Bill. This Bill relates to regional referendums; it is not about the powers of the regional assemblies. There will be another Bill for that.

Planning is a fair example to raise, but the context is totally wrong. The question has been raised of assemblies taking powers from local government. That cannot happen; they have no power to do so. It is not our intention that local government will lose statutory powers. It can lose statutory powers only as a result of an Act of Parliament. In a way, the planning Bill is a good example, but it is not dependent on this Bill. The planning Bill stands on its own. If this Bill completes its passage and there is a "No" vote in a regional referendum—so that there is no new main Bill—the planning Bill changes will still take place. They have nothing whatever to do with this Bill.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, that will not wash. What the Minister is really saying is that, as a result of the transference of powers through the planning Bill, if this Bill completes its passage, the regional assemblies will actually have control of planning.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, the point is that it has nothing to do with elected regional assemblies. One assumes that if one or two regions hold a referendum we shall be in a position, implicit in the Bill, where some regions may have an elected regional assembly and others will be without an assembly, so there will be differences in that respect; but planning powers will go to the assembly, elected or unelected. It has nothing to do with the Bill. If this Bill were not before Parliament the powers would still be transferred.

That is true in some respects; where there is an unelected element, in relation to some of the decisions that would normally come across Ministers' desks—many Members on the Benches opposite have been Ministers and know some of the minutiae that come before them—Ministers would still be accountable to Parliament, and rightly so. Ministers would still have to agree those decisions. But the planning Bill has nothing to do with this Bill. Under the planning Bill, the powers will change, in the modest way proposed in that Bill, whether or not there is an elected regional assembly. So it is not a fair example to use—and there is not another one.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, will the Minister give way? He makes much of the fact that there is a particular intention in the Government's mind. If he casts his mind back to our first day in Committee, he will recall an argument between myself and his noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting about the word "directly" in the phrase "directly elected regional assemblies". I quoted the Prime Minister's introduction to the White Paper to him. I could have turned the page and quoted the Deputy Prime Minister's foreword. Both referred to "directly elected regional assemblies". In responding, his noble friend Lord Evans said: Things have moved on since the Prime Minister made his introduction".—[Official Report, 13/3/03; col. 1493] If we cannot trust the Prime Minister's word in the introduction to the White Paper, why should we trust anything else in the White Paper as being cast in stone?

9.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, that is a red herring. As was made clear at the time, nowhere in our law does the term "directly elected" figure. That was the answer. The argument was whether members were directly elected or additional members. It was nothing whatever to do with the point just made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, fortunately the Minister has recognised his own Rookerism, in that his words have been quoted back to him in full; that is, Any regional assembly … will have no new powers and no new money". I remember the Minister saying that very firmly and very strongly on at least four occasions in Committee. Of course, he tried to explain it, but clearly he has not explained it so well that we can put the possibility out of our minds.

However, we cannot have it two ways. The White Paper says that there will be no new powers—we accept that that is precisely right—and no new money. I accept, as the Minister says, that regional assemblies may be able to generate money from within their budgets, but, as it stands, there is no new money. The status quo will remain. The Minister may now be wishing that the Bill had been in draft form before we started on this. It would have saved him an awful lot of time and hassle.

However, that did not happen, so we are still picking away at what people who are going to vote are likely to ask. Before they vote they will want to know what on earth these regional assemblies are going to do and where on earth the money will come from in order to do it. To have that on the face of the Bill would be realistic. Certainly, it would be the Rookerism that I expected to see there.

Indeed, we now have another Rookerism—that statutory powers of local government will stay with local government. Perhaps that can be put down, please, in as bold a type as we have got, that we, will have no new powers and no new money", because that now needs not to change either. It has been very firmly stated that local government will carry on doing exactly what it is doing.

Presumably, that is local government as reorganised. It is not local government as it is now because that would not make sense. The functions and powers of local government will have to be reorganised. We do not know how that is being done and we have not had any information on that at all—although I think that the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, would ensure that there was information about that as well. I think that we must hope that that is what will count.

It is abundantly clear from listening to their aspirations that the Liberal Democrats, in particular, do not accept that there will be no new powers from anywhere. That is what the Minister said, but the Liberal Democrats do not accept that. Not only have they caused us today to have a great raft of amendments which are now on the table but unsupported, but they also have a completely skewed idea of what regional assemblies will be about. All their arguments today seem to have been made under a completely false flag.

I think that these are some of—

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Does she understand and accept that we take a degree of comfort from the Written Answer given to her noble friend Lord Caithness as far as additional powers are concerned?

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, you may indeed. But those powers will have to come from somewhere if, indeed, they come. However, that is not exactly what is said in these words. I still believe that those words are prophetic; that they should be there; and that they give an outline to the whole of the proposals that are before us on whether a referendum is held on regional assemblies. Whether a referendum is successful on regional assemblies will depend, to a large extent, on what people understand those regional assemblies are going to do. As we have said, the Minister is always straightforward. I am prepared to accept what he says—that there will be no new powers and no new money. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 15 not moved.]

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 16: Page 2, leave out lines 31 and 32 and insert "Voters in those parts of the region are being asked a separate question about their preferred option for a single tier in their area.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, having accepted the amendment in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, providing for a second referendum question, there are certain changes that we need to make to the Bill. First, we need to provide that both questions appear on the face of the Bill and that the text of the questions and preambles reflects the new reality that, in some parts of a region, voters will be faced with two questions. Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 do that.

The questions are, of course, inter-linked. It is important that voters understand that and, in voting for or against a regional assembly, or for a particular form of unitary local government, that they know the implications of voting in the way they do.

Amendment No. 16 changes the preamble to the first question on regional assemblies. It makes it clear, in particular, to voters in areas that already have unitary local government, that voters in other parts of the region are being asked a separate question about local government structure. It also makes it clear to those in two-tier areas that there is a second question.

Amendment No. 17 provides for that second question. It cannot do so in detail, as the options on which people will be asked to vote cannot be known until after the Boundary Committee has completed a local government review of the region. But it does provide for the form of the question—quite simply, that voters should be asked which of a number of options they prefer. It also provides a preamble which makes it clear that voters' choice of unitary structure will matter only if there is a "Yes" vote on the first question; and that if, following the referendum, no regional assembly is established, there will be no reorganisation of local government.

If those amendments are accepted by the House tonight, we shall write formally to the Electoral Commission about the questions and preambles. We shall listen carefully to their views and to the views expressed in the House tonight and, if necessary, we shall come forward with amendments at Third Reading to ensure that the questions for regional and local government referendums held under these provisions are clear and intelligible.

As I have already said, what we cannot do on the face of the Bill is to set out in detail the options with which voters will be faced in the second question. Amendment No. 17 therefore provides the Secretary of State with an order-making power, so that the detailed text of the options can be approved by Parliament before the referendum. It is highly likely, depending on the complexity of the reorganisation options, that we shall want—indeed, shall need—to make available to voters at the time that they vote a certain amount of supporting material so that they can make sense of the options they are voting on. That is not material on the conduct of the referendum, which will be provided for separately. Instead, we are talking about material relating to unitary options that we might need to make available to voters along with their postal ballots and at polling stations; for example, maps showing the various options.

So the orders that we lay before Parliament will contain the text which will appear on the ballot paper and will detail the supporting material that will be available. Before laying such orders, we shall consult the Electoral Commission about its views on the intelligibility of the options to be inserted in the question and on the supporting material. We shall let Parliament know the views of the commission at the same time as we lay the order. These amendments are essential to the second referendum question. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the Minister has just said that the Electoral Commission will be given the question and the preambles in order to decide whether they are sufficiently clear for a voter to understand. He also said that the supporting material would be submitted. If the supporting material is in such an advanced state, would it be possible for noble Lords to see it before Third Reading, or before the Bill completes its passage through Parliament? If what we hear is right, that there is likely to be an announcement about the soundings and about the first, second or even third parts of the country that are likely to have a referendum on the basis of the evidence so far, that must mean that the supporting material is in a lit state to be seen. Can we see some copies of that?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am sorry; there is a misunderstanding. I am trying to speed up, but I had to stick to the wording on this point so there was no deviation.

There are two references to consulting the Electoral Commission at different times. The second reference about consulting the commission on supporting material would apply only before we laid the order. We would have more information at that point. We are not holding anything back from the House at present. The first contact with the commission—writing to it formally subject to the progress of the Bill—relates to the questions in the preamble. It is different from consulting the commission on the intelligibility of the options to be inserted. We cannot consult the commission on that until we are ready to lay the order, which is a considerable time away. The two references to talking to the Electoral Commission involve contact separated by around 12 months.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that clarifies the matter. It makes clear that there are two separate exercises. The noble Lord also said that people would be aware of the link between the two questions, but they are two separate referenda. They are not linked in that sense. There will not be two questions on a ballot paper or in a single exercise. In what way can people he expected to understand that their vote in the second referendum has a link with the vote in the first?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, through the information that they will receive. The exercises will be carried out at the same time. The confusion is probably my fault. The noble Baroness, when she asked the question originally, seemed to imply that the ballot paper would contain the two questions. She asked about voting "Yes" in the referendum and "No" to three options, say, as though that would be counted en bloc as being part of one ballot paper. If that happened, we would get a load of ballot papers containing one "Yes" and three "No" votes. That is not the issue. There would be separate counts for the first and second questions. The linkage breaks because the votes are counted separately. I thought that that was the obvious approach. Having listened to how the noble Baroness asked the question, it is conceivable that one could have a series of ballot papers containing the two issues en bloc. It will not be done in that way. The votes will be counted separately.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, without going into the merits of Amendment No. 17, surely the wording is plain wrong. The last paragraph of subsection (2B) states: There will be no reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established. 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"— The next words should not be will be reorganised into a single tier but should be reorganised into a single tier if there were to be an elected assembly". Clearly, that must follow.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am sorry, but from what paragraph is the noble Lord quoting?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I quote from subsection (2B) of Amendment No. 17. We are talking about what should happen if there is a vote in favour of a regional assembly. It must be wrong to say in the last paragraph of subsection (2B): There will be no reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established. Your part of the region currently has both county and district councils". if the amendment then continues: You can help to decide how local authorities in your part of the region will be reorganised into a single tier". The provision reads as if the die is cast. The Government mean to say, "You can help to decide how local authorities in your part of the region should be reorganised into a single tier were there to be an elected assembly".

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall take advice on that. Although the sentence, There will be no reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established", would stand on its own at the top of page 2, as printed on the Marshalled List it is part of a paragraph.

Clearly, it is important that people know that if there is a "No" vote in the referendum—what I shall call question 1—there will be no local government reorganisation. I made that absolutely clear. This is not a Trojan horse to get local government reorganisation.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, in that case, it should read "should".

Lord Rooker

My Lords, irrespective of what it should read, I shall take advice on the matter. It may be that that sentence should be placed elsewhere. It would probably be better if that sentence were at the end of subsection (2B), standing on its own, rather than mixed up between the first paragraph and the second. It forms part of a paragraph.

The sentence stands on its own, and we make that clear. We must go to the Electoral Commission to consider the intelligibility of the wording and have it checked. That is the point that I make. The wording will not be rammed through. The commission has had no opportunity to be consulted.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am happy for the noble Lord to take the amendment away and examine the grammar.

Lord Rooker

Yes, of course.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 17: Page 2, line at end insert (2A) The question to be asked in a referendum in pursuance of section (Local government referendums)(2) is: Which of the following options for single tier local government do you prefer? insert text of options set out in the order requiring the referendum to be held. (2B) The following statement (in as nearly as may be the following form) must precede the question on the ballot paper used in any part of the region where a referendum is held in pursuance of an order under section (Local government referendums) (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. There will be no reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established. 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. (2C) An order under section (Local government referendums)(2) must set out—

  1. (a) the text of the options to be inserted in the question specified in subsection (2A);
  2. (b) such explanatory material relating to the options as will be made available for voters at the time they vote.
(2D) Before an order under section (Local government referendums) (2) is laid before Parliament in pursuance of section 27(2) the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission—
  1. (a) on the wording of the text required to be inserted in pursuance of subsection (2A);
  2. (b) on the explanatory material.
(2E) 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—
  1. (a) the intelligibility of the text mentioned in subsection (2D);
  2. (b) the explanatory material.
(2F) Explanatory material does not include instructions to voters as to the conduct of the referendum.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 3 [Entitlement to vote]:

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 18: Page 2, line 36, at end insert— (1A) A person is entitled to vote in a referendum held in a county area of a region in pursuance of an order under section (Local government referendums) (2) if on the date of the referendum he is entitled to vote at the election of councillors for any electoral area in the county area.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 18, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 19 and 20. The amendments are essential to give full effect to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to which the House has already agreed. Amendments Nos. 18, 19 and 20 define the voting franchise for the second question, the question about which option for unitary local government is preferred, should an assembly be established.

Amendment No. 18 provides that only those entitled to vote in local government elections in the county area concerned will be able to vote on the second question. So, those living in the existing unitary areas will not be able to vote on the second question.

Amendment No. 20 provides that the phrase "county area", for the purpose of Clause 3 and the voting franchise, has the same meaning as set out in the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. In the main, a county area will be the existing area of a county council, which, of course, has both district councils and a county council. Subsection (4) recognises that some of the proposed options for single-tier authorities may mean reorganisation across county council boundaries. In such a case, for the purposes of this Bill, all county areas affected may be combined into a single county area. Voters in the combined area will vote in a common referendum on the local government structure of the combined county areas.

If the Government's proposals for local government reorganisation include an option that spans county boundaries, the county area is the combined area of each of those county areas. So, voters in the combined area will vote in a common referendum on the local government structure of the combined county areas.

Amendment No. 19 is consequential on Amendment No. 18, so that subsections (2) and (3) of Clause 3 apply to regional referendums and local government referendums. Subsection (2) enables provision to be made by the Secretary of State in regulations for disregarding alterations made after a specified date in a register of electors.

I know from previous debates that many of your Lordships agree that only those living in the areas that should be affected by local government reorganisation should be able to vote on the matter. I hope that your Lordships will see the need for the amendments. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, as the amendments relate to the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, I am astonished that she has not risen to speak. As regards the question of whether those who live in the county and districts should be those entitled to vote in the election, I remain of the same view. We are in a difficult area, but, if we must carry on with this farce, I support the proposal that the only people who should be able to vote are council electors.

The concern that the county and district areas will be overwhelmed by the metropolitan areas relates to the first question, not the second. The question is whether a regional government could be forced on those in county and rural areas by the metropolitan areas, as a result of a vote on the referendum. The second question, drummed up by the Liberal Democrats, does not solve their problem, which they dealt with in Committee. It may respond to the Government's, but it does not respond to theirs. That is one of the reasons why I was very surprised to see the amendments that had been put forward. Those are my observations if we have to go ahead with this charade. I do not think I can add any more.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Baroness. For people living in Berwick-upon-Tweed, as I do, if under the original system there had been a vote in a regional referendum, then all the people in the unitaries would have voted, and they would not have cared two hoots what reorganisation of government we had had in our area. Now, the people in Berwick-on-Tweed may have two or three options upon which they can personally vote in their area. Nobody in Newcastle is telling them that that is the sort of reorganisation that they have to have in local government.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, for explaining that rather more clearly than I could have done.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendments Nos. 19 and 20: Page 2, line 37, leave out "subsection (1) is" and insert "subsections (1) and (1A) are Page 3, line 3, at end insert— ( ) County area must be construed in accordance with section (Local government referendums).

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 5 [Referendums: frequency]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 21: Page 3, line 9, leave out "This section" and insert "Subsection (2)

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this group of amendments relate to the question of what happens in the event of a successful legal challenge to a local government referendum. Amendments Nos. 21 and 23 relate to Clause 5. Amendment 23 provides that if there were to be a successful challenge about the result of a local government referendum, then the Secretary of State would be able to order a repeat local government referendum to be held. However, a repeat regional referendum would not necessarily have to be held at the same time.

For example, it is possible to envisage a situation where the local government referendum in one county area is successfully challenged—but the overall results of the regional referendum is not in doubt because there is a majority in favour. However, the amendment would not allow a repeat regional referendum without local government referendums at the same time. That is because we believe that if there is a doubt about the outcome of what I will call referendum one, the key referendum, held across the whole region, there must also be doubt about the results of the local government referendums in parts of that region.

Subsections (3B), (3C), and (3F) of Amendment No. 23 ensure that the proposals set out in the Bill regarding local government referendums would apply to any such repeat referendums. Subsection (3D), however, only requires the Electoral Commission to comment on the intelligibility of the referendum question, or on the explanatory material provided for voters if they are different from the versions it commented on when the order for the original referendum was made. Subsection (3E) enables the order for a repeat local government referendum to be varied or revoked if the Secretary of State thinks that it is not appropriate for the referendum to be held on the date specified in the order.

Amendment No. 21 is consequential on Amendment No. 23. Amendments Nos. 38 and 40 relate to Clause 10. Together they ensure that the existing Clause 10 provisions also apply to local government referendums. I urge noble Lords to support these important and necessary amendments. They are absolutely fundamental to the changes that have taken place in the Bill. Having moved Amendment No. 21, I will move the other amendments in their appropriate places.

I am trying to save time and not repeat myself. I also want to enable a better understanding of this group of amendments. The implication of what I have said is that issues can be challenged in court. In our debate on Clause 10, the ouster clause, a view was taken that that might not be possible—although I said that it was up to the courts. There is no doubt that this is a complex legal area. We do not believe that the courts will remove themselves from examining serious challenges, but it is true that Clause 10 looks like a blanket ban, as we discussed in Committee. We shall therefore come hack at Third Reading with an amendment relating not only to fraud, the subject of our debate in Committee, but to the type of legal challenges that can be made and the type of court which will have jurisdiction and/or a time limit for bringing proceedings.

Given the wider changes that the House has agreed today, it is important to make that point about Clause 10, although we have not yet reached it, on the basis of my comments on other amendments and on court challenges. At Third Reading, I shall put forward a government amendment to Clause 10. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I wish no disrespect to the Minister, but what he read and said in his extemporaneous comments is about as clear as mud. I spent a good deal of the weekend looking over this set of amendments and I intend to send it to the Plain English Campaign. I have never read such legal gobbledegook in my life.

I shall quote from just one paragraph. Subsection (3A) states: If an order is made under subsection (3B) any reference in this Act to a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section (Local government referendums) (2) or to the order must be construed as a reference to a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (3B) or to the order under that subsection (as the case may be). I do not know what that means. I read it, re-read it and applied it to the Bill. I am afraid that I did not understand it.

If the Minister is still telling me that the words on the page in Clause 10 state: No court shall entertain any proceedings", I take it literally that no court shall entertain any proceedings for those purposes. Therefore, when the Minister tables these amendments and says that they invalidate our understanding of Clause 10 and that the courts will be able to entertain proceedings of some or all complaints, I need a better explanation than the one he has just given.

The Minister spoke of challenges to the local government elections, but there may also be challenges to the assembly elections. It is not inconceivable that there is a challenge to the part of the referendum relating to soundings or the regional assembly elections. Given that we arc told by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, that there are two separate referendums in order to establish answers to the two different questions—albeit that they may take place on the same day—it is possible that either or both will be challenged. They may be challenged in a particular electoral area, or throughout the whole regional area, or co-operatively or separately, but that there may he a challenge is beyond doubt. To date, there have been challenges in local and national government and European elections.

I do not understand what is proposed in the Marshalled List, nor do I understand what the Minister said in his explanation. We are fortunate in having Explanatory Notes to the Bill, but we are unfortunate in having no explanatory notes of these amendments. As regards their knock-on effect to Clause 10, I really do not understand that.

9.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, perhaps I may intervene on that point. There appears to be a fundamental misunderstanding here. Clause 10, the ouster clause, which has appeared in all the other Bills, applies only to referendums. It has nothing to do with the elections of people. The noble Baroness referred to assembly elections, which concern people being elected. First, tinder election law, there is a normal process for any challenge to election proceedings. Secondly, a separate Bill will come to the House. Thus for the noble Baroness to join up her fair argument and dispute over the ouster clause with the assembly elections has got to be a non starter. The ouster clause is unique to referendums for the reasons I have already explained and the reasons set out by other Ministers when the other Bills were debated.

Results from referendums bring up certain consequences; namely, the setting up of new bodies, the introduction of legislation and so forth. So there is no connection whatever between Clause 10, the ouster clause, and what might happen in the elections to the assembly. This is unique to referendums.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it was the noble Lord who introduced the connection between the amendments and Clause 10, not I. I did not understand what the noble Lord was saying. I have read Clause 10 a number of times and it certainly does say that: No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot papers … in a referendum". However, when the noble Lord left his briefing notes behind and began to extemporise, he made a read-across to Clause 10. I wondered what on earth that meant.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I am sorry, but I did not do that. I said that Amendments Nos. 38 and 40 relate to Clause 10. Together they ensure that the existing provisions in Clause 10 also apply to local government referendums. We have to ensure that the ouster clause covers the referendums; namely, the second question to be put covering the nature of the choice of the form of local government. That is the point I sought to make.

I was trying to be helpful. I indicated that, having looked at Clause 10 to ensure its clarity, we are looking to bring forward further clarification at Third Reading. As I have said, I was seeking to be helpful and to meet the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness. By the way, it will be much better when the Bill has been reprinted, incorporating the amendments.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I am sure that a further amendment at Third Reading will be helpful. I must say that I should like to have the opportunity of buying tickets for the forthcoming sparring match between the Minister and the parliamentary draftsman, who no doubt will say that we cannot change wording that we have used before because it has established meanings and so forth. Nevertheless, it will be helpful to have further clarification.

As I understand the position, it is not possible to oust the court's jurisdiction entirely. At the previous stage we referred to fraud, bad faith, the requirements of natural justice and so forth. No doubt we shall come back to the matter, but I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will do what he can to clarify these points.

It is important that the wording in the Bill is as clear as possible. I did not have quite as much difficulty with Amendment No. 23 as appears to have been the case for the noble Baroness—perhaps I did not read it often enough—but that may simply reflect a lifetime of bad drafting on my part.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I am glad that I am not the only one who found it difficult to understand these amendments. While the Minister clarified some of my concerns in the course of his remarks, obviously one must then read them in the written word, and I know that we shall return to the matter at Third Reading. I look forward also to seeing at that stage the further clarificatory amendments.

Can the Minister clarify a point for me with regard to new subsections (3B) and (3E) in Amendment No. 23? Under the terms of subsection (3B) the Secretary of State may make another order and set a date for a further referendum, while under the provisions of subsection (3E), he could wake up the next day and say, "I did not like that date very much. I shall change it". First, under what circumstances can he change the date, and who does he have to account to for such a change? Secondly, would the Minister refresh my memory on the time-scale between making an order and the date of the referendum? What period are we looking at for the Deputy Prime Minister to change his mind under the terms of subsection (3B)?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall have to take advice on that. As I understand it, 10 to 12 weeks is the period of the referendum campaign—the campaign to the start of the poll—but I shall have to take advice on that.

There would have to be good reason for changing a date that had been specified in an order. That might be if there was a parliamentary by-election in an area and it was thought to be inappropriate to mix the two together, or that it was appropriate to arrange the two elections so that people did not have to go to the polls on two consecutive weeks. Such things may occur outwith the normal processes. A good reason would have to be given for such a change of date, but that flexibility for convenience exists in current legislation for other elections.

In connection with another Bill, we are changing the date for next year's local government elections so that they coincide with the European parliamentary elections—just for convenience, so that the public are not asked to vote twice in a month but can vote for both on the same day.

However, I think that the period between the order and the referendum was fairly lengthy—from memory, from debate in Committee, I think that it is about 10 weeks. While I am on my feet—I should like to go home soon—I should like confirmation that the noble Earl has received the Parliamentary Answer that I said that we would not adjourn without; I shall not adjourn the House until he receives it.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may respond to the Minister: no, I have not yet received the Answer, but he has my permission to adjourn the House if he so wishes, provided that I receive it first thing tomorrow morning.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Baroness Match moved Amendment No. 22: Page 3, line 15, leave out "five" and insert "ten

The noble Baroness said: My noble friend Lord Hanningfield was to move Amendment No. 22, but has gone away poorly this evening, so I stand in for him. We discussed the issue in Committee and feel strongly about it. We know that if a referendum takes place and is lost, but only marginally, it will be tempting for the Government to want to rerun the exercise. We also know the laborious nature of the exercise which, as the noble Lord has told us several times—and we take him at his word—will take a long time. The soundings exercise takes quite a time, followed by the Boundary Committee exercise, which takes even longer, and there is then the production of all the materials.

The Boundary Committee exercise cannot simply be rerun as it was the first time around; it will be an entirely separate exercise and so must all be done again. If a referendum can be held five years to the day after the first referendum, activity to enable the second referendum might need to begin about two years after the first one.

Earlier, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke about the uncertainty and real anxiety felt by employees of local authorities—district and county councils—during such exercises especially when, as now, there will be two or three options. Every conceivable permutation of whether the counties or districts go, whether some districts are merged or some county councils are merged with districts, must be covered. Whatever may be the configuration for local government reorganisation, at least leading up to the first referendum, that will provide about two and a half years of uncertainty.

We already know that nerves are jangling in the North East at the thought that the Secretary of State may name it as the first area. We know, too, that people who are thinking of applying for posts there are wary of doing so until they know exactly what will happen. Once that call has been made and the referendum is set in train, there is a period of about two and a half years of serious tension while all the work is carried out. At the end of that period is a referendum, which may be lost, and that is the point of my amendment.

If, at the end of that time, the referendum is lost, whether by a small margin or a reasonably healthy majority, it is still possible for a future Secretary of State, or even the same one, to say that he would like to start the exercise again. To allow for a referendum to take place within five years of the first date, there would be a respite of no more than two to two and a half years before the whole thing started again. I really believe that is unhealthy and would like to think that even the Liberal Democrats would agree. An area could have gone through the nervous tension this exercise entails, only to vote "No", and could then find that it was being revisited. After all, the Government have specified five years for a reason—it allows for a revisitation within a very short time of the referendum being determined. I believe it would be almost immoral to do that to any region of our country. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I support the amendment. It is one of the most important on the Marshalled List. I do so not with any detailed knowledge of the sharp end of local government reorganisation. However, having listened in Committee to those who are actively involved in local government and have been through the process of reform, I have been convinced that, as my noble friend Lady Blatch has said, there is a long period of anxiety and concern when the local government focus is not on providing services for local people but on fighting one's corner to protect one's job, or other people's jobs, and not concentrating on the main issues.

We discussed this at length in Committee. There was some dispute as to whether it was the making of the order or the referendums. What is clear now is that it is five years between referendums. Therefore, one has only a short period of stability of, say, two to three years maximum, before a further referendum can be called by the laying of an order. I believe that to be too short a period. I am sad that the noble Baroness. Lady Scott, is not in her place on the Liberal Benches. She spoke about the concerns on this matter, as did my noble friend Lord Hanningfield. I hope that the Minister, who I thought had some sympathy with our point in Committee, would have given this further thought by now. We need to return to this on Third Reading if we do not deal with it now.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I support my noble friend Lady Blatch and my noble friend Lord Caithness, but with a further dimension. It was always said in terms of unspoken contracts in particular areas of employment that, until the 1970s, if you were a hanker, because you were absolutely confident you would keep your job until you retired, you were prepared to settle for a more modest salary than might have been the case in more risky employment. It sounds as though the proposition before us, to which my noble friends have spoken, carries a different consequence. I am not arguing that local government officers are better paid or less well paid than anyone else, but the one certain thing, as sure as God made little apples, is that if a high degree of uncertainty is introduced into their career pattern, it is likely that, in order for people to work in those jobs, the salaries demanded will rise.

10 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I, too, support the amendment. There is no question that five years is much too short a time. What concerns me is that governments, whether of this country or of Denmark or the Republic of' Ireland, for example, never want to take no for an answer. If the people vote "No" and the government want them to vote "Yes", the government say, "We'll keep on having referendums until you do as we want". That is the problem with this provision in the Bill.

There is no provision for people, once they have said "Yes", to go back and say "No". There is provision only for people to say "Yes". Five years is far too short a period between referendums to enable people to understand what is happening. I also believe that people sometimes vote for things on the basis of what they are told, and on propaganda, which may not always be true. They trust other people, particularly governments—they tend to trust governments. When governments say, "Regional government is good for you", they tend to agree and vote "Yes". But when they have the experience and see how the regional authority is working and that more money is being taken from them, that the salaries of the new regional representatives are higher than they believed they would be and that there has been absolutely no benefit and perhaps much deficit from the new regional authorities, they may want to go back. But there is no provision for that in the Bill, which is why I support the amendment.

I do not know whether the amendment will go through tonight. If it is not, perhaps it could be brought back at Third Reading.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, in my experience, the greatest stress for staff in local government in the past several years has come not so much from uncertainty about structural change, except for the executive scrutiny split—it has always concerned me that that has a knock-on effect on how officers feel about their powers—but principally from the loss of powers to local government over many years. Changes occur all the time.

I share the concerns expressed about the effect on staff. However, I do not suppose that the Government would want the grief of going for a second order if they believe that they will lose again. I am sure that the Minister could address that point more forcefully and clearly than I have done. Things may happen during a short period of time. One region may see that there are benefits in a nearby region. One has to bear that in mind. Also, if the possible boundary changes that we have discussed come on offer, that could make a considerable difference to how voters in a region regard the proposition.

I hope that the Minister can respond on those issues. The points that noble Lords have raised are genuine enough, although when we started today's debate I made the point that we approach questions from a different perspective from that of our colleagues on the Conservative Benches.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, I want to address the employment aspect of the amendment. The loss of powers to local government, while significant, is a perennial worry that concerns everyone, whether a member or an officer, in local government. Whatever the realities of the situation, the fact is that local government's independence and authority have been constantly eroded for a very long time. That is a matter of immense regret. If one could see a reversal of that trend it would be a very good thing. We are dealing here with the possibility of change. If the change does not happen, let us say next year, the process can he revived again within five years.

My experience goes back to 1967 when a Royal Commission on the structure of local government was established. From that moment on, a dedicated team of the best intellectual brains in the local authority with which I was concerned—Essex County Council—worked to provide evidence to the Royal Commission to maintain the status quo. The process took 18 months or two years. The Royal Commission then produced its report, the consequences of which were recommendations for drastically radical change. My noble friend Lord Brooke may well remember that period. The proposals for change in 1972 were implemented in 1973. The whole process took five years and, throughout that time, there was foment wherever there was two-tier county and district local government.

We are now proposing to introduce a state of permanent foment unless the electorate succumb at the first bite. It will not be good for the provision of services to the public if the best intellectual strengths of any local authority are not certain of what they are doing. Instead of devoting their efforts to improving the services that they are properly required to provide to the people of the area they serve, they will be looking over their shoulder and either trying to defend their position or to see how they can improve their position in the event of change. It does not matter which way round it is, this uncertainty will detract from the provision of services to the public that the authorities are established to provide. That is a significant aspect of the Bill.

With a five year rotation, as the Bill presently proposes, people will suffer most in those swathes of the country—the shire areas—where there are county and district councils. Their services will not improve in the way that they would improve if that distraction were not there. I cannot support the five-year proposal. A ten-year proposal is better, but I would prefer an even longer interval.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, my noble friend behind me has reminded me of another sequence of dates where uncertainty existed. We do not want to create uncertainty—I am sure that we will not do so—but I am reminded of what happened to the metropolitan counties. There were elections in 1972; they were introduced in shadow form in 1973 and came into force in 1974. The Tories then fought a general election in 1979 on a plan to abolish them. I cannot remember the exact date in the mid 1980s when they finally went, but there was a considerable degree of uncertainty after the 1979 election because the plan took some years to carry through.

That does not mean to say that two blacks make a white. We are not going to go down that road. We must be absolutely clear what we are talking about. The amendment refers to a region where there has been a "No" vote. We are not talking about regions which will not go ahead with an assembly, let us say, after the first soundings. I do not know what the gaps will be hut, obviously, if the first soundings produce a referendum or two and one of them is successful, a Bill will be brought in anyway. An assembly will not be up and running immediately. Other regions will not be able to see how it is working until it is up and running. We have said that we would not be able to deal with too many referendums at the same time.

We are talking here about a situation where soundings have been taken, a judgment has been reached that a degree of interest was shown in a referendum on local government but there was a no vote. Such a situation would be traumatic. I can envisage the headlines in the next day's papers now.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I have not started yet, but go on.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that was precisely my case. I made no case for the "Yes" vote. I said that my amendment referred only to a "No" vote. Therefore, this discussion is otiose.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, six speakers have addressed the matter. There were references to the other regions. I want to make clear that I am responding to the amendment to which the noble Baroness spoke.

I understand that exactly the same amendment has been dealt with in another place. I do not have any new arguments. However, we do not want uncertainty to arise. We would not wish to incur the excessive costs involved in holding many referendums, particularly in areas where there had previously been a no vote. Views may change over time as areas that voted "No" see what is happening in areas that voted "Yes". However, I do not know whether that will be the case.

Under the Bill once the five-year period has elapsed, a second referendum can take place where soundings have again been taken to test the level of interest in a subsequent referendum. The five-year period is a minimum period; it is not a requirement. The noble Baroness referred to a period of five years exactly to the day of the previous referendum. That is inconceivable.

A noble Lord—I forget who is was as I did not write down his name—mentioned uncertainty after a period of two to three years. A second referendum cannot take place within a five-year period where there has been a no vote. We are committed to taking soundings. For a second referendum to take place, the soundings would have to be more decisive than the soundings that triggered the first referendum.

Speaking from memory, I believe that the soundings started in December and continued until March, although they are still open while the Bill is proceeding through Parliament. It would be wholly unreasonable to start taking soundings after two or three years as a second referendum could not take place within the five-year period. One would need to be at the four and a half years point at a minimum—that is allowing six months for soundings—before one could hold a referendum bang at the end of the five-year period, or thereabouts. That might be held to be unreasonable in some circumstances. Nevertheless, it might happen. However, the soundings are the key to the matter. As I say, to trigger a second referendum they would have to be more decisive than the initial soundings. It would be terrible to get a yes vote according to soundings and another "No" vote in a subsequent referendum.

Let us say that one allows six months for soundings. In a period of four and a half years after the first referendum took place there cannot be any conceivable worries and doubts other than those that exist anyway as in that period there could be a change of government, in which case everything could change. One cannot argue that there is never anxiety about jobs in the public sector. It is usually the top dogs who are most worried as they get the cream when reorganisations take place. However, I do not want to start a debate on that matter at quarter past ten at night.

During that four and a half year period there could be a change of government. A new government with different policies could take office. What is the difference between the doubt and uncertainty that people experience in that period and that which they experience anyway? That doubt is always there with regard to an organisation that is run by people who hold elective office. That is inevitable.

The idea that further soundings on a subsequent referendum could start after two to three years is nonsense. Pol Pot talked of constant revolution. We are not proposing revolution for a start and we are not proposing constant change. Therefore, if the soundings took six months as opposed to three months, nothing could happen for four and a half years. As I say, in four and a half years there could be a change of government with all the doubt, upset and worry or joy that that can bring, depending on whether one is on the winning side.

10.15 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the noble Lord makes light of the matter. Something like three-quarters of what he had to say was, "Oh, it's unlikely that this would happen. If there were a 'No' vote, would anyone come around? Would we go through it again? What pain there would be if we went through all of the work to end up with a 'No' vote". We have made those arguments all the way through our proceedings on the Bill.

It is only a matter of hours ago that the Government and the Liberal Democrats refused to accept a referendum taking place on the basis of evidence suggesting that there was the probability of a "Yes" vote. In other words, it would be responsible of the Secretary of State to take the view that, on the basis of the soundings, there was not just a level of interest, wholly undefined—it could be little or nothing—but a level of interest that suggested that if people went ahead with a referendum there was likely to be a "Yes" vote. The Government have set their face against that, so we are back to not knowing what a degree of interest—the noble Lord used those words—or a level of interest would be. We are still at odds over that.

The noble Lord will at least admit that activities in that fourth year would have to take place ahead of a referendum. He said that everything was unlikely to take place within five years. If so, what have the Government to worry about? What is the worry about an extension? Perhaps 10 years is simply too long between referendums, so seven years might he better. Four years in the life of a local government is not very long. It is almost a parliament, as the noble Lord said, and governments come and go, which makes things even more uncertain. If he is right that there will not be an assembly up and running until 2006, there will be a general election before that, which will create its own uncertainties.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, was partly sympathetic to what we said, but said that in her view the greatest worry to local authorities was about their powers. Using previous local government reorganisation examples, probably we should all learn the lesson that the tensions created are about jobs, and not only the top jobs. A very sophisticated network operates for the top jobs, but it is the people in the middle band of workers who have great difficulty.

We know that regional assemblies will be centred on headquarters hundreds of miles from some of the present local authority workmen and women, whether they work for district or county councils and depending on the shape of the reorganisation. We know in purely logistical terms that thousands of people will be affected, whether in the area with 8.5 million people or the area with only 2.5 million. The landmasses in some of the areas are very considerable, and the sheer logistics will make it impossible for people to find similar jobs.

One really has to think of the scale of the problem. As we have said, it is likely that counties are more vulnerable than district councils, although there could be some very large merging operations between district councils. We are talking about very large numbers of people. I will not use the area that I know best specifically, because the noble Lord will say that he does not want to talk about individual areas; I simply use it as an example. If six county councils were to go in eastern England, the job losses would be huge. The upheaval would be huge. The passing-down of the functions of the county council to the districts would be very considerable.

The noble Lord will not be able to answer this point, because it is too hypothetical and he will probably say that my imagination is rather too fertile. We know that planning is already going—that is a free-standing operation coming through in a separate Bill. It is not unthinkable that education will go too, to the learning and skills councils. It is an easy move, much easier than the complexity of giving it to the unitary authorities—the district councils. The county councils would therefore wither on the vine. One can foresee some of the consequences of this legislation. The Bill will trigger enormous concerns in local authorities, particularly in county authorities.

I think that the gap is too small. Although I shall think again about whether 10 years is too long, I believe that five years is too short. I think that it would be almost immoral for activity to take place in that fourth year. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 23: Page 3, line 20, at end insert—

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I beg to move that consideration on Report be now adjourned.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at twenty-one minutes past ten o'clock