HL Deb 13 March 2003 vol 645 cc1484-545

3.30 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 1.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Viscount Allenby of Megiddo)

I call Amendment No. 3.

Baroness Hamwee

I believe that, just before the sitting was suspended, we were about to hear the Minister respond to the previous group of amendments.

Lord Rooker

We were about to hear the Minister only if no one else stood up. I have already been told off today. I was a pupil of my noble friend Lord Stoddart when he was a Government Whip in another place. I learnt all the etiquette of procedure. I am aware that I am here to answer questions in Committee as often as required. I shall do my best—indeed, in the manner in which I was taught by my noble friend.

The expression "cart before the horse" was used. I throw that back at Members of the Committee who referred to it. If there was ever a case of the cart being before the horse, it was to demand detailed information about the functions and powers of a regional assembly in advance of the Bill on the referendum. It has been made clear that, before the referendum takes place, the electorate will have all that information at their disposal.

Those concerns were indicated at Second Reading. I accept that. They were put strongly. There were concerns about people voting for or against establishing an elected assembly before the legislation to set up the assemblies was enacted. The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, sets out our proposals. I could refer many of today's speakers to various sections of the report which would answer some of the questions put. It is not that the discussion has not taken place. The White Paper sets out in substantial detail from where the assemblies will draw their functions and powers.

The Government also said that that was the basis on which they hoped to introduce the legislation. I accept that we have not done that. Once we have received the recommendations from the Boundary Committee for local government in the region, we shall publish details of our proposals again. That will include a statement on how we intend to deal with the Boundary Committee's recommendations arising out of the local government review. People will then understand the consequences for local government. We shall also publish a summary of what an assembly would do and how it would work—before people cast their vote in the referendum. Therefore, there will be no argument that people will not have the necessary information.

There is nothing new in that approach. It was a two-stage approach. It was used for London, Scotland and Wales. I take on board the spirit of the questions asked; namely, more information to be made available before people make a choice. We accept that in principle. We are not opposed—I repeat, not opposed—to publishing a draft Bill on the powers of the assemblies. However, there are timetable issues relating to that. Therefore, at present, I cannot give a firm commitment that it would be a draft Bill. Certainly, we shall publish a summary document of the issues on which the Bill will be based.

I accept that a draft Bill would provide an opportunity for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government have not ruled that out; it is a question of the timetable to which we are working. The argument concerning more information is covered in Amendments Nos. 5 and 6.

I can answer one specific question. As we left the Chamber, the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said that he would not be back at 3.30 p.m. As Members were being so emollient and civilised, I told him the answer to his question at the doorway. Therefore, I had better put that answer on the record. The question posed by the noble Lord was: will an elected assembly be a local authority? The answer is, "No". It will be legally distinct from a local authority, the GLA, the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. Those are different bodies with different functions. It will not be a local authority. There will be a legal distinction.

In some ways, it is putting the cart before the horse. Before the referendum, which would be after the Boundary Committee has published its proposals, the Government will make a statement about how they intend to take forward the proposals of the Boundary Committee in the regions and produce a summary document about the way in which the assemblies will work and be set up.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He answered the question about the status of the regional authority. He said that it would not be a local authority. Nor is it to be a government. Therefore, what will its status be? Will it have a status in its own right as a regional assembly and a regional authority? What will that status be?

Lord Rooker

I can only repeat what I previously said. The question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, asked for a definition of a local authority. The question was: will an elected assembly be a local authority? The specific answer is, "No". Regionally elected assemblies will be legally distinct from local authorities, the GLA, the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. They will have separate legal distinctions. They will be different bodies with different functions. Therefore, the answer to the question is that I cannot say in terms of a sub-clause or give a legal definition, but there will be a distinct definition of regional assemblies. They will not be classified in law as a local authority. That, of course, was the allegation in the question originally posed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of the learning and skills councils. I shall become a tautologist if I continue repeating what I have said. The noble Baroness has been most generous and I therefore draw her attention to paragraph 4.29 on page 39 of the White Paper. That sets out the individual responsibilities of the elected assemblies and the learning skills councils. It may be that Members do not like that. However, it is set out.

I shall not "over claim" for the elected regional assemblies. In some speeches today, there has been a thrust which suggests that the regional assemblies will not be as big as the Government have claimed. We have not made massive claims. We have been clinically calculating on what their function and role will be. I am partially criticised for pointing out that there will be no new money and no new powers. And nor will there be a new tier of government—I am adding that to the mantra now.

We are not making super claims for the regional assemblies. We have been clear. It is set out in the White Paper. Further arguments have been put forward, then knocked down with comments such as, "Well, it's not going to have these powers'. That was never the proposal. It is a modest advance in democratic accountability for the spending of huge sums of public money. That is to be welcomed.

Baroness Blatch

If it is a modest advance as regards the spending of huge sums of public money, I am grateful. But the learning and skills councils and the sector skills councils are concerned with skills in a regional context. If that is the case, and if there is to be no duplication, what on earth will be the relationship of the regional assembly to sector skills councils and to the national Sector Skills Council, to learning and skills councils and to the national Learning and Skills Development Agency?

Lord Rooker

I can confidently say that that will be set out in the summary of the powers placed before the people before they vote in a referendum.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sure the Minister will accept that what the Government propose may not be the same as what we end up with. My noble friend made that point earlier. I do not presume to speak for the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, but I hope that the Minister accepts that we on these Benches are keen 'to make progress, in the knowledge not only of what the Government propose but of what the final product might be.

Having said that, I have completely forgotten the reason why I rose to my feet! I shall sit down again, and I may remember when I read Hansard.

The Earl of Caithness

If I intervene it may give the noble Baroness time to think of her question.

Will the Minister clarify two points? Will the regional assembly, although not classed as a local authority, still be funded publicly either by central government or by local taxes from below? Therefore, although it is not strictly a local authority in the Minister's definition, will it be a local authority quango or some equivalent definition?

I am confused on a second point relating to the functions of the assemblies. Shall we in this Chamber be able to debate, amend, and persuade the Government to change some of the functions that they propose to give to regional assemblies before the people in an area are given a chance to vote? Or shall we be cut out of the process as from now?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

It may be convenient if I raise two questions at this point. The Minister did not comment on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the relationship with the European Union. That is important—because there is a relationship. The Commission has offices in all the regional "capitals"—it has a presence in the regions—and, through local authority members, there will be a presence in Brussels itself. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, may want to enlarge on that point. It is a question that needs comment.

The Minister says that the regional assemblies will spend huge amounts of money, and that the quangos will not be brought under the democratic control of the regional authorities. But they spend £50 billion a year. If my arithmetic is correct, that is between 12 and 15 per cent of the total national tax take. Yet they are not to be democratised in any way. That is something of a lacuna which I am sure the Minister would like to address.

Baroness Hamwee

I rarely follow the noble Lord's example, but I shall do so on this occasion—if not politically—and add to the list of points for the Minister to answer, having now remembered my question. It relates to the timing of the government proposals. Will the Minister be a little clearer as regards the obstacles? Is there a problem as regards the time of parliamentary counsel—which often presents difficulty; or is there some structural reason why a draft Bill will not be available for scrutiny as early as we should like? I am still seeking a way in which we might meet one another on this point.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I did not speak before lunch—although not for dietary reasons—but the Minister addressed the idea of "the cart before the horse". I think I was responsible for introducing the concept at Second Reading (at col. 1277). I claim no intellectual property rights, nor do I have any emotional capital tied up in the phrase, but it was good of the Minister to address it given my small part in its introduction.

In referring to the two-stage process, the Minister indicated that he cannot guarantee a draft Bill. I recall a similar process when we debated the Greater London Authority Bill. We had had an initial debate in another place on governance in London in June 1997. In that debate, I quoted the episode where Lord Home—as he then was not—had been asked during the 1964 general election about the government's intentions as regards VAT. He said that a lot of very clever men were thinking about it at that very moment. I said I had the impression that the same was true of what the government were going to do for London. Mr Raynsford, whose responsibilities have remained remarkably constant in this area over the past six years—although with extended and promoted levels—replied that I was perfectly right and that a lot of clever people were thinking about it. We then had the White Paper, and moved on to the Bill, which extended from 270 clauses when it first reached this place to 413 when it was placed on the statute book—indicating that the clever men had clearly had to work overtime in terms of extending the range of the Bill. It meant, inevitably, that we were looking at a moving target the whole time.

In a Bill so directed towards strategy—as I understand this Bill will be—there was a whole series of strategies which the assembly and the authority were supposed to produce. I took the liberty of asking Ms Glenda Jackson, the Minister then in charge of the Bill, what would happen if the strategies were in conflict with each other. She was gracious enough to say that that could not happen, because the Bill prevented it; they were not allowed to be in conflict with each other. That did not seem quite as gracious as she might have been—which would have been to explain how the differences would be resolved. At this juncture, I am reassured by the Minister's remarks—although on the basis of past experience I have lingering doubts about how it will all turn out in the end.

Lord Rooker

I think that we all have lingering doubts on everything that we are dealing with. One always has to be careful about the unintended consequences of what one is proposing.

As regards the timetable, we are some period away from any referendum that might take place. The Bill will have to receive Royal Assent. Only after Royal Assent will the Secretary of State give his views to Parliament about soundings in the regions; and the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee will have to review local government. The estimate is that that will take about 12 months. I cannot even forecast the publication of the draft housing Bill—which is supposed to be later this month—let alone talk about the Bill to set up assemblies, with all their powers, which is 12 months away at the earliest, if there are to be referendums.

We are not opposed in principle to providing a draft Bill in advance of the referendums. There is no policy difference. There are timetable issues that will determine whether that is feasible. I suspect that there may well be resource implications. Nevertheless, we have to be so far advanced in order to publish a summary of how we propose that the assembly will work before people cast their vote. All that would have to be in place. On the basis of that, we should know how the Bill would be drafted.

On the question on which I am tempted by the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Pearson, this is not a cop-out. The White Paper is there for everyone to read. Chapter 8—pages 58 to 62—sets out the powers and the relationship with other bodies, including Parliament, the Council of the Regions and the EU, and other matters. I cannot go beyond the content of the White Paper. If I ask for a note from my officials, it will simply draw my attention to paragraphs in the White Paper. I do not think that Members of the Committee would thank me for reading out four pages of the White Paper.

Baroness Blatch

Does the noble Lord accept that what he has just said causes huge anxiety? We have tried to make sense of the White Paper. The Government are not able to give details of what the relevant phrases in the White Paper mean. When I spoke on the amendment earlier I referred to certain words in the White Paper and asked what they meant. The Minister simply tells us to wait for the referendum, which is possibly a year or more away—I do not blame him as, clearly, the matter also involves the department and the Deputy Prime Minister—depending on when the Deputy Prime Minister comes to Parliament to say that there will be a referendum in a particular part of the country. However, we want to know what pages 58 to 62 of the document mean and what the powers comprise.

The Minister has not yet referred to the point that we raised this morning with regard to the power that he mentioned on Second Reading; that is, a power to the assembly from national government, which turned out on reflection not to be a power. Is he able to give us examples of powers that will be transferred from central government to regional assemblies? I refer to powers and not to parts to play in the process or influence on it or a duty to promote the results of it. Will the Minister tell us what the words mean? It is important that we understand that. If the Government cannot tell us that until a referendum takes place, we are travelling blind with the Bill.

The Earl of Caithness

In the hope that if I intervene the Fifth Cavalry might come to the help of the Minister, I hope that he will consider answering my question about our being able to debate functions before they are put to a referendum, and whether we can alter them before such a referendum takes place.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

I seek to give the Minister a little more time to think of the answers to the questions that I put to him, which were repeated to some extent by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who pointed out that the regions that we are discussing already have offices in Brussels. Brussels already has its tentacles in our existing regions and sends some of our taxpayers' money back to those regions in the guise of EU aid. So, whatever the White Paper may say—it did not help me on this point and I did not find it elucidating—what will be the interface between the new regional assemblies and Brussels? Can the noble Lord give the Committee the assurance that the new assemblies will not eventually have tax raising powers, with some of those taxes ending up in Brussels?

Lord Rooker

I repeat that we are dealing with a Bill that paves the way for the referendum. The referendum is well over 12 months away at the earliest. I am asked to dissect the White Paper in detail. Amendment No. 5 requires us to publish a draft Bill before we proceed with the referendum. Frankly, if I accept the amendment—which I cannot do for the reasons I have explained—I suspect that Members of the Committee would then ask what would be in the draft Bill and I would still be in the same position. The Committee will have to wait until it is available as we are talking about a matter that is more than 12 months away.

I cannot give precise detailed answers to all of the questions that have been asked as regards relations between the assemblies and Brussels and the Council of the Regions. I refer to Chapter 8 of the document. That is as far as we have gone publicly. I have nothing further to add. I do not have to wait for the cavalry. I have nothing further to say about Chapter 8. Before the electorate vote whether or not to have an elected regional assembly, we shall be in a position to address the powers and responsibilities that we are discussing at least in summary form and, at best, in a draft Bill. As I said, I have not ruled out a draft Bill. It is purely a question of not committing to a certain timetable so far in advance. I cannot give that commitment.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that response. He is in some difficulty here as I do not think that anyone has thought through how the public will be advised on the matter. My heart goes out to the Minister as I believe that he is struggling where he should not have to.

At the moment the Government are relying on the population having read the White Paper. If the Government think that people have read the White Paper, they are living in Cloud-cuckoo-land. No one reads White Papers except politicians and a few other people who need to know something about them. Therefore, the Government cannot rely on that. The Government cannot rely on the White Paper anyway as the White Paper does not spell out in detail what regional assemblies will do or what their powers and structures will be.

We have learnt today that a regional assembly is not a local authority. Therefore, it must be something else. But the situation vis-à-vis regional assemblies is not tile same as that which pertains in Scotland, Wales or London. We need to know what a regional assembly is and under what provisions such a legal entity will operate. It seems to me that we have to sort out not only the powers and structures of the regional assembly but also where it fits in with any kind of governance within this country. The matters about which we need to know are widening out.

I appreciate that this is meant to be paving legislation but it requires people to know what the matter is all about. I do not think that it is good enough simply to say rather airily that the relevant details will be made known before the referendum takes place. If they are as clear as the text of the White Paper, no one will understand them. As I said before, this matter needs to be discussed by Parliament. The powers and structures need to be scrutinised by Parliament to enable Members to determine what they will involve before they are voted upon by the electorate. I have referred to a pig in a poke. I say again that the electorate are being sold a pig in a poke if they are not given a proper account of what they are voting for.

Recently I visited the north of England. What is being said there about what regional assemblies will do bears absolutely no relation to what the Minister said today. High flown views are being expressed about how the assemblies will act and about all the wonderful things that they will do. That is happening because there is a vacuum and it will continue as long as that vacuum persists.

I shall withdraw the amendment today but I advise the Minister that I shall return to the matter as it constitutes a serious part of the paving Bill. To expect the country, or any part of it, even to vote whether it wants a regional assembly when it does not know what a regional assembly will do is thoroughly dishonest. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 3: Page 1, line 6, leave out "an" and insert "a directly

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 3, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 30. With Amendment No. 3 we come to the second line of the text. I think I can promise the Committee that this debate will be shorter than those on the previous groups of amendments, possibly even the shortest on the whole Bill.

I propose that the assemblies be referred to not just as elected assemblies but as directly elected assemblies. I propose that phrase also in the question to be posed to the electorate under Clause 2.

At present there are bodies that are known as assemblies. Strictly they are regional chambers established under the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, but I believe that all of them now refer to themselves as assemblies. They may not be the best known bodies in their regions although they are not unknown by any means. Their role may well adopt a higher profile as the debate continues. It is best to avoid as much confusion as possible. As we have said, there is enough confusion already without adding to it. I seek to avoid the possibility of those who oppose the question as set out in the Bill answering it with the words, "But there already is an elected assembly". I beg to move.

4 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

In speaking to the amendment, I shall try to be as brief as the noble Baroness. The amendment seeks to clarify that the regional assemblies will be directly elected. I assure noble Lords that that is the Government's clear intention. I understand the argument that it might be helpful to make it clearer in the referendum question and preamble that the assemblies will he directly elected. But the issue is not as simple as putting in a single word. I understand that nowhere in electoral law is "direct election" specifically defined. More importantly, I am not convinced how helpful it would be in practice to voters in the polling booth. I think that all voters understand what an elected assembly means but would the meaning of "directly elected" be clear to them? I fear that the amendment raises more questions than answers. I believe that it would be better to explain clearly in our statement before the referendum the intended voting system. Therefore, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment and not to move Amendment No. 30.

Baroness Blatch

The White Paper suggests a list system. Are the Government able to say "directly elected"? Some people will be directly elected and others will be elected as top-up members among the party. It is not that the population would not understand but that the Government do not intend that there should be wholly direct elections.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I did not deal with that question because the White Paper sets out in some details the proposed electoral system for the assemblies. We plan to adopt the member system form of proportional representation for assembly elections.

Baroness Blatch

I am sorry to persist, but that is relevant to the amendment. The elections are either direct elections or they are partly direct elections. That should be the Government's answer, not that the public do not understand. We should not patronise the public in this way.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Our intention is to make our instructions for the electorate as clear as possible. I argued that if the word "directly" is introduced, the electorate will find it confusing. I do not think that that is patronising.

The Earl of Onslow

Are people so stupid that they do not understand the word "directly"? I may have only five O-levels but I understand the word "directly" and I am no more intelligent, clever or better educated than the vast majority of the British electorate. Of course they can understand. To patronise them in this way is not very attractive.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

We are proceeding down a cul-de-sac. We are proposing the same language as has been used for Wales, Scotland and the London Assembly.

Baroness Blatch

These are not the same bodies as the London, Welsh or Scottish parliaments.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Of course they are not the same but the electoral system is the same.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I am not sure whether the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is about to wind up. However, in light of the Minister's remarks, given the second line of the Prime Minister's preface to the White Paper in which he says, It delivers on our Manifesto commitment to provide for directly elected regional assemblies in those regions that want them". it is a little surprising that the Government should be so infirm of purpose that they refuse an amendment to the Bill which refers to "directly".

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

That is amusing. Things have moved on since the Prime Minister made his introduction. We have taken advice from various sources including the Electoral Commission which is absolutely happy with what we propose.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I do not understand why the Minister makes such a fuss about it. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, put it well when he asked, "Are people stupid?" People are not stupid. The electorate are much wiser and more knowledgeable than politicians think. People know that direct elections mean that they go to a polling booth or have a postal or proxy vote and they put a cross against a name. That is what direct elections mean to the general population.

It could mean something different to the politically aware. For example, it could mean to local authorities—it may make regional assemblies more acceptable to them—that election means any kind of election, direct or indirect. In other words, the local authorities would elect members to the regional assemblies. They would still be elected but they would not have been elected directly by the Government. It sounds like a niggling point but it is very important.

Perhaps I may refer to the Royal Commission on Local Government and my service on the Association of Municipal Corporations' reorganisation of local government committee. It proposed that the provinces should be elected from among the local authorities. So there is a difference. It is understood in political circles. So far as concerns the electorate, "direct elections" mean that they go to the polling stations and put a cross on the ballot paper.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

We are left with the problem that there is no definition of "directly elected". We have consulted with expert bodies whose advice is that it would be confusing to use the word when talking about regional assemblies. At the risk of boring noble Lords, I have to repeat that we are proposing exactly the same electoral system for regional assemblies as has been used for the Welsh, Scottish and London assemblies.

Baroness Hanham

Perhaps the Minister will be kind enough to direct my attention to the difference between what is proposed now and paragraph 4.22 on page 38 which states: The Regional Development Agencies will become directly accountable to the relevant elected assembly". I am not sure of the difference.

Lord Skelmersdale

Before the Minister answers, although I am not a lawyer and have not been trained as a lawyer, I have learned over many years in your Lordships' House that in the absence of a definitions clause the courts take the view that words in Acts of Parliament have their natural meaning. It is obvious that in this instance the natural meaning is right, common sense and direct. I understand that there is no proposal for having indirect elections in these assemblies.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The noble Lord is right. The meaning was precisely the same for elections for Scotland and England. There was no need for any embellishment. Everyone appears to have understood the situation.

Baroness Blatch

Although Parliament approved those Acts of Parliament there was a great deal of disagreement on the Bill. We had similar debates to our present discussion. Paragraph 4.29 on page 39 states: The assembly will appoint two members to each of the Boards of the local learning and skills councils … in its region, one of whom will have a business background, and will be consulted on other appointments". Whatever the meaning of "directly elected" or "elected", in the area from which I come it is possible to have 25 members without one of them being a business person. How is it possible to make a business person's appointment to the local learning and skills councils if he or she has not been elected, directly or otherwise?

Earl Ferrers

I wish to come to the help of the Minister. Every single speaker has spoken in favour of including the words "directly elected". The Minister is keen to keep to his brief and he has been well advised, but it would not do any harm if he were gracious enough to say, "I will consider it". There is no harm or humiliation in that, and it would be a gesture to the Committee, suggesting that the Minister will at least consider what has been said. If, after consideration, he decides that his original view was right, he can stick to it.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I am grateful for that suggestion, and I accept it.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful for that acceptance, but I must respond to three points. I should declare an interest, because I regard myself as a directly elected member of the London Assembly—elected through the additional member system on the so-called London-wide list. I distinguish that from a previous position, when, as member of the London Planning Advisory Committee, I was indirectly elected. I had been elected to a London borough, and, as a member of the borough, I was nominated as a member of the London Planning Advisory Committee. I regard my responsibilities as a London-wide directly elected member of the London Assembly—

Baroness Seccombe

I thank the noble Baroness for giving way. Was she not directly elected by her party, rather than by the wider population?

Baroness Hamwee

I would not have become a member of the London Assembly had not the wider population—the electorate—voted for my party. I accept that the systems are different, but the electorate had the opportunity to vote for members who ended up as London-wide list members. I admit that the system is by no means easy for the electorate to follow, which is one of my difficulties with it.

The Earl of Onslow

Before the noble Baroness sits down—

Baroness Hamwee

I am nowhere near sitting down.

The Earl of Onslow

Should the elected hereditary Peers who have spoken declare whether they were directly or indirectly elected?

Baroness Hamwee

I shall leave that question hanging.

My second point is more serious and relates to the amendment more directly. The distinction between the proposals in this Bill and the measures made in relation to London, Wales and Scotland is that, when the referendums took place, no other assembly or body could be confused with the one about to be elected.

Finally, I understand that one must be careful with language and I take the Minister's point about there being no definition of "directly elected". I shall try to resist the temptation to return with such a definition. The preamble, which is intended to be straightforward and non-legalistic, refers to "central government bodies". Is that term defined anywhere? Perhaps we may take this matter forward before the next stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 4: Page 1, line 7, at end insert "after the Boundary Committee for England have reviewed the numbers and boundaries of the regions specified in Schedule Ito the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 (c. 45) and reported their recommendations to the Secretary of State

The noble Lord said: I return to the theme of the debate on Amendment No. 1 on regional boundaries. During that debate, we showed that we had considerable sympathy with the case made from the Conservative Front Bench. The boundaries of existing regions are not necessarily the boundaries that would command greatest support from the people in those regions in a referendum, and mechanisms should be available for changes to be made to boundaries.

The amendments offer three different options for consideration, which we believe are more straightforward and workable than the option suggested in Amendment No. 1.

Amendment No. 4 is similar to Amendment No. 1, but simpler. It would require the Boundary Committee for England to review, the numbers and boundaries of the regions specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998". The Minister will say that that would cause delay, which is true. However, in most cases, delays will occur anyway.

There is no suggestion that referendums will be held in the majority of English regions, and it is far from clear from our information that referendums in any English region can be won. There is a general view that a referendum might be won in the North East, but I am far from certain that a referendum would be won in the North West on the basis of existing government proposals. Those who believe that it will be a walkover are living in cloud cuckoo land.

If there is concern about regional boundaries, it would be more sensible for the concern to be aired before the referendums take place. The amendment would allow that to happen.

The other options are less severe. The option set out in Amendment No. 25 would allow a division of a region, into two or more areas", if the Secretary of State believed that to be sensible.

The amendment would allow Cornwall, for example, to be treated separately from the rest of the South West region. If a referendum for a regional assembly is to be won in the South West, the Cornish question must be treated head-on. People in Cornwall feel strongly about the question, and there is an active campaign for a Cornish assembly, called the Cornish Assembly Campaign. There is little support in Cornwall for a South West Assembly, based on the Bristol-based South West region, of which Cornwall would be part.

What would happen if people voted "Yes" overall in a referendum in the South West region, but there was a substantial "No" vote in Cornwall? Presumably the vote would be known on more than just an aggregate basis—it would be known how different areas had voted. What would the democratic legitimacy be for that arrangement? Would it not set in train a series of tensions and problems in Cornwall and the new assembly? So our second option would allow the Secretary of State, where it was sensible, to say, "It is obvious that opinion in that area is that the region should be divided". It would allow referendums to proceed on that basis.

Amendment No. 142 allows the Secretary of State to vary the boundaries of a region before a referendum. So if the Cumbrian question were thought crucial and soundings there suggested that it should be detached from the North West region, the amendment would allow it to stand alone or to be added to the North East. We think that tackling these matters before they become real problems—lancing the boil and getting sensible solutions—is likely to lead to much more sensible regional government in the long run. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington

I must confess that, half way through the noble Lord's speech, I was slightly distracted by the furniture removing in which my noble friend Lord Carlisle was indulging. Now that he has finished his exercise, we can address our minds again to this amendment.

I am bound to say that I am thoroughly confused. I thought that the Liberal Democrat objection to Amendment No. I was that to have a thoroughgoing review of the regional boundaries before the Secretary of State could order a referendum was a complete waste of time. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, so forgot herself as to become very political and say that the whole thing was just a device by the Conservative Party to wreck the Bill. Here we have an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which has almost exactly the same effect. The Secretary of State will he prevented from ordering a referendum in any part of the country until there has been a review of the boundaries of every region and a careful examination as to whether there should be more or fewer regions than at present. For the life of me, I cannot understand why there was such a fuss from the Liberal Democrat Benches about Amendment No. 1. Having said that, I shall probably support Amendment No. 4 if they press it to a vote.

Baroness Match

I am just as bemused as my noble friend Lord Waddington. As we had a touching emphasis on one part of the world where the Liberal Democrats happen to be fairly strong, I just wonder whether there was a bit of special pleading. However, I, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although not on the grounds that this is a Liberal Democrat amendment. As I said, opinion on regional assemblies is divided among Members on all Benches and members of all parties. Some people have particular concerns about particular aspects of this approach—that is, putting the cart before the horse, with the detail preceding the Bill by a year or more. Nevertheless, the effect of this group of amendments seems the same as that of Amendment No. 1. Amendment No. 4 does not mention Cornwall or parts of Lancashire. It says that each of the regions could be reviewed by the Boundary Committee. So it has our wholehearted support.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

As the single Member of a party I would not dream of intervening in the dispute between the Liberal Benches and the Conservative Benches. However, I support this amendment, which does seem very similar in character to the first new clause. It really does give the Government an opportunity to think again about setting the existing boundaries in stone. The existing regional development agencies are not necessarily the right administrative areas for a democratically elected assembly. I am sorry to come back to that, but if the Government are going to do this—and I repeat that I think that they should not be doing it—it really is important that they should get it right. This amendment, like the previous one, gives them the opportunity to do so.

I know that I should not help the Government out like this. Nevertheless, this amendment would help them out. If they got the regions right first, they would be more likely to get support for regional government than if they got them wrong. Furthermore, in any referendum, those who will sway the vote are the big urban authorities. We need somehow to persuade the small authorities that they are in favour of regional government. I hope that that is helpful to the Government. If they do not take the large urban conurbations with them as well as the smaller areas within the region, they will be in dead trouble. The smaller areas will never accept that they are part of the region unless they are being treated fairly so far as concerns boundaries and voting strength. I urge the Minister to take account of this amendment. Before he rejects it out of hand, and before further stages, I hope that he will give it some thought.

Lord Hanningfield

I support the amendment. As I said, I know that it is unlikely that we will have a region in the East or the South East. Nevertheless, Essex, for example, has had discussions with Hertfordshire—with which we have much in common—and would like to break away even within the existing development agency. This amendment would allow Essex and Hertfordshire to break away from the rest of the East of England. On the other hand, Amendment No. 1 would allow a more thorough examination of the whole of the South East and—as I said—the Thames Gateway, which covers Essex, Kent and London. If we were to have a region, it might be more logical if Essex were with Kent. So although I support this amendment—which would allow Essex and Hertfordshire to break away from East Anglia, with which we have nothing in common—if we are to have regions, it might be right to have a good discussion about whether we should be with Kent.

I do not think that the Government realise the extent of the antagonism created by this issue across the country. I live daily with local government, where there is enormous debate and enormous unhappiness. With the exception of Yorkshire and Humberside and the North East, the country is in turmoil over these issues. The Government should recognise that they have opened a Pandora's box of dissatisfaction, and this debate is only adding to it.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sorry to have disappointed the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, by being political—but I am, as indeed is he. There is a major distinction between Amendment No. 1 and Amendment No. 4. Unlike Amendment No. 4, Amendment No. 1 would cause an inevitable delay. It is not just a matter of taking a rather broader brush approach and not spelling it out in detail, as the Conservatives have done. As we explained in that debate, we do not agree with some of the detail of their approach. They conclude that the Secretary of State has to make a further order, which is not inevitably the conclusion of Amendment No. 4.

Baroness Blatch

My understanding is that the order could not be made until after such a review. As it does not specify which part of the country is in question, it potentially could apply to any or every part of the country. If the order cannot be made until afterwards, my understanding is that both groups of amendments would produce the same result.

Baroness Hamwee

I do not read them in quite that way, and I did say "not inevitably". Yes, there is a possibility, but it is not inevitable.

The Earl of Onslow

The noble Baroness says that something could be understood in that way, but that that is not inevitable. Is it not a good idea to know what you mean before tabling an amendment? I know that the Liberals are unsound on home rule for Ireland, and I suppose that this is the same sort of thing. Would it not be possible for them to get their act together?

Baroness Hamwee

I know what I mean. I am going to explain in a moment why this amendment was tabled with Amendment No. 25 to which I do not believe any other Member of the Committee has referred. We have heard the Government speak of the "possibility"—I hesitate to use that word, but I cannot think of another at the moment—that after the first tranche of referendums there will be reviews of the boundaries of the regions which are not in the first tranche. There is a possibility—

4.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker

We have to be careful here in the use of words because we are legislating and this is important. The noble Baroness has not heard the Government say what she has just claimed: that after the first tranche of referendums it is possible that the boundaries will be reviewed. Nobody has said that and I have to knock that statement on the head straightaway.

I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to paragraph 6.5 of the White Paper which makes our intention clear about the exceptional circumstances of future changes. It has nothing to do with the interim changes which the noble Baroness has just implied.

Baroness Hamwee

In that case I am having difficulty with language as well. I shall try to present it in a different way. I had quite genuinely thought that there was reference to exceptional circumstances. There are parts of the country which are exceptional because they are very different, with different requirements and where the strength of feeling is very different from that in the majority of the country. That is what I understood the Minister to say, but I am grateful for the clarification.

Nevertheless, I do not believe that it undermines the importance of Amendment No. 25. It may not be government policy, but having got through the first tranche, that will enable a review. I hope that I am not putting words into the Minister's mouth when I say that there is a general understanding that the Government want to get the first tranche dealt with. Then there will be a pause which, I hope, is not contentious, because when one pauses one generally reflects. During that period it would then be possible under our amendment for the Secretary of State and the rest of us to use the information, which will have come through the soundings exercise, to reflect on whether boundary changes would enable the advancement of regional government in other parts of the country. In that regard, these Benches are rather closer to the Government in that we are seeking to advance the cause of regional government.

Baroness Hanham

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she accept from me that we do not know what the soundings exercise has been set against? It has not come to Parliament—and it is finished. We do not yet know on what basis the Deputy Prime Minister, who has the sole responsibility for making a decision, will make his decision. Therefore, we have no idea whether the question of regions and regional boundaries has even entered part of the soundings exercise.

Baroness Hamwee

I accept that entirely; nevertheless it must be on the cards that some of the responses must have been, "We would like regional government but on different boundaries". That is all I am attempting to reflect through this amendment.

Lord Rooker

Someone said a little while ago that there was a lot of antagonism out there. I am being antagonised because this morning supporters of the Bill opposed what is very much a delaying tactic in Amendment No. 1. It does not matter how one looks at the wording, the meaning presents exactly the same picture. That leaves me in a very difficult position. I have a set of speaking notes, but the magic ink on the page calls out at me, "Don't bother with this. Go back and read the speech you read out this morning". If I could transpose for Hansard, it would be a great deal easier to say "Take out a couple of columns from the morning and stick them in here". That is because the arguments are exactly the same.

What the noble Baroness said as regards what she believed we had said about the longer-term possibilities of looking at boundaries is rather like what another noble Baroness said earlier about people elsewhere in the country making a much bigger issue of this matter than it is, having not read the words. I am not trying to over-sell the product, but to sell it honestly so that I am not "done" by the Office of Fair Trading later for misleading on the policy.

I have to draw the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, to paragraph 6.5 of the White Paper which states, The Government has not completely ruled out in the longer term the possibility of adopting boundaries for regional assemblies that do not follow the existing boundaries". We recognise that they cannot be set in stone. But we would change them only under exceptional circumstances and in the longer term. We have no current intention of changing the regional boundaries in the short to medium term. People can argue—please don't!—definitions of short, medium and longer term. But it may be that a future government would want to change the Government Office structure for the country for various reasons. That is a possibility. One would look at the mechanism for that. But to build into the Bill the mechanism by which the Liberal Democrats seek to cast doubt about the boundaries leaves a clear implication.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, keeps inviting me to agree with him, but I shall not. He seems to know when the referendums will take place, but I do not. We have made no plans and there have been no public pronouncements whatever. One can argue as much as one likes, but until the Deputy Prime Minister makes an announcement after the soundings, nobody knows, including myself. If there were a referendum; a successful "Yes" vote and an elected regional assembly was set up, then, according to the thinking of the Liberal Democrats, the Government could look at the boundaries and it would be possible to affect the boundaries of the region which had just been created.

There would be a massive degree of confusion built into the legislation by accepting these amendments. If the noble Baroness remotely supports regionally elected assemblies—they are not home rule—I invite her to take what is on offer as set out. I have to tell the noble Baroness that acceptance of the amendments would leave the Bill dead in its tracks. Amendment No. 4 would mean that the order creating the referendum could not be made until the Boundary Committee for England conducted a review of the numbers and boundaries and reported its recommendations. However, there are no powers for the Boundary Committee to carry out such a review. I pointed out this morning that it would take four years to cover the whole country.

Lord Greaves

These debates range fairly wide. The noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that the Liberals have always been unsound on home rule for Ireland.

The Earl of Onslow

I said that the party was split over home rule for Northern Ireland. I know my history.

Lord Greaves

The problem was that some of the Liberals were sound and some were not, so the party split rather disastrously. If the Prime Minister in 1885 had has his way Ireland would have been a much better place than it has been.

We regret that we are not talking about home rule. We are quite honest about this. We want to agree with the Conservatives here, but we do not. I return to the fact that we are living in the real world as defined by the Government. We are being offered a limited amount of as yet unspecified power for regional assemblies in unspecified places. I do not know whether any public announcements have been made about where the first referendum will take place. We believe what the department's civil servants brief when they talk to campaigners in the regions; we believe what the spin doctors say and what appears in the press and is not denied. We may be wrong to believe that, but until the Minister or anyone else in the Government tells us that we are wrong, we shall continue to believe that what the Government are saying privately is what they are going to do publicly in due course.

I do not want to discuss Amendment No. I again except to say that we did not agree with it because of its content. One can understand why when one looks at it.

The Government are doing everything the wrong way around. They should have started by considering regional boundaries. They could have done so for the past two years but wasted time. The Government ought to decide the first regions where referendums will take place, then consult on them. That is fundamental. If I am accused of special pleading for Cornwall or Cumbria, it makes a change from all the special pleading for Essex—though I do not blame those concerned because everywhere is important.

After deciding which regions are which, the Government ought to produce legislation that sets out the English assemblies' powers, duties and size, and the electoral system. In fact, they could do the two together. Then the legislation and decision to go ahead with referendums ought to follow, so that we—and, more importantly, the voters—know what the Government intend.

It is not clear why the Government are doing everything the wrong way around except that they did the same in Scotland, Wales and Greater London. Certainly there were lengthy discussions in Scotland, with a report and agreement on what would happen and how it was to work. That is not the case with the English regions. This debate is rambling on because the public do not know what is on offer. It is difficult to agree on vague proposals—especially when they will be the subject of referendums.

The Government say that the proposed electoral system is identical to those used for Wales, Scotland and Greater London but although they are all additional member systems, they differ in detail—for example, in the proportion of the top-up and the size of the top-up areas. All those things matter. The Minister says that people will know about the electoral system being used. How will they know? This Parliament might change the electoral system between the time of the referendum and establishing an assembly.

The Government should first examine the regions, but it does not have to be a long process. Secondly, the Government should build in a mechanism to change the regional boundaries if it turns out that they are not sensible. Not to do that will put obstacles in the way. People will say, "We might want a regional assembly but we are not going to vote for one in that area. We will vote for one in Cornwall but not in the South West". The Government should look at the options before decisions are made on referendums.

Baroness Hanham

The noble Lord, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and ourselves are moving along more or less the same lines—that there must first be a review of boundaries. What elements of our proposals for Clause 1 do Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches dislike? The noble Baroness suggested that she does not like the equal population size proposal. All the other measures invite proposals from representative bodies. We have also asked the Electoral Commission to table proposals and suggested that boundaries should reflect the identities and interests of local communities. We have further asked the Electoral Commission to publish the proposals. We have even suggested consulting with all the relevant interests, including the local electorate.

Lord Greaves

I set out some of our objections when speaking to Amendment No. 1. The first paragraph of the proposed new clause is a clumsy way to start the process. If the noble Baroness wishes to pursue the matter, perhaps we can discuss it with her before Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 not moved.]

4.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 7: Page 1, line 8, at end insert— ( ) The boundaries of a region subject to a referendum order under subsection (1) will be specified by the Secretary of State.

The noble Baroness said: This amendment requires the Secretary of State to specify the boundaries, and that proposition returns the Committee to the information that will be available to electors at the time of a referendum. Clause 1 makes no mention of what lies within the boundaries of the eight regions that are to be voted on when a referendum is called. We only have Clause 26, which informs us that a region is a region as defined in the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998.

Amendment No. 7 would ensure that the Secretary of State must specify a region's boundaries when he orders a referendum, so that voters are clear about what the region comprises. Amendment No. 143 defines regions in the same way as Clause 26.

I argued earlier that the preferable option was that there should be a comprehensive review of boundaries before any referendums are held. However, if we pursue the general thrust of the present provisions, we can take a rather different stance. While we do not believe in regional units as defined in the 1998 Act for the purposes of an elected region, it is abundantly clear that few electors even know what they are. Amendment No. 7 would require the Government to explain to electors at the time of a referendum what is encompassed by a region's boundaries and where they are defined at the beginning, outside and end. I beg to move.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am sorry to be a nuisance but my noble friend the Minister—together with two others—caused me a lot of nuisance in another place in respect of the 1977 Finance Bill, so I will take a little revenge.

This is possibly the last time that I will be able to raise a point about regional boundaries, which are of concern in relation to the European Union. My noble friend has not yet been able to convince me and others that there is not a connection. The map of the European Union shows eight regions in what we think of as England but England itself is not mentioned. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are mentioned as nations but not England. People have got the idea, rightly or wrongly, that England is being phased out—that there will be no such place as England. Forty six million people in England think that they are English. It should be made absolutely clear that regionalisation has nothing to do with eliminating England and the English.

The reason for my suspicion is that a few years ago, when Labour was in opposition, I listened to an interview on "The World at One" with Robin Cook when he was questioned about devolution and a Parliament for Scotland. The interviewer said, "That's all very well, Mr Cook, but what about England?" "England isn't a nation," came the reply, "It's only a collection of regions". That has remained with me ever since. There seems to be a view among some people that England can be divided into a group of regions so that it loses its nationhood, whereas the other countries of the United Kingdom keep theirs.

I hope that the Minister will understand why there is such great concern among so many people about the Bill. They believe that the tentacles of the octopus of the European Union—as the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, calls it—are about to engulf and squeeze the life out of England and replace it with convenient administrative units to be controlled and governed from Brussels.

I hope that I have put my remarks in a way that the Minister understands. I hope that many people who are worried on that basis will feel that their concerns have been mentioned and discussed in the place where they should be: Parliament. I hope that the Minister will not brush the matter aside and treat it with jollity, as so often happens, because it is a serious matter that is exercising the minds of many people who, we should not forget, are electors in this country.

Lord Hylton

I apologise for having been unable to attend Second Reading. I speak as one of the few Committee Members who lives in the south-west region. While that region as defined in the White Paper may be moderately suitable for the administrative purposes of central government regional offices, I cannot see that it makes any sense in terms of elected assemblies or better democratic control over the numerous quangos and institutions that presently escape from local government and are inadequately accountable to the national Parliament.

To have a region extending from Cheltenham via Swindon, Salisbury and Bournemouth down to Land's End is nonsense. There is no community of interest or regional identity in that elongated string of counties. I hope that the Government will think seriously about the matter long before we reach any referendum.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

When the Minister referred me to the White Paper on our last amendment he encouraged me to refresh my mind on what it says about the involvement of the European Union. I appreciate that he is unable to answer my questions now, but I look forward to it on a later part of the Bill. It seems appropriate at this stage in our deliberations to place on the record a couple of quotes from the White Paper, bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said.

Paragraph 8.19 confirms my fears. It states: The relationship between regions and the EU has been heavily influenced by the desire to obtain Structural Funds assistance. Structural Funds have been the catalyst for strengthened links between the regions and the EU, and"— slightly more controversially— are one of the most visible signs on the ground of the benefits of EU membership". I repeat that EU funds do not actually exist. They are only the half of what we send through the corrupt filter of Brussels that comes back to us. The White Paper continues: Information on the role of elected regional assemblies in overseeing any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods is set out in chapter 4". Paragraph 4.31 confirms my fears. It states: The general approach to EU structural funds in England … will continue. However, the assembly will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund. the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods. This would mean that the assembly will chair the programme monitoring committee, play a key role in drawing up the single programme documents, and lead in negotiations on these programme documents with the European Commission". I trust that the Minister will agree that his White Paper underlines both my fears and the questions I put to him, to which I still hope for an answer some day.

The Earl of Onslow

Will the Minister help me? The Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote in an article in The Times the other day that we need to repatriate all EU regional funding. I have no difficulty in completely agreeing with him. How does that affect the Bill? If they are not going to be funded from Brussels, what is the need for the regions in the first place?

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

In order to help the Minister with my noble friend's rather difficult question, he can get off the hook by pointing out to his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there is no hope of repatriating regional funds to this country. It would require unanimity among all the member states. As we are large contributors it is simply not on the agenda. I do not know why the Chancellor bothered to mention the matter.

Baroness Seccombe

At Second Reading I mentioned the disappearance of England. Speaking to groups of people who feel as strongly as the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, I have been horrified. I support his comment that we forget people at our peril. There are 48 million—I believe he said—electors in this country who feel strongly that the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly have given their people something, but England gets nothing; only division into regions.

Lord Rooker

I stick to what I said this morning but I will answer the amendment. Amendment No. 7 is interesting. I do not want to be cheap by saying that it is a consequence of a new clause that was withdrawn, although I see that a coalition of interests is forming on the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Benches. The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, opened up a great pit into which the Liberal Democrats are clearly going to jump on Report.

I turn to the amendment's phrasing: The boundaries of a region subject to a referendum order under subsection (1) will be specified by the Secretary of State". I am pleased to announce that they already have been specified. The amendment does not say where they shall be specified: it does not say in the Bill or anywhere else. But they have been specified ad nauseam. They have even been specified in visual form in maps in the infamous White Paper. One only has to look at pages 70 to 77 to see maps of every region designated by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

Lord Hanningfield

Will the Minister accept that there is a mistake? The White Paper is supposed to be accurate, but it says that the eastern region has 20 unitaries. It has only four unitaries. If we cannot get that right, what can we get right? There are mistakes in the White Paper. The maps the Minister described are not right.

Lord Rooker

No, I believe that the maps are right. No one is arguing that the maps are wrong. On such detail, I cannot tell the noble Lord off the top of my head how many unitaries there are in each region. I accept the expertise of the noble Lord—that is one of the beauties of this place: if he says that there are four unitaries, there are four unitaries and there is a mistake. That does not alter the fact that the boundaries have been designated; they are blocks of county councils, are they not? That is how the regions are formed. No boundary crosses through the middle of a county council, so far as I am aware. They are the building blocks for the regions—the counties. They have been designated by the Secretary of State.

In the spirit of wishing to make progress—I assume that someone does; I certainly do—I say that the spirit of Amendment No. 7 has been met by the Secretary of State, who has nothing further to do. When the referendum comes, the same will apply as applies to every election in this country. I cannot discuss parish councils because I have no experience of them, but in ward, council and parliamentary elections, people swear blind afterwards that they have voted for you, but you know that they are not in your constituency. Others say, "I did not know that I lived in this ward until a polling card came through the door". I hate to mention the European parliamentary elections, which operate on a regional basis, but the same issue arises.

We will publish full information about the powers and duties of the regions if and when we go for a referendum. I assure Members of the Committee that because not the whole country will be involved—I believe that I can safely say that—the region or regions in which there are referendums will certainly know that there is an election. The spirit of Amendment No. 7 has been met absolutely and completely by my right honourable friend.

5 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

I do not understand; perhaps I may press the Minister further. I believe that he has fallen into the hole created by my noble friend Lord Waddington. My noble friend said forcefully—I believe that it pleased the Minister—that when the Minister says something, he means it; that is what is going to happen and we all know it. The noble Lord said what the shape of the Bill will be when it has completed its passage through Parliament. If the Bill is unchanged in any way, and if Amendment No. 1—or Amendment No. 4 of the Liberals—is not agreed to, everything that the Minister said is absolutely right. However, we are at the start of a process in this House. It is always possible that the Bill will be rather different when it goes to another place. That is a possibility because we are part of the parliamentary process. If that is the case, Amendment No. 7 comes into its own. It will be pertinent to the Secretary of State, who will have to inform the relevant area of the country that, unlike the shape of the map in the White Paper, the situation in practice could be rather different.

The Earl of Caithness

The Minister is absolutely right to say that the maps have been put forward in the White Paper. However, as my noble friend Lady Hanham said, there are very few people outside this Chamber and outside local government who have actually read it. My question to the Minister is: how is the Secretary of State going to make certain that all those who are involved in a referendum know the full extent of the boundary and of what will happen?

I return to the boundary of the South East area, which I know well. How will the Secretary of State ensure that the people who vote in the boundary area know that the South East region goes right round to Margate? That question relates to this amendment.

While I am on my feet, will the Minister at some stage answer my question about functions in relation to Amendment No. 2, to which he has not yet replied? That is crucial to our future consideration of the Bill. Perhaps he could do so some time later today.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Is the Minister going to reply to or—perhaps I should put it this way—is he able to reply to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and myself about the implications of the Bill in relation to the European Union?

Lord Rooker

I apologise to noble Lords. It may be my fault, but I am working from this publication, Your Region, Your Choice, which was published recently and provided to all known people who received the White Paper. It contained some updates and took account of the reorganisation of local government in May 2002 and the change of responsibilities in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. An opportunity was also taken to correct a misprint. The document that I am looking at does not have the figures quoted by the noble Lord, although the original publication does. However, I am assured that the maps are all correct. Thank heaven for that.

I turn to the points raised by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. We said that we will issue a statement to voters before the referendum that will set out the points that I have already mentioned. At the risk of repeating myself, they will include the powers and how the assembly will work. We will also make clear in that statement the boundaries of the region. There will not be any misapprehension about that important point.

I turn to the point of principle raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. I do not wish to fall foul of that. Everything that I say about the Bill is predicated on the basis that we are a Parliament and can change the Bill. That is what scrutiny is all about; I absolutely accept that. I go so far as to say that although the soundings exercise closed on 3rd March, the fact is that this House will spend several days giving views—party views and individual views. I do not know whether another place will do likewise; it depends on what happens here. I assure noble Lords that those views will be listened to. In other words, although the soundings closed before we started our scrutiny of the Bill, that does not mean that what anyone says in this House is ignored; that is, "You are too late, you did not speak up". That is fundamental. I absolutely accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said about that. The Bill could change and if it did there would have to be consequential amendments to take account of that.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Do I take it that because the Minister has not replied to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, and myself, he is unwilling to give any answer to them, or does not wish to do so?

Lord Rooker

No. I rest my case on what I said and my references to the White Paper. I cannot go beyond what is in the White Paper regarding any of the questions that were raised about the council of the regions, the Chancellor's article—which I have not read—the European Union or regional offices. Either something is in the White Paper or the Government have not yet pronounced on it. If we do so in due course, we shall let the House know.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his various replies. I refer to Clause 1, which is about the order that must be laid by the Secretary of State in order to cause a referendum. My amendment refers to that order. The amendment is all about the information that is available to the public at any given time. We keep on assuming that the electorate are in a fever about the Bill and are listening with bated breath all of the time to what we are saying. I have a more cynical disposition; that is, I believe that the electorate do not know about this and that it will never do them any harm to give them as much information as they need.

My amendment would not do what the Minister suggested. It states that within the orders that we know the Secretary of State must produce he must delineate the boundaries of the regions. I do not mind whether that is for the first or the umpteenth time, whether that involves an amendment of the boundaries, as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield said, or whether it involves those boundaries that are already in the White Paper or the White Paper as amended by the latest publication. When people vote in a referendum, the regions in which they live must be known. When the Secretary of State lays the provisions for that referendum, he should ensure that those boundaries are stated. That is what the amendment would do.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sorry to intervene at this point. I accept that the noble Baroness has tabled an amendment to Clause 26. Although I by no means decry the points that she made about information being available, is it not the case that Clause 26 specifies the regions in the same words as were presented to Parliament by the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also known as the Secretary of State? I am putting slightly differently what I he Minister said, but he has specified the regions in the legislation.

Baroness Hanham

He has not done that yet, and he has not specified the boundaries of the regions. Where are the pictures, maps and people? I believe they are necessary, and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

5.10 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 7) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 63; Not-Contents, 114.

Division No. 1
Biffen, L. Lyell, L.
Blatch, B. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Bridgeman, V. MacGregor of Pulham Market, L.
Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, L. Marlesford, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Marsh, L.
Byford, B. Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Caithness, E. Monson, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Montrose, D
Chalker of Wallasey, B. Moynihan, L.
Chan, L. Norton of Louth, L.
Colwyn, L. O'Cathain, B.
Cope of Berkeley, L. [Teller] Onslow, E.
Cox, B. Park of Monmouth, B.
Craigavon, V. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Darcy de Knayth, B. Rawlings, B.
Dixon-Smith, L. Rees, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Elton, L. Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Ferrers, E. Selborne, E.
Freeman, L. Skelmersdale, L.
Geddes, L. Slim, V.
Hanham, B. Stewartby, L.
Hanningfield, L. Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Henley, L. Strathclyde, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Trefgarne, L.
Hooper, B. Vivian, L.
Howe, E. Waddington, L.
Howe of Aberavon, L. Wade of Chorlton, L.
Hunt of Wirral, L. Walpole, L.
Hylton, L. Weatherill, L.
Kirkham, L. Windlesham, L.
Luke, L.
Acton, L. Christopher, L.
Addington, L. Clarke of Hampstead, L.
Alton of Liverpool, L. Clement-Jones, L.
Andrews, B. Clinton-Davis, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L. Crawley, B.
Bach, L. Currie of Marylebone, L.
Barker, B. Davies of Coity, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Davies of Oldham, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Desai, L.
Bhatia, L. Dholakia, L.
Billingham, B. Dixon, L.
Bragg, L. Donoughue, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Dormand of Easington, L.
Brookman, L. Dubs, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Elder, L.
Campbell-Savours, L. Evans of Parkside, L.
Carter, L. Evans of Temple Guiting, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Methuen, L.
Falkland, V. Milner of Leeds, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Mishcon, L.
Fitt, L. Mitchell, L.
Gale, B. Newby, L.
Goldsmith, L. Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, L
Goodhart, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Goudie, B. Puttnam, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Radice, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Greaves, L. Razzall, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller] Rea, L.
Hamwee, B. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Hardy of Haringey, L. Rennard, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Richard, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Rogan, L.
Harrison, L. Rooker, L.
Hayman, B. Roper, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Sandberg, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Howarth of Breckland, B. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B. Sewel, L.
Hoyle, L. Sharp of Guildford,B.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Hunt of Chesterton, L. Simon, V.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Thomson of Monifieth, L.
Chancellor) Turnberg, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Jay of Paddington, B. Uddin, B.
Kilclooney, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Laird, L. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Livsey of Talgarth, L. Walmsley, B.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Whitaker, B.
[Teller] Whitty, L.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L. Wilkins, B.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
McNally, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Maddock, B. Winston, L.
Massey of Darwen, B.
Merlyn-Rees, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.21 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 8: Page 1, line 10, leave out "each of the following two conditions" and insert "the condition

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 11, 16 and 19. Amendment No. 16, which is the main amendment in the group, would delete Clause 1(5), which contains the condition that the Boundary Committee for England must have made recommendations under Section 12 on reviewing the local government structure.

These are by no means the totality of our amendments on local government and restructuring. I appreciate that Amendment No. 16 cannot make sense without taking out Clause 12 as well. I hope that the Minister will not rely on that technical point.

We want to decouple the establishment of regional government from consideration of the proper structure of local government. Regional government and local government are linked—and both are linked with national government, although we have heard no proposals to alter the structure of that.

I profoundly disagree with the Government's view that there is a natural limit to the number of tiers of government that are proper. Perhaps tiers is the wrong word. At the risk of extending the debate again into European issues, I shall use the term that is more commonly used elsewhere in Europe—spheres. Local government is not of subsidiary importance to regional or national government, nor is regional government subsidiary to central government. They all have their proper areas of work. It is not automatic that the more spheres—or, if you will, tiers—there are, the worse it is.

On Second Reading, the Minister said: the reason we do not want that extra tier may not be logical, hut political".—[Official Report, 20/2/02; col. 1332.]

We all know how straight and honest the Minister is. That was an entirely straight point. However, it does not begin to address the merits or demerits of the issue. It seems to assume that the more tiers, or spheres, there are, the more bureaucracy there is. I accept that more bureaucracy without better government being delivered would be a failure, but I do not accept that that is the natural outcome of having more tiers, or spheres.

The passion that was expressed on Second Reading about the restructuring of local government tended to be caused by the proposed loss of the counties. As we have just heard, the counties are the building blocks of the regions—building blocks that are then to be taken away from the building, which is a new concept.

There is also passion for districts, where there is local information, local knowledge, and, not to put too fine a point on it, local gut instinct about what is right for the district. We have heard a lot of noise from the Government about it not being appropriate for there to be more than two tiers of government—other than central government. I am resisting the temptation to talk about two tiers of local government, because regional government is not local government. However, we have heard no real explanation of the merit of the proposal, or even of the thinking that underpins it, other than that no one will stand for it. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington

As the Committee has heard, Amendment No. 16 would enable a referendum to go ahead without the voters being told that if they vote yes they will get unitary government. We have heard that the Liberal Party is in favour of a third tier of government in those parts of the country where there are currently county councils. I am glad that the Liberals say that frankly. I am not in favour of more government.

I do not want unitary authorities in Lancashire. Unitary local government in Lancashire would very likely mean three local authorities centred on big towns. Each of those authorities would be dominated by urban interests, with the interests of the country dweller and the people living in small towns being ignored. I do not want unitary authorities to take the place of Lancashire County Council.

Neither do I want regional government. I want the present local government structure to remain, which means local government as near to the people as possible and excellent small local authorities, such as Ribble Valley, continuing to flourish.

The Bill is a disgrace, because it will mean local government further from the people as the price that has to he paid for regional assemblies with nothing to do. There could not he a bigger scandal than that. I therefore oppose the amendments, because they would make it easier for the Government to achieve their aim of foisting pointless regional government on us. With the Bill as drafted, I hope that the proposals for local government change will make plenty of people in Lancashire wake up to what is going on and think furiously before being daft enough to vote for a regional assembly.

The Earl of Onslow

I completely agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington. I am privileged enough, I think, in the event of riot to command the militia in Guildford. Luckily for the good burgesses of Guildford, Denis Healey disbanded the local militia battalions, so I am out of a job.

There are distinct differences between Guildford and Surrey. Long may they remain and long may they both be distinct. We do not want to be part of the South East region. That is a bad idea. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to spheres. There is another word for spheres, and that is balls. It is unfortunate that the Government are trying to reintroduce heptarchy by the back door. That should not be done and I shall do anything I can to slow it down or turn it spherical.

Baroness Blatch

We are discussing the Bill in two ways. First, we are going through the normal parliamentary process. The endgame that we would like would clearly be contrary to the Government's manifesto. This House loyally always honours the Government of the day. We therefore take the second tack. If this Bill, in its present form or in a modified form, is to he enacted, we would like certain things to he considered to make it work in a way that we would prefer.

I am baffled by these amendments because the noble Baroness has insisted that there should be only one condition, that the Secretary of State considers the level of interest in the region—end of story. If the Government are to go ahead with this in the way that they wish, I would like the number of conditions to be increased. Subsection (5) states The second condition is that the Boundary Committee for England have made recommendations in relation to the region in pursuance of section 12". At least what will be Section 12 puts some detail on the conditions that the Government would be obliged to meet.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has put her name to a raft of amendments to Clause 12, although she ends by opposing the Question that Clause 12 stand part of the Bill. The noble Baroness appears to be arguing for unconditional regional government: "Let us have regional government and not worry too much about the nature of it". I entirely agree with my noble friend Lord Waddington that if this measure is to go ahead. I would like the issue of the boundaries revisited. We would also want to ensure that regional government works in a way that is consistent, as much as possible, with the wishes of local people.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Greaves

My noble friend and myself are quite surprised by the reaction to these amendments from the Conservative Benches. We thought that this was an issue on which we might agree. I shall explain why. It may be the amendments that we have tabled are not well drafted, although they are simple; and it may be that noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have not understood our intentions.

We want to decouple the issue of the reorganisation of local government from the issue of whether there should be a regional assembly. The Government are saying that in order to have a regional assembly there has to be local government reorganisation whether one likes it or not. We say that those are two separate issues and that they should be dealt with separately; they should be decided upon separately by local people.

In the North East, for example, the vote on whether to have a regional assembly will involve everyone in the North East: Northumberland, Durham and the metropolitan areas of Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, South Tyneside and Sunderland. A vote across the whole of the North East on the two issues—whether to have a regional assembly and whether to reorganise local government in Northumberland and Durham only—may be decided by people in those five metropolitan districts. The decision on what form of local government there will be in Berwick-upon-Tweed, in Alnwick, in Durham or in other parts of County Durham may be made by people who do not live in those places. That appears to be fundamentally undemocratic.

The Government may be right and it may be sensible to go to a system of unitary local government in those areas if there is a regional assembly. There is an arguable case—maybe an overwhelming case—for that, but on democratic grounds that should be decided by the people who live in those counties and not by those who do not live there. Therefore, we are seeking to decouple the two issues. The reason for seeking to delete subsection (5) is to restrict the referendum on regional government to regional government. After the regional assembly has been elected, if it is thought necessary there could be a review of local government, but it should be down to the people who live there.

The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, does not want to see any changes in Lancashire—and that may be what happens. The good people of Lancashire may well agree with him. Lancashire County Council certainly agrees with him to the extent that the Labour Party in the region is tearing itself apart. Lancashire County Council has resigned from the existing regional assembly. There is talk of Cheshire following, but I have no idea whether that is true or not. However, Lancashire has voted to do that. Already a certain amount of mayhem is being caused by the proposals and the arguments are taking place among people in the Labour Party.

The purpose of the amendment is to decouple the conditions. It may not be the perfect amendment; it may not be exactly the right way to do it. Indeed, my noble friend and I have tabled further amendments on this and my noble friend has said that we would like to remove Clause 12 altogether because it creates the mechanisms for the reorganisation of local government. In our view it does not belong in the Bill. Whether or not the interpretation of what we are doing is as noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have said or whether it is our interpretation, the intention is clear: it is to decouple the two conditions. I hope that later we can find common cause on that.

It is extraordinary that the only arguments that the Minister has so far put forward are practical, political arguments: if we do not do this, the Bill will not go through. Perhaps the Sun newspaper or the Daily Mail runs government policy nowadays. It sometimes looks like that in many areas, but I hope that in this area that is not the case. Winning the referendum is crucial. Unless this matter is decoupled, I do not believe that you can win a referendum in the North West. I believe it is the other way around.

Lord Rooker

If this measure is decoupled, there will not be a referendum because there will not be a Bill. We shall take it away. That is the price to be paid. It is as simple as that. I do not think that the noble Lord has understood how serious this is: decouple and we shall not proceed. If you want to kill the Bill, carry on.

Lord Hanningfield

I do not necessarily agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has said, but surely it cannot be possible for Manchester and Merseyside to out-vote Lancashire, Cumbria and the other counties and create a regional assembly against the will of that great geographical area which does not want one. There must be some way to allow people to vote differently so that those great counties of Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Cumbria do not have to be dominated by an urban unitary area that could out-vote them. Surely that would be against natural justice and the way in which democracy should work in this country.

Lord Greaves

We now have threats, bluster and blackmail from the Minister—not rational argument: "You decouple and we will withdraw the Bill. We will take our bat and ball home".

The Earl of Onslow

That is an excellent idea. Do let us decouple and take away your bat and spear!

Lord Greaves

Sometimes one finds Members walking through the same Lobby as oneself but for rather different reasons. That is politics!

The Minister's attitude is not acceptable. I do not believe that it is his personal attitude, but he has his instructions. We are being threatened that if we do what we believe is right, the Government will take their bat and ball home. If it comes to that, do not blame us. The responsibility would clearly rest with the Government. It is arrogance of the highest order for the Government of this country, elected on 43 per cent of the vote, to believe that the few checks and balances that remain, which by and large rest within your Lordships' House, should not be exercised. We believe that what we are doing is right, but the Government believe that they have some kind of automatic right to have every detail of their legislation.

I do not know why the Government take that view. As my noble friend Lord Shutt and I pointed out at Second Reading, the Labour manifesto at the last general election, Ambitions for Britain, said that, provision should be made for directly elected regional government"— I am unsure why it uses the word "directly", which apparently does not mean anything— to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it"— I support that. The Government are entitled to that legislation— and where predominantly unitary local government is established". We had a discussion with the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, at Second Reading about what "predominantly" meant and which regions it might apply to.

But it is clear that the policy on which the Government were elected was not that 100 per cent unitary government would be mandatory in places holding referendums on regional government. At the last general election, the Labour Party went to the country with the policy that there had to be predominantly unitary local government. At some stage since then, a smarted-suited young researcher or policy adviser, or perhaps the Prime Minister, came up with the idea that all government must be unitary. If one listens to the rumours and spin and reads the newspapers, it came from 10 Downing Street because people started to panic about the threat of more tiers and what the Daily Mail would say. The policy was changed.

Now the Minister in this House brow-beats us—it is the only way in which it can described—that if we vote against him, he will withdraw his legislation. If he wants the legislation, he will have to bend a little. The Liberal Democrats will not be brow-beaten in every instance. If he is saying that if your Lordships' House stands firm on such issues he will not get his legislation, then we might as well all pack up and go home.

Baroness Blatch

I wish to correct an impression that I may have created in how I spoke to the amendment. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that we should not be threatened by the Minister when he says that this would wreck the Bill. There are two questions: one on the organisation and the other on whether we have regional assemblies.

My concern is that it is wrong to base the question of whether there should be a regional assembly on only one condition—that the level of interest is tested. Amendments Nos. 9, 14, 17, 15, 22 and 23, which are tabled in my name, will acid to the number of conditions in Part 1 on referendums.

Lord Greaves

I did not reply specifically to that point because we are talking about the condition relating to a review of local government, which ought to be removed. I am aware that the noble Baroness has tabled some amendments creating other conditions. We will listen with interest to the debate on them and consider them dispassionately.

Baroness Maddock

I wish to make two points. Along with my noble friends, I am shocked at what the Minister has said today. Those of us who believe in democracy cannot really believe that the Minister will do what he says.

I wish to say more on what the Bill means to Berwick-upon-Tweed, where I live. The people of Berwick will now have to decide either to have devolution from London—with the Scottish Border four miles away and single-lane roads—they feel remote from London and are desperate to have local government that understands what their region needs. But they are not desperate to lose their local borough council. They feel remote from the centre of Northumberland County Council, which is 50 miles away. If they want power from the centre in London, they will have to give up local representation.

England and the British Isles have far fewer representatives across the board than almost any other country in Europe. Yet people are trying to convince us that we are over-governed and that that is why we cannot have both the system we want and regional government.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

The Bill is supposed to be about bringing real democracy to the regions. I indicated at Second Reading that I was in favour of having unitary local government authorities. Many aspirants to unitary status have not yet achieved it. I wish them well, because local government decisions made near the grassroots are the best ones. But it might not be right everywhere.

Why should the Bill involve local government? That confuses the issue. The referendum is about whether people want regional government; it should not be about local government. All local government members ought to be able to sleep well in their beds during this referendum. It should not affect them. It is another spoke in the wheel of big local government. The Government are bringing in the issue of local government, but local government members want to be out of the way. It will create a tremendous hurdle to campaigners if the issue is on the back foot to start with because it is loused up by local government reform also.

The Minister is wrong in not wanting another tier. The tier exists. In Leeds we have the Westminster Government with their pitch in City House and we have all the Yorkshire quangos. The Bill should be about pumping democracy into the existing tier. The business of local government should be dropped from the Bill. The Bill should be a new way of bringing democracy into those decisions that it is appropriate to make at regional level.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Usually, by this stage, one gets some clarification of what a Bill is about. The more I have listened to this discussion, the more bewildered I have become. Normally, the Government lay down a policy of government, including local government, administration and so on. But in this situation the localities will decide what sort of administration they have. We might be left with a situation where the North East has a regional assembly but the rest of the country does not.

I feel sure that the Government are banking on the possibility that, if they can get one region to vote for a regional assembly, there will be a domino effect whereby all the others will say, "if they have an assembly, we must have one as well". But that is by no means certain. So in England—I say England advisedly, because it is England—some regions will have a regional assembly and others will not. I do not know how on earth that will make things better or more democratic.

The Government say that they wish to devolve powers—we do not know which—and that they believe in devolution. On the other hand, they believe in pushing other services to Brussels. They are counter-devolving some things upwards to Brussels at the same time as they want to devolve other things downwards. As far as I can see, there is no joined-up thinking. No wonder local authorities do not know which way they are going. They are bewildered by what is happening and wonder what the Government's policy is.

I fear that, instead of achieving clarity, we will be just as bewildered at the end of the Bill's passage as we were at the start, if not more so.

Lord Rooker

I must make it absolutely clear that I have said nothing today that I did not say at Second Reading. I do not want to sugar-coat things. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding.

What we are discussing is the guts of the Bill. If we remove that second plank, the Bill is gone. That is the significance. I am not threatening the Committee—I would not be so stupid—but I am explaining the consequences of removing the guts of the Bill. We have made it clear from day one that the principal point is that regional assemblies in areas in which people have chosen to have them, on the basis of the information that we will supply, will operate on the basis of unitary local government.

There may be arguments about the wording in the manifesto. Not having fought the previous election, I did not read the manifesto as closely as I should have done, although I campaigned for my colleagues, needless to say. The White Paper is the mechanism for turning a manifesto commitment into practical policy. We can dissect the words in the manifesto, as we have done in both Houses. Ideas are put together that must then be converted into practical solutions and policies that work. Following the discussions that we had in government, the White Paper is the way of converting that commitment into practical policy.

Baroness Blatch

I believe the noble Lord and his colleagues in another place when they say that power is being devolved from national government to regional assemblies and bringing democracy to what is already there in the regions. However, if it is true that powers are not being taken from the bottom—the districts and the counties—upwards, why should it affect the counties or the districts at all?

It is possible for the Government to achieve their political objective, if they mean what they say. I do not doubt the noble Lord's word, but I think that the White Paper does not say the same. The White Paper cedes nothing from national government and will take a good deal of powers from local government. The hidden agenda seems to be the reorganisation of local government, not the devolution of power from national government.

Lord Rooker

Whether noble Lords believe me or not, no statutory powers that local government exercises at the moment will be removed to the regional assemblies. Local government can sleep easily, as the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, put it.

Lord Hanningfield

We are about to receive the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which will move virtually all planning powers from the county councils and some from the district councils to the regional assemblies. The noble Lord must acknowledge that some powers are being moved from local government to regional assemblies.

Lord Rooker

That is not a consequence of this Bill. That is not double-speak. The powers in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which we will debate when it arrives here—it has not yet finished its passage through another place—will operate whether or not there are elected regional assemblies. That structure will stand the test of time with or without elected regional assemblies; one is not necessarily linked to the other. Planning authorities at district council level will be responsible for the control of development. There is no change there. I am not here to discuss that Bill, and those changes are not a consequence of this Bill.

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill will stand whether or not this Bill is on the statute book. The changes will happen whether or not there are elected regional assemblies.

The Earl of Onslow

I search genuinely for information. Why is it essential that local authorities—some unitary, some county and district—should be unified to create a district that will have something totally different to do? How will the Bill affect the powers and duties of local authorities? I do not understand.

I can see that if, as my noble friend Lady Blatch said, the Government were taking something away, there might be a need for an imposed unitary authority. If Alnwick wants to run things one way, Guildford another way and Scunthorpe a third way, why should not they be allowed to do so? According to the Government, their powers will not be affected by this Bill.

Lord Rooker

It is interesting to see how noble Lords dismiss the argument about whether tiers of government matter. We think that they do, which is why we are having no new tiers of government. The mantra will continue to be, "We are not having new tiers of government".

Lord Greaves

The Minister has—

Lord Rooker

I must finish the point. I am not going home or anything.

If we are to get a good working relationship with local government in whatever form at the level of a district council or, on the odd occasion, of a county council— I think that there is only one unitary county council, and I cannot pre judge what might come out of the boundary review—we need to streamline the local authority structure. We might be wrong, but that is our view. The way to do it is to have a unitary structure.

As we have made clear, no existing unitary authority will have its boundaries interfered with. There will not be wholesale review and change; that would be change for change's sake. It is only in areas in which the structure is two-tier that we need to consider which way to go to make a unitary authority. There are many different ways of doing that. We are not pre-judging what the Boundary Committee could do; it could recommend a unitary structure for current two-tier areas based on counties, districts or something different. That is up to the Boundary Committee, and we will assess the proposals, when they are published.

Lord Greaves

The Minister has again asserted that there cannot be an extra tier. He has not yet provided any arguments to support that assertion. Simply asserting something time and time again does not make it a better argument.

We need to understand why an extra tier would be so bad. If, as has been stated, no powers will come up from local government and there will be no change to the position of local government, what extra costs will be incurred by maintaining the status quo?

Lord Rooker

I am just asserting government policy. That is the point. We are entitled to have a policy, and the policy is "No new extra tiers of government". That is a policy, not an assertion.

Lord Greaves

The Government are entitled to have a policy, and we are entitled to question them on that policy and find out the reasons that lie behind it. If the Minister refuses to give the reasons, we are all wasting our time.

6 p.m.

Lord Rooker

We are not. One would not know where to stop. I have been involved with local government reorganisations in the past as a constituency Member of Parliament. There is art idea that the bureaucracy level would stay the same; that decision-making would be streamlined; that it would he cheaper; and that people would have a better relationship with different tiers of government and fully understand who is delivering what service. Tiers could be added ad infinitum.

Perhaps I may finish answering the question asked by the noble Lord. The Government have taken the view that a unitary tier underneath a regional tier—I do not like the term hierarchical—is efficient and can be streamlined and meaningful to communities. Local authorities can be the champions of their communities in this respect, as well as speaking with one voice. An area that is unitary would not have two organisations speaking to government or to the regional assembly, as happens at present. Therefore, there would be clarity of purpose and transparency. That is an important point.

Members of the Committee have spoken about the ordinary voters—our masters—not understanding what is happening. If we want them to understand, we need clarity and simplicity in our government structures. Adding more tiers of government is not the way to do that. The noble Lord may not like it, but that is the plain fact of the matter.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful for the patience of the Minister. In starting that reply, he has pointed out that reorganisation is what costs the extra money in local government. It is not a question of how many tiers; it is a question of reorganisation. It is the Government who are proposing to reorganise government in these areas with all the extra costs—I agree with him entirely—that will accrue. Why will maintaining the status quo cost an extra penny?

Lord Hanningfield

I should like to add to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Independent work by the Audit Commission and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) suggests that turning England into a unitary organisation would cost well over £1 billion. That cost would be for just the reorganisation of local government—money that could be spent on schools and hospitals—to achieve nothing.

Setting up regional government and the regions would be much cheaper. The method proposed by the Government is by far the most expensive, as plenty of independent evidence will show. It could be done much more cheaply by creating regional assemblies above the existing local government.

Lord Rooker

I do not know anything about the CIPFA research—

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister because my point dovetails with those being discussed. The Government cannot have it both ways. If the Government are genuinely making a case for regional assemblies—and that is what they must do in order to ask Parliament to agree to the Bill—the argument being put forward is that power from the national level will be ceded to the regions and democracy will be brought to existing bodies in those regions. No powers will move from local government to the regional assemblies.

If we have to accept that as an argument—and that is the argument being put forward by the Government—there is no case for the reorganisation of local government because it is doing now what the Government say that it will he doing post the introduction of regional assemblies. At Second Reading, the Minister promised me that we would know the cost of the abolition of a large number of councils around the country. It would be helpful to have that figure. Why should the councils be abolished gratuitously to introduce regional assemblies when the case put forward by the Government is about ceding powers from national government to regional assemblies and simply making sense of the bodies that already exist in the regions?

Lord Rooker

I do not think that the Government could make a case—I certainly could not make a case—for another tier of elected people in addition to those that we have already. I cannot make that case, whatever information I am given. I could not make a solid case for saying that we should have elected assembly "people"—namely, councillors, or whatever their title may be—in addition to those we have already. In two-tier areas with districts and counties, I would not be able to make a case for saying to people that in addition to electing Members for the UK Parliament and the European Parliament, they will have to elect yet more people.

As regards the point concerning CIPFA, the Government do not have a plan for local government reorganisation. Period. There is no plan.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

No, no, our plan is for elected regional assemblies. Perhaps I may finish my point. If the Government had a plan for local government reorganisation, there would have been an inquiry and a report that would have dealt with the whole of England.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, referred to the work being done by CIPFA. We do not have a plan for local government reorganisation in England. We have a plan for elected regional assemblies in areas where people choose in the referendum to have them. We clearly indicate that it will not be "big bang". That is the implication of the Bill. The whole country would not have regional assemblies at the same time—if ever.

We do not have a plan and therefore the issue does not arise. It is true that the manner in which we propose setting up and running elected regional assemblies, based on unitary local authorities, has a consequence for partial local government reorganisation in those areas which currently have two tiers. Our view is that regional assemblies will work only with a single tier. I do not call that a plan for local government reform.

The Earl of Onslow

What the Minister is saying is that we have an "accident" for local government reform. In other words, it may happen or it may not. The Government do not know whether they are coming or going. They are suggesting that we may have local government reform or we may have a local authority here or a local authority there. That is not grown-up thinking. It is like having a little pen with round balls on string to play with. I am sorry; I am flabbergasted.

Baroness Hanham

The Minister can have a go at two of us at the same time. I take issue with the Minister on his description of the local government review as being a partial local government reorganisation. The Minister will recall previous local government reorganisations. This is major. The Government will have to go to the electorate in a region and say, "Okay, now you are going to vote whether you want a county council or a unitary authority. What size do you want your unitary authority to be? In fact, your very loved town hall up the road is to he amalgamated with your deeply unloved town hall in the unitary district next door—the people with whom you have been fighting for donkeys years—because you will be amalgamated with them in a new unitary authority".

My understanding of the Boundary Committee is that it would be asked to form unitaries from the counties, councils or whatever else. However, as I understand it, there is a rider which is that they can review all the unitaries to ensure that they make sense. Therefore, not only the unitary authorities within the two-tier system would be reviewed to ensure that they make sense: the Boundary Committee would have the right to review them all. That is not a partial reorganisation; it is a major reorganisation of local government. I would hate the Minister to think that it was anything but that. This is "big-bug" stuff. There will be considerable opposition—and not just from this House.

Lord Rooker

I return to what I said at Second Reading. I know I made the statement based on advice. Where there is an existing unitary authority in a region, it will not have its boundaries interfered with as a result of this Bill. If I am wrong, I shall be told and I shall report back to the Committee. I repeat that because that is my understanding. It is what I said at Second Reading.

In some regions there are a lot of unitary authorities. They will not be interfered with. Their boundaries will not change. The review will take place in areas where there are two tiers to make them into one tier. However, there is more than one way of making the two into one, using a different formula.

That will be the decision of the Boundary Committee. I do not want to prejudge. We have published draft advice to the Boundary Committee on the way in which that will operate.

Lord Waddington

The difficulty of the Government's case is that the Boundary Committee will not be a free agent. The Government are not asking the Boundary Committee to recommend what it believes would be the best system of local government. They are saying to the Boundary Committee that it may not advise the Government as to what it thinks is the best system of local government in, say, Lancashire. A unitary system must be decided.

If that is the case—and it clearly is the case under the Bill—the Government must take responsibility. They must tell us why they believe that in, say, Lancashire, it would be better for the citizens who now live in the county area to have a unitary authority rather than the existing county council. The Government have a duty to tell us why they believe that that would be better for the citizens.

Lord Rooker

At an appropriate time after the Boundary Committee has reported, in due course—my understanding is that it will take about a year to complete the review in a region—at the time of the referendum, the Government will put forward their views about the Boundary Committee's review. So we shall do exactly as the noble Lord says.

I do not know what the Boundary Committee will propose—

Lord Waddington

The Minister cannot be understanding me. The point is that, by that stage, the Government, as a result of their own policy, will have brought about unitary authorities—because they are telling the Boundary Committee that it must advise on the basis of there being unitary authorities. Therefore, the Government must tell us now—not when there is a referendum—why they believe that it will be good for the citizens of county areas such as Lancashire to have unitary authorities thrust upon them, rather than keeping the existing county council. It is as simple as that.

Lord Rooker

When we published the White Paper we gave it the title Your Region, Your Choice—a mistake, I suppose, so far as concerns the noble Earl. Lord Onslow, who cannot understand it. This is not a question of the Government coming to Parliament with a ready-made, bolted-down system of elected regional assemblies, and with all the answers to all the questions.

The Earl of Onslow

Perhaps I may—

Lord Rooker

Please let me finish. It is not possible to keep raising parallel questions; then I shall be accused later of not answering them.

We take credit for not having a ready-made plan. We want people in the areas to choose, on the basis of the framework set out in the Bill—that is, unitary local government as part of the package on which they will be asked to vote. There will be a big debate. Whether they choose to opt for local government changes as a price to be paid for having an elected regional assembly is a decision for the electors of the regions. They will only make that choice on the basis of all the necessary information, after a review has taken place, after the Boundary Committee has published its views and after the Government have given their views about the way forward based on the Boundary Committee's suggestions.

The Earl of Onslow

I should like to return to the question of Alnwick or Berwick district council, in a large regional area. If people in Wearside vote for a regional assembly, if the whole of Northumberland votes for a regional assembly, they vote to extinguish Alnwick and Berwick. That is why the Government are not offering a choice. They are saying: you will extinguish Alnwick and Berwick if you go for regional authorities. That is why it is wrong to say that the Government have no plan. The Government have a very clear plan. They are saying: you will have unitary local authorities and regional assemblies; you cannot have what you have at the moment, with a small amount of regional authority on top. If the Government have to recreate the Heptarchy brought into being by Ethelred the Unready, they should at least keep some of the counties that were created to replace it.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I think it is worse than that. Let us take the example of Skipton, in North Yorkshire. The Boundary Committee may come up with the proposal that there should be a small Skipton unitary authority. On the other hand, it may say, no, Skipton and Harrogate should be amalgamated into a new unitary authority. The possibility of Skipton being placed with Bradford, which is a unitary authority, would not be available.

In 1973, Skipton was part of the West Riding county council, which looked to Wakefield. Bradford is nearer to Skipton than Wakefield. It is not impossible that that might be a way forward, and one which the people of Skipton would desire. But the Minister is suggesting—because the unitary boundaries will never under any circumstances be changed from the existing ones—that that would not be an option.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker

On the basis that I have not received any advice contradicting what I said earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is right. That is the point of the exercise. We are not looking for a wholesale local government reorganisation as a consequence of the Bill—merely to convert to unitary authorities where there is presently two-tier government.

Perhaps I may return to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The Government are not in a position to implement any recommendation that the Boundary Committee may make for local government unless there is a referendum giving a positive result. As we have already said—this has been placed on record—there is a difficulty, and I understand people's suspicion about this. Before the referendum the Boundary Committee will have published its views for local government changes in an area, partial or otherwise. The Government will pronounce on whether they are content with those proposals, and that will be part of the information. If a referendum takes place and the result is "No", the plans of the Boundary Committee for local government in that area will not proceed. I want to make that absolutely clear. This is not a Trojan horse to bring about local government reorganisation. The Boundary Committee will put forward a plan as to how an area might work; but it will be taken forward only if there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum. If there is a "No" vote, we shall not proceed with the review. The county authorities and district authorities will stay as they are.

It cannot be clearer or fairer than that. We are not misleading people. It is consistent with the fact that we have no hidden plan for a local government review by proxy, for another reason. It is purely a consequence of choosing to vote on whether to have an elected regional assembly. If there is a "No" vote in a referendum, there will be no regional assembly: therefore, there will be no local government reorganisation.

Lord Hanningfield

I do not think that the Minister has a clue as to what local government reorganisation is like. Having been through this process in the 1990s, we can see this happening in Lancashire very clearly. Lancashire has pulled out of the North West regional assembly, but there is a great deal of fighting—mainly between people in the same parties. Fortunately, in Lancashire, it is now the Labour Party that is tearing itself apart; in the 1990s it was mainly the Conservative Party that was tearing itself apart.

The anguish will occur during the planning for local government reorganisation. We have gone through a great deal of anguish in Lancashire, with people fighting each other, and virtually hating each other, because of the unitary precedent or keeping Lancashire County Council. Then, we believe, the North West will probably vote "No". So we shall have to go through all the anguish of reorganisation, and then there will be no region anyway. Services will have been destroyed during that time. In local government we are supposed to be caring for the elderly and running the schools, not fighting each other all the time. The Government will create wars all round the country, and then possibly have no regions. I do not think that the Minister understands government reorganisation. It is a very bitter experience for those in the middle of it.

Lord Rooker

Local government reorganisation will not take place unless there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum.

Lord Hanningfield

But I am talking about the planning stage. Let us say that the Deputy Prime Minister announces a referendum for the North West. Then, there will be a year's planning. The in-fighting and difficulty will go on during the year prior to the referendum. People will be fighting each other to establish a unitary precedent or to keep Lancashire County Council. It is already happening. The problem is occurring at this moment, as we are debating these matters. It will happen during that year. So the Government are creating problems that could last for many years and destroy some of the services that local government is providing.

Lord Rooker

I do not accept that. The one thing that I am trying to avoid is answering specific questions about specific places, some of which I have heard of and know where they are. But I do not always know whether they are unitary or not. So I do not want to fall into the trap of commenting on particular areas.

This will not happen overnight. This is not the Big Bang. On the basis of the soundings, the Deputy Prime Minister may agree that a region or regions should proceed to a referendum; but the Boundary Committee will then be asked to carry out a review, which, as I have said, will take a year to complete. There will then be a gap before the referendum is organised. Let us say that there is a "Yes" vote. Nothing can happen until Parliament has passed a completely separate Bill setting up the regional assembly, with all the rules that will be required. Therefore, it is not a five-minute process. But there are enough quality people in local government to ensure that professional services are maintained. There might he political warfare and people jockeying for position but, given the checks and balances that exist through the Audit Commission and other local government assessments, I cannot possibly see how services could collapse in the way that is suggested. I do not accept for one minute that that would be permitted.

Lord Waddington

We have been all the way round the houses but is it fair to suggest that the Government are saying that in county areas a unitary authority structure is the price the people living there will have to pay if they want regional government, whether the Government of this country think that unitary government in that area is right or wrong for the people in that area? That puts it fairly, does it not?

Lord Rooker

I am tempted to say yes, but I qualify that given the noble Lord's final few words. I sensed a bear trap in the final few words. I have made clear—I cannot make it clearer—that unitary local government—in what shape I do not know, as the Boundary Committee will have to review it—is the political price to be paid for having elected regional assemblies. That is the Government's policy on which the Bill is based. It is not based on anything else at all. Without the one, the other cannot take place. I made that clear when I began to read what I thought would be a two-minute speech. The relevant brief has three paragraphs and is straightforward. We believe that the local government review of the regions should be carried out before the referendum so that voters are informed of the implications of a yes vote. It is important that they are informed of the implications of a yes vote.

Baroness Blatch

This is a terribly important debate. The Minister unwittingly just blew the lid on the Government. If his brief contains three paragraphs to address this particular aspect of the Bill, the Government have totally misread the importance of it. I cannot believe that the noble Lord is as naïve as he appears. He refers to a year's work on the part of the Boundary Committee in considering different options for a region such as amalgamating shire districts or getting rid of county councils. There is not one area in the country—I shall not discuss specific areas—that does not have a number of county councils and a much larger number of shire districts.

The Government say that they have no plans for reorganising local government. We know that they have no specific plans as they have passed the buck to the Boundary Committee. Whether the people vote yes or no, the work of dividing and ruling people at a local level—which we think is absolutely unnecessary if the Government simply want to devolve a bit of power from central government—will be gone through with all the pain and anxiety that that entails. That will be costly and painful and will be divisive. At the end of that process, people may vote no. If the noble Lord thinks that we are exaggerating, he has only to see what will happen when Mr Prescott decides which region will be approached.

My next point is very important in this context. The noble Lord, Lord Shutt, referred to Skipton. In vast areas of the country—certainly, Northumberland is one of them—people may vote no in a referendum. However, people in urban areas may vote yes. If the noble Lord thinks that losing their shire districts is the price rural areas must pay for having democratically voted no but then being outvoted by people in Newcastle, Birmingham, Greater Manchester, Leeds and Bradford, a large shock awaits him.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I suspect that in places such as Skipton and other rural areas concern about the local government situation could produce a huge turnout as it is a matter that people understand. In the metropolitan areas nothing is going to happen to local government, and perhaps there is less concern about the matter. We all know that, although people are keen to have the opportunity to vote, they are less keen on actually voting. There could be high turnouts in areas where the real concern is local government reform, not the real issue of democratising the regions.

Lord Rooker

I shall stop being as frank as I have been. I have never read a speech in my life, as my officials know, irrespective of which Chamber I was a Member of.

The Earl of Onslow

I ask the Minister please to continue his old habit. We all enjoy it and also he is always much more convincing when he says what he thinks government policy is and we can watch the marvellous expressions of officials when they wince. I ask the Minister please to maintain his frankness.

Lord Rooker

All I usually ask for is a set of bullet points. I cannot read a narrative text; it is as simple as that. In future, I shall not count the number of paragraphs in my brief. However, I could have turned the page and read out more brief.

The nub of the matter is clear, as I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, earlier. The two matters we are discussing are so closely linked in terms of the Government's policy that without one the other will not occur. As I say, that is not a threat. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that I have read the remarks of commentators who refer to the well-known propensity for very low turnouts in urban areas—where the electoral register is not as good as it could be—and to the well-known propensity for higher turnouts in non-urban areas. That will create some interesting battles in the regions.

I do not accept for one moment that what appears to be a smaller population in one area will necessarily be outvoted by what appears to be a larger population in another. One has only to consider the different rates of turnout in different areas to appreciate that much work would have to be done to increase turnouts in urban areas in order to outvote rural areas. At the end of the day it is up to people how they vote. I accept that it is the Government's duty to put before the electorate all the consequences of a yes or no vote. That is what we shall seek to do. But if subsection (5) is removed, it will be impossible to do that.

The Earl of Caithness

I listened with great care to what the Minister said. I commend him for fighting the battle almost single-handed on his Benches. Why are the Government preventing the Boundary Committee from looking at the unitary boundary and asking it to consider only counties and districts? Taking up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, it might be logical and sensible to alter the unitary boundary. Why cannot the Boundary Committee alter the unitary boundary?

Lord Rooker

That is an important issue. However, we shall discuss the matter later in more detail. We are debating the Second Reading aspect of the Bill. There are plenty of amendments tabled on which I can seek further information before we reach them. My understanding is that we do not want to cause more disruption than is necessary to the existing local government framework. That is why we gave a commitment that existing unitary authorities would not have their boundaries interfered with. That seems to me common sense and is part of the Boundary Committee's remit.

I appreciate that common-sense points have been made in regard to different parts of England with different boundaries and different histories. What has already happened in terms of previous boundary reviews is important in this regard. I shall ensure that when we reach the relevant part of the Bill I shall have specific answers to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, and the noble Earl, Lord Caithness.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I hope to start on a non-contentious point. My noble friend Lord Greaves explained more clearly than I did that our amendments are not intended to be an attack on later Conservative amendments regarding further conditions.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, raised the issue of votes in different areas. Our Amendments Nos. 40 and 47 relate to that. With universal franchise in this country, I am staggered that the Government are working on the basis that there will be differential turnout. That is appalling. That is the clear implication of the Minister's remarks. By telling us that there simply will not be a Bill, the noble Lord persuaded the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, of the validity of our amendment. I hope that it may persuade the noble Lord, Lord Waddington.

These are entirely separate issues. There may be arguments for local government review but they should not be confused with the functions and powers of regional government. If local government and regional government are separate—we believe that they are different types of government—to confuse the two in this way is a recipe for disaster.

My noble friend Lord Shutt referred to pumping in democracy to the existing regional tier. That is what we on these Benches seek to do. The Minister has been entirely consistent. He told us at Second Reading of the consequences of decoupling these issues: that there would not be a Bill. He explained the consequences: he has not explained the reasons. He says that the Government do not have a plan for local government. If that is so, why not? But it seems to me that they do. That plan is inherent in the Bill. It is central government plus two tiers and you can take your pick as to which those tiers will be.

We have touched on some of the nonsenses; I shall refer to another one. My noble friend has even given me a diagram which is as good as a White Paper, as we have been told. We have the existing unitary authority of Blackpool. Under these arrangements Wyre and Fylde cannot go in with Blackpool. That part of the Lancashire coast is built up almost all the way along. There is not that much of a division between Blackpool and Lytham St Anne's. M y grandmother is probably revolving in her grave. When she went to the Lancashire coast from Manchester she went distinctly to Lytham and not to Blackpool. However, the reality is that the situation is a nonsense.

I am picking up words used by the Minister. He said that the White Paper is a mechanism. Yes, it is, but the White Paper is not the commitment; the manifesto is the commitment. That is why we are all so exercised by the White Paper. He said that this is a mantra. Yes, it is. It is not an intellectually coherent argument. My noble friend Lord Greaves said that repeated assertions do not make the point better or worse. The Minister may care to reflect on that because repeated assertions today have made the point worse.

The question to electors should be about regional government alone. The referendum should be about regional government alone. I hope that there can be some discussion on what underlies government policy. I profoundly hope that these Benches can find a way to support the Government's overarching policy which is so threatened by the way they are going about it.

The Earl of Onslow

Before the noble Baroness concludes, it is an important issue for the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Front Benches. Would it not be wiser for the Liberal Democrats occasionally to break their habit and vote now on the issue rather than wait until Report stage? I put the idea to the noble Baroness. It is not a fiddly point which will tweak the provision on Report. It is a fundamental part of the Bill. I see noble Lords shaking their heads.

Baroness Hamwee

The temptation to divide the Committee has been great but I do not think that tonight is the night to do so. The Government's arrangements ensure that their numbers are here. We are coming towards the home straight of today's Session. It is not the habit of a lifetime for Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to fail to co-operate. I know that the noble Earl did not say that. The time to divide will come but now is not the time to do so. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 9: Page 1, line 10, leave out "two" and insert "five

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 9, I speak also to Amendments Nos. 14 and 17. Amendments Nos. 9 and 17 are consequential upon Amendment No. 14. Amendment No. 14 requires the Secretary of State to publish a written report by an independent auditor verifying that the costs of establishing regional assemblies do not escalate above the costs of existing local government systems.

There are huge concerns about costs. We still await at least a ballpark figure of the costs of a reorganisation which would involve the abolition of councils. That seems fairly critical. Any area which agrees to have regional assemblies will incur huge costs. It is important that the people of the region, and of the country, know them. They may come from national taxation or local taxation.

The costs are large even if there is a no vote. During debate on the previous amendment, we heard that the detailed work about the shape of local government below the tier of regional government will involve visits, public meetings and discussions with councils and community people. There will be much discussion on one, two or perhaps more options. There will be feasibility studies. The Minister has been open with us and told us that that work will take at least a year. We know that it will be involved and detailed and extremely painful for the people at local level.

First, who will meet the costs of such an exercise? Who will meet them if it is a no vote? Who will meet them if it is a yes vote. There is a distinction between the source of funding if the vote goes different ways. It is abortive work if it is a no vote; and it will be fruitful if it is a yes vote. We know already that the soundings committee has been all over the country, to all eight regions, and completed its work. Will the Minister tell us how much that cost, and how detailed and involved the work has been, as well as telling us who has been consulted and who has not? We are beginning to find out that a large number of people in the region were not aware of the soundings exercise and did not receive any of the materials for it. Despite that, will the Minister tell us about the costs to date?

Will he also tell us the costs of the local government review and reorganisation, and the running costs of regional assemblies? That is the kind of information that needs to be available when the Boundary Committee has done its job. We know that the Welsh Assembly costs almost £150 million to run, compared with the running of the Welsh Office, which was a mere £72 million. That figure does not take into account the vast array of new buildings in London, Wales and Scotland.

For reasons of transparency, it is essential that people are aware of the costs before—I emphasise the word "before"—they vote in a referendum. They need to know the costs to the point of the referendum, and the predicted costs of moving fully to a unitary system below regional assemblies. The facts need to be broken down on the table, if people are to make an informed choice.

As the Minister said, the area most likely to be determined by the Deputy Prime Minister is the North East. If he does not determine that area, I cannot think what area he will determine as the first regional authority. One has only to consider the complications of Northumberland to realise that it will be an enormous exercise. It is important for the people of that area to know precisely what they would be voting for and what the costs would be.

The other amendments in the list under my name are consequential, and change the two conditions to five. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington

I should be surprised if the Minister accepted Amendment No. 14, because it is inconceivable that any independent auditor will come to the conclusion that, no additional expenditure overall would be incurred as a result or' this exercise.

We know perfectly well that an enormous amount of public money is involved. We recently had a paper from the Cheshire County Council, part of which stated that the estimate of the cost of the local government review in Cheshire alone would cost Cheshire residents an estimated £60 million, which is an average of £204 for every household. As I said on Second Reading, the limited Heseltine local government review at the beginning of the 1990s cost about £600 million.

No one can tell me that a great deal of public money will not he involved. Will the Minister take the opportunity to give us some figures from the Government's estimate of costs? Great sums are involved. I could go on at great length on this subject, but there is no point in doing so. The Minister has been helpful throughout our deliberations, so I hope that he will take some advice from his officials and give us a list of costs. We would love to know what the grand total is—it will surprise people, and the surprise will not be pleasant.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Greaves

This is an interesting amendment. We could not support it in its exact wording, not least because the vision we have for regional government might include limited increases in public spending if the money was spent on useful things, not simply on bureaucracy and reorganisation. Technically, we would find it difficult to support the amendment, but it is a useful probing amendment, and I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, on moving it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said, the amendment provides the Government with an opportunity to set out the costs of the exercise, which they have not done so far. That should be done, not least from the point of view of those who want regional government to be established because, if they cannot come up with credible figures, the Opposition will do it for them. The figures that the Opposition produce may be genuine, or they may be grossly inflated to support their case.

There are four main areas of costs relating to regional government. First, there is bound to be an additional cost of running the regional assembly, in terms of councillors, support services and those who provide the advice and reports. The costs will include all the ordinary support services that any organisation requires.

Secondly, there will be an administrative or bureaucratic cost of running all the regional bureaucracies, including the elected regional assembly when one is established. It is not clear why that sum should be higher than it is now, if the regional assembly takes over some functions of the regional quangos and bureaucracies and is not simply an add-on that will monitor, supervise, scrutinise and produce strategic plans without actually doing anything. All that would cost a lot more extra money. If, on the other hand, the new body was put in charge of running things, which the Government by and large do not want it to do, it could result in savings by integrating several separate organisations.

Thirdly, there will be the cost of the operations put under the control of the new body, if any are put under their control at all.

Fourthly, there will be the cost of local government reorganisation, consequent on the establishment of a regional assembly in a particular region. I do not want to go over that argument again, but there is clearly a cost to reorganising local government. In the longer term, that cost may be offset by new structures being cheaper than existing structures. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, shakes his head. Like him, I have been through local government reorganisations in the past, and I also doubt that that would be the case. The one cost that cannot be denied is the cost of the reorganisation itself.

There are four areas in which the Government must establish the costs, in any region where they are putting proposals to people through a referendum. If they do not do that, people like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, will produce their own figures, which may be 10 times as high as the Government's.

Baroness Hanham

It would be a triumph of hope over experience to suggest that the costs after the reorganisation of local government and the introduction of regional government would be less than they are now. I was interested by the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that taking over quangos might reduce the cost. From my understanding of the White Paper, few of those quangos will be taken over; they will he left with a superstructure on top of them and a few elected members to oversee them.

I should declare an interest as a member of a local authority. It is abundantly clear from the experience of London that nothing has remained as a neutral cost. The cost to the council tax payer of the introduction of the Greater London Authority and the building of the new assembly city hall has risen 10 times since the assembly was introduced. That is the cost without a reorganisation taking place underneath—it is simply the cost of the superstructure.

Another aspect that has not been mentioned is that reorganisation means, by definition, putting people out of work. If you double up on unitaries, for example, you will probably not require the same number of people in local government. You will also have the oncosts of putting those people out to grass.

This is an important probing amendment to try to discover whether the Government have any idea of the total cost of a reorganisation. I know that the Minister will say that it depends on the size of the region, and I accept that; the cost in the North East of England will be entirely different from that in the South East. However, we need to address the issue. As the Minister is looking a bit weary, we do not expect him to produce the figures today. However, it would be useful if we could have at least an acknowledgement that those costs have to be spelled out while the Bill is still in Parliament.

Lord Rooker

I feel quite chipper. I have been to the gym twice this week and I will carry on as long as the Committee wants. I gave some figures on Second Reading and I will repeat them as they are the only figures that I have at the moment to share with the Committee. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, said, Amendment No. 14 introduces an additional precondition before a referendum can be held. Although the amendment does not specify the time period, it would require the auditor to confirm that no additional public expenditure would be incurred. I freely admit that that is a quite onerous condition—which is probably why it was so drafted. As she said, it is a probing amendment. I will therefore not nit-pick about the details.

As I think I said on Second Reading, there will be costs in establishing the elected regional assemblies. However, we think that that is a price worth paying in areas where people have voted for them. Chapter 5 of the White Paper set out the direct costs of the assemblies that could be estimated at that stage, which was some time ago. We think that the assemblies will be public investments and will bring benefits to the people at large. Although I gave some figures on Second Reading, I realised that I was taking an inordinately long time to reply and may have missed out one or two.

The cost of the referendum, for example, will vary according to the number of people. Our view is that it costs bout 80 pence per elector for local authority mayoral referendums using all postal ballots. On that basis, the cost would range from about £2 million in the North East to about £6 million in the South East. Our best estimate of the average running costs of the assembly—one of the items listed by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—is about £25 million gross. We think that about £5 million of that will be directly offset because posts will be transferred from various bodies such as the Government's regional offices. We think that the remaining costs could be absorbed within the assembly's programme budget through efficiency savings of about 5 per cent, although less in the larger regions. The assembly could therefore have a major impact on the region's productivity and prosperity.

I cannot even begin to give a figure for the potential cost of local government reorganisation. It is much too early to make such an assessment, which depends on a range of factors such as how many regions choose to have an elected assembly and the structures recommended by the Boundary Committee in each case. Reorganisation might result in cost savings if the structures recommended by the Boundary Committee led to economies of scale or reduced the number of partnerships in which public sector organisations had to engage. So I make no claim to being accurate. We do not have those figures because it is much too early.

The cost of the Boundary Committee's reviews prior to the referendum ranges from about £750,000 to £3.2 million. As the Boundary Committee's figures have been refined and are now more accurate, they are not the same as earlier figures. The Boundary Committee has continued to revise the figures since publication of the Bill's Explanatory Notes. These figures are therefore different from those in the Explanatory Notes in the House of Commons.

Given the thirst for detailed figures on costs and on cost/benefit analyses of the number of chief executives, bottle washers, cleaners and whether services are privatised or in-house, I realise that that is probably a wholly inadequate reply. I can think of loads of issues and may even table some amendments myself. However, it is just too early to provide that information. If the process continues and the Secretary of State makes his statement, and as we get closer to a referendum and publication of the Government's view and all the items we promised to publish, we will be able to give better and more up-to-date figures. If there were a successful "Yes" vote and we were closer to introducing legislation to set up a regional assembly, we would clearly be expected to give the House much more detailed figures.

Lord Waddington

I wonder whether the Minister can give me an answer to a question that I asked the other day. Clause 17 of the Bill enables the Secretary of State to make payments to the Electoral Commission for it to do its work. But who would foot the bill incurred by a local authority which had to go to all the expense of servicing a Boundary Committee review if there were then a referendum that resulted in a "No" vote? Can the Minister please assure me that the Government will foot the bill, not the unfortunate council tax payers in the area concerned when the council was put to enormous expense as a result of the Government's folly?

Lord Rooker

That situation would arise only if the council tax payers and others in the electorate voted "No". It is part of the cost of having a choice. I cannot answer the question, but I can assure the noble Lord that I will know the answer by the time we reach Clause 17.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I was naïve in taking the Government at their word. I think that my noble friend Lord Waddington has taken me to task for tabling an amendment that was impossible for the Government to meet. It is unlikely that they could ever include in the Bill a report that provided a guarantee that no additional expenditure would be incurred. However, I am taking the Government at their word. They have said on various occasions that the proposals would not only be neutral but might even he beneficial to local people. However, given what we have heard, that is very hard to believe. Not only on Second Reading, but in a subsequent Question, the noble Lord told us: I believe that the penny has dropped that there is no new money. If anyone is supporting the Bill in the hope that there will be more money, do not bother; stick with the status quo".—[Official Report, 20/2/03: col. 1328.] However, we are talking about the preliminaries to a possible "No" vote, and those preliminaries will incur expenditure. Unless the Chancellor is being uncharacteristically generous, that money can be found only by top-slicing local authorities' budgets. It cannot come from anywhere else unless the Chancellor will set aside the funds. Given that this exercise could be under way in the course of this financial year, in the sense of giving the Boundary Committee work to do, it would be helpful to know the source of that money.

The noble Lord has not said who will pay for a "No" vote or a "Yes" vote or for the added costs of local authorities who had to defend their corner in the review. He said that that is the price that local authorities will pay for having a choice. However, as we have said so often today, many county and district councils will have voted "No" but been outvoted by the large urban areas. I am reminded by my noble friend Lord Hanningfield, who knows the global statistics of local government better than I do, that Greater Manchester has about 2 million people and that Northumberland has less than half a million people. The re-organisation has no effect on Manchester because it is a unitary authority. It could make the decision for the whole of the north-western region, and many of the shire districts will have voted no. This is a horrendous proposition in that a very large sum of money is going to fall on the review and boundary committee exercise. It has already fallen on the soundings committee exercise. The noble Lord did not refer to the cost of that committee. Can he say what was the budget allowed for the soundings committee and what has been the outturn of that budget? I can see now that my amendment is fanciful in a practical sense because there is no way in which expenditure will be contained at either a neutral or less than neutral level.

I shall think about what has been said. I shall give way to the Minister to come hack to me on some of these points because we need answers. I fully accept that the noble Lord cannot give the costings of re-organisation because each one will be different. We could not possibly second guess what it is going to be at this point. My amendment does not ask for that. It quite specifically says that at the point where people are being asked to make a choice they should know what all the costs are in some detail. They should know what the running costs will be and the capital costs. We know that the capital costs in Wales, Scotland and London have been horrendous. But it is after the event.

People were asked to vote before they saw any details of the Bills. They went through another place with very cursory discussion. We did our customary thing in this House and challenged and tested some of the propositions. The London Bill was changed quite considerably during its passage.

I say to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that many of the changes which were made to the Bill came about as a result of the Government running scared of what Mr Livingstone might do if he became Mayor of London. Very substantial changes were made by the Government themselves to make sure that his wings were clipped and he could not go too far in his excesses in London government.

Nevertheless, these are serious points. The Minister has given us outline expenditure figures which are helpful as far as they go. But I want at least one promise that all the costings will be put in detail before the people as they come to vote. It would be helpful to know whether it is to be top-sliced by local government. Who will pay for a yes or no vote? Has the Chancellor put money aside to cover these costs or is poor old local government going to see yet more money top-sliced from the local government budgets?

7 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I shall try to answer a couple of the points. As regards the costs of the sounding exercise, I shall take advice. But given the fact that there will be a major Statement made in Parliament in due course by the Deputy Prime Minister on the results of the sounding exercise, there will probably be documents published at the same time in summary form. I suspect that there will be a financial statement as well about the costs. That would be quite reasonable. but I do not know whether that is planned.

We are to have discussions with the Local Government Association about some of the one-off costs. Generally speaking, local government has a great deal of flexibility today as regards its budgets. In due course this House will receive the Local Government Bill, which gives much more flexibility as regards the power of local government over its own finance. I am not saying that there is a bottomless pit of money, but in some of the areas local government would be expected to carry costs of certain of its functions in responding, I suspect, to the boundary review or facilitating the administration of the boundary committee work. That would he quite normal local government expenditure.

A great deal of work will have taken place before the referendum. It would be wholly reasonable to give further and better estimates of the cost to the region. One cannot he absolutely precise. I take on board what the noble Baroness has said about the cost to Wales, Scotland and London. Lessons have to be learnt in a way which explains the potential costs to the electorate. We have already heard the free spenders among the Liberal Democrats saying that they would have wanted to increase local government expenditure anyway. That is what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said a few minutes ago. There are plenty of people who are set to put up costs, but the Government are not part of them.

Lord Greaves

What the Minister said is not an accurate rendering of what I said, which was that if regional assemblies were doing genuinely useful jobs and spending on useful things such as the local transport infrastructure, which the noble Baroness said would not be allowed under the plans, some increase in spending might not be a bad thing.

Lord Rooker

I withdraw what I just said with sincere apologies. I am trying to cause some division between the Liberal Democrats and the Tories because too much coalition work has taken place today. I do not have any further information, although I take on board the quite reasonable questions which have been asked about finance. At certain stages more information will be available. I do not suppose that there will ever be a stage when it will be possible to set out everything because it is a fairly drawn-out process. We are going through a Parliament in order to set up the assemblies. No one is forecasting that if there is a yes vote in a referendum an assembly would be set up in this Parliament. Indeed, the opposite is the case. This is not something which is going to happen overnight. Therefore, I do not suppose that there will ever be a point in time when there will be a snapshot of all the costs. But certainly there can be a running commentary on what the issues are costing, with the best estimates available. It is wholly reasonable to have that provided to Parliament let alone to the electorate.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Before the noble Lord sits down perhaps I may ask a question. I was out of the Chamber for a little while. Have we had any mention of the costs which will be incurred by the elected representatives? There will be 25 of them. If they are to be paid, together with administrative expenses and travelling expenses, the costs will be at least £100,000, which makes a total of £2.5 million. Has any estimate been made of these costs? Were they mentioned while I was out of the Chamber? I shall be very much obliged if the noble Lord can give me a reply on that.

Lord Rooker

There must have been within the global figure of an average of £20 million for running the assembly. I cannot find anything specific in Chapter 5 about the costs of the assembly persons, if I may be politically correct for the moment. I dare not call them councillors after the previous questions about local government. They will not be councillors but assembly persons. I hope that they will not be called that but that is the only name I can think of to get me off the hook at the moment.

I do not know the cost, but the overall estimate of the assemblies is about £20 million net. I gave a figure of £25 million, but £5 million is to be offset from other changes. Nevertheless, as the Bill progresses and it turns into the referendum, further information will be available to answer the very precise question which the noble Lord asked.

The Earl of Caithness

I take it from the Minister's reply that the answer to the question from my noble friend Lady Blatch is that the costs, even if there is a no vote, will be born by local government as it exists at the moment, but that the Ministry will see whether it can make it more equitable?

Lord Rooker

That is a fair way of putting it because I am not able to give a precise answer to that reasonable question. Some continuing costs are normal local government expenditure, whatever the outcome. I expect to have more information at a future date, but cannot promise to provide it next week in Committee.

Baroness Blatch

We are grateful and look forward to receiving that information at the next stage of the Bill. The Minister's comments will frustrate our local government colleagues throughout the country, when he says that local authorities will meet Boundary Commission costs as part of normal expenditure. All local authorities have to find an extra 1 per cent for their staff when the new national insurance contributions come onstream, meet inflationary pay awards and face enormous financial pressures relating to the requirements placed on them for new social security services.

In addition, the Bill to overcome bed blocking will mean local authorities incurring even more expenditure. The Secretary of State for Education and Skills has taken a direct power, which he plans to use this year, to make compulsory passporting of funding down to schools—irrespective of whether or not the amount of grant covers that passported money.

There is little scope for local authorities to access additional money to meet extra costs. That is especially true in the case of local authorities who say "No" to a referendum and who will be miffed and disappointed if they then have to meet the costs of the boundary commissioner and the review exercise. Nevertheless, the Minister has been as helpful as he can at this stage, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 10 to 14 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 15: Page 1, line 12, at end insert— (4A) The fourth condition is that the Secretary of State has concluded on the basis of evidence available to him that there is substantial support from the business community, regional chambers, local authorities, cultural and voluntary sector and local electors within the region for the holding of such a referendum and such evidence has been laid before both Houses of Parliament.

The noble Baroness said: With this, I will speak also to Amendments Nos. 22 and 23. Together they seek a guarantee that consideration by the Secretary of State of the level of interest in a region for holding a referendum will be a formal, thorough and in-depth process—and that there is some evidence to show that was the case.

Specifically, there must be wide consultation with the interested parties—including business, the cultural and voluntary sectors, local government and the wider community. Once the consultation process is complete, the Secretary of State must justify his decision to hold a referendum—this is most important—by placing the evidence that he has gathered before both Houses.

There is no mention in the Bill of the procedures that the Secretary of State must observe to determine the level of interest in any region. The amendments will safeguard all those directly affected by giving them the opportunity to have their voices heard prior to the decision to hold a referendum. The Secretary of State will be required to take time to consider the opinions of interested parties in every individual region. By ensuring that evidence is laid before Parliament, there can be no shortcuts by the Secretary of State so that false or subjective assumptions or prejudices determine the final decision rather than an open process of wide consultation.

The soundings exercise has been a secretive business. Although the Minister may rightly say that everyone knew about it, people and organisations in the business and voluntary sectors were not aware of that exercise and had no input. The noble Lord offered a fulsome apology to noble Lords who were not alerted to the soundings and so were unable to become involved. We only knew of it when the Bill was presented for its First Reading.

This important part of the Bill concerns the process that will trigger all the expenditure to which the last group of amendments referred and that part of the work of the Boundaries Commission which establishes an expensive review. Some parts of the country will be particularly aggrieved when, having not expressed an interest in regional assemblies, they will nevertheless incur costs. As the soundings committee is the starting point, the Deputy Prime Minister owes it to both Houses to know the scientific basis on which he makes his decisions. I beg to move.

7.15 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

It is crucial to know what has been done by the soundings committee and where it has been. Remote hill areas of the North East and North West may not contain many votes, but it is crucial that their residents, whose livelihoods are vitally important, are consulted. I am sure that the Minister instinctively will want to publish all the material in question, but perhaps he will confirm that will be done in full.

The Earl of Onslow

There is a tendency among all British Governments—I do not exonerate my colleagues on the Front Bench when they were in office, because they were just as bad—to keep things secret. We are the only people who pass a freedom of information Act that allows one to find out absolutely nothing.

There can be no harm in the Government publishing as much information as they can on who they have consulted. It will only add strength to the Government's case if they show that they consulted widely and conclusively with all interests. Even though the re-creation of a heptarchy is a peculiarly stupid idea, if the Government want to make it agreeable or even possibly convert me, they should make absolutely clear who they consult, why they consult, when they consult and how they consult. That will do no one any harm but much good to the body politic and the doctrine of secrecy in this country.

Baroness Hanham

At present, the Secretary of State alone will carry responsibility for deciding the outcome of the soundings exercise. The criteria have been blurred, so it is hard to know the basis. The Nye bsites are not much more helpful.

It seems to us that sole burden should be shared by Parliament knowing the basis on which the Secretary of State is proposing to unleash a Boundary Committee review. I hope that the Minister agrees and, if not today, will return with the news that the Secretary of State will publish the evidence on which he makes his decisions region by region—not a broad overview but what the soundings have produced, what questions have been asked and who has been consulted. It is important that all the interests that the amendment lists, who will make up a fair part of a community, have the opportunity to say whether they would consider voting—which presumably will he the basis on which the Secretary of State will judge the level of interest.

Lord Greaves

This is an extremely helpful amendment because it introduces a very important matter. It is a peculiar situation: the soundings—they have been described as soundings rather than consultations—have taken place before the legislation has gone through Parliament. We understand that the Deputy Prime Minister intends to make a Statement soon after it goes through Parliament—that is, if he has not withdrawn it in pique at amendments approved by the Committee. We shall see.

It is important that the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, are taken on board. We do not need to know what the responses were in each region simply in the interests of openness and democracy but as the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister will make his decision. It is important that he also publishes the criteria on which he has assessed that evidence so that he is seen to be taking an objective decision on the basis of the same criteria within each region and that the decisions stand up in relation to the soundings and the evidence. Otherwise, he will get into terrible difficulty defending decisions in the courts. There are high stakes here and this is the sort of matter aggrieved local authorities might take to judicial review. I would be grateful for those assurances.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I should be interested to know about the soundings that have been taken. I have had a number of complaints from people in various parts of the country that official or quasi-official meetings have been held to discuss the desirability or otherwise of regionalisation that have been limited to people who are in favour of them anyway. In many cases, people known to be opposed to regional government have been excluded from the meetings and refused admission.

I am sure that that is not hearsay, because I have some evidence of it. If soundings have taken place it would be useful to know how, why and when; whether they have been restricted to people known to be in favour of regional government; and whether local electors have been excluded from such gatherings.

Lord Rooker

In response to my noble friend Lord Stoddart, although this applies to any noble Lord, if anyone has any complaints about people being snuffed out of soundings, discouraged, or barred because of their views, we would like to hear about it. That is important. I am not challenging my noble friend to give chapter and verse now or at any other time, but if people have evidence of what amounts to maladministration I hope that complaints will be made.

In the spirit of the amendment, when the Deputy Prime Minister makes his statement to Parliament explaining his decision on which regions would undergo a review with a view to holding a referendum, we will publish a summary of the views that have led him to make that decision. It has to be published on a regional basis; it could not be mixed up globally as that would be unfair.

We said in the soundings document that unless people said otherwise we would assume that their views could be made public. If they wrote in confidence for some reason, we would respect the confidence but treat them in the numerical calculations by adding them to the figures according to whether they said yes or no. It is important, when the Deputy Prime Minister makes his announcement on the basis of the soundings for the regions, that it stands the test of parliamentary scrutiny or scrutiny by others. That is why we cannot rush the matter.

The date of 3rd March has been and gone. I have made it clear that we are listening to the Committee's views while the Bill goes through Parliament, but it will take time to carry out the analysis. It has begun and we have resources for it, but nothing has been supplied to Ministers and nor should it be until we are ready to make judgments, as my right honourable friend will be. But that will not be until after Royal Assent, if the Bill ever receives Royal Assent. I will move heaven and earth to obtain Royal Assent, but I stress to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that I am not prejudging parliamentary scrutiny. It is up to Parliament, not me, whether the Bill receives Royal Assent.

We will be as open as possible about the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister makes his announcement and decisions. That is the only fair basis.

The Earl of Onslow

The Minister is right to tell us that the Secretary of State will say who he has consulted. Some of us are worried that, for example, it is not like consulting only the League Against Cruel Sports when wanting to ban hunting. The consultation has to be sufficiently wide so he can give the undertaking that he will make sure that he obtains a broad view of those against and those pro.

Lord Rooker

It is crucial, notwithstanding the problem of issuing the soundings document. Just over one thousand copies were issued to various organisations and the establishment. I do not mean that pejoratively, but the distribution covered many organisations. It is important that when the Secretary of State announces his decision he can set out either in the statement or along with other documents the balance of argument on which he made his decision. That means making it clear where there is opposition to the form and structure proposed by various organisations and interest groups—of whatever size—in the regions. That is the only basis on which his decision can be judged.

In announcing his decision he will need to take comfort from the fact that he has clearly indicated that he has looked at the range of opinion and disclosed it to the people who will be scrutinising the decision. We will publish a summary of the consultation, but more than that is required in order to come to Parliament and say, on balance, in a particular region because of all the factors and views he has taken a decision proposing that we go one way or the other.

Perhaps there will be some disappointed faces; I do not know. I am not prejudging the matter. It is important that we do more than make a mechanical list of those for and against. We have to explain why we made our decision. Soundings are soundings, so it is important that we do a proper professional job in analysing the results and explaining them in such a way that we are comfortable with the decision we bring to Parliament and, I hope, Parliament is comfortable about the way we have gone about making the decision.

There will be a festering sore if there is a degree of dispute about how the decision was arrived at. It is much easier to disagree with a decision if one is comfortable about the way in which it was reached, otherwise the issue can fester. We will return to the matter during the Bill's passage and certainly after Royal Assent.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister. The Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Prescott, would do well to heed his advice. In his reply he seemed to understand what we are asking for through the amendment and say that he believes there should be as much openness as possible when the Deputy Prime Minister decides which area of the country shall first be given the opportunity to choose whether it wants regional assemblies. I would like to have confirmation that he will come to Parliament to announce that decision and not do so in some glitzy-ritzy presentation outside Parliament. I also hope that he will do exactly what the Minister said; that is, produce the evidence on which he bases that decision.

We do not currently know what percentage of people will not have been seen. I live in East Anglia but I received nothing through my door. I was not aware of a sounding exercise until the Bill had its First Reading in this House even though I am very involved with local government colleagues and others in East Anglia. It would be helpful to know who has been communicated with. We do not know the criteria, which have never been set out—certainly not the criteria on which that decision will be made. It would be helpful to know that when the decision is made.

I will withdraw the amendment. In doing so, I thank the Minister for his good humour and patience throughout our debate. He will accept, but may not agree, that we see this as a very important constitutional matter. The Bill's Committee stage is the only stage procedurally that allows us the flexibility to tease out details from the Minister and to have an iterative process between each other. Such details will be crucial in terms of understanding the way in which the Bill and what flows from it will work in practice. With my fulsome thanks to the Minister, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 16 and 17 not moved.]

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.

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