HL Deb 24 March 2003 vol 646 cc462-77

3.2 p.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 2 [Referendum question]:

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 40: Page 2, line 36, at end insert— ( ) In those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils the following additional question shall be asked— Do you agree with the proposal to reorganise the county and district councils in your area into a single unitary tier of local government?".

The noble Lord said: With Amendment No. 40, at the beginning of our third day in Committee, we return to a question that we have already discussed at considerable length, and therefore I shall be brief. In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 47 in my name and that of my noble friend Lady Hamwee.

In Amendment No. 40, we suggest that the matter of the referendum for a regional assembly in a region can be tackled in another way. The amendment proposes a second question, which asks simply whether people agree that, in addition to having a regional assembly, their local government should be reorganised on a unitary basis in their area.

Amendment No. 47 concerns a slightly different, but related, issue. It states: Where there is a proposal to reorganise local government in any electoral area, only persons entitled to vote at the election of councillors for such area shall be entitled to vote on such a proposal". This has two parts to it, the more minor being that anyone who is not entitled to vote in local elections in an area would not be able to vote. The more important part would exclude from the vote all electors who do not live in the area to be reorganised. Therefore, the amendment would tackle the problem, which we discussed at some length, of people in areas such as Tyneside and Wearside, which are already unitary, being able to vote on whether the counties of Northumberland and Durham in the North East, for example, should be unitary. The same applies to all the other regions.

It seems to us to be a fundamental matter of democratic competence that the people responsible for deciding what kind of local government structure they have should be the local government electors for that area. We shall no doubt debate this matter again and again as the Bill goes through its various stages in your Lordships' House. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

We have already discussed the whole business of decoupling, and it seems to me that this is another variation of that. However, we are absolutely at one with Members on the Liberal Democrat Benches in that we regard these two issues as quite distinct. One concerns the matter of regional assemblies and whether people believe that they should have them, and the other concerns whether people want wholesale reorganisation of their local authorities.

In considering the eight areas, we know that no one single area would not undergo a fairly major upheaval of local government if they answered "Yes" to the question of a referendum—or, rather, if the Secretary of State decided that there should be a referendum. In answer to that, I believe that the Minister used the word "mantra". I read much of what the Minister in another place said on the issue. The Government's argument is, "We don't want another tier of government".

It is possible that when local people understand— again, I use the Minister's words—that the "price to pay" for regional assemblies is that their local government arrangements must undergo major upheaval, then it will become a very different argument. People will understand that by saying "Yes" to the simple question of a referendum, they will be giving way to upheaval in local government.

I read very carefully the Constitution Committee report on this matter, and I read it even more carefully when it was brought to our notice by the Minister. I believe that that is something he may regret by the end of the debate. The Constitution Committee was also concerned about this issue. I believe that there is at least an argument for saying that, in order for people truly to have a choice about regional government, they should truly have a view about how it should be arranged within their area. They should not have to take as read that an answer to one question indicates an answer to another.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I have listened with increasing anxiety to what my noble friend Lady Blatch has said throughout the passage of the Bill thus far. She has alerted me to the fact that this is a far more deep-rooted and sinister measure than it appears on the surface. The Bill has a most innocent title, but I cannot help feeling—I shall not go into it at length now—that it is the death knell of county councils. I hope that that is not the Government's intention, but that is how increasingly it seems to me.

I am always imperfectly informed about the relationships and the decision-making that goes on between the Front Benches. I tend to be rather unhappy about them. Am I right in thinking that an agreement has been reached between the usual channels that this Committee stage should end precipitately this evening? I shall give way immediately if the noble Lord can clear up the matter.

Lord Rooker

No, that is not right. I must be very careful about my use of words. The Committee stage will finish not this evening but today. Today will finish only when this House adjourns. The proceedings will take as long as they take, and it does not matter to me whether that is tomorrow or the day after. It will still be "today" if we do not adjourn. That is what was agreed.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am obliged to the noble Lord. I was correct in my suspicion. The Minister will continue with the Bill, but he did not say whether the situation has been agreed through the usual channels. I would like to know whether that is so.

Lord Rooker

I am not the business manager. As I am instructed, the Committee stage of the Bill will finish today, but in parliamentary terms today ends when the Committee adjourns. Noble Lords who have been Members of the another place will know that the day is as long as the Committee wishes to make it; it is not limited to 24 hours.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My memories of another place are more distant than those of the noble Lord, but I assure him that in this respect they are undying. I am well aware that if necessary and if convenient for the government of the day, one day can last all eternity. I have long nurtured the suspicion that my noble friends on the Front Bench—the nicest possible people—long ago lost their sense of smell and from time to time are unable to detect the downright guile of the Government. I believe that this is one of those occasions. The Bill appears increasingly full of menace. As I understand it, today will go on for ever until we have agreed to the Bill. I make the protest now because I believe that that is wrong. If there has been any shadow of an agreement between the two Front Benches, I am deeply sorry but I regret profoundly that my noble friends believe that in the business of legislation they can dispense altogether with the sense of smell that nature gave them.

Baroness Hamwee

Can the Minister confirm that the pro forma for responses to the soundings exercise does not include a reference to the reorganisation of local government? That being so, why not, given that the Government present this as inextricably intertwined with the establishment of regional assemblies? The notes that accompany the pro forma refer to reorganisation. They say at paragraph 16: we may look at a range of other factors, which are set out in the Bill"— of course, the Bill is not part of the soundings document— in order to choose which regions are to have a local government review. These may include the potential effects on the two-tier (county and district) local authorities in a region …and the differences between regions of those effects". It also states: The effects of a review on the two-tier local authorities in the region (taken as a whole) are likely to vary between regions". Interestingly, the paper goes on to say in paragraph 25: These soundings are initially to inform the Secretary of State's decision on which region(s) should be subject to a local government review". Perhaps the Minister can explain to the Committee the approach to the soundings exercise in that regard, given that the Government have chosen to combine those two elements so inextricably.

Lord Rooker

I promise that I shall never be deflected from providing the Committee with information on which to have a debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that I shall regret pointing out that a Select Committee of your Lordships' House published a report. I do not regret that at all. It is freely available; it is not a secret report. It is the property of the House and I referred to its contents last week. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said that people have lost their sense of smell. I repeat that the Government do not have a majority in the Committee.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

The noble Lord should not misinterpret me. I did not say "People had lost their sense of smell". I said that with deep regret and immense lamentation my noble friends on the Front Bench, or those in the usual channels, had lost their sense of smell. I made the comment very personal.


Lord Rooker

The noble Lord certainly did. In some ways I was trying to depersonalise it. In the past 18 months I have learned that this place works on agreement and that the Government cannot impose their wishes because they do not have a majority here. The basic premise is that the House will not adjourn today until the Committee stage has concluded, however long it takes. I have no idea how long that will he, but the longer the better because it will give me a better chance to put the Government's robust case for the Bill.

This is a package. If one buys the elected regional assembly, one buys the local government changes that go with it. As I have said several times, at the time of voting in a referendum people will know the consequences for their local government structure and it will be up to them to make the decision. If they are more wedded to their local government structure than to the proposed regional assembly, they will vote no in the referendum as that is the way in which to preserve the present situation. It is as simple as that.

The pro forma raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, contains nine questions and 29 explanatory paragraphs. The soundings document is all about asking people whether they want a referendum. Paragraph 17 states that, A review will inevitably have some effect on the local authorities in two-tier areas". There is no secret about the consequences of the policy. It is also clear in the White Paper. This has not been sprung on the Committee or on the establishment outside to whom the soundings paper was sent. It concerns the level of interest in holding a referendum. That is the question that is asked in the pro forma. The consequence of elected regional assemblies is single-tier government because we are not prepared to countenance another tier of government. I make no apology for that.

We have said that we would need rationalisation, because without it we would be adding to the complexity of the structure of government with regional assemblies. We want a clear division of responsibilities between the different tiers of government and clear links of accountability so that the electorate are not fobbed off, as they sometimes are, with different tiers of authorities. Voters will take into account the implications when they vote.

Repeatedly I have said that booklets will be posted through every door so that every household of voters will be fully aware of the consequences for regional government and other factors before they vote. I do not believe we can be more reasonable than that. There is nothing suspicious about it. It is not revolutionary. For local government reorganisation to be subject to a vote by people in the area concerned would be revolutionary, but we are a reforming government not a revolutionary government.

Lord Greaves

I thought that the Minister was about to claim that they are a revolutionary government as they allow people to vote on local government reform. The problem is that it is tied up with other matters. We are not afraid of revolution where appropriate. On the length of time that we may sit—clearly I cannot speak for the Conservative Front Bench—we are in favour of finishing the Committee stage today. We are adamant that the Bill must be scrutinised properly; we are not adamant that people should make the same speeches today that they made last Thursday and the week before. We shall attempt not to do that but I cannot promise. Politicians are foolish if they promise that they will not say anything.

The noble Lord did not respond specifically to Amendment No. 47, although it is an alternative approach. I have no doubt that we shall return to the matter at a later stage.

In responding to Amendment No. 40, the Minister once again repeated the mantra: "We are not prepared to countenance it and that's that". The House may have an alternative view. Parliament will decide the state of this legislation and we are not prepared to be bludgeoned or blackmailed by the Government into not doing what we think is right.

The Minister referred to "clear lines of accountability" and to "not being fobbed off with two tiers". Yet again, as last week, it sounds as though the Government are not just rooting for unitary local authorities where there is regional government, but for unitary local authorities full stop. In the future we may have to probe whether the Government's agenda is to have unitary authorities everywhere regardless of whether one has regional assemblies. That is the pure logical outcome of what the Minister said.

Having said that, I am tempted to test the opinion of the Committee. I am advised that it might be best to do so at a later stage in the passage of the Bill. So, on a distinctly temporary basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 41 had been withdrawn from Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 42 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 43: Page 2, line 36, at end insertl— ( ) Any statement under subsection (2) shall be accompanied by an estimate by the Electoral Commission of their best estimate of the total annual cost of paying for the proposed regional assembly and the regional administration in the referendum area.

The noble Lord said: Given previous discussions in Committee, it is important for the electorate to know the costs of establishing regional government. The White Paper Your Move, Your Choice stated that the cost of running a regional elected assembly would be around £25 million per year. The real cost will be for the reorganisation of local government.

When the referendums are held, the local government reorganisation will have been sorted out. The Government say that they want the electorate to vote on whether they want a region and whether they want the local government to be reorganised in that area. We have been told that there will be a year's process of looking at local government reorganisation in the area. Therefore, if one is establishing unitaries in a county there will be an approximate cost. We feel very strongly indeed that the public should be told the costs of reorganisation.

The cost of running the assembly will be the cost of the Members, the staff and establishing a building for the assembly. The cost of reorganisation will be considerable. As we have said during these debates, it will be probably up to £2 billion nationally. Certainly, where one has a preponderance of two-tier authorities there will be a tremendous amount of reorganisation. Even in, for example, Yorkshire and Humberside where authorities are mainly unitary there will be considerable costs of reorganisation. We wish the public to be aware of the cost of reorganisation as well as the cost of setting up regional assemblies. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Can the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, explain whether in proposing that there is an estimate for paying not just for the assembly but also the "regional administration" he can distinguish between the cost of regional administration under the aegis of a regional assembly and regional administration full stop? We have regional administration now. I am sure that the noble Lord does not intend the public to be confused by the inclusion of existing costs with future costs.

Lord Hanningfield

Perhaps I may clarify the matter. The amendment refers to "the proposed regional assembly". It is those costs. I accept the comments of the noble Baroness that there is presently the cost of running a regional office. However, we are talking about the costs of running a proposed regional assembly, the newly established body that will be set up after the referendum.

Baroness Hanham

Is it the Government's intention to allow any regional assembly to build new headquarters? With the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and London, untold millions were invested into new headquarters, which are probably basically unnecessary and certainly in regional government terms should be unnecessary.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I shall deal with Amendment No. 43 first. It asks that the Electoral Commission's estimate of the total annual cost of paying for the proposed regional assembly be looked at. The Electoral Commission has no expertise and no background. It is not part of its function to provide the figures. Estimated figures have been provided, as the noble Lord said, by the Government in Your Region, Your Choice. As he said, the Government's estimate at the moment is running costs of £25 million per year. Around £5 million of that will be directly offset by staff transferring from existing bodies.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, raised the question of local government reorganisation. He argued that this will cost money. It may. We cannot approach the matter and issue sensible figures until the boundary reports appear.

Lord Hanningfield

That was my point. By the time the referendum is held, the work will have been done. Therefore, the figure might be approximate but it could be estimated to the next £10 million. A figure will be available by the time we reach the referendum of what the local government reorganisation might cost. That was the point. I accept it is not available now, but it will be after a year's work and before the electorate vote. Therefore, that figure should be made available to the electorate at that stage, as well as the potential costs associated with running the regional assembly.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I was about to say that later on we shall publish a full summary of our proposals, including costings for elected regional assemblies before any referendum to ensure that voters are well informed. Throughout the debate we have made the point that we are determined to give the electorate as much information as possible so that they can not only make an informed decision but will know—to use the vernacular—what they are letting themselves in for on a costs basis.

I was asked about assembly buildings. We do not want massive new buildings throughout the regions. We very much hope that where regional assemblies are wanted by the electorate they will be able to house themselves in existing buildings.

The Earl of Onslow

In his forecasts of the costs of regional assemblies will the noble Lord attach a footnote which states that all costs since the rebuilding of this Palace in the 1840s to the building of the Scottish regional assembly have gone at least four times over estimate?

Baroness Blatch

In response to my noble friend's question about buildings, we were told that London, Wales and Scotland would not have large buildings. There was nothing in those Acts of Parliament to say, "Thou shalt not build large monuments to yourselves". Therefore, what guarantee can the noble Lord as a Minister of the Government give us that none of these regions will build a new building? I do not think it is possible for the noble Lord to give that assurance across the Dispatch Box.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

It is not our plan that there should be new regional buildings. As my noble friend Lord Rooker said right at the beginning, and I repeat half his mantra: "There is no new money". Regional assemblies will not be able to afford to build brand new buildings, as happened in Scotland and Wales.


Lord Waddington

The Minister used the word "hope": he hoped that they would accommodate themselves in existing buildings. Is that the end of the matter? Can they divert existing funds into new buildings, rather than use them for worthwhile purposes? What powers do the Government have or will they take to prevent abuses such as have already occurred in places such as London? It is an abuse that authorities should use our money, the council tax payers' money, on bricks and mortar when they should be using it on services.

Baroness Hamwee

I am sorry, but I cannot stand it any longer. I declare an interest as a Member of the Greater London Assembly. I have several points to make, but shall endeavour to restrict them. The building occupied by the Greater London Authority was commissioned by central government. One may have plenty of complaints about that, but as a matter of fact, it was not commissioned by the mayor or the assembly and it came in within budget.

We have not seen the legislation regarding finance, but we have heard the phrase, "No new money". The chances must be that the finance regime for regional assemblies will be that of or close to that of local government. All of us with experience of spending funds locally will be accustomed to ring-fencing, now ear-marking, and so on of the funds made available. As the regional assemblies will not have tax-raising powers, the chance of them having the dosh to build monuments to themselves, even if they wanted to, is remote.

But if the regional assemblies are to do a good job of undertaking strategic government, they do not need iconic, massive, grand, glorious buildings, but they need offices that are fit for purpose to enable the delivery of good regional government.

Baroness Blatch

On the point made by the noble Baroness—that regional assemblies will not have tax-raising powers—I have reread carefully what Mr Raynsford said in another place, and they will have precepting powers. I pay rates, council tax, in London. My council tax has risen phenomenally under the Greater London Authority. My rate demand for the coming year has risen by just over 29 per cent. What is to stop regional assemblies using precepting powers to build large buildings?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My noble friend Lord Rooker, who is sitting behind me, says, "common sense".

To address the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, it would be politically unwise for a regional assembly to move moneys from services into a new building. Of course that could happen, but in a world of sensible decision-making, it is unlikely that the regional assembly in the North East, North West, Cornwall, or wherever, would say, "What we need as a sort of virility symbol is a brand-new building. We shall raid social services for the money to build it". I simply do not believe that that will happen.

We must return to the amendment. It says nothing about the cost of reorganisation. It is all about the cost of running the assembly. With all due respect, the amendment does not achieve the laudable aim of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield.

Lord Hanningfield

I must repeat where we stand on the amendment. The amendment covers both the cost of managing the regional assembly and the cost of reorganising local government. We have just discussed the cost of running the regional assembly. There will obviously be costs. There are no buildings at present; most assemblies are peripatetic—they move around and operate from offices in different places—and would have to have some buildings. Whatever they are, they will cost.

But the big expense, from which we seem to have moved away, is the cost of reorganisation. Even in the North East, which comprises Durham and Northumberland, that will amount to tens or hundreds of millions of pounds. Such costs must be known to the public at the time.

The Minister said that information would be issued at the time of the referendum. That would be after reorganisation had been considered, so information about the cost would then be available. Will the Minister clarify whether the information issued by the Government or whoever at the time of the referendum would contain figures as well as details of what the assembly would do—a matter to which we shall return later? That has not been clarified.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

As I mentioned a moment ago, one of the Government's themes throughout our three-day debate has been that we are anxious to give the electorate as much information as possible. I hope that many people will be consulted about the information and will have the opportunity to have an input. One piece of information will be the costs about which the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, is asking.

I cannot at present say what will be the detailed costs, but I can give the noble Lord an undertaking that part of the package of proposals—which, as my noble friend Lord Rooker said, will go through the letterbox of everyone throughout the land—will be figures addressing the issue of local government reorganisation raised by the noble Lord in his speech. The noble Lord must understand that at present we can say nothing about the matter prior to a boundary report, so I hope that he will be satisfied with my undertaking and withdraw the amendment.

Lord Waddington

I thank the Minister for giving way again. In his reply to me, was he not saying no more than that on this occasion hope will triumph over experience? We know that public funds have been used to build grandiose structures to house representatives. Is there no hope on this occasion of the Government taking powers to prevent such abuse? That was the burden of my question.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The answer to that specific question, with which I have sympathy, is that none of us on either side of the House would want great edifices built in whatever part of the land. If I may, I shall take that specific point away and return later with a considered view on it.

Baroness Hanham

The Minister has made some fundamental commitments. I should like to be sure what we have. Throughout our discussion during the first and second day of Committee, we have been trying to ensure that information will be made available. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has from time to time said that certain information will be made available, but the fact is that if we had not started to pick at the matter, we should have had no idea about what information was or was not to be provided in the booklet.

Can the Minister assure me that the various matters that we have raised will be included in the consultation booklet? That might save us a bit of time. We now know that the costs of reorganisation and of running a regional assembly will be included in information given to electors before they vote in a referendum. Is that correct?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I repeat that we shall provide a great deal of information to the electorate. That proposal has not just popped up out of the blue—my noble friend Lord Rooker has said over the past three days that every elector would receive an information booklet through the door. I have given an undertaking that the pack will include information on the running cost of the assemblies. I cannot go further than that; it would be foolhardy of me to do so. In the same way as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has no idea what those costs will be, I do not know either. Noble Lords are on the verge of questioning my good will in what I say to them. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

The noble Lord seems to have confused the question. We are asking for information to be given to your Lordships' House now or at a later stage. I, for one, am in no way reassured by the noble Lord's undertaking that masses of information will pour through everyone's letterbox. Most people do not value much of the information that comes through their letterbox. We seek information in your Lordships' House as soon as possible.

The Earl of Onslow

I wish to comment on that important point. The noble Lord sounds reasonable, but he is waffling. He is not answering very simple questions: whether or not certain things will happen, yes or no. Some of us on this side of the Committee who think that the scheme is pretty crazy anyway are at least, I hope, open to conversion. When we get such waffle from the noble Lord about what is happening, it raises our suspicions. He seems not to know the answers to our questions, and, as a Minister of the Crown, he should do.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I know when I am waffling; I do not feel that I am doing so now. I am giving the Committee as much information as I can at present. I emphasise once more that we recognise that the cost of running the assemblies is a significant matter. The pack will give voters as much information as possible about the running costs of the assemblies. I cannot go further than that.

I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, picked up the earlier point of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that, apart from the running costs, his primary interest was the cost of local government reorganisation running up to regional assemblies or their establishment. I thought that noble Lords accepted my point that we cannot begin to approach those figures until we know the results reached by the Boundary Commission. Once we have them, we will do our best to construct the figures that everyone in this House wants.

Lord Hanningfield

We had many questions, to which the Government tried to give some answers. We have had an interesting debate on the amendment. We must accept that some of the figures that we seek are not available now. Our point is that they must be available over the next year before any referendum. We need to know the costs of running the regional assemblies, possible building and setting-up costs, and, particularly, the costs of local government reorganisation, which will dwarf any regional assembly running costs. It is estimated that the reorganisation of local government in England—I accept that the noble Lord will say that it will involve only one area to start with—involving a mixture of reorganisation to create one tier, will be over £2 billion. Unless the Government made available extra money, that amount would have to come out of funds for services such as provision for the elderly and schools. Such figures must be clarified.

I hope that the Government will indicate further where we will go in later stages. Report stage is coming up. I hope that the Minister can indicate more clearly how the Government will inform the public and what information they will give them. We will have to look again at the question to be put to the public in a referendum. I am sure that we will return to all those subjects over the next few weeks. Given that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

3.45 p.m.

Clause 3 [Entitlement to vote]:

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 44: Page 2, line 38, after "vote" insert "in response to question 1, under section 2,

The noble Lord said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 45, 46, 48 and 49. Amendment No. 48 is not very applicable because it relates to Amendment No. 26. These amendments would clarify who votes in the referendums. We feel strongly that this is a constitutional issue; therefore, the electorate voting on whether there should be a regional assembly should be that which votes in a parliamentary election. It is an odd thing for a Member of the House of Lords to say because it excludes us from voting in the referendum—rather like turkeys voting for Christmas. But, as I said several times, we are establishing constitutional change in England, which should be decided by those who decide on Parliament.

We tabled Amendment No. 48 because, if we were successful in getting a dual question comprising a question on a regional assembly and one on the reorganisation of local government, the people who vote on the local government component should be those who vote in local government elections.

On Amendment No. 49, Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State enormous powers to override the electoral register. Why is the Secretary of State taking so much power to disregard alterations to the register of electors? That could mean that the Secretary of State could refer back to an earlier register for the purposes of the referendum, which might enable people who had moved elsewhere to vote. We tabled Amendment No. 49 to understand why the Secretary of State wants to take such enormous powers. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I shall do my best to answer the noble Lord's perfectly reasonable questions. Clause 3 sets out the franchise of those entitled to vote in a referendum on the establishment of an elected assembly. The basic rule is that the person entitled to vote from the date of the referendum is entitled to vote at a local government election for any area within the region concerned. That can be modified. Amendment No. 45 would replace that provision with the parliamentary franchise.

Noble Lords are talking up the situation and claiming that great constitutional change is occurring in the country. It is a technical adjustment of democratic accountability and scrutiny.

A noble Lord


Lord Rooker

Oh, yes, yes. Let me put it this way: the changes are not as important as setting up the Scottish Parliament with primary legislation powers or establishing the National Assembly for Wales with secondary powers. Yet the local government franchise, not the parliamentary franchise, was used for those bodies. There could be no more massive constitutional change than the devolution of primary legislative powers from Westminster to Edinburgh, yet the local government franchise applied in that case. Let us not talk it up way beyond what it is and make a mountain out of a molehill.

It is important that Members of your Lordships' House should participate in the elections. I cannot see why the Committee would rule out allowing Members of your Lordships' House to vote in an English regional referendum, even though it was OK for them to vote in the referendums in Scotland and Wales and in the elections to the Greater London Assembly We should maintain a degree of consistency.

I have some sympathy with the reasoning behind Amendment No. 46. However, as I said, there should be a common approach to all sub-national referendums, which is what, effectively, a regional referendum is. In local government and parliamentary elections, we recognise that those who are resident in a place have, to a greater or lesser degree, an interest in and an attachment to the area that is worthy of representation. Those who have a residence in a region, even if it is a second home, will still have an interest in how the region is run.

Amendment No. 48 suggests that only people living in two-tier areas should be able to vote for a future local government structure. I have already made it clear that we do not believe in a separate question on local government restructuring. It would not be useful to go down that road again. Amendment No. 44 is consequential.

Amendment No. 49 has a degree of substance, so I shall give a slightly longer explanation. As we said, Clause 3 sets out the entitlement. It is intended that the franchise will be the same as for local government elections. Amendment No. 49 would remove subsections (2) and (3). There is no sinister motive underlying those subsections. They are there so that the basic rule in Clause 3(1) can be made to correspond to the provisions of the Representation of the People Act 1983, in particular, Section 13B. Those provisions require certain alterations to the register of local government electors to be ignored after the final nomination day for the purpose of a local government election. The section also covers other elections but not referendums. The final nomination day is the last day on which nomination papers may be delivered to the returning officer for the purpose of the election. For local government elections, that is the 19th day before the day of the election, according to election rules.

I shall give an example that shows why we need subsections (2) and (3). Without those subsections, there would be no mechanism for setting a cut-off date for registration for referendums, which is administratively necessary. Furthermore, there might be a combination of a referendum with a local government election. In that situation, it is sensible that there should be no disparity between those who can vote in the referendum and those who can vote in the local government election. Otherwise, running a combined poll would be a problem.

Subsections (2) and (3) also have precedents. For example, there is similar provision in Sections 3(2) and 4(2) of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998 and Section 45 of the Local Government Act 2000. The Committee will be aware that the Select Committee on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform did not comment adversely on the provisions. I assure the Committee that the procedure for making such regulations will be subject to affirmative resolution in both Houses.

The Earl of Onslow

I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will not press the amendment. This is a serious constitutional issue—I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, on that point—and it could be argued that only Members of your Lordships' House should be allowed to vote on the issue and not anybody else.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

Hear, hear.

The Earl of Onslow

However, as that is probably not going to happen, in spite of the vocal approval expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, from the Government Front Bench, I hope that we will all be allowed to vote. After all, voting early and voting often is a good idea. There is nothing wrong with that. We should trust the people, including your Lordships.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I cannot resist the temptation to get to my feet again. I have great respect for the noble Lord, but he takes advantage of slower-moving older people such as myself. He said that we should not talk it up into a big constitutional issue, but I should be delighted to hear him do a thorough job of talking the issue down into an unimportant, mundane non-constitutional issue.

At the moment, I am so misguided as to fear far-reaching consequences. I would be grateful to the noble Lord if he could dislodge my suspicions. Those are firmly implanted, having been well sown by my noble friend Lady Blatch—I could wish for no greater authority—and by my noble friend Lord Waddington, who, with his considerable eloquence and experience, has gone a long way to convince me that it is not as simple an issue as the noble Lord would have me believe.

Baroness Blatch

The Minister was provocative in telling us that it is not a constitutional issue and that those of us who think it is are wrong. We are in good company on the issue. The Select Committee on the Constitution said: We considered that the bill raised significant constitutional issues which we wish to explore further". It also referred to certain areas of concern: the asymmetrical model of regional government which the bill implies…; the proposal to hold referendums at different times in different regions; the criteria which would have to be met to trigger a referendum in a particular region; public participation in consultation, and the provision of information to voters before a referendum; the lack of a turnout threshold in any referendum; the potential for changing boundaries and the independence and powers of the Boundary Committee; and the funding of Regional Assemblies and their independence from central government". The committee recommended: We draw these matters to the attention of the House as raising questions of principle about principal parts of the constitution". If that is not a good recommendation from the Select Committee, I do not know what is.

The integrity of England as a country is at stake. The integrity of Scotland is intact because Scotland has its own Parliament. Wales has its own Assembly. We have already started to break up England by establishing London government. Almost certainly, we will lose our historic counties because of the regional assemblies, and there is a real constitutional issue in the Bill.

As I said, when the Bill is passed by Parliament it will trigger a great deal of executive action, none of which needs to be approved by Parliament. The implications for the future of England in the United Kingdom as a whole makes the time that we spend on the Bill very important.

Lord Rooker

I do not disagree with that last point. The time spent on the Bill is useful. I do not wish to burden the House by going back to the Select Committee report to which I referred last week. However, as far as I am aware, we can satisfy the Committee on the issues that are raised.

If there were a major issue about the franchise, it would have been dealt with when the Scottish Parliament, the Greater London Authority and the Welsh Assembly were set up. I cannot accept that the Bill is of major constitutional importance in the sense that that phrase has been used in the past three days. 'The precedent is there in the other bodies. I have already said that, whatever anyone might claim for them, the English regional assemblies will not be as important in the constitutional framework as the bodies in Scotland and Wales, which pass secondary and primary legislation.

I have said, "No new money. No new powers. No new tier of government". The Bill is a technical adjustment, a reform of democratic accountability. It will not destroy England or obliterate it, which is the preposterous claim made by the Opposition. Nothing could be further from the purpose of the Bill.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the noble Lord for those replies. The Government can take it that there is much unease—particularly about the way the questions will be answered. There is a theme running through all the amendments about the question that is asked, and who votes for it. I am sure that we will come back to these issues at Report and later stages.

I wish to go back to subsection (2) of my Amendment No. 49. The Minister gave a detailed explanation of why that was there. It still gives the Secretary of State enormous powers—not just for these referendums, but for other ways of disregarding electoral registers. Although he gave a detailed explanation, which we shall see when it is written up, I am sure that we shall want to look at it again. I do not see why the Secretary of State should have such wide powers which would apply to other elections. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resume.

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

House resumed.