HL Deb 24 March 2003 vol 646 cc493-534

4.54 p.m.

House again in Committee on Clause 3.

[Amendments Nos. 45 to 49 not moved.]

Lord Greaves moved Amendment No. 49A: Page 3, line 4, at beginning insert "For the purposes of Part 1,

The noble Lord said: In moving this amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments 59A and 59B, standing in the name of my noble friend Lady Hamwee and myself.

We are moving on to a new subject—the counting of the votes and declaration of results in referendums. These are probing amendments, not least because two amendments say different things about the same matter, aimed at getting the Government to say what their thinking is on these matters.

The substance of the amendments is to be found in Amendments Nos. 59A and 59B and covers two areas. First, they state that the counting of the votes must take place at the level of the electoral area, such as the local government wards or county divisions. Secondly, the declaration of the result must be either by principal council area as well as the region as a whole, or by parliamentary constituency as well as the region as a whole.

The amendments would assist in the scrutiny of the results, so that people involved in the referendums, such as the counting agents, the political parties and campaign groups, can have some check on the accuracy of the results. If there is simply one great big announcement, it is difficult to know whether it is accurate. Indeed, the value of such a check can be seen from the European elections in London, in which the results for one borough were declared or sent in wrongly. The political party people were able to check that and get it corrected.

The second and perhaps more important reason for having the results declared at a local level, preferably by principal council area, is that of transparency. We would be able to see whether different parts of a region had voted differently and how those parts of the region voted that have two-tier local government and would be given unitary local government if the referendum were passed and the Government had their way.

We might use the North East as an example. With this amendment, we could see how the different districts in Northumberland voted, as opposed to the region as a whole—the metropolitan districts and unitary areas of the North East. It may be that even if Northumberland voted narrowly against a regional assembly and the region as a whole voted heavily in favour, the Secretary of State might decide on the basis of the referendum to go ahead with setting up a regional assembly in the North East. On the other hand, there might be a very small majority in the region in favour of a regional assembly while the existing two-tier local government areas—the shire counties—might vote heavily against it. In those circumstances, the Secretary of State might pause and think about the matter. He might come to the conclusion that the division of opinion in the region, even if there was a small majority in favour overall, was such that it would not be sensible to go ahead. There might be a great split between different areas.

These are hypothetical questions, because we have no idea how people are going to vote. Given the opportunity to vote for unitary local government and a regional assembly, the people of Northumberland and Durham might flock to the polls to vote for it. Areas such as Newcastle or Gateshead might decide that they do not want a regional assembly because it might undermine the status of the metropolitan councils, which are important to them.

As the effect on different local government areas will be so different depending on whether they are two-tier or unitary, we think that the results of the different areas should be announced. There are precedents for that. In Wales and in Scotland the results were announced by local authority area. Indeed, in Wales, we were all biting our nails awaiting the outcome of the vote in Gwynedd where, although the Government had more or less thrown in the towel, our people said. "No, it will be all right. Gwynedd is going to be okay''. Ultimately it was all right and the final result made the difference.

The results in Wales and Scotland were declared by local authority area, and we expect that these results will be handled in the same way. We have moved this amendment simply to get a commitment from the Government that that will happen. I beg to move.

5 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I can be very brief. There is no need to give the commitment which the noble Lord seeks because those arrangements are a matter of law. Section 128 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 makes clear provision for arrangements for the counting of votes in referendums. That section requires counting officers to be appointed for each district or unitary district and for each counting officer to certify the number of ballot papers counted and the number of votes cast in favour of each answer to the referendum question. Of course there will be more than one polling station, but the fact is that the results will be available by local authority. That is the situation.

There are further complications in some of the amendments regarding parliamentary constituencies. Parliamentary constituencies are contained within local authority boundaries in the area that I come from, although I am aware that in some areas there is a cross-over. MPs always like to know how their constituents vote on any issue that affects them, but in this case it is local authorities that will be affected as they are the units which form the structure of local government. There will be no secret about the results. A breakdown of votes by local authority across the region will be made publicly available at the same time as, or very quickly after, declaration of the overall result.

We do not see the need for separate declarations of votes. As there will be no candidates, it is difficult to see who would attend the declaration. The information on votes across the overall region will not be hidden. As I said, that is provided for in law, which is why it is not dealt with in the Bill.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord has described the certification of each of the boxes and we understand that that has always been the procedure. If I understood what he just said, there will be no sectoral declarations. He also said that all of the procedure will be open and that everyone will know the result. However, people will not know the result unless they are at the count. Will there be a declaration of how each county or parliamentary area votes in my own area of East Anglia, which is composed of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Bedfordshire? Or will there be simply one result and an announcement that, as in London, "X number of people voted. Y people voted in favour and Z people have voted against. Therefore there shall be a London Assembly"? If that is repeated, the intent behind these amendments will not be honoured as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, seeks. We would certainly support him in that.

If a region is being asked whether it wants a regional assembly and two or three of the county areas within a region vote "No" and the others vote "Yes", that result should be announced publicly. There should be a declaration of that view, which should be taken into account in deciding whether to proceed with a regional assembly.

Lord Rooker

That is exactly what I said to the noble Baroness. The results will be announced by the local authorities within the region. The returning officers will make it quite easy to see how the various local authorities have voted. If there are unitary and district authorities within a county, it will be easy to calculate how the citizens of that county voted. It will be easy to calculate how citizens living in two-tier areas voted as against those living in single-tier areas because the declaration will be made by local authority. As I said, the legislation requires that counting officers be appointed for each district or unitary district, and the counting officers will certify the votes.

The results will not be announced at ward level; but that is not the issue. In parliamentary elections, one can take samples, but the results are not announced at ward level. In this case, the votes for and against will be made known at all levels of local government within the region. So it will be easy to see how the various parts of the region have voted. That is what I said, and I am a bit surprised that the noble Baroness interpreted it differently.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I think that we have cleared up the point. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 50: After Clause 3, insert the following new clause—

"PROPORTION OF ELECTORS REQUIRED TO SECURE A MAJORITY A majority in favour of the proposition will not be certified by the Chief Counting Officer unless a majority of those actually voting in the referendum in each of the counties, metropolitan counties or county boroughs comprising the region supports the proposition.

The noble Baroness said: This amendment moves somewhat in the same direction as previous ones. However, it is not about the declaration of the results but about the majority in each area. At Second Reading we discussed at length the balance between rural and urban and how one could be overruled by the other. I think it fair to say that rural areas fear that their views could be subsumed by the overwhelming vote in favour of regional assemblies in the urban areas. The existing proposals seem undemocratic because the vote of those living in shire counties could be well outweighed by those living in unitary authority areas in regions where the greatest proportion of the population lives in unitary areas. For example, the 90 per cent of the electorate who will decide whether people in North Yorkshire are to have a change in local government structure will have nothing whatever at stake because they already have unitary authorities.

The local government of shire areas would, without any safeguard, be voted on by the whole of a generally urban-dominated region rather than by the people of the areas concerned. That would be analogous to having the whole of the UK vote in the Scottish or Welsh referenda, a procedure which was never contemplated for those exercises. Our amendment gives the right of veto to any one county, metropolitan or county borough. If regional assemblies are to be imposed, there must be a majority vote in every area affected. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

I support my noble friend on Amendment No. 50. I think that her amendment is better and simpler than my Amendment No. 119C which seeks to do very much the same thing. I think it important that a majority should vote and that a majority should vote in each district. I also believe it important that a majority of the electorate should be required to vote before a decision can be classed as valid. There is no doubt that devolution in Wales was voted on by a minority, and similarly in Scotland. Both Scotland and Wales have had devolution foisted upon them. Let us hope that regional assemblies are not foisted on people in the same way.

Lord Rooker

I shall stick to the maxim that I announced when we began this Committee stage: I shall answer the amendment on the Marshalled List and not what might be thought to be the idea behind it. This new clause is intended to mean that the chief counting officer could not declare the result of the referendum as being in favour of an assembly unless a majority of those voting in the referendum in the two-tier local authority areas in the region voted in favour. Moreover, whether a majority in the region voted in favour of the question could be extrapolated either from the counts carried out by counting officers—as I said in the previous debate: there will be no secrecy about it—or by the fact that a chief counting officer did not, in effect, certify that the majority had voted against or that the votes were equally split.

Where would that leave us? It is not as though the vote will not be announced. As I said, it will be announced by every local authority. The result will be available anyway.

The amendment seeks to prevent the wishes of a majority of people being overturned by what could be a minority of people. I realise that my next point will be considered fanciful. In the east of England 88 per cent of people live in rural areas with two-tier authorities but only 12 per cent of people live in urban areas. That is a mirror image of the example that was mentioned. It is not fair to pick out particular regions to suit ones argument. I have already said that of the eight regions in the country, four have a majority of two-tier authorities and four have a majority of single-tier authorities. In effect, the amendment is meaningless as it would not present the result being known. Everyone would know what the overall vote was in a region. The amendment would not prevent that information being made available. It is anti-democratic from that point of view, but I do not believe that it would achieve what the noble Baroness intends. As I say, I have discussed the amendment itself rather than what it is intended to achieve.

Baroness Hanham

The amendment may not be absolutely perfect but I believe that it is clear. We say that for every layer of government there must be a majority in favour of regional government and that if one area is against that is enough to negate the vote. That seems not unreasonable where the representatives of a number of tiers of government—the counties, the districts, the unitary authorities and the metropolitan areas—all vote but have different views and different ideas which may result in different outcomes. That is the burden of the amendment. I cannot comment on the chief counting officer's certifying of the result but where the representatives of a number of tiers of government vote—I take the Minister's point that the vote could go the other way in some districts—and where there is an overwhelming vote from one particular part of local government that overwhelms the votes of others, that should not be allowed to be the deciding factor in the referendum. Such a vote should be negated and the chief counting officer ought to be able to declare that it is negated.

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister return to a point that he mentioned a moment ago? I believe he said that 80 per cent of the people in East Anglia live in rural areas. Will he reconsider that point? I refer to the populations of Luton, Hemel Hempstead, Basildon, all the areas around the urban part of southern Essex, Peterborough, Norwich and Ipswich. I do not believe that 80 per cent of the people of East Anglia live in rural areas.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I did not say that and there is no region of East Anglia, much though the noble Baroness may wish that there were. I referred to the east of England where 88 per cent of the population live in areas with two-tier authorities. This debate is about two-tier authorities and the perceived threat to the county councils. We do not accept that proposition but that is what is behind the debate, I believe that Yorkshire and Humberside were referred to. I suggest that the 88 per cent of people in the east of England who live in areas with two-tier authorities could outvote the 12 per cent of people in the east of England who live in areas with single-tier authorities. The 80 per cent of the population of the East Midlands who live in areas with two-tier authorities could outvote the 20 per cent who live in areas with single-tier authorities. However, I do not rest my case on that. As I said, of the eight regions in the country, four have a majority of two-tier authorities and four have a majority of single-tier authorities.

Lord Hanningfield

The Minister keeps repeating that statement. Certainly I should be content if the four referendums were carried out in the four areas where the majority of the population live in rural districts. What concerns us particularly is that in the areas we are discussing, particularly Yorkshire, Humberside, the North West and the North East, the rural areas can be dominated by the urban vote. Therefore, the people in those rural areas will not be given a fair say. I do not think that anyone is proposing elections in the east of England or the South East of England where there would be a massive majority against a regional assembly anyway as things stand at the moment. We are trying to defend the rights of people in places such as Northumberland, Cheshire, Cumbria and Durham, which seem to be ignored in the Government's proposals.

Baroness Hanham

I am not satisfied with the Minister's response and I wish to test the opinion of the Committee.

5.14 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 50) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 83; Not-Contents, 152.

Division No. 1
Allenby of Megiddo, V. Jopling, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B. King of Bridgwater, L.
Astor, V. Laird, L.
Astor of Hever, L. Lindsay, E.
Biffen, L. Listowel, E.
Blaker, L. Luke, L.
Blatch, B. Lyell, L.
Bowness, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Bridgeman, V. MacGregor of Pulham Market,
Brookeborough, V. L.
Buscombe, B. Marlesford, L.
Byford, B. Marsh, L.
Caithness, E. Monro of Langholm, L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Montrose, D.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Moynihan, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Noakes, B.
Chalfont, L. O'Cathain, B.
Cope of Berkeley, L. [Teller] Park of Monmouth, B.
Craig of Radley, L. Pearson of Rannoch, L.
Craigavon, V. Peel, E.
Darcy de Knayth, B. Perry of Southwark, B.
Dean of Harptree, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Denham, L. Plumb, L.
Dixon-Smith, L. Rawlings, B.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Rees, L.
Elton, L. Roberts of Conwy, L.
Fookes, B. Rogan, L.
Fowler, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Freeman, L. Sandwich, E.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Seccombe, B. [Teller]
Geddes, L. Sharples, B.
Gray of Contin, L. Shaw of Northstead, L.
Hanham, B. Skelmersdale, L.
Hanningfield, L. Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L.
Hayhoe, L. Stewartby, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Swinfen, L.
Hogg, B. Vivian, L.
Howe, E. Waddington, L.
Howe of Aberavon, L. Wakeham, L.
Howell of Guildford, L. Weatherill, L.
Jellicoe, E. Wilcox, B.
Jenkin of Roding, L. Willoughby de Broke, L.
Acton, L. Campbell-Savours, L.
Ahmed, L. Carter, L.
Amos, B. Chan, L.
Andrews, B. Christopher, L.
Ashton of Upholland, B. Clark of Windermere, L.
Bach, L. Clarke of Hampstead, L.
Barker, B. Clement-Jones, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Clinton-Davis, L.
Berkeley, L. Cohen of Pimlico, B.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Crawley, B.
Blackstone, B. Davies of Coity, L.
Boothroyd, B. Davies of Oldham, L.
Bradshaw, L. Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B.
Bragg, L. Desai, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. Dholakia, L.
Brookman, L. Dixon, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Dormand of Easington, L.
Bruce of Donington, L. Elder, L.
Burlison, L. Evans of Parkside, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Evans of Watford, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Falkland, V. Methuen, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Michie of Gallanach, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Fearn, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Filkin, L. Mishcon, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Mitchell, L.
Gale, B. Morgan, L.
Gavron, L. Morris of Aberavon, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. Morris of Manchester, L.
Golding, B. Newby, L.
Goldsmith, L. Northover, B.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Orme, L.
Goudie, B. Parekh, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Patel of Blackburn, L.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Paul, L.
Greaves, L. Perry of Walton, L
Gregson, L. Phillips of Sudbury, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller] Pitkeathley, B.
Hamwee, B. Plant of Highfield, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Puttnam, L.
Harris of Richmond, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Harrison, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Haskel, L. Richard, L.
Hayman, B Richardson of Calow, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Rooker, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Roper, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Russell-Johnston, L.
Hooson, L. Sandberg, L.
Howarth of Breckland, B. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B. Scott of Needham Market, B.
Sharp of Guildford, B.
Howie of Troon, L. Sheldon, L.
Hoyle, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Simon, V.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L. Stallard, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Chancellor) Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Jacobs, L. Thornton, B.
Jeger, B. Tomlinson, L.
Jones, L. Tordoff, L.
Jordan, L. Turnberg, L.
King of West Bromwich, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Levy, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Lipsey, L. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Lockwood, B. Walmsley, B.
Lofthouse of Pontefract, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. Whitaker, B.
[Teller] Whitty, L.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L. Wilkins, B.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L. Williams of Crosby, B.
Maclennan of Rogart, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
McNally, L. Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord
Maddock, B. Privy Seal)
Mar and Kellie, E. Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

5.25 p.m.

Clause 4 [Referendum period]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 51: Page 3, line 10, at end insert— ( ) In determining the referendum period the Secretary of State must take advice from the Electoral Commission on the amount of time that should be allowed.

The noble Baroness said: The clause deals with the referendum period, for the purposes of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It states that, the Secretary of State must by order determine the referendum period for a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1". The referendum period is a significant window that must be defined. It will have an impact on matters such as the recording of election expenses and the publication of election material during the period. Yet the Government are allowed free reign to decide on the period of a referendum, in line with the 2000 Act.

The 2000 Act does not set a technical referendum period. It sets a timetable for designating assistance to the campaigns and arrangements for the date of the poll. The likely outcome is a period of 10 weeks. However, I emphasise that there is no set period. It is vital that the referendum period be correctly set. For that reason, it is important that there is some check on the power that can be wielded by the Secretary of State in setting the referendum period, or at least a minimum or maximum level.

There is a danger—I put it no higher—that a Minister might push through a referendum quickly, which would stifle debate or prolong a campaign in the hope of allowing the "Yes" promoters to prevail on the electorate. The preferable option is a campaign of reasonable length, long enough to get information to the voters and set by an independent body with expertise in electoral matters. For that purpose, we propose that the Electoral Commission is such a suitable body. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

As the noble Baroness says, the PPER Act does not expressly set out a period. Taken together, the official "Yes" and "No" campaigns and the date of the poll add up to a minimum period of 10 weeks. The Government's intention would be to set that 10 weeks as the period for a referendum on whether to establish an elected regional assembly.

We would of course discuss and be guided by the commission on the practical implications of the referendum period that we propose, given its role in the running of referendums. I hope that what I have said has reassured the noble Baroness and that she will withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister help us with the procedure? Will he give us some idea of the expected time? I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, suggested that the work of the Boundary Committee would take about a year, but in some areas of the country it may work faster or slower. Is a minimum time expected for that exercise to take place?

Is there a minimum time between the completion of the Boundary Committee's work and when a referendum could be expected? We have already seen that the Minister is in great haste to get the Bill through, and we have suspicions on this matter. If an area of the country is designated and the work is undergone by the Boundary Committee in haste, with the referendum held in almost equal indecent haste, is there any safeguard about the length of time for which consideration has to be taken of the conclusions of the Boundary Committee? Will there at least be some consultation with local people before matters are fixed in a referendum?

Lord Rooker

I shall do my best to help the noble Baroness. We have made it abundantly clear that we cannot say how long the boundary reviews will take because we do not know how many reviews the Boundary Committee will be asked to carry out. We shall not know that until we have seen the statement about the soundings, and we shall not know the result of that until the Bill has received Royal Assent. We do not know how many regions the committee will look at. Its resources will dictate how many reviews it carries out and how long they take. We have said that the process will take in the region of nine months to a year. When the committee has carried out a review, its report will have to go to the Secretary of State for consideration.

However, I can say to the noble Baroness that there is no possibility that we would set the date for the referendum on the day that the Boundary Committee issued its report on the review. In other words, the 10-week period could not start then because the Secretary of State would have to report to Parliament on his view of the Boundary Committee's report. It is what the Government do with the boundary review that counts and not the review itself.

Therefore, after the Boundary Committee has done its work, there will be a gap before the 10-week period—the minimum period referred to by my noble friend—can start. We cannot go beyond that until we know how many regional reviews there are to be. As we have explained, that will depend on the size of the resources and the results of the soundings.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. However, I said that the Boundary Committee may take more or less than that amount of time. As part of my preamble to the question, I asked whether a minimum time would be set so that an assurance could be given ahead of the Boundary Committee's report that there would not be indecent haste between the committee reporting and the start of the referendum. In other words, it would be reassuring to us all if everyone knew that there would be a six, eight or 10-week gap before a referendum could be called at the conclusion of the Boundary Committee's work.

Lord Rooker

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act does not provide for the Electoral Commission to give advice on the boundary review. We must not forget that orders will be brought forward in relation to this matter, and any order, by virtue of Clause 27(2), will be subject to an affirmative resolution of both Houses. Therefore, there cannot be any undue haste in this issue. The matter must be brought back to Parliament and the Secretary of State must make a statement. I cannot say whether it will be made in the House, although it may well be.

However, there is no possibility of a quick fix in relation to this issue. As I said last week, for a referendum conceivably to be held at some date in the autumn of 2004, it will be necessary for the Bill to receive Royal Assent at a reasonably early date—the noble Baroness seems to know the dates better than I do. If this and the other House so desire, that will be fairly early in May this year. It may appear ridiculous that Royal Assent should have to be sought so early. However, because of all the stages that must be gone through in order that there should be no quick fix and no undue haste, that is the necessary procedure. As I said, the matter must come back to Parliament for an order. Perhaps the noble Baroness would have been reassured if I had said that when I first rose. I cannot say how many weeks it will take for the order to be passed hut, because it will be dealt with as part of the parliamentary process, it will not be done overnight.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am afraid that I want to ask him one more question which was triggered by his comments. Can he say where in the Bill it is stated that the order laid before Parliament will be dealt with by affirmative resolution or is it now recorded in Hansard that that will be the case? Do we take that as the accepted process? If he can answer that query, I shall return to the other part of my question.

Lord Rooker

Clause 27(2) reads as follows: But a statutory instrument must not be made unless a draft of the order or regulations (as the case may be) has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House"; that is, by affirmative resolution.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. I also thank his noble friend on the Front Bench for the information concerning the amount of time that will be given for the referendum. I believe he said that it would be a minimum of 10 weeks, but it could be a maximum of 52 weeks. Therefore, where do we obtain information concerning the stretch between the minimum and maximum periods? Most electoral campaigns have a timescale from kick-off to conclusion. It seems to me that these referendums will not operate under the same format in that we seem to be given only the minimum period. Perhaps we may have an idea of the timescale for the maximum period so that we can decide how appropriate it is.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I was under the impression that the thrust of the noble Baroness's amendment was to stop the Government moving quickly and filibustering everyone into a vote. I gave her an assurance about the 10-week period, but she is now asking a question which had not crossed my mind or the minds of my noble friend or our officials because the issue is not central to her amendment. However, as she has raised the question, I shall be happy to consider it.

Baroness Hanham

With the Minister's reassurance that I shall receive a reply to that question at some stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 52: After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—

"INSPECTION OF BOUNDARY COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS (1) This section applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section 1 to cause a referendum to be held in a region about the establishment of an elected assembly for the region. (2) The Secretary of State shall by order provide that a copy of any recommendations made by the Boundary Committee under section 12 in respect of the region in which the referendum is held be made available for inspection by those persons eligible to vote at every polling place in the region and shall be enclosed with every postal ballot paper in respect of the referendum.

The noble Baroness said: We now return to a matter that we have discussed on a number of occasions, including earlier today—that is, the provision of information to voters. I am sure that no noble Lords will disagree that the maximum dissemination of information to the electorate is of inordinate importance. Indeed, we have now received some reassurance from the Minister that some information will be given.

However, from the debates which have ensued in this House and in another place concerning the Bill before us and the details of the elusive regional assemblies which they will allow to be established, it is clear that distrust and misunderstanding predominate, both in terms of the Government's intentions for the new regional bodies and the effect that they will have on transforming the local government structures which serve the needs of the general public.

The amendments that I propose here focus on transparency. Let the Government lay the facts on the table for all to see so that those voting in a referendum have access to the maximum amount of information and can make an informed decision. During the process of preparation for the establishment of regional assemblies, the Government have rightly decided to lay much of the burden of the detailed practicalities and enforcement of the Bill on to two bodies with expertise in their respective fields: the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission. The former is to provide a comprehensive local government review prior to any referendum to ascertain the suitable types of unitary authorities. The latter, under Clause 8, is responsible for providing information to the electorate to raise awareness of the arguments for and against.

Amendment No. 52 seeks to ensure that the recommendations of the Boundary Committee are available at every polling station so that the implications of voting "Yes" in the referendum, in terms of the reorganisation of local government, are published, displayed and made abundantly clear to every voter. Amendment No. 67 emphasises that, in raising awareness of the arguments, the Electoral Commission should describe the powers and functions of regional assemblies as defined in an Act but should do so without incurring unreasonable costs. This point returns to one that we raised under Clause 1—that is, an Act should lay out the powers and responsibilities of regional assemblies before anyone is required to vote in a referendum.

I believe it is vital that these provisions are set out on the face of the Bill. Cost is an issue which has surfaced already in the debate and will do so again today. Reasonableness and proportionality must be maintained at all times when it comes to balancing the cost incurred by the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee and the efficiency and thoroughness of the work of those two bodies. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

We have two amendments in this group—Amendments Nos. 63 and 64. I appreciate that Clause 8(2) provides for steps to be taken by the Electoral Commission to disseminate information which the commission considers likely to promote awareness among voters about the arguments for and against each answer to the referendum question. I suppose that that is a long way of describing information relating to a "Yes" or "No" vote.

Our amendments refer specifically to the context of the "Yes" or "No" answers in relation to reorganisation of local government and the powers, functions and composition of the assembly. To a substantial degree we have covered that subject already in debate and the Minister has given many assurances. On a previous occasion I referred to problems in London where booklets have not been received as widely as they should have. Others outside his place may be affected by my colleague's concern.

On Amendment No. 67, cart the Minister say whether paragraph (b) would limit dissemination, given the words, so tar as that can be achieved without incurring unreasonable marginal cost"?

Lord. Rooker

In dealing with Amendments Nos. 52 and 67 first, I accept that people should not vote in ignorance of what is planned. That is why local government reviews should be conducted before a referendum. This may be nitpicking—I suspect that I am drafting opposition amendments for Report stage—but the public need to know not just what the Boundary Committee recommended but what the Government intend to do with the recommendations. I shall return to that. Placing such information at polling stations would be too late. It should be part and parcel of what is put through every letter-box.

Amendment No. 67 would scupper our timetable completely. I suppose that is the intention. It seeks to ensure that any information that the Electoral Commission issues to voters describes the powers, functions, duties and responsibilities as defined in an Act of Parliament. With the best will in the world there is no prospect of an Act of Parliament before the autumn of 2004. We may have a draft Bill—we shall use our best endeavours to achieve that so that we have the legislative proposals—but the idea of there being an Act of Parliament is an absolute non-starter. It just is not possible. Therefore, the amendment is designed to scupper holding any referendums before the next general election. That is not consistent with our proposal.

The amendment is not clear, but is it intended that the Electoral Commission is not to describe the powers and functions in the absence of such an Act? It is difficult to understand how it will perform its functions under Clause 8 in the first referendums. This is a chicken and egg situation. If it requires a commitment from the Government that they will use their best endeavours to get draft legislation in front of the House and the voters before a referendum so that they can see our intention in relation to the functions, rather than there being simply a government statement about the functions and duties of assemblies, then I accept that we shall use our best endeavours to do that. We have made that clear in earlier debates.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that we have covered some of the amendments and I was tempted to ask why we are debating them again. I am here as long as I am needed. First, she said that my responses had been adequate but she qualified that and said that they were not adequate. I understand the concerns and I agree that it is important to air the types of issues dealt with in the amendments so that the voters, in a mature democracy, have a degree of information that is consistent with making judgments on the referendums.

However, we believe that the amendments are unnecessary because we cannot conceive of the Electoral Commission being able to carry out its function under Clause 8 without referring to the matters covered in the amendments. We have made it clear that prior to the referendum we intend to publish a statement of what the Government intend to do with the Boundary Committee recommendations so that that the information will be in the public domain, which is fundamental. We shall add to that the best available information about costs, functions, duties and responsibilities as well as the boundaries. It will be an important statement that will elevate the importance of the referendums, if there are to be any.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I understand that to some extent we have covered the same ground. It is clear to me that gradually, through the course of this Committee stage, we shall come to grips with what information will be available to voters. It is important that before the public vote they are made aware of the recommendations of the Boundary Committee. I tend to accept the Minister's view that it would be a good idea if they knew what the Secretary of State was thinking as well. It has to be published somewhere. I believe that the Minister has given an assurance that it will be published.

On the powers and constitutional responsibilities, which takes us back to an earlier debate on Clause 1, I believe that this is putting the cart before the horse. If we had a regional assemblies Bill, this Bill would not have taken anything like as long. We have all tried to estimate, to guestimate and to encourage the Minister to tell us what the regional assemblies will be about. We are still not clear what the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements will be. It would be preferable if those were in an Act of Parliament as that would allow the House and another place an opportunity to discuss it, change it and amend it before people were asked to vote for what is a completely new layer of government. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment by leave withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Referendums: frequency]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 53: Page 3, line 18, leave out "five" and insert "ten

The noble Baroness said: The amendment is straightforward. It prevents a referendum on elected regional assemblies being held for 10 years following a "No" vote, starting from the date on which the referendum is held. As presently drafted the Bill says five years. The rationale behind the amendment is simply common sense. A vote in favour at a referendum brings with it both the establishment of regional assemblies and a complete overhaul of local government structure to abolish two tiers and to set up unitary authorities. Where a referendum is unsuccessful, existing local government structures will remain unchanged. However, it is inevitable that any long-term planning or strategies will be impossible because the local government bodies will be operating under constant threat of another referendum and a subsequent reorganisation. We propose to lengthen the time between referendums from five years to 10 years to allow local government bodies some degree of reassurance within which they can carry on their duties with maximum efficiency. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness

I support my noble friend on this important point. During the previous two days in Committee I was impressed by the arguments of those noble Lords who are heavily involved in local government, such as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, who sadly is not in her place. They convinced the Committee that the upheaval to local government would occur in the period leading up to the reform. We are now in the early part of 2003, so for a period of two years local government will spend time thinking about what will happen at the end of 2004 and they will not focus on what they should be doing which is running the district or unitary authority.

If in 2004 or early 2005 there is a referendum, I pity those poor people in local government. They will be faced with another two-year period virtually immediately thereafter within the next five years when again they will have to focus on the potential threat of another referendum rather than getting on with running their particular area. Therefore, for that reason, I think that 10 years is better than five years.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. I should have asked it at an earlier stage, but it has only just occurred to me. He referred to the soundings that the Secretary of State will announce after Royal Assent. Can the Secretary of State be taken to judicial review on his decision on the soundings?

Baroness Blatch

I know the noble Lord does not like two noble Lords rising on a matter, but a specific question has arisen. When we discussed the matter on a previous Committee day the noble Lord was helpful with the timetable. He was absolutely adamant that a regional assembly could not be up and running before 2006–07. If that is the case, and if a "No" referendum can be held again five years later, then—as my noble friend has hinted, but I want to make it more specific—if there is a three-year run in, because we are now in the early part of 2003, all the upheaval starts again only two years after the referendum is held in order to be able to hold a referendum in the fifth year following it.

Does the noble Lord really advocate the upheaval that we will all witness taking place shortly and the unsettling nature of that for absolutely everyone, particularly those in local government? For an area that says "No" twice, it could be 15 years with only one or possibly two years' respite between each referendum. The rest of that time and enormous amount of resources will be taken up in going through the run in to yet another referendum. I hope that is not what the Government propose.

Lord Rooker

I am speaking off the top of my head, so I may get information. I have good and bad news for the noble Baroness. The scenario that she envisages is that of a "No" vote. If there is a "No" vote in, say, the autumn of 2004, there will not be a regional assemblies Bill. The only time that a Bill will be introduced to set up regional assemblies is after a "Yes" vote. So the timetable that I set out would be smashed to pieces as there would not be a Bill because there would not be a regional assembly. So the issue of the second referendum timetable cannot follow the dates given by the noble Baroness.

I fully accept the point raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Earl about those experienced in local government understanding that doubts that hang over people's heads can be disruptive. I shall address that substantively. On the question asked by the noble Baroness, there would not be a regional assemblies Bill. That is the good news from her point of view.

Lord Hanningfield

Surely the Minister would agree that if there was a referendum in two regions at the end of next year and one voted "Yes" and the other voted "No", there would be a regional assemblies Bill for the one that voted "Yes", but the one that voted "No" would be in the situation described by my noble friend Lady Blatch. That would have had one massive amount of reorganisation and could be destined for another lot within a short period if we had two referendums, as is possible at the end of next year.

Lord Rooker

Yes, I intended to enter into that. I was using the scenario of one referendum. I do not know and none of us will know how many referendums there will be. We literally will not know until after the result of the soundings. So I cannot be precise about the timetable. It depends on the circumstances. If there was one referendum and it was a "No" vote, one could say the whole policy was shot to pieces in a way because the soundings would have clearly indicated referendums.

I will be held to the timetable I gave—that there cannot be a regional assembly up and running. The earliest conceivable date I gave was July 2006, but in the circumstances in which I have it and not if the circumstances change.

I shall not go to the wire on the issue of five years. That issue was raised in another place. One argument is that five years is the maximum length of a Parliament. Under our rules, one could argue that one Parliament does not commit its successor. So five years is reasonable on those grounds. If we provide for 10 years, another government could pass primary legislation and change it anyway, simply because one Parliament cannot bind its successor. We do not want people having constant uncertainty about when successive referendums might be held. I fully take on board the point about the gap between the first referendum and when the assembly is set up because of the need for a Bill. I fully accept that if there was a "No" vote there could be an argument for making sure that it was not revisited earlier for the reasons raised by the noble Lord. I shall discuss that matter with my noble friends.

We want to avoid the excessive costs of referendums being repeated unnecessarily. But people might change their minds. If there has been a "No" vote and once the five-year period has passed—this is where the scenario is a problem because if there is one referendum there would not be a Bill—we could order a second referendum only where soundings taken showed that there is enough interest to hold one.

One must imagine the scenario. There is the "upheaval"—I use the noble Lord's word, not my own—and the uncertainty of local government. There is a referendum, and it is "No". So it is big news in the region: we voted "No". It would be a brave person who came along and said, "Hang on, I think you ought to have another look at this". The natural reaction of many people will be, "We have decided on all this". But there may be changed circumstances. So there must be an opportunity to revisit the issues by taking soundings to test the level of interest for a subsequent referendum. Of course the five years in the legislation is not a requirement but a minimum period.

The issue could be judicially reviewed. But people think of judicial review as an appeal on a decision. That is not its function. The function of a judicial review is to look at the way in which a decision was arrived at. As I have said, my right honourable friend has to come to Parliament to explain the results of the soundings and his judgment as to whether or not there will be a referendum. That will not be an easy issue. The soundings are being analysed at the present time. Ministers have not been privy to any information. Therefore, it is a decision that will be crawled over by people. The decision to make that direction under Clause 12 is judicially reviewable, but judicial review is not an appeal. I have covered the other point.

The argument for five years is not brilliant. It could be greater but it will not be less. Clearly, if there is a "No" vote in one area and a "Yes" vote in another there will be legislation. Therefore, the next time around the legislation will be on the statute hook for the regional assemblies. That delay would not arise. One would not have this period of uncertainty. I admit that in the example given the five years is not five years—it is a lot less. That issue should be addressed. That is why we shall have another look at it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I am not sure that I followed what the Minister has just said, but I am pleased to hear that he will discuss the issue with his ministerial colleagues. Local authorities generally work on quite a long timescale. Good local authorities plan for much longer than five years. Always to have at the back of their mind that what they are planning they may not be able to bring to fruition because of another referendum will be unsettling. The period of 10 years proposed is probably the minimum that should be considered.

My other point—to which we shall probably return on Report—is that we are only discussing the position when the people in the region have said no. What about those people who said yes but who are completely fed up with the idea after five or 10 years? Do they not have the opportunity to say—we have heard enough about this—"It is costing us much more money, not doing what we thought it should, and we now want to review the matter through another referendum"? Will the Minister also take on board that possibility?

It seems completely wrong to tell people that if they make a decision at one point, that is it and they can never alter it. The same applies to referendums in some countries about the European Union. Once they have said yes, that is it. But if they say no, referendums keep being held until they say yes. I want some fairness introduced to the matter of referendums. Perhaps the Minister will also take that on board with his colleagues.

6 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister who at least empathised with some of the points made in the debate. However, I wish to ask one more question. I have read the Bill carefully but, unless I have missed it, there is no constraint on the Secretary of State from conducting his soundings at any period during the five years. I see no limit on his power to decide that he would like to reconsider an area that may have come quite close to saying yes but did not.

A year or two after that decision, he could take soundings again so that in the third year of that five-year period he is ready to say, "I think that the Boundary Committee can now start its work again", and to hold another referendum at the five-year point. As I said, perhaps I have missed the provision in the Bill, but it would be helpful to know whether there is any constraint on the Secretary of State.

Lord Rooker

I have an answer, but it is contained in my response to a later debate. The answer is that it is only after five years that the Secretary of State can consider whether soundings can be taken. It will not be possible for the Secretary of State to order soundings to start three years into the five-year period; it is only after the five years have elapsed.

I cannot cite chapter and verse about how the legislation is drafted—I shall have to read the notes—but there is also the spirit of what we intend. That cannot be gone against. A no vote means that the matter cannot be revisited for a minimum period of five years. Only after that period would soundings be taken. So, by definition, it would take a bit longer. I shall answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, when we come to debate another amendment. I gather that the answer is contained in my response to Amendment No. 55.

Baroness Hanham

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his candour, even if he has lost all his files, because he has again begun to open up some of the unrevealing words of this part of the Bill. I shall not press the amendment today, because the Minister has begun to unpick the problem and I should like to give him the opportunity for discussion to find out exactly what the period of five years means. I accept that he has given an excellent answer, but he may want to revisit it.

We must underline again that the provision will be highly disruptive. If the soundings can be taken all over again and the whole process restarted, the soundings will also be disruptive. The whole work of local authorities may be undermined by the proposal for a further referendum. Has the Minister found the answer? Have I talked for long enough?

Lord Rooker

I apologise for the confusion on my part. Amendment No. 55 addresses the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and it is best that I answer it when the time comes. I accept his chastisement, but I cannot give him the commitment that he requested. I have gone as far as I can, because what has been asked is reasonable in respect of the first referendum and the timescale proposed by the Conservative Front Bench is worth a second look.

Baroness Hanham

Before I withdraw the amendment, I point out that Clause 5(2) states: No further order under section 1 may be made", which makes it seem that the position may not be as the Minister thought. Under that provision, the Secretary of State would be entitled to start the soundings sooner than the five years. Perhaps the matter can be clarified. We shall return to it on Report when I hope again to be able to withdraw the amendment, having been satisfied. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 54 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 55: After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—

"FURTHER REFERENDUM ON PETITION (1) This section applies if an elected assembly for a region has been established pursuant to a referendum held under section 1(1). (2) The Secretary of State shall by order cause a further referendum to be held in a region specified in the order if he is presented with a petition requesting such a referendum signed by not less than 5 per cent of the electors eligible to vote in the region as defined in section 3(1). (3) The question to be asked in a referendum held pursuant to an order under subsection (2) is the question set out in section 2(1).

The noble Baroness said: I have been rather preempted by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. None the less, I shall speak to the amendment. The proposals set out in the Bill would result in some areas having elected assemblies and some not. That means that, to some extent, regional assemblies may reasonably be supposed to be experimental and on trial and, should they be deemed to be unsuccessful, the experiment should be reversible—especially as they will, we hope, have been voted in by a majority of the population, although possibly with quite a small majority. In considering the amendment, it is relevant to remember that the process outlined in the Bill allows regions to proceed at different times towards an elected regional assembly, as we have discussed.

The long-term administrative and democratic arrangements for England may not be best served where one part of the country has an elected assembly while others do not. Therefore, a mechanism should be available through which an elected assembly can be abolished should it prove unsuccessful in delivering the Government's objectives and should the electorate so wish.

The amendment proposes that if 5 per cent of the electorate has signed a petition, the Secretary of State must call another referendum as soon as possible. The proportion of 5 per cent as a trigger mechanism is debatable, but it seems a reasonable threshold.

The principle is simple. If regional assemblies do not deliver, the people of the region have the right to ask for another referendum to be held to ascertain whether the majority is still in favour. The Government make much of responding to local wishes, and the proposed regional assemblies are a leap in the dark. I beg to move.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, for jumping the gun. I have said what I wanted to say, so I await the Minister's reply.

Lord Rooker

Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I had the information that I was looking for all the time. I opened my folder at the wrong place. I apologise to my staff—they had provided me with the information.

I think that the noble Lord. Lord Stoddart, will accept that the new clause proposed in Amendment No. 55 is in some ways unprecedented. Let us not forget that the regional assemblies will be part of the democratic process. If an assembly is set up, elections to it will be held every four years, so the public will have a chance to express a view on its operation. I accept that the elections will involve electing representatives rather than voting on whether the assembly should have existed in the first place. But voters could make it abundantly clear if they were dissatisfied.

This amendment would lead to uncertainty and disruption—more so for local authorities and the assembly's other partners in the region. The assembly could be held to ransom by a 5 per cent trigger in a tiny part of the region without any other measure of public opinion or circumstances. I do not prophesise, but, despite massive voter turnouts and interest in what the assemblies were doing, an aggrieved 5 per cent in one area could suddenly trigger a referendum. That could cause a real problem.

A second referendum would be like trying to turn back the clock once an assembly was up and running. The assemblies will be democratically accountable and will face the electorate every four years. The public can express their views on whether the organisation and its members are worthy of what they are doing without the need to abolish it and cause disruption. I do not think that this is a good idea. It is not worth pursuing.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

The Minister is wrong— we can turn back the clock; we will do exactly that next Sunday morning. The arrangements of asking people what sort of government they want and the reorganisation of government after public consultation are new. It happened in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in England. It is a unique policy of asking people how they want to be governed. That being so, people would understand that they could make mistakes; therefore, they ought to be given the opportunity to correct them.

In other words, if the public are given the opportunity to set up a region but find that it is not satisfactory, that it has created more bureaucracy, that it costs much more than expected and that the authority does not listen to them, then, under such a consultative system, they should be able to seek a referendum on the regional assembly. If a majority votes "No", they should be able to return to the previous system of counties, districts and parishes. What can be done can be undone. If the aim of the Bill is to meet the wishes of the people, let us go on doing so. If it is good to meet their wishes now, surely it must good in the future.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

When the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, ended his oration with the remark, I do not think that this is a good idea", he oversimplified even his own argument. It was charitable on the part of my noble friend on the Front Bench simply to smile sweetly at the noble Lord when lie made the remark. Perhaps I could not see her face properly.

Baroness Hanham

I have not had a chance to respond yet.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

I am sorry. I was puzzled by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, to whom I listen regularly with great attention. Fie put it rather easily—he can correct me if I am wrong—that people can make mistakes and what can be done can be undone. I suppose that that is true. Nevertheless, by analogy to the modern term "screwing things up, many people are marvellous with screwdrivers, and it is extremely difficult to loosen things and tidy, up afterwards. I hope that the noble Lord will take the argument seriously.

I have not yet been satisfied on one point—I apologise if it is not relevant to the amendment. Will the Minister explain what the Government Offices of the Regions are doing as regards regional assemblies? I cannot believe that they are just waiting their turn. I suspect that they are extremely busy constructing a nice, comfortable nest for regional assemblies to gather in when the time comes.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Before the Minister sits down, since 1973, local government has been reorganised twice—around once every 12 years. I hope that he will accept that what can be done can also be undone and has already been undone.

Baroness Hamwee

I share with the noble Lord. Lord Peyton, the wish to understand better what will happen to the Government Offices for London. I do not share his optimism that their work will be passed to the regional assemblies. However, that point is not central to the amendment.

The Minister's response was mild. We on these Benches could not accept the amendment. Once an assembly is established, it would be difficult to disentangle concerns about its operation as between, on the one hand, structural problems, and, on the other, anxiety about the politicians running it. Apart from the novel nature of the proposal, I fear that the vote would be affected by a political response to the assembly's administration at that time rather than structural problems with the assembly.

The greatest support that I can give the amendment is to say that it would be a better response than that given by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, to the GLC. It would have been better to hold a referendum than to abolish the GLC. I am afraid that I cannot go further than that.

Baroness Hanham

I thank noble Lords for the free discussion on the amendment. The regions will be set up according to the will of the electorate, not the Government. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the electorate holds in its hands the future of a regional assembly. A 5 per cent turnout is substantial. My maths is rotten, but the support of many people would have to be garnered to achieve such a turnout and ensure that a second referendum is held. Five per cent of the electorate would be telling the Government that there should be a second referendum to test whether the majority was still in favour of retaining the regional assembly. I accept the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made: it might become a test of what the assembly was doing. It might be a good thing for the assembly to be tested on what it was doing. It would not be an election of people to run the assembly: the issue would be whether what the assembly was doing was worth the money and effort that everybody was putting in.

This is a matter that requires our attention, so I beg leave to test the opinion of the Committee.

6.20 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 55) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 78; Not-Contents, 142.

Division No. 2
Anelay of St Johns, B. Hogg, B.
Arran, E. Hooper, B.
Astor, V. Howe, E.
Astor of Hever, L. Howe of Aberavon, L.
Baker of Dorking, L. Howe of Idlicote, B.
Blaker, L. Howell of Guildford, L.
Blatch, B. Jenkin of Roding, L.
Bowness, L. Jopling, L.
Bridgeman, V. [Teller] King of Bridgwater, L.
Brookeborough, V. Lindsay, E.
Buscombe, B. Luke, L.
Byford, B. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Caithness, E. MacGregor of Pulham Market,
Campbell of Alloway, L. L.
Carlisle of Bucklow, L. Mancroft, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B. Marlesford, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L. Monro of Langholm, L.
Chan, L. Montrose, D.
Colwyn, L. Moynihan, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L. Noakes, B.
Craigavon, V. Northbourne, L.
Crickhowell, L. Northbrook, L.
Dean of Harptree, L. O'Cathain, B.
Denham, L. Onslow, E.
Dixon-Smith, L. Palmer, L.
Elliott of Morpeth, L. Park of Monmouth, B.
Fookes, B. Peel, E.
Fowler, L. Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Freeman, L. Pilkington of Oxenford, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B. Plumb, L.
Geddes, L. Rawlings, B.
Gilmour of Craigmillar, L. Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, L.
Hanham, B. Rogan, L.
Hanningfield, L. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Hayhoe, L. Selborne, E.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L. Sharples, B.
Skelmersdale, L. Strathclyde, L.
Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, L. Vivian, L.
Waddington, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L. Wilcox. B. [Teller]
Acton, L. Hunt of Chesterton, L.
Ahmed, L. Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Alli, L. Irvine of Lairg. L. (Lord
Amos, B. Chancellor)
Andrews, B. Jay of Paddington, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L. Jeger, B.
Barker, B. Jones, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L. Jordan, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L. King of West Bromwich, L.
Berkeley, L. Lipsey, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L. Lockwood, B.
Blackstone, B. Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Brennan, L. Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Brookman, L. [Teller]
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Burlison, L. Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Campbell-Savours, L. McNally, L.
Carlile of Berriew, L. Maddock, B.
Carter, L. Mar and Kellie, E.
Christopher, L. Mason of Barnsley, L.
Clark of Windermere, L. Massey of Darwen, B.
Clarke of Hampstead, L. Merlyn-Rees, L.
Clement-Jones, L. Methuen, L.
Clinton-Davis, L. Michie of Gallanach, B.
Cohen of Pimlico, B. Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Craig of Radley, L. Milner of Leeds, L.
Crawley, B. Mitchell, L.
Davies of Oldham, L. Morgan, L.
Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde, B. Morris of Aberavon, L.
Desai, L. Morris of Manchester, L.
Dholakia, L. Newby, L.
Dixon, L. Parekh, L.
Donoughue, L. Patel, L.
Dormand of Easington, L. Patel of Blackburn, L.
Elder, L. Paul, L.
Evans of Parkside, L. Perry of Walton, L.
Evans of Temple Guiting, L. Pitkeathley, B.
Evans of Watford, L. Plant of Highfield, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L. Prys-Davies, L.
Falkland, V. Puttnam, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B. Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L. Razzall, L.
Fearn, L. Rea, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L. Rendell of Babergh, B.
Gale, B. Richard, L.
Gavron, L. Rooker, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B. St. John of Bletso, L.
Golding, B. Sandberg, L.
Goldsmith, L. Sawyer, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L. Scotland of Asthal, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B. Sharp of Guildford, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L. Sheldon, L.
Greaves, L. Shutt of Greetland, L.
Grocott, L. [Teller] Simon, V.
Hamwee, B. Smith of Leigh, L.
Hardy of Wath, L. Stone of Blackheath, L.
Harris of Haringey, L. Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Harris of Richmond, B. Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Harrison, L. Tenby, V.
Haskel, L. Thornton, B.
Hayman, B. Tomlinson, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B. Tordoff, L.
Hogg of Cumbernauld, L. Turnberg, L.
Hollis of Heigham, B. Turner of Camden, B.
Holme of Cheltenham, L. Walker of Doncaster, L.
Howells of St. Davids, B. Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Hoyle, L. Walmsley, B.
Hughes of Woodside, L. Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Weatherill, L. Williams of Mostyn, L. (Lord
Whitaker, B. Privy Seal)
Whitty, L. Woolmer of Leeds, L.
Williams of Crosby, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

6.30 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 56: After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—


After paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 14 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (c. 41) there is inserted—

"(2A) In the case of a referendum held under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 an overall limit shall be placed on the total permitted spending by all permitted participants campaigning for and against the proposition, and that limit shall be equal in respect of each side and subject to an overall ceiling of no more than £1 million.""

The noble Baroness said: I freely admit that this is not a perfectly framed amendment. I am sure that the Minister will tell me so when he replies, so I shall put my shot in first. Also, the figure of £1 million in the amendment is there only for probing purposes.

We hope to hear an answer to t his point: what do the Government believe to be an appropriate cost for the referendum campaigns in a region? Do they intend, as in other elections, to limit the expenditure which can lawfully be spent and have that amount accounted for by election referendum agents? Presumably the Government have thought carefully about this, particularly since campaigning for regional referendums will be a cost on the taxpayer, or on those contributing to campaigns in what will be a hotly contested competitive environment. If £1 million, that is, £2 million overall, is not of the right order, will the Minister indicate what he believes is the appropriate sum?

Turning to the main burden of the amendment, the House will know that referendum legislation already allows for unequal spending on each side in the referendum campaign. That unfairness is what the Government intended, and what it enacted during the passage of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Unequal funding for national referendums is enshrined in Schedule 14 to that Act. Although the Secretary of State is required under the schedule to have regard to the advice of the Electoral Commission, he is not bound by that advice, although he does have to explain his reasons for not following it. There are no clear guidelines on the funding rules given in the schedule. Instead, the Secretary of State may by order set whatever limits he wishes. He may, under paragraph 2(3), set different amounts for different referendums. He may also prescribe different amounts for different participants. So the Government can do pretty well anything they like when it comes to setting the referendum spending rules.

We would like to see that unfairness revisited and corrected, but this is not the Bill for correcting the problems of nationwide referendums. However, we must address the possible risk of unfairness in local referendums. Strikingly, there is nothing in the Bill to clarify the position. This is a fair referendum amendment. It seeks to establish a position where the limit on the spending of those campaigning on one side of the argument is equal to the limit of those campaigning on the other side. It may be technically difficult, as the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said in his report on funding. However, it would be fair and achievable, certainly regarding spending by political parties. That is why the amendment promotes equal spending limits for the yes and no campaigns. If the Minister cannot accept the amendment, will he give an undertaking to publish before Report his intended guidelines on funding so that the House can consider them?

The Minister should also address a number of related questions that may lead to unequal funding. What controls will there be on funding of pro-campaigns by EU institutions or by EU companies that are keen to advance the ideology of a Europe of the regions? What limits will there be on publicity from the European Union that directly or indirectly promote regional government or regional organisations in the run-up to a referendum? Will there be restrictions on national spending on publicity that may influence regional referendums? Would a company, incorporated in Europe, and carrying out business in the UK, be able to give donations without seeking shareholder agreement? The Minister may not be able to answer those questions now. He may also start saying that I am seeing EU reds under the bed. However it is possible that we may find other money being put in, which the Government had not intended. It would be helpful if the Minister could at least to answer all those points—although I see by his face that he may not. Will he either write to me, or respond in some other way, before we reach the next stage? I beg to move.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

I am sure that the amendment is an appropriate issue to raise, however I cannot believe that it alone is sufficient or proper as an amendment. One simply has to look at the numbers—2.5 million in the North East and 8 million in the South East. Therefore, if a million is right for one, it is not right for the other. I do not know what the figure is. It is right that it is looked at, and that there is a proper playing field. It cannot be right to pick a figure at random and suggest that that is the same for each region.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

It is a fair and reasonable amendment, because it will elicit a reply which I hope will satisfy the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. I cannot answer the detailed questions she asked, but I will write to her.

The amendment is unworkable. It is at odds with the approach taken by PPERA. Paragraph 2 of Schedule 14 allows for an order to be made setting limits on expenditure incurred by individual permitted participants—either by themselves or on their behalf. It envisages that this might be done by setting different levels for different categories of permitted participants, as has already been done in UK-wide referendums.

First, the timing would be unworkable. We would want to make any order setting limits on spending in good time before referendums so that organisations and individuals know what expenses they would be able to incur before deciding whether to declare themselves as permitted participants. We would need to know the number of permitted participants in each yes and no campaign in order to set individual limits that do not exceed the proposed £1 million overall limit. We cannot set expenditure limits until we know the number of participants. However, we will not know that until well after we have set the limits.

Lord Waddington

I thank the Minister for giving way. Does what he has said mean that he favours some sort of limit on expenditure?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

When I rose, I said that I hoped that I would be able to meet the criticism of the amendment, implied by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham. That is what I am leading up to. I am just setting the scene, which is important.

Secondly, the amendment would result in an unworkable situation because it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce an overall limit. The amendment would, in effect, expect permitted participants to co-ordinate continuously how much each had spent out of the total ceiling. I am not sure what sanction the noble Baroness intends if the limit were breached. Would someone be criminally liable because someone else, unconnected with them, overspent? That is neither fair nor palatable. I hope noble Lords accept that the amendment will not work in practice. However, I shall be positive and explain how the Government intend to proceed.

As I have said, paragraph 2 of Schedule 14 to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act already contains provision to set different limits in relation to referendums held in particular parts of the UK. My right honourable friend the Minister for Local Government has written to Sam Younger, the chair of the commission, to seek its views about whether different limits should apply for regional referendums and, if so, what they should be and why. That is a crucial point.

The commission has not yet done any detailed work on what might be appropriate levels for a regional referendum but has suggested that its officials work with those of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. That seems a sensible way ahead. We would envisage putting out proposals for public consultation before making any order and Parliament would have an opportunity to scrutinise any order made under paragraph 2 of Schedule 14 to the PPERA in due course.

I hope that in the light of the explanation the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment. I can assure Members of the Committee that we are looking carefully at the whole issue and working closely with the Electoral Commission. We have not made up our minds; there is no hidden agenda. We agree with the view of the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that there should be a high degree of transparency in this matter and we will keep the House informed as deliberations continue.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. It is useful to know that discussions are being held with the Electoral Commission. I am mindful of the fact that in every other election there is a limit per head per candidate, so there is no question of overstepping any links. I cannot therefore see that that is not a possible way of dealing with the matter.

I said at the outset that £1 million was tabled as part of a probing amendment in order to establish the principle that there should be a limit. It should not be the case that some participants can overwhelm the rest of the participants with the glory of their advertising material, set against the glossy background of huge sums of money.

I should be pleased to know when the Electoral Commission is to make a decision. Is it within the timescale of the Bill? If not, how will the Minister inform Parliament of that situation? I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Geddes)

I must advise the Committee that if Amendment No. 57 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 58 or 59 due to pre-emption.

Clause 6 [Combination of polls]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 57: Page—line 26, leave out subsections (1) to (3) and insert— ( ) Referendum polls held in pursuance of an order under section I may not be combined with any other polls.

The noble Baroness said: The Explanatory Notes comment on Clause 6 that it, enables provision to be made by order for the combination of polls at a referendum under the Bill with other polls for any election or at referendums held under Part 2 of the Local Government Act 2000. Before making an order under this clause a Minister of the Crown must first consult the Electoral Commission".

Amendment No. 57 would prevent referendums on establishing elected regional assemblies being combined with any other poll. Amendment No. 75 is consequential to Amendment No. 57. If regional referendums were combined with council elections in two-tier local government areas, people could be asked to vote for a new council at the same time as they were being asked to vote in favour of the abolition of the council to enable an elected regional assembly to be established in the region.

Combining regional referendums with a general election could also overshadow full coverage of the arguments for and against elected regional assemblies. Two different but competing campaigns will be running at the same time, causing considerable confusion.

If the Government believe so strongly in regional government, they must have the confidence to allow the debate to be unencumbered by other electoral distractions. The same applies in the general election where electors might find themselves voting for a Member of Parliament to represent their area in Parliament solely on the basis of the stand they take on elected regional assemblies and not on the more general policies.

Establishing elected regional assemblies ultimately represents a significant change to the structure of local government in England and to the country's constitutional arrangements. An issue of such importance arguably warrants stand-alone referendums that are not overshadowed by any other polls.

I find this a surprising clause in the Bill. I do not believe that we should accept Clause 6 and all the implications it carries without a more detailed debate. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reasoning behind the combination of polls. I expect that he will talk about the cost saved by combining polls or the utility of setting a vote on a referendum on the day of another poll in terms of voter turnout. If so, I would be unlikely to be satisfied by his argument.

Amendment No. 58 offers another solution. Referendums may not be combined with an election which uses a different electoral system. On our first day in Committee, we talked at length about the confusion for voters. In consideration of the next few clauses, we will mention extensively the need to provide clarity during the electoral process; to disseminate information to maximum effect to voters; the duty of the Electoral Commission to put forward the arguments for and against; the importance of the preamble on the ballot paper; and the fundamental need for transparency on the reports of the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission.

My noble friend Lord Hanningfield has argued our case for decoupling the questions. These amendments are based on the same fundamental principle. It is possibly hypocritical to combine elections for county or district councils with a referendum for regional assemblies. It is unwise to combine a referendum for regional assemblies with a general election, especially since a referendum order would be made for regions at different times. Information and procedure could easily become muddled. Regional assemblies are a separate entity and should be considered as a separate election. I beg to move.

6.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

The issue of combining polls is difficult and faces us imminently. We have recently had the consultation on the combination of polls in May or June 2004. My view relates to the convenience of the voter. I do not necessarily jump from that to saying that it is right to combine polls. I appreciate the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, about different electoral systems. It is not an easy issue, but we are strange animals and enjoy elections. The evidence seems to be that the number of members of the public who do so and want to turn out is ever decreasing. For that reason, I do not support the amendments.

The position is not novel. We have experienced combined polls recently; the general election being combined with the county elections. We have tabled Amendment No. 58. Subsection (3) provides for consultation with the Electoral Commission before an order is made. We suggest that the chamber of the region—the assembly as it now is—be consulted and that the advice of both organisations be published. I hope that with regard to the Electoral Commission we will have an assurance that that will be published in any event. We propose to extend the consultation because regional knowledge in such issues is always good.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Amendment No. 57 would prevent polls for a referendum on elected regional assemblies being combined with any other polls. The amendment would not prevent a referendum under this Bill happening on the same date as another poll; for example, a general or a local government election. It would just prevent the polls being combined, so returning and accounting officers would have to make entirely separate arrangements for each poll. We would have, for example, separate notices of polls and polling stations, and returning officers for local government elections could not perform functions in respect of the referendum even if that was administratively convenient. The amendment could lead to significant increases in bureaucracy and costs, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, predicted.

The noble Baroness argued that the outcome of a referendum could be distorted by the party politics surrounding a poll for an elective office. I believe that the public are perfectly capable of forming judgments that are not clouded in such a way.

The provision for the combining of polls in Clause 6 is precedented by Section 45(6) of the Local Government Act 2000 and Section 4(2) of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998. Any order on combination of polls would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by affirmative resolution in both Houses.

Amendment No. 58 would mean that polls for a referendum on elected assemblies could be combined where the electoral system—which we take to mean the voting franchise—is the same for both polls. Under the Bill as it stands, this would mean that referendum polls could be combined with elections that follow the local government franchise but not with those that follow the parliamentary election franchise.

The amendment would riot prevent parliamentary elections and referendums being held on the same clay but would prevent joint administrative arrangements being made—although I suspect that it is intended to deter that from happening. I have some sympathy with the argument that it might be much less complicated to combine polls for which the electoral system is the same.

However, I am not clear why the principle is wrong. Section 15 of the Representation of the People Act 1985, passed during one of the previous Conservative administrations, does not simply allow for the combination of polls to be held on the same day but requires it. It requires parliamentary general elections to be combined with European Parliament general elections and ordinary local government elections with these other elections.

The Electoral Commission has a role to play in this. It obviously has expertise in elections and referendums and we are obliged under Clause 6(3) to consult the Electoral Commission on any order. As a consequence, we would conscientiously have to consider whatever it may have to say either for against such provision. Our current approach is much more balanced in allowing at least for the possibility of joint administrative arrangements being made if referendums and parliamentary elections are held on the same day.

Amendment No. 59 would mean that the Secretary of State would have to consult the regional chamber for the region concerned, as well as the Electoral Commission, before making an order under Clause 6 on the combination of polls. Clause 6 already imposes the obligation to consult the Electoral Commission before making such an order.

While it is clearly right to consult the Electoral Commission on a combination of polls, given its expertise in electoral matters and on referendums, I fail to see what particular input or expertise the regional chamber would add to the content of an order. Regional chambers have no locus in elections or referendums.

Any order would be likely to be very technical in nature—for example, it could make provision about what functions a returning officer might perform instead of a counting officer for a referendum, or what joint public notices are to be published giving information on the election and the referendum, and what arrangements are to be made at a shared polling station. Of course, the order would not determine whether the referendum and an election are to be on the same day but, rather, what arrangements are to be made for them to be held together. Amendment No. 59 would also require the advice of the Electoral Commission and regional chamber to be published before an order is made under Clause 6.

The commission's responses are its responses. It is independent of government and it should be for the Commission to disclose its responses according to its legal obligations and to decide about publication.

In a debate in another place the Opposition explained that it was indeed the Electoral Commission's intention to publish any consultation that it may have with the Government. But, of course, should it fail to disclose any information sought, we would consider requests for information relating to the thinking behind Clause 6 under our code of practice on access to government information and, when it comes into full force, the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

We do not see the need for these provisions, nor do we think that they are appropriate. Section 7 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires consultation with the Electoral Commission on certain changes to electoral law by subordinate legislation. This was recently passed by the House but contains no equivalent provision.

The order will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny and any concerns noble Lords may have can be raised then. The duty to consult will require us to conscientiously consider and take into account the commission's comments.

Amendment No. 75 seeks to remove material produced in relation to an order made under Clause 6 (Combination of polls) from the exemption in Clause 11(3). I know that the noble Baroness intends Amendment No. 75 to be consequential upon her earlier amendments in the group. I hope that she will agree that, if we retain the ability to combine polls, this provision should also remain.

I apologise for the length of my reply but this is a very important issue. In the light of my explanation, I urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I thank the Minister for that involved reply. We shall need to read what he has said. The Minister has given detailed reasons why combined polls are a good thing as opposed to what we are saying—that is, that they should not be allowed—but how does that dovetail in with Clause 10, which allows no recourse to the courts if there is any irregularity? There could be on the same day a poll where one could have recourse to the courts and another poll where one could not. That could be an added confusion for the electorate.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The noble Baroness asks a very fair question. Perhaps I may deal with it when we come to Clause 10.

Baroness Hanham

In common with my noble friend Lady Blatch I thank the Minister for an extremely detailed reply. I am not sure that he totally addressed the problem. We perceive a difficulty that goes beyond administration—that is, the practicalities of electioneering. We are, after all, political parties and political parties will be involved. While I know that voters are very sophisticated—even if they do not turn out to vote—considerable confusion could be caused where you are running elections with different voting systems.

I should like to read in detail what the Minister has said. We may come back to this issue at a later stage. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 58 and 59 not moved.]

Clause 6 agreed to.

[Amendments Nos. 59A and 59B not moved.]

Clause 7 [Encouraging voting]:

7 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 60: Page 4, line 4, after "encouraging" insert "and facilitating

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 60. I shall speak also to Amendment Nos. 68 and 118.

We turn now to the issue of what I have described in Amendment No. 60 as "facilitating" voting. This is a catchall term that might usefully be included in Clause 7, which provides for the Electoral Commission to do what it considers to be necessary or expedient to encourage voting. I have suggested the term "facilitating" to ensure not only that political considerations are brought to the attention of voters—which is "encouraging" voting—but that voting is made as easy and practical as possible for those who may have some kind of physical or mental difficulty in carrying out the act of voting. This was an issue that hardly needed to be brought to my attention and that of the noble Lord by the Royal National Institute for the Blind and Mencap before they suggested some detailed amendments to the Bill which we have built in to our later amendments. I thought that this might cover the point.

In more detail, Amendment No. 68 provides for the insertion in Clause 8(5) of the stipulation that the information which the commission must ensure comes to everyone's notice is, provided by means appropriate to voters with particular needs". Subsection (5) is limited to information rather than to the act of voting. I am particularly concerned about the words in parenthesis; namely, that information should come to those entitled to vote, in the most cost effective way". I am sure that other noble Lords would be concerned were that to have any implication as regards the needs of those who may have a visual or other impairment which makes it more difficult for them to vote or to understand the issues.

Amendment No. 118, which I appreciate is a wide amendment, seeks to insert a new clause setting out a duty to meet the needs of disabled people. It applies to each part of the Bill in turn. In Part 1, Clause 7 deals with encouraging voting. There is a need to raise awareness among those who are hard to reach—and who are also often hard to hear—through traditional publicity methods. I refer to people who are print-disabled or have learning difficulties. Information needs to be provided in large print; it needs to be in short sentences and to use ordinary words; it must contain single messages. We have already addressed the complexity of the preamble. I think that we would all benefit from assurances on that kind of issue.

On the referendum process itself, what provision will the Secretary of State make to ensure, in the orders regulating the conduct of referendums, that visually impaired people will be able to vote independently and in secret? In particular, can we have assurances that the Secretary of State will consult widely with the appropriate people over this particular provision? I am told that the RNIB worked very productively with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on guidance for mayoral ballots and on the e-voting pilots. I hope that that work can be replicated.

Part 2 deals with the local government review. Clause 13(8)(e) requires the Boundary Committee to, have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State". I hope that the Minister will assure us that clear guidance will be issued about the consultation process being made accessible for visually impaired people and for those with learning difficulties.

Part 3 covers the preparation and submission of advice by the Electoral Commission. Will it be required to produce information in the formats to which I have referred?

Finally, Part 4 deals with the funding of regional chambers. Would that we had reached this part of the Bill. They will have the obligation to scrutinise the work of the RDAs. I understand that RNIB research has shown that about three-quarters of visually impaired people of working age are not in employment. That raises issues about the activities of the RDAs. Secondly, the regional chambers will be responsible for producing new regional spatial strategies. The environment, in terms of accessibility for disabled people, is important in that regard. Any assurances that the Minister is able to give at this point that grants will be made available and will include money to ensure that the regional chambers have effective mechanisms for involving disabled people and their representatives and to adopt best practice would be most welcome. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

I support the noble Baroness in pleading the cause of those who have difficulty in making it to the polling station to vote. Much of what the noble Baroness has said applies to most people: plainer English, simple instructions and easily understood information are just as much in the interest of all people as they are in the interest of those with disabilities. Obviously, special arrangements have to be made for people with sight impairment.

The noble Baroness made a further point that I want to support. She asked for a guarantee of secrecy. It is all too easy to give a helping hand to someone at a polling station, but it is crucial that secrecy should be honoured, just as it is for other people. Whether or riot the amendments are right in every technical aspect, some guarantee on the face of the Bill seems to me essential. We want to support that.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for what she is seeking to achieve in this amendment. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, for her helpful intervention.

We as a government are determined to do everything we can to help people with whatever disabilities not only to vote but to be able to use the facilities of the assembly without any hindrance. I share the noble Baroness's horror at the term "cost effective" in this context. I also feel that consultation will be of crucial importance. I give an absolute undertaking that this will happen. To pick up on the detailed point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, about secrecy, yes, we absolutely agree with her.

Having made those general points, which are an expression of total support for the amendment, not only in terms of the wording but for the intent behind it, I need to say a few words for the record.

Amendment No. 60 would extend the Electoral Commission's power in Clause 7 so that the commission would be able to do anything that it thought necessary or expedient for the purposes of "facilitating" voting at referendums as well as for the purpose of "encouraging" voting. While the meaning of "encouraging" is fairly clear, the term "facilitation" is much more ambiguous. I am concerned that the amendment would unhelpfully blur the boundaries between the roles of different organisations since it seems at least to imply that the Electoral Commission is to have a more active and direct role in the process of the referendum.

Noble Lords will appreciate, and indeed the Bill and other legislation recognises, that there are some matters in relation to referendums which are rightfully for government and Parliament to decide—for example, decisions about whether to combine a referendum with other polls or a decision about the appropriate voting arrangements for the referendum. These decisions could perhaps be characterised as facilitating voting.

Similarly, there are other matters which will be determined through a conduct order under Section 129(1) of the PPERA. The Government intend to make the order this summer and Parliament will have an opportunity to debate it under the affirmative resolution procedure. It is intended that this order will include provisions relating to voting by people with disabilities.

Other detailed issues about the running of referendums will be the responsibility of the returning officers and counting officers. While I do not believe that this amendment would override existing statutory provisions, it would certainly lead to confusion as to whether the commission could also act in such areas if it believed such action would facilitate voting. I therefore urge the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 68 would ensure that, if the Electoral Commission acts under Clause 8 to provide information to voters about the arguments for and against the referendum question, it must also provide this information by means appropriate to voters with particular needs. I absolutely understand the noble Baroness's concern. We all know the excellent work done by the RNIB, not least in helping people like ourselves to understand the adaptations—often simple and inexpensive—that need to be made to help blind people play their full part in civil society.

Before I came to this place, I was chairman of the Library and Information Commission. I had the privilege, over a number of years, of working very closely with the RNIB and other organisations, attempting to make the book accessible to partially sighted and blind people. I need no convincing of this tremendously important point.

In relation to Amendment No. 68, I can reassure the noble Baroness that we consider that the commission will already have to take account of such needs in exercising its power under Clause 8. The commission's principal duty under Clause 8(5) is to provide any information by the means that it thinks is most likely to ensure that it comes to the attention of all—and I emphasise all—those entitled to vote. So we consider that it would already have had regard to the needs of the disabled and those whose first language is not English, otherwise the information it provides is unlikely to come to the attention of these voters.

I can also reassure the noble Baroness that the Electoral Commission has confirmed that it intends to ensure that information provision is available to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters.

Amendment No. 118 would ensure that any person or body exercising functions under this legislation should do so with regard to ensuring access for disabled people. This duty would apply to Ministers, the Electoral Commission and its Boundary Committee and to public bodies in respect of their involvement with referendums on establishing elected regional assemblies and associated local government reviews. It would also apply to the Secretary of State when making grants to regional chambers under Clause 24.

This is a laudable aim, with which we sympathise. But I hope I can reassure the noble Baroness that the amendment is not necessary. Ministers and public bodies are bound by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 not to discriminate against disabled people either when providing goods and services to the public or as an employer. I would expect the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, or any other government department which is providing information for the public, to do so in a form which is accessible to blind or partially sighted people. That is our standard practice.

The Electoral Commission has confirmed that it intends to ensure that information it provides is accessible to blind, partially sighted and disabled voters. And, although it has not yet decided on the exact content of the publicity package, I understand that the commission intends to produce materials specifically designed to encourage partially sighted, blind and disabled voters to participate in a regional referendum.

Provision will also be made for voting for people with disabilities in any order regulating the conduct of referendums. The precise details are still under development.

We know that some regional chambers are already using their existing government grant to develop mechanisms to promote social inclusion and equality of access.

In the light of these assurances, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment. If I may go back to the commitment I made right at the beginning, in spite of what I have said for the record, it is the intention of the Government, particularly the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, to make sure that the spirit of everything the noble Baroness has referred to is met as well as the letter.

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister for that explanation. He was right to extend the point beyond my description, as I failed to address physical disability. I am sure that many of us have been distressed that some polling places have not always been accessible to people with mobility problems. It makes one feel very ashamed.

I take the Minister's point about many organisations having responsibilities for facilitating voting. As I understand it, he said with regard to Clause 8(5) that the first hurdle that the commission must address is the likelihood of securing information coming to everyone's notice. It is only after that hurdle has been overcome that the cost-effectiveness test will be met. 'The Minister is nodding. So there is a clear distinction between the issues.

I will obviously look at the detail of the Minister's response but I appreciate the spirit of it and the detail into which he has gone. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 61: Page 4, line 5, at end insert "subject to voters being given the option of voting at polling stations

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 61 would require that voters are given the option of voting at polling stations—in other words, that voting is not an all-postal ballot. I suspect that the Minister may tell me that this is not the place to address the issue, but it is a current concern. I do not think it right to fail to take the opportunity to highlight in a few words the fact that fraud in postal voting has not been cracked.

Many of us have suspected minor levels of fraud. One has always had a concern, for instance, when—and I make no particular accusations—a nursing home asks for all the ballot forms to be sent to a particular address and says that it will make sure that they are completed. That relatively minor, though still serious, fraud seems to have become, in some places, systematic, large scale and, at its worst, intimidatory. We have tabled the amendment because it seems to us that a polling station is the only place where a secret ballot can be assured. I hope that the Minister can use this opportunity to reassure us about protecting the sanctity— I put it that high—of the secret ballot. I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

I support the amendment. There are worries about the other methods of voting. There is a serious question as to whether all-postal voting is satisfactorily scrutinised to ensure that no fraud takes place. Polling stations must be available to people so that they can cast their vote in secret, bearing in mind that a lot of voting will be done electronically as well as by post.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I support this 'very important amendment. I believe that if we want to increase people's interest in voting in elections for local and national government, this collective act of going to the polling station is very important. They see that other people are interested in voting for those who are going to govern them, locally or nationally. That encourages them to vote on that and on other occasions, because they know that other people believe it to be important. That cannot be done on the telephone—people cannot be told by telephone or on the Internet that they should vote.

The postal vote system is open not so much to fraud, although that is possible, but to misuse. It has been misused not only in local elections in some parts of the country but also in trade unions. I was a member of the old ETU, so I know how postal votes can be manipulated to suit a particular candidate.

If we want people to become interested in voting and in government, we must go back to the people. We need to tell people that we are interested in hearing their wishes by going to visit them at election times and having meetings where they can question candidates. In other words, we should go back to democratic electioneering, in which not only the candidates but the people are involved.

This is an important amendment, and I would hope that a Labour Minister, of all people, would accept it.

Baroness Blatch

I wish to add one rider to all this. I understand that the department is thinking about how to increase involvement in voting. In principle, no one has any argument with that, but it seems that methods such as electronic and text voting, as well as postal voting, could become the norm.

One thing that is paramount in that regard, which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is that one must have confidence in the outcome of any kind of election. Whether one is on the winning or losing side, one must have confidence that the election was run properly and that there was no level of fraud or double voting. It is vital to give people at least the option to appear in person in all elections. I support the amendment.

Lord Rooker

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for spelling out that the purpose of the amendment is to outlaw the holding of all-postal ballots. That is the bare bones of the amendment. However, it is not as though nothing were known about this matter. There is currently a well-announced programme of piloting postal ballots in local government elections for learning purposes. The amendment is something of a pre-emptive strike, as it would rule out the possibility of postal ballots in primary legislation before we had any evidence from the pilots. That would not be sensible.

We said in the White Paper that we intended that referendums on elected assemblies should be capable of being held by all-postal voting or by traditional ballot. No decision has yet been taken about the voting arrangements that should apply. We want to leave the option open. This is part of the programme to increase turnout. I ask Members of the Committee to consider the facts. We may have our prejudices about the beauty and tranquillity of the perfect systems that we have all used in the past. However, on the evidence of the 13 pilot areas last May, the average turnout was 47 per cent compared with 32 per cent in the rest of the country. We do not make a big claim about that, but it is a hell of a gap. Turnout was almost doubled in a couple of places—in Crawley and South Tyneside.

We are not basing our opinion on one small pilot. Thirty pilots were run last May and, for May this year, a further 33 all-postal ballot pilots will be conducted. We will build on the lessons of that. The Electoral Commission evaluation report published last August concluded that the pilots successfully increased the opportunity for voting and secured a significant increase in turnout and that the process was well managed by local authorities. The commission found no evidence of fraud, although there were significant public anxieties.

Everyone should be concerned about the possibilities of fraud. The present system is hardly perfect. Turning up in person to vote is all very well, but it is a bit of a rum do if someone has already been in person to vote on that person's behalf. We know about these issues, but there are few cases in this country of electoral fraud, as we can tell from the prosecutions. The numbers may not be insignificant, but we have no evidence that electoral fraud is widespread.

I am also aware, because I can hear the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, speaking in sotto voce in front of me—

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister give way?

Lord Rooker

Oh, she is literally in front of me. I do apologise for not noticing the noble Baroness earlier.

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister respond to a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee? I share her misgivings. A great deal of coercion takes place, which cannot be proven as fraud. People are intimidated into postal voting. Among some ethnic minorities, it is difficult for people to be brave enough to admit that they were coerced into voting. As long as that kind of thing goes on, which cannot be proven in court, people's confidence in the outcome of elections will be destroyed.

Lord Rooker

I agree with the noble Baroness. I will not share my own experiences of the matter, but there have been allegations in recent years of electoral fraud on postal ballots. The police continue to investigate allegations made after last year's local elections. I do not want to comment on that, and it would be unfair to read out the areas concerned, but it is a matter of public knowledge that people have made complaints.

I accept that it is difficult to get evidence and to persuade people to stand up in court. One reason for running a pilot programme is to learn the lessons about the benefits and disadvantages of postal ballots. Members of the Committee have used the word "intimidation", but that is probably too strong a word. It would probably not be classed as intimidation for people to go around to collect the ballots for posting to help their fellow neighbours and the community. "That's the way we do it," they might say, "but don't bother to mark your ballot paper because we'll make sure that it is done for you". We are not stupid about that. Some of us who have come through the electoral process—not necessarily a parliamentary one—live in the real world and know that such things happen. We need to learn the lessons and be on our guard.

The security in the all-postal ballot proposals for this year's postal applications is important, and local authorities are co-operating in that respect. Special ballot papers, watermarks, inks and other measures are used to prevent fraud. It is very important to ensure that ballot papers are delivered securely and that the envelopes are well designed so that they are less likely to be confused with junk mail. We also need to target problem areas such as property in multiple occupation to ensure proper delivery of postal ballots. We will also have to contact in person a sample of electors during and after the election to discover what happened and how the process worked. We also need to publicise ways of reporting fraud and attempted fraud and make dedicated telephone numbers available to those who feel unhappy about what is happening in their area. We have placed a provision in all of the statutory orders to give legal effect to schemes that place a requirement on election officials to report all instances of fraud to the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. Some of those measures have been put in place this year for pilots in the 30 areas where there will be all-postal voting.

Do not get me wrong; we are not saying that postal voting is the be all and end all of voting. However, as we are going through a systematic and nationally organised pilot programme to test the effect of postal ballots, I think that it would be wrong to rule out the possibility of postal voting in the referendums. If the pilots do not seem to be working and there are loads of snags, it would be foolhardy to proceed with them elsewhere. However, we are pre-empting that by approving this proposal. On the basis of that positive answer, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press the amendment.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness

The noble Lord said that no decision has been made on what form of ballot will be held. Can he tell the Committee who will make that decision? Will it be Parliament, the Secretary of State or the Electoral Commission? If it is the Secretary of State or the Electoral Commission, will Parliament have any input into the decision at all other than this debate?

Lord Rooker

Without looking at my notes, I think that it will be a combination. In some areas, the Electoral Commission will have to be consulted and will organise certain aspects. In other areas, that will be done by the Secretary of State. The point is that the orders will all be approved by Parliament. So there is no question of anything going through without noble Lords having an opportunity to participate and make known their views.

Baroness Hamwee

I am grateful to the Minister for the detail of his response. My noble friend Lord Greaves has previously raised the issue in this Chamber. I know that, like me, he will want to consider the matter further. However, I entirely take the point that an ad hoc provision to deal with one type of election and one referendum would probably not be appropriate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, made some important points about the difficulty of obtaining evidence. I qualified the word "intimidation" with the phrase "at worst". Problems sometimes arise not because members of political parties are doing what they should not but because the head of the household says, "I will deal with all the forms". In some cases, that may apply particularly in families who are members of ethnic minorities.

I have one question, prompted by my noble friend, which the Minister may not be able to answer now. Will it be possible to have different provision—such as all-postal voting or telephone voting—in different parts of a region? I think that, regardless of the question of evidence, we all acknowledge the difficulties surrounding all-postal ballots and the methods of counting votes. Although I did not exactly watch the counting at the GLA election—it happened so rapidly—I know that it is not possible for agents to check precisely what is happening. However, can there be different arrangements within one region?

Lord Rooker

I do not have an answer off the top of my head. However, I suspect that it might look a bit off in a regional referendum if certain local authority areas could not have an all-postal ballot because we did not trust the public in those areas, whereas other areas could have one because the people there were sophisticated, well known and basically all white. That would be the implication. So we have to be very careful. However, I think that there should be one electoral system for one regional referendum. Nevertheless, if it is an ordinary election, it will be possible, as it is now, to vote by post on demand. As for whether all-postal voting will be compulsory in some areas as opposed to others, I would very much doubt it. It is one election in one region.

Baroness Hamwee

I hope that the message can go hack that it is indeed one election and that one system, whatever it is, should apply across the region. I should like to make it clear that the amendment is not motivated by my distrust of the public, and certainly not by any accusation regarding particular communities. If I distrust the public at all in this, it is only because of naivety. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving the Motion, I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8.37 p.m.

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