HL Deb 24 March 2003 vol 646 cc548-642

House again in Committee on Clause 7.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 62: Page 4, line 5, at end insert "provided that anything they undertake to encourage voting does not disproportionately favour one of the possible referendum outcomes to the detriment of the other

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 62 would write into the Bill a requirement that the Electoral Commission be impartial. The amendment is concerned with the duty of the Electoral Commission to encourage voting in a referendum on regional assemblies.

As we know, the Electoral Commission plays a crucial part in the referendum process proposed in the Bill. We all welcome that. It is right and proper that, as an independent body with specific expertise in elections, it should be consulted during preparations for a referendum and the actual voting process. The Electoral Commission is and must be an impartial authority. Amendment No. 62 would make that impartiality explicit.

I do not want to besmear the good name of the Electoral Commission by suggesting that it would, in any way, show bias or prejudice when encouraging voting. However, for reasons of clarity, the requirement should be in the Bill, especially given that the Electoral Commission will be financed from government funds and in the light of the illicit activities of several bodies that serve only to heighten suspicion.

It is important, therefore, to emphasise in the Bill that the Electoral Commission has a statutory responsibility to ensure proportionality when encouraging voting.

It would be easy to tip the balance in either direction—for or against. That would have severe implications for the validity of the outcome of the referendum. The amendment would be a safeguard against such circumstances and would guarantee balanced encouragement for voting by the Electoral Commission. "Encouraging voting" means boosting voter turnout rather than positively advocating one outcome or another. That should be stressed as a positive duty of the Electoral Commission.

This is an unfortunate process. The Minister will know that I had misgivings about coming to the point of having regional assemblies by such a method. The Bill is skeletal and triggers off a great deal of executive action. Already, we know that there is positive campaigning at public expense going on. We have discussed that several times. It is important that the next activity —encouraging people to come out and vote—should not be confused with telling people why and how they will vote or what they will vote for. I hope that the Minister will look kindly on my amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I agree with virtually the whole thrust of the noble Baroness's case. However, I hope that I can persuade her not to add the words to the Bill. The perverse effect of doing so would be that, read literally, they would encourage the Electoral Commission to seek to persuade one way or the other, and I shall explain why. The amendment is, in any case, unnecessary and undesirable.

The Electoral Commission is an independent body, and I know of nobody who has any complaints about the way in which it operates. It takes a fair and responsible approach to a list of statutory duties, and it should never be seen to favour one outcome of a referendum over another. Under Clause 7 without the amendment, the commission will have a public law duty to act in a reasonable and balanced way. It could be subject to challenge by judicial review if it acted in a biased way. The power is simply to encourage voting—not any particular outcome. The amendment might encourage the commission to act in a biased way. If the commission has information that one particular result in a referendum is more likely than another, should it actively persuade voting the other way? The amendment might imply that the commission could favour one of the outcomes of a referendum, provided it acts proportionately—whatever that means. I am not playing around with words, but that could be a literal interpretation of the amendment.

However, I support the thrust behind the noble Baroness' speech, because the commission's job is not to take sides, but to seek to encourage voting and to encourage people to turn out. It should not in any way influence who they vote for, or which way they should vote, in a referendum. The commission must carry out that duty in an unbiased way. Even levelling allegations of bias would be very serious. We are not seeking to allow the commission to do anything improper, or to seek to influence the outcome of the election.

There are people who argue that higher turnouts influence outcomes of elections—of course they do. That is the point of the exercise—to encourage people to participate in the democratic process. That is not the same as persuading them to vote one way or the other. I hope that the spirit of my reply is such that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment, because there is no way that the commission would be able to seek to influence anything. Otherwise, it would be subject to judicial review.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister for at least understanding the point of my amendment. However, whilst he thinks its words would create a perverse effect, I think that his explanation is somewhat perverse. It says: The Electoral Commission may do anything they think necessary or expedient for the purpose of encouraging voting at referendums to be held in pursuance of an order under section 1 We know that if it can do anything it thinks would be "necessary or expedient", it could encourage people to vote—perhaps if the outcome was perceived as a foregone conclusion, and it was just encouraging other people who were perhaps apathetic or even anti or pro, depending on which bias was being talked about. That does seem to be a course open to the Electoral Commission, quite within the remit of Clause 7. There is no reference to balance or neutrality. There is only a reference saying that the commission may do, anything they think necessary or expedient for the purposes of encouraging voting". My words—and I will look at them again— provided that anything they undertake to encourage voting does not disproportionately favour one of the possible referendum outcomes to the detriment of the other mean that the commission should not become involved in persuading people to vote for or against anything. The business is not to do that. However, the Minister is saying that my words would allow them to do just that.

Lord Rooker

No, the whole purpose and power of Clause 7 is for the commission to encourage voting, not to encourage the outcome. The outcome is irrelevant to the commission. That is not its function. To encourage the voting is not the same as to encourage the outcome. One would recognise the elephant on the doorstep. If the commission stepped out of line, there would be trouble, because it is easy to see what encourages voting as opposed to what encourages the outcome. There is no power in this clause for it to seek to encourage the outcome.

Baroness Blatch

Even taking that into account, I think that we both want the same thing. We both want to encourage people to come out and vote, and to take part in the democratic process. We do not believe it is the job of the Electoral Commission to do anything other than persuade people to vote. It could be that if a part of a region is showing little interest in voting, but may vote predominantly one way or another, there is a fine line on how it would be perceived, if the Electoral Commission took "any measure necessary". Clause 7 is free-standing in that the Electoral Commission has a great deal of scope for taking any measures it thinks necessary and expedient.

I will dwell again on what the noble Lord has said. We are not saying different things—we both know what we want, which is the same thing. We are talking about means to an end and to reduce any scope for creating a perception of bias or actual bias. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 p.m.

Clause 7 agreed to.

Clause 8 [Provision of information to voters]:

[Amendments Nos. 63 to 65 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 66: Page 4, line 18, at end insert— ( ) The information to be provided under subsection (2) shall include a statement by the Secretary of State with regard to which powers (if any) would be transferred from local government to the assembly.

The noble Baroness said: In tabling Amendment No. 66, I slightly extend a point we have discussed. I hope that the Minister can give the Committee an assurance that in the information to be provided, to which we have referred extensively, the powers to be transferred from local government to the assembly—if there are any, and we hope that there will not be—will be specifically mentioned. I beg to move—and I have done so in under one minute.

Lord Hanningfield

I support the amendment. It seeks to enlarge on what the regional assemblies will do. Several times in Committee we have been promised that we will know before too long—that there will be a draft Bill or some literature setting out the powers of regional assemblies. I hope that the amendment will draw out some of the proposals.

Lord Rooker

Sorry, there is nothing to draw out. The give-away in the amendment is in the last few words about, which powers (if any) would be transferred from local government to the assembly". The Government do not intend to transfer any powers from local government to elected assemblies, so we do not need the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

We have had this debate before and it is important that we are given clarification of the point. It is said that no powers whatever are passing from local government to the assembly, and we take that on face value. However, some powers, such as housing—the only example we have been given in this Chamber—are to be transferred to the assembly. Given that district and borough councils are concerned and that some aspect of housing is the function of county councils, how on earth can regional assemblies have an influence in and responsibility for housing matters if that is not to come from local authorities?

Lord Rooker

No statutory powers which local authorities currently have in respect of housing are to be transferred to the elected assembly. That is the long and short of the matter. On other matters we are trying to look at policy on a regional basis and we have made that clear in the sustainable communities plan. They are not dependent on this Bill, nor on the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill. They are related to the internal structuring of government with the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships and the way in which HIP allocations are dealt with so that we can look regionally at the strategy for housing. But no statutory powers on housing are being transferred from local authorities. No powers are being transferred from local authorities to the regional assemblies.

The noble Baroness might ask what it is all worth. That is for others to ask and answer, as I have repeatedly made clear. There will be no new powers, no new money and no new tiers.

Baroness Blatch

I shall take the noble Lord straight back to Second Reading and earlier debates on the Bill. I asked whether he could name a power which would transfer to the regional assemblies which was free-standing, which was not now held by another body and which the regional assemblies would have. The noble Lord said that he could do so immediately, and named housing. But district councils have the responsibility for housing, as do county councils under their planning functions, until they lose them.

I am looking at Box 4.1 on page 37 of the White Paper. Sustainable development is referred to in Box 4.1 on page 36 of the White Paper. If you go to Kent County Council, for example, and to some of the other county councils around the country, they will tell you that they have responsibilities for sustainable development. So what will be the role of the regional assemblies in that regard?

If you go to some of the larger county councils, you will find that they also have responsibility for economic development. Skills and employment are matters for county councils, the learning and skills councils and the sector schools councils, so what is the role of the regional assemblies? What is the relationship between spatial planning and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill which will shortly be before the House? What particular role will the assemblies play in transport? Waste management is definitely a matter for county councils and for some district councils. As regards health improvement, how will the regional authorities dovetail in with the 10-year plan for the National Health Service? The responsibility for culture, including tourism, belongs in other bodies, as does the issue of biodiversity.

What will these bodies do? Regional development agencies, sector schools councils, learning and skills councils, regional offices, county councils and district councils all have a role now and we are told that they will all still exist once the regional assemblies are established. So, although this looks like a rather inoffensive, small amendment, it is actually very important. What will these assemblies do?

We all have respect for the Minister, but for him to simply say to us, "That is for you to determine" is no answer. At the end of the line, if people vote for them, the Bill will trigger the establishment of regional assemblies. If the Minister cannot tell Parliament what they will do— what they will stand for and what will be their powers and functions—how on earth will the public make sense of it?

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness is introducing red herrings. Box 4.1 states: An elected regional assembly will be responsible for regional strategies dealing with the following issues". It does not refer to "service delivery"; it does not refer to "statutory functions"; it refers to "regional strategies". We have made it abundantly clear from day one that that is what the White Paper is all about and that is what we have said.

I gave an honest answer at Second Reading in regard to housing. There will be a housing function carried out at regional level, but the existing statutory functions held by local authorities will remain with them. This relates to the internal workings of government and the way in which the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships operate. They are nothing to do with local authorities. They are central government delivery units, if you like—quangos in other words. It concerns the way in which central government seeks to allocate funds, particularly in regard to the housing investment programme, on a regional basis.

But it will still be for the local authorities to carry out their statutory functions. Housing will become a regional issue but not in terms of the delivery of the statutory functions of local authorities. There is a difference, but it is not covered by the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

The amendment of the noble Baroness seeks to ensure that the powers are at least spelled out ahead of any referendum.

Going back to the issue of housing, the Minister will know that I wrote to the department following a Statement in the House about the new housing that is to be built around the country. I asked what role the regional assemblies would have in deciding where the houses should be built because the Government have predetermined that the area between Stansted airport and the East End of London shall be covered in houses. I discovered that that is a matter for the Government. Housing associations have their area of responsibility and district and county councils have theirs, so will the Minister please tell the Committee what the regional assemblies will be able to determine? If they are not able to determine anything, they will become glorified talking shops. They either will or will not be established with a purpose and powers to do something. If not, what on earth is the debate all about?

Lord Rooker

That is the most extravagant language I have heard. It is deliberately misleading to say that the land from Stansted to Cambridge to London will be covered in housing. That is absolutely preposterous and the noble Baroness is intelligent enough to know it. It is designated as a growth area. The amount of land that we will take for the extra housing will be infinitesimal; it will be in single digit percentages. To talk about the land being covered in housing is ridiculous. The noble Baroness must know that from the figures we have published in the sustainable communities plan. It will be properly delivered through vehicles such as urban regeneration companies, the local authorities involved, and sometimes the UDC. It depends. Those discussions are ongoing. But the use of such extravagant language, frankly, destroys the rest of the noble Baroness's argument. I repeat: no statutory powers are being taken from local government to give to the regional assemblies—which makes the amendment unnecessary.

Baroness Blatch

I should like the noble Lord to hear what the people around the Stansted area, in the swathe of green land that extends down to the East End of London, have to say about the new housing. The Minister might like to mention the figure for the housing that will be built in that area.

Even that side-steps the point. Even if I have exaggerated in the way that the Minister says, he has still not answered the key question: what will the regional assemblies be able to determine in the areas set out in paragraph 4.1 of the White Paper? If they have no powers from local authorities, and no powers from national government, what are they there to do; what will their powers be; and what will they be free to determine that is not the policy of central government or that of local authorities?

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness continues deliberately to talk up the regional assemblies. Frankly, that is disingenuous. She is talking up the organisations that she does not want to exist. I am deliberately not talking them down, but going out of my way to make it clear that the Government are not misleading anyone. There will be no new powers, and no new money. The noble Baroness may not like that. She can talk all she likes about the powers that they will have. They will have the powers of democratic scrutiny of those working on a regional basis, from the Government Offices to other organisations. They will not be service delivery organisations. We have said that. It is nothing new.

So it is no use going on about what new powers the regional assemblies will have. They will not have any new powers. They will have the power of democratic scrutiny of a level of government that is operating now in the regions by and large, as we have set out, in a way that is not subject to democratic scrutiny—because they have objective action, this House does not do it and it is not a local government function. We think it important that they should have that.

There will be different issues relating to the boards that become regional planning boards for special strategy, but that is dealt with in another Bill; it is not dependent on this Bill. So I repeat: the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, which will come before this House in due course, is not dependent on this Bill passing into law in the sense of having elected regional assemblies. So the amendment is a complete red herring. The noble Baroness is using extravagant language about the growth area, and it is grossly misleading of her to do so.

Baroness Blatch

This is positively my last word on this amendment. I shall continue to use the language that I have used. If the regional assemblies are nothing, if they are simply talking-shops with no new powers and no new money, why are we here debating them? Why must a very high price be paid for them; namely, a major upheaval in local government in order to establish them?

It is not true to say that the assemblies will have no new money. They will have precepting powers; and if that is the case they can obtain more money. We have seen that with the GLA. It has managed to get a good deal more money out of local taxpayers. The Minister is admitting that they will have powers of scrutiny, but so does the Audit Commission, so does the National Audit Office. When a body has powers of scrutiny, it has powers to do something about what it finds as a result of the scrutiny. We shall return to this point on another day, in other ways. In responding, will the Minister tell us what powers the regional assemblies will have, having exercised their powers of scrutiny, if they find what they have scrutinised to be at fault?

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness uses a dangerous example; namely, the National Audit Office. She referred also to the Public Accounts Committee. They do not scrutinise policy. They look at where the tax pounds are going and at whether we are getting value for money. The perfect example is that Ministers do not appear before the Public Accounts Committee. That is not the function of the committee. It is not looking at policy; that is decided elsewhere. Policy is the role of government, the House and support. The PAC is looking at value for taxpayers' pounds. The Audit Commission is looking at matters in a slightly different way, in terms of the local government level, because people get confused between the two bodies. The scrutiny by the assemblies will be quite different. It will vary according to the function the assemblies are considering because they will be new bodies. Small groups of people, between 25 and 35, will be working in large regions of between 2 million to 6 million people. The assemblies will look at the best way of scrutinising and bringing to democratic account the people who are making decisions on a regional basis about strategy, not their service delivery.

9 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

Can the Minister answer a short question? If the assemblies are to have no further powers and they are simply there as scrutinising bodies, why do they want precepting powers? If they are not going to do anything more, why do they want more money with which to do it? Why do they want precepting powers?

Lord Waddington

I am indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, because I was about to make very much the same point. The Minister is most eloquent, and I am impressed by his argument. His argument is simple: we have nothing to worry about because the Bill is pointless. I have served in Parliament for a certain amount of time and have seen plenty of pointless Bills. I have seen firearms legislation go through Parliament to meet a perceived threat, and it has achieved nothing. I have seen dog-biting legislation go through Parliament to meet a perceived threat, and it has achieved nothing.

The Bill is unique in that the Minister says that it will do nothing. If I were absolutely sure of that, I would go home to bed early, but I have a feeling there must be a snag somewhere.

Lord Rooker

I am getting really worried now. It must be firmly placed on the record that I did not say what was attributed to me. This is an excellent Bill; it is full of good ideas and good clauses. It is well thought out and has been carefully scrutinised in your Lordships' House. At the end of the day, the electorate will decide whether they want to proceed down this road. That is my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I cannot give him the detailed response he wants; it goes way beyond this amendment. I must try to stick to answering the amendment.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I would still like to know why, if the assemblies are not going to do anything, they want money to do it.

Baroness Hamwee

I hope that readers of Hansard will apply their own degree of irony to some of these exchanges. I am grateful for the Minister's confirmation that this is not big local government, to take us hack to day one. I share concerns about what the assemblies will do—all of us on these Benches have made that clear. I do not want to develop the point tonight, but I am concerned that the Minister talked of scrutiny. Of course, that is an important function but the assemblies are to be strategy-making bodies—the White Paper tells us so. We regard strategy as very important. We distinguish it from service delivery and see a very important role for the assemblies in making strategy. That is at the heart of our belief in regional government. Having said that—and we will return to the issue of powers—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 67 and 68 not moved.]

Clause 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [Expenditure]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 69: Page 5, line 8, at end insert "and publishes the Electoral Commission's response

The noble Baroness said: I can be very brief on this amendment. We have emphasised a number of times accountability and transparency when speaking to previous amendments. This is to do with cost. The Electoral Commission is to be consulted before the Secretary of State can provide funds with which the commission can then cover the expenditure incurred when employing counting officers and setting up the voting process.

I do not argue with that and I do not argue with the making of the order for expenses to cover the services required. My amendment simply asks that the response of the Electoral Commission should be published. That would make more comprehensive the information that would be made available before the order was approved. It is only right that when taxpayers' money is being spent, the Minister should publish the results of the consultation exercise. That would ensure that the public could be satisfied with the legitimacy of the amounts committed to provide the expenses detailed. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Subsection (3) of Clause 9 requires a Minister of the Crown to consult the Electoral Commission before making an order to make provision for payment by the Electoral Commission of either charges in respect of services rendered or expenses incurred by a counting officer in connection with a referendum held in pursuance of an order to cause a referendum, or the increase in the superannuation contributions required to be paid by a local authority as a consequence of a fee paid as part of a counting officer's charges. Amendment No. 69 would require the Secretary of State to publish the commission's response to this consultation.

As I said with regard to Amendment No. 59, the Electoral Commission's responses are its own responses. It is independent of the Government, so it decides whether to disclose its responses and whether there should be publication. As it seems to intend to publish any consultation that it might have with the Government, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Blatch

I believed, perhaps naively, that we were making law in Parliament. It might well be a matter for the Electoral Commission to decide what it shall make public, but we are making law. This is a new Bill, and we can if we wish require that the response should be made public. It is for Parliament to decide whether it should be made public; we can put an obligation in law on the Electoral Commission to publish its findings. At the end of the day, it is your money and my money that is being spent. The public have the right to know what the consultation was and what advice was given.

I am deeply unhappy about the Minister's response, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 agreed to.

Clause 10 [Exclusion of legal proceedings]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 70: Page 5, line 11, leave out "No court shall" and insert "A court shall only

The noble Baroness said: In moving this amendment, I shall also speak to Amendments Nos. 71 and 72.

This is an important clause, and I hope that the Minister can give us some cheerier news than we have had to date. The question is whether the courts can be used to challenge the result of a referendum. It seems extraordinary to take a specific power to deny the right to challenge aspects of a referendum.

When querying the inclusion of the clause in the Bill, I turned to the Explanatory Notes for clarification, but that was hardly what I found. The only argument used is not intellectually valid. The notes suggest that the measure should be approved because the Government have done this before, but precedent is not an answer. We are viewing this Bill on its merits as a new Bill before the House.

The purpose of the clause is to ban legal challenges to a referendum. The notes state: The inclusion of this clause follows the precedent set by, for example, section 6 of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Act 1998, section 4 of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Act 1997 and section 4 of the Referendum Act 1975". That last Act was passed 28 years ago, when there was a very different set of circumstances. At that time, a threshold operated, which gave some safeguard as to the volume of support for constitutional change.

Just because something has been done one way before does not mean that it is impossible to change the procedure. That is especially the case with regard to something with such dramatic constitutional implications. Surely in some circumstances it might be necessary to question the validity of the referendum result. I offer up just such a possibility in Amendment No. 71: that there are allegations of electoral fraud.

Moreover, I hope that noble Lords took note of the fact that I did not simply propose that the courts have free rein to challenge the results of a referendum. That is effectively what the Liberal Democrats have done with their opposition to the Question that Clause 10 stand part of the Bill. Although we have put our names to that opposition, I have to say that I prefer the limitations offered in Amendments Nos. 70, 71 and 72 as a more sensible and responsible response: only if allegations of fraud are made through the proper legal channels and within 10 days of the announcement of the result is such a challenge to a referendum result legitimate. That makes it clear that the allegations must be of only the most severe nature—that of electoral fraud. Furthermore, the legal proceedings cannot be initiated unless it is within the first 10 days after the result. That stops any frivolous questioning of the result and also ensures that the result is not questioned when further processes are under way to implement the results of the referendum—for example, the establishment of the assemblies themselves.

Earlier today, in discussion with one of my colleagues, I was reminded of an incident in Croydon. It was discovered after the event that some of the election papers had not been properly stamped. The returning officer allowed them through and the votes were counted and they were materially crucial to the result of that vote. When they were challenged, the election was rerun. So there are examples.

I have a technical question for the noble Lord. I have before me a copy of the relevant part of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. Reading Section 129, I just wonder whether this clause runs counter to what was set out in that Act. I hope that the Minister will concede that some procedure must be available by which legitimate challenges to the result of a referendum may be made through the appropriate legal channels. If not, I would welcome some good reasons why not. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

We have indicated our opposition to the Question that Clause 10 stand part of the Bill. As the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, concedes, she and the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, also oppose the Question. I have done so in an attempt to gain further understanding of the clause. I hope that we can debate whether the clause should stand part now rather than in a later debate.

In Committee in another place, the Minister said: If a serious situation arose, involving, for example, fraud, and a challenge were made, I am advised that the court could"— he said "could" — argue that a fully valid certificate had never truly existed and that, therefore, the court had the right to intervene". He went on to say: The ways of challenging the proceedings set out in clause 5 are clear for the courts to interpret".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee A, 3/12/02: cols. 47–48] Even putting aside the rather convoluted approach in that last sentence, I have to say that, reading and rereading the statement—and I freely admit to being no expert in this matter—the position is by no means clear. However, if I understand the Minister in another place aright, there is no need for this clause at all. So I have gone round in a complete circle. I hope that the Minister can shed some light on it.

Lord Rooker

I am not resting my case on the argument that no explanation is necessary because it has been done before. I also accept that the argument in the Explanatory Notes is based exclusively on the fact that it has been done before. Although that is part of the argument, it is not the whole argument.

I shall probably give a totally inadequate response to this point, which is not straightforward. On the face of it, the clause seems quite onerous. The advice I have corresponds exactly with what Nick Raynsford said in another place; namely, that the clause does not rule out any and every challenge to a referendum result being looked at by the courts. I realise that I am entering a legal minefield here, but notwithstanding the fact that the clause has appeared word for word in five previous pieces of legislation, it has never been challenged in the courts. Therefore, we are in uncharted waters as regards the kind of case the courts would wish to consider. The clause is certainly designed to cut out less serious challenges, for example, a returning officer arguing about the number of ballot papers that were filled in incorrectly even though they did not alter the overall result. Some people might argue that a counting error had still been made. However, we want to avoid such challenges being brought as once a decision is taken on a referendum certain actions need to be taken as quickly as possible.

Even though the clause as written appears to rule out completely any court considering a result, I am advised by lawyers and my learned friends that an alleged serious error could be challenged in the courts. However, I cannot give an example because so far such a case has not been challenged in the courts. The courts are jealous of guarding their right to consider cases if people complain of an alleged serious error. I cannot conceive of any such circumstances but I am advised that such challenges are not ruled out.

The clause is included in the Bill—for the same reason it is included in other legislation—to ensure that the Government can respond without delay to referendum results. Court challenges take time. Undue delay could result in difficulties as regards introducing the main Bill to set up the assemblies. As has been said, the previous five referendums took place a long time ago, one in 1975 and two in 1978. However, the two more recent ones in 1997 and 1998 occurred within the lifetime of this Government. It would be for the courts to interpret how any challenge would be dealt with. For example, they would not be prevented from considering a challenge to the certificate of the chief counting officer. As I say, the courts are jealous of their jurisdiction. There is a substantial body of case law in regard to the wording used in the clause but it has not been challenged in the courts in the sense of an ouster clause.

We recognise that the clause may not prevent all challenges, particularly those of a serious nature, and, indeed, we would not expect it to do so. It would obviously be right for a particularly serious allegation based on sound grounds to be challenged. I was about to refer to a scandal in that regard, but that is casting judgment on an allegation and I do not wish to do that. However, it would be wrong for a serious allegation not to be challenged in the courts. As we do not have a ruling, we do not have a precedent to follow.

Amendment No. 71 seeks to limit the courts' jurisdiction to those circumstances where the allegations of electoral fraud are made through the appropriate legal channels. We believe that the amendment would be ineffective. We do not know what the legal channels are. I am assured that that is not a legal term and that it could not be inserted into legislation. As I say, we believe that the amendment would be ineffective or at least limited to those circumstances where there is a combination of polls. One could ask what electoral fraud could take place in a referendum. A referendum constitutes an election that takes place at the ballot box in which the wider population takes part. It is not an election involving individual candidates. However, there may still be allegations that fraud has taken place. I cannot conceive of such circumstances and I cannot give examples off the top of my head.

Amendment No. 72 is a little more "dodgy". It seeks to impose a time limit on the bringing of legal proceedings. That time limit is 10 days from the announcement of the referendum result. The amendment could prevent challenges regardless of whether they are frivolous or serious. Obviously the courts tend to consider time bars to be absolute bars on bringing proceedings. Where there is a time limit, it is less likely that the court would open it up because Parliament has set that time limit. The period for otherwise bringing proceedings would in general terms be three months from the date of the chief counting officer certifying the result. That would be a much wider limit if there were to be a "really serious challenge".

I hope that Members of the Committee accept that the clause does not prevent serious challenges. There would be less time to bring such challenges if Amendment No. 72 were agreed to. Amendment No. 70 is consequential.

That may be a completely inadequate response. I have got some really serious legal briefs with me; I do not even know what some of the words mean, but my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General certainly would. If there is such dissatisfaction with the provision at a later stage, I would take advice from him and he might wish to correct my inadequate response himself. I have put on record that we do not see the clause as ruling out all and every challenge. The wording is identical to what has been used in the past. We do not have a legal precedent to go on. We are not trying to stop anyone who has a serious case, and frankly one can give frivolous examples more easily than serious ones. To that extent, my argument is not full.

Based on what has happened in the past, and with the knowledge that the provision does not completely rule out all challenges of a serious nature, because the courts would certainly look at them, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.

Baroness Blatch

Big words or no big words, used or not, the advice that the Minister has received is not as learned as I would expect. The Bill states: No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum". It does not say anything about frivolous or not-frivolous cases, or exclude very serious claims. So far as I am concerned, the words are plain and mean that there cannot be a challenge. I do not care how learned the people who advise the Minister are. Those words do not mean what he believes that he has been advised they mean. The Bill does not allow for any case.

The Minister made no comment on Sections 128 and 129 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act and whether the clause runs counter to them. He said that he was worried about delays and that the reason for the method proposed in the Bill is so that things can be got on with without delay. However, if there are grounds for a very serious challenge, I am afraid that there will have to be a delay until the challenge is addressed—but it cannot be addressed.

Lord Rooker

Well, I said it could be. The noble Baroness must either accept what I have said or not. The fact is that there is good case law and evidence around, but no case in court to test it. The advice is, notwithstanding the words in the Bill, that the courts could—they jealously guard their rights anyway—look at a most serious challenge and allegation. I know that the words do not say that and look as though they rule it out, but the advice is that the courts would still be able to look at the most serious challenge to the certificate granted by the chief officer. That is exactly what my noble and learned friend the Attorney-General would say if he were here.

Baroness Blatch

The Bill does not state that a court will entertain serious proceedings or proceedings that are not vexatious, but that, No court shall entertain any proceedings". So long as those words remain in the Bill, there cannot be a challenge. If the Minister says that there can be, he must point me to the part of the Bill that states that courts can entertain serious challenges. I simply do not accept the advice that has been given.

The noble Lord went on to say that there has never been such a case. I believe that I gave him an example of a case in which some of the ballot papers had not been stamped. Although they were allowed through on the night, the gap between the winner and the loser was such that the papers were crucial. When a challenge was made, the election had to be re-run. Therefore, there is at least one example of an election where the challenge was allowed and where it was borne out and upheld.

The noble Lord added that only serious challenges should be acceptable. As I said, because the court cannot accept any challenge or any proceedings, I do not know what the noble Lord means by that. But my amendments address the whole issue of vexatious challenges. Amendment No. 71 seeks to amend the Bill to state that the court shall entertain any proceedings only, if allegations of electoral fraud are made through the appropriate legal channels". In other words, there must be evidence of fraud in order for the court to do so.

With regard to the time limit referred to in Amendment No. 72, first, the noble Lord says that that could prevent more charges, irrespective of frivolous or serious claims. The noble Lord himself has ruled out frivolous claims, and I have ruled out frivolous and vexatious claims through my amendment. Therefore, that is not an issue here. However, if the noble Lord is concerned that 10 days is too short a period, I shall happily come back at the next stage of the Bill with the three-month time limit suggested by him.

I believe we agree that if there is to be a challenge, the period during which it can be made should not be open-ended and last for months and months. It should be possible to make the challenge within a reasonable time following the election. Therefore, so long as Clause 10 contains the words: No court shall entertain any proceedings", I shall not be convinced that serious proceedings can be entertained by the court.

Lord Waddington

Before the Minister replies, can he help me on one point? I have just been observing the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and I wonder whether he is cross, anxious or bored. Can he help us?

Lord Rooker

I think that he is probably declining to take me on as a pupil. First, I want to reply to the noble Baroness with one or two answers to her specific questions. She asked whether the clause was contrary to Sections 128 and 129 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. The answer is no. She asked for case law concerning ousters. There was such a case in 1969. I am not sure of the correct pronunciation, but it is Anisminic Ltd v. The Foreign Compensation Commission 1969. It will be found in 2AC[147]. There was also a case in 1981 involving Racal Communications, which, I believe, will be found AC[374]. Therefore, some case law does exist but no ouster clause of this kind has ever been considered by the courts, and that is a problem.

On the other hand, the advice is that the clause would not be construed by the courts to have its literal meaning. As a non-lawyer, I know that this is a difficult issue. I do not know whether the noble Baroness is a lawyer, but I am assured by the best legal brains in Whitehall that the clause would not be construed by the courts to have its literal meaning. There are many reasons for that. I could give a long speech and provide details but that would not change the noble Baroness's view. I believe that she will probably have to reflect on the matter now that I have pointed her in the direction of some case law to read.

I know that the wording in the Bill does not look right but it is exactly the same as in other Acts of Parliament. None has gone to court and therefore we do not have a view about the courts. But it is believed that, notwithstanding the wording, the clause does not rule out the possibility of the courts considering the most serious challenges. They are free to do that. That is the situation. The noble Baroness may not accept that and she may want to test the opinion of the House. I invite her to do so because I cannot give a further or better explanation.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

We admire the Minister so much. That explanation was so expert that one is almost prepared to believe it. As an ordinary person all I can do is to read what it says in the Bill: No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum", and so on. You cannot get away from that. The Minister sounds like Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four who said that words mean what he said they mean. That simply is not good enough for legislation. I wish a Law Lord were present as it would be useful to have an opinion. The Minister has not convinced me that the clause is necessary. It may well be dangerous.

Baroness Blatch

I have heard it all now. I wonder what we are doing in this Chamber. I have always believed that the words on the page literally mean what they say. If we are told, "Believe me, I am the Minister, and I have had advice from very learned people that what you see on the page is not what the words mean, but"—in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart—"the words mean what we say they mean'', that is not an answer and I do not accept it.

Lord Elton

I have been longing to join in this debate. If the words in the Bill do not mean what they say, surely words should be found that mean what the Government intend. Could we have words that say what the Government intend so that people like the noble Lord and myself, who are not lawyers, can understand what they mean so that we do not have to pay vast amounts of money to lawyers to tell us what they mean?

Baroness Blatch

I say "hear, hear" to that. The serious point about the amendment is that when we in the Westminster village have finished with the Bill, Joe Public will have to interpret it. The public will have to make sense of what it means. If at the end of the day we say, "Do not worry about reading the words on the page, the Minister says that they mean something else and when it says that no court shall entertain any proceedings, do not believe that because they will entertain some proceedings as long as the proceedings are serious because that is what the lawyers advise". If that is the lawyers' advice, the Bill should state that. We shall certainly return to this matter.

Baroness Hamwee

I seek to persuade the noble Baroness not to divide the Committee on this point. It is so serious that one will want to read the debate.

Baroness Blatch

This discussion will make some of the best bedtime reading that we have had in a long time. I shall not deny anyone the opportunity to read the debate and reflect on it for the next stage of the Bill. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 71 and 72 not moved.]

Clause 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [Supplementary]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 73: Page 5, line 20, at end insert ", except that no different provisions may be made under subsection (2) in relation to different parts of the United Kingdom in the event of two referendums being held on the same day

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 73 I shall speak also to Amendment No. 74 standing in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, myself and my noble friend Lady Blatch. The amendments refer to two subsections in Clause 11 which introduce the supplementary powers in relation to Part 1 of the Bill. According to the Explanatory Notes, subsection (1), will have effect so that if there is provision in, or made under, Part 1 for or in connection with regulating the conduct of referendums under the Bill, section 129(3) of the PPER Act does not prevent an order made under section 129(1) of that Act applying to referendums under the Bill". Subsection (2), according to the Explanatory Notes, clarifies that this will be the case in respect of any order under section 129(1) of the PPER Act, whenever made". That is in the Explanatory Notes.

It is all too easy to accept these rather complicated supplementary matters without looking at them or challenging them. What is their practical effect?

Subsection (1) effectively guarantees a power to the Secretary of State to regulate the conduct of referendums. Subsection (2) allows the Secretary of State the facility to exercise that power even before the passing of the Act.

I appreciate the need for flexibility that Clause 11(1) provides in allowing the Minister to make regulations concerning the conduct of referendums. That flexibility is in line with the provisions in the PPER Act. However, the circumstances of the holding of referendums in the Bill bring in a slightly different element, for which the Act does not make allowance since at that time it was not foreseen. I am talking about the possibility that there might be two referendums on the same day. We have discussed the issue in previous amendments. It would be unlikely by all accounts, but it is important to have on the face of the Bill the assurance that the Minister may not regulate the conduct of referendums held on the same day in such a way that they are conducted differently.

In general, I support the principle that referendums concerning regional assemblies should be conducted on a universal model or procedure. After all, they propose the establishment of the same institutions, just in different parts of the country. Procedural or regulatory comparisons might spawn a wealth of complaints about unfair differentiation on the grounds of location. It would undermine the validity of the outcome if it were claimed that the electoral procedure had been conducted in a different way.

Amendment No. 74 is a probing amendment. I fail to see how it can be "immaterial" if this power is exercised before or after the passing of the Act. It is surely of the utmost relevance. We meet this particular subsection (2) later in Clause 12(7). It is confusing—or perhaps I am missing the point—that a direction, power or provision which is detailed in the Bill may be exercised before the Bill becomes an Act. I should welcome clarification from the Minister on that point.

Baroness Hamwee

In Amendment No. 74, which stands in my name and that of my noble friend and in the names of the noble Baronesses, Lady Hanham and Lady Blatch, I too was seeking to understand what subsection (2) means. It states: It is immaterial whether the power is exercised before of after the passing of this Act". Does, exercised before … the passing of this Act", mean that it is proper for the Act to ratify something retrospectively? What is being or is to be done which would not be authorised in the absence of the Act? Do the words, exercised … after the passing of this Act", have any significance? Naturally, a power provided by the Act can be exercised after it is passed, subject obviously to the date of commencement.

Lord Rooker

Again, I think I have a perfectly reasonable explanation for the amendments and for this part of the Bill. I was waiting for one of the noble Baronesses to say, "We have looked at the Notes on Clauses and there is nothing on Clause 11". So I shall say that.

It will take a little while, but I want to explain how this part of the Bill is intended to work. It is not quite as the noble Baronesses think. Clause 11(1) and (2) relate to Section 129 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. As Members of the Committee are aware, that Act makes general provision for UK, national and regional referendums. Section 129 gives the Secretary of State a power to make provision by order for, or in connection with, regulating the conduct of such referendums. I shall refer to that as the "conduct section". I can give details later.

The Lord Chancellor's Department, which has policy responsibility for the generic legislation on referendums, is currently preparing a draft order under the conduct section. That is intended to provide a generic framework to regulate the conduct of referendums. Drafts of the order have been the subject of discussion in the Electoral Commission's regional referendums working group, and the Lord Chancellor's Department hopes to extend that to wider consultation in the new year—the new year being now.

The Lord Chancellor's Department's consultation will take time to complete and it will then want seriously to consider the responses. So I cannot say precisely when the generic conduct order will be made and, of course, we cannot predict exactly when the Bill will be enacted. The generic conduct order could come first by a little way, or the Bill may just reach the statute book first. I simply do not know. Clause 11(2) is simply designed to ensure that the generic conduct order that I have just described would apply to referendums on elected assemblies, even if that order were made before Royal Assent of the Bill.

If Amendment No. 74 were accepted there would be doubt as to whether a conduct order made before enactment of the Bill would apply to a referendum under the Bill. The 2000 Act, which is the main Act in this regard, has of course been in force for several years and the power in Section 129(1) of that Act is exercisable now. We want to ensure that relevant conduct orders about referendums made now will apply to referendums under the Bill.

It is as simple as that. I hope that that is a satisfactory explanation. In other words, it is not—I repeat, not—retrospective legislation. The legislative power exists now. The process is under way and it makes sense for the avoidance of doubt for the conduct order to apply to every referendum, including those that may be held under the Bill.

Amendment No. 73 is intended to ensure that the same arrangements would apply to the conduct of all referendums that are regulated by an order under Section 129 of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and held on the same day, wherever they are held in the United Kingdom. I can reassure the noble Baronesses that the Government's broad approach will be to have as uniform a set of rules as appropriate governing all referendums under the Bill and all referendums that fall within Part VII of the 2000 Act.

Indeed, as I said, the Lord Chancellor's Department is in the process of producing a generic conduct order covering not only conduct of referendums on elected assemblies but conduct of all other referendums under the 2000 Act. In fact, that generic conduct order would apply equally to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as to England. The draft order will be laid before Parliament, and the making of such an order is, by the way, subject to the affirmative resolution of both Houses.

However, we need to retain the flexibility to make different provision for the referendums that would be held under the Bill. There is nothing sinister about that. For example, we may need to make provision under Section 129(1) for voting to be all-postal—I said may—for one referendum or set of referendums. Indeed, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 would already allow for that in Section 156(5).

For the avoidance of doubt, because I will be hauled over the coals if I do not and because it may avoid lots of further questions, let me answer the question: what will the conduct order cover. That is a basic question, so I want to put a few basics on record for our future deliberations.

The generic conduct of referendums order will apply provisions of the Representation of the People Acts and regulations on elections to the administration of a referendum poll, as well as making completely new provision. The following list is not exclusive, but it will cover measures such as: basic forms and ballot papers; appointment of presiding officers and clerks at polling stations; powers of the police; conduct of the referendum in the polling station—in other words, what equipment must be provided and provision of assistance to disabled voters; notices to be displayed in polling stations; rules for polling agents covering attendance at the polling station otherwise than for the purpose of voting; procedures for the counting of votes and declaration of the result; rules for the safekeeping of the ballot papers; timetable for publication of notices of referendums; and provision for absent voting; hours of polling; and the duties of all the officers concerned.

Such material will be included in generic conduct orders, which will be fairly widespread. It is not being done because of the Bill; it would be done whether or not the Bill existed. I hope that it makes the position much clearer and gives a decent explanation of the otherwise unclear parts of Clause 11.

9.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

It is a pity if legislation that clearly applies must be ratified—I do not use that term technically—by being referred to in subsequent legislation. The more often one says that a provision in a previous Act applies when it clearly does, the more one casts doubt on the applicability of other provisions not referred to. I make the point because much of our legislation is complicated. Sometimes it is more straightforward not to say anything.

Baroness Hanham

I agree. It would be helpful if we could see the draft order. It may be being consulted upon, but I presume that it is available even to Peers. May we see the draft conduct order before Report stage? I am not sure why it should not be referred to in the Bill if it will be part of legislation. The whole supplementary section seems to add confusion. Even after the Minister's response, it is not clear how the system will operate. I shall withdraw the amendment for the moment.

Lord Rooker

I shall ask about the availability of the draft order. I do not have a precise day-to-day timetable. But, if the drafts have been discussed by the Electoral Commission's regional referendums working group—I do not know the acronym for it—and there is a proposal to carry out wider consultation, I shall do my best to ensure that a draft is available. I do not know whether it will be the draft that is ready for consultation.

On the noble Baroness's second point, I suspect that it falls foul of one of the golden rules of parliamentary counsel—never legislate for the same thing twice in two different Bills, even if the words are the same. The scope for doubt and problems in the courts is enormous. The provision is not included in the Bill because it is already covered in another Act.

Baroness Hanham

We are back to transparency. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 74 and 75 not moved.]

Clause 11 agreed to.

Clause 12 [Local government review]:

[Amendment No. 76 not moved.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Cox)

If Amendment No. 77 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 78 because of pre-emption.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 77: Page 6, line 10, leave out subsection (2).

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to the other Liberal Democrat amendments in this group, Amendments Nos. 79 and 80. They are also grouped with the Conservative amendments, Amendments Nos. 78 and 81.

These are probing amendments to help us to understand more of what is going on in Clause 12. They would remove subsections (2) to (4). Subsection (2) provides that the Secretary of State must consider the level of interest in the holding of a referendum. It defies belief that the soundings could really be about interest in holding a referendum, as distinct from a wish to have an assembly. Three days—four days, including Second Reading—of debate in the House have done nothing to alter that fact. The language used by all noble Lords, including me, in the debate last Thursday confused those two issues. If we are having difficulty maintaining the distinction, it is impossible to believe that those responding to the soundings exercise have been able to maintain it. Would the Government instigate a referendum if they thought that the answer would be "No"?

The Conservatives have added their names to Amendment No. 79. Subsection (3) provides that the Secretary of State can consider differences in the level of interest in different regions. I do not understand what that adds to subsection (2). Perhaps the Minister can help me. Why does it say "may consider", rather than "must consider"? Is that simply a matter of the style of drafting? If the provision is permissive, rather than mandatory, I will be even more confused.

Amendment No. 80 would leave out subsection (4), which provides: For the purposes of subsections (2) and (3) the Secretary of State must"— "must" rather than "may"— consider—

  1. (a) views expressed and information and evidence provided to him;
  2. (b) such published material as he thinks appropriate".
Can the Minister tell us what amounts to "evidence" for that purpose and what is "published material"? 'Why is the material limited by the adjective "published"? Is the reference intended to mean academic and similar material? If so, why limit "views expressed" to those "provided" to the Secretary of State? Cannot he be expected to be aware of all views? Is the soundings exercise limited to formal responses? if so, why is "published material" not within that defined and confined group? I beg to move.

Baroness Hanham

Amendments Nos. 78 and 81 stand in my name, and I have added my name to Amendment No. 79.

I shall not cover too much of the ground that has already been covered, but I want to return to the Explanatory Notes. After all, they are meant to explain. The notes say: For various reasons it may not be appropriate for directions to be given in relation to two or more regions at the same time. In this case, the Secretary of State may wish to take various factors into account in deciding in relation to which region or regions (if any) he should give a direction. It is a precondition to the giving of a direction in relation to any region that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest in that region in the holding of a referendum…But in a situation where two or more regions are under consideration for a local government review, it may be that the Secretary of State will want to compare the levels of interest in the holding of a referendum in those different regions. Hence subsection (3) of clause 12". As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, implied, that explanation is dangerously vague and needs some practical details to flesh it out. Several important and pertinent questions immediately emerge. As the noble Baroness asked, how will the Secretary of State weigh up the level of interest? For what "various reasons" might the Secretary of State decide it to be inappropriate to hold a referendum in two regions? What factors would he take into account when deciding which region would prevail? We have been given no answers to those points. They seem to be left to the whim of the Secretary of State.

The three amendments seek to rectify the situation. Amendment No. 78 provides that the Secretary of State must be satisfied by the double condition that the majority in the region favour a referendum, and that if a referendum were held, then an elected assembly would result. The Minister will, no doubt, reply that the whole point of a referendum is to test the level of interest in having a regional assembly. However, we see the situation in a slightly different way. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the sounding exercises and so will I. Great concern has been expressed in our debates so far about who has been consulted. Today, I am taken aback more, having read that the Minister in the other place seems to be satisfied that he has had 4,500 replies. That seems to be a very small number on which to make any judgment. My noble friend Lady Blatch voiced all our fears when she spoke about the soundings issue during the first day in Committee. There was greater concern that replying to the soundings exercise by saying one was against a regional assembly might be registered as showing an interest. The Minister assured us that this would not be the case. However, the principle is similar in relation to Clause 12.

People like to be given the opportunity to vote; that is, to register their approval or disapproval of what is proposed. Just because many people favour a referendum is no guarantee that they may vote in favour and therefore support the establishment of an elected assembly. The Secretary of State should not give an order for the Boundary Committee to start with a local government review only because there is interest in a referendum, but instead, if he thinks that the interest is such that a majority would favour the establishment of regional assemblies.

Amendment No. 81 focuses on the gathering of information regarding the level of interest in the general consultation process. We are told what the Secretary of State should consider for the purposes subsection (2). The amendment stresses that he must first identify which bodies should be consulted before registering their level of interest. This draws attention to the fact that the consultation process is by no means standardised. Amendment No. 79 is a probing amendment. Would the Minister clarify why a referendum could not be held on one day in two different regions, and how the Secretary of State should make a judgment between the two regions? I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Lord Rooker

I may be wrong, but I am treating all these amendments as probing. I regret that the answers are going to be what I have given in other parts of the Bill. The amendments are pretty wide. To remove subsections (2), (3) and (4) from Clause 12 would take out a large chunk. Those subsections set out how the Secretary of State must consider the level of interest in a region—and the differences in the level of interest between regions—before deciding whether to order a local government review. We think that these sections are essential to the Bill. That will only become apparent, once the analysis of the soundings has taken place, and my right honourable friend forms a judgment on how it would work in practice. I have said repeatedly that he will be required to give explanations as to why he has made his decisions. We will have to be subject to scrutiny over how the judgment was arrived at. It cannot be done on a hunch, or a whim.

First, we do not intend to direct local government reviews where there is no appetite for a referendum. It naturally follows that that will not be necessary. We do not have a secret plan for local government reorganisation under the guise of this Bill. I have said before that no referendum means no local government review. A "No" vote in a referendum would not lead to the local government plans taking place that had been before the public.

The effect of the amendment would be that the Secretary of State was able to take account only of some or all of the factors set out in subsection (5) because subsections (2), (3) and (4) would have gone. Those include the effects of what he believes the carrying out of the local government review would have on the relevant local authorities, the district and county councils in the regions, and also the resources needed by the Boundary Committee to carry out the reviews.

It cannot be right that the Secretary of State cannot take account of whether people in the region want a referendum or not. In subsection (3) there is reference to two or more regions. I must repeat that Ministers have not had access to the soundings, which are still being analysed. We will not make the announcement until after Royal Assent, but the resources of the Boundary Committee are not infinitesimal. If the view was that in two or more regions it looked as though there were sufficient positive interest in a referendum, the Secretary of State must be in a position to say that the resources to conduct the boundary reviews—they could take nine months to a year for each region—cannot be expanded to review all the regions which might have expressed a positive interest in a referendum. Those reviews might take longer and none would be completed in the time available.

The Secretary of State would need to ask whether there were regions which had a more positive interest than others. If there were, he might say, "We will go for those and park the others, even though there was a positive interest". That is why he needs to check the level of the interest. There are eight regions and the resources would not be available if every region came up in the soundings. I give an extreme example to illustrate how ridiculous it would be. If every region showed positive soundings to have a referendum, it would not be possible to say, "OK, the boundary review starts on all the regions in the country at the same time". A choice would have to be made about the direction to take so that effective action could be taken; that is, to make a judgment about the most popular within the resources of the boundary review.

That is why subsection (3) is important. The Secretary of State will have to publish information on how he makes his judgment and people will check against the matrix of views. They will be able to say, "You should have issued more directions according to the level of interest", and to force his hand when he knows the review capacity does not exist. He needs to be able to make a judgment between the regions where there is a positive interest in a referendum.

Baroness Hanham

Will the Minister be kind enough to confirm that on the soundings exercise there were two questions? The first tested out the level of interest in the respondent and the second asked their views on whether other regions might be interested. Will he also confirm to me what was reported in the newspaper yesterday: that in the whole country there have been only 4,500 responses to the soundings exercise? How on earth will the Minister make a decision?

Lord Rooker

All that will be known in due course. It will not be done in secret. I did not see the reports yesterday, but I have seen figures showing that 4,000 plus have been analysed. They are still coming in and we have stated that we will take account of what is said during the passage of the Bill. We had to have a date to bring order into the matter, which is why 3rd March was chosen. Anything that conforms with the soundings exercise must be taken into consideration. That is only right and proper, particularly while the Bill is before Parliament. Even the public can see that the Bill is before Parliament so debate has not closed down. Clearly it has not closed down.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Can he confirm that, on whatever basis the Secretary of State makes his decision and however inadequate we may consider it to be—or, more importantly, the public may consider it to be—there is nothing we can do about it? Once the Bill has gained Royal Assent it will be a purely academic exercise. It will be for the Secretary of State, who has absolute power, to determine whether or not a referendum shall take place in one or more regions of the country. People may be able to take a view about the evidence when it is published, but they will have no power to do anything about it.

Lord Rooker

The Secretary of State cannot act unreasonably or irrationally when reaching a conclusion. He must have an evidence base for his decision, otherwise he will be subject to judicial review about the way in which he made it. So it is not true to say that the final decision will be the end of the line; it will have to be taken in a proper fashion.

My great handicap, which I freely admit—Ministers in another place laboured under the same handicap—is that until we have an analysis of the soundings exercise it will not be possible to give chapter and verse of the way in which the Secretary of State will make his judgment. I admit that. It is a handicap. I wish that I could read out a checklist against which the decision could be measured. But I will be able to do that only at the time he announces his judgment and the basis on which he has made it. I cannot do that and I cannot second guess the issue for him.

Amendment No. 81 would require the Secretary of State actively to seek views, information, evidence and published material for the purpose of determining the level of interest in the region. We have since last year been actively seeking the views of people in the regions through the soundings exercise. The noble Baronesses may seek to belittle the number of views we have received but we need to analyse their contents. We want to publish as much information as possible—we told people that when we were undertaking the soundings exercise—and we have invited individuals and organisations in each region to submit their views. Organisations may have submitted views based on their own consultations with wider groups of representative individuals, so there may have been more than 4,500 replies. A number of opinion polls and surveys are still being logged and it may well be a higher number. We have not finished the process.

It is still only three weeks since the end of the formal part of the soundings and it is not yet possible to give any information. I regret that it is not possible because the more and better information I have will add more certainty to our debates and make it easier for me to answer questions. But I cannot answer them at the present time, not in the way they have been asked anyway.

Lord Greaves

Is not the Minister telling the Committee that the Secretary of State will decide which regions he wants to go ahead with and then invent the criteria to fit? If that is not the case, why can he not give the criteria now.

Lord Rooker

I refute that suggestion completely. It is a frivolous point to make at this time of night. The Minister will have to go to the Commons, where he will be subjected to scrutiny, and he will have to publish the basis on which he makes his judgment. It will be easy to tell whether there has been a fiddle or a prejudgment of the case. If there was any doubt, I am sure that my right honourable friend would receive legal advice from his department not to proceed in that fashion. He has not the slightest intention of doing so; he wants to act completely honourably. But I cannot give the Committee the criteria on which he will make his judgment, other than his view of the level of interest for or against a referendum in each region.

Lord Greaves

The Secretary of State will either have objective criteria or he will not. If he does have objective criteria, why can he not announce in advance what they will be?

Lord Rooker

Because his judgment will be based on, among other things, the soundings exercise that has been undertaken. That is the answer. It is not possible to draw up a specific list in the way requested by the noble Lord. We have gone through a process. We did not want to invent something from the start. I know some people may believe that the soundings exercise was inadequate and that some noble Lords missed out when the document was circulated, but one cannot deny that we distributed the soundings document to an impressive list of organisations. They will have had a view on it. Their views are important because they are the establishment within the regions; they are the opinion formers; they make things happen and know what went wrong in the past. We wanted their views, not on whether there would be a "Yes" or "No" vote or whether there should be an elected regional assembly, but on the likelihood of people wanting a referendum on the issue. I cannot state that any more clearly. I repeat that it is about the desire to have or not have a referendum, not to pre-judge the view on whether to have an elected regional assembly.

Baroness Hanham

I do not have the form in front of me, but my recollection is that only two main questions were asked in the soundings exercise. One was: what is your level of interest in a regional assembly? There were five possible responses: very interested; interested; marginally interested; uninterested; not interested at all. The second question was: have you any idea what anyone thinks in any other region?.

We are talking about the Deputy Prime Minister making rational judgments against rational criteria. There are no criteria. There are five levels of interest, and the question about the other regions. I do not think we need get too bound up with the sophistication of this exercise. If the Deputy Prime Minister comes back with anything more sophisticated, one is going to have to say: where did he cook these ones up from? That is all that is in the soundings exercise paper, as I recall, and that is all that people were asked.

Lord Rooker

In that case, what is the problem?

Baroness Hamwee

One of the problems that I still have, leaving aside the approach of the Deputy Prime Minister, is whether those responding to the soundings exercise have been able to distinguish between the questions: "Are you interested in having a referendum?" and "Are you interested in having an assembly?". I retain that concern. I do not think that the Minister—and it is not his fault—will be able to give a satisfactory answer to that question.

This is probably not the time to test this amendment. An earlier amendment that I had tabled was pre-empted by agreement to a previous one.

I do not believe that deleting subsection (2) would mean that the Secretary of State could not give a direction. On subsection (3), I shall read the Minister's response, but it was not my intention to raise an issue about Boundary Committee resources. I was concerned about the difference between "may" and "must". I am still lost on that point.

The minister has told us the number of responses that were not in the form of the pro forma which have been returned. I do not know whether he is able to tell us now, but I hope that, when the Secretary of State comes to report on the matter, he will be able to include not only the number of responses but the number of forms that were sent out. One must judge the level of interest, in part, by the level of response. Judging by the Minister's expression, that is not a matter that we can pursue now.

I think we have to leave hanging the question: will the Government go ahead with a referendum if they think that they might lose? That is still a big issue in my mind. There is a great deal here to which we may want to return on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 78 to 81 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 82: Page 6, line 19, at end insert— ( ) the views of businesses in the region. directly and through their representative organisations:

The noble Baroness said: I find the debate about the soundings somewhat academic. The Bill makes it clear that, for the purpose of local government reviews, the soundings exercise has to take place; but, as we know, it has taken place and, although the Minister says it is not quite over, it is well under way.

For the purposes of speeding things up, I will speak to Amendments Nos. 82 to 88 together so that they are not debated individually. Amendment No. 82 concentrates on who should be or should have been consulted. I should like to discuss the amendment in that spirit. Clause 12(4) says that the Secretary of State must consider, views expressed and information and evidence provided to him". We need to check that all the people and organisations listed in Amendments Nos. 82 to 88 have been consulted. That may be the way the Minister wishes to respond to my amendment.

It is important that there is an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult these bodies. I have grouped them together, but I believe it is vital that we take account of the relative effect that local government reorganisation will have on each of them.

When one mentions "business", it conjures up, by and large, national and international corporations. But the small and medium-sized constitute 90 per cent of businesses in some regions. Even more telling are the DTI statistics which inform us that at the start of the year 2000 there were an estimated 3.7 million businesses in the UK. Of those, 99 per cent had fewer than 50 employees.

I have spoken to the CBI, and I know that many people have had correspondence from it. We are assured that most businesses are not in favour of the Bill or of regional assemblies at all. It would be helpful to know how the businesses have been canvassed and how their views will be taken account of by the Secretary of State, assuming that the soundings exercise is still going on. That applies to the views of district councils in the regions as well. People will vote for elected regional assemblies and local government restructuring, but not one without the other. Therefore, people will have strong views on what will happen to their district councils. That will be the same for the county councils in the region, which will want their views taken into account.

The Minister will tell us that all local authorities will be consulted, and I am sure he is correct. I hope that the views gathered from the consultation will be reflected upon with a degree of proportionality. If in some regions unitary authorities are predominant, the views of the remaining two-tier local government bodies should carry more weight. Essentially, the unitary authorities may impose local government reorganisation on two-tier government areas, even if all those in the two-tier areas vote no. We have discussed that as well.

Council tax payers are probably among the most important people in this respect; they should have been consulted and I hope they were. I do not know of individuals who have been canvassed, but perhaps I do not know enough people. Council tax payers will be paying for this. At the end of the day, they will have a precept upon the council tax and will be obliged to pay it. In London, that precept started off as 3 pence a week; it has gone up to more than five times that amount and is still rising.

The views of the voluntary sector bodies in the region should be consulted. They have a vested interest in how things should be operated. Organisations concerned with the environment should be consulted as well, particularly those related to planning and housing. Those are the two areas where it is abundantly clear the Government intend to place powers which are currently in the hands of local authorities.

My amendment would make it obligatory for the Secretary of State to consult organisations in each category. Perhaps he has done that, in which case the Minister may be able to tell us. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Amendment No. 114 is not in this group but makes a similar point, so it may help if I refer to it. Much of what is referred to here is work that the Boundary Committee could quite properly do. That is the thrust of Amendment No. 114. I hope that the Minister will explain whether there is a distinction between the two approaches.

On Amendment No. 86 and the views of council tax payers, while I would not for a moment suggest that costs are irrelevant, I am not persuaded that they are so relevant as to exclude all other considerations to which the attention of council tax payers might be drawn. Of course, there are differences between us as to the possible value of regional assemblies. However, almost whatever their powers, I am unhappy at costs being singled out.

As for Amendment No. 88, I would not suggest that planning and housing powers were unimportant, but why should we not provide that the attention of business is drawn to economic development issues? We might draw the attention of small businesses to the Small Business Service, for example, which is to remain centralised, as we discussed the other day.

We go along with the Conservatives to some extent, but on parallel tracks rather than the same track.

The Earl of Caithness

Will the Minister confirm something about the soundings exercise? I was grateful to my noble friend Lady Hanham for telling us a bit more about it, as some of us were excluded and are not as up to date as we should like to be. Was it made clear in the soundings exercise that, even if someone wanted to have a referendum about a regional assembly, a consequence would be that county councils, district councils and the two-tier authorities would cease to be? I suspect that many of those who received the soundings exercise were not fully aware of the implications of the Bill.

Lord Rooker

The easiest answer that I can give the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, is "Yes". We dealt with that point in last Thursday's debate. Anyone who has read the document will know that. There may be an argument about the words, but it is there in the soundings document. In the original debate, someone quoted paragraph 20-odd and I quoted paragraph 17. The implications are clear that, with regional assemblies, there will be single-tier local government.

I know that the noble Baronesses are trying to be helpful, but we have just had the introduction to four groups of amendments. If I answer all those, I am not going to get up and do it again when we come to them on the list. I am not stupid. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asks if I will respond to Amendment No. 114. I am quite happy to answer it, but it is way out of order; I do not want to get to Amendment No. 114 and be told, "Oh, we want to come back to this". I want to be helpful, but we are trying to work to an order. I did not set the order of these groups. I am happy to do all four groups together—obviously, it is more convenient for me.

Baroness Hanham

Perhaps I should have given the Minister warning. I apologise for that. I merely thought that we might cut down proceedings a tiny bit, and I believed that he would be absolutely thrilled to bits. I have spoken to Amendments Nos. 82 to 88. I have referred only to the list of people to be consulted.

Baroness Hamwee

I want to clear matters up. The points raised under these amendments seemed relevant to Amendment No. 114. I do not intend to come back to it, unless it would be more convenient for the Minister to take it at its place in the Marshalled List. I was trying to dispose of the issue, not to make life more difficult.

Lord Rooker

I am new to this place. I cannot understand why Amendment No. 114 was not grouped with the other amendments. In another place—the sensible place for groupings, although not for scrutiny; good at groupings, not so good at scrutiny—it would have been. I can see that Amendment No. 114 exactly fits with the other amendments. Having got that off my chest, I can move quickly through the amendments, because the answer is almost the same to all of them. The noble Baroness looks far more friendly when she smiles. That is fine; I am much happier facing a. smiling face at this time of night.

On Amendments Nos. 82 and 83, the regional arms of the CBI, Institute of Directors and Chambers of Commerce were all sent a copy of the soundings document and pro forma. Any other businesses or business organisations were welcome to put forward their views, and indeed many have, as will be apparent when we give the results of the soundings exercise.

Amendments Nos. 84 and 85 deal with district and county councils. As is known, all the principal local authorities were sent a copy of the soundings document and invited to respond, and they have. We have been actively seeking the views of people across the regions in order to determine the level of interest in holding a referendum.

I grant that Amendments Nos. 86 and 87 are slightly different in that they deal with consideration of, the views of council tax payers in the region after having first published for their consideration a statement of the likely costs of a regional assembly in their area", and, the views of voluntary sector bodies in the region". We have the White Paper. I am not arguing that masses of voters have read it; they have not. However, the National Council of Voluntary Organisations was among those sent a copy of the soundings document, which it then distributed among its members. Moreover, any individual or organisation was welcome to put forward views.

Amendment No. 86 would require the Secretary of State to publish, for the consideration of council tax payers, a statement of the likely costs of a regional assembly. Chapter 5 of the White Paper is the best information available and I really cannot go beyond it.

Amendment No. 88 would require the Secretary of State, for the purposes of considering the level of interest in each region in holding a referendum, to consider the level of interest of organisations charged or concerned with housing or planning matters. All organisations were welcome to put forward their views. We sent a copy of the sounding document and pro forma to the regional sustainability round tables asking for their views. The existing regional chambers were also sent a copy of the document. They will be responsible, by the time that elected assemblies, if approved, are up and running, for the regional planning powers that we propose to give to the regional assemblies.

As I said, Amendment No. 114 would basically mean that the Boundary Committee was statutorily required to consult members of the public. I think that that is the main difference. The consultation requirements with which the Boundary Committee will have to comply are set out in Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992 and applied with modifications for the purposes of local government reviews by virtue of Clause 14. They are the same requirements that would apply to other structural and boundary reviews carried out by the Electoral Commission as the body responsible for such reviews since the commission was established under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

The Boundary Committee is also required to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. In the draft guidance on which we consulted, Members of the Committee will see that the Government suggest who the interested parties might be. Chapter 6 of the draft guidance also spells out who should be consulted and how such consultation may be achieved. It includes a recommendation that the Boundary Committee write to all the principal local authorities, to all Members of Parliament in the region and to other representative organisations. It also suggests that the Boundary Committee publish advertisements in one or more local newspapers and takes such other steps as seem necessary to provide suitable publicity. I hope that the Committee will be reassured by those arrangements and the list of organisations to be consulted already included in the guidance.

That is a potted version. I know that there is criticism of the fact that we sent out 1,100 copies of the document. However, we have certainly covered all the organisations and sectors proposed in these amendments. So we are not simply interested in their views, we have actively canvassed their views. And they have responded. In due course, we will know what they said.

10.30 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

Will the Minister throw some light on the Constitution Committee report? Mr Raynsford was asked about the Durham survey and the report pointed out that a large number of people in that area knew nothing of the soundings and were not aware of the coming of regional assemblies. Mr Raynsford said on 6th February, and we have recently been giving some attention as to whether we ought to be giving greater publicity to the soundings exercise". Was that followed up, and what extra action was taken following the promise that more thought would be given to providing greater publicity to the soundings exercise before it was completed on 3rd March?

Lord Rooker

That is a worthwhile question to which I do not have an answer. If I am given one as regards what action Nick Raynsford took subsequently, I shall inform the Committee of it before we end our discussion on the Bill tonight.

Baroness Hanham

I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Indeed, it seems from what he said that most of the bodies and the people concerned have been approached. However, none of that was necessary, and indeed, none of it should have taken place. The Bill is not yet an Act but all of Clause 12 has been carried out in advance of the Bill being considered in either House. We are now faced with having to ask a whole host of questions. Although the Minister says that the soundings exercise will continue until the Bill is finally passed, the soundings exercise document does not say that. That stated that the soundings exercise would be finished by 3rd March. But, as I have said before, that was just about the same time as this Bill came into this Chamber. So, the amendments that we have tabled and the questions that we have asked have all been pre-empted. It is just as well that all the relevant bodies appear to have been approached because there is nothing this Chamber can do about the matter. It is a fait accompli.

Lord Rooker

That is not fair. I ought to point out for the avoidance of doubt that the Bill contains no duty on the Government to consult anyway. Let us get that absolutely clear. We have carried out the soundings exercise as a valid exercise from the point of view of good public administration. However, as I say, there is no duty to consult. The soundings exercise gave people an opportunity to provide us with information.

Baroness Blatch

There is a duty. The Secretary of State cannot make an order unless he has the results of a soundings exercise. So, he has a duty to consult and to reach a judgment on the level of interest. He cannot find out the level of interest unless he sounds out the community on that. So, there is a duty implied in the Bill on the Secretary of State to carry out a soundings exercise.

Lord Rooker

Indeed, that is the distinction I drew between taking soundings and the duty to consult.

Baroness Hanham

I am sorry to be tendentious. However, I am not sure whether I am being tendentious or the Minister is being tendentious. Subsection (2) of Clause 12 states that, the Secretary of State must not give a direction unless he has considered the level of interest". Either he does that in the ether or he consults in order to find out whether there is interest in the matter. However, the Minister says that the Secretary of State does not have a duty to consult. Subsection (4), which we seek to amend, states that, the Secretary of State must consider— (a) views expressed and information and evidence provided to him". To try to distinguish between consultation and people's great and noble thoughts about the Bill in that regard is to split hairs.

Lord Rooker

The measure seeks to avoid the implication of having to write to or consult every voter in a region; that is the difference.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. We may return to the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 83 to 88 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 89: Page 6, line 22, leave out "may" and insert "must

The noble Baroness said: Subsection (5) of Clause 12 lists a number of other factors which the Secretary of State may consider when giving a direction to the Boundary Committee to undertake a local government review. Subsection (5)(a) to (e) lists as possible considerations the effects of such a review on the region in question, on other regions, the resources needed to undertake a review and any earlier consideration for the Boundary Committee.

The amendment would ensure that those considerations were not optional but compulsory. Essentially, it would remove the discretion of the Secretary of State to take the factors listed into account if he so wished, and instead make it a positive requirement before any direction was given. I do not need to speak for long on the amendment. My reasoning on it is much the same as I expressed on other amendments to the clause. They reflect my general attitude to the sounding exercise, which is now one of even more concern than it was before we started. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

The explanation—I referred to it earlier in some ways—is as follows: the consideration of the factors in subsection (5) is discretionary. We need that discretion because of the approach that we intend to adopt in relation to deciding in which regions to hold a referendum, and then in which regions to direct a local government review. The primary consideration is the level of interest in a referendum. Where interest is high, we intend to direct a review. Where it is low, we do not intend to direct a review, regardless of any other consideration.

Only where the level of interest is inconclusive, or where there is high level of interest in a number of regions, might we want to consider whether it was practicable to conduct a referendum at that time. Subsection (5) sets out the criteria that we would use in reaching a decision in the circumstances that I have described. It would be quite wrong to make consideration of those criteria mandatory, which is what the amendment would do, because, as I have explained, there are circumstances in which we could and should be able to make a decision on the basis of interest alone.

Making consideration mandatory could cause real problems. We need to be more flexible, simply because of the basis on which the decision will be made. We need that flexibility because we do not know what the soundings exercise will come out with in terms of the balance of interest, region by region. We have to take account of the fact that there will be a variety of levels of interest and make a judgment at the time. As I said, it would be totally impractical and would not work if every region had a big interest. We need to make some choice. Where the level of interest is high, our basic intention would be to go ahead and direct a review. That would make sense where there was high interest. As I referred to in relation to subsection (3), we could not deal with too many at the same time, which is a practical difficulty.

Baroness Hanham

As I read the clause, subsection (4) makes it mandatory for the Secretary of State to consider the views expressed—we discussed that—the published material that he thinks appropriate, and all the other people on all the other bodies. With relation to subsection (5), however, how on earth will the Secretary of State make a decision if he does not think what effect, the carrying out of a local government review will have on the relevant local authorities", and what, differences in the effects he thinks the carrying out of local government reviews will have on the relevant local authorities"? He must do that. It should not be the case that he only "may" have to do it. Subsection (5) should be as mandatory as subsection (4). Subsection (5)(a) to (e) deals with fundamental issues that the Secretary of State would have to take into account when making a decision about whether there should be a local government review.

I still believe that the subsection should be mandatory, but I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 90: Page 6, line 23, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b).

The noble Baroness said: For probing reasons, the amendment seeks to delete subsection (5)(a) and (b). I do not propose to speak about paragraph (a), which will make the Minister ask why I simply did not move the amendment. However, I want to look at paragraph (b), which provides that the Secretary of State may and no doubt will consider differences on the local authorities—we will come later to the words "taken as a whole"—in the different regions.

Perhaps the Minister can let us know whether that is the basis for decisions about referendums being taken in different tranches. That is not how I read it, because it is one of the factors that will affect whether or not the Secretary of State gives the direction—not when he gives the direction but whether he does so. I read it as meaning that if something is not good for region A, then perhaps region B cannot have it. I wonder whether the Minister can help me to understand the part that that plays in the decision and in the overall timetable. I beg to move.

Baroness Blatch

I hope that the Minister will be cautious about removing paragraphs (a) and (b). I suspect that he will be because this is a government Bill. We would say "must consider" as opposed to "may consider". I believe it is absolutely essential that the Secretary of State considers the effect that the carrying out of a local government review will have on the relevant local authorities taken as a whole in the region. I take "the region" to be the region that is likely to have the referendum for regional government.

There will also be effects on other regions and. indeed, on other authorities. I believe that the differences in the effects that the Secretary of State believes that the carrying out of local government reviews will have on the relevant local authorities, taken as a whole in different regions, should at least be taken into account. If they are not taken into account, then the consequences of establishing regional assemblies will be defective.

Lord Rooker

In responding to Amendment No. 90, I shall use the briefing that I have in front of me because I believe that in that way I shall be able to give a better explanation than I would if I were ad-libbing.

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

Sometimes I am a little more precise than at other times and am able to make the case, but sometimes the words of the briefing are useful when they are read back to me later.

Amendment No. 90 removes the ability of the Secretary of State to consider the effects that he believes a local government review will have on the relevant two-tier authorities and the differences in those effects between the regions.

Where the level of interest in a referendum is inconclusive, it may be that the level of disruption for two-tier local authorities of a local government review is not considered worth while at the time. In circumstances where the level-of-interest test is inconclusive, it will be important carefully to balance a number of factors. I believe that that is where we must leave the flexibility to the Secretary of State.

Where it is clear that the level of interest is low or where it is clear that it is high, it is far easier to make the decision. Where it is inconclusive on the balance, then one must consider other factors of the effects. I believe that we need that flexibility.

Lord Hanningfield

Surely the Minister has just justified our previous amendment in which we said that the Secretary of State "must" take into account various factors. The noble Lord has just said that the Secretary of State "would" want to take into account the factors concerning the level of reorganisation of local government and the disruption that it would have in establishing a region.

Lord Rooker

That makes sense where, in particular, the review of the soundings is inconclusive. It is more clear-cut where the soundings are, let us say, very weakly or very strongly in favour of a referendum. It is much easier to make the decision in such a case. If we were to make the referendum mandatory where the soundings were, say, overwhelmingly weak, then we could force people into a wrong decision. Therefore, I believe that flexibility is needed in this part of the clause.

In a way, that is where part of the problem arises. No one will believe us but it is true that we have not prejudged how many or which regions will undergo a local government review in the first round. I realise that noble Lords are convinced that they know which regions those will be. But no decisions have been taken and no final decision to make a direction will he taken until we have considered the results of the soundings exercise, together with other information under Clause 12(4), and until the legislation provided in the Bill has been enacted. So the provisions in Clause 12(5) allow for a common sense approach to deciding which regions should have a review as a precursor to a referendum. That flexibility needs to be built in.

On the evidence to the Select Committee about extra publicity on the soundings exercise, my right honourable friend the Minister responsible for local government, Nick Raynsford, and the Member for Skipton carried out a number of media interviews to raise publicity. Additional press notices were issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister during February and the pro forma was made even more directly accessible on the home page of the ODPM website. The list of organisations sent copies of the soundings document was placed in the Libraries of the two Houses in December. Some extra effort was made as a result of the increase in the publicity on the soundings exercise, but it will not have been enough to satisfy Members of the Committee.

10.45 p.m.

Baroness Blatch

From the soundings I have carried out, it is difficult to find people who know about the exercise and who have responded to it. I even spoke to a chairman of education in a major local authority—I shall not name the authority —who was not aware that there had been a soundings exercise. So much for the local authority surveying its own people.

The minister has given an interesting response to the amendment. If at an early stage the Secretary of State decides that an area has shown a sufficient level of interest to undergo the exercise and takes into account some of the matters set out in Clause 12, and if the Boundary Committee gets under way and deems that the level of upheaval in local government to achieve a single tier authority below what would be a regional assembly was so great that it was not worth the candle, would that have any influence on the Secretary of State deciding to continue with the exercise?

Lord Rooker

The Secretary of State would not continue with the exercise. The Boundary Committee would come to a conclusion and report to the Secretary of State. I cannot prejudge the conclusion of the Boundary Committee. I cannot say that the example given by the noble Baroness is fanciful because I would not rule anything out or anything in. It will look at the best available, most practical, form of single tiered government for a region. Its conclusions will be its conclusions and they will be published. There will be no secrets about that. The Secretary of State will have to decide whether to accept those conclusions, whatever they may be.

Baroness Blatch

My question was more subtle than that. My straight question is whether the Boundary Committee is free to come to a conclusion that the upheaval would be so great that it would counteract the rationale for going ahead with the referendum.

Lord Rooker

When asked a straight question like that it is difficult to avoid a straight answer. However, the Boundary Committee's conclusions will be its conclusions. Broad draft guidelines will be issued about how to go about the work it is asked to do. To carry out the review will be a big exercise. Its conclusions on what it does in the region and what it takes back to the Secretary of State will be its conclusions. You can ask me all the hypothetical questions you like, but I cannot give a better answer than that. I shall not fall into the trap of answering the highly subtle and sophisticated questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that later will be used in evidence against me.

Baroness Hamwee

The most interesting thing to have come out of that exchange is the notion that the Member for Skipton has taken part in the soundings exercise. Mr Curry may be surprised to learn that he has done so. I think the Minister should have said the Member for Shipley. I am not trying to be clever. All right I am, but I was certainly not as subtle as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The Minister has set a hare running.

The minister has answered the amendment far more in relation to paragraph (a) than paragraph (b). I shall obviously read Hansard, but I think he confirmed that paragraph (b) is directed to decisions about tranches and the selection of which regions should go into the first, second and so on tranche. The Minister is nodding. I do not know whether he wants to intervene.

Lord Rooker

I wish only to say that it was the Member for Shipley and not the Member for Skipton.

Baroness Hamwee

Both David Curry and Mr Leslie will be very relieved to hear that. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 91: Page 6, line 24, leave out "(taken as a whole)

The noble Baroness said: This is a small amendment. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what the phrase "taken as a whole" means? I should welcome his arguments for not removing the phrase. It serves little purpose. My principal concern is that the requirement to think in terms of, local authorities within a region (taken as a whole)", brings with it a refusal to respond to the specific effect on each in turn. There will be, as we have discussed, a number of local authorities within any region. If they are just to be lumped together rather than dealt with separately, presumably that could be what "taken as a whole" means.

Considering the region as a whole without concentrating on the individual authorities makes the two paragraphs dangerously ineffective. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

Amendments Nos. 91 A and 93A are directed to the same point but go about it slightly differently. We propose inserting after "as a whole" the words "and individually" for exactly the same reason; that is, we find it hard to understand how one can assess "as a whole". I should be distressed to think that the effect on individual local authorities was not a consideration.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baronesses have been commendably brief, as I shall try to be. The amendments have a similar effect. As presently drafted, if the criteria in Clause 12(5) were brought into play we would look at the regional impact of local government reviews. In looking at the effect of the reviews, we would want to consider not simply the effect on individual authorities but the effect on two-tier local government in the region as a whole.

The Boundary Committee's review will look at the region authority by authority. But the situation is more complicated; it is the effect on the region as a whole. Obviously, we would need to ascertain the impact on individual authorities, but they are the building blocks for the wider consideration. Obviously, we would not ignore the impact on individual authorities, some of which might be joined together or whatever—I do not know. So the effect on them will be important.

However, in looking at the individual effect we need to consider the big picture for the whole region in order to make a judgment. In deciding whether to direct a review in a region where there is an inconclusive level of interest or how practical it is to hold reviews in two or more regions simultaneously, what matters is the overall effect. That is an important judgment because it is made on a regional basis and not on the individual authority. We are talking about regional referendums. So we must look at the overall situation in the region. It would be wrong to say that we would not consider the effect on individual authorities but only to help us form a judgment about the effect on the region.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply and beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 91A to 93A not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 94: Page 6, line 28, leave out paragraph (c).

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 95. The amendments seek to leave out paragraphs (c) and (d) of Clause 12(5).

Reference was made earlier to Boundary Committee resources. I tabled the amendments in order to ask the Minister whether he can explain the constraints on both cash and people with expertise in the field—which I understand from discussion outside this place, to be the even greater problem.

It cannot be right for a region that passionately wants an assembly—or, to maintain what I increasingly feel to be a bit of a fiction, a referendum— to be denied it for want of what are relatively small resources. It still escapes me how the Secretary of State can judge which regions will have the greatest call on the Boundary Committee's resources. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I shall make similar points to those I have made already, but if that helps to clarify the matter, that is fine.

Perhaps the best way to respond to the amendments is for me to explain the purpose of the provision that the noble Baroness seeks to amend. We have already said that the greater the number of reviews that the Boundary Committee is directed to conduct at one time, the longer the process is likely to take. A resource question is obviously involved. We do not rule out the possibility of conducting reviews in two or more regions simultaneously or in reasonably close proximity. We are simply acknowledging in the Bill that once we go beyond reviewing just one region, there may be implications for the Boundary Committee and a trade-off between the number of regions that undergo review and the time that it takes to conduct the reviews.

Of course, that choice does not arise unless the Secretary of State is considering more than one region. Hence, the way that the Bill is drafted, two is the point at which that choice may become an issue. The implications for the Boundary Committee of making a direction for an additional region or regions may, among other things, depend on the number of two-tier authorities in the region. No one can say with certainty for all future occasions when reviews may be directed that the implications for the Boundary Committee would be such that it would be sensible to direct reviews in all regions in which there is an interest in holding a referendum.

Some regions include a large number of two-tier authorities and the implications for the Boundary Committee may be such that it may not be right to proceed with all such regions. Basically, we want to leave that flexibility on the statute book for any future Secretary of State. I repeat that we have not prejudged how many regions or which region or regions will undergo a local government review in the first round. That will depend on the soundings exercise and the passage of the Bill. We are trying to allow for a commonsense approach.

I hope that that explanation is satisfactory. We need the flexibility simply because we do not know which regions are involved, the regions are all different and the resources of the Boundary Committee are not inexhaustible.

11 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I thank the Minister, but I am not sure whether he is saying that, depending on the regions involved, it may be possible to deal with more than one at once. Obviously, the regions are of different sizes and will have different issues. But it is not a given that it is better to deal with one region and get it over with, if that is all that the Boundary Committee can cope with, than to do more than one more slowly but simultaneously. There are arguments for doing the work in more than one region at the same time, leading to simultaneous referendums. Has that been ruled out entirely or is it still possible that one may be slower but broader?

Lord Rooker

It is not possible to make a judgment until we get the results of the soundings exercise and see which regions will be involved. As the noble Baroness says, the regions and their local government structures are different, which will be factors. The population sizes of the regions are also different—one is quite small compared to the others. Therefore, it will be possible to judge how the boundary review will work only when we know the level of interest in the regions and can decide whether they can be done at the same time or one after another.

Once direction is given to one to do the work subject to the outcome of the boundary review, there will be a referendum. That will trigger the main legislation, so, if another referendum follows, it would not be so affected. The first referendum resulting in a successful "Yes" vote—that is axiomatic; a "No" vote means no Bill—triggers the legislation. So it is important to reach a decision. I have no idea whether it will be possible to carry out one or more concurrently; nor do I know whether it is practical to deal with one shortly after another.

Baroness Blatch

Before the Minister sits down, the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, said to the Minister in the Select Committee on the Constitution, as reported at paragraph 12 on page 11 of the report: You said in the explanatory notes in paragraph 38: 'for various reasons it may not be appropriate for directions to be given in relation to two or more regions at the same time'". That refers to the local government review. He seems to cast doubt on dealing with even two regions at the same time. Can the noble Lord throw more light on that, and what are the various reasons?

Lord Rooker

Resources are a key factor. The regions are different. Some have a large population and local authority structure; that is to say, many two-tier authorities. The noble Baroness is assuming that we have prejudged which regions will go, but we have not. Because the regions are so different, it is impossible to prejudge. That is why the issue has been left open.

Baroness Hamwee

I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 95 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 96: Page 6, line 38, leave out from "region" to end of line 39.

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 104, because both amendments should be considered together.

Amendment No. 104 is straightforward. Any noble Lords present today who have been involved in local government will know that at present the Office for National Statistics does not have a great record of accuracy in calculating the population in particular areas. Clause 13(2) states rightly that it can publish only a recent estimate. I declare an interest as a member of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council. If it or Westminster City Council were to rely on the recent estimates as regards this Bill, we would be in the doldrums. The estimates can be wildly unreliable. It is not advisable to use them as a fundamental basis when considering a review of local government. That is the basis of Amendment No. 104.

Amendment No. 96 is of a more probing nature. Subsection (6)(a) qualifies subsections (5)(a) and (b). As I said before, those paragraphs deal with the effect of a review on local authorities in the region and in different regions. Amendment No. 96 would leave out of subsection (6)(a) the consideration of the number of people living in the area of authorities subject to a review as a factor to which the Secretary of State must have regard for the purposes of subsection (5)(a) and (b). The Secretary of State should then have to have regard only to the number of relevant local authorities in a region, not the number of people in each of those local authority areas.

I tabled the amendment to tease out of the Minister some clarification of how the two considerations under subsection (6)(a) should have practical effect. For instance, which should hold more weight? What examples can be given of the sort of influence that such calculations of population might have on a direction under Clause 12?

The minister may respond by telling me that it is relevant to consider the populations in local authority areas, when a change in local government structure is to be introduced. Although I would like to be given a practical example of the effect that consideration of population might have, I do not deny the principle of considering the population. However, I would like to know why such an important and relevant consideration is linked only to subsection (5)(a) and (b), which refer to matters for consideration that are not obligatory but are subject to the whim of the Secretary of State as to whether they feature as considerations. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I shall deal with the amendments in the order in which the noble Baroness spoke to them.

Amendment No. 104 would delete the requirement that the Secretary of State should use only the most recent estimate published by the Office for National Statistics when reaching his judgment. I understand the points that have been raised, and I appreciate concerns about the accuracy—or the allegations about the accuracy—of the most recent census figures. It is a wonder that they are able to get them as good as they are, but I am aware of the difficulties, even in my former constituency. I understand the significant effect that it can have on local government, if the figures are wildly different from what they should be for the services that the authorities are providing for various people.

Those difficulties, however, are nothing like the difficulties that would be caused if we did not specify in the Bill how the Secretary of State was to assess the number of people living in an area. There must be an objective basis for assessing the figure. In the main, the most recent figures from the ONS will be the ones to use. I hope and trust that any recent doubts about the census figures will not be an inhibiting factor. They are the best professional estimate of the population figures.

We cannot go by electoral registration figures, and I would counsel strongly against using them. They vary enormously, and they are not a measure of population anyway; they register only eligibility to vote. As I used constantly to remind people, my electorate comprised those who could vote, but I was responsible for representing about 25 per cent more who were under voting age. The services provided to people under voting age represent an enormous tranche of local authority expenditure. Population figures are probably the best to use. With all the doubts, we have no more accurate set of national figures. It would be wrong to use other figures.

Amendment No. 96 would remove the obligation on the Secretary of State, in applying the Clause 12(5) criteria, to consider the number of people living in the areas covered by two-tier authorities. Looking at the impact of the proposals on two-tier authorities, it has to be the case that the number of people living in those authorities is relevant. I do not know, because we are not pre-judging the issue, but it may be that if the impact in a local authority was particularly significant, or seemed likely to have a massive effect on local communities, it would be relevant to consider the number of people affected by any proposed change. The Secretary of State would need to have the right to consider these issues. We are talking about peoples' lives and services. I am not implying that Members of the Committee have not been doing that; they have. When we come down to probing this part of the Bill, the Secretary of State has to be able, on the one hand, to take account of the effect on the population of an area, and on the other receive the best measure of the population, in order to make that judgment. I hope that that explanation will cause the amendment to be withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his response. I remain cynical about the estimate of the population, as published by the Office for National Statistics. The Bill has regard to the most recent estimate. The one thing we do know is that if the estimate is wrong to start with, then it becomes increasingly wrong as years pass. In Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster they are tens of thousands out, not thousands. Those councils are not going to be affected by this Bill, but it will affect councils in other parts of the country. The estimates could be wildly out by the time the matter is taken into account. None the less, I thank the Minister for his response and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 97: Page 6, line 40, leave out paragraph (b).

The noble Baroness said: This amendment would remove paragraph (b) of subsection (6). The paragraph states that when considering the effects of a local government review on the relevant local authorities in a region, and differences in the effect a local government review will have on relevant local authorities, the Secretary of State, must ignore any effect of the implementation of recommendations of the Boundary Committee following a review. It is arguably wrong to expect the Secretary of State to ignore pragmatic considerations, such as the upheaval and cost of reorganising local government. Can the Minister clarify what, effects of the implementation of recommendations of the Boundary Committee could justifiably be ignored in accordance with this paragraph? I can think of none myself. I do not see what this paragraph is designed to cover. It seems to have been included to provide a get out clause for the Government. If there was a complaint that some pertinent factor had not been taken into account, the reply could simply be, "Clause 12(6)(b) says we shouldn't take into account the effect of implementation of the recommendations."

I believe that the paragraph adds nothing to the Bill and could be omitted. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I hope to show that the amendment is superfluous. As drafted, Clause 12 (6)(b) means that in applying the criteria in Clause 12(5) the Secretary of State could not consider the effect on the affected local authorities of reorganising local government structure and boundaries. The amendment would give him the ability to consider the effect of implementing the Boundary Committee's recommendations following a review. He would be unable to consider that ahead of knowing what the Boundary Committee was going to recommend. The amendment is superfluous because it would give the Secretary of State a discretion which he would be unable to exercise.

Baroness Hanham

I shall read what the Minister said. It may be that he wants to re-read it. I will certainly read it, because I do not understand his reply. I beg leave to withdraw.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

11.15 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 98 and 99 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 100: Page 6, line 44, leave out subsection (8) and insert— (8) A direction to the Boundary Committee to carry out a local government review of a region or regions must specify the timetable in accordance with which the review must be carried out and recommendations made to the Secretary of State. (8A) The timetable referred to in subsection (8) must include the following steps which the Boundary Committee are required to take—

  1. (a) upon receipt of the direction, publicise to people living in the area the making of the direction and the timetable under subsection (8);
  2. (b) make provision for people living in the area to make representations upon the review;
  3. (c) prepare draft recommendations as to the matters considered by the review;
  4. (d) publicise the draft recommendations to people living in the area;
  5. (e) deposit copies of the draft recommendations at the principal offices of every district and county council in the region;
  6. (f) take account of representations received from people living in the area upon the draft recommendations.
(8B) Not later than the date specified in the timetable for the submission of their recommendations the Commission must—
  1. (a) submit their recommendations to the Secretary of State;
  2. (b) take such steps as they think sufficient to secure that persons living in the area who may be interested in the recommendations are informed of them and of the period specified in the timetable within which it may be inspected;
  3. (c) deposit copies of the recommendations at the principal offices of every county council and district council in the region."

The noble Lord said: We come to an important part of our deliberations today. The Bill directs the Boundary Committee simply to specify a date on which the review of local government structure will begin in a region and the date on which the Boundary Committee will make its recommendations. It does not spell out the process which the Boundary Committee should go through.

We have had a great deal of important discussions about reorganisation. It is most important that the review process is open and transparent and that people can participate in it locally and are aware of what is happening.

Amendment No. 100 sets out the processes which the Boundary Committee should go through and they are similar to those which the Government suggest the Electoral Commission should do in establishing the electoral boundaries for the elected members of any region. It is vitally important that the process is undertaken in establishing the reorganisation of local government.

As we have said several times during the past few days— and I feel it most strongly— the local government part of the legislation is the most difficult and important. It is the most heart-searching and I have been through it. I remember during the 1990s the trauma of reorganisation. There was then some public participation; for example, at one stage Buckinghamshire was to disappear into unitary authorities, as did Berkshire. As the public were involved in Buckinghamshire, there was considerable discussion and involvement and ultimately the then Secretary of State reversed the decision of the Boundary Commission, as it then was, and Buckinghamshire remained as a county without being reorganised.

It is therefore most important that in any review of local government there is a transparent process in which the public can participate. We are therefore setting out processes in which the public and local government can be involved. There will be a draft set of recommendations which can be debated and people can put forward other solutions.

The minister has said that local government provides services but these regions will not. Surely, providing services to the public is the most important thing that happens; for instance, care for the elderly, looking after schools and so forth. That should not be disrupted, so it is important that local people are involved in the debate on local government reorganisation.

Amendment No. 103 allows the public to inspect what the Boundary Committee is doing. The information should be available for the public to see and the whole process made as transparent as possible. I beg to move this important amendment.

Lord Greaves

These useful amendments relate to an important topic. They give the Government the opportunity to say exactly how local government reviews will take place. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, said that he had experienced local government reorganisation in the 1990s. Some of us went through it in 1972, 1973 and 1974 and it gets no better or easier. There will be in the areas involved a furore of local argument. Local politicians and the staff of local authorities will be involved and will devote a huge amount of time, effort and energy. Inevitably, it will be to the detriment of local services—that is the way it works—so it is crucial that local people know exactly what will happen, exactly how they will be able to take part and exactly how their views will be taken into account.

When the draft recommendations are produced there will be another round of local discussions and debates and vast arguments and rows within each of the political parties. For at least 12 months while this is taking place, the normal political process of strutting between the parties will grind to a halt while everyone tears each other's eyes out within their own parties. That is the way it works. It is a useful amendment and I look forward to the Minister's reply.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

The noble Lord will be delighted to know that I agree wholeheartedly with the substance of Amendments Nos. 100 and 103. He will be equally delighted, I hope, that we have anticipated them. The substance of both amendments is already provided for in the provisions of Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992, which are imported into the Bill by means of Clause 14. Both satisfy the requirements of the amendments. The amendments are unnecessary and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw them.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those comments. I understand from what he said that Clause 14 clarifies the review procedure. However, I shall have to look at the issue again. The Minister accepted that the process has to be transparent. It is a pity that it could not be included on the face of the Bill so that everyone is aware of the process involved in local government reorganisation. I do not understand why this could not be included on the face of the Bill to enable everyone to understand the process. Perhaps the Minister will come back on that point.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

We would not wish to include it on the face of the Bill because it is already in legislation. That was the point of my answer.

Lord Hanningfield

I still would like to see it on the face of the Bill. I suspect the Minister is using the argument he used earlier about not wishing to have the same piece of legislation in two Bills. I do not necessarily accept that argument but I shall look at what he said. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 101 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 102: Page 7, line 6, leave out subsection (10).

The noble Lord said: The amendment seeks to clarify the thinking behind subsection (10), which gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging powers to alter or revoke a direction to the Boundary Committee to carry out a local government review. Under what circumstances do the Government envisage this would happen? This is an unusual clause and we would like to know the thinking behind subsection (10).

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Amendment No. 102 would remove the ability of the Secretary of State to vary or revoke a direction to the Boundary Committee to conduct a local government review, once given. Such a provision might be needed, for example, if it became necessary to give the Boundary Committee more time to complete its review. It is therefore a sensible precautionary provision to cope with unforeseen circumstances.

Indeed, it is standard practice for Bills to include such a provision. I would point the noble Lord to the similar provisions in Section 26(6) of the Local Government Act 1992 and Section 48(7) of the Local Government Act 2000. In those circumstances, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Baroness Blatch

There is no reference in the clause to those other Acts of Parliament. The words on the page—I hope that on this occasion they actually mean what they say—are: A direction under this section may be varied or revoked by a subsequent direction". There are no limits whatever on that power. Is the noble Lord defending that?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I am advised that this is already in the Bill. I am defending it because it is in the Bill—where in the Bill I do not know.

Baroness Blatch

I am sorry, but that is not good enough. If it is in the Bill, and if we are to accept the Minister's answer, can we be given the reference? Simply because the Minister says so is not sufficient to make us to accept it.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

May we leave it that during the course of the next half-hour or so we shall be able to give the noble Baroness the reference she requires?

Baroness Blatch

Procedurally, that is not possible unless an amendment has not been dealt with. I do not think that we can do that out of sequence.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

The Minister has indicated that a similar provision is contained in previous legislation. Noble Lords opposite will have the opportunity to check this point at later stages of the Bill. The Minister says that this is not a precedent; it has been used on a number of occasions in previous legislation. That seems to me a perfectly reasonable explanation unless Members opposite have objected to such a provision in previous Bills.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I hope that the note I have received from my officials may help the Committee. I am advised that these refer to other provisions in other Bills, but Section 26(6) is also a part of this Bill for the purposes of Part 2 by Clause 16.

Baroness Blatch

Section 26(6) where?

Lord Rooker

I was reading briefing for two amendments ahead. I did not hear the noble Baroness's original question to my noble friend. Is she asking about Clause 12( 10)? Without further particulars in front of me, the provision looks fairly wide. It is specific to this clause; it is not a question of carte blanche. The reference that my noble friend gave was to Section 26(6) of the Local Government Act 1992, and we apologise for that fact. If this looks too wide, and there is not time to do anything about it now, I guarantee that we shall come back with a better explanation. Before Report stage, we shall check whether this is a necessary part of the clause.

Perhaps I may point out to the noble Baroness the reference in Clause 16. At line 40 on page 9, she will see a reference to the 1992 Act. The clause is headed, "Application of the 1992 Act". Section 26 is sidelined on the left of the provision: So far as it relates to anything done under a provision specified in this Table for the purposes of this Part". If that is not satisfactory we shall take the provision away and examine it to make sure that those on the Front Bench opposite are content that we are not taking wide powers that are not justified.

Lord Hanningfield

We thank the Minister for that response. Given his assurance that he will re-examine this provision and bring the matter back if necessary, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 103 not moved.]

Clause 12 agreed to.

Clause 13 [Local government review: supplementary]:

[Amendment No. 104 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 105: Page 7. line 13, leave out paragraphs (a) and (b) and insert "the appropriate boundaries for the introduction of unitary local authorities within the region

The noble Lord said: The aim of Amendment No. 105 is to introduce some clarity into the legislation with the help of a little plain English. The Bill defines local government review as a review to consider what structural change is most appropriate for the region. The limited number of people familiar with the Local Government Act 1992 will realise that "structural change" simply means replacing county and district councils with unitary authorities.

We believe the Bill should be put into more meaningful, straightforward language. If "structural change" is synonymous with dismantling county and district councils to create new unitary authorities, the Bill should say so.

Our amendments would also allow the Boundary Committee the freedom to recommend that structural change is inappropriate for the needs of a given region. In some parts of England, particularly rural areas—we are repeating earlier arguments but they are important—two-tier local government has the advantage of meeting specific local needs. Northumberland is a very large rural county; to split it into small unitaries would be highly undesirable. Two-tier government also provides the necessary economies of scale to deliver large-scale services such as education.

Amendment No. 106 acknowledges that the Government have consistently failed in debate to justify this argument. We have been told that it is political and we have to take it or leave it; we will not have three tiers of government. But I repeat what I have just said about rural communities. We think these amendments are very important.

I repeat what we have said several times: local government is about delivering local services to local people. It is not just about carving out convenient local government units; it is also about delivering services. Therefore, we should be looking at the structure that delivers those services.

The amendments may make minor changes to the Bill's wording, but they are very important in terms of the local government review. I hope the Government will reconsider their earlier stance and accept them.

Baroness Hamwee

Our little Amendment No. 108 is in this group. We have debated possible boundary changes not only within a region but to a region. I take this opportunity to support the thrust, if not necessarily the detail, of what the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has said.

Lord Rooker

I support the initial view of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, about clarity of language. We all think we can draft legislation more clearly but every time I attempted to do so in another place, the consequences were drawn to my attention. There is a great skill in drafting legislation. We might not always agree with the way in which they do it, but parliamentary counsel provide a good service. It is much easier to draft legislation if Ministers know what they want; when they do not know what the policy is or do not know what they want, the result is badly drafted legislation. It is the fault of the Ministers, not parliamentary counsel.

My speaking notes seem to contradict commitments that I have given in some respects, particularly in our early debates, about not touching existing unitary authorities. I have given commitments on the example given from the Liberal Democrat and Conservative Benches. I will not go into detail about that, because I have drawn it to the attention of my ministerial colleagues. However, let me go through the process on this group of amendments.

The definition of the structural boundary changes is set out in the Local Government Act 1992 and applied for the purposes of this Bill by virtue of Clause 14. Clause 13 ensures that the Boundary Committee can recommend a new unitary structure only for those areas that currently have a two-tier local government and any new authorities must be within existing regional boundaries. The Boundary Committee could, in recommending a pattern of unitary authorities, make changes to the boundaries of existing authorities if it believed that to be necessary, but it could not change the boundaries of existing unitary authorities or the boundaries of the region.

I have already said that we would consider that point about changing the boundaries of existing unitary authorities. The example was given of Bradford and Skipton. I have drawn that point to the attention of Nick Raynsford.

Amendment No. 108 would require the Boundary Committee, as part of its review of local government in the region, to consider whether changes should be made to the boundaries of the region. For reasons I have explained, the Government could not accept that, but I do not want to repeat all those reasons.

I hope that those who put their name to Amendment No. 107 have noticed that it would result in the Boundary Committee considering the implications of a local government review for the, effective, efficient local government in", the region, which is already achieved by the provision of Clause 13(8)(d).

As for the Boundary Committee being able to consider no change, as in Amendment No. 106, we have made our position clear. I said that it would be subject to the caveat that I gave. It would not be widespread, but the example that was given was a good one, and I believe that it should be reconsidered.

Amendment No. 105 would enable the Boundary Committee to amend the boundaries of existing unitary authorities, as would Amendments Nos. 109 to 111. That is covered by the point that I made about having a look at whether we can be more flexible in producing the best available system of local government. Members of the Committee have suggested that, unless the Boundary Committee is allowed to consider the boundaries of all the local authorities in the region, the pattern of unitary authorities created might be unsustainable in the long run.

The priority is to minimise the impact of reorganisation. The purpose is not local government reorganisation but elected regional assemblies, if, after a referendum, the people want them. Local government reorganisation comes as a secondary order. However, we are adamant about single-tier authorities, and we would withdraw the Bill and not proceed if that were not established. That would not be accepting the will of Parliament—the Minister in charge of the Bill would simply withdraw it. The price is single-tier government. We have made that clear throughout our debates.

Lord Hanningfield

The Minister did not reply to my example.

As all Members of the Committee know, I have been in local government a long while. I live nowhere near Northumberland, but it is far too big to be a unitary county under these proposals. It will be destroyed as a county council and will have to be split up into unitaries, which would still be very large. Services will be disrupted and chaotic in some places.

The most important thing we do in local government is to provide services for people, care for the elderly, support schools, run libraries, repair potholes, collect waste, and so on. All those services will be tremendously disrupted for a long while and in some areas destroyed. The Minister referred to services in saying that regional assemblies were not there to run services. We will be creating something that does not run services but destroys them in the process.

Will the Minister comment on that? The Government should reconsider this issue. If they are to continue with the idea of regional assemblies while decent services are provided, two-tier local government must continue to exist.

Lord Rooker

I deliberately avoided commenting on the noble Lord's point. It does no good to start commenting on individual local authorities, whether I know them or not. That would be to prejudge the issue. The boundary review will be the place for that, if it happens, subject to the soundings. It is not for Ministers to second guess at the Dispatch Box. With respect, the same applies to Opposition Members. All we would be doing is to send out the wrong signals based on no evidence whatever. The independent Boundary Committee will assess the issue and take account of all those factors—which may be valid. I am not knocking the validity of the noble Lord's comments. However, I think that it would be quite wrong in considering this Bill to start discussing the potential effects on individual local authorities. The effects may bear no relation whatever to the result of the boundary review.

Baroness Hamwee

In an earlier response the noble Lord used the term "secondary" in referring to the local government review. Does he mean "second" in the sense of sequence of events or "secondary" as in less important? I think that he meant the former.

Lord Rooker

The potential local government changes to single-tier authorities are a consequence of the attempt to have elected regional assemblies. In other words, we have not brought forward a Bill to reform local government. To that extent, it is a second-order issue. I am not saying that it is not important, but it is not the prime purpose. The prime purpose is to establish elected regional assemblies. If we had wanted a Bill on local government reorganisation, I am sure that we would have gone about it in an entirely different way.

Baroness Hanham

While we are on the subject of carving up local government as a second tier, I wonder whether the Minister will comment on the size of local authorities. I know that he will say that that is a matter for the Boundary Committee. However, perhaps he would consider any of the examples of the regions delineated in the White Paper. He may seek to join districts or shires together to make a unitary authority, but half of them do not even involve even numbers. One region may have 55 shires, seven counties and 12 unitaries, and another six counties, 36 districts and nine unitaries. We have talked about it being a hotchpotch and a melee. It looks as though there will have to be far more work in one or two of the regions than simply to combine two districts, for example, into a unitary. Many different decisions will have to be made about boundaries and definitions. It seems that all of that will cause a great deal more trouble than the Government envisage.

Lord Rooker

We have not envisaged it because, as I said, it will be down to the Boundary Committee to do that. I think that mish-mash was the word that we used. It is the variety in which a thousand flowers bloom. It is the variety of England, and long may it continue. It is not all the same. We are not saying that it is all the same and we do not want it to be. The consequence of a high level of interest in a referendum will be an assessment of the local government to create single-tier authorities. How that is done is entirely a matter for the Boundary Committee. It is no good our trying to second guess. It is clear that the committee has a job to do which will not be the same in every region. All the facts and figures in the White Paper show that each region is entirely different from the others.

Baroness Blatch

In his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who was talking about whether this was in fact secondary, the noble Lord reminded us, as he has done throughout our debates, that this is a referendum about regional assemblies and that local government review is just a consequence. On page 9 of the Select Committee on the Constitution report, not only the chairman but the whole committee made it clear that they were concerned about a particular constitutional point. The chairman said: given that it is constitutionally novel, do you feel that the Bill has gone as far as it could in stipulating the provisions under which it should be triggered and determining the level when the interest is clearly there within a region?". In response, the Minister, Mr Raynsford, said: Given that this is not just simply a process of holding a referendum but it also involves a Boundary Committee review and the potential disruption of local government attendant on that, which we recognise is not something to be triggered without good reason, we felt this was not necessarily the best way forward". The right honourable gentleman made it clear that this was a serious referendum not just about a regional assembly but about major disruption in local government.

11.45 p.m.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness is making an issue of something that does not exist. Nothing that Nick Raynsford said in that regard contradicts what I have said. The prime purpose of the Bill is elected regional assemblies. The consequence of that, the second order effect—big though it is, as I accept—is single-tier local government. The purpose of the Bill is not single-tier local government. The purpose of the Bill is not to abolish England or the county councils. The purpose of the Bill is elected regional assemblies. The consequence of that—the second order effect—is single-tier local government. But that is not the Bill's prime purpose. It is no good trying to make it something that it is not.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for those comments. Next week we shall have the Second Reading of the Local Government Bill which is designed mainly to improve local government. However, local government reorganisation will help to destroy local government. So one week we are talking of destroying local government and the next week of trying to improve it. According to the recent comprehensive reforms assessment, small unitary authorities established in the 1990s have not performed very well and yet here we are talking about possibly setting up many more. We consider most of the responses totally unsatisfactory as regards tiers of local government, whether single or two-tier; regional boundaries; size of unitary authorities and boundaries of unitary authorities. I shall withdraw the amendment, but we shall have to return to these issues at a later stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 105A to 108 not moved.]

Baroness Hamwee moved Amendment No. 109: Page 7, line 16, leave out subsection (4).

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 109, I wish to speak also to Amendments Nos. 111 and 126B. Amendment No. 110 in the name of the Conservative Front Bench is grouped with the amendments that I am discussing.

Amendment No. 109, which seeks to leave out subsection (4) of Clause 13, is consequential, if it is possible to be consequential but come first. Amendment No. 111 seeks to leave out paragraph (a) of subsection (5) of Clause 13. It seeks to remove the restriction on the Boundary Committee regarding areas which are not the areas of county councils or district councils. The Minister referred to examples given on an earlier day of Committee stage when we talked about the Lancashire coast and Blackpool. On that occasion I omitted to suggest that he have a word with his noble friend Lady Farrington of Ribbleton who I believe would be likely to endorse the comments that we made about the nonsense of not at least considering the boundaries of Blackpool when dealing with Fylde and Wyre.

Amendment No. 126B seeks to amend Clause 18. That clause provides that the Scilly Isles are not a relevant authority. I do not understand why they are not a relevant authority for the purposes of Clause 12(5)(a) which states that the Secretary of State may consider, the effects … of a local government review … on the relevant local authorities … in the region". Admittedly, the Scilly Isles are unlike any other authority in terms of location and size but they must surely have an interest in what happens within the region as that will affect them as an authority. How can they be totally excluded, which, if I understand Clause 18 aright, they would be? They would simply not have a voice or a look-in on the matter. That does not seem right. I beg to move.

Lord Hanningfield

We support the noble Baroness. Amendment No. 110 would amend Clause 13(4) on page 7, which states: Relevant local authorities are the county council and district council". We think that unitary councils should be included in that. Although we have heard over and again that they should not be considered in such discussions, they are part of the region and should be included. That is why we propose that amendment.

Lord Rooker

I really have nothing new to say. The answer to the amendment is basically the same as that to the previous amendment and the one before that. It is no good me saying anything else about existing unitary authorities, because I said a week or more ago that we would have a look at the issue and come back to it. Anything that I say is quite irrelevant now, because it is not my job to make the policy standing here at the Dispatch Box. I have given a commitment that, because of sensible and probing questions that were asked with good examples, we would see whether we could do anything on the issue.

I know that somewhere among my notes, but not on this clause or even this amendment—I do not know why—I have read a lot more about the Scilly Isles in the past couple of weeks than I have in front of me now. I do not know on which amendment I read it. I understand that the Scilly Isles are quite different. I realise that Amendment No. 126B drags the Scilly Isles into the review process, but they have quite a unique local government structure for England. as the noble Baroness accepted. I do not have the words here, but I know that I have read somewhere that it is not a county council, it is not a district, and it is not unitary, but it works. I hope—I have never been there—that it does so to the benefit of the people of the Scilly Isles. We do not want them disturbed. On the other hand, we need to ensure that they are covered by any consequences under the Bill.

The brief that I was talking about is on Clause 18 stand part. I knew that I had read it somewhere. We have not reached Clause 18 stand part. Things are coming at a rate of knots now. The brief is more or less what I said anyway, which proves I read it as I know nothing about the subject otherwise.

The brief states that the Isles of Scilly will not be subject to a local government review, as they already have unitary local government. Local government in the Scilly Isles differs from elsewhere in England as the council of the Scilly Isles is neither a county, nor a district council, and various special provisions have been made for the council to exercise and perform specified local government functions. However, certain local government functions are performed on behalf of the Scilly Isles by Cornwall County Council. Clause 18 ensures that if a future local government review were to make structural changes in Cornwall, we would be able to provide by order for such functions to be performed by one or more of the successor authorities.

I think that I put that in quite good language. I did not mention the bit about Cornwall doing the work for the Scilly Isles, but they have a relevant local authority. For our purposes, it is essentially a unitary authority and not a two-tier authority. It is the effect of the two tiers that means that the Scilly Isles are not covered by Clause 12(5)(a). However, they are part of the region—no one could deny that—and therefore are part of the review. They are part of the United Kingdom, so they are not ruled out, but they have a unique local government structure that works well and should not be disturbed. That is the answer, I hope, to Amendment No. 126B.

The answer to the other amendments is basically to refer to what I said earlier, at the risk of repeating myself for Hansard.

Baroness Blatch

Before the noble Baroness responds on her amendment, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord a question. He has just said that, unless there were some structural change to Cornwall, there would be no need to review the Isles of Scilly arrangements. But it is likely that if the region within which Cornwall is located had a regional assembly, Cornwall would disappear as a county council and structural changes could well take place. Then the Isles of Scilly would have to be included in such a review.

Lord Rooker

That is why Clause 18(2) is in the Bill.

Baroness Hamwee

My point was that Clause 18(1) states that: For the purposes of section 12 … the Isles of Scilly are not a relevant local authority". Clause 12(5) provides for the Secretary of State to consider the effects of carrying out a local government review on relevant authorities. As the Minister said, what he read out about the Isles of Scilly was extremely elegant and, moreover, I believe that it put forward my argument perfectly.

I do not believe that I am being illogical on this matter, but I shall not pursue the logic at five minutes to midnight. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 110 and 111 not moved.]

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No.112: page 7, line 27, at end insert"(subject to any guidance to the contary published by the secretary of state)

The noble Lord said: I believe that we keep repeating ourselves but we do so in this group of amendments to ensure that the local government review process is open and transparent. On this side of the Chamber, we believe that the guidance prepared for the Boundary Committee should supersede requirements set down in the Bill.

Over the past few days, we have had rather a lot of discussion about the soundings exercise, conducted by the Government, on whether referendums should take place. We have not heard much about the consultation process on the electoral process that was also put in train at that time. Therefore, in speaking to this group of amendments, we should like to hear that the Government will take notice of the process of consultation on the electoral arrangements and that the evidence that goes to the Boundary Committee will take over from the requirements of the Bill. That evidence will have been taken on soundings about the committee's process. That is why we have tabled Amendments Nos. 112, 113, 115, 116 and 117.

Lord Greaves

I want to speak specifically to Amendment No. 117, which refers to the guidance issued by the Secretary of State during the local government boundary process. It is vital that the guidance is not only issued to the Boundary Committee but that it is published. It is essential that those who wish to make representations—whether they are local authorities, people living in the area or organisations—know what the government guidance is. Without that, it will be difficult to make appropriate representations. For example, if the guidance included a minimum population level for unitary authorities of, say, 200,000 people, then it would be a waste of time for people to say that they wanted a unitary authority the size of, for example, Hartlepool, which is considerably smaller than that. Therefore, people need to know what the guidance is.

My first question is: what areas will the guidance cover? The Minister may not be able to answer that today but perhaps he will write to us. Will the guidance cover population size? Will it cover a minimum or maximum area? Will it cover the nature of the area concerned; that is, will there be different criteria for rural authorities and urban authorities and so on?

Secondly, will the guidance be the same for all regions that are subjected to a local government reorganisation or can it be different? I shall stop talking about the North East and the North West, and I shall imagine a hypothetical situation involving the South East and the South West. Could the guidance about local government reorganisation in those two regions be different, or do the Government intend to issue guidance that will apply to all regions, at least for a period of time?


Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

First, I shall deal with Amendment No. 113 which would require the Boundary Committee to comply with the requirements on consultation in the 2000 Act. The consultation requirements with which the Boundary Committee will have to comply are in fact set out in Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992 and applied with modifications for the purposes of local government reviews by virtue of Clause 14.

They are the same requirements that would apply to other structural and boundary reviews carried out by the Electoral Commission as the body responsible for such reviews since its establishment under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. We intend to comment on those requirements through the guidance that we shall issue to the Boundary Committee. Section 6 of the draft guidance, on which we are consulting and which is in the Library, will provide noble Lords with the necessary detail. We launched a consultation on 2nd December last and copies of the draft guidance were sent to all principal local authorities.

As for the other amendments, Clause 13(8) provides the basis on which the Boundary Committee is to conduct local government reviews. In carrying out a review, the clause includes requirements for the Boundary Committee to assume that there is an elected assembly for the region; to have regard to the need to reflect the interests and identities of local communities; to have regard to the need to secure effective and convenient local government; and to have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 115 would delete the requirement for the Boundary Committee to assume the existence of a regional assembly. The Bill requires that assumption because there will be a close working relationship between local and regional government, reflecting the fact that action taken at regional level will affect local areas and the actions of local authorities will, of course, contribute to regional goals. It is important, therefore, that in carrying out its reviews, the Boundary Committee recognises this reality and has regard to the position as it will exist when, or shortly after, the new authorities are brought into existence.

I shall now deal with Amendments Nos. 116 and 117. The first would delete the requirement for the Boundary Committee to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The second would require such guidance to be "published" rather than "issued". Perhaps I can assure noble Lords opposite that we are not seeking to interfere with the Boundary Committee's independence. Of course the conduct of the review and the Boundary Committee's assessment of the factors that are relevant are entirely for it. But it is plainly right when conducting a review that the Boundary Committee should have a clear indication of what the Government consider to be important features affecting unitary structure.

Once the Boundary Committee has completed its review and submitted its recommendations, it is for the Government—not the Boundary Committee—to implement any structural and boundary changes; and in doing so, the Government can make modifications to the Boundary Committee's recommendations. In that respect, the approach adopted in the Bill is no different from that adopted by the Local Government Act 1992. Given the Government's role in implementation, it is quite proper that the Boundary Committee should know the issues that the Government think are important in deciding what structural and boundary changes are appropriate for a region.

The approach to guidance in the Bill is the same as that adopted by the then Government in relation to the reviews conducted by the Local Government Commission in the 1990s. The Secretary of State issued draft guidance for consultation prior to enactment of the 1992 Act and subsequently issued a number of versions of policy and procedure guidance to the Local Government Commission for England. These were publicly available.

We also intend to ensure that the guidance we issue to the Boundary Committee is in the public domain. For that reason we have already consulted on a draft of the guidance. I can assure the Committee that the final guidance will also be published.

I turn to Amendment No. 112. I must confess that I find it curious that Members opposite are keen to give the Government a wide discretion to disregard or to vary the matters set out in subsection (8) by means of guidance and thereby avoid any parliamentary scrutiny. I believe that reviews should be carried out in all regions on the same basic criteria as those set out in Clause 13(8).

Finally, I turn to the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am not able to answer two of them, but I shall write to him shortly. With that explanation, I hope that the amendment will be withdrawn.

Lord Greaves

The Minister does not need to write to me if the information is in the Library. I shall check. If it is not, I shall get in touch with him.

Lord Hanningfield

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am now more concerned than I was before tabling the amendments. If the 1992 and onwards reorganisation is being cited as an example of good practice, someone may want to think again. It is generally accepted that the unitaries created then were too small. Berkshire is almost being recreated. The various unitaries are combining for purposes such as transportation and waste. They were too small to operate as practical units.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about the size of unitaries. I know several people who have responded to the consultation. They have said, "Do not establish unitaries of the size created in the 1990s". Whatever happens here, we want to create good local government that can deliver services. That is why the evidence that goes to the Boundary Committee, and its consultation, is paramount and more important than today's discussions. I was not reassured by the Minister. I am sure that we shall return to these issues in future stages. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 113 to 117 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 118 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Implementation of recommendations]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 119: Page 8, line 45, at end insert—

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 119 is coupled with Amendments Nos. 119A, 119B and 119C standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Caithness. It is a great pity that we are discussing this—uncharacteristically for this Session of Parliament—so late in the day because it is an important part of the process.

My amendment makes plain the threshold requirements that must be satisfied in a referendum in order to return a vote in favour of regional assemblies. The thresholds are that there should be an overall turnout of 40 per cent of the eligible vote, and that of those voting the majority vote in favour. This item appears in the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution. It expressed concern and stated: We draw these matters to the attention of the House as raising questions of principle about principal parts of the constitution". That is qualified at the bottom of the page by an additional note: Our normal practice is only to report on public Bills which raise an important question of principle affecting a principal part of the constitution. We consider that this bill meets these criteria". In other words, this is an important constitutional Bill and this is a particular area of concern as recorded by the Select Committee on the Constitution.

A referendum turnout below the level of 40 per cent is surely indicative of a public disinterested and unenthusiastic about the prospect of regional assemblies. It is hardly a good sign for things to come. Such a body could hardly claim a strong mandate and would surely struggle to maintain its authority.

It is not stretching the point too far, given the turnout in London and for mayoral elections in places such as Bedfordshire, Hartlepool, Tyneside and others, to say that between 10 and 20 per cent could turn out, but a majority of one would be sufficient to establish a regional assembly. The Mayor of Bedford was elected on about 12 per cent of the vote and the Mayor of London on about half of the vote of a 33 per cent turnout. So we are discussing small turnouts that give rise to major constitutional change.

The Government must tackle head-on the problem that only a small minority of the English population know about regional assemblies. Many are completely unaware of the region to which they belong. The Government must avoid circumstances in which regional assemblies are established thanks to the active support of a tiny minority of the population, when the remainder would have opposed the establishment, had they been informed.

There has been a conspicuous absence of publicity for the soundings exercise. What is the point of a public consultation about which the public are not told? There is evidence of that up and down the land, some of which we have cited anecdotally. Members of the House were conspicuously absent from the list of consultees, although we come from all parts of the United Kingdom. Some of the bodies that were consulted did not then further consult their own interested members.

So we know that there has been a flawed consultation process, on which the whole process will be triggered. As I said, however small the turnout, a majority of one is sufficient to establish a regional assembly. Regional assemblies will not work, however much the Government want them to do so, unless they have the active support of a majority of people living in the area.

The other point that must be emphasised is that large rural areas, especially in a place such as Northumberland, which is the most glaring example, could be massively outvoted by a relatively small turnout in the much more urban areas. There are likely to be large swathes within a region that do not want regional assemblies, when a small turnout of the urban parts of the region vote to establish an assembly. We think that that is unacceptable in a democracy.

To establish a regional assembly on the back of a referendum in which fewer than 40 per cent of the electorate voted, or where the majority of at least an agreed percentage of the electorate did not vote in favour, is surely to make a mockery of all claims to democratic validity. I beg to move.

12.15 a.m.

The Earl of Caithness moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 119, Amendment No. 119A: Line 2, leave out "forty" and insert "fifty

The noble Earl said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 119B and 119C. I agree with everything that my noble friend Lady Blatch said in moving Amendment No. 119, but I disagree with her on the figures. Some hours ago. the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, speaking to Amendment No. 44, that there must be democratic accountability. That is what my amendments are intended to achieve.

I speak from our experience in Scotland of having devolution foisted upon us by fewer than 50 per cent of the electorate. The situation was even worse in Wales. Many who voted for devolution in Scotland are now seriously questioning whether they were wise to do so. I have no doubt that, if another referendum were held today, the result would be very different from the one on which the decision was taken. That is why Amendment No. 119A would require at least a 50 per cent turnout and that 50 per cent of the electorate vote in favour of an elected regional assembly.

On Amendment No. 119C, I ask the Minister to tear up the words before him. He will be used to that; he did it on Clause 10. The words are not as we read them; they mean something totally different. I was trying to make the point that in every area where people vote there should be a majority in favour of what is proposed. That takes up the point that my noble friend Lady Blatch made about remote rural areas—it does not matter whether the area is in the North East or the South West. We talked a good deal about the issue. The Minister said that there were four proposed regional areas in which the rural votes outnumbered the urban ones, and that there were four areas where the opposite applied. In each area where there is a vote, the answer should always be "Yes", because that protects the interests of the minorities.

The Bill does not propose government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is an exercise of limited functions for the few and by the minority. I am trying to make certain that a majority is the deciding factor. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves

We on these Benches support the second half of Amendment No. 119, which would impose a condition that, a majority of those voting in the referendum voted in favour of an elected regional assembly for the region". That seems entirely reasonable, although, as I understand it, the Bill as it stands would allow the Secretary of State to set up a regional assembly even if a majority voted against it in a referendum. It is unlikely that he would attempt to do that, but he could.

We do not support the rest of the amendment. As a matter of principle, we do not support voting thresholds, whether in referendums or elections. The principle is dangerous. It does not apply to the House of Lords because we do not have to acquire votes, at least not yet. But one wonders whether, if a threshold of 50 per cent of voters were required in the Westminster election, at least one or two Members of the House of Commons would have had to try again.

It may be deplorable that turnouts have been decreasing over the years. But, once people begin to get angry again, turnouts will start to increase. It is a cyclical pattern rather than a long-term decrease. Thresholds of this nature do not solve the problem of low turnouts. The principle must be, not that people are forced to vote for a proposal to be passed. but that they have the opportunity to vote for it to be passed. People have a right to abstain and say that they are not interested. As politicians, we would deplore that, but people still have the right to reject the whole political system and us because they are not interested. What matters in the principle of democratic elections and referendums is the decision of those who vote. So we do not support thresholds.

The amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, are extraordinary. The requirement that 50 per cent of, presumably, the entire registered electorate—as the Minister pointed out, that is not always an accurate figure—must vote before something can be passed is very high. I think that the noble Earl accepted that. It is far too high a test.

Noble Lords will know that I am no huge fan of the particular type of regional assembly that the Government propose, but, if everything is going to be as appalling as the noble Earl says and the assemblies will be a simple matter of government for the few and jobs for the boys, without any real powers, he should go out and mobilise the people. He and others who feel as he does should organise the people and get them to rise up in anger and vote against the plan. That is the true answer in a democracy, not trying to create false tests.

The noble Earl mentioned devolution in Scotland and the fact that people in Scotland grumbled about the Parliament there. Of course, they do there is a real devolved political system in Scotland with a real parliament. There is real politics going on, and, when that happens, people get grumpy and fed up about it. However, if we were to try to close down the Scottish Parliament, it would be the quickest way of inciting the Scottish people to rise up not only to defend their Parliament but to demand their independence. People in Scotland will defend that Parliament to the death. The noble Earl may disagree, but that is my impression.

Finally, the noble Earl wants to insert a condition that every district council area in a region must vote for an assembly. As noble Lords know, I am sympathetic to the view that, if parts of the region that have two-tier local government vote against because they do not want their local government to change, they should have a veto on the whole thing, if the Government insist on single-tier local government in those areas. If people do not want to disrupt their local government systems, they should be able to stand firm against it. But if we require a positive vote in every district, those who are against it will put all their resources and all their campaigners into a couple of districts to get a "No" vote and disrupt the whole thing. The test proposed by the noble Earl would almost certainly make it impossible for any referendum to produce a positive vote.

For those reasons, we do not agree with the amendments, apart from the second half of Amendment No. 119.

Baroness Hanham

The noble Lord just said that people should be allowed to abstain. Of course, they should; that is part of the democratic system. However, those abstentions ought to be counted as "anti" votes, if we are to regard this as a matter of principle. People voting in the referendum will be voting for a principle; namely, the principle of having a regional assembly and regional government. They will not be voting for who will be on the list; they will be voting for a change to the system. Therefore, it would be more realistic to expect a greater number of people to vote in those elections and to require that they should do so, before there is any change.

I know that that did not happen in London, Scotland or Wales, but the number of people in all those places—particularly Wales and London—who could be bothered to turn out was derisory, given that it was a matter that would effect people dramatically, particularly in London. There may not be quite the same effect on the regions, but they will certainly see a difference, and it is proper that, in those circumstances, there should be a threshold for turnout and a threshold against which that turnout should be measured.

Lord Rooker

Unless I misheard him, when the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was talking about Scotland, he quoted figures for turnout—because he was critical of the low turnout—that I did not recognise. The referendums that have taken place in Scotland in recent times—in 1979 and 1997—have all had turnouts of over 60 per cent. That was not a figure he used. I thought that he used a figure of about 40 per cent. Even in the referendum in March 1979 the turnout was 63.6 per cent. In 1997, when there were two questions—one on taxation—the turnout was 60.2 per cent. Those figures were good by any stretch of the imagination. London by comparison was absolutely pathetic, at 34 per cent. I do not think one can criticise what happened in Scotland. We all remember that in Wales the turnout was over 50 per cent. It is true that it was only just over—50.1 per cent. That result itself was very close—50.3 per cent in favour of an assembly against 49.7 against. Obviously, that 50 per cent turnout meant that only 25 per cent of people voted "Yes". However, it was a 50 per cent turnout. We are not used to referendums, anyway. Given the scale of those matters, one cannot criticise the turnout in Wales, and particularly not in Scotland, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, did. I may have misheard him, but he was quoting much lower figures.

I will now deal with the issue. I am not sure whether the Front Bench opposite were advocating that an abstention should count as a "No" vote. That would be the effect of the amendment. I thought that was what they were advocating. One would not have to do anything, and that would then count as a "No" vote. It would be very unsatisfactory in a democracy to be ruled by a decision like that. We think that the fairest, simple measure of a referendum result would be based on the votes that are cast. Everyone is free to vote—if they choose not to do so, their views will not be counted. It is as simple as that. If it is done the other way round, with a threshold of those eligible to vote, one could vote "No" or not vote—and both would count as "No". That has to be unfair by any democratic test.

The precedent that we are using—and we make no apology for it—is that used in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We do not think any other way would be fair. There is no obvious way to decide what the level of the threshold would be. I am instinctively a threshold person. I would like to have a hurdle to achieve a good decision, and to encourage people. However, the reality is that it does not work. Therefore, given that there will be an open debate, and people will be free to vote, then it should be those that vote that make the decision. All those issues were debated in the other place. I believe that there was an amendment that proposed that at least 50 per cent of the people had to vote, and a majority of them had to vote "Yes". That is why noble Lords opposite agree to the second half of the amendment. There was also an amendment in the other place that at least 25 per cent of people eligible to vote in a referendum would have to vote in favour. There are difficulties about that, which we do not accept in principle.

My honourable friend the Minister in the other place explained the effects of the threshold in the recent elections in Serbia—where they twice failed to elect the Prime Minister. Even though he won, he did not get over the threshold. That does include some uncertainty. We need to encourage as many people to vote as possible. We have debated Clause 7, to make the Electoral Commission do things to encourage people to vote, without taking sides. We have to consider every possibility. There is a serious disadvantage with thresholds. I believe that the amendments are proposed from the best possible viewpoint. I am not criticising them, because the purpose behind all the amendments is to try to cajole, persuade and encourage more people to vote. I accept that, because it is being said that we are going to rig the system so that if one does not vote it will not count. If one is really interested, vote. I can understand the reasoning behind that, but I do not believe that the principle is correct.

On a low turnout—I shall not try to define what that is, so please do not ask, but you will recognise it when you see it—with a knife-edge result, the Secretary of State would have to think seriously about what happens afterwards. Therefore it is not game, set and match on a low turnout—or a derisory turnout—with a tiny majority. One would have to think seriously about the way forward.

On Amendment No. 119C, effectively to give each elector in the district a veto on the establishment of a regional assembly cannot be right. The majority can be frustrated in that way and it cannot possibly be justified. I freely admit that the turnouts at some of the mayoral elections have not been brilliant. There has not yet been one at 50 per cent. There was a turnout of 42 per cent in Middlesbrough and 42 per cent in North Tyneside and they are the only ones above 40 per cent.

By the way, looking at the end column, it is interesting to note that the two highest turnouts were all postal ballots. Interesting—listening over there, Lib Dems?

Noble Lords


Lord Rooker

The highest turnout is 42 per cent, all postal ballots. One has to look at the experience. Now I digress—

Baroness Blatch

The constitutional outrage is not so much about what happens in a region, but that England, as constituent country of the whole of the United Kingdom, has no say as a country. If there were to be a referendum, I suggest that we should start with the people of England to decide whether they want their country carved up into nine parts. We were denied that choice when we lost the capital—the part in the middle of the donut that was taken out—and we are now being told that the Secretary of State, on the whim of what he thinks is the level of interest, will carve up the rest into eight areas. We are now trying to salvage the best of a bad lot.

The choice for the people of England is very serious. Scotland has the integrity of the whole country; Wales has the integrity of the whole country; England does not. Even Northern Ireland does. Therefore, this is a serious constitutional point for us.

Before responding to the bulk of the amendment, I must say that nowhere in the Bill can I see a provision that the Secretary of State has the flexibility not to introduce a regional assembly where the vote is in favour of introducing one. I understand that without reference to flexibility or a threshold, however derisory the turnout or the majority—a majority of one would be sufficient—. the vote is fora regional assembly. If the Minister could point out to me the flexibility in the Bill which provides that the Secretary of State may not appoint a regional assembly—

Lord Rooker

I am not prejudging anything. I have told the noble Baroness where the flexibility is—it is the Bill to set up the regional assemblies, and that is a completely different piece of legislation.

Baroness Blatch

That is a lie and a confidence trick on the public. I am not suggesting that the noble Lord is lying. If the people are voting yes or no to a regional assembly, and by whatever the turnout they win that vote, they have every reason to expect a regional assembly. It does not state on the paper, "If you vote for a regional assembly you may not actually get one", and nothing in the Bill suggests that flexibility. There is nothing in this Bill that states: "You can vote for one or against one, but we cannot guarantee you will get one even if you vote for one". I believe that the noble Lord ought to reflect on that flexibility and point to its legal underpinning for the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 119 requires a turn-out of 40 per cent. All of my emotions support the amendment of my noble friend, although even 50 per cent is a modest expectation. The minimum requirement on my percentage of 40 per cent and the minimum requirement on my noble friend's percentage of 50 per cent means that a turn-out of a mere 20 per cent plus one or a mere 25 per cent plus one could be a vote in favour of a regional assembly. That would be a fairly poor endorsement of such a huge constitutional change. Even if only one or two areas vote for a regional assembly, it will have an impact on the remainder of the United Kingdom. That is why we have fought so hard to include in the Bill the considerations that the Secretary of State must take into account under Clause 12.

The constitutional change caused by regional assemblies will mean that areas with two-tier authorities lose their county councils or, indeed, their district councils. A more remote regional assembly will be established. That is not a good deal for local people.

Contrary to the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the setting of a threshold might stimulate people to go out and vote. If they want an assembly badly enough, the knowledge that they have to get over a hurdle of 40 or 50 per cent might stimulate interest rather than the other way round.

I did not use Scotland or Wales in my examples of poor turn-out; I used London and the mayoral elections. A referendum where only 12 per cent of the people vote for a mayor and 88 per cent either do not vote or vote against having a mayor is a very poor endorsement for such a change.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, "If you do not want regional assemblies you should go out and tell the world. You should get everyone behind you". I say to the noble Lord that we cannot compete with the vast resources of central government, the regional development agencies and the various regional bodies that are already illicitly campaigning for regional assemblies. There is no way that a member of the public or a small group of interested people, such as the one in the North East, can campaign against regional government. They do not stand a chance against the vast resources of these other bodies.

Lord Greaves

Does not the Conservative Party have a vast organisation, with thousands of workers and activists all over the place? I thought that that was what the Conservative Party is about.

Baroness Blatch

I have to admit that we are a bit thin on the ground in the North East. My point is more serious than that. Why leave it to political parties? I have said from the beginning that I do not regard the Bill as party political. I regard it as a constitutional Bill which will affect every person in the land. I do not see the people out there as Conservatives or Liberals organised by party political machines; I see them as having a real stake in the kind of local government they want. As individuals and small groups, they do not have the resources to even begin to compete with the national government and the regional bodies which are already illicitly campaigning.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

I understand the noble Baroness's argument. There is obviously some merit in the view that there should be a minimum turn-out. But, from the way in which she expressed these matters, would not someone who wanted to prevent or object to a regional assembly simply have to encourage abstention? If those against having a regional assembly simply abstained, 40 per cent of the whole electorate would positively have to vote in favour of one. Would not that be a problem? In other words, if you wanted to stop a regional assembly you simply would not vote at all and everyone who did vote would have to vote in favour. That means that 40 per cent of the whole electorate would have to vote in favour of a regional assembly, which would be an extraordinary achievement. Under the noble Earl's amendment, 50 per cent would have to vote in favour.

If there is a threshold, the way to stop a regional assembly is to encourage people not to vote. The worst thing would be to encourage people to vote no because that would lift the turn-out. What is the noble Baroness's answer to that point?

Baroness Blatch

I am not malign enough to consider positive abstention. That was not the thrust of my original argument. It was the noble Lord's interpretation of one of the consequences of my amendment. I am not arguing that, and I never would. Any energies that I have will not be used in persuading people not to vote; they will be used to persuade people to vote against an assembly. That is the point of my amendment.

The thrust of my amendments and the principle underpinning them are that if there is to be constitutional change in the regions of England, enough people should vote for them to make the assemblies confident, competent bodies with an underpinning support. I am not going down the road of persuading people not to vote in order to depress the turnout. I believe that if people do not want a regional assembly they should vote against it.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds

That may not be the noble Baroness's intention, but were this amendment to be on the statute book that would be its effect. Anyone wishing to stop a regional assembly would have every reason to abstain. If I were organising against a regional assembly, I should encourage people not to vote, because that would keep the turnout down.

Baroness Blatch

Forty per cent and 50 per cent are relatively modest figures anyway. As the Minister has said. in Scotland, on both occasions, the turnout would have passed the test in my amendment, and indeed that suggested by my noble friend. The same is true of the 40 per cent figure given. I am not going down the road suggested by the noble Lord. He may like to think that that would be the consequence of the amendment, but I believe that having a regional assembly based on a 10 per cent or 15 per cent turnout with a majority of one is simply unacceptable. That is a possibility, and I simply want to avoid it.

The Earl of Caithness

I agree with all the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. They are the same as those that I have in front of me. There is one figure that he did not mention: in Scotland, if my maths is correct, only 44.6 per cent of the electorate voted "Yes". So 50 per cent of people in Scotland did not vote "Yes"; the same was true in Wales. The Minister mentioned 25 per cent in Wales. He was right about the 60.2 per cent in terms of turnout—but the actual percentage of the electorate voting "Yes" was 44.6 per cent.

I like the Minister's instinct. I wish that he would follow his instinct and not his brief. He rather likes the idea of thresholds. He has the same feeling as my noble friend Lady Blatch and I have; namely, that the credibility of this exercise could well be diminished by a low turnout and a small majority. A great deal of credibility would be lost and regional assemblies would get off to a bad start.

I was fascinated by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I do not think that he has listened to much of what I have said during this debate. When I first spoke, I said that I rather liked unitary authorities. This proposal is not so horrible in lots of ways; some quite good things will come from the Bill. What I am trying to do is to make certain that a sufficient number of people vote in a referendum, because that would make the result credible. I do not believe that leaving the matter completely open will serve the right purpose.

I tabled Amendment No. 119C because there are two aspects to this question. I should have thought that the second would appeal to the Liberal Democrat Party. The first aspect is regional assemblies; but with that, and consequent upon it, is the requirement to get rid of the existing local government structure. The purpose of Amendment No. 119C is to protect the rural areas—about which the Liberal Democrats waxed so lyrical when we last debated this issue; they said how important this was for those areas where Northumberland borders on Scotland. I was trying to help the Liberal Democrat Party to keep their district councils, but if they do not want any help that is up to them.

This matter needs to be reconsidered before the next stage. I hope that the Minister will be able to spare us some time for a meeting on this and various other points. This is crucial. His instinct is absolutely right: we must try to find a mechanism, not to "up" the turnout—that is not the point of what I am trying to do—but to bring credibility to this operation. It has lost credibility with the mayoral elections in London and devolution in Wales. Scotland is more arguable; one can argue that 44.6 per cent is a good figure, although I would say that one needs to get over 50 per cent. I hope that the Minister will give us time for a meeting between now and another stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 119A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 119, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 119B and 119C', as amendments to Amendment No. 119, not moved]

Baroness Blatch

This is my final comment on percentages: if my noble friend Lady Hanham was right when she described something like 5,000 responses to the soundings exercise out of a total voting population of about 20 million, I wonder whether the Minister regards that as an adequate return in terms of soundings for starting the process of regional assemblies in this country. We certainly shall return to this, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff)

Is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

Noble Lords


12.46 a.m.

The Deputy Chairrnan of Committees

The Question is that Amendment No. 119 shall be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content". To the contrary, "Not-Content". I think the Not-Contents have it. Clear the Bar.

Division called.

Tellers for the Contents have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order 54. A Division therefore cannot take place, and I declare that the "Not-Contents" have it.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 120: Page 9, line 3, leave out "may" and insert "must

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 121 to 124 and Amendment No. 126. The amendments concern the actions of the Secretary of State following a referendum and his subsequent decision that a regional assembly should be established. As a group, the amendments would ensure that the Secretary of State must put into effect the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee. Amendment No. 123 would mean that if the Secretary of State does not agree with the recommendations, he has the option to, make no changes to the existing local government structure within the region". I asked the Minister earlier whether the Boundary Committee would be free to recommend that to create single-tier authorities would be too great an upheaval and would run counter to efficient and effective government in the region. He refused to answer that question, from which I deduce that the issue must at least be an open question.

As the Bill stands, there is no requirement that the Secretary of State pay particular attention to the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee for England in its review of local government, which will have been an extremely costly and disruptive exercise. That a procedure that is so expensive in resources and time may warrant no more than a brief consideration is surely not intended. Hence, we seek assurances that the Secretary of State will not change the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee without good reason. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I am not clear about the overall purpose of this group of amendments. Amendment No. 121 would require us to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Committee concerning local government reorganisation before a regional assembly was established. In practice, it is likely that the orders giving effect to the Boundary Committee's recommendations will be made in advance of an assembly coming into existence. Those orders, however, will have to set dates both for the election to shadow unitary authorities and for the ultimate transfer of functions from the old to the new authorities.

Whether the transfer of functions which effectively brings the new unitary authorities into existence will actually have taken place by the time that the regional assembly first meets will depend on a number of factors such as the possible need for the Electoral Commission to revise electoral arrangements before there can be elections to the new authorities. Those elections would have to fit in with the current cycle of local authority elections. Therefore, it might be the case that regional assemblies come into existence ahead of the new unitary authorities. We need the flexibility in the Bill so that the limitations on the timing of the local government reorganisation would not unnecessarily delay the setting up of regional assemblies. Nevertheless, I can assure noble Lords that it is our intention to arrange things so that the regional assembly and the new unitary authorities should come into being as close together as possible.

The amendment would also provide that the Secretary of State must implement all the recommendations sent to him by the Boundary Committee. That unreasonably ties the Secretary of State's hands. For reasons to which I shall come, we need the discretion currently allowed in subsection (2). Indeed the remaining amendments attempt to amend the provisions for the implementation by the Government of the recommendations of the Boundary Committee and the Government's discretion in the implementation process.

Subsection (2) allows for discretion in the ma king of an order under this subsection. It provides that an order may be made to give effect to recommendations. Why do we need discretion in making these orders? The answer is simple. The Government may decide that the recommendations of the Boundary Committee are not appropriate. The Secretary of State may receive representations on the recommendations made to him by the Boundary Committee, and he must be able to react to those representations and give them full consideration. That may lead to making modifications to the recommendations or, if necessary, rejecting them. By seeking to remove that ability, the Government are denied the opportunity to consider fully the recommendations in light of circumstances at the time or to react to or reflect representations that may be received.

Similarly, the amendments seek to remove the ability to implement "all of any" of the Boundary Committee's recommendations. Again, that would remove the Government's discretion and place a duty to implement all or none of the recommendations. The arguments for the inclusion of this provision are the same as those I have just given. The Government may decide that while some recommendations are appropriate, others are not and it is sensible to allow for this discretion.

The amendment to remove subsection (3) would remove entirely the Government's ability to make modifications, if necessary, to the recommendations of the Boundary Committee.

While the Boundary Committee is responsible for undertaking a review and making recommendations to the Secretary of State, it is the Secretary of State who is responsible for the implementation of any recommendations. Given that responsibility, it is only right that there be provision to exercise discretion over implementation and to make modifications where that is considered appropriate. Once again, as with many of the provisions in the Bill, this is identical to the tried and tested provisions of the 1992 Act.

Similarly, Clause 15(6) allows for mistakes in an order to be rectified should that be needed. This is not a general order-making power with wide-ranging effect, but a sensible provision limited to correction of errors arising in the preparation of orders where it appears no longer possible to make a further implementation order because the Boundary Committee's recommendations have already been given effect. By including this provision, we have closely followed the tried and tested provisions of the 1992 Act. That Act was not put on the statute book by the present Government, although I should not need to remind the Committee of that. The provision was deemed suitable and appropriate then and we think that it is indeed suitable and appropriate now.

As for the amendment to allow the Secretary of State to make no changes, that is odd as that is what would happen if no order were made under the clause. Each of the amendments seeks to remove discretion that we believe is proper given the Government's responsibility for the implementation of recommendations. I hope that following that explanation the amendments will not be pressed.

1 a.m.

Baroness Blatch

I hardly recognise my amendments from the response that the Minister has given as I argued for flexibility, including the flexibility not to reorganise local government if the Boundary Committee thought that that was appropriate. Earlier the Minister seemed to hint by refusing to answer the question that the Boundary Committee would be free to make a decision that unitary authorities were not appropriate for efficient and effective local government in a region. We have just heard on the previous amendment that a vote for a regional assembly in a referendum does not guarantee that that region will get a regional assembly. We also know that it is entirely in the gift of the Secretary of State to determine from his soundings whether or not there is a sufficient level of interest to hold a referendum. Now we are told that whatever the Boundary Committee decides, the Secretary of State can do what he likes— accept the recommendation, not accept it, modify it—

Lord Rooker

I object to the words "do what he likes". The Secretary of State cannot operate irrationally, unreasonably, on a hunch or as a result of prejudice. He would be subject to judicial review if he did. We are talking about the same powers exercised by secretaries of state of all governments when faced with boundary reviews or even parliamentary reviews. To say that the Secretary of State may do what he likes is simply not true.

Baroness Blatch

That is my interpretation of the flexibility that the Secretary of State has at every stage of the Bill. The soundings have already taken place ahead of the Bill. They were completed as the Bill commenced its passage through this House. The Secretary of State will be free to determine a level of interest. He has to act reasonably as we all know that judicial review is available not to consider the decision he reaches but the way in which he arrives at it. As a result of the discussion on the previous amendment, we now know that if there is a referendum and the vote is for a regional assembly but the Secretary of State deems that the voting turnout was not sufficient, it is possible that those voters will not get what they voted for. Now we are told that there will be flexibility when the Boundary Committee has done its work. I believe that this matter constitutes a Secretary of State's fiefdom without too much check in the system. I shall withdraw the amendments but shall no doubt return to them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 121 to 126 not moved.]

Clause 15 agreed to.

Clause 16 agreed to.

Clause 17 [Payments to Electoral Commission]:

[Amendment No. 126A not moved.]

Clause 17 agreedto.

Clause 18 [Isles of Scilly]:

[Amendment No. 126B not moved.]

Clause 18 agreed to.

Clause 19 [Advice of the Electoral Commission]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 127: Page 10, line 28, leave out from "if" to end of line 32 and insert "the Secretary of State is considering whether to cause a referendum to be held in that region about the establishment of an elected assembly for the region

The noble Baroness said: In moving Amendment No. 127, I wish to speak also to Amendment No. 131. The amendment would ensure that the Electoral Commission provides advice to the Secretary of State concerning the nature of electoral areas before any referendum is held in the region rather than afterwards, as the Bill is drafted. To allow the electorate to make an informed choice, they must be aware of the type of system that would be put in place if they opted for regional assemblies. An individual's decision as to whether they wish to have a regional assembly will understandably be influenced by exactly how the regional assembly will be organised. If they vote for a regional assembly on the basis of certain expectations that are then unfulfilled, they may withdraw their support too late as their vote is already cast.

Amendment No. 131 would remove subsection (5) and hence prevent the Secretary of State from altering a previous direction that he had made by making a new direction. That amendment seeks to curb the powers given to the Secretary of State, by removing his ability to make direction after direction while there are no mechanisms in place to challenge his decisions. Subsection (5) gives the Secretary of State complete freedom from any scrutiny, such that he does not even have to consult or seek advice or recommendations from others. He can simply make further direction if he changes his mind. Removing subsection (5) would create more stability and place the onus on the Secretary of State to do everything in his power to get matters right the first time. Surely that must be a good thing. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Clause 19 requires the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission to give advice on one or more matters relating to electoral areas or the total number of members to be elected to a regional assembly. Subsection (1) means that that requirement arises only in respect of regions in which a referendum has been held and it is proposed to establish an assembly.

Amendment No. 127 would instead require the Secretary of State to give such a direction to the Electoral Commission if he were considering whether to cause a referendum to be held in that region. The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, clearly sets out the framework that we propose for the size of elected regional assemblies and the balance between constituency and top-up members. We believe voters will be able to take an informed decision on the basis of the policy we have set out.

We believe that the Boundary Committee should conduct local government reviews before a referendum is held in a region because there are many possible options that the committee could recommend. It could recommend a wholly unitary structure for current two-tier areas based on counties, districts or something different. In this case, the review needs to be carried out before any referendum so that voters know the basics before voting. They will already know the basic proposals with regard to electoral arrangements.

Requiring the Electoral Commission to provide advice on that before the referendum will simply distract from the main issues at the referendum. We believe that the proper time to seek advice on electoral areas is once people have voted for the establishment of a regional assembly. That is why, as currently drafted, the requirement applies only for regions where the Secretary of State proposes to establish an elected assembly, following a referendum held under Clause 1.

Amendment No. 131 would mean that a direction to the Electoral Commission to provide advice on electoral areas and total number of assembly members could not be varied. It is standard practice to include such a provision in an Act with regard to direction-making powers. It is a sensible approach so as to cater, for example, for unforeseen circumstances or indeed if it is necessary to give the Electoral Commission more time to make its recommendation on a review. That is precedented by a similar provision in Section 26(6) of the Local Government Act 1992, which relates to directions made in relation to structural review. Another example is Section 48(7) of the Local Government Act 2000.

Amendment No. 132 would mean that the Electoral Commission was not required to submit its advice given under a direction under Clause 19 within less than a year of being given the direction. We would, of course, discuss our proposals for the timetable for the preparation and submission of advice with the Electoral Commission before finalising it. Twelve months appears to be a rather arbitrary period, and we see no merit in putting that on the face of the Bill.

Of course, in giving a direction, we would be obliged to consider how long it would be sensible to give the Electoral Commission, taking into account that those who are interested must be given adequate opportunity to comment on the subject matter of the advice and any draft advice. With that explanation, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch

The noble Lord has gone through about the next five amendments. Was that his intention? I moved only Amendment No. 127 and spoke to Amendment No. 131. He has referred to Amendments Nos. 130, 132, 135 and, I believe, 137.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

I apologise to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch

Perhaps I may return to the amendments in question—that is, Amendments Nos. 127 and 131. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that I do not accept the explanation that he gave some minutes ago before he went on to talk about all the other amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 128: Page 11, line 6, at end insert— ( ) the balance of representation for rural and urban areas

The noble Baroness said: It just proves that the Ministers are not listening to the arguments. They do not even wait for the arguments now; they simply press straight on with the answers. In order to put the question to the answer given by the noble Lord—I do not know what he will say in response to it—I now move Amendment No. 128 and shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 133 and 134.

Amendment No. 128 seeks to add an extra area on which the Electoral Commission should advise the Secretary of State—that is, the matter of establishing a balanced representation for rural and urban areas. The one theme that I have taken from the Government throughout the proceedings in another place and throughout those in this House thus far is that, frankly, the rural areas can go hang. There is no protection for them anywhere in the Bill. There is no protection in the soundings issue, and there is none in the way that the voting will be counted. There is no attempt to build in protection for the rural areas.

At the same time as considering where the electoral areas should fall, it is essential to bear in mind the need to ensure that the rural voice is not drowned out by a more populous metropolitan neighbour. There is a real risk that, unless a specific effort is made when designing the boundaries, rural voters will find themselves in the minority with important countryside issues overlooked while urban issues are prioritised.

Few people live in the countryside and therefore few votes are to be gained from tackling rural matters. Where there is any conflict of interest—for example, in greenbelt planning—the rural viewpoint will always be a secondary issue. Rural voters will feel alienated and cut off, unable to relate to the very people who are supposed to represent them. Even if they are active in voting in a referendum, they can easily be outnumbered by those in urban areas.

To avoid that, there should be an explicit commitment on the face of the Bill to protect the rights of the rural voter by requiring the Electoral Commission to establish a balance so that the rural communities have a guaranteed voice. Amendment No. 133 would provide more detail of the areas to which the Electoral Commission should pay attention when deciding upon the best boundaries for electoral areas. Specifically they should respect the historical nature of county and county borough councils.

The Bill currently puts no value whatever on maintaining the existing pattern of county councils. These are institutions to which people feel a strong allegiance. With the extensive disruptions and reorganisations that establishing a regional assembly will entail, surely there is every reason to stick as closely as possible to current arrangements.

Regional assemblies would be better off with this amendment as people would be happier to accept and work with a system that is familiar rather than one that is foreign and where there may be considerable cost as adjustment occurs with no particular benefit.

Can the Minister guarantee—he did not do so in his answer just now—that arranging the electoral areas will not simply be a process of change for change's sake? Amendment No. 134 would remove from the list of what the Electoral Commission should have regard to when making its recommendations guidance given by the Secretary of State.

Surely the Electoral Commission is directed towards achieving certain goals in the creation of electoral areas, paying attention to the importance of reflecting the identities and interests of local communities as one such goal and attempting to create electoral areas with similar numbers of people as another. Hence, Clause 21 does a good job with its paragraphs (a) and (b).

However, paragraph (c) is more problematic. What is the point of bringing in the Electoral Commission at all if the Secretary of State, first, sets strict guidelines as to what its recommendations should be and, secondly, may then choose to ignore the advice that it gives? Surely the point of bringing in the Electoral Commission to carry out that important function is to bring in experts who can dedicate time and energy to deciding the best possible boundaries for electoral areas. That would be undermined if the Secretary of State has fixed ideas of how electoral areas should look and bypasses the advice of the Electoral Commission by making a judgment in advance as to what its conclusions should be.

Throughout the Bill the Liberal Democrats have tabled similar amendments about identities and communities of interest. I hope that they will see something positive in some of the amendments in this group. It is bad enough that the Secretary of State is able to take or leave the Electoral Commission's advice if he pleases, but worse still if he can place rigid limits on the final recommendations. I beg to move.

1.15 a.m.

Lord Greaves

This is a curious part of the Bill, particularly Clause 19 which is headed, Advice of the Electoral Commission". It details advice that the Electoral Commission would be expected to give about the electoral areas, the number of such areas, the names and so on. Yet here we have a clause that makes an assumption about what the electoral system will be without setting out what it will be. It is based on the assumption set out in the White Paper that the electoral system will be a form of the additional member system, with first-past-the-post constituencies and a top-up list across the whole region. I understand that the proposal is to provide at least a degree of proportionality. although perhaps not much. However, it does not state that but simply makes the assumption.

That is yet another example of where the Bill puts the cart before the horse. It assumes that when Parliament legislates to set up regional assemblies it will choose such an electoral system. The Government may want Parliament to choose that, but I am sure that we shall have vigorous debates in the two Houses about the electoral system. Some people may want the first-past-the-post system—there are dinosaurs everywhere—but there may also be those who want a more sophisticated and effective form of proportional representation such as the single transferable vote, which may be suggested from these Benches.

I make the point that the situation in front of the Committee is based on assumptions that may not be true. It seems extraordinary to legislate in detail for an electoral system that is not even named or described in the Bill; it is just implied in various clauses.

If the noble Baroness will forgive me saying so, her amendments are a little strange. She asks for a balance of representation for rural and urban areas. I do not know what that means. Does it mean that rural areas, regardless of the number of electors, have to have as many seats as urban areas, or does it mean that the boundaries of the areas have to be drawn so that some of them are distinctly rural constituencies? In trying to make sense of that, those are the only two conclusions that I can draw. Clearly, the balance of representation for different areas has to depend on the number of people living in each area. If rural areas are a minority in a particular region, that may be unfortunate, but a fact of life. One cannot fiddle an electoral system in favour of certain areas as opposed to others.

It is worth remembering that, according to the Government's proposals, we are talking of constituencies that may be as large as two or three parliamentary constituencies. If the whole of the North West has 30 or 35 members, or the whole of the North East has 25 members, they would make enormous constituencies. How one balances representation for rural and urban areas in those circumstances I am unsure. With respect to the noble Baroness, that is silly.

Amendment No. 133 is even more odd. It states that, in particular, the importance of preserving the historic identity of county and county borough councils". I do not know whether the noble Baroness is talking about the historic counties. lf, at any time, she would like to come to our part of the world I will take her to the main road between Colne and Skipton where one goes through two sets of county boundaries. There are the present county boundaries of Lancashire one way and North Yorkshire the other, and then there are the historic county boundaries which say West Riding of Yorkshire one way and Historic County of Lancashire Palatine the other. They are a few miles apart.

Some people get very worked up about historic county boundaries—for example, the campaign for real Yorkshire and so on. They have no relevance to modern local government. My recollection of county borough councils is that they were abolished in 1973. In 1974 they went out of existence. The City of Leeds no doubt was a county borough council at the time as were places such as Burnley, Blackburn, Blackpool and Preston in Lancashire. It is a nonsense to try to maintain their integrity as wholes in the middle of the present Lancashire. With the greatest respect, I do not think that these amendments have been thought out.

Lord Rooker

For the avoidance of any doubt or confusion, I shall speak only to Amendments Nos. 128, 133 and 134, as indeed did my noble friend in the previous debate only refer to the three amendments which were tabled relevant to that debate, contrary to what the noble Baroness said. She is confused and not my noble friend.

Baroness Blatch

If the noble Lord reads Hansard he will know that the noble Lord mentioned at least Amendment No. 132 and I am not sure that he did not also mention Amendment No. 135. He definitely mentioned Amendment No. 132 and we have not reached it yet.

Lord Rooker

We can check in Hansard for what my noble friend said. Our advice is that he spoke to the relevant amendments. Anyway, I just make clear that those are the three I shall deal with, which are the three referred to by the noble Baroness.

Amendment No. 128 would mean that the Secretary of State could seek the commission's advice on the balance of representation for rural and urban areas if he thought that appropriate.

I agree with the noble Baroness that it is important to ensure that all parts of the region are represented in the assembly. We realise that if we were simply to require all electoral areas to have a broadly equal number of electors, a rural area would have to be much larger than an urban area. That could make it difficult for the assembly member to represent the needs of the whole area.

However, the interests of rural communities—and it is paramount to make sure that they are not snuffed out—can be taken into account by the commission. The Bill does not require the Electoral Commission to give advice regardless. So there is no question that the commission cannot look at the special issues involved.

Clause 21 specifically outlines what the Electoral Commission must have particular regard to when exercising its functions under Part 3; in other words, when preparing its advice. Alongside the need to secure so far as practicable electoral areas with similar numbers of electors is the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. Such communities, by definition, can be rural communities.

Furthermore, the requirement to take into account the need to secure electoral areas with similar numbers of electors is qualified by the requirement to take account of special geographic considerations. As is well known, there is one constituency in the country which is extremely small. One could not extend it because the sea is in the way one way and the mountains the other. I refer to the constituency of Copeland of my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham. I do not know the size of the electorate, but it is quite small. However, its geographical considerations are such that it would be impractical and unfair to have a wider area simply because of the mountains and the sea.

So, as the Explanatory Notes say, this issue is designed to address problems that could arise if no regard were paid to the fact that an area is sparsely populated. Paragraph 71 is worth quoting. It states: For an electoral area to have a similar number of electors to an urban electoral area in the same region, the rural area would need to be much larger. This could make it more difficult for its assembly member to represent the needs of the whole area. So in such a case, the need for effective representation … could outweigh the need for similarity in numbers … between areas". So the amendment is unnecessary.

Amendment No. 133 would add in another matter to which the commission must have regard: the importance of preserving the historic identity of county and county borough councils". I shall not labour the point which has been made that county boroughs do not exist. However, I understand the thrust behind the amendment: our attachment to our history and geography—our heritage, if you like. People are sensitive about that—none more so than elected representatives at either council or parliamentary level when the name of their ward or constituency must be chosen.

One always wants to preserve historic links—not because of a dewy-eyed view; they are an important part of our heritage. That tradition extends just as much to urban as to rural areas. I take second place to no one in making clear that we attach great importance to it.

Clause 21(a) already requires the Electoral Commission to have regard, in particular, to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities. In formulating its advice, the commission will have regard to local government boundaries. It will also consider the extent to which communities identify with their county and with more local geographical areas. As I said, the amendment refers to county boroughs, but the clause's provisions will ensure that that history and sense of identity will be continued.

It may be worth putting on record that if as a result of any local government re-organisation a county council as an administrative unit is reorganised, that will not mean abolishing the counties. We will continue to promote county identities. The Government will make changes to the definition of "county" for the purposes of sheriffs and lord-lieutenants, so that counties continue to reflect the ceremonial and traditional arrangements that exist today. As in previous reorganisations of local government, we shall also consider the establishment of charter trustees to ensure that our historic towns and cities, if affected by structural change, retain their privileges and historic identity. That is fundamental.

I may as well put on record that in any change to local government arrangements as a result of a local government review, we foresee no effect on the role of the Lord Lieutenant or High Sheriff. If there is a boundary change between two county areas as a result of a local government review, the area represented may change to reflect that.

Turning to Amendment No. 134, Clause 21(c) requires the Electoral Commission to have regard to guidance issued by the Government when preparing and submitting its advice on electoral areas and total numbers of assembly members of elected regional assemblies. It is entirely proper that it should.

We are not seeking to interfere with the commission's independence. The preparation of advice will be for it. All that it will be required to do is to have particular regard, among other relevant matters, to guidance issued by the Secretary of State. The power to give guidance does not mean that the Secretary of State will be able to dictate the advice that he receives—I make that absolutely clear. It will only be among the whole gamut of relevant factors to which it must have particular regard.

Just as in local government reviews, it is important that the Boundary Committee should have regard to the Secretary of State's guidance, so should the Electoral Commission, when giving guidance to the Secretary of State for purposes in connection with the establishment of assemblies. It is clearly right that, when preparing its advice, the Commission should have an indication of what we consider to be important factors affecting the composition and total number of members of an elected assembly.

I shall not be drawn down the road of discussing particular systems, but the single transferable vote has no legs. One day the Liberal Democrats will have to wake up to that. I favour proportional representation—I converted many years ago—but if they are serious about PR, they will have to dump STV. The same applies to the Electoral Reform Society. It does not have a prayer. For a start, it sets party member against party member to fight the seats, as is the case in Ireland. It destroys the historic link of constituency or ward boundaries with single members.

There is no perfect system. The best that we have come up with is the additional member system (AMS), which we have used in this country. Under that system we at least get constituency representatives. I know that we get a top-up, but it can be manipulated in various ways. I am putting a case that goes well beyond my remit.

Lord Greaves

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am provoked. Did he say that the top-up system could be manipulated? It was an interesting remark. Will be be prepared to retract his statement about STV having no legs in future when, as is highly likely, it is adopted in Scottish local government within the next few years?

1.30 a.m.

Lord Rooker

"Manipulated" was probably a bad choice of word. There is flexibility in how to achieve the top-up members. There are several routes. Let us not forget that this county imposed the AMS system in post-war Germany. It has worked reasonably successfully there. I do not think that STV has any legs. We will not make any progress on PR in this country while the Liberal Democrats stick to STV.

Baroness Hamwee

For how long would the Minister speak on the subject if he were intending to do so?

Lord Rooker

That is the problem—for much too long. I hope that I have responded to the noble Baroness's three amendments to her satisfaction.

Baroness Blatch

I wish to reflect on the helpful comments made in the middle of the discussion. At least the noble Lord's heart is in the right place, as he expressed some empathy at least with the aim of my amendments. I am grateful for that.

I do not wish to enter into the details of the spat between the Labour and Liberal Democrat Front Benches about proportional representation, except to say that in European elections there are no constituencies. In my region we simply vote for eight people. The parties then decide who the top-up members shall be.

One of our concerns about rural areas is that regional assemblies will have so few members representing very large areas—from 2.5 million in one part of the country to 8 million in another. There will be 25 to 35 assembly members. ft is possible that rural areas will be seriously under-represented by top-up members. All the political action is much more likely to take place in urban and suburban areas, so we are concerned about the protection of rural areas.

The noble Lord has given me something to think about and a lot to read. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 129 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 130: Page 11, line 8, at end insert "and shall specify how many members of the assembly not directly elected by an electoral area are to be appointed

The noble Baroness said: This amendment would provide that when the Secretary of State gives the direction to the Electoral Commission, it may include not only a maximum or minimum number of electoral areas, but detail on how many members of the future assembly would be appointed. Surely it is important that the Electoral Commission has that information prior to making its recommendations in order to achieve a fuller picture of the nature of the planned assemblies.

As there are to be two types of members of regional assemblies—elected and appointed—presumably each shall perform a slightly different role. It makes sense to provide the Electoral Commission with a breakdown of how the Secretary of State intends those roles to develop. The Electoral Commission could then consider that information when making its recommendations. We know that the issue is causing huge tension in Scotland. A member with a constituency has a fixed point of reference, whereas a top-up member floats around on the edge looking for a role. It would be helpful to have the matter sorted out before the Electoral Commission has to make its recommendations. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

The noble Baroness refers to the issue of top-up members in Scotland. I accept that the system is new to this country. I hope that, over time, it can be moulded. We can make an electoral system do what we want it to do, and it is all right to do that. For example, we could write it into the rules that top-up members could not stand for election in a direct constituency within, say, 10 years. That would stop them undermining the constituency members, as is alleged in Scotland, where top-up Members with no constituency are free to try to undermine constituency Members. There are all kinds of things that can be done to prevent such difficulties and make the system run as well as possible.

The objective of the exercise is to make representation broadly comparable to the votes cast by the electorate. "First-past-the-post" does not do that, which is why there are no Conservative Members of Parliament in Scotland. However, the Conservatives are well represented in the Scottish Parliament because of the additional member system. It is the same in Wales. It is important that a major area of political opinion is not snuffed out, as it would be under "first past the post". That is what has happened in Scotland and Wales in the national Parliament but not in the devolved parliaments. There are several ways of overcoming such difficulties. I shall not refer to any more details of the electoral system, but we are in that part of the Bill, and it is important.

Amendment No. 130 would mean that a direction to the Electoral Commission would have to specify how many members of the assembly not elected by electoral area were to be appointed. The amendment would unhelpfully constrain the Electoral Commission's flexibility to offer advice on electoral matters. In our White Paper, we indicated that there would be 25 to 35 elected members for each assembly and that the proportion of regional list members would be around a third of the total number of seats. The Government might want to specify only a range for the total number of members and the number of electoral areas and give the commission the necessary scope to tweak the balance between the list members and the constituency members to reflect the electoral geography of the areas that make sense for the region concerned. The composition would be tailor-made for the region.

The amendment would tie the commission's hands and prevent it from advising the Secretary of State as to the best detailed balance between constituency and top-up members. We should not second-guess the commission's work, so I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment. The issue can be revisited not only in the context of other parts of this Bill but when the orders are being made and the main legislation is being considered. If it were important to specify to the commission how many list members there would be, it could be done indirectly under Clause 19(4). That subsection would enable the direction to specify the total number of members and the total number of electoral areas, with the number of list members being the difference between the two.

Baroness Blatch

I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation, but I am not sure that it satisfies in every sense. I referred to the Scottish example, and I believe that there are real tensions up there. A Member of another place said that there were local councillors, MEPs, national MPs, directly elected MSPs and top-up MSPs and that they were all running around looking for a role. They include some of the people who thought that, if we added to that list elected Members of this House, people would wonder what they were doing.

In England, we are doing something similar: it will produce people with a constituency of between 250,000 and 500,000 electors. One person will represent over 250,000 people. There is no way that one person can relate to all the problems and concerns that a constituency of that magnitude may have. Then we would have the top-up members. In a region with 8 million people, there will be a few top-up members for all those people. We do not even know what the balance between the two will be. It would be helpful to know, ahead of the game, what the split will be. How many constituencies will there be? How many electors per constituency will there be? How many top-up members will there be?

We are not going to get those answers at this stage, so I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 131 not moved.]

Clause 19 agreed to.

Clause 20 [Preparation and submission of advice]:

[Amendment No. 132 not moved.]

Clause 20 agreed to.

Clause 21 [Electoral Commission exercise of functions]:

[Amendments Nos. 133 and 134 not moved.]

Clause 21 agreed to.

Clause 22 [Payments to Electoral Commission]:

[Amendment No. 134A not moved.]

Clause 22 agreed to.

Clause 23 [Funding for regional chambers]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 135: Page 12. line 23. after "the" insert "regional planning

The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendment No. 136. Again, it is a great pity that we are discussing the amendment at this stage, because it is important. Amendment No. 135 states that the money provided in the form of a grant to regional assemblies should be used for regional planning. The amendment challenges the Government to make clear precisely what powers will be devolved from central government to regional assemblies. If these powers stretch only as far as planning—and the Government have yet to convince us otherwise—then it is only right that money should be made available for this purpose. If there are other areas where regional assemblies will gain powers from Westminster, then they should be identified in the Bill. Consequently, grant money could also be used for that purpose. It seems altogether wrong for regional assemblies to be provided with an indefinite sum from central government, with no corresponding breakdown of what its duties are likely to be.

Amendment No. 136 refers to the making of grants, following the discharge of regional assembly functions relating to spatial planning. The amendment seeks a guarantee that whenever a grant is made to a regional assembly, it is done by order, so that there is at least a chance for parliamentary scrutiny. It is only proper that such grants are considered by Parliament, so that there is an opportunity to analyse the costs of running regional assemblies in relation to the benefits which they bring to the community. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee

We have Amendment No. 135A in this group. I want to know if there is any significance in the term "activities", rather than what might more normally be referred to as the "carrying out of functions", or, in the amendment to which the noble Baroness has spoken, the "discharge of functions". "Activities" is a good, straightforward term. I do not object to it, and one must assume that the activities would be intra vires. However, it is not the language to which we are accustomed. It could be that there is nothing sinister in this at all. I hope the Minister can assure me of that.

Lord Rooker

I do not want a play on words about "activities". I do not know what other words in the thesaurus would do. Parliamentary counsel has chosen that word. I do not know if it could have been "functions", but there is obviously a reason for choosing "activities". If there is a special reason, I have no doubt that I will be told. I do not think it should unduly worry the noble Baroness.

Earlier on, I had a good note that was passed to me after I had made some point, and I tucked it away in one of the folders, which I disposed of about half an hour ago. That was on the principle of funding—"no new money, no new powers", and was to remind me to point out that regional assemblies, while having no new powers and no new money, would take over aspects of the Government Offices. When I talked about new money, I meant new function money. There is a great deal of money already going out into the regions via the Government Offices and so forth, and the regional assemblies would take over part of that activity. I wanted to say that, so that I am not accused later on of misleading the House. I meant "no new money, no new powers", but there is existing money and there are existing powers. However, as I said, I disposed of the note because I had tucked it in another folder.

Amendment No. 135 seeks to limit the new grant-making power just to the funding of the chambers' regional planning activities. We do not believe that that is necessary. There is no sensible reason for us to have to pay grant to the chambers under two separate Acts of Parliament. It is much better to have a clear and specific power to pay the grant to the chambers.

Amendment No. 135A seems intended to limit the grant payment to the statutory functions of the regional chambers. However, not all the activities for which we may wish to pay grant are statutory functions; for example, the scrutiny of the regional development agency, which is funded by the chambers' fund, is not arguably a statutory function. It is an activity which the Government have funded under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, but that does not make it statutory. The Regional Development Agencies Act 1988 does not explicitly empower chambers to do anything. It requires the RDA itself, for example, to take into account advice from, and to consult with the chamber.

I understand the motivation behind the amendment, but I do not believe that it works; nor is it necessary or sensible. Clause 23 as it stands sets the right basis for the Government to be able to work to support the chambers financially in their valuable work.

Amendment No. 136 would mean that a grant to the regional chambers in connection with their role as regional planning bodies could be made only by means of an order. But because of Clause 27(1) and (2), that would be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses. That would mean both Houses of Parliament annually debating £6 million of expenditure. That is not a sensible use of Parliament's time. Nor is it an approach followed, for example, in relation to the grant-making powers we are already using under the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act.

I do not deny that this is an important clause—any funding of regional chambers will set bells ringing and lights flashing at whatever hour we are sitting and it is important that I am able to satisfy the movers of the amendments that they are not necessary.

Baroness Blatch

I believe that like Topsy these will grow and the sums of money that will flow will increase. The noble Lord said that Clause 27 would have to come under the affirmative resolution procedure. No, it does not. We can make a special arrangement for it. We can bring it in under the negative procedure simply by amending the Bill to achieve that. That is not a strong argument for not accepting Amendment No. 136.

The beginning of Chapter 4 refers to powers and provides that assemblies will be given a range of powers to help them deliver these strategies. They will therefore be a delivery agent of some kind and they will take on some of the functions from Westminster, from government offices, from regional development agencies or other bodies in the region referred to in paragraph 4.2. One must then ask what will happen to government offices. They will remain post the establishment of regional assemblies and so, too, will RDAs. There will be a little spreading around of some of the work, but they will be given powers—the word appears in the summary of Chapter 4 and in the body of the chapter.

We still do not know what powers they will have to determine anything. Therefore, if it serves no other purpose, it is important that if an order has to be made explicit in it will be the sum of money and the purposes for which it is being granted. That is the whole purpose of my Amendments Nos. 135 and 136.

However, I have heard what the noble Lord has said and I shall reflect on it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 135 and 136 not moved.]

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 137: Page 12, line 24, after "grant" insert "shall be subject to a condition that no part of it shall be used for any purpose in connection with campaigning for or against any question to be put in a referendum pursuant to section 1, or in anticipation of such a referendum and otherwise, and

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 137, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 147.

Amendment No. 137 seeks to forbid the use of a grant provided by the Secretary of State to a regional chamber from being used to campaign for a particular outcome in the event of a referendum. It should be clear on the face of the Bill that taxpayers' money should not be used for this purpose. I am sure that we all agree that this is a wasteful use of resources that could be better spent elsewhere—in which case, there is every reason for making this explicit in the Bill.

Amendment No. 147 seeks to exclude payments to regional chambers from the list of bodies described in the Bill as qualifying for money from Parliament. It is a probing amendment which seeks to obtain from the Minister an explanation of why the funding of regional chambers is examined in a Bill which relates to the establishment of regional assemblies. There is already extensive legislation in the 1998 Act which deals with regional chambers. It is not clear for what purpose the issue is brought up again here.

As we have already discussed, it is obviously out of hand for taxpayers' money to be used to fund campaigning in the run-up to a referendum. Can the Minister give a legitimate reason for providing funding from Parliament to these voluntary bodies? Can he give an assurance that this is not a major change in the nature of funding regional chambers which the Government are attempting to slip in without too much notice in the regional assemblies Bill? I beg to move.

Lord Rooker

I hope that I shall be able to satisfy the noble Baroness. As she said, Amendment No. 137 would rule out government grant being used to fund either a "Yes" or a "No" campaign in a referendum by requiring a condition of grant to that effect. This has been a theme from the first hour of our debates three weeks ago. I have made it clear on many occasions that there is a standard condition for the grant which currently goes to regional chambers. It is: The accountable body may not use any grant paid under [the] funding agreement for expenditure falling within any of the following categories— (a) expenditure on activities of a political or exclusively religious nature e.g. campaigning for, publicising and promoting the case for an elected regional assembly". We do not believe that there is any need to have the provisions of Amendment No. 137 on the face of the Bill. Again, if anyone has complaints about the misuse of funds, there is a tried and tested complaints procedure for that purpose.

Amendment No. 147 seeks to amend Clause 28 so that the Secretary of State has no power to pay grants to chambers under Clause 23 from money voted by Parliament. But there is no other source from which the Secretary of State could pay grant if moneys are not voted by Parliament. This is an attempt to undermine policy on decentralisation. It would stop us supporting regional chambers in their work and particularly in their preparation of regional spatial strategies. This approach is unsupportable. It reflects a dislike of anything happening in the regions.

The money has to be used for legitimate purposes which are not part of a fiddle or of political campaigning. We have repeatedly said that. There is no difference between us on this issue, as Ministers in another place have made clear. I hope that the noble Baroness will agree that there is no justification for having the provisions of the two amendments on the face of the Bill. The Secretary of State has to get money from somewhere, and he cannot get other than that provided by Parliament.

Baroness Blatch

Other than that provided by the taxpayer to Parliament. That is the only money the Government have to allocate to other bodies.

The Minister referred to spatial planning in the context of regional chambers. My understanding, if Box 4.1 is anything to go by, is that spatial planning will be a function of the regional assemblies, not of the chambers. Is there to be another split responsibility? Will spatial planning be the responsibility of the chambers and the responsibility of the regional assemblies? If so, that will cause huge confusion because it is a particularly controversial area of policy.

Lord Rooker

It has been made clear that they are one and the same thing. We have already debated this. In some areas of the country, regional chambers are already calling themselves "regional assemblies". They are the same bodies.

Baroness Blatch

But when the regional assemblies are established they will not be the same bodies. The regional assemblies will be totally new, with new memberships.

Lord Rooker

I know, but we shall not have the chambers. What is the use of the chambers when we have an elected regional assembly?

Baroness Blatch

We have learnt something else.

Lord Rooker

It is common sense.

Baroness Blatch

It would also be common sense if the RDAs, the Government Offices, the learning skills councils and some of the other bodies mentioned earlier in the debate were removed, so that the regional assemblies had a function in the region.

Lord Rooker

No, we need to look at the basics. Not all the functions of the Government Offices are being, as it were, transferred to the regional assemblies. There will still be a role for the Government Offices of the Regions. They will be slimmed down, it is true, because some staff will move over to the regional assembly.

That is why we say that there is a gross cost and a net cost of setting up an assembly. We have given a figure for what we estimate to be part of the net savings—I believe it is £5 million—on the transfer of staff. But there will still be a role for the Government Offices of the Regions and for other government departments whose functions and activities are not part of the regional assembly. The Home Office is a good example.

Baroness Blatch

I hope the Minister will forgive me, but the debate that has been held by the Government throughout this process has been about bringing democracy to those bodies that are out in the regions. Most will still be there post the establishment of regional assemblies. We have just heard of one that will not be; namely, the planning chambers. But the Government Offices, the learning and skills councils, the sector skills councils and the regional development agencies will continue to operate in the regions, at some cost to central government. Regional assemblies will be superimposed upon them. This is not what the Government have argued for as the rationale for introducing regional assemblies.

The Minister keeps repeating his point about there being no more money in the regions. The regional assemblies will have precepting powers. If they are to substitute for the chambers, they will not only have government grant but powers to precept on the other local authorities in the region. So they will have more money. They will have new powers. They are not even established bodies yet. Once they are established, they will be given powers, and those powers will be new. They will come from somewhere. As the noble Lord has said, some will come from national government, and some will come from the regional bodies in the area.

What we have been attempting to tease out of all these debates is what will be left. Will it be a minor sharing of some of the things that the Government Offices and the RDAs presently do and all of the things that the regional chambers do? We are merely trying to make sense of what this creature will be when it is up and running. The noble Lord's answer to most of our questions has been: "Wait and see. All will be revealed". But the whole point of passing a Bill in Parliament is to understand what we are legislating for. At this stage, we simply do not know. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 23 agreed to.

Clause 24 [Enactment establishing assemblies immaterial]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 138: Page 12. leave out line 36 and insert— This Act shall not come into force until there is an enactment conferring

The noble Baroness said: Clause 24 enables the Secretary of State to use powers set out in this Bill once it has been enacted, regardless of whether legislation exists enabling him to establish elected regional assemblies. This seems inadvisable and to some extent illogical. A regional assemblies Bill might never make it to Royal Assent, yet the powers conferred by this preparations Bill would still be able to be exercised. It is for that reason that we challenge the inclusion of Clause 24.

Amendment No. 138 gives an alternative version. The implication of this Bill, as we all know, is that people will be asked to decide in a referendum whether they want an elected regional assembly for their region, but the powers of the assembly will not have been defined by statute. I shall not delay the Committee long: we believe that the information in the White Paper is not a sufficient basis on which to hold a referendum. The amendment proposes that the wording of Clause 24 should be amended to say that the Act, shall not come into force until there is an enactment conferring", power on the Secretary of State to establish elected regional assemblies. Amendment No. 139 makes a consequential amendment to Clause 25.

Amendment No. 140 is more of a probing amendment than anything else. Why should Parts 2 and 4 not be subject to the same two-month commencement rule as the other parts of the Bill? This is more evidence of the Government's intention to rush on as quickly as possible.

Previously in Committee, my noble friend Lady Blatch gave the Minister a run for his money about the Government's timetable for the initiation of the Boundary Committee's reviews and the eventual establishment of regional assemblies. We now have that on record. All I ask here is to be given some explanation about why Parts 2 and 4 are treated differently regarding commencement. I beg to move.

2 a.m.

Baroness Hamwee

I wish through Amendment No. 140A to probe further into Clause 25 than the noble Baroness has done. It provides that the preceding provisions of the Bill—those contained in Clauses 1 to 24—come into force at a certain time, except Parts 2 and 4. Why is there a distinction? What has happened to Clause 26 onwards? Those provisions contain some pretty important provisions but do not appear to be covered. When will the provisions to which Clause 25(1) does not apply come into force?

I have examined other pieces of legislation to see what they say about commencement. Where provisions are to come into effect on the date the Bill is enacted, it normally says so. My researches were not extensive. It was a question of what I had on the shelf at the time. However, I could not find an example of the matter being left entirely open. Perhaps the style of parliamentary drafting is changing. I would be grateful for clarification.

Lord Rooker

I shall try and cover all the amendments. I am in some difficulty, because there is a new clause floating around. My noble friend Lord Evans is checking on it for me.

Amendment No. 138 would prevent anything being done under the Act until legislation was in place enabling the regional assemblies to be established. In that case, we do not really need this Act of Parliament, do we? The amendment would turn things upside down. It would delay the process of setting up elected assemblies in regions that want them. I presume that that is the plan. We want to give people the opportunity to have an assembly if they want one and to give them that choice during this Parliament. That is what we are pledged to do.

I recognise the issue about people voting for or against establishing an assembly before the legislation to do so is enacted. I understand the constant theme throughout our debates. This is because people allegedly would not know enough about the functions, but it is not as though we have not had the White Paper. We have set out our proposals and will base the legislation on the White Paper. There is work to be done, such as the Boundary Committee's recommendations, and so on. I realise that.

Parliamentary time is in short supply, so it makes no sense to use it to examine and enact a substantive Bill before we know that people in at least one region want to establish an elected assembly. The legislation will not be brought forward until there is a satisfactory yes vote in a region. It is exactly the same two-stage process we used in London, Scotland and Wales, so there is nothing novel about it.

Amendment No. 139 would prevent this Bill being enacted before the Act setting out the powers and constitutional arrangements was in force. The amendment would severely delay the process of setting up the assemblies.

Once we have received the Boundary Committee's recommendations for local government in the region, we will publish a short statement of our proposals. It will be a summary of what the assemblies will do, how they will work and our proposals for local government reorganisation, so that when people vote they will know the implications of their vote. That is a two-stage process that we have used before, quite satisfactorily. There is no complaint to be made in logic or fundamental principle about this two-stage process. If people did not vote in the referendums, there would not have been the legislation, and valuable parliamentary time would have been used for something unsatisfactory. It would not make sense.

Amendment No. 140 would prevent Parts 2 and 4 from commencing on Royal Assent. Part 2 relates to local government reviews and Part 4 to the new power for funding the existing regional chambers. The purpose of commencing these parts early is to prevent unnecessary delay in starting local government reviews and to ensure that a suitable mechanism for funding the regional planning responsibilities of the regional chambers is up and running as soon as possible. That is the purpose of the different commencement times.

Amendment No. 140A relates to Clause 25(1), which means that Parts 1, 3 and 5 of the Bill come into force two months after Royal Assent. The amendment would mean that those parts of the Bill came into force as soon as the Bill received Royal Assent. There is obviously a keenness for referendums. Clause 25 allows Parts 2 and 4 to come into force on Royal Assent, which the amendment would prevent. The purpose of commencing these parts early is to prevent unnecessary delays, as I said. We have heard arguments that local government reviews should take place after the referendums are held, but we believe it essential that the local government reviews are carried out before the referendum. Unless the reviews are completed before the referendum, people voting in the referendum will be unaware of the implication of voting. We must put that clearly—a good story is worth repeating, because I obviously did not get it across earlier. People need to know what they are voting for, and it is our job to ensure that they have all the necessary information.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked why Clauses 26 onwards were not referred to. We do not need to do that because, without explicitly referring to them, they come into force on Royal Assent. That is probably part of some legislation elsewhere, dealing with the passage of Bills into Acts.

Clause 25(1) refers to "preceding provisions", while subsection (2) derogates from the rule in subsection (1), since Parts 2 and 4 precede Clause 25 and need to come into effect immediately. That is a long-winded way of making a separate case for a special commencement date for Parts 2 and 4.

There is no ulterior motive in having different dates for different parts. We simply want to ensure that different organisations gel. Some can keep going, but others we need legislation for. As regards the funding of the existing regional chambers, we do not want any hiatus or black hole between one organisation coming to an end and the new one starting.

Baroness Hamwee

The Minister seemed to start by saying that Clauses 26 onwards—he referred to Parts 1, 3 and 5—would come into force at the end of the period of two months. Later, he said that Clause 26 onwards will come into force on Royal Assent. I do not think it appropriate to detain the Committee now. However, if I am correct that there have been conflicts in what has been said, perhaps we can correspond on it later.

Lord Rooker

If there is any doubt about the chronology I would be happy to write to the noble Baroness and other noble Lords. However, I think that I have it right because I actually stuck to the notes. It is probably the way in which the amendments are drafted and have been considered. I would be happy to write to set the record straight.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister for his reply. I think that we are discussing the issue at this very late stage because of the problems associated with having the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill before we have the details of the regional assemblies Bill. We have been seeking to get that information throughout the course of this rather protracted Committee stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 24 agreed to.

Clause 25 [Commencement]:

[Amendments Nos. 139 to 140A not moved.]

Clause 25 agreed to.

Clause 26 [Regions]:

[Amendments Nos. 141 to 143 not moved.]

Clause 27 [Orders and regulations]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 144: Page 13, line 11, after "order" insert ", a direction

The noble Baroness said: I shall be as quick as I can for this, the last gasp. These amendments are important in principle and I should appreciate a moment of the Minister's time to explain my reasoning.

Amendment No. 144 would include directions on matters that would have to be exercised by statutory instrument. The Secretary of State has significant scope for issuing directions under the Bill as drafted. Directions are not subject to any kind of parliamentary scrutiny, as we discussed earlier. Amendment No. 144 would impose a degree of control and ensure that any directions given have passed under the watchful eye of Parliament. This is not intended to cause trouble. One would hope that, in most cases, the process will be straightforward and the directions laid before Parliament and summarily approved—merely a matter of procedure rather than anything else. It is important to have safeguards, especially when it is unclear how the directions for referendums will work.

Amendments Nos. 145 and 146 are probing amendments. Amendment No. 145 challenges the flexibility that Clause 27(3) provides. This subsection contains a limited Henry VIII power to make consequential, incidental, supplementary, repealing or revoking enactments. The Minister may argue that this approach was used in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, but we would like to hear from him why this subsection is deemed necessary. It appears to allow a greater freedom to the Secretary of State than is perhaps advisable.

Amendment No. 146 relates to the "hybridity" mentioned in subsection (4). The relation between orders made under Part 1 of the Bill and those made under Section 129(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, the resulting hybridity and the practical effect of subsection (4) are perhaps obvious to the Minister but they are not quite so clear to me. I would welcome a final bit of illumination for this evening. I beg to move.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

Amendment No. 144 would mean that any direction-making powers under this Bill, including those to amend or revoke directions, would have to be exercised by statutory instrument. The basic direction-making powers under the Bill are the power to direct the Boundary Committee to carry out a local government review in a region, and the power to direct the Electoral Commission to provide advice on electoral matters. It is not normal practice for directions to be made by statutory instrument. The power under the Local Government Act 1992 for the Secretary of State to direct the Local Government Commission to carry out structural reviews was not required to be exercised by statutory instrument. Nor indeed were the powers in the GLA (Referendums) Act 1998 which are analogous to those found in Part 3 of this Bill. We fully intend to publish any direction made under this Bill and to deposit copies in the House Libraries.

Of course, under Clause 15, the Secretary of State can only implement the recommendations of the Boundary Committee by order. And that order-making power would, under Clause 27, only be exercisable by statutory instrument subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. A similar situation applies to directions given to the Electoral Commission under Part 3 of this Bill. We would not be able to act on its advice regarding electoral matters until the Bill enabling elected regional assemblies to be established is enacted. And that subsequent legislation would, of course, be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny. When the Delegated Powers Committee scrutinised the Bill last month it raised no objections to the existing provisions in this area. In the light of that explanation I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw Amendment No. 144.

I now turn to Amendment No. 145, which seeks to remove subsection (3) from Clause 27. Clause 27(3) enables an order or regulations to contain such consequential, incidental, supplementary or transitional provision or savings as the person making the order or regulations thinks appropriate. The wording used is similar to that found in Section 156(5) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 and loosely follows the approach in Part 2 of the Local Government Act 1992. I can assure the Committee that there is nothing sinister about this provision.

A number of consequential amendments to other Acts to take account of the existence of a Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 are set out in the schedule to Clause 15. However, the nature and extent of some other consequential or supplementary requirements, including the necessary legislative amendments, may not become apparent until after the Bill is enacted. For example, it is not possible to foresee, ahead of receiving recommendations from local government reviews, what changes to legislation may be necessary to give effect to recommendations and orders for local government reorganisation. And of course any such provision would be subject to parliamentary scrutiny under the affirmative resolution procedure by virtue of Clause 27(2). All of this was made clear to the Delegated Powers Committee last month. It raised no objections to this provision and of course it very carefully scrutinises this sort of provision. Again, I hope that in the light of my explanation the noble Baroness will withdraw Amendment No. 145.

I now turn to Amendment No. 146. This amendment seeks to delete subsection (5)(c) of Clause 27. This amendment would mean that if an order made under Section 129(1) of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 for the purposes of our referendums were hybrid, it would be subject to the procedure for making hybrid instruments. As the Committee is aware, the hybrid procedure is complex and time-consuming. I believe that it would not be justified in this instance. Let me explain. We intend to apply the same provisions to all referendums on establishing a regional assembly, subject to the possibility of general change over time as new voting methods are established.

That might seem to indicate that applying subsection (4) to conduct orders is unnecessary because hybridity—by definition—could occur only if we had at least one order making different provisions for different regions.

However, this subsection is needed for certainty reasons. Regional referendums will not all take place at the same time. It may be several years before some regions become interested in a referendum. We cannot predict what a conduct order might look like in five or 10 years' time or how parliamentary conventions and other circumstances might have changed.

The question of hybridity is a difficult one to judge. I have explained the circumstances in which it could arise within the context of this Bill. I hope that Members of the Committee now see that there is nothing sinister in our intent, but rather that we are seeking practical measures to tackle issues that may arise some way in the future. That was made clear to the Delegated Powers Committee last month. and it raised no objection to the provision either.

With that explanation—a long and complicated one very early in the morning—I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw the amendment.

Baroness Hanham

I thank the Minister. I am really glad that I asked all those questions. I shall enjoy reading the answer. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 145 and 146 not moved.]

Clause 27 agreed to.

Clause 28 [Expenditure]:

[Amendment No. 147 not moved.]

Clause 28 agreed to.

Remaining clause and schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported with amendments.

House adjourned at twenty-three minutes past two o'clock.