HL Deb 22 July 2004 vol 664 cc344-63

11.33 a.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee and 14th Report from the Merits Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I go into the detail of this order, the House deserves an explanation because, contrary to what is set out on the Order Paper, I shall not be moving the five Motions en bloc, and in fact I do not intend to move the final two Motions.

Concerns were raised in the debate in the other place about all-postal ballots, drawing on some of the experiences of postal voting in recent pilots. There were differences of view on all-postal ballots. This week the Electoral Commission has also announced that it intends to publish its evaluation report of the June pilots and recommendations for future use of all-postal ballots before Parliament returns in September.

The debates in the other place also demonstrated again the solid support and expectations for an early referendum in the north-east region of England. None of the concerns raised about all-postal ballots related to the north-east. There the experiences of all-postal ballots, both in June and in earlier local election pilots, have been very positive. The picture is now one of considerable experience of all-postal ballots that consistently have been widely welcomed by the voters in that region. We have been reflecting overnight on these developments, and on the range of opinions expressed during the debate on the orders. We are a listening Government.

Except where there is a pressing expectation and support for an early all-postal referendum, we have concluded that the right course now is not to proceed with the orders setting up referendums on 4 November, but to await the report of the Electoral Commission. We have therefore decided not to proceed with the orders for the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Our commitment to referendums in these regions remains unchanged.

Once Parliament returns in September we will make a Statement on how we intend to proceed in these regions, following our detailed assessment of the Electoral Commission's report which, as I have said, will be available before Parliament returns. We are clear, however, that by not proceeding now with these two orders, there cannot be any referendums on 4 November in either of those two regions. Whatever the Electoral Commission reports and whatever is decided—good, bad or indifferent—there is no prospect whatsoever of referendums being held on 4 November in those two regions. I want to make that clear. As I proceed to set out the chronology of the dates, it will be quite clear why it is not possible, whatever may be said by the commission or anyone else.

In contrast for the north-east, all that we have heard confirms that it is right now to proceed with the orders providing for all-postal referendums in the north-east on 4 November. That is what the people there want and expect and, I hope, is what will he made possible by noble Lords today.

I therefore beg to move formally the first Motion and speak to the following three Motions—the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order; the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order; and the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Date of Referendums, Referendum Question and Explanatory Material)(North East Region) Order. However, as I have said, I will not be moving the other two orders.

The four orders to which I am speaking set out the rules and procedures for the referendums, including the postal ballot; the amounts counting officers can receive for their fees and expenses in connection with the referendums; the spending limit for those campaigning in the referendums; the date of the referendums; the options for unitary local government that voters will be asked to choose between; and the explanatory material that will he provided to voters at the time they vote. I shall take each of those matters in turn.

So far as the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order is concerned, this covers the details of the procedure for the conduct of all-postal referendums. I have already said that we believe that the north-east's experience of all-postal voting is different from the other regions. We are confident that problems highlighted in the media coverage of the June election pilots would not apply to the referendum in the north-east. That is because no candidates will he seeking election, and so the risk of fraud will be reduced. There will be a much longer lead-in time for the printing and dispatch of ballot papers in the referendums: six weeks instead of one week, because candidates do not need to be nominated.

Whereas in June there were reports that votes could not be counted because witnessed declarations of identity were incomplete, the Government intend to use security statements, which do not require a witness signature, for this autumn's referendums. The decision was made on the advice of the Electoral Commission that, the traditional form of declaration adds nothing to the security of the process but introduces significant risks". There would be more assistance and delivery points in the referendums, one per 50,000 electors, to be opened on the date of the referendum between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and the preceding seven working days for normal working hours.

For those who cannot reasonably be expected to make it to an assistance and delivery point for reasons of physical impairment. there would he a requirement on counting officers to attend, or make arrangements for one of their clerks to attend on the voter at an agreed time and place.

I turn to expenditure limits. These are set out in the Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order. Political parties would he subject to a sliding scale of limits, determined by their vote share at the last European elections.

As the Explanatory Memorandum to the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order makes clear, the cost of holding the referendum will he approximately £1.52 per elector on a 100 per cent turnout. It will also be possible to claim additional resources from the Electoral Commission via an exceptions process if the counting officer can demonstrate a strong case.

Turning to the date, the north-east has set a referendum date of 4 November. The Deputy Prime Minister has considered whether the level of interest in holding a referendum had changed materially since he took soundings about the referendums last year. No evidence was presented that caused us to think that fewer people were interested in having a referendum than a year ago.

On 25 May, the Boundary Committee made its final recommendations for single tier local government in the three northern regions. As required by the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, the committee recommended two options for each county area. The options put forward were a product of a year-long review by the committee, during which time it considered more than 8,000 representations and conducted some 130 meetings.

We have considered the final recommendations and the 650 or so representations that we received. In the light of that consideration, we can accept, reject or modify the committee's recommendations, but we have had regard to the same statutory criteria under which the committee operated, most importantly in regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and the need to secure effective and convenient local government. We have accepted the Boundary Committee's recommendations for the north-east region.

The options that we have adopted will give electors a clear and distinctive choice between different patterns of unitary local government. It is important that the choice is presented simply, clearly and neutrally in the ballot paper. It is also important that voters are provided with sufficient explanatory information to enable them to make an informed choice.

We have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that the ballot question and accompanying explanatory material is informative and neutral.

Finally, I should draw your Lordships' attention to article 6 of the orders. These change the period in which applications can be made to the Electoral Commission by permitted participants who want to be the designated organisation for either the Yes or No campaign.

The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides a default timetable for a referendum period, with a power to change some of the timings as appropriate. It would be standard practice to have 28 days for participants to apply for designated organisation status; 14 days for the Electoral Commission to consider those applications; and for that decision to be made at least 28 days before the date of the referendum. That gives 10 weeks.

However, as campaign expenditure and publications are regulated only during the referendum period, the Government believe that the referendum period should start once the orders are effective. As this means the campaign period would extend over the summer, when many people are on holiday, we have extended the period for permitted participants to apply to be designated from 28 days to 42 days. There will then be 14 days for the Electoral Commission to consider applications for designation and around 42 days before the close of poll on 4 November. That gives 14 weeks overall.

Finally, let me take a moment to explain the timing of the publication of the draft Bill. During the course of the passage through the House of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill we had many debates about the draft Bill. We said at the time that we would use our best endeavours to have a draft Bill available before the referendums took place, which is a fairly reasonable consideration. This was in order that people could consider it well before the day—we were not going to publish it the day before the referendum—in order that they might see what the powers and functions would be generally. It is a draft Bill; it is not perfect.

Nevertheless, it was never our intention to have the draft Bill scrutinised effectively before the orders were passed; the orders trigger the draft Bill. If the House, in its wisdom, approves today the three administrative orders and the order for the north-east, the draft Bill will be published immediately. It is already available but, technically, it will be published once the orders are approved.

Needless to say, Parliament returns in September, when the Select Committees will be available in the other place to scrutinise the draft Bill. As we have always said, the public scrutiny can start immediately because, subject to the orders being approved, the draft Bill will be published later today.

So our preparations are complete subject to the approval of the orders by the House. We are not making the decision in this House on whether there should be an elected regional assembly in the north-east, and the Government are not making the decision on whether there should be an elected regional assembly in the north-east: the people of the north-east will make that decision. That is what it is all about. We want a fair and vigorous campaign—there will be pros and cons for both parties—but if the House does not approve the orders we will deny the people of the north-east that choice. I hope the orders will be approved. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee and 14th Report from the Merits Committee].—(Lord Rooker.)

11.45 a.m.

Baroness Hanham rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion in the name of the Lord Rooker, at end to insert "but this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's decision to lay six orders relating to regional assemblies before the publication of a draft regional assemblies Bill; and before publication of the Electoral Commission's report on the all-postal ballots used in the pilot areas during the elections of 10 June".

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Minister is an honourable man and it must have choked him to death to make this statement today. Yesterday in the House of Commons there was a debate on the orders for elected assemblies in all three regions. Twelve hours later, after burning the midnight oil, using the scalpels and looking into the future, it became obvious to the Government that there was not a cat's chance in hell that they were going to win the referendums in Yorkshire and Humber and in the north-west. The only region in which the Deputy Prime Minister has ever been clear that he might perhaps have a chance is the north-east—and that is where he is now basing his hopes for this completely ridiculous form of local government. He hopes that the north-east will become a Trojan horse for a policy which is rapidly becoming more and more ridiculous as time goes on.

The orders have been laid at the wire of parliamentary time; they could not have been delayed longer. After today, there would have been no one in Parliament to consider them. The Minister said that the draft Bill will be laid once the orders have been approved—but that will be after Parliament is in recess.

The draft Bill will contain details of the powers that will pass to one regional assembly if the people of the north-east are unwise enough to vote for it. But the passing of powers is a matter for Parliament. How can it possibly be that a Bill which indicates the passing of power from Parliament to local government—because that is what the Government have always said this is—is not a matter for Parliament?

It has been a matter of great amazement to me and to my colleagues in the other place that the draft Bill has not appeared before now. Now it will appear during the Recess in order that the people of the north-east of England, during their holidays on the beach, will be able to scour it for information about what the regional assembly might or might not be about to do.

The build-up to these regional assemblies has been quite extraordinary. We have debated in Parliament, both here and in the other place, the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, which turned out, of course, to be the forerunner of the Bill for the referendum. It is clear that, as a result of the European elections, the Deputy Prime Minister has got cold feet. He cannot see how the referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber could take place "safely"—a word used by the right honourable Nick Raynsford in the other place when he was weaseling his way out. He said that the Government would, of course, listen to what the Electoral Commission had to say if it decided that it would not be possible for those referendums to take place safely—but, of course, there might be reasons why the views of the Electoral Commission should not be taken into account.

Thanks to the chairman of the Electoral Commission, its report on the pilots —which is absolutely germane to the referendum which will take place—will be available at the end of August. It was not due to be available until mid-September. So there is now this possibility, which the Government must make absolutely certain becomes a reality, that Parliament will have the opportunity to debate both the Electoral Commission's decisions and the draft Bill in September. That is very late in the process for this single election.

Government information has been circulated in all three regional areas. I have seen the leaflets. It must have cost a fortune. The elections have been set up; there are No campaigns and Yes campaigns, and people have been spending money well in advance. And it is all for nothing. The Minister says that these elections may take place—something was said about the difficulties caused by party conferences. But party conference dates have been known since last year, so the timetabling of the election has nothing to do with them.

All the evidence that we have had on these elections showed that Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west were going nowhere. Very possibly the election in north-east will go nowhere as well. This leaves people in limbo. People in the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and Humber have been led to believe that this great new part of local government would be theirs for the asking and that they would need only to vote in favour to have an elected regional assembly with great powers over planning, housing, skills, jobs—everything would come pouring in. Now the Government have reneged on that. I am not sorry they have reneged—I think that that is a very good thing. It will come as no surprise to Members of this House to know that we think that regional assemblies are a complete nonsense and are very pleased that the Government will not go ahead with them. It is also reasonable to presume that there is no possible question of these regional assembly elections in those two regions ever taking place, and certainly not before the election.

These orders include all-postal voting in the north-east. We have not welcomed this and it is certainly part of the reason why the Government have had to draw back today. All-postal voting is not an answer to elections, particularly not to election turn-out. It is clear that there are very serious problems with postal voting and that it does not necessarily carry what the Government think it does. But once again, they are hell-bent on going down this route. There is one deposit box for every 50,000 people, scattered across the north-east. If anybody knows the north-east, and plenty here do, they will know that it is a pretty wide county. One among 50,000 people will mean that they are quite far apart.

This is a terrible day for Parliament. I believe that there is an abuse of Parliament here. Yesterday the Government were going ahead with all three referendums. They have now had cold feet and have withdrawn. This is the only opportunity for the House to make any comment on what the Government are doing. I believe that there will be a Statement in the other place this afternoon, but that is too late for anybody to influence matters.

The questions that will be asked in the north-east will be myriad; those asked in the two regions where the referendum will not now take place will, I hope, cover the Government in such embarrassment that they never raise their head on these matters again.

My honourable friend Bernard Jenkin was quite prescient about this. He said yesterday: Here we are, with the date for the referendums set, the Government spending millions of pounds of public money on its propaganda campaign, 'yes' and 'no' campaigns set up and running in the three northern regions, but still facing the fact that the referendums may never be held". I do not know whether the BBC took up what he said, but at seven o'clock this morning it had a very clear idea of what the Government would say today, well in advance of this House and the House of Commons sitting.

The Government are very good at spin; they have always tried to make sure that when they are in a hole, they can dig themselves out through the means of the press having got there first. So there are no surprises. My honourable friend Bernard Jenkin did not think there were any surprises yesterday, and he was right. The referendums will not take place. The referendum in north-east England will be the only opportunity for the Deputy Prime Minister.

I hope that the voters in north-east England now realise what a cynical set-up this is. I recommend that they reject the Deputy Prime Minister's offer of this referendum and put regional government where it belongs—in the ground, and possibly the Deputy Prime Minister with it. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's decision to lay six orders relating to regional assemblies before the publication of a draft regional assemblies Bill; and before publication of the Electoral Commission's report on the all-postal ballots used in the pilot areas during the elections of 10 June".— (Baroness Hanham.)

11.56 a.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, one might call this cynical, one might call it pragmatic—possibly, probably, both. But let us not lose focus on the importance of addressing the orders before the House. I think we may be a little tempted to look only at the fact that two of them are now off the agenda.

I had the radio on at a quarter to six this morning, when I heard the very distinctive voice of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I caught the end of what he said, which was something like, "Then you can go and wave a fist at a bureaucrat nearby instead of a central government bureaucrat". He may have been talking about regional government or he may have been talking about something else, but it seemed not a bad way of summing up what your Lordships are being asked to consider this morning.

I thank the Minister for the helpful timetable from him and from Nick Raynsford showing what might happen if the orders are passed and a referendum is to be held on 4 November and with regard to the problems inherent in postponing what will now be a single referendum in the event of a report from the Electoral Commission on the safety or otherwise of postal ballots. I thought that the printed timetable that was circulated was very honest on the Government's part in referring to the problems of running into a general election. That is another argument for a fixed-term Parliament so that we all know where we are.

Will the Minister say more about the position in the north-east if the Electoral Commission makes an unfavourable report about postal ballots? I may have been distracted when he dealt with that point, but I have checked with a couple of people, and I think it would be helpful if he could be clear about it.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, perhaps we can talk about it now. We said before today's debate that if the Electoral Commission gave such an account in its reports later this year, we would not proceed with any of them. That still applies, although obviously the report will be more relevant to the north-east. If it is evidence-based, the undertaking not to proceed with an all-postal voting referendum still applies. There is no pulling back from that commitment.


Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, that is helpful, although I hope that the Government will take note of what the Electoral Commission has to say about the other areas. After all, experiences in one region should be read as potential risks in another.

The amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, uses the word "regrets". I regret that, procedurally, she has not dealt with the matter as straightforwardly as she did from the Dispatch Box. She made it quite clear that she opposed the order, but, as I understand it, the amendment is not fatal. I regret that the Conservative Benches have not expressed in procedure what we know they really think. They oppose regional government, even though they keep on talking about it and referring to it as local government. We on these Benches will not align ourselves with them, which will come as no surprise to them or others.

Nevertheless, there are areas of concern. The Government are in somewhat of a pickle of their own making. Enough warnings were given about all-postal ballots in June. The powers in the Bill need to be clarified. Those powers need wide discussion, because people need to know what they are voting for. The timetable of this House does not allow us to do a huge amount about that, but I have asked my noble friend the Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrats to try to secure through the usual channels a debate on the Bill as early as we reasonably can in order that we can have a rational, measured discussion of what is proposed.

Certainly, we would welcome extension of the powers beyond those that are set out in the White Paper. We have said often enough that they are far too restricted. I have heard that transport and learning and skills are now far more embedded in the agenda than they were at the time of the White Paper. I understand from my noble friend Lady Maddock that whenever one talks about regional government in the north-east, the question of the A l comes up. Transport is hugely important.

On the ballot, I take the point that when it is not a question of individuals standing, there is less risk of fraud, but the experience in June was one of confusion and inconvenience. The Government show a touching faith in the ability of the Royal Mail, which in SW14 is now taking five days to deliver mail from SW1. If I have not received everything that the Minister sent to me on this issue, I apologise—I know I have not received some of it. Perversely, in London, most ballot papers arrived before information from the Greater London Returning Officer, which shows the kind of difficulties that are inherent in the process.

We heard that one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 people will be set up. However, that is almost the size of a parliamentary constituency even in an urban area. I understand that the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency has 58,000 people—it is certainly more than 50,000. Some rural constituencies are very large geographical areas. Could the Minister pass on any views from local authorities on keeping those points open for long hours, seven days a week, as it will he the returning officers, who are part of the local authority system, who will be dealing with the ballots?

The Royal National Institute of the Blind, which will have briefed many noble Lords on this issue, has argued for longer opening hours. I would certainly argue for more points. I welcome too the change in arrangements for witnesses. On 10 June, I had to refuse to witness the signature of somebody who turned up at a polling station, because it was claimed that that person was known to me. She was not, and I felt that it was appalling not to be able to assist someone to go and vote. She was within yards of the ballot box, but neither the presiding officer nor I, as a teller outside, could help her.

I mentioned the RNIB's briefing. There is not time this morning to go through it in the detail that I would like, but I would like the Minister to say something about making the ballot more accessible and about helping people to read information. We should not have it in 8-point print; I doubt that any noble Lords have the speeches that they read in the Chamber in such small print. I want to hear about how we get information into alternative formats and how people can get to assistance points.

I was pleased to hear that, in Liverpool, the electoral office approached the Liverpool Voluntary Society for the Blind and asked for advice on how best to ensure that blind and partially sighted people know how to vote. Electoral officers there also asked the society to provide awareness training for electoral staff. I mention that not just so that I can crow about the local authority concerned but because it is a useful model that could be followed.

The mock-up ballot paper that I have seen shows a map. It was the ballot paper for Durham, and I do not know how widely it has been made available. I do not know whether it is possible under the terms of the order, but I would press for a far more detailed map. It did not even show towns; there were shapes of districts. One would need to be very geographically and spatially aware to read a map that just showed interlocking shapes and know what the shapes referred to. I know that we are not going ahead with it now, but I also saw maps for Wyre and west Lancashire. They were more conventional and showed the detail. That is what we should have.

As I said, one might say that it was cynical or pragmatic. A Bill will be published, and we will do our best to debate it before, perhaps, the north-east goes to the polls on 4 November. The north-east will not now be distracted by arguments in the media about other regions and will be able to concentrate on its own region. Our fear throughout has been that the Government were going the right way to make the worst of the argument. They must provide the best basis on which voters can decide.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, referred to voters being "unwise enough" to decide on an Assembly. I know what I hope that the outcome will be, but I would not presume to judge the wisdom of the voters. We should agree to the orders today and leave them to make up their mind.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, these matters affect the whole country. Those of us on these Benches have, with our ecumenical partners, been active participants in the regional institutions set up in recent years. We can bring quite a bit of experience to such matters.

When I was Bishop of Guildford, the south-east of England region ran from Milton Keynes to Canterbury. I am now in Chelmsford, in a region that comes within the area of Essex County Council, has two unitary authorities, and is part of the east of England region, while the economic, social and political realities of our area are determined in London. So there are significant and important questions about the way in which the people are represented in these matters.

As for the issue of ballots, is it wise for us to proceed with postal ballots in advance of the assessments of the Electoral Commission? What is actually going on? What is the real meaning of the announcement that the proposals surrounding regional government are now in retreat? That is very important for the country. We need to know where we are in relation to those issues, not only in the north-east but throughout the country. Where are we going? What is the Government's view on these things? What are we supposed to relate to, in terms of public policy and perception? There are big questions.

In the east of England, and especially in the county of Essex, there are major development issues in front of us. Two of the major areas for the Government's housing development in the south-east of England are in my diocese. There are big questions, and people in local government constantly ask me about the shape of regional political practice.

If we proceed to the ballot in the north-east of England, how are we going to interpret the result? I have in front of me the map showing north Durham, east Durham and south Durham. I know the region, because I lived in Durham for nine years. What happens, and how will the result be interpreted, if there is a 30 per cent poll with south Durham voting one way on the issue and north and east Durham voting the other way? What is going to happen? Are we moving into new structures for government in our country on the basis of ballots set up in this manner, without a way of understanding how the Government will interpret how people respond? If we do not have clarity about how the response is to be interpreted, the rest of us who, in the dim and distant future, see the possibility of ballots coming our way, even in the south-east of England—although I find it extremely difficult to conceive that we shall ever arrive at that point in the south-east—

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I am afraid that the right reverend Prelate is misinformed. The latest "state of the nation" survey, undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, recorded in the south-east the highest score requiring regional government.

The Lord Bishop of Chelmsford

My Lords, those who represent the people in local government in the south-east of England —and yesterday I was in one of our local borough council offices—are very closely in touch with the views of their people. If ballots were held, the people might express a different opinion.

I want to know how the results are going to be interpreted and what the implication is for the rest of us in the development of these policies. The matter is very serious and significant, and it is very important that the Government respond.

Lord Judd

My Lords, I intervene as someone who strongly supports the Government in their intentions on regional government. The Opposition have again today said that they regard regional government—and I hope that I quote them correctly—as "complete nonsense". I personally believe that that position is complete nonsense.

The fact is that regional government is with us to stay, and the issue is how we have democratic institutions that match that regional administration and government and can hold it accountable. I believe that history will regard us harshly if we try to sidestep the challenge to ensure that our democratic institutions match the administrative reality.

Those issues, however, have been debated at some length in the House already. My intervention today is made as somebody who lives in the north-west region, as somebody who lives in Cumbria, and as somebody who has the privilege of chairing what is known as the Social Responsibility Forum in Cumbria. That body brings together all the Churches of Cumbria, stretching from the Society of Friends—which I hope will not mind being described as a Church—to the Roman Catholics, including even some of the charismatic Churches as well.

Carrying that responsibility last year, and having listened to the very well informed and concerned discussions that have taken place in that forum on a number of occasions among people who are in their professional work closely in touch with a far wider range of the population than simply the churchgoers themselves, I am able to say that the Government's decision not to proceed with the order for the north-west today will be warmly welcomed, with considerable relief. It is a wise decision and I congratulate the Government on having the courage to make it.

12.15 p.m.

I shall briefly highlight some of the reasons why I believe that it is a wise decision. As currently envisaged, the referendum would give people a say on whether they want to be part of an elected north-west regional assembly, but the reality is that they have never been consulted on which region Cumbria should be in. Many Cumbrians, particularly those from the north of the county, feel little affinity with the north-west region as it stands, but see themselves as much closer to areas of the north-east region, particularly Northumberland, which has many similar concerns and issues. Our principal regional hospital is in Newcastle; our television in the north of Cumbria is Border Television and Tyne Tees Television. Those are two examples of the social reality that I am describing.

The voice of Cumbria, on an elected north-west assembly, would be very small—perhaps two to three seats out of about 25. That causes considerable anxiety among many Cumbrians, who fear that their concerns may be marginalised by a metropolitan power base. That relates to the point that I have just made, as Cumbria would have a stronger voice in the north-east, where the population base is much smaller than it is in the proposed, huge, north-west region.

A truly democratic referendum, as I am sure my noble friend would agree, would surely rely on securing a reasonable turnout to vote. That will happen only if people are properly informed about the referendum and feel that they can understand and engage with the issues. Yet the consultation process to date is regarded by many as having been totally inadequate. The Boundary Committee was supposed to leaflet every household in Cumbria early this year to consult on proposals for part two of the referendum—options for unitary local government—yet this was not effectively done.

Publicity for the referendum has so far been poor. Here I must differ from the perceptions of the noble Baroness who spoke for the Opposition. It is our experience, in the Social Responsibility Forum, that few public meetings have been organised. Indeed, Churches Together in Cumbria is having to fill the gap. Much more work needs to be done by the Government to ensure that the issues and options are understood.

The process for counting the vote in part two of the referendum—as things stood—would have been unsatisfactory for the people of Cumbria. The Cumbria and Lancashire votes were to be counted as a single entity because one of the options for unitary local government straddles the county boundary. But the population of Cumbria is less than half a million, while that of Lancashire is more than 1.1 million. The feeling is that Cumbria's voice would not be heard fairly. In an extreme case, even if the entire population of Cumbria were to vote for one option, something else could be imposed on them by the Lancashire vote.

My last point is this. The preferred option of four of the current Cumbrian local authorities—Allerdale, Copeland, Carlisle and Eden—and of many people within the county is for three unitary authorities in Cumbria, based on the pairing of existing district councils, which has not been included in part two of the proposed referendum at all. I do not want to put it too strongly, but this seems to us to be fairly certain to guarantee a high level of discontent, whichever of the two options is chosen.

As he has made the wise decision, I ask my noble friend to take these points and considerations on board in looking to the way forward. For example, he could consider an option put to me yesterday by a noble Lord who is a close friend and colleague. It is a very sensible idea that envisages a statutory requirement for any north-west regional assembly—if it were to go ahead in the way that the Government are proposing at the moment—to have a special consultative committee for Cumbrian affairs.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, in rising to support my noble friend Lady Hanham, I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we need a debate about this issue in this House as soon as possible. Therefore, I do not intend to detain the House very long today on these issues. Some of the speeches that have been made were of a more general character and we need a debate on the powers of the regions in the Bill that is being published today and on other issues, particularly the issues of boundaries. Noble Lords will know that I have made many speeches in this House about the eastern region, to which Essex does not belong. Essex is much more related to other parts of the country. I shall not go into that today.

I am concerned that over the past year we have had a considerable number of debates on postal voting and the regional assemblies. From these Benches, my noble friend Lady Hanham and I have consistently said that it will all end in chaos. That is where we are today: in chaos. We are in the most chaotic situation. I want to highlight one area.

As most noble Lords know, I am very involved in local government. Local government delivers services. It cares for hundreds of thousands of elderly people in their homes, it looks after children in need, it supports schools, it repairs roads and it looks after libraries. Local government will be in limbo in the two regions that are now being deferred. Noble Lords do not know what has been going on over the past two years in, say, Cheshire. Cheshire does not want to be in a north-western region. Local authorities in Cheshire have been organising a big campaign to which a lot of energy and resources have been devoted. They have had to neglect the basic services areas that I just mentioned.

Lancashire, Cumbria—which has just been mentioned—and the metropolitan areas of Yorkshire have been spending time on this regional assembly, which has now been deferred. What is going to happen? Are they to sit there for the next month or year, or five years, waiting for a possible referendum to the detriment of all the people to whom they are providing services? These people want to know. Why did the Minister not suggest that we have the ballots by conventional methods with people going to the ballot box? There needs to be an end to the doubt about what is happening in local government.

Local government is about services. In the north-west there would probably have been a 75 per cent No vote. Let us have that ballot and let the people in the north-west vote No so that they can get on with their business again. Let us have a ballot in the east of England. There would be a 90 per cent No vote in the east of England. Let us get it out of the way and get on with our business again. This is the real problem. It is uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty.

The Prime Minister's mantra is education, education, education. In local governments throughout the England, it is uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. That is no good. Local government is for people and services. I hope the Minister will comment on that today. The uncertainty must be ended. It may be ended in the north-east on 4 November. It will not be ended in the rest of the country. Local government must know so that it can get on and support services for the people. I would like the Minister to comment on that area today. Please let us have a debate as soon as possible in September about the whole issue.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which has supported the campaign for regional government in England and the two groups in the north-east and in Yorkshire which have been keen on promoting devolution.

This is a sad and strange day. In fact, it is a poor do. There is no greater strength than the advocacy on these Benches for genuine regional devolution. Talking about boundaries is the road to nowhere. It is the road to nothing happening. We know that we have devolved government but the fact is that it is not democratic. The devolved government is there with the civil servants and it is a matter of getting democracy with that.

I cannot fathom the business about postal votes at all. We still have the ballot boxes. They have not been put on the tip. The ballot boxes still exist. So if there is a problem about postal votes in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the north-west, we could vote in the normal way that we have done for donkey's years, by marking ballot papers and sticking them in ballot boxes. This business about postal votes and so on is hogwash. We know how to vote if we are keen to have a vote. We have polling stations and we go to them and register our vote. The biggest problem in all this is the lack of enthusiasm. I do not think that the Government's heart is in this. This is the big problem.

Let us compare this with what happened in Scotland. There was the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Noble Lords will remember the phrase, "the settled will of the Scottish people". What attempt has been made to get the settled will of the folk in the regions of England? Where is the hand of the Government?

On an earlier occasion, I said that, although I had great reservations about this, I was prepared to support it because I did not think that the powers were good enough but it was something to build on and we might be able to improve things as the years go by.

There are now three problems for the Government. If this only concerns the north-east, there is the problem of powers. The powers are insufficient. We have heard all along that they are insufficient. Members of the Cabinet who look after education, health and so on have said that those matters cannot be devolved as they wish to retain the powers and are not prepared to devolve them.

There is a problem about local government because it has been brought into the equation. The Conservative Party conveniently confuses local government and regional government. But, again, there has not been real leadership in defining what regional government is and how important it is.

Moreover, as far as the north-east is concerned, there is a problem because there will not be referendums in Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. That is a further handicap to winning a ballot in the north-east. I invite the Minister to respond to this. If one were part of the No campaign campaigning in the north-east, one would be saying, "The powers are not that bright, they are lousing up your local government and, by the way, they are not doing this now in Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west but they think you lot here in the north-east will fall for it". There must be a fair answer to that for the people who are trying to campaign in the north-east because they have their hands tied behind their backs three times now.

I hope that the listening Government and the listening Minister have listened and will have some answers, particularly now that we have a reduced situation of trying to campaign just in the north-east.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I ought to declare an interest in that it appears that I am not going to be a voter in Yorkshire. My second interest is, I suppose, dead. I chaired a group of Liberal candidates in the north-west that produced a booklet on regional government for the north-west. That was in 1965. I suspect that it might he slightly out of date. I know for certain that there are only two copies left, one under my bed and one under the bed of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Noble Lords may be pleased or otherwise to know that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is walking in the Pyrenees so he will not detain us today.

An interesting point arises out of the document that we produced, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd; namely, where you put Cumbria. We put it with the north-east at that time. The other problem is what you do with the south-east of England, which is like a Polo mint—unconnected communities with a hole in the middle which is Greater London. I thought I heard the Minister say that the subventions of cash to the campaigns would be based on the electoral votes in the European elections. For the life of me I cannot see the connection between those two things. These are totally different issues. To assess the amount of money going to various parties on that basis seems to me to be very peculiar. Perhaps the Government could explain that.

12.30 p.m.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I shall take advice on that latter point. I do not know the background to that but under the order there has to be some basis for subventions to political parties. We are talking about a referendum; there are no personalities involved. The recent European elections were conducted on a party list basis and therefore did not involve counting votes for personalities. They constitute a fair way of conducting the process. A referendum is not like an election. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that that is probably the connection in that regard.

I shall resist getting into the boundary argument. Noble Lords will know that I have expressed my personal views on the matter. I believe that some counties come under the wrong regions. However, we are not discussing regional boundaries. We said that they were never closed but that we had no plans to change them. We have inherited the regions created for administrative purposes by the previous government. We have no current plans to change them. We said that the matter could always be revisited but that it was not a precursor to regional government.

I am very conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, said that this matter was a poor do. I am constantly reminded of his lack of enthusiasm for the original plan. I remember him saying, "I want to be enthused". I could not enthuse him regarding the proposals because they did not go far enough. The noble Lord then said, and repeated today, "I shall take this because I can build on it". I believe that there is general acceptance of that point. I shall not discuss what might happen to the No and Yes campaigns in the various regions as it would be totally inappropriate for a Minister to try to imagine that. Nor will I comment on what parliamentary colleagues will say in the other place later today when Nick Raynsford makes a Statement.

I wish to make two points to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. First, there is no chaos. We have a clear policy, which I enunciated this morning, on the way we are proceeding. The legal framework is there. The preparations are made. We are confident about the administration. There is plenty of time. As I explained, because no candidates are involved in the ballots, six weeks are available to deal with the ballot papers, rather than the week that was formerly the case.

As a reasonable person I accept that there is a blight on local government. I accept that, given what the leader of a county council has said in the past and what others have said when talking about local government reorganisation. As I said in my original speech, in September the Government will make a further statement on the way forward following the publication of the Electoral Commission's report, although I cannot say that that will be a definitive statement. Proposals have been made for local government reorganisation in terms of unitary authorities because we are not prepared to have an extra tier of government in those regions. However, we have said that that is part of the regional assembly process, it is not a local government reorganisation for its own sake.

Lord Hanningfield

My Lords, can we then have a debate on these issues as soon as possible? I hope that the Minister will agree to that.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I know it is a cliché but it is a matter for the usual channels. The usual channels decide that matter. Noble Lords sitting behind me and at the side of me decide what is debated. I am just a humble day-to-day mechanistic Minister who does what he is told and turns up on the right day. When the usual channels have fixed a day, they say, "Turn up and this is the subject".

Obviously, this matter will be debated. A draft Bill will be published today, not a Bill. We have said that we will introduce a Bill to go through a parliamentary process only if there is a Yes vote. That is the position. The Government have published a draft Bill with all the necessary extras. We can debate that at a suitable opportunity.

I say to my noble friend Lord Judd that I cannot say anything about turnout. That is a matter to be decided at the time. We hope that there will be a high turnout. Pilots have indicated that postal voting raises turnout. Raising turnout is good for democracy. I have my personal views about elections. I believe that if there were PR, the turnout would be even higher because people's votes would count. However, that is not the Government's view. I say that before my noble friend the Chief Whip jumps on me. My noble friend Lord Judd referred to the social reality. I fully accept the points that he made regarding the discussions in Cumbria not being a solution. He warmly welcomed our decision not to proceed with the relevant order at this time. Obviously, I cannot foresee what will occur in the future.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford-cum-Chelmsford, or Chelmsford-ex-Guildford—they call them retreads in the other place but I cannot use that phrase here—raised issues regarding the eastern region. I ask him to take on board the following point. So far as I am aware there has never been any local government reorganisation in this country conducted by either of the parties in power that has been submitted to the people's choice before it occurs. That has never happened. I fully accept that we are to that extent in uncharted waters. As regards the abolition of counties and the metropolitan county councils and the boundary changes that took place in the early 1970s following the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Walker, there was no question of people's choice. Parliament decided and Parliament dictated what was good for people in those matters. In the case that we are discussing we are putting forward proposals and options because of the issue of unitary government. It is a piloting process by definition as it will occur in one region out of nine. The process in London is not quite the same.

We are not in retreat as regards regional government, far from it. We have a regional agenda that will proceed, particularly regarding planning and the housing boards that we have already announced. They are not dependent on elected regional assemblies. I have said that the Bill will be draft only.

A slightly earlier version of the ballot paper and explanatory material that I sent to colleagues at the end of last week had been fully tested by the Electoral Commission in a series of in-depth interviews with voters in three regions. They found the text was helpful in explaining the concepts involved in the move from two-tier to single-tier government and, together with the mapping—which was considered to be clear and helpful—would enable people to make an informed choice. In addition, large-scale maps will be available at council offices, public libraries and at assistance and delivery points. Therefore, larger-scale maps will be available. I do not accept that what is in the order is just a blob. It contains the detail of which councils are covered.

As regards ballot paper size and eligibility, counting officers can assist partially sighted and blind people to vote either in their own homes or at an assistance and delivery point. A tactile voting device is available for voters. Counting officers can make available a copy of a ballot paper in large format by way of example, but not a proper ballot paper in large format because of the security of the ballot.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, before the Minister finishes with that little section, I want to say that I assume that the returning officer may send out information outside the order. I hear what the Minister said about the Electoral Commission's work, but I urge the Government to think whether there is any possibility of providing more information about the detail of what the boundaries mean, in a way that voters will see without having to go to council offices and so on.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, obviously there will be leaflets through every door, and I hope that they will fully explain the boundaries. People know where they pay their council tax, and that local authority will he either put with another or joined with others.

I want to deal with the point about party conferences. In Committee in another place, we were asked why the referendum date was in November. We could not lay the date order any earlier, given when the Boundary Committee reported. We gave a commitment during the preparations Bill that there would be a 10-week referendum period, and we did not think it appropriate for ballot papers to be dispatched during the party conference season, or for the close of poll to be during the school half-term holidays. That gave us the referendum date of 4 November.

The matter was not decided by the BBC, but by the Cabinet between 9.30 and 10.30 this morning. That was when the final decision was made. It is riot a terrible day for Parliament. If the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, wants to say that it is a terrible day for Parliament and that she disagrees with what we are doing, that is one thing; to say that it is a terrible day for Parliament but that she agrees with what we are doing—that is what she said—seems a bit of a contradiction.

People can vote by ballot box. The pattern of postal voting is that people are sent the postal ballot paper at home. If they wish, they can go to a polling booth and put their vote in a ballot box. That is part of the process. We do not tend to advertise it, but that is what happens in the pilots. They can put the vote in an envelope and post it back but, if they want to put their vote in the ballot box, they can do so. We said 1:50,000; that is a matter for local offices. If they warn to take account of distances in rural areas and have other boxes, no doubt they can do so.

So far, £1.9 million has been spent on raising awareness. We will now obviously withdraw from all expenditure relating to the referendums in the two regions, as that makes a lot of sense. The draft Bill will be available once the House has decided—in other words, I hope that it will be available before the Statement in the other place, which I understand will be at approximately 1.15.

It is a good day for democracy. We are asking several million people in one of our regions to decide whether they want a different form of government in the region, with its local consequences, from what they have now. That is all that we are asking them to decide, and it is their decision to make. I ask the House to pass the orders without a vote, because we are letting the people decide.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, we have had a debate, which is what my amendment was originally about, but it was tabled long before the shambolic events of this morning. In some way or another, we have managed to talk about the Government's mess, and there is no way round it—it is a mess of the highest order. The Government know it; the Minister knows that, at the bottom of his heart, they have now written off regional government. It is sad for those in the north-east, who will be put under a microscope and will be taking part in a very cynical election. They will be guinea pigs for a regional assembly that will never be extended to anywhere else. What a day.

I had considered pressing the amendment to a vote. However, as there are too few Members on the Government's Benches to enable them to win it, I shall not do so.

Noble Lords


Baroness Hanham

My Lords, the Government want to lose the vote; it would suit them very well to lose the north-east with it. It has been an interesting debate on a dreadful day—a really terrible day for this really terrible Government.

Lord Judd

My Lords, will the noble Baroness not for a moment contemplate the political context in which she has made her remarks? The Opposition love to bandy around criticism of the Government for being arrogant and insensitive. On this occasion the Government, having listened to anxieties that exist, made the courageous decision to change their plans. They are then accused of being in a mess. The Opposition really must make up their mind.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, I am tempted not to reply to that, but this is not the Opposition's mess. It is the Government's mess. To whom are the Government listening? They made their decision overnight, at the end of an extremely long haul on regional government. They could have made the decision at any time. It was they who laid the orders right to the wire in Parliament. The problem is the Government's fault, not the Opposition's. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Speaker (Baroness Lockwood)

My Lords, is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

Noble Lords


12.46 p.m.

The Deputy Speaker

My Lords, the Question is that the amendment shall be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say, "Content". To the contrary, "Not-Content". 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.

Amendment negatived.

On Question, Motion agreed to.