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18 Dec 2002 : Column 922—continued

Referendum Question

8 pm

Mr. Hammond: I beg to move amendment No. 39, in page 2, line 20, leave out from beginning to end of line 22 and insert

'Any order made pursuant to section 1 shall direct the Electoral Commission to determine the question or questions to be put in the referendum.'.

The Temporary Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 28, in page 2, line 20, leave out 'question' and insert 'questions'.

No. 29, in page 2, line 21, leave out 'is' and insert 'are'.

No. 55, in page 2, line 22, at end insert—

'(1A) A supplementary question shall be asked of persons eligible to vote whose address on the electoral register is in the administrative area of a district council for any area in which both district and county councils have functions.
(1B) The supplementary question referred to in subsection (1A) is—
(a) Xdo you agree with the proposals to reorganise local government in your area into unitary authorities which the Government intends to implement if an elected regional assembly is established".'.

No. 19, in page 2, line 23, at end insert

'(the (insert name of region) region comprises (insert names of all counties, metropolitan boroughs and unitary authority districts within the region))'.

No. 30, in page 2, line 23, at end insert—

'( ) Do you agree with the recommendations of the Boundary Committee for England to reorganise (insert name of county council) and (insert name of district council or district councils) into a single tier of local government for your area?'.

No. 11, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2) and insert—

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'(2) The question on the ballot paper shall be preceded by a statement, in a form to be prescribed by the Electoral Commission, conveying such information as the Electoral Commission believe is requisite to enable electors to understand the question and to ensure that electors understand the conclusions of the Boundary Committee review of the region.

(3) The statement to be prescribed under subsection (2) may not include any statement about the intended functions or powers of the proposed elected assembly unless such functions and powers are defined in an Act of Parliament.'.

No. 31, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (2).

No. 54, in page 2, leave out line 26 and insert—

'This referendum is advisory only.The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly for the'.

No. 49, in page 2, line 27, leave out from second 'region', to 'be' in line 30 and insert

'If an elected assembly is established, it is intended that—

(a) the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies, including regional economic development; and

(b) local government would'.

No. 50, in page 2, line 29, leave out from 'development' to end of line 33.

No. 20, in page 2, line 33, at end add

'It is not proposed to establish an elected regional assembly in any region until at least three regions have voted in favour of the establishment of such assemblies in referenda conducted pursuant to section 1 above.'.

No. 22, in page 2, line 33, at end add—

'In the [insert name of region] region this will entail the abolition of [insert names of local authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee report to be abolished] and the creation of [insert number of new unitary authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee report to be created] new unitary authorities.

The table below shows how the new unitary authorities recommended by the Boundary Committee will relate to the authorities to be abolished—

Name of new Unitary AuthorityOld authority areas or parts of old authority areas included
[insert name of each new Unitary Authority as recommended by the Boundary Committee][insert name of each constitutent existing local authority district or ward]'.

No. 38, in page 2, line 33, at end add—

'The Boundary Committee has recommended to the Secretary of State that if an elected regional assembly for the [name of region] region is established, the electoral districts which would return directly elected members to the assembly would be as shown below:

Name of Electoral DistrictDescription of areas includedApproximate number of electors
[insert name of each electoral district recommended by the Boundary Committee pursuant to s.19(3)][insert description of the districts/wards or other administrative units included][insert approximate number of electors in each proposed district]

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No. 51, in page 2, line 33, at end insert—

'(3) In those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils the following additional question shall be asked—

Do you agree with the proposal to reorganise the county and district councils in your area into a single unitary tier of local government.'.

Mr. Hammond: Clause 2 deals with the question to be put in a referendum and the preamble, so called. That is a piece of Government spin that will be placed on the ballot paper by primary legislation.

This is a mixed bag of amendments grouped together and covering a number of issues. Some of them deal with the procedure; some of them are substantive in the only sense possible, given the architecture of the Bill: they seek to amend the preamble, making substantive changes to the Government's stance, as expressed through the preamble. The preamble is a one-paragraph summary of what an elected regional assembly will be, as the Government would like electors to see it. No doubt some of my hon. Friends will want to comment on the wording of the preamble.

Amendment No. 39 is a pretty uncontroversial proposal. It proposes that the Electoral Commission should determine the question or questions to be put. The purpose of the referendum is made clear by clause 1. Surely the whole purpose of creating the Electoral Commission and giving it a role in dealing with referendums is to ensure that an impartial body not connected with Government, who are highly partial in relation to these referendums, should frame the question.

As it happens, we do not have an objection to the wording of the question proposed in the Bill—it would be rather difficult to have an objection to it, as it is a simple and straightforward question. However, we believe that an important principle is at stake for future referendums, which must be dealt with.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): My hon. Friend says that he does not have an objection to the question. May I point out to him that those of us who live in Suffolk have a strong objection, because if the question were asked in relation to East Anglia, it would suggest that Rickmansworth was in East Anglia? When one refers to a region that contains both Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire as if it were East Anglia, the question itself is entirely wrong.

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend is right, but unfortunately, as he knows, we have already had the debate on the possibility of revisiting the regional boundaries and, despite heroic efforts on the part of the opposition, have lost that argument to the Government.

Mr. Raynsford: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it shows the Alice in Wonderland state of the Conservative party when the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who was the architect of the regions, now describes them as preposterous?

Mr. Hammond: Not at all. As the Minister well knows, the regions were created for an entirely different purpose and are completely unsuitable for the arrangements that the Government propose.

Mr. Gummer: I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the regions were created by putting together

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what had always been Government sections, and that they were created because the previous Government had had a series of regions, none of which were coterminous for any single purpose. The regions were created for the sake of clarity. An elected assembly ought to cover an area that people recognise as being an electoral area. Nobody in Rickmansworth has anything to do with Trimley St. Mary in my constituency.

Mr. Hammond: My right hon. Friend is right. That is our fundamental objection to the Government's proposals: the regions that are being used as the basis for elected regional assemblies were created for quite a different purpose, and do not deliver the sense of identity that is required if the Government's agenda is to have any chance of success.

Amendment No. 11 would give the Electoral Commission the slightly more difficult task of writing the preamble to the question. I am extremely sceptical about the idea of a preamble on the ballot paper, but if there is to be a preamble, it must be written by a body other than the Government, who are highly partisan in the matter.

The preamble as drafted in the Bill is highly contentious. It goes well beyond the supply of information, which is what the Government would have us believe it does. It states that regional assemblies

yet we have not seen those powers enshrined in any legislation. Indeed, in the Standing Committee yesterday the Minister conceded to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) that the regional assemblies would have influence on central Government, not responsibility in the sense that most electors would understand it.

The preamble states that the activities would be activities

The Minister knows that that is highly contentious. Many Opposition Members believe that the regional assemblies will suck more power up than will be devolved to them from central Government. The reference to local government reorganisation in the last couple of sentences of the preamble will not be intelligible to any ordinary elector, unless he happens to be an aficionado of local government terminology.

Under amendment No. 11, the Electoral Commission would be required to draft a preamble that conveyed the information requisite to a proper understanding of the question and a proper understanding of the boundary committee conclusions for the region. I do not see how that could be contentious.

The amendment would also specifically exclude any speculative statements about the functions or powers of elected assemblies yet to be created by Parliament. We simply do not know about that, and it is arrogant of the Government to pretend that simply because they include something in a White Paper or consultation document, they will be able to secure its approval in this place. Many regional referendums might take place after the next general election, and even if the

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Government can get their proposals through this place, they certainly cannot guarantee their unscathed delivery through the other place.

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