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18 Dec 2002 : Column 922continued
'Any order made pursuant to section 1 shall direct the Electoral Commission to determine the question or questions to be put in the referendum.'.
'(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".'.
'(the (insert name of region) region comprises (insert names of all counties, metropolitan boroughs and unitary authority districts within the region))'.
'( ) 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?'.
'(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.'.
'This referendum is advisory only.The Secretary of State will decide, after considering the referendum result, whether to establish an elected assembly for the'.
'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'.
'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.'.
'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 Authority||Old 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]'.|
'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 District||Description of areas included||Approximate 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]|
'(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.'.
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 Billit 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: 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
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