Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill

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Mr. Hammond: More seriously, is not there a possibility that the Government might choose to give the task to the regional chambers, funding for which is proposed in a later clause of the Bill?

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Mr. Streeter: My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. The Government reserve to themselves the right to ask any other organisation to draw up a new map in relation to regional assemblies. I assume that the people elected to the regional governments will be called regional assembly members, so that they will be known as RAMs for ever more. I do not know if that is the sort of thing that the Government are looking for.

Mr. Hammond: I would not want to claim credit for the observation, because I think that it originated from the Labour Back Benches, but if the Government ran true to form, they would prefer sheep.

Mr. Streeter: And possibly the odd poodle.

If the Government do not accept the amendment, we shall want to know why they are reserving to themselves the right to undertake such sensitive and important work. Why are they reserving the right to ask any other organisation to do it?

The Minister must speak; the moment of destiny has come.

Mr. Swayne: Not quite.

No doubt the Minister will seek to allay our concerns by telling us precisely the Government's intentions. To pre-empt that, I remind hon. Members that in debating the previous group of amendments the Minister prayed in aid the fact that a Conservative Government confirmed the existing boundaries. I warn hon. Members that the Bill may endure for some time. It may be some time before a Secretary of State is persuaded that there is sufficient level of interest in a region such as the south-east to warrant a referendum.

Mr. Raynsford: No.

Mr. Hammond: Is my hon. Friend not astonished that the Minister has, from a sedentary position, said ''No,'' to his comment? Does not that show that all that we are considering is a sham, and that the Government have already made their decision?

Mr. Swayne: I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Nothing that the Minister could say would astonish me—nor could anything about the conduct of the Bill, which, as my hon. Friend says, is a sham.

It will take some time before all the provisions of the Bill are implemented. My hon. Friend drew the attention of the Committee to the proper esteem and affection in which the Deputy Prime Minister is held, but he might not endure to take the relevant decisions.

Mr. Hammond: Just for the record, I think that I used the word ''affection'', but not ''esteem''. I chose my words with care.

Mr. Swayne: I stand corrected. Still, it will take some time for decisions to be taken under the Bill, by which time a quite different Ministry may be responsible. Members of the Committee should be careful about specifying the way in which they think Ministers ought to act. That is the aim of the amendments.

Lawrie Quinn: I cannot resist saying something about the line that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing. Many campaigners for regional government throughout the country have described the action to

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which he refers as the domino effect, in that eventually all the regions will subscribe to regional government. Does he believe that the domino effect will win out?

Mr. Swayne: I am not making such a prediction. It may take some time for a region to show sufficient interest to prompt the provisions of the Bill into action. We cannot foresee the outcome of the decision. Were there to be a domino effect, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that it would take some time for all the dominos to fall.

Mr. Raynsford: We seem to be reaching a stage in our proceedings at which the Opposition are overwhelmed by paranoia and invective. That is curiously inappropriate. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that the amendments were tabled originally with amendment No. 68, which we have already discussed. He may be grateful for your discretion, Mr. Butterfill, given that you ruled that this group of amendments should be taken separately, not dismissed along with amendment No. 68, which we have relegated to the bin.

There is a time in most Committee proceedings when the Opposition may hope to enjoy modest success. I do not wish to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but he has clearly misread my body language. He has made my life hard with his outrageous implications and references to Napoleonic instincts, which is how he described my approach. My generosity is tested in such circumstances. Such comments are offensive, given that I represent Greenwich, which has naval associations such as the Royal Naval college, where Nelson's body lay before its burial at St. Paul's cathedral, and I am a Minister in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the head of which the hon. Gentleman says is held with great affection. The hon. Member for New Forest, West rightly added that the Deputy Prime Minister was regarded with esteem. My right hon. Friend now presides over the building that used to be the Old Admiralty. We are surrounded in that building by statues and pictures of Nelson, so for us to be accused of Napoleonic tendencies is particularly offensive.

However, I intend to be generous. Amendment No. 69 would make it compulsory for the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission to give advice under clause 19. It is our policy to seek the advice of the Electoral Commission on such matters in all instances when an elected assembly is to be established. That is the reason for this part of the Bill. Without it, the Electoral Commission would not have the power to give us advice on the matters under clause 19(3).

We put the provision in this Bill, as opposed to the subsequent substantive Bill, to make it possible for the Electoral Commission to prepare its advice while the main substantive Bill is going through Parliament. The precise timing for the first assemblies is uncertain. It may not be necessary or even desirable for the commission to start work on that as soon as it is proposed to establish an assembly. The use of ''may'' will give us more flexibility over when to issue such a direction to the commission, as a duty would require the direction to be made as soon as possible. However,

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given that we fully intend to seek the Electoral Commission's advice on electoral areas in all instances where we propose to hold a referendum on elected regional assemblies, we are willing to think about whether we could narrow the discretion and make it obligatory for the Secretary of State to seek the commission's advice on such matters, without there being a potential disadvantage in that, if there were a period of time, we might fall foul of the word ''shall'', which would imply that an immediate response be made when that may not be appropriate. We shall try to achieve the hon. Gentleman's objective, without the possible downside consequences that I have described.

We cannot be quite as friendly towards amendments Nos. 70 and 72. Amendment No. 70 would require the Electoral Commission to give advice on all issues listed in subsection (3). There might be circumstances in which advice on individual issues would be inappropriate. For example, we might instruct the Electoral Commission to adopt the maximum number of 35 members for a large region. It would be foolish to have to instruct the Electoral Commission to advise us on something on which we had already made a decision.

Amendment No. 72 would have a similar effect, for reasons that we discussed in a previous debate and that the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge recognised. There might be occasions when it is necessary to give the Electoral Commission more time to make its recommendations. Putting an embargo on the ability to vary any direction would be unduly restrictive.

The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about judicial review. I confirm that the Secretary of State's powers would be constrained by the principles of administrative law and, therefore, would be subject to judicial review. With that assurance and the positive response to amendment No. 69, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw the amendment.

Mr. Hammond: I can only imagine that members of the Committee are reflecting on what a close shave our democracy had. My churlishness in likening the Government—not the Minister, I hasten to say—to that of Napoleon nearly changed the course of history and forced the Minister to withdraw his rather less than committed offer to look at the matter again. I am grateful for his offer to examine the degree of discretion that is provided by subsection (2).

I understand that the Minister does not want to be constrained to have a time period that is necessarily within a week or a month. That looks a little like a cover to me. I would have thought that, if we had taken that approach throughout our consideration of the Bill, we would probably find other gaps in the logic. However, if the Minister can find a way that allows the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission to advise before the boundaries of the electoral areas are established, that is all that we would require.

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The Minister's confirmation of the point on judicial review is very useful to the Committee because it means that the Secretary of State's behaviour will be constrained and his ability to ignore the Electoral Commission's advice, to behave arbitrarily or capriciously in relation to it, or to revoke or to vary in a way that is arbitrary or contrary to good administrative practice would also be constrained.

I am, however, a little curious about what the Minister said about subsection (3) and amendment No. 70. Why does he think that it is acceptable for Ministers to instruct the Electoral Commission about the number of elected members that will be in an assembly? Why does he not think that it would always be preferable for Ministers to hear the Electoral Commission's advice before issuing an instruction? The advice might not change their minds and, frankly, many of us in this Room think that very little would change their minds if they are made up, but it could do no harm to listen to advice. It would give a third party the opportunity to take the judicial review route with evidence of the Electoral Commission's advice.

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Prepared 17 December 2002