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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, no one would accuse the Minister of failing to answer our questions in detailto that extent I entirely agree with him. However, on voter turnout, does he agree that the more that voters know about what any given authority has the powers to doand, indeed, the more powers that it has and, therefore, the greater relevance to their livesthe greater the turnout?
Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, that is absolutely true. If they have a good understanding of the electoral system, that is even better. Of course, we have not quite had the courage to introduce proportional representation for another place, but, gradually, it is coming. People's votes count more under PR than under first past the post. I was converted many years ago.
I want to make only one point in response to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, who forecast everything he said in the Daily Telegraph, which is why I raised the point in my opening speech. He used the phrase, "the imposition of regional government". I flatly deny that there will be any imposition of regional government whatsoever. Some will say that the proposed system of regional assemblies is not government anyway. There is no imposition of government. That is the kind of extravagant language that sets the hares running, confuses people and becomes anti-democratic. You might as well be honest: it is not imposed. You may not like what is happening, but the voters will choose. You may not like the boundaries; you may not like the question, but, at the end of the day, pieces of paper will go into a ballot box, which is how the decision will be reached. I cannot accept that that constitutes imposition by anyone.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister makes some interesting comments about the word "imposition". But vast rural areas of this country could, as a result of a derisory majorityone vote is enough, as there is no thresholddecidedly consider that regional government had been imposed on them if the voters who turned out came from urban areas. The noble Lord is right technically but, unless the Bill provides a safeguard for those living in rural areas, they will believe that in practice regional government has been imposed.
The noble Lord has been hugely patient. Will he clarify an answer that he gave me earlier on the powers in respect of housing that would be given to regional assemblies? Only a week or so ago, we received a paper in this House that told us about the number of houses to be built across the country. Some of my noble friends regarded the plans as concreting over the South East and South West. If the assemblies are to have power at regional level, as opposed to dealing with aspects of the housing sector as the White Paper says, does that mean that they can decide not to build houses in, for example, the Stansted area, along the corridor
Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Baroness's question is based on an assumption that all the big cities (and the big-city politicians) want elected regional assemblies. That may not be the case. They may prefer instead to be the biggest fish in their own pool. It is assumed in the question that the big cities will be hell-bent because they are unitary; that it does not matter to them, and that they will opt for elected regional assemblies. That is not a valid assumption.
The implication is that it will be argued that only people in areas with two-tier authorities should have a right to a vote. That is one of the issues raised by the Local Government Association. If that policy were adopted, people in some small areas would be given a veto against the majority in the regions. I fully accept that we can debate the matter at length in Committee.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the only veto that people in those minority areas would have is over a reorganisation of local government in their own area; and that it would not affect the people in areas that are already unitary?
On housing, the White Paper was published last May; the sustainable communities programme was published last month, and housing policy changes have been taken forward. The plans for how we will regionalise housing are still being discussed. The noble Baroness in her original question gave the good example of housing. I will be happy to go into further detail on it.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, may I first respond to the noble Baroness's speech? I have re-read my right honourable friend's opening paragraph. Without qualifying what he said, I wish to make clear that we do not claim that the world started on 2nd May, 1997. My right honourable friend did not say that.
There are some good examples, which we have celebrated and made clear. The first is the docklands development. I accept that there have been problems with it; but, for 30 years, four local authorities did absolutely damn all about the docklands until the development corporation was set up. In the development vehicles for the four growth areas we are now trying to learn from some of the mistakes made by the London Docklands Development Corporation in its early years.
In my speech, I raised the question of the use of public money on one side of the argument. Ratepayers' and taxpayers' money is being used to finance organisations campaigning at this stage for regional elected assemblies, while those who are against them are denied public money. Is that legal? Is it fair?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, all I can say is that the matter has been examined by Nick Raynsford, the Local Government Minister. Nobody has found any illegality taking place. I understand that issues have been drawn to the attention of the district auditor. Answers have been given in another place and, I think, to one of the Committees of your Lordships' House to the effect that the money is not being misspent. Obviously, people can investigate that.
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I want an answer on one point. If Birmingham City Council, say, takes the view that the noble Lord said that it had done, could it, as a big fish in a small pond, campaign against the plans as a matter of council policy? Would that be allowed under local spending rules?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is not a question of campaigning. I said earlier that, as far as I know, the regional assembly in the West Midlands has written to say, "Please don't put us on the list for a referendum". There is nothing to campaign about. When the point comes and an area chooses to have a referendum, a campaign will be under way, and the Electoral Commission's rules on money, on the length of the campaign and on ensuring fairness for both sides will come into play.
I shall make a final point to answer a specific question that I was asked about the soundings document. At the back, there is a little questionnaire. Maybe that is putting it a bit strongly: there are a few tick-boxes. If anybody writes in to say that they do not want an elected assembly, that will not count as having an interest in a referendum. If someone writes in and says, "We don't want an elected assembly", it will not count. If someone sends in the form, on which question 6 asks "Do you want a referendum in your region?", and they tick "Yes" or "No", we will have an answer. If they write in and say, "We're not interested in this", it will not count. Question 7 goes on to ask for a view on holding a referendum, ranging from "Very strong" to "Very weak". The Bill does not allow us to count such letters. We operate not as free agents but as decent public servants making proper decisions. We will publish as much as we can about the representations.
I have referred to every noble Lord who spoke. I may not have answered all their questions, but I hope that the Bill will get a Second Reading.
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