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Lord Waddington: I must confess that, half way through the noble Lord's speech, I was slightly distracted by the furniture removing in which my noble friend Lord Carlisle was indulging. Now that he has finished his exercise, we can address our minds again to this amendment.
I am bound to say that I am thoroughly confused. I thought that the Liberal Democrat objection to Amendment No. 1 was that to have a thoroughgoing review of the regional boundaries before the Secretary of State could order a referendum was a complete waste of time. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, so forgot herself as to become very political and say that the whole thing was just a device by the Conservative Party to wreck the Bill. Here we have an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, which has almost exactly the same effect. The Secretary of State will be prevented from ordering a referendum in any part of the country until there has been a review of the boundaries of every region and a careful examination as to whether there should be more or fewer regions than at present. For the life of me, I cannot understand why there was such a fuss from the Liberal Democrat Benches about Amendment No. 1. Having said that, I shall probably support Amendment No. 4 if they press it to a vote.
Baroness Blatch: I am just as bemused as my noble friend Lord Waddington. As we had a touching emphasis on one part of the world where the Liberal Democrats happen to be fairly strong, I just wonder whether there was a bit of special pleading. However, I, too, support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, although not on the grounds that this is a Liberal Democrat amendment. As I said, opinion on regional assemblies is divided among Members on all Benches and members of all parties. Some people have particular concerns about particular aspects of this approachthat is, putting the cart before the horse, with the detail preceding the Bill by a year or more. Nevertheless, the effect of this group of amendments seems the same as that of Amendment No. 1.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: As the single Member of a party I would not dream of intervening in the dispute between the Liberal Benches and the Conservative Benches. However, I support this amendment, which does seem very similar in character to the first new clause. It really does give the Government an opportunity to think again about setting the existing boundaries in stone. The existing regional development agencies are not necessarily the right administrative areas for a democratically elected assembly. I am sorry to come back to that, but if the Government are going to do thisand I repeat that I think that they should not be doing itit really is important that they should get it right. This amendment, like the previous one, gives them the opportunity to do so.
I know that I should not help the Government out like this. Nevertheless, this amendment would help them out. If they got the regions right first, they would be more likely to get support for regional government than if they got them wrong. Furthermore, in any referendum, those who will sway the vote are the big urban authorities. We need somehow to persuade the small authorities that they are in favour of regional government. I hope that that is helpful to the Government. If they do not take the large urban conurbations with them as well as the smaller areas within the region, they will be in dead trouble. The smaller areas will never accept that they are part of the region unless they are being treated fairly so far as concerns boundaries and voting strength. I urge the Minister to take account of this amendment. Before he rejects it out of hand, and before further stages, I hope that he will give it some thought.
Lord Hanningfield: I support the amendment. As I said, I know that it is unlikely that we will have a region in the East or the South East. Nevertheless, Essex, for example, has had discussions with Hertfordshirewith which we have much in commonand would like to break away even within the existing development agency. This amendment would allow Essex and Hertfordshire to break away from the rest of the East of England. On the other hand, Amendment No. 1 would allow a more thorough examination of the whole of the South East andas I saidthe Thames Gateway, which covers Essex, Kent and London. If we were to have a region, it might be more logical if Essex were with Kent. So although I support this amendmentwhich would allow Essex and Hertfordshire to break away from East Anglia, with which we have nothing in commonif we are to have regions, it might be right to have a good discussion about whether we should be with Kent.
I do not think that the Government realise the extent of the antagonism created by this issue across the country. I live daily with local government, where there is enormous debate and enormous unhappiness.
Baroness Hamwee: I am sorry to have disappointed the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, by being politicalbut I am, as indeed is he. There is a major distinction between Amendment No. 1 and Amendment No. 4. Unlike Amendment No. 4, Amendment No. 1 would cause an inevitable delay. It is not just a matter of taking a rather broader brush approach and not spelling it out in detail, as the Conservatives have done. As we explained in that debate, we do not agree with some of the detail of their approach. They conclude that the Secretary of State has to make a further order, which is not inevitably the conclusion of Amendment No. 4.
Baroness Blatch: My understanding is that the order could not be made until after such a review. As it does not specify which part of the country is in question, it potentially could apply to any or every part of the country. If the order cannot be made until afterwards, my understanding is that both groups of amendments would produce the same result.
The Earl of Onslow: The noble Baroness says that something could be understood in that way, but that that is not inevitable. Is it not a good idea to know what you mean before tabling an amendment? I know that the Liberals are unsound on home rule for Ireland, and I suppose that this is the same sort of thing. Would it not be possible for them to get their act together?
Baroness Hamwee: I know what I mean. I am going to explain in a moment why this amendment was tabled with Amendment No. 25 to which I do not believe any other Member of the Committee has referred. We have heard the Government speak of the "possibility"I hesitate to use that word, but I cannot think of another at the momentthat after the first tranche of referendums there will be reviews of the boundaries of the regions which are not in the first tranche. There is a possibility
Lord Rooker: We have to be careful here in the use of words because we are legislating and this is important. The noble Baroness has not heard the Government say what she has just claimed: that after the first tranche of referendums it is possible that the boundaries will be reviewed. Nobody has said that and I have to knock that statement on the head straightaway.
I draw the attention of the noble Baroness to paragraph 6.5 of the White Paper which makes our intention clear about the exceptional circumstances of future changes. It has nothing to do with the interim changes which the noble Baroness has just implied.
Baroness Hamwee: In that case I am having difficulty with language as well. I shall try to present it in a different way. I had quite genuinely thought that there was reference to exceptional circumstances. There are parts of the country which are exceptional because they are very different, with different requirements and where the strength of feeling is very different from that in the majority of the country. That is what I understood the Minister to say, but I am grateful for the clarification.
Nevertheless, I do not believe that it undermines the importance of Amendment No. 25. It may not be government policy, but having got through the first tranche, that will enable a review. I hope that I am not putting words into the Minister's mouth when I say that there is a general understanding that the Government want to get the first tranche dealt with. Then there will be a pause which, I hope, is not contentious, because when one pauses one generally reflects. During that period it would then be possible under our amendment for the Secretary of State and the rest of us to use the information, which will have come through the soundings exercise, to reflect on whether boundary changes would enable the advancement of regional government in other parts of the country. In that regard, these Benches are rather closer to the Government in that we are seeking to advance the cause of regional government.
Baroness Hanham: I am grateful to the noble Baroness for giving way. Will she accept from me that we do not know what the soundings exercise has been set against? It has not come to Parliamentand it is finished. We do not yet know on what basis the Deputy Prime Minister, who has the sole responsibility for making a decision, will make his decision. Therefore, we have no idea whether the question of regions and regional boundaries has even entered part of the soundings exercise.
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