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Lord Rooker: First, as I have repeatedly said, the soundings are not about whether to have a regional assembly but about whether to have a referendum with a view to examining boundary changes for regional assemblies. As I said last week, if my noble friend can provide evidence about how the soundings were conducted, that would be fine. However, if people have been unable to express their views, it would be even better if he could send in those views. Although 3rd March was the formal closing date, Parliament is still considering the Bill and debating these issues. As we have said that we will not announce our judgment until after Royal Assent, it would be wrong to say that further views will not be taken into account.
First, those who feel aggrieved because they were prevented attending meetings have the right to complain. That is one issue and can be addressed in the appropriate way. Secondly, they can also send in their views. People should not wait until the process is finished and then say that they want more soundings. As that would be unreasonable and could be considered a delaying tactic I could not agree to it. All I am saying is that if you have a view, send it in.
Baroness Hanham: I know that we debated the subject of the soundings earlier and I do not want to prolong the debate, but I do not believe that we ever tested out how the general electorate were to know about the whole matter of the soundings. "Discreet" can also mean "silent", as well as all the other words that the Minister used to describe it. If there is any evidence at all of the soundings exercise taking place, it is very limited, but it seems to confine itself to the
Moving on to the amendment, it is possible that, as a result of these rather dubious soundings exercises, the Deputy Prime Minister will decide at some stage that there is sufficient interest. For one or two reasons, he may not make an order for a fairly long time. By then, all the evidence may have changed and people may have completely different views. Indeed, if the electorate were tested, a different view might result from that.
Therefore, here we are not talking about the immediate soundings, which have now concluded, but whether the Secretary of State would take another round of soundings if there were a fairly long gap between these soundings and an order being made.
Lord Waddington: I want to pick up a point made by my noble friend about the soundings exercise which worries me greatly. I shall refer later, during debate on other amendments, to a most extraordinary letter written by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to Lancashire County Council. One passage in that letter reads:
I also have in my possession a letter written by the CBI to people who are interested in this issue. The CBI points out that it recently withdrew from the North West Regional Assembly because it was obvious that the assembly had not the faintest knowledge of development issues and was wasting its and everyone else's time.
I want to know whether the Secretary of State will place any reliance on such obviously self-serving statements emanating from so-called "assemblies". I should have thought that common sense dictates that one can listen to representations from all kinds of people but the last representations to which one should pay attention are those emanating from bodies which have a vested interest in seeing that there are elected regional assemblies and which campaign to bring them about, even though they know perfectly well that in an area such as the North West there is no interest in the matter whatever.
Lord Dixon: Before my noble friend rises to reply, I want to say that there is much interest in the North East. In fact, I read in one local newspaper that the Deputy Prime Minister had received responses from the North East assembly members, local authorities, MPs and MEPs, public, private and voluntary sector bodies, political parties, the arts, universities, colleges, black minority ethnic communities, faiths, charities
I can understand the exchanges that took place on the previous occasion that we were in Committee, when my noble friend Lord Stoddart and, I believe, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, said that Peers had not been consulted. But I was consultedthrough the political party. I can understand my noble friend Lord Stoddart not being consulted through his political party because he belongs to none, but I cannot understand why the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, did not attend the Conservative Party's meetings. I can understand that Cross-Benchers say that they have not been consulted because they are not affiliated to a political party. However, I cannot understand the Liberal Democrat Members of this House saying that they have not been consulted because I assume that they can attend their political party meetings. Therefore, it is a nonsense to suggest that there has not been proper consultation. Everyone in the North East has been consulted.
It is said that there is a great movement in the North East for an elected regional assembly. There is also a movement against such an assembly in the North East. I believe that the chairman or chief executive of one bodysomeone called Herronwas one of the metric martyrs. I believe that has more to do with the European boundaries than it has to do with the regional assembly. Therefore, I can assure my noble friend that there is a great deal of interest, and many people and organisations in the North East have been consulted.
Lord Elliott of Morpeth: The noble Lord, Lord Dixon, and many other people have suggested that there is a great deal of interest in having a regional assembly in the North East of England. But, two weeks ago, the principal regional newspaper in that areaThe Journalconducted a poll on the state of the region. The straight question put to those who took part was: "Are you in favour of regional government?" Forty-five per cent of respondents were against, 35 per cent for and 20 per cent did not know. That appears to be the up-to-date position in the North East of England.
Lord Rooker: I want to stick to the amendments, if I can, otherwise I shall make the same speech about 10 times. I know that Parliament is no longer reported in the media as it used to be, but the Bill has not turned up here out of nowhere; it has come from the House of Commons, where it was debated at length freely and not behind closed doors. Those who have an interest in these matters will clearly be aware that that was happening, and people cannot claim that they did not know what was going on in Parliament. That is my first point.
Secondly, the distribution list for the soundings document was extensive, although it could probably have been more so. I have not seen, and to the best of my knowledge nor have other Ministers, any of the responses to the soundings because at present they are
The issue concerns soundings about whether or not to hold a referendum on an elected regional assembly; they are not soundings about a regional assembly. The two things are different. If, as a result of the soundings, and following Royal Assent of the Bill, the Deputy Prime Minister makes a judgment that there should be a referendum in at least one regionthat is, the boundary review is triggered in advance of the referendumthat will cause another Bill to go through Parliament in order to set up the regional assembly.
Therefore, I cannot give an answer to the noble Baroness's question about the gap between the initial soundings that we are carrying out now, leading to a judgment after Royal Assent perhaps later this summer, and what might happen the second time round if there is a referendumI do not know how many referendums there will be. We are talking about a period which extends well beyond this Parliament and across the next general election.
There may be a case for saying that we cannot rely on soundings taken three or more years ago as the situation has changed. We shall introduce legislation to set up a regional assembly on the assumption that a referendum produces a "yes" vote and we shall see how that goes. It could be held to be unreasonable to use soundings that were taken in advance of any regional assembly being set up. One may be set up, but soundings may change and therefore another exercise might be carried out. That is a purely hypothetical question for us to consider this morning.
Lord Waddington: The noble Lord would start the day happily for us and get us all in a good temper if he would at least give the undertaking that he will advise his Secretary of State to put in the waste paper basket the ridiculous self-serving statements from assemblies which are campaigning for regional assemblies. Surely it is ridiculous that any attention should be paid to them at all.
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