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Lord Rooker: In dealing with Amendments Nos. 52 and 67 first, I accept that people should not vote in ignorance of what is planned. That is why local government reviews should be conducted before a referendum. This may be nitpicking—I suspect that I am drafting opposition amendments for Report stage—but the public need to know not just what the Boundary Committee recommended but what the Government intend to do with the recommendations. I shall return to that. Placing such information at polling stations would be too late. It should be part and parcel of what is put through every letter-box.

Amendment No. 67 would scupper our timetable completely. I suppose that is the intention. It seeks to ensure that any information that the Electoral Commission issues to voters describes the powers, functions, duties and responsibilities as defined in an Act of Parliament. With the best will in the world there is no prospect of an Act of Parliament before the autumn of 2004. We may have a draft Bill—we shall use our best endeavours to achieve that so that we have the legislative proposals—but the idea of there being an Act of Parliament is an absolute non-starter. It just is not possible. Therefore, the amendment is designed

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to scupper holding any referendums before the next general election. That is not consistent with our proposal.

The amendment is not clear, but is it intended that the Electoral Commission is not to describe the powers and functions in the absence of such an Act? It is difficult to understand how it will perform its functions under Clause 8 in the first referendums. This is a chicken and egg situation. If it requires a commitment from the Government that they will use their best endeavours to get draft legislation in front of the House and the voters before a referendum so that they can see our intention in relation to the functions, rather than there being simply a government statement about the functions and duties of assemblies, then I accept that we shall use our best endeavours to do that. We have made that clear in earlier debates.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, said that we have covered some of the amendments and I was tempted to ask why we are debating them again. I am here as long as I am needed. First, she said that my responses had been adequate but she qualified that and said that they were not adequate. I understand the concerns and I agree that it is important to air the types of issues dealt with in the amendments so that the voters, in a mature democracy, have a degree of information that is consistent with making judgments on the referendums.

However, we believe that the amendments are unnecessary because we cannot conceive of the Electoral Commission being able to carry out its function under Clause 8 without referring to the matters covered in the amendments. We have made it clear that prior to the referendum we intend to publish a statement of what the Government intend to do with the Boundary Committee recommendations so that that the information will be in the public domain, which is fundamental. We shall add to that the best available information about costs, functions, duties and responsibilities as well as the boundaries. It will be an important statement that will elevate the importance of the referendums, if there are to be any.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for his reply. I understand that to some extent we have covered the same ground. It is clear to me that gradually, through the course of this Committee stage, we shall come to grips with what information will be available to voters. It is important that before the public vote they are made aware of the recommendations of the Boundary Committee. I tend to accept the Minister's view that it would be a good idea if they knew what the Secretary of State was thinking as well. It has to be published somewhere. I believe that the Minister has given an assurance that it will be published.

On the powers and constitutional responsibilities, which takes us back to an earlier debate on Clause 1, I believe that this is putting the cart before the horse. If we had a regional assemblies Bill, this Bill would not have taken anything like as long. We have all tried to estimate, to guestimate and to encourage the Minister

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to tell us what the regional assemblies will be about. We are still not clear what the powers, responsibilities and constitutional arrangements will be. It would be preferable if those were in an Act of Parliament as that would allow the House and another place an opportunity to discuss it, change it and amend it before people were asked to vote for what is a completely new layer of government. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment by leave withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Referendums: frequency]:

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 53:

    Page 3, line 18, leave out "five" and insert "ten"

The noble Baroness said: The amendment is straightforward. It prevents a referendum on elected regional assemblies being held for 10 years following a "No" vote, starting from the date on which the referendum is held. As presently drafted the Bill says five years. The rationale behind the amendment is simply common sense. A vote in favour at a referendum brings with it both the establishment of regional assemblies and a complete overhaul of local government structure to abolish two tiers and to set up unitary authorities. Where a referendum is unsuccessful, existing local government structures will remain unchanged. However, it is inevitable that any long-term planning or strategies will be impossible because the local government bodies will be operating under constant threat of another referendum and a subsequent reorganisation. We propose to lengthen the time between referendums from five years to 10 years to allow local government bodies some degree of reassurance within which they can carry on their duties with maximum efficiency. I beg to move.

The Earl of Caithness: I support my noble friend on this important point. During the previous two days in Committee I was impressed by the arguments of those noble Lords who are heavily involved in local government, such as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield and the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, who sadly is not in her place. They convinced the Committee that the upheaval to local government would occur in the period leading up to the reform. We are now in the early part of 2003, so for a period of two years local government will spend time thinking about what will happen at the end of 2004 and they will not focus on what they should be doing which is running the district or unitary authority.

If in 2004 or early 2005 there is a referendum, I pity those poor people in local government. They will be faced with another two-year period virtually immediately thereafter within the next five years when again they will have to focus on the potential threat of another referendum rather than getting on with running their particular area. Therefore, for that reason, I think that 10 years is better than five years.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister a question. I should have asked it at an earlier stage, but it has only just occurred to me. He referred to the soundings that the

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Secretary of State will announce after Royal Assent. Can the Secretary of State be taken to judicial review on his decision on the soundings?

Baroness Blatch: I know the noble Lord does not like two noble Lords rising on a matter, but a specific question has arisen. When we discussed the matter on a previous Committee day the noble Lord was helpful with the timetable. He was absolutely adamant that a regional assembly could not be up and running before 2006-07. If that is the case, and if a "No" referendum can be held again five years later, then—as my noble friend has hinted, but I want to make it more specific—if there is a three-year run in, because we are now in the early part of 2003, all the upheaval starts again only two years after the referendum is held in order to be able to hold a referendum in the fifth year following it.

Does the noble Lord really advocate the upheaval that we will all witness taking place shortly and the unsettling nature of that for absolutely everyone, particularly those in local government? For an area that says "No" twice, it could be 15 years with only one or possibly two years' respite between each referendum. The rest of that time and enormous amount of resources will be taken up in going through the run in to yet another referendum. I hope that is not what the Government propose.

Lord Rooker: I am speaking off the top of my head, so I may get information. I have good and bad news for the noble Baroness. The scenario that she envisages is that of a "No" vote. If there is a "No" vote in, say, the autumn of 2004, there will not be a regional assemblies Bill. The only time that a Bill will be introduced to set up regional assemblies is after a "Yes" vote. So the timetable that I set out would be smashed to pieces as there would not be a Bill because there would not be a regional assembly. So the issue of the second referendum timetable cannot follow the dates given by the noble Baroness.

I fully accept the point raised by the noble Baroness and the noble Earl about those experienced in local government understanding that doubts that hang over people's heads can be disruptive. I shall address that substantively. On the question asked by the noble Baroness, there would not be a regional assemblies Bill. That is the good news from her point of view.

Lord Hanningfield: Surely the Minister would agree that if there was a referendum in two regions at the end of next year and one voted "Yes" and the other voted "No", there would be a regional assemblies Bill for the one that voted "Yes", but the one that voted "No" would be in the situation described by my noble friend Lady Blatch. That would have had one massive amount of reorganisation and could be destined for another lot within a short period if we had two referendums, as is possible at the end of next year.

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