Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Rooker: Yes, I intended to enter into that. I was using the scenario of one referendum. I do not know and none of us will know how many

24 Mar 2003 : Column 509

referendums there will be. We literally will not know until after the result of the soundings. So I cannot be precise about the timetable. It depends on the circumstances. If there was one referendum and it was a "No" vote, one could say the whole policy was shot to pieces in a way because the soundings would have clearly indicated referendums.

I will be held to the timetable I gave—that there cannot be a regional assembly up and running. The earliest conceivable date I gave was July 2006, but in the circumstances in which I have it and not if the circumstances change.

I shall not go to the wire on the issue of five years. That issue was raised in another place. One argument is that five years is the maximum length of a Parliament. Under our rules, one could argue that one Parliament does not commit its successor. So five years is reasonable on those grounds. If we provide for 10 years, another government could pass primary legislation and change it anyway, simply because one Parliament cannot bind its successor. We do not want people having constant uncertainty about when successive referendums might be held. I fully take on board the point about the gap between the first referendum and when the assembly is set up because of the need for a Bill. I fully accept that if there was a "No" vote there could be an argument for making sure that it was not revisited earlier for the reasons raised by the noble Lord. I shall discuss that matter with my noble friends.

We want to avoid the excessive costs of referendums being repeated unnecessarily. But people might change their minds. If there has been a "No" vote and once the five-year period has passed—this is where the scenario is a problem because if there is one referendum there would not be a Bill—we could order a second referendum only where soundings taken showed that there is enough interest to hold one.

One must imagine the scenario. There is the "upheaval"—I use the noble Lord's word, not my own—and the uncertainty of local government. There is a referendum, and it is "No". So it is big news in the region: we voted "No". It would be a brave person who came along and said, "Hang on, I think you ought to have another look at this". The natural reaction of many people will be, "We have decided on all this". But there may be changed circumstances. So there must be an opportunity to revisit the issues by taking soundings to test the level of interest for a subsequent referendum. Of course the five years in the legislation is not a requirement but a minimum period.

The issue could be judicially reviewed. But people think of judicial review as an appeal on a decision. That is not its function. The function of a judicial review is to look at the way in which a decision was arrived at. As I have said, my right honourable friend has to come to Parliament to explain the results of the soundings and his judgment as to whether or not there will be a referendum. That will not be an easy issue. The soundings are being analysed at the present time. Ministers have not been privy to any information. Therefore, it is a decision that will be crawled over by

24 Mar 2003 : Column 510

people. The decision to make that direction under Clause 12 is judicially reviewable, but judicial review is not an appeal. I have covered the other point.

The argument for five years is not brilliant. It could be greater but it will not be less. Clearly, if there is a "No" vote in one area and a "Yes" vote in another there will be legislation. Therefore, the next time around the legislation will be on the statute book for the regional assemblies. That delay would not arise. One would not have this period of uncertainty. I admit that in the example given the five years is not five years—it is a lot less. That issue should be addressed. That is why we shall have another look at it.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I am not sure that I followed what the Minister has just said, but I am pleased to hear that he will discuss the issue with his ministerial colleagues. Local authorities generally work on quite a long timescale. Good local authorities plan for much longer than five years. Always to have at the back of their mind that what they are planning they may not be able to bring to fruition because of another referendum will be unsettling. The period of 10 years proposed is probably the minimum that should be considered.

My other point—to which we shall probably return on Report—is that we are only discussing the position when the people in the region have said no. What about those people who said yes but who are completely fed up with the idea after five or 10 years? Do they not have the opportunity to say—we have heard enough about this—"It is costing us much more money, not doing what we thought it should, and we now want to review the matter through another referendum"? Will the Minister also take on board that possibility?

It seems completely wrong to tell people that if they make a decision at one point, that is it and they can never alter it. The same applies to referendums in some countries about the European Union. Once they have said yes, that is it. But if they say no, referendums keep being held until they say yes. I want some fairness introduced to the matter of referendums. Perhaps the Minister will also take that on board with his colleagues.

6 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister who at least empathised with some of the points made in the debate. However, I wish to ask one more question. I have read the Bill carefully but, unless I have missed it, there is no constraint on the Secretary of State from conducting his soundings at any period during the five years. I see no limit on his power to decide that he would like to reconsider an area that may have come quite close to saying yes but did not.

A year or two after that decision, he could take soundings again so that in the third year of that five-year period he is ready to say, "I think that the Boundary Committee can now start its work again", and to hold another referendum at the five-year point.

24 Mar 2003 : Column 511

As I said, perhaps I have missed the provision in the Bill, but it would be helpful to know whether there is any constraint on the Secretary of State.

Lord Rooker: I have an answer, but it is contained in my response to a later debate. The answer is that it is only after five years that the Secretary of State can consider whether soundings can be taken. It will not be possible for the Secretary of State to order soundings to start three years into the five-year period; it is only after the five years have elapsed.

I cannot cite chapter and verse about how the legislation is drafted—I shall have to read the notes—but there is also the spirit of what we intend. That cannot be gone against. A no vote means that the matter cannot be revisited for a minimum period of five years. Only after that period would soundings be taken. So, by definition, it would take a bit longer. I shall answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, when we come to debate another amendment. I gather that the answer is contained in my response to Amendment No. 55.

Baroness Hanham: I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his candour, even if he has lost all his files, because he has again begun to open up some of the unrevealing words of this part of the Bill. I shall not press the amendment today, because the Minister has begun to unpick the problem and I should like to give him the opportunity for discussion to find out exactly what the period of five years means. I accept that he has given an excellent answer, but he may want to revisit it.

We must underline again that the provision will be highly disruptive. If the soundings can be taken all over again and the whole process restarted, the soundings will also be disruptive. The whole work of local authorities may be undermined by the proposal for a further referendum. Has the Minister found the answer? Have I talked for long enough?

Lord Rooker: I apologise for the confusion on my part. Amendment No. 55 addresses the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, and it is best that I answer it when the time comes. I accept his chastisement, but I cannot give him the commitment that he requested. I have gone as far as I can, because what has been asked is reasonable in respect of the first referendum and the timescale proposed by the Conservative Front Bench is worth a second look.

Baroness Hanham: Before I withdraw the amendment, I point out that Clause 5(2) states:

    "No further order under section 1 may be made",

which makes it seem that the position may not be as the Minister thought. Under that provision, the Secretary of State would be entitled to start the soundings sooner than the five years. Perhaps the matter can be clarified. We shall return to it on Report when I hope again to be able to withdraw the amendment, having been satisfied. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

24 Mar 2003 : Column 512

[Amendment No. 54 not moved.]

Clause 5 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 55:

    After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—

(1) This section applies if an elected assembly for a region has been established pursuant to a referendum held under section 1(1).
(2) The Secretary of State shall by order cause a further referendum to be held in a region specified in the order if he is presented with a petition requesting such a referendum signed by not less than 5 per cent of the electors eligible to vote in the region as defined in section 3(1).
(3) The question to be asked in a referendum held pursuant to an order under subsection (2) is the question set out in section 2(1)."

The noble Baroness said: I have been rather pre-empted by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. None the less, I shall speak to the amendment. The proposals set out in the Bill would result in some areas having elected assemblies and some not. That means that, to some extent, regional assemblies may reasonably be supposed to be experimental and on trial and, should they be deemed to be unsuccessful, the experiment should be reversible—especially as they will, we hope, have been voted in by a majority of the population, although possibly with quite a small majority. In considering the amendment, it is relevant to remember that the process outlined in the Bill allows regions to proceed at different times towards an elected regional assembly, as we have discussed.

The long-term administrative and democratic arrangements for England may not be best served where one part of the country has an elected assembly while others do not. Therefore, a mechanism should be available through which an elected assembly can be abolished should it prove unsuccessful in delivering the Government's objectives and should the electorate so wish.

The amendment proposes that if 5 per cent of the electorate has signed a petition, the Secretary of State must call another referendum as soon as possible. The proportion of 5 per cent as a trigger mechanism is debatable, but it seems a reasonable threshold.

The principle is simple. If regional assemblies do not deliver, the people of the region have the right to ask for another referendum to be held to ascertain whether the majority is still in favour. The Government make much of responding to local wishes, and the proposed regional assemblies are a leap in the dark. I beg to move.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page