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I think that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, will accept that the new clause proposed in Amendment No. 55 is in some ways unprecedented. Let us not forget that the regional assemblies will be part of the democratic process. If an assembly is set up, elections to it will be held every four years, so the public will have a chance to express a view on its operation. I accept that the elections will involve electing representatives rather than voting on whether the assembly should have existed in the first place. But voters could make it abundantly clear if they were dissatisfied.
This amendment would lead to uncertainty and disruptionmore so for local authorities and the assembly's other partners in the region. The assembly could be held to ransom by a 5 per cent trigger in a tiny part of the region without any other measure of public opinion or circumstances. I do not prophesise, but, despite massive voter turnouts and interest in what the assemblies were doing, an aggrieved 5 per cent in one area could suddenly trigger a referendum. That could cause a real problem.
A second referendum would be like trying to turn back the clock once an assembly was up and running. The assemblies will be democratically accountable and will face the electorate every four years. The public can express their views on whether the organisation and its members are worthy of what they are doing without the need to abolish it and cause disruption. I do not think that this is a good idea. It is not worth pursuing.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: The Minister is wrongwe can turn back the clock; we will do exactly that next Sunday morning. The arrangements of asking people what sort of government they want and the reorganisation of government after public consultation are new. It happened in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but not in England. It is a unique policy of asking people how they want to be governed. That being so, people would understand that they could make mistakes; therefore, they ought to be given the opportunity to correct them.
In other words, if the public are given the opportunity to set up a region but find that it is not satisfactory, that it has created more bureaucracy, that it costs much more than expected and that the authority does not listen to them, then, under such a consultative system, they should be able to seek a referendum on the regional assembly. If a majority votes "No", they should be able to return to the previous system of counties, districts and parishes. What can be done can be undone. If the aim of the Bill is to meet the wishes of the people, let us go on doing so. If it is good to meet their wishes now, surely it must good in the future.
Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I am sorry. I was puzzled by the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, to whom I listen regularly with great attention. He put it rather easilyhe can correct me if I am wrongthat people can make mistakes and what can be done can be undone. I suppose that that is true. Nevertheless, by analogy to the modern term "screwing things up", many people are marvellous with screwdrivers, and it is extremely difficult to loosen things and tidy up afterwards. I hope that the noble Lord will take the argument seriously.
I have not yet been satisfied on one pointI apologise if it is not relevant to the amendment. Will the Minister explain what the Government Offices of the Regions are doing as regards regional assemblies? I cannot believe that they are just waiting their turn. I suspect that they are extremely busy constructing a nice, comfortable nest for regional assemblies to gather in when the time comes.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Before the Minister sits down, since 1973, local government has been reorganised twicearound once every 12 years. I hope that he will accept that what can be done can also be undone and has already been undone.
Baroness Hamwee: I share with the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, the wish to understand better what will happen to the Government Offices for London. I do not share his optimism that their work will be passed to the regional assemblies. However, that point is not central to the amendment.
The Minister's response was mild. We on these Benches could not accept the amendment. Once an assembly is established, it would be difficult to disentangle concerns about its operation as between, on the one hand, structural problems, and, on the other, anxiety about the politicians running it. Apart from the novel nature of the proposal, I fear that the vote would be affected by a political response to the assembly's administration at that time rather than structural problems with the assembly.
The greatest support that I can give the amendment is to say that it would be a better response than that given by the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, to the GLC. It would have been better to hold a referendum than to abolish the GLC. I am afraid that I cannot go further than that.
Baroness Hanham: I thank noble Lords for the free discussion on the amendment. The regions will be set up according to the will of the electorate, not the Government. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the electorate holds in its hands the future of a regional assembly. A 5 per cent turnout is substantial. My maths is rotten, but the support of many people would have to be garnered to achieve such a turnout and ensure that a second referendum is held. Five per cent of the electorate would be telling the Government that there should be a second referendum to test whether the majority was still in favour of retaining the regional assembly. I accept the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, made: it might become a test of what the assembly was doing. It might be a good thing for the assembly to be tested on what it was doing. It would not be an election of people to run the assembly: the issue would be whether what the assembly was doing was worth the money and effort that everybody was putting in.
Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
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