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Baroness Hanham: Amendments Nos. 78 and 81 stand in my name, and I have added my name to Amendment No. 79.

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I shall not cover too much of the ground that has already been covered, but I want to return to the Explanatory Notes. After all, they are meant to explain. The notes say:

    "For various reasons it may not be appropriate for directions to be given in relation to two or more regions at the same time. In this case, the Secretary of State may wish to take various factors into account in deciding in relation to which region or regions (if any) he should give a direction.

    "It is a precondition to the giving of a direction in relation to any region that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest in that region in the holding of a referendum . . . But in a situation where two or more regions are under consideration for a local government review, it may be that the Secretary of State will want to compare the levels of interest in the holding of a referendum in those different regions. Hence subsection (3) of clause 12".

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, implied, that explanation is dangerously vague and needs some practical details to flesh it out. Several important and pertinent questions immediately emerge. As the noble Baroness asked, how will the Secretary of State weigh up the level of interest? For what "various reasons" might the Secretary of State decide it to be inappropriate to hold a referendum in two regions? What factors would he take into account when deciding which region would prevail? We have been given no answers to those points. They seem to be left to the whim of the Secretary of State.

The three amendments seek to rectify the situation. Amendment No. 78 provides that the Secretary of State must be satisfied by the double condition that the majority in the region favour a referendum, and that if a referendum were held, then an elected assembly would result. The Minister will, no doubt, reply that the whole point of a referendum is to test the level of interest in having a regional assembly. However, we see the situation in a slightly different way. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, referred to the sounding exercises and so will I. Great concern has been expressed in our debates so far about who has been consulted. Today, I am taken aback more, having read that the Minister in the other place seems to be satisfied that he has had 4,500 replies. That seems to be a very small number on which to make any judgment. My noble friend Lady Blatch voiced all our fears when she spoke about the soundings issue during the first day in Committee. There was greater concern that replying to the soundings exercise by saying one was against a regional assembly might be registered as showing an interest. The Minister assured us that this would not be the case. However, the principle is similar in relation to Clause 12.

People like to be given the opportunity to vote; that is, to register their approval or disapproval of what is proposed. Just because many people favour a referendum is no guarantee that they may vote in favour and therefore support the establishment of an elected assembly. The Secretary of State should not give an order for the Boundary Committee to start with a local government review only because there is interest in a referendum, but instead, if he thinks that the interest is such that a majority would favour the establishment of regional assemblies.

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Amendment No. 81 focuses on the gathering of information regarding the level of interest in the general consultation process. We are told what the Secretary of State should consider for the purposes subsection (2). The amendment stresses that he must first identify which bodies should be consulted before registering their level of interest. This draws attention to the fact that the consultation process is by no means standardised. Amendment No. 79 is a probing amendment. Would the Minister clarify why a referendum could not be held on one day in two different regions, and how the Secretary of State should make a judgment between the two regions? I beg to move.

10 p.m.

Lord Rooker: I may be wrong, but I am treating all these amendments as probing. I regret that the answers are going to be what I have given in other parts of the Bill. The amendments are pretty wide. To remove subsections (2), (3) and (4) from Clause 12 would take out a large chunk. Those subsections set out how the Secretary of State must consider the level of interest in a region—and the differences in the level of interest between regions—before deciding whether to order a local government review. We think that these sections are essential to the Bill. That will only become apparent, once the analysis of the soundings has taken place, and my right honourable friend forms a judgment on how it would work in practice. I have said repeatedly that he will be required to give explanations as to why he has made his decisions. We will have to be subject to scrutiny over how the judgment was arrived at. It cannot be done on a hunch, or a whim.

First, we do not intend to direct local government reviews where there is no appetite for a referendum. It naturally follows that that will not be necessary. We do not have a secret plan for local government reorganisation under the guise of this Bill. I have said before that no referendum means no local government review. A "No" vote in a referendum would not lead to the local government plans taking place that had been before the public.

The effect of the amendment would be that the Secretary of State was able to take account only of some or all of the factors set out in subsection (5) because subsections (2), (3) and (4) would have gone. Those include the effects of what he believes the carrying out of the local government review would have on the relevant local authorities, the district and county councils in the regions, and also the resources needed by the Boundary Committee to carry out the reviews.

It cannot be right that the Secretary of State cannot take account of whether people in the region want a referendum or not. In subsection (3) there is reference to two or more regions. I must repeat that Ministers have not had access to the soundings, which are still being analysed. We will not make the announcement until after Royal Assent, but the resources of the Boundary Committee are not infinitesimal. If the view

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was that in two or more regions it looked as though there were sufficient positive interest in a referendum, the Secretary of State must be in a position to say that the resources to conduct the boundary reviews—they could take nine months to a year for each region—cannot be expanded to review all the regions which might have expressed a positive interest in a referendum. Those reviews might take longer and none would be completed in the time available.

The Secretary of State would need to ask whether there were regions which had a more positive interest than others. If there were, he might say, "We will go for those and park the others, even though there was a positive interest". That is why he needs to check the level of the interest. There are eight regions and the resources would not be available if every region came up in the soundings. I give an extreme example to illustrate how ridiculous it would be. If every region showed positive soundings to have a referendum, it would not be possible to say, "OK, the boundary review starts on all the regions in the country at the same time". A choice would have to be made about the direction to take so that effective action could be taken; that is, to make a judgment about the most popular within the resources of the boundary review.

That is why subsection (3) is important. The Secretary of State will have to publish information on how he makes his judgment and people will check against the matrix of views. They will be able to say, "You should have issued more directions according to the level of interest", and to force his hand when he knows the review capacity does not exist. He needs to be able to make a judgment between the regions where there is a positive interest in a referendum.

Baroness Hanham: Will the Minister be kind enough to confirm that on the soundings exercise there were two questions? The first tested out the level of interest in the respondent and the second asked their views on whether other regions might be interested. Will he also confirm to me what was reported in the newspaper yesterday: that in the whole country there have been only 4,500 responses to the soundings exercise? How on earth will the Minister make a decision?

Lord Rooker: All that will be known in due course. It will not be done in secret. I did not see the reports yesterday, but I have seen figures showing that 4,000 plus have been analysed. They are still coming in and we have stated that we will take account of what is said during the passage of the Bill. We had to have a date to bring order into the matter, which is why 3rd March was chosen. Anything that conforms with the soundings exercise must be taken into consideration. That is only right and proper, particularly while the Bill is before Parliament. Even the public can see that the Bill is before Parliament so debate has not closed down. Clearly it has not closed down.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Can he confirm that, on whatever basis the Secretary of State makes his decision and however inadequate we may consider it to be—or, more

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importantly, the public may consider it to be—there is nothing we can do about it? Once the Bill has gained Royal Assent it will be a purely academic exercise. It will be for the Secretary of State, who has absolute power, to determine whether or not a referendum shall take place in one or more regions of the country. People may be able to take a view about the evidence when it is published, but they will have no power to do anything about it.

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