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Lord Rooker: That is not fair. I ought to point out for the avoidance of doubt that the Bill contains no duty on the Government to consult anyway. Let us get that absolutely clear. We have carried out the soundings exercise as a valid exercise from the point of view of good public administration. However, as I say, there is no duty to consult. The soundings exercise gave people an opportunity to provide us with information.
Baroness Blatch: There is a duty. The Secretary of State cannot make an order unless he has the results of a soundings exercise. So, he has a duty to consult and to reach a judgment on the level of interest. He cannot find out the level of interest unless he sounds out the
The amendment would ensure that those considerations were not optional but compulsory. Essentially, it would remove the discretion of the Secretary of State to take the factors listed into account if he so wished, and instead make it a positive requirement before any direction was given. I do not need to speak for long on the amendment. My reasoning on it is much the same as I expressed on other amendments to the clause. They reflect my general attitude to the sounding exercise, which is now one of even more concern than it was before we started. I beg to move.
Only where the level of interest is inconclusive, or where there is high level of interest in a number of regions, might we want to consider whether it was practicable to conduct a referendum at that time. Subsection (5) sets out the criteria that we would use in reaching a decision in the circumstances that I have described. It would be quite wrong to make consideration of those criteria mandatory, which is what the amendment would do, because, as I have explained, there are circumstances in which we could and should be able to make a decision on the basis of interest alone.
Making consideration mandatory could cause real problems. We need to be more flexible, simply because of the basis on which the decision will be made. We need that flexibility because we do not know what the soundings exercise will come out with in terms of the balance of interest, region by region. We have to take account of the fact that there will be a variety of levels of interest and make a judgment at the time. As I said, it would be totally impractical and would not work if every region had a big interest. We need to make some choice. Where the level of interest is high, our basic intention would be to go ahead and direct a review. That would make sense where there was high interest. As I referred to in relation to subsection (3), we could not deal with too many at the same time, which is a practical difficulty.
Baroness Hanham: As I read the clause, subsection (4) makes it mandatory for the Secretary of State to consider the views expressedwe discussed thatthe published material that he thinks appropriate, and all the other people on all the other bodies. With relation to subsection (5), however, how on earth will the Secretary of State make a decision if he does not think what effect,
Perhaps the Minister can let us know whether that is the basis for decisions about referendums being taken in different tranches. That is not how I read it, because it is one of the factors that will affect whether or not the Secretary of State gives the directionnot when he gives the direction but whether he does so. I read it as meaning that if something is not good for region A, then perhaps region B cannot have it. I wonder whether the Minister can help me to understand the part that that plays in the decision and in the overall timetable. I beg to move.
Baroness Blatch: I hope that the Minister will be cautious about removing paragraphs (a) and (b). I suspect that he will be because this is a government Bill. We would say "must consider" as opposed to "may consider". I believe it is absolutely essential that the Secretary of State considers the effect that the carrying out of a local government review will have on the relevant local authorities taken as a whole in the region. I take "the region" to be the region that is likely to have the referendum for regional government.
There will also be effects on other regions and, indeed, on other authorities. I believe that the differences in the effects that the Secretary of State believes that the carrying out of local government reviews will have on the relevant local authorities, taken as a whole in different regions, should at least be taken into account. If they are not taken into account, then the consequences of establishing regional assemblies will be defective.
Lord Rooker: In responding to Amendment No. 90, I shall use the briefing that I have in front of me because I believe that in that way I shall be able to give a better explanation than I would if I were ad-libbing.
Amendment No. 90 removes the ability of the Secretary of State to consider the effects that he believes a local government review will have on the relevant two-tier authorities and the differences in those effects between the regions.
Where it is clear that the level of interest is low or where it is clear that it is high, it is far easier to make the decision. Where it is inconclusive on the balance, then one must consider other factors of the effects. I believe that we need that flexibility.
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