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Lord Hanningfield: Surely the Minister has just justified our previous amendment in which we said that the Secretary of State "must" take into account various factors. The noble Lord has just said that the Secretary of State "would" want to take into account the factors concerning the level of reorganisation of local government and the disruption that it would have in establishing a region.
Lord Rooker: That makes sense where, in particular, the review of the soundings is inconclusive. It is more clear-cut where the soundings are, let us say, very weakly or very strongly in favour of a referendum. It is much easier to make the decision in such a case. If we were to make the referendum mandatory where the soundings were, say, overwhelmingly weak, then we could force people into a wrong decision. Therefore, I believe that flexibility is needed in this part of the clause.
In a way, that is where part of the problem arises. No one will believe us but it is true that we have not prejudged how many or which regions will undergo a local government review in the first round. I realise that noble Lords are convinced that they know which regions those will be. But no decisions have been taken and no final decision to make a direction will be taken until we have considered the results of the soundings exercise, together with other information under Clause 12(4), and until the legislation provided in the Bill has been enacted. So the provisions in Clause 12(5) allow for a common sense approach to deciding which regions should have a review as a precursor to a referendum. That flexibility needs to be built in.
On the evidence to the Select Committee about extra publicity on the soundings exercise, my right honourable friend the Minister responsible for local government, Nick Raynsford, and the Member for Skipton carried out a number of media interviews to raise publicity. Additional press notices were issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister during February and the pro forma was made even more directly accessible on the home page of the ODPM website. The list of organisations sent copies of the soundings document was placed in the Libraries of the two Houses in December. Some extra effort was made as a result of the increase in the publicity on the soundings exercise, but it will not have been enough to satisfy Members of the Committee.
The Minister has given an interesting response to the amendment. If at an early stage the Secretary of State decides that an area has shown a sufficient level of interest to undergo the exercise and takes into account some of the matters set out in Clause 12, and if the Boundary Committee gets under way and deems that the level of upheaval in local government to achieve a single tier authority below what would be a regional assembly was so great that it was not worth the candle, would that have any influence on the Secretary of State deciding to continue with the exercise?
Lord Rooker: The Secretary of State would not continue with the exercise. The Boundary Committee would come to a conclusion and report to the Secretary of State. I cannot prejudge the conclusion of the Boundary Committee. I cannot say that the example given by the noble Baroness is fanciful because I would not rule anything out or anything in. It will look at the best available, most practical, form of single tiered government for a region. Its conclusions will be its conclusions and they will be published. There will be no secrets about that. The Secretary of State will have to decide whether to accept those conclusions, whatever they may be.
Baroness Blatch: My question was more subtle than that. My straight question is whether the Boundary Committee is free to come to a conclusion that the upheaval would be so great that it would counteract the rationale for going ahead with the referendum.
Lord Rooker: When asked a straight question like that it is difficult to avoid a straight answer. However, the Boundary Committee's conclusions will be its conclusions. Broad draft guidelines will be issued about how to go about the work it is asked to do. To carry out the review will be a big exercise. Its conclusions on what it does in the region and what it takes back to the Secretary of State will be its conclusions. You can ask me all the hypothetical questions you like, but I cannot give a better answer than that. I shall not fall into the trap of answering the highly subtle and sophisticated questions of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that later will be used in evidence against me.
Baroness Hamwee: The most interesting thing to have come out of that exchange is the notion that the Member for Skipton has taken part in the soundings exercise. Mr Curry may be surprised to learn that he has done so. I think the Minister should have said the Member for Shipley. I am not trying to be clever. All right I am, but I was certainly not as subtle as the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. The Minister has set a hare running.
Baroness Hamwee: Amendments Nos. 91A and 93A are directed to the same point but go about it slightly differently. We propose inserting after "as a whole" the words "and individually" for exactly the same reason; that is, we find it hard to understand how one can assess "as a whole". I should be distressed to think that the effect on individual local authorities was not a consideration.
Lord Rooker: The noble Baronesses have been commendably brief, as I shall try to be. The amendments have a similar effect. As presently drafted, if the criteria in Clause 12(5) were brought into play we would look at the regional impact of local government reviews. In looking at the effect of the reviews, we would want to consider not simply the effect on individual authorities but the effect on two-tier local government in the region as a whole.
The Boundary Committee's review will look at the region authority by authority. But the situation is more complicated; it is the effect on the region as a whole. Obviously, we would need to ascertain the impact on individual authorities, but they are the building blocks for the wider consideration. Obviously, we would not ignore the impact on individual authorities, some of which might be joined together or whateverI do not know. So the effect on them will be important.
However, in looking at the individual effect we need to consider the big picture for the whole region in order to make a judgment. In deciding whether to direct a review in a region where there is an inconclusive level of interest or how practical it is to hold reviews in two or more regions simultaneously, what matters is the overall effect. That is an important judgment because it is made on a regional basis and not on the individual authority. We are talking about regional referendums. So we must look at the overall situation in the region. It would be wrong to say that we would not consider the effect on individual authorities but only to help us form a judgment about the effect on the region.
Reference was made earlier to Boundary Committee resources. I tabled the amendments in order to ask the Minister whether he can explain the constraints on both cash and people with expertise in the fieldwhich I understand from discussion outside this place, to be the even greater problem.
It cannot be right for a region that passionately wants an assemblyor, to maintain what I increasingly feel to be a bit of a fiction, a referendumto be denied it for want of what are relatively small resources. It still escapes me how the Secretary of State can judge which regions will have the greatest call on the Boundary Committee's resources. I beg to move.
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