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Perhaps the best way to respond to the amendments is for me to explain the purpose of the provision that the noble Baroness seeks to amend. We have already said that the greater the number of reviews that the Boundary Committee is directed to conduct at one time, the longer the process is likely to take. A resource question is obviously involved. We do not rule out the possibility of conducting reviews in two or more regions simultaneously or in reasonably close proximity. We are simply acknowledging in the Bill that once we go beyond reviewing just one region, there may be implications for the Boundary Committee and a trade-off between the number of regions that undergo review and the time that it takes to conduct the reviews.
Of course, that choice does not arise unless the Secretary of State is considering more than one region. Hence, the way that the Bill is drafted, two is the point at which that choice may become an issue. The
Some regions include a large number of two-tier authorities and the implications for the Boundary Committee may be such that it may not be right to proceed with all such regions. Basically, we want to leave that flexibility on the statute book for any future Secretary of State. I repeat that we have not prejudged how many regions or which region or regions will undergo a local government review in the first round. That will depend on the soundings exercise and the passage of the Bill. We are trying to allow for a commonsense approach.
I hope that that explanation is satisfactory. We need the flexibility simply because we do not know which regions are involved, the regions are all different and the resources of the Boundary Committee are not inexhaustible.
Baroness Hamwee: I thank the Minister, but I am not sure whether he is saying that, depending on the regions involved, it may be possible to deal with more than one at once. Obviously, the regions are of different sizes and will have different issues. But it is not a given that it is better to deal with one region and get it over with, if that is all that the Boundary Committee can cope with, than to do more than one more slowly but simultaneously. There are arguments for doing the work in more than one region at the same time, leading to simultaneous referendums. Has that been ruled out entirely or is it still possible that one may be slower but broader?
Lord Rooker: It is not possible to make a judgment until we get the results of the soundings exercise and see which regions will be involved. As the noble Baroness says, the regions and their local government structures are different, which will be factors. The population sizes of the regions are also differentone is quite small compared to the others. Therefore, it will be possible to judge how the boundary review will work only when we know the level of interest in the regions and can decide whether they can be done at the same time or one after another.
Once direction is given to one to do the work subject to the outcome of the boundary review, there will be a referendum. That will trigger the main legislation, so, if another referendum follows, it would not be so affected. The first referendum resulting in a successful "Yes" votethat is axiomatic; a "No" vote means no Billtriggers the legislation. So it is important to reach a decision. I have no idea whether it will be
Lord Rooker: Resources are a key factor. The regions are different. Some have a large population and local authority structure; that is to say, many two-tier authorities. The noble Baroness is assuming that we have prejudged which regions will go, but we have not. Because the regions are so different, it is impossible to prejudge. That is why the issue has been left open.
Amendment No. 104 is straightforward. Any noble Lords present today who have been involved in local government will know that at present the Office for National Statistics does not have a great record of accuracy in calculating the population in particular areas. Clause 13(2) states rightly that it can publish only a recent estimate. I declare an interest as a member of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council. If it or Westminster City Council were to rely on the recent estimates as regards this Bill, we would be in the doldrums. The estimates can be wildly unreliable. It is not advisable to use them as a fundamental basis when considering a review of local government. That is the basis of Amendment No. 104.
Amendment No. 96 is of a more probing nature. Subsection (6)(a) qualifies subsections (5)(a) and (b). As I said before, those paragraphs deal with the effect of a review on local authorities in the region and in different regions. Amendment No. 96 would leave out of subsection (6)(a) the consideration of the number of people living in the area of authorities subject to a review as a factor to which the Secretary of State must have regard for the purposes of subsection (5)(a) and (b). The Secretary of State should then have to have regard only to the number of relevant local authorities in a region, not the number of people in each of those local authority areas.
I tabled the amendment to tease out of the Minister some clarification of how the two considerations under subsection (6)(a) should have practical effect. For instance, which should hold more weight? What examples can be given of the sort of influence that such calculations of population might have on a direction under Clause 12?
The Minister may respond by telling me that it is relevant to consider the populations in local authority areas, when a change in local government structure is to be introduced. Although I would like to be given a practical example of the effect that consideration of population might have, I do not deny the principle of considering the population. However, I would like to know why such an important and relevant consideration is linked only to subsection (5)(a) and (b), which refer to matters for consideration that are not obligatory but are subject to the whim of the Secretary of State as to whether they feature as considerations. I beg to move.
Amendment No. 104 would delete the requirement that the Secretary of State should use only the most recent estimate published by the Office for National Statistics when reaching his judgment. I understand the points that have been raised, and I appreciate concerns about the accuracyor the allegations about the accuracyof the most recent census figures. It is a wonder that they are able to get them as good as they are, but I am aware of the difficulties, even in my former constituency. I understand the significant effect that it can have on local government, if the figures are wildly different from what they should be for the services that the authorities are providing for various people.
Those difficulties, however, are nothing like the difficulties that would be caused if we did not specify in the Bill how the Secretary of State was to assess the number of people living in an area. There must be an objective basis for assessing the figure. In the main, the most recent figures from the ONS will be the ones to use. I hope and trust that any recent doubts about the census figures will not be an inhibiting factor. They are the best professional estimate of the population figures.
We cannot go by electoral registration figures, and I would counsel strongly against using them. They vary enormously, and they are not a measure of population anyway; they register only eligibility to vote. As I used constantly to remind people, my electorate comprised those who could vote, but I was responsible for representing about 25 per cent more who were under voting age. The services provided to people under voting age represent an enormous tranche of local authority expenditure. Population figures are probably the best to use. With all the doubts, we have no more accurate set of national figures. It would be wrong to use other figures.
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