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Lord Greaves: Does not the Conservative Party have a vast organisation, with thousands of workers and activists all over the place? I thought that that was what the Conservative Party is about.

Baroness Blatch: I have to admit that we are a bit thin on the ground in the North East. My point is more serious than that. Why leave it to political parties? I have said from the beginning that I do not regard the Bill as party political. I regard it as a constitutional Bill which will affect every person in the land. I do not see the people out there as Conservatives or Liberals organised by party political machines; I see them as having a real stake in the kind of local government they want. As individuals and small groups, they do not have the resources to even begin to compete with the national government and the regional bodies which are already illicitly campaigning.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds: I understand the noble Baroness's argument. There is obviously some merit in

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the view that there should be a minimum turn-out. But, from the way in which she expressed these matters, would not someone who wanted to prevent or object to a regional assembly simply have to encourage abstention? If those against having a regional assembly simply abstained, 40 per cent of the whole electorate would positively have to vote in favour of one. Would not that be a problem? In other words, if you wanted to stop a regional assembly you simply would not vote at all and everyone who did vote would have to vote in favour. That means that 40 per cent of the whole electorate would have to vote in favour of a regional assembly, which would be an extraordinary achievement. Under the noble Earl's amendment, 50 per cent would have to vote in favour.

If there is a threshold, the way to stop a regional assembly is to encourage people not to vote. The worst thing would be to encourage people to vote no because that would lift the turn-out. What is the noble Baroness's answer to that point?

Baroness Blatch: I am not malign enough to consider positive abstention. That was not the thrust of my original argument. It was the noble Lord's interpretation of one of the consequences of my amendment. I am not arguing that, and I never would. Any energies that I have will not be used in persuading people not to vote; they will be used to persuade people to vote against an assembly. That is the point of my amendment.

The thrust of my amendments and the principle underpinning them are that if there is to be constitutional change in the regions of England, enough people should vote for them to make the assemblies confident, competent bodies with an underpinning support. I am not going down the road of persuading people not to vote in order to depress the turnout. I believe that if people do not want a regional assembly they should vote against it.

Lord Woolmer of Leeds: That may not be the noble Baroness's intention, but were this amendment to be on the statute book that would be its effect. Anyone wishing to stop a regional assembly would have every reason to abstain. If I were organising against a regional assembly, I should encourage people not to vote, because that would keep the turnout down.

Baroness Blatch: Forty per cent and 50 per cent are relatively modest figures anyway. As the Minister has said, in Scotland, on both occasions, the turnout would have passed the test in my amendment, and indeed that suggested by my noble friend. The same is true of the 40 per cent figure given. I am not going down the road suggested by the noble Lord. He may like to think that that would be the consequence of the amendment, but I believe that having a regional assembly based on a 10 per cent or 15 per cent turnout with a majority of one is simply unacceptable. That is a possibility, and I simply want to avoid it.

The Earl of Caithness: I agree with all the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. They are the

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same as those that I have in front of me. There is one figure that he did not mention: in Scotland, if my maths is correct, only 44.6 per cent of the electorate voted "Yes". So 50 per cent of people in Scotland did not vote "Yes"; the same was true in Wales. The Minister mentioned 25 per cent in Wales. He was right about the 60.2 per cent in terms of turnout—but the actual percentage of the electorate voting "Yes" was 44.6 per cent.

I like the Minister's instinct. I wish that he would follow his instinct and not his brief. He rather likes the idea of thresholds. He has the same feeling as my noble friend Lady Blatch and I have; namely, that the credibility of this exercise could well be diminished by a low turnout and a small majority. A great deal of credibility would be lost and regional assemblies would get off to a bad start.

I was fascinated by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I do not think that he has listened to much of what I have said during this debate. When I first spoke, I said that I rather liked unitary authorities. This proposal is not so horrible in lots of ways; some quite good things will come from the Bill. What I am trying to do is to make certain that a sufficient number of people vote in a referendum, because that would make the result credible. I do not believe that leaving the matter completely open will serve the right purpose.

I tabled Amendment No. 119C because there are two aspects to this question. I should have thought that the second would appeal to the Liberal Democrat Party. The first aspect is regional assemblies; but with that, and consequent upon it, is the requirement to get rid of the existing local government structure. The purpose of Amendment No. 119C is to protect the rural areas—about which the Liberal Democrats waxed so lyrical when we last debated this issue; they said how important this was for those areas where Northumberland borders on Scotland. I was trying to help the Liberal Democrat Party to keep their district councils, but if they do not want any help that is up to them.

This matter needs to be reconsidered before the next stage. I hope that the Minister will be able to spare us some time for a meeting on this and various other points. This is crucial. His instinct is absolutely right: we must try to find a mechanism, not to "up" the turnout—that is not the point of what I am trying to do—but to bring credibility to this operation. It has lost credibility with the mayoral elections in London and devolution in Wales. Scotland is more arguable; one can argue that 44.6 per cent is a good figure, although I would say that one needs to get over 50 per cent. I hope that the Minister will give us time for a meeting between now and another stage. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 119A, as an amendment to Amendment No. 119, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 119B and 119C, as amendments to Amendment No. 119, not moved.]

Baroness Blatch: This is my final comment on percentages: if my noble friend Lady Hanham was

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right when she described something like 5,000 responses to the soundings exercise out of a total voting population of about 20 million, I wonder whether the Minister regards that as an adequate return in terms of soundings for starting the process of regional assemblies in this country. We certainly shall return to this, but in the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Tordoff): Is it your Lordships' pleasure that the amendment be withdrawn?

Noble Lords: No!

12.46 a.m.

The Deputy Chairman of Committees: The Question is that Amendment No. 119 shall be agreed to. As many as are of that opinion will say "Content". To the contrary, "Not-Content". I think the Not-Contents have it. Clear the Bar.

Division called.

Tellers for the Contents have not been appointed pursuant to Standing Order 54. A Division therefore cannot take place, and I declare that the "Not-Contents" have it.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 120:

    Page 9, line 3, leave out "may" and insert "must"

The noble Baroness said: In moving the amendment, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 121 to 124 and Amendment No. 126. The amendments concern the actions of the Secretary of State following a referendum and his subsequent decision that a regional assembly should be established. As a group, the amendments would ensure that the Secretary of State must put into effect the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee. Amendment No. 123 would mean that if the Secretary of State does not agree with the recommendations, he has the option to,

    "make no changes to the existing local government structure within the region".

I asked the Minister earlier whether the Boundary Committee would be free to recommend that to create single-tier authorities would be too great an upheaval and would run counter to efficient and effective government in the region. He refused to answer that question, from which I deduce that the issue must at least be an open question.

As the Bill stands, there is no requirement that the Secretary of State pay particular attention to the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee for England in its review of local government, which will have been an extremely costly and disruptive exercise. That a procedure that is so expensive in resources and time may warrant no more than a brief consideration is surely not intended. Hence, we seek assurances that the Secretary of State will not change the recommendations made by the Boundary Committee without good reason. I beg to move.

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