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Lord Rooker: I am not clear about the overall purpose of this group of amendments. Amendment No. 121 would require us to give effect to the recommendations of the Boundary Committee concerning local government reorganisation before a regional assembly was established. In practice, it is likely that the orders giving effect to the Boundary Committee's recommendations will be made in advance of an assembly coming into existence. Those orders, however, will have to set dates both for the election to shadow unitary authorities and for the ultimate transfer of functions from the old to the new authorities.
Whether the transfer of functions which effectively brings the new unitary authorities into existence will actually have taken place by the time that the regional assembly first meets will depend on a number of factors such as the possible need for the Electoral Commission to revise electoral arrangements before there can be elections to the new authorities. Those elections would have to fit in with the current cycle of local authority elections. Therefore, it might be the case that regional assemblies come into existence ahead of the new unitary authorities. We need the flexibility in the Bill so that the limitations on the timing of the local government reorganisation would not unnecessarily delay the setting up of regional assemblies. Nevertheless, I can assure noble Lords that it is our intention to arrange things so that the regional assembly and the new unitary authorities should come into being as close together as possible.
The amendment would also provide that the Secretary of State must implement all the recommendations sent to him by the Boundary Committee. That unreasonably ties the Secretary of State's hands. For reasons to which I shall come, we need the discretion currently allowed in subsection (2). Indeed the remaining amendments attempt to amend the provisions for the implementation by the Government of the recommendations of the Boundary Committee and the Government's discretion in the implementation process.
Subsection (2) allows for discretion in the making of an order under this subsection. It provides that an order may be made to give effect to recommendations. Why do we need discretion in making these orders? The answer is simple. The Government may decide that the recommendations of the Boundary Committee are not appropriate. The Secretary of State may receive representations on the recommendations made to him by the Boundary Committee, and he must be able to react to those representations and give them full consideration. That may lead to making modifications to the recommendations or, if necessary, rejecting them. By seeking to remove that ability, the Government are denied the opportunity to consider fully the recommendations in light of circumstances at the time or to react to or reflect representations that may be received.
While the Boundary Committee is responsible for undertaking a review and making recommendations to the Secretary of State, it is the Secretary of State who is responsible for the implementation of any recommendations. Given that responsibility, it is only right that there be provision to exercise discretion over implementation and to make modifications where that is considered appropriate. Once again, as with many of the provisions in the Bill, this is identical to the tried and tested provisions of the 1992 Act.
Similarly, Clause 15(6) allows for mistakes in an order to be rectified should that be needed. This is not a general order-making power with wide-ranging effect, but a sensible provision limited to correction of errors arising in the preparation of orders where it appears no longer possible to make a further implementation order because the Boundary Committee's recommendations have already been given effect. By including this provision, we have closely followed the tried and tested provisions of the 1992 Act. That Act was not put on the statute book by the present Government, although I should not need to remind the Committee of that. The provision was deemed suitable and appropriate then and we think that it is indeed suitable and appropriate now.
As for the amendment to allow the Secretary of State to make no changes, that is odd as that is what would happen if no order were made under the clause. Each of the amendments seeks to remove discretion that we believe is proper given the Government's responsibility for the implementation of recommendations. I hope that following that explanation the amendments will not be pressed.
Baroness Blatch: I hardly recognise my amendments from the response that the Minister has given as I argued for flexibility, including the flexibility not to reorganise local government if the Boundary Committee thought that that was appropriate. Earlier the Minister seemed to hint by refusing to answer the question that the Boundary Committee would be free to make a decision that unitary authorities were not appropriate for efficient and effective local government in a region. We have just heard on the previous amendment that a vote for a regional assembly in a referendum does not guarantee that that region will get a regional assembly. We also know that it is entirely in the gift of the Secretary of State to determine from his soundings whether or not there is a sufficient level of interest to hold a referendum. Now
Lord Rooker: I object to the words "do what he likes". The Secretary of State cannot operate irrationally, unreasonably, on a hunch or as a result of prejudice. He would be subject to judicial review if he did. We are talking about the same powers exercised by secretaries of state of all governments when faced with boundary reviews or even parliamentary reviews. To say that the Secretary of State may do what he likes is simply not true.
Baroness Blatch: That is my interpretation of the flexibility that the Secretary of State has at every stage of the Bill. The soundings have already taken place ahead of the Bill. They were completed as the Bill commenced its passage through this House. The Secretary of State will be free to determine a level of interest. He has to act reasonably as we all know that judicial review is available not to consider the decision he reaches but the way in which he arrives at it. As a result of the discussion on the previous amendment, we now know that if there is a referendum and the vote is for a regional assembly but the Secretary of State deems that the voting turnout was not sufficient, it is possible that those voters will not get what they voted for. Now we are told that there will be flexibility when the Boundary Committee has done its work. I believe that this matter constitutes a Secretary of State's fiefdom without too much check in the system. I shall withdraw the amendments but shall no doubt return to them. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment No. 131 would remove subsection (5) and hence prevent the Secretary of State from altering a previous direction that he had made by making a new direction. That amendment seeks to curb the powers given to the Secretary of State, by removing his ability to make direction after direction while there are no mechanisms in place to challenge his decisions. Subsection (5) gives the Secretary of State complete freedom from any scrutiny, such that he does not even have to consult or seek advice or recommendations from others. He can simply make further direction if he changes his mind. Removing subsection (5) would create more stability and place the onus on the Secretary of State to do everything in his power to get matters right the first time. Surely that must be a good thing. I beg to move.
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