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Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: Clause 19 requires the Secretary of State to direct the Electoral Commission to give advice on one or more matters relating to electoral areas or the total number of members to be elected to a regional assembly. Subsection (1) means that that requirement arises only in respect of regions in which a referendum has been held and it is proposed to establish an assembly.

Amendment No. 127 would instead require the Secretary of State to give such a direction to the Electoral Commission if he were considering whether to cause a referendum to be held in that region. The White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, clearly sets out the framework that we propose for the size of elected regional assemblies and the balance between constituency and top-up members. We believe voters will be able to take an informed decision on the basis of the policy we have set out.

We believe that the Boundary Committee should conduct local government reviews before a referendum is held in a region because there are many possible options that the committee could recommend. It could recommend a wholly unitary structure for current two-tier areas based on counties, districts or something different. In this case, the review needs to be carried out before any referendum so that voters know the basics before voting. They will already know the basic proposals with regard to electoral arrangements.

Requiring the Electoral Commission to provide advice on that before the referendum will simply distract from the main issues at the referendum. We believe that the proper time to seek advice on electoral areas is once people have voted for the establishment of a regional assembly. That is why, as currently drafted, the requirement applies only for regions where the Secretary of State proposes to establish an elected assembly, following a referendum held under Clause 1.

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Amendment No. 131 would mean that a direction to the Electoral Commission to provide advice on electoral areas and total number of assembly members could not be varied. It is standard practice to include such a provision in an Act with regard to direction-making powers. It is a sensible approach so as to cater, for example, for unforeseen circumstances or indeed if it is necessary to give the Electoral Commission more time to make its recommendation on a review. That is precedented by a similar provision in Section 26(6) of the Local Government Act 1992, which relates to directions made in relation to structural review. Another example is Section 48(7) of the Local Government Act 2000.

Amendment No. 132 would mean that the Electoral Commission was not required to submit its advice given under a direction under Clause 19 within less than a year of being given the direction. We would, of course, discuss our proposals for the timetable for the preparation and submission of advice with the Electoral Commission before finalising it. Twelve months appears to be a rather arbitrary period, and we see no merit in putting that on the face of the Bill.

Of course, in giving a direction, we would be obliged to consider how long it would be sensible to give the Electoral Commission, taking into account that those who are interested must be given adequate opportunity to comment on the subject matter of the advice and any draft advice. With that explanation, I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Blatch: The noble Lord has gone through about the next five amendments. Was that his intention? I moved only Amendment No. 127 and spoke to Amendment No. 131. He has referred to Amendments Nos. 130, 132, 135 and, I believe, 137.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I apologise to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: Perhaps I may return to the amendments in question—that is, Amendments Nos. 127 and 131. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that I do not accept the explanation that he gave some minutes ago before he went on to talk about all the other amendments. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 128:

    Page 11, line 6, at end insert—

"( ) the balance of representation for rural and urban areas"

The noble Baroness said: It just proves that the Ministers are not listening to the arguments. They do not even wait for the arguments now; they simply press straight on with the answers. In order to put the question to the answer given by the noble Lord—I do not know what he will say in response to it—I now move Amendment No. 128 and shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 133 and 134.

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Amendment No. 128 seeks to add an extra area on which the Electoral Commission should advise the Secretary of State—that is, the matter of establishing a balanced representation for rural and urban areas. The one theme that I have taken from the Government throughout the proceedings in another place and throughout those in this House thus far is that, frankly, the rural areas can go hang. There is no protection for them anywhere in the Bill. There is no protection in the soundings issue, and there is none in the way that the voting will be counted. There is no attempt to build in protection for the rural areas.

At the same time as considering where the electoral areas should fall, it is essential to bear in mind the need to ensure that the rural voice is not drowned out by a more populous metropolitan neighbour. There is a real risk that, unless a specific effort is made when designing the boundaries, rural voters will find themselves in the minority with important countryside issues overlooked while urban issues are prioritised.

Few people live in the countryside and therefore few votes are to be gained from tackling rural matters. Where there is any conflict of interest—for example, in greenbelt planning—the rural viewpoint will always be a secondary issue. Rural voters will feel alienated and cut off, unable to relate to the very people who are supposed to represent them. Even if they are active in voting in a referendum, they can easily be outnumbered by those in urban areas.

To avoid that, there should be an explicit commitment on the face of the Bill to protect the rights of the rural voter by requiring the Electoral Commission to establish a balance so that the rural communities have a guaranteed voice. Amendment No. 133 would provide more detail of the areas to which the Electoral Commission should pay attention when deciding upon the best boundaries for electoral areas. Specifically they should respect the historical nature of county and county borough councils.

The Bill currently puts no value whatever on maintaining the existing pattern of county councils. These are institutions to which people feel a strong allegiance. With the extensive disruptions and reorganisations that establishing a regional assembly will entail, surely there is every reason to stick as closely as possible to current arrangements.

Regional assemblies would be better off with this amendment as people would be happier to accept and work with a system that is familiar rather than one that is foreign and where there may be considerable cost as adjustment occurs with no particular benefit.

Can the Minister guarantee—he did not do so in his answer just now—that arranging the electoral areas will not simply be a process of change for change's sake? Amendment No. 134 would remove from the list of what the Electoral Commission should have regard to when making its recommendations guidance given by the Secretary of State.

Surely the Electoral Commission is directed towards achieving certain goals in the creation of electoral areas, paying attention to the importance of reflecting

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the identities and interests of local communities as one such goal and attempting to create electoral areas with similar numbers of people as another. Hence, Clause 21 does a good job with its paragraphs (a) and (b).

However, paragraph (c) is more problematic. What is the point of bringing in the Electoral Commission at all if the Secretary of State, first, sets strict guidelines as to what its recommendations should be and, secondly, may then choose to ignore the advice that it gives? Surely the point of bringing in the Electoral Commission to carry out that important function is to bring in experts who can dedicate time and energy to deciding the best possible boundaries for electoral areas. That would be undermined if the Secretary of State has fixed ideas of how electoral areas should look and bypasses the advice of the Electoral Commission by making a judgment in advance as to what its conclusions should be.

Throughout the Bill the Liberal Democrats have tabled similar amendments about identities and communities of interest. I hope that they will see something positive in some of the amendments in this group. It is bad enough that the Secretary of State is able to take or leave the Electoral Commission's advice if he pleases, but worse still if he can place rigid limits on the final recommendations. I beg to move.

1.15 a.m.

Lord Greaves: This is a curious part of the Bill, particularly Clause 19 which is headed,

    "Advice of the Electoral Commission".

It details advice that the Electoral Commission would be expected to give about the electoral areas, the number of such areas, the names and so on. Yet here we have a clause that makes an assumption about what the electoral system will be without setting out what it will be. It is based on the assumption set out in the White Paper that the electoral system will be a form of the additional member system, with first-past-the-post constituencies and a top-up list across the whole region. I understand that the proposal is to provide at least a degree of proportionality, although perhaps not much. However, it does not state that but simply makes the assumption.

That is yet another example of where the Bill puts the cart before the horse. It assumes that when Parliament legislates to set up regional assemblies it will choose such an electoral system. The Government may want Parliament to choose that, but I am sure that we shall have vigorous debates in the two Houses about the electoral system. Some people may want the first-past-the-post system—there are dinosaurs everywhere—but there may also be those who want a more sophisticated and effective form of proportional representation such as the single transferable vote, which may be suggested from these Benches.

I make the point that the situation in front of the Committee is based on assumptions that may not be true. It seems extraordinary to legislate in detail for an electoral system that is not even named or described in the Bill; it is just implied in various clauses.

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If the noble Baroness will forgive me saying so, her amendments are a little strange. She asks for a balance of representation for rural and urban areas. I do not know what that means. Does it mean that rural areas, regardless of the number of electors, have to have as many seats as urban areas, or does it mean that the boundaries of the areas have to be drawn so that some of them are distinctly rural constituencies? In trying to make sense of that, those are the only two conclusions that I can draw. Clearly, the balance of representation for different areas has to depend on the number of people living in each area. If rural areas are a minority in a particular region, that may be unfortunate, but a fact of life. One cannot fiddle an electoral system in favour of certain areas as opposed to others.

It is worth remembering that, according to the Government's proposals, we are talking of constituencies that may be as large as two or three parliamentary constituencies. If the whole of the North West has 30 or 35 members, or the whole of the North East has 25 members, they would make enormous constituencies. How one balances representation for rural and urban areas in those circumstances I am unsure. With respect to the noble Baroness, that is silly.

Amendment No. 133 is even more odd. It states that,

    "in particular, the importance of preserving the historic identity of county and county borough councils".

I do not know whether the noble Baroness is talking about the historic counties. If, at any time, she would like to come to our part of the world I will take her to the main road between Colne and Skipton where one goes through two sets of county boundaries. There are the present county boundaries of Lancashire one way and North Yorkshire the other, and then there are the historic county boundaries which say West Riding of Yorkshire one way and Historic County of Lancashire Palatine the other. They are a few miles apart.

Some people get very worked up about historic county boundaries—for example, the campaign for real Yorkshire and so on. They have no relevance to modern local government. My recollection of county borough councils is that they were abolished in 1973. In 1974 they went out of existence. The City of Leeds no doubt was a county borough council at the time as were places such as Burnley, Blackburn, Blackpool and Preston in Lancashire. It is a nonsense to try to maintain their integrity as wholes in the middle of the present Lancashire. With the greatest respect, I do not think that these amendments have been thought out.

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