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Lord Rooker: My Lords, the debate has lasted longer than I expected. If anyone else wishes to speak they should do so. I certainly do not want to stop it.

To all who asked about our thinking since Committee stage, at the risk of repeating myself and boring the House—because this is the same debate as we had in Committee—I point out that, as we and the White Paper have made clear, a revisitation of the boundary issue in the undetermined future is not ruled out. However, that is not part of this Bill. I want to make it absolutely clear that we currently have no plans for changing the regional boundaries or the number of regions.

Noble Lords seem to think that such a change is simply a five-minute job on the back of an envelope and will not delay anything. They also seem to think that just one regional boundary can be changed and the others can be left alone. If the boundary is changed for one region, it will mean a change for another; and there is a knock-on effect.

I do not want to upset the Front Bench opposite. Incidentally, I was about to say that the vigorous, sustained political attack from the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, means early promotion to the Front Bench for him. It will certainly remove the blot on his copybook that occurred earlier this afternoon.

My basic point is that any walking down this road means that the situation would be exactly the same as in earlier debates: no referendums next year, no referendums this side of a general election. It kills the Bill. That is the consequence of even looking at the boundaries. If this Bill receives Royal Assent and the soundings indicate a region or regions where there is a desire to hold a referendum, one of the first actions of

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the Secretary of State will be to ask the Boundary Committee to review local government structures within the region. If it does not know what the region is, it cannot do that. That means no referendum next autumn.

That is part of the plot. The plot is to stop the referendums. I understand the issue. The Conservative Opposition is against the Bill in principle. I am not criticising the amendment. This is a natural point to raise. The regions do vary in size in terms of both population and land area; they vary in the way in which they are governed and in their structures. England is not the same all over and it is right that they should vary.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I am sorry to intervene, but I am becoming a trifle confused. I have not read anything in the Bill which says that it will cease to be valid if its provisions are slightly delayed. There is nothing in the Bill resembling a sunset clause. The Minister is imposing his own from the Front Bench in saying that this is government policy. As I read the Bill, a year or two, or five, could perfectly well be taken to review the boundaries if that were so wished. Unless Parliament repeals the Bill, it will remain active.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am not making this up as I go along. I set out the policy clearly in Committee, as best I could given the present detail, working back from obtaining, if desired, a referendum next autumn. If that timetable is not met, there will be no referendum. There will be no prospect of regional government in July 2006 at the earliest. There will probably be no prospect of a referendum the year after. Then, there will be all the fuss about a possible general election after four years. There will be all those difficulties. This simply kills the idea stone dead. Noble Lords can shake their heads and disagree all they like. That is the policy. The policy is: if there is a desire for regional elected assemblies and a desire to have a referendum to bring them about, the best available opportunity that we have worked out, going through all due process, is to aim for referendums by next autumn. It will take us that long to do it. The noble Lord wants to intervene again. That is fine, but I have not started addressing the amendment.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, the Minister has confirmed what I have said: it is not what is on the face of the Bill that matters in this instance; it is what the Government are determined to have.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is government policy. I make no apology for that. It helps the House in coming to an informed decision, where there is a timetable involved, to know what the policy is. In answering what can be a good, sensible, mature case—namely, to examine the boundaries—I have to explain why we do not agree with the amendment. The reasons are different. They are not reasons of principle—because we have said that we do not rule out looking at the boundaries in future. They are reasons of

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practicality—to try to achieve the objective that, if the people of this country indicate that they want regional government, they should have an opportunity to vote in a referendum to bring it about. That is another answer to the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, that there will be no consideration. It is only a couple of weeks since the debates in Committee on the metropolitan boundaries.

There have been a large number of references to Section 25 of the Regional Development Agencies Act. It is as though the Secretary of State could just go out, willy-nilly, and redraw boundaries himself. First, he cannot add to the boundaries. In moving the amendment, the noble Baroness said that he could not increase the number, but went on to talk about changing the numbers, as did another noble Lord. If there is nothing fixed about the boundaries, why is anything fixed in regard to nine regions? If you open up the can of worms, there has to be flexibility in asking whether we have the right number of regions? That is not provided for in the regional development—

Lord Dixon: My Lords, will my noble friend give way? Will he also acknowledge the fact that a consultation process has been carried out on the boundaries? If people want to change them now, we shall have to go through that process again.

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, that would naturally follow—which also rules it out. But, as I say, we have not ruled out in the longer term the possibility of adopting boundaries for regional assemblies that do not follow the existing regional boundaries.

A key aim of elected regional assemblies is to bring under democratic control and scrutiny the work of existing regional bodies. A significant number of these—not all—are based on the existing regions: the Government Offices, the regional development agencies and other parts of government operate to these boundaries. Redrawing them now would create tremendous upheaval. It would indeed stop the process in its tracks, which is the intention behind this otherwise sensible and mature amendment. It would certainly delay the first referendums. It might necessitate holding public inquiries. It is not something that Ministers can do at a stroke.

It is interesting to note the long-distance considerations in previous Cabinet discussions when the boundaries were set up at the time of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke. It was highly optimistic on the part of those involved to assume that at some point in the future there would be a Labour government. I can assure noble Lords that we in opposition did not think that. In those days things were looking pretty bad.

So there is a real problem. The existing boundaries are a reasonable size. They vary in population, as the country varies, and in geography and demographic weight. So what? We do not want everywhere to be the same. I understand that people feel very strongly about this, but in terms of how many years it would take to review all the regional boundaries—at the risk of frightening everyone and having it said that I am using extreme language—we have no experience in terms of

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how the review would be carried out, but we have to look at the timetable for the review of the parliamentary boundaries. In our view, a major review takes several years. This cannot be done in a few months. That is contrary to the Government's policy—for which I make no apology—of being able to let people choose whether or not they want the opportunity to have elected regional government. Therefore, having had the same debate twice, I hope that the noble Baroness will not press her amendment.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I was interested in the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who I understand is considered something of a black sheep at the moment. He rightly drew attention to an amendment in his name and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in Committee suggesting, in relation to page 1, line 7, that a referendum should be held after the Boundary Committee for England had reviewed the number and boundaries of the regions specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 and reported its recommendations to the Secretary of State. That is practically identical to what I am proposing today. Yet, somewhere along the line in the grubby backdoor discussions that have taken place over the past couple of days, the Liberal Democrats have lost even their enthusiasm for putting forward amendments to review the regional boundaries.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, perhaps I can elucidate. The amendment was moved in order that it could be spoken to. We did not vote on it at that stage. It was withdrawn. The noble Baroness seems to suggest that it might not be possible, even while talking among one's own colleagues and talking with people on other Benches, to review what is the right way forward.

As I said, I have become clear that this is not an exercise to review the boundaries of the regions—which I read as not being possible to pick and choose, nor something the Secretary of State could do in his bath one morning when he had nothing else to think about. I want to make it clear that this is not because there are grubby deals going on in murky, smoke-filled corridors, and otherwise. One can actually think about what one is proposing as the debate continues. After all, that is one reason for having more than one stage.

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