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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord spoke to Amendment No. 57 which is grouped with this amendment. It is a more extreme amendment that would stop the Act coming into force before a draft Bill was in place. That is not a position to which reference has been made. I am sure that there are constitutional niceties about that on which other noble Lords, better qualified than I, can comment. If Parliament wills this Bill to become law, it is a little odd for it to be conditional on the publication of a government draft Bill.

On the main point, as I made clear, we are keen to see a draft Bill that will spell out, in greater detail than is implied in the assurances given by Ministers, the information that will be published at the time of a referendum. That has been a part of our discussions with the Government.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, for the record I should say that we shall not move Amendment No. 57. The noble Baroness can concentrate on the main amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, that is helpful. Amendment No. 4, a matter of considerable concern to us, was a subject of the package that has been described. We have had assurances, including from the Dispatch Box this afternoon, that the Government will do their best to publish a Bill with a view to it being subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny. I have said before, but perhaps I had better repeat it, that I understand that the Government, by definition, cannot foresee the unforeseeable, which may make it impossible—if I can put it as high as that—to be able to pursue that. I have faith in the Government. They have every intention, as matters stand at the moment and as they are foreseen, of producing a draft Bill and we shall get stuck into that.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I put down two Written Questions on the powers and responsibilities, one to the Minister's department which he kindly answered. He referred me to the White Paper, but I am not much clearer about what powers will be transferred although it is clear that a few functions and a few advisory roles will be transferred. On 17th March I also put down a Written Question to DEFRA to

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which I have received no reply. Can the Minister tell me why the Government do not reply to Written Questions when there are important legislative matters before the House to which their replies are relevant? It makes it that much harder to contribute to the debate.

I can only presume that none of DEFRA's powers will be transferred to the regional assemblies, only a few advisory functions. I therefore support what my noble friend said in moving Amendment No. 4. Unless one knows what the powers, functions and responsibilities are, the electorate voting in the referendums will certainly be no wiser than we are now.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the noble Earl's final point gives the game away—

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I have not spoken yet.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, nobody else was standing up. My problem, since coming to this House, is that I cannot get used to a Front Bench where three Members speak. It does not happen in another place, so I apologise.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we were all being very polite, looking across at our colleagues on the Liberal Democrat Benches to see whether anyone there wished to speak. I make only one point—across the House to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. My understanding was that the Liberal Democrats, both at Second Reading and in Committee were very concerned that, if people were going to vote in a referendum, they should at least understand the powers, functions and responsibilities of the new assemblies. If that information is not in the Bill, there is no guarantee at all.

The Government said that they have made their best endeavours. But there is a contrast between the very genuine, very open and extremely honest way of responding from the Dispatch Box of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and the utterances of his ministerial colleagues in another place, which are enough to make us suspicious that we might not see a draft Bill before a referendum is held. Therefore, to serve the public, there should be a requirement. It is not impossible to do it. There is time to produce a Bill, especially if the Government know exactly what the powers, functions and responsibilities will be, as they have claimed several times. If there is not much doubt about that, the Bill should not be delayed.

I should like to think that the Liberal Democrats would join us in insisting that the public are at least assured in the Bill that, before a referendum is called, a draft Bill will be available to them with all the information that they require. I therefore support my noble friend wholeheartedly.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry that I jumped the gun; it was a genuine mistake. I have explained to my colleagues in another place how the system in this House works, and they never believe me. In response

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to the final words of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, we are confident that when people vote in a referendum they will be aware of the functions, powers and plans for the elected regional assembly. It is true that even a draft Bill is not an Act at that point, but a clear statement will be available to the electorate. I do not know how long it will be—certainly not as long as the White Paper. It will set out the issues central to the debate that takes place and what people want to know about the new body before choosing or not choosing to have an elected regional assembly.

I am not hiding behind the fact that we do not need the Bill to do that. A clear statement of how the Government intend to take forward the changes would be fine. I fully accept that Ministers' words are not legislation. Words spoken in Parliament can now be taken into account in court cases in a way that previously they could not be. But we are being genuine. As we said in Committee, and as Nick Raynsford said, we will do our best to publish a draft Bill to establish the regional assemblies. We would really like to be able to do that and to have the draft Bill scrutinised—obviously there is a key role for parliamentary scrutiny. It would be fine if we could make the draft Bill available for that. But we would not want to allow problems in doing that to delay the first referendum or referendums. By the first referendum, our statement on which the Bill will be based will be available to the electorate.

I have not been asked a specific question on the following point, but it comes to mind immediately. If we make a statement to the electorate on their area and on what the regional assembly's functions will be, it will still be up to Parliament to pass the Bill. Parliament would have to do that knowing that there had been a referendum. There would be a Bill only if there was a "Yes" vote. Therefore, one would expect that Parliament would work on the basis that the referendum was based on a certain set of parameters. That is the basis on which we would go forward.

We wish to do our best, but I cannot forecast what will happen between now and when the drafting starts. Sometimes parliamentary draftsmen have an infinite capacity to come up with a quick amendment overnight. But it is more difficult to produce a Bill over a weekend, a week or a month. It is a valuable commodity. We must make sure that the draftsmen can prioritise their work within the legislative programme. It is simply not possible to be as precise as noble Lords and noble Baronesses would like.

I apologise on behalf of the Government for the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has not received a reply to his Written Question. Frankly, there is no excuse for there not having been an Answer in the past few days—I am certain of that. I shall insist that a reply is available to the noble Earl before today's proceedings finish; otherwise, I shall not finish. There is a difficulty. Questions relating to legislation must have a degree of priority. The noble Earl should have had the Answer by now.

I cannot be more precise. Nick Raynsford sent the letter to his colleague in another place. Our commitment stands. I cannot guarantee anything

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except that, before a referendum takes place, a statement about the powers and the functions of the assembly will be available to the electorate. I cannot provide details on that now, because I can only rely on the White Paper and there is obviously much more work to be done. The electorate will not go to the polling stations not knowing what they are voting for.

5.45 p.m.

The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that commitment. Even if he and I must just sit here waiting for the Answer, we will wait.

Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, this is a crucial part of the whole debate and the whole Bill. As I said when moving the amendment, we are concerned at being told that we will have a referendum at the end of next year and that it does not really matter what the boundaries are, what the regional assembly will do, or what it will cost. Nothing seems to matter, except having the referendum at the end of next year.

We all think—on my side of the House, certainly—that, if we are going to have a referendum, the public must have the relevant information and have secure knowledge of what a regional assembly might do. Governments can change their view. I have often said that, even when the Conservatives were in power, policy could be changed just by changing the Minister. Who is to know whether the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, will be the Minister at the time of a referendum next year? Who knows whether the Deputy Prime Minister will be running this part of the show?

We do not doubt the noble Lord's commitment, and we accept what he says about what he thinks that he will able to do. But the public should know what the regional assemblies will do. We have had two Bills relating to local government in the past five years. That has worked reasonably well. As the Minister said, they can be scrutinised. However, I suspect that someone somewhere is beginning to write the Bill even now.

We should insist on the amendment. The public must be aware of the functions and responsibilities of the assemblies and the way they will be run. We should test the opinion of the House.

5.50 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 4) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 113; Not-Contents, 151.

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