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Lord Waddington: My Lords, this is a deeply flawed Bill, but, in my view, no part is more flawed than that which gives the Secretary of State power to order a referendum if he has considered the level of interest in the holding of one. What level of interest is he going to consider sufficient? The Bill does not say. We have never been told.
We are told that the Secretary of State will consider the result of the sounding exercise in a particular region. However, what is the good of that if we are not told what kind of outcome in the sounding exercise he will consider sufficient to justify a referendum? Again we are not told that. And what is the good of a
To put it mildly, there is a real risk of the Secretary of State being misled by the result of a sounding exercise, attaching importance to the loud voices of a few fanatics and ignoring the lack of interest of the vast majority. He may, in the North West, for instance, heed what emanates from the regional convention. However, I remind him of the excellent comments made by Chris Moncrieff, formerly of the Press Association, who told us that far from there being a strong popular body in the North West calling itself the North West Convention, there are a handful of people operating from a dilapidated garage at the back of a pub. That must be the case, because I have never heard of anyone who has any business with the North West Convention. We know only that for some remarkable reason it is chaired by a Church of England bishop. No one has heard a word of it or a word from it.
I spoke in an earlier debate of how all parties on the Lancashire County Council oppose the holding of a referendum. A few hours ago, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who moved first from the Front Bench to the Back Benches and then from the ChamberI am not surprised in view of what he said todaytalked eloquently of how the Liberal Democrats in the North West will be in disarray, having to his mind been sold down the river by their own Front Bench. Yet we run the risk of the council tax payers in the North West being put to the considerable expense of local government reviews and a referendum when the outcomea "No" votemay be obvious. And that despite the fact that in the sounding exercise there appeared to be a number of enthusiasts rooting for a referendum.
What matters is whether people want an elected assembly. It is always artificial and ridiculous to talk about the level of interest in a referendum. What matters is whether people want an elected assembly, not whether they want a referendum. It seems to me that the only sensible way of dealing with this is by requiring the Secretary of State to satisfy himself that it is more probable than not that in any referendum there would be a majority in favour.
It is the kind of question that others have to ask themselves, as the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, now sitting on the Front Bench, will advise her noble friend. Is it right to authorise a prosecution in this case? Is it more likely than not that a jury will convict? Why on earth should not the Secretary of State in this case be required to ask himself a simple question: is the game worth the candle? Is it more probable than not that if there is a referendum, money will not have been wasted on a local government review and a majority of the people in the region will vote for an elected assembly?
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, there is a real danger that the soundings exercise, which does not seem to have gone far, has hit only organisations. The Secretary of State sent out the exercise to a few organisations and we are not sure which ones. However, the organisations will not be voting in favour of a referendum; it will be the local electorate. There appears to be a great paucity of information on what the local electorate feel.
The important aspect is whether a majority of the electorate is in favour, but we also need to know the outcome of the soundings throughout the system. That includes the regional chambers and probably the local authorities. It certainly includes the business community because I know that on the whole it is largely against proceeding, as are the voluntary organisations.
While their views should not be those which decide the issuethat should be the electoratewe need to know how the soundings exercise is divided up among those organisations and the electors. It is important that the exercise, which has been shrouded in timidity and secrecy, is brought to this House and that we know on what basis the Secretary of State intends to make his decision.
Baroness Scott of Needham Market: My Lords, will the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, explain to me how in practical terms one would consult with the electorate in a region without having a referendum? Surely, that is what the referendum is designed to do. While I have sympathy with the theory behind the noble Baroness's problems, I fail to see any practical way in which one could discover the electorate's wishes without having the very referendum we have set out to provide.
Furthermore, will the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, accept that it is difficult to imagine why on earth the Government would proceed with a referendum in a particular area if they thought they were likely to lose it?
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, we understood that the soundings exercise was intended to test the views of the people in a region. The way in which those views are tested seems to be a matter of the Government's policy. Equally, before the Secretary of State makes a decision, it must be possible to identify whether he has consulted electors; whether organisations have consulted electors or just a plethora of others who
If the policy and these proposals stem from the soundings exercises, the sounding exercises must be robust; the description as to where they have taken place must be robust; and the answers must be robust. This House, together with another place, must be able to see them.
Lord Elliott of Morpeth: My Lords, there are ways in which public opinion can be tested. In the north-east of England, which I know rather well, we have a principal newspaper, the Journal, which ran a campaign in favour of a referendum and in favour of a regional authority. The newspaper has done a good deal of work on this, and I have mentioned before in the course of our debates the results of that work.
Some 45 per cent were against the proposal for a regional assembly, while 35 per cent were for it. A breakdown of the inquiry revealed interestingly that in Tyne and Wear, a densely populated area situated at the bottom end of the region and governed by a unitary authority, 39 per cent declared that they were in favour, while 41 per cent were against. But in Northumberland, a vast and lovely county that is not nearly as densely populated as Tyne and Wear, 27 per cent were in favour of a regional authority while 53 per cent were against it. That speaks volumes for what would happen if eventually a referendum was held to decide on whether we should have a regional assembly.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, at col. 1542 of Hansard for 13th March last, during the proceedings in Committee, I raised the matter of having received a number of complaints about the way in which the sounding exercises had been carried out. In response, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, invited those who wished to lodge complaints to send them to him. I know that he has now received several complaints, copies of which have been sent to me as well as to other noble Lords.
It appears that the whole thing has been deeply unsatisfactory. In my own view, the sounding exercise has been a complete farce. I wrote to the Minister and I know that he has received my letter. In it I said that the constitutional conventionswhich pretended to be semi-officialeven if they have done the job properly, have certainly misled people, in particular given that in many cases they have been chaired by influential figures such as bishops, as the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, informed the House a few moments ago. There is no question but that this sounding exercise has not achieved and could not possibly have achieved what was intended because it simply has not been conducted properly. People up and down the country have not been given the opportunity to put forward their views as regards whether they want to be involved in a referendumwhich was what the sounding exercise was all about.
I shall repeat what I said to the Minister in my letter: the sounding exercise has become so discredited that, although I am afraid it would delay matters, we ought to hold another exercise, one that is carried out properly and ensures that everyone in England who might be affected by the proposals knows that the exercise is taking place and is given an opportunity to participate in it. Furthermore, opportunity should be given for people to discuss what it is all about. We should not have a system under which certain self-appointed people have taken on the task of trying to represent the views of an area to the Minister. In fact they have consulted on only a very narrow basis, thus preventing many others from embarking on the consultation at all.
I wish to make one further point, although perhaps it does not directly concern the amendment before us. The Minister and I had a dispute about the EU map of the administrative areas in England. It appears that we are in possession of different maps issued by the same organisation, the European Commission. My map does not show that there is such a place called "England", but the Minister insists that England is included on his Commission map. Of course it may be that the Commission has now moved on and caught up with the fact that there is a country known as England, and has corrected its maps accordingly. Perhaps the Minister would not mind commenting on that.
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