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The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 13, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 15. The importance of these amendments is to make it clear in the question on the ballot paper at the referendum that a vote for a regional assembly means single-tier local authorities.
Throughout the debate, we have believed that it is not enough simply to have an explanatory note. One is voting either for or against a regional assembly. However, when voting for a regional assembly, one is accepting that one is also voting for single-tier local government. It makes it more of an issue if the person casting the vote knows what he is voting for, rather than having an explanatory notewe know not everyone reads the small printwhich states, "By the way, when you are voting 'Yes' for the question on the ballot paper, you are voting for a single-tier assembly".
We know from Divisions earlier today that there is likely to be a second question. It will therefore be interesting to debate how explicit that second question is. Those voting in areas where there are two tiers will be given two votes; the first for or against the assembly and the second as to which way they want to "die", as I said earlier. I accept that those in single-tier authorities, where the unitary authorities presently exist, should not be given an undue influence over rural areas. However, that fear is not removed because they will still have the overwhelming might to express their view and preference for or against a regional assembly. When the votes for a regional assembly in a unitary authority are coupled with the votes for an assembly in the rural areaseven if that vote for an assembly is a minority vote in the rural areasthe urban areas will still win out. That concerns us. I beg to move.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I understand the reasoning behind the noble Baroness's amendment. I believe that she is right; the words in question should be located where she suggests rather than as proposed in the Bill. However, the wording is not as clear to the average voter as it might be. I cannot think offhand how it can be made clear, except that there would be a marginal improvement if "both" were to be inserted before "county" in the second line.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Blatch for speaking to the amendment on my behalf. We have discussed at length the form of the question. As my noble friend said, this matter needs to be rationalised into one question so that people understand completely what it is that they are being asked to vote for. They will be asked not only to vote for regional government or whether they want a regional assembly; they will be asked whether they want a regional assembly and the reorganisation of local government.
We tabled a different amendment on the last occasion in which we included the word "should", but the point remains the same; namely, that people should be very clear about what it is they are voting for. Therefore we believe that this amendment makes the matter much more rational.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, we are not trying to hide the policy of introducing elected regional assemblies and single-tier local government. While I acknowledge the fears expressed by both noble Baronesses that people will not understand what is happening, given the debate and the information to be made available I am absolutely certain that they will.
The position has changed since these amendments were tabled. We have accepted Amendment No. 12 moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, which means that there will be a second, separate question. So voters in a two-tier authority area will be well aware of the implications of voting for an elected assembly when they come to vote in a regional referendum. Furthermore, the Government have tabled Amendment No. 16, which we shall discuss in a later grouping. That amendment amends the preamble to the first question so that all voters will know that those in two-tier areas are being asked a separate question about their preferred option for a single tier of government in their area.
The preamble to the referendum question also alerts voters to the fact that, should an assembly be established, local government would be reorganised into a single tier in those areas that currently have both a county and a district council. I believe, therefore, that the amendment is unnecessary.
For the sake of completeness of the record I shall finish the point with regard to Amendment No. 15. The amendment would delete the second bullet point of the preamble to the referendum question, which informs the voter about the reorganisation of local government into a single tier in those areas that currently have both a county council and a district council, should an assembly be established.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I should like to mention a point that has not been raised so far during the debate. Most of the people I know who live in two-tier areas will not want a unitary authority; they will want to keep two tiers. They will not want to choose from any of the three options and so they will vote "No" to them all. We could organiseindeed, I think we will do soa write-in demanding to keep the status quo. What would happen if a write-in on ballot papers declaring the wish to retain the status quo exceeds the votes cast for any of the options? I do not think that people in two-tier areas such as Northumberland, Cheshire and Lancashire will vote for any of the options for unitary authorities. As we heard earlier, voters in those areas will want to retain the status quo. What will be the Government's view on such a result?
Lord Rooker: My Lords, that is a very hypothetical question to which I do not have the answer. To be frank, I just do not think that the electorate would operate in that way. If people do not want any of the proposed changes to the structure of local government, which would be directly connected to the choice as to whether they want a regional assemblythat is the most important point and will be uppermost in their mindsthey will vote "No" to the referendum question.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, one issue arising from the second, preferential question, is that people may want to say no to that; they may not want a preference; they may say no to both preferences, or however many preferences there are; but say yes to a regional assembly. Will the regional assembly question be considered totally and utterly separately from the other questions? The idea that everyone will know that to vote yes to the assembly and no to the options will get them a regional assembly with their non-optionthe option that they do not chooseis wrong.
Does the Minister really believe that voters in an area where there is a two-tier authority will know that those in an area with a single-tier authority will have a different ballot paper? That is just not the case. In the closest town to where I live in Cambridgeshire, there is sometimes an election for town councillors when the other parts of the district do not have one. People are completely unaware of that. They do not know about other people's ballot papers; they are simply given information about their ballot paperpamphlets through the door and information from the political
Now that the Liberal Democrats have supported the Government in saying that there will be a referendum and reorganisation of local government allied to it, it is important for the Minister either now or at Third Reading to make clear what will happen if people vote differently: either for a regional assembly but no to those preferences or, as my noble friend suggested, for a regional assembly but writing on the ballot paper that they do not want their local government to be reorganised but prefer the status quo. Will that be a spoiled ballot paper?
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