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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with regard to the so-called "information" that I had, I am sorry that the noble Lord does not receive such information from his own party. It seems that his party gave us the information before giving it to the noble Lord.

I consider the Minister to be more than equal to the task of taking the Bill through the House. I have the utmost admiration for the feisty way that he has done so and for the fact that he has been courteous and incredibly patient with some of us who have been more than a thorn in his side throughout the proceedings. But that is the stuff of politics, and the strength of this House lies in the way that we operate.

However, one thing surprises me. With the benefit of parliamentary counsel, which is considerable, and with the benefit of officials who take away the Committee stage of a Bill, consider all the pros and cons that have been argued and return with a reasoned, properly explained note, it should not be necessary to engage the Attorney-General, who has a million other things with which to concern himself—not least the Iraq war—to deal with this one amendment. The advisers in the department should have an answer to this question.

Perhaps I may give a parallel example. If a parent received a notice that no appeal would be entertained for questioning a grievance about a pupil in school, the parent could be forgiven for believing that that would deny him an appeal against the grievance about his child. A serious case would be considered but not a minor or vexatious case. That cannot be the explanation for Clause 10. As I said, the clause is free-standing. There is no reference to schedules, and there is no link to any other clause in the Bill. It simply states:

It will have to be a very good explanation indeed.

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Frankly, from what the noble Lord said, I consider the clause to be otiose. I believe that it is redundant, that it could come out of the Bill and that whatever is on the statute book could prevail. The amendment that the noble Lord will bring back at Third Reading might take that into account. But if an amendment is tabled to the clause and if the clause remains part of the Bill, I shall take it as read that it will at least achieve the purpose and aim of my amendments. If that is not the case, I shall be very worried.

I listened to yesterday's debate but was not sure whether the amendments were intended to comfort my concerns about Clause 10 or to comfort the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I had intended to press the amendments but I shall not do so today because I believe it is important to give the Minister an opportunity to bring forward an amendment at Third Reading.

So far as I am concerned, at present the Plain English Campaign, myself and others who read the clause—especially those who are not used to legalese—will have no doubt in reading what is actually plain English:

    "No court shall entertain any proceedings for questioning the number of ballot".

Therefore, in eager anticipation of Third Reading, which I believe is to take place on the 28th—at least, that is the date which I have been asked to put in my diary and which has rather scuppered my holiday—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 38:

    Page 5, line 11, after "questioning" insert "—


On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 39 not moved.]

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 40:

    Page 5, line 14, at end insert—

"(b) the number of ballot papers or votes cast in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (2) of section (Local government referendums) as certified by a person appointed for the purpose in pursuance of an order under subsection (9) of that section."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 11 [Supplementary]:

Lord Rooker moved Amendment No. 41:

    Page 5, line 27, at end insert—

"( ) No order may be made under any of the following provisions unless the person making the order first consults the Electoral Commission—
(a) section (Local government referendums)(9);
(b) section 6(1);
(c) section 9(1)."

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 12 [Local government review]:

[Amendment No. 42 not moved.]

8 Apr 2003 : Column 169

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 43:

    Page 6, line 42, leave out subsection (7).

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 43, I shall speak also to Amendment No. 44. Amendment No. 43 would eliminate a redundant subsection from the Bill. In effect, the clause in question enables the Secretary of State to prepare to direct the Boundary Committee to review local government in a given region before the ink has even dried on the statute book—indeed, I think that it probably already has done. It gives the Secretary of State power to consider views, information and evidence about the level of interest in a given region in holding a referendum. It also enables the Secretary of State to consider a number of factors that might influence which region or regions he directs the Boundary Committee to review. Therefore, it is a question of leaving out subsection (7).

With regard to Amendment No. 44, if noble Lords cast their eyes over Part 3 of the Bill, they will see that the whole of Clause 20 is devoted to the way that the Electoral Commission will be required to prepare and submit its advice. We on this side of the House see no reason why the transparent process that the Bill requires the Electoral Commission to follow is not applied to the work of the Boundary Committee.

As the Bill stands, a direction to the Boundary Committee will simply specify the date by which a review of local government structure will begin in a given region and the date by which the Boundary Committee will have to make its recommendations. The Bill states that a direction may require the Boundary Committee to start and finish its work by certain dates. Such wording implies that even this sparse information may, if the Secretary of State so chooses, be omitted from any direction he gives the Boundary Committee.

The amendment simply seeks to ensure that the review process is open and transparent. It lays down a set of steps that must be included in any direction to the Boundary Committee. Those steps provide a safeguard for people living in areas in which local government reviews will be carried out. They ensure that people are aware of the Boundary Committee's remit; the timescale to which it will operate; and the consultation opportunities that they will have to take part in the review process.

Local government reorganisation is likely to have more of a direct impact on people's lives than decisions about the electoral areas in which they live. There is no doubt that plans to abolish county and district councils, many of which have long histories of serving their local communities, will cause significant and prolonged disruption to the delivery of vital public services—a matter to which we again return.

That disruption will start from the moment that local government reviews are announced. The uncertainty that such reviews inevitably breed will deliver a blow to the morale of the councils affected and will distract councillors and officers from the essential task of delivering efficient, effective public service.

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To minimise that uncertainty, there needs to be a clause that maps out the review process from start to finish. By their nature, reviews are lengthy and complex, but the longer they drag on, the more levels of uncertainty arise. The amendment would simply ensure that the Boundary Committee's work was open to public involvement and scrutiny.

We believe that the Boundary Committee would welcome any attempt to increase public participation in its work. Local people have an inherent understanding of their local communities and are best placed to inform the Boundary Committee's recommendations to the Government. I therefore hope that your Lordships will endorse my arguments by supporting the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as the noble Baroness said, Amendment No. 43 seeks to delete Clause 12(7). It would mean that the Secretary of State could not do anything in connection with his consideration of the level of interest or of the factors set out in Clause 12(5)—such as the implications of carrying out a review in two or more regions at the same time—until the Bill had received Royal Assent.

We want to enable regions that want a referendum to be able to hold one as soon as possible. Conducting the soundings exercise on level of interest while the Bill is before Parliament minimises delay in the process. Debate on the Bill in Parliament has also raised publicity for the proposals, which we hope will encourage people to send us their views. The amendment is clearly intended to undo all the work undertaken for the soundings exercise that we initiated last year.

The approach taken in subsection (7) is well precedented—for example, by Section 4 of the Local Government Act 2000. We are not prejudging Parliament. No decisions on the region or regions to go ahead will be taken until the Bill has received Royal Assent. I do not think that I must make the case for having started the soundings exercise, because we have done so repeatedly throughout our debates.

From previous debate, your Lordships will know in respect of Amendment No. 44—a proposed new clause, in effect—that we entirely agree with the sentiments behind it and that in fact, by importing the requirements of the Local Government Act 1992 into this Bill by means of Clause 14, we have ensured that the Boundary Committee will consult widely and that local people will have an opportunity to comment on the process and the recommendations.

The consultation requirements with which the Boundary Committee will have to comply are set out in Section 15 of the Local Government Act 1992. I assure noble Lords that they are the same requirements as were applied to the structural reviews of the 1990s and that will apply to other structural and boundary reviews carried out by the Electoral Commission in future.

So the Boundary Committee will be required to take steps to inform all interested parties about its draft and final recommendations and of the period within which

8 Apr 2003 : Column 171

they can make representations. It must already deposit copies of recommendations at the principal office of any principal council. If the South West were to be reviewed, the Secretary of State would expect to ensure that suitable steps were taken to provide for copies to be deposited at the office of the Council of the Isles of Scilly. In practice, all past reviews have published full reports and the Boundary Committee would doubtless do the same.

Noble Lords suggested that those requirements should be in the Bill, but it is not our practice to repeat provision for the same procedures and arrangements in new legislation when those procedures are already set out in statute—not least so as to avoid confusion. I thought that we all agreed early on that we should not write the same thing into a Bill twice. If it is contained in another Act, refer to it, do not repeat it. Otherwise, the risk of confusion is too great.

I therefore hope that noble Lords will accept that to have repeated all the relevant parts of the 1992 Act would have added greatly to the number of clauses in the Bill to no advantage whatsoever. To repeat these provisions would suggest that we should repeat them all. That would be nonsense. However, the spirit is included in the legislation that is on the statute book. I therefore hope that the amendments will not be pressed.

5.15 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's response, especially to Amendment No. 44. However, it does make me think that all of our discussion would be remarkably helped if there were an idiots' guide somewhere that mentioned which other Acts of Parliament could be applicable. In Bills, there is only a flat statement, which we must then unpick before we discover that provision can be found in other legislation. I do not know how many Acts there have been concerning local government reviews and local government boundaries—I have not bothered to count them—but there are many. As we have already discussed, other Acts are involved, such as the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000.

I must accept, because I have not checked, that what the Minister said is correct—that that is what would be implemented, that that is what is written into subsection (8)(a) and (b). I never disbelieve the Minister; I assume that that is what is said; and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 44 not moved.]

Clause 13 [Local government review: supplementary]:

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