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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? I am very interested in what he has just said. I say that because in Wales the majority was only 6,000, barely adding one percentage point to the "Yes" vote. I shall keep the noble Lord to his comments.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I hope that my noble friend is interested in what I am saying, but I am not seeking to goad anyone. I am repeating the remarks I made in Committee. Indeed, my noble friend has been in the Chamber for most of the six days that we have debated this Bill. Perhaps he was out of the Chamber at the time. Because the referendums will be advisory, the Secretary of State will have to make a judgment, go to another place, make his views known and be tested on them.

I am not going to say what I was about to say because that will just wind noble Lords up. If a referendum is advisory, the result could be looked at in another way: the Minister might be on the borderline and make an irrational decision which would be absolutely crazy. However, the point I seek to make is that the referendums would not be binding.

I shall contradict only one point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. If there were a "No" vote on a small majority, the Secretary of State could not then order another referendum. For heaven's sake, yesterday we debated for over an hour the question of whether a five-year gap before holding another referendum after a "No" result would be sufficient. How, then, could the Secretary of State order on a whim another referendum because he did not like the result? Last night we debated whether the gap should be five years or 10 years. Obviously memories are short.

We have already debated this. It is our view that there is no obvious way of deciding what should be the threshold. Our previous debate on Amendment No. 49 concerned votes in the counties and districts, and served as a form of threshold, which is why I have used the term. It provides a hurdle, a point at which to assess a decision. It would not depend on a straightforward and simple majority vote. It would serve as a threshold in a similar way to the proposed arithmetical figures.

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Because there is no obvious way of setting a threshold level other than by a simple majority—which is the tried and tested way of doing things in this country—we want to stick to it. Otherwise an unfair advantage is given to those people who do not choose to vote. We want to encourage more people to vote.

It does not work in the same way in a general election. It has been a while since we had a perverse result, where a party wins the overall majority of votes in the country but secures only a minority of seats in another place. It has happened, but it did not bring about the constitutional rows that I thought it should have done at the time. If it happened today, however, I am sure that something would be said.

There are certain perverse issues attached to going for a simple majority, but to find a working threshold that is acceptable to most people is difficult. This was tested in another place and several amendments were tabled regarding what percentage of the electorate had to vote. The majority of the proposals varied between 25 per cent and 50 per cent.

I do not rest my case on the point, but we have examples of other countries which have put in place rules on referendum thresholds. No one has mentioned what happened recently in Serbia. Its threshold led to the most perverse difficulties when the Prime Minister sought to form a government. As I have said, thresholds can work in very perverse ways.

We need to set our minds to the task of maximising the number of people who freely want to vote on the basis of the information made available to them. We want to switch them on and enthuse them about the issues. That may be difficult in some cases, on the basis of what I have said in the past. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, also made the point: no new powers, no new money, but some people are willing to enthuse about the chance to give a voice to their region and the chance to have a say in the allocation of the existing massive levels of public expenditure. It is up to those involved, but persuading the maximum number of people to go out to vote either way is extremely important.

What happens at Third Reading is up to noble Lords, but I cannot see any formula that will work better than a simple majority, bearing in mind that the Secretary of State will have to make a judgment based on the turnout and the majority, and taking into account whether the result is clear cut. He will have to decide whether a "Yes" result has provided a sufficient steer for him to decide to proceed on to the publication of a Bill and the setting up of an elected regional assembly. I hope, therefore, that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, the amendment has generated a fascinating debate on the whole matter of what justifies the acceptance of a vote. I am grateful for having been credited with working out the schedule proposed in Amendment No. 59. However, in all honesty I have to say that it is a slightly attenuated schedule originally put forward by my late noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. I bow to no one in

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saying that my brain would be a pea in comparison to his brain. He worked out the table. I hope that noble Lords will accept that it was the effort of someone who had very considerable experience in this area. At the time I believe that Lord Mackay was trying to influence the debate on the ultimate form of the Scottish Assembly. We know now that some of those Assembly votes were quite derisory, as indeed they were for elected mayors.

I worry a lot when I think that the Secretary of State will have to make the decision about the threshold below which a referendum decision will not be accepted. The current thresholds where the referendum decision has been accepted are pitiful. My noble friend has already referred to the fact that turnout in London was 27 per cent; it was lower than that in Wales, and we have already heard about the monkey that was voted in with about 13 per cent. On those bases, our constitutional arrangement for referendums is laughable. The percentage of the vote in favour was not justifiable. If we want something that is lasting and enduring, we must at least try to establish that its original base was correct and there was sufficient support when it was originally introduced to justify changes being made.

As my noble friend Lord Peel reminded us, the county councils have been the senior level of government for many years; they have been the base of government in the rural areas. For them, this is a hugely important time—it is a watershed for some of them. It would be absolutely wrong for county councils to be disestablished on the basis of a frivolous and trivial vote.

I thank all those who have contributed to the debate, from which I take considerable heart. I have taken note of the points, particularly from the noble Lord, Lord Monson, about the result of the way in which the schedule works. I should like to consider those points further and decide whether to bring the matter back at Third Reading. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 51:

    Page 9, line 5, at end insert "or (Boundary Committee recommendations)(4)"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 52:

    Page 9, line 8, leave out subsection (4).

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 16 [Application of 1992 Act]:

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 53:

    Page 10, line 8, at end insert "but references to a local authority do not include references to a parish council"

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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Clause 19 [Advice of the Electoral Commission]:

6.30 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting moved Amendment No. 54:

    Page 11, line 7, after "direction" insert "—


The noble Lord said: My Lords, government Amendments Nos. 54, 55 and 56 all relate to Clause 19 on the advice of the Electoral Commission on elected matters. They are necessary because of the situations that may arise now we will be having local government referendums in parallel with regional referendums.

Amendment No. 55 gives the Secretary of State discretion to require that the commission give advice in relation to a specified number of options. Let me give noble Lords an example of when we might need to do this. There could be a legal challenge to the result of a local government referendum but the regional referendum was not subject to challenge and showed a clear majority in favour of an elected assembly. In that situation, we might want the Electoral Commission to be able to start work on advising on electoral matters for the assembly. But it would need to do so on the basis of different potential local government options being implemented, since the Secretary of State would not be able to confirm what would be implemented in the area subject to challenge. That is why we need to be able to direct the commission to come up with advice based on different options.

Amendment No. 55 is consequential. Amendment No. 56 enables the Secretary of State to vary the direction outside the two-year period. This is in case the result of a repeat referendum is not available until after the expiry of the two-year period. Such a result would clarify the future local government structure and would warrant a revised direction. These are necessary amendments. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

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