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Baroness Hanham: My Lords, before the Minister sits down, would he address himself to the question that I asked him? Will the local boundary committee have the power to hold a local public inquiry on its proposals, whether one, two or four options are introduced? This is important because it is a normal element of the procedure for every boundary committee review. The committee should be able to hold a local inquiry for those who wish to put forward their views and to discuss them in detail. I do not refer

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simply to consultation, but to a proper, formal inquiry. That was the question I put and I would be grateful if the Minister, who is unusually acerbic today, could answer it.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am cheesed off, having been ultra friendly and having wrung an extra little concession out of my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford as late as twenty past two this afternoon. I did that because I thought it would aid the progress of the passage of the Bill. Furthermore, I acknowledge the powerful arguments in support of the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. This morning I had a long discussion with my right honourable friend in the spirit of wishing to be helpful to this House. However, being helpful has got me a slap in the face on other amendments. I can say honestly that I will not do it again on this Bill.

Let us return to the function of the boundary committees. They will prepare a proposal covering the options for their region. Obviously more than one option will be put forward. They will do that in line with the statutory criteria. The options will be published in draft form so that people can consider the initial ideas for a possible way forward. The committees will publicise those recommendations and invite specific representations from all and sundry to put forward their views. As a part of the process, although it will be entirely up to them, they may set up or attend informal public meetings. There is no formal provision for a judicial public inquiry as there is for parliamentary boundaries, often involving London-based lawyers who take charge of inquiries being held in the Midlands and the North—or at least that has been my experience.

It will be for the boundary committees to decide how they organise their consultations because they must listen to the views of all those concerned in response to their draft recommendations. They must go out into the regions to do that because it could not possibly be done using only correspondence from London. However, it is up to the committees themselves to make their own arrangements. It is not for the Government to tell them how to conduct their consultations. Ultimately, the committees will have to produce final reports for Parliament to consider.

I shall make one further point. As regards local government reviews, formal public inquiries are not provided for in the procedures set out in the Local Government Act 1992. The inquiries in which Members of another place are involved are highly formal procedures. However, that does not alter the fact that informal inquiries and meetings organised and perhaps chaired by boundary committees or by others on their behalf will have as much validity as any parliamentary boundary review inquiry that I have ever experienced.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I wish to be absolutely clear on this point: there is no power for a local inquiry to be held on the reviews put forward by the local boundary committee.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have just said that the boundary committees can either themselves set up or

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attend informal public inquiries. However, the legislation under which we are working, the Local Government Act 1992, does not allow for formal public inquiries to be held in regard to changes to local government.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Rooker moved Amendments Nos. 4 to 7:

    Page 3, line 34, after "of" insert "an order under"

    Page 3, line 39, at beginning insert "If the same ballot paper is used for both a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 and a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 2(2)"

    Page 3, line 42, leave out from beginning to end of line 2 on page 4.

    Page 4, line 5, at end insert "There will be no such reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established.

(4A) If the same ballot paper is not used for both referendums as mentioned in subsection (4) the following statement (in as nearly as may be the following form) must precede the question on the ballot paper used for a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 2(2): "If an elected assembly is established for the (insert name of region) region, it is intended that local government will be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils.
Your part of the region currently has both county and district councils. You can help to decide how local authorities in your part of the region will be reorganised into a single tier. There will be no such reorganisation if an elected assembly is not established."."

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Clause 6 [Further referendums]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 8:

    Page 5, line 8, leave out "five" and insert "seven"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, but I have to say that this is not a momentous concession. Although the noble Lord was uncharacteristically acerbic in his response to my noble friend Lord Hanningfield, it was not my noble friend who spoke to this amendment on Report; I did so. On 7th April my noble friend was away sick and so I introduced Amendment No. 22, which stated:

    "Page 3, line 15, leave out "five" and insert "ten".

The debate is recorded at cols. 116 to 124 of Hansard. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, responded. I should say to my noble friend that if the argument was persuasive, then I accept the compliment. The argument for a longer gap is overwhelming. We would have liked it to have been a gap of 10 years.

I believe that the noble Lord is still insisting that my noble friend Lord Hanningfield took this amendment, but a glance at Hansard will show that I spoke to it on his behalf. I shall give way.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not care who took the amendment. However, at some stage—I suspect in Committee rather than on Report—the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, made a powerful speech on this issue. He mentioned the problems that could arise if a second referendum were held in under five years. He spoke as the leader of a county council in a very powerful and practical fashion. The reverberations of that speech

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were reflected in the discussions I had this morning with my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford—not, I regret, the points made by the noble Baroness.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I used the same arguments as my noble friend Lord Hanningfield but they were not sufficiently persuasive for the Minister to concede the point at Report stage. The arguments have not changed between Report stage and Third Reading. At the end of the proceedings on 7th April I said that if the Government would not accept 10 years I would consider returning with an amendment for seven years, which I am now doing. As I said, I am grateful to the Minister for accepting that there should be a seven-year gap.

During the debate at Report stage the Minister twice said:

    "For a second referendum to take place, the soundings would have to be more decisive than the soundings that triggered the first referendum".—[Official Report, 7/4/03; col. 121.]

Given that the Minister and the Front Bench of the Liberal Democrats refuse to accept a constraint on the Secretary of State that in determining whether the soundings have shown a sufficient level of interest for a referendum to be called there should be some evidence that it was more likely to produce a positive result and if the soundings on a second referendum would have to be more decisive, it would be helpful to know how decisive the first soundings would have to be.

What the Minister has said today and on previous occasions in regard to whether a "Yes" vote in a referendum with a majority of only one or more will be decisive is causing great concern among our colleagues in local government. The Bill states that it will not be; that it is a matter for the Secretary of State to make a judgment. The Minister has again said that if there is a slight majority it will be a matter for the Secretary of State. He also said that, when faced with a "Yes" vote—however slight—it would be a brave Secretary of State who did not say that that side had won.

We accept that. It has been that way in local government since Adam was a boy where there is a majority of one. Sometimes, if there is no majority at all, a coin is tossed to decide who wins. But there is always a decision based on a vote. We understand it will be different with these referendums and that there will be a subjective decision by the Secretary of State. I say "subjective" advisedly because the Minister has given no indication whatever of what will weigh in the Secretary of State's mind in deciding whether or not the result of a referendum is definitive.

Those voting in a referendum—either for or against—will expect the result, whatever it may be, to be definitive. We now understand that it will not be definitive. Although we welcome the fact that the Government have conceded that there should be a seven-year gap rather than a five-year gap before the procedure can be repeated, it would be helpful to know what will help the Secretary of State to decide whether or not a "Yes" vote is definitive. If a "Yes" vote is not to be definitive, under what criteria will the Secretary of State make that judgment?

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It is not good enough to say that we are being difficult for the sake of it. Ultimately, when the Bill receives Royal Assent, people throughout the whole of the country—especially those in areas where a referendum is to be called—will need to understand what will be up for judgment; what criteria will be used by the Secretary of State in making those judgments; and what their votes are worth. I beg to move.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, this is a good amendment. I would have preferred a 10-year period but, nevertheless, we should be grateful for the fact that the Minister has moved on the matter. Seven years is certainly a much better period than five years.

The other point I should like to make—I was tempted to table an amendment but, when I thought about the matter, I realised that the problems involved would be difficult to resolve—is what will happen if an elected regional assembly turns out to be an absolute disaster so far as the people are concerned. If the local authorities and the general public believe a regional assembly to be a complete and utter waste of money, that it is interfering in all kinds of matters in which it should not interfere and in which it did not have the power to interfere before it was set up, what remedy will be available to the people of the area?

The Minister will say, "Well, we are a listening government". I am not at all sure about that but, nevertheless, the Government boast that they are. If there were resolutions from local councils, for example, and representations from ordinary people that the elected regional assemblies were not doing the job that they were expected to do and were exceeding what was expected of them, would the Government be receptive to holding another referendum to ascertain whether regional assemblies should be abandoned and a different kind of local government, with real powers, re-established?

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