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Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, there is a precedent. It was set in 1979, in the Scottish referendum on devolution. In fact, the barrier was set

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at 40 per cent of the electorate rather than 40 per cent of those voting. Consequently, a threshold higher than 50 per cent had to be achieved. In the case of the Scottish referendum it was not achieved, and we did not have Scottish devolution until the last Parliament. So there is a precedent for this, and I think that it is probably a good one, although perhaps it was rather a blunt instrument. Amendment No. 15—I do not want to be long about this—seeks to hone that 40 per cent blunt instrument.

Democracy is just as much about disinterest as anything else. People in a democratic society are entitled to be disinterested in the franchise. The amendment ensures that as disinterest increases, the barrier to imposition of the minority view is increased. That is important, and it is not good enough when perhaps only 25 per cent of the electorate have voted that a simple majority should be able to carry a serious constitutional change.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I do not believe that radical constitutional change should be brought about in this country on a low turnout by a narrow majority of people. There should be a clearly demonstrable surge of support for the sort of constitutional change that is envisaged by the Bill. It is a terrible Bill because it sets about undermining the very careful balance that we now have in local government. The county councils are a living demonstration of the fact that we have machinery to ensure that the countryside interest is properly acknowledged and represented. I have said many times before that one only has to look at what would happen in the North West to see what an abominable proposal this is. There is no way that there can be an elected body for the whole of the North West region without ensuring that that elected body would be dominated entirely by urban interests. That is the mathematics of the matter. One only has to look at how the concentration of votes is in the two conurbations of Merseyside and Manchester. No one in this place can fail to acknowledge what a radical constitutional proposal this is, and how damaging it may be. Such a change should not come about on a tiny turnout by a narrow majority of voters. The amendment aims to avoid that abomination.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I regret the Bill and I support the amendment on slightly different grounds from those that have been stated so far. The reality is that the continual corrosive effect over many years of structural legislation to change local government has immensely damaged it. The local government that I knew when I was first elected many years ago no longer exists. The structure is not the same.

However, we are not discussing that. One can very much regret that and one can regret future change, but we are discussing the use of referendums and whether they should have floors below which no action is possible. The Government bring in a referendum when it suits their convenience, rather than legislating directly and taking total responsibility for their actions. They want to and intend to bring about a change, but they do not wish to be held responsible for it. They want to be

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able to say, "The local people decided this, so we will introduce a referendum. The referendum may not go the way we want, so we will have another in seven years' time, and we will leave the question open forever. We will keep rolling the question forward until the public comes up with the answer we want".

They could come up with it on a very low turnout because it would suit the Government's convenience. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that we do not wish to discourage people from voting. An abstention could be taken as a general acceptance of the proposition, or a statement of satisfaction, even if the reality is that it is a statement of no interest and "don't care". It is also probable that turnout in the planned referendums will be low because the majority of people, having been so battered over local government structure for so long, no longer care about it any more.

The problem is that the Government are using the public to take responsibility that ought to be Government's responsibility. Putting a floor into the referendums would mean that people would have to come out and take sufficient interest in the matter. It should have been done in the Scottish referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, has mentioned the first Scottish referendum. I well understand why the Government are frightened of floors because they were beaten by the floor that they established in that referendum. On constitutional issues of major change it is right that there should be a floor. The floors in the amendment are, if anything, weak, but they are better than nothing—and as such I support them.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I assume that there are noble Lords opposite who are going to go out on Thursday in the Conservative cause. When the counts are made just after ten o'clock, and they find there has been a very low turnout, although they have won the seat, they will say to the returning officer, "No, that does not count".

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that the last thing that any of us should have a hand in is to give people the impression that non votes count as much as votes. I find it extraordinary. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith to the extent that the turnout for local government elections is in general appallingly low. Seats change hands in the City of Birmingham on a turnout of 12 per cent. I find that astonishing and appalling. It is no good blaming the electors for that. The political parties are supposed to be the experts. Those of us at each end of this building are supposed to have some experience in explaining to people how to exercise their democratic right. All of us are guilty of failing abysmally if there is that kind of turnout.

I also wish to challenge what the noble Lord has said. The Government do not want a particular result from any ballot on regional assemblies. That is why it is being done this way. There are many criticisms to be made of this paving Bill, but if the Government want

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to establish regional assemblies the length and breadth of England, willy-nilly behind the backs of the electors, they have the votes to do so down at the other end of this building. Where soundings indicate that there is enough interest to have a referendum and to say to people within a region—we have had arguments over what constitutes a region—XDo you or do you not want this form of regional government?", and the price is this, that or the other, I see nothing wrong with that at all.

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I hear what has been said, but if the Government did not want this change, we would not have the Bill.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale: My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord has the issue around his ears. It is just not the case. The whole purpose of the Bill is to give people within the regions the opportunity to express a view on whether they do want regional assemblies or whether they do not. That is what it is all about. It is not seeking to impose that. I have strong views, and I will come clean with your Lordships. I am delighted that the consensus in the West Midlands is that they do not want to be in the first wave of those who want a referendum on whether or not to establish a regional assembly. I am not alone in Birmingham and the West Midlands in my belief that there is little or no interest in that at the moment. Whether that could be or should be built up is another matter. However, the answer to that depends on the people living in that region and not on Ministers or Whitehall.

The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, rather to my surprise, I rise wanting to support the amendment for the reasons well explained by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon. It is a modest safeguard against the imposition of a minority view in the radical change to the way in which local government is organised. I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, that it is comparable with local elections in the city of Birmingham; it is not.

We are entering a completely new world and like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I am deeply concerned about areas where there are huge tracts of empty countryside with relatively few people. That is true of the North West, the North East and the West Midlands. Hereford and Shropshire are the most sparsely populated counties in England, but the West Midlands is completely dominated by the Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Stoke-on-Trent/Potteries conurbation.

The amendment represents a modest way of ensuring that a small vocal urban interest group is not in a position to impose its will on a large area where the majority has a different interest. It is a strange mechanism and I am not sure whether I approve of it, but in this case it is probably a wise safeguard.

I believe that the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has misread its implications for the electoral process. I do not believe that if it were to be introduced it would say to people, "Don't bother to vote". In fact, it would be saying the opposite: "You must vote if you want

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anything to be achieved". There has been a complete misunderstanding of the effect of such a provision if it were to be introduced.

I find myself wanting to support the amendment because I believe that it is a valuable and necessary safeguard if we are to take this radical step in the way in which local Government is arranged in this country.

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