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Lord Dixon: My Lords, I shall speak against the amendment. If the Bill were the first to be introduced to devolve power from Parliament, I could accept the points that have been made. However, this is the fourth Bill: we had the London, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Bills and no such pressure was brought to bear on them.
It is interesting to note that when we first debated the Bill the Conservative Opposition stated that it gave no powers to the regions and that it was useless. They said that neither the Government nor the local authorities were giving up any powers. Now it has become a major constitutional Bill and they want thresholds. I say to my noble friend Lord Stoddart that the threshold put on the Scottish Bill in 1978 delayed Scottish devolution for 12 years.
I hope that the amendment will be rejected. I see no reason why, if the people in the North East want a regional assembly, they should be tied to thresholds when Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and London were not.
Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I respectfully ask him whether he would accept that, if the Government did not want to have regional assemblies, they would not have introduced the Bill.
Lord Dixon: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Corbett has just explained that. If the Government were adamant that they wanted regional assemblies they could introduce them without going through the process of referendums. They are having referendums in order to ask the people in the regions whether they are agreeable to regional assemblies.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, technically that answer is right. However, a number of Ministers are on record as saying that they would like regional assemblies. Therefore, we know that the mechanisms for obtaining them give people a say locally.
I rise to make only one small point in response to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She accused those of us on these Benchesindeed, anyone who has spoken in favour of the amendmentthat somehow or other we have made the assumption that county councils are more vulnerable than district councils. We stand by the belief that county councils are more vulnerable.
It is true that if the counties of Cornwall and Devon were to remain unitary authorities they would first have to subsume all the local powers of district councils because they would become the unitary authorities. The local government for people throughout the whole of Cornwall and Devonand this applies to other
They are most vulnerable. In Cambridgeshire, where I come from, if the counties were to become the unitary authorities they would have to subsume powers and considerable powers would move upwards to the county councils, although we have been told time and again that powers will not move upwards. They would lose all their local authorities throughout the eastern region.
At the beginning of our debates, the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, expressed real reservations about the survival of county councils. When it comes to looking for the size of regional authorities, I suspect the likelihood will be that counties will go and many of our district councils will be merged into becoming larger district councils which will form the unitary authorities. If Berkshire county council had become the unitary authoritythe example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamweea serious amount of local government would have been lost in Berkshire.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, my brief and views have not changed on this issueand this is the third or fourth time we have addressed it. It appears to be implicit in the amendment that a turnout of as low as 5 or 10 per cent is acceptable. The amendment provides that on a turnout of 30 per cent there must be a 66 per cent majority. Intellectually, it is obviously the case that the Front Bench opposite will be prepared to see a turnout as low as 5 per cent and still get a result. Therefore, there is nothing intrinsic about the figures we have in front of us.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, referred to the first Scottish referendum in which there was a figure of 40 per cent. If that figure was not reached, no matter what the voteand in that case there was a majority vote in favour of devolution but not a 40 per cent turnoutthe proposal would fall. It was deemed that anything less than that and it would not work.
Yet it is envisaged in the amendment that on a turnout which could be anything below 30 per cent a result would be achieved provided that the majority of those voting was 66 per cent. Therefore, let us not hear the argument that there is something holier than thou in the amendment. That is not the case.
I do not want to labour my next point because only two or three Members mentioned it. The counties are not affected and the reference to Berkshire is a good example. The lord lieutenancies and so forth will remain, whatever happens. I accept that the county councils have a different governing structure, but once or twice people slip it in as though one is the same as the other. That is not the case. We are not ripping up England's history or destroying England's county structure. The cricket teams will remainincluding Middlesex, I suspectwhether or not there is regional government.
I must make another point just because of the tales of woe and fear implicit in some of the speeches. As I said in Committee and confirmed on Report, the earliest conceivable date on which an elected regional assembly could be up and running is July 2006the other side of a general election. It will not happen this side of any proposed date for a general election, subject to a referendum, or referendums, next autumn. That point must be taken on board and I have repeatedly made it clear. I have given the timetable previously, indicating that it will not be possible to have an elected regional assembly up and running before July 2006. We are therefore not rushing this matter.
If there had been the will, there could have been a Bill setting up regional assemblies. There is no question of that. The noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, said that the Government are unfair; they are asking the people to decide when it is their job. In this case, we do not believe that it is.
I do not accept that there is an intrinsic argument about turnouts giving power. I freely admit that over many years my personal preference has been in favour of PR systems. I used to find it difficult to explain to people in this country and abroad how we in this country could have a huge majority in Parliamentperhaps 142when in three consecutive general elections the number of people who voted for the governing party was never more than 43 per cent. There are many paradoxes in our electoral system which we must sometime learn to live with.
An interesting analogy has been given in relation to the counties. As has been mentioned, currently we have one existing single-tier county council, which is Herefordshire. That is pretty rural. I suspect there is no doubt that it is more rural than anywhere in the country
Lord Rooker: You see, they are making up the rules as they go along. It is because it is very small. It abuts (does it not?) Wales where the Conservative Party abolished the county councils. I shall not take lectures from noble Lords opposite about the abolition of county councils. My knowledge of history is not good but county councils were abolished in Wales. Wales is predominantly a rural country; there is no question about that. Clearly, where it abuts HerefordshireI do not know this in great detailthere are district councils because that is the structure. So far as I can see from my own knowledge, which is scant, it works quite well having district councils in a rural area on one side of the border and county councils in a rural area on the other. I accept that there is a difference because of devolution in Wales. However, the idea that there is one stamp which works, the status quo, which is what the Conservatives seek to preserve because they are opposed to the Bill, I do not accept for one moment.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, there are no surprises left in these discussions. Indeed, the fact that the Minister has decided not to support the amendment is no surprise either. As he said, we have discussed these matters pretty thoroughly and fundamentally all the way through the passage of the Bill. However, it is extremely interesting that he reiterated the fact that this regional government will be simply a scrutiny area. That is what he said, so that is what I presume he means. Therefore, the only powers that any elected regional assemblies will have will be to scrutinise. We have discussed that before. The fact is that this will be a completely toothless tiger.
However, I do not think we can assume that that is where the Government will leave the matter. The electorate at least needs to be sureI hope that ultimately it will be surewhat it is voting for. It is clear that it will not be sure under the current circumstances. There is nothing in the Bill to indicate what it is voting for except what we have managed to pick apart and pick out during this very long process. Whatever the Bill does it divides up England into a series of administrative units, administrative regions. There is no point in the Minister shaking his head. That is exactly what it does. If it does not do that there is not the slightest point to all the efforts put in by the Minister and everyone else during the passage of the Bill.
The shake of the head, the Minister will say, is because it will be for the electorate to decide whether it wants such an administrative region. If the electorate wants it, our view is that it should demonstrate that. Whether it be the first or last to take a decision, it should demonstrate that it wants this new beast in a form and number which is sufficient to indicate support for it.
This is not a recipe for encouraging abstention. From this side of the House there will be urgent efforts to ensure within the regions that a no vote is encouraged. That is what democracy is about: voting in favour or voting against this devolution. If people choose to abstain, they are entitled to do that. However, we shall want to encourage them, as will everyone, to have a view and to make it known. We still believe that there should be some criteria, more than just one vote, which would enable this new form of administration to be elected.