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Lord Whitty: My Lords, in discussions within Europe both the Irish and ourselves have taken the view that we should change the position so that we would no longer be prevented requiring a label showing the country of origin. Those discussions continue and will conclude well before 2010 and, it is to be hoped, will lead to changes in the labelling requirements from the EU so as allow us to introduce mandatory labelling. However, a vast amount of voluntary labelling can be done, in particular under the code referred to by my noble friend Lord Carter, which impinges in this area. Many supermarkets and meat producers already do that.
On differential standards, it is important to recognise that the vast bulk of pork imports to this country come from the Netherlands and Denmark. Both of those countries have pretty high standards of pork care. Moreover, European standards will, if you like, catch up with British standards. We have already incurred the expenses attached to meeting such standards, whereas our competitors will now have to face the expense of meeting those requirements.
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Moved, That the Commons message of yesterday be now considered, and that a committee of twelve Lords be appointed to join with the committee appointed by the Commons to consider and report on any draft Mental Health Bill presented to both Houses by a Minister of the Crown;
The Lord President (Baroness Amos) rose to move, That Standing Order 41 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with on 8 September next to allow the Motion standing in the name of the Baroness Byford to be taken before the Committee stage of the Christmas Day (Trading) Bill.
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 24 June be approved [24th Report from the Joint Committee and 14th Report from the Merits Committee].
The noble Lord said: My Lords, before I go into the detail of this order, the House deserves an explanation because, contrary to what is set out on the Order Paper, I shall not be moving the five Motions en bloc, and in fact I do not intend to move the final two Motions.
Concerns were raised in the debate in the other place about all-postal ballots, drawing on some of the experiences of postal voting in recent pilots. There were differences of view on all-postal ballots. This week the Electoral Commission has also announced that it intends to publish its evaluation report of the June pilots and recommendations for future use of all-postal ballots before Parliament returns in September.
The debates in the other place also demonstrated again the solid support and expectations for an early referendum in the north-east region of England. None of the concerns raised about all-postal ballots related to the north-east. There the experiences of all-postal ballots, both in June and in earlier local election pilots, have been very positive. The picture is now one of considerable experience of all-postal ballots that consistently have been widely welcomed by the voters in that region. We have been reflecting overnight on these developments, and on the range of opinions expressed during the debate on the orders. We are a listening Government.
Except where there is a pressing expectation and support for an early all-postal referendum, we have concluded that the right course now is not to proceed with the orders setting up referendums on 4 November, but to await the report of the Electoral Commission. We have therefore decided not to proceed with the orders for the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. Our commitment to referendums in these regions remains unchanged.
Once Parliament returns in September we will make a Statement on how we intend to proceed in these regions, following our detailed assessment of the Electoral Commission's report which, as I have said, will be available before Parliament returns. We are clear, however, that by not proceeding now with these two orders, there cannot be any referendums on 4 November in either of those two regions. Whatever the Electoral Commission reports and whatever is decidedgood, bad or indifferentthere is no prospect whatsoever of referendums being held on 4 November in those two regions. I want to make that clear. As I proceed to set out the chronology of the dates, it will be quite clear why it is not possible, whatever may be said by the commission or anyone else.
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In contrast for the north-east, all that we have heard confirms that it is right now to proceed with the orders providing for all-postal referendums in the north-east on 4 November. That is what the people there want and expect and, I hope, is what will be made possible by noble Lords today.
I therefore beg to move formally the first Motion and speak to the following three Motionsthe Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order; the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order; and the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Date of Referendums, Referendum Question and Explanatory Material)(North East Region) Order. However, as I have said, I will not be moving the other two orders.
The four orders to which I am speaking set out the rules and procedures for the referendums, including the postal ballot; the amounts counting officers can receive for their fees and expenses in connection with the referendums; the spending limit for those campaigning in the referendums; the date of the referendums; the options for unitary local government that voters will be asked to choose between; and the explanatory material that will be provided to voters at the time they vote. I shall take each of those matters in turn.
So far as the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums Order is concerned, this covers the details of the procedure for the conduct of all-postal referendums. I have already said that we believe that the north-east's experience of all-postal voting is different from the other regions. We are confident that problems highlighted in the media coverage of the June election pilots would not apply to the referendum in the north-east. That is because no candidates will be seeking election, and so the risk of fraud will be reduced. There will be a much longer lead-in time for the printing and dispatch of ballot papers in the referendums: six weeks instead of one week, because candidates do not need to be nominated.
Whereas in June there were reports that votes could not be counted because witnessed declarations of identity were incomplete, the Government intend to use security statements, which do not require a witness signature, for this autumn's referendums. The decision was made on the advice of the Electoral Commission that,
There would be more assistance and delivery points in the referendums, one per 50,000 electors, to be opened on the date of the referendum between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. and the preceding seven working days for normal working hours.
For those who cannot reasonably be expected to make it to an assistance and delivery point for reasons of physical impairment, there would be a requirement on counting officers to attend, or make arrangements for one of their clerks to attend on the voter at an agreed time and place.
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I turn to expenditure limits. These are set out in the Local Government Referendums (Expenses Limits for Permitted Participants) Order. Political parties would be subject to a sliding scale of limits, determined by their vote share at the last European elections.
As the Explanatory Memorandum to the Regional Assembly and Local Government Referendums (Counting Officers' Charges) Order makes clear, the cost of holding the referendum will be approximately £1.52 per elector on a 100 per cent turnout. It will also be possible to claim additional resources from the Electoral Commission via an exceptions process if the counting officer can demonstrate a strong case.
Turning to the date, the north-east has set a referendum date of 4 November. The Deputy Prime Minister has considered whether the level of interest in holding a referendum had changed materially since he took soundings about the referendums last year. No evidence was presented that caused us to think that fewer people were interested in having a referendum than a year ago.
On 25 May, the Boundary Committee made its final recommendations for single tier local government in the three northern regions. As required by the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, the committee recommended two options for each county area. The options put forward were a product of a year-long review by the committee, during which time it considered more than 8,000 representations and conducted some 130 meetings.
We have considered the final recommendations and the 650 or so representations that we received. In the light of that consideration, we can accept, reject or modify the committee's recommendations, but we have had regard to the same statutory criteria under which the committee operated, most importantly in regard to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities and the need to secure effective and convenient local government. We have accepted the Boundary Committee's recommendations for the north-east region.
The options that we have adopted will give electors a clear and distinctive choice between different patterns of unitary local government. It is important that the choice is presented simply, clearly and neutrally in the ballot paper. It is also important that voters are provided with sufficient explanatory information to enable them to make an informed choice.
Finally, I should draw your Lordships' attention to article 6 of the orders. These change the period in which applications can be made to the Electoral Commission by permitted participants who want to be the designated organisation for either the Yes or No campaign.
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 provides a default timetable for a referendum period, with a power to change some of the timings as
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appropriate. It would be standard practice to have 28 days for participants to apply for designated organisation status; 14 days for the Electoral Commission to consider those applications; and for that decision to be made at least 28 days before the date of the referendum. That gives 10 weeks.
However, as campaign expenditure and publications are regulated only during the referendum period, the Government believe that the referendum period should start once the orders are effective. As this means the campaign period would extend over the summer, when many people are on holiday, we have extended the period for permitted participants to apply to be designated from 28 days to 42 days. There will then be 14 days for the Electoral Commission to consider applications for designation and around 42 days before the close of poll on 4 November. That gives 14 weeks overall.
Finally, let me take a moment to explain the timing of the publication of the draft Bill. During the course of the passage through the House of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill we had many debates about the draft Bill. We said at the time that we would use our best endeavours to have a draft Bill available before the referendums took place, which is a fairly reasonable consideration. This was in order that people could consider it well before the daywe were not going to publish it the day before the referendumin order that they might see what the powers and functions would be generally. It is a draft Bill; it is not perfect.
Nevertheless, it was never our intention to have the draft Bill scrutinised effectively before the orders were passed; the orders trigger the draft Bill. If the House, in its wisdom, approves today the three administrative orders and the order for the north-east, the draft Bill will be published immediately. It is already available but, technically, it will be published once the orders are approved.
Needless to say, Parliament returns in September, when the Select Committees will be available in the other place to scrutinise the draft Bill. As we have always said, the public scrutiny can start immediately because, subject to the orders being approved, the draft Bill will be published later today.
So our preparations are complete subject to the approval of the orders by the House. We are not making the decision in this House on whether there should be an elected regional assembly in the north-east, and the Government are not making the decision on whether there should be an elected regional assembly in the north-east: the people of the north-east will make that decision. That is what it is all about. We want a fair and vigorous campaignthere will be pros and cons for both partiesbut if the House does not approve the orders we will deny the people of the north-east that choice. I hope the orders will be approved. I commend the order to the House.
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