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Baroness Hanham rose to move, as an amendment to the above Motion in the name of the Lord Rooker, at end to insert "but this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's decision to lay six orders relating to regional assemblies before the publication of a draft regional assemblies Bill; and before publication of the Electoral Commission's report on the all-postal ballots used in the pilot areas during the elections of 10 June".

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the Minister is an honourable man and it must have choked him to death to make this statement today. Yesterday in the House of Commons there was a debate on the orders for elected assemblies in all three regions. Twelve hours later, after burning the midnight oil, using the scalpels and looking into the future, it became obvious to the Government that there was not a cat's chance in hell that they were going to win the referendums in Yorkshire and Humber and in the north-west. The only region in which the Deputy Prime Minister has ever been clear that he might perhaps have a chance is the north-east—and that is where he is now basing his hopes for this completely ridiculous form of local government. He hopes that the north-east will become a Trojan horse for a policy which is rapidly becoming more and more ridiculous as time goes on.

The orders have been laid at the wire of parliamentary time; they could not have been delayed longer. After today, there would have been no one in Parliament to consider them. The Minister said that the draft Bill will be laid once the orders have been approved—but that will be after Parliament is in recess.

The draft Bill will contain details of the powers that will pass to one regional assembly if the people of the north-east are unwise enough to vote for it. But the passing of powers is a matter for Parliament. How can it possibly be that a Bill which indicates the passing of power from Parliament to local government—because that is what the Government have always said this is—is not a matter for Parliament?

It has been a matter of great amazement to me and to my colleagues in the other place that the draft Bill has not appeared before now. Now it will appear during the Recess in order that the people of the north-east of England, during their holidays on the beach, will be able to scour it for information about what the regional assembly might or might not be about to do.

The build-up to these regional assemblies has been quite extraordinary. We have debated in Parliament, both here and in the other place, the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Bill, which turned out, of course, to be the forerunner of the Bill for the referendum. It is clear that, as a result of the European elections, the Deputy Prime Minister has got cold feet. He cannot see how the referendums in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber could take place "safely"—a word used by the right honourable Nick Raynsford in the other place when he was weaseling his way out. He said that the Government would, of course, listen to what the Electoral
 
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Commission had to say if it decided that it would not be possible for those referendums to take place safely—but, of course, there might be reasons why the views of the Electoral Commission should not be taken into account.

Thanks to the chairman of the Electoral Commission, its report on the pilots—which is absolutely germane to the referendum which will take place—will be available at the end of August. It was not due to be available until mid-September. So there is now this possibility, which the Government must make absolutely certain becomes a reality, that Parliament will have the opportunity to debate both the Electoral Commission's decisions and the draft Bill in September. That is very late in the process for this single election.

Government information has been circulated in all three regional areas. I have seen the leaflets. It must have cost a fortune. The elections have been set up; there are No campaigns and Yes campaigns, and people have been spending money well in advance. And it is all for nothing. The Minister says that these elections may take place—something was said about the difficulties caused by party conferences. But party conference dates have been known since last year, so the timetabling of the election has nothing to do with them.

All the evidence that we have had on these elections showed that Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west were going nowhere. Very possibly the election in north-east will go nowhere as well. This leaves people in limbo. People in the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and Humber have been led to believe that this great new part of local government would be theirs for the asking and that they would need only to vote in favour to have an elected regional assembly with great powers over planning, housing, skills, jobs—everything would come pouring in. Now the Government have reneged on that. I am not sorry they have reneged—I think that that is a very good thing. It will come as no surprise to Members of this House to know that we think that regional assemblies are a complete nonsense and are very pleased that the Government will not go ahead with them. It is also reasonable to presume that there is no possible question of these regional assembly elections in those two regions ever taking place, and certainly not before the election.

These orders include all-postal voting in the north-east. We have not welcomed this and it is certainly part of the reason why the Government have had to draw back today. All-postal voting is not an answer to elections, particularly not to election turn-out. It is clear that there are very serious problems with postal voting and that it does not necessarily carry what the Government think it does. But once again, they are hell-bent on going down this route. There is one deposit box for every 50,000 people, scattered across the north-east. If anybody knows the north-east, and plenty here do, they will know that it is a pretty wide county. One among 50,000 people will mean that they are quite far apart.
 
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This is a terrible day for Parliament. I believe that there is an abuse of Parliament here. Yesterday the Government were going ahead with all three referendums. They have now had cold feet and have withdrawn. This is the only opportunity for the House to make any comment on what the Government are doing. I believe that there will be a Statement in the other place this afternoon, but that is too late for anybody to influence matters.

The questions that will be asked in the north-east will be myriad; those asked in the two regions where the referendum will not now take place will, I hope, cover the Government in such embarrassment that they never raise their head on these matters again.

My honourable friend Bernard Jenkin was quite prescient about this. He said yesterday:

I do not know whether the BBC took up what he said, but at seven o'clock this morning it had a very clear idea of what the Government would say today, well in advance of this House and the House of Commons sitting.

The Government are very good at spin; they have always tried to make sure that when they are in a hole, they can dig themselves out through the means of the press having got there first. So there are no surprises. My honourable friend Bernard Jenkin did not think there were any surprises yesterday, and he was right. The referendums will not take place. The referendum in north-east England will be the only opportunity for the Deputy Prime Minister.

I hope that the voters in north-east England now realise what a cynical set-up this is. I recommend that they reject the Deputy Prime Minister's offer of this referendum and put regional government where it belongs—in the ground, and possibly the Deputy Prime Minister with it. I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House regrets Her Majesty's Government's decision to lay six orders relating to regional assemblies before the publication of a draft regional assemblies Bill; and before publication of the Electoral Commission's report on the all-postal ballots used in the pilot areas during the elections of 10 June".—(Baroness Hanham.)

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, one might call this cynical, one might call it pragmatic—possibly, probably, both. But let us not lose focus on the importance of addressing the orders before the House. I think we may be a little tempted to look only at the fact that two of them are now off the agenda.

I had the radio on at a quarter to six this morning, when I heard the very distinctive voice of the noble Lord, Lord Haskins. I caught the end of what he said, which was something like, "Then you can go and wave a fist at a bureaucrat nearby instead of a central
 
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government bureaucrat". He may have been talking about regional government or he may have been talking about something else, but it seemed not a bad way of summing up what your Lordships are being asked to consider this morning.

I thank the Minister for the helpful timetable from him and from Nick Raynsford showing what might happen if the orders are passed and a referendum is to be held on 4 November and with regard to the problems inherent in postponing what will now be a single referendum in the event of a report from the Electoral Commission on the safety or otherwise of postal ballots. I thought that the printed timetable that was circulated was very honest on the Government's part in referring to the problems of running into a general election. That is another argument for a fixed-term Parliament so that we all know where we are.

Will the Minister say more about the position in the north-east if the Electoral Commission makes an unfavourable report about postal ballots? I may have been distracted when he dealt with that point, but I have checked with a couple of people, and I think it would be helpful if he could be clear about it.


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