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Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I ought to declare an interest as a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, which has supported the campaign for regional government in England and the two groups in the north-east and in Yorkshire which have been keen on promoting devolution.
This is a sad and strange day. In fact, it is a poor do. There is no greater strength than the advocacy on these Benches for genuine regional devolution. Talking about boundaries is the road to nowhere. It is the road to nothing happening. We know that we have devolved government but the fact is that it is not democratic. The devolved government is there with the civil servants and it is a matter of getting democracy with that.
I cannot fathom the business about postal votes at all. We still have the ballot boxes. They have not been put on the tip. The ballot boxes still exist. So if there is a problem about postal votes in Yorkshire, Lancashire
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and the north-west, we could vote in the normal way that we have done for donkey's years, by marking ballot papers and sticking them in ballot boxes. This business about postal votes and so on is hogwash. We know how to vote if we are keen to have a vote. We have polling stations and we go to them and register our vote. The biggest problem in all this is the lack of enthusiasm. I do not think that the Government's heart is in this. This is the big problem.
Let us compare this with what happened in Scotland. There was the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Noble Lords will remember the phrase, "the settled will of the Scottish people". What attempt has been made to get the settled will of the folk in the regions of England? Where is the hand of the Government?
On an earlier occasion, I said that, although I had great reservations about this, I was prepared to support it because I did not think that the powers were good enough but it was something to build on and we might be able to improve things as the years go by.
There are now three problems for the Government. If this only concerns the north-east, there is the problem of powers. The powers are insufficient. We have heard all along that they are insufficient. Members of the Cabinet who look after education, health and so on have said that those matters cannot be devolved as they wish to retain the powers and are not prepared to devolve them.
There is a problem about local government because it has been brought into the equation. The Conservative Party conveniently confuses local government and regional government. But, again, there has not been real leadership in defining what regional government is and how important it is.
Moreover, as far as the north-east is concerned, there is a problem because there will not be referendums in Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. That is a further handicap to winning a ballot in the north-east. I invite the Minister to respond to this. If one were part of the No campaign campaigning in the north-east, one would be saying, "The powers are not that bright, they are lousing up your local government and, by the way, they are not doing this now in Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west but they think you lot here in the north-east will fall for it". There must be a fair answer to that for the people who are trying to campaign in the north-east because they have their hands tied behind their backs three times now.
I hope that the listening Government and the listening Minister have listened and will have some answers, particularly now that we have a reduced situation of trying to campaign just in the north-east.
Lord Tordoff: My Lords, I ought to declare an interest in that it appears that I am not going to be a voter in Yorkshire. My second interest is, I suppose, dead. I chaired a group of Liberal candidates in the north-west that produced a booklet on regional government for the north-west. That was in 1965. I suspect that it might be slightly out of date. I know for
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certain that there are only two copies left, one under my bed and one under the bed of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. Noble Lords may be pleased or otherwise to know that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, is walking in the Pyrenees so he will not detain us today.
An interesting point arises out of the document that we produced, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Judd; namely, where you put Cumbria. We put it with the north-east at that time. The other problem is what you do with the south-east of England, which is like a Polo mintunconnected communities with a hole in the middle which is Greater London. I thought I heard the Minister say that the subventions of cash to the campaigns would be based on the electoral votes in the European elections. For the life of me I cannot see the connection between those two things. These are totally different issues. To assess the amount of money going to various parties on that basis seems to me to be very peculiar. Perhaps the Government could explain that.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall take advice on that latter point. I do not know the background to that but under the order there has to be some basis for subventions to political parties. We are talking about a referendum; there are no personalities involved. The recent European elections were conducted on a party list basis and therefore did not involve counting votes for personalities. They constitute a fair way of conducting the process. A referendum is not like an election. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that that is probably the connection in that regard.
I shall resist getting into the boundary argument. Noble Lords will know that I have expressed my personal views on the matter. I believe that some counties come under the wrong regions. However, we are not discussing regional boundaries. We said that they were never closed but that we had no plans to change them. We have inherited the regions created for administrative purposes by the previous government. We have no current plans to change them. We said that the matter could always be revisited but that it was not a precursor to regional government.
I am very conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Shutt of Greetland, said that this matter was a poor do. I am constantly reminded of his lack of enthusiasm for the original plan. I remember him saying, "I want to be enthused". I could not enthuse him regarding the proposals because they did not go far enough. The noble Lord then said, and repeated today, "I shall take this because I can build on it". I believe that there is general acceptance of that point. I shall not discuss what might happen to the No and Yes campaigns in the various regions as it would be totally inappropriate for a Minister to try to imagine that. Nor will I comment on what parliamentary colleagues will say in the other place later today when Nick Raynsford makes a Statement.
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I wish to make two points to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. First, there is no chaos. We have a clear policy, which I enunciated this morning, on the way we are proceeding. The legal framework is there. The preparations are made. We are confident about the administration. There is plenty of time. As I explained, because no candidates are involved in the ballots, six weeks are available to deal with the ballot papers, rather than the week that was formerly the case.
As a reasonable person I accept that there is a blight on local government. I accept that, given what the leader of a county council has said in the past and what others have said when talking about local government reorganisation. As I said in my original speech, in September the Government will make a further statement on the way forward following the publication of the Electoral Commission's report, although I cannot say that that will be a definitive statement. Proposals have been made for local government reorganisation in terms of unitary authorities because we are not prepared to have an extra tier of government in those regions. However, we have said that that is part of the regional assembly process, it is not a local government reorganisation for its own sake.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I know it is a cliché but it is a matter for the usual channels. The usual channels decide that matter. Noble Lords sitting behind me and at the side of me decide what is debated. I am just a humble day-to-day mechanistic Minister who does what he is told and turns up on the right day. When the usual channels have fixed a day, they say, "Turn up and this is the subject".
Obviously, this matter will be debated. A draft Bill will be published today, not a Bill. We have said that we will introduce a Bill to go through a parliamentary process only if there is a Yes vote. That is the position. The Government have published a draft Bill with all the necessary extras. We can debate that at a suitable opportunity.
I say to my noble friend Lord Judd that I cannot say anything about turnout. That is a matter to be decided at the time. We hope that there will be a high turnout. Pilots have indicated that postal voting raises turnout. Raising turnout is good for democracy. I have my personal views about elections. I believe that if there were PR, the turnout would be even higher because people's votes would count. However, that is not the Government's view. I say that before my noble friend the Chief Whip jumps on me. My noble friend Lord Judd referred to the social reality. I fully accept the points that he made regarding the discussions in Cumbria not being a solution. He warmly welcomed our decision not to proceed with the relevant order at this time. Obviously, I cannot foresee what will occur in the future.
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The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Guildford- cum-Chelmsford, or Chelmsford-ex-Guildfordthey call them retreads in the other place but I cannot use that phrase hereraised issues regarding the eastern region. I ask him to take on board the following point. So far as I am aware there has never been any local government reorganisation in this country conducted by either of the parties in power that has been submitted to the people's choice before it occurs. That has never happened. I fully accept that we are to that extent in uncharted waters. As regards the abolition of counties and the metropolitan county councils and the boundary changes that took place in the early 1970s following the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Walker, there was no question of people's choice. Parliament decided and Parliament dictated what was good for people in those matters. In the case that we are discussing we are putting forward proposals and options because of the issue of unitary government. It is a piloting process by definition as it will occur in one region out of nine. The process in London is not quite the same.
We are not in retreat as regards regional government, far from it. We have a regional agenda that will proceed, particularly regarding planning and the housing boards that we have already announced. They are not dependent on elected regional assemblies. I have said that the Bill will be draft only.
A slightly earlier version of the ballot paper and explanatory material that I sent to colleagues at the end of last week had been fully tested by the Electoral Commission in a series of in-depth interviews with voters in three regions. They found the text was helpful in explaining the concepts involved in the move from two-tier to single-tier government and, together with the mappingwhich was considered to be clear and helpfulwould enable people to make an informed choice. In addition, large-scale maps will be available at council offices, public libraries and at assistance and delivery points. Therefore, larger-scale maps will be available. I do not accept that what is in the order is just a blob. It contains the detail of which councils are covered.
As regards ballot paper size and eligibility, counting officers can assist partially sighted and blind people to vote either in their own homes or at an assistance and delivery point. A tactile voting device is available for voters. Counting officers can make available a copy of a ballot paper in large format by way of example, but not a proper ballot paper in large format because of the security of the ballot.
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