Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill
Lords amendments considered.
I must draw the attention of the House to the fact that privilege is involved in Lords amendments No. 3, 17, 18 and 34, which are to be considered today. If the House agrees to the Lords amendments, I will ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.
Lords amendment: No. 1.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 2 and 10.
We have before us 35 amendments arising from consideration of the Bill in the other place. On the surface, that number may seem large, but in fact it mainly reflects just one extension of our policy: to give people a choice about their regional governance arrangements. That emerged from discussions that initially began in Committee in this House, in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) raised the issue. Subsequent discussions between us and the Liberal Democrats led to the Liberal Democrat amendment that was moved in the other place.We agreed that those living in two-tier areas should have a say in the form of unitary local government introduced in their area if an elected assembly is established, but our fundamental principle of unitary local government where there is an elected regional tier remains unchanged. I shall explain that further when we come to the next grouping, when we can debate the matter fully if hon. Members wish to do so. The other 18 amendments in that group and the 10 amendments in the final group simply give effect to the main amendment. We have listened carefully to the debate on the ouster clause, both in this House and in the other place.
Although my right hon. Friend has pointed out that later we shall be able to consider in detail the amendment to which he referred, I warmly welcome the fact that the Government listened to representations on the issue and that they have acted in a way that gives people in the two-tier areas a real choice over their future.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that comment. I also pay tribute to her tireless work over many years to promote the cause of regional government, especially in the interests of her own region, the north-east, where I know that she has been extremely active. We have sought to listen carefully on that point and, indeed, other points. We believe that the Lords amendments will improve the Bill, and we approach them in an entirely non-partisan spirit.The ouster clause was a difficult issue, and the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) will give further consideration to it when we deal with it later. Once again, we have tried to find a practical way to meet the policy commitment to ensure that the results of a referendum could not be challenged purely as a result of a frivolous or unserious criticism, while retaining the opportunity for legal consideration if serious malpractice occurred. That has been our objective from the outset, and our new amendment is designed to achieve that. I turn to the first group of Lords amendments, which reflects amendments originally proposed by Conservatives in the other place. The Bill has faced vigorous debate and careful scrutiny in the other place, as it did in the House, and the amendments agreed to there improve and enhance the Bill, while remaining true to the principles that we have always advocated. So the Government will support all 35 Lords amendments, irrespective of whether they were originally proposed by Conservatives, Liberal Democrats or the Government. I hope that that demonstrates both our willingness to listen to constructive criticism and to respond positively in a non-partisan spirit to proposals that will improve the Bill. Lords amendment No. 1 reflects an amendment moved in the other place by Baroness Blatch, who sought to simplify clause 1(6), to make it clearer how the level of interest test works. The Government are happy to accept Lords amendment No. 1. Lords amendment No. 2 is necessary to tidy up subsection (8) in the light of the changes to subsection (6). The current wording at the start of subsection (8) would no longer work, because subsection (6) no longer sets out the conditions or criteria that can apply or not apply. Lords amendment No. 2 is the neatest formulation that we can find to clarify clause 1, in addition to what it says in subsection (6), to allow an order to be made without active consideration of the level of interest. The Secretary of State can also order a regional referendum once he has considered views, information and evidence, as set out in subsection (8). Clause 5 sets out the minimum period, following a no vote in a referendum on establishing an elected regional assembly, before a further referendum can be held. Lords amendment No. 10 was tabled by the Conservatives and accepted by the Government on Third Reading in the other place on Monday. It changes the minimum period from five to seven years. The Government listened carefully to the arguments adduced in support of that amendment, particularly by Lord Hanningfield, and were persuaded by them. Lengthening the minimum period by two years will ease the possible distraction to local authorities of a local government reorganisation without imposing an unduly long period before the population of a region can be given an opportunity to change its mind about establishing an assembly. In effect, there will be at least five years between a referendum and the point at which the Government might initiate the process for a further referendum. That five-year period has always been our policy objective. We were conscious of the fact that the preliminary soundings would shorten that five-year period in practice, so the extension to seven years is designed to achieve the policy effect, while recognising the practicalities. That is an entirely sensible way forward. [Interruption.] The Opposition try to make fun of that, but they originally proposed 10-year or even 20-year minimum periods, which were clearly designed to obstruct the possibility for regions to have the opportunity to reconsider the issue in the light of experience. Those proposals were not acceptable to us because they did not allow for the fact that views might be reasonably expected to change over time, particularly in the light of experience where elected regional assemblies are set up. We were not happy with those amendments when they were moved in Committee, and Lords amendment No. 10, with the seven-year period, keeps to our original policy objective, while allowing for the practicalities that I have already outlined.
I am sure that, just for the record, the Minister would like to remind the House that the Liberal Democrats tabled an amendment that would have extended the length of time to six years. In Committee, the Minister ridiculed that amendment, but it seems as though it is close to the final outcome. I do not want to make too much of that, but, for the record, we should remind the House that that happened.
As I said at the outset, we have tried to approach the issue in a wholly non-partisan spirit. We could not see the logic of the six-year period, and I pointed out in Committee that five years is the normal period for the duration of a Parliament, so there is good precedent for such a period. We could not understand the basis for having a six-year period.As a result of further consideration—we listened to a point that was made in another place—there will be a period during which soundings have to be taken before a referendum can be initiated. That period could be up to two years, which is why we have agreed to the seven-year period, so there is good logic behind the proposal. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will know from other instances in the Bill, we are always happy to engage in constructive debate and to make practical improvements to the Bill, and in no way do I wish to sound churlish about his contribution to improving the Bill. I urge the House to agree to these Lords amendments.
The Minister very nearly got through the first group of Lords amendments with a straight face. As he said, Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 were, in one case, introduced by my noble Friends in the other place and, in the other case, by the Government, as a tidying up exercise. They are good amendments, which represent an attempt to make marginally more intelligible the very complex language of clause 1, and they are certainly an improvement.Sadly, all this is still slightly academic because clause 1(9) will still allow the Secretary of State to cancel a referendum at any time if he considers that it is not appropriate, having ordered it to take place. In other words, if the Secretary of State determines that the process is not going the way that he had hoped and it does not look as though he will win his referendum, he can pull stumps and cancel the whole show. That would be regarded, in everyday language, as somewhat loading the dice in the Deputy Prime Minister's favour. Up to the last minute, he can cancel the referendum if he feels that he is losing the argument. I am waiting for the Government to introduce a Bill that would provide a similar facility for general elections. It would be very convenient for the Prime Minister if he were able to call a general election and, two and a half weeks later, decide to cancel it by order because it did not look as though things were going quite the right way. Lords amendments Nos. 1 and 2 improve the language of the Bill because they slightly clarify the intention without fundamentally changing the meaning of clause 1. Lords amendment No. 10 is different. As the Minister has acknowledged, my hon. Friends and I argued for a 10-year gap between referendums. We deployed precisely the same logic as Lord Hanningfield deployed in arguing in the other place that the sword of Damocles hanging over the structure of local government is bound to be debilitating to local government and to impact negatively on its principal business, which is to get on with delivering good quality services to the people whom its tiers serve. It is simply not desirable to have local government areas where a referendum has been held, perhaps the argument for an elected regional assembly has been lost by a modest margin, and it is clear to everyone that the Secretary of State will seek to go around the loop again at the earliest opportunity and put the question to a referendum again as soon as he is able to do so. In those circumstances, a short period will create a very high degree of uncertainly, possibly making it difficult for local authorities to recruit and retain good staff, when everyone can see on the horizon at least the possibility of reorganisation or abolition of those bodies, so we argued for a 10-year period.
I wish to try to reinforce my hon. Friend's point. Northumberland county council and the local district councils already have a problem with recruitment and retention, and people are looking over their shoulders and wondering whether they will have a future in a few years' time. That is causing considerable problems to local authorities today.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. I have heard some of the anecdotal examples quoted from the north-east, and there is a very real problem. The problem is not theoretical; it is having an impact right now on the ability of local authorities to carry out what I assume is the Government's shared objective with local authorities and, indeed, the Opposition—delivering good quality services to local people—and they are not being helped by the introduction of further uncertainty.1 pm I remain of the view that 10 years would be a sensible period. Clearly, however, seven years is better than five. The Government vehemently defended their five-year proposition in this place, however, and as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has mentioned, they vigorously resisted his suggestion that a six-year period might be worth exploring. I am not sure why the Government, having vigorously rejected 10 years and six years, have concluded that seven years is acceptable. Five years was not selected by the Government as a random figure—it was not just plucked out of thin air—and the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said in Committee:
He continued:"A five-year period strikes the right balance … We want to strike the right balance and we believe that an interval of five years does that."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 3 December 2002; c. 36.]
The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), said much later:"I think that the question of precedent was addressed in the debate, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to be given additional justification … he should be made aware that a five-year period is the provision within the Local Government Act 2000 for repeat referendums on mayoral constitutional arrangements … There is another obvious logical reason why we decided on five years; that is the maximum period for the life of a Parliament. Therefore, we believe that five years is appropriate. There is a precedent for it and, above all, it is the right period of time … I hope that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is now satisfied that five years is better than six."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 3 December 2002; c. 38–9.]
It seems to me that the Government's stance is in strange contrast to their intransigence in the face of the range of suggestions and the rationale put forward at an earlier stage. The Under-Secretary mocked us in Committee when, after suggesting 20 years, we tried 10 years, to see how the Government would react. He remarked that the Opposition had changed their mind and by doing so had proved his point that five years was the optimum period. The Government are therefore also capable of changing their mind. On balance, therefore, seven is better than five but not as good as 10. What a display of synthetic self-righteous indignation we had to go through in Committee—I include the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton in that—to reach the compromise of seven years. In future, when Ministers say that they have not plucked a figure out of thin air, that they have considered the matter long and hard and that they genuinely believe that it is the right solution to the problem, we will know exactly what they mean."The Government have not plucked that five-year figure from the air. As Members will know, five years is the maximum interval between general elections and is also the standard interval for European parliamentary elections. I believe that five years is the right interval."—[Official Report, 23 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 491.]
We should welcome the Lords amendments. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) was right that we had a tough debate in Committee on this issue and that various propositions were put forward. The Government resisted them at the time, as they resisted every Conservative and Liberal Democrat amendment on all aspects of the Bill. They listened to the weight of our argument, however, and while they tried to stare it down at the time, they were forced to consider it.In the other place, those arguments were strengthened. In this case, an argument from a Conservative peer persuaded them, and I am glad that Ministers reflected on those arguments and changed their mind. It is a matter of judgment, as I said in Committee, as to whether the period should be four years, five years, six years or seven years. It is question of striking the balance. In the Minister's initial statement, he tried to suggest that there was logic behind seven years. I am not sure whether I am convinced that there is logic; I think that it is a matter of judgment. If the House decides on seven years, I think that that is probably better than five: it means that the problems of instability in local government, to which the noble Lord Hanningfield referred in the other place, will be dealt with properly. It would be interesting if the Minister were to explain a little more of the logic of seven years, for the record. Therefore, should the House ever have to return to the point, we will at least be able to review the argument that was put at this time.
I am pleased that there is broad agreement to the amendments. No Member objected to amendments Nos. 1 and 2, although the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) raised a question about clause 1(9), which, of course, is not being amended. I should therefore correct his unfortunate impression that the Government would use that subsection to postpone a referendum if they felt that the right outcome was not likely: that is neither the intention nor the scope of the power, which allows the Secretary of State to vary or revoke an order if he thinks that it is not appropriate for a referendum to be held on the date specified.I explained in Committee, and perhaps I should explain again for the benefit of the House, that the date might have been fixed some time in advance because of the process involved, and that other circumstances might make it wise for the date to be varied and for postponement to take place—for example, a couple of years ago elections were postponed because of foot and mouth disease. The other obvious example would be a major state funeral, or an event of that nature, clashing with the date pre-arranged for a referendum. The other crucial safeguard is that any amendment must be made by an order subject to affirmative resolution. The somewhat underhand approach suggested by the hon. Gentleman is therefore not possible, so I hope that he will accept that it is necessary to include the safeguard in the Bill for good reason. It is not the subject of the Lords amendments, so I hope that we can pass over the issue rapidly.
I understand the Minister's explanation, and I understand why it may be necessary to vary the date of the order, but I cannot understand why he would feel it necessary to revoke it.
There might be a significant change of circumstances between the date on which the referendum was initially set and the date on which it was due to take place. The opportunity to postpone or revoke is therefore a necessary safeguard, but it is subject to affirmative resolution. If a Government wished to revoke, they would have to explain why. I can envisage circumstances in which, rather than postponing, it might be necessary to start from scratch and begin the soundings exercise again before a referendum was held—for example, where new evidence had come to light about whether there was a real interest in holding a referendum in a region. That is a necessary and useful safeguard, but the Government would have to justify the use of the power for that purpose. I hope that hon. Members will accept that there is nothing nefarious about that. The provision is entirely sensible and pragmatic to ensure efficient administration and to avoid possible illogicalities in the implementation of the policy intent.
The Bill clearly allows the Government not only to vary the date but to revoke the order. I thought that, in the Minister's initial response, he was reading into the record a limitation on that scope, making it clear that the Government would never use that to cancel a referendum that had been ordered, but in responding to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) I fear that he went backwards and confirmed that the Government could cancel a referendum that had been ordered.
I thought I had already made it quite clear that the purpose of the power is simply to allow for a change of circumstances that might make it inappropriate for the referendum to proceed. One such circumstance would be a clash of dates, and that point has been widely accepted.The second circumstance that I set out was if, in the period between the initial date set for the referendum and the point at which the Secretary of State chose to introduce an order, it became clear that a material change in circumstances had occurred that might necessitate a further soundings exercise before the referendum. We have been through all these issues in considerable detail, because there is a process between the initial indication that a referendum will be held and the holding of the referendum. That process involves the boundary committee conducting a review of local government boundary arrangements and making recommendations for a wholly unitary structure of local government. That is a time-consuming process. In that time, circumstances can change, and it is obviously sensible to have provision to cope with that. I have explained why the provision is in the Bill. It is not a nefarious or suspect process; it is there for good administrative reasons.
I would find it easier to accept my right hon. Friend's arguments if we were clear about the objective basis by which the Secretary of State would determine the level of interest in a region before the referendum process was set up. In Committee, my right hon. Friend repeatedly failed to explain what the objective basis would be. If we do not know what the objective basis is, how will we know whether it has changed?
I did not repeatedly fail to give assurances. My hon. Friend may have repeatedly failed to listen to the assurances, but that is a different matter. The Secretary of State is required to take soundings, and he will have to have regard to those soundings and could certainly be subject to legal challenge if he acted in a way that indicated that he had not had regard to them. In the circumstances that I have just described, an event could take place in the period during which the boundary committee was conducting its review—I have already referred to foot and mouth disease—that would make it inappropriate for the referendum to proceed on the given date. Indeed, a delay would be inevitable. If there were any suggestion that, as a result, the basis on which the Secretary of State had taken his decision about the soundings was no longer valid, he could be open to challenge if he had not had regard to evidence suggesting a change in the circumstances that had led him to call a referendum.Those are the circumstances—I do not think that they will happen often, but they could—that might require the Secretary of State not simply to postpone the date of a referendum, but to begin the process again. Obviously, there could be other circumstances—I hate to envisage them happening—in which a prolonged delay resulting from a major war or event of that nature would make it inappropriate to hold a referendum and wrong to postpone it indefinitely. Therefore, for practical reasons, there must be a power to terminate as well as to postpone. However, I hope that the House will recognise that there is a real safeguard, because the Secretary of State will be able to use the power only by means of an affirmative resolution. The House will have every opportunity to reject an order if it does not believe that there is good logic behind it.
I appreciate that the Minister and his Department are optimistic that regions will proceed along the lines of the boundaries proposed, but to what extent do the Lords amendments, which I support in principle, allow for the fact that, as I and colleagues confidently predict, the Government will not succeed in achieving regional assemblies on the boundaries as currently proposed for certain areas? Do the material changes referred to in the amendments allow for the likelihood that certain regional assemblies will not be set up in the way that the Government hope by containing provisions for new boundaries to be proposed?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is particularly interested in the boundaries for understandable reasons, but none of the amendments that we are considering today impacts on boundary issues. The Government have made clear their policy intention to proceed on the basis of the existing Government office boundaries. We have not precluded a further look at these matters in the longer term, but, in the short term, we are proceeding on the basis of the existing Government office boundaries.Other amendments in this group relate to the period between referendums. I make it clear once again to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge that our objective has always been that there should be a five-year period between referendums. That was the basis on which we opposed his amendments in Committee and on which we rejected the Liberal Democrat amendments. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) rightly pointed out, we considered the possibility that the practicalities and mechanics leading up to a referendum would bite into that five-year period. Lord Hanningfield made that point in the other place. The process of taking soundings and commissioning a boundary review could take up to two years out of the five-year period. In practice, rather than there being a five-year gap between referendums, there would be a three-year gap between a no vote and the beginning of the process. We accept the argument that that would be too short, would be disruptive and would have an adverse impact on local government. To stay true to our objective of a five-year period between disruption, we have accepted the amendment that allows for a seven-year period between referendums, because the preliminaries could take up to two years. It is a practical, pragmatic response. That is the logic, and there is sense behind it. I hope that hon. Members, who have broadly welcomed the outcome, will not continue to quibble about the precise way in which we are acting. It is a sensible response to genuine concerns voiced in this House and the other place.
The Minister is now defining his objective as achieving a five-year window between, as he puts it, disruption. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) has given a clear example of the way in which disruption is continuous if the threat remains hanging over local authorities. Does the Minister not believe that the threat of reorganisation will make it difficult, if not impossible, for local authorities to recruit and retain good staff in the intervening period?
I do not accept that, because the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was making the point that we are currently engaged in a soundings exercise. That has naturally caused concern in authorities in two-tier areas, such as in his region, where, it is fair to say, as I have always said without anticipating the outcome of the exercise, objective evidence suggests that there probably is significant interest in holding a referendum. That is why we have accepted the amendment, as it deals with part of the period of up to two years leading to a referendum. However, once the referendum has been held, there will be a guarantee that there will be no further possibility of change for five years. That is the safeguard against the fear that the hon. Gentleman raised.
I did not serve on the Committee, but I have taken a close interest in these matters and was proud to launch "Devon says no to regional government" last Friday. In the five-year window that the Minister is describing, how can he guarantee to those of who are sceptical about this regional odyssey that untold pressure will not be brought on councils in areas that rejected the referendum first time round or voted no? Will he guarantee that they will not be penalised in the intervening period and that no Government money will be used to soften them up for round two, which, if he had his way, would be replaced by rounds three and four at five-year periods until an area was subjugated to following his line?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not serve on the Committee because that might have helped to allay some of the paranoia that clearly affects his judgment. We have absolutely no intention of bringing pressure to bear; there will be a choice. Each region will be free to express its views in a referendum and we repeatedly made it clear that we do not expect all regions to express similar interest in an elected regional assembly. We do not wish to impose something universally. In fact, the Conservative party suggested that referendums should be held in every English region. That is not sensible because we know perfectly well that there is not a great deal of interest in some regions and we intend to hold referendums only where there is clear interest. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will contain his anxiety and realise that we are extending choice. We shall give people the opportunity to have an elected regional assembly if they wish, but we shall not impose one if they do not want it. We certainly do not intend to bring pressure to bear on individual local authorities to support an elected regional assembly in their region.
I see that the hon. Gentleman cannot contain his excitement, so I shall give way once again.
On the subject of regional government, I assure the Minister that I can contain almost everything. My party suggested that if a referendum is held in one area, referendums should be held in all areas because we believe that anything that involves such constitutional change should be subject to a referendum. I am still not happy because an area such as mine in Devon might well vote no the first, second and subsequent times, but be swamped and outvoted by other areas in the artificial creation that is the south-west region, such as the urban areas of Bristol and Swindon.
There is probably little hope of dissuading the hon. Gentleman from the paranoia that has engulfed his approach to the issue. It is somewhat illogical for him to support an organisation called "Devon says no" while clearly advocating that a referendum should be held in Devon and everywhere else. He has not followed through the logic behind his position.
Surely the real difference between the proposals of this Government and the previous Tory Government is that we will give local people a say in their regions. Under the Conservative Government's county council reorganisation, Tyne and Wear county council was abolished despite the fact that no local person had any say.
My hon. Friend makes a fair and valid point. We are giving people a choice over whether they want an elected regional assembly and, if they do, a choice of the best form of local government reorganisation to accompany that. That is very different from the actions of the Conservative Government when they abolished county councils such as Berkshire without giving people one iota of choice about it or any opportunity to express their opinions. The Conservatives abolished the Greater London council without giving people a choice. It is sheer humbug for Conservative Members to talk about giving people choice because they did no such thing when their party was in government.
Will the Minister desist from saying that he proposes to give people choice about the form of local government reorganisation? He proposes no such thing. He proposes to allow people to express a preference among different forms of unitary local government reorganisation, but that is not a choice about the form of local government reorganisation.
The hon. Gentleman should not try to put words in my mouth. I made it quite clear that we will allow people to choose the form of unitary local government that is most appropriate for their area. A proliferation of tiers of government is not right; indeed, I thought that the Conservative party thought it inappropriate to introduce more tiers. If people want a regional tier—it is their choice—it is right for local government to be reorganised into a single unitary tier so that there would be no more than two tiers of government below the national level—
Order. It looks as though we are going very wide of the Lords amendments. Perhaps hon. Members could restrain themselves.
I shall be only too happy to do so, Mr. Speaker.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not try to tempt me down paths that you, Mr. Speaker, would not regard as appropriate.
I hope not, although I might be treading on thin ice. I was hoping to explain to the Minister why my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and I are paranoid about the issue. The Minister said that there was strong interest in north-east England, but I refer him to a written answer that he gave me on 18 March to a question about the level of interest that resulted from his soundings exercise. He said that there had been 4,500 expressions of interest nationally, of which only 300 had come from the north-east. If he thinks that 300 replies from more than 2 million people represents an expression of strong interest, no wonder my hon. Friend and I are paranoid.
I cannot speak for the paranoia of the hon. Gentlemen. They will have to answer for that to their electorates; the people of East Devon and Hexham might well say no to them in due course.The soundings exercise was designed to elicit responses from people and organisations. We made it clear that organisations, especially representative bodies, that sounded out their members' views or that wished to express the views of a wider group should state that in their response so that their views could be given more weight than responses by individuals. As the hon. Member for Hexham knows, owing to a Lords amendment that we shall consider in the next group, we considered it right to extend the soundings period to allow people a further opportunity to comment in light of the change. We have therefore not completed the soundings exercise and it would be premature to comment on the level of interest expressed. I shall report back to the House when the extended soundings exercise has been completed, although I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there have been more responses than the numbers that he cited because we had received 5,500 by the end of the initial period, many of which came from organisations that had consulted widely, meaning that their responses covered the opinions of more people than would be indicated by the number of immediate responses. The exercise is important and we must await its outcome and responses to the extended soundings. It is sensible to allow five years between a no vote in a referendum and the time at which it is possible to reinitiate the process through soundings and a boundary committee consideration before holding a further referendum. That was why the period was extended from five to seven years. That is sensible and it meets our original policy objective of allowing five years without the prospect of reorganisation, which will be welcomed by local government. I hope that Opposition Members will not quibble about terminology and about what might have been said at different times but will instead welcome the proposal as a positive and constructive response to sensible comments made by people who want the best possible legislation to allow the people of England to have an elected regional assembly, if they wish, with the minimum of dislocation.
I hesitate to give way to the hon. Gentleman again. I hope that he will not stray wide of the main subject of the amendments.
I am grateful to the Minister for attempting to cure my paranoia. A region such as the south-west may reject the idea of regional government in a referendum, after which there will be five years before it is invited to reconsider. Will the unelected regional assembly disappear during that period?
There are no proposals to abolish the regional chambers—or assemblies, as they are usually called—that were brought into existence because of the creation of regional development agencies. The chambers' purpose is to provide a framework for representatives from local government and from regions' other interests to oversee the work of RDAs. It is right that such a body should exist and one of an elected regional assembly's remits will be to take control of, and have oversight of, economic development activity and the work of RDAs. If that were to happen, the non-elected regional assembly would cease to exist. But where there is no elected regional assembly, or where people have voted against it, it is obviously sensible to continue to have a body that brings together representatives of local government and others to maintain an oversight of the activity of the regional development agency. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is so hostile to such a sensible arrangement to ensure the articulation of regional concerns about matters of economic development, which are important in every region. We have given more than sufficient time to this group of amendments—
There is a lacuna in the Minister's argument. Given that in many cases there will be elected regional assemblies, but there will be considerable public scepticism as to the merit of their continuation, why should not the principle of a periodic referendum, which the right hon. Gentleman so warmly commended in the other context, apply in this context?
There is no amendment from the other place on our amendment paper today that covers that issue. I would not wish to incur your wrath, Mr. Speaker, by going on to that territory. Suffice it to say that the issue was debated at length in Committee and decisively rejected. I hope that the amendments will now be agreed.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendment No. 2 agreed to.
After Clause 1
Lords amendment: No. 3.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 9, 11 to 19, 23, 34 and 35.
As I have already explained, the Government accepted an amendment from the Liberal Democrats in the other place that those in two-tier areas should be given a say in the form of unitary local government arrangements that will be implemented if an elected assembly is to be established. As I have made clear on many occasions, we do not wish to see any increase in bureaucracy or duplication of tiers as a result of the introduction of elected regional assemblies. We believe that two tiers of government below the national level are enough. We also believe that unitary government will streamline government and lay the foundation for an effective working relationship between the regional and local tiers.
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister so early in his speech, but could he clarify what he means by "given a say"? Will people be given a say in the sense that the electorate is given a say when voting for a Government in a general election, or will they be given a say in some different and less forceful sense?
I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. We believe that it is right that people should have the opportunity, through a referendum if there is an interest in their region in holding a referendum, to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. Every citizen entitled to vote on a local government electorate basis within that region will be entitled to vote on that issue too.There will be a second vote for people living in areas that have two tiers of local government—counties and districts—because implicit in the introduction of an elected regional assembly will be reorganisation of local government. They will have a vote about the preferred form of unitary local government for their area. That area could well be the county in which they currently live, or the counties that would be affected if proposals from the boundary committee suggested a form of local government reorganisation that crosses county boundaries, so provision must be made for that. There will be a second vote, affecting all the people living in areas where there is currently two-tier local government, on their preferred form of unitary local government. That is the proposal. It gives people a say in the way in which we normally understand the term in this country: through the ballot box in a democratic election. I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
Not quite. Perhaps the Minister can clarify whether that say will be decisive. Is he saying that the view expressed in the referendum will be binding, or will it merely be a factor that the Secretary of State will take into account?
We have gone over the matter on many previous occasions. I have made it clear—because this was the issue in relation to the first vote on the question of whether there should be an elected regional assembly—that there could be circumstances in which the majority of people voting in a referendum would not be the final deciding point.The hon. Gentleman will recall that his party raised questions about whether there should be a threshold, and the answer I gave was that we did not believe that there should be a threshold, because thresholds had an arbitrary impact. I gave the example of Scotland, where a particular threshold made it impossible for the people of Scotland who had voted in the late 1970s for a degree of devolved independence to enjoy that. They lost out for 20 years because of an arbitrary threshold, so we did not accept the idea of an arbitrary threshold. However, I said that the Secretary of State would give that consideration, and if it was felt that the level of participation in the referendum was so low that it did not provide a safe basis to proceed, we would have the discretion not to proceed. That is implicit in relation to the region. It is equally implicit in relation to local government reorganisation. If, for example, there were a very finely divided outcome between two options and a very large number of people expressing unhappiness with the options put to them, it is perfectly possible that the Secretary of State might feel that it was right to hold a second vote before deciding the outcome. Therefore, a degree of discretion remains with the Secretary of State. That is sensible, but it is our policy intention to give effect to the outcome of the votes in the referendum. Once again, as with the earlier discussions, I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that it is right that the Secretary of State should have that necessary degree of discretion to ensure good administration, for the reasons that I have outlined.
With all due respect, and the right hon. Gentleman knows the esteem and affection in which I hold him, that was a lengthy and entirely unsatisfactory answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). If the right hon. Gentleman complains about circumstances in which the verdict reached would be regarded as arbitrary, will he at least have the intellectual honesty to concede that to vest a capacity in Ministers to decide whether or not to proceed on the basis of the turnout is itself arbitrary?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks about esteem. I am not quite so confident about the remarks about affection, but we will pass over that. I hope that he will understand that in these matters, if we are not to have a hard and fast decision rule in legislation, a degree of discretion must inevitably be exercised. That should be properly exercised by a Secretary of State answerable to the House; he would have to answer for his decision. That is the best way to handle such matters.If the hon. Gentleman wants to specify in legislation precisely what should happen in every circumstance, he will live in a very strange society where no discretion can ever be exercised on matters where it is the function of those of us who are charged with exercising responsibility in public life to use our discretion in the public interest. We will try to do so. I do not believe that that is in any way unsatisfactory. I am sorry that I have again given a long answer, but I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is the right answer. I return to the basic principles of the amendments. Amendment No. 3 preserves the key principle of unitary government where elected regional assemblies are established. It extends the principle of choice that underpins the Bill by giving those in two-tier areas a direct say in the shape of the unitary authorities that will be introduced. Moreover, by requiring a vote in each county area, it will ensure that only those in the affected two-tier areas will get to vote in a referendum on the options for unitary authorities. The form of unitary government will therefore not be dictated by those in the region who are unaffected by local government reorganisation. I know that one of the principal criticisms of the original proposals was that in regions such as Yorkshire and Humberside, where the overwhelming majority of the population—almost 90 per cent.—live in existing unitary areas, those people living in two-tier local government areas could have their local government changed without having any say whatever. It was an entirely valid concern and the new arrangement is our response to it.
I appreciate that the Government yielded to the amendment tabled by my noble Friend Baroness Hamwee in another place for precisely the reasons that the Minister has just advanced—because it removes from the Bill the offensive feature that people in areas unaffected would decide the future local government structure, while those in the areas affected would not have any choice between the different possibilities for that structure.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman and we think that the Bill is much improved as a result of the amendment. The other amendments are consequential upon it.Amendment No. 3 requires that if there is a referendum in a region about whether to establish an elected assembly, there must also be a referendum in each county area on the Government's options for unitary local government. The county area will generally be the existing area of a county council, which of course has both district councils and a county council. However, if the local government options span county council boundaries, the county areas affected will be combined into a single county area. Voters in the combined area will vote in a common referendum on the local government structure of the combined county areas.
Will the boundaries used for the county of Durham be the existing county council boundaries or the previous county council boundaries, which included, for example, Darlington, which was removed as a unitary authority?
The boundaries will include the existing county council area, excluding those parts that are now in separate unitary authorities, as part of our principle that only those people who are affected should determine the future structure of local government. Those people in Darlington are already in a unitary authority; they are not in a two-tier authority. There would therefore be no change to the local government arrangements affecting them, so they are excluded.The one caveat that I would add is that if—I am not suggesting that this would happen—there were to be a decision by the Secretary of State that the north-east should be an area that should proceed to a referendum, and if the boundary committee recommended that one of the options should involve crossing the Northumberland and Durham boundaries, there could be a wider county, which would cover both Northumberland and Durham. I do not raise that matter to alarm my hon. Friend. I mention it only because that is implicit in the proposals. There are other parts of the country where I suspect that such an outcome might be more likely, so he should be aware that that is a possibility. [Interruption.] I have clearly been unwise in raising that spectre, so I shall give way to my hon. Friend.
May I caution my right hon. Friend, and not just in terms of going over the border into Northumberland? Some people will argue that Darlington, for example, should come back into the traditional county of Durham, as it was until a few years ago, but my right hon. Friend should resist such a temptation because that would simply unpick local government in County Durham.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the assurance that he seeks.I should add one caveat. We have also taken the view that, although we do not intend existing unitary authorities to be otherwise affected, in some circumstances it might be appropriate, as part of local government reorganisation, to suggest that a part of an existing two-tier area might become part of an existing unitary authority. We have not ruled that out. That would not mean unravelling the existing unitaries, but it might involve them having additional areas attached to them. That option is there and we think it sensible.
I was about to ask the Minister about that issue, which we shall come to later, but in those circumstances, by his own logic, should not the voters in the unitary area that is about to have attached to it part of a two-tier area also have an opportunity to vote on that proposal, because it will affect them? The nature of their local authority will change.
The hon. Gentleman is right that there is some effect, but it is not the same as the consequence of a change from an existing two-tier to a unitary structure of local government. The effect is much more peripheral. The fear and the concern was that the future of local government in two-tier areas might be unduly influenced by the votes of people not in two-tier local government. On balance, we felt it right that the vote should be restricted to people within existing two-tier areas.Were it suggested, for example, that parts of North Yorkshire might be annexed to existing unitaries in west Yorkshire, if the vote was to be extended to the people of those big metropolitan authorities in west Yorkshire, an overwhelming vote could be accorded to those people. We simply did not feel that that was right. It was not in keeping with the spirit of what we sought to do. I accept the hon. Gentleman's point that there is some, largely peripheral impact, but it will not change the structure of local government and we felt it right to keep to the principle that it is the people within the two-tier areas who should have the vote in such referendums.
I might surprise my right hon. Friend when I say that I welcome this group of amendments, which removes one of the worst aspects of the Bill, but until he started his explanation I had not really understood that the amendments would allow for the possibility of an amalgamation between Lancashire and Cheshire. Is that right? Can my right hon. Friend help me on that?
No, it is not envisaged that there should be an amalgamation between existing counties, but let me give the example that has already been suggested by one of the county councils in the north-west region. If it was proposed as part of the structure for unitary local government in Cumbria and Lancashire that a single unitary should be created in the Morecambe Bay area, which crossed the boundaries between Lancashire and Cumbria, the second referendum, in which people would be asked to vote on their preferred option for unitary local government in their area, would have to embrace the voters in both Cumbria and Lancashire, because one of the options crossed the border. That would be the one area where the two would come together. Usually, our objective would be that the second vote would be on a county basis within each individual county, but where a boundary committee proposal crossed county boundaries there would be a need for a mechanism to allow people in the affected areas to vote, and the only way that we could see that operating would be for the two counties to vote together. Only in that sense would they be brought together. There would be no question of a reorganisation of the two counties into a single county. I hope that that reassures my hon. Friend.The options put to voters in the referendum will be based on recommendations by the boundary committee. We are quite clear that those must be independent recommendations from the independent boundary committee. It will be required to produce at least two different unitary options. There may be more. In some cases it might be sensible to have more than two options, but there must in all cases be at least two.
The Minister has just emphasised the importance of the recommendations of the boundary committee being independent. Will he confirm that before those recommendations are put to the referendum the Secretary of State will have the opportunity to reject any of the boundary committee's recommendations or direct it to make further recommendations to him? That is not most people's definition of fully independent recommendations.
I would say that it is, and it is entirely consistent with the existing framework of the relationship of the boundary committee with the Secretary of State, because the Secretary of State has the responsibility of implementing proposals. If the Secretary of State does not believe that one of the options is workable in practice, it would be curious if he had no option to request the boundary committee to review the matter. The Secretary of State has that option, but it is the boundary committee that ultimately decides. The Secretary of State cannot tell the boundary committee what option to come up with; he can only say that, in a particular instance, he feels, for the reasons spelt out, that the proposal is simply not workable and should be reconsidered. If the Secretary of State were to do that he would have to have sound grounds indeed, because it would be public knowledge and it would be open to challenge. Clearly, it is not something that would be undertaken lightly. However, there must be that safeguard because it is the Secretary of State's responsibility to implement the arrangements, and if there are genuine concerns that in the course of its considerations the boundary committee had not necessarily considered all the factors, there must be an option to refer it back to the committee. It will then reconsider the matter and make proposals, which will be put to people in a referendum.
May I counsel the Minister against contemplating using the power to reject radical approaches by the boundary committee on the basis of traditionalist conceptions in Whitehall about the appropriate size for a local authority? Such conceptions may not take account of the fact that local authorities now contract out much more of their work rather than provide all their services directly. For example, if the committee makes the radical recommendation that unitary authorities can be relatively small, will he not simply reject the proposal out of hand because it does not fit the traditional philosophies of his Department?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman exactly the assurance for which he is looking. We have no preconception about the potential outcome. We have been very clear about not putting such criteria into the guidance about size, which we have already consulted on and which we intend to issue to the boundary committee. There is a strong focus on the need for local government to be effective. Clearly, the boundary committee will need to take into account factors relating to size when considering that need. There is no preconception one way or another and certainly not against a radical solution, but there is a practical concern: as the Secretary of State has to implement the recommendations, we must be able to query a proposal that does not seem satisfactory or implementable.
For the benefit of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I should like to clarify that point. Will the Minister confirm that the guidance given to the boundary committee does not specify the minimum size for a unitary authority? As he will recall, we probed him about that and were keen to ensure that that was the case.
I am happy to give that assurance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have not included a size threshold. We believe that it is for the boundary committee to determine the most effective form of local government, and that is what it should recommend.
The Minister has raised the possibility of a multiplicity of different options. Can he confirm that in all such referendums, irrespective of the number of options put to voters, the status quo in each and every case would always be one of them?
No, because the status quo would involve the retention of two tiers of local government as well as a regional tier. That would work against the policy objective—I thought that the Opposition broadly supported it—of avoiding a proliferation of tiers of government. Clearly, we could not proceed on that basis. There must be a move to unitary local government, but it will be for the boundary committee to take a view about the best options for wholly unitary local government. It will then be for the people to express their choice and preferred option in a referendum. As I made clear, there must always be two options, but there may be more. I can envisage circumstances in which the boundary committee might feel that there are more than two options. I would not want a proliferation, which might become confusing, but it would be wrong arbitrarily to restrict the number if there is, for example, a strong case for considering three separate options.Under subsection (6) of the new clause proposed in Lords amendment No. 3, the local government referendum must be held on the same day as the regional referendum. Lords amendments Nos. 4 and 5 amend clause 2, which provides the questions that should be asked in the regional and now local referendums and the preambles that should precede those questions on the ballot papers. We have consulted the Electoral Commission, which published on 16 April its views about the intelligibility of the proposed questions and preambles. The amendments reflect its comments and, in addition, provide for a situation in which the questions appear on separate ballot papers. To take up the example of the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), such a situation could arise if there were four or five separate options. Clearly, it would not be possible to include all those options on a single ballot paper. In such circumstances, more than one ballot paper would be needed, which is the reason why we have changed the Electoral Commission's specific recommendation, which was based on the premise that the options would always be set out on a single ballot paper. We have discussed the matter with the Electoral Commission and it understands the reason for our having the option, which is intended only for circumstances in which it is not possible for all the material to be contained on a single ballot paper, as would normally be our intention.
The question is a practical one, and we talked about it at some length in Committee in discussing the way in which the primary question would be expressed. Has the Minister considered how it will be possible to express in words and in clear and unambiguous terms something that would be better presented in a map? Does he envisage that maps might be included in the ballot papers?
We think that it would be difficult for maps to be included in ballot papers. It would certainly be difficult for a single ballot paper to feature maps representing a number of different options, but we think that it will be necessary to make available additional information, which will probably use maps to show the possible outcomes. Maps will not be included in the ballot paper, but they will almost certainly appear in the form of additional information. The hon. Gentleman will know from our debates in Committee that we intend that additional information should be produced on an entirely factual and neutral basis and that it should set out the different options.
I am very worried about the Minister. One person's arbitrariness is another's discretion, and I am anxious about the possibility—I put it no more strongly than that—of unwarranted ministerial tinkering. Can he confirm that, if there are four options on the ballot paper, for example, the option that commands the highest support will hold sway? Or is he going to argue on the basis of turnout and modest differences between the numbers of people expressing support for a particular preference that he, in his infinite wisdom, should be the arbiter of which prevails?
I counsel the hon. Gentleman not to pursue that argument too hard, because I fear that if he does so, we will hear from the Liberal Democrats a strong argument in favour of a proportional system of voting. In that situation, he might not like the outcome.
I shall of course give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment, but I put it to the hon. Member for Buckingham that the option that commands the highest support among the electorate is the one that we would normally intend to—
I used the word "normally" because, as the hon. Gentleman will recall, I said previously that if there were a derisorily low level of support, the options were very close to one another, there was very little in it and the turnout was low, we might feel that that was not a sound basis on which to proceed. I have made that point already. Even if he is worried about me, he will know that I usually choose my words very carefully, which is why I used the word "normally". There is nothing sinister for him to read into that word.
Of course, we all understand the dangers of allowing the Liberals to indulge their pettifogging enthusiasms for proportional representation, but will the right hon. Gentleman confirm what the position would be in the unlikely event of a tie between two options or even, conceivably, four? Would the ballot be re-run or would he, in his infinite wisdom, decide which option should prevail?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a hypothetical situation. It is extremely unlikely that there would be an absolute tie, but as I told him, if the vote was very close and the participation was not necessarily regarded as a sound basis for a decision, there might well be a case for a further ballot. I can say no more than that, because these are hypothetical situations, but that would be my view as to the most likely outcome in such circumstances.
Following on from the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), can the Minister envisage a vote whereby he is satisfied as to the level of participation by those answering the main question about whether they want to have a regional assembly, but dissatisfied with regard to the secondary question about the reorganisation of local government? There may be an enormous number of spoilt ballot papers and people might not understand the choices. What will happen if he is satisfied that there is overall local demand for a regional assembly, but not satisfied by the level of participation with regard to the second issue?
I can give the hon. Gentleman a clear answer to that. I can certainly envisage that situation arising, because we would be dealing with two separate electorates. The electorate for the regional decision will cover all areas, including those that are already unitary. There could be a derisorily small vote in the local government section of the referendum, but a very satisfactory vote in the regional one. In that situation, I think that we would take the view—I cannot say so absolutely because I cannot bind successors, but it would certainly be my presumption—that there should be an opportunity for a further ballot in the local government area affected, because we would not wish to proceed on the basis of an outcome that had a derisory level of participation. That is one of the reasons why there has to be scope for a separate second election, rather than one that happens on the same day, as in the case of the regional one.2 pm The situation could occur, but I rather hope that it would not, and my judgment is that it will not. I would expect people to be just as interested in how their local authorities operate as in the principle of regional government, so there would be good turnout in both cases. However, I can envisage the possibility, and provision has to be made for it.
I give way to the hon. Gentleman. I am sorry: I provoked him earlier and have been very slow in coming back to him.
I thank the Minister for saying that in the event of a derisory vote in the local government referendum it would be re-run. That is the appropriate response, no doubt with some reference to the boundary committee for England.I suggest that in a situation where the boundary committee put forward more than two options in a local government referendum there should be a preferential—not a proportional—voting system, because that would help the Minister to decide on the way forward. As he knows, such referendums are not binding, but they are supposed to tell him what the feelings of local people are. A preferential voting system where there are more than two options would inform the Minister as to the most preferred option. That would be a sensible way forward. Has the Minister thought of putting such a proposal in the final guidance to the boundary committee?
There is some risk that we are getting into ever more complex hypothetical situations that hopefully will not arise. The principle that I want to focus on is that there must be a second vote and that it must allow a good opportunity for people living in areas with two separate tiers of local government to express their view about what is the best form of unitary local government. That should determine the outcome, subject to the caveats that I expressed. I hope that those will not be necessary in any circumstances, because the outcome is clear, but I can envisage circumstances in which it might not be. In such cases, our objective would be to act in a way that reflected the views expressed by people in two-tier areas and gave effect to the outcome that appears to command the greatest support.I do not want to get into too much speculation about what might happen in extremely unlikely hypothetical situations. The hon. Member for Buckingham delightfully conjured up the possibility of four separate options producing a dead heat. I sincerely hope that we never get into that situation.
The Minister is being very patient with hon. Members like me who did not serve on the Committee by rehearsing matters that he will have already covered on innumerable occasions. I listened with great interest to what he said about the possibility, which he considers likely in some circumstances, that turnout is so low in a particular area that a clear decision in respect of local government reorganisation is not made. Can he explain what would then happen as regards the decision to move ahead with regional government, given that 90 per cent. of people in the region that he mentioned might have supported it? Would the delay in local government determination in one small part of the region hold up the movement to regional government for the rest of its people?
I said that I could envisage the situation arising because there would be two separate electorates. I went on to say, however, that I hoped that it would not, because people would have as much interest in the future of local government in their region as in the future of regional government. My expectation is that there would not be a derisorily low vote in one ballot and a satisfactory one in the other. So yes, I did concede that it was a possibility, and that in that situation it might not be possible to proceed with confidence on the basis of the view expressed in the vote on the preferred option for local government reorganisation. However, I return to first principles: we have always said that the introduction of regional government must be accompanied by a move towards a wholly unitary structure of local government, so the issues must be taken together. It would not be possible to proceed to introduce an elected regional assembly without introducing unitary local government at the same time, so the two would have to run in parallel. There would have to be a decision on the local government issue before elected regional assemblies could be introduced.
I think that we need to press the Minister on this point. There would be plenty of time to run the second ballot on the local government reorganisation question while preparations for setting up the regional assembly went ahead pending the vote on the assembly. Surely we would not want there to be any delay while the second ballot took place.
I sincerely hope that that does not have to happen. We want a sensible way forward whereby people can express their view, first, on the merits of having an elected regional assembly and, secondly, on the preferred option for unitary local government in their area. However, we do envisage the possibility of circumstances in which there is not a clear outcome from either ballot, so the Secretary of State has to have the necessary degree of discretion to cope with those situations. That is what we have put into the Bill. It seeks to secure the outcome that gains the support of the majority of people voting in the regional referendum and the local government reorganisation referendum.We cannot absolutely guarantee, however, that what secures the largest number of votes will be the outcome, because in some circumstances the level of voting may be derisorily small and it would not be safe to proceed on that basis. In that situation, there may be a case for seeking a further referendum giving people the opportunity to vote again, or the Secretary of State might decide that the introduction of elected regional assemblies should not proceed. Those are matters for discretion, as I have made clear throughout our deliberations in Committee and this afternoon. I hope that the situation will not arise other than in extreme and exceptional circumstances.
I suggest to the Minister that what should happen in those circumstances is that if it has become clear, perhaps owing to a boycott or a minimal vote on the local government ballot, that the boundary committee has not come up with a satisfactory form of unitary government, yet the region has voted for an assembly, there is sufficient time—since the Bill to establish the powers will not have been enacted at that stage—to go back to the boundary committee to say, "Please come up with some alternative, more widely-supported proposal", which proposal can then be put to a vote. All that could be achieved before the key dates for the setting up of the regional assembly, and it need not delay its creation.
Unfortunately, the Bill as drafted does not contain the provisions that would enable us to go back to the boundary committee in that situation, so it is not possible to envisage doing so. I can understand the merits of the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion, but the Bill does not permit it. There would have to be a re-run of the ballots both for the elected regional assembly and for the local government element, and the whole process would have to be reopened. We simply do not have the power to go back to the boundary committee and ask it to make alternative proposals. We would therefore have to start the whole process again by inviting the boundary committee to review local government boundaries. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that while his proposal might be desirable in some cases, it is not a sensible or satisfactory way forward.
I, too, am worried about delay and somewhat concerned about what my right hon. Friend has just said. Will he give a sympathetic response in the case of a region showing a clear desire to create a regional assembly and ensure that it is not thwarted by what could be perceived as a minor problem of local government reorganisation?
That is exactly our intention. We do not wish a minor hiccup to frustrate the whole process. Perhaps I did not express well to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) the undesirable consequences of having to re-run the process because of a minor hiccup in the local government element.The more we look into the matter and the more we provide for different circumstances, the easier it is to envisage the extreme possibilities that have been conjured. If we become unduly preoccupied with that, we will lose sight of the main objective, which is to ensure an opportunity for people in the region to express, through a referendum, their view of the best form of unitary local government as well as an opportunity for those in the wider region to vote on the principle of an elected regional assembly.
It is important not to give parties who follow our proceedings the wrong impression. In some local government areas, people might boycott the local government referendum to hold up the creation of a regional assembly, thus operating a veto. The Minister would know that a boycott was simply a wrecking tactic. Would he use his discretion to prevent such wrecking campaigns?
I have already made clear to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) the Government's intention to make it possible for people to express their views on the best way forward through referendums on the principle of elected regional assemblies and local government reorganisation. We do not intend to give any comfort to people who have a wholly negative view of the process.We oppose thresholds partly because they give people a perverse incentive not to vote: not voting might make it impossible to implement a measure that many people support but cannot be attained without the participation of sufficient electors to reach the threshold. We are keen to avoid such a perverse incentive and we have therefore resisted the idea of a threshold. We believe however that there must be some discretion for the Secretary of State to cope with circumstances in which participation is derisorily low—not through wrecking tactics—or in which the outcomes are so finely balanced that it is difficult to proceed with confidence. Such discretion must therefore remain. We shall proceed to allow the intentions of the majority of people in the region—whether the whole region or the area affected by local government reorganisation—to determine the outcome. Amendment No. 5 provides two versions of the preamble for the local government referendum, depending on whether there is a single ballot paper or two ballot papers. The Electoral Commission made it clear that its comments were based on the assumption that there would be a single ballot paper, and the Government would aim for that in most circumstances. However, we must also provide for the possibility of having to hold a further local referendum on its own if the result is overturned in the courts. We might also need separate ballot papers if the local government options are numerous—for example, when county areas are combined because one option crosses a boundary or when the options are especially complex. In the latter case, a single ballot paper with adequate provision for partially sighted people might be unwieldy and it would therefore be better to have two ballot papers.
Will the Minister guide me to the relevant provision for a stand-alone local referendum in the circumstances that he outlined? I believed that the measure provided only for simultaneous local and regional referendums.
That is the case but if, for example, a decision in the courts prevented the Secretary of State from proceeding on the basis of a local government ballot, it would be impossible to go further without a second, stand-alone ballot on preferences for forms of unitary local government. If an outcome were challenged because of an allegation of malpractice and the court set aside the unitary local government element, the Secretary of State would have to hold a second ballot. That is the only possible way forward.
I agree with the logic, but will the Secretary of State have such a statutory power? I cannot find it.
In the case that I outlined, the Secretary of State would act on the outcome of a court decision that set aside the original referendum result. I am advised that holding a second referendum would constitute acting properly. I am further advised that amendment No. 11 to clause 5 provides for that.Electoral Commission advice recognises that if a local government question is on a separate ballot paper, further explanation will be needed in the preamble. Amendment No. 5 therefore includes two options for the statement that precedes the local government question. Additional text will be needed for the local referendum question once we know the precise options for change that are to be put to voters. Proposed new subsection (2D) of clause 2 provides that the detailed text will given in an order, which will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure. The order must also set out the explanatory material that relates to the local government options and will be made available to voters when they vote, either with their ballot papers or at the polling station. As I said earlier, the explanatory material may include maps or other information that will make it easier for people to understand the proposals. Amendment No. 5 also provides that the Secretary of State must consult the Electoral Commission on the wording of the text of the options and the explanatory material before he lays the order for the referendum. He must lay a report before Parliament that sets out the commission's views when he presents the order. Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 would amend clause 8 to ensure that the Electoral Commission could provide information to voters about the arguments on the local government options. As we have made clear, the Government also intend to prepare and distribute a summary of their proposals for local government and elected assemblies before any referendums. We envisage that it will be distributed to every household in the relevant region. Amendments Nos. 6, 7 and 8 to clause 3 set out the franchise for the local referendums. Those who are entitled to vote in local government elections in the relevant county area will be able to vote on the second question. Those who live in existing unitary areas will not be able to vote on the local government options. We have already covered that. Amendment No. 11 to clause 5 provides that, in the case of a successful legal challenge to the result of a local government referendum, the Secretary of State could order a repeat local government referendum. However, a repeat regional referendum would not have to be held at the same time. I hope that that answers the question of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). For example, it is possible to envisage a position in which the local government referendum in one county area is successfully challenged but the overall result of the regional referendum is not in doubt. However, the amendment would not allow a repeat regional referendum without local government referendums at the same time. We believe that any doubt about the outcome of one referendum for the whole region must apply to the results of the local government referendums in parts of the region.
I apologise for intervening on the Minister again. Perhaps I am being extremely stupid, but he has made it very clear that amendment No. 11 allows for the possibility, if a local government decision is set aside by the courts, of a second, independent vote on that issue without it affecting the regional government decision. Will the Minister confirm that he must surely have been wrong when he said earlier that if there had to be a second vote on a local government issue for any other reason, there would have to be a second referendum across the whole region? Surely that is not right, because if it were, he would have been incorrect to tell the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West a few moments ago that the Government were going to ensure that the few would not hold up the views of the majority.
This illustrates the complexity of trying to bring together the two separate elements. Let me try to set out all the circumstances. In an ideal world, one would expect the results of both referendums to be clear and without problems. In such cases, things would proceed perfectly properly. The outcome of the regional referendum will determine whether there is to be an elected regional assembly and whether there is to be local government reorganisation. The outcome of the second referendum on the unitary level government will determine the outcome for the local government areas affected.If there were doubt as to the validity of the regional referendum, the whole exercise would have to be replayed. There could be no question of the local government reorganisation element standing; in such circumstances, the whole thing should be replayed. If there were doubt about one of the local government elements—there could well be two, three or four such elements, depending on the number of counties in the area affected—it is possible that there might have to be a re-run, for the reasons that I have outlined, if the courts were to challenge the outcome of one of those local elections. In such a situation, it would be possible to re-run the outcome of that local element without setting aside either the regional result or the results of the local referendums in the other county areas. I hope that that makes it clear for the hon. Gentleman.
The Minister has described every set of circumstances other than the one about which I specifically asked him. The circumstances to which I am referring are those in which doubts might be cast about the validity of a local government decision in a particular local government area because, for example, of extremely low turnout. The Minister has said that it might be necessary in such circumstances for that local decision to be re-run, and it is right and proper that that should happen. My question is a simple one. In those circumstances, would there have to be a re-run of the regional government ballot as well? The Minister said earlier that that was the case, yet he told the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West that a small number of people in such a local government area would not be able to thwart the wishes of the majority.
That is broadly the case, but if there were an effective legal action which halted—
The Secretary of State.
If the Secretary of State had no ability to proceed because the outcome had been challenged, the provision in amendment No. 11 states that he may
in the county area affected—just in that county area, not in the wider one. I am sorry that I am finding it hard to follow the argument the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). I shall give him a further opportunity to explain it."cause a further referendum to be held"
I shall try one last time, then I promise that I shall cease. The Minister is still evading the question. He keeps going back to the legal set-aside that is, as he rightly says, covered by amendment No. 11. Earlier in our deliberations, however, he said that in certain circumstances it would be possible for the Secretary of State to use his discretion, not because of a legal challenge, not to go ahead with a decision taken at local level—for example, because of low turnout. My question is a simple one. In such circumstances, if the Secretary of State were to use his discretion to set aside a local government vote and there had to be a re-run, would there have to be a regional ballot for regional government across the whole region?
In a situation in which the Secretary of State decided that the ballot was unsatisfactory as a basis to proceed, it would be necessary for the whole process to be re-run. If, however, the outcome in one—or more than one—individual county area of the local government element were challenged at law and overturned, it would be possible to re-run those local components in the referendum as stand-alone elements. That is why there is provision for us to have a re-run of the local component in the referendum without having the whole exercise repeated. But those are the only circumstances in which we would envisage a re-run of those local components.
I would like to make sure that I have understood this. Is the Minister saying that the Secretary of State has no power, other than in a situation of legal challenge, to order a re-run of the local ballot only?
I am advised that there are two options for the Secretary of State. First, he may use his discretion to proceed with establishing an elected regional assembly and implementing the local government change, or to re-run both referendums. That applies in a situation in which the Secretary of State, using his discretion, determines that the outcome of one or other of the elements in the referendum is unsatisfactory. If the Secretary of State were unable to proceed because an element had been challenged at law, there would be scope to re-run the local element of the referendum without requiring the regional one to be repeated. I hope that we have now established the position.Amendment No. 12 to clause 6 enables the regional referendum poll to be combined with the polls for local government referendums. These two referendums must be held on the same day, so it makes sense to enable the polls to be combined to reduce bureaucracy. Under the amended clause 6, it would also still be possible to combine these polls with other polls for local or general elections, or for local mayoral referendums. Amendments Nos. 13, 19 and 23 are tidying-up amendments arising out of the introduction of the second referendum question. Rather than have separate requirements dotted throughout the Bill, the amendments bring together in one place the requirements to consult the Electoral Commission before making orders: in clause 11, which deals with supplementary provisions. Amendments Nos. 14, 17, 18, 34 and 35 are all consequential amendments to reflect that there will now be local referendums as well as regional referendums. I hope that we have now covered all the rather complex issues implicit in the amendments under consideration, and I urge the House to support them.
I congratulate the Minister on thwarting my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) in his bet that he would pass the one-hour milestone in that opening speech. We have covered some particularly interesting and detailed points that Members genuinely wanted to explore. I should like to analyse what this large group of amendments does and does not do, and then look at the genesis of the rather cynical pact between the Liberal Democrats and the Government that lies behind them.When it left the Commons, the Bill required the boundary committee to have recommended a unitary reorganisation of local government for a region—that is, one single unitary reorganisation pattern for the region—prior to any referendum on an elected regional assembly taking place. As the Minister clearly said, this group of amendments introduces a requirement for two or more solutions for such reorganisation to be put forward, and a provision that electors in two-tier areas only would express a view as between them in a simultaneous referendum. I choose my words carefully, because the electors will not be choosing the local government system that they want to live under. They will express a view on two or more options that have been put to them. That is the nub of it. Most of the amendments would simply extend the scope of other provisions to accommodate the proposed changes. Thus, they are consequential, although I want to return to a specific detailed question in a moment.
As the hon. Gentleman is setting out, quite correctly, what the amendments contain, it might be helpful to make it clear that they would introduce a principle that was not present on any occasion on which the Conservative party reorganised local government, abolished counties or created unitary authorities—namely, the voters in the area concerned would have a vote on which pattern they preferred.
But they would not have a vote on the possibility of retaining the existing system, although the Liberal Democrats were vehement that that needed to be included when the Bill was considered in this place.We have heard the Minister's explanation of the Government's volte-face, which he expressed in terms of giving people a choice. They will have a choice between two alternative forms of compulsory "unitarisation" of their local government, but they will not have the option of saying that they would prefer to retain the existing form of local government.
As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, the previous Government gave local electors no choice at all on the form of local government. Is it now Conservative party policy to be against unitary local government and in favour of the option of retaining two-tier local authorities throughout the UK?
Clearly, as I have said on a number of occasions, the issue ought to be decided by local electors, but it cannot be, because the Government are explicitly not allowing that choice to be put to them. As Liberal Members know, that point was made strongly from their Benches and supported by us when the Bill was considered in the Commons, so let me explain to the House what has happened here; the real reason for this rather cynical deal.The Liberal Democrats, from the outset, have wanted the option of keeping two-tier local government. I assume that that is still their position. Indeed, at the end of the long debate in the other place when these amendments were agreed, Baroness Hamwee expressed that view. The Government, from the outset, have insisted on an all-unitary solution to prevent there being three tiers of government between central Government and the elector in some areas. We sympathise with both views. We agree that three tiers are too many, but we also agree that it is wrong to impose unitary local government as a consequence. Our conclusion—the logical conclusion—is that the superfluous tier is not the historic counties or the districts, the tier closest to the electorate, but the proposed regional tier itself. The Liberals argued consistently for a three-tier option. The Government, during consideration in the Commons, maintained that a unitary solution is a necessary precondition for elected regional assemblies. The Liberal Democrats also recognised something else, perhaps rather perceptively, early on in the proceedings—the reality that the electorate in two-tier areas are unlikely to believe that the consequence of an imposed unitary local government structure is a price worth paying for the dubious privilege of having an elected regional assembly with uncertain, but certainly minimal, powers. They recognised the threat to the programme to introduce elected regional assemblies represented by coupling local government reorganisation with compulsory "unitarisation". Scandalously, in Committee, the Liberal Democrats sought to do away with the requirement for the boundary committee to report before a referendum, as they wanted to avoid the electorate knowing the detail of the changes that would be imposed on them and preferred to keep the electorate in ignorance. The Government, to their credit, rejected the idea at that stage and at least retained some of their principles. In response to amendment No. 26, the Minister said:
That was at least an honourable position, and we and many supporters of elected regional assemblies recognised that it would make it harder to win a referendum on such assemblies as the cost to be imposed on the electorate in terms of all-unitary local government reorganisation would be spelled out in detail to them at the time of the referendum. I am sorry to say that, as the Government have seen support for that extra tier of government fade, even in the areas that they regarded as early candidates for referendums, their principles have been put on the block. The Liberal Democrats, who never had any and who saw from the outset the need to conceal from the electors the detailed consequences of a yes vote, as I have shown by reference to amendment No. 26, have done the Government's dirty work for them in the other place. These are not essentially Liberal Democrat amendments, although the principal amendment was tabled by Baroness Hamwee. However, she acknowledged the work that the Government put in on the amendments and the help that they gave. There was a coalition effort at trying to salvage something from the regional agenda, as the Government and the Liberal Democrats—both keen exponents of it—recognise that the mood is drifting from them, even in those areas where they felt most secure."Amendment No. 26 from the Liberal Democrats would remove the requirement for a local government review to be carried out by the Boundary Committee before an order causing a referendum was made. Rather, the committee will only have had to be directed to prepare to carry out a review. We believe that any local government review of a region should be carried out before a referendum on elected regional assemblies, so that voters are fully informed of the implications of a yes vote for local government in their region."—[Official Report, 23 January 2003; Vol. 398, c. 515.]
I will deal with some of the hon. Gentleman's more ludicrous points in my speech, but I want to get this on the record, as I am sure that he does not want to mislead the House. Amendment No. 26 was tabled in relation to other amendments, which were not selected at the same time, to facilitate complete decoupling of local government reorganisation from the regional assembly referendum. That is our main position. He is suggesting that we wanted to keep information from the electorate. That is not the case, and he knows it.
I simply quoted the Minister from Hansard. My understanding is that amendment No. 26 would have put the local government review after the date of a referendum. People will draw their own conclusions from that.Liberal Democrats in the other place struck a deal with the Government, and this is what it amounts to. Liberal Democrat peers, working with my noble Friends, could have written into the Bill many important changes that Liberal Democrats argued for in this House, simply because of the arithmetic in the other place. For example, they could have included provisions on separate referendums on whether electors supported local government reform, rather than on simply which of a number of unitary options they preferred, and on reviewing the artificial and often irrelevant boundaries for the proposed regions. All those things were argued for strongly and passionately by Liberal Democrat Members of this House and by Conservative Members. However, the Liberal Democrats chose to abandon the opportunity that presented itself in the House of Lords to push such amendments through in alliance with Conservative peers and bring those proposals back to this House for a further airing. They chose to abandon all those long-held objections to the Bill's structure, including that on imposed unitary authorities, in exchange for Government support for this cynical arrangement, which conceals and will conceal from the electorate the true consequences of a yes vote in a regional referendum. [Interruption.] It will conceal those consequences from the electorate. The original Bill proposed a single clear, unambiguous solution for the imposition of unitary local government on a region in the event of a vote for an elected regional assembly in a referendum. Under the new proposals, two, three or four possible solutions could be presented to the electorate to muddy the water, it being unclear which if any of the options would ultimately be imposed.
Why is the principle that the honourable Gentleman quoted me as having enunciated in Committee in any way compromised by the fact that the electorate will have a choice? While knowing full well that the outcome will be wholly unitary local government, they will be able to decide on the option that they prefer.
We discussed that at length in Committee. The Minister knows that people are very concerned about the minutiae of local boundaries, local organisation and local structures; in fact, one of the great strengths of local government is its relevance to people because it is close to them. People will not be able to focus on three or four options as clear consequences of a yes vote in a referendum, as they could have done under the original Commons proposals.The Minister may wish to deny this, but I submit that many Members and people outside favouring elected regional assemblies have observed, since the publication of the original Bill, that the linking of local government reorganisation with the establishment of assemblies and of the boundary committee review with the publication of the committee's decision prior to the referendum would make it significantly harder for them to carry the day.
Am I to understand that the Conservatives will vote against the amendment because they do not think electors should be able to choose their unitary authority, or indeed choose not to have a unitary authority, a choice that would fall to them if they had no regional assembly? That would at least be consistent with the Conservatives' previous position: when they imposed unitary authorities, the electorate had no vote at all.
The right hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself, and wait to find out what I advise my colleagues to do. He has, however, put his finger on the problem. Apart from voting against elected regional assemblies, electors still have no way of expressing their opposition to the abolition of their existing two-tier authorities. Liberals in the Commons argued strongly for such an opportunity. I am disappointed that Liberals in the Lords have abandoned not just that but a number of other important issues—for instance, the need for a review of regional boundaries with the aim of establishing something more like real, effective regions, rather than the totally arbitrary and irrelevant boundaries that the Government are imposing. Not a squeak did we hear from them during consideration in the Lords.As every Member of this House knows, the House of Lords gives Liberals and Conservatives an opportunity to force the Government to re-examine the issues. That is particularly relevant now, when the Government are extremely sensitive about the time scale and have made it clear that they can afford no delay.
Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider his use of the term "totally arbitrary and irrelevant" to describe Government office boundaries made effective by his party?
They are indeed totally arbitrary and irrelevant to an elected democratic assembly, for which the Government propose to use them. That is not a very good debating point: the Minister has used it before, and I have answered it before.For the record, the Government office regions have a long history. They originated in second world war food production planning regions, which were amalgamated in the 1970s and 1980s for economic planning purposes. The last Conservative Government used them as administrative divisions for the regional Government offices, which are administrative bodies and are not democratically elected. As I am sure the House agrees, there is no point in my referring to all the amendments. Almost all are paving and consequential amendments surrounding a core principle. Let me ask the Minister one specific, detailed question. Lords amendment no. 11 proposes a new subsection (3G), to which he referred. It accepts a requirement for the Government to present the Electoral Commission's report to each House before an order is made. Various amendments were made in the Commons—supported by both the official Opposition and the Liberal Democrats—imposing such a requirement on the Government. The Government resisted the requirement for them to publish the commission's report. The commission confirmed to me that it would expect routinely to publish such advice on its website and it would therefore become publicly available; I advised the Committee accordingly. The Government, however, have now changed their position and accepted that the Secretary of State should publish the report. I have, in fact, two questions for the Minister. First, why have the Government changed their position? Secondly, having changed their position in respect of the commission's report, why have they not been consistent and included a similar provision in each part of the Bill that provides for a report from the commission to the Secretary of State? That is, I think, the effect of the totality of the amendments tabled in Committee. The amendments clearly do not offer the option of retaining a two-tier structure. This deal between the Liberal Democrats and the Government seals the fate of county councils in all regions that vote for an elected regional assembly. It does not even give local electors control over the form of unitary authority that they have. The Minister has already made it clear that the ultimate discretion will rest with the Secretary of State rather than the ballot box.
The hon. Gentleman talks nonsense when he says that this will mean the end of county councils. In the county of Durham, for example, the option could be a unitary county council.
It is conceivable that in some cases the name may survive. In fact, we have already had this discussion. In an earlier debate, I invited the Minister to speculate on whether the Secretary of State might be minded to allow Kent or Essex—both with populations of well over 1.5 million, perhaps approaching 2 million—to become unitary authorities. Although the Minister definitely said that it was a possibility, the consensus is that the Government do not intend the creation of unitary authorities of that size. If they are created, the Government will have scored a massive own goal by moving the lowest tier of local government so far from the people it represents as to make it meaningless to them. The unitary authority of Kent or Essex would have almost the same population as the north-east regional assembly.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman should be so disparaging about the work of Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart in Kent and Lord Hanningfield in Essex. Both are members of his party, and he describes them as being hopelessly remote from the people of their area. Does he accept that I have always made it clear that it is for the independent boundary committee to come forward with recommendations, and that its concern is to decide on the most effective form of unitary local government for the area? The committee will make that judgment, which could involve a unitary county or a different formulation. However, the judgment will be that of the independent boundary committee, based on the criterion of what is the best form of local government.
I maintain that, in practice, the deal that has been struck means the death of county councils, at least in the great majority of cases. Let me place on record the fact that I have the highest regard for Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart and Lord Hanningfield, although I am quite certain that neither would believe that their county councils—given the scale of the budgets that they control and the size of the populations and territory in which they operate—would be the most effective lower tier of local government, closest to the electorate.I am glad that the Minister mentioned that the boundary committee would make the recommendation, because that brings me to another point. The Secretary of State has a power—we have come to expect such things—to give the boundary committee directions. So off it goes, doing its independent thing, but with guidance and direction from the Secretary of State. Given that we are now in a different situation, in which the boundary committee will recommend not a single outcome but at least two outcomes, the Minister could help by giving the House an idea of what the Secretary of State's guidance will be. Will the Secretary of State actively solicit from the boundary committee a range of outcomes that are significantly different—in other words, various radical approaches to the problem of reorganisation—or will the committee use the procedure that it would have used in arriving at a single conclusion, and simply stop a little short of that single conclusion, once it has whittled the options down to two? The process that the boundary committee will have to embark on will be very different if what he is trying to achieve at the end of it is distinctive alternatives to put before the Secretary of State and then, hopefully, the electorate. To take up the Minister's point about Kent, perhaps the guidance might be that one of the options presented should always be a unitary county. If that is what the Minister has in mind, it would be extremely interesting and useful for the House to he aware of that. These amendments muddy the water by conveying the impression that the electorate has a say in, and a way of expressing a view on, the local government question other than simply voting no in the referendum on elected regional assemblies. Of course, the Government's nightmare—it is certainly the Liberal Democrats'—is that those who are opposed to local government reorganisation will vote no to elected regional assemblies not because of their views on them, but because of their views on local government reorganisation. Crucially, as I said in response to the Minister's earlier intervention, this approach avoids a clear, single, well-defined consequence from a yes vote in terms of local government reorganisation. The Liberal Democrats' own Front-Bench spokesman in the Lords, Lord Greaves, at least had the decency to resign in protest at this rather squalid deal to conceal matters from the electorate. I hope that the House will forgive me if I quote Lord Greaves, because what he said is quite significant. He refers to the
Lord Greaves was speaking after he had resigned from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. He said:"amendments on the Marshalled List that are part of a package negotiated between members of my party and the Government—there is no secret about that … The crunch is whether people in areas that are to have referendums on regional assemblies…have the democratic option to decide for themselves and not be told by the Minister, 10 Downing Street or anyone else that two-tier local government is not allowed."
"In Committee, when I spoke from the Front Bench on behalf of my party … Lord Rooker said:
'If this measure is decoupled, there will not be a referendum because there will not be a Bill. We shall take it away. That is the price to be paid. It is as simple as that.' … I said,
'We now have threats, bluster and blackmail from the Minister—not rational argument … The Minister's attitude is not acceptable … We are being threatened that if we do what we believe is right, the Government will take their bat and ball home. If it comes to that, do not blame us. The responsibility would clearly rest with the Government. It is arrogance of the highest order.'
Later I said …:
presumably implying that they are willing to be browbeaten in some instances. Lord Greaves then said:'The Liberal Democrats will not be brow-beaten in every instance'",
What is more, he knows who is responsible:"I repeat those words at some length because I believed then that I was speaking on behalf of my party. After I spoke, I was not given an indication that I had not been speaking on behalf of my party. But I believe that my party has, regrettably, now agreed to be blackmailed, bullied and browbeaten."
the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—"I do not blame my noble friend Lady Hamwee for what I think is a very sad series of events. I blame Ed Davey"—
After this triumph in the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats put out a press statement, to which Lord Greaves referred in the Lords."and my colleagues in the House of Commons, and I am happy to stand up in public and say that. I believe that in my part of the world, and in other parts of the world, too, Liberal Democrats will believe that they have been let down on this issue by their parliamentary representatives."
Lord Greaves said of that press release:"'These concessions prevent the absurd situation whereby voters unaffected by local government reform would effectively be imposing changes on voters elsewhere in the region.'"
That is the view of the Liberal Democrats' own former spokesman, who either resigned or was sacked as a result of this deal being struck in the Lords. This is a cynical manoeuvre by a desperate Government and unprincipled Liberal Democrats, from which label I must of course exclude Lord Greaves. The Liberal Democrat press release proceeded to crow that the amendments meant regional government was now assured. I am not sure about that, but to the extent that it is more likely, it is not more likely because a fundamental objection—the imposition of unitary local government, to which the Liberal Democrats still purport to object—has been removed, but because a smokescreen has been erected to obfuscate the issues and confuse the electorate. The Liberal Democrats, who so aggressively and implausibly stake their claim in this House to be considered a party of opposition, have demonstrated through this shabby affair—if any demonstration were needed—that they are not a party of opposition, but fellow travellers of Labour in England, just as they are in a more formal sense in Scotland and in Wales."That is not true. The amendments do not prevent that. All that they do is give those voters a choice. If they believe that unitary government is some form of hell, it gives them a choice of two kinds of hell."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 April 2003; Vol. 647, cc. 20–21.]
Since the hon. Gentleman is so keen on stressing the importance of opposition, could he make a clear statement as to whether his party will vote against these proposals?
I shall come to that right now. We will not be dividing the House on this issue, and the reason is clear for everyone in the House to see: because of the arithmetic. We know that the Government will get their way in this House.
It did not stop you last night.
The hon. Gentleman says that, but of course the Government will get their way in this House. However, in the other place there is a real chance to achieve some of the changes that we and the Liberal Democrats sought. There is a real chance to change this Bill and incorporate some of those provisions that we argued for in Committee and on Report.Liberal Democrats know that they had a real chance of securing a Government compromise in the other place because of the self-imposed time limits—[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that the single change that he opted for, in preference to all the other changes that he sought, is a poor choice. The Liberal Democrats have not only acquiesced in the matter, but have actively conspired with the Government to ensure the demise of our counties in any areas where elected regional assemblies are set up.
I will deal with all the hon. Gentleman's points in my speech. However, he quoted the noble Lord Rooker in the other place, who said:
the hon. Gentleman is right that that is what we sought—"If this measure is decoupled"—
It was clear that we were not going to win: the Bill and the regional government that we support would have been lost, so we compromised. We won a compromise, which brought us far more than the hon. Gentleman gives us credit for. When he finishes, I will outline what we won in more detail."there will not be a referendum because there will not be a Bill. We shall take it away."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 March 2003; Vol. 1905, c. 1515.]
I believe that that is what the honourable Gentleman's noble Friend Lord Greaves described as "threats, bluster and blackmail" from the Minister. Lord Greaves went on to say that, regrettably, his party—the Liberal Democrats—had agreed to be "blackmailed, bullied and browbeaten". That is not the best way to proceed, certainly not in the other place, which is renowned for its gentlemanly—I should say gentle—behaviour.Liberal Democrats have always been strong supporters of elected regional assemblies, so by extension Liberal Democrat policy should now be viewed as firmly in favour of the abolition of county councils and our two-tier system of local government. It is even worse than that. The original proposal in the Bill was for the boundary commission to make a single unitary recommendation. That would have created considerable disruption and manoeuvring between different parties and different authorities in the area. We all recognised in Committee that disruption at local government level, which inevitably impacts on services, is to be avoided if possible. Now we are to have multiple options and a question that will not be resolved by the time that the boundary committee reports to the Secretary of State, which it would have been in the Commons version of the Bill. All that will have a negative impact on service delivery and will prolong and deepen the disruption at local government level. It will impact on the ability of local authorities to recruit and retain staff in the face of uncertainty about their future status—indeed, their survival—and it will be a distraction from the real job, which gets harder by the day, of trying to deliver decent services to local people. The Government and—it seems—the Liberal Democrats are still driven by dogma and ideology. They are prepared to sacrifice the issues of real concern to the public—service delivery—for their own arcane agenda of constitutional reform. They want to create assemblies that will impose huge costs, but not deliver a single extra teacher or nurse, or put a single extra policeman on our streets. That message will not be lost on local electors as they go to the polls tomorrow.
In an earlier intervention on my right hon. Friend the Minister, I warmly welcomed the amendments and I should now like to expand on my intervention.I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who was for a long time coy about how he intended to react to the amendments and whether he would vote against them. He then declared that because of the parliamentary arithmetic, he would not vote against them, which suggests that from now on the Opposition will call no more votes. That would certainly provide a big change to parliamentary procedures. I am glad that the amendment was proposed in the other place and equally glad that the Government agreed to it. Rather than it being some sort of cynical arrangement, as suggested by Conservative Members, I view it as a wholly sensible compromise between the Government's understandable desire not to have too many tiers of government, and their intention to ensure that people living in the areas that will be affected by local government reorganisation are not dictated to and outvoted by people already living in the unitary areas within regions, which tend to be the more populous districts. As a Tynesider and a Member of Parliament who represents parts of both Tyneside and Wearside, I feel deeply uncomfortable at the thought of voting to ensure a particular local government outcome in the county areas of Northumberland and Durham in my region. I am glad that, as a result of the compromise, I will no longer be put in that position and I can now happily vote for regional government without feeling that I am compromising the democratic process—my earlier worry—in any way. I have never been, and am still not, keen on the link between regional government and local government reorganisation, because I believe that they are separate issues, which should be dealt with separately on their own merits. Some of the complexities that have arisen—they have already been raised in the debate—somewhat reinforce my viewpoint, but I nevertheless share the Government's perspective on the advantages of unitary local government and their desire to give people in affected areas a degree of choice. Decrying that degree of choice comes strange from Conservative Members, who certainly gave the voters in Tyne and Wear no choice at all about the form of unitary government that they would have when the Tyne and Wear county council was abolished. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) also blew the gaff effectively on the Opposition's claim that they were defending county councils because it is clear that the boundary commissions could recommend the existing county area as the unitary authority of the future. At that point, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge seemed less interested in Durham than in Kent, but I remind him that they are both county council areas.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the sudden conversion of the Conservative party to the sacrosanctity of county councils is misplaced? The Local Government Act 1972 reduced the number of county councils from 58 to 47, and every major change in county boundaries has taken place under a Conservative Government.
My hon. Friend takes the words out of my mouth. I intended to make the point strongly that the Conservatives' reputation as the wreckers of historic counties will remain firmly intact, even after today's proceedings. The major changes to historic counties—and their destruction—were certainly carried out by the Conservatives' local government reforms of the 1970s. Those were added to by subsequent changes granting unitary status in other historic counties such as Berkshire, Durham and elsewhere. Any claim of the Conservatives to be the defenders of historic counties is totally unconvincing.The amendments would enormously improve the Bill. They would increase the chances of favourable results in referendums on regional government, but in the end, people have a choice about whether they favour regional government. Conservative Members often suggest that people will be dragooned or compelled to adopt regional government, which is far from the case. People will be able to choose whether to move towards regional government, and I greatly welcome the fact that they will have that choice rather than have it imposed on them.
The right hon. Lady will recognise that in several regions, the majority of the electorate already live in unitary authority areas so they will not suffer from the reorganisation of local government, which is the subject of our concern this afternoon.
I recognise that. As I said earlier, I have never run away from the fact that I would prefer regional and local government to be fully decoupled. Even so, it is clear to me that what the amendment offers is a huge improvement on what existed previously. It would give people a degree of choice that they have always been denied in previous local government reforms, and leave them in the happy position that they would not be overruled by people living in the areas already under unitary systems.
The right hon. Lady is making a stoical defence of the Government's position to the best of her ability. However, a certain neurosis seems to underlie the Government's stance. I invite the right hon. Lady to reflect on the salience of her reference to the "degree of choice" available to people. Does she not concede that it is rather peculiar to celebrate the merits of choice, and to offer people a series of options, but then for the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to be unable to guarantee from the Dispatch Box that the preferred option will always be honoured in practice? The Minister thinks that his arbitrary discretion should hold sway over the local will, in many cases. Does not the right hon. Lady think that that is contradictory?
The hon. Gentleman earlier tempted my right hon. Friend the Minister down various improbable hypothetical paths. My right hon. Friend was right to resist that teasing, and to say very firmly that he would not want to thwart the will of the majority of people in a region when it came to expressing a choice about establishing a regional assembly. He also said that he would not want to influence the choice of people in areas affected by local government reorganisation as to what form that reorganisation should take.The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) in his intervention also said that I was making a stoical defence of the Government's proposals, but I want to make it clear that I am making an enthusiastic defence of them. As long ago as last July, I put forward the idea of a compromise in a newspaper article, and I also spoke firmly in favour of a compromise in this House on 18 December, when it was not Government policy. I therefore hope that the hon. Gentleman will at least admit that I have advocated this line for some considerable time. The compromise is a constructive move towards unitary government, which I and the majority of hon. Members strongly support. At the same time, it avoids what would be an uncomfortable option for those of us in existing urban and unitary areas—that is, overriding the wishes of people in two-tier areas.
The right hon. Lady knows that I always try to be fair in debate. I would not want to impugn her integrity, or to misrepresent what appears to be a consistent position—with which, as it happens, I disagree. I entirely accept that the right hon. Lady is consistent, although she has the rather dubious distinction of being consistently wrong. Her position contrasts somewhat with that of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who is usually wrong, and in this case is inconsistent. My hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has very usefully explained how Liberal Democrats in this House and the other place are now united in fraternal detestation of each others' guts.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) will deal with those matters when he rises to speak. I am glad that the hon. Member for Buckingham recognises the consistency of my argument, even though he does not agree with it. However, in all fairness, I must say that Liberal Democrat and Labour supporters of devolution in the north-east of England have felt that the proposal was a sensible way forward, and indeed they advocated it at an early stage. The hon. Gentleman can impugn motives, or otherwise, as he chooses, but there is a long history to the idea under discussion, and that should be recognised in this debate.In conclusion, I once again welcome the amendments. They greatly improve the Bill. They take a lot of the sting out of the complications arising from linking regional and local government, and provide a very sensible way forward.
I begin by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). She has argued in favour of amendments similar to those passed in the Lords, especially the one moved by my noble Friend Baroness Hamwee. The support given by people such as the right hon. Lady was vital in persuading the Government to accept the amendments. I therefore pay tribute to the contribution made by the right hon. Lady and other Labour Members to this success.The amendments significantly improve the Bill. I shall say a little more about the compromise involved in a second, but the issue has been progressed in a way that people who will be asked to vote in the referendums will see as sensible and valuable. We were faced with a Government who were not going to accept the principled position of the Liberal Democrats. We wanted to decouple local government reorganisation from the referendum on elected regional assemblies. That would still be my preference, but compromise is necessary in politics. Instead of negotiating with the Government on the solution that has been proposed, we had two other options. We could have held out for total decoupling and said that we would not agree with anything if the Government did not accept non-unitary government in the areas that opt for regional assemblies. If we had done that, the Bill would have been lost and regional government would have died. What would have happened? We would have been left with the quangos that already exist in the regions, many of which were set up by the previous Conservative Government and have no democratic accountability. We believe in regional government because we believe in regional democracy, and we want it to be accountable to people in the regions. We did not want to lose the Bill, because we would have lost the chance for regional democracy. The other alternative is that the Government could have said that they want the Bill and that, with no compromise forthcoming, they would push it through using the Parliament Acts. That would have meant that no improvements to the Bill would have been possible; neither of those alternatives was very inviting. We believed that getting involved in constructive discussions with the Government was the sensible way forward. The Government proposal was not our preferred option, but it was as near as we could possibly get to it.
I have been listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but he is being slightly disingenuous in citing the possibility that the Government might use the Parliament Acts. He knows that the Government, almost uniquely with this Bill, cannot afford any time slippage. They have set out their agenda for the next general election and they want a referendum to be held next year. They simply would not be able to rely on use of the Parliament Acts.
The Government could have taken that decision, or they could have decided to withdraw the Bill, as Lord Rooker said. We must remember that No. 10 did not want this Bill at all. The Deputy Prime Minister had to negotiate very hard with No. 10 to get the Bill in the first place. The Deputy Prime Minister had to compromise with No. 10, for which the bottom line was unitary government. Faced with that reality, Liberal Democrats decided—politics being the art of the possible—to compromise, like the Deputy Prime Minister.
My hon. Friend may have miscounted, as he said that three options existed. I draw his attention to a fourth option—we could speak out strenuously against something and then, as the Conservatives are doing, not even bother to vote against it.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. He exposes the nonsense that is the Conservative position, and I hope to go further in that respect.It should come as no surprise that the Liberal Democrats have negotiated with the Government on constitutional reform issues. We were part of a Cabinet Committee that sat for several years. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was a member of that Committee, which dealt with constitutional reform in respect of the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, freedom of information and human rights. Liberal Democrats were involved in negotiations on all those major constitutional reforms. This measure is part of that tradition. Such compromises have not prevented the Liberal Democrats from opposing the Government on many issues; for example, Iraq, or tuition and top-up fees. In no way do we agree with every part of the Government's agenda, but, when we do, we try to work with them to reach a compromise. That is grown-up politics. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) quoted my noble Friend, Lord Greaves, but, interestingly, he did not cite his noble Friend Lord Waddington, who said:
the noble Baroness was the Liberal Democrat, Lady Hamwee—"My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for tabling the amendment"—
Lord Waddington seemed to think that was a good idea. Indeed, he helpfully went further when he said:"which appears to be an important step forward, allowing people the opportunity to say what form of unitary local government they want in their areas."
Lord Waddington clearly supported the compromise."But, assuming that the Government will not resile from their determination to use their voting power to ensure that the price of having a referendum is to have unitary local government, does not my noble friend agree with me that, if we are eventually left in that position, it is better that local people should have the opportunity to choose what form of unitary government they should have …?"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 April 2003; Vol. 647, c. 17–19.]
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I shall give way in a moment. No doubt the hon. Gentleman wants to quote from Lord Waddington's remarks later in that debate when, having realised that he should not be engaging his brain but donning his party colours, he went back on his earlier statements. Does the hon. Gentleman still want to intervene?
The hon. Gentleman generally runs a commendable campaign against selective quotation. However, later in the same debate, Lord Waddington said:
He, too, was appalled when he understood the nature of the squalid and cynical deal that had been stitched together between the Government and Liberal Democrat Front Benchers."My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that I stand condemned of the most appalling naivety? I had not the slightest idea of all the comings and goings between the Liberal Front Bench and the Government. If I had known more about that, I would have thought twice before speaking."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 April 2003; Vol. 647, c. 26.]
The hon. Gentleman should stop digging. As soon as Lord Waddington had been nobbled by his Whips, he decided to resile from the position that he had put on the record, not once but twice, supporting the compromise. The hon. Gentleman should be careful.I shall set out the options that were open to us once we had accepted the constraint that the Government would not allow decoupling. We thought long and hard about how to empower local communities and get round some of the problems involved in the Government's intention to push the enforced coupling of the two issues. There were four alternatives. The first was that people in the areas that had experienced local government reform should vote on one option proposed by the boundary committee for England. If the majority voted no, another solution would be imposed. That idea was batted about. We did not like it because eventually it could have led to an imposed solution. Secondly, if the option proposed by the boundary committee was rejected in a vote, a further solution could be put to a referendum; there would be a second ballot. We had more sympathy with that proposal, but it could have meant an expensive and time-consuming series of ballots, so there were some disadvantages. Thirdly, if the proposed option was rejected in a vote, the elected regional assembly would decide on the reform of local government in its area. Again, we had some sympathy with the proposal, but there could have been practical problems, especially in the first wave of regional referendums. The powers would not have been enacted and it would have been some time before the first regional assemblies were elected, so there could have been instability in local government. We spent some time exploring that option, although it was not practical. Having rejected three possibilities, we ended up with the proposal that we are discussing today: that the boundary committee should be required to produce at least two options for local government reorganisation, which should be put to the ballot. That seems the best possible solution, given the constraint imposed by No. 10 that there will be no decoupling. It is important for the House to realise that careful negotiations were undertaken and that we thought long and hard about the solution that we are discussing: it is the best one possible. The proposal has four benefits. First, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out, only those voters affected by local government reorganisation will be able to vote. In other words, those outside the area affected will not be able to vote. That is important, and it deals with a damaging part of the Government's original proposals, which we strongly opposed. My right hon. Friend put a strong argument against them. The second benefit is that there will be a vote. As we have already heard, under the previous Conservative Government there was no vote on whether unitary government should be established. People in the areas affected were given no choice; they had no democratic voice. The proposal is thus a major step forward. It is worth emphasising that this is the first time in the history of this country that local people will have the chance to vote on the form of local government in their area. That concession was wrung not only from Ministers but from Whitehall. It is the sort of thing that Whitehall does not like, so it is a major achievement for the whole House as a democratic body. The third benefit is that there will be a real choice, not merely a take-it-or-leave-it. There could be as many as four options, one of which could even be that the unitary authority was a county council. The key point is that voters will have a choice.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman the question that I put to the Minister earlier? How does the hon. Gentleman envisage the boundary committee being directed? It is possible that the four choices would be merely nuances of each other, so does he envisage radically different choices being put to the electorate?
The boundary committee must make the recommendations that it deems best. It would be odd, however, if the committee came up with two or three very similar proposals. I am sure that the committee will take note of the arguments that have been made in this place and will want to give people real choice, so presumably there will be real differences between the options that it proposes.The fourth benefit, on which I am sure that the Conservatives will not agree, is that the compromise solution will produce a much better chance of wining the referendums on regional assemblies. There was real concern that those devolutionists who wanted regional government would have to vote against it because they disliked the local government reform tied to it. That was a problem, and it put those people in all political parties who argued for regional devolution in an almost impossible position. This solution gets us out of that problem and takes away an argument from some parties and people who are against regional devolution, so there are some real benefits. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said that that solution is the only thing that had been won in this package. I can tell him that it is not: we shall come to some of the other issues later, but I shall just list them for him now. First, in the Government's original proposals, the boundaries of existing unitary authorities in various regions could not have been touched, even though it would have made sense to merge, for example, an adjacent district council with the existing unitary authority, but we have managed to persuade the Government to change their mind. That is very welcome, as it will allow an existing district to join an existing unitary authority where doing so makes sense because of local government boundaries. That is a common-sense, practical solution to a fundamental problem with the Government's original proposals. We have also persuaded the Government that they should use their best endeavours to publish a draft Bill before the first referendum. That is a significant victory. I accept that that is not in the Bill, but the Government are on record to that effect, having been previously opposed to that solution. [Interruption.] The Minister says that they were not opposed to it, and I do not have the Hansard reference.
We were never opposed to that. We always made it clear that we saw merit in the possibility of publishing a draft Bill, but we were concerned about the timetable implications. We will use our very best endeavours to ensure that a draft Bill is published before a referendum, so that people have the opportunity to see it, but the timetable implications remain the prime concern. That was the only reason why we were not previously prepared to commit to doing so.
Right hon. and hon. Members may think that a nuanced shift, but it is still an important shift. When we argued with the Government, they did not seem that keen on the idea; they seemed not to want to be constrained or to make promises on the record. The Government have shifted, and I certainly take the Minister's good will in our discussions as a sign that they will try extremely hard to ensure that that Bill is published before the first referendum. That is very important to ensure that people have the right information on which to vote—in other words, the details of what regional assemblies will be able to do—and that the House has a chance to start pre-legislative scrutiny and to try to argue for more powers for regional assemblies.One of our problems with the Government's package of regional devolution proposals is that it does not pass enough power from Whitehall to the regional assemblies, but a draft Bill will allow us to begin to engage in that debate to ensure that more regional devolution takes place. I was also very pleased when one of the Minister's colleagues in the Lords confirmed in an parliamentary answer to the Earl of Caithness that
The Government are clearly signalling that they are prepared to augment the powers of regional assemblies over time, and we very much welcome that. A number of concessions have been wrought from the Government during these negotiations. They did not go as far as we should have liked, and there is no shame in that. If we could have won everything, it would have been absolutely fabulous, but we have won a large part of the agenda. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge specifically mentioned regional boundaries, and it is worth commenting on that because my hon. Friends and I were concerned when we previously debated the Bill that there was no review of regional boundaries, and we still have that concern. I predict that, when the Government have gone ahead, as I hope that they will, with referendums on regional assemblies in the three northern regions—the north-west, north-east and Yorkshire and Humberside—they will embark on a review of regional boundaries elsewhere in England. We will argue for such a review, especially when the powers Bill is introduced in the House. We have not given up on that point at all; we will be campaigning very hard. The logic of the politics is that there must be more regions in the rest of England outside the three northern areas. Neither I nor my hon. Friends believe that the current regional boundaries for areas, such as the south-west or south-east, make sense. They need to be reviewed, and we will press for that. I believe that a referendum could not or, indeed, should not be won until the regional boundaries have been reviewed. This set of Lords amendments makes a major improvement to the Bill. I am proud to be involved, with many others, in securing the amendments. The Government were persuaded by argument, which is an example of this House working at its best. I commend the amendments to the House. I shall end on this point: the Conservatives, who do not want to vote against the amendments, should at least confess that they do not want to give people choice. Not only are they against regional government; they are against giving people the choice of regional government. Not only are they against local government reorganisation; they are against giving people the choice of local government reorganisation. From being the party of choice, they have got themselves into a sorry state."the Government are keen further to decentralise responsibility for policy and delivery where this will improve regional outcomes. There are likely to be further proposals for the decentralisation of responsibilities to elected regional assemblies as time goes on."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 25 March 2003; Vol. 646, c. WA67.]
I, too. welcome Lords amendment No. 3, as it will give my constituents in North Durham a say not only in a tier of regional government but in their local government structures, which, as we have heard previously, they have been denied in the past.I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) is a passionate advocate of regional government, which is a passion that I share. We disagree, however, about reorganisation of local government. I have always argued that having a tier of regional government necessitates a review of local government. The reason is that I do not accept that voters in any area will vote for more politicians or an extra tier of government on top of what already exists. A clear case exists that Durham is currently over-represented in local government. In the seven parliamentary constituencies that cover Durham, we have 421 councillors: an average of 60 councillors per constituency. The neighbouring area of Tyne and Wear has 13 parliamentary constituencies and 339 councillors: an average of 26 per constituency. It would be difficult to argue to the electorate that putting another tier of regional government on top of that would be efficient. There is also an opportunity to address some of the disparities that already exist in local government in County Durham.
Perhaps I can make my position clear. Certainly, we should not rule out considering the numbers involved in local government at present, or those in the House of Commons, in terms of the modernisation of our democracy. However, in terms of the immediate issue, I was simply not keen on the link being drawn between local government and regional government. Some of my hon. Friend's points, however, are very worthy of consideration.
I am grateful for that clarification. This is an opportunity to address some of those issues.As I said, I do not think that the electorate will vote for more politicians. In Committee, the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) described what the Minister referred to as the Liberal Valhalla, in which the electorate would come forward with great gusto to vote for more councillors and more local representatives. I simply do not think that that is the case. We have heard again this afternoon, as we heard in Committee, that this Bill means the end of county councils. I do not think so. In County Durham, a strong case exists that the county area should be that of the new unitary authority—at present, it spends 80 per cent. of the local government budget in the county—and I shall argue strongly for the new unitary authority in that regard. Currently, the two-tier system does not work, it is inefficient, and I simply do not accept the idea that local people somehow identify closely with Derwentside or Chester-le-Street district councils as bodies for which they will do or die. We are now at an historic moment in the development of regional policy in this country. People in the north-east have waited a long time for a chance to vote for and elect a democratically elected tier of regional government, which will make a great difference not just in terms of ensuring that their voices are heard nationally, but in giving them a sense that their identity, about which they all feel strongly, is recognised, as is the case in other parts of the nation. The amendment is sensible. As the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) said, it will provide an opportunity for the Bill to get through. Over many years, the Conservatives made deals in this House and the other place to ensure that legislation got through, and this sensible amendment will be welcomed in County Durham.
I agree with one thing that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) said. If we are going to go down the line of regional government, we must lose a tier of local government. That is one of the reasons why I am fundamentally opposed to the whole idea of regional government.There is something worrying about a handful of MPs sitting in the Chamber on the eve of an important local government poll discussing the minutiae of a Bill that, as we have been reminded by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), No. 10 does not even want. It has resisted it, and the fact that we are debating it today is a sop to the Deputy Prime Minister. If we were not here but instead campaigning for the local government elections, we would find that no one was raising the issue of regional assemblies on the doorsteps. People are concerned about their council taxes escalating and local schools facing a funding crisis. Those issues concern the electorate—not this sophisticated argument about changing the local government structure of the regions. I remind the House of the answer that I received from the Minister of State when I asked him about the level of interest in regional government in the north-east. He told me that, by the 3 March deadline—I appreciate that it has been extended—there had been only 4,500 responses from the whole of England and Wales, of which 300 were from the north-east. To argue, as the Minister did, that those 300 people are somehow all representative of huge organisations and bring with them a block vote to the debate is, I regret to say, arrant nonsense. The people of the north-east do not want an assembly; they could not care less about it. Even the polls conducted by the Journal newspaper, which we all know is an absolute enthusiast for regional government, show that the majority of people that it questioned—we never knew the size of the sample—were against the idea of regional government.
I agree that if we hold a referendum in the north-east it will be a big job to convince people to vote in favour of an assembly. Will the hon. Gentleman say today whether he and the Conservative party in the north-east will campaign for a no vote in that referendum?
I cannot speak for the entire party in the north-east, but I shall certainly campaign against a regional assembly. I do not want local government in my authority of Northumberland to be smashed up, but that is exactly what would happen. It is true that, perhaps in Northumberland as well as Durham, it may well be that the county survives and the districts die.The problem with Northumberland is that it has a population of 300,000 compared with populations of nearly 2 million in Essex and Kent. It is a tiny number in a large landmass that is currently served by six district councils. It would be a very difficult for the boundary committee to decide to have a number of unitary districts with a total population of 300,000. Therefore, it would tend to go for a unitary county, but there is a huge disadvantage with that.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman wants to intervene on this point. The huge disadvantage of a unitary county is that the whole of Northumberland would be run from the centre, which is many miles away from the people of Berwick, Haltwhistle or the west of my constituency.
I am grateful to my neighbour for giving way. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would prefer to keep the present system in which most local government decisions in Northumberland are taken by Northumberland county council, dominated, as it is, by the urban south-east? Would he prefer the continuance of that to, for example, a unitary authority based on the boundaries of his constituency, which would be a substantial area and similar in number to some existing unitary authorities?
At the time of the last proposed reorganisation of local government, I was certainly in favour of dividing Northumberland into three unitary authorities if that was the option for change. However, it became clear that the boundary commission would not have that. It was pointing to a very out-of-touch unitary county.3.45 pm The real purpose of my remarks is to ask the Minister to flesh out one or two additional pieces of information about who may vote. It is curious that I am still learning more about this complex Bill at the eleventh hour. I did not serve on the Committee, so I apologise if I have got this wrong, but I think that the Minister talked about the Morecambe Bay option, meaning that the boundary committee could move part of an existing unitary authority into an area currently covered by a two-tier authority. I shall give an example from the north-east. I have explained that the county of Northumberland has a small population and a large area. It is hypothetically possible that the boundary committee could decide to create two unitary authorities and return the area covered by the old county borough of Tynemouth back to Northumberland to boost its population, which would be highly popular.
The Minister does not think that that will happen, but if it did, would the people living in the area covered by the old county borough of Tynemouth be able to vote in the local government referendum? If that were the case, it would introduce a new and interesting aspect to the Bill. Will he confirm that the boundary committee could include part of Tynemouth in a part-Northumberland unitary authority? That would allow us to reopen the argument of whether people living in unitary authorities could be moved into a different area, even if they could not vote on that.I am not sure whether that was clear. During these debates, one always has the choice of staying in the Chamber or going to lunch. I decided to stay, although I am not sure whether that was a good idea because I am probably more confused now than I was when the debate started. I hope that the Minister will address the problem in his winding-up speech.
Until a few months ago, before I went off to play with trains, boats and planes as the Liberal Democrats' transport spokesman, I had responsibilities for these matters. I must confess that when my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) took over those responsibilities, I was feeling fairly depressed about progress on the development of regional government in England. I am delighted to say that I feel far more optimistic than I did then, which is largely due to my hon. Friend's endeavours. I congratulate him on his work.It has been said on several occasions, not least by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), that Liberal Democrats have long argued the clear principle that issues relating to regional government should be decoupled from those relating to local government. I still believe, as do my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton and my colleagues in another place, that that would represent the right way forward. It is almost incomprehensible that the Government are not prepared to accept arguments for such decoupling. I do not accept that the establishment of regional government, for which my party has argued for a long time, would add an additional tier of governance in England. We already have a tier of regional governance. There are many unelected quangos that spend billions of pounds in our regions, have a huge associated bureaucracy and cost a great deal. The establishment of directly elected regional government in each of the regions would provide the opportunity not only to reduce cost and bureaucracy, but to allow much more joined-up thinking than may occur through the work of those separate quangos. We would also fill the democratic deficit that exists because people would be elected to represent local people and determine how money that is intended to help them should be spent.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that despite the Government's protestations, they are imposing an additional tier of government on many parts of the country that are already under unitary local government?
One important principle that the Liberal Democrats and I hold is that decisions on the number and arrangement of tiers is best made by the people whom the tiers serve. I have always rejected the argument that central Government should impose such decisions on local people. I deeply regret the way in which Conservative Administrations imposed rearrangements of local government on local people without those people voting on the proposals.
Given that the hon. Gentleman is worried about the number of quangos that handle so much money and would prefer regional government of one sort or another, does he agree that if a region votes against an elected regional government, the unelected regional assembly in that area should cease to exist?
No, I do not. If a directly elected regional assembly is not supported, there is merit in considering ways to integrate some of the different quangos and allowing the unelected assembly, which represents many groups, to have greater powers of scrutiny of those quangos and the RDAs. The representative assemblies were a good move and are welcome.I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would argue that my support for regional government and the suggestion that it would sweep away those quangos was a fanciful thought because the Government's proposals will not achieve that as they stand. In that context, it was encouraging to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton stress that the Government's answer in another place reflects their willingness to address and enhance the powers that the directly elected regional governments will have. Hopefully, they will be responsible for more quangos. I welcome that and look forward to hearing the Minister assure us that that will be the case. Given that there is no obvious correlation between the roles of regional government and local government, there is no need to link them in the way that the Government initially proposed. They should be treated separately. If there is a case to reorganise local government in an area, it might be appropriate to discuss that, but that should not be linked to the establishment of regional government, which is, after all, about democratising a tier of governance that we already have. Nevertheless, it was made clear—not least by the intransigence of No. 10 Downing street—that the Government would not adopt that approach, so it was sensible to find a compromise. My noble Friend Baroness Greaves was mentioned in the context of the Liberal Democrats being blackmailed on the issue. I have much respect for my noble Friend—
I accept that the hon. Gentleman has a great deal of respect for his noble Friend, but he obviously does not know who his friend is because he is, in fact, Baron Greaves.
I think that we are both wrong.Lord Greaves, better known to his friends as Tony—I count myself as one of his friends—was wrong. If blackmail were involved, it was the other way around, admirably organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton. The Government, and in particular the Minister, knew that without such a compromise the Bill would be lost for the very reasons set out by the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge. They had a great deal riding on this and if anyone could be accused of blackmail it is my hon. Friend.
I can confirm that that was our position. We agreed as a team that we would have to kill the Bill if the Government did not give way. We did not want to do that, but we were prepared to act in that way.
I am grateful for confirmation of what I assumed to have been the case. As a result of that, my hon. Friend was able to wring from the Minister a number of concessions, which he has outlined. It seems that at the last minute several people were wringing concessions out of the Minister—even his noble Friends on the Front Bench in another place. I note that Lord Rooker, speaking at 3.30 pm two days ago in response to Baroness Hanham, having been told that he was being rather curmudgeonly on that occasion, said:
Everyone managed to wring concessions out of the right hon. Gentleman up to the last minute. I am delighted that it was as a result of Liberal Democrats that the major concessions were obtained. Those are major concessions. They might not have been what we wanted, but it is important that if the local government decision was to be linked with the regional government referendum, local people would have a choice. It was important that it was only local people affected by that decision who would be involved in making the decision. During an earlier exchange we saw the difficulties of linking the two. It is still not clear to me whether it will be possible for a group of people in one local government area effectively to hold to ransom the entire region. We have not had a clear answer from the Minister in that regard, but no doubt in the course of proceedings today he will get further little notes that will provide a clearer answer to the question. That may even result in our having wrung a further concession out of him. The important thing is to adopt the advice offered by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), that where there is a need for a second vote on the local government issue, there should still be plenty of opportunity for the regional arrangements to continue before a final decision is made, and the proceedings should not be held up. In grown-up politics we should end the Punch and Judy approach. Where there is a greater goal—in this case, the introduction of powerful, democratically elected regional government—it is sometimes necessary to make compromises. The proposals today offer a much greater likelihood of the advent of regional government. I am delighted not only that the amendments are part of that compromise, but that there is more in the pipeline, such as the discussion about improving the powers of regional government. As I no longer have responsibility for these matters on behalf of my party, I am no longer in a need-to-know position, but I noted with considerable interest the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton when he assured the House that he was confident that after the first three referendums took place, there would be a reconsideration of the boundaries. On what basis he gave us that assurance I know not, but he is in a need-to-know position and I am not. I welcome that further concession, if that is what it is. In conclusion, regional government is long overdue. I am delighted that by agreeing the amendments and the compromise today, as I hope the House will, apparently without a Division, we are moving forward the cause of regional government rather more rapidly than I thought possible just a few months ago."My Lords, I am cheesed off, having been ultra friendly and having wrung an extra little concession out of my right honourable friend Nick Raynsford as late as twenty past two this afternoon."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 April 2003; Vol. 647, c. 457.]
The area that I represent will be directly affected by the Bill and the amendments. It is an area in which many people believe that we ought to have more decisions made closer to home, in the north-east rather than in London, just as, when we look across the border, we see that Scots are able to have decisions made in Edinburgh rather than in London. It is also an area in which many people would have been faced with a difficult choice if they had been told that in order to have a regional assembly, they had to accept one and only one possibility for unitary local government. Further, they were being told that they would not decide that issue, although they would be casting a vote on whether to have a regional assembly. The far greater numbers of people in unitary areas, who need not be influenced by this point at all because it would not affect them, would, by voting for a regional assembly, determine that the minority of areas got that change in the local government structure.4 pm Those were offensive features of the Bill and they were likely, as I think is now agreed on both sides of the House, to undermine the genuine arguments for the creation of regional assemblies. I therefore welcome the amendments and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), because I know how much work he did on this, and our local Government team in the Lords, which I am bound to commend because it includes my wife, which did excellent work and had to make the difficult decision about what could be secured while ensuring that we continue to have the Bill; and what was secured was extremely valuable. I am also grateful for the support of the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) who from the beginning has made it clear that she wanted the Bill to be changed in this way.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must praise the achievements of our hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), certainly for the significant concessions that have been wrung from the Government? Although from the perspective of his region my right hon. Friend might see the Bill as being half full, when from a Cornish perspective it may appear half empty, at the end of the day that is a geographical view, not a political difference.
I am not sure that I understood my hon. Friend's intervention, but I did understand my own words when I praised my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who used to work for me in days gone by and whose work on the Bill has been as excellent as was his work when he was a member of my staff.The value of the amendments is not only that they remove those offensive features of the Bill, but that they bring a new principle into local government reorganisation in Britain, a principle which would have been welcome when the Conservative Government were going around abolishing counties, creating unitary authorities, and putting people in areas that they did not want to be in, but which they never for a moment entertained and which even today they are ambivalent about—which is why they do not want to vote at all either for or against this set of amendments. They do not want to admit the principle that people should have a choice in these matters. We think that that is a good principle. Obviously, as my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West made clear, many of us would have liked the choice to include the retention of a two-tier system, although as I shall come on to say in a moment, there are increasing arguments against the two-tier system and in favour of a unitary system. The Government believe that those arguments are conclusive if the additional tier of regional democracy is introduced. It is only an additional tier of democracy; it is not an additional tier of government. The apparatus of government is already there. It is an additional tier of democracy, and one that we believe is necessary because powers are being exercised at regional level. Another effect of the amendments is to remove the notion that the Bill is either about or will necessarily lead to the abolition of counties. If people in a given area believe that the county is the finest form of government ever known to man—a view that did not use to be held in the Conservative party when it abolished Herefordshire, Worcestershire and the royal county of Berkshire—they can vote accordingly. If my neighbour, the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson), believes that what remains of the old county of Northumberland—it is not the historic county of Northumberland, the county for which people play cricket, although not, I am sorry to say, first-class cricket, but the county that exists for many voluntary organisations—is the right structure, he and others who believe that can vote for it, because they will in future be given a choice. It is likely that the range of options that the boundary committee will put forward if it has any sense—as I used to answer questions for the Electoral Commission I am bound to say that I think there is quite a lot of sense in there—will include an option that comes close to a county-based option, and one that is one much closer to the districts, or possibly, for example in the case of Northumberland, a county-based option, an option close to existing districts and one that falls somewhere between the two. That is where the argument and discussion will run in a county such as Northumberland. People will be asking whether there should be county-based government involving a lot of devolution to area committees and parish and town councils—the option for which the county council is trying to argue—or whether it would be much better to recognise that local government can be run with smaller units nowadays because local authorities are not trying to provide services directly as much they used to do. Previously, they had vast staffs, but they are now enabling or contracting out more services and ensuring that a variety of other bodies put those services in place. Thus rather smaller districts are now considered more feasible than Whitehall civil servants, who like dealing with a relatively small number of authorities throughout the country, used to argue.
As the right hon. Gentleman has obviously been close to the Electoral Commission, will he tell us whether he believes that the boundary committee should propose a unitary county option in every case? If so, does he think that the range of population sizes between different unitary authorities that that approach would involve if it were adopted throughout the country would be acceptable? The Minister was not prepared to agree with that proposition.
I do not believe that we should prescribe that the committee should propose such an option in every case. It will have discussions in the areas for which it is formulating proposals. There may be no interest in an all-county option in a given area. None the less, I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, as I think that a large disparity is possible in the size of authorities. There is already a huge disparity in size between unitary authorities in cities with large populations and the relatively small unitary authorities of which I should imagine that he is in favour, such as Rutland.Many countries are not uncomfortable with such disparities and have large disparities in size between their local authorities. In such countries, the biggest local authorities will probably provide the whole range of public services, while smaller authorities can share responsibility with several others by grouping together with them in providing particular services. For example, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) will find that there is no assumption in French local government that every local authority should be of the same size and cover the same population. That is a London view of local government, and those of us who represent different types of area should reject it from the beginning. The local government system needs to be much more flexible, to involve different scales of local authorities and to recognise that there can be co-operation. If there are two or three education authorities in an area that used to be a county, they will not run two or three educational psychology services; they will need to establish a leading authority, participate in a sharing arrangement or contract out that service to some other body, whether it is a private sector or public sector one, as will be much more likely in such cases. There is scope for a much more radical approach to local government that allows us to keep it as local as possible while ensuring that it does not have so many levels. That leads me to the unitary issue. It is argued that the choice that people will be given by the amendment—a choice that they would never have had before—is limited to a choice between types of unitary authority. I have referred to that drawback before, but I have become gradually more persuaded of the merits of unitary authorities as a way of running local government. For example, most of our electors simply do not understand which local authority provides which service and find the current system extremely confusing. That confusion is apparent in my mailbag and in my constituency surgery, and it does not help democratic accountability. Indeed, many people will go to the polls tomorrow thinking that they are voting in respect of the education service in their area and not realising that they might be voting for an authority that has absolutely no influence or role in providing that service. Reference has been made to the large number of councillors needed under the two-tier system. There are almost 70 councillors in my constituency. In the current elections, 12 of them have already been elected unopposed; most of them are Liberal Democrats. In one ward, only two candidates stood for three seats, so there is a vacant seat. It is increasingly difficult to find people to take on the heavy responsibilities of local government. Many would argue that we do not need as many councillors as the two-tier system necessitates. I said that I had become increasingly persuaded, but I started from a position of being extremely worried about the creation of large unitary authorities when the Conservatives were in power and tried to impose unitary authorities on us. When Lord Heseltine was Secretary of State, he eventually backed off doing so. As the hon. Member for Hexham said, there are areas where it would be very difficult to impose a county-wide unitary authority without giving many people the feeling that it is far too remote from them in respect of many local government services. The two-tier system is a compromise to deal with services that might need to be delivered on a larger scale and those that can be delivered more locally. Smaller unitary authorities offer an alternative route. I am no longer wholly persuaded, however, that the two-tier system has sufficient advantages to outweigh its manifest disadvantages. I have talked to many councillors in the two-tier system who have come round to that view independently of all the discussion about the creation of regional assemblies. In an ideal world, I should want to resolve the issues separately. If, in the course of the process, the boundary committee managed to come up with a scheme of unitary authorities that was popular in Northumberland, and unfortunately we lost the referendum, some people—even Conservative councillors, if there are any left—might say, "Please can we still have the local government reorganisation that we spent all that time discussing, because we have decided that it is actually the best option?" If so, it will be because people have been able to exercise a choice, and the boundary committee has been forced to consider the alternative possibilities. It should not be allowed to take the easy option of saying, for example, that a minimum population of 200,000 falls within a county structure; it should forced to consider whether smaller-scale unitary authorities could co-operate to enable local government to function effectively. That process could result in a sensible review of local government in areas such as mine. It would certainly ensure that local people have a choice, which they never had under the Conservatives, and would have been denied if my hon. Friends, with good support from other hon. Members, had not secured the amendments.
We have had a thorough and detailed debate covering many issues. I shall try to be as brief as possible while doing justice to hon. Members' contributions and responding to the questions that were put to me.The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) revealed the teal motivation for his response to the Bill in its current form—namely, pique that his hope of wrecking the Bill has been frustrated. Ultimately, what Conservative Members have tried to do throughout its passage is to deny people the chance of an elected regional assembly in those regions that want one. That is, of course, entirely consistent with Conservative policy. They opposed devolution to Scotland, to Wales and to London. They were defeated on every one of those occasions, and they are now opposing devolution to the English regions. I give him a forecast that they will be defeated again. Then, once again, they will change their tune, and in a few years' time we will hear a different tune on devolution in England. The hon. Gentleman continued with his bogus claim that our proposals mean the death of county councils. I simply say to him that there is absolutely no substance to that. There is no intrinsic threat to counties. The boundary committee will be free to decide what, in its view, are the best options for unitary local government and to put them forward. The people of each region that opts for a referendum will then be free to decide which they prefer. The boundary committee will have, in essence, two criteria: first, it must have regard to reflecting the interests and identities of local communities; and secondly, it must ensure effective and convenient local government. We will leave it up to the boundary committee to decide what options to come up with. We have not said that it should be limited to just two options—we have given it the freedom to decide to have more. It will also be for the committee to decide whether there should be one modelled on the county structure and one on the grouping of districts, or whatever other formulation it chooses. There will be no prescription—it will be for the committee to recommend the right way forward. As for the Conservative nostalgia for county councils, many other Members forcefully made the point that in the course of 30 years the Conservative party consistently abolished councils, giving the people of the affected areas no option to have any say whatsoever. The people of Berkshire and Cleveland had no say when their counties were abolished, the people of Hereford and Worcester had no say about amalgamation and so on. I could go on at length. It is therefore humbug for Conservative Members to claim to be the champions of county councils. 4.15 pm The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge asked an important question about the implications of amendment No. 11, which would require the Electoral Commission to publish its views on the intelligibility of the referendum question. The Electoral Commission is already required to publish its views on the intelligibility of the main question on an elected regional assembly. It has done that and we have taken its views into account and amended the question accordingly. With the second question, the intelligibility of the formulation of the options for wholly unitary local government must be considered. We do not know what the boundary committee will recommend or how the options can be expressed. The amendment would therefore provide for the Electoral Commission to present its views at an appropriate stage. I hope that that explains the reason for the amendment. We cannot yet anticipate the exact formulation of the question, and the Electoral Commission must have an opportunity to consider its intelligibility and make recommendations, which we shall consider as we considered those on the wider question on the elected regional assembly. I was fascinated to hear the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge conclude that he would not recommend that his party vote against the amendments, on the curious constitutional premise that it was bound to be defeated because of the size of the Government majority. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) was right to say that in that case, we would have no more votes for the rest of the Parliament. Even without the assistance of the Liberal Democrats, the Government have a large majority and might be presumed likely to win every vote. I was first elected to this place when our party was in a small minority compared with a large Conservative party. We voted on principle, irrespective of whether we expected to win. I am astonished that today's Conservative party does not have the courage of its convictions and vote, even if it has opposed the amendments in the debate.
Does my right hon. Friend suspect that the Opposition realise that the amendment might prove popular after all and they do not want to be on the wrong side of the argument?
I shall not be tempted to make any more suppositions about the Conservative party's motivation. It has dug itself into a sufficiently large hole without my needing to help it.I was grateful for the support of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West in her contribution. She has been a stalwart supporter of regional government for many years and is obviously delighted that she can continue to give full support to the Government proposals. She believes that it is right for people to have a say about the form of unitary local government in the north-east region. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) clearly supported the amendments. He played an important part in the development and formulation of several of them. I pay tribute to his commitment to ensuring the Bill's passage and making available the option of regional government to people throughout the country. We believe that it is right that people should have that option and I know that that is the Liberal Democrats' view. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman persuaded some of his Friends in another place who were less committed to regional government not to block the Bill. I am also pleased that they succeeded in avoiding the outcome that the Conservative party would have liked—of preventing the measure from reaching the statute book. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and assure him that we shall continue to work constructively to ensure that people have the option of regional government, and that the dream is realised for regions that want the ability to take charge of their affairs and have elected bodies in the region making decisions rather than Whitehall or quangos. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) is also a strong supporter of regional government, and he reiterated his belief in the need for the appropriate reorganisation of local government. I am delighted that the amendments make possible the outcome that he clearly wishes for his county—if that is what the boundary committee comes forward with, I hasten to add, because that will not be my decision. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) asked whether unitary Tynemouth could be reunited with Northumberland. I am sorry to disappoint him, but we have no provision for an existing unitary area to be taken out of its current unitary status and transferred into a two-tier area. It is possible, however, that the boundary committee might recommend that part of the existing two-tier Northumberland might be connected to Tynemouth, or indeed to other adjoining unitaries. That would be up to the boundary committee to decide. If that were the case, only the people living in the two-tier area—that is, the existing county of Northumberland areas—would have the vote. As I explained in response to an earlier question from the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge, that is because if we were to extend the vote to people within the existing unitary area, we would have the problem that has been highlighted earlier, of the votes of the people in the two-tier area being swamped by the much larger numbers living in the predominantly unitary area.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify the reference that he just made to Tynemouth and Northumberland? He well knows that these issues are closely followed in the local press. Will he confirm that he was not in fact proposing that those two areas should be joined, but that it is an option that could be put forward?
A hypothetical one.
Indeed. Otherwise, we might see headlines tomorrow stating that Tynemouth is to become part of Northumberland.
I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for anticipating the possible misinterpretation of what I was saying. I was making it clear that the Bill now provides for the option, when the reorganisation of unitary local government takes place, for some parts of the two-tier areas to become linked to existing unitary authorities. That is the option, and it might happen in some parts of the country, but I have no view at all about either the likelihood or the desirability of that happening in respect of any part of Northumberland, Durham or, indeed, any other region of the country. This is not my decision; it will be a matter for the boundary committee to decide. I certainly know of no proposal to link any part of Northumberland with the existing unitary authority of North Tyneside, to give it its proper title.
I am grateful for the Minister's clarification. I am rather sorry that the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones) intervened on him, because I was hoping that the Minister would set that hare running. It would have made headlines in the morning.
I am happy that I have prevented that particular hare from running, and I shall resist the temptation to speculate as to what might be appropriate outcomes in other parts of the region. I must also apologise to the hon. Member for Hexham for having caused him a late lunch; I hope that he will be able to get away reasonably soon.The hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) finds it difficult to understand why we cannot de-couple regional issues from local government reorganisation. The answer is a very simple one. Unlike his party, we do not believe in the proliferation of tiers of government. Unitary local government exists in every area of the country in which there has been devolution—whether in Scotland, Wales or London, where we have the Greater London Authority. People are not, therefore, confused by a proliferation of different tiers of government. We believe that it is right that, where English regions opt for elected regional assemblies, there should be no more than two tiers of government below the national level—obviously excluding parish councils. Essentially, that means that unitary local government is, in our view, a necessary concomitant of the move towards regional government, and the two must go together. The only other interesting observation that the hon. Member for Bath made was that the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton had been wrongly presented as having been blackmailed. The hon. Gentleman himself chose to portray his hon. Friend as the blackmailer rather than the blackmailed. I have to say that, on that one, his judgment is quite wrong. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton has, as I have already made clear, shown a strong commitment to furthering the cause of regional government, but he has not been in the position of being either the blackmailed or the blackmailer. I am sorry that he has been done such an injustice by the hon. Member for Bath, to whom I happily give way.
I am grateful to the Minister, although I shall leave it to others to decide who did the blackmailing. The evidence is fairly clear that my hon. Friend has wrung a large number of concessions from the Minister, and whether that is blackmail or not does not matter.May I make another point to the Minister before he moves on from me? I pointed out that I am not currently in a need-to-know position, but, nevertheless, we have had assurances from my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton that we can anticipate the possibility of boundary reviews in come regions after the first three years. As I am not in a need-to-know position and as there are relatively few of us here, will the Minister at least bring us into his confidence on that issue?
I strongly advise the hon. Gentleman to remain in a position in which he has no need to know. All I can say to him is that we have no plans at the moment other than to proceed on the basis of the existing Government office boundaries. That is what is stated in our White Paper, but also in our White Paper we said that that does not preclude the possibility, at a future date, of some review of the boundaries. That has been our position consistently; that remains our position. He need read nothing into those remarks, as there is no change in the position.The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) welcomed the amendments and the greater choice available to electors. He also made a number of interesting observations on how the case for unitary local government has become more persuasive over the years. He was absolutely right in talking about the public confusion over what responsibility lies with particular tiers of government. In answer to the hon. Member for Bath, I say that that is one of the strongest reasons for insisting on a unitary government framework where there is a regional tier, because the scope for confusion would be even greater if we had a regional tier, a county tier and a district tier responsible for different services. I very much appreciate the support of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and I welcome the fact that by far the majority of Members who have spoken support the amendments. I hope that we can now agree to them.Lords amendment agreed to.Lords amendments Nos. 4 to 19 agreed to, some with Special Entry.
Exclusion Of Legal Proceedings
Lords amendment: No. 20.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this, it will be convenient to deal with Lords amendments Nos. 21 and 22.
After a long but very interesting debate on the previous amendment, it gives me enormous pleasure to have the opportunity to discuss in great detail, but fairly briefly I hope, the issues surrounding these Lords amendments, which relate to the circumstances for the exclusion of legal proceedings challenging the certification of a referendum or referendum results.Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are consequential on the introduction of a local referendum in areas with two tiers of local government, and it is right that the same provisions for legal challenge to a count should apply to local referendums under the new clause 2 as well as to the regional assembly referendums under clause 1. These two amendments would achieve that. Amendment No. 22 represents a slightly more significant change rather than a consequential matter. I hope briefly to describe what that entails. There has already been quite a lot of debate in both Houses on the terminology used in what is known as the ouster clause—clause 10—which would prevent frivolous legal moves that might delay a Government responding to the result of a referendum. We have always said, and this remains the case, that serious challenges would not be barred, but we have listened and responded carefully to the debates and queries on the wording and meaning of the so-called ouster clause, which were raised in Committee, during earlier proceedings in this House and in another place. We feel that this amendment helps to clarify the matter. Legal challenges to the certification of referendum results will now be clearly allowable in two specific circumstances—if they are brought by a claim for judicial review, and if they are brought within six weeks of certification. 4.30 pm The amendment was prompted in particular by questions about how third-party fraud might be handled if it occurred during a referendum process. What would happen if someone sought to issue a legal challenge to the certification of the result? We should draw a distinction between the processes involved in the counting officers' work and the actual certification process. Third-party fraud might not be considered to have occurred during the latter process. We felt that we should spell out the circumstances in which a legal challenge would be possible and might be necessary, and we have therefore specified both a time frame and a mechanism for such challenges. The amendments make clear the circumstances in which legal proceedings could be excluded or allowed, and improve the Bill in a way recommended by both Houses. I hope that this House will accept them.
This is a curious grouping. I can say that because I was advised by the Clerk last night that the Minister in charge, rather than Mr. Speaker, is responsible for grouping Lords amendments.Lords amendments Nos. 20 and 21 extend to the proposed local authority referendum provisions already applying to the main referendum. We may have our differences about the Bill—indeed, we have aired them effectively this afternoon—but given that the House has already agreed to the earlier amendments, this must be seen as an uncontroversial proposal, ensuring some continuity of architecture. Lords amendment No. 22 is more substantive. Of course these are only words, but I am grateful to the Minister in the other place for accepting the need to clarify the fact—it is, I think, no more than a clarification—that the exclusion of access to the courts was never intended to mean exclusion of the possibility of judicial review. Nevertheless, given the principle that Acts of Parliament should be plain speaking, it is surely sensible to include a specific reference to the availability to a member of the public, or an organisation, of access to the courts through judicial review. As I probably say about 500 times during the consideration of every Bill, I am not a lawyer. I was, however, interested to see a specific reference to a period of six weeks for the bringing of a judicial review application. As a layman, I understood that hitherto the law had stated that judicial review applications must be brought as soon as practicable, and in any event within three months. A relatively recent appeal decision suggested that "as soon as practicable" would normally mean six weeks, in the absence of exceptional circumstances. The Bill, though, specifies six weeks, with no reference to exceptional circumstances. My interpretation of that is that an application brought seven weeks after the relevant date would automatically fail without such a reference.
Not least on the basis of my own experience, I urge my hon. Friend never to be deferential or apologetic about not being a lawyer. In a long career, I have encountered cases in which the lawyer knows the legal position exactly, but the layman knows that it does not matter.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that pearl of wisdom; indeed, I am often grateful to him for such pearls.Perhaps the Under-Secretary could explain to the House whether it is intended that this provision is a precedent-setting departure, and whether the judiciary is supposed to infer something from it in relation to judicial review in general. That is a genuine question of some importance, although I realise that the Under-Secretary may not want to answer it off the cuff. If he has no advice readily to hand, I should be grateful if he offered a commitment to write to me about it.
I welcome these amendments, which were agreed by all sides in the other place. It is interesting to note that when we raised these issues in Committee, the Minister was not quite so happy. I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who tabled amendments in Committee. I had missed the point relating to judicial review when I scrutinised the Bill, and it was the hon. Gentleman who, with his razor-sharp analysis, raised it. I credit him for that, and I am glad that the issue was taken up in the other place.When we debated the hon. Gentleman's amendments—I was in total agreement with them; indeed, I voted for them—it seemed odd to me that we were not allowing judicial review on an advisory referendum on the basis that it might hold matters up, given that the United States of America had had a judicial review into some hanging chads on which the future of the American presidency was determined. The Government were taking a rather odd position, therefore, in not allowing judicial review. There was some debate as to whether judicial review was implicit, but as the hon. Gentleman has made clear, including such a provision in the Bill in plain English is a step forward, and I hope that future draftsmen of future Bills on related matters will learn from this experience. In conclusion, I offer my support for these amendments from the other place.
I am sorry that I have to interrupt the love-in between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. I am of course more than happy to acknowledge the razor-sharp acumen of the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), although not necessarily in respect of these amendments. Colleagues have told me that on the morning in question, the hon. Gentleman may have arrived in Committee a little late. I am not sure that that is true, so I shall check the relevant Hansard.These changes are reasonable and add clarity to the circumstances in which legal proceedings should, or should not, be allowable. The reason for choosing the six-week period is specific to this case; it is not a general principle that we are seeking to establish. We feel that it strikes the right balance between allowing a challenge to take place, and giving the Government the opportunity to get on with implementing the outcome of any referendum. The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has spotted the normal rules in respect of judicial review for the three-month period, and the six-week period would certainly fall within that. But if there is anything to add to the comments that I have already made, I shall certainly endeavour to write to him. With those closing comments, I hope that the amendments can stand.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 21, 22 and 23 agreed to.
Local Government Review: Supplementary
Lords amendment: No. 24.
I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.
With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 33.
The amendments are largely a consequence of giving people a say in the shape of unitary local government in regions that opt for an elected regional assembly but that presently have two-tier local government. We have already debated the principles underlying that. The Lords amendments also alter the basis on which the boundary committee conducts local government reviews; a response to concerns expressed in both Houses during the Bill's passage.Amendment No. 25 would allow the boundary committee to consider the boundaries of existing unitary authorities where it makes sense to do so. The Government maintain the view that there is no need for a general review of unitary boundaries; an important point that I want to stress. The impact of the reviews should be limited, but we accept that, in some circumstances, the boundaries of existing unitary councils might need to be expanded to take in parts of an adjoining two-tier area. Amendments Nos. 24 and 27 make necessary changes to the local government review process to ensure that the Government can allow voters to consider different options for unitary local government in those parts of a region voting on an elected regional assembly where there is currently a two-tier local government system. The boundary committee will now have to make recommendations for at least two options for each county area. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions mentioned earlier, if county boundaries are crossed, the referendum would apply to the combined areas of both counties. All options must be assessed against the same criteria; first, on the assumption that an elected regional assembly will be created and, secondly, with regard to the need to reflect the interests and identities of local communities and to secure effective and convenient local government. Amendments Nos. 26, 28, 29 and 30 are minor technical adjustments to the Bill to facilitate the changes that I have described. Amendments Nos. 31 to 33 provide the Secretary of State with greater discretion to require the electoral commission, under part 3 of the Bill, to advise on electoral matters on the basis of different scenarios for local government restructuring. The changes are necessary because of what might arise when local government referendums take place in parallel with regional referendums. Amendment No. 32 gives the Secretary of State discretion to require that the Electoral Commission give advice on a specified number of electoral options when issues are at hand. Amendment No. 33 is a contingency provision for the remote circumstances in which we might need to vary an electoral direction outside the two-year period within which the Secretary of State must issue an order for an electoral provision following a vote in favour of the establishment of an elected regional assembly. I hope that the House will support the amendments.
Time is short, so I shall focus only on amendments Nos. 31 and 32. Although the Under-Secretary presented them as consequential on the introduction of the multi-option local authority restructuring, they raise some questions. The amendments would give the Secretary of State the ability to direct the Electoral Commission to present a specified number of alternative ways of dividing up a regional assembly area for the purposes of elections. As the Bill stands, that exercise will not take place until after a referendum had been held. The Under-Secretary is not right to say that because of the possibility of adopting one of several local authority structures, it is therefore necessary to ask the Electoral Commission to come up with more than one solution.I was intrigued by the similarity between what is being proposed with what was agreed in the other place about the local authority review. My principal question to the Under-Secretary is whether the Government intend to use a referendum to allow the inhabitants of a region that had opted for an elected regional assembly to choose between different alternative arrangements for the division of the region into electoral areas. The Electoral Commission could be directed to produce two or perhaps more solutions. Is that what the Government have in mind?
No, the Government do not have such thoughts in mind, although enthusiasm for extra referendums is clearly affecting the hon. Gentleman's thinking. A third referendum was not something that the Government intended. Perhaps I did not explain the purposes of Lords amendments Nos. 31 and 32 clearly. The second, local government, referendum will be significant because when the Electoral Commission draws up the constituency boundaries for an assembly, it may change its recommendations, depending on the options available in respect of local government reorganisation. That was the point that I sought to make. I hope that that is helpful and that the amendments will be accepted.
Lords amendment agreed to.
Lords amendments Nos. 25 to 35 agreed to.
Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002],
That the following provisions shall apply to the Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 27th January 2003—
Consideration of Lords Amendments
Proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.
Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question put and proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.— [Mr. Woolas.]
Question agreed to.
Electricity (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill
Lords amendments considered.
Removal Of Restrictions On Capacity To Acquire Certain Securities
Lords amendment: No. 1.