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Commons Chamber

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 30 April 2003

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House Of Commons

Wednesday 30 April 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock

Prayers

[MR. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Private Business

Transas Group Bill (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Wednesday 7 May.

Oral Answers To Questions

Wales

The Secretary of State was asked—

Livestock Movements

1.

What recent discussions she has had with (a) ministerial colleagues and (b) the First Secretary of the National Assembly for Wales on the effects of the six-day rule on agriculture, with particular reference to effects upon agricultural shows and festivals; and if she will make a statement. [109785]

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular bilateral meetings with ministerial colleagues and, of course, with the First Minister. They cover a number of issues, including agriculture. The six-day rule has freed up the movement of livestock while ensuring that risks to animal health are kept to an absolute minimum.

I see from today's Order Paper that the Secretary of State is referred to as female. Perhaps I can understand the Table Office misunderstanding which party he stands for. He is new Labour here and very old Labour in Neath. However, to question his gender is another thing.

The people of Wales have been waiting for months and months for the six-day rule to be adapted. Agricultural fairs will be ruined in the coming months, and many will be cancelled. That is ruinous for agriculture, bad for the rural economy and terrible for morale. Is it no wonder that the people of rural Wales will reject Labour tomorrow?

Saying that Labour will be rejected in Wales tomorrow is about as convincing as recruiting Attila the Hun to the peace corps. However, I have sympathy for what the hon. Gentleman says about the six-day rule. The veterinary advice that we have is strongly against providing additional exemptions to the rule. It is felt that adding further options would make it more complex. The six-day standstill strikes a balance between allowing industry to operate efficiently and preventing further outbreaks of the disease, and that is what we all want. However, I recognise the impact that the rule is having on small agricultural shows.

Should not the Minister disregard the manic hyperbole from Plaid Cymru and consider the reasons why foot and mouth spread in this country in a way that it did not spread in Holland, France, Ireland or Scotland? It spread because of excessive and unnecessary movements in which more than 1 million animals were in contact with foot and mouth before the disease was detected. Is it not right that non-essential movements of animals should be restricted not only to ensure that any future outbreak of foot and mouth is confined to a small area, but to guard against other animal diseases such as blue tongue virus and swine vesicular disease?

I take note of my hon. Friend's point, but I reiterate the advice that we have been given by veterinary officials. The six-day rule is appropriate and strikes a proper balance between the risks. We certainly do not want to return to the problems that we had a few months ago.

Answers to my parliamentary questions show that the ban on on-farm burial of fallen stock, which is to come in tonight, is not based on solid evidence. Given that the Government have not researched the risk assessment regarding that method, are they and the Minister willing to respond to representations from representatives of Welsh farming about the fallen stock regime that it would like to see? Can he assure us that the Government will show flexibility in the months ahead in their proposed new scheme, given the uncertainties that we all know exist?

As the hon. Gentleman says, the European Union legislation comes into force tonight and tomorrow. It will ban routine on-farm burial and the burning of animal carcases. My colleagues in the Assembly continue to work on a national fallen stock scheme, but I will certainly accept the representations to which he refers and make sure that they are passed on to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and at the National Assembly.

Excluded Pupils

2.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly about the numbers of permanently excluded pupils from secondary schools in Wales. [109786]

My right hon. Friend regularly meets the First Minister and I regularly meet the Assembly Minister for Education and Lifelong Learning to discuss a range of educational issues.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he share my concern that the largest percentage of excluded pupils in any area in Wales is in the Caerphilly county borough where the local authority is nationalist controlled? Does he also share my concern that many of those excluded pupils are on the streets of the borough engaging in antisocial behaviour because the local authority does not provide adequate alternative educational provision?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's point, and I deeply regret the fact that the borough that he and I share, which is run by the Welsh nationalist party, has one of the highest figures for exclusion in Wales. The average figure for Wales is 1.7 per cent.

However, I want to make it clear that my colleagues in the Assembly are putting together a package of £500,000 for the next three years in which they are looking to pilot projects to establish the causes of pupil disengagement. My hon. Friend is right to say that youngsters who are excluded from school cause antisocial nuisance problems right throughout our borough. I made that point when I spoke at the NUT Cymru dinner at Harrogate recently. I believe that we have to work hard, as the Government are doing, in partnership with the Labour-led Assembly in Cardiff to ensure that we put in the resources to tackle the problem. I also believe that it starts in the home. Parents have a responsibility to see that their children go to school.

Youth Offending

3.

What recent representations he has received on measures to address youth offending in Wales. [109787]

I have received representations from a number of sources.

I thank the Secretary of State for his usual enlightening reply. Will he comment on the statement made by Edwina Hart that has come to light during the recent campaign in Wales? She said:

"The public sector in Wales does not provide any drug and alcohol rehabilitation places".
In light of the fact that drug-related crime has increased by 13 per cent. in Wales during the past year and given that youth offending is unfortunately part of that culture, what will he do to ensure that drug rehabilitation places that are funded by the public sector will be available in every part of Wales?

I was with the Home Secretary in Cynon Valley a few months ago to take forward an extra investment of several hundreds of thousands of pounds precisely to deal with the drug programme: not only clamping down on drug traffickers but dealing with rehabilitation. There is record investment throughout Wales as a result of the extra investment and spending that the Labour Government are putting into Wales.

While I strongly endorse what the Government are doing to prioritise the tackling of antisocial behaviour, may I ask them through my right hon. Friend to ensure that resources are available to enable the police to provide more uniformed foot patrols in areas that are especially afflicted by antisocial behaviour and that antisocial behaviour orders may be speedily made and, once made, upheld?

I agree with my right hon. Friend. Wales has one of the first pilots on antisocial behaviour, which is taking the agenda forward. The Government are determined to clamp down on antisocial behaviour. It is a real plague in many of our communities in Wales: on estates and elsewhere in many of our valley communities and throughout the nation. That is why our anti-crime and antisocial behaviour strategies are being implemented, and we should receive more support from Opposition parties for our work to clamp down on the problem.

The Secretary of State for Wales knows that persistent youth offending has shot up by 58 per cent. and that more young people are the victims of crime themselves. Only proper funding will sort out the problem. The chief of Dyfed-Powys police force has complained about the switching of funds from rural parts of Wales to large urban areas in England. Was he not right to say that the inane, reassuring Home Office press releases stating that funding is sufficient should be entered for the Booker prize for fiction? If the Government ever capture the Iraqi information Minister, perhaps they can employ him to read out some of those press releases. When will they ensure that proper funding for our rural areas of Wales is achieved?

That was very well rehearsed, was it not? The charge comes from a Conservative party that would cut spending by 20 per cent. right across the board.

The hon. Gentleman says rubbish, but let me quote the Leader of the Opposition from 30 December 2002:

"20 per cent. savings across the board in Government spending …That's what we're looking at".
What would that mean for crime in Wales? Nearly 1,400 police officers would be sacked. There would be 20 per cent. cuts to the police force at a time when our Labour Government have been responsible for the recruitment of 600 extra police officers. The Leader of the Opposition visited Cardiff and south Wales last week to campaign for the Conservative party. A passer-by—

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that one of the most effective ways in which to deal with youth offending is to empower young people in their communities? Will he join me in congratulating the community first programme in my constituency which has several young people-led projects that are reaping dividends and giving ownership to young people in their communities? Does he agree that only the return of a Labour Government in Wales on Thursday will ensure that we have the sustainable financing for such programmes?

Yes. I was in Holyhead in my hon. Friend's constituency on Monday morning, and there are many excellent projects to tackle antisocial behaviour. I was also in the constituency of my Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), yesterday where an important project involving community safety wardens is taking place as a result of record investment from the Labour Government in partnership with the Labour-led Welsh Assembly. After 1 May, majority Labour control of the Assembly will allow us to take that programme forward.

Financial Support (Business)

5.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary of the National Assembly on financial assistance for Welsh companies. [109789]

I thank the Secretary of State for such an insightful and helpful response.

Although I wish the First Secretary of the National Assembly every success in creating jobs for workers in Wales, will the right hon. Gentleman raise the concerns of my constituents who work for Aircraft Materials Ltd. who face redundancy because the company is relocating to Wales with the help of regional selective assistance from the Welsh Assembly? When he meets the First Secretary will he tell him that it is a waste of taxpayers' money to move jobs from one part of the UK to another—and to stop poaching English jobs?

The answer to that is an emphatic no. The alternative plan for Aircraft Materials Ltd., which is a US-owned company, was to locate the jobs in the United States. Under the rules applied rigorously and scrupulously for regional selective assistance, we were able to safeguard those jobs and increase them in the rest of the UK instead of allowing them to be exported to the US. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that, although I understand his concern as a constituency Member of Parliament.

Although Corus is not a Welsh company, it has a substantial presence in Wales. Will my right hon. Friend assure not only the First Secretary but all of us that should Corus ask the Government for financial assistance, it will not be ruled out, given that it would be unthinkable for Britain, and Wales in particular, to be without a steel industry?

I agree with my right hon. Friend and we will consider what we can do, both through the National Assembly and elsewhere, to ensure that we have the most competitive and excellent steel-making company in Britain, including, of course, Wales.

The Corus announcement yesterday was excellent news for Port Talbot. There are to be an extra 35-plus jobs and a huge investment to increase production from 3.7 million to 4.7 million extra tonnage. At least the reduction in jobs at Llanwern was relatively small. Obviously it was unwelcome given that the Llanwern workers have been battered and bruised over so many years by Corus. It was good at least to see a secure and sustainable future for both Llanwern and Port Talbot. That will have the full support of the Labour Assembly and a Labour Government.

On a number of occasions over the past nine months, I have written to Assembly Government officials drawing attention to the alleged financial irregularities at Elev8, a call centre based in my constituency that the Secretary of State recently visited. The company went into receivership yesterday, with a loss of more than 60 jobs. Is not that yet more evidence of the failure of the Labour-Liberal Administration to bring jobs to all parts of Wales? What does the future hold for the Amman valley, which he and I represent?

The hon. Gentleman really should stick to the facts and stop relying on smears. The truth is that unemployment in his constituency has been cut significantly. Employment across Wales increased by nearly 60,000 last year. He should be attacking the unemployment in the Tory years rather than Labour's efforts to increase jobs because we have cut unemployment substantially.

I did visit the call centre and what has happened is regrettable, but the fact is that new jobs are being created all the time in our valley constituencies and right across Wales. The hon. Gentleman should stop talking down Wales and support the investment and efforts that are being made to start-up businesses all over the country.

If financial assistance is given by the Welsh Assembly to companies such as Corus, what assurances can the Secretary of State give us that that money will be used to secure Welsh jobs, and that it will not go into the pockets of fat cat directors to further enrich themselves and sacrifice workers throughout Britain?

As far as I am aware, Corus has not asked for any support in terms of extra grant aid or any other facility that could be approved by the Welsh Assembly or by the Department of Trade and Industry, but no doubt we would consider such a request if it came. My hon. Friend is right. There is a revolt by shareholders and pension fund representatives at the way that representatives and directors who have failed in their jobs often walk away with huge bonanzas. That is not acceptable, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is examining the matter. With reference to the workers who are to lose their jobs at Corus, that is a particular attack on their rights, and it must not be allowed to continue.

With regard to Welsh business's lack of growth, is it not the case that the Government are the problem, not the solution? We have had the national insurance tax increases that have just clobbered Welsh businesses, the climate change levy, the landfill tax, fuel tax increases, business tax increases and red tape that means, on average, 15 new regulations on business every working day. It is no wonder that we have seen some huge job losses in Wales since the Government came to power. When will the Government get off the back of business and give it a chance?

When will the hon. Gentleman rely on facts instead of rhetoric? That is the question. Let us look at the facts. Three thousand more businesses were created in Wales last year. There has been a higher startup rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to Labour's support policies for Welsh businesses. There is a lower failure rate of businesses than in any other region of the United Kingdom, owing to the support that the Labour Government are putting into the Welsh economy. That is a record to be proud of, compared with the Tory record of record bankruptcies, record high unemployment and record collapse in manufacturing across Wales.

The Secretary of State says, "Let us look at the facts", so let us do so. We have had Welsh agriculture on its knees under the present Government, and Welsh manufacturing has been decimated. It is incredibly difficult to get objective 1 money because it is so difficult for small businesses to work through all the red tape. The Federation of Small Businesses chairman, Gwyn Evans, has stated that public liability insurance premiums are crippling small businesses because they have shot up in price. One beneficiary of the insurance increases that are crippling business is the Government, who take a percentage of the premiums in tax. While the Chancellor is laughing all the way to the bank, do the Government feel no embarrassment about their windfall tax gain, or do they just consider it a nice little earner, like all their other stealth taxes?

What would happen to Welsh businesses that are in receipt of a great deal of grant aid and support from the National Assembly and the Government when the Tories cut spending on Welsh businesses by 20 per cent.? There would be massive, savage cuts in support for businesses right across Wales. What have we done for small businesses? We have abolished stamp duty to cut the cost of property purchases in areas of Wales, we have enhanced appreciation allowances to cut the cost of land clearance and tackling dereliction, and there is the prospect of enhanced capital allowances to cut the cost of initial investment, and community investment tax relief to cut the cost of risk capital. The Government are friends of business, creating more businesses and more jobs in Wales than ever before. A record level of employment was created last year, with a 60,000 rise in employment in Wales as a result of the Government's excellent policies.

Tourism

6.

If he will make a statement on the tourism policy for Wales. [109790]

Tourism is a major contributor to the Welsh economy. It contributes some £2 billion per annum and provides employment for around 100,000 people in Wales.

What is the Secretary of State doing to make sure that the Welsh tourist industry is protected from the SARS virus, which is spreading across the world? That needs to be taken into consideration, especially after the Government's handling of the foot and mouth crisis.

Advice has been issued to schools and colleges in Wales on pupils returning from infected areas, and we are following the policy recommended by the World Health Organisation to the letter, making sure that the issue is treated responsibly, but without raising unnecessary alarm, and that has resulted in a situation where just six cases have been reported—none in Wales—and all of those are on the road to recovery.

Does my right hon. Friend recall the hugely successful eurozone experiment at Llangollen's musical eisteddfod last year, and does he agree that early entry into the European monetary system would help and enhance tourism throughout Wales?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his experiment at the international musical eisteddfod in Llangollen last year. I shall be visiting the festival this July and I look forward to a similar experience. Obviously, the United Kingdom will benefit from joining the euro when the economic circumstances are right, and that is why we shall not rush into this recklessly, but will do so carefully, after the Chancellor has made his economic assessment, and only if that economic assessment is positive.

Winter Fuel Payments

7.

What discussions he has had with colleagues in the National Assembly Government on the impact of the winter fuel payments on pensioners in Wales. [109791]

At a meeting before the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirmed that 117,600 households in Wales with someone aged over 80 would benefit from an additional £100 winter fuel allowance on top of the existing £200.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the additional £100 for the over-80s on top of the £200 original winter fuel payment, the pension credit and free local transport in Wales for pensioners will ensure that every pensioner in Wales will turn out and re-elect a Labour-led Administration in tomorrow's ballot?

I am sure that that will be the case. We know that the Tories would scrap the winter fuel allowance and cut all the extra support that we have provided for pensioners, including free television licences for the over-75s. In respect of—

Dee Estuary

8.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Secretary about the Dee estuary. [109792]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister to discuss a variety of issues.

The Dee estuary is a place where significant industrial activity sits alongside extremely important environmental sites, and the cockle fishing industry is a significant commercial activity, with equally significant ecological implications. Will my hon. Friend join me in urging that for the next cockle fishing season we have a more strictly controlled issue of licences, and that in the longer term we have a regulatory order that balances the interests of all sides of the argument?

I support my hon. Friend in encouraging sustainable development of this activity, but control and management of the Dee cockle fishery is the responsibility of the Environment Agency, which has proposed putting in place a regulatory order to manage the cockle beds, including licensing a much smaller number of gatherers. That is now being considered by Ministers at DEFRA and at the Assembly, and at the appropriate time they will submit a formal application.

Agriculture

9.

What recent discussions he has had with the First Minister of the National Assembly for Wales regarding agriculture in Wales. [109793]

My right hon. Friend has regular meetings with the First Minister and I meet the Assembly Agriculture Minister and DEFRA Ministers to discuss a variety of issues, including the future of agriculture in Wales.

The Minister will appreciate the importance of agricultural shows in helping to restore the fortunes of livestock farming in Wales, many of which take place within a few days of one another, and the six-day rule for the movement of animals will cause a serious problem with a reduction in the number of exhibits, rendering some of them unviable. Will the Minister consider making an exception to the movement of animals to agricultural shows in Wales this year?

I understand the hon. Lady's point, which the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made earlier, but the veterinary advice that I have is strongly against providing any exemptions to the six-day rule. The view is that the rule provides the best balance between ensuring a limited amount of animal movement and protecting the industry from future problems of the sort that have beset it in the past year or so, so I cannot really offer any hope that that can change.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

Q1. [109740]

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 30 April.

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I will have further such meetings later today.

Will the Prime Minister read this week's report, "Sustainable Communities in the South East" from the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government, and note this remark in the summary:

"The impact of developing so many homes in the South East, one of the most densely populated regions in Europe, has not been fully assessed"?
Why are these houses being imposed on the south-east by central Government and why are the councillors who are being elected tomorrow so unfit to make those decisions for themselves?

Of course I shall study the report, but the hon. Gentleman will know that it is important that we increase the number of houses to supply houses for people to live in. He will also know that we have tried to ensure that those developments happen in particular areas. I do not think that it is either right or responsible to suggest that, whatever Government were in power, we would not still want to proceed with a housebuilding programme. What we are doing, however, is proceeding in a much more controlled way with a much higher percentage of development on brownfield sites than on greenfield sites. We have increased the amount of area in the green belt.

The Prime Minister will be aware of the report of the Select Committee on Treasury on Europe and the UK, which was published this week and provides for the first time a comprehensive and balanced study of the issue. It says that, whatever decision is taken, there will be risks, opportunities, costs and benefits, but inaction in itself will be a powerful decision. Given that the UK is at the bottom of the league in terms of public knowledge and understanding, can he assist by indicating where the euro features in his political agenda?

First, I welcome the report of my hon. Friend's Committee, which I think was an excellent contribution to the debate. He will have to wait for the outcome of the tests, which will be published by the Government in due course, within the time limit that we have set. I have no doubt at all that that will then stimulate a very lively debate in the country.

Does the Prime Minister agree with the primary school governor who said:

"our most needy children … stand to lose most"
from the way in which the Government have fixed school funding?

I do agree that there are obviously schools in London and elsewhere that are facing particular problems at the moment. We are looking urgently into whether the money that has been allocated to local education authorities has been passed on properly to schools, but I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, in cash terms, there is an almost 12 per cent. increase for our education system in this country. Of course, it is better that we increase the investment going to our schools rather than have a 20 per cent. cut in schools investment across the board.

Those are the words of Fiona Millar, one of the Prime Minister's closest Downing street advisers. She did not do what he has just done and blame councils; she blamed the Government. Just like thousands of teachers, parents and governors, they know that he has been in power for six years and that he is to blame. But if he does not agree with her, does he agree with the deputy head who said:

"There are major budget problems right here in schools in Mr. Miliband's constituency. He should come to schools here if he doesn't believe it"?
Well, does the Prime Minister believe her?

I just said to the right hon. Gentleman that I accept that there are problems for particular schools and in particular local education authority areas. On Friday, we will publish an analysis of exactly what money has gone to local education authorities and how it has been used. The one thing that is undeniable, since he raised the issue of the six years of this Government, is that we have put more money and investment into our schools than ever before. Indeed, since we are quoting individual constituencies, let me quote his for a moment. In the past few years, it has received an extra £770 per pupil in Waltham Forest. It now has a £200 million project to deliver improvements to all 92 schools in Waltham Forest. The number of infants in class sizes of more than 30 has fallen from 1,000 to nothing in Waltham Forest, and it has the best primary school results and GCSE results that it has ever had. That is all as a result of six years of Labour Government, with every penny piece of that investment opposed by the Conservatives.

May I just say to the Prime Minister that in my area, the authorities are proposing to cut three special needs schools that have run out of money because of the Government? Before he starts making claims, he should find out the facts. He should listen to somebody else—Dame Jean Else, who is not just any head teacher, but the head of one of his flagship schools, whom he personally honoured. She says that she would rather resign than sack any teachers and see her school suffer. As heads like her up and down the country have to make decisions about sacking teachers, will the Prime Minister tell the House how many extra bureaucrats he has employed at the Department for Education and Skills since he became Prime Minister?

I cannot tell the right hon. Gentleman the number of bureaucrats. I can tell him, however, the number of extra full-time equivalent teachers that we have had since this Government came to power—it is 25,000. If it is correct, as he says, that schools have problems—I have accepted that there are obviously schools with certain problems—the answer to those problems is not to cut back on the investment that they have received. The fact of the matter is that none of the investment that is now going into schools up and down the country would be happening if we adopted the policy that he advocates and made a 20 per cent. cut in services across the board. That is the Conservative policy, which would be a disaster for our schools. It may well be that some schools want more money, but his policies would mean less money.

The answer to the question is that the number of bureaucrats in the Department for Education and Skills has grown by 25 per cent. since 1997. It is the usual story: under this Government—under Labour Governments—bureaucrats do well. The extra money that the Government have given to schools, as he says, is money that he has taken away through extra taxation and changes to pension requirements—money that is taken away with the other hand. With council taxes up 60 per cent. and school services being cut across the country, is it not the real case that Labour tax more, waste more and deliver less?

Just take our school system—it is indisputable that over the past few years we have had the best primary school results that the country has ever seen; we have had the best GCSE results that the country has ever seen; we have had extra investment going into school buildings and schools in every constituency; and we have had 25,000 extra teachers. So the real distinction is this: yes, of course, people will always want even more money, but we are putting record investment into our schools, and if people vote for the Conservatives they are voting for a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut in services. That is the simple truth that he cannot deny.

Yesterday, Corus announced that Redcar steelworks is to be disaggregated from the rest of the firm and will have to sell its raw steel in a steeply competitive world market. I can tell the House that that will be very hard indeed. We reacted positively by setting up a group of stakeholders—the regional development agency, the local council and other local enterprises—to work with Corus to look for a solution. The Prime Minister needs no reminder that if we fail and the plant closes, the number of jobs lost will probably be 12,000 or more. Teesside workers are very staunch in adversity. May I ask the Prime Minister, firstly—

Order. The hon. and learned Lady is not in the law courts. She should ask just one question.

I am grateful for the advice, Mr. Speaker, but this is obviously a big issue. I must ask the Prime Minister first, secondly, and altogether: can we have all the help that the Government can give in our fight for survival, and will he take a personal interest in these excellent workers who are threatened on the doorstep of his constituency?

I would like to express my sympathy to any of my hon. and learned Friend's constituents and those of other hon. Members who may lose their jobs as a result of the closure that has been announced. The Department of Trade and Industry is in touch with the company, the work force and Dutch counterparts. We will do everything to minimise the impact. I know from my constituency experience that when jobs are lost, the Government have the ability through Jobcentre Plus and the Department for Work and Pensions to put in place a programme of rapid response to try to ensure that people are helped into other jobs. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that that full service will be available in her constituency.

Will the Prime Minister give an absolute guarantee that the hundreds of thousands of families who have not received the benefits to which they are entitled because of the Government's bungled reform of the child tax credit system will all be compensated by the end of next week?

Those applications are being processed as quickly as possible. Millions of people have already received the benefits to which they are entitled and we will make sure that those who are eligible for the entitlement receive it as quickly as possible. I point out that hundreds of thousands of families will gain enormously as a result of the changes.

That is less categorical than the assurances that the Paymaster General gave in the House only on Monday. Thousands of families with children are suffering now because the money is not coming through. When people are late paying their tax, the Revenue is quick to impose penalties. Is the Prime Minister considering recompensing people in the same way?

I stand entirely by what the Paymaster General said on Monday. Some 2 million claims have been processed this week and we are making every effort to deal with the new system as quickly as possible. The right hon. Gentleman should understand that, in the end, it will enormously benefit millions of families throughout the country. There have been difficulties with processing some of the claims and we shall resolve them as quickly as possible.

May I remind the Prime Minister of his written parliamentary reply on 19 December 2001 to the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), in which he reaffirmed the doctrine of his predecessor, Lord Wilson, that no Members of Parliament would have their telephones tapped? Will he comment on the fact that the telephone conversations of Jonathan Powell with the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Mr. McGuinness) and the then right hon. Member for Redcar were tapped? The Prime Minister said that he would make an exceptional statement to the House if and when any Member of Parliament's telephone was tapped. It is not a question of personality but of principle: Members of Parliament's telephones should not be tapped. The Prime Minister is in charge of the security and intelligence services; they have been insubordinate and are not subject to proper control and scrutiny by this place.

I understand why my hon. Friend raises the issue. I simply say that I reconfirm the Wilson doctrine but I do not and will not comment on security matters.

Q2. [109741]

I have given notice of my question to the Prime Minister's office. More than 1,000 jobs in my constituency depend on Appledore Shipbuilders. It is the last commercial shipyard in the country. Worldwide commercial shipbuilding is in deep recession and Appledore is fast running out of work. The shipyard has nearly secured a contract to build a large offshore construction vessel. There is considerable equity in the project, but the banks have demanded a Government loan guarantee. Such guarantees are available to our European Union and other competitors. The company has been in negotiations for a guarantee with the Department of Trade and Industry for a long time. Will the Prime Minister give us his support so that we get the loan guarantee and the contract as soon as possible? We shall use plenty of British steel in the process.

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for prior notice of his question. The Government are well aware of the long-standing importance of Appledore Shipbuilders to the local economy and recognise the difficulties that the company experiences. I know that the hon. Gentleman has made representations to my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions. The hon. Gentleman knows that discussions about the orders that are being sought are commercially sensitive. They are currently taking place and it would not be right for me to disclose the details of the outcome of the deliberations. However, I assure him that those making the decisions will listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said and that the company will be weighed in the balance with others that are bidding for the work. We understand the importance of the home credit scheme; approximately £120 million has been made available to the sector as a result of it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we are doing everything possible to help his company.

I would like to place on record an appreciation of the Herculean efforts that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach are making to establish peace in all Ireland and to re-establish the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Will the Prime Minister give the House a brief assessment of the current situation, and a confirmation that the elections will take place on 29 May? Further, in his assessment of the assurances of non-violence, will he take it on board that violence is occurring on a day-to-day basis? In my small home town last week, two people were shot, and three families were evicted by republican paramilitaries. The same is being done by loyalist paramilitaries. Words will not be adequate in these circumstances; action, and proof of action, is what is required to underpin our democracy.

My hon. Friend asks for an assessment of the situation: it is fraught and difficult for the very reason that he has just given. There can be no question of reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland, as everyone wants to see, unless not only are the undertakings clearly given but the actions follow those undertakings. That is why we have proposed a system in which we ensure that people cannot engage in paramilitary violence or activity if they wish to be associated with any party that is in government in Northern Ireland, and in which we have a proper system of verification and sanctions in respect of people who breach that undertaking. I very much hope that we can still make progress, but time is obviously running out for this. The whole basic principle of the Good Friday agreement is that we implement what is in it on the basis that everyone is committed to exclusively peaceful means. Until we can be clear on that, there is not a basis for reconstituting the Government in Northern Ireland.

Q3. [109742]

Does the Prime Minister really believe that the council tax system that he inherited from the Conservatives is the fairest way of raising money for local government services, and that the bills that people have just received are fair costs for the services delivered at local level?

There is no doubt that there is an extensive debate about the best way to conduct local authority taxation. Whatever system we have has its flaws, and this is obviously a system that we inherited. I have to say, however, that even if we look at the alternative systems, those who advocate them are not always willing to be very open about their implications. Indeed, I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given me this opportunity; I was hoping that I might get it from the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy). It has to be said that the briefing note from the Liberal Democrat spokesman on the council elections raises the issue—in addition to the fact that the average council tax is lower in Labour areas, let me say—of the local income tax, which is part of the Liberal programme. It states that

"we are happy to say we would expect an average of around 3 per cent.",
in terms of the increase in income tax as a result of that policy. The briefing then goes on to say:
"however, we don't want to be drawn extensively into this".
[Laughter.] So, I think that it is now time for the Liberal Democrats, having started the debate, to lead it on this issue.

Q4. [109743]

Does the Prime Minister accept that, when crime is falling but the fear of crime is rising, it is important that policing should provide reassurance to the public? Will he therefore congratulate the police community action team based at Risley in my constituency, whose commitment to community policing has brought about a significant reduction in nuisance and antisocial behaviour in that area? Will he also assure the rest of my constituents, who do not yet have the benefit of such teams, that his Government will encourage the spread of this form of community policing and will ensure that it is properly funded?

We will encourage the spread of that community policing. It is extremely important and I congratulate those in my hon. Friend's constituency who have made such a difference on antisocial behaviour. Of course, the new legislation that is coming up, both on the criminal justice system and in the Antisocial Behaviour Bill, will give us an opportunity across the House to take action on an issue that is of enormous importance to our constituents. That is why I hope that the Bill, when it is introduced, will receive support from every quarter of the House. It will allow the police to impose the penalties that they want, and allow us to bring people who transgress and commit antisocial behaviour to court quickly and to have the right range of penalties so that those people are dealt with properly.

On the issue of European defence, the Prime Minister said to the House that

"it would be a tragic mistake … if Britain opted out of the debate on European defence and left the field to others."—[Official Report, 13 December 1999; Vol. 341, c. 22]
Yesterday, France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg met to discuss European defence. Why was not Britain involved?

For a very simple reason: four countries were involved yesterday and 11 were not. We are part of the 11.

The reality of not being involved with the others, as the Prime Minister rightly says, is the fact that he started this whole process at St. Malo years ago. He now has seen and will witness the fact that he has become a spectator while others shape the Euro army to break NATO, so he has no one to blame but himself. It is clear from yesterday that the Germans want a separate budget, that the Belgians want a separate headquarters—[Interruption.]

The French want nothing to do with the Americans at all, so if that is the case, does the Prime Minister not agree that he started this and that it was his big idea? He kick-started it and now they are driving off without him.

No. The very reason why the meeting was held yesterday is that those countries were not satisfied with our initiative, which tied European defence to NATO. That is precisely why they felt the need to do what they did yesterday. That is why it was not a good idea for us to be there. [Interruption.] Actually, the right hon. Gentleman agrees with me that we should not have been there. [Interruption.] Yes. So we are in agreement, and that is a very good thing. [Laughter.] I have been a bit short of that recently.

Q5. [109744]

The Prime Minister will no doubt have read the early-day motion standing in my name, which has been signed by a couple of Liberal Democrat colleagues, supporting the excellent work by the Electoral Commission in the "Who Cares?" campaign, which is trying to encourage turnout in the Assembly and Scottish Parliament elections. Does he share my disappointment that no nationalist or Conservative Member has seen fit to support it? One might suspect that they have an interest in keeping the turnout down.

I simply say that, obviously, in the Welsh Assembly elections there is, as my hon. Friend indicates, a fundamental choice between either continuing with the Welsh Executive as constituted at present—they are looking after the interests of people in Wales—or waking up on Friday to the potential of a nationalist Executive who would do enormous damage and wreck Wales. They would end up with people being on a path towards separation of Wales from the United Kingdom. That is the one policy that the nationalists stand for, and therefore the one policy that they do not want to talk about.

Q6. [109745]

In my constituency, our schools are short of money, the tax credits are a shambles and remain unpaid, we have a failing hospital and we are short of 200 police officers. What my constituents want to know, Prime Minister, is this: given that we are paying more taxes, why, under your Government, does nothing work?

The hon. Gentleman says that there have been no results from the extra investment, but I have to say to him that, according to the figures that I have, in Hertfordshire local education authority, which is his education authority, there are 500 more teachers. The number of infants in classes of over 30 is down from 11,500 in 1997 to under 400 today. The best results that his LEA has ever achieved in primary schools and in GCSEs were achieved under this Government.

The hon. Gentleman says that we are starving them of money. I totally understand why people will always want more money going into health and education, but we have put a substantial amount in, and might I remind him that that investment—every penny of it—has been opposed by him? So when he is talking to his constituents, he may well make his criticisms of the Government, but perhaps he will then go on to explain why a 20 per cent. across-the-board cut would help.

Q7. [109746]

I welcome the Government's commitment to improving access to higher education, but the problem for many of my constituents is that the nearest university is nearly a hundred miles away. A report that is due to be published soon deals with the provision of degree-level university courses in Cumbria. May I ask the Prime Minister to take a personal interest in the report, which is vital to the people of west Cumbria?

I will take an interest. I believe that Sir Brian Fender's report will be published shortly. Obviously decisions on funding must be made by the Higher Education Funding Council, but I know that my hon. Friend has made a very powerful case.

If it eventually transpires that at the time of our invasion Iraq no longer possessed weapons of mass destruction capable of threatening this country, and that the Prime Minister led this country into war on the basis of a false assumption, will he resign?

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me if, having refused to engage in all sorts of speculations, I refuse to engage in them now. Let me tell him, however, that I am absolutely convinced and confident about the case on weapons of mass destruction. I simply suggest this to him, and to others who believe that somehow this was all a myth invented by us: I refer them first of all to the 12 years of United Nations reports detailing exactly what weapons of mass destruction were held by the then Iraqi regime. We are now, in a deliberative and considered way, investigating the various sites, and we will produce the analysis and the results of that investigation in due course. I think that when we do so, the hon. Gentleman and others will be eating some of their words.

Q8. [109747]

Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the four Labour-controlled councils in Northamptonshire have set the lowest tax increases this year, and that the three Conservative councils have set the highest? With local elections taking place tomorrow, has he any advice for voters in Northamptonshire?

Vote Labour: that is the advice.

It is true that the average council tax is higher in Conservative than in Labour areas. That is one very important part of this. But it is also important, obviously, that we continue the additional investment in our local communities. That investment is supported by the Government—the extra help given to pensioners and other people in our local communities who need it. We can either keep that investment and that help for people, or we can take it out with the Conservatives' 20 per cent. across-the-board cuts.

If and when the Northern Ireland Assembly election takes place on 29 May, and if the Provisional IRA has not totally stood down its full terrorist and criminal organisation and all its activities that make it impossible for my party, the Ulster Unionist party, to join a power-sharing Executive with it, will the Prime Minister encourage and support the formation of a cross-community Executive so that we in Northern Ireland can benefit from the advantages of devolution?

At the moment we are trying to ensure that everyone moves forward, and I hope that everyone does. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not think it very helpful or sensible to speculate on the circumstances in which people refuse to move forward with others.

I made the speech that I made last October to indicate that people understood that there might be a period of transition: that political parties associated with paramilitary groups might make the transition from being parties prepared to have violence in one hand and political activity in the other to being parties committed to exclusively peaceful means. That period of transition is over. What must happen now, if the Government are to be reconstituted and to have any of the confidence of the people of Northern Ireland, is a complete cessation of all paramilitary activity of whatever nature, followed by a process enabling us to put all the arms in Northern Ireland beyond use. Every single party must be committed to that. If the parties are not committed to that, it will be very difficult to reconstitute the Northern Ireland Government in the way that we want.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his party will accept—they have been very brave in the decisions that they have taken—that the Northern Ireland peace process has delivered an immense amount to the people of Northern Ireland. But we have reached the point of decision, where we need, as I have said before, acts of completion, and those acts have to be absolutely definitive for us to make progress now.

Points Of Order

12.30 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where's the Chancellor off to?"] The Chancellor of the Exchequer may want to listen to this point of order, of which I have notified him. [Interruption.]

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is putting a point of order.

In your careful perusal, Mr. Speaker, of the 447 pages of the Finance Bill and the 659 unnumbered pages of the first volume of explanatory notes, you will, I am sure, have been absolutely astonished to come across a reference, in the note to clause 130, to the basic rate of income tax being 20 per cent. Is it not absolutely astonishing that the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not know the basic rate of income tax?

We already know that the Chancellor got all his forecasts wrong; that Customs and Excise is in chaos; that the implementation of the right hon. Gentleman's tax credit policy has resulted in a shambles; and that up to 1.7 million family firms are uncertain of their tax liability. Does not this latest example add further to the Chancellor's growing reputation for incompetence?

Now that this vital document has been shown to be completely lacking in credibility, will you, Sir, undertake to instruct the Chancellor to review all its other figures and to report the findings of that review to this House before Second Reading of the Finance Bill next Tuesday?

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. The explanatory notes on the Finance Bill are entirely the responsibility of the Treasury. It is for the Government to determine how this matter can be corrected, which I am sure they will wish to do. Ministers will have heard what has been said and will no doubt take steps to ensure that the information provided to this House is accurate.

I do not see how there can be anything further to that point of order—I have been so clear in my answer.

On another point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful to you, and I seek your guidance. In view of the importance of establishing the facts and correcting the record as quickly as possible, would it not be very useful if the Chief Secretary to the Treasury were to step up to the Dispatch Box to explain the position, correct the error and wholeheartedly apologise to this House?

That would be no more useful than the hon. Gentleman giving me a point of order.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will be aware of the continuing use of the ministerial correspondence unit to draft Ministers' replies to letters from Members of Parliament. Is it in order for a Minister to whom I wrote—about a very serious policy matter, backed by more than 20,000 signatures on a petition—not to sign the reply to me? Is it not a gross insult to me, and to those who asked me to raise the matter, for the Minister to leave it to his civil servant to "pp" the letter on his behalf?

I understand that this particular practice is acceptable; it is not a matter that I am responsible for.

Bill Presented

European Union (Accessions) Bill

Mr. Secretary Straw, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Secretary Prescott, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Secretary Margaret Beckett, Mr. Secretary Hoon and Ms Secretary Hewitt, presented a Bill to make provision consequential on the treaty concerning the accession of the Czech Republic, the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Cyprus, the Republic of Latvia, the Republic of Lithuania, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Malta, the Republic of Poland, the Republic of Slovenia and the Slovak Republic to the European Union, signed at Athens on 16th April 2003; and to make provision in relation to the entitlement of nationals of certain acceding States to enter or reside in the United Kingdom as workers: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 98].

Park Home Reform

12.34 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to Park Homes in order to introduce transparency and consistency into their acquisition and disposal; to amend the model standards relating to Park Homes residents to bring them into line with the standards practised in local authority and housing association property; to give statutory recognition to Park Homes Residents Associations; and to make provision in respect of the accounts of the parks and the homes sited thereon.
Nearly 200,000 people live in park homes in England and Wales. In my constituency of Tiverton and Honiton, I have had regular discussions with residents, particularly with those living in the Cat and Fiddle park at Clyst St. Mary and the Underhill park in Tiverton.

In 2000 a report of the park homes working party was welcomed by all who take an interest in park homes, particularly by the all-party park homes group. In November 2001 the Government responded to the recommendations of the park homes working party and the Bill is designed to implement some of those recommendations. Indeed, last year, the Minister, Lord Rooker of Perry Barr, told the all-party group that the Government might support a private Member's Bill.

It is disappointing that no mention is made of park homes reform in the housing section of the Local Government Bill that was published last month and is intended to come before the House in the next Session. The Minister informed us in correspondence that, although the draft Bill is out to consultation, park homes will not be included. I would like to use today's ten-minute Bill debate to identify the key areas of reform in the hope that the Government will think again.

Most parks have residents who own their homes, but pay a rent for the pitch on which they are sited to the park owner, who has responsibility for the shared site amenities. All too often there is unnecessary tension between residents and park owners, and in some cases the resolution of site problems can be described only as anachronistic. I believe that, under properly constituted agreements, owners should recognise residents associations in the same way that councils and housing associations are required to work with their tenants. For example, it is not unreasonable for an unambiguous complaints procedure and a consultation framework to be established and for the owner to be represented at the residents' annual general meeting. It is also important that the local authority responsible for the authorisation of the site licence should recognise a properly constituted residents association.

The acquisition and disposal of homes is another area where change is needed. In October last year, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a document that it had commissioned on the economics of the park homes industry. However, in a written answer, the Minister stated that the Government do not intend to respond to the report's recommendations.

I should like to outline some of the specific issues identified by the working party that continue to be of concern to residents, in relation to which reform is now urgent. The park owner has to give the home owner, within three months of coming on to the park, a written statement setting out the owner's rights and the express terms that are not covered by legislation. Three months is far too long. There is no requirement for the statement to be signed or witnessed, which is another omission. The Government agreed in their response to the conclusions in the consultation document that best practice is required in that area.

The current legislation does not allow statements to include a right of first refusal for the park owner to purchase the home, but all too often that is written into the statement and many residents have gained the impression that they are obliged to offer back their home, if they wish to dispose of it, to the owner of the site. The rules relating to those statements need to be tidied up and put on a statutory basis and should include provision for the home to be assigned.

The standard agreement states that annual increases in pitch fees should be mindful of inflation. That requires greater transparency, because last year's report showed an upward drift in pitch rents in real terms. It has been an ongoing problem for residents and the lack of information on fees leads to resentment. Moreover, people in other areas of housing—for example, those who pay a service charge—would at least expect to have a breakdown of the figures. I do not think that that is unreasonable.

There is also the current unsatisfactory arrangement by which the site owner acts as an agent between the resident and the manufacturer when the resident purchases a new home. That prevents the resident from purchasing directly from the manufacturer. That, I believe, is an inequity, and needs revision to ensure fairness to the tenant who wishes to purchase a new home, and to provide a safeguard to the park owner who wishes to maintain the integrity of the park.

It is also unsatisfactory that park owners can terminate an agreement on the grounds that a home's age and condition have a detrimental effect on the site. Home owners can also argue that it could have such an effect within a five-year period. Although it is of course acknowledged that the park benefits from properties being well maintained, the current rule is arbitrary, not least because of the incentive for the park owner to replace old for new. The weakness in the current legislation is that it does not define age and condition, and neither does the law identify the statutory procedure for operation of the five-year rule. The current rules allow for unscrupulous park owners to bring agreements to an end in order to drive down selling prices. In my own experience it is often the very elderly or, in some cases, the beneficiaries of an estate, who feel this pressure most.

When responding to the proposal that the age criterion should be replaced by a criterion based on the condition of the exterior of the home, the Government responded that they agreed, not least because of the recommendations that they received from the consultees. The Government have also acknowledged in principle that amending the five-year rule or its replacement with a warnings procedure would ensure fair treatment for home owners. If this ten-minute Bill is about anything, it is about fair treatment for home owners.

At a time when affordable housing is so much on people's minds, park homes offer an alternative, but there is an underlying sense of frustration at the fact that people living in park homes have somehow been left behind when it comes to enjoying the practices in other areas of housing that others take for granted. There is a lack of transparency in transactions and of choice on acquisition; out-of-date rules apply that hinder communications between residents and park owners; and of course park home residents need to be brought within the scope of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977—something that I believe is long overdue. There is also a need for parks owned by local authorities to be licensed in the same way as privately owned parks. That is something that I believe the Bill should encompass.

I hope that the Government will heed this short Bill, and the recent reports of the park homes committee. I also hope that they will take the opportunity provided by the next Local Government Bill to rectify the problems that I have set out. In the Government's responses to the working party paper, they appear to concur with many of the recommendations, some of which I have outlined today.

The working party first sat in 2000. The Government responded in 2001 and commissioned an independent report on the economics of park homes. I welcome all that, but it is a matter of concern that the Government will for some reason not go that final step and embrace the opportunity to ensure that the legislation is put on the statute book. Indeed, in a recent letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), said:
"We anticipate that mobile homes reform will be wide ranging and fundamental and in order to ensure that the resulting legislation is fully sound, workable and will stand the test of time it will be necessary to prepare it sufficiently."
I do not disagree with that, as the same applies to any legislation brought before this House. I hope that the Government will pay heed to a matter that affects many thousands of constituents, and that they will include the provisions that I propose in their own Bill.

I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Christopher Chope, Sir Patrick Cormack, Mr. Hilton Dawson, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Mr. Philip Hammond, Mr. Michael Jack, Mrs. Eleanor Laing, Mr. Mark Prisk, Mr. Martin Salter and Mrs. Angela Watkinson.

Park Home Reform

Mrs. Angela Browning accordingly presented a Bill to amend the law relating to Park Homes in order to introduce transparency and consistency into their acquisition and disposal; to amend the model standards relating to Park Homes residents to bring them into line with the standards practised in local authority and housing association property; to give statutory recognition to Park Homes Residents Associations; and to make provision in respect of the accounts of the parks and the homes sited thereon: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 July, and to be printed. [Bill 99.]

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill Money (No 2)

Queen's recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with Bills),

That, for the purpose of any Act resulting from the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure of a Minister of the Crown in connection with a referendum held about proposals for the reorganisation of local government.—[Dan Norris.]

Question agreed to.

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill (Programme) (No 4)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Orders [28 June 2001 and 29 October 2002],

That the following provisions shall apply to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 26th November 2002:

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on Consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion four hours after their commencement.

Subsequent stages

2. Any Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question put.

3. The proceedings on any Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.— [Dan Norris.]

Question agreed to.

Orders Of The Day

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.

Clause 1

Referendums

Lords amendment: No. 1.

12.47 pm

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:
"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.]
He continued:
"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.]
The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), said much later:
"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.]

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.

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?

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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 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?

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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?

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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.

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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 uni