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Lord Renton: My Lords, is it not clear from the answer that the noble Lord has just given that regional government will have to be paid for by the people in each region? Should they not therefore be consulted before they have to accept that commitment?

Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords. I return to the initial Question. The precise purpose of the referendums is to decide whether regional government comes to an area. The purpose of the legislation currently before the House is to determine whether referendums in advance of a decision should take place. The people in the region will choose whether to have an elected regional assembly. It is for them to decide whether to call it regional government or home rule. They will be elected regional assemblies, and that is that.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is considerable enthusiasm for the Government's initiative on regional government in many parts of the country; that it is seen as the natural corollary of Welsh and Scottish devolution; that it bears on the earlier Question on regional economic disparities; and that there would be even more enthusiasm if there were a statement on the powers and functions of the assemblies prior to the referendum?

Lord Rooker: We could do that, my Lords. However, I think that the penny dropped during Second Reading of the legislation that there are no new

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powers and no new funds. That causes disquiet in certain areas. There is an argument for and an argument against. That argument is for the regions after the House, if it so desires, passes the legislation and work continues on the local government changes. It is a complicated matter. We have made it clear that there will be a full government statement on what people are voting for, and the consequences of so voting, before they take part in a referendum.

Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, is the Government's policy on regional referendum to hold them only when they will be won?

Lord Rooker: No, my Lords. We shall return to this point. The soundings aspect of the legislation concluded on Monday. The purpose of which was to see whether there was a desire in the regions for a referendum. Some people may want a referendum in order to defeat the proposal, as that would put it on the back burner for five years. As the legislation says, a defeat would kill the proposal stone dead for five years. The question is whether a region wishes to express an opinion for or against. That is how we will choose which region or regions will be first to have a referendum. As I think we have made clear, we do not expect that there will be more than one or two such regions before the next general election. The Bill has yet to be considered in Committee and on Report. I assume that these matters will be debated at length at that time.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, in the event of the Secretary of State ordering a referendum in the North West and that referendum resulting in a no vote, can I have an assurance from the Minister that the cost attendant on the abortive local government reviews will be borne entirely by the Secretary of State and not by the council tax payers in the counties of Lancashire and Cheshire where there is virtually nil support for regional government?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot answer the specifics of that question. However, I invite the noble Lord to table an amendment in Committee. By then I shall have a considered response to the question.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, in view of the lack of information available about the powers and structures of regional government, will the Minister say on what basis the Secretary of State will make his decision, following the sounding exercise which finished on 3rd March and well before the Bill receives Royal Assent, about the level of interest in a region with regard to a referendum?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not want to fudge the issue but these matters will be discussed at Committee stage of the Bill. At Second Reading we made clear that the Secretary of State would have to reach a considered judgment on whether there had been a sufficient level of interest in a particular area to justify a referendum, which would probably involve a year's

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work on the local government boundary review and a large expenditure commitment. The Secretary of State would have to reach a judgment having taken account of the relevant soundings. No decision will be made or announced until after the legislation receives Royal Assent. It is not possible to prejudge the soundings in a particular area during the passage of legislation through Parliament. It would be quite wrong to do so until Parliament agrees the legislation.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, why were Members of this House not included on the distribution list of pro forma for responses to the sounding exercise on the level of support for referenda concerning this matter?

Lord Rooker: Because, my Lords, we made a cock-up for which I have apologised to the Front Benches.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his frankness if not on his parliamentary language. I am grateful to him.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I take the noble Lord back to my Question which is not about government money but about public money. I quote from the code of recommended practice of local authority publicity pursuant to the Local Government Act 2000 which states that,


    "local authorities, like other public authorities, should not use public funds to mount publicity campaigns".

Does not the department take a view about public funds being used to promote a proposal that has yet to receive parliamentary and sovereign approval?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I cannot help but draw the noble Baroness's attention to the fact that she altered the wording of the Question after she first tabled it. When it first appeared in my department late yesterday afternoon, it referred to taxpayers' money. That phrase was later altered to public money. There is a difference. I take the phrase "taxpayers' money" to refer to national taxpayers' money; that is, money under the Government's jurisdiction. The term "public money" includes money under the jurisdiction of local government. We have a policy—I am aware that some people disagree with it—of providing as much quasi independent local government as possible in this country without too much interference from central government. There is a tried and tested procedure of the district auditor levying onerous penalties if local government steps out of line. I repeat that if the money that the assemblies have obtained from local government is considered to be misspent, the correct person to whom to complain is the district auditor who will take a dim and severe view if they have overstepped the mark.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, on the now famous forms which have been issued for people to express their view on whether or not they want a regional assembly, is it true that if they state that they do not want a regional assembly and do not want a

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referendum, that counts as interest in a referendum and will therefore help to procure one? If so, that seems unacceptable.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I do not know whether the noble Lord was present at the debate during which the matter was raised. I believe that the form has seven "tick" boxes. Some people also expressed their views in letters. It has been alleged that we took account of the views expressed in those letters rather than the boxes that had been ticked on the forms. I believe that we have stated that we have not done so. I appreciate that it is not an easy matter to assess, certainly not in seven tick boxes. The soundings have gone much wider that that.

The Secretary of State will have to reach a judgment as to whether there is sufficient interest in a region to justify holding a referendum. Once that decision is made, subject to the Bill receiving Royal Assent, nothing will happen for a year as the boundary review will have to consider the relevant local government structure. It is important for people to know about the form of unitary local government. The two things go together. No unitary local government means no elected regional assemblies. It is as simple as that. We have made that clear. It will take about a year for that to happen. Therefore, there will not be any referendums or decisions on referendums to trigger the political parties legislation until the summer of next year.

Business of the House: Recess Dates

3.15 p.m.

Lord Grocott: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I wish to make a short Statement about Recess dates.

This morning my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the date of the Budget, which is to be Wednesday 9th April. In the light of that, it is expected that the Commons will not rise for Easter on Thursday 10th April, as provisionally planned, but will now sit until Monday 14th April.

Noble Lords will naturally wonder whether that will affect our Recess dates. The answer is no. My intention is still as it was when I made an announcement last November; namely, that we should rise on Thursday 10th April and return on Monday 28th April. But I must emphasise, as ever—as everyone in my situation always says—that this is subject to the progress of business.

For the Whitsun Recess, the House can still expect to rise on Thursday 22nd May. It is, however, likely that we shall be back on Monday 2nd June rather than Tuesday 3rd June.

Following the decision of the House on 25th November to sit in September, many noble Lords have, not surprisingly, asked me precisely which two weeks we shall sit in September. I accept, of course, that people want to book holidays. I am able to announce today that, subject to the progress of

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business, we shall sit for the same two weeks in September as the Commons; that is, from Monday 8th September to Thursday 18th September.

As your Lordships know, I have tried to give provisional Recess dates as far in advance as possible so that, for example, I was able to announce as early as 18th November last year the Whitsun Recess on 22nd May this year. The response I have had from Members—I am sure that noble Lords will agree that this is important—and from the staff of this House who serve us so well, has been that giving dates as far in advance as possible has been greatly appreciated. For me this has been almost a unique experience in that, for the first time in my political life, I appear to have done something which seems to be universally supported.

I am aware that in making the September announcement today I have left uncertain precisely when we shall rise in mid-July, and when we shall return in October. I assure your Lordships that I shall provide those dates as soon as I possibly can.


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