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Lord Rooker: I return to what I said at Second Reading. I know I made the statement based on advice. Where there is an existing unitary authority in a region, it will not have its boundaries interfered with as a result of this Bill. If I am wrong, I shall be told and I shall report back to the Committee. I repeat that because that is my understanding. It is what I said at Second Reading.

In some regions there are a lot of unitary authorities. They will not be interfered with. Their boundaries will not change. The review will take place in areas where there are two tiers to make them into one tier. However, there is more than one way of making the two into one, using a different formula.

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That will be the decision of the Boundary Committee. I do not want to prejudge. We have published draft advice to the Boundary Committee on the way in which that will operate.

Lord Waddington: The difficulty of the Government's case is that the Boundary Committee will not be a free agent. The Government are not asking the Boundary Committee to recommend what it believes would be the best system of local government. They are saying to the Boundary Committee that it may not advise the Government as to what it thinks is the best system of local government in, say, Lancashire. A unitary system must be decided.

If that is the case—and it clearly is the case under the Bill—the Government must take responsibility. They must tell us why they believe that in, say, Lancashire, it would be better for the citizens who now live in the county area to have a unitary authority rather than the existing county council. The Government have a duty to tell us why they believe that that would be better for the citizens.

Lord Rooker: At an appropriate time after the Boundary Committee has reported, in due course—my understanding is that it will take about a year to complete the review in a region—at the time of the referendum, the Government will put forward their views about the Boundary Committee's review. So we shall do exactly as the noble Lord says.

I do not know what the Boundary Committee will propose—

Lord Waddington: The Minister cannot be understanding me. The point is that, by that stage, the Government, as a result of their own policy, will have brought about unitary authorities—because they are telling the Boundary Committee that it must advise on the basis of there being unitary authorities. Therefore, the Government must tell us now—not when there is a referendum—why they believe that it will be good for the citizens of county areas such as Lancashire to have unitary authorities thrust upon them, rather than keeping the existing county council. It is as simple as that.

Lord Rooker: When we published the White Paper we gave it the title Your Region, Your Choice—a mistake, I suppose, so far as concerns the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, who cannot understand it. This is not a question of the Government coming to Parliament with a ready-made, bolted-down system of elected regional assemblies, and with all the answers to all the questions.

The Earl of Onslow: Perhaps I may—

Lord Rooker: Please let me finish. It is not possible to keep raising parallel questions; then I shall be accused later of not answering them.

We take credit for not having a ready-made plan. We want people in the areas to choose, on the basis of the framework set out in the Bill—that is, unitary local

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government as part of the package on which they will be asked to vote. There will be a big debate. Whether they choose to opt for local government changes as a price to be paid for having an elected regional assembly is a decision for the electors of the regions. They will only make that choice on the basis of all the necessary information, after a review has taken place, after the Boundary Committee has published its views and after the Government have given their views about the way forward based on the Boundary Committee's suggestions.

The Earl of Onslow: I should like to return to the question of Alnwick or Berwick district council, in a large regional area. If people in Wearside vote for a regional assembly, if the whole of Northumberland votes for a regional assembly, they vote to extinguish Alnwick and Berwick. That is why the Government are not offering a choice. They are saying: you will extinguish Alnwick and Berwick if you go for regional authorities. That is why it is wrong to say that the Government have no plan. The Government have a very clear plan. They are saying: you will have unitary local authorities and regional assemblies; you cannot have what you have at the moment, with a small amount of regional authority on top. If the Government have to recreate the Heptarchy brought into being by Ethelred the Unready, they should at least keep some of the counties that were created to replace it.

Lord Shutt of Greetland: I think it is worse than that. Let us take the example of Skipton, in North Yorkshire. The Boundary Committee may come up with the proposal that there should be a small Skipton unitary authority. On the other hand, it may say, no, Skipton and Harrogate should be amalgamated into a new unitary authority. The possibility of Skipton being placed with Bradford, which is a unitary authority, would not be available.

In 1973, Skipton was part of the West Riding county council, which looked to Wakefield. Bradford is nearer to Skipton than Wakefield. It is not impossible that that might be a way forward, and one which the people of Skipton would desire. But the Minister is suggesting—because the unitary boundaries will never under any circumstances be changed from the existing ones—that that would not be an option.

6.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker: On the basis that I have not received any advice contradicting what I said earlier, the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, is right. That is the point of the exercise. We are not looking for a wholesale local government reorganisation as a consequence of the Bill—merely to convert to unitary authorities where there is presently two-tier government.

Perhaps I may return to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The Government are not in a position to implement any recommendation that the Boundary Committee may make for local government unless there is a referendum giving a positive result. As we have already said—this has been

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placed on record—there is a difficulty, and I understand people's suspicion about this. Before the referendum the Boundary Committee will have published its views for local government changes in an area, partial or otherwise. The Government will pronounce on whether they are content with those proposals, and that will be part of the information. If a referendum takes place and the result is "No", the plans of the Boundary Committee for local government in that area will not proceed. I want to make that absolutely clear. This is not a Trojan horse to bring about local government reorganisation. The Boundary Committee will put forward a plan as to how an area might work; but it will be taken forward only if there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum. If there is a "No" vote, we shall not proceed with the review. The county authorities and district authorities will stay as they are.

It cannot be clearer or fairer than that. We are not misleading people. It is consistent with the fact that we have no hidden plan for a local government review by proxy, for another reason. It is purely a consequence of choosing to vote on whether to have an elected regional assembly. If there is a "No" vote in a referendum, there will be no regional assembly; therefore, there will be no local government reorganisation.

Lord Hanningfield: I do not think that the Minister has a clue as to what local government reorganisation is like. Having been through this process in the 1990s, we can see this happening in Lancashire very clearly. Lancashire has pulled out of the North West regional assembly, but there is a great deal of fighting—mainly between people in the same parties. Fortunately, in Lancashire, it is now the Labour Party that is tearing itself apart; in the 1990s it was mainly the Conservative Party that was tearing itself apart.

The anguish will occur during the planning for local government reorganisation. We have gone through a great deal of anguish in Lancashire, with people fighting each other, and virtually hating each other, because of the unitary precedent or keeping Lancashire County Council. Then, we believe, the North West will probably vote "No". So we shall have to go through all the anguish of reorganisation, and then there will be no region anyway. Services will have been destroyed during that time. In local government we are supposed to be caring for the elderly and running the schools, not fighting each other all the time. The Government will create wars all round the country, and then possibly have no regions. I do not think that the Minister understands government reorganisation. It is a very bitter experience for those in the middle of it.

Lord Rooker: Local government reorganisation will not take place unless there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum.

Lord Hanningfield: But I am talking about the planning stage. Let us say that the Deputy Prime Minister announces a referendum for the North West.

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Then, there will be a year's planning. The in-fighting and difficulty will go on during the year prior to the referendum. People will be fighting each other to establish a unitary precedent or to keep Lancashire County Council. It is already happening. The problem is occurring at this moment, as we are debating these matters. It will happen during that year. So the Government are creating problems that could last for many years and destroy some of the services that local government is providing.

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