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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th March 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.

Royal Assent

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts: Consolidated Fund Act 2003, Northern Ireland Assembly Elections Act 2003.

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill

11.7 a.m.

The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Rooker.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Referendums]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 18:


    Page 2, line 1, leave out subsection (6) and insert—


"( ) The Secretary of State may make the order at any time during the period of two years starting with the date on which he gives a direction under section 12 in relation to the region so long as before he makes the order he has no cause to think that that level of interest has changed materially."

The noble Baroness said: The amendment would simplify the texture of the Bill which, as it stands, does not appear to make much sense. Clause 1(4) states:


    "The first condition is that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".

However, when one turns to subsection (6), the clause states:


    "The first condition is taken to be satisfied if . . . for the purpose of giving the direction he considered the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".

My understanding is that the provision in subsection (6) should be a test of how subsection (4) is achieved, but no light is thrown on that whatever. We do not know how it will be done or the criteria on which it will be determined. We do not know how the level of interest will be measured. The preamble to that paragraph says:


    "The first condition is taken to be satisfied if—".

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I emphasise the word "if". One would expect there to be a test, and some indication of how that would happen.

Will the Minister clarify the point and explain what seems to us a pointless complication? Either the clause should stop at subsection (4), so that the Secretary of State needs to accept the first condition that he must consider,


    "the level of interest in the region",

and get on with it and not tell Parliament how he comes to his view, or my amendment should be accepted and we should set out in the Bill how that will be achieved.

We regard the issue as important because the Bill, skeletal as it is, gives birth to a large amount of executive action that does not need parliamentary approval. For that reason, we think it important that the Minister should help Parliament to understand how the action will be tested. Ahead of the passage of the Bill and without any approval from Parliament, a soundings committee has been established and has completed its work, but we are finding little evidence of what happened out in the regions. However, on the basis of those soundings, according to subsection (4), the Secretary of State—Mr John Prescott—is able to say that, in his opinion, the level of interest in a region has been established, without telling us how that has been achieved. I beg to move.

The Chairman of Committees: I should inform the Committee that, if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments Nos. 19 to 21.

Baroness Hamwee: The soundings exercise has been discreet, to use an uncontentious term. One would not want it to be as discredited as it may be in danger of becoming. However, the amendment does not make it clear how the Secretary of State can judge if there is a substantial decrease in interest in the holding of a referendum. In other words, how is the Secretary of State to assess whether apathy is breaking out?

Lord Waddington: Let us suppose that a referendum takes place in one part of the country that shows that there is minimal interest in regional government there, and that referendum takes place a year after the machinery has been set in motion to hold a referendum in another region. Surely, it would be ridiculous for the Secretary of State to waste everyone's time and money on having a referendum in a second region, when the referendum in the region, where the Secretary of State presumably believed there would be the most enthusiasm for regional government, had resulted in a resounding "No". At that stage, the Secretary of State should pause and ask himself whether the game is worth the candle.

Lord Rooker: I shall do my best to answer those questions. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is making a purely hypothetical point. I suppose that Committee stage is designed to test out the hypotheticals, but it is somewhat mischievous of him to raise that point.

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Amendment No. 18 relates to Clause 1(6). I shall explain how this part of the Bill is designed to work.

Clause 1 sets out the conditions to be followed in order to cause a referendum to be held in any English region on establishing an elected assembly. The first precondition is in subsection (4), which provides that the Secretary of State must be satisfied of,


    "the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum".

Subsection (6) provides that the pre-condition is deemed to be satisfied if three requirements are met, including that the level of interest in holding a referendum has been considered before giving the direction under Clause 12. If any of the requirements were not met, subsection (8) would require him to consider the views expressed, the information and evidence provided to him and any published material that he thought appropriate in order to satisfy the first precondition. In effect, a new soundings exercise might have to be conducted.

Amendment No. 18 would remove subsection (6) of Clause 1 but would then replace it with almost identical wording. We believe it important that the Secretary of State is able to consider the level of interest in a referendum before directing a local government review which involves enormous resources. As we discussed last week, depending on the size of the region and the number of unitary and two-tier authorities, the boundary review could take six to 12 or so months and cost a considerable sum. Clause 12 enables the interest level to be considered before a local government review is directed. In regions where there is very little interest, a referendum would not be justified. A review would therefore not be held and that expense saved.

So it makes sense for Clause 1(6) to make explicit reference back to that consideration. That is what Clause 1(6)(b) actually does. Otherwise, against what is the Secretary of State supposed to measure the "material change"? There would be nothing against which to check it. As I think I said at the end of our deliberations last Thursday, when the Secretary of State has made a judgment on the soundings—which will, of course, be after Royal Assent to this Bill—he will announce that judgment to Parliament and provide the evidence on which it is based. As I said, the soundings exercise has been formally completed. However, as I also said, we will take on board any reasonable points made during the Bill's passage. Nevertheless the assessment, which involves considerable work, has started.

We shall publish a summary of the responses to the soundings exercise. I do not know whether the assertion that the soundings were "discreet" means that they were done with so much discretion that no one knew about them or whether they were a discrete operation within government. I shall take the more positive view that they were a discrete operation within government and were not done so discreetly that no one knew about them. People knew about them. That will be made clear when we publish a summary of people's views.

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I hope that I have sufficiently explained the position to enable the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, to withdraw Amendment No. 18. If so, we can proceed to the meat of the Bill.

11.15 a.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I was interested to hear what the Minister was going to say about Amendment No. 18, and I listened with great interest to what he said. It is true, I think, that some of the soundings have been carried out very discreetly indeed. Many people did not know that soundings were taking place. Indeed, as I pointed out at col. 1542 of the Official Report for 13th March, people who wished to take part in those soundings were actually excluded from them. Since our last sitting, I have had a number of reactions to what I said and to the very helpful response of the Minister. I shall be sending him the evidence which is now reaching me about those who were excluded or discouraged from attending some of the soundings meetings.

My question is this. If it is shown that the soundings so far have not been held in conformity with what is just, fair, reasonable and necessary to produce a proper result, will the Minister agree that soundings should take place again in those areas so that those who are opposed to holding a referendum at all or opposed to regional assemblies will truly have an opportunity to put their point of view?


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