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The Chairman of Committees: I call Amendment No. 24.

Baroness Blatch: Did the noble Lord call Amendment No. 20?

The Chairman of Committees: I announced earlier that it was pre-empted.

Baroness Blatch: I apologise; I missed the fact that it had been pre-empted. I thought that I was jumping the gun on the Liberal Democrat amendment.

Amendment No. 24 would ensure that the Secretary of State could call a referendum in a region only if he had first issued a certificate stating that there had been no activity by the regional chamber or development agency during the course of the previous year intended to influence the result of the referendum.

We know that such activity takes place. I know that the Minister must be circumspect because, if there is to be any judicial review of that activity, it would be entirely wrong of him to say anything now. However, I am not asking him to judge whether I am right or wrong about the existence of such activity. The amendment simply states that a certificate should be issued. If it turns out that I am right—that such activity has been taking place, that it is illicit and

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precedes Parliament's authority, and that it has involved public funding—that is serious. That creates a prejudice in favour of regional assemblies that does not favour those waiting and acting lawfully until there is authority by Parliament to engage in the debate about whether there should be a referendum to determine whether a regional assembly is set up.

It is common sense that taxpayers' money should not be used to fund a "Yes" campaign. It should not fund such a campaign once it is lawful, because, unless there is a level playing field for opponents and supporters of a regional assembly, the referendum would be considered one-sided, as happens in European campaigns. That would be unjust and unfair to the electorate as a whole.

Even if a majority favoured regional assemblies, it would be better to spend money on public services rather than on costly campaigns, certainly at this stage. As the noble Lord said at many of our meetings, we are well ahead of an actual regional assembly being set up. If a "Yes" campaign gathered momentum at this stage, it would trigger spending of large sums of money until the electorate vote on whether they want a regional assembly. A failsafe way to prevent such behaviour would be to disallow a referendum if any illicit campaigning had taken place. It would render the referendum abortive; therefore, another one would have to be held. I beg to move.

Lord Waddington: I support the amendment. It would provide a useful safeguard against malpractice. I am bound to say that some things have happened recently concerning the North West Regional Assembly that incline one to believe that safeguards may be necessary. I referred a short time ago to a remarkable letter addressed by the chief executive of the North West Regional Assembly to the chief executive of Lancashire County Council. In paragraph 3 of the letter, the writer seeks to rebut the charge that the North West Regional Assembly has been using public money to campaign for elected regional government, but he seems to make a poor fist of doing so.

The chief executive quotes a resolution passed by the North West Regional Assembly on 11th January 2002,


    "we, the North West Regional Assembly declare our intention to become an elected Regional Government".

He then quotes from a press release apparently issued immediately after the resolution. It referred to the fact that the resolution was a decision,


    "to campaign for a referendum in the Region at the earliest opportunity to give people in the North West their say on whether they want directly elected Regional Government".

Extraordinarily, he then says:


    "The press release was no part of a campaign".

Well, he could have fooled me.

I was shocked to discover that Lancashire County Council gave 47,470 to the North West Regional Assembly, which it now refuses to return. It even has the effrontery to assert that Lancashire County Council cannot withhold its payments for 2003–04. I hope that the extraordinary behaviour of the North

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West Regional Assembly will be widely publicised and that every council taxpayer in Lancashire knows of the assembly's use of their money.

I wish to ask the Minister this: I am at a loss to understand what right regional assemblies set up under the 1998 Act have to call themselves assemblies. I see nothing in the Act to suggest that they can. I am afraid to say that the behaviour of the North West Regional Assembly shows that it is all too easy for such a body to use a change of name to fool the public into believing that it represents them, when it represents nobody but itself. That nonsense must be stopped. I would like a straight answer to that question.

The Regional Development Agencies Act 1998 provides for the setting up of chambers but there is nothing whatever in that Act to suggest that those chambers can masquerade as assemblies. Yet that is what they are doing, and it is obvious why. They are masquerading as assemblies because, as such, they look like the heirs apparent to elected assemblies. They are lying to the public.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: Buried in the labyrinthine corridors of the huge empire now improperly known as the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—no office was ever so elephantine in its dimensions—are the Government Offices for the Regions. What do they do? What is their relationship to this? Are they promotion agents for regional government? From some points of view, regional government would be satisfactory. It would take government much further away from the people and make it even more difficult to understand.

I understand that governments live in an atmosphere of muddle. But my noble friends have persuaded me that, in this case, it is not muddle, it is deliberate camouflage. By masterpieces of conjuring, they are going to impose regional government on us all without explaining it, and without any knowledge on the part of the vast majority of the electorate.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: It is important from the Government's own point of view that they get this right. Referendums will not be seen as binding or fair if, before they take place, a great accumulation of money has been spent on one side of the argument. That happened in Wales. Much money was spent to promote an assembly for Wales, and only a minute fraction of it was spent on the opposite campaign. Much of the money spent on the "Yes" campaign came from public sources. So taxpayers and ratepayers who opposed a Welsh assembly were forced to pay for propaganda against their own point of view. That simply cannot be fair; it cannot be allowed to happen. That is why the amendment is so important.

I know that the Minister is aware of the problem and has tried to deal with it. The Minister responsible for local government has already made a statement that public funds may not be used to campaign at this or any other stage on one side of the argument. Mr Herron, who was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Dixon, and others have taken out actions

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against local authorities that have engaged in one-sided propaganda using ratepayers' money. I know that the Minister is concerned about it, and I hope that he will give assurances that he will stamp on any authority or person using public money on one side of the argument.

It is legitimate for people to engage in an argument at this stage, if they use their own money or money that they have collected. That is legitimate, and I would support it. However, I am certainly against the use of public money on one side of the argument. It happens far too much. It happened in Malta, for example, where they have just had a referendum. The European Commission and the Maltese Government spent 20 times as much public money, including some of our taxpayers' money, on one side of the argument and still did not get a majority of the electorate to vote for their point of view.

Noon

Baroness Hanham: We debated this briefly on the previous day in Committee. I have struggled to find it in Hansard, but I am fairly certain that I recall the Minister saying—he will correct me, if I am wrong—that investigations of the regional assemblies by the Minister for Housing had indicated that public money had not been used to campaign. However, I know of no money spent by regional assemblies that does not come from the taxpayer.

Can the Minister say where any additional money comes from? I am sure that he said that they were satisfied that it was not taxpayers' money. I meant to challenge him at the time, and I wonder how he could be so sure, when my inquiries have shown that regional assemblies are basically funded by government and local government.

Lord Greaves: The debate has raised two questions. The first is whether there is a problem, and the second is whether the amendment is an appropriate way to deal with any such problem.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, I have followed with interest the arguments between Lancashire County Council and the North West Regional Assembly over publicity and campaigning and whether the regional assembly has transgressed the line between the two. It is a matter of distinguishing between legitimate publicity and impermissible campaigning, to use the words in the letter from the North West Regional Assembly to Mr Trinick, the chief executive of Lancashire County Council, to which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, referred. Local authorities—the North West Regional Assembly is not composed only of local authorities, but it is basically an assembly of local authorities in the region—have always to ask themselves that question, when they take a view on a matter of public controversy and wish to promote that view. It is not an unknown problem, and local authorities throughout the country deal with it week by week. It is not a difficult problem; it is simply distinguishing between legitimate publicity and impermissible campaigning.

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In Lancashire, it is not just a question of whether and in what way the North West Regional Assembly has transgressed the line; it is also a question of whether Lancashire County Council and other local authorities in the region have also transgressed. I am not sure that Cheshire has taken a clear position in the way in which Lancashire has; perhaps it has. My district authority, Pendle Borough Council, has decided that, given the information to hand about what is in the Bill and the White Paper, it does not wish the North West to go ahead in the first tranche of referendums. In effect it is the same position as Lancashire County Council has taken up .

So, what can the borough council do? There are motions on which it can vote, and it can issue press statements giving its view. Is that illegitimate? If so, it calls into question a large amount of the publicity activity carried out by local authorities throughout the country week by week. The leader of Lancashire County Council has written articles condemning the Bill, saying that Lancashire wants no part of it and disagreeing with the position taken up by the North West Regional Assembly.


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