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The Earl of Caithness: The Minister has been extremely helpful in clarifying the amendment. I am no longer as concerned as I was about the RDAs. However, I am still concerned about the regional chambers or assemblieswhatever they like to call themselves.
First, I do not share the relaxed attitude adopted by the Minister that it is possible to separate completely the grant given by his department to these bodies and the council tax moneys given to them by local authorities. How can regional chambers be condemned for spending the grant given to them by the Minister when he is not prepared to condemn them for spending council tax money on an illicit purpose? Will the Minister condemn any regional chamber or assembly for spending money in the way set out in the amendment that derives either from his department or from the local council tax?
Secondly, can the Minister go into a little more detail about the role of the district auditor? If a situation arises where money has been used wrongfully in lobbying either for or against an elected regional assembly, the matter is referred to the district auditor. What happens then? Has provision been made to provide a brake on the proposed referendum? Perhaps I may take the Minister with me on this point. Let us take a situation where money has been used wrongly and the matter sent to the district auditor, whereupon the auditor rules against the regional chamber. What happens then? Surely at that point one ought to say, "Right, let us stop whatever we have been doing. Let us take a break so that everyone can get back onto an even keel".
Lord Rooker: I am being invited to condemn the illicit spending of public money and I do so quite freely. By separating the two organisations and making that separation clear, I do not, by implication, support the misuse of money coming from local authorities. In no way do I seek to do that.
There are two avenues of complaint; namely, if the allegation that the money has been misspent is firm, then there is an avenue for complaint. I suggest that the district auditor should be used because that is the correct avenue. However, I am unaware of anyone having made a formal complaint. Again, I do not say that because we have issued a directive as regards my department's money, it is therefore good to misspend moneys from council tax payers; far from it.
Looking at the big picture, it would be unreasonable for organisations to be out of the starting blocks campaigning for something that has not yet even been approved by Parliament and using either taxpayers' or council tax payers' money. People rightly would be suspicious and complain about that, in particular if the body concerned was to change its name and give a false impression. However, if that is what has happened, then I do not know about it. No one has contacted me in that regard.
If someone makes a complaint to a district auditorI know about this because in the past I have done so myself as a Member of another placethe matter is looked at. If a prima facie case is made for an investigation, it will be done. Believe me when I say that an investigation by the district auditor is very onerous on those who are the subject of such an inquiry. It is taken extremely seriously by chief executives of local authorities and, it is hoped, would be taken equally seriously by a regional assembly. An adverse report from a district auditor is quite a serious matter and certainly would be made known to the public. It could damage the reputation of the individuals concerned; it could damage the organisation and it could even damage what the organisation was seeking to campaign about.
The central issue is that the amendment talks about a period of 12 months before the order is laid. The period for the referendum itselfthat is, the contest for the "Yes" vote or the "No" vote, if I may put it that wayis very short. I think the Referendum Act 1975 stipulates something in the order of 10 weeks. So to lay the order 12 months beforehand presents a problem as regards interference with the timing.
As I have said, I do not know the answer to the question put by the noble Earl. We are still in Committee. I shall seek to obtain better advice on it so that, if not at this stage then on Report, I will be able to respond to him more fully. The noble Earl is entitled to as good and detailed an answer as we can give, but I am not in a position to do that off the top of my head.
Lord Pearson of Rannoch: I have a brief question which has not been raised in this debate. Indeed, it goes slightly further than the amendment. I do not wish to impute any dishonour to the bishops in this matter, but one does hear that a number of these assemblies, or however they are known, are chaired by bishops of the Church of England. In those circumstances I think it regrettable that so far no right reverend Prelate has helped us in our deliberations on the amendments.
Does the Minister have anything to say to the Committee about the involvement of bishops in this matter? It could be that their presence would influence the outcome of a referendum. For some of us, the duties that they have been undertaking appear to go beyond what is normally regarded as the divine.
Lord Rooker: So far as I know, as citizens, bishops have the right to vote. They do not hang up their democratic rights when they take on the role of a bishop. As I recall, the Constitutional Convention that operated in Scotland, where the level of political debate was so much more mature than in England on issues of voting systems, was chaired by a member of the clergy, although I cannot remember his precise role. The bishops are here to speak for themselves.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: I think that there is an issue on the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Some of the meetings have been chaired by bishops. At those meetings, only one side of the argument has been put. Anyone suspected, if I may put it that way, of wanting to put the other side of the argument has been excluded. That is the problem here. Bishops are held in high regard and are
Baroness Carnegy of Lour: Perhaps I may help the Minister on a point of detail. One of the chairmen of the Constitutional Convention in Scotland was a canon of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, a non-established church. He was not a bishop and it was a non-established church. I hope that that is helpful to the noble Lord.
I cannot answer the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. I do not know who chaired those meetings or whether anyone was prevented from speaking. I cannot answer for the Government on these issues because we are not responsible for them. There are avenues for dealing with complaints about the process.
I do not know whether the allegations have been made against right reverend Prelates who are Members of the House or against other bishops. When they are in their places in due course, one assumes that they will speak for themselves. There is a Starred Question on this issue on the Order Paper today. Perhaps one of them will turn up to speak to it.
Baroness Blatch: I do not intend to enter the discussion about the role of the bishops except in so far as it is interesting to note that a number of them have spoken in this House in favour of regional assemblies. It is depressing not to see at least some of them taking part in our debates because they have been involved in this issue.
The only further point I would add, without getting into the nuts and bolts of the point made by my noble friend Lord Pearson, is that it is not bishops as individuals that we are talking about but bishops in their role of leading the conventions. There is no law against that; under the law they are free to take the chair. But we have heardagain it is rumour and I cannot confirm itthat, in order to attend convention meetings chaired by bishops, one has to express an interest in having regional government. That also smacks of being one-sided.
My amendment relates to one-sided campaigning. The Minister said that it relates to process and that we are not here to talk about process, but most of the amendments on the Marshalled List relate to process and to ensuring that it is as fair as it can be in enabling people to make up their minds, quite freely, whether or not they want local government upheaval and the introduction of regional assemblies.
My noble friend Lord Waddington has given an enormous amount of evidence that campaigning is taking place. We know that it is taking place in the North East. We also know that the "Yes" lobby has access to public funds. There is a question mark as to whether it is using public funds to
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