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Lord Rooker: I was going to respond to that point but I accepted that we would move on. I cannot be precise about individual dates. However, there are good and bad times of the year in which to hold referendums. At certain times of the year, because of purdah, one would not be allowed to do things. We all know when general elections can be held. There is a maximum period of five years but in general we are almost on a four-year cycle. I am not saying that the next election will be in 2005—I cannot be precise about that.

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It is public knowledge that if there were to be a referendum, autumn 2004 would be a suitable time. We have said that the Boundary Committee may need up to 12 months in which to do its work. The referendum period is about 10 or 12 weeks. It is easy to work back from autumn 2004 to see approximately when Royal Assent would be needed. Until we have Royal Assent the Deputy Prime Minister cannot make a statement about the judgment on the soundings. That does not mean that there is a rush, but if we did not do certain things early this summer, the possibility of holding a referendum in the autumn of 2004 would be ruled out. That takes us into 2005, when there may be a general election—I do not know—but there will be local government elections. So it is easy to work backwards.

If there were a yes vote, primary legislation would have to be introduced. I suspect it would be a large Bill compared with this one. That is why I am fairly certain that the earliest possible date for setting up an assembly would be July 2006. Once we have agreed to do it and it is all set up, the elections have to take place. So the earliest possible time for an assembly to be established, on this time-scale, is 2006. That would mean requesting the Boundary Committee to start its work early this summer. One is talking about a very long process and no one can accuse the Government of rushing it. It is a natural progression—there must be time to take certain decisions and time for certain things to happen so that we are not accused of rushing matters. In addition, consultation will take place. I hope that is a satisfactory explanation of the Government's thinking on approximate dates.

Baroness Hamwee: Before the noble Baroness withdraws the amendment, perhaps she can deal with a matter that has been touched on when she comes back with it. The amendment refers to the effects of regional government; it does not refer to the effects of the proposals as set out in the Bill. They are not necessarily the same thing.

Baroness Blatch: One problem with the Bill is that the whole process is triggered by Clause 1. I will have to read the Minister's speech carefully, as he has just contradicted himself. I expressed myself as relieved that the Deputy Prime Minister would not exercise an order under Section 12 for another year. He has to do so in order to start the process for the Boundary Committee; we know from the Minister that it will take a year to do its work. For a referendum to take place in the autumn of 2004, which the Minister said was the earliest date, an order will need to be made in June, July or August this year.

I heard some rumours before lunch. The anxiety of the usual channels in this House to have the Bill finished by Monday is becoming clearer. The noble Lord refuted it, but we are going to get a statement soon after 8th May from the Deputy Prime Minister to allow a referendum to take place in the late summer or autumn of 2004.

Lord Rooker: The noble Baroness has got it right. The note that I have probably explains the situation a

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lot better than I did. I think it is fair to put this on the record. I do not want there to be any misunderstanding, particularly about Clause 12. I am not playing with words, but Clause 12 does not give order-making powers.

There is a complicated chain of events before an elected assembly can be established. First, we need Royal Assent to this Bill. Then the Deputy Prime Minister needs a bit of time to consider in which region or regions to direct local government reviews—that is the direction, not an order under Clause 12. The local government reviews could take up to 12 months. Then the Secretary of State has to decide whether to order a referendum and lay and make the orders. The referendum process will take a minimum of 10 weeks and maybe more. It would be best not to work on minimum figures all the time. To guarantee a referendum in this Parliament we need early Royal Assent.

If there is a "Yes" vote in a referendum, a main Bill will have to follow. That will need at least one year. Then there have to be elections to the assembly. That is why I said that at the earliest an assembly could not be set up before July 2006. That probably requires getting Royal Assent to this Bill in the not too distant future—early this summer or late spring this year, whatever definition one likes to make. I do not have a specific date to give, but the noble Baroness can see why an early date is required for all these long processes.

Baroness Blatch: My last word is that to spend three years on expensive, painstaking, laborious, politically disabling procedures in order to create an elected administrative arm of government is ludicrous. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clause 2 [Referendum question]:

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Gould of Potternewton): Before I call Amendment No. 26, I have to inform the Committee that if it is agreed to I cannot call Amendments Nos. 27 to 31 for reasons of pre-emption.

Lord Hanningfield moved Amendment No. 26:

    Page 2, line 20, leave out subsection (1) and insert—

"( ) The questions to be asked in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under section 1 are:
1. "Should there be an elected assembly for the (insert name of region) region?"
2. "Should county and district councils in your region be reorganised and replaced with unitary authorities responsible for delivering all local government services?""

The noble Lord said: As the Minister said, we have spent 11 hours on Clause 1. I trust that we are not going to spend a similar time on Clause 2. It is my job to introduce this very important first amendment to the clause. We have spent hours discussing the referendum. We are now discussing the question that will be put to the electorate in that referendum. We

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have just talked about the timetable. Assuming that the Government get their Bill through, there will be at least one referendum towards the end of next year.

The Minister said firmly last week that if we had regional authorities there would be only one tier of government below that or nothing at all. I should like to explore that further. As I said last week, we should not talk lightly about the reorganisation of local government. We seem to have a thrill for local government reorganisation in this country. The United States and most European countries have systems of local government that have stood the test of time over 200 years. We seem to want to reorganise local government every 10 years. I did not agree with the Conservative government's reorganisation in the 1990s and I cannot agree to any reorganisation now. It detracts from providing services, which is what we should be about.

The amendment would separate the issue of having a regional assembly from the reorganisation of local government. That is very important. The amendment would introduce a second referendum question giving people in two-tier areas a chance to express their view on whether local government should be reorganised.

I have been through local government reorganisation twice. Services, staff and the public all suffer. As my noble friend Lady Blatch said a moment ago, the process could go on for two or three years before there was a regional assembly. Some areas of our country would be destabilised and disturbed for two or three years. Services would suffer as a result.

We shall shortly start our consideration of the Local Government Bill during which we shall talk about the comprehensive performance assessment for councils. Many councils that will be reorganised will have been judged excellent or good in that assessment. We are going to tell the public that councils that have just been applauded by the Government and the Audit Commission will be destroyed. Most people who live in two-tier areas are happy to have county and district councils. They would not want local government to be reorganised for the sake of setting up a region. They should have the opportunity to say that.

The proposal is particularly unfair to people in rural areas because those parts of the country can be dominated by the urban electorate. We talked about this last week. I was surprised to hear the Minister say that there would be differential turnout so the rural areas might be able to defeat the urban areas because more people would vote in rural areas. Let us look at the three areas that are most likely to have a referendum. The North East has a total of 2.5 million people. Only 800,000 of them live in the two counties of Durham and Northumberland. There would have to be an enormous differential turnout for the people in Northumberland and Durham to outvote the Newcastle and Sunderland conurbations. In the North West, which has a total of 6.7 million people, only 2.3 million live in the three great counties of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. That might seem a reasonable number, but it is still only one third of the total. The urban areas of Manchester and Merseyside

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comprise two thirds of the area. The situation is even worse in Yorkshire and Humberside. There are 5 million people in that area, but North Yorkshire has only 600,000 of them. Even with a 100 per cent turnout in North Yorkshire and a 12 or 14 per cent turnout in the rest of the area, North Yorkshire could still be outvoted. This is a denial of democratic principles. Those counties and districts could be destroyed without people being given a chance to make any comment. We feel very strongly that the question needs to be put to the public in a referendum. I beg to move.

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