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Lord Waddington: I am a little puzzled by Amendment No. 26. It seems to suggest that everyone in the region would be voting on the question of local government changes. My noble friend said that the clear intention is that people who live where there is a two-tier local government structure should be able to vote on it. That is dealt with in Amendment No. 48, which, for reasons I do not understand, is not grouped with these amendments. I would have thought that it should have been. People who live in a part of the region where there is a two-tier structure of local government should be able to vote on whether it is changed. I read the amendment as meaning that, even though it does not mean that on its own. It would mean that if Amendments Nos. 26 and 48 were carried.

Amendment No. 31 is useful. People should be aware of the area for which the assembly they are being asked to vote for or against will be responsible. There is very little appreciation of what is included even in the North West. People in the south of Cheshire do not for a moment consider themselves part of an area that extends all the way to the Solway.

Lord Dixon: I mentioned this morning the result of a consultation carried out by Durham County Council. It had 7,000 responses. Support for holding a referendum was 66 per cent; 24 per cent were not in favour. Support for establishing an assembly was 66 per cent against 24 per cent. That is the two-tier authority on which I used to serve.

5 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: Will the noble Lord tell us why the council is spending taxpayers' money at this stage, before the Bill has received Royal Assent, on surveying whether a referendum is wanted?

Lord Dixon: That is the consultative procedure laid down by the Government, who asked for responses.

Lord Waddington: With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, I am not quite sure what that has to do with my speech. At the moment, I am addressing the question of whether people in the south of Cheshire really consider themselves part of a North West that goes up to the Solway. I do not think that he knows whether I am right or wrong on that, and I do not blame him for that as it is not his part of the country.

I want to raise again the extraordinary business of the Government not being prepared to look at the regional boundaries before any referendums are

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embarked on. I have looked into the matter since we discussed it a little while ago. I simply do not understand what the difficulty is. From Clause 26, one finds that,

    "a region is a region . . . specified in Schedule 1 to the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998".

The 1998 Act states in Section 25 that the Secretary of State may by order and after consultations,

    "make alterations in the extent of the regions".

He could embark on consultations right now and, in a matter of months, come to conclusions that would at least get rid of some of the more outrageous anomalies. If that were done, we would be dealing to a large extent with the mischief that is obvious to us all. For the time being, it is obviously essential that when people go into the polling booths they should be made aware of what on earth the strange area is, for which there will be an elected body if they vote yes.

Lord Greaves: The group of amendments is headed by Amendment No. 26, but there are four Liberal Democrat amendments in it. The substantive one is Amendment No. 38, which would leave out lines 33 to 36 of page 2. The other three are consequential on that.

Amendment No. 38 tackles the same problem in a different way. Again it is about the fact that, in the Bill, the Government are combining the establishment of regional assemblies with a reorganisation of local government into unitary authorities in those parts of the region affected that at the moment have a two-tier local government system. We discussed the principle of that in considerable detail last Thursday, and I do not think that there is any point in discussing it all again at this stage, although we may wish to come back to it later.

Amendment No. 38 would remove the second part of the preamble or statement that accompanies the referendum question. The first part states that,

    "the elected assembly would be responsible for a range of activities".

That is an interesting wording, given the limited powers available in the Bill, but we can come back to that later. The second part states that,

    "local government would be reorganised into a single tier in those parts of the region that currently have both county and district councils. There would be no such reorganisation of other local authorities in the region".

That is in line with our wish to decouple the two issues and leave it up to local people to decide what structure of local government they want, if they get a regional assembly and after they have got one. We want to remove the lines from the preamble because we would not want them to be part of the conditions for having a regional assembly. That is fairly straightforward and is something that may gain support in the Committee.

So far as the Conservative amendments are concerned, Amendment No. 26 sets out two questions. Like the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, we would think their wording not ideal, but the principle behind them is absolutely clear. It is one that we support, so we would certainly support the amendment if the Conservatives put it to the vote today.

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Amendment No. 31 gives sensible clarification, setting out what the region consists of in the statement. It may be thought that the scale and passion of the referendum campaign will be such that everyone will know about all such matters by the time that they vote. I would not be totally certain that they would know which region covered exactly which area, and it would not be silly to include on the ballot paper a definition of the region proposed to be set up. We would therefore support that amendment as well.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth: I wish only to make a point that I made in a speech at Second Reading. The vast county of Northumberland is very big territorially, but not in terms of population. My noble friend said that the population of Northumberland and Durham numbered 800,000. If I get it right, and I think that I do, Northumberland has only 300,000 people.

The second part of Amendment No. 26 asks whether county and district councils should be reorganised and replaced with unitary authorities. It is quite obvious that the eventual aim of the legislation is unitary authorities. That has been made very clear. We are to have no more three-tier authorities, so if we are to have regional bodies and if the individual councils are to remain in being, there will eventually be only the regional authority and district councils. If the district councils were to lose their powers, a county such as Northumberland would be affected. It would be very bad for those who live way apart from the south-east corner of Northumberland where most of the population is. The local councils further north are very important.

I see a great problem in the future of a unitary authority, which will be either a regional authority or the county council. If it is a regional authority, the county council goes. If the local councils remain, they will be all right but remote from the major body, the new regional authority.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market: I should like to add a few words in support of the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield. Like him I am a county councillor, although in Suffolk, and as such declare an interest. I hope that the Minister will accept that the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, and I as leaders and so on suffered from the previous local government review, which was botched because it was not properly thought through. No one gained from it. There were considerable losers, not least people in areas where nothing changed but there were three years of uncertainty. We would certainly be keen to see that situation avoided.

At the Committee's previous sitting last Thursday, the Minister made it clear that the Government's position was that unitary status was non-negotiable in the context of the Bill. If we have a regional assembly, we have to have a regional tier underneath. That had nothing to do with performance or ideal structures, but was simply to deal with a perception of over-government. The Government do not want to give anyone the opportunity to say that the Bill creates an extra tier.

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Of course, the benefit of Amendment No. 26 is that it leaves the choice up to the people affected. If they decide that they would like an extra tier of government, that is their decision and it makes it much harder for them to then complain about the addition of an extra tier. I hope that the Government will give that some very serious consideration. It seems absolutely right to us on these Benches, and clearly to Conservative Members of the Committee, that local people and not the Government should decide the structure of local government in their areas.

The Earl of Caithness: I echo what the Minister said earlier; that is, that he wants to get government closer to the people and done by the people. The one thing that would destroy what he wants would be to take away district councils.

The Minister said that it was easy to raise any matter in this Chamber. I will take that opportunity, although he knows what I am going to say, but I do not expect him to reply this evening. I take noble Lords up to Scotland, where we suffered horribly from the local government review. Caithness is dominated by Inverness, which is a good two or two-and-a-half hours' drive away. My noble friend Lord Hanningfield mentioned the disparity in populations in England. Exactly the same situation as is proposed in this context has happened in Scotland. We have seen examples of it and learnt to live with it. It is not a terribly happy experience. I regret what the Conservative government did to local government in Scotland; they removed democracy from the local people. I therefore hope that the Minister will think again in this regard; it is absolutely fundamental to the Bill.

While I am on my feet, I jog the Minister's memory about our first day in Committee. He said that he would look again at whether the boundaries of metropolitan areas could be examined. We discussed that and he saw the logic of what we were saying. Has he given that any further consideration?

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