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Lord Hanningfield: I support the Liberal Democrat amendment and shall speak to our Amendment No. 33, which is along the same lines. We feel strongly that the Electoral Commission rather than the Government should determine the wording on the ballot paper for the referendum. The Electoral Commission is a neutral body. I refer to what the Minister said in response to the debate on the previous amendmentthat is, all the information should be set out fairly so that people have a fair choice in their vote. The Electoral Commission must be the best body to decide the exact wording. Therefore, I commend Amendment No. 33, which, as I said, is very similar to Amendment No. 28 tabled by the Liberal Democrats.
Lord Waddington: I do not say for one moment that the noble Lord may not have good reason to criticise the precise form of Amendment No. 33. But I should have thought that we are pushing at an open door when we say that the statement in Clause 2(2) is far too bland. It cannot be sufficient to state before the question on the ballot paper,
I shall give the Minister an example. I may be wrong but I believe that in Lancashire there would be far less resistance to local government reorganisation which turned the county council area into a unitary authority than to carving up the country part of Lancashire and giving a third to one big borough, a third to another big borough and a third to another big borough, where the country interest would be completely overwhelmed by the urban areas.
Therefore, I should have thoughtof course, it would depend on the conclusion of the Boundary Committeethat in many circumstances it would be greatly to the advantage of the Government and to those in favour of elected assemblies, and certainly to the advantage of the elector, if, in a concise statement above the question, the conclusion of the Boundary Committee was set out. For example, it might state that in the case of Lancashire such and such a district council area will go in with Blackburn, such and such a district council area will go in with Preston, and such and such a district council area will go in with Blackpool, or whatever it may be.
Lord Hanningfield: Before the Minister replies, I should add that, as well as the Boundary Committee's worka matter to which we referred a great deal during debate on the previous few amendmentswe also talked at considerable length during the first debates in Committee about the functions of the region. The intention of the second part of our Amendment No. 33 is that the Electoral Commission should also set out the functions and powers of the region. We have had considerable debate about that over the past two days of the Committee stage.
Lord Rooker: I hope that I can give noble Lords answers that will make them happy. I wish we were at the point of having a referendum somewhere as I would have one of the leaflets that will be delivered to every household in the region. They will explain how the region is made up; what its powers are; what the assembly's functions would be; and other matters. Our intention is not to put that on the ballot paper but to produce a document that spells out all these issues which will be presented to every household in the area before the referendum.
I accept that we have to have the main Bill. As regards Amendment No. 33, voters must be aware of the intended scope of the responsibilities of those elected assemblies when casting their votes in referendums. The only way they can be made aware is by a publication put through the door and not one they have to go and collect themselves. We need to overcome the inertia. It must be done that way and that is what we intend to do. It cannot be done on the ballot paper and it would be too late if it was presented at the polling booth. First, one would be presenting it only to people who turned up to vote; and, secondly, we want to increase turnout. So we would make sure that the document was produced well in advance.
I want to turn to the central point. There seems to be a misunderstanding. Through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act, Parliament gave life to the Electoral Commission. The commission's role is to comment on the intelligibility of UK, national and regional referendum questions and to be consulted where the question or preamble is set by subordinate legislation.
The Act does not give the commission the responsibility to set the question. That is understandable because it is supposed to be a body that is above the fray. The people appointed to the commission need to be as independent as possible. Without giving them a veto, they should be able to comment on the wording of the preamble and if they do not like it to say so publicly. Woe betide a government who go against a strong recommendation of the commission and change what it proposes.
This has all been agreed with the commission as the intelligibility of the proposal is fairly fundamental. We have a degree of sympathy with the issues raised today. I accept that the preamble is relatively short. Our intended operation and the process and the documents that we will publish meet the spirit, and in some cases the actual letter, of what noble Lords have put to the Committee today. That being so, looking at the groupings, I have no doubt we will have the same debate a few more times before we finish. I shall return to the matter if need be. But I hope, having set the scene, that the spirit is there and that we are at one. But we shall do it in a practical way.
It would be quite wrong to give the commission the power to write the question. That would go against its grain. It would remove its watchdog and scrutiny roles and reduce the force of its arguments and power if there was something with which it was extremely unhappy. There would be one hell of a row about it outside as well as inside both Houses.
Lord Hanningfield: On Amendment No. 33, I think we were pleased to hear some of the noble Lord's comments. I am sure that we shall return to this matter, as he said, several more times in Committee and at later stages. Obviously the information that goes to the electorate will be very important indeed. If pamphlets are acceptable, by whom will they be written? Or, if they are to be political pamphlets, there will be various bodies which will be keen on them. But the information that goes to the public is very important. It needs to be neutral and full. It needs to include the aspects of local government reorganisation and we think that it should include costs. It should certainly state strongly what the region is going to do. We suggest that it should be done after the passing of an Act of Parliament setting out the powers and responsibilities of a region. That information is important. The Minister has not spelled out exactly how that will happen. Perhaps he, too, will give the matter some further thought before the following stages of the Bill, because we shall obviously keep returning to it. As I said, the process must be independent and understandable by the electorate, so that they know what they are voting for.
It is absolutely right and proper to put booklets through household doors. But from my experience twice in Londonin the case of the referendum and then the actual electionand, most recently, twice with the mayor's scheme for congestion charging, all of which involved booklets through doors, I know that the Royal Mail target rate for delivery is about 87 per cent. It is certainly not accurate. I know that London SW14, where I live, was ignored on all those occasions. But that is not central to my amendment.
The Minister has answered and unanswered my question. He told us that the Electoral Commission has read the question proposed in the Bill and has given it a clean bill of health. I am happy with that, which obviously answers my question. He unanswered the question when he said that there would be a hell of a row if, at a later, more formal stage, the Electoral Commission
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