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Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I have listened with increasing anxiety to what my noble friend Lady Blatch has said throughout the passage of the Bill thus far. She has alerted me to the fact that this is a far more deep-rooted and sinister measure than it appears on the surface. The Bill has a most innocent title, but I cannot help feeling—I shall not go into it at length now—that it is the death knell of county councils. I hope that that is not the Government's intention, but that is how increasingly it seems to me.

I am always imperfectly informed about the relationships and the decision-making that goes on between the Front Benches. I tend to be rather unhappy about them. Am I right in thinking that an agreement has been reached between the usual channels that this Committee stage should end precipitately this evening? I shall give way immediately if the noble Lord can clear up the matter.

Lord Rooker: No, that is not right. I must be very careful about my use of words. The Committee stage will finish not this evening but today. Today will finish only when this House adjourns. The proceedings will take as long as they take, and it does not matter to me whether that is tomorrow or the day after. It will still be "today" if we do not adjourn. That is what was agreed.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: I am obliged to the noble Lord. I was correct in my suspicion. The Minister will continue with the Bill, but he did not say whether the situation has been agreed through the usual channels. I would like to know whether that is so.

Lord Rooker: I am not the business manager. As I am instructed, the Committee stage of the Bill will finish today, but in parliamentary terms today ends when the Committee adjourns. Noble Lords who have been Members of the another place will know that the day is as long as the Committee wishes to make it; it is not limited to 24 hours.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My memories of another place are more distant than those of the noble Lord, but I assure him that in this respect they are undying. I am well aware that if necessary and if convenient for the government of the day, one day can last all eternity. I have long nurtured the suspicion that my noble friends on the Front Bench—the nicest possible people—long ago lost their sense of smell and from

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time to time are unable to detect the downright guile of the Government. I believe that this is one of those occasions. The Bill appears increasingly full of menace. As I understand it, today will go on for ever until we have agreed to the Bill. I make the protest now because I believe that that is wrong. If there has been any shadow of an agreement between the two Front Benches, I am deeply sorry but I regret profoundly that my noble friends believe that in the business of legislation they can dispense altogether with the sense of smell that nature gave them.

Baroness Hamwee: Can the Minister confirm that the pro forma for responses to the soundings exercise does not include a reference to the reorganisation of local government? That being so, why not, given that the Government present this as inextricably intertwined with the establishment of regional assemblies? The notes that accompany the pro forma refer to reorganisation. They say at paragraph 16:

    "we may look at a range of other factors, which are set out in the Bill"—

of course, the Bill is not part of the soundings document—

    "in order to choose which regions are to have a local government review. These may include the potential effects on the two-tier (county and district) local authorities in a region . . . and the differences between regions of those effects".

It also states:

    "The effects of a review on the two-tier local authorities in the region (taken as a whole) are likely to vary between regions".

Interestingly, the paper goes on to say in paragraph 25:

    "These soundings are initially to inform the Secretary of State's decision on which region(s) should be subject to a local government review".

Perhaps the Minister can explain to the Committee the approach to the soundings exercise in that regard, given that the Government have chosen to combine those two elements so inextricably.

Lord Rooker: I promise that I shall never be deflected from providing the Committee with information on which to have a debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said that I shall regret pointing out that a Select Committee of your Lordships' House published a report. I do not regret that at all. It is freely available; it is not a secret report. It is the property of the House and I referred to its contents last week. The noble Lord, Lord Peyton, said that people have lost their sense of smell. I repeat that the Government do not have a majority in the Committee.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: The noble Lord should not misinterpret me. I did not say "People had lost their sense of smell". I said that with deep regret and immense lamentation my noble friends on the Front Bench, or those in the usual channels, had lost their sense of smell. I made the comment very personal.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Rooker: The noble Lord certainly did. In some ways I was trying to depersonalise it. In the past 18

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months I have learned that this place works on agreement and that the Government cannot impose their wishes because they do not have a majority here. The basic premise is that the House will not adjourn today until the Committee stage has concluded, however long it takes. I have no idea how long that will be, but the longer the better because it will give me a better chance to put the Government's robust case for the Bill.

This is a package. If one buys the elected regional assembly, one buys the local government changes that go with it. As I have said several times, at the time of voting in a referendum people will know the consequences for their local government structure and it will be up to them to make the decision. If they are more wedded to their local government structure than to the proposed regional assembly, they will vote no in the referendum as that is the way in which to preserve the present situation. It is as simple as that.

The pro forma raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, contains nine questions and 29 explanatory paragraphs. The soundings document is all about asking people whether they want a referendum. Paragraph 17 states that,

    "A review will inevitably have some effect on the local authorities in two-tier areas".

There is no secret about the consequences of the policy. It is also clear in the White Paper. This has not been sprung on the Committee or on the establishment outside to whom the soundings paper was sent. It concerns the level of interest in holding a referendum. That is the question that is asked in the pro forma. The consequence of elected regional assemblies is single-tier government because we are not prepared to countenance another tier of government. I make no apology for that.

We have said that we would need rationalisation, because without it we would be adding to the complexity of the structure of government with regional assemblies. We want a clear division of responsibilities between the different tiers of government and clear links of accountability so that the electorate are not fobbed off, as they sometimes are, with different tiers of authorities. Voters will take into account the implications when they vote.

Repeatedly I have said that booklets will be posted through every door so that every household of voters will be fully aware of the consequences for regional government and other factors before they vote. I do not believe we can be more reasonable than that. There is nothing suspicious about it. It is not revolutionary. For local government reorganisation to be subject to a vote by people in the area concerned would be revolutionary, but we are a reforming government not a revolutionary government.

Lord Greaves: I thought that the Minister was about to claim that they are a revolutionary government as they allow people to vote on local government reform. The problem is that it is tied up with other matters. We are not afraid of revolution where appropriate. On the length of time that we may sit—clearly I cannot speak

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for the Conservative Front Bench—we are in favour of finishing the Committee stage today. We are adamant that the Bill must be scrutinised properly; we are not adamant that people should make the same speeches today that they made last Thursday and the week before. We shall attempt not to do that but I cannot promise. Politicians are foolish if they promise that they will not say anything.

The noble Lord did not respond specifically to Amendment No. 47, although it is an alternative approach. I have no doubt that we shall return to the matter at a later stage.

In responding to Amendment No. 40, the Minister once again repeated the mantra: "We are not prepared to countenance it and that's that". The House may have an alternative view. Parliament will decide the state of this legislation and we are not prepared to be bludgeoned or blackmailed by the Government into not doing what we think is right.

The Minister referred to "clear lines of accountability" and to "not being fobbed off with two tiers". Yet again, as last week, it sounds as though the Government are not just rooting for unitary local authorities where there is regional government, but for unitary local authorities full stop. In the future we may have to probe whether the Government's agenda is to have unitary authorities everywhere regardless of whether one has regional assemblies. That is the pure logical outcome of what the Minister said.

Having said that, I am tempted to test the opinion of the Committee. I am advised that it might be best to do so at a later stage in the passage of the Bill. So, on a distinctly temporary basis, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 41 had been withdrawn from Marshalled List.]

[Amendment No. 42 not moved.]

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