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Lord Rooker: I shall do my best to help the noble Baroness. We have made it abundantly clear that we cannot say how long the boundary reviews will take because we do not know how many reviews the Boundary Committee will be asked to carry out. We shall not know that until we have seen the statement about the soundings, and we shall not know the result of that until the Bill has received Royal Assent. We do not know how many regions the committee will look at. Its resources will dictate how many reviews it carries out and how long they take. We have said that the process will take in the region of nine months to a year. When the committee has carried out a review, its report will have to go to the Secretary of State for consideration.

However, I can say to the noble Baroness that there is no possibility that we would set the date for the referendum on the day that the Boundary Committee issued its report on the review. In other words, the 10-week period could not start then because the Secretary of State would have to report to Parliament on his view of the Boundary Committee's report. It is what the Government do with the boundary review that counts and not the review itself.

Therefore, after the Boundary Committee has done its work, there will be a gap before the 10-week period—the minimum period referred to by my noble friend—can start. We cannot go beyond that until we know how many regional reviews there are to be. As we have explained, that will depend on the size of the resources and the results of the soundings.

Baroness Blatch: I am grateful to the noble Lord for that explanation. However, I said that the Boundary Committee may take more or less than that amount of time. As part of my preamble to the question, I asked whether a minimum time would be set so that an assurance could be given ahead of the Boundary Committee's report that there would not be indecent haste between the committee reporting and the start of the referendum. In other words, it would be reassuring to us all if everyone knew that there would be a six, eight or 10-week gap before a referendum could be called at the conclusion of the Boundary Committee's work.

Lord Rooker: The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act does not provide for the Electoral Commission to give advice on the boundary review. We must not forget that orders will be brought forward in relation to this matter, and any order, by virtue of Clause 27(2), will be subject to an affirmative resolution of both Houses. Therefore, there cannot be any undue haste in this issue. The matter must be brought back to Parliament and the Secretary of State must make a statement. I cannot say whether it will be made in the House, although it may well be.

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However, there is no possibility of a quick fix in relation to this issue. As I said last week, for a referendum conceivably to be held at some date in the autumn of 2004, it will be necessary for the Bill to receive Royal Assent at a reasonably early date—the noble Baroness seems to know the dates better than I do. If this and the other House so desire, that will be fairly early in May this year. It may appear ridiculous that Royal Assent should have to be sought so early. However, because of all the stages that must be gone through in order that there should be no quick fix and no undue haste, that is the necessary procedure. As I said, the matter must come back to Parliament for an order. Perhaps the noble Baroness would have been reassured if I had said that when I first rose. I cannot say how many weeks it will take for the order to be passed but, because it will be dealt with as part of the parliamentary process, it will not be done overnight.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am afraid that I want to ask him one more question which was triggered by his comments. Can he say where in the Bill it is stated that the order laid before Parliament will be dealt with by affirmative resolution or is it now recorded in Hansard that that will be the case? Do we take that as the accepted process? If he can answer that query, I shall return to the other part of my question.

Lord Rooker: Clause 27(2) reads as follows:


    "But a statutory instrument must not be made unless a draft of the order or regulations (as the case may be) has been laid before Parliament and approved by a resolution of each House";

that is, by affirmative resolution.

Baroness Hanham: I thank the Minister. I also thank his noble friend on the Front Bench for the information concerning the amount of time that will be given for the referendum. I believe he said that it would be a minimum of 10 weeks, but it could be a maximum of 52 weeks. Therefore, where do we obtain information concerning the stretch between the minimum and maximum periods? Most electoral campaigns have a timescale from kick-off to conclusion. It seems to me that these referendums will not operate under the same format in that we seem to be given only the minimum period. Perhaps we may have an idea of the timescale for the maximum period so that we can decide how appropriate it is.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: I was under the impression that the thrust of the noble Baroness's amendment was to stop the Government moving quickly and filibustering everyone into a vote. I gave her an assurance about the 10-week period, but she is now asking a question which had not crossed my mind or the minds of my noble friend or our officials because the issue is not central to her amendment. However, as she has raised the question, I shall be happy to consider it.

Baroness Hanham: With the Minister's reassurance that I shall receive a reply to that question at some stage, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

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Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 52:


    After Clause 4, insert the following new clause—


"INSPECTION OF BOUNDARY COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS
(1) This section applies if the Secretary of State makes an order under section 1 to cause a referendum to be held in a region about the establishment of an elected assembly for the region.
(2) The Secretary of State shall by order provide that a copy of any recommendations made by the Boundary Committee under section 12 in respect of the region in which the referendum is held be made available for inspection by those persons eligible to vote at every polling place in the region and shall be enclosed with every postal ballot paper in respect of the referendum."

The noble Baroness said: We now return to a matter that we have discussed on a number of occasions, including earlier today—that is, the provision of information to voters. I am sure that no noble Lords will disagree that the maximum dissemination of information to the electorate is of inordinate importance. Indeed, we have now received some reassurance from the Minister that some information will be given.

However, from the debates which have ensued in this House and in another place concerning the Bill before us and the details of the elusive regional assemblies which they will allow to be established, it is clear that distrust and misunderstanding predominate, both in terms of the Government's intentions for the new regional bodies and the effect that they will have on transforming the local government structures which serve the needs of the general public.

The amendments that I propose here focus on transparency. Let the Government lay the facts on the table for all to see so that those voting in a referendum have access to the maximum amount of information and can make an informed decision. During the process of preparation for the establishment of regional assemblies, the Government have rightly decided to lay much of the burden of the detailed practicalities and enforcement of the Bill on to two bodies with expertise in their respective fields: the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission. The former is to provide a comprehensive local government review prior to any referendum to ascertain the suitable types of unitary authorities. The latter, under Clause 8, is responsible for providing information to the electorate to raise awareness of the arguments for and against.

Amendment No. 52 seeks to ensure that the recommendations of the Boundary Committee are available at every polling station so that the implications of voting "Yes" in the referendum, in terms of the reorganisation of local government, are published, displayed and made abundantly clear to every voter. Amendment No. 67 emphasises that, in raising awareness of the arguments, the Electoral Commission should describe the powers and functions of regional assemblies as defined in an Act but should do so without incurring unreasonable costs. This point returns to one that we raised under Clause 1—that is,

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an Act should lay out the powers and responsibilities of regional assemblies before anyone is required to vote in a referendum.

I believe it is vital that these provisions are set out on the face of the Bill. Cost is an issue which has surfaced already in the debate and will do so again today. Reasonableness and proportionality must be maintained at all times when it comes to balancing the cost incurred by the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee and the efficiency and thoroughness of the work of those two bodies. I beg to move.

Baroness Hamwee: We have two amendments in this group—Amendments Nos. 63 and 64. I appreciate that Clause 8(2) provides for steps to be taken by the Electoral Commission to disseminate information which the commission considers likely to promote awareness among voters about the arguments for and against each answer to the referendum question. I suppose that that is a long way of describing information relating to a "Yes" or "No" vote.

Our amendments refer specifically to the context of the "Yes" or "No" answers in relation to reorganisation of local government and the powers, functions and composition of the assembly. To a substantial degree we have covered that subject already in debate and the Minister has given many assurances. On a previous occasion I referred to problems in London where booklets have not been received as widely as they should have. Others outside this place may be affected by my colleague's concern.

On Amendment No. 67, can the Minister say whether paragraph (b) would limit dissemination, given the words,


    "so far as that can be achieved without incurring unreasonable marginal cost"?


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