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Lord Rooker: The Secretary of State cannot act unreasonably or irrationally when reaching a conclusion. He must have an evidence base for his decision, otherwise he will be subject to judicial review about the way in which he made it. So it is not true to say that the final decision will be the end of the line; it will have to be taken in a proper fashion.

My great handicap, which I freely admit—Ministers in another place laboured under the same handicap—is that until we have an analysis of the soundings exercise it will not be possible to give chapter and verse of the way in which the Secretary of State will make his judgment. I admit that. It is a handicap. I wish that I could read out a checklist against which the decision could be measured. But I will be able to do that only at the time he announces his judgment and the basis on which he has made it. I cannot do that and I cannot second guess the issue for him.

Amendment No. 81 would require the Secretary of State actively to seek views, information, evidence and published material for the purpose of determining the level of interest in the region. We have since last year been actively seeking the views of people in the regions through the soundings exercise. The noble Baronesses may seek to belittle the number of views we have received but we need to analyse their contents. We want to publish as much information as possible—we told people that when we were undertaking the soundings exercise—and we have invited individuals and organisations in each region to submit their views. Organisations may have submitted views based on their own consultations with wider groups of representative individuals, so there may have been more than 4,500 replies. A number of opinion polls and surveys are still being logged and it may well be a higher number. We have not finished the process.

It is still only three weeks since the end of the formal part of the soundings and it is not yet possible to give any information. I regret that it is not possible because the more and better information I have will add more certainty to our debates and make it easier for me to answer questions. But I cannot answer them at the present time, not in the way they have been asked anyway.

Lord Greaves: Is not the Minister telling the Committee that the Secretary of State will decide which regions he wants to go ahead with and then invent the criteria to fit? If that is not the case, why can he not give the criteria now.

Lord Rooker: I refute that suggestion completely. It is a frivolous point to make at this time of night. The

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Minister will have to go to the Commons, where he will be subjected to scrutiny, and he will have to publish the basis on which he makes his judgment. It will be easy to tell whether there has been a fiddle or a prejudgment of the case. If there was any doubt, I am sure that my right honourable friend would receive legal advice from his department not to proceed in that fashion. He has not the slightest intention of doing so; he wants to act completely honourably. But I cannot give the Committee the criteria on which he will make his judgment, other than his view of the level of interest for or against a referendum in each region.

Lord Greaves: The Secretary of State will either have objective criteria or he will not. If he does have objective criteria, why can he not announce in advance what they will be?

Lord Rooker: Because his judgment will be based on, among other things, the soundings exercise that has been undertaken. That is the answer. It is not possible to draw up a specific list in the way requested by the noble Lord. We have gone through a process. We did not want to invent something from the start. I know some people may believe that the soundings exercise was inadequate and that some noble Lords missed out when the document was circulated, but one cannot deny that we distributed the soundings document to an impressive list of organisations. They will have had a view on it. Their views are important because they are the establishment within the regions; they are the opinion formers; they make things happen and know what went wrong in the past. We wanted their views, not on whether there would be a "Yes" or "No" vote or whether there should be an elected regional assembly, but on the likelihood of people wanting a referendum on the issue. I cannot state that any more clearly. I repeat that it is about the desire to have or not have a referendum, not to pre-judge the view on whether to have an elected regional assembly.

Baroness Hanham: I do not have the form in front of me, but my recollection is that only two main questions were asked in the soundings exercise. One was: what is your level of interest in a regional assembly? There were five possible responses: very interested; interested; marginally interested; uninterested; not interested at all. The second question was: have you any idea what anyone thinks in any other region?.

We are talking about the Deputy Prime Minister making rational judgments against rational criteria. There are no criteria. There are five levels of interest, and the question about the other regions. I do not think we need get too bound up with the sophistication of this exercise. If the Deputy Prime Minister comes back with anything more sophisticated, one is going to have to say: where did he cook these ones up from? That is all that is in the soundings exercise paper, as I recall, and that is all that people were asked.

Lord Rooker: In that case, what is the problem?

Baroness Hamwee: One of the problems that I still have, leaving aside the approach of the Deputy Prime

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Minister, is whether those responding to the soundings exercise have been able to distinguish between the questions: "Are you interested in having a referendum?" and "Are you interested in having an assembly?". I retain that concern. I do not think that the Minister—and it is not his fault—will be able to give a satisfactory answer to that question.

This is probably not the time to test this amendment. An earlier amendment that I had tabled was pre-empted by agreement to a previous one.

I do not believe that deleting subsection (2) would mean that the Secretary of State could not give a direction. On subsection (3), I shall read the Minister's response, but it was not my intention to raise an issue about Boundary Committee resources. I was concerned about the difference between "may" and "must". I am still lost on that point.

The Minister has told us the number of responses that were not in the form of the pro forma which have been returned. I do not know whether he is able to tell us now, but I hope that, when the Secretary of State comes to report on the matter, he will be able to include not only the number of responses but the number of forms that were sent out. One must judge the level of interest, in part, by the level of response. Judging by the Minister's expression, that is not a matter that we can pursue now.

I think we have to leave hanging the question: will the Government go ahead with a referendum if they think that they might lose? That is still a big issue in my mind. There is a great deal here to which we may want to return on Report. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 78 to 81 not moved.]

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 82:

    Page 6, line 19, at end insert—

"( ) the views of businesses in the region, directly and through their representative organisations;"

The noble Baroness said: I find the debate about the soundings somewhat academic. The Bill makes it clear that, for the purpose of local government reviews, the soundings exercise has to take place; but, as we know, it has taken place and, although the Minister says it is not quite over, it is well under way.

For the purposes of speeding things up, I will speak to Amendments Nos. 82 to 88 together so that they are not debated individually. Amendment No. 82 concentrates on who should be or should have been consulted. I should like to discuss the amendment in that spirit. Clause 12(4) says that the Secretary of State must consider,

    "views expressed and information and evidence provided to him".

We need to check that all the people and organisations listed in Amendments Nos. 82 to 88 have been consulted. That may be the way the Minister wishes to respond to my amendment.

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It is important that there is an obligation on the Secretary of State to consult these bodies. I have grouped them together, but I believe it is vital that we take account of the relative effect that local government reorganisation will have on each of them.

When one mentions "business", it conjures up, by and large, national and international corporations. But the small and medium-sized constitute 90 per cent of businesses in some regions. Even more telling are the DTI statistics which inform us that at the start of the year 2000 there were an estimated 3.7 million businesses in the UK. Of those, 99 per cent had fewer than 50 employees.

I have spoken to the CBI, and I know that many people have had correspondence from it. We are assured that most businesses are not in favour of the Bill or of regional assemblies at all. It would be helpful to know how the businesses have been canvassed and how their views will be taken account of by the Secretary of State, assuming that the soundings exercise is still going on. That applies to the views of district councils in the regions as well. People will vote for elected regional assemblies and local government restructuring, but not one without the other. Therefore, people will have strong views on what will happen to their district councils. That will be the same for the county councils in the region, which will want their views taken into account.

The Minister will tell us that all local authorities will be consulted, and I am sure he is correct. I hope that the views gathered from the consultation will be reflected upon with a degree of proportionality. If in some regions unitary authorities are predominant, the views of the remaining two-tier local government bodies should carry more weight. Essentially, the unitary authorities may impose local government reorganisation on two-tier government areas, even if all those in the two-tier areas vote no. We have discussed that as well.

Council tax payers are probably among the most important people in this respect; they should have been consulted and I hope they were. I do not know of individuals who have been canvassed, but perhaps I do not know enough people. Council tax payers will be paying for this. At the end of the day, they will have a precept upon the council tax and will be obliged to pay it. In London, that precept started off as 3 pence a week; it has gone up to more than five times that amount and is still rising.

The views of the voluntary sector bodies in the region should be consulted. They have a vested interest in how things should be operated. Organisations concerned with the environment should be consulted as well, particularly those related to planning and housing. Those are the two areas where it is abundantly clear the Government intend to place powers which are currently in the hands of local authorities.

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My amendment would make it obligatory for the Secretary of State to consult organisations in each category. Perhaps he has done that, in which case the Minister may be able to tell us. I beg to move.

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