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Lord Greaves: The Minister does not need to write to me if the information is in the Library. I shall check. If it is not, I shall get in touch with him.

Lord Hanningfield: I thank the Minister for his reply. I am now more concerned than I was before tabling the amendments. If the 1992 and onwards reorganisation is being cited as an example of good practice, someone may want to think again. It is generally accepted that the unitaries created then were too small. Berkshire is almost being recreated. The various unitaries are combining for purposes such as transportation and waste. They were too small to operate as practical units.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about the size of unitaries. I know several people who have responded to the consultation. They have said, "Do not establish unitaries of the size created in the 1990s". Whatever happens here, we want to create good local government that can deliver services. That is why the

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evidence that goes to the Boundary Committee, and its consultation, is paramount and more important than today's discussions. I was not reassured by the Minister. I am sure that we shall return to these issues in future stages. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 113 to 117 not moved.]

Clause 13 agreed to.

[Amendment No. 118 not moved.]

Clause 14 agreed to.

Clause 15 [Implementation of recommendations]:

Baroness Blatch moved Amendment No. 119:

    Page 8, line 45, at end insert—

2 ( ) at least forty per cent of those persons entitled to vote at such a referendum voted, and
4 ( ) a majority of those voting in the referendum voted in favour of an elected regional assembly for the region, and"

The noble Baroness said: Amendment No. 119 is coupled with Amendments Nos. 119A, 119B and 119C standing in the name of my noble friend Lord Caithness. It is a great pity that we are discussing this—uncharacteristically for this Session of Parliament—so late in the day because it is an important part of the process.

My amendment makes plain the threshold requirements that must be satisfied in a referendum in order to return a vote in favour of regional assemblies. The thresholds are that there should be an overall turnout of 40 per cent of the eligible vote, and that of those voting the majority vote in favour. This item appears in the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution. It expressed concern and stated:

    "We draw these matters to the attention of the House as raising questions of principle about principal parts of the constitution".

That is qualified at the bottom of the page by an additional note:

    "Our normal practice is only to report on public Bills which raise an important question of principle affecting a principal part of the constitution. We consider that this bill meets these criteria".

In other words, this is an important constitutional Bill and this is a particular area of concern as recorded by the Select Committee on the Constitution.

A referendum turnout below the level of 40 per cent is surely indicative of a public disinterested and unenthusiastic about the prospect of regional assemblies. It is hardly a good sign for things to come. Such a body could hardly claim a strong mandate and would surely struggle to maintain its authority.

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It is not stretching the point too far, given the turnout in London and for mayoral elections in places such as Bedfordshire, Hartlepool, Tyneside and others, to say that between 10 and 20 per cent could turn out, but a majority of one would be sufficient to establish a regional assembly. The Mayor of Bedford was elected on about 12 per cent of the vote and the Mayor of London on about half of the vote of a 33 per cent turnout. So we are discussing small turnouts that give rise to major constitutional change.

The Government must tackle head-on the problem that only a small minority of the English population know about regional assemblies. Many are completely unaware of the region to which they belong. The Government must avoid circumstances in which regional assemblies are established thanks to the active support of a tiny minority of the population, when the remainder would have opposed the establishment, had they been informed.

There has been a conspicuous absence of publicity for the soundings exercise. What is the point of a public consultation about which the public are not told? There is evidence of that up and down the land, some of which we have cited anecdotally. Members of the House were conspicuously absent from the list of consultees, although we come from all parts of the United Kingdom. Some of the bodies that were consulted did not then further consult their own interested members.

So we know that there has been a flawed consultation process, on which the whole process will be triggered. As I said, however small the turnout, a majority of one is sufficient to establish a regional assembly. Regional assemblies will not work, however much the Government want them to do so, unless they have the active support of a majority of people living in the area.

The other point that must be emphasised is that large rural areas, especially in a place such as Northumberland, which is the most glaring example, could be massively outvoted by a relatively small turnout in the much more urban areas. There are likely to be large swathes within a region that do not want regional assemblies, when a small turnout of the urban parts of the region vote to establish an assembly. We think that that is unacceptable in a democracy.

To establish a regional assembly on the back of a referendum in which fewer than 40 per cent of the electorate voted, or where the majority of at least an agreed percentage of the electorate did not vote in favour, is surely to make a mockery of all claims to democratic validity. I beg to move.

12.15 a.m.

The Earl of Caithness moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 119, Amendment No. 119A:

    Line 2, leave out "forty" and insert "fifty"

The noble Earl said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 119B and 119C. I agree with everything that my noble friend Lady Blatch said in moving Amendment No. 119, but I disagree with her on the figures. Some hours ago, the noble Lord, Lord

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Rooker, said, speaking to Amendment No. 44, that there must be democratic accountability. That is what my amendments are intended to achieve.

I speak from our experience in Scotland of having devolution foisted upon us by fewer than 50 per cent of the electorate. The situation was even worse in Wales. Many who voted for devolution in Scotland are now seriously questioning whether they were wise to do so. I have no doubt that, if another referendum were held today, the result would be very different from the one on which the decision was taken. That is why Amendment No. 119A would require at least a 50 per cent turnout and that 50 per cent of the electorate vote in favour of an elected regional assembly.

On Amendment No. 119C, I ask the Minister to tear up the words before him. He will be used to that; he did it on Clause 10. The words are not as we read them; they mean something totally different. I was trying to make the point that in every area where people vote there should be a majority in favour of what is proposed. That takes up the point that my noble friend Lady Blatch made about remote rural areas—it does not matter whether the area is in the North East or the South West. We talked a good deal about the issue. The Minister said that there were four proposed regional areas in which the rural votes outnumbered the urban ones, and that there were four areas where the opposite applied. In each area where there is a vote, the answer should always be "Yes", because that protects the interests of the minorities.

The Bill does not propose government of the people, by the people and for the people. It is an exercise of limited functions for the few and by the minority. I am trying to make certain that a majority is the deciding factor. I beg to move.

Lord Greaves: We on these Benches support the second half of Amendment No. 119, which would impose a condition that,

    "a majority of those voting in the referendum voted in favour of an elected regional assembly for the region".

That seems entirely reasonable, although, as I understand it, the Bill as it stands would allow the Secretary of State to set up a regional assembly even if a majority voted against it in a referendum. It is unlikely that he would attempt to do that, but he could.

We do not support the rest of the amendment. As a matter of principle, we do not support voting thresholds, whether in referendums or elections. The principle is dangerous. It does not apply to the House of Lords because we do not have to acquire votes, at least not yet. But one wonders whether, if a threshold of 50 per cent of voters were required in the Westminster election, at least one or two Members of the House of Commons would have had to try again.

It may be deplorable that turnouts have been decreasing over the years. But, once people begin to get angry again, turnouts will start to increase. It is a cyclical pattern rather than a long-term decrease. Thresholds of this nature do not solve the problem of low turnouts. The principle must be, not that people

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are forced to vote for a proposal to be passed, but that they have the opportunity to vote for it to be passed. People have a right to abstain and say that they are not interested. As politicians, we would deplore that, but people still have the right to reject the whole political system and us because they are not interested. What matters in the principle of democratic elections and referendums is the decision of those who vote. So we do not support thresholds.

The amendments tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, are extraordinary. The requirement that 50 per cent of, presumably, the entire registered electorate—as the Minister pointed out, that is not always an accurate figure—must vote before something can be passed is very high. I think that the noble Earl accepted that. It is far too high a test.

Noble Lords will know that I am no huge fan of the particular type of regional assembly that the Government propose, but, if everything is going to be as appalling as the noble Earl says and the assemblies will be a simple matter of government for the few and jobs for the boys, without any real powers, he should go out and mobilise the people. He and others who feel as he does should organise the people and get them to rise up in anger and vote against the plan. That is the true answer in a democracy, not trying to create false tests.

The noble Earl mentioned devolution in Scotland and the fact that people in Scotland grumbled about the Parliament there. Of course, they do: there is a real devolved political system in Scotland with a real parliament. There is real politics going on, and, when that happens, people get grumpy and fed up about it. However, if we were to try to close down the Scottish Parliament, it would be the quickest way of inciting the Scottish people to rise up not only to defend their Parliament but to demand their independence. People in Scotland will defend that Parliament to the death. The noble Earl may disagree, but that is my impression.

Finally, the noble Earl wants to insert a condition that every district council area in a region must vote for an assembly. As noble Lords know, I am sympathetic to the view that, if parts of the region that have two-tier local government vote against because they do not want their local government to change, they should have a veto on the whole thing, if the Government insist on single-tier local government in those areas. If people do not want to disrupt their local government systems, they should be able to stand firm against it. But if we require a positive vote in every district, those who are against it will put all their resources and all their campaigners into a couple of districts to get a "No" vote and disrupt the whole thing. The test proposed by the noble Earl would almost certainly make it impossible for any referendum to produce a positive vote.

For those reasons, we do not agree with the amendments, apart from the second half of Amendment No. 119.

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