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Baroness Hanham: The noble Lord just said that people should be allowed to abstain. Of course, they

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should; that is part of the democratic system. However, those abstentions ought to be counted as "anti" votes, if we are to regard this as a matter of principle. People voting in the referendum will be voting for a principle; namely, the principle of having a regional assembly and regional government. They will not be voting for who will be on the list; they will be voting for a change to the system. Therefore, it would be more realistic to expect a greater number of people to vote in those elections and to require that they should do so, before there is any change.

I know that that did not happen in London, Scotland or Wales, but the number of people in all those places—particularly Wales and London—who could be bothered to turn out was derisory, given that it was a matter that would effect people dramatically, particularly in London. There may not be quite the same effect on the regions, but they will certainly see a difference, and it is proper that, in those circumstances, there should be a threshold for turnout and a threshold against which that turnout should be measured.

Lord Rooker: Unless I misheard him, when the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, was talking about Scotland, he quoted figures for turnout—because he was critical of the low turnout—that I did not recognise. The referendums that have taken place in Scotland in recent times—in 1979 and 1997—have all had turnouts of over 60 per cent. That was not a figure he used. I thought that he used a figure of about 40 per cent. Even in the referendum in March 1979 the turnout was 63.6 per cent. In 1997, when there were two questions—one on taxation—the turnout was 60.2 per cent. Those figures were good by any stretch of the imagination. London by comparison was absolutely pathetic, at 34 per cent. I do not think one can criticise what happened in Scotland. We all remember that in Wales the turnout was over 50 per cent. It is true that it was only just over—50.1 per cent. That result itself was very close—50.3 per cent in favour of an assembly against 49.7 against. Obviously, that 50 per cent turnout meant that only 25 per cent of people voted "Yes". However, it was a 50 per cent turnout. We are not used to referendums, anyway. Given the scale of those matters, one cannot criticise the turnout in Wales, and particularly not in Scotland, as the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, did. I may have misheard him, but he was quoting much lower figures.

I will now deal with the issue. I am not sure whether the Front Bench opposite were advocating that an abstention should count as a "No" vote. That would be the effect of the amendment. I thought that was what they were advocating. One would not have to do anything, and that would then count as a "No" vote. It would be very unsatisfactory in a democracy to be ruled by a decision like that. We think that the fairest, simple measure of a referendum result would be based on the votes that are cast. Everyone is free to vote—if they choose not to do so, their views will not be counted. It is as simple as that. If it is done the other way round, with a threshold of those eligible to vote,

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one could vote "No" or not vote—and both would count as "No". That has to be unfair by any democratic test.

The precedent that we are using—and we make no apology for it—is that used in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We do not think any other way would be fair. There is no obvious way to decide what the level of the threshold would be. I am instinctively a threshold person. I would like to have a hurdle to achieve a good decision, and to encourage people. However, the reality is that it does not work. Therefore, given that there will be an open debate, and people will be free to vote, then it should be those that vote that make the decision. All those issues were debated in the other place. I believe that there was an amendment that proposed that at least 50 per cent of the people had to vote, and a majority of them had to vote "Yes". That is why noble Lords opposite agree to the second half of the amendment. There was also an amendment in the other place that at least 25 per cent of people eligible to vote in a referendum would have to vote in favour. There are difficulties about that, which we do not accept in principle.

My honourable friend the Minister in the other place explained the effects of the threshold in the recent elections in Serbia—where they twice failed to elect the Prime Minister. Even though he won, he did not get over the threshold. That does include some uncertainty. We need to encourage as many people to vote as possible. We have debated Clause 7, to make the Electoral Commission do things to encourage people to vote, without taking sides. We have to consider every possibility. There is a serious disadvantage with thresholds. I believe that the amendments are proposed from the best possible viewpoint. I am not criticising them, because the purpose behind all the amendments is to try to cajole, persuade and encourage more people to vote. I accept that, because it is being said that we are going to rig the system so that if one does not vote it will not count. If one is really interested, vote. I can understand the reasoning behind that, but I do not believe that the principle is correct.

On a low turnout—I shall not try to define what that is, so please do not ask, but you will recognise it when you see it—with a knife-edge result, the Secretary of State would have to think seriously about what happens afterwards. Therefore it is not game, set and match on a low turnout—or a derisory turnout—with a tiny majority. One would have to think seriously about the way forward.

On Amendment No. 119C, effectively to give each elector in the district a veto on the establishment of a regional assembly cannot be right. The majority can be frustrated in that way and it cannot possibly be justified. I freely admit that the turnouts at some of the mayoral elections have not been brilliant. There has not yet been one at 50 per cent. There was a turnout of 42 per cent in Middlesbrough and 42 per cent in North Tyneside and they are the only ones above 40 per cent.

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By the way, looking at the end column, it is interesting to note that the two highest turnouts were all postal ballots. Interesting—listening over there, Lib Dems?

Noble Lords: Yes.

Lord Rooker: The highest turnout is 42 per cent, all postal ballots. One has to look at the experience. Now I digress—

Baroness Blatch: The constitutional outrage is not so much about what happens in a region, but that England, as constituent country of the whole of the United Kingdom, has no say as a country. If there were to be a referendum, I suggest that we should start with the people of England to decide whether they want their country carved up into nine parts. We were denied that choice when we lost the capital—the part in the middle of the donut that was taken out—and we are now being told that the Secretary of State, on the whim of what he thinks is the level of interest, will carve up the rest into eight areas. We are now trying to salvage the best of a bad lot.

The choice for the people of England is very serious. Scotland has the integrity of the whole country; Wales has the integrity of the whole country; England does not. Even Northern Ireland does. Therefore, this is a serious constitutional point for us.

Before responding to the bulk of the amendment, I must say that nowhere in the Bill can I see a provision that the Secretary of State has the flexibility not to introduce a regional assembly where the vote is in favour of introducing one. I understand that without reference to flexibility or a threshold, however derisory the turnout or the majority—a majority of one would be sufficient—the vote is for a regional assembly. If the Minister could point out to me the flexibility in the Bill which provides that the Secretary of State may not appoint a regional assembly—

Lord Rooker: I am not prejudging anything. I have told the noble Baroness where the flexibility is—it is the Bill to set up the regional assemblies, and that is a completely different piece of legislation.

Baroness Blatch: That is a lie and a confidence trick on the public. I am not suggesting that the noble Lord is lying. If the people are voting yes or no to a regional assembly, and by whatever the turnout they win that vote, they have every reason to expect a regional assembly. It does not state on the paper, "If you vote for a regional assembly you may not actually get one", and nothing in the Bill suggests that flexibility. There is nothing in this Bill that states: "You can vote for one or against one, but we cannot guarantee you will get one even if you vote for one". I believe that the noble Lord ought to reflect on that flexibility and point to its legal underpinning for the Secretary of State.

Amendment No. 119 requires a turn-out of 40 per cent. All of my emotions support the amendment of my noble friend, although even 50 per cent is a modest expectation. The minimum requirement on my

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percentage of 40 per cent and the minimum requirement on my noble friend's percentage of 50 per cent means that a turn-out of a mere 20 per cent plus one or a mere 25 per cent plus one could be a vote in favour of a regional assembly. That would be a fairly poor endorsement of such a huge constitutional change. Even if only one or two areas vote for a regional assembly, it will have an impact on the remainder of the United Kingdom. That is why we have fought so hard to include in the Bill the considerations that the Secretary of State must take into account under Clause 12.

The constitutional change caused by regional assemblies will mean that areas with two-tier authorities lose their county councils or, indeed, their district councils. A more remote regional assembly will be established. That is not a good deal for local people.

Contrary to the arguments put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, the setting of a threshold might stimulate people to go out and vote. If they want an assembly badly enough, the knowledge that they have to get over a hurdle of 40 or 50 per cent might stimulate interest rather than the other way round.

I did not use Scotland or Wales in my examples of poor turn-out; I used London and the mayoral elections. A referendum where only 12 per cent of the people vote for a mayor and 88 per cent either do not vote or vote against having a mayor is a very poor endorsement for such a change.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, "If you do not want regional assemblies you should go out and tell the world. You should get everyone behind you". I say to the noble Lord that we cannot compete with the vast resources of central government, the regional development agencies and the various regional bodies that are already illicitly campaigning for regional assemblies. There is no way that a member of the public or a small group of interested people, such as the one in the North East, can campaign against regional government. They do not stand a chance against the vast resources of these other bodies.

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