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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall do my best to respond to the point. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, that the reason might not be the elevated one he wants, but basically the lesson here is, "Do the deal early".

Baroness Blatch: Do the deal early?

Lord Rooker: Yes, that is right. Before the noble Baroness carries on, perhaps I may point out that she raised the matter. She talked of a shabby compromise given away by the Liberals at too early a stage. That is what she said, the implication being that it would not have been so shabby had they done so later on. That point was also made by another noble Lord.

I do not want to mislead anyone. If the soundings are positive, in order to have a referendum in the autumn of next year—not this year—I made it abundantly clear that the Bill would need Royal Assent early. Indeed, I was even told the date in the Chamber. I was told by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that it was 8th May. She had got the date from

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her Front Bench meeting and discussions with the usual channels. The noble Baroness did not get it from me.

That being the case, noble Lords can work it out. A government defeat in this House in order to make them listen again and then the possibility of ping-pong between the Houses would mean no Royal Assent by that date. There would be no possibility of a referendum next autumn. That is the policy of the Tory Front Bench because they do not want the Bill anyway. They will do anything to wreck the Bill. For example, on the surface, the proposed change looks modest, sensible, considered and mature, but they know that it will wreck the chance of having a referendum in the autumn of next year.

Baroness Blatch: It is not true.

Lord Rooker: Perhaps I may finish this point, then I will gladly give way. I set out the dates during the Committee stage. No referendum next year also means no referendum possibly before the next general election. That point was also made clear. It would mean that the objectives of the Tory Front Bench had been achieved. To that extent, doing the deal early stops that.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I need to correct the noble Lord. If the Bill received Royal Assent on 8th June instead of 8th May, for example, the referendum would be held one month later next autumn—or one month earlier if it received Royal Assent on 8th April.

It would be only days if it were simply a matter of ping-pong between the Houses. We obtained the date of 8th May from the Minister's own offices in this House—the usual channels. There is no argument, no intellectual support or defence whatever for 8th May being the last date in order for a referendum to be held in the autumn. It could be held in the autumn if the Bill received Royal Assent on 18th May, 8th June, or a matter of days or weeks later. The noble Lord's argument is not defensible.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, it is, but I shall not now go into the detail of the steps that need to be taken to set up a referendum. I did so in Committee. The procedure takes into account dates when Parliament is sitting to enable proper consultation to take place and notice to be given in relation to all the stages. The date has been worked backwards. We do not really want the referendum on Christmas Eve, thank you very much. Therefore, we have had to take a sensible approach to setting a date.

I make that point only because the consequences of at least two of the speeches would be a knock-down battle in this House where it is clear that the Government do not command a majority in order for them to reconsider the issue and come forward with another solution. The time taken up by ping-pong would not allow that to happen. The effect would be to knock out the possibility of a referendum and even to kill the Bill.

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The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, before he realised that his Front Bench opposed the clause, said that this was an important step forward—

Lord Waddington: My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that I stand condemned of the most appalling naivety? I had not the slightest idea of all the comings and goings between the Liberal Front Bench and the Government. If I had known more about that, I would have thought twice before speaking. I have to tell the noble Lord that I am entirely persuaded by the oratory of my noble friend.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I fully accept that the comment which the noble Lord made in his intervention during the speech of his colleague was valid. Ultimately using the will of another place—if it were minded to take the same view—the consequence will be to give more choice to people within the parameters. That is what the amendment seeks to do. I do not want to debate whether there should be unitary county councils because it is for the Boundary Committee to come forward with options. Nothing is excluded and it is for the Boundary Committee to consider the issue. Therefore, I do not accept that the intention is deliberately to snuff out county council government in this country.

In any event, the Bill represents a pilot scheme because we will not have national referendums on regional assemblies. We have made that clear. We know that a region or a small number of regions will have referendums and there is no possibility of regionally elected government in this country before July 2006. I made that point in Committee.

I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has had to move himself to the Back Benches, but I have to tell him that he has written the election addresses of most of the Tory opponents of his Liberal Democratic colleagues in local elections. However, that is his responsibility and he will have to bear the cost.

I have great respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy, but no analogy can be made with Scotland. However, she was good enough to point out that after going through the processes for setting up unitary authorities, local people were not given a chance to say whether they agreed. Using the noble Lord's words, giving people more choice as regards local government structure must be an important step forward, although I accept that it will take place within the framework of the big picture. Nevertheless, offering more choice cannot be a bad thing.

If the House is minded to accept Amendment No. 12, the Government will move consequential amendments at Third Reading. I shall explain those in detail when I move them. Given that, I do not intend to make a long speech at this point because, in moving her amendment, the noble Baroness explained how it will work and, indeed, she referred to some of those consequential amendments. We have said all along that we are not going to introduce three-tier local government. That is our mantra, if you like. We propose a two-tier system, not one with three tiers. If we had come forward with a proposal to introduce

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three-tier government, I flatly refuse to accept that we would not have been attacked by the Conservative Front Bench, by Members in another place and by business outside for overloading the layers of government in this country. I know what would have happened and I do not accept the argument that it would have been welcomed in the form that it has been put to the House today.

We think that there is no question that unitary government will offer streamlined government and that such a system will not take local governance further away from the people. Furthermore, the amendment certainly does not seek to deprive voters of the opportunity to learn about our intentions because, as I repeated several times, we shall do our best to introduce a draft Bill before the referendum takes place. In any event, we guarantee that details of the consequences of any changes to local government structure will be put before the electorate, and that those will include setting out the options detailing the proposed powers of the regional assemblies. People will know, first, exactly what they are voting for in the referendum and, secondly, what will be the consequences on other elements of local government depending on how they vote.

We shall require the vote to be taken in each county area to ensure that only those in the affected two-tier areas will be offered a vote in a referendum on the options for unitary authorities. That is an important point. To be honest, a powerful, logical case was put to me on this point. I squirmed as I listened to the speeches in which the point was repeated several times; namely, that it would be unfair in those areas where nearby large urban areas that would not be affected by the relevant local government structure could considerably outvote the electorate in two-tier areas and thus reach a decision on their behalf. That did not seem fair. The form of unitary government we intend to introduce in the event of there being an elected assembly therefore will not be dictated by voters who would be unaffected by any local government reorganisation. The amendment is fully consistent with what we have said all along about the Bill: there will be no new tier of government. That is why I am more than happy to support it.

Assuming that the amendment is carried, a number of other changes will need to be made to the Bill. Government amendments that I shall move later will ensure that the principle of the amendment can successfully be put into practice. In particular, I shall bring forward amendments to Part 2 of the Bill to provide that the Boundary Committee will make recommendations setting out two or more options for each county area. These are basically provided for in Amendment No. 48, which seeks to insert a new clause immediately following Clause 14.

The amendments will also make provision to allow the Secretary of State to direct the Boundary Committee to come forward with different recommendations or to carry out further reviews if that is necessary, perhaps to deal with representations made on the original recommendations. In that event,

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we intend to specify that a period of six weeks should elapse between the receipt of recommendations and the order for the second referendum, which is allowed for in subsection (7) of Amendment No. 12. The period needs to be extended to allow for further representations to be made on the committee's revised recommendations. The amendments will require a certain amount of tidying up of the references to Part 2 in the proposed new clause set out in Amendment No. 12, in particular to subsections (5) and (7). I shall bring forward relevant amendments at Third Reading so that those subsections will contain forward references to the main direction-making power set out in Part 2 and the new one to be introduced by Amendment No. 48.

We have debated this issue for several hours over the course of our discussions on the Bill. I make no complaint about that because it is the point of principle on which the Bill is based. I did not intend in any way to be threatening when I said to the noble Lord that it is a simple fact that this is a government Bill. If any dislocation had taken place, the Government would not have proceeded with it. That is the choice of any Member in charge of a Bill, whether it is a Private Member's Bill or a piece of government legislation. If a point substantially changes the heart of a Bill, a decision must be made about whether to proceed. I made it abundantly clear that we would not have proceeded unless we could introduce a unitary form of government to sit alongside the elected regional assemblies.

4 p.m.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps he would be kind enough to answer one question. During the course of our debates I think the Minister said that, if it was rational, the county council boundary could form a unitary authority. He went on to say that it would be up to the Boundary Committee to decide how unitary authority government is formed.

Can he confirm that if a unitary authority was established from a county council boundary, that county council would no longer hold the powers it has at present and that it would adopt those of the unitary structure?

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