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Lord Rooker: My Lords, I realise that Members of the House do not get a vote in general elections, but they get a vote elsewhere. So the noble Baroness will be familiar with a ballot paper. Generally speaking, words written on a ballot paper mean that the ballot paper is not even counted.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, they sometimes are. I gave an example of that—it occurred in Reading, I believe—during earlier consideration of the Bill. The members of the political parties get together with the returning officer. If they come to the view that they know what the person filling in the ballot paper meant and that is agreed between the parties, the vote is accepted. In the case of my example, that ended up in court, the courts found against the result of the ballot and it had to be rerun. So I am sorry, but sometimes when ballot papers have strange markings on them they can be considered by the parties involved.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, that involved a ballot between people. I have been a counting agent as well as a Member of Parliament, so I know exactly what the process is. The returning officer will have a chart. One always thinks that one has covered every eventuality of what people could do to a ballot paper. There is a list, but someone always thinks of something new to do. People writing in—effectively discounting their vote, although I am not giving a legal view—are effectively abstaining on the second question. They will know the consequences of that, because it will be made abundantly clear to them that there is a choice of whether to use the second question: if people do not want to use it, that is their choice.

Baroness Blatch: Then, my Lords, I come to my last question. If they vote yes to a regional assembly but no to each of the preferences on the ballot paper, is that considered to be a vote for or against the regional assembly?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, for the individual concerned, there is one answer, but the total number of votes cast—the "Yes" votes and "No" votes to the first and second question—will determine the answer. There will be a majority. There is hardly likely to be a dead heat. I am not saying that that it is impossible; but

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I certainly hope that it does not happen—especially now, having said that. The majority view will prevail. We have made that clear.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that was not my question. My question is this: if they vote for a regional assembly but against each of the options, that is a non-choice. They cannot have a regional assembly with no reorganisation of local government, but that is how they could democratically vote, having been given two separate questions. If they vote for a regional assembly but against all the options for reorganising local government, how will their vote be counted?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry, I misunderstood the noble Baroness's question. She is talking about the total result of all the votes counted.

Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords, I mean the votes of an individual.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have already answered that question.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the noble Lord has not answered that question. Is it a spoiled vote or is it a vote for a regional assembly with no change to local government, because that is what the vote means?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, if people cast a yes vote for the first question in the referendum, it makes you wonder why they would vote no for all the options on the second question, voting for a regional assembly while knowing the consequences are for single-tier authorities. There are two separate referendums, so there are two votes. There is not a vote against the local government options. In other words, there is a vote for or against having a regional assembly. If the options are all dismissed, that would count as a no by an individual. There may be people, by the way, who vote yes for more than one local government option. What is the answer to that?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, that is the Minister's job, not mine. I have just been corrected by my noble friend Lady Hanham. As I understand it, there will be two separate referendums.

Baroness Maddock: Yes, there will be two referendums.

Baroness Blatch: Thank you very much.

That is a very clever way of saying to the people, "You have a choice between the Government's terms and the Liberal Democrats' terms, but you have no choice about whether you would or would not like to have a regional assembly, with or without a reorganisation of local government".

I now understand that there will be two separate referendums so votes will be counted separately on the assembly question and the other one. The more I think about it, the more of a confidence trick it is. I hope that

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the Liberal Democrats will defend that in the regions. My goodness, the people there really need to know how the Liberal Democrats are preventing local people having a real choice of a regional assembly, with or without a wholesale change of their local government.

The Minister expects a great deal of the people. How does he think that doing it this way will make it easier or better for voters in an area? I noted his comments about my Amendment No. 15, and I will look at it again. I shall certainly take on board the point of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, and will consider coming back on Third Reading. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 14:

    Page 2, line 28, insert—

" any regional assembly established will have no new powers and no new money, except for that which they raise by a precept from council tax payers in the region."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment seeks to put a new second bullet point in the preamble. It is straightforward, because it reflects the assurances which we have received time and time again from the Minister in Committee and previously at Second Reading. We have spent much time talking about the provision of information for voters and the need to make them fully aware of the functions and powers of regional assemblies and about the local government reorganisation which is part and parcel of the same package. This cannot all be left to the preamble, nor can it simply be posted in the polling station. We have heard about the information leaflets to be put through letter boxes to boost awareness in the campaigning weeks before a referendum. We support that as an essential element of the procedure of informing voters.

Amendment No. 14, however, is crucial for a number of reasons. It would state on the face on the Bill, in very few words, the text which must be inserted as a second point in the preamble and which reflects the fundamentals of the regional assemblies under consideration.

Leaflets through letterboxes more often than not get ignored. A draft Bill, which we discussed, if published before a referendum, although accessible to voters, may not be studied or noticed by them. We would like the preamble to state expressly that, as the Minister has told us many times, no new powers and no new money will be associated with regional assemblies. We did not know that for certain until we were assured of it a few weeks ago. Many of us were under the misapprehension that the assemblies might have new powers, although the misapprehensions were not very strong, because we kept on coming up against the same point that there would be no new powers. Voters may well think that they should vote "Yes" in a referendum, because it will mean that more funds will be diverted to their region.

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I hesitate to mention the North East again, but there certainly is or has been a presumption there that the Barnett formula will be changed in the north of England's favour. It is very clear now that that is not what is being proposed. It would seem sensible, to say the least, if a referendum took place at any stage in that region, that people clearly understood—because it was laid out before them—that that was not an option. It is of the utmost importance that the reality should be made plain to every voter and set out clearly in the preamble.

Any additional funding will be possible only through precepting powers. Council tax payers would therefore bear the brunt, and they should know that before they vote "Yes" rather than hearing about it when they have made their choice. It might be helpful if the Bill pointed out that, where there are precepting powers, the 5p to which the Minister referred is not there for evermore. Voters in London were beguiled into believing that there was going to be a precept of 3p in the pound per week. They have been sadly disabused of that.

People believe that there is extra funding, and they should have it made clear that there is none. If it is not made clear, it may lead to resentment that they did not know what the facts were before they ticked the box. If people do not know the reality of what they are voting for, the validity of a vote in favour of a referendum is questionable. I beg to move.

Lord Monson: My Lords, although the amendment is excellent in principle and perhaps vital, I am again worried about the clarity and ambiguity of the wording for the voter. Nearly all of us understand the meaning of the word "precept", but it is realistic rather than patronising to suggest that barely half the electorate understand it. Would it not be an improvement and help the voter if the words "a precept" were deleted and "additional council tax" put in instead?

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