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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it was the noble Lord who introduced the connection between the amendments and Clause 10, not I. I did not understand what the noble Lord was saying. I have read Clause 10 a number of times and it certainly does say that:
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I am sorry, but I did not do that. I said that Amendments Nos. 38 and 40 relate to Clause 10. Together they ensure that the existing provisions in Clause 10 also apply to local government referendums. We have to ensure that the ouster clause covers the referendums; namely, the second question to be put covering the nature of the choice of the form of local government. That is the point I sought to make.
I was trying to be helpful. I indicated that, having looked at Clause 10 to ensure its clarity, we are looking to bring forward further clarification at Third Reading. As I have said, I was seeking to be helpful and to meet the concerns expressed by the noble Baroness. By the way, it will be much better when the Bill has been reprinted, incorporating the amendments.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I am sure that a further amendment at Third Reading will be helpful. I must say that I should like to have the opportunity of buying tickets for the forthcoming sparring match between the Minister and the parliamentary draftsman, who no doubt will say that we cannot change wording that we have used before because it has established meanings and so forth. Nevertheless, it will be helpful to have further clarification.
As I understand the position, it is not possible to oust the court's jurisdiction entirely. At the previous stage we referred to fraud, bad faith, the requirements of natural justice and so forth. No doubt we shall come back to the matter, but I am grateful to the Minister for saying that he will do what he can to clarify these points.
It is important that the wording in the Bill is as clear as possible. I did not have quite as much difficulty with Amendment No. 23 as appears to have been the case for the noble Baronessperhaps I did not read it often enoughbut that may simply reflect a lifetime of bad drafting on my part.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I am glad that I am not the only one who found it difficult to understand these amendments. While the Minister clarified some of my concerns in the course of his remarks, obviously one must then read them in the written word, and I know that we shall return to the matter at Third Reading. I look forward also to seeing at that stage the further clarificatory amendments.
Can the Minister clarify a point for me with regard to new subsections (3B) and (3E) in Amendment No. 23? Under the terms of subsection (3B) the Secretary of State may make another order and set a date for a further referendum, while under the provisions of subsection (3E), he could wake up the next day and say, "I did not like that date very much. I shall change
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I shall have to take advice on that. As I understand it, 10 to 12 weeks is the period of the referendum campaignthe campaign to the start of the pollbut I shall have to take advice on that.
There would have to be good reason for changing a date that had been specified in an order. That might be if there was a parliamentary by-election in an area and it was thought to be inappropriate to mix the two together, or that it was appropriate to arrange the two elections so that people did not have to go to the polls on two consecutive weeks. Such things may occur outwith the normal processes. A good reason would have to be given for such a change of date, but that flexibility for convenience exists in current legislation for other elections.
In connection with another Bill, we are changing the date for next year's local government elections so that they coincide with the European parliamentary electionsjust for convenience, so that the public are not asked to vote twice in a month but can vote for both on the same day.
However, I think that the period between the order and the referendum was fairly lengthyfrom memory, from debate in Committee, I think that it is about 10 weeks. While I am on my feetI should like to go home soonI should like confirmation that the noble Earl has received the Parliamentary Answer that I said that we would not adjourn without; I shall not adjourn the House until he receives it.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, with the leave of the House, perhaps I may respond to the Minister: no, I have not yet received the Answer, but he has my permission to adjourn the House if he so wishes, provided that I receive it first thing tomorrow morning.
The noble Baroness said: My noble friend Lord Hanningfield was to move Amendment No. 22, but has gone away poorly this evening, so I stand in for him. We discussed the issue in Committee and feel strongly about it. We know that if a referendum takes place and is lost, but only marginally, it will be tempting for the Government to want to rerun the exercise. We also know the laborious nature of the exercise which, as the noble Lord has told us several timesand we take him at his wordwill take a long time. The soundings exercise takes quite a time, followed by the Boundary Committee exercise, which takes even longer, and there is then the production of all the materials.
The Boundary Committee exercise cannot simply be rerun as it was the first time around; it will be an entirely separate exercise and so must all be done again. If a referendum can be held five years to the day after the first referendum, activity to enable the second referendum might need to begin about two years after the first one.
Earlier, the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, spoke about the uncertainty and real anxiety felt by employees of local authoritiesdistrict and county councilsduring such exercises especially when, as now, there will be two or three options. Every conceivable permutation of whether the counties or districts go, whether some districts are merged or some county councils are merged with districts, must be covered. Whatever may be the configuration for local government reorganisation, at least leading up to the first referendum, that will provide about two and a half years of uncertainty.
We already know that nerves are jangling in the North East at the thought that the Secretary of State may name it as the first area. We know, too, that people who are thinking of applying for posts there are wary of doing so until they know exactly what will happen. Once that call has been made and the referendum is set in train, there is a period of about two and a half years of serious tension while all the work is carried out. At the end of that period is a referendum, which may be lost, and that is the point of my amendment.
If, at the end of that time, the referendum is lost, whether by a small margin or a reasonably healthy majority, it is still possible for a future Secretary of State, or even the same one, to say that he would like to start the exercise again. To allow for a referendum to take place within five years of the first date, there would be a respite of no more than two to two and a half years before the whole thing started again. I really believe that is unhealthy and would like to think that even the Liberal Democrats would agree. An area could have gone through the nervous tension this exercise entails, only to vote "No", and could then find that it was being revisited. After all, the Government have specified five years for a reasonit allows for a revisitation within a very short time of the referendum being determined. I believe it would be almost immoral to do that to any region of our country. I beg to move.
The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I support the amendment. It is one of the most important on the Marshalled List. I do so not with any detailed knowledge of the sharp end of local government reorganisation. However, having listened in Committee to those who are actively involved in local government and have been through the process of reform, I have been convinced that, as my noble friend Lady Blatch has said, there is a long period of anxiety and concern when the local government focus is not on providing services for local people but on fighting one's corner to protect one's job, or other people's jobs, and not concentrating on the main issues.
We discussed this at length in Committee. There was some dispute as to whether it was the making of the order or the referendums. What is clear now is that it is five years between referendums. Therefore, one has only a short period of stability of, say, two to three years maximum, before a further referendum can be called by the laying of an order. I believe that to be too short a period. I am sad that the noble Baroness, Lady Scott, is not in her place on the Liberal Benches. She spoke about the concerns on this matter, as did my noble friend Lord Hanningfield. I hope that the Minister, who I thought had some sympathy with our point in Committee, would have given this further thought by now. We need to return to this on Third Reading if we do not deal with it now.
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