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Baroness Blatch: My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, is she opposing the amendment on the ground that a small, insignificant district area could hold the whole region to ransom simply by not having a majority in favour, or would her argument still apply if any part of a region, however largefor example, a county area, or perhaps across two county areaswas against? Is the noble Baroness arguing against the idea in principle, or is her argument based on one small, insignificant district council area?
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I support what my noble friend said. It is a great pity that the specific argument of a small district council area within a region was used to oppose the amendment when the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, is in fact against the amendment in principle. What she said about larger areas, such as a whole county area, is simply not true. As my noble friend Lord Waddington made absolutely clear, if the whole of Northumberland, the whole of Cumbria or even the whole of Lancashire and Cheshire together voted against a regional assembly, they could still be outvoted by the metropolitan urban areas.
The fact that we now have two-tier questions on the ballot paperone about regional assemblies and the other about the particular shape of the single-tier authorities below the regional assembliesmakes no difference. Everybody is going to answer the regional assemblies question, so if all those in a two-district area in some of the region voted against any option in the regional assemblies or even did not fill in the ballot paper but voted against the regional assembly, they could still be outnumbered by the others. That does not remove the risk of being outvoted by the urban areas. One has only to think of places such as Greater Manchester, Newcastle orif we may be allowed to use the West Midlands againsome of the more densely populated areas there. We know that the largest area has over 8 million people in it. If all the country areas in that region voted against an assembly and all the densely populated areas voted for it, the country areas would lose. The noble Lord is going to say that we should not pre-empt how people are going to vote. We do not know until they have cast their vote. However, a small percentage of urban voters can outnumber a high percentage of rural voters. Even if turnout in the rural areas is very good and turnout in the urban areas is very poor, there could still be an overwhelming majority of urban voters outvoting and overwhelming the rural voters.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, there may very well be a case for some rural weighting, but I am not sure that the amendment would achieve a fair balance. If the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, really believes that urban dwellers are any more in favour of regional government than those in rural areas, I think he is making a big mistake. People in urban areas are
I am an urbanite and I know that people living in our towns and cities no more welcome the Bill than do people out in the counties and the districts. I would probably not support the amendment. I am so diametrically opposed to and hateful of the Bill that I have been prepared to support Opposition amendments all the way along, but I am very hesitant on this one.
Throughout our debates, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, has spoken with great confidence and certainty about the views of the electorate in Lancashire and Cheshire. I am not sure there have been any local votes there on the issue yet.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I also said earlier that I was not awareand please do not send me any paperwork on itof councils having had any resolutions, debates or votes on the issue. A statement issued by the party leaders is very different from having a genuine debate after mature consideration of what is in the Bill, although I know it is not enough.
All along I have sought not to overplay the elected regional assemblies. I do not want to underplay them. The noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, is definitely a two nation Tory. There is no doubt about that. She sees the two nation split as urban and rural. She cannot conceive of anyone in Manchester asking what is in the proposals for Manchester. She automatically assumes that urban means you go for it because you get control. That is the kind of language that we have tried to get rid of. We are trying to build one nation. That is why we want a regional referendum, not one carried out on a district basis, setting off one part against another. That is the theme throughout all the noble Baroness's speeches, which I regret, because I do not think society is like that.
This is a bit of a nit-picking point, but the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked about it at the start of her speech so that she could be clear about the words. Technically, under the amendment there would have to be a majority in each district and county area, including those districts that are already unitary. Somehow, I do not think that is what the noble Baroness intends. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, made a similar proposal in Committee. I spoke at length then, and it would probably not be best to have another debate on thresholds, so I shall cover generally only the main points.
We believe that the fairest and simplest measure of the referendum result is the votes cast across the region. We have debated the boundaries, the shape of the regions, their differences and the soundings. We followed that precedent in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We do not think that it would be fair if people who did not vote could effectively veto a "Yes" vote by those who did.
Secondly, it is wrong that the desires of those who vote should be thwarted by those who, for whatever reason, do not bother. The thresholds give an additional, perverse incentive for those opposed to the proposal to stay at home.
Thirdly, we must all encourage as many people as possible to vote. I know that it is difficult. People can get switched off; they can be asked to vote too often; they can argue that they do not understand, but in a democracy we have a job to alert people to the fact that their views count in this case. They count even more than they did at the beginning of the Bill, following the strengthening that we did yesterday.
Yesterday we debated the amendments of the noble Baroness opposite, which will give local people a choice on the structure of unitary local government in their two-tier areas. It is true that one follows the otherwe have not hidden that. Elected regional assemblies mean single-tier local government. People now have a choice about the shape and structure of the single-tier authority and its components. The Government supported that amendment, which is now part of the Bill. It will be welcomed by people living in England's districts and counties.
This is not an urban versus rural issue, however much the noble Baroness tries to stir it up to make it so. She can keep goading the Liberal Democrats, with whom her party has obviously fallen out of love during the passage of the Bill, all she likes. The noble Baroness nods. I should not have said that.
Baroness Blatch: No, my Lords, the noble Lord should not have said that. With the leave of the House, does the noble Lord agree with me that the very urban areas that we discussed such as Greater Manchester and other unitary authorities have nothing to lose and nothing to gain in this debate? There will simply be another tier above them. The noble Lord says that rural areas have nothing to lose. But, whichever way rural areas vote, if there is a vote for a regional assembly, which may or may not be enhanced by the density of voting in urban areas, they stand to lose at least one or more of their district councils and all their county councils. Am I right in saying that, whatever happens, they will lose some of what they regard as their local government?
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