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Lord Rooker: My Lords, the assumption is that everybody thinks that everything is perfect. I spent part

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of yesterday listening to teenagers talk about life in rural areas for people of their age, including jobs, education, housing, and the problems of being denied opportunities to start businesses. They were generally having a good moan to the powers that be here in London at a meeting of the rural forum in one of the departments. If everything were perfect in rural areas, I would not have heard everything that I did yesterday in the queries and good positive suggestions made. We should not be against change in the principled way that the noble Baroness is. She wants everything set as if the chocolate-box image of the countryside existed. Life in those areas is not like the image that the noble Baroness presents. Therefore, within the context of the changes to the regional pattern of the country and the devolution of power from Government, we are giving an opportunity for people to have a greater voice.

The constant theme has been the counties. The two northern counties have been mentioned constantly, with reference to Manchester and Newcastle. Of the eight regions outside London, four have a majority in two-tier areas and four have a majority in unitary areas—it is split. But the concentration is always on the one area as though the whole country were like that. It is not. As I repeatedly said, in the East Midlands and the Eastern region the argument would be the exact opposite. Yet I could make the same speeches proposing these changes. The noble Baroness could not make the same speeches opposing them. I am not seeking to tempt her and I apologise for goading her. I hope that the noble Baroness will not press this amendment. It is not justified.

Baroness Hanham: My Lords, the Minister is a very brave man if he issues a challenge to my noble friend Lady Blatch, because she might very well take it up. It is my job to reply, so I am leaping in just in case the Minister has to defend himself further. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, pointed out that the amendment was probably not perfect. Despite what the Minister has said, I am still concerned about the imbalance that could result from the vote on regional government, specifically because counties and districts are the areas where new unitary structures must be created. Therefore, in a way, it is important that counties and districts are perhaps even more in favour of regional government and the consequential review of local government than the metropolitan areas are. I do not intend to pursue the amendment today, but I do not promise not to return to it. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 50:


    Page 8, line 45, at end insert—


"( ) in any such referendum, the proportion of those actually voting for the proposition is equal to, or greater than, the proportion given in Schedule (Proportion of electors required to secure a majority) for the relevant percentage of the eligible electorate certified as having voted,"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, halfway through the previous debate, I thought that the

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Minister was answering the question on thresholds, but I think he recovered ground and started again. This amendment would insert a new subsection. Amendment No. 59, which is grouped with it, seeks, more importantly, to insert a new schedule. The amendments touch a critical issue: what forms a majority in a referendum? We considered the matter briefly in Committee, but it is essential to probe further.

When such debates have taken place on other Bills, it has inevitably been claimed that amendments such as these are aimed at making it harder for a referendum to pass. Doubtless, we shall hear that from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, if from nowhere else. If they were willing to sell out the future county councils in return for undisclosed promises, sadly we cannot expect them to require a reasonable majority before the abolition of counties. Frankly, the refusal to accept a reasonable threshold test, just like the refusal to accept a plain, straightforward question, has always seemed to say most about the lack of confidence that the exponents of a referendum have in their case.

The Bill embraces very major constitutional change. That change must be made only if it carries not only the majority of voters but substantial public backing. The change in this referendum, as now acknowledged on all Benches in this House, is likely to lead to the abolition of many counties, particularly those in the areas of change. The counties are the oldest administrative divisions in our country, going back as far as Saxon times. They operate effectively, are sensibly sized and provide the traditional roots for every family in the land. People talk about being Cornishmen or from Lancashire or Norfolk. Are not those the instinctive and instantly understandable ways in which the vast majority of people define their being? No one outside the bunker of the Deputy Prime Minister believes that counties and people's associations with them are not important. The referendum to be held under the Bill points only to the abolition of historic counties.

Regional assemblies will weaken our central Parliament, and my noble friend Lady Blatch referred to that fact earlier in our debates. Such constitutional change should not be made on the basis of a bare majority of a tiny turnout in a vote on confusing questions. That is why many other countries require a threshold beyond a bare majority when issues involving constitutional change are at stake. Australia requires a majority of voters nationally and in at least four of the six member states. In the past, New Zealand required a 60 per cent "Yes" vote. In Italy, referendums succeed only if the turnout exceeds 50 per cent.

It is far from frivolous to suggest that we should have thresholds in relation to a matter as far-reaching as that dealt with by the Bill. In a general election-type turnout, a majority of one is sufficient, but the problem occurs at the other end of the spectrum. Given some local election turnouts, one must ask whether a majority of one in a referendum with a low local election-type turnout would give a verdict that was clear and conclusive enough to justify irreversible

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change. We doubt that, which is why, in Amendment No. 59, we propose a new schedule, in the form of a table.

The amendment would ensure that we avoided a situation in which a majority of one on a dismal turnout would be enough to abolish our historic counties and impose a new layer of bureaucracy. It links turnout to majority. The lower the turnout, the more significant the majority needed. If the turnout is at the level of a strong local election turnout—over 45 per cent—a simple majority will do. However, as the turnout drops—by 5 per cent—so the number required to vote for the proposition increases—by 4 per cent—until, on a turnout of less than 30 per cent, the support of two-thirds of those voting would be needed.

I did not need to carry on with the table. The Government or the Liberal Democrats may wish to argue otherwise, but I hope that it is unlikely that turnout would drop below 30 per cent, although it was less than that in London. I am happy to leave the figure at two-thirds, which is a sufficient majority to affect constitutional change in many countries. Some of your Lordships may say there are cliff edges. That is the case, to some extent. It would be possible to add further sub-divisions to avoid that, but it would complicate the table.

The advantage of such a table is that it combines turnout and majority. That is significant. Including such a table would provide a major incentive to both sides to achieve a good turnout. Noble Lords will see readily from the table that, if some "Noes" do not vote, because they believe that that is the same as voting "No", they will be mistaken. Every "No" who abstains and, therefore, causes the percentage of the poll to drop will, by not voting, increase the proportion voting "Yes". Therefore, the usual accusations made about thresholds are not valid.

If those who say that they favour having a regional assembly were to abstain in the same way as the "Noes", the proposition would be difficult. However, on the assumption that all "Yes" supporters vote and that the regional assemblies are wanted as desperately as those on the Benches opposite say that they are, the figures proposed in the table will ensure that neither side can disproportionately influence the result by not voting.

I do not pretend for a minute that the table is the only solution. I am ready to take guidance on it. Some have said that I am being too generous about a proposition that we oppose in principle—namely, regional government—while others say that we are creating difficulties. That suggests that we have probably got things nearly right. The table is clear and unequivocal. Everyone will know the rules of the game. They will know the criteria against which the result will be measured. That is the sensible way to proceed, in what may be several referendums.

I hope that I will not be told that I am being disruptive; I am certainly not attempting to be so. I hope that we can have a sensible debate about what constitutes a sufficient majority in a referendum of

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such importance. If there is a possibility of low turnouts for referendums that push through change of major constitutional significance, we must address the issue of turnout against majority.

What we face is the abolition of our 1,200-year old counties to allow the Government to embark on an experiment in the constitutional unknown. That decision requires a clear question and a conclusive result. Amendment No. 59 would contribute to the achievement of that conclusive result. Surely, that is in the interests of those on all sides of the debate, if they want any regional assembly to carry wide acceptance. I commend the amendments to the House. I beg to move.


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