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Baroness Hanham moved Amendment No. 15:

"( ) 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, we return to a matter discussed on Report and extensively at previous stages. It is the desirability of ensuring that there is not only a reasonable turn-out for the elections but also a sufficient majority in favour of what is, after all, a significant constitutional change—the breaking up of England into regions and the abolition of the county councils.

On Report we put forward a schedule for addressing the problem but recognised the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that the wording leading to a possible difficulty over deciding whether a threshold had been reached was ambiguous. We believe that the amendment to the schedule put forward today now makes clear where and how a threshold will be achieved.

Most reasonable people would say that changing the constitution of the country is no small matter and that, even if there is disagreement among us as to the value of such changes, there should be no disagreement about the significance of what is being proposed.

The county councils have been the mainstay of local government for centuries. People do care about them. I am sure that noble Lords, like me, saw the letter in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday from a correspondent who was incensed because, in a previous edition, Barnsley had been located in Lancashire instead of Yorkshire. She minded and there will be thousands, if not millions, like her. Representation will be limited and at a distance far more remote than the county councils. The reorganisation of local government will in itself have a major impact on how services are run and by whom.

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As we said at the previous consideration of the Bill, regional assemblies will potentially weaken our central Parliament, not because very many responsibilities will be passed down but because there will be more room for the Government to disclaim any liability for those which are. I refer to the Scottish/London syndrome where questions asked in this House and in another place are not answered on the basis that the Government have ceased to be the responsible body.

If the Government are confident of their ability to persuade the voters that these changes are necessary, then they must accept that a vote in support on a small turn-out of voters will not be sufficient to gain acceptance for these proposals. I beg to move.

Earl Peel: My Lords, I support my noble friend on this amendment, as I did at the previous stage. I do so for the very sensible reason that there can be no doubt that the potential implications of regional assemblies in terms of their impact on local government will be enormous. As my noble friend said, county councils, which have served this country so admirably and so well, could be vanquished for ever.

I believe that the decision to allow such fundamental changes to take place, not to mention the enormous political implications, simply cannot be taken this lightly. It seems to me—I know that I speak for many in my part of the world in North Yorkshire—that it will be not only reasonable but, indeed, essential for a level of electoral threshold to be imposed in order to inject some genuine credibility into such basic and fundamental changes. I do not know whether technically this amendment is the right one but I know that my noble friend has taken much advice on this matter and I have full confidence that she will have got it right.

At Report stage, the Minister accused my noble friend Lady Blatch of being a,

    "two nation Tory . . . [who] sees the two nation split as urban and rural".

With the greatest respect to the Minister, I believe that that is nonsense. My noble friend was rightly speaking for those of us who care passionately about local accountability, which has for so long been a fundamental ingredient of our whole democratic process and must not be given up lightly. The Minister said:

    "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".—[Official Report, 8/4/03; col. 177.]

But that is precisely what will happen because many, particularly in rural areas, in effect will be disenfranchised.

How on earth can local accountability be enhanced by a system that allows for one regional assembly member to represent—I do not know how many it is—160,000, 200,000 or 250,000 constituents, compared with the present figure of 60,000? That is four or five times the number of constituents of a Member of Parliament. In my view, that is not local accountability. How can local accountability be enhanced when the

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whole decision-making process is moved to a centre which has no ties or identity with so much of the region in question?

My local newspaper, the Darlington & Stockton Times, commented recently:

    "The one thing that has been established is that the people of North Yorkshire believe that they alone should be allowed to decide on the shape of local government in the area".

The newspaper went on to raise what I regard as another important and perhaps often forgotten point. It said:

    "Apart from the loss of local democracy, the economic loss the county town would suffer would be a body blow".

Finally, it said:

    "In this part of the county regional government does not mean more relevant and accountable government. It means a more distant administration—and a Labour one".

Surely that is the point. That is what really lies behind the Government's referendum and regional government plans. It is—if I can put it as bluntly as this—straightforward, unadulterated political gerrymandering. It does absolutely nothing to enhance local democracy and local accountability. Consequently, I hope that people will realise before it is too late the damage that it could do to the whole political and democratic process in this country.

I suppose that if regional assemblies were to be accompanied by genuinely devolved decision-making powers, there could perhaps be more of an argument in their defence. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—I see, and I am not surprised, that he is not in his place—has already demonstrated by his comments and indeed his actions during Report stage, what the Government are actually proposing is nothing much more than a shuffling of the local government pack at the expense of well-established, highly regarded county councils for blatant political gain, with no extra powers for the local administration. That is why it would be wrong to make comparisons with Scotland or indeed with Wales.

At least Amendment No. 15 brings a degree of credibility and indeed accountability to the proceedings. It brings a safeguard, thus ensuring that a low turnout with a small majority would not be allowed to hijack the present system which has served us so well for so long. I should hope that, regardless of political persuasion, everyone will appreciate the damage that that could inflict on the political and democratic process in this country. This amendment goes some way towards addressing that. I urge noble Lords to support it.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, very briefly, I wish to support Amendment No. 15, not only for the reasons that have been given, but in particular because a low turnout makes a mockery of any pretence at a democratic process. There comes a point when it makes a nonsense of the whole thing. The whole thing here is setting up regional government. It is a very important step to be taken and one which should never be taken on a low turnout. Amendment No. 17 provides the machinery of safeguard against a low

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turnout. As my noble friend has just said, he has not been into the mechanics of the machinery—and indeed nor have I. However, I am wholly satisfied, and I am sure that your Lordships will be, that due care has been taken to protect an acceptable minimum which would square with any concept of a democratic process. I support the amendment.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, Amendment No. 15 is ingenious but confusing. It might add less to the confusion if noble Lords did not assume that the counties will be abolished. We do not know what the Boundary Committee will put to local people for their choice. One of the options may be a unitary on the boundaries of the current county. In any event, the loyalty that one has to one's county and to one's roots is not necessarily destroyed by a change of administrative arrangements. I am sure that the Conservatives would say that. I am also sure that many people still regard themselves as living in Berkshire although there is no administrative county of Berkshire. I regard myself as a Lancastrian although I come from Manchester and they are separate administrations.

Our main objection to Amendment No. 15 is that it would do nothing to encourage participation in the political process and would do everything to send the message, "If you do not agree, or if you do not much care, or if it is a bit of trouble to go out and vote, stay home". It does not send the message, "Engage in the issue. Find out what it is about. Talk to people". The message is, "Stay home". I want no part in what would effectively be a call to those who have that precious democratic tool, the franchise, not to use it.

In St Stephen's Hall there is a statue of a previous Viscount Falkland and his sword is broken. A suffragette chained herself to the statue to protest that women should have the vote and the only way to release her was to break the sword. People have died for the franchise. They did not die for the right to abstain. Yesterday I met someone who has spent a good deal of time in Zimbabwe. She talked about friends who had queued for three days to vote but were then denied the vote. I put the point dramatically because I feel it strongly. I think that it is a dramatic point of principle. By all means, go out and campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum, but do not campaign for or send the message, "Don't vote".

There is a very good reason why there is almost no precedent for a threshold. It is because votes, not abstentions, are what democracy is about. I am sure that many noble Lords will have been campaigning in the current elections. I would be surprised if noble Lords on the Conservative Benches have not been saying on the doorstep, "If you do not like what is being done by the current local council, the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, go and vote for other representatives. You cannot complain if you do not vote". We regard the proposal as anti-democratic and we want no part in it.

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