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Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, it is the nature of any democratic decision that the voting base must be defined. There are sometimes choices. Especially where a vote will have more than a single effect, it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone about the choice of that base. I am not at all surprised by the Conservative amendment. To them, regional government is not a good thing in principle. It is not part of the equation that they would apply. We on these Benches believe in principle that it is a good thing—subject, obviously, to the detail; we have spent much time discussing powers that are not part of the Bill but which we regard as important.

It is now proposed that county areas are to have a choice about their future structure—albeit limited to unitary structure. As I have said today and previously, we would much have preferred the retention of two-tier government where people want it, but this is the best offer available. We do not regard the provision as the imposition by other parts of the region in as extreme a fashion as was painted. The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, talked about a veto, but it is not a veto over local government as I would normally understand the term. It is giving people a choice locally that they have never previously been given.

We would view with great concern one county area being able to block a majority vote for regional government taken across the region—or, indeed, a majority in every other county area in the region. As I read the amendment, that is what it would amount to, so we cannot support it.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I was going to fire a parting shot at this dishonest Bill under the Motion that the Bill do now pass, but I am advised that such interventions are now discouraged. As your Lordships were spared my interventions on Report, I should say in supporting the amendment why I think that the Bill is dishonest and why, therefore, it must be a good thing to have a majority of people in a county supporting a referendum, if one is to take place.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? He is not in order unless he speaks to the amendment at this stage.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness. If she had been patient for a moment longer, I was explaining why I am speaking to the amendment. Amendment No. 16 provides for a majority of people voting in each county area—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am most obliged to the noble Lord for giving way. He said that

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interventions on Bill do now pass are discouraged. I do not know who is discouraging him, but whoever it is does not understand that it is the tradition of this House for Members to be able to speak on Bill do now pass. I assure the noble Lord that this Member intends to do so.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, yet again I am most grateful for that intervention, but having consulted the Table, which is now advising the Government Bench, I find that unfortunately the rules have changed during the past year or two. The latest Standing Orders, or whatever they are called, discourage one from speaking on Bill do now pass.

To return to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, what I have to say fits with the amendment—which may be for the convenience of the House, because of the time saved—because it must be true that if a majority of people vote for something, it is likely that they will understand it. My point in support of the amendment is that the Bill, and especially the question to be put to people proposed by the Bill and supported by the Electoral Commission, is likely to ensure that they do not understand for what they are voting.

The Minister came near to misleading the House about the European content of the whole exercise when, on Second Reading, he said:

    "We are not implementing some plan or plot hatched up by Johnny Foreigner to . . . in some way channel funds into different regions".—[Official Report, 20/2/03; col. 1251.]

That wording is not precise, but I think we get the gist of the Minister's statement: that the Bill, and the whole exercise of regionalisation, have nothing to do with the European Union's project for the Committee of the Regions.

On Second Reading, and especially in Committee, the Minister did not confirm—I should be grateful if he would do so at this last opportunity—that paragraph 4.31 of the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice, which, amazingly, I notice, is subtitled, "Revitalising the English Regions", which must be unlikely, states clearly that the assembly, if it is voted for,

    "will take over the role currently performed by Government Offices on structural funds (including the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund and rural programmes) for any structural fund expenditure for future programming periods".

In other words, regional assemblies will take over the role of central government in negotiating with Brussels for the money that they will be allowed to spend.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Peston: My Lords, excuse me for interrupting, but the situation is getting beyond a joke. My noble friend Lady Nicol offered the noble Lord guidance on what many of us who have been in the House for many years believed we were supposed to do at Third Reading. By any standards, the noble Lord's speech bears no resemblance to any of the guidance to which many of us have stuck for many years. As the noble Lord is aware, I get enormous pleasure and interest

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from his speeches. But, on occasion, he ought to show respect not merely to noble Lords but to his own Front Bench colleagues, who moved what we were told was a very serious amendment. He is deviating from it to a degree that my mathematics does not even enable me to calculate. The House is so far from being in order that, if points of order could be raised here, I would raise one.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch: My Lords, the noble Lord's mathematics may for once have run away with him. I am about to return very briefly to the point, but it would be quicker if I were not interrupted. The question that the Electoral Commission proposes to put to the people is whether there should be an elected assembly, et cetera. If an elected assembly were to be established, it is intended that it would be responsible for a range of activities currently carried out mainly by central government bodies, including regional economic development.

The amendment must be right because, if enough people understand that included under the Bill is the cession to Brussels of regional development, there is a very good chance that they will vote against it. I trust that the noble Lord, Lord Peston, and the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, will see that my intervention is rooted in the amendment. I thought that they would be grateful that they did not get this or a longer peroration at the debate on the Question whether this Bill do now pass. I support the amendment.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, if the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, will forgive me, I shall refer to a point that she made on my noble friend's amendment, which I support very strongly. She said—I paraphrase—that they would prefer it if local government were not asked to pay the price for regional assemblies. That is what the Liberal Democrats are voting for. They have supported the Government in establishing regional assemblies, which will not even have regional government. The Minister told us that there would not be regional government, that there would be neither new powers nor new money, and that local government must pay the price for it. It is all very well to say, "This is what we would not like"; those words read well on the page. But, when one goes into the government Lobby to vote for regional assemblies with no new money, no new powers and in favour of local government going through wholesale constitutional structural change, you must live by what you vote for.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, further to that little political homily, you are also voting for the opportunity to scrutinise and to question billions of pounds of current public expenditure where there is no opportunity at regional level for local representatives to raise issues. It is allegedly done in this place. As a Parliament, this place is a farce in terms of controlling or scrutinising at that level of detail. Our function is different. Therefore, there is a role for voting for that. Nobody will accuse me of overplaying the role of elected regional assemblies. But I will not underplay

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the different kind of function that they could carry out, which does not exist at present—finding out and perhaps changing priorities in some of the budgets at that level.

Although there will be no new money, there is already billions of pounds of public expenditure. I have always said, and everybody knows it, even though the meaning has been twisted, that there is no new money just for having an elected regional assembly. But people would not pass up lightly the opportunity to get to grips with, and to look at, priorities in a region for existing expenditure of billions of pounds.

The noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, spoke with his customary good sense and experience of local government. I accept that he speaks with vast experience, particularly in how he attacked the former Conservative government for their local government reorganisation. That was very brave, and I hope that the noble Lord will continue on the Front Bench as a result of it. But, in some ways, he was arguing for the opportunity to have three tiers of government under the national framework. That is the implication of leaving the door open for three tiers of government. As I have said repeatedly, I do not believe that if we had come forward with a proposal leading to an extra tier of government there would not have been a massive national campaign by the Conservatives, the CBI and business about extra layers of government and more bureaucracy. Now I will have that denied, will I?

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