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Lord Rooker: It is my fault; I am just too open. I was then discussing the role of the commission and why it should not have power to write the question. Its power lies in approving the question and the preamble. If it does not like it and the Government do not want to change it, that is when there would be a hell of a row. However, in this case, it has approved both the question and the preamble, as set out in the Bill.
Baroness Hamwee: My point was that if there was a hell of a row after the Bill, including that question, had been passed that would not help us. However, I have received the assurance that I need and I am happy to beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The Deputy Chairman of Committees: Before calling Amendments Nos. 30 and 31, I must inform the Committee that there is a mistake in the Bill's line numbering. I should make clear that Amendments Nos. 30 and 31 are to the question within quotation marks.
The noble Baroness said: I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 34 and 42. Perhaps a little unrealistically, the lead amendment proposes to delete the preamble, because the question should stand or fall on its own and be intelligible without explanation.
The Minister alluded to the complexity of the preamble. I suggest that not only the Electoral Commission but the Plain English Campaign might have a role in that regard. It is lawyers' languageand I speak as oneto use such phrases as:
Amendment No. 42 would permit the Electoral Commission's involvement after the Bill's enactment. We have almost covered that point. If the Minister wishes to add anything, no doubt he will do so. I beg to move Amendment No. 32.
Lord Hanningfield: We on the Conservative Benches do not agree with this amendment. I support the Liberal Democrats in highlighting our discussion on earlier amendments about the need to look again clearly at the referendum question to ensure that the public understand what they are asked to vote on, the intention of the vote, and the information on it that goes out. We have tabled further amendments on that subject. I hope that the Minister will indicate that he and the Government are open to reviewing the matter to ensure that the question is understandable and that people know what they are letting themselves in for.
The Earl of Onslow: Did the Bills providing for referendums in London, Scotland and Wales include such a preamble? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, that the English used is appalling. It is full of all sorts of sub-clauses and unnecessary subjunctives. Is that normal in Bills of this kind?
Baroness Blatch: I hope that my noble friend does not succumb to accept the amendment. First, if the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, were successful in getting rid of the preamble, the question would be almost a confidence trick on the people of England. It is very different from the referendum in Scotland. Scottish voters were asked only two questions: whether they wanted a Parliament and whether they
I argue that the major part of the reorganisation in England is not the imposition of a regional assembly but the complete upheaval of local government. That is pertinent to people and should form part of the question. We have just withdrawn an amendment to that effect.
The Earl of Onslow: I am pleased to say that my noble friend can rest assured: I am just as worried as she is about the consequences of local government reorganisation. We have been round the steeplechase before. There should be a separate referenda amendment. That does not mean that this clause is not sloppily drafted, badly written and probably unclear.
Lord Rooker: I apologise for any confusion that I might have caused in the previous debate. I know that it sounds daft, but I referred to the preamble being in bullet point form, and anybody who has an up-to-date version of the Bill will see a couple of bullet points. I was carrying around the Bill as it was in another place, in which there were no bullet points.
As I made clear, the role of the Electoral Commission is to comment on the intelligibility of the issue. The commission suggested that bullet points would improve the structure of the preamble, and we agreed that it would be helpful. It makes sense that, in due course, the ballot paper also reflects the bullet point structure used in the Bill.
However, Amendment No. 42 is unclear as to whether the Electoral Commission would need to be consulted on any amended question that the Secretary of State proposes. In effect, the amendment could mean that the question and statement could be amended after the first region or regions have held referendums, so that the question and statement are different for subsequent regions.
I do not think that that would be a good idea. It would be wrong to circumvent the Electoral Commission, but it would also be wrong if later the basic ground rules were changed for other regions, should there be other regions. We must treat them all equally in this respect, so that Parliament has the opportunity to debate everything before this, the primary legislation, goes through. Therefore, I hope that Members of the Committee feel that they can withdraw their amendment. I hope that the explanation and the words added, but not debated, in another place, are satisfactory.
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