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Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, that is right. I was sweating a bit because there is no date on the letter; I keep being told not to date my letters because they can take a while to leave the office. The third paragraph of my reply states:
I do not know why the chairs of some of these organisations have not graced us with their presence in these debates. I have not held any discussions with anybody; I have obviously seen the letters which have been sent in, and they will receive a reply. If the allegations undermine the reliability and robustness of what organisations are sending in, they are making a rod for their own back. That will not count very well, and it does not matter who is chairing the organisations. If people have been denied opportunities, or the reliability and robustness of the surveys have been fixed, as it were, we need to know how they have been conducted and that there has been wide consultation. I see nothing wrong in that.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I am most obliged to the Minister for giving way. I have received his letter, as a matter of fact; it is dated 7th April, so I have not had time to assimilate exactly what he said. Perhaps at a later stage I will come back after I have assimilated what he said to see whether there is some light in it.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, there is so much light in the letterit has only five paragraphs. I am tempted to put it on the record, but I will not. I am sorry it was late. However, it is obviously relevant to the Bill and to the debate to get replies to noble Lords. That is why I am distressed at what the noble Earl said about his delayed answer from DEFRA, which is being dealt with. From that point of view, it is important. My noble friend can come back when he has had time to assimilate the gems in the other paragraphs, the ones I am not quoting.
Frankly, asking the Secretary of State to prejudge the result of the referendum when he makes a judgment on the soundings is wholly impractical, if onlyand this is a substantial reasonbecause the work of the Boundary Committee is such that he could not form a judgment because he would not know what options it was suggesting for the consequential changes in local government. Therefore, I hope the amendment will not be pressed to the vote, but I somehow fear it will be.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, the Minister is absolutely rightthis is unique, and for that reason we are looking for ways in which to safeguard the public interest. My noble friend Lord Waddington was right when he said that as many people as he has asked had not heard of the soundings exercise. That applies in many parts of the country. My standard question is, "Who knows about regional government and have you had any contact whatsoever with any organisation sounding out your views on a regional assembly?" I have yet to have a positive answer.
The Minister said that the Government would measure the robustness of some of the responses. At some meetingswe have had evidence of this during the course of our debatesunless people wishing to attend the meeting professed an interest in having a regional assembly, they were not admitted. If that is the case, and there is not to be an investigation into such allegations, how is the Secretary of State to know that this happened?
I should like to refer to the Constitution Committee's report which we had on the first day in Committee. It expressed a concern affecting a principal part of the constitution, in which it took a fairly high interest. One of its concerns was the lack of criteria that would have to be met to trigger a referendum in a particular region. The Bill will give the Secretary of State the power to trigger a referendum. He will do so on the basis of a level of interest. The level of interest is not defined; we have had no clarification or enlightenment from the Minister in his reply to us, so we simply do not know on what basis he will trigger a referendum.
The Constitution Committee was also concerned about the public participation in consultation. The map referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, could be prophetic. It could be a picture of the country when the Bill has materialised and fulfilled the Government's ambitions of having regional assemblies and single-tier local government below them. If that were the case, Scotland, Wales and Ireland would have country national government but England would not. England would be fragmented into nine parts and would, I believe, lose its integrity as a country.
The Minister has not told us exactly what the soundings are, what they are meant to be, the level of interest or the measurement. As my noble friend Lord Brooke said, it will be a subjective judgment on the part of the Secretary of State.
Having been a Minister and sat where the noble Lord is sitting, I am staggered that he is in the middle of passing through Parliament a Bill of this magnitude, of very high constitutional importance, and he says that the department either the officials or his ministerial colleagueshave not even allowed him to have any information about the responses.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, that is a very unfair and, if I might say so, underhand way of putting the way I responded. The Bill is going through Parliament; we have made it quite clear that only after Royal Assent will a judgment be made. It would be quite wrong, while the Bill is going through Parliament and while the soundings are being assessed and still being received, if Ministers started nitpicking over issues before the assessments had been made. When they are made, they will be put before Ministers, and that will be the right time. It would quite wrong, while we are in the middle of the Bill's proceedings, to start sifting through individual assessments. One would not be able to read the lot, anyway, so we would have to look at summaries and then maybe dip into them after the assessment analysis has been completed. It is not a question of not being shown. I get shown what I ask for, and in this case, we have agreed it would be quite wrong for Ministers to have that level of detail at present.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, my point was that the Minister was saying he does not even have any knowledge of them. If that is the case, I really am staggered. I am certainly not saying that the noble Lord should prejudge. In fact, we are alarmed that the consultation process was so short. It finished on 3rd March when the Bill had hardly started its proceedings in this House. Therefore, the consultation could have continued for a little while yet and the judgment could have been made when the Bill received Royal Assent, if that is when Ministers will be making judgments. It would not take very many hours to sift through 5,000 responses.
The Minister is not able to say what the level of interest would be. He has not said whether we will know it region by region. He has said that the level of interest in one area could be determined and a referendum called, but it is possible and, I should have thought, even probable, that the level of interest in one or more areas of the country could be comparable. In that case, if it is more than the two or three areas that the noble Lord feels are important when it comes to calling a referendum, another judgment will have to be made, about which we know nothing. We do not know what criteria will be applied. Answers to pertinent questions will not be available until after the Bill receives Royal Assent. I call that very undemocratic. I wish to test the opinion of the House.
[*The Tellers for the Not-Contents reported 143 votes. The Clerks recorded 142 names.] Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
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