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Baroness Maddock: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has made some interesting points, some of which I agree with. However, we must be careful. If, in this country, we are into having referendumswe have several of themwe must be consistent. We cannot just change the rules for a referendum when we dislike the particular issue before us. The noble Baroness referred to that, when she said that she thought that she had got the thing about right, as her party did not like the idea of regional government.
When I was a local councillor, a previous governmentsupported by the noble Baronesstold us that, if someone did not bother to vote on whether people should be able to transfer their home, it would be treated as a "Yes" vote. One cannot change one's mind and have different rules just because one dislikes a particular thing or because one wants something in particular to happen. The noble Baroness is right to say that other countries have higher thresholds for referendums and that there are rules for them. However, at this stage of the progress of the Bill, we should not try to change the basic rules that we have for referendums. Some of us on these Benches could make other arguments if we were to make such general changes.
We are getting near to the end of the Report stage, and I must make it clear that, right from the beginning, we have said that we support regional government. As a party, we have talked about it since the time of Gladstone. It has been in various documents that we have published. We have been clear about it and about where we stand on the constitution and any changes to it. Our party has discussed the issue over many years. We have been accused of being muddled, when the opposite is true. We are the only party that has consistently held the same view of constitutional matters for a long time. We hold those views so dearly that, in the run-up to the previous election, we worked with the present Government, before they were elected, to bring some of those things to pass, and they have come to pass. Our attitude to this Bill has been precisely consistent with that. We have been consistent and clear about where we stand on constitutional issues.
Lord Monson: My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, has made a convincing case for the amendment. She has given us many interesting examples of precedents set in other respected first world countries. I am sorry that the internationalists on the Liberal Democrat Benches have not paid more heed to that.
The amendment is very modest. Regional assemblies represent a definite constitutional change. Assuming a turnout of 25 per cent, which is possible and quite likely, because people are punch-drunk with elections nowadays, if such a constitutional change were to be pushed through with the support of less than 13 per cent of the electoratewhich would be the case if only 51 per cent of those voting supported the changeit would be intolerable. All the amendments do is raise the hurdle rate in such a case from approximately 12.6 per cent to approximately 16.6 per cent; a very modest safeguard.
However, I must point out a slight flaw in the drafting of Amendment No. 59. As drafted, if exactly 40 per cent of the electorate votedthat is statistically unlikely, but it could happenit is unclear whether the threshold would be 54 per cent or 58 per cent. Similarly, if exactly 35 per cent of the electorate voted, it is unclear whether the threshold would be 58 per cent or 62 per cent. That matter needs looking at before the next stage. Apart from that I support the principle of the amendments.
Earl Peel: My Lords, I have not intervened at any stage of the Bill and I apologise to the House for doing so at this late time. I have listened with great interest to the arguments advanced and I have been particularly impressed by my noble friend Lord Waddington's stoic defence of the interests of the North West, whether it be Lancashire or Cheshire. I want the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to be under no illusionsspeaking as someone from North Yorkshirethat feelings are equally strong in North Yorkshire as in the North West. It is for that reason that I rise to support my noble friend's amendments.
The percentage of turnout at local or general elections is largely irrelevant. It is regrettable when it is low, but the important thing is that an election takes place, simply to allow the democratic process to continue. But when we are contemplating a change of this magnitudeas my noble friend Lady Hanham said, the county councils go back for many years and
Lord Swinfen: My Lords, the Labour Party itself introduced a precedent for such amendments when it wished to give devolution to Scotland in the late 1970s. At that time a minimum proportion of the electorate had to vote. If that proportion was not reached, even if there was a majority in favour of devolution, devolution did not take place, as happened at that time.
Lord Shutt of Greetland: My Lords, I find this one of the strangest amendments ever tabled. It says that there will be a referendum and the Electoral Commission will suggest that people vote because we agree with people voting, but we cannot tell them what the value of their vote will be until tomorrow, because if not enough folk turn up it will not have that much value if they want to vote in favour of the proposal. It is almost like saying to voters on 1st May, "If you don't have a 30 per cent turnout in your ward and the winning candidate doesn't have 66 per cent, you won't have a councillor tomorrow, or an MP for that matter".
I do not believe that this is the right way to proceed in a democracy. I am not keen on referendums but this is one of the many hurdles. I should have thought that the Tories would be overjoyed with this Bill because of the hurdles. Throughout my lifetime, all the changes of a constitutional nature under Conservative Governments have not been tainted with referendums at all, whether it was the abolition of my urban district of Elland in 1973 or the West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council in 1986
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I painfully remind the noble Lord that eventually we paid for that policy at the ballot box and that history may repeat itself for the present Government. The Minister will remember that at a previous stage I asked him whether the result of a vote would be bindingI cannot recall the answer.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I now know that it is not. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddocks, reminded us that the result of the election is not binding. So what the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, said was a consequence of the amendments is also a consequence of the Bill as drafted. The Minister may take a subjective judgment that the turnout was not robust enough to establish a regional assembly, so when those people vote they still
At least my noble friend Lady Hanham is putting an objective test that, depending on the turnout, a defined percentage will have to be reached. We all know that in local government, county district and unitary authority elections across the land, however low the turnout, a majority of one or more is enough to secure the election of a councillor. But in this election that is not the case. If there are 8 million electors in one areasorry, the population is 8 million, so I do not know what the number of electors will be, probably 5 million or 6 million; so, if 5 million or 6 million are entitled to vote for an elected assembly and a small percentage do so, they may or may not get one.
I believe that under the rules if there is a marginal "No" vote, the Minister can regard the election as null and void for whatever reason, because the result is not binding, and run another election, because the Bill gives him the power to do so. It is much better to accept an amendment along the lines of my noble friend's. I take the point of the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that we need to look at the interaction between the percentage of voters and the proportion required because exactly 35 per cent or 40 per cent of the electorate may vote and people need to know what that provision means. But the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Shutt, has been defeated by that of the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and from the Minister's indication of assent to me.