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Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, first, the noble Baroness's question is not completely relevant to the government amendment. Secondly, my noble friend Lord Rooker made clear throughout the passage of the Bill that the consultation period would be left open until the last possible moment. But we
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, with the leave of the House, my question is relevant in that it relates to the triggering mechanism for deciding whether or not there should be a referendum. But, if the Minister thinks that it is not relevant to this amendment, it is certainly relevant to the next one. Unless the noble Lord wishes me to repeat my question, it would be helpful to have the answer. The department must know when the soundings exercise will be completed.
On another point that the noble Lord mentioned, it is of course true that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said time and again during our debate that the consultation period ended on 3rd March. So far as concerns the public, that is when it ended. But the noble Lord went on to say that if other responses trickled inand some were trickling inthey would be taken into account, which is true. That is very different from a formal reopening of the soundings exercise. It is now formally reopened. Those who made submissions prior to 3rd March, including me, are being written to again and asked whether they wish to reflect on their responses and change them if necessary.
It is relevant because it is the triggering mechanism for deciding whether there should be a referendum. If the Minister thinks it is not relevant to this amendment, it is certainly relevant to the next. It would be helpful to know the answer. The department must know when the soundings are completed.
On another point that the noble Lord, Lord Evans, mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said time and again during our debates that the consultation period ended on 3rd March. As far as the public is concerned, that is when it ended. The noble Lord, Lord Evans, went on to say that if other responses trickle in, and some were trickling in, they would be taken into account. That is very different from a formal reopening of the soundings exercise, which is now formally reopened. Those who made submissions before 3rd March, which includes myself, were written to again and asked if they would like to reflect on their responses and change them if necessary.
It is relevant and whether it is relevant to this amendment or the next, it would help to know why the Committee was not informed of the extension. It would also help to know when that Question was submitted because one of the answers I was given is that the Government have special arrangements. They must be very special if the Question was submitted on the 8th and printed and in the office for collection by 8.15 a.m.
At the Report stage of the Bill, your Lordships agreed to amendments to introduce a second referendum in areas with two-tier local government. This local referendum would be about voters' preferences between options for single-tier local government. I undertook to consult the Electoral Commission on the wording of the two questions. My right honourable friend Nick Raynsford, the Minister in charge of the policy, wrote to Sam Younger on 10th April and we received the commission's reply on Thursday 17th April. They made their comments available on the website.
These six amendmentsfive to Clause 3 and one to Clause 6give effect to the Electoral Commission's suggestions. Amendment No. 3 to Clause 3 gives effect to the commission's suggestion to delete the last sentence of the preamble to the question about elected assemblies, which explains that a second referendum is taking place in areas with two-tier local government. The commission feels that it is unnecessary and that to include it may potentially confuse voters in areas that are not affected by local government restructuring.
The Electoral Commission makes it clear that its comments are based on an assumption that there would be a single ballot paper. The Government's aim would be to have a single ballot paper in most circumstances. However, we need to provide for the possibility that we may have to hold a further local referendum, on its own, in the event of a result being overturned by the courts. We might also need separate ballot papers if the local government options are numerousfor example, where county areas are combined because one option crosses their boundary. Noble Lords will recall I tried to explain how that would work on Report. The ballot paper could be extensive. In that case, laying out a single ballot paper with adequate provision for partially sighted people would make the ballot paper unwieldy and in these circumstances it would be better to have two ballot papers.
Amendment No. 6 removes the first sentence of the preamble to the local referendum question, which explains that local government will be reorganised if an elected assembly is established in the region. The Electoral Commission believes that this sentence contains unnecessarily detailed information and that the preamble should focus on the main issuelocal government reorganisationin order to minimise the risk that the voter has to read the preamble several times to understand it.
Amendment No. 7 reinserts this sentence at the end of the preamble. It also sets out the text of the preamble for the local referendum should separate ballot papers be used for local government referendums.
Amendment No. 11 to Clause 6 enables the Secretary of State to vary the wording of the preamble to the local referendum question if a further local referendum is held, following one which is declared or held to be invalid. It requires the Secretary of State to consult the Electoral Commission on the varied wording before laying an order for that referendum. It also requires him to lay before each House a report stating the views expressed by the commission on the varied wording when the order causing the further referendum is laid. This provision is needed because the ballot paper may need to explain the circumstances of any further local referendum. I trust your Lordships see the merit of giving effect to the Electoral Commission's suggestions as proposed. It makes them easier to understand.
Baroness Hanham: My Lords, I suppose we ought to be grateful to the Electoral Commission in that it has done its best to make this almost incomprehensible question more comprehensible and less of a mouthful.
We have, through the course of what was agreed between the Government and the Liberal Democrats at the last hearing of this, made things far more difficult for voters than they were going to be originally. The new version leaves unresolved how people are going to understand that the words "into a single tier" mean that in those parts of the region that have county and district councils, the county council will vanish. Whatever the proposals, and even if the boundaries of a county council are one of the options, that is still unresolved.
Even in the instructions to the Boundary Committee the is explanation about this is vague. However, it is one of the most important points that the Government are going to have to bring themselves to spell out. We might touch again on what we discussed about the information that is going to be made available to voters. As every complexity becomes worse, it becomes more essential that proper information is put out by the Government so voters can understand what they are doing.
My noble friend Lady Blatch mentioned the letter on the soundings exercise and it is fair to say it has still not had a satisfactory explanation. One of the rationales behind that letter was that it might be difficult if people were going to have to understand or there was going to be a possibility of counties being combined or whether there was going to be a another form of local government review which did not end up with the single tiers not crossing boundaries. It is causing confusion. The fact the letter was sent out asking people if they thought the whole thing was better or worse does not seem to have assisted that problem.
The decision for there to be a second question, which is now going to include options which may or may not cross boundaries, introduces another interesting point and one that is not resolved in the instructions to the Boundary Committee. That is whether the proposals being put forward by the Boundary Committee will be subject to a local inquiry. The document is silent on this point except that it suggests that the Boundary Committee may want to have public meetingswhich we all should haveconsult Members of Parliament, local authorities, other public bodies and that it may want to publish its proposals in the press.
This is what it would do under any other local government boundary review. However, any other parliamentary review would be subject to a local inquiry if there were disagreement about the proposals. Under the circumstances now pertaining, this matter becomes even more important since the need to put forward two or more options might lead the Boundary Committee to assume that this was a way by which its proposals could be challenged.
The basis on which the Boundary Committee will carry out its work is not to be on geographical or local interests particularly, but it can include the performance of the authorities concerned in terms of best value and high performing councils, and the impact on voluntary organisations, business involvement and all the other paraphernalia which surrounds the value for money.
That will leave the way open for considerable disagreement. Therefore, is it the intention of the Government that those differing views be tested out thoroughly through a local inquiry? If that is not to be the situation, that needs to be made very clear in whatever information is provided by the Boundary Committee to those with whom it is in contact because I believe that it will be a break from the normal
There is a very real possibility if the latter is to be the case that electors, organisations and affected authorities will not feel that they have had proper consideration of their case, and the judicial process may very well be invoked. I would be grateful if the Minister would clarify this point, which is not one that has been concentrated on before.
Finally, I could have sought to amend the question, but decided against adding to this part of the debate. However, our view is that either in the preamble or question it should be made clear that the referendum is not necessarily the final say in the matter: the Secretary of State is. It is on his decision whether the regional assembly should proceed and we believe that that should be made clear.
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