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The Earl of Caithness: My Lords, I am grateful for the Minister's comments. However, my noble friend is right. The key to making this exercise work is clear information for the voter, as well as the implications of the potential vote. I thank the Minister for his letters during the Recess. In respect of the soundings exercise, the second sentence of the first paragraph of the Minister's letter to me dated 16th April states:
I know that the noble Lord is not personally at fault, but I believe that I am not alone in not having received that document. I was grateful to receive the document of the 16th April with the pro forma, but it would have been helpful if his department had not made such a mess in sending it out in the first instance.
Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, the points raised by the noble Baroness perhaps take us back a stage to how local government structure should be dealt with as part of the exercise leading to the establishment of regional assemblies. I shall not repeat the arguments made at earlier stages. These Benches made it clear that we do not believe that the two matters should go hand in hand. But, given that that is the intention of the Government, we welcome their agreement to give local people choice in the matter of their own local government structure.
I do not believe that the Boundary Committee will put forward options which are unworkable or are problematic in some way. I shall be interested in the Minister's comments about an inquiry. However, it seems to me that it does not recognise that the thrust of these amendments is to support the decision which your Lordships made about giving people a choice as to the structure of local government in their own area.
I agree with the noble Earl about the necessity for clear information for voters. But that is not a matter that can be resolved fully by what is on the referendum paper. There is much more to be explained than can be included in what is essentially a ballot paper.
Lord Hanningfield: My Lords, I, too, should like to clarify one or two points with the Minister. The day after Report stage I went to Essex County Council where I am leader. I had received a letter asking me to comment again on the soundings exercise and that because of the new clauses we had until 16th May to respond. I was most surprised and I think it was discourteous to Members of this House not to have been told the previous day that the letter, which I received as leader of Essex County Council, had been sent.
My noble friend Lady Hanham said that the Secretary of State will finally decide. All the correspondence that the local authority now receives implies that the referendum will be binding; that is, "You will decide if you want a region or not". Therefore, the discussions in Committee and on Report, when the decision was ultimately left with the Secretary of State, now seems to have disappeared. I am now unsure as to how the Bill stands. The correspondence definitely states:
In line with that, what is the position of the Secretary of State when there is a vote on two types of reorganisation? If the majority of people vote in a referendum for one reorganisation system, presumably the Secretary of State would go along with that model and not choose the other model. That is unclear. In the initial stages of this discussion, all the power rested with the Secretary of State. I am now unsure of the position. At this stage, that should be clarified.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I have just handed the Opposition Front Bench a note stating that I shall accept Amendment No. 8 when we reach it. Therefore, I am amazed to be hearing all these speeches, which are going back to Second Reading issues almost. I am trying to be as helpful as possible as regards the points raised by the Opposition. All the points that I have made during the Bill are operative. None of them is inoperative.
I never said the closing date for the soundings was 3rd March. That was the announced date. I constantly made it clear that once the Bill was before Parliament we would be open to comments from parliamentarians or anyone else. Turning to the point concerning the lettertalk about making a mountain out of a molehill! We made a substantial change to the Bill following the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. We knew that we would accept the amendments before coming to the Chamber. The planning had been done. It was abundantly clear. There
Therefore, on 7th and 8th April at Report stage, Written Answers were organised so that everyone had the right to know what was occurring and, therefore, had the chance to comment again if it was thought appropriate. On 16th Aprilwhich is on the recordit was not discourteous not raising the matter. At the time that I was making the speeches in the Chamber probably I was unaware of the date. We were busting a gut as it was. Yes, I signed the letters, but I am uncertain as to what precise date and hour that I signed. I signed the letters during the course of the Bill which was on the Floor of this House on two consecutive days when we were making substantial changes at the request of one opposition party. The other opposition party does not want the Bill anyway.
I was trying to ensure that those outside who were following our affairs could have the most up-to-date information should they want to comment further. The letters were prepared and sent out. Therefore, a parliamentary Question and Answer were prepared so that Parliament was informed in a similar way. There is nothing discourteous in that at all. I do not know why a meal is being made of this now.
Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I was not complaining about the letters signed by the noble Lord. The Question for Written Answer was signed on 7th April and we were not informed. The noble Baroness who tabled the Question is in her place. I was told by the Clerkswho took a long time to check this during the Easter Recessthat in fact it had been tabled on 8th April. But it could not possibly have been tabled on that day. The policy decision must have been taken at the latest on 7th April and the Question tabled on that day for printing on 8th April. I wish simply to make that point. Furthermore, it was the noble Lord personally who signed the response to the Question.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, it was my responsibility to sign the response to the Question. What I do not know without checkingalthough to be frank no one will be able to tell meis at what time of day I signed it. It is not possible for me to specify the exact time at which I signed the response, but the fact that it was printed in Hansard on 8th April leads me to believe that I must have signed it late on the 7th, but I cannot be certain. I do not know.
The fact is, however, that we produced the information for the House and for everyone else concerned as soon as we could in a practical way. Given that, I do not know why the noble Baroness is making such a meal of this. I know that she does not want the Bill to proceed. That is axiomatic.
I shall answer the points raised in the debate. We have to leave the arrangements to the boundary committees. They are independent bodies and they have a remit. How they choose to go about finding the best options for local government in the regions is up to them. It is inconceivable that they would do that without listening to the views of local people and organisations. However, how they propose to gather those views is entirely up to them. Furthermore, I am certain they will ensure that their work is judge-proof. They will not fall into the trap being laid for them by the Opposition Front Bench, which does not want the Bill because it does not want to see elected regional assemblies in the first place.
We should trust the boundary committees on the basis of the work they have done so far. With the knowledge available to them from the Electoral Commission, they will come up with options to put before the electorate in a clearly understandable fashion, having taken soundings and listened to the views of all those involved.
Turning to the point raised about whether the referendum results would be binding, to the best of my knowledgealthough I stand to be correctedthe word "binding" has never been used because they would not be binding. I have always made that clear. Noble Lords will see that on page 2, line 24 the preamble states:
I do not know why noble Lords are introducing red herrings. They are seeking somehow to delay the Bill. It is clear that ultimately the Secretary of State must make a judgment both on the work of the boundary committees and on how to proceed following the results of the referendums. That judgment will now be somewhat more complex because of the options being offered in two-tier areas. I see no difficulty in that.
For the avoidance of doubt, I repeat the point that we shall ensure that the consequences of what people are voting for will be explained in an understandable and readable fashion before any referendum takes place. By that I do not mean an hour or a day before, but in good time. People will fully understand the powers being conferred and what the assemblies will do, as well as the consequences for local government in their area, if they choose to vote in favour.
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