Mr David Curry (Skipton and Ripon, Conservative)
I did not realise that there had been such an avalanche of responses from East Anglia. It clearly represents a proportion of the population that might in any other circumstances be regarded as de minimis. The Deputy Prime Minister, indeed, might regard it as derisory. If it were a turnout in the poll it would be so derisory that he might even decide that the poll could not stand. But we do not know what a derisory turnout is in regional referendums, because the Deputy Prime Minister will not tell us.
The Deputy Prime Minister has drawn an analogy with Scotland and Wales. Scotland has legislative powers and a very expensive, and as yet unfinished, Parliament building. It controls health, education, a significant part of economic development, and rural policy. We see the divergences on either side of the border growing daily. I assume that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will shortly announce the way in which the single farm payment will work in England. It is entirely possible that Scotland will adopt a different route; we have already observed that Northern Ireland and Wales are likely to do so. We accept that—it is one of the consequences of devolution—but it indicates that devolution is to a body with substantive powers that can actually be measured. Whether better welfare is delivered to Scotland or Wales is open to dispute, but the possibility is there.
The Welsh Assembly can at least decide on the manner of application of national legislation. English regional assemblies will have none of the abilities that I have mentioned. So how will this manifest destiny be fulfilled? I simply do not understand how that can be done by controlling the market town initiative, or advising the cultural consortium in Yorkshire and Humberside on how it should go about its business. We all agree that the regions need better, more integrated economic development; we all agree that they need to catch up; but the idea that that will be delivered by regional assemblies is surely part of a fantasy world.
The Deputy Prime Minister has done his best to inflate the importance of regional assemblies in his regional tours, in between having cheerful altercations with some of his colleagues. We are not yet—although we seem to be not far from it—at the stage where he is telling us that the assemblies can probably declare war. The actual role that emerges from the document is described almost invariably in the language of oversight, scrutiny, advice, request, consultation, influence, co-ordination—a permanent supplication for someone else's attention. When we look at them in detail, even the few identifiable powers are very circumscribed. Everywhere, the Government look over the assemblies' shoulder.
Let us take the regional development agencies. One of the principal arguments is that the powers now exercised by the RDAs and supervised by the government offices should fall to regional assemblies. The assemblies must have regard to Government guidance in preparing their strategies. The Government will retain powers to ensure that RDAs and the assemblies address national strategies. The assembly must consult the Government on regional economic strategy. The Government can require changes and—this is the real killer—the regional assembly must consult the Government on individual board appointments to the RDA. That is the dimension of the autonomy. The regional assembly cannot even make a single appointment to the board of an RDA without consulting the Government—and that is supposed to be introducing some new democratic mandate.
It is the same story for transport. The regional assembly can advise. It has powers to make proposals. It can be consulted. The only clear competence appears to be responsibility for allocating the rail passenger partnership grant. Only in the housing sector is there a ghost of a role, in the allocation of support for capital investment.
The Government talk of new powers but when, and where from? The suspicion is that it will always be from local government and another shift upwards, not devolution downwards, of power.
The real question is: what is at stake? What is the elector going to choose between? Where will the political choices lie? How will voting make a difference? It is the oldest question in politics. Does it matter? What is at stake? Do things change as a result of the vote? How will candidates define themselves in terms of political choice, or choice in relation to issues? There is no answer to that. They will not be able to define themselves. People will not have a choice. We will end up with assembly members with no mandate, no definable constituency, no accountability and no role, permanently packing their bags for a journey they never make.
Those old stalwart watchers of the local government scene, George Jones of the London school of economics and John Stewart of Birmingham university, wrote in July 2002 at the time of the publication of the White Paper:
"While this portfolio"
"appears impressive, the responsibilities are only for preparing strategies rather than for taking action. Unless the regional assemblies are given considerable freedom to set their own strategies and to ensure their implementation they will merely be talking shops. The public will soon realise the assemblies have no real power and turnout will drop."
A little later, they wrote:
"The choice is between a body with strategic responsibilities but no powers of enforcement or a body with powers to enforce turning into what is effectively a supervisory body. Neither the regional advocates nor the white paper have resolved this dilemma."
Therefore we need to know what is intended. I am happy to engage in debate.