I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
When the Government came to power in 1997, we had one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world. It had no regional democratic accountability and ignored the needs and aspirations of the regions, where XWhitehall knew best." The system was unsuited to a diverse and changing society, and ill equipped for our modern economy. It allowed divisions between and in the regions to widen.
In the past five years, we have achieved the most far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change in living memory. We have handed power back to the people and transformed our system of government through devolution to Scotland and Wales, reform of the House of Lords and modernising local government. The Conservative party opposed all those changes and quietly adopted them later.
We have begun to reverse the years of neglect. We restored democratic city wide government to London and we have set up strong, business-led regional development agencies in the English regions. We have helped to create a network of eight voluntary regional chambers, and increased investment and employment in all regions to record levels. Our forthcoming planning Bill will strengthen regional planning.
Today, we published a local government Bill and announced a significant package of freedoms and flexibilities. That will help to improve people's quality of life and their experience of public services. It will allow more decisions to be made locally and reduce bureaucracy. It will also give local councils greater freedom to shape the services that they provide. However, there is a devolution deficit in England. It is a democratic deficit that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill tries to tackle.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the Bill after many decades of campaigning. It is dear to his heart and to those of many Labour Members. If pre-legislative scrutiny is not possible for the Bill, will he consider allowing a period of such scrutiny for similar measures in future so that our colleagues in all the regions and all those with an interest in them can present their views and thus make the Bills even better?
I shall consider my hon. Friend's point, but he appreciates that the forthcoming measures on local government and on housing are in draft form. Presenting draft Bills to pre-scrutiny Committees means that the House is better informed. I shall bear his point in mind.
The Government gave the people of Scotland, Wales and London the chance to make more decisions for themselves, and the people of England and Wales the opportunity to have directly elected mayors. The forms of devolution and the structures are different, but they are based on handing power back to the people and letting them decide. The Bill offers, for the first time in our history, opportunities to the English regions similar to those offered to Scotland, Wales and London. That is not before time.
The Government believe in trusting people. We have no intention of forcing elected assemblies on any region, but we believe that, where people want it, regional government will make a difference. Nor did we force elected assemblies or their equivalent on the people of Scotland, Wales or London: all had a referendum.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the Bill offers the same opportunities to the English regions as were offered to Scotland and Wales. Given that the Scottish Parliament has tax-raising powers and a significant degree of devolution, has he amended the proposals in the White Paper to make those same powers available to the elected English regional assemblies?
I did not say that they were the same powers. The principle of decentralising decision making has found different forms of expression in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. Other parts of the country are not exactly the same as, for example, the London area. We have made a judgment about what powers should be available and what decentralisation should take place in the English regions, and that is what we are putting before the House. It will help us to provide better public services and better decision making.
Our White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", was published in May this year to set out our plans for elected regional assemblies in those regions in which people wish to have them. Elected assemblies will take functions down from central Government, not up to the local authorities. They will be fit and lean, with real powers to make a difference and form a strong partnership with both the public and private sectors. We want to bring democracy to the regions, to reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it, and, above all, to provide regional accountability.
I would like to return to the Deputy Prime Minister's comparisons between these proposals and the devolution in Scotland, Wales and London. Scotland, Wales and London have delineated boundaries. What will be the constituencies for the referendums to determine whether the people in a given region wish to have an elected assembly? In some cases, those regions correspond with people's sense of identity, but in others, such as the south-east, they certainly do not. It must worry the right hon. Gentleman, as a true democrat, that it will not be easy to take the feeling of the south-east, given that there is no real sense of identity in that region, either in terms of geography or of—
The right hon. Lady was in the Government who established the regional offices. They had no difficulty in determining the regional boundaries, which are the same as those designated in the Bill. We have done exactly the same. I do not see why she should feel differently in opposition from how she did in government. If we want to make progress on regional government, timetables are important. If we got into a debate about boundaries, it would take an awfully long time to make these decisions. That has been tried—we all know of debates about whether somewhere should be in the north-west or the north-east, for example. We intend to ensure that it is possible to introduce regional government, and to give the people in the regions the choice. We are not saying that they should have assemblies; we want to give them the choice. The measures will be based on the existing boundaries.
Is not that the key point of this debate? Do not the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals stand in stark contrast to what happened in the metropolitan areas—North Yorkshire, Humberside and Cleveland, for example—which the Conservatives imposed on the country without any real consultation, involvement or participation of the local people?
My hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that, for the Conservatives, the rhetoric of opposition is entirely different to what they did in government, but we must take that as part of the political game. After all, they are the people who opposed the devolution of powers to London, Scotland and Wales, then quietly came round to accepting it later. I presume that that might happen in this case as well.
The Bill responds to the desires that many regions are already expressing.
Hang on, I have not even got started on this section.
The Bill does not establish elected regional assemblies; that must come later. That was also the case for Scotland, Wales and London. It is not the case that people voting in a referendum will not know what they are voting for. The White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", sets out our proposals. The removal of one tier of local government is an integral part of the regional assembly package. We want government to remain streamlined, and once we have received the boundary committee's local government recommendations for a region, we will publish a statement that will be put to the electorate before any referendum. That statement will cover both the proposals for any local government reorganisation and a summary of what the assembly would do and how it would work.
As my hon. Friend well knows, the proposals in the Bill are for unitary government. We believe that if any regions want regional government or want to take a step towards it, we should test opinion with a referendum. We will ensure that the boundary committee puts in the proposals for, on the one hand, regional government and, on the other, unitary government.
The proportion of people covered by unitary government varies from area to area—it is large in the north-west—but I will not get into the argument about whether Cumbria is in the north-west or the north-east. Both have high populations under unitary government, but my hon. Friend will find that the figure for the eastern region is low. We are making it clear that we do not want three tiers of government in a region. Under regional government, where the people choose it themselves, there will be a unitary local government structure.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider the position that he has put my constituents in, although I speak as one who in principle favours the Bill that he is putting before the House? If the boundary committee decides to make local government more remote by providing single-tier county local government, people will be invited to vote against the local government system that they want to get the region that they want. To make matters worse, the decision will be taken by voters who are not affected by the proposals and who live in those parts of the region that already have single-tier government.
I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but we did not want people to be confused about what the local government structure should be. We could have a local government reorganisation recommending some kind of unitary authority and perhaps go on to a referendum on regions, but we have said that we will have the regions and that the boundary committee will take into account how the unitary structure is to work.
The right hon. Gentleman is correct: people might vote against the regions if they do not like all that and if they do not like the local government structure, but they will have the choice. That is what we are providing. We have made our decision, and we did not want to leave any doubt as to whether there would be three-tier government. The House can imagine what this lot opposite would say if we agreed that the county structure was there—[Interruption.] Yes, this lot—that will do. The House can image what they would say about the county structure, so we have chosen to strike a balance in this way.
I approve of the principle, and the Deputy Prime Minister's saying that he wants to challenge the XWhitehall knows best" philosophy reassures me, but he also said that the regions would be set up where people want them. On
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are doing our best to take account of the Cornish interest and we recognised the Cornish language, which he welcomed. I have a long interest in regional development and I have visited the south-west many times. I must tell him that I expected considerable division there, because it always seemed to me that Cornwall hated Devon, they both hated Bristol and they all hated London. I did not think that they would get together to this extent, but, as he knows, the assemblies that they have set up—the chambers, as they are called in the south-west—have worked together. That includes Devon, Cornwall and the whole region. I am comforted by that, and I think that those areas are beginning to see themselves as the south-west region. From what I have seen in the polls, there is considerable demand for regional government, with or without the Cornish assembly.
The right hon. Gentleman has had one go.
It might help the House if I set out the timetable that we envisage for the first referendum. Subject to parliamentary approval, we will decide whether the region or regions should undergo a local government review without delay. The relevant provisions of the Bill will be commenced on Royal Assent to allow that. We will then direct the boundary committee to conduct a review of the local government arrangements in the selected region or regions. Those reviews will take about a year to complete. We will lay an order for a referendum or referendums as soon as possible after that.
I turn to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 enables referendums to be held, including setting out what the referendum question should be. As the House is aware, the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to comment on the intelligibility of any referendum question. This is the first time that it has been asked to do this, and I am pleased to say that it announced yesterday that the referendum question set out in the Bill meets its guidelines. The commission made some small but constructive suggestions for the wording of the preamble. We shall consider them carefully and respond in due course.
The Deputy Prime Minister will know that the average turnout on referendums for directly elected mayors was 29.2 per cent. If the first region to have a referendum votes for regional government with a turnout of 29 or 30 per cent., is that a legitimate vote to change the constitution of this country?
That is a little more than what the Tory party gets at the polls, is it not? I cannot avoid making that point, because it is a nice one to make. The votes on directly elected mayors have varied. Some have been higher than those for council elections, and some have been lower. It is right to quote the average, but some have been well over 50 per cent., which is higher than is achieved for council elections. The polls in Scotland, Wales and London were high, so there was a strong endorsement for those measures. We should wait until the debate in the communities has started, and see how people respond to it. I have to take this matter into account when I agree on whether a referendum should take place in a region. All the signs are that demand and support for regional government are a lot higher than most people predicted many years ago.
I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister on referendums. He is aware that any Minister who brings legislation to the House must have credibility. Would he care to reflect on the fact that the Minister in the Scottish Parliament whom the Deputy Prime Minister said was innocent of attacking the firefighters has resigned in the past few minutes? In the light of that, would the Deputy Prime Minister, for his own credibility, rephrase and rework his comment that the attack on firefighters was never said?
I am struggling to find the right page, but I think that the Library brief reminds us that the percentage turnout for the referendum in London was in the mid-30s. I do not think that that is a ringing endorsement. The turnout in the Welsh referendum was just over 50 per cent., and the yes vote was won by 0.6 per cent. That was when the Government were actively campaigning for a yes vote. Why will not the Government put the neutrality to which I referred earlier to one side and actively campaign for a yes vote on the English regions?
I am not neutral. I am campaigning for this Bill.
Part 2 provides a power to direct the boundary committee for England before any referendum to review the structure of the existing two-tier local authority areas in a region—that is, areas that have country and district councils. We intend to implement its recommendations if people vote for a regional assembly.
Part 3 allows the Electoral Commission to give advice on the electoral areas for regional assemblies. Part 4 provides a power to make grants in respect of the activities of existing voluntary regional chambers. Part 5 covers general provisions, such as commencement and expenditure.
I support the concept of regional assemblies. If existing unitary authorities have a strong view that they would like to be part of a new wider authority, such as Blackburn wanting to be part of East Lancashire under the regional concept, would my right hon. Friend allow that to be considered during this process?
I would be wise not to comment on any boundary changes between council and local authorities.
I would still be wise not to comment at this stage.
Before a referendum is held in a region, the independent boundary committee must have conducted a review of local government in that region and made its recommendations. That is what part 2 is about. Regional assemblies would add a third tier of elected government below the national level in areas that currently have both county and district councils. We believe that that is one tier too many. It is proposed that, if people want a regional assembly, we will move to a wholly unitary local government structure.
I am having difficulty getting on with my speech and answering questions. I shall give way in a few minutes, but I must make progress.
Our proposal will ensure that government remains streamlined. As I said earlier, this is about bringing democracy to the regions and reducing bureaucracy, not increasing it. The review will recommend changes only to those parts of the region that currently have both a county and district council. Existing unitary authorities will not face any structural or boundary changes.
I know that some Members are worried about the fate of counties. Let me emphasise that, contrary to some ill-founded speculation, we have no agenda for abolishing the counties—or, for that matter, the districts. It will be for the independent boundary committee to recommend the best wholly unitary local government structure for the regions.
The Government will issue guidance to the boundary committee on the local government reviews. We will publish it in draft for consultation shortly. Proposals for local government changes will be published before any referendum. Voters will know the full implications for local government when they vote. We do not intend to go ahead with the proposed reorganisation if a region rejects the idea of an elected assembly.
The Deputy Prime Minister may or may not know that in Shropshire there is a growing demand, not just from Labour and the Liberal Democrats but from the Conservative party, for a single unitary authority. However, we do not want to have to wait for some referendum. There is quite a lot of opposition in Shropshire to becoming part of the West Midlands regional assembly. The Deputy Prime Minister may well find that people vote against an outcome that they actually want. Why can he not decouple the two processes?
We have made a judgment, as I mentioned earlier. The boundary committee will make the decision. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gives the committee his views.
Which regions will go first? That is an important question. It is about choice: no region will be forced to have an elected regional assembly, or indeed a referendum. This will be the choice of the people. They will make the decision; I will merely provide the circumstances in which they can make it.
We will sound out the level of public interest in a referendum in each region while the Bill is before Parliament. We want to hear the views of people in the regions. We also want to hear from existing regional chambers, local authorities, local MPs and MEPs and others. We look forward to the consultation. In some regions, the level of interest may be inconclusive—not high enough to clearly justify holding a referendum, but not low enough to rule it out definitely. Alternatively, so many regions may show a high level of interest that we may need to consider whether to ration the number of reviews conducted simultaneously. In such instances, we may want to take account of other factors, such as the effects on local government of conducting a review.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way at last. He said earlier that the county councils were not under threat from his proposals, or at least not under threat from the Government. I noticed that he had difficulty in keeping a straight face while he said it. What is his response to the leader of Hampshire county council, Councillor Ken Thornber, who has pointed out that eight of the 10 powers listed in the White Paper for regional government would overlap with existing county council powers? Does that not show that, far from powers being drawn down from central Government towards the people, they will be taken away from the people when they are removed from the counties which, no doubt, will then be abolished?
I do not agree. [Laughter.] That is my right.
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind exactly what he did when his party was in power. He supported an Administration who abolished the Greater London council, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. There was no referendum. There was no consultation. They just abolished those councils. It is a cheek for him to stand up today and talk about what we might be doing. We have made it clear that the issue of regional government will be decided by the people in the regions. They will know what kind of local government structure they want: it will be their choice. That is why the White Paper is called XYour Region, Your Choice".
I think that I have given way enough for now.
Before I sum up, I want to say something about part 4, which creates a new power for the funding of the eight existing regional chambers. We helped to set up those chambers to contribute to the preparation of regional economic strategies by the regional development agencies. The chambers are made up of local representatives and key stakeholders—in some cases with a majority of Tory councillors, but we will leave that aside—from the social, economic and environmental sectors in the regions. David Davis is laughing. He knows that one of his party's chairmen is a member of an assembly. He has not heard that the party in London is against it.
The chambers have been a success story. I take this opportunity to thank all those involved, from all political parties, for the hard work that they have put into getting the chambers up and running and working together for the benefit of their regions. They have taken on an increasingly significant role. All chambers now scrutinise the work of the RDAs, and many are involved in the production of regional sustainable development frameworks and the preparation of regional planning guidance.
Before my right hon. Friend sums up, may I ask him not to undersell this measure? He may remember that in 1945, Clement Attlee said that the referendum was a device alien to all our traditions. It has now become central to them. We used to make them up as we went along. Surely the importance of the Bill is that we now run referendums coherently and fairly. Is that not a great advance?
It is. That is an important point. Knowing this to be a controversial measure on which people had strong views, I thought that it was right to have a referendum. It was in our manifesto. We have introduced the Bill to let the people make the choice. I personally would like to see regional government throughout the UK but I am prepared to let the people make the choice. I must advocate our case—I will in those circumstances—make clear what I believe is the best way forward, and then the decision will be made in a referendum.
Five of the eight chambers have taken on the role of the regional planning body. In light of the positive responses that we have received to our planning Green Paper, we now believe that it is right for all eight regional chambers to carry out that role in the absence of an elected regional assembly.
At present, the chambers get most of their funding from local authorities. As the role of the chambers expands, in particular on planning, a more general funding mechanism is needed. That is why the funding power provided by part 4 is required.
The Bill is at the heart of our programme to modernise our constitution, to decentralise power and to deliver better public services. It is a crucial step towards establishing a democratic voice for the English regions—a voice that has been denied them for far too long. We want to give the people of our regions the right to choose—the ability to decide what is best for them. The Conservative party's amendment would deny the people in the regions that choice. It would deny them the opportunity for change.
The Conservative party does not like devolution but it eventually comes on board. Remember that it opposed on Second Reading the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill in May 1997, but later changed its mind. It opposed on Second Reading the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill in November 1997, but later changed its mind. It opposed on Second Reading the Government of Wales Bill in December 1997, but later changed its mind. It opposed on Second Reading the Scotland Bill in January 1998, but later changed its mind, and it opposed on Second Reading the Greater London Authority Bill in December 1998, but later changed its mind. At least it is consistent in its opposition. First it opposes and then it changes its mind. I am sure, bearing in mind that track record, that it will not be too long before it has another rethink. I ask the House to reject the amendment and to support the Bill, which I commend to the House.
I beg to move, To leave out from XThat" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
That this House
declines to give a Second Reading to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill because it is a centralising measure that will have the effect of undermining local democracy;
it places too much power in the hands of the Secretary of State to determine the timing of each referendum in each region;
it fails to protect the right of individual communities to determine the local government structure that suits them best;
the arrangements for referenda are inadequate and insufficiently defined;
it fails to recognise that unitary authorities are not an appropriate solution in all parts of the country;
it fails to recognise the needs of rural areas;
and it is incapable of protecting long-established county councils.
The Deputy Prime Minister advances three main arguments for regional government. He claims that there are economic benefits, that people want to feel part of a region and that he is introducing democracy to existing regional bureaucracies. I will examine each of those claims in turn and pass by some of the constitutional theories that he seemed to invent during his speech.
XElected regional assemblies will develop a strategic vision" and that they will
Ximprove economic performance".
All available evidence suggests exactly the opposite. Let us consider what is happening abroad. Many European countries, generally those that are much larger than England, have existing layers of regional government, but it is striking that in those countries disparities between the regions are getting larger, not smaller.
Let us consider what is happening here. In the past few years, existing regional quangos have lobbied for more taxpayers' money for their area—understandably—and since the quangos have been established, disparities have grown larger, not smaller, just as they have in Europe. Furthermore, the subsidies have largely funded inter-regional competition, rather than specialisation to the areas competitive advantage.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Germany. Of course, we must differentiate between regions in the former East Germany and those in the west. Does he accept that there is far less variation in the old federal republic than we experience in this country? There is enormously less variation, and it is a much fairer system.
I was talking about the trend in the difference between the regions. I am not comparing old East German regions with old West German ones. I am following the CBI, which said that the differences are getting worse.
The same is true in Britain: where we have regional government things are getting worse. The Government's own preferred measure of unemployment, the labour force survey, reveals that the highest unemployment rate in the country is 7 per cent. Where? In London, where there is a new tier of government. The second highest rate is 6.5 per cent. Where? In Scotland, where there is a new tier of government.
Let me offer a quotation:
XBusiness is disappointed that the government is pushing ahead with Regional Assemblies. English regions do need to help improve economic development, but this is not the right way to do it. They will simply add complications to the decision-making process and undermine the efforts of the Regional Development Agencies."
Those are not my words, but those of the CBI's deputy director general, Mr. John Cridland, who also said:
XThe Government needs to take action to improve economic performance and leadership skills in all regions rather than concentrating on establishing expensive talking shops in just a few areas."
Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister believes that there is more support from business for regional government in the north-east. That is probably his best target.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned London and Scotland in support of his preposterous theory. I note that he did not mention Wales. Is that because the figures do not back up his case? Given that he is not now opposing the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and London, is he not for once tempted to get ahead of the game and accept the principle of devolution, rather than having to play catch-up with public opinion?
I will return to the constitutional aspects of what the right hon. Lady said, because the Deputy Prime Minister was disingenuous in his comparison between these regional proposals and the arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. For now, I am simply talking about the economic arguments, which do not support her case. She is a north-east Member, and business people in the north-east are worried that the proposals will hinder rather than help them and will over-politicise the RDAs regeneration work. That was said in The Economist not that long ago, quoting Stephen Rankin, director of the CBI in the north-east.
The right hon. Gentleman has said first, that the new bodies have done untold economic damage, and secondly, that they are expensive talking shops. Either they are institutions that do damage, or they are talking shops—they cannot really be both.
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that talking shops can do damage: over-regulation is one of the most damaging things in Britain today, and it largely arises from talking shops. He seems to think that hyperbole will make his argument. The onus of proof is with the Government—they are the ones who say that the Bill is justified by the significant changes in productivity that will be wrought by it, which is sheer unmitigated nonsense. I am demonstrating that it has not worked before.
The right hon. Gentleman has obviously been trawling the evidence, so would he like to comment on that produced by the Work Foundation, formerly the Industrial Society, on the contribution that decentralised Government structures can make to economic performance by boosting productivity and in the development of industrial clusters? If he has not seen that evidence, may I refer him to the foundation's submission to the Select Committee on Trade and Industry a few months ago?
I should be happy to see the evidence, as I used to be a director of the Industrial Society. However, all the major business organisations are against the hon. Gentleman's argument. The business clusters to which he refers do not require regional assemblies of any sort.
What will be the next aspect of the economic impact of regional assemblies? How much will they cost? They will cost the taxpayer billions of pounds. In his speech, the Deputy Prime Minister tried to dance around the proposed abolition of county councils, but that will entail sizeable, one-off local government reorganisation costs. He of all people should remember the abolition of Humberside county council, as both his constituency and mine are within the area that it used to cover. The one-off cost for the abolition of that council was £53 million. The council left behind relatively impoverished public services, as the right hon. Gentleman will know because we both suffer from them. The former Humberside police force had few assets, for example, so that £53 million represented only the visible cost.If the costs of regional government are in the same league, the abolition of the remaining 34 county councils could cost up to £1.8 billion in 1999 figures. The current equivalent would be about £2 billion.
Could there not be efficiency savings? At present, for example, one authority might be responsible for roads while another is responsible for road calming; or one authority might be responsible for pavements, while another is responsible for shrubbery and trees. Would not unitary authorities be able to make savings?
The hon. Gentleman confuses agencies with local authorities, but, in any event, such economies of scale do not work well in government. What matters more is that there should be a reflection of local opinion and local democracy.
In London, the Greater London Authority spends £34 million a year on administration. Based on its per capita cost, regional assemblies in England outside London would cost more than £300 million a year. That excludes programme expenditure, which would involve additional waste.
The total long-term cost of the lease of the GLA building is £120 million. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly buildings are both over budget and it is estimated that they will cost about £210 million and £50 million respectively—although no doubt the final amounts will be much more.
Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure us today that if the north-east or the south-west took the regional option, they would not want new assembly buildings, just like those in Wales or Scotland? Of course he cannot, because it is certain that they will want those buildings—at massive extra cost to the taxpayer.
The Deputy Prime Minister will remember the following pledge from Labour's 1997 manifesto. He may even have been its author. The manifesto stated that regional assemblies would be established only following
Xconfirmation by an independent auditor that no additional public expenditure overall would be involved".
However, many regions will believe that they would receive more money from the Treasury to fund regional government, so can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm to the House that the pledge still stands? I shall allow him to intervene if he wants to do so—obviously he does not. There is no economic reason to introduce regional government.
In Shropshire, the Conservative party supports the unitary principle, which would involve the abolition of five district councils and setting up a unitary Shropshire authority. That would make savings such as those described by Mr. Dhanda. Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that the Conservatives are wrong to support a unitary authority in Shropshire?
That decision is for Shropshire, not for this place. The hon. Gentleman made the same point 20 minutes ago and it carries no more weight now than it did then.
Let us move on to the Deputy Prime Minister's next point. He claims that people want to feel part of a region, but regional government will do nothing to give power to local people; instead, it will take it further away. Decisions currently made by county councils, which are close to local communities, will be transferred to regional assemblies, which are further from local communities. A body of about 35 to 40 people will take decisions that have huge ramifications for thousands of people, and what is right for one part of the region may not necessarily be right for another part. Regions will be unable to square the circle of interests between urban and rural areas.
The Deputy Prime Minister's plans threaten to set region against region—each one fighting for economic advantage over the other. The most successful regions could do well, just as in Europe, but the less successful will lose the young and the ambitious to the more successful. At the same time, regional government will force the abolition of the one unit with which people identify—the county. Under the proposals, planning decisions now made in Hereford will be taken 60 miles away in Birmingham. Decisions now made in Kendal will be taken 75 miles away in Manchester, and those now made in Truro will be taken 90 miles away in Exeter. Why?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the removal of decision making from county councils to regional bodies will be accompanied by a dilution of democratic accountability? I have calculated that in the east of England, whereas 6,000 or 7,000 electors are represented by each county councillor in my constituency, about 160,000 electors would be represented by each of the directly elected members of a regional assembly. The electors would never see those people or know anything about them.
My hon. Friend hits the point exactly. The areas involved would be at least three times the size of parliamentary constituencies.
The Deputy Prime Minister has talked about the democratic deficit, but why does he want to introduce the proposals? Could it be because the counties tend to vote Conservative, so they will be gerrymandered into what the Government hope will be Labour-run regions instead?
Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities, established by tradition, history and custom. Regions will be nothing more than lines on a map drawn by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. They will have no legitimacy whatever, especially if they are imposed on counties against the will of those who live in them.
I should think that the county of Lancashire has much more legitimacy in the eyes of those who live in it than the new north-western region will have if it ever comes into being.
Let us deal with the major problem with the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister says the Bill will bring about more democracy, but, in a democracy, voters have to know what they are voting for. They need to know what the choice is, to use his own word. For that to happen, the proposition has to come before the vote, but with the Bill, it will be vote first, proposition afterwards. The Bill proposes that referendums should be held without voters knowing the structure or powers of the assemblies for which they are asked to vote. Even the Deputy Prime Minister would have a hard job to convince anyone that that is democratic. [Interruption.]
There is a proper role for referendums in constitutional change, but only if done properly. If it is not done properly, it can be a dangerous tool. The Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, who is no longer in the Chamber, said that Clement Attlee—who is, I think, one of the Deputy Prime Minister's heroes—famously described the referendum as the device of demagogues and dictators. We may not always go as far as he did, but what is certain is that pre-legislative referendums of the type the Deputy Prime Minister is proposing are the worst type of all.
Referendums should be held when the electorate are in the best possible position to make a judgment. They should be held when people can view all the arguments for and against and when those arguments have been rigorously tested. In short, referendums should be held when people know exactly what they are getting. So legislation should be debated by Members of Parliament on the Floor of the House, and then put to the electorate for the voters to judge.
We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for. Referendums need to be treated as an addition to the parliamentary process, not as a substitute for it.
The right hon. Gentleman has described the importance of Members of Parliament debating matters so that electors can make a choice. Is not it more important in this context that people in the regions are able to debate the issue, think about the kind of institutions that they want to create and be able to vote on that? Is not that precisely what is being suggested, not just in the referendum proposal but in the proposal for regional chambers and other initiatives?
That would apply only if people could create their own regions in the way that their argument leads them to do. What is being said to them, however, is XYou vote, and we'll decide what sort of region you will have."
As it stands, the Bill is an affront to those principles. It asks people to vote for proposals that are unspecified, untried and untested. I would have relished the opportunity to debate the details of regional assemblies, but, clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister is not ready to have that debate. It is simply wrong for the Government to come to the House and act in this way. If they do, how can we trust them when it comes to the referendum? Major constitutional changes justify the use of referendums because the constitutional rights of our citizens are owned by the people and not by politicians. However, it is important that referendums are not misused simply as a snapshot of volatile changes of opinion, perhaps as a result of pressure of Government propaganda. That is why Donald Dewar and John Smith used to talk about the settled will of the population.
The concept of settled will is that of an idea that has taken root in the minds of the people, has resonance in their daily lives and is a stable part of the way in which they think the country should be run. Because referendums are supposed to reflect the settled will of the people, we need to have thresholds below which they do not carry the day.
As I follow the right hon. Gentleman's argument, he claims so little legitimacy for what the Government suggest in the Bill that I imagine that he would want to abolish any regional assemblies created by the procedure as soon as a Conservative Government, were one to be elected, came to power. Would he abolish any regional assemblies elected by this method? What would he do with the money that had been transferred from the unelected sphere to the elected sphere? Would he set up new patronage bodies to administer that money?
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not been listening even to the last few words that I said. I have been describing the grounds on which a referendum provides an acceptable and democratic outcome. Our view is that a reasonable level for the threshold that determines a settled will is that at least half the people vote, and a majority are in favour of the change proposed. That is a reasonable measure of the popular will. If the proposal receives the support of at least 25 per cent. of the total electorate, it should carry the day. That is pretty reasonable. Let us consider the result of the Scottish referendum. That exceeded the 25 per cent. threshold by 49 per cent. The Welsh referendum—
What my right hon. Friend is saying is that, on a free election, if only 25 per cent., or one in four people, supported the proposal, and 75 per cent. of the population does not come out to vote for it, that is an authority by which one proceeds with profound constitutional change. That has never been so in our history previously, until we had new Labour and its contorted and distorted referendums rejigging our constitution. Will not he accept that for our party to have accepted the Welsh outcome, in which 75 per cent. of a free people in a free election did not support an assembly, is an extraordinary turnabout?
My hon. Friend deserves a proper answer and I shall endeavour to give it. I know that he views these matters with a passion that is probably unequalled anywhere in this Chamber. We live in a time when referendums are used for constitutional amendment. I take the view that that is correct for the reason that I gave earlier. The constitutional rights of the people belong to the people and not to the politicians whom they temporarily elect. Therefore, we must determine at what level of support a referendum becomes valid.
I do not want to set the threshold too high as that could rightly be dressed up as a bogus argument. I want to make an argument that is appropriate to the level of constitutional change. If this issue carried as much force as the proposals for the Scottish Parliament, I would set the threshold a little higher, but I grant my hon. Friend that it is a matter of judgment. We are now talking about bodies that will hold the powers partly of central Government but mostly those currently held by county councils. On that basis, the level that I have suggested is acceptable. I take his point that it is a fine judgment to determine what makes a referendum an acceptable basis for a decision.
I will not give way as I am coming to the end of my remarks.
My hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd made the point that the figure of 25.2 per cent., which was the one obtained in the Welsh referendum, would have just passed the test. However, there was a great deal of controversy about whether the referendum was appropriate, and I accept that. However, the point that I want to make is that there is no threshold in the Bill. It should not be passed. It contains too many unanswered questions, and the Government have used up their quota of trust.
We reject regional assemblies not because we oppose devolution, but because we support it. We reject them not because we oppose economic development, but because we support it. We reject this Bill not because we oppose democracy, but because we support it. Any Member of the House who claims to support democracy will reject the Bill.
The speech of David Davis was a thin attempt to belittle what many Labour Members consider to be one of the most exciting proposals for change that we will see in our political lifetimes. I know that some Labour Members and some from my region of the north-west disagree with me, but I have believed passionately in regional government for many years. Although my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister has been accused of being too bold, many of us know that he has had to strike a compromise that he himself recognises as too timid. Nevertheless, I congratulate him from the bottom of my political heart on what he has already achieved in the regions.
This country is probably the most centralised in western Europe, but we have had regional government for all my political lifetime. The problem with that regional government is that it has been government for the south-east by a system of governance that favours that region. That shows up in every facet of our national life. It is shown in the increasing concentration over the years of resources in the south-east, and it is shown in the way in which decisions are taken centrally. In recent times, when there have been degrees of decentralisation, the process has been more equivalent to the system of colonial governors in the former British empire than to the type of modern democratic structure that we would expect. The case for the redistribution of power is overwhelming. We are debating how we democratise the huge numbers of decisions taken by government on a daily basis.
There are different estimates of the resources spent by quangos or non-departmental governmental bodies in the north-west. A low estimate is that the figure is about £1 billion, but massively higher estimates suggest that the spending of as much as £7 billion is determined by bodies that operate regionally but that are not accountable to local people. Everyone must face up to a profound democratic challenge if we are to take control of that layer of decision-making. Although it suits the Opposition to oppose the measure as an attack on the power structure of local government, the rationalisation of local government in unitary authorities, which we have had in urban areas for a political generation, makes a great deal of sense. The creation of a regional dimension at last allows the people of our regions, not those outside them, to decide how to allocate their resources.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I, too, am from the north-west. The democratic challenge is that although Manchester, which he represents, might want the regional assembly, Cheshire might not. If every person in Cheshire votes against it, it can still be imposed on us and we will lose our county council, which is not what we want.
Cheshire is certainly part of the north-west regional identity. That phenomenon goes beyond the boundaries of local government institutions. I do not cease to be a Lancastrian because the county of Lancashire did not have a role in the city of Manchester during my lifetime. Lancashire has not even been the administrative unit for parts of Greater Manchester for more than a generation. That does not stop me, my hon. Friend Mr. Turner or my hon. Friends from other parts of the north-west being proud to be profoundly Lancastrian as part of our birthright. We are talking not about inventing emotion for a county identity, but about the efficiency and accountability of structures of governance.
I have a criticism that is relevant to all Governments. Manufacturing is much more important in the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside than elsewhere. That industry has suffered disproportionately in the system of governance of modern Britain. Decisions on the British economy have tended to favour the service economy, not manufacturing, and have a differential impact on the north. The House of Commons has allowed successive Governments to get away with failing to reflect different regional interests. It is vital that the regions have another layer of interest and influence. They need to be able to tell the Government that they must reflect the increasingly different interests of the regions. Scotland, Wales and Greater London have that ability. It is time for the influence and interests of the northern regions and elsewhere to catch up.
My region has been disadvantaged in many ways. Hon. Members will remember the fairly recent debate on the Daresbury site. It seems to me that a decision on that was made on the advice of people with a south-eastern, or near south-eastern, outlook. They could not understand that it was possible to have world-class science in the north-west of England.
One of the major decisions for the Government will be on the merger of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology—UMIST—and Manchester university. I hope that the merger takes place because it will create a university that offers world-class science. That process would be more straightforward, however, if the new university were supported by a region that recognised the essential nature of the science-base to its long-term future.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the synchrotron investment. The Government, whom he supports, chose to give a £500 million investment to Oxfordshire, not the north-west, which was patently the wrong decision. However, I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that a north-west regional assembly would have had a greater influence on the decision by railing against it. The decision was always going to be made by central Government. It was the task of the House and hon. Members to stand up for our region.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, north-west MPs, certainly on the Labour Benches, fought a long campaign, but alas we lost. I recognise the action taken by the Department of Trade and Industry to make that pill less bitter; nevertheless it was still a bitter pill for the north-west to swallow. North-west MPs, supported by a strong regional assembly speaking with a coherent and consistent voice for the north-west, would be massively emboldened in breaking the stranglehold of the southern thinking which has dominated this country for as long as I can remember.
There is very little to fear from the Bill in the north-west. I say to the doubters among Conservative Members that the beauty of the Bill is that it offers choice. It will allow people to campaign, as I will do strongly, for regional government for the north-west, and it will allow those who oppose it to campaign against it. That is exactly how things should be in a democracy. The advantage of the Bill is that it will give the choice to the people who will be affected rather than to bureaucrats in central Government, or even, at that point, to the House of Commons. This House will give the people of the regions the opportunity to choose. If other regions do not want to do as I hope mine will, that is their choice, although I think that regions throughout England will be making a mistake if they do not opt for regional government.
Does the hon. Gentleman feel that regions that do not want to follow his line should be compensated for not choosing regional government, which would result in extremely costly local government reorganisation and the establishment of regional assemblies?
Applying the same logic, if it is demonstrated that, by choosing regional government and establishing efficient unitary authorities and a regional assembly, my region saves money, will the hon. Gentleman be prepared to say to his voters that on the basis of those savings, money should be transferred to the north-west from other regions? If we are prepared to look at the total deal, his point may be interesting.
The issue here is that the choice will be made by the people of the different regions, and the hon. Gentleman tempts me to turn to important regional matters. Over the years, the northern regions have suffered in the allocation of local government funding, which has advantaged the south-east and, in particular, London. That would have to be considered in the context of a new constitutional formula.
Even more importantly, the Barnett formula will inevitably raise its head. It will do so whether or not we choose regional government, but if we are to examine the viability of new regions in the north-west and north-east, parity of funding will become important. Looking at all the indicators, we see that the north-west has many advantages, and I have enormous confidence that, liberated from its present constraints, it will be able to fast-forward to a better future. However, it is undeniable that many areas of the region have been as profoundly affected by poverty, deprivation and de-industrialisation as Scotland, where the Barnett formula is applied advantageously.
I know that this will be an uncomfortable issue for the Government, but I want to state that although setting up a north-west region is important, we will want to consider parity and fairness of funding within any new regional settlement. In the final analysis, we will want a successful north-west region to make further constitutional reforms so that its powers grow as it demonstrates its ability to use them.
Mr. Lloyd made a passionate and powerful case for regional government and elected regional assemblies. He will not be surprised to hear that Liberal Democrat Members agree with him. My party and our predecessor parties going back to Gladstone have long argued for devolution, and in manifesto after manifesto we have argued for elected regional assemblies, so we will support the Bill tonight. It is right that Britain's existing form of regional government is made accountable to the people.
Our vision of regional government is very different from the Deputy Prime Minister's, however. We have two main criticisms of the Bill, which we shall make tonight and as the Bill proceeds through the House. First, we need more regional devolution than is on offer in the Bill and the White Paper linked to it. Secondly, the Bill does not offer the best way of making preparations for regional assemblies, and I am afraid that it may turn out to kill the idea of regional assemblies. Too often, we see No. 10's hand imprint on the Bill. It is not keen on elected regional assemblies. The Deputy Prime Minister has fought long and hard for his achievements, but I know that he believes in his heart of hearts that this measure should go much further.
Regional democracy, for which the Deputy Prime Minister has made a case, is the reason why we shall vote for the Bill. David Davis did not spend much time talking about democracy, which is at the heart of the Bill and its proposals, but it is a key argument. In both this and the last Parliament we have advocated constitutional reform, in which there has been a great experiment—not least in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and so on. The Bill is linked to that experiment, and tries to get decisions closer to the people, which we support.
The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden failed to say whether or not the Conservatives are happy with the current state of regional government. We have far too much regional government. If one starts to add up all the quangos, one loses count very soon. It is difficult to keep track of all the different Government offices and quangos in the regions. I have looked for myself, and tried to read the Government document. It is difficult to keep track of numbers. Some national quangos, such as the Environment Agency, have regional offices. There are regional quangos such as regional development agencies. Some central Government agencies, such as the Highways Agency, have regional offices. Some central Government programmes have local or regional aspects, and some local organisations have regional aspects. It is a complete maze, and the key thing is that it is not democratic.
Those organisations, quangos and Government offices are non-elected bodies and exercise wide-ranging powers in policy areas including education, health, economic development, the environment, transport, culture and sport. Why are the Conservatives against giving democracy to our regional government? If you start trying to count those quangos, a key problem is trying to define a quango and what fits neatly into elected regional government—one person's quango is another person's ministerial fiefdom. Often, boundaries are not coterminous, so it is difficult to offer precise definitions. I am grateful to Councillor Chris Foote-Wood, who tried to count the quangos in north-east England. Earlier this year, he published a pamphlet called XLand of the 100 Quangos". He used evidence published by the Deputy Prime Minister in November 2001, which found 12 regional strategies in the north-east and 70 regional and sub-regional quangos. Councillor Foote-Wood has managed to find a few more. The Deputy Prime Minister may be interested in them.
Councillor Foote-Wood entitled his pamphlet XLand of the 100 Quangos", but he found 172 regional and sub-regional quangos. I am tempted to list every single one, but I am sure that you would rule me out of order if I did, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Departments that operate quangos in the north-east include the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which has the north-east regional office of the Community Fund and Culture North East. There are six health authorities in the north-east region and 17 NHS trusts. The former Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions had the north rent assessment panel and the north-eastern traffic area authority. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has 71 Government office north-east partnerships, including the XDon't Choke Britain" north-east planning group and the north-east centre for change steering group—I am not quite sure what that does—the northern arts advisers panel, the regional foresight steering committee, the regional round table on sustainable development and so on. Those bodies are not democratic.
The hon. Gentleman says that under the Government's proposals, those bodies will not become democratic. That is part of the problem with the proposals: the Government need to go much further to reduce the quango state. But the hon. Gentleman should be careful—it was his party that set up large tracts of the quango state. It was disappointing that we did not hear the Conservative spokesman arguing the case for democracy.
There is another key argument in principle for elected regional assemblies, and it concerns efficiency. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden argued that if the new organisations were set up, they would create more bureaucracy. If one starts looking at the quango state, one sees bureaucracy writ large. The quangos are chaotic, having been up by Government after Government and Minister after Minister, with no co-ordination among them at all. The quangos duplicate each other's bureaucracies and are ineffective because there are so many of them. When one adds up the expense of setting them up, their offices, their management boards, their non-executive directors, their staff, their pension funds and so on, the cost is huge. There can be no doubt that democratising and rationalising the position under regional assemblies makes huge financial sense.
The hon. Gentleman knows that even if we have regional assemblies, there will still be a tier of quangos, which will simply report to Bristol or Exeter rather than London. That will not improve the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Many of those organisations could become part of the regional assembly, just as Government Departments and agencies are answerable to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State is answerable to the House. We can de-quangoise Britain's polity through the process.
The Conservatives often speak—rightly—about accountability. The point of elected regional assemblies is to make those bodies accountable and to use accountability to drive through value for money. I have been disappointed by some of the ways in which the House tries to hold the Government to account on financial matters. We have almost no ex-ante scrutiny of the Budget. We have three days on the estimates, during which we do not actually debate them—something I have always found rather odd. We do better on ex-post scrutiny, but even our audit processes in the House leave a lot to be desired.
Part of the problem is that across the whole United Kingdom the public sector is too large for Whitehall and Parliament to get to grips with it. If we make sure that elected regional assemblies and the members who serve in them have real powers to scrutinise the way in which the money is spent and to make sure that there is proper audit and accountability, we can get much better value for money for the taxpayer.
There is another way in which elected regional assemblies could promote efficiency. In their fullest form, they are about better policy delivery. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches see the assemblies as key to deep, meaningful reform of the public services. At our recent conference we passed a document that envisaged many aspects of the public services being run and funded by regional assemblies. I shall come to that in due course.
The Government's proposals for the key policy area for elected regional assemblies relate to economic development. Although I have some problems with their proposals, the Government are right to see assemblies as key to promoting economic development in the regions. I say that as a London MP. One of our problems is that the capital is overheating. In Scotland and Wales, devolution has acted as an economic spur. It has led to development, and to organisations getting better advice and working more closely together. Devolution to the English regions could be part of the solution to London's overheating problem—obviously, only part of it, but hopefully it could ensure that there is more managed economic development across the country.
I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would clarify what he just said. Is he proposing that there should be a recession in London? I am sure that that would go down well with his electorate and others. What is happening with the London assembly and Ken Livingstone is that he is damaging London, not helping it.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Mr. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London. I am no supporter of his strategies. However, if people reread my remarks, they will not take from them the meaning that the hon. Gentleman took. We have a huge problem in London. The population forecasts, even adjusted for the latest census figures, will pose a huge challenge for public sector investment in our infrastructure and our public services. I hope that as the London economy goes from strength to strength, it will be able to meet some of that. We must rise to the challenge. I believe that Londoners support the idea of spreading economic prosperity across the country. Let us not forget that many Londoners come from the regions and the nations of the British Isles, and they support devolution and economic prosperity in their home regions.
With regard to Scottish devolution, does the hon. Gentleman accept that Edinburgh is becoming overheated? The real issue for regional government in England and devolution in Scotland is the decentralisation of the civil service, to allow the refocusing of the civil service from London and Edinburgh to the regions of England and the various areas of Scotland.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He made my point rather more eloquently than I managed to.
Although we agree with elected regional assemblies and will support the Bill, I want to make it clear to the Deputy Prime Minister that his version of elected regional assemblies is rather weak and timid. For a start, the Government's vision is far too centralist. They want to keep far too much power for Whitehall and Westminster. They are giving away far too few powers and dismantling far too few quangos. They are putting planning up to regional chambers, even before those regional chambers are accountable to anyone or are elected. That is a bizarre way of going on. As power is given away, it is already gradually being brought back: the Government are proposing centrally imposed targets—public service agreement regimes and so on. That is not devolution. If they intend to trust the people, they should not trust them a little; they should trust them fully. I do not understand why the Government are so timid.
When we examine the details of the White Paper and the powers that regional assemblies will have, we begin to see how the Government sometimes speak with forked tongue. On page 39 of the White Paper, in the section on economic development, under the heading XTraining and skills", the Government proudly state:
XDeveloping the skills of the workforce plays a vital role in economic development. So improving the skills base and equipping people to take up the opportunities being created in a region will be an important component of delivering an elected assembly's objectives."
From such a ringing declaration, we think that we are about to see numerous powers relating to training and skills being devolved to regional assemblies—but no. Further down, we read:
XSpecifically this will mean that . . . the national LSC"— that is, Learning and Skills Council—
Xwill be under a statutory duty to consult assemblies on its guidance to the local LSCs" and that
Xlocal LSCs will be obliged to have regard to assembly strategies".
There is no control over learning and skills councils or over the policy that is going to elected regional assemblies. It is all right for them to be consulted, but that is froth. It is meaningless. They ought to have control. The national Learning and Skills Council should be abolished and real power over an important aspect of economic development given to the regional assemblies.
A similar problem arises in respect of transport. The White Paper proudly states:
XGood transport is essential for sustainable economic success . . . To achieve this, transport needs to be integrated with policy on economic development, planning and housing.
Elected regional assemblies will be responsible for a regional transport strategy".
What does that mean? It means responsibility for advising central Government on the allocation of funds. We in the House and people outside advise the Government about the spending of money, so elected regional assemblies do not seem to have many responsibilities in that regard.
I can give my hon. Friend a vivid illustration. On the Scottish side of the border, the Scottish Executive can decide whether to concentrate resources on dualling the A1. On the English side of the border, London is still answerable for that decision and it will not be in the region's power to make it. Surely, that is one of the ways in which the regional institution needs to be strengthened.
That is a very vivid example. I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue for some time and must be very disappointed about the lack of powers specified in the Government's proposals.
We must not understate the Government's proposals. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that page 45 of the White Paper sets out an indicative expenditure budget for the regional assembly in the north-east. It has a transport budget in the form of £1 million for the rail passenger partnership. Given the importance of transport in regional economic development for the north-east, that is an indication of how little influence an assembly would have over the major issues.
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point very well. The problem that the Government will have when people are being asked to vote on the regional assemblies is that when they read the White Paper, they will see the lack of powers that are being given to them. Many people who would usually be huge advocates of regional devolution will say, XThis is not what we wanted or asked for." They might vote no and some will certainly abstain. The Government are shooting themselves in the foot.
That returns me to one of my original remarks. It may be a little unfair to the Deputy Prime Minister to say so, but I think that he has lost the argument in the Cabinet and that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have overruled real devolution because they are scared of it. We have therefore been given paper tiger elected regional assemblies. Yes, we may be able to build on them in future, but they are not impressive and certainly do not live up to the rhetoric.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, if assemblies are to work, as I hope they will, people must feel affinity with the regions in which they are placed? The south-east is a huge economic engine encircling London. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a case for splitting it into two so that people feel affinity with their areas? People in Lewes feel no affinity with Milton Keynes.
There is a very strong argument for such an approach, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I shall deal later with the fact that one of the problems of the Government's proposals is that they have taken the boundaries from the Office for National Statistics and indeed from the Conservatives, and set them in stone for no obvious reason.
The Liberal Democrats believe that one of the biggest holes in the plethora of powers that are not going to the regional assemblies is the fact that national health service responsibilities are not being devolved. Looking around the regions, it is the NHS that has the largest number of quangos and bodies without any regional representation. At a time when we are having so many problems in trying to run the NHS from the centre and to micro-manage an organisation with so many employees and other organisations inside it, surely we should start learning from experience in other countries. Countries such as Canada and countries as small as Denmark have devolved their health services to their regions and below, trusting the people so that those in the lower tiers of government run their whole health systems. Unsurprisingly, places such as Canada and Denmark have much better health systems as a result and people are far more satisfied with them than with the NHS.
I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment. He clearly thinks that, after almost 60 years of the NHS, complete uniformity has been achieved and everyone gets exactly the same service. Of course, they do not get such a service and that is a nonsensical argument.
The importance of devolution is that it would allow local people choice to set their own priorities in their regions. As we believe that tax-raising powers should accompany devolution of powers over the NHS, we also think that people should decide how much they want to spend on it. That is a major hole in the provisions and a major difference between our approach to regional devolution and the Government's.
The hon. Gentleman confirms that the Liberal Democrats want regional government to be able to raise taxes. Does he see that as unlimited tax-raising power or would he cap it?
In the early stages of elected regional assemblies, there would be limits on that power. However, we believe that in due course—the hon. Gentleman will like this answer—they should be free to raise taxes as they choose, although they will be accountable to the people and the decision will be a democratic one taken by the people in the area. Again, I wonder why the Tories are so against democracy.
I should like to turn now to the details of the Bill and deal with why it is flawed and why the Liberal Democrats will table many amendments in Committee. Besides the powers outlined in the White Paper, no details on powers have been published for people to see before the first referendum, so they will be asked to answer a question without knowing all the full facts. That cannot be sensible. Okay, the Minister may say that that happened in Wales and Scotland, but it created many problems for those campaigning for devolution. The Welsh vote was almost lost. I am not saying that that was due only to the factor that I have mentioned, but I am sure that it had some impact. The Government are shooting themselves in the foot by not being clearer about the powers before the first referendum takes place.
Will the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and the Deputy Prime Minister publish a draft Bill? If the Government are not prepared to legislate before the first referendum, why do they not put a draft Bill before the House? We could then at least give the measures some pre-legislative scrutiny and the voters in the referendum would have a clearer idea of exactly what powers the Government were talking about.
Possibly the worst aspect of the Bill is the fact that the Government are confusing voting for an elected regional assembly with local government reform. I do not understand—I do not think the voters will either—why the Government have put those two issues together. They should be decoupled. If the Government are right and this is a case of XYour Region, Your Choice," surely it could also be a case of XYour council, your choice." People should be given a chance to vote on the issue, but the Government are not making such a proposal. The reason why they are not doing so is that they are running scared—the Deputy Prime Minister almost admitted it—of criticism that there might be more than three tiers of government. In many other countries, there are more than three tiers of government and that means that there is a bit more democracy. Perhaps if people were given the chance to vote against that and to vote for unitary structures that were separate from regional assemblies, they would choose to do so. That is their right, but surely such an approach is the more democratic and grown-up way of going about it. I should be interested to know whether, in trying to find out whether there is any great interest in holding a referendum for an elected regional assembly, the Minister will bother to find out whether there is any interest in local government restructuring.
The hon. Gentleman spoke earlier about efficiency, but he is now talking about maintaining district councils and county councils while allowing the establishment of regional assemblies. Where does efficiency come in?
The hon. Gentleman will also remember that I spoke about democracy, which is very important. There is always a trade-off between democracy and efficiency. I am sure that a country could have a very efficient form of government under a dictatorship. I am sure that Pinochet thought that his civil service was working terribly well when he centralised all the powers. There is a trade-off and I find it odd that the hon. Gentleman does not want to give his constituents or voters in various other regions the chance to vote on that issue.
It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats are talking about introducing some form of local income tax and a tax-raising power for the regional assemblies. Are they also talking about introducing a third income tax if people do not opt for a unitary structure but choose a district, county and regional structure—a sort of Lib Dem triple whammy?
As the hon. Gentleman ought to know, council tax already does that. He fails to understand that the issue is about democratic choice. I think that cutting national taxes and giving power to raise them at a local and regional level is a sensible way forward.
One of the other problems with the Bill is that no boundary review was conducted before its introduction. As I said in response to an earlier intervention, we have inherited the regional boundaries from the Conservatives. I do not think that it is to the Government's credit that they have merely said, XMe too," in respect of the boundaries. They could have instituted a one-year, one-off review to find out what people in the regions felt were the right boundaries. It is a great shame that they have not done so.
Indeed, there is time if the Government get their act together. I wanted to raise one or two issues that we shall doubtless debate in detail in Committee, but I shall focus on only one before I conclude my remarks. I want to consider the ballot paper and the question. The Electoral Commission ruled that the preamble was not sufficiently clear, and the Deputy Prime Minister said that that would be taken into account.
When we debated the Greater London Authority Bill, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that the relevant question had been determined through focus group research. What research has been conducted into the question for which the Bill provides? Have people in the focus groups told the Government whether they understand that the proposed question implicitly refers to local government reform? I am surprised that the Electoral Commission did not rule that the question was unintelligible. Although it did not, hon. Members should complain about it because it is unclear and does not tell people for what they are voting.
We welcome the Bill. Regional government and democracy should have been introduced many years ago. We have wasted years and millions of pounds on the quango state. The Government are therefore right to introduce the Bill.
My hon. Friend eloquently described the Bill as a paper tiger. Liberal Democrats can support the Bill only on the assumption that it will turn out to be a Trojan horse and lead to something more.
My hon. Friend is right that we shall try to strengthen the Government's proposals in the Bill and in the accompanying enabling legislation. I am looking forward to debating with the Minister. We spent three months in Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, which we amended more times than the India Act. I warn him that we shall table many amendments.
Mr. Davey made a long speech. I can present my position more crisply—I shall not need 12 minutes.
I do not believe that regional assemblies will happen. We will not persuade people in the regions that another tier of government will deliver measurable improvements to their lives. I am therefore a sceptic. I believe that the Government are introducing the Bill because we have always had an asymmetrical constitution and some people want to make the United Kingdom symmetrical. In Northern Ireland, we have a devolved institution with specific legislative powers. In Wales, we created a halfway house hybrid, which has no primary legislative powers. In Scotland, we have a new devolved Administration. For reasons of symmetry, we need to impose regional devolution in England.
The proposal constitutes a halfway house. If the Labour party believes in a symmetrical constitution, it should go the whole hog and federalise the United Kingdom. That is the canoe that the Liberal Democrats, who are great federalists, paddle. However, my Government claim that we can satisfy aspirations by introducing the regional devolution for which the Bill provides.
I oppose such devolution. As I said in an earlier intervention about the national health service, I believe in a strong central state that irons out imbalances between the regions, considers their needs and contributes resources to the neediest areas. I do not support a fractured, dismembered United Kingdom, where regional differences are magnified. Liberal Democrats would celebrate such differences, even in the crucial matter of health. They said that there would no longer be a national health service but a regional service, with regional postcode lotteries. What a ridiculous idea.
The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the closure of the accident and emergency department at Kidderminster hospital was a big issue in the midlands during the last election campaign. It resulted in the domination of Wyre Forest district council by a party called Health Concern, which also holds the balance of power on Worcestershire county council. It was instrumental in the election of Dr. Taylor, who has one of the biggest majorities in the House, and it is probably one of the reasons for my presence here. However, none of that could change a decision that was made in London. There was no local accountability. How does the hon. Gentleman propose to make any such changes without regional government?
I understand the point. A national health service should mean simply that. Perhaps that is an aspiration, but I hold to it and so should the Labour party. I support common standards in so far as they are possible throughout the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman should discuss the matter with the district council. I have made the point as clearly as I can.
The White Paper includes innumerable references to regional assemblies Xplanning", Xdrawing up strategies" and Xtargets". People in north-east Lancashire are not interested in that. We have the worst housing in the United Kingdom and we do not need a new assembly to tell us to plan and form strategies to deal with it. We need money from a central Labour Government to knock down crummy, crumbling housing. That would do more to transform the lives of my constituents in Pendle than setting up a regional assembly in, for example, Lancaster or Wigan.
I have pressed the Deputy Prime Minister on several occasions about why the Government will not come off the fence. If they believe that regionalising England is a good idea, why do not they advocate regional assemblies positively? They did that for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and in London. It is as plain as a pikestaff that the Government are not telling Labour Members of Parliament and members of the party outside the House that we must campaign for English regional devolution, because the Prime Minister does not believe in it. I shall tell him that when I meet him tomorrow. I have never heard him publicly advocating English regional devolution. However, the Deputy Prime Minister has been wedded to it for his whole political life. We are therefore in our current position.
Many phoney claims have been made for regional assemblies. A colleague in my area said that a regional assembly would mean no more problems with the west coast main line. That is like saying that a south-east regional assembly on its own could finance a channel tunnel rail link. That is ludicrous. People are making claims that regional assemblies cannot effect without extra help from central Government, but it is not forthcoming. How do I know that? Page 45 of the White Paper makes it clear that regions that do not opt for an assembly would not be disadvantaged. People who believe that voting for a regional assembly in the north-west or the north-east will mean barrels of money are dreaming.
We must be honest with people and not dress up the proposal as something that it is not.
I am just a bit worried that the hon. Gentleman will go to his meeting with the Prime Minister tomorrow in ignorance of the Prime Minister's words on the opening page of the very White Paper that he is quoting from. The Prime Minister says that the Government's proposal
Xbuilds on the success of devolution elsewhere in the UK—offering people more accountable, more streamlined, and more joined-up government."
The right hon. Gentleman has been around for a long time. To imagine that the Prime Minister's own hand signs off all these documents—what fantasy! What a Liberal Democrat statement that was!
In the few moments that are left to me, I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two other things that have been troubling me. [Interruption.] Yes, there are many such things, but it is great to be able to unburden myself of them. It is very therapeutic. On the cost of the proposals, we have just gone through a major local government reorganisation, and we were promised that it would save—no pun intended—an arm and a leg. It has not. Our whole experience of local government reorganisation tells us that it always costs much more than people imagine.
The Library paper, which has been very helpful, tells us that the Heseltine review of local government in the early 1990s cost £669 million, and that involved only a partial reform. Looking at the legislation proposed by my own Government, I shiver when I think about all the residuary bodies and staffing commissions that will have to be set up. It is going to cost an absolute fortune. The police authorities might have to be reconfigured as well, because they are linked to the counties. The cost could spiral out of control. The Library paper also talks about the cost of devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, which is now estimated to have been between 25 and 40 per cent. higher than anticipated. Case made.
My hon. Friend has been one of the most trenchant critics of Lancashire county council over its recent policy on services for older people. Is it not therefore absolutely essential, and in the best interest of his constituents, that we get a much more devolved form of local government that is able to integrate fully with health and social care, and with private and voluntary sector providers?
It would not be much of a local government if we got rid of the county tiers in the north-west and brought in a new assembly with a membership of between 25 and 35. Even if we take the upper figure, each assembly person would have a constituency of something like 240,000 people. That is not very local. In so far as there are problems with Lancashire county council, those problems have been identified by the voters. The voters therefore have the remedy in their own hands, if they wish to use it.
On resources, my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd spoke earlier about the injustices and inequities of the Barnett formula. But we have had a Labour Government for six years. If the Barnett formula is so iniquitous—and I think it is—why do not my own Government do something about it? They could do something about it tomorrow—literally. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House, he could announce a review of the formula that could put resources into regions such as mine which have lost out over the years.
A lot of the people campaigning in my area keep banging on about European funds. A regional assembly in the north-west would have access to such funds. To put this into perspective, however, £200 million of European structural funding goes into the north-west, but the total Government spending in the north-west is £33.7 billion. So we are talking about something that is de minimis.
Perhaps the answer is to strengthen our existing system of local government and to give MPs like me the opportunity to serve on a regional Select Committee. At present, we have a Regional Affairs Committee, which is supposed to have oversight of all the English regions. Why can we not introduce a system of regional Select Committees, so that MPs like me could meet in Lancaster, Wigan or Manchester—in public and televised—to bring the quangos that we keep hearing about to account? That is a question not for this Minister but for the Leader of the House and others.
I shall vote for the Bill this evening. [Laughter.] I shall do so because I am seeing the Prime Minister tomorrow. He will know my views, and he will appreciate my candour in expressing them.
I suppose that it is ironic that we have just heard two speeches from people who have said what a ghastly Bill this is, and then declared that they are going to vote for it. I, too, am going to say that it is a pretty ghastly Bill, but I am going to vote against it. In that sense, I shall be consistent and, perhaps, break with my recent seditious tradition as far as my relationship with my party is concerned.
I would like to begin on a seditious note. There is actually a case for regional devolution, and it is silly to pretend that that case does not exist. There are two arguments in favour of regional devolution. One is that there is a serious problem with representative democracy in Britain today. We have passed power out of the hands of people who are accountable. To some extent, we have passed it upwards to international organisations, most of which I support. We have also passed it down, sometimes into the hands of the citizen—the school board member, the school governor—for very good reasons. We have also passed it down to a whole series of quangos, the most recent of which are the patient care trusts, which are very large organisations indeed. All the people to whom we have passed down that power have a responsibility to look after the members of their own organisation, but they are not enjoined by any accountability to the wider community. That is what I mean by a problem of representative democracy. The first test is: does the Bill deal with that problem?
The second argument for regional devolution is that, at some stage, we have to address the problem of the government of England. I happen to be passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government. I can think of nothing more destructive for the United Kingdom than a wholly imbalanced power centred in an English Government, faced with the powers of the much smaller nationalities in the United Kingdom. Devolution to regions of the United Kingdom can provide an answer to this problem. Does the Bill fulfil that purpose?
When I stack up this measure against those two possible needs, I have to ask myself: is this the answer—this mewling, puking, piddling, miserable little milk-and-water Bill? This is the sort of Bill that comes from people who put water in their red wine. It is barely worth having at all. If it is supposed to be a Trojan horse—made, I think, out of papier-mâché, if the analogy of Dr. Pugh is going to be correct—I have to say that it is going to take an awfully long time to disgorge its hidden contents.
The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct to say that this is a puny Bill, compared with what is necessary, but many forms of life start out mewling and puking. Even he did! Sometimes they grow up to be Conservative MPs. Why should not we give the Bill the right to live, to see how it develops?
Because I had no choice but to begin life in that microscopic form. The Government do, however, have a choice about whether to begin with something more important. There is a choice in front of us, whereas my parents had no choice. There was only one way of begetting me. We may evolve in due course, but, for the moment, I am afraid that that is a restriction that is enjoined on both the hon. Gentleman and on me.
What claims are made for the Bill? The first is that it will help with economic regeneration. I recall the debate on Second Reading of the Bill that introduced regional development agencies, when the Minister in charge, who is now, improbably, Minister for Sport, said that the Government would have failed if the measure did not narrow the differential among the regions. As those differentials are widening rapidly, I wait for them to draw that particular conclusion.
Secondly, it is claimed that the Bill will help with accountability. Let us consider the problem of economic regeneration. I support economic regeneration and, perhaps unusually, I think that the Yorkshire Forward RDA has not done a bad job in Yorkshire and Humberside, but we should compare what it has with public spending in the region. Incidentally, part of the constituency of Mr. Prentice used to be in North Yorkshire and a reunification movement aims to get it back, because, understandably, being in Lancashire is a bit of a comedown after being in Yorkshire. If we are to take such figures as an indicator, the funds available are puny.
Mr. Lloyd is no longer here, but he said that there is an enormous black hole at the heart of the Government's proposals—that is, there is no proposal whatever to redress the balance of public expenditure among the regions. So the dear old north-east of England, which is alleged to be the region that most wants regional government, will go in to bat against the Scots. The rationale, of course, is that it has to compete with the gravitational field of Edinburgh with puny per capita public expenditure compared with what the Scots enjoy.
The Barnett formula has been mentioned, and it is inescapable that the regions will want more power and more money if we introduce regional devolution. I look forward to seeing the Minister for Local Government and the Regions sorting that one out. Indeed, I am tempted to campaign throughout the south-west in favour of devolution just to see him handle the local government reorganisation that would necessarily ensue if devolution were introduced there.
All I am saying is that we will not get them; people are not being offered that choice. Of course, anybody would want more power and more money. If we get a devolved assembly, the first thing it will do is engage in competition for public funds. That, inevitably, will happen.
I always enjoy listening to the Deputy Prime Minister, as it is like having presented to one for Christmas a brand new thesaurus containing all sorts of meanings of words that one never dreamed existed. He said that the Bill will give the regions opportunities similar to those in Scotland and Wales, but either the word Xsimilar" has entirely changed its meaning or there is a curious elasticity in the language, which is no doubt particular. That is a reflection either on new Labour as a philosophy or on the hon. Gentleman as a grammarian. Perhaps a combination of those problems is involved.
Let us consider what is being proposed on the question of accountability, and let me make my local point. North Yorkshire is the only part of Yorkshire and Humberside that does not have a unitary authority. If there is a vote on a regional assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside, 86 per cent. of those who determine local government reform in North Yorkshire will have nothing at stake as regards the change of structure.
If we get regional government, I shall not be afraid of three tiers. I see no reason for North Yorkshire not to be given the choice, should it wish to keep the regional and county tiers, although it should not be able to retain all the others as well. That is a fallacy of logic in the Government's argument—the search for such uniformity is wholly unnecessary and I hope that the Minister backs off in Committee or we shall be overwhelmed.
The assemblies are a terrible charade, and we should consider the electoral system and the size of the constituencies. The proposal is to abolish one tier of government—it may be good, bad or indifferent, but it at least represents a limited number of people—and to replace it with another that will represent over 250,000 people, topped up by proportional representation. If turnout in the European elections is an indicator of the success of that system of government, I must say that the Government are in for some rapid disillusionment.
We should consider the powers in the Bill. I refer to the Local Government Chronicle—an estimable journal that pays me a modest sum to write for it each month. George Jones, professor of government at the London school of economics, and John Stewart, professor of local government at Birmingham university's Inlogov, have a regular column in which they have disembowelled the Bill. Under the headline XToothless Wonder", they point out all the issues on which a regional assembly will be able to
Xadvise . . . make proposals . . . request . . . support".
The only thing they will not be able to do is decide. The assemblies will be able to decide nothing. There will be nothing on which they can draw up a strategy and execute it. They will spend their time importuning others to do things. If that is a recipe for achieving a good turnout, I am astonished.
When people go to the polls, they ask themselves, XWhat is at stake?" If the answer is nothing, they will not vote. The new system in London has not necessarily given us such astonishing confidence in the transformation of the quality of our public life—says he, having just applied for his congestion charge licence—that we should be confident about its roll-out, to use a word that the Government love, to the rest of the country.
We must also consider the trigger: what will decide that there is to be a referendum? Are we to test the crowd as they come out of St. James's Park, the Stadium of Light or Tesco, or will the usual clutch of councillors, parsons and academics get together to say that the proposals are a good wheeze? In Committee, we need to be told on what basis that test will be undertaken, as it is important. The powers will rest entirely with the Secretary of State. It is all very well saying that the people will decide, but they will not decide whether they want a referendum. There will be lobbies, and the groups that bay the loudest will get the referendums, because, increasingly, that is how our society works.
I am obliged to conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If this is a new dawn, it is a misty, clammy, foggy, chilly November dawn with extremely limited visibility, not merely on the motorways, but on the side roads. The Bill seeks to address a genuine problem—the lack of representative accountability—but the way to do that, which, across the Chamber, we have been reluctant to use, is to give powers back to existing local government, consider the funding, trust people and give them a stake in their local government. We should see whether that will bring a renaissance in the process of accountability and representative democracy in Britain, which we have all conspired to remove and to which the Bill will bring no improvement whatever.
Everybody on the Labour Benches recognises that this country is massively over-centralised. That over-centralisation gives some cause and effect to the wealth, income and health disparities between the regions and the south-east and among the regions. Those problems should be solved, but we will not find the solution in the Bill, which, as previous speakers have said, is quite weak.
I shall come to what should happen, but I must say first that I think the Government believe that the Bill is quite weak. They would be much stronger advocates for it if they were more open about the subjective tests that the Deputy Prime Minister will go through in deciding whether there is to be a referendum, and the Bill would be much clearer if it contained a definite threshold on democratic support. It would also be clearer, and may well get more support, if we were not on such a one-way street, as we often are with referendums. We are not told of the powers that will exist. Quite simply, the Government look shifty in making their case, as they will not tell us those things, or what is in the Deputy Prime Minister's mind or what support they consider appropriate to determining whether there should be a referendum on establishing a regional assembly.
Elected regional assemblies and regional government are not the solution because they run counter to the grain of the history of this country, which is distinguished from its European counterparts by its demography, the history of its local government and its urban areas, towns and shire counties. We should be supporting those cities and making them work.
It is always interesting to hear Conservative Members talk about how much power should be in the hands of local government, as they spent 18 years taking powers from it. They should be returned.
Three hundred years ago, Manchester was a small market town, but I am talking about its post-industrial position. Manchester has had local government for 150 years, so that is going with the grain.
Will my hon. Friend reflect on the Commonwealth games that were held in the City of Manchester stadium this summer? Many of us in the north-west outside Manchester felt that it was a regional event in that a sense of regional pride was very much evident. Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a sense of regional pride in the rest of the north-west outside Manchester?
I viewed the Commonwealth games as a national event. It had a lot of support throughout the country. There was a great deal of support locally, and I was grateful for that, but if my hon. Friend is asking whether there is a north-western identity, no I do not think there is. I think that there is a Merseyside-Liverpool identity and a Manchester-Preston-Lancashire identity, but I do not believe that there is a north-west identity. When I watched television in the 1960s, we were in the north. As Granada diminished in size and the structure of the BBC changed, we were suddenly in the north-west. The north-west is a relatively recent concept. The regions are an artificial construct. Manchester does not have close cultural or sporting ties with Leeds or Liverpool, but because they are tied by the M62, it is economically at least as close to Leeds as it is to Liverpool.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister alluded to the fact that in 1993 Mr. Gummer said which regions there would be when he launched the Government offices for the regions. I served on many of Labour's working parties examining regional government, and the one problem that we could never solve was where the boundaries should be, because there are no natural regions. Salisbury and Southampton, amalgamated in the same chamber of commerce, are in two completely different regions. There are no natural regions in this country, but the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal solved that problem.
One of the more bizarre claims that is made for regional government is that decision making will be better. My experience—I am talking mainly about the north-west, but I do not believe that it would be different in the south-east—is that we will end up with lowest common denominator politics, especially given the democratic system that will be used.
The greatest economic generator in the north-west is Manchester airport. It creates more jobs and brings more wealth to the area than anything else. When I was the director of Manchester airport and leader of Manchester city council, I was involved in the scheme to build a second runway at the airport. I went all over the region trying to get support, but because of local pride, especially on Merseyside which put in planning objections that were supported elsewhere in the north-west, we could not get it. I suspect that in regions where there is no natural majority we will get lowest common denominator politics. My hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd said that the university of Manchester institute of science and technology and Manchester university should be amalgamated, and I agree, but I am not convinced that that would come about more easily with regional government than under the current structures.
I cannot let my hon. Friend get away with saying that there are no natural regions. There is no doubt that the north-east of England is a natural region. We have our own culture, and we require a Bill such as this so that we can get on and make the decisions that need to be made in the north-east, instead of their being made in central London.
Other hon. Members have referred to the voting system for the proposed regional assemblies. I cannot think of anything more likely to put people off voting than constituencies of a quarter of a million, a list of representatives whom they will probably never see and a system that in the north-west and possibly in other regions will almost guarantee a British National party representative on the regional assembly. We must think about that when we set up electoral systems. Our electoral system has kept extremist parties out of Parliament by fair means. It seems strange to set up a system for regional government that will give the BNP and other racist and extreme groups a platform.
I said that one of the bizarre claims was that decision making would be clearer under a regional system. Another claim concerns the core issue of how we deal with regional disparities. It is claimed that regional assemblies and regional development agencies will be the drivers of economic performance. In the north-west, which I know best, the major economic regenerative budget is the single regeneration budget. Why did it drop by £100 million? That is a measure of the commitment to devolution at the centre. It dropped by that much because there was to be no increase in costs to the Government and some of the regions that were created had to have new budgets, so there was a transfer from those areas of need to areas that had not required those resources before because a regional structure was to be established. I do not believe that this measure will be a driver of change. There simply is not enough money.
The amount of money in Scottish Enterprise and the similar body that deals with the Scottish islands is equivalent to that for three RDAs. Even if that money were put into those regional structures, I doubt whether they would relate to commerce and industry.
I do not want to be completely negative about the Bill.
Of course I shall vote for it, if only to give people the opportunity to reject the idea. That is one of the good things about the Bill. The people whom I represent are looking forward to the measures promised in the Queen's Speech to deal with bad private landlords and terraced property. I would much prefer to be dealing with a measure that my constituents are desperate for, because their lives are being made miserable from hour to hour and day to day. That would have a direct impact.
What would a real regional policy look like? We would recognise it because central Government would not allow the synchrotron at Daresbury to be moved to Oxford on the basis of poor reasons. We would recognise it because 80 per cent. of transport spending would not be directed at London as at present. That would make a real difference to the regions. We would recognise it if it got rid of the Barnett formula, and if the surplus of highly paid civil servants and others who do not need to be in London were dispersed to the regions. We would recognise a regional policy that made the London cost adjustment fairer. And we would recognise a real regional policy—a policy that took account of democracy, giving local democracy power as well as responsibility. That would mean ending the system whereby 80 per cent. of local government income is determined by central Government grant, and allowing local authorities to collect it directly in the form of taxes so that they could make real decisions on what happened in their communities.
I am sad about the Bill. The House needs to get to grips with the problem of regional disparities—why we have them, why there is so much poverty in the regions and why gross domestic product per head is not as high as it is elsewhere—but I am afraid the Bill does not deal with that problem. It will not help anyone.
I do not envy the Minister the job of piloting the Bill through Committee. He will have a really difficult time.
My tutor at university, K.B.S. Smellie, wrote the then seminal textbook X100 Years of English Local Government". It was a fairly short book; but the Deputy Prime Minister has told us of years of neglect. We have had the Local Government Acts 1963, 1972, 1985 and 1992, as well as the Greater London Authority Act 1999. We have, in fact, experienced an extremely unsettling series of changes. It has been a case of for and against, round about and over the hill.
I am puzzled by all this. The Deputy Prime Minister tries to elevate his plans to the status of a grand programme of constitutional reform; but, in truth, does it consist of any more than yet another reorganisation of local government, providing even fewer powers than those held by the existing institutions—some of which have endured for a very long time, and command considerable sentiment in our nation? I do not represent a county constituency, but the counties are among the oldest political units in western Europe. They have a remarkable history.
I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the history of counties, but are they not a form of local government that simply does not work any more? Should not some of their functions be devolved to a lower level, and are not others—connected with planning, transport and economic development—meaningful only at regional level?
I was reflecting on the constant change that we have experienced over the past quarter of a century or so, and on whether it has established any of what the Governments involved wanted to initiate. This is what puzzles me. If the Bill represents no more than a stab at some form of local government reform, why does it not follow the normal statutory process? We do not need referendums; we have all the Acts that I mentioned earlier. Important arrangements, which in some measure are constitutions, have been established by a simple Act of Parliament. What Parliament made, it can unmake.
Mr. Prentice said something that, in a sense, was very important. He wanted a strong central state because it could end what he saw as a disparity. Mr. Stringer said that he wanted the regions to be able to perform certain functions, but who can best do that? This is why new Labour is constantly denigrated. The House of Commons is the central institution in the land, and if we have a will it can return to the institutions of local government the powers that it historically gained. I am thinking of the history identified by K.B.S. Smellie—the gradual great municipal developments of the 19th century that brought about the life and standards of our people.
The hon. Gentleman has obviously spent much time studying these matters. He says that the House of Commons is the appropriate place to effect such scrutiny. I agree with him, but, as a member of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs for England, may I ask him how effective that Committee has been in scrutinising the matters that he says we should be scrutinising?
If the hon. Gentleman really wants to know, I think it is an absurdity. The Modernisation Committee looked at it. The Government do not want it. I do not know what it is about. But it could be given life if the House had a will.
The ability to make settlements and adjustments, and to revitalise local government, lies in our hands. There is a great hunger out there among the existing local authorities, whose members ask what is their purpose. There has been a regional attempt at a constitutional convention, whose research papers have identified important findings. Other Members may cite their own areas, but I can say that the west midlands—whatever they may be—receive £1,000 per head less than Scotland. That central point was made, in part, by the hon. Member for Pendle.
I know as well as the Minister that the west midlands have not a chance in hell of suddenly having £5 billion or so cast in their direction. What is being set up is fanciful and, in a sense, phoney. Do people want it? The Deputy Prime Minister speaks of democracy, but it lies in his hands to determine whether there is a local interest and whether the vote will be for or against.
I can conjure up any number of possible tests. Two people wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister, and on that basis he knows there is a groundswell. Well, the tests cannot be quite as fanciful as that. We in the west midlands had always assumed that we did not want this, until the BBC commissioned a poll. Apparently, not one region in England and Wales does not want regional government, and in the west midlands the figure is no less than 73 per cent. On that basis, the Deputy Prime Minister should be signing the documents that will bring about a referendum almost immediately.
Once the Deputy Prime Minister has his referendum, what is the test? There is no test. We do not believe in thresholds any more. I understand why new Labour does not believe in them: it would not have secured any of its supposed constitutional changes with them. There was once a body corporate. Something that affected one part of this island affected us all. The flow of money to Scotland affects the flow of money to Cornwall and Wales; no one can doubt that. There is only one pot, and it is we who give legitimacy to the system. The regional authorities that are envisaged will not raise the money to support the ambitions that are dangled before the people of this country.
I reflect on what we have experienced already. As I observed to my right hon. Friend Mr. Davis, when a free people have been asked whether they want change, in no case has the figure been anywhere near 50 per cent. except in Scotland, where it was just under 50 per cent. Does that demonstrate a real will? Are we not just creating yet another political class?
Huge costs will be involved. People should realise that. What about the ambitions of Wales? Is it to have an overarching county council? If only 25.2 per cent. voted for change in Wales, where a free people were urged to go out and express their will for change, that means that 74.8 per cent. did not want change. It is on such a slender basis that the Government trumpet that this is what Wales wants. Never has a minority of votes cast among the electorate been construed as an authority for the introduction of change.
Why do I say that? Let us consider the rules of any club. I know of no club in my constituency that would permit fundamental rule changes on the basis that one in four members wanted them. The Government have put no threshold in the Bill, which is why they could not secure—as the hon. Member for Pendle said—their ambitions for one important, powerful Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, in respect of this nonsense.
The Liberal Democrats say that they want regional government, but it is currently incoherent. Scotland is different from Wales, which in turn is different from other areas. This was once a symmetrical country; to that extent, I disagree with the hon. Member for Pendle. What was so for a man or woman in Cumbria was so for us in what was once Staffordshire. Aldridge-Brownhills never wanted to be in Walsall. It is a nightmare. Such misalliances are repeated across the country. The Government are dedicated to casting those misalliances of arrangements against the grain, so to speak. We have to forget our history to accept measures such as this.
I want to try to redress the balance in the debate, which has been far too dominated by Lancastrians and by quibblers arguing against what could and, I hope, will be the basis of a very good and necessary decentralisation in this country. It is a small step to what has been a lifetime's ambition of mine: to have greater decentralisation, and to give more power to the regions and to the people where they live, interact and function in a modern society.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. He has fought for that over the years in the Labour party against a good deal of opposition and now he is fighting for it in government. When we get these regional assemblies—and, I hope, eventually regional governments based on them—it will be his monument in modern Britain.
I have to make a confession: I started on this journey believing in home rule for Yorkshire. It is a simple proposition. When I became MP for Great Grimsby, I included Humberside in that rubric, otherwise I would have been executed. There is no love lost between Tykes and Grimbarians.
It seemed that Yorkshire had had a bum deal from the nation. It was said of President Hoover that in four years he drained, damned and ditched the United States and it seemed that London had done the same with Yorkshire and the great industrial regions of the north that created this modern society. I wanted to give Yorkshire the ability to fight back and control its own destiny.
Like the Deputy Prime Minister, we all get more moderate as we get older. I duly resiled from that enthusiasm for home rule, but I still believe in the basic principle of the Bill, which is bringing government closer to the people. It is creating not a new level of bureaucracy but a new level of democracy. We already have regional institutions and they are not accountable; a long list of them has been given in the debate. The Bill is dedicated to making them accountable to the people in that region. As I said, it is a first step to regional government. Why do we need it? This country is manifestly over-centralised. It is more dominated and controlled by central Government than any other society I know. Even France, where Paris is supposedly dominant, has gone in for regionalism and decentralisation on a scale that we have not thought of in this country.
All career ladders seem to finish in London. Most of the best and brightest sixth formers in my children's school in Grimsby have gone to London. Industries in the north have been damaged, or ruined in many cases by economic policies dictated by London. Even now it is going on. London house prices are rocketing, so the rest of the country has to bear higher interest rates than are appropriate to a manufacturing area. London is dominant.
Local government has been shackled by London. The greatest skill in local government now is to transport begging bowls up and down the railways to London or, increasingly, to Brussels. No wonder we complain that local government does not attract ability: its basic job is the handing round of begging bowls. The media are dominated from London. House prices are dominated from London. Think of the kind of wealth that will be inherited in London when the houses are sold and people go to live in Grimsby more economically with a great bonus. People from Grimsby cannot go the opposite way.
Devolution and the Bill are about taking power back to the people to help them to get a better deal and not to be dependent—to get them off their knees. In this nation, there should not be a political class as a dominant group in London, with the rest living on handouts and increasingly dependent on London. People should be equal and have the same power over their destinies everywhere.
Complaints have been made about the direction of public spending. Yorkshire and Humberside gets £926 a head less a year than Scotland gets for devolved services, and £850 less a head a year than London.
We need regional government not only to give people the power to fight back but because we now live regionally: regions are the basis of life now. As my hon. Friend Lawrie Quinn said, they are the basis of identity in the north-east, the Geordie nation. It is not as good as in Yorkshire. Perhaps we are more xenophobic, although that is now a crime in Europe and Yorkshire, but there is a feeling of pride and identity.
Look too at travel to work. My dad used to walk down the road to the mill but now people travel considerable distances. The M62, which I use a lot, is choked with people travelling to work from east and west Yorkshire to Leeds, or they take the M1 to Sheffield. Those motorways are imposing a new pattern of life based on regions, a new scale in people's thinking.
Our culture is becoming increasingly regional. People go to the West Yorkshire playhouse, the Crucible in Sheffield, the theatre in Hull. We have Opera North in Leeds and the Northern Ballet. All those are regional cultural institutions. Even the multiplex cinemas serve bigger regions than the locality. There are great regional shopping centres such as Meadow Hall, the Metro Centre or Trafford Park, which is the newest and best; I am afraid to say that as a Yorkshireman. They have given a new focus to economic activity.
Most organisations have regional structures. The TUC, the CBI, the parties and sport are all run regionally. I am glad to say that, since 1997, we have had a proliferation of regional bodies, for which we need to provide coherence through measures such as this. The problems include planning, development and promoting the region. There are important institutions such as Manchester airport. Transport and housing need to be treated regionally and on a regional scale; those problems are regional rather than strictly local.
We need accountable institutions to deal with all that. The way to make them accountable is to have regional assemblies and eventually a regional government. I welcome the measure because it transfers power to our people where they live, and the people want it. Much has been said about the BBC poll, but it showed strong support for regions, particularly in the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and the west midlands, which is also pushing for regional government.
The Economist poll in April 1999 asked people what they most identified with. Forty-four per cent. said local government but 49 per cent. said the region and only 41 per cent. said England: more people identify with the region than with the country. We must have regional institutions, or the constitution would be unstable. We have devolution for Scotland and for Wales. Why should England be treated as one great lump? We cannot have an English parliament—it would be an elephant in a cuckoo's nest—so we have to have regions developing towards equality of status and power. The Conservatives are against it, but then they are against all change until it actually happens. It reminds me of the old definition in the 1950s, when it was said that the Republicans believed that nothing should be done for the first time, but the new Republicans believed that it should be done, but not now.
That is precisely the Conservative position on regional government, as it was on devolution to Wales and on regional development agencies. They accept the regional institutions that are already running. The regional assemblies—the re-named chambers of the development agencies—have many Conservatives on them: the south-east assembly has 34, dominating it; east of England, 13; south-west, 20; and west midlands, 23. They are using regional institutions, and no doubt they will play their part on the new bodies.
Why not let the people decide, as the Bill does? It is true that the south is less enthusiastic than the north, but we could have variable geometry institutions, as in Spain, where the system works very well, with regions choosing how many powers they want, some taking a lot and some having only minimal powers. That is a perfectly feasible future for us.
The ballot should certainly say Xdirectly elected", because we already have elected assemblies, in the sense that many of the councillors on the existing regional assemblies are elected. The suggested preamble for the ballot is far too long. It is incomprehensible, and people would die of boredom by the time they got to the end of it.
The Liberals argued for including abolition of the counties in the requirement for regional government. I know that the Tories wax lyrical about the counties as traditional institutions, although they waxed slightly less lyrical when they abolished the metropolitan counties. They abolished Humberside for party political reasons, because Labour was in power there, and—
Mr. Mitchell will be very disappointed if regional government ever happens, because his idea that there will be some kind of new exciting democracy is a load of rubbish. If he reads the Bill, the White Paper and the guidance, he will see that there is to be an organisation with a single block grant, with very limited powers other than general powers about making some kind of observation about the region. The power simply will not be there.
I agree absolutely with Mr. Prentice. It was a joy to listen to him. I would be happier, as he would be, if he came over to the Conservative Benches, with all the sound sense that he has, just as I would suggest that some of my hon. Friends would be far happier where he is. We would welcome someone like him, who believes in a sensible way of spending public money and in the retention of democracy.
What worries me is the extent to which local government has already happened without people being aware of it. I was horrified when I had to inquire into the possibility of getting all these ridiculous Euro-grants for my constituency—although it worked out very well, because we are the only place in the whole of Essex to get objective 2 money. I was told always to remember a place called Hertfordshire, which got substantial sums for unemployment and deprivation, even though there was little unemployment or deprivation there.
I had to find out about regional government in my quest for funding. It horrified me to discover how much there was, and how much was being spent. I spoke to a gentleman called Mr. Riddell, a very nice man, who was the regional director of the Government office for the east of England, which is located in Cambridge and Bedford and was formed from regional council officers from Departments such as the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Department of Trade and Industry. He told me that the running costs of the organisation were £6.5 million and the programme budget £330 million, which involved regional selective assistance, smart grants and other funds, and that the single regeneration budget money had now gone to the RDA.
Then there was something called the East of England Development Agency, which I was told was an NDPB. Clearly, if I had been living in the real world, I would have known what that was—but I still do not know. I found out that its offices were in Norwich, Bury St. Edmonds and Bedford, that it had 12 board members appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, that it had a budget of £4.4 million and a programme budget of £27 million, and that its primary task was to produce a regional economic development strategy.
Then there was the East of England Investment Agency.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the proposals in the White Paper for the directly elected regional assemblies would give them specific powers over the regional development agencies for general economic development as well as for the allocation of European funding? Would not that deal with some of the problems that he identifies?
If the hon. Lady investigates further, she will find that that is not the case. The assemblies do not allocate European money. They simply tell people to send in six application forms, which I did. They do not make the determinations. To believe that we are going to have elected people doing what people who are appointed to the boards by the Government do is living in cloud cuckoo land.
I discovered that the East of England Investment Agency was based in Cambridge. Its budget was only £900,000. Then there was the East of England assembly, which was just about to appoint a full-time secretary. There were also two regional planning organisations in the east of England, apparently called SERPLAN and SCEALA, and there was a possibility that they might merge.
There is a huge amount of regional government already, and the idea that we are simply planning for the future should worry us. Is it right to be moving towards more regional governments, when the sense that we get from the people of Britain is that they want to move away from larger organisations to smaller ones? That is what I found in my constituency, when it was part of a county called Essex. People felt that Chelmsford was too far away and that they were neglected until we became a unitary authority. The idea of saying to my people that, now they have escaped from Chelmsford, they would be better off being run by Cambridge is ridiculous.
There is no enthusiasm for regional government in England, except perhaps in the north-east and in Cornwall, where people are rather unusual. The sole reason that people in the north-east have for supporting more regional government is that they think it will mean getting some of the huge amounts of extra money that people get in Scotland.
As a north-east Member, I know that that is not the sole reason why we support regional government. We believe that it gives us an opportunity to influence events in our region, and a single pot of money, whether limited or not, allows a region to decide priorities for itself in a way that we cannot do at present.
I do not know the area as well as the right hon. Lady, but I visit it often. I go to a place called Durham and other places, and the impression that I get is that people are not interested in having more politicians or more government and simply want to know whether they will get more money.
The Government should make it abundantly clear in the referendums what the actual position is. Do not let us mislead people into thinking that there will be extra money if there will not. The Government should also think carefully about the ridiculous electoral system that they are proposing, which is exactly the same as the one used for the Scottish Parliament. If people think that regional government is a great idea, they should go up to Glasgow and ask what people think about the devolved Government there.
Under the proposals, there will be some directly elected people and others who are there simply on the basis of a party list. There will be the ridiculous situation that obtains in Edinburgh, where the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament have constituents who keep them busy, sending them letters and invitations, but there is another group—sadly, an awful lot of them Conservatives, as we have only one elected Member there—with no constituents and no answerability to anyone. All they have to do is to keep their party happy, so that they stay high on the list. It is ridiculous to have a group of MSPs with no constituency responsibilities, to whom no one phones or writes. That does not create equality, and it is not the type of democracy that we want.
I hope that, during these referendums, the Government will tell people what is to happen to unitary authorities. In Southend-on-Sea, people are happy with their unitary authority. We think that a great deal of money has been saved and that we are providing better services—although only time will tell.
Under the new arrangements, it is proposed to set up even larger unitary authorities. I am told that one plan under consideration is to merge some of the district councils with unitary authorities. It would be extremely dangerous to put people under unitary authorities that they do not want without giving them information about them. For example, I know that Rochford district council, which is in my constituency, certainly does not want to join with any other authority and the last council that it would want to join is Southend-on-Sea. It is dangerous to develop such ideas before thinking them through.
Under the Government's proposals, what will happen to the EU Committee of the Regions? Will only countries with elected regional authorities have the right to send representatives to the Committee? I have always been suspicious about this ridiculous Bill, whose proposals are not wanted by anyone. Indeed, part of the pressure may come from Europe where most countries have regional government.
The thing that should worry politicians most of all is the fact that the public are switching off from politics. I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a university in Scotland, but I was horrified when only one person in an audience of 300 said that they were actively involved in politics. When I was at university, everyone was involved in politics, either as a member of a political party or some other organisation.
There is a terrible danger that people in Britain, especially young people, are switching off. They are not interested because there are too many elections and too many public representatives. The Government seem to be planning to offer people not merely elections for the House of Commons, but for the House of Lords and for regional councils, but instead of getting better democracy we shall no longer have any democracy at all. It is not democracy when only 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the people vote.
Our democracy would be far more effective if we had effective councils with real powers answerable directly to the people. The Bill will not proceed because the people will reject it. They do not want more government or more politicians; they simply want to hold on to our basic democracy.
It is sad to be talking about how we can spread the powers of this Parliament down to regional authorities when a huge quantity of power is going away from this place already. Almost every day, more power goes to Europe because of decisions taken there. There are so many issues that we should be discussing in the House of Commons—sometimes we do—but in respect of which our powers have gone, so what is the point of setting up more assemblies and councils and handing around more democratic rights when our democracy is largely dying because our decision-making powers are being taken away?
I would love the Government to take a real interest in fighting for democracy, but this Bill is not the way. It will not help anyone. It will cost a lot of money and people do not want it.
I greatly welcome the Bill. I have campaigned for many years for regional government, so it gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate.
When I became a Member in 1997, I mentioned my enthusiasm for regional government to one or two long-standing Members. They told me that it would not last long and that after a few years I would go native, as many regional government enthusiasts had done in the past. There is something about this place that makes us feel important and weakens our belief that decisions should not be made only in Parliament.
I have always argued strongly in favour of regional government. One of the best ways to explain my reason for doing so is to describe what happens when I talk to top juniors in schools in my constituency about what an MP does. I tell them that we sit around in Parliament and discuss laws; we talk about where we get money from and what it should be spent on and decide on the priorities. From my perspective in the north-west of England, the key question is whether many of the decisions made in this place and in Whitehall would be better made by men and women who live and work in the north-west, represent people in the north-west and go back every night to their homes in the north-west. My answer has to be yes.
I do not necessarily want to remove huge tranches of work from this place, but much of our necessary scrutiny and decision making is not done very well because it involves complex detail, such as whether a bit of money should be spent in one local area or another or whether a particular road scheme should go ahead. During the past few months, I have chaired a couple of meetings in my constituency about a road scheme. They have included representatives from Lancashire county council, South Ribble borough council, the residents group and the Highways Agency in Manchester—although it is a national body. We discuss what is, in essence, a regional and local issue: whether a road scheme should go ahead and the priorities involved. That is not a national issue. It should be perfectly possible for decisions to be made by men and women based in the north-west, not by people in London. I should not have to discuss the details of the scheme with the Minister for Transport—they should be sorted out in the north-west. That is why I am in favour of regional government.
The Bill would not give us regional government; it sets up the mechanism by which regional government can be established. Much of the debate has focused on what is in the White Paper, and I shall deal with that later. However, at some point in the future, the proposals in the White Paper need to be turned into a Bill that will set up regional assemblies. This Bill does not do that; it deals with some constitutional issues relating to the referendums on regional assemblies.
I am not sure that unitary authorities need to be dealt with in the Bill. I represent an area where there is two-tier local government. I am strongly in favour of both the abolition of Lancashire county council and the establishment of unitary authorities. When Lancashire was being considered in the review of the early 1990s, I was the leader of Preston council. I vigorously opposed unitary status for Preston because I thought that the town was too small and that unitary areas should be larger. That remains my view, although we still need unitary authorities in Lancashire. That is my perspective both as an MP and as someone who has been politically active in Lancashire for a long time. People in other parts of the country may have a different view on whether the abolition of two tiers is right.
Does my hon. Friend welcome the principle in the measure that there should be independent assessment of the needs of local government, so that in North Yorkshire, for example, we could put right the wrongs perpetrated after so-called commissions such as the Banham review, when councils were abolished with no reference to local people?
I agree with my hon. Friend in many ways. One of the difficulties of previous local government reorganisations was that Parliament decided that Parliament could decide, and that such decisions were not really a matter for local communities.
One can argue that the Bill is not perfect, but it is a damn sight better than a lot of the previous legislation that has dealt with the abolition of local government and the creation of new local authorities. I have concerns about Lancashire and wonder whether the commission should consider how the existing boundaries of Blackpool and Blackburn would fit, but we may need to consider those issues in more detail in Committee.
I want briefly to tackle the thresholds issue. Previous generations of hon. Members have taken many decisions that affect the constitutional position of this country's citizens without even asking them. The House voted to take us into the Common Market and to abolish the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils without asking the British people. So it is a bit rich for those hon. Members who were involved in that to claim that it is democratically important to set a threshold for the referendums to set up regional assemblies.
We made it clear in the Labour party manifesto last year that we were in favour of setting up this mechanism to establish regional assemblies. We could have included in the manifesto a promise to establish regional assemblies without holding referendums, but simply by pushing the legislation through. The fact that we agreed to hold referendums is a sign of our belief in asking people in each area whether they want such constitutional change.
The argument to make that move even more difficult by stepping in and saying that there should be a high threshold often comes from those who have often ignored the wishes of the electorate in making constitutional changes in the past, so I seriously question their motives.
There are occasions when the Labour party gets things wrong. The 1997 election was won overwhelmingly and the parties that were in favour of devolution won every seat in Scotland, so it was clearly the will of the people in Scotland that they should be given a referendum without a threshold to establish the Scottish Parliament, which is what they did. Despite their concerns about that Parliament's performance in some areas, all the signs are that they would not wish to see it abolished and to go back to where they were.
The second part of the debate is not about the Bill, but about the constitutional Bill that would need to be introduced shortly after the first successful referendum campaign. The powers in the White Paper and implemented in the constitutional Bill leave a lot to be desired. Before the first referendum takes place, it is absolutely crucial to have at the very minimum a draft constitutional Bill that lays down the powers that the people can expect if they vote in favour of a regional assembly.
We should look fairly closely at the number of members of a regional assembly. In a region such as mine—the north-west—to start by talking about having only 25 or 35 members is total nonsense. The scale of the constituencies is totally over the top, and it will take the regional assembly away from people, rather than making it locally accountable.
We also need to look at the powers that exist. Transport has been mentioned, and I certainly question why the Highways Agency should come to my constituency, as in the example that I cited. That would still happen under the White Paper because the regional assembly would have no power over the Highways Agency, so transport needs to be considered. If employment and economic policies are important, why should all the skills and learning matters still be largely governed centrally rather than regionally? Those issues need to be re-examined to find out whether we can get them right.
I shall try to be a bit optimistic. One of the things that I have learned about politics is that institutions can have certain powers. They can spend money, take certain decisions and make certain appointments, but successful politicians and institutions use that as the springboard to develop leadership in their communities. What I want to see in the north-west is an elected assembly that operates not along narrow party lines, but reaches out to the broader community, gives leadership to the north-west and provides a vision for the region.
We should recognise that the idea of a party operating on the basis of 50 per cent. plus one, which often happened in local government—it still happens now in certain places—is nonsense because it is not civic leadership. I am sorry that my hon. Friend Mr. Stringer is not in his place. He mentioned a whole list of things in opposing the principle of regional government, but I should have thought that Manchester city council under his leadership epitomised that civic leadership. As an authority and institution, it accepted a wider responsibility than simply delivering services; it accepted a role in the broader community to make things happen.
If the politicians elected to regional assemblies do not have that wider vision and the ability to bring a broad range of people with them, they will fail. If they can do that, they succeed and will be seen to succeed. They will encourage those parts of the country that do not get regional assemblies early on to follow their example, and I certainly hope that my region will be in the first tranche.
Mr. Borrow made a thoughtful speech. He and a number of other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend Mr. Davey, set out the vision of the people who have long been committed to creating regional assemblies in those regions that want them. That is very distant from the carping, narrow and limiting approach of the people who try to deny us the opportunity to make decisions in our own region and produce the kind of political leadership from all parties that can make a real difference to the lives of the people in the regions.
I do not want to dwell too much on that general case, which has been so very well made, but instead to contribute some points from the perspective of the northernmost part of the northernmost region in England. By definition, it is the furthest region from London—it seems further from London than many parts of Scotland—and it has a very strong regional identity, to which my constituency contributes a great deal. The region has a very strong cultural identity, expressed in music, dialect and drama, and my constituency contributes enormously to those things.
There is a great sense of pride in the Newcastle-Gateshead bid to be the capital of culture and in other things that are going on in the centre of the region. It is interesting that it is a Newcastle-Gateshead bid because, for years, the two communities on opposite sides of the river were nothing but rivals and ignored each other to an extraordinary extent, but we now have co-operation in what is recognised as the main urban centre of the region. It is not the only urban centre in the region, but it is the largest and some very exciting developments are happening there.
Those who represent an area so far from London as the one that I represent are immediately conscious of the feeling that people have that decisions are taken too far away from them to reflect their own concerns, by people who do not understand or know about their area and problems. It is almost impossible to visit those people in a day's journey, in the way that people in areas closer to London can. It is rare for me to get large parties of people or school children to come to the House of Commons because they have to come for several days to accomplish such a visit. London is a long way from the area that I represent, so there is a genuine interest in taking decisions closer to home.
Of course my constituency covers a large area and the northern part of it is on the Scottish border. There are two different perceptions of the regional issue in my constituency. People close to the Scottish border ask, XWhy can't we have what they have got?" They look over the border and they see a lot more money—I shall come to that in a moment—and the Scottish Executive can make decisions about where its priorities lie. It can make decisions about the A1 and other matters because it has the power in its own region. My constituents want that sort of power to be exercised in our own region and at a place that is a reasonable distance away, so that they can make effective representations. So the sense in the northern part of the region is that Scotland has something that we are being denied.
To the southern part of my constituency, however, many more people travel to Newcastle or Tyneside to work because they must look for employment opportunities there. They make extensive use of what are essentially regional facilities based in Tyneside, and are particularly conscious of being located within a north-eastern region. That is a region in which regional government clearly already exists. The idea that the Bill will create regional government is misleading—we have had it for years. Currently, it takes the form of the Government office for the north-east, the regional development agency and the plethora of quangos and other bodies that were described earlier. It is there but it is not accountable to the region. When I or others go to the Government office for the north-east we are always conscious that however helpful the individual servants are, and however much they want to advance the interests of the region, their paymasters are in London, and they are looking over their shoulders to decisions that are taken in London. They will put a case to London, where the decision will be made.
My memory goes back further to the first attempt to set up a regional affairs Committee, which once had a debate about the north-east of England. First, no Conservative Members could be found to attend the Committee, until my good friend Lord Elliott was eventually found—he was usually the only Conservative who could be induced to appear on such occasions. Subsequently, not enough Labour Members could be found to get a quorum for the Committee. Even in its more recent incarnation, it is a virtually non-existent body. I cannot remember when I was last summoned to it, or when it ever did anything. Manifestly, it is the wrong sort of body even to oversee decisions, which should be overseen within the region. Many Members have argued—I do not want to add to those arguments in my limited time—that we need to develop the powers of a regional assembly so that it can fulfil those functions and satisfy those aspirations. We will not get that unless we create the body and build from there. As critical as I am of the limitations of these proposals, we must start, put the body into existence and demonstrate that it needs more power and can make good use of more power.
Although I believe that it is worth creating even a limited regional assembly and building on its powers, I also want to win the referendum. If Ministers also want to win the referendum, and want to be in a position to say to people in the region who have looked closely at these matters that they are offering something worthwhile, they must understand this point. Business people in the north-east are not intrinsically hostile, but their first question is: can the assembly deliver things that will help us in our business in the region? Can it provide better infrastructure or ensure that that is provided? Can it make decisions nearer to us? If Ministers cannot give positive answers to that, they will not get backing from sections of the community who are prepared to be sympathetic if they see that a regional assembly is capable of delivering things that matter to them.
Of course, people in the region also feel strongly about Government finance and the whole issue of the Barnett formula. That issue will not go away, because it is clearly recognised in the north-east that we are not given the same financial opportunities to tackle problems that have been available to Scotland to tackle the very same problems: the decline of major industries, rural depopulation and so on. We have not had a comparable basis for dealing with those problems.
The other issue that I want to address is local government, which many Members have mentioned. If we go into a referendum campaign having been offered a single-tier Northumberland covering the whole current area of Northumberland as the only local government body, that will make it extremely difficult to persuade people in my part of the region to accept and vote for the regional assembly that they might otherwise want. That is a separate question. At the very least, people should be able to make that decision separately on the voting paper. The only votes that should count on that question should be those of the people who live in the area affected. People in Newcastle and Redcar do not want to decide what the local government system in Northumberland should be, and they should not be given the opportunity to do so. That is a decision for people in Northumberland. If the Government want to demonstrate that they feel that the two issues are related, they should at least give people the opportunity of a second question. Ideally, however, the matter should be decoupled completely. That will be felt most strongly in Northumberland—I refer only to our position—if we are offered a local government unit that is simply too large to deal with local housing questions, too large for people to identify with, and dominated by its south-eastern urban corner to the detriment of rural areas.
When Conservative Members talk about our historic counties, their argument is often bogus. Who can claim that a County Durham that does not contain Darlington, Gateshead, South Shields or Hartlepool is the historic County Durham? That is simply not so. Indeed, my constituency, which is a long way from Durham, contained outposts of the historic county of Durham—Islandshire in the north of Northumberland was part of County Durham. That suited the prince bishops of Durham, and it survived long after they had gone, but it did not make administrative sense. A number of the historic counties simply did not make administrative sense. Some of them were ruthlessly abolished regardless of their administrative merits. Hereford and Worcester was bundled together by a previous Conservative Government. The royal county of Berkshire was totally removed by a Conservative Government—it does not exist in administrative terms. In some areas, the case was strong; in other areas, it was weak. The idea that the counties can be erected as the alternative to a system that recognises and makes accountable the regional government that already exists, however, is unreal.
These issues should be decoupled. The region in which I live, part of which I represent, would benefit from being able to make decisions through an elected regional assembly. I want people to vote for that regional assembly, and I do not want us to be handicapped in that process by Ministers offering less to the region than they could do, or by confusing the issue with a vote about local government, which is a wholly different matter. 7.47 pm
It is a great pleasure to follow Mr. Beith. I must say that I strongly agreed with his speech. Perhaps it is a surprise that I should be in such strong agreement with a Liberal Democrat, but I am comforted in that thought by the fact that we are both part of the north-east constitutional convention and of the embryonic yes coalition—yes to regional government—that is under way in our part of the world. I strongly agreed with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the sense of identity in the north-east, and my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell also made the point that, in England, and within Britain, we can identify strongly with our region. Growing up in the north-east of England, I always felt that I was part of the region as well as being British. All of us have different levels of identity that can sit comfortably together. That is an important part of the debate on regional government.
Opinion polls in the north-east of England show a strong sense of identity with the region, although I concede that they currently show a less strong feeling in support of formalised regional government. That is simply because much of the argument is still to be made, and much of it is still to be won, in terms of the powers and responsibilities that regional government will have, and the real difference that I firmly believe it will be able to make.
David Davis made much today, as he did in the debate on the Gracious Speech, of the fact that people are being asked to vote without a precise formulation of the powers of the regional authorities. The process is identical, however, to that which was followed in Scotland, Wales and London. To make so much of it in relation to regional government in England does not therefore seem justified. In addition, the White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice" describes in detail the powers that the Government expect the regional authorities to have.
Although there are shortcomings in the powers outlined in the White Paper, they make a good start in launching the regional government process in England. Page 12 of the White Paper says that regional government is a process. Once it is set up, it will be possible to consider whether new powers should be devolved to the organisations that have been created. I very much accept the starting point for regional government that is outlined in the White Paper. It provides us with a positive message that we can take to the people of the regions when we fight the referendum.
Mr. Beith and the Liberal Democrats have been very clear. They see these proposals as a starting point for regional government and they believe that the process will end up with regional government having tax-raising powers of its own and powers over expenditure. Does the right hon. Lady share that vision?
We obviously need to discuss where we think the end point of the process could be. It is probably too soon to say exactly where regional government will end up. It will have to prove itself. I very much hope that, on the basis of the Government's proposals, it will do that. Modest powers to raise tax exist already, given that is possible to raise extra money from the council tax. We can argue about whether that is the best approach, but a tax-raising element already exists. We should not get too exercised about that issue at this stage.
If everything is to be based on people's consent—this process is, and I approve of the fact that it gives choice to people in the regions—we will be able to respect people's ultimate decision. In Scotland, people were given a two-part question that gave them a say in the finance-raising possibilities of the Scottish Parliament.
Much has been made in the debate of the views of business. I accept that there is much scepticism on the part of business, and those of us who are enthusiastic about the process need to discuss it with business. However, I hope that it will seize the opportunities available to it in the White Paper proposals and get involved. There are a number of ways in which business can make its voice heard. It is interesting that the submission that many of us received from the TUC shows that it has seen the possibilities of taking part in the civic forums, in the committee work and in the policy council work of the regions. It wants to make its voice heard. I urge business to do the same.
Several of the business community's worries about red tape are exaggerated. Red tape tends to emanate from national and European regulations. There is a real need to ensure that it is simplified and reviewed wherever possible, but the powers for regional assemblies proposed in the White Paper are unlikely to be a source of red tape. In any event, the process is inclusive enough to offer business a real opportunity to make its voice heard. Again, I urge it to do that.
Many contributions have focused on the link with local government reform. On that, I agree with some of my hon. Friends and with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is unfortunate that the two issues are linked, partly because that sends out the message that regional government has something to do with local government when it does not. Regional government is about decentralising from the centre. That is the essence of the message that we should seek to convey.
Some of us who live in areas that do not have as strong a regional identity as the north-east wish that they had it. We see the mechanism as an opportunity to move towards unitary authorities. What does my right hon. Friend think of the idea of having unitary authorities in regions that will not even vote for a regional assembly?
It is important to give people the opportunity to move to unitary authorities. I understand the rationale behind that. However, I believe these proposals could mean that unitary areas—most of my area is unitary already—impose a solution on areas that are two-tier at present. I would much rather that the people in those areas could choose for themselves. However, there is a strong argument in favour of unitary authorities, and I wish my hon. Friend well in his attempts to establish a good structure in his region that will provide a successful way forward for the future.
How we engage people in the vote is another important issue. Many hon. Members, including
We should also consider ways of combining the regional election with other elections. People would not have to vote on different occasions, and combining elections that were important to people would create more interest. I also urge the Government to consider the submissions made by organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Mencap, which have said that, whatever system we use for electing regional government, it should be as widely accessible as possible.
There are many ways in which we can make a positive case for regional government. I do not accept the argument that regional government has not been an economic success. For example, the history of Germany since the second world war shows that extremely successful efforts on technology have been made in areas such as Baden-Würrtemberg. Furthermore, the way in which North Rhine Westphalia managed the transition from older to newer industries shows that economic successes have taken place. Interestingly, the areas that I have mentioned did not have great historic identities; they were largely created by the allies after the second world war. None the less, they have been economically very successful.
The Bill is an important step forward for the economy and our political system. I welcome the fact that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members are firmly grasping the opportunities for the people of our regions. I hope that we will make a success of devolution not just for the benefit of the regions but for the health of the democracy of the United Kingdom as a whole.
I shall not vote for the English regions smoke-and-mirrors Bill. This has been a remarkable debate, because everyone who has spoken has had something important to say. Many of them have a great deal of experience, and Mr. Stringer spoke with great authority. I worked closely with him when he was the leader of a city council and I was a local government finance Minister. We addressed jointly many of the issues that he described.
One issue that we had to address was that of the Government offices for the regions. Michael Heseltine and I, as his junior Minister, had a good reason for deciding that that should go ahead in principle. It was implemented later by my right hon. Friend Mr. Gummer. We decided that there had to be joined-up government with those Departments that had a regional presence, but less than half of them had a regional presence and the others, such as the Home Office, probably never would. There was never any suggestion that establishing the Government offices was a precursor to regional government. That is the myth that is being put about and it needs to be scotched.
I referred to the legislation disparagingly as the smoke-and-mirrors Bill, and I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has read his White Paper, let alone his Bill. When he said that people in the English regions would have opportunities similar to those available to the people of Scotland and Wales, he was extremely wide of the mark, because no such thing is mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman also said that we have made a judgment of what powers will be available. He may have made a judgment, but he has not told us about it. It is not in the White Paper or the Bill. We want to know what it is. I agree wholeheartedly with those hon. Members who said that it is absurd to go into a referendum without knowing for what one is voting. I hope that that will be addressed.
I recognise the strength of the argument made by Joyce Quin. I recall a Friday debate in the House a decade ago when I stood at the Dispatch Box as the Minister and she was on the Opposition Benches. We were on the same sides of the argument then. Although more progress has been made down her route, we shall have to wait and see what happens.
As a local government Minister and someone who presided over both the council of the Isles of Scilly and Warkworth parish council, I am in no doubt of the important differences in our region. The problem is how those are to be recognised. Andrew George is right to champion the cause of a Cornish assembly. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Cornwall is very different. It needs special treatment and special opportunities to meet the challenges.
The hon. Gentleman is in the same Government zone—I cannot call it a region—as I occupy. Indeed, my constituency includes the Isles of Scilly. As the hon. Gentleman has experience of setting up Government zones, does he agree that the purpose of a region is to have an area with internal integrity, shared interests and shared identity? The Government zones do not.
Yes, that is the point. It is about the delivery of Government services from the centre to local people, and about the voice of individual local people being heard and acted on. Government by focus groups is the most phoney thing we have seen in this country for many years.
What do we do about it? Last Saturday I went to a meeting of the south-west constitutional convention, which hon. Members know is a pressure group designed to encourage everyone to vote in favour of regional assemblies. It was a remarkable experience. I think that I was the first Conservative MP to have set foot in that viper's nest. It was disrupted by a lot of unpleasant people who decided that the meeting was part of a conspiracy. They did not want to debate the issue properly and wandered around with placards saying that we were quislings and traitors and other charming epithets. Nevertheless, the meeting was brilliantly chaired by the Bishop of Exeter, who I am glad to say took a great deal of flak and abuse—as did his staff, which was unjustified. The bishops must be part of the process. They are part of the constitution. They vote and speak in the other place and should be part of the debate. I have no difficulty with that.
As someone who was born in war-ravaged Plymouth; who moved to Salisbury in 1947 at the age of two; who went to Truro in 1960; and who relocated back to Wiltshire, I have a deep love and understanding of regions, especially my region. One problem we face is whether we have a democratic deficit or voter fatigue. I think we have voter fatigue, and creating another tier will not help. Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the representation that would result from that, with elected assembly men and women looking after, in theory, about 200,000 electors each. What would they be for? This place engages us in policy making, in the legislative process, in voting on a range of issues, including tax and spending, and in holding the Government to account.
I have no view on that because I had forgotten that the Committee existed.
Let us consider the financial problem. The Government tell us that an elected assembly will cost about £25 million a year to run and the direct budget responsibility of a regional assembly will be about £300 million. The rest of the annual public spend for the south-west is about £20 billion. That would remain with central Government. The pocket assembly that we would create would increase the potential for party strife, institutional inertia, delay in decision making, departmental and local government turf wars and paralysis of good government. It would add in spades to the very problem that we are trying to solve. The notes of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister say that there will be no new bureaucracy, stating that, XBy providing stronger scrutiny and improving co-ordination between existing bodies, elected regional assemblies should reduce bureaucracy." Believe that and you'll believe anything.
What we actually have here are scrutiny, influence, patronage, consultation and co-ordination, but no new regional policy making, no new power and no new money from London, although there may be a rise in the council tax—just the functions that already belong to the indirectly elected south-west regional assembly, minus its social and economic partners, plus endless duplication and second-guessing of existing delivery systems in, for instance, health and culture. The Bill does not offer us regional government. I accept that it is merely an enabling Bill, as Mr. Borrow explained. Nevertheless, it is hugely important that we recognise that we are not being offered regional government on the same terms as Scotland or Wales.
It is no good thinking that the experiment will work if we do not have cohesive regions in which people believe. The south-west is not a region. Cornwall is, and it should have its own assembly. Wiltshire, my county, is part of Wessex. Bristol is a city state, ranking with its neighbour Birmingham. But all the other counties are just that.
The south-west was created during the second world war as a convenient administrative unit. It is a creature designed by committee. It has no heart and no soul, and people down the ages would not have risked their lives for it. It would not have done Henry V much good at Agincourt if he had cried, XGod for Harry, the south-west region and St. George"—or even St. Endellion.
We have to face the English question, which has been touched on. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly stripped Scots and Welsh Members of Parliament of their responsibility for devolved issues. Yet they still come to Westminster and vote on issues that affect my constituents on which they have no responsibility to their electors. That is widely seen as unfair, unjustified and undemocratic. It is accelerating the disintegration of the United Kingdom and fragments good government. We do not need a regional assembly. Instead, we need a Parliament at Westminster which works for England and the English regions. I do not believe for one moment that we need a separate English Parliament.
As I argued earlier, that would be an elephant in the cuckoo's nest. It would also increase the dominance and overweening power of London in what will be a smaller population when Scotland and Wales do not count as part of it.
That would not be the case if the rest of my argument is applied. It is important for us to look through the correct end of the telescope, which we are not doing at the moment. Our constituents are not impressed by the Government rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. We need to strengthen local democracy and restore faith in the work of our parish councils, district councils and county councils. We need to ensure that they are properly funded, which in the south-west they are most certainly not compared to everywhere else. The Barnett formula is also part of the problem.
We should strengthen our democracy and we should recognise the shift that has taken place in the burden of taxation from central to local. If we measured council tax against the retail prices index, fuel prices or electricity prices, we would be amazed at the shift that has taken place over 15 years. A local income tax is certainly not the answer.
We need to give the Government renewed confidence to deliver what their citizens want. As we know, local authorities are judged against more than 200 annual targets and performance indicators. They have to agree up to 46 plans from Whitehall and they are monitored by four different inspection regimes. That is death by red tape and it is mad. The answer is certainly not another tier of bureaucracy.
We have to consider other ways of strengthening local democracy. I take great interest in the proposition that we should consider electing more public officials, not only mayors. Perhaps we need to consider education—I do not know; I am speaking for myself.
Mr. Prentice spoke of the importance of having a regional Select Committee. I suggest instead having elected senators in an upper House to replace the existing House of Lords, and I would give them regional responsibilities. That would provide a regional aspect independent of this House which would be worth having.
I finish by simply pointing out that democratic institutions must have legitimacy. Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities; they are part of the geography and the geology, the dialect and the architecture, and the customs, practices and traditions of our country. Local government, in district councils such as Salisbury, is built on the rock of our nationhood. My fear is that since regions are lines drawn on a map, regional governments as proposed would be castles in the sand which would be washed away as the first tide of history rose up the ancient shores of the west of England.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after such a clear reference to the beauty of the coastline and the seaside.
As the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, I am particularly pleased to follow Mr. Key. Many people in my part of the world remember his role as a former Minister. He was the man from Whitehall who came to Malton and scotched, probably for a generation or more, the possibility of improving the key transport link in the area, the A64 from the A1 to the Yorkshire coast, thereby denying us something that central Government had promised us. I mention that to demonstrate why we need to take a regional and more strategic approach in key areas such as transportation. I am sure that my local newspapers will remember that the key—if I may use that word—to our failure was the man from Whitehall.
I have said that I agree with the Bill in principle. It is an enabling Bill for an important process; it does not achieve the end but it begins to will the end. Like many Labour Members, my first acquaintance with this policy goes back to my involvement in the regional Labour party in Yorkshire. I recall that in the late 1980s, when there was a centralising Government down in London, we realised that we were disconnected from the decisions that would affect our locality.
I shall concentrate my remarks on what I am pleased to refer to as Yorkshire and the Humber because it has become a clearly identified region. If we compare it with a European nation state, such as Denmark, we find that there are clear parallels in the size of the population and in the economy, except that Yorkshire, as usual, comes out on top. Yet we do not have a mechanism for determining our future prosperity.
Does my hon. Friend agree that for his region, as for the other English regions, the Bill and the legislation that hopefully will follow concerns economic regeneration and the introduction of accountability to the regional organisations, the quangos, which already exist in every region?
I strongly agree. My hon. Friend gives the lie to some of the contributions by Conservative Members. They talk about extra money and extra costs, but we already have this stream of government. Earlier we almost had an acceptance by Mr. Curry that we already have a form of regional government. However, it is not accountable and it cannot be influenced by the feelings and contributions of local people, particularly in my area, which is on the very periphery of the region.
The argument about regional chambers, or in our case the south-west regional assembly, not being representative is wrong. Every tier of local authority, including unitary authorities, is represented on that body by councillors, who make up some three quarters of the membership, in addition to the social and economic partners. It is an indirectly representative body, and those councillors, as elected representatives, are working their socks off for us.
I do not deny that those individuals are making a contribution to the life of the region, but the key point for Labour Members is that they are not accountable. They do not face the key test of the ballot box. All of us in the Chamber have been elected on an equal basis in a pure and simple form of democracy. That is the acid test. I know that when I go before the people of Scarborough and Whitby, representing my party and my propositions, I stand the chance of being sacked if they do not agree with me. That is democracy, and people want that umbilical cord link between representatives and significant public expenditure. At the moment, there is no ballot box to test whether they are representing the view of communities, and without that acid test our system is not accountable.
I turn now to concerns about the Bill, and I hope that there will be an opportunity to deal with them in Committee. I agreed with many of the contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, most notably my right hon. Friend Joyce Quin and Mr. Beith. They pointed out that we need draft legislation to indicate what will follow the test of the referendum. I hope that Ministers will give further consideration to that during, if not before, the Bill goes into Committee.
Many hon. Members have referred to unitary local government, and I decided to test the proposition that they put forward not only in relation to my parish councils and my borough council, but among the many North Yorkshire county councillors who represent Scarborough and Whitby. The clear message is that it is unnecessary to separate the two arguments because that would lead to confusion. The wreckage left in North Yorkshire by the Banham commission proposals was forced on the people without any test, any referendum or any consultation. I remember spending many nights in a room in the Shambles in York trying to argue the case for the Labour party in North Yorkshire to the commission. On one occasion, Sir John and the rest of us were locked in the room, and we had to escape by ladder. However, there was no escape from the horrendous piece of legislation forced on the people of North Yorkshire. To this day, the people of Whitby remember the early 1970s, when rural district councils lost the right to decide what was appropriate for an area. I almost received a grudging acceptance of that point in the debate on the Gracious Speech from Mr. Hague, who has great experience of North Yorkshire affairs. The people of Whitby would like a big apology from the Conservatives for what they perpetrated for many years.
The people of Whitby would like a say in their destiny and what happens to them, particularly as the town is one of the most peripheral communities in our region. To many people in Whitby, Northallerton is the other side of the moon and London is a quantum distance away.
I am rather confused. Is it not the Government's intention in clause 2 to impose unitary status where it does not currently exist in regions that vote that way? The people of Whitby will be so heavily outvoted by the unitary authorities in Yorkshire and Humberside that they will have no say in the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is welcome to visit Whitby any time. I am sure that the people who frequent Baxtergate would tell him that they were most offended by the fact that the Conservative Government did exactly what he has just suggested. At least this time, the people of Whitby, Scarborough and Yorkshire will have an opportunity to have a say in resolving that important question and will have the right to determine their future. The Bill makes that proposition and is a piece of enabling legislation.
There is a feeling that the number of regions allowed to hold a referendum would be restricted by the resources of the boundary committee. I hope that that would not be an unnecessary stumbling block, preventing regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber from having an early opportunity to test the question.
That proposition is very attractive. In Yorkshire and the Humber, 89 per cent. of people already live in unitary authority areas. The 11 per cent. in the rump of North Yorkshire, forced on us by previous Conservative Administrations, would have an opportunity to sort out that mess.
Finally, I hope that in Committee we can spend some time considering the wording of the ballot paper, especially the preamble. My hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell covered that in his speech. The preamble sounds long, complex and perhaps even rambling—some Members may think that it is similar to my speech—but we should pay close attention to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby talked about the great cultural reputation of Yorkshire and the Humber, but in his list of theatres he failed to mention the Stephen Joseph theatre, the pre-eminent theatre in our region, and Sir Alan Ayckbourn.
I hope that the Bill receives a fair wind on Second Reading, and I wish to express my willingness to serve in Committee.
May I tell Lawrie Quinn that his speech was by no means rambling? We listened to it with interest but, sadly, he is plain wrong about the people of Whitby having a say. They will not—they will be so heavily outnumbered by people in unitary authorities in Yorkshire and Humberside that their vote will be totally irrelevant. That also applies to my constituency, where the same situation arises.
I listened with great interest to Joyce Quin. I am sorry that she has just left the Chamber, as I wanted to pay her a compliment. No doubt if she reads Hansard she will pick it up. I can let Members into a secret which, as I am mentioning it in the Chamber, will doubtless remain a secret. If there is to be an independent regional assembly in north-east England, the right hon. Lady is tipped to be First Minister. I hope that there will be no regional assembly in the north-east, but if there is—and if there is not a Conservative First Minister, and if there is not a monkey which we would like to elect in the north-east—I hope that the right hon. Lady will be the Labour First Minister. Her interest in regional government goes back many years and although I completely disagree with her, we should all compliment her on her long-term pursuit of regional government for the north-east.
We would all agree with the Bill much more if the Government proposed real devolution, but that is not on offer. If it suggested giving more power back to local authorities, I would be more inclined to support it. If it proposed to give much more power back to individual schools and hospitals, I would certainly support it. If it proposed getting rid of the dreaded Barnett formula, which discriminates against the north-east of England and, now I hear, the south-west, I would support it, but that is simply not on offer. Speaker after speaker on both sides of the House has said that the proposals are for a pygmy assembly with no real power. Those such as Mr. Mitchell and my neighbour, Mr. Beith, and others who say, XVote for what is on offer tonight, because it is only a small beginning, and it will be a beginning", should have listened to the speech of Mr. Prentice. He made clear the Government's true agenda.
If one is a socialist—I take it that there are one or two socialists left on the Government Benches—one believes fundamentally that whether one gets good treatment in hospital or adequate benefits should not depend on where one lives. The welfare state should be based on need, not area. I think I am right in saying that that is what Labour Members believe. The very idea of regional assemblies being given full powers over health and education, as the Liberal Democrats want, will mean disparities between one region and another. I am sure that that is what the Prime Minister believes. That is why nothing more will happen. If we have some regional assemblies in this country, that is as far as it will go. The Bill will not be the start of a process that will lead to anything like proper devolution.
The hon. Gentleman should not slur the new Labour party with the taint of socialism. That is a shocking attack, particularly when he misinterprets what socialism is about. Socialism is about democracy, which requires the provision of good universal standards, and the freedom for regions and the authorities accountable to the people to vary and improve the standards that they choose for their purposes.
The term Xuniversal standards" is the clue. That is what the hon. Gentleman wants. On this side, we believe in competition. I would favour competing regions with independent hospitals and independent schools, all trying to provide the best service for their people. That is what I believe should happen. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he believes in the universality of services and benefits and the welfare state, a fully devolved regional system in this country would work contrary to that.
I believe that the Bill will go no further. Hon. Members should have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Pendle, and they should read carefully what he said, because he was telling the truth about what will happen. I believe, too, that the reason there is to be a question about local government reform in the referendum is that it was inserted by the Prime Minister. We know, and it has been confirmed again tonight, that the Prime Minister is not in favour of regional assemblies. The Deputy Prime Minister might be, but we suspect that the question about local government reform was intended to sabotage the proposal.
The Minister for Local Government and the Regions points to the Prime Minister's preface to the White Paper, but the Minister was not in the Chamber when that was mentioned to the hon. Member for Pendle, and he should hear the response from the hon. Member for Pendle—XIf you think the Prime Minister wrote that, you must be joking—he probably never even read it." I agree again with the hon. Member for Pendle. It is essential that hon. Members do not think that by voting for what is on offer tonight, they are opening the door to something more. It will not happen.
I shall deal with one point that affects my part of the United Kingdom, the north-east of England, particularly the county of Northumberland, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned. Perversely, if there is to be a Boundary Committee review in that area, it is not the county that will be abolished, but the district councils.
In 1994 the Boundary Commission on Northumberland, after much argument, came down in favour of the two-tier status quo. One of the proposals at the time was that there should be three unitary authorities in the county of Northumberland. The Boundary Commission considered that, and concluded that because the total population of Northumberland is just over 300,000—apart from the Scilly Isles, it has the smallest population, although it is huge in area—and about 200,000 of those live in the urban south-east of the county, the remainder of the county would have too small a population and too small a rate base to support unitary authorities.
What will happen if the boundary committee is forced to introduce a unitary authority there? The only conclusion is that there will be county government in that area. At present there are six district councils that cover vast areas—my own district council is the biggest in England, with over 800 square miles. Decision making will be taken away from that local level. Some of it will be moved to county level, and in the case of Northumberland, that will mean that county hall is many miles away from many of my constituents. Some decision making will be moved up even further, to the regional level.
What the people of Northumberland will gain from that is decisions being made far, far away from where they count. How is local democracy served by that? I suspect that when the matter is put to the people of Northumberland and they realise that they will lose their district councils, they will have a very different attitude. That is why support for regionalism in the north-east of England is beginning to decline.
The Deputy Prime Minister made the point that the reason why the Government are choosing the regions for referendums as they are now is that that was a legacy left by the last Conservative Government. My hon. Friend Mr. Key mentioned that. The regions were designed for administrative convenience. The north-east region has nothing to do with an area for which people feel an affection. Regions can exist only if people have a cultural affinity with them, or an emotional or historical attachment to them, as in counties. People go on about Germany, Italy and other devolved countries, but they are largely made up of traditional former states. There is a cultural and historic connection.
The north-east of England does not have that. It is not a unified area. The people up in Berwick on the Scottish border have nothing in common with the people down on Teesside. The people on Teesside do not want to be ruled by a Geordie parliament based in Newcastle. The people south of the Tees want to be in north Yorkshire. Perversely, the people of north Cumberland, who were traditionally part of the northern region, want to be part of the north. If there were a northern region, they would like to be included in it and not placed alongside Manchester.
I hope that more Labour Members who have spoken against the Bill will join the Opposition in the Lobby. The Bill will not help local democracy, but damage it, so it is right that the House should reject it.
It is a pleasure to take part in what has been a very good debate, especially as a Northumbrian following a Northumberland MP and a fellow Northumbrian. I must ask the permission of my hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd, but I would like to be known as an adopted Lancastrian as well. As a strong supporter of the mighty Sunderland in the premier league and the almost as mighty Lancaster City in the UniBond premier league, I am a strong supporter of the idea of north-east and north-west going hand in hand in the first phase of a referendum on regional government.
I strongly support the Bill because I think that regional government is in the interests of the people whom we represent. We have heard some extraordinary arguments against it, one of the most peculiar of which was the suggestion that people do not want regional government or understand what it is about. People who come to my surgeries and contact me speak about issues of democracy, powerlessness and strategic planning and the feeling that they have no effective voice. They also speak about transport and economic development, and complain that the county council, which I think is an archaic form of local government, is remote from their lives. The county council cannot properly engage with crucial functions at a district level or with the health service because of its size and the weight of bureaucracy that is present in all such councils, and it does not properly engage with the voluntary, private or community sectors, which are vital to the development and reconstruction of our democracy.
The issue is about democracy and the people whom we represent having genuine involvement in the powers that are currently devolved at a regional level, but are operated by people who are unelected, even though they are doing a good job in many cases. In the city of Lancaster, we are seeing the tremendous work of the North West Development Agency coming to some fruition. Only last week, the Infolab development at Lancaster university was approved. That will provide a sustainable base for the science-based business of the future in the northern half of the north-west region. Major efforts have been made at regeneration, including the development of brownfield and riverside sites and the reconstruction and re-use of old buildings for new forms of business, housing and development that are fit for the 21st century.
I think that regional government is government for the 21st century. It will not merely be government in which county councils are writ large or the sort of municipal local government that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. I believe absolutely the words of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that it would be a lean and fit form of government. It will focus on specific, vital functions. It is essential that it be allowed to do that before we consider the further development of the regional assembly. We are at the beginning of a profoundly important, democratic, developmental and inclusive process.
People who weave a fantasy about regional government being a vast, overweening bureaucracy in large regions, and those who complain that there will not be many more elected members or powers overlook some crucial factors. Regional government must engage positively and creatively with the business community and work flexibly with the voluntary and the private sectors. It must engage positively with existing forms of democracy such as parish councils, which are developing powers over planning and transport, and unitary authorities.
I cannot speculate about that. We do not currently have an elected regional assembly. I have held several discussions with the business community and I am sometimes surprised at the scepticism that it displays. I am also surprised by the Opposition's scepticism. It has already been said that we can confidently expect the Conservative party to fall into line with the democratic structures of regional government in time. We are considering democracy and it is vital to have a democratic voice in powerful and important functions such as planning, transport and economic development.
I am astonished by the hon. Gentleman's argument. How is it more democratic for planning, transport and the structure plan or the local transport plan of a county council to be taken out of the hands of those who were elected by several thousand people and given to members of a regional assembly who will be elected by 250,000 people? That is distant and undemocratic, not democratic and accessible.
I am delighted to answer that. The regional assembly is democratic because the functions of remote county councils—I mean no disrespect to those who work for them—will be devolved to unitary authorities that operate on a smaller geographical scale and use the flexibility that the Government introduced in health and social care to engage properly with vital functions outside such bodies. It will also bring the regional powers on planning guidance and transport strategy, and the functions of regional development agencies, within a democratic remit. The proposals will do away with county structure plans and transfer some of those powers. However, I firmly believe that such powers are not currently effective at county council level. The crucial, meaningful level at which to intervene is regional and very local.
Does my hon. Friend agree that Mr. Lansley needs to be more familiar with the planning process? All complex planning applications are currently decided by central Government and take a long time to determine. It would be far better to determine them locally or regionally.
No. This is my speech. I shall continue to make it, if I may.
Regional government is profoundly important, and by using the opportunity that the Bill gives us, we can strengthen and refresh democracy. We have encountered a number of red herrings tonight, the most notable of which was that the form of government to be used in regional assemblies would allow obnoxious bodies such as the British National party to hold sway. We defeat fascism on the streets and fight it through campaigning. We should not deny ourselves the opportunity for new democratic institutions and new forms of government because of the threat of fascism. We must take those racists and fascists on.
We have a tremendous opportunity here to affect 6.9 million people in the north-west, and regional government can be a unifying factor for those people. It will ensure that power is used throughout these very large regions, and give an effective voice to both urban and rural communities. It will also ensure that we have a pluralistic democracy in which we are not competing with other regions or with fine towns and cities within the region. Rather, we shall be co-operating and working together effectively for the whole region, and redressing the historic imbalance in terms of powers that have been taken to the centre, and of the economic success that has come to regions such as the south-east and been lost to the north-west.
I shall be here tonight firmly supporting the Bill, and I very much want to see it go through. As a Northumbrian who is now an adopted Lancastrian, I would like to see the home of the regional assembly of the north-east in the city of Durham, where my father and daughter were both educated. There is a real parallel between Durham and the city that is at the historic heart and geographical centre of the north-west. That is, of course, the city of Lancaster.
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. I am, however, astonished that we are talking about this matter at all, on a day on which the fire brigade is on strike—and we may be facing that industrial action for several months to come—and on which school teachers across London have been on strike and schools have been closed. Yet here we are, talking about something that is not of the faintest interest to any of our constituents.
I have never heard from a single constituent who supports regional government for the north-west. It simply is not an issue. It is not something that my constituents want, nor is there any demand for it across the rest of the region. My constituents are interested in the state of the health service and the quality of schools. They are desperately interested in whether the Government are about to slap top-up fees on young people going through higher education. They are also concerned about the transport infrastructure, which is grinding to a halt. They are not keen to see the establishment of a new tier of government, a new set of politicians or a new regional bureaucracy. There is simply no demand for that.
Only 18 months or so ago, we went through a general election in which there was a dramatic collapse of interest among the British public. Politicians from both sides of the House returned saying that the fact that so few people wanted to vote had provided them with a salutary lesson and that we had to learn to talk about what matters to the British people, yet here we are on another frolic—a constitutional fancy that is of no interest to anybody.
The hon. Gentleman says that his constituents are not at all interested in regional government and he may be right. We may have a referendum in the north-east, but the proposal may be rejected—who knows? However, we are not afraid of the test of a referendum in the north-east. What is he afraid of?
The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, as he has exposed one of the Bill's most basic flaws: even if it receives a Second Reading—Labour Members who properly opposed the whole principle this evening none the less suggested that they will be loyal Back Benchers and troop through the Lobby—and completes its parliamentary progress, we shall not know whether there will be a referendum in the north-west of England, as the Deputy Prime Minister has not been good enough to explain to us how he will judge the demand for it. We have a bizarre proposal before us.
My hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson is not in the Chamber, and I would be careful in making this remark if he were: there may be some interest in the proposal in the part of the country represented by Mr. Clelland, but there certainly is not in mine.
Mr. Lloyd made a point about the synchrotron investment decision, which was made a couple of years ago. That was the biggest scientific investment in this country, involving £500 million, but this is the acid test for the north-west: would that £500 million have been more likely to come to Cheshire, rather than go to Oxfordshire, which is where the Labour Government chose to send it, had there been north-west regional government? The answer, simply, is no. Such government would have made no difference. The decision was for central Government and it was taken on central grounds involving strategic planning, economic interests and various ideas about agglomeration of scientific facilities. It had nothing to do with the voice from the region.
Absolutely not. The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong, because I am the north-west Member who brought the synchrotron issue before the House for debate. That was done not by one of his colleagues, but by a Conservative Member. I believe passionately that Members of Parliament are sent to Westminster to represent their constituents and the interests of their regions. That is what we should be doing, not considering silly tinkering with the constitution and setting up new tiers of government in which there is no interest.
The hon. Gentleman said in his speech that the Opposition are less than enthusiastic about the Bill, but I wonder whether he shares the assessment of his colleague, Mr. Stringer. He is referred to in yesterday's Manchester Evening News, which says that
Xonly a minority of Labour MPs support an elected north west assembly and that there is little enthusiasm among the region's local councils. Most were choosing 'to keep their powder dry.'"
There, it quotes the hon. Gentleman directly and, following my conversations with Labour colleagues from the region, I think he is probably right.
As far as I can see, regional government is a minority interest among Labour north-west Members and not a single Conservative north-west Member supports the idea. If the Deputy Prime Minister is serious about consulting the elected representatives of the people of the north-west about whether there is sufficient demand for regional government there, the idea will not get off the ground. I very much hope that that is the case. Why? As I said when I intervened on the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre, there is no real support for it. There is no support from the business community.
The hon. Gentleman apparently now has a great knowledge of these matters in the north-west. He says that that is not true, but I would rather listen to the north-west director of the CBI, Mr. Chris Clifford, who is also quoted in the Manchester Evening News. He says:
XOur members are very sceptical about the whole process. It would create extra costs, create jobs only for bureaucrats and do nothing in terms of the economic well being of the region. All major issues will be conditional on the agreement of the secretary of state.
It is not the right way forward. It will not add any value to existing arrangements and will increase the political baggage business has to contend with rather than sort it out."
The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre would not speculate on why business is not interested in having regional government in the north-west. I do not think that anyone could encapsulate the reason better than Mr. Clifford. Business knows that it will involve more costs and more bureaucracy, and will add no value for those who are trying to run effective, efficient, profitable businesses in the north-west.
There is also the question of regional identity. We do not have a north-west regional identity. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley rightly made the point that before the ITV franchise was split no one used to talk about the north-west. Perhaps we should amend the Bill and dub the north-west XGranadaland", as that may be a more accurate reflection of the region. No regional identity unifies Manchester, Cheshire, Liverpool and the part of the north-west represented by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre.
As a Lancastrian by birth, I welcome that enormously. It may be one of the few occasions on which I permit myself to wear a red rose in celebration of that fact. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that there is a real affinity with the county of Lancashire. There is no affinity with the north-west as a geographical region, which is entirely artificial.
If we went down the road that the hon. Gentleman and one or two others would like us to go down the costs would be huge. The cost of the referendum would be the smallest part. There would be the massive cost of reorganisation: the costs of a new bureaucracy, new buildings, new politicians—that is surely the last thing people want–secretaries, researchers, press officers and a whole bureaucracy to support the regional structure. Nothing positive would be added for the people whom we represent. There would be only a huge cost and a huge extra bureaucracy.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the possible constitutional and financial imbalance if one region voted for an elected regional assembly and others did not? Would that not create a nightmare that would far outweigh the unfairness of the Barnett formula?
Indeed, and it could do so in a number of ways. If we had the arrangement to which Joyce Quin referred, or a tax-raising regional assembly in one part of the country, as Mr. Beith suggested, that could work in my hon. Friend's favour. If we had an assembly in the north-west of England that raised higher levels of taxation, all our businesses would flock down to the south-west to get away from it. Perhaps he should not be too concerned, as it could work either way.
My hon. Friend is right, except that there is an assurance in the White Paper that significant resources would not be provided even if regional government were to proceed. That point was raised at the outset of the debate. In the first instance, there would be more costs with no benefit and no real change. If regional government were to develop, my hon. Friend's point would be valid.
I should like the Minister to deal with the issue of the use of public funds in this process, because I do not think there is any direct reference to it in the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he is not neutral on this matter and will campaign strongly for regional government to be adopted as we go through one or more referendums. We know that there are at present various regional conventions or assemblies that combine local authorities. I would like a clear assurance from the Minister that public resources could not be used to promote the idea that there should be a referendum or to campaign on one side or the other in a referendum. I hope that he will make it clear that that would not be allowed, and that strict action would be taken to prevent that.
Let me end by returning to the central point. I do not think the Bill has any real support in my region or from my constituents, and according to comments attributed to Labour Members representing Manchester in yesterday's local press they do not believe it is even supported by most of their colleagues with seats in the north-west.
I hope that when Mr. Prentice has his tête-à-tête with the Prime Minister tomorrow—which he advertised in his speech—he will make it clear that the Bill has no support from Conservative Members representing the north-west, no support from the majority of Labour Members representing the north-west, or so we are told, and certainly no support from the people whom we represent.
I think that there is one thing that we might have got right constitutionally five years ago. Surely, if we create Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish Parliaments or Assemblies, the least we can do is create an English Parliament, and make the upper House a House of representatives of the four constituency Parliaments. We missed a trick there.
A case that I encountered illustrates all the problems and confusions raised by what we are debating. A steel mill went broke. It was partly in Cardiff and partly in Sheerness. The part located in Cardiff had the support of Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State for Wales. We in the south-east of England have no Assembly, no Parliament, no Minister for the south-east and not even a Select Committee dealing with the south-east. My constituents, therefore, are not treated as fairly as they ought to be.
I was going to make the point made by Mr. Swire. Let us assume that the north-east or the north-west has a referendum first. I note that I am the only Member present who represents a constituency in the south-east. This issue is of no interest in the south-east, because no one in Milton Keynes connects with anyone in Margate or Portsmouth. The south-east is a complete fallacy of an area, and we will never vote for this proposal.
If a regional assembly is set up, who will my constituents go to? They cannot go to the north-east. There is no south-east parliament or assembly. There will be no Minister or Select Committee for the south-east. They will come here, and that is absolutely wrong. It is unfair and unreasonable. The whole constitutional issue is brought into question. As I have said, we missed a trick by not having four constituency bodies with an overarching House of representatives connecting them.
Fortunately, my favourite saint is St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. I feel passionately that we have got this completely wrong. Why has not government for the south-east worked? Why has the South East England Development Agency not worked? It is because it is not accountable here. It is not accountable to a Select Committee for the south-east, or even to a Minister for the south-east—and if such institutions are not accountable, they will create more and more quangos and spend more and more of our money, quite obscene amounts. It is a pity that the Bill is not stronger.
Even if I have to vote with the Government this evening, there is an issue that I cannot resolve. My constituency has no unitary authorities. There is one unitary authority in Medway, which is too small. It does not work. It was approved on the basis of a single vote at a meeting. If we want a unitary system, my constituency will have to decide whether to go up the river to Dartford, Medway and Sittingbourne. But how will that be done? We cannot possibly have a vote, because we have no unitary authority. There are no unitary authorities in Kent apart from Medway, although Kent is the largest county council in England.
I am thinking of all the things that we believe in, such as local democracy. I want local democracy. I am sick of the system of centralisation. Nothing will change for us, though, because we will not vote for a regional assembly. My constituents will be worse off in every way.
I repeat that this is a constitutional problem with which we have not really wrestled. I leave it with the House.
I follow Mr. Wyatt in making a similar point about the regions. During the referendum in Scotland, there was no debate about what was or was not Scotland. It was the same with Wales. In Northern Ireland, the whole debate is about what is Northern Ireland, where the boundary is and where people's allegiances lie.
We have regions in our country, some of which have some affinity but many of which, particularly those in the south-west and south-east, have very little in common. That is a great difficulty. People have a sense of community and of allegiance. I do not believe that most of my constituents have any feeling for the south-west.
Under the Bill, the Secretary of State must consider the level of interest in a region before he sets the process in motion, yet there has been no way of setting out what that means, how it is weighted or what the tests for a level of interest are. Is it Members of Parliament or local authorities making representations, petitions, a letter- writing campaign, or a self-selecting group that has a particular role in lobbying a Minister? It would help the debate if the Minister, who I know is a details man—I have served with him on several Committees that considered Bills—set out a little more about how the level of interest in a region will be defined.
XIf subsection (6) does not apply . . . the Secretary of State must consider—
(a) views expressed and information and evidence provided to him;
(b) such published material".
As I read that, it means that the Secretary of State must publish why he is not going to proceed with a referendum but not why he is going to proceed with one. Nothing in the Bill says that he must publish information that has been sent to the Ministry if he proceeds.
I notice that the Bill contains provision for the Secretary of State to change his mind. I suspect that the Secretary of State will get lobbied, he will say that there is interest in a region, he will announce it, and all hell will break loose as people suddenly start to say that they are not interested and make further representations to him, so it is important for the Minister to make clear what the tests are. Will it be a formalised procedure with a beginning and an end where everyone knows consultation has taken place, or will it be informal—just letters, petitions or whatever coming in on an ad hoc basis? We need to know. That will be critical, as will how the Government weigh up the competing claims of regions in terms of referendums. How will the interest in the south-west, say, be weighed against the interest in the north-east? A lot of that is not in the Bill. Since it is not, it will largely be up to the Secretary of State to state the position, which is a pity.
It is important that we know what the tests are and what the Secretary of State defines as a level of interest. Whether we have referendums or not, it is important that the information that goes to the Secretary of State is published.
The regions are not natural areas. I hope that, where referendums are held, votes will be counted on a local authority basis, not on a total regional basis, so that one can see, whatever the overall result in the region, what the level of support is in the constituent parts. Some concern has been expressed on behalf of people in Northumberland, people on the fringes of conurbations that have single unitary authorities at the moment and those on the fringes that have a two-tier system. It will be interesting to see the different levels of support for changes as they are proposed.
Under clause 5, if there is a referendum and it is lost, another referendum cannot be held for five years and a day. If one were being fair, there would be a provision saying that, if a referendum were won, those who lost the referendum would have the opportunity to have a re-run after five years. It is rather like those European referendums where, if the referendum is lost, they keep having a vote until they get the right answer.
I have some concerns about the Electoral Commission under clause 8. It seems to be required to give information, but one person's information is another's propaganda. The concern of my hon. Friend Mr. Brady about what public moneys are going into the process and what the overall cost will be is entirely appropriate. Several of my hon. Friends have spoken about the cost of reorganisation into new tiers of local government and of the assemblies themselves. Experience in Scotland and Wales has shown that the costs of devolved government often end up much greater than originally anticipated.
My constituents bring local issues to me. We have problems in Poole with social services, which is overspent by £1 million. A centre used by disabled and disadvantaged groups is about to be closed. My constituents would be far better pleased if the resources were given to the local authority to undertake its important tasks rather than being used to create a new class of politician or bureaucrat at some remote regional centre with which they feel no affinity.
The electoral system is not the brightest, given that having 25 to 35 members for regions of such a size will mean having vast constituencies. I remember the debate here when we abolished first-past-the-post European constituencies because, apparently, they were too large for one person to do anything with, and it was much nicer to have a list. When we moved to the list system, the argument was made almost immediately that the Euro constituencies were too large. Then we had London regional government with large twin-borough constituencies. Now we seem to be setting up very large constituencies in the regions, with populations of 200,000 or 250,000, and a list.
My main concern is about the level of interest. In the Bill and the notes on clauses, the Government have not provided answers about what will be considered sufficient to trigger this whole process. Perhaps the Minister will fill in some detail about the procedure, especially because, given that the Secretary of State has to gather the information and start the process rolling, and the review of local government may take a year, circumstances may change in the meantime. If a process is started and it is clear that it does not have public support, it is wrong that the Government should not have an opportunity to think again.
I cannot support the Bill. We have spoken about the regions not being natural. A few years ago, I went as a guest of the Federal Republic of Germany to study its federal system. Of course, the Lander are not ancient. They are amalgamations, and they were amalgamated by military occupation—they could not have been amalgamated without it. I suspect that the Government, who sometimes display some of the characteristics of a government of military occupation, will not wish to open up the question of the boundaries of regions, because frankly, we would never get agreement. I see the Minister nodding at that.
The proposals are a mistake. I was at school in the city and county of Bristol when it became Avon, and people never reconciled themselves to being in that new county. We have heard a lot about Conservative Governments getting rid of Humberside and Avon without much debate, but the real reason was that people had no real affection for those counties. They had an affection for Somerset, Gloucestershire and the city and county of Bristol. Governments who tamper with ancient loyalties and affections do so at their peril. I rather suspect that, if the Government get this wrong, major campaigns to reverse the changes will bedevil politics for a long time to come.
We are a very conservative nation and we still argue about what was wrong or right about local government reorganisations that took place 20 or 30 years ago. It is easy to propose constitutional change and to institute referendums, but if we get it wrong, it can cause endless misery and campaigns.
I very much welcome the Bill, although it is not without its difficulties.
Regional assemblies can do much to reduce the democratic deficit. They will also speed up the planning process, on which I shall elaborate. I am sure that Mr. Lansley will be interested in my comments on that.
The greatest single benefit of the Bill will be for the many of us who are fed up with the two-tier structure of local government. It is time to move on from that and the ultimate benefit of the Bill will be unitary status for local authorities, although there is a downside. Although a recent Mori poll showed that 61 per cent. of people in the south-west of England favour a regional assembly, I must have spent much of my time talking to the 39 people in every hundred who are not in favour of it.
The hon. Members for Poole (Mr. Syms) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) both represent south-western constituencies and they hit the nail on the head. Some parts of the country have a much stronger regional identity than others—much to my annoyance, because I support a regional assembly for the south-west.
When people in my constituency turn to the BBC regional news, they will see XBBC Midlands". If they switch over to ITV, some of them will be watching HTV West while others will be watching Central. That is one of the regional identity problems for areas such as Gloucester that are on the cusp—on the edge of several regions.
My constituency is an hour away from Birmingham and equidistant from the two national capitals, Cardiff and London, yet it is only half an hour away from Bristol, which is the heart of the south-west. Oxfordshire is the next county along, but it falls into the south-east region, so we are very much on the cusp.
That may be one of the many reasons that the Conservatives did so badly at the general election in Gloucester. Their campaign slogan was XGloucester born and bred", but most people in Gloucester nowadays were not born and bred there. They come from a wide range of areas, including the big cities that I have mentioned. The Conservatives are so local that they have moved from Gloucester to Cheltenham, so perhaps they will not be using that slogan at the next election.
The restructuring of local government that will accompany the Bill will be a major benefit. It is high time that we undertook that restructuring. That is not an attack either on county or district councils, but it is difficult to explain to our constituents that they have to approach one local authority about housing and another about education. Similarly, why should roads be dealt with by one authority, yet road-calming measures, pavements, or the trees and shrubs that border the pavements are all dealt with by separate bodies?
I ask the Minister for Local Government and the Regions to consider the referendum questions. In many areas, such as the south-west, where unfortunately we may not get a yes vote in a referendum, people should still have the opportunity to decide whether local authorities should have a unitary structure. In Gloucestershire, there is a feeling that we could have two unitary authorities, one based in the east and one in the west of the county. Such proposals should not be ruled out during the process.
A regional assembly would bring many advantages to a constituency such as mine. For example, I hope that it would speed up the planning process. St. Oswald's park, a former cattle market in my constituency, is the subject of a mixed site proposal worth a couple of hundred million pounds and will include retail, leisure and housing. The proposal has the support of the city council, the county council, the MP and local residents. The local newspaper has run a vocal campaign in support of the development. There was little or no objection to the scheme, yet it was called in by central Government. We would still expect to go through the inquiry process—we have done so with St. Oswald's park—but the application has had move on to the Government, the wheels of Government have to turn and it then comes back to the local authority before we can get on with the development. If the planning process were carried out at a more local, regional level, perhaps we could speed it up and help developments such as those in my constituency.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman slightly blundered into the subject of whether I had any experience of the planning system as he will not know that, in the past two weeks, I have spent three days at the public examination of the Cambridge structure plan, discussing the green belt and new settlements. One thing that has emerged from those discussions is that the Government have told the regional planning conference that they will determine sub-regional strategies, but we have received a consultation document from the regional planning conference that says that the sub-regional strategy for Cambridge will be determined in the Cambridge structure plan. So, in fact, without the county structure plan, the region would have no idea at all what it was doing.
Different regions will find different solutions. That is what democracy is all about. We cannot expect to have exactly the same solution in every part of the country. My point is that big plans for developments often get kicked to central Government, and the Government have to deal with a great number of plans. If we could streamline that process, with more plans going through the regional process, we would be better off.
The key thing is not just regional accountability and addressing the democratic deficit, but doing away with the present two-tier system. Our constituents and many local councillors—I was a councillor for four years—do not understand why we have the current system. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to move to a unitary structure, and I hope that we can do so whether or not people vote for a regional assembly.
I nearly had a déjà vu experience, having bobbed up and down last week during the debate on the Queen's Speech and not having got in, so I am pleased to have this opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I hope that the many contributions made today will encourage the Government to think again about the Bill, which needs some serious further scrutiny before being allowed to proceed.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Members for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) and for Poole (Mr. Syms), both of whose constituencies are apparently in my region, although they are about 200 or so miles away from my constituency. I probably share about as much affinity with Poole as I would with Preston or Prestatyn, but such is the nature of this process, which needs to be reconsidered.
I agree with the criticisms made by my hon. Friend Mr. Davey. Every aspect of his criticism of the Bill was absolutely right. I am sorry to say that I will not join him in the Lobby this evening to vote for the Bill because it is not just flawed, it is fatally flawed to such an extent that I cannot support it. I cannot vote against it because I am in favour of the principle of devolution, but this is not devolution; it is, frankly, nonsense. It is called the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, but I fear that it is, in fact, a recipe for chaos throughout the country.
The Deputy Prime Minister criticised the XWhitehall knows best" attitude, and it is certainly true that although the Bill is poorly conceived, inadequate and timid, at least the Government should be congratulated on attempting to make an important development. The Bill really represents two contradictory cultures within the Government: one is confident enough to believe that it can let go of power; the other does not share that confidence, still has a fundamental control-freak tendency, and is not prepared to let go of power in the way that is needed to make this piece of legislation work.
I am pleased that there are many regions—the north-east and others—in which there is some kind of internal integrity and the issue does not arise, but there is such an obsession with boundaries that the policy is at risk of being derailed. I would rename the Bill the emperor's new clothes Bill, as it is propped up on a web of flimsy tautology. Clause 26 says that a region is a region on the basis of the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998. I remember the debate on that Act, and the then Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, Mr. Caborn, said that he would debate anything but the number of the regions or their boundaries, and that we could wait for the Bill on regional assemblies to debate that issue. We now have the basis of that Bill.
The Bill is based on this tautology: a region is a region because it is a region. That is like saying that the emperor's clothes are his clothes because they are the clothes. The issue in the referendum will therefore be whether people like the clothes, not whether they think that the clothes exist. The quicksand on which the palace of regional government will be built will ultimately lead to it sinking. It is undeliverable. As many Members have pointed out, we agree with what the Government are trying to do, but the Bill is fundamentally flawed. A region is a region because it has common identity, shared interests and internal integrity.
If the Deputy Prime Minister means what he says, and we shall have those regions in places where people want them, I can tell him one place that wants one: Cornwall. As has been established, Mr. Key was at the south-west convention explaining what he found good and bad in its approach. That same morning, I was at the Cornish constitutional convention, and I think that more people attended that than the south-west constitutional convention. Usually, when I ask what we do if we find that the region does not exist, the question is met with stunned incomprehension, as though one is asking to redefine the boundaries of God. The fact is that we must allow a debate on the issue. Instead of running away from it, and feeling that it will unleash powers that result in a derailing of the project, we must recognise that some of the so-called government zones—they are certainly not regions—need to be redefined to allow the project to go ahead.
The hon. Gentleman might like to know that at the south-west convention, the head of the Government office for the south-west, when asked whether it would be possible to have a Cornish assembly, smiled sweetly and made it clear that Ministers had decided that under no circumstances would there be one.
It will be found that the south-west is undeliverable—people have prayed in aid the BBC poll, which, having looked at it, would make a statistician's eyes water—as there is no basis for the belief that people will vote for something that is based on a synthetic place that has been created purely for administrative convenience. The Government need to recognise that. In Cornwall, more people have demonstrated in response to the White Paper that they support a Cornish assembly than in the whole of the rest of the country put together. Fifty thousand people signed a declaration that was delivered to Downing street and to the Minister, demonstrating that they support a Cornish assembly. It is not a Trojan horse for Cornish nationalism, and it is not about cutting Cornwall off. It is about cutting Cornwall in to the celebration of diversity. People understand that in Cornwall, and I am sure that they understand it in all other places, too.
It is not that I am opposed to the development of assemblies in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. Where there is support for regional assemblies, we should allow them to go ahead. However, they are undeliverable in much of the rest of the country. If the Government think that they can get away with this, it will be the triumph of Xplacelessness" over place and identity. If they and their control-freak tendency are not sufficiently constrained and they do not understand that devolution is about letting go rather than hanging on, they could become seriously unstuck. They will succeed only if they chill out a bit, let go and perhaps get out a bit more.
It is a great pleasure to follow Andrew George. He is most robust on the issue of regional assemblies, but he pulled his punches today. I have a quote from him that appeared in the Western Morning News on
Xminor empire-builders and anoraks behind this mindless nonsense."
I do not know what Mr. Davey is—a minor empire builder or an anorak. Perhaps, on occasions, he is both.
The Government have managed to achieve what many would have thought impossible at the beginning of the debate. They have managed to obtain a degree of consensus in the Chamber. Whether we vote for or against the Bill, there appears to be unanimity that it is a load of pusillanimous nonsense. A couple of speeches were made in favour of the Bill, but as those speeches developed it became pretty clear that they were about an entirely different Bill.
If the Bill is taken to its logical conclusion, it will commit the spending of £2 billion, which is a lot of money in anyone's terms. Two billion pounds make the sums needed from the Government by the employer's side to settle the firefighters' strike seem small beer. Two billion pounds makes the mobilisation of our armed forces for war seem cheap. One would expect considerable benefits from the commitment of £2 billion of the public's hard-earned cash—perhaps more teachers, more nurses or more police officers. But no, regional government will create not a single new teacher, nurse or police officer. If the Government get their way, the remaining 34 county councils will be abolished. Two billion pounds seems a lot of money to provide a cosy bolthole for regional politicians who did not make it to this Chamber or Strasbourg or who have grown weary of the inconvenience of being responsible to their local electorate.
As my right hon. Friend David Davis said at the beginning of the debate, there is a crisis right across Europe on regional policy. He produced figures that demonstrated the increase in the disparities between the prosperous and the poor. A regional assembly would be a toothless commentator on those events. There is a clear need for a regional policy from the Government to address those disparities, but a regional assembly would not do that. A bit of window dressing is no substitute for a policy and a collection of gimmicks do not make a single policy.
As the Confederation of British Industry said in a brief prepared for the debate, its members believe that regional assemblies will not improve decision making in the regions, enjoy the business community's confidence, strengthen democracy or be value for money. The British Chambers of Commerce has said:
XBusiness frankly wonders why the Government is wasting its time on something that few people want and even fewer people need."
As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it:
XThe link between democratic decision-making at regional level and economic competitiveness is uncertain".
We have already heard from the hon. Member for St. Ives about his Xanoraks". Little wonder that the business community has withdrawn from the unelected regional assemblies in the north-west and the east of England. It was not the assemblies' lack of a direct mandate that made the business community walk away, but the fact that they were a complete waste of time.
My hon. Friend and I come from what is termed the east of England. Did he observe that no one on the Labour Benches from the east of England cared to speak up for regional government? Those who spoke on behalf of the south-east and the south-west acknowledged that regional governments would never be established there. Members from the west midlands and east midlands did not appear on the Labour Benches, and opinion was strictly divided in the remaining three regions. So it seems—
I somewhat regret the fact that my hon. Friend did not get an opportunity to participate in the debate. His memory is correct. We come from the same region. Obviously, I have enormous affection for him, but our constituencies have little in common. We do not share economic or planning interests. That can be said of constituencies across the eastern region—[Interruption.] I hope that I am not going to be heckled into submission.
Mr. Prentice, who is meeting the Prime Minister tomorrow to tell him a few home truths about regional policy, made a courageous and important speech. He explained that the north-west has no regional identity. He also rightly told his hon. Friends that a regional assembly will not deliver on a number of things. For instance, it will have virtually no impact on the west coast main line. He spoke most eloquently about money and the Barnett formula, which is what the debate is really about.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman is from a different side of the Pennines, but for my whole life I have been aware of certain differences between Yorkshire and Lancashire. We have got a bit beyond that now, but the idea that there is no north-west identity betrays his origins as someone who comes from Yorkshire.
My entire life has been one of co-operation between Yorkshire and Lancashire because I married a Lancashire girl. After the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber, we had a decent discussion about the difference between Manchester and Leeds and how those cities co-operate across different regions. There is a commonality of needs along the M62 and the regions are a side issue.
My hon. Friend
My hon. Friend Mr. Brady rightly talked about the needs of his constituents. He said that the people of Cheshire have nothing in common with people in the rest of the north-west.
Is not the hon. Gentleman compounding the error made by Mr. Atkinson in referring to the remoteness of Northumberland county council? Surely he is undermining the arguments of the rest of his hon. Friends about county councils being wonderful, viable democratic institutions.
The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we have been saying, particularly about the need for a two-tier system of district and county councils.
The referendum proposed in the Bill lacks quality, transparency and openness. People are being asked to vote without knowing what they will receive. The question will be difficult to frame, and as we have seen the Electoral Commission has already had problems with definitions of single tiers of local government.
If the majority of citizens in a county vote against regional government, their county can still be destroyed because of the way in which the Government impose regional boundaries. We have heard from my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry that 86 per cent. of Yorkshire and Humberside is governed by unitary authorities. Why should 86 per cent. decide the fate of the good people of North Yorkshire? He was right to say that we would give local authorities additional powers.
The abolition of long-established boundaries needs a clear mandate; it should not, to quote Andrew George, be done by a trickle of minor empire builders and anoraks. The Government ultimately have the power to pick and choose when and where referendums are to be held. They are vague about when the trigger for a referendum will be reached. Threats of continuous periodic referendums will lead to instability and a reduction of long-term planning. The Government should have the courage of their convictions and let all the regions decide on the same date, instead of having a trickle of referendums. If there is a need for regional government, as Labour Members have said, let us have it now. Let us have referendums and test their case.
The people of England do not live in regions; they live in counties, towns and villages. Their allegiance is to the immediate community of their country. Between county and country there are no intermediaries. I was born in Yorkshire, not Yorkshire and Humberside. Where I was born has nothing in common with north Lincolnshire. I now live in Essex, not in the eastern region. Brentwood has nothing in common with Cromer or Cambridge. The creation of an elected regional assembly will not create affection for a region that exists only on paper.
The hon. Gentleman is becoming what Spiro Agnew would have described as one of the negative nabobs of nattering negativism. Has it occurred to him that exactly the same negative quibbling was used in the argument put forward by one of his Front-Bench predecessors against devolution in Scotland and Wales? Is he imitating that speech?
I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's trip down memory lane in his earlier contribution, but when he was talking about regional affinity he kept moving from one region to another without understanding that he was talking about different regions.
There is a case for co-operation between authorities along the M62 corridor, but that is not a pan-regional matter. There is a case for co-operation between authorities around the M25, but that is not a pan-regional matter. There is a case for co-operation between authorities along the southern coast, but that is not a matter of regions; it is common sense. The regions proposed by the Government are too rigid.
Let me give the House an idea of the way in which regional assemblies try to garner support for regional pride. The south-east assembly had the opportunity to meet in various locations, including Aylesbury, Canterbury, Dover, Guildford and Windsor, to demonstrate the wonders of the region. However, it decided to meet in London, which best represents that great region, the south-east of England, and is more convenient than anywhere else in the south-east. I commend it on that decision—it was more honest than any other regional assembly and demonstrated better than any other regional assembly that the assemblies will be the Government's poodles. They will be the Government's representatives in the regions and will see that the Government's will is carried out, not the will of the people of the regions.
We have had an interesting, varied and, at times, frustrating debate on one of the most significant issues that we will deal with during the course of this Parliament.
The Bill represents an important further step towards the modernisation of our constitution following the measures already enacted to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and London. It reflects the commitment and determination of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to give the people of England the choice of devolved regional assemblies. For decades, the needs and aspirations of the English regions were at best neglected and at worst ignored. The approaches of the past were either laissez-faire or XWhitehall knows best", and created a widening economic divide and a regional democratic deficit. The Government have been working hard to decentralise power, to make our politics more open, accountable and inclusive. The Bill is a major step forward in that process.
We have had a variety of contributions. David Davis, speaking for the official Opposition in a curiously muted speech, started by claiming that there was something wrong with devolution because unemployment in the UK was highest in areas with new tiers of government. Let us consider that curious concept. Not only did the right hon. Gentleman forget his party's shameful record of rising unemployment, which stained its period in government; he forgot that under the present Government unemployment has reduced to historically low levels in comparison with all our major competitors. If there is a connection between unemployment and devolution—the principle on which the right hon. Gentleman based his argument—devolution, where it has been introduced in this country, shows clearly that we can take action to tackle unemployment. That is our party's commitment—[Interruption.] I was laughing at the right hon. Gentleman, who proceeded to try to build a case for opposition to regional devolution on some curious comments from representatives of the CBI, effectively ignoring the fact that the CBI itself has a regional structure and is organised on a regional basis. Its director general, Digby Jones, at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference at which I was speaking, made it perfectly clear that the CBI strongly supports regional devolution.
The right hon. Gentleman then got into deep water by arguing that if about 25 per cent. of people voted in favour of a referendum, that was a technical basis for making that referendum valid—a point which his hon. Friend Mr. Shepherd effectively demolished. Finally, he was silent on the issue that he spent a lot of time raising in the House last week—the concept that the Government should hold referendums in every region on the same day. What happened to that policy? The right hon. Gentleman appears to have forgotten what he was arguing just last week. It is a typical case of the Opposition not knowing what they are doing.
I know that time is getting on and that the right hon. Gentleman has stayed up late. However, may I politely remind him that I raised that matter about five minutes ago?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that I was referring to the right hon. Gentleman who leads for the Opposition.
My hon. Friend Mr. Lloyd, in a passionate speech, made it clear that we are considering one of the most important constitutional developments in our lifetime. He properly made a distinction between affection for historical county identities—in his case, he spoke about Lancashire—as against effective administrative structures. I strongly agree with his contributions.
Speaking for the Liberal Democrats in a thoughtful speech, Mr. Davey indicated his commitment to regional government and democratic accountability, and rightly criticised the Conservative Opposition for their opposition to extending democratic accountability. He believed that our proposals did not go far enough, and gave us an entertaining list of quangos that he would like to see abolished. He also asked a number of questions, not all of which I am able to answer this evening owing to lack of time. He asked specifically whether we would publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. We are not necessarily opposed to that idea, but there are timetable issues that will determine whether that option is feasible. We will keep that under consideration.
The hon. Gentleman asked what research we had undertaken on the ballot question in clause 2, and whether we had used focus groups. We did not use focus groups. We tried to use common sense, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 gives a specific role to the Electoral Commission to test the intelligibility of questions. That is why we prepared a draft question and submitted it to the Electoral Commission, which has given its views. We will give those views careful consideration.
My hon. Friend Mr. Prentice announced at the start of his speech that he would not need 12 minutes to say what he had to say, although he ended up taking the full time to indicate that he was opposed to devolution and remained a fierce centralist. I differ with him wholeheartedly on that issue.
Mr. Curry, who passed me a note to apologise for the fact that he cannot be present for the winding-up speeches, in a speech full of graphic images made a case for regional devolution—even if he differed from the views contained in our Bill and our White Paper. He said that he thought the Bill was produced by people who water their red wine. That, I thought, was rather typical of the right hon. Gentleman. He might have suggested that it was a Bill produced by people who water the workers' beer, but there was no such image. Instead, he described it as a Xmewling and puking" measure. As my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman clearly started life on that basis.
If the hon. Gentleman had been present throughout the debate, I might have had more sympathy for his intervention. [Hon. Members: XAnswer!"] I will deal with the question when responding to a North Yorkshire Member who raised questions during the debate and was present throughout the debate.
My hon. Friend Mr. Stringer questioned the existence of a north-west identity. He argued that no one can agree on boundaries because there are no natural boundaries. I disagree. I believe that we have a natural tendency to disagree about boundaries, whether they are at regional, county, constituency, local government or ward level, and such disputes rarely contribute to progress. We believe that we need to make progress on the Bill, and we do not want to be caught in a morass of boundary disputes.
My hon. Friend also argued that the electoral system would give a platform to extremist parties such as the British National party. The 5 per cent. threshold contained in the provisions, as in London, is an important safeguard against unrepresentative extremist parties gaining representation on a small percentage of the vote.
Mr. Shepherd, in a nostalgic speech, celebrated the great municipal developments of the 19th century, but seemed a little less comfortable with the current manifestations of them on his own patch. On his point about a threshold, he will recall the unfortunate example of Scotland, where the existence of a threshold in the 1978 legislation resulted in the people of Scotland being denied an opportunity for devolution, even though a clear majority had voted in favour, thereby deferring the process of devolution for almost 20 years. I think that that is the strongest argument against thresholds.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby argued passionately about home rule for Yorkshire.
Sir Teddy Taylor characteristically saw a European plot behind our proposals. I can assure him that there is no such plot.
My hon. Friend Mr. Borrow believes that decisions can be more effectively made at a regional level. I agree wholeheartedly with him.
Mr. Beith expressed concern about the powers available under our proposals, but supported the principle of regional assemblies. He was worried about the consequences of unitarisation of local government. I shall return to that issue in a moment.
I am afraid I do not have time.
My right hon. Friend Joyce Quin spoke in a thoughtful and well-considered speech about the important development of the yes coalition in the north-east, in which she is playing a leading and very important part. She rightly stressed that the White Paper makes a very good start on regional governance and argued the case for the use of postal ballots to help with turnout, perhaps in combination with other elections.
Mr. Key was unsympathetic to regional government. He argued for greater devolution to local government, but was clearly unaware of the measures that we announced today dramatically to reduce the obligations on local authorities to produce plans and other red tape.
My hon. Friend Lawrie Quinn rightly highlighted the benefit of directly accountable regional institutions. He raised concerns about whether resource restraints would prevent the boundary committee from considering the need for local government reorganisation in the regions that may be interested in that. I can assure him that our primary test in deciding where to hold referendums will be the level of interest in each region. He represents North Yorkshire, which is not a separate and isolated part of the country, but part of Yorkshire and Humberside. It is right that any decision relating to the future of that region, whether or not it has an elected regional assembly, should be taken by all the people living in Yorkshire and Humberside.
Mr. Atkinson was opposed to elected regional assemblies and claimed that reorganisation would destroy the districts in his county, thereby neatly demolishing the Opposition's claim that what we are doing is all about abolishing the county councils. I could not have had a better case.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dawson, a strong advocate of regional government, argued that regional decisions should be taken at a regional level. We wholeheartedly agree. He also put in a strong bid for the city of Lancaster as the home for the new assembly.
Mr. Brady opposed the idea of elected regional assemblies and asked about the use of public funds to promote referendums. I assure him that there will be no use of public funds other than through the Electoral Commission, whose role is to provide objective information to inform voters.
I urge my hon. Friend Mr. Wyatt to read chapter 2 of the White Paper, which relates to improving existing arrangements in the south-east and other regions.
Mr. Syms asked how the Government would assess the degree of interest and competing claims. I assure him that we have already consulted on that matter and will set out detailed arrangements during the Bill's passage through Parliament.
My hon. Friend Mr. Dhanda made an important case for unitary government.
Andrew George challenged the validity of regional boundaries and spoke for Cornwall in that regard. I disagree on the case for a Cornish assembly.
Since the Government came to power, we have worked hard to increase democracy, devolve power and break free from the over-centralised system of governance that we inherited from the previous Administration. The Bill gives the English regions the historic opportunity to decide whether to have an elected regional assembly. We are giving the people of England a choice that was denied them for far too long. Devolving power is central to providing public services, and I warmly commend the Bill to the House.