[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair] — Clause 1 — Referendums

Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:26 pm on 18th December 2002.

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Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 5:26 pm, 18th December 2002

I beg to move amendment No. 45, in page 1, line 5, at beginning insert 'Subject to subsection (3)'.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 46, in page 1, line 9, leave out subsections (3) to (8) and insert—

'(3) No order under subsection 1 shall be made unless—

(a) a review of the boundaries of the regions in England has been conducted in accordance with section [regional boundaries]; and

(b) an Act setting out the powers and functions of elected regional assemblies shall have received Royal Assent; and

(c) the Secretary of State has concluded on the basis of the evidence available to him that there is substantial support from the business community within the region for the holding of such a referendum; and

(d) the Secretary of State has commissioned and published a report by an independent auditor expressing his opinion that, on the basis of the information available to him at the time of his report, no additional public expenditure overall would be incurred as a result of the proposed implementation of elected regional assembles and the associate reorganisation of local government in the region'.'.

No. 35, in page 1, line 10, leave out from 'unless' to end of line and insert

'the condition in subsection (4) below is satisfied in relation to the region.'.

No. 43, in page 1, line 10, leave out 'two'.

No. 44, in page 1, line 10, leave out from 'satisfied' to end.

No. 36, in page 1, line 11, leave out 'first'.

No. 24, in page 1, line 11, leave out from 'has' to end of line 12 and insert

'concluded on the basis of the evidence available that it is probable that at least twentyfive per cent.of the persons eligible to vote in a referendum held pursuant to section 1 would vote in favour of an elected regional assembly for the region if such a referendum were held.'.

No. 34, in page 1, line 13, leave out subsection (5).

No. 15, in page 1, line 14, at end add—

'(5A) The third condition is that an Act setting out the powers and functions of elected regional assemblies shall have received Royal Assent.'.

No. 17, in page 1, line 14, at end add—

'(5A) The third condition is that the Secretary of State has concluded on the basis of the evidence available to him that there is substantial support from the business community within the region for the holding of such a referendum.'.

No. 18, in page 1, line 14, at end add—

'(5A) The third condition is that the Secretary of State has commissioned and published a report by an independent auditor expressing the opinion that, on the basis of the information available to him at the time of his report, no additional public expenditure overall would be incurred as a result of the proposed implementation of elected regional assemblies and the associated reorganisation of local government in the region.'.

No. 9, in page 2, line 1, leave out subsections (6) and (7).

No. 10, in page 2, line 12, leave out

'if subsection (6) does not apply'.

No. 23, in clause 2, page 2, line 33, at end add—

'It is not proposed to proceed with the establishment of elected regional assemblies in any region where less than twentyfive per cent.of the persons eligible to vote in a referendum vote in favour of the establishment of an elected regional assembly for the region.'.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

In Committee our duty is to examine the detail of the Bill, and that is precisely what we shall do over the next few hours in respect of clause 1, which introduces the arrangements for referendums.

Briefly, and by way of putting some context around these debates, it may be useful if I outline the Conservatives' position on the Government's concept of regional assemblies, which we believe is fatally flawed. It introduces an extra tier of government that is more remote from the people. It will undermine local government. It is based on arbitrary and often meaningless boundaries, which mostly have no resonance whatever with the population. It will struggle, in most cases, to create any real sense of identity, and in practice it will be tightly constrained by central Government and watched over by strengthened Government offices for the regions. It will require a wholesale reorganisation of two-tier local government to boot, including the abolition of many, if not most, of our historic counties.

We would not choose to go down that route. However, we recognise the need to address the question of local government in its widest sense—by that I mean the tiers of government between Westminster and the individual citizen—in England, following the Scottish and Welsh devolution settlements. We recognise too the very real sense in some regions that decisions made in London are too remote and not always responsive enough to local mood.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

Where in the Bill does it say that counties will be abolished? It says that nowhere in the Bill, so is not that idea the misinformation that we normally hear from the Conservative party?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I suspect that the matter will be debated at some length. The Government have made clear in the White Paper their requirement that if regional elected assemblies go ahead, we will have all-unitary local government in those areas. I suggested to the Minister yesterday that he might like to indicate whether a unitary Kent authority with a population of 2 million would be acceptable, and he declined to be drawn, saying that he had an open mind on all these issues. However, I suspect that my right hon. and hon. Friends will have their own views about the likely outcome of local government reorganisation.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I am mindful of the time, so I will make a little progress if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

I say to the Minister that this is not a solution for all England, and in their heart of hearts the Government know that. It is a response to the specific concerns of one or perhaps two areas masquerading as a final solution to the English question. We would prefer it if the Government went back to the drawing board and tried to build from established units of local government, rather than seeking to sweep them away. However, we recognise that the Government are committed to the process, and our purpose today is to address some of our specific concerns about the Bill.

Clause 1 sets out the process for initiating a pre-legislative referendum and the conditions that must be met before one can be held, as well as preparations for the establishment of regional assemblies. On closer inspection, this rather large group of amendments can be whittled down. Amendments Nos. 15, 17 and 18, together with the paving amendments Nos. 43 and 44, effectively duplicate amendments Nos. 45 and 46, but were tabled because it was possible that the Standing Committee would have reached clause 26 before today, in which case amendment No. 46 could not be selected. I am glad that it has been selected, and I shall address it rather than amendments Nos. 15, 17 and 18, as it embodies our preferred solution.

Amendments Nos. 34, 35 and 36 tabled by the Liberal Democrats seek to reduce the conditions of precedent and eliminate the link in the Bill to local government reorganisation. We are sympathetic to the objection to the compulsory unitarisation of England, which the Liberals are targeting. They have correctly identified the problem, but have drawn the wrong conclusion. The correct conclusion is that the Government's proposals for regional government in Britain simply do not work—they either involve the compulsory reorganisation of local government or, in the Liberals' preferred option, the imposition of a third tier of government.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge 5:30 pm, 18th December 2002

Amendment No. 46 calls for a review of the boundaries of the English regions, but as they were basically drawn up by the last Conservative Government, would the hon. Gentleman tell us which ones they got wrong?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Yes, in just a moment if the hon. Gentleman would bear with me.

Amendment Nos. 46, 24, 23, 9 and 10 address substantive issues. Amendment No. 46 deals with conditions of precedent that must be met before the Secretary of State can call a referendum in a region. Proposed subsection (3)(a) imposes a requirement for a review of regional boundaries. Members on both sides of the House will know that one of the principal objections to the Government's proposal concerns the unwieldy and incoherent nature of the regions and their disparity in size. The smallest region, the north-east, has a population of about 2.5 million; the largest region, the south-east, has a population of 8 million. The electorate per directly elected assembly member will range from 150,000 in the smallest region to nearly 350,000 in the largest region. People in Cornwall do not identify with Bristol; people in Dover have little in common with Banbury. Arguably, only the north-east has a coherent or readily recognisable regional identity. If the regions are to work, they must be natural entities with a sense of identity.

Mr. Clelland asked why I am dissatisfied with the current regional boundaries, when they were indeed established by the previous Government. However, those regions were established for convenience as a tier of administrative government and, as vastly disparate areas, are simply not suitable for the introduction of democratically elected institutions.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

For the second time in debates on the Bill the hon. Gentleman has said that the Conservatives now recognise that people in the north-east have regional aspirations. Will he tell the Committee how the Conservatives would allow the people of the north-east to realise their legitimate regional aspirations?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

We recognise—the hon. Gentleman has heard this before—that people in some parts of the United Kingdom feel that decision making in London is remote from them. We believe that it is essential to strengthen local government to ensure genuine devolution of power, rooted in natural communities in cities and counties where people have a true sense of identity. That is the way to strengthen the system of government in this country.

Photo of Ms Joyce Quin Ms Joyce Quin Labour, Gateshead East and Washington West

How would strengthening local government respond to regional identity, which the hon. Gentleman has conceded exists in the case of the north-east?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I said that regional identity may exist in the north-east. Of the Government's proposed regions, that is the one where, by general consensus, there is most likely to be interest in a regional identity. If the proposal is to work, it must be an all-England solution. That is the point that I was about to make. If the Government want to engage the population, they must start from the bottom and work up.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must make progress. We have a very constrained timetable for debate today.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Very well. I shall give way one more time to the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Shadow Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister), Shadow Minister (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Olympics and London), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister)

I want to explore the hon. Gentleman's logic a little further. He said that there were regional aspirations in the north-east, but that those could be realised only through regional government throughout England. Does he not realise the logical inconsistency of his argument?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

No, that is not what I said. I said that if the solution is to be workable, it must be applicable throughout England. It is no good the Government proposing a solution that purports to be a resolution to the question of governance across England, if it applies in only one or, at most, two regions.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I shall make some progress. Hon. Gentlemen will have plenty of opportunity to speak later.

Paragraph (a) of the amendment refers to new clause 3, which will be considered in due course in Standing Committee. New clause 3 establishes a review of the regions based on submissions from local authorities. It requires the Secretary of State to invite all local authorities to submit proposals to him for the creation of regions for the purposes of the Bill. It also requires the Secretary of State to invite other persons and bodies that appear to him to represent relevant interests to submit proposals, and to ask the Electoral Commission to comment on those submissions and make proposals to the Secretary of State for the creation of regions, having regard to the desirability of all regions being approximately equal in size—one of the great flaws in the Government's proposal—and having regard also to the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I shall certainly support the Opposition in one of their amendments on clause 2. I am considering supporting them on this group. First, however, I should like to hear the hon. Gentleman's thinking. My argument, as someone representing a Merseyside constituency, is that Merseyside does not fit neatly into the fictional north-west. If I supported the hon. Gentleman on amendment No. 46, and in the unlikely event that it was carried, would that, in his opinion, enable Merseyside to come up with a totally different solution?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

That is the purpose of paragraph (a) of amendment No. 46 and new clause 3, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman has studied. Essentially, the local authorities in the proposed regions would be invited to make their own proposals. The Electoral Commission—not the Secretary of State—an independent body that already controls the boundary committee and has expertise in these matters, would consider those proposals and present to the Secretary of State a proposal for a sensible structure of regions that would allow identities such as the one about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned to be effectively recognised.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the original boundaries were set purely for administrative convenience. He says that the proposal in new clause 3 is to establish regions of approximately the same size, but are not regions that reflect regional identities bound to vary in size? He is simply creating regions that reflect administrative convenience, not identity.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I accept entirely that there will always be a tension, but it is no good the Minister nodding. What he is proposing are regions that do not reflect any sense of identity. What does Banbury have in common with Dover? We have already heard that the people of Lincolnshire do not want to be included in the east midlands. We have all heard in Committee that the people of Shropshire do not regard themselves as being in the west midlands. The problem already exists, and it is compounded by the huge disparity in size between the different regions that the existing structure proposes.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Will he clarify whether he proposes that the boundary review should cover London, as that is not clear in the amendment?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Of course not. The subject under discussion is the situation in England, excluding Greater London, which has been dealt with in previous legislation, as the Minister is well aware.

The proposals seem the sensible and obvious way of proceeding if there is a genuine desire for an all-England workable regional government solution. It is the absurdity and arbitrariness of the boundaries that have generated the most hostility to the Government's proposals. Their only response is simply to say that it would take too long to conduct a boundary review before implementing a referendum, but they are prepared to delay a referendum while a local government review is carried out.

Paragraph (b) of the subsection set out in the amendment deals with our concerns about pre-legislative referendums. My right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell pointed out that we are asking the public to vote for a pig in a poke. They have no idea of what powers regional assemblies would have or what authority they would represent. We must trust the Minister when he says that the detail is in a White Paper or consultation document, but we would rather see the measures in place to ensure that people are aware of precisely what the powers and responsibilities of the regional assemblies would be if they opted for them, including the tax-raising powers.

There is an almost bizarre contrast between the Government's absolute and unshakeable commitment to ensuring that local government reorganisation is done and dusted, reported on and established in black and white before a referendum is held and their apparent failure to set out the substance of the powers that will be given to the regional assemblies that will be created if the referendum is successful. People will be asked to vote when the substantive issues are still unclear, but we are told that the subsidiary issue must be resolved first. Incidentally, neither do the Government propose that the electoral boundaries of the districts used in a region for the election of regional assemblymen will be defined before a referendum takes place.

Paragraph (c) would require there to be substantial business support in a region before a referendum is called. The Bill already provides for a so-called test of an appropriate level of interest in holding a referendum, although that is undefined. One of the Government's principal arguments in favour of regional assemblies has been that they will boost regional economic growth. At the very least, that case has not been proven. Indeed, in Scotland, the opposite appears to be the case. Scotland has enjoyed negative—if that is the right word—GDP growth in the fourth quarter of 2001 and the first quarter of 2002, which is the classic definition of a recession. Overall, in the year up to the second quarter of 2002, its GDP grew by just 0.3 per cent., which is not much more than a 10th of growth of the UK as a whole.

Photo of Doug Henderson Doug Henderson Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne North

I hate to refer back to the Scottish issue again, but I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman. I do not think that any Scottish industrialist or business person—I know quite a few of them—would argue that the reason for the relative slowness of the Scottish economy is the Scottish Parliament. It is clearly due to the decline in the technology industries. There is no argument about that in Scotland, so I do not know where he got that idea from.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I shall tell the hon. Gentleman: I got it from the CBI, which is using Scotland as an example that England should not follow, as it shows how additional bureaucracy and layers of government can impose burdens that restrict economic growth.

I am not surprised that the hon. Gentleman is confused about that, because it appears that the Deputy Prime Minister is also confused. On 20 November, referring to my hon. Friend Mr. Chope, he said:

XHe must have been asleep for months, during which time the CBI and other representatives of industry have made it clear that they are supportive of the proposals."—[Hansard, 20 November 2002; Vol. 394, c. 630.]

For the record, and to clear up any residual confusion in the mind of the Deputy Prime Minister, I shall quote from a Confederation of British Industry press release issued on 23 September, which stated that its members

Xhave given 'a vote of no confidence' in government plans to develop the English regions."

In case that was not clear enough for the Deputy Prime Minister, the director general of the CBI bothered to go all the way to the Labour party conference to say it again. There, he said:

XBusiness doesn't believe that regional assemblies will deliver . . . There is a real danger they could make a bad situation even worse."

I would suggest to the Minister, therefore, that it was perhaps not my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch who had been asleep for all those months but the Deputy Prime Minister, at the Labour party conference. Perhaps those who attend Labour party conferences will have some sympathy with him.

Regional assemblies will take control of the regional development agencies. The creation of elected regional assemblies is thus a key issue for business in the regions, and business interests have to be taken into account. Business will clearly have no vote in a referendum, if one is called, so it is right and proper that the Secretary of State should be obliged to establish—before calling a referendum—that there is substantial business support for such a referendum in the region in question.

Photo of Mr Derek Foster Mr Derek Foster Labour, Bishop Auckland 5:45 pm, 18th December 2002

The hon. Gentleman is now arguing that the regional assemblies taking responsibility for the regional development agencies is a substantial reason for the CBI being against the proposal. I remember distinctly, however, having campaigned for regional development agencies for 25 years, that the CBI was almost entirely opposed to RDAs—not only in the north-east, but almost everywhere else as well. This therefore seems like complete opportunism on the part of the CBI, and the Tory party is erecting it as a hurdle for the Bill to jump over.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

It is interesting that Labour Members have spent most of the last five years citing the CBI's support for everything that they are doing, whenever the CBI has made observations that the Government find helpful. Now that the CBI has made an objective observation expressing the views of business in the regions about this proposal, Labour Members want to demonise it. That is very telling.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I shall make some progress if I may, because there is quite a lot to get through, and I am sure that other hon. Members will want to contribute to this debate, which is only one of the three debates that we wish to have in the first two and a half hours of our allocated time.

Paragraph (d) in amendment No. 46 seeks to introduce a requirement for the Secretary of State to produce an independent auditor's report. The Labour party manifesto of 1997 stated:

XIn time we will introduce legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide in a referendum whether they want elected regional government. Only where clear popular consent is established will arrangements be made for elected regional assemblies. This would require a predominantly unitary system of local government, as presently exists . . . and confirmation by independent auditors that no additional public expenditure overall would be involved."

That was Labour's commitment. Our charge is that the Bill will create an extra tier of government, more bureaucracy, more red tape, more tax, more spending, more politicians, more talk, more expensive headquarters buildings and, if Labour controls any of the assemblies, no doubt more cronyism and sleaze as well.

The Minister must accept this amendment, because its words are not my words, but the words of the Labour party manifesto, copied into the amendment. The Labour party, when it was bidding for the job of government, said that there would be independent audit to ensure no additional public expenditure; now that it has the job, it should stick to its word; otherwise, the Minister must tell us how much additional public money and additional tax this whole edifice is going to cost us.

Amendment No. 24 seeks to introduce a slightly more objective test to replace the utterly meaningless one in clause 1(4) of the Bill, which states:

XThe first condition is that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest in the region in the holding of such a referendum."

What does Xconsidered the level of interest" mean? Does it mean that, in the time it takes his Jaguar to get from New Palace Yard back to his departmental office, the Secretary of State has had a think about it in the back of his car? This is no test at all. There is no requirement that the interest be substantial and no requirement even that that interest be determined as representing a certain level of support for the proposals. There could be a lot of opposition to the Bill, but it would be perverse indeed to use that as a ground for calling a referendum.

Photo of Mark Field Mark Field Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

Does my hon. Friend agree that there must be interest across a particular region, not just in a small area of it?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That issue, in a slightly different form, will be addressed by a subsequent amendment, and I am sure that he will have something to say about it.

I suggest that it will be sensible to hold a referendum only if there is substantial support for elected regional assemblies, if that is what the Secretary of State has determined. I also suggest that, in practice, that is the political judgment that the Deputy Prime Minister will make, so let us include it in the Bill. It is hardly conceivable that he will consider the support in a region, determine that it is overwhelmingly hostile and then call a referendum. Instead of having woolly words that mean effectively nothing, let us get the Bill to say what is going to happen.

Amendment No. 24 would require the Secretary of State to consider on the evidence available to him the probability of a certain level of support for a yes vote. However, the idea that some threshold of support for the proposal—the Minister for Local Government and the Regions prefers to call it a hurdle—has to exist before we enter into such wholesale constitutional restructuring caused angst in Standing Committee.

Originally, I expressed that idea in amendments as a requirement for a minimum percentage turnout. The Minister, in fairness to him, pointed out that that would have perverse outcomes, as it would create an incentive for people opposed to the proposition to abstain. We listened to what he had to say, went away and reformulated the threshold concept around a percentage of the electorate recording a yes vote, which would not produce perverse incentives such as the one which he suggested.

We have chosen 25 per cent. of the eligible electorate voting for the proposition, but that is contentious. Many of my hon. Friends will, I suspect, think it too low a threshold, but the Minister says that it is ridiculous to set any threshold at all. What is ridiculous is postulating a major constitutional change on the back of the support of a tiny fraction of the electorate. The burden must be on those who propose to change the status quo to show support for that change.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

I am interested in why the hon. Gentleman has chosen 25 per cent. I assume it is because he thinks that being unable to achieve 25 per cent. voting yes would mean no legitimacy on such an important constitutional matter. Given that President Bush got less than 25 per cent. of the votes of those of voting age in the United States presidential election—I have checked the facts—does he regard President Bush as having no legitimacy?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman exactly why I have chosen 25 per cent. as a figure to put before the Committee. My elementary mathematics tells me that 25 per cent. represents a simple equality of half the electorate voting. He is trying to equate an advisory referendum with an election, and he well knows that we have already had that debate in Standing Committee. Interestingly, perhaps, the 25 per cent. threshold would have legitimised the Scottish and Welsh referendums, but not, by a small margin, the Greater London referendum.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

The amendments are about the judgment that the Secretary of State would make of the support in a region for a referendum, but a subsequent amendment tabled by the hon. Gentleman calls for an all-England referendum in which all regions would vote on the same day. If this proposal is accepted, I assume that he will withdraw the amendment on an all-England referendum?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

I assure the hon. Gentleman that if the Minister rises to his feet to announce that he has suddenly seen the light and wants to accept amendment No. 46, I shall immediately go into a huddle with my hon. Friends. We may well want radically to change what we are putting before the Committee.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend is something of a high-hurdler and I am a bit of a high-hurdler as well, but the Government are distinctly low-hurdlers. He will recall the threshold to trigger referendums on directly elected mayors and no doubt speculate as to the turnout in those elections and their unsatisfactory nature for the Labour party, particularly in the north-east.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

My right hon. Friend astutely identifies an issue. The Minister's difficulty is that he does not like 25 per cent., but he has to agree—indeed, he has agreed—that, in principle, there needs to be a certain level of participation and a certain level of support for the proposition to be legitimised. However, he has so far successfully avoided putting a number on that, and he will not say whether a plurality of turnout of 10 or 20 per cent. would be enough to legitimise such a major constitutional change. I hope that we shall hear him speak on that subject this evening. Let him suggest the appropriate threshold for change.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Following the intervention of Mr. Curry, perhaps I should say that I was a high-jumper at school. I suspect that, after today, I will be for the high jump with my Whips. Amendment No. 24 says:

Xon the basis of the evidence available . . . it is probable that at least twenty-five per cent. of the persons eligible to vote in a referendum . . . would vote in favour".

How should that be judged?

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Unfortunately, we are constrained by the Bill's architecture, as is the hon. Gentleman. That is a test that the Secretary of State would have to apply before calling a referendum. When we debate clause 2, the hon. Gentleman will see that we have sought to address a yes vote of less than 25 per cent. of the eligible electorate, whatever the Secretary of State's judgment in advance of a referendum. In fact, if the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I shall address that point now by referring to amendment No. 23, which is in this group. It deals with the test that the Deputy Prime Minister would have to apply before calling a referendum, but he would still be free to go ahead with creating an elected regional assembly if the turnout were very low—for example, if only 20 per cent. were achieved and 11 per cent. of the electorate voted yes.

Sadly, owing to the nature of the Bill, there is no scope to introduce a test for setting up regional assemblies, so we have tabled this amendment, which would add to the preamble to the question a statement of intent from the Government. I do not often offer to draft such statements for them, but on this occasion I thought I would. That statement is that the Government would not intend to proceed if less than 25 per cent. voted yes.

Some of my hon. Friends may think that I am naive to assume that the Government would feel bound in any way, shape or form just because they made a statement of intent. Consider their 1997 manifesto commitment and the litter of other broken pledges and failed targets that surround them. However, it is the best that I can do within the constraints of the Bill's architecture. I hope that it allows other Members to address the substantive issue.

That brings me to amendments Nos. 9 and 10, which are offered in the alternative, as my hon. Friend Mr. Streeter would say in his lawyerly way in Standing Committee. If the Government reject amendments Nos. 46 and 24 and leave in place the absurd non-test of clause 1(4), which states that

Xthe Secretary of State has considered the level of interest", without setting any parameters as to what he has concluded, amendments Nos. 9 and 10 would at least tighten the process of consideration. Subsections (6) and (7), which those amendments would delete and amend, say that the Secretary of State has considered the level of interest if he orders the referendum within two years of ordering a local government review.

So provided that the Secretary of State made such an order within two years of setting off a local government review, he would be deemed to have carried out that consideration, whether he had done so or not. Amendments Nos. 9 and 10 would remove those paragraphs and require the Secretary of State, before ordering a review, always to consider the items specified in clause 1(8), namely,

Xviews expressed and information and evidence provided to him", and

Xsuch published material as he thinks appropriate."

I would not have thought that that was a particularly onerous task for the Secretary of State, and it would make his judgment reviewable at least in theory, which his decision under subsection (4) almost certainly would not be.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge 6:00 pm, 18th December 2002

I do not want to make a long speech. I merely want to get to the bottom of the Conservatives' motives. Mr. Shepherd said a few moments ago—I think I quote him accurately—XWe want to dispose of this matter appropriately". That, I believe, is what the Conservatives want to do: they want to dispose of the matter altogether. They probably think that a wholesale reorganisation of regional boundaries, if it happened, would take so long that a general election would be upon us which, in their own pathetic minds, they imagine they might have a chance of winning. While that is not impossible, of course, it is very unlikely.

I see no need for a review of regional boundaries. As I said earlier, the current boundaries were drawn up by the last Conservative Government, who seemed to think them appropriate then.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

I would be entirely content for there to be a Government office for the west midlands for statistical and administrative purposes, but I would not be content with a severing of the link with Gloucestershire, which is important in the context of the Three Choirs Festival and the three counties showground. I would not be content to be run by Birmingham. Administration and government are very different. I wish the hon. Gentleman would understand that crucial distinction.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

I think I understand it quite well. I was about to say that as far as I can see there is nothing to prevent any Government or Secretary of State from making proposals to change regional boundaries in the future. We are not drawing up boundaries for ever. Indeed, once we have regional government regions themselves may well suggest boundary changes, and there will be nothing to prevent such changes.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister said that it would take a year to review local government. The regions can be dealt with at the same time: that would certainly not take longer than a year. The process will not exactly be prolonged. Does it not make much more sense to sort out the boundaries before proceeding further? The hon. Gentleman's region contains perhaps 1.6 million people, and he may be content with his boundary, but the south-east is very much larger and shares no integument across its boundaries.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's optimism. I think the process would take a great deal longer. I also think the Conservatives know fine well that their proposals would mean the end of regional government this side of a general election. That is what this is all about.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that he may be expressing a self-interested view? I have made it clear that I am happy for the north-east to proceed as quickly as possible, but there is not a settled belief in many other so-called regions that the boundaries are acceptable. Whether there is a one-off wide-ranging review, or whether the north-east goes ahead and the Xdifficult" areas become a part of a separate review by the Secretary of State or the boundary commission, the issues need to be addressed; otherwise there will be no regional government in the bulk of England.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

I think that if the Conservatives get their way and the Liberals are minded to support them, there will indeed be no regional assemblies. But if the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that I should declare an interest when defending what is best for my region, I plead guilty. I certainly believe that regional government would be good for the north-east.

Mr. Hammond prayed in aid the director general of the CBI, who apparently said that businesses were not keen on the idea of regional government. The director general recently told the Deputy Prime Minister's Department that most businesses considered the planning control system to be a major burden on new business development. A later survey found, however, that most businesses ranked it 13th out of 15 in terms of importance. I do not think that the director general of the CBI necessarily always represents the views of his members.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

This is a very timid Bill, given that it establishes no more than a shell of regional government. One of the most disappointing aspects that emerged in the Standing Committee was the fact that the Government see it as a final settlement rather than a stepping stone to the devolving of real power from this place down to the regions. I must tell Labour Members who share our wish for such devolution that this will produce no more than a weak imitation, which is not intended to go any further.

More worrying, so much is wrapped up in the Bill that it has itself reduced the chances of success in referendums. Certain elements of the Government—perhaps in No. 10—who do not want regional government may have had a hand in this, as under the Bill failure is almost certain in some if not most of the referendums. We want regional government and we want referendums to be won, although not with the boundaries proposed in the Bill.

Our amendments Nos. 35, 36 and 34 seek to decouple local government reform from regional government, for a good reason. As I have said, we want referendums to be won. A single question linking the two issues will cause people to vote Xno", not because they do not want regional government but because they do not like the local government reform that is being foisted on them.

Despite what was said by Mr. Hammond, we like the principle of unitary authorities, but we do not think they should be imposed on local people from the centre. Local people should have a choice. It could be provided in one referendum or there could be a separate vote—various procedures are possible—but the decoupling is necessary.

Let us take the example of a two-tier authority such as Worcestershire. If there were a referendum in the west midlands, most people in Worcestershire, who might not want local government change, could find themselves ruled out because the overwhelming majority of those in Coventry, Birmingham and West Bromwich can vote for local government change in Worcestershire. The people in Worcestershire could be overruled by those already in unitary authorities.

Photo of Jim Cousins Jim Cousins Labour, Newcastle upon Tyne Central

Does the hon. Gentleman not see that the toughness and definiteness of the choice that must be made between historic identification with a county and future identification with a region is precisely the answer to the trumped-up Conservative amendments?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I will come to the amendments tabled by the Conservatives. There could have been grounds for our supporting them, but they have phrased them in such a way that they would not achieve what they set out to achieve.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman knows that I disagree on the question of regional government, but does he agree that the people of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley and Wolverhampton face no tough choices, because they are already in unitary authorities? The tough choices are for the people of the counties of Worcestershire, Shropshire, Herefordshire and Warwickshire, but they can be overridden by the majority, who are already in unitary authorities. That is why the proposal is so profoundly undemocratic.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

Absolutely, and we can see similar situations throughout the country. We recognise that there is strong demand for a regional assembly in the north-east. People in Northumbria may not be particularly enthusiastic about local government change, yet it will be forced on them by a majority of people in Newcastle and elsewhere.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

Can the hon. Gentleman tell my constituents in Dorset how many representatives he thinks that they need? Many of them have a parish or town councillor, a district councillor, a county councillor, a Member of Parliament and seven members of the European Parliament. If we add in this extra layer of government without taking one away, they will have, through the regional chamber, a representative attached to the area in which they live, as well as the top-up members. That is ridiculous.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

What we are saying is that we should trust local people to be able to decide what they want. Local people will instinctively oppose having too many representatives, but why not trust them, rather than saying, XWe know what's best for everyone around the country, so we'll tell them"?On a more serious point, if we have proper regional devolution in England and some powers are taken away from this place, we ought to look at reducing the number of MPs. Lots of people have been banging on about jobs, but in that regard perhaps we should be focusing on this place, rather than on local councils.

As I said, the purpose of our three amendments—we will seek a vote, if we may, on amendment No. 34—is to decouple the process of local government reform from that of regional government. It is not simply that we are worried about the effect on a regional government referendum; we are also concerned about the fact that one test is the level of interest, which the Minister must discover. In fact, we in Shropshire would like a unitary Shropshire. It consists of five districts and one county, and all the political parties are in agreement in wanting a unitary Shropshire. We do not want to have to wait for that for a long time, but at this rate the only way that we will get it is through a regional government referendum.

The Minister has made it clear on numerous occasions that there is no other way that we are going to get a unitary Shropshire. However, if he judges that the level of interest in regional government across the west midlands does not justify a referendum, and he continues to do so for some years to come, we will never get local government reform in Shropshire. The decoupling process works in both directions. There are some areas that need local government reform, but which cannot wait for a regional government referendum; likewise, in other areas people would vote against regional government not because they oppose it, but because of the problems associated with local government reform.

I want to touch on the two substantive Conservative amendments—Nos. 46 and 24—that, by their own admission, form the crux of this group. In theory, we have a lot of sympathy with elements of amendment No. 46, particularly that concerning regional boundaries. Although we like to tease the Conservatives that the boundaries for the current regions are theirs, if we are frank, the reality is that they established them for purposes other than for elected regional assemblies. As it happens, the boundaries that they drew up in the north-east probably do match the aspirations of the people there, but in many parts of the UK such boundaries do not. It is clear that this is an issue in Cornwall, and in Committee we touched on the question of the Isles of Scilly. One of the points of regional government is to bring local government closer to the people, but elements of local government control in those places would move from London—in some cases, from the Isles of Scilly or from Cornwall, because sadly, the principle works in both directions—to Bristol.

I am not an expert in these matters, but I understand that by most transport links it takes an awful lot longer to get from the Isles of Scilly to Bristol than it takes to get to London. That would lead to a rather odd situation.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset 6:15 pm, 18th December 2002

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for a second time. I have two questions for him. First, why does he cite Bristol as the base for the south-west, given that it is highly possible that it would be Exeter, which is certainly much more straightforward for people from the Isles of Scilly to get to? Secondly, why does he seek to decouple the boundary reviews of local government, while supporting the coupling of reviews of regional boundaries? He wants to simplify matters for the elector by uncoupling, but now he seeks a coupling. That seems contradictory.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I am slightly lost as to the meaning of the hon. Gentleman's second point. I mention Bristol only because the Government's administrative region for the south-west has its central offices there, and I believe that the quango regional assembly also meets there. I admit that another place could be chosen, but Bristol seems a reasonable assumption. However, before we get too excited about what the regions can or cannot choose to do, we should bear in mind that if the assemblies follow the terms of the Government's White Paper, they will not even be able to choose their own health advisers; they will have to accept the person that the Secretary of State appoints. Indeed, the regions may not even have the power to decide where the assemblies sit.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Given that the assemblies will have so little power, why should they not just hire a charabanc and tour round the regions, saving us all the costs associated with the Scottish Parliament?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

The right hon. Gentleman makes his point well.

In other regions, boundary issues may well arise. Frankly, in my own region the people of Shropshire, of Herefordshire and of Worcestershire do not feel that they are part of the west midlands; however, the people of the north-east probably do feel that they are part of the north-east region. In my view and the view of many in Shropshire, it would probably make a lot more sense for Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, which share a common heritage, to be grouped together. Perhaps other people would say the same of their counties. My region consists of 1.7 million people, which is not that far off the population of the north-east. However, we cannot possibly consider such a grouping because the regional boundaries as laid down are sacrosanct.

Photo of Mr Adrian Flook Mr Adrian Flook Conservative, Taunton

Has the hon. Gentleman calculated how many regions England would consist of if his amalgamation of more local councils were replicated throughout the rest of the country?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

No, because I do not consider it not right for me to go round the country drawing lines on maps; however, the Government obviously think that they can do so. That is the point of having a review—we would not want to prescribe the total number of regions, or their size.

We have heard that the south-east, with a population of 8 million, is the largest region judged by those terms, but I think that all of us accept that it is probably also the region with the least well-defined regional identity. Perhaps that is why enthusiasm for regional government appears to be lowest in the south-east.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

I shall make some progress, if I may. Perhaps what the south-east needs is to be broken up into a couple of regions. That might make a lot more sense, and as a result some of people's objections—even, ultimately, of Conservative Members—would disappear.

On the Conservatives' approach to this issue, amendment No. 46 wraps up with boundary reviews lots of other aspects that are perhaps undesirable. They are proceeding by way of reference to new clause 3—the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has touched on it—which we are not debating today. It is rather odd that the new clause should refer to the desirability that all regions be of approximately equal size. I am not entirely clear whether that means in terms of population or area. Population might be the more sensible of the two; we can think of plenty of reasons why authorities being the same size in terms of area might not make sense. For example, the south-west is relatively under-populated, whereas the metropolitan areas of the west midlands are densely populated. However, even if the proposal referred to population, we would struggle to get natural communities from it. One of the reasons why we are unable to support amendment no. 46 is that the Conservatives have gone about the matter in an undesirable way.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with some interest and his most recent remarks with a certain amount of sympathy. Clearly he would like a major review of boundaries to be undertaken. Does he have a view on the minimum size that would make a region viable? Specifically, given the presence of his hon. Friend Andrew George in the Chamber, would he consider Cornwall sufficiently large to be a viable region in its own right?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

That is exactly what a review would look at. [Interruption.] I do not have a view because I do not know a lot about Cornwall and its viability as a separate region. My hon. Friend would know a lot more about that.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the smallest size that a region could be is no smaller than the largest tier of local government? If we raise our eyes above the level of the parish and the often insular debate within the UK and look at the wider world, we see a variety of regions of different sizes in different countries that work perfectly well. Can we not accept that there are regions—and nations in some cases—in other parts of the world that have populations smaller than that of Cornwall?

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

My hon. Friend makes his point exceedingly well and that is the sort of issue that we would want a review to look at. We believe that such a review could be concluded within about 12 months.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

The hon. Gentleman has attacked the phrasing of the new clause. Does he accept that the new clause would require the Electoral Commission to have regard to the desirability of all regions being of approximately equal size, as well as the need to reflect identities? According to the Bill's own language, that exact same requirement would be placed on the boundary committee. It is not an absolute requirement, but a question of Xhaving regard." In addition, we have already had this debate in Committee.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

The hon. Gentleman is muddling up regional government and local government. Even within local government, we see different sizes of unitary authority. Rutland is the smallest of the unitary authorities now. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that Rutland should not be a unitary authority? People in Rutland should perhaps know of this new move from the Conservatives.

Amendment No. 24 would put a threshold in the Bill, but I cannot see why the Conservatives are keen on having a threshold. Frankly, the only thing they are currently good at is going around the country stirring up apathy. Given that they are led by the quiet man, it is no surprise that they want to see as little activity as possible.

The key point is that the referendums are indicative and not binding. The Minister—and, presumably, at least part of this House—must make a decision before a regional assembly is set up, as the Minister will probably confirm when he winds up.

Setting a threshold of 25 per cent. voting in favour in a referendum is not putting a hurdle before the Minister; ultimately, it is putting a hurdle before the House's ability to decide things for itself. That is what I find strange about the amendment. The referendums are not the final say; they are indicative. Once again, we will not support the Conservatives on amendment No. 24. I only hope that when the Bill gets to another place, we might be able to find agreement on amendments on boundaries on which we can agree. It is a shame that the relevant amendments that we tabled were not selected.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I want to address my remarks—reasonably briefly, I hope—to amendment No. 46, which has been spoken to by my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond. The amendment deals directly with the principle of a pre-legislative referendum. Matthew Green, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, just said that we did not need to worry because the referendums were merely indicative and advisory. He said that a yes vote in a region would come back to the House for a decision, and that would be the decisive moment.

With respect, that ignores the effect of the political dynamic. If a referendum in a particular region resulted in a vote in favour of the establishment of an assembly, there would be a strong political dynamic to carry out the expressed wishes of the electorate of that region. It is for that reason, and because I recognise the power of such a referendum result, that it is important for the House to consider what it is being asked to agree to as a principle to be put before the electorate in one of the referendums envisaged by the Bill.

Photo of Andrew George Andrew George Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that that political dynamic or momentum would have any legitimacy—and that the Minister would give support—if the turnout were less than 10 per cent.?

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I agree, which is why I support the introduction of some hurdle.

It is hard to imagine a more fundamental question for the House to address before agreeing to the principle of holding a referendum than the provision of a proper answer to the question as to what should be the powers and functions of such an assembly were it to be established, whatever the boundaries. I find it difficult to engage in an argument about what the boundaries should be when we are still wholly ignorant of the structure of powers and functions that the electorate are being asked to envisage. I do not regard this as a pedantic piece of small print and I make no apology for asking the House to pause to consider which issues would have to be addressed in the context of a referendum debate.

The services involved in the combination of the establishment of a regional assembly and consequent local government reorganisation—which, as the explanatory notes make clear, the Government regard as a precondition for allowing a referendum to go ahead—include the local education service, which makes up 60 per cent. of everything done by county councils in shire counties.

The second most important area in the provision of local services in a two-tier authority is the social services department. Conceivably, by virtue of involving social services in the reform—and by virtue of what the Government have said about the probability of power being delegated away from central Government towards regional assemblies—the debate would have to involve the future structure of health provision in the regions as well. That is not to mention the delivery of transport services around the regions. Those are the four key areas on which domestic political debate concentrates—the delivery of education, health, social services and transport. All four services would be caught up in the reorganisation that would follow a yes vote in a referendum on the establishment of a regional assembly.

The House is being asked to agree to a proposal that a precondition for any assembly referendum should be that the boundaries must be sorted out. However, no provision or recommendation has been made about the consequences of a yes vote for the delivery of the core public services that I have listed.

The Government have made two potentially contradictory proposals about the consequences of reorganisation for those services. First, as I have noted already, the Government have said that more of the powers going to the regional assemblies would come from central Government than from the current tiers of local government. Secondly, it is clear that, in any area in which a referendum is held, there must be a parallel proposal for the establishment of a unitary authority.

One Labour Member contended that that does not mean necessarily that county councils must be abolished, but it is hard to see how a unitary local government structure based on the principle that districts should be abolished and that power should be concentrated in counties could be delivered. That proposal is unlikely to command wide public support. We should not agree to allow referendums on establishing regional assemblies to go ahead without clear Government proposals about the consequences for delivery of the four core services that I listed earlier.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset 6:30 pm, 18th December 2002

I have some sympathy for the right hon. Gentleman's argument, and those problems are touched on in the White Paper. I should like a draft Bill to be published in the next Session of Parliament, so that they could be subject to pre-legislative scrutiny. Would the right hon. Gentleman support that as a happy compromise, or perhaps a middle way? I also want to respond to what he said about unitary counties. It would be perfectly reasonable to take a look at the current district structure of where I live in Dorset. The districts of Purbeck and of Weymouth and Portland are not viable, in terms of their size. People are more emotionally attached to the historic county of Dorset than to the districts, and services are run on that basis.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

I do not want to get into an argument about what the focus of a proposed unitary structure should be. I want to pitch my tent firmly on the territory that the Government should be clear about what they are proposing before they ask people to vote. The hon. Gentleman suggests that a draft Bill should come before the House before the referendum programme begins. I should be the first to agree with that proposition, which represents a huge step forward. However, the House must take seriously its function of probing the Government's proposals, calling the Government to account and setting down the terms under which this huge proposed reorganisation of the structure of local government should be allowed to go ahead. Hon. Members must not simply hope, as the hon. Gentleman does, that the Government might—out of the goodness of their heart and if it fits in with the timetable of the parliamentary draftsmen—introduce a draft Bill before a referendum is held.

The referendums will be about the reorganisation of the delivery of core public services. Before any are held, the House must have the opportunity to tease out the practical implications of a yes vote for the delivery of the education service and for the links between social services and the national health service. Will there be a greater democratic involvement in the delivery of the NHS, and would that be consistent with the principles of the NHS as it has developed over the past 50 years? Those fundamental questions go to the heart of the delivery of public services in Britain. They are not mere details to be covered in the footnotes of a Bill apparently more interested in regional government boundaries than in the delivery of those core services to electors.

Photo of Mr Derek Foster Mr Derek Foster Labour, Bishop Auckland

I detect some confusion about the architecture of what is being proposed. The proposed regional assemblies will be strategic and slimline authorities. I understand that a reorganisation of local government would have deep implications for the delivery of education services, but the regional assemblies will be slimline and strategic. The matters with which they will deal are already being discussed by one configuration of regional authority or another, and the proposal means only that that discussion will have a democratic dimension.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

With great respect, the right hon. Gentleman is focusing on the proposed slimline regional assembly. I recognise the rhetoric, but I doubt that matters would turn out that way in reality. Will he set out the implications for unitary local government in the area where a slimline regional assembly is to be established? The Government insist that those implications should be thought through before a referendum is held. If slimline regional assemblies as he envisaged are set up, the delivery of local government services such as education, social services, transport and, possibly, health would have to be fundamentally reorganised.

My contention is that we need to see the detail of that reorganisation before we agree to allow the referendums to be held.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

My hon. Friend is right to say that that is what the people want as well. More importantly, we need to allow time for the complexities to be worked through. Any such reorganisation would involve institutions that have grown up over a long period. If we act in haste to reorganise local government, we will have plenty of years to repent at leisure, as we have learned to our cost.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. Will not the boundary committee look at the strategic functions in a local government reorganisation? The unitary proposal would be made clear to electors when they cast their ballots about a regional assembly. The democratic choice would be offered to electors.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

With great respect, I think that the hon. Gentleman has missed the point.

Photo of Stephen Dorrell Stephen Dorrell Conservative, Charnwood

The Minister says that Jim Knight is right. Is the Minister endorsing the hon. Gentleman's version? I do not need to give way to the Minister, which will be a relief to those of my hon. Friends who want to contribute to the debate. However, the suggestion does not answer the point, because the complexity of public service delivery must be thought out in detail. It is not good enough for the boundary committee merely to propose on the back of an envelope an outline scheme about how education will be delivered after the reorganisation.

If the House were being asked to consider the reorganisation of the schools service separately, no one would argue with the proposition that the normal way of doing that was for the Government to present proposals, publish a Green Paper and a White Paper and go through a legislative process. Yet we are proposing to do that for social services, transport and conceivably the health service as well, all spatchcocked up into the same piece of legislation to be dealt with by the boundary committee. I do not think that that is a sensible way of dealing with core public services.

I focused on the implications for those services from an organisational, managerial point of view. They are complex services and I am concerned that if we do it this way, institutions that have developed for good reasons will be changed without proper consideration. There is another reason why I am concerned about abolishing existing institutions and seeking to put in place a regional assembly as the new apex for political accountability for those services on the basis of a single, insufficiently informed referendum. If we are honest about what our constituents are saying, we know that there is already a problem in health and education. People do not really know who is responsible for the core services; they are already too far divorced from political accountability.

The political accountability of all the services that I have identified is already too diffuse within the bureaucracy. We should seek to make political accountability for those services clearer so that people know who is responsible for delivery and hold them to account. I fear that if we set out to deliver that by abolishing tiers of local government in respect of which there is a sense of local community and a local political process and replacing them with regions so that my constituents in Leicestershire are asked to go into an east midlands region where there is no sense of local regional community, that will lead to a further divorce between voters and the people responsible for the core public services. Not only will those public services be less efficient, they will be less accountable. If we manage to take those two tricks together, we shall do a huge disservice to democracy.

I do not regard the Bill as simply a minor party political quibble but as a major threat to good and accountable governance. As I said earlier, I think that it is inappropriate—a massively inadequate word—for us to address these issues in a debate lasting two and a half hours under a guillotine.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I seek your indulgence, Sir Michael, and hope that you will allow me to spend a few moments explaining my position on the Bill. It will then be more obvious why I will be supporting—or not—the various amendments to it.

I abstained when the House voted on the Bill's Second Reading. I thought long and hard about it. I certainly did not mention anything to do with regional government in my election material—in fact, I was careful not to do so. However, I accept that my party manifesto contained a commitment to regional government and I thought that the wisest course of action on Second Reading was to absent myself and not to oppose the Bill.

I have objections to the Bill in principle. I respect my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, whose views on this are long held. Indeed, I have opposed his view for an equally long time. I believe that the Bill is like sleepwalking piecemeal into constitutional change, the long-term consequences of which we have not fully worked out. However, the Bill has had its Second Reading, and from here on in, my approach is to consider the amendments proposed to it, see what it looks like on Third Reading and make an appropriate decision then.

I have genuinely tried to see whether there is any scope for me to support the Opposition's amendments. I listened to Mr. Hammond carefully, and I hope that he accepts that my interventions were not debating points but a genuine attempt to find out what was behind his thinking. Amendment No. 46 is the key amendment in the group. Paragraphs (a) and (b) are very sensible, and if the amendment had confined itself to a review of the boundaries and setting out the powers and functions of elected regional assemblies, I would have been minded to support it. I listened carefully to what he said about paragraphs (c) and (d). I am sure that it is not intentional, but if the amendment were accepted, paragraphs (c) and (d) would effectively turn it into a wrecking amendment. They would set unrealistic targets and I do not believe that a Bill that has had its Second Reading should include such draconian targets.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 6:45 pm, 18th December 2002

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that the target of no additional public expenditure, which was a Labour party manifesto commitment in 1997, is unrealistic?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do that there would be bound to be differences of opinion as to what such an audit was measuring. What was included in an audit could be a cause of continuous and protracted argument. I am not opposed to gauging the opinion of the business community—that should happen regularly and frequently—but why single out business when other sections of the community should be consulted?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Labour, South Dorset

Is my hon. Friend aware that the Conservatives' new clause 3(2) describes the relevant interests that the Secretary of State should consult as professional bodies, trade unions, voluntary organisations, faith groups, political parties, business organisations and community organisations? They have already thought of a perfectly adequate way of describing the people whom the Government should consult but they choose to pick exclusively on the business community.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's presumption that I had not bothered to read new clause 3. If he will forgive me, I will discuss that when we come to it, and confine my remarks to the amendments before us.

I would be happy to support paragraph (a) of amendment No. 46, and this is the core of the position that I hold. A proposed regional assembly for the north-west would be almost meaningless in that the north-west exists purely as a point on the compass. I am proud to represent a Merseyside constituency that contains parts of two unitary authorities, Knowsley and Sefton. Although people may from time to time take issue with something that either Knowsley or Sefton does, those unitary authorities work perfectly well. I know that the Bill does not propose to take any powers away from either of them, but some remote other layer of government would not service Knowsley or Sefton particularly well, if at all.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

I am not quite sure whether my hon. Friend is opposed to regional government in principle or because it does not suit his area. The Bill is not about setting up regional government but a referendum. I assume that he has respect for his electors, so why does he not have enough respect to allow them to decide for themselves?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Had my hon. Friend allowed me to develop my argument further, he would have understood my position better. To repeat my earlier point, although my instinct is against the whole process in principle, the Bill has received its Second Reading, so I want, over time, to achieve an accommodation that would allow my constituents to feel comfortable in a region other than something called Xthe north-west". That is the point that I was trying to develop.

My objective is to find out whether it would be possible, through the processes proposed in the Bill, to end up with a greater Merseyside authority that would have responsibility for some—if not all—of the powers set out in the White Paper. Such an authority would work more effectively for my constituents and would make more natural sense. I note that my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) and for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) are listening attentively to the debate. Although my hon. Friends are better able than me to speak for their constituents, such a proposal might suit Manchester and Lancashire better, too. I do not presume to speak for Cheshire, as no Cheshire Member is in the Chamber, but I am sure that they will be here in due course.

The Opposition amendment does not quite fit into the argument that I have developed, so I do not feel able to support it. I intervened on the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge in relation to amendment No. 24, which is not at all suitable because its basis for gauging opinion is unspecified. It would provide for an open-ended process whereby everyone's opinion would have to be taken into account. That would be okay in some ways, but it offers the prospect of protracted argument about the weight to be given to public opinion at any one time and it would not make sense. I realise that he was constrained by what he described as the architecture of the Bill, nevertheless the amendment would not be sensible at this stage. In any case, I am informed that we will not be able to vote on it separately so it would only be vexatious to argue about it.

I am not inclined to support the Opposition on this occasion. However, as I said earlier, I am inclined to support one of their amendments to clause 3 and, if I get the opportunity to catch the eye of the Chairman when we debate it, I shall explain why.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I, too, want to address myself to amendment No. 46 and to the Liberal Democrat amendments.

The only difference the measure will make to my constituents is to reorganise their local government. The regional assembly will not make the blindest bit of difference to the overwhelming part of the lives of the overwhelming number of my constituents. Its powers are wholly unspecified. The powers spelled out in the consultation document somewhat optimistically entitled XYour Region, Your Choice" are entirely advisory. They are all about strategic purposes—advising about this or consulting on that—but what can the assembly actually do? The answer is practically nothing.

What matters to my constituents is the one thing that will have an immediate impact on their lives: local government reorganisation. The White Paper may talk of XYour Region, Your Choice", but it would offer neither to my constituents or me. North Yorkshire is part of an area where every other council is already a metropolitan, unitary authority; we are the only part of the region that still has a two-tier structure, and the only part with a predominantly rural character. The sources of employment are mainly the tourism and catering businesses, the public service and small manufacturing. We are very different from the rest of the area.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

May I emphasise my right hon. Friend's point about the lack of powers for regional assemblies? Is he aware that when we gave our first example of that in the Standing Committee, the Bill fell at that first hurdle? The White Paper stated that transport should be one of the strategic functions of regional assemblies, yet a decision about a bypass in a region would be made not by its assembly but by the Government.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend makes a very effective point. Almost 90 per cent. of the electorate who will decide whether we in North Yorkshire are to have a change in our local government structure will have nothing whatever at stake because they already have unitary authorities. Their vote will change nothing in the practical details of their daily life, but the change will be significant for my constituents—for the very reasons given by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Labour, Tyne Bridge

The right hon. Gentleman says that his constituents will not have a choice, but they will have a vote. I understand the point that he makes about the weighting, but where was he when the Conservative Government abolished metropolitan county councils? Where was he when the Conservatives abolished the Greater London Council and Cleveland county council? What choices were people given then?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

I lay claim to the authorship of the abolition of Cleveland and Humberside—and I am delighted to do so. My argument is not about whether unitary councils are good or bad; on the whole, I have some sympathy for unitary local government. My argument is about who should take the decisions. Decisions on unitary authorities were taken by the House. Orders were passed in this place. However, the Bill proposes a referendum process in which people who may have no interest in the matter, who do not represent anybody else and who have not been elected will take decisions for my constituents.

Important issues will be involved. Health and social services are probably the most important of all. As we know, the Government are constructing a whole new architecture to manage them and, as the Minister will know, North Yorkshire has experienced chronic underfunding in those sectors.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government)

Just as the abolition of Cleveland was effected by the House so, too, any proposal arising from a referendum will be effected through the House by the Secretary of State. There is no difference whatever from what the Conservatives did when they were in government.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Of course there is a difference: it is precisely what my right hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood spelled out. There will be what the French call a "présomption préalable"; in other words, a preliminary question will have been put. There will have been a referendum that will set a process—a motion—in train. The Minister says that if there is a positive vote in the referendum, he can decide that he will not pursue that course of action. That is radically different to the circumstances that obtained at the time when we created unitary government. That is my first concern.

My second concern is about the sampling process that will relate to a regional assembly whose powers we know not. That is the closest thing to XBlind Date" that has ever been attempted in politics. We do not know what powers the assemblies will have. The White Paper was extremely circumspect. Whenever someone mentions strategic powers, one should reach for one's gun because we know that they cannot work out exactly what such powers should be.

Whom will the Government sample? I suppose they will sample the chambers of commerce and no doubt the faith groups, as we must now call them—perhaps even the Women's Institutes, although that be rather dangerous. The Government might sample the constitutional conventions, which are self-appointed, and perhaps the Soroptimists and the Rotary clubs. Will we be inviting people to make non-submissions if they do not have a view?

What about the person described colloquially as Xthe punter"? We constantly talk about consultation and the Government are always calling for great public debates about things. It is always daft for Governments to do that: sensible Governments do not want great public debates because they know that such debates will be dominated by self-interested organisations and NGOs.

What about the punter coming back from St. James's park after watching Newcastle United do rather well this season? At least, the team has been doing well until now—sadly, it looks as though it might soon be exiting from the European cup. What about the punter at the optimistically named stadium of light where Sunderland plays? Sunderland is fourth or fifth from the bottom and may be struggling for survival in the premiership, Mr. Butterfill—I know that you follow such things closely, even from your base on the south coast.

Will those punters be asked what they think they have at stake? The problem is that they will be asked about something in which they have no stake, because nothing is at stake yet: there are no powers. This is a proposal for a referendum on an assembly whose powers we do not know, followed by an invitation to people to vote for elected members to an assembly whose powers they probably cannot define. That is a recipe for an extremely low turnout, and we are all agonising about that now.

My final point relates to regional identity. I hope that we shall not get ourselves caught in the arguments about that. We have great arguments about identity, usually in relation to Europe. Identity and organisation do not go together and are not the same thing. It is a mistake to assume that people identify with some sort of geographical construction. In fact, many people in the regions are much more interested in differentiating themselves than identifying themselves with one another. My constituents in Craven do not need to differentiate themselves from London, because they are different from London—but by golly they want to differentiate themselves from Bradford, for reasons that I will not explain in any detail tonight.

I draw the Minister's attention to what I might call the postcode wars. He represents a constituency on the edge of London, but those of my constituents who are in the southern part of North Yorkshire have a Leeds postcode. That is tantamount to a declaration of nuclear war. Some people in Bentham in the north-west of my constituency have a Lancaster postcode. That is worse, if one can envisage such a thing. It might be suggested that such things are perfectly logical, but people identify themselves not in that way, but on a much more local basis. They may well broadly describe themselves as coming from Yorkshire, but they are probably thinking of a concept of Yorkshire produced in a previous reorganisation—or even the reorganisation before that—when they say it.

So let us not pretend that people will vote on the basis of regional identities, even in the north-east. My whole family comes from Durham, Northumberland and Teesside, and the notion of the north-east identity is no more coherent than that of the Yorkshire identity. People identify themselves with much more local areas, so I hope that we will not let ourselves be diverted down that route.

I hope that the Minister will say that there is no reason whatever why a two-tier system could not persist in an area such as North Yorkshire, even if there were a regional assembly. If the regional assembly has as few powers and is as light—XGovernment Lite"—as he says, I can see no reason why we should go to all the hullabaloo of regional reorganisation, which removes accountability and prevents people from being relatively close to their local councillors, simply to elect people who represent 350,000 people, topped up with a drop of proportional representation.

I can see no way in which that will develop accountability or promote the economy, given that the gap between regional performance has increased since the now Minister for Sport said that the regional development agencies would have failed if they did not close the gap in regional performance. So the two great claims for the proposals will simply not be delivered.

Photo of Nick Raynsford Nick Raynsford Minister of State (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) (Local and Regional Government) 7:00 pm, 18th December 2002

As the right hon. Gentleman suggests that no reorganisation should proceed, will he tell the House whether he regrets his role in the Banham process?

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

No, I do not. I brought a great deal of sense to the Banham process, if I may say so.

I have explained the differences in the constitutional procedures, but there is only one thing that tempts me to vote for the proposal: the possibility of touring the south-west, urging everyone to vote yes, so that the Minister has a major local government reorganisation on his hands throughout that area. I would find that a wonderfully entertaining spectacle. Having got the tee-shirt, I would lend it to him with enormous enthusiasm, and it would come back with just as many holes having been made in it as when I wore it myself. I do not regret that, but I believe that there are more urgent pressing issues.

As I said on Second Reading, intellectual arguments can be made for devolution. I have never said that the whole idea is absurd. I have said that this proposal simply is not worth the candle, and the downside is significantly greater than any conceivable benefit that people may derive from it. Five or six years down the road, if my constituents are asked what the regional assembly has done for them, they will say, XWhat?"

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

In view of the number of other hon. Members who wish take part in this important debate, I shall only speak for a few minutes.

I wish to speak initially to amendment No. 46. I have considerable sympathy with paragraph (b), which refers to the need for the people in any region to know what they would get if they voted yes in a referendum before doing so. I shall repeat the point that I made on Second Reading, and I will continue to make it. Referendums will be successful only if the powers of the regional assemblies are clearly specified in Bills before they take place. Such Bills may not need to receive Royal Assent before the referendums are held, but draft Bills will be needed at the very minimum.

The White Paper, which is all we have at the moment, is incomplete, so it is absolutely essential for Members of Parliament to have the opportunity to debate the powers outlined in the White Paper, to discuss them in detail and to firm them up before the referendums are held. The proposed powers are fundamentally flawed in many ways, and I would find it very difficult to agree that everything in the White Paper would set up the sort of regional assemblies that I would wish to see set up.

I repeat to my right hon. Friend the Minister and his Front-Bench colleagues that we will return time and again to that issue. We need clear evidence about what will happen if people vote in favour of regional government in a referendum, and at the moment we do not have that evidence.

Amendment No. 24, which says that the Deputy Prime Minister should reach the view that at least 25 per cent. of a region's electorate want to vote in favour of regional government, is totally superfluous. If an opinion poll in the north-west produced a figure of 26 per cent. and the Deputy Prime Minister said that it formed part of the evidence for a referendum, he would be very foolish.

The opinion poll evidence produced by the BBC in March this year showed that the minimum amount of support for regional government in the south-east was 49 per cent, so amendment No. 24 is totally meaningless. Before putting any region through a referendum, the Deputy Prime Minister needs to form a proper judgment, using all the evidence, to show that a majority of people favour regional government.

Photo of Philip Hammond Philip Hammond Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman misinterprets amendment No. 24. It would require that 25 per cent. of the total electorate, rather than 25 per cent. of those who voted, were expected to be in favour.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

The hon. Gentleman failed in his speech to clarify how that 25 per cent. could be arrived at. How would we judge whether 25 per cent. of the electorate are in favour of regional government, apart from conducting a referendum, which is what we want anyway, or an opinion poll? The opinion polls that have taken place have shown that more than 25 per cent. of the electorate in every region of the United Kingdom are in favour of regional government. That in itself is not enough for the Deputy Prime Minister to call a referendum, so amendment No. 24 is unnecessary and we should not be tied to the idea of a threshold. We could discuss the arguments about thresholds—I do not happen to agree with them—but amendment No. 24 is totally meaningless.

I am also concerned about the business community showing substantial support before referendums are held. I would like to think that there was substantial support in the business community in my region before a referendum was held in the north-west. However, if there was clear support in the north-west for a referendum and in favour of regional government, I would not want the business community to have a veto because of a lack of substantial—whatever Xsubstantial" means—support for regional government.

In October, a few other Lancashire MPs and I met our local chamber of commerce to discuss the implications for business of regional government. It made the point that it wanted some input into regional government, and felt that it should have some say in whether there was regional government, or some membership in terms of a regional assembly. But democracy works on the basis of one elector, one vote, and businesses do not have votes and blocking powers to stop the electorate reaching the decision, so I do not really understand why the proposal has been included unless its purpose is to seek to obstruct the views of the electorate and to stop them getting what they want.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

As far as that proposal is concerned, if regional economic development is isolated in the question for a referendum proposed by the Government as one of the principal functions of a regional assembly and the largest element of its proposed budget—in practice, the only power that we can identify is the power to appoint members of the regional development agency and to instruct them as to the economic strategy—does it not make sense that the business community should be supportive of that move?

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

There is a lot to be said for the business community of a region being in favour of and supportive of a regional assembly. We should not, however, deny the people in a region the possibility of a regional assembly because there is not overwhelming support from the business community. To give one section of the community a veto over the rest of community, which, in effect, is what the proposal does, is not what we would want in a democracy.

The only other issue on which I want to touch briefly is local government reorganisation. I have some sympathy with people who argue that local government reorganisation should be decoupled from this process. I recognise, however, that if we had a referendum in my region, and we still had the possibility of an ongoing two-tier local government system, the opponents of regional government would use the fact that there were two tiers of local government as a strong argument against regional government. As politicians, we must make a judgment on the balance of good and bad. I am strongly in favour of unitary local government. What is happening now, however, is that the possibility of local government reorganisation is bringing strong opposition from those vested interests in the county councils that may support regional government in theory but are more concerned at the moment about losing the institutions to which they belong.

Photo of Mr Matthew Green Mr Matthew Green Liberal Democrat, Ludlow

Will the hon. Gentleman also accept that by linking change in local government to regional referendums, and ruling out change occurring separately, we will be preventing places such as Shropshire, which want unitary authorities, from having them until a regional referendum takes place? That is what the Minister said.

Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Lancashire suffered the botched local government reorganisation of the early 1990s, when two of its largest towns, Blackburn and Blackpool, went unitary, but it is nonsense to say that there is strong support for the existing two-tier system in Lancashire. The institution of Lancashire county council, which had previously always strongly supported the concept of regional government, under the leadership of my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman, is now showing signs of objecting to regional government. I am sure that much of the reason for that is that it sees an end to its existence, and those who are members of, officers of or close to an institution will always seek to defend it.

The same support does not exist across the county of Lancashire for Lancashire county council as an institution. For instance, Preston, where I live, was previously a county borough and was not part of a two-tier Lancashire county council system prior to 1973. Parts of the existing county of Lancashire were in the old county of the West Riding of Yorkshire. The idea that people have an overwhelming desire to be part of a county and for the county council structure to continue is therefore nonsense. People have a strong affinity with the area in which they live and with the county in which they live. Such loyalty is not affected by whether a county council exists.