'(1) Subject to subsection (3), the Secretary of State may by order cause a referendum to be held throughout England about the establishment of elected regional assemblies and the reorganisation of local government within regions with elected assemblies.
(2) The date of the referendum must be specified in the order.
(3) No order under subsection (1) may be made unless a draft order under subsection (1)(a) of section (Regional Boundaries) has been published.
(4) The questions to be asked in a referendum held in pursuance of an order under subsection (1) are—
"(1) Do you support the proposals for the creation of regions in England, as proposed by the Secretary of State and the subsequent holding of regional referendums in regions where sufficient levels of interest exist, about the creation of elected regional assemblies?
(2) Do you support the idea of reorganising local government in areas that currently have both county and district or borough councils into single tier unitary authorities if an elected regional assembly is created?".
(5) The questions must be preceded by a statement from the Electoral Commission, setting out any information it believes requisite for the proper understanding by persons entitled to vote of the questions.
(6) Sections 3 and 4 of this Act shall apply, mutatis mutandis, to a referendum held pursuant to subsection (1).'.—[Mr. Hammond.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 4—Certification prior to referendum—
'.(1) Before making an order under section 1(1), the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself that, during the period of twelve months prior to the laying of the order, neither the Regional Chamber nor the Regional Development Agency within the region to be specified in the order have carried out any activities which they do not have power to carry out and which are intended to influence the outcome of such a referendum.
(2) The Secretary of State shall, prior to making an order under section 1(1) and after satisfying himself in accordance with subsection (1), issue a certificate confirming that he is so satisfied.'.
New clause 6—Definition of Regions—
'(1) The Secretary of State may by order define regions for the purposes of this Act.
(2) In exercising his power under subsection (1) the Secretary of State shall define Cornwall as a region.
(3) An order under this section shall be subject to affirmative resolutions of both Houses of Parliament.'.
New clause 8—Regional boundaries—
'(1) Before making any order under Parts 1, 2 or 3 the Secretary of State shall—
(a) invite all local authorities in England (except London) to submit to him proposals for the creation of regions for the purposes of this Act; and
(b) invite such other persons and bodies as appear to him to represent relevant interests throughout England (except London) to submit to him proposals for the creation of regions for the purposes of this Act; and
(c) upon receipt of submissions in response to paragraphs (a) and (b) invite the Electoral Commission to comment on the submissions and to make proposals to the Secretary of State for the creation of regions for the purposes of this Act having regard to—
(i) the desirability of all regions being, in so far as is not incompatible with (ii) below, of approximately equal population size; and
(ii) the need to reflect the identities and interests of local communities
(d) publish the proposals made to him by the Electoral Commission under paragraph (c); and
(e) make an order creating regions for the purposes of this Act, having regard to the proposals published under paragraph (d).
(2) For the purposes of this section "relevant interests" means professional bodies, trades unions, voluntary organisations, faith groups, political parties, business organisations and community organisations.
(3) For the purposes of subsection 1 paragraphs (a) and (b), the Secretary of State shall set out a timetable for the giving of responses to him.'.
Amendment No. 2, in page 1, line 8 [Clause 1], at end insert—
'(2A) No order may be made under subsection 1 unless a referendum has been held pursuant to section (pre-Referendum) and the Secretary of State has considered the result of the referendum and determined on the basis of it that sufficient interest exists in the creation of elected regional assemblies.'.
Amendment No. 26, in page 1, line 13 [Clause 1], leave out 'made recommendations' and insert
'been directed to prepare to carry out a review'.
Government amendment No. 4.
Amendment No. 15, in page 13, line 3, leave out clause 26.
Amendment No. 3, in page 13, line 4 [Clause 26], leave out from first 'region' to end of line 5 and insert
'is as defined in an order made under section (Regional Boundaries)'.
The Government are going off at half-cock. They are so anxious to proceed that they are building on sand. If they want regional devolution and elected regional assemblies, they should start by sorting out the regions. They should then ascertain whether there is a genuine appetite for the regional assembly solution throughout England, including for the local government reorganisation that they have linked inextricably to elected regional assemblies. The third tick in the box before embarking on the devolution road is ensuring that no hanky panky is happening in the regions and that no existing bodies are doing things that perhaps they should not.
New clause 8 is the key to the group. Two big issues have dominated our debates about the Bill in Committee and on the Floor of the House. First, the Government have decreed that local government reorganisation is a necessary concomitant of elected regional assemblies. New clause 3 covers that. Secondly, we must consider the shape of the regions. The Government are accused of focusing on only one or two regions and not proposing a genuine all-England solution. Their proposals thus ignore the fact that many English regions lack coherence and credibility for the purpose that the Government support.
Most regions simply do not stack up.
The areas of the Government offices for the regions, which the Government are now proposing to follow, were created for a completely different purpose, namely, administrative convenience and the delivery of administrative government throughout England. I understand that their origin goes back further than that, because the boundaries on which they are based were originally derived from the wartime division of Britain into direction of production regions for food and agricultural planning purposes. That is quite different from the matter now before us. They were never intended to be coherent democratic units. They have been given spurious credibility by being used as the basis for the regional development agency boundaries, but they were never intended to be democratic geographical units.
There are huge disparities of geography, economic strength and population between the different regions. The north-east region, for example, has a population of 2.5 million, compared with the south-east region's 8 million, which is more than three times as many. The north-east has a gross domestic product of £26 billion, against some £132 billion in the south-east, which is more than five times as much. The north-east region is the smallest, geographically, with 8,500 sq km, while the south-west's proposed region has a superficial area of 23,000 sq km. The north-east has 30 parliamentary constituencies, compared with the 83 that the south-east actually has, and the 96 that it would have if the distribution of parliamentary seats were proportional to population.
So the north-east is by far the smallest region—I do not say that in a pejorative sense—on every criterion, yet the whole structure builds around it. It will almost undoubtedly be the first to go for a referendum, and most hon. Members agree that it is the most likely to agree to an elected regional assembly. Perhaps this is no coincidence. The smaller the region, the greater the chance of a coherent identity in that region—we shall no doubt hear later from Andrew George, who is not in his place at the moment, about the claims of Cornwall to be an identifiable region—but the Government have set their face firmly against any attempt to create real, meaningful regions.
During the course of our deliberations on the Bill, we have heard from Members on both sides of the House that people in north Shropshire do not regard themselves as part of the west midlands, that Oxford does not have very much in common with Dover, and that south Essex has an entirely different focus from Cambridge or the north Norfolk coast, yet they find themselves in the same region. The south-west region consists of very disparate entities and communities that do not see themselves as a region at all. In our last debate on the Floor of the House, Mr. Howarth referred to the north-west region as "the fictional north-west". All these regions have a common theme: they have no natural centre, no natural focus and no coherent sense of identity.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is totally wrong to talk about the north-west having a fictional identity, when polls consistently show people in the region identifying very strongly with the north-west as a whole? Is he aware that a recent poll conducted by the north-west constitutional convention found that more than 73 per cent. of people in Merseyside wanted a directly elected north-west assembly?
It is not for me to intrude on the private grief on the Labour Back Benches. The words "fictional north-west" were not mine; they were uttered by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East—another Merseyside Member. I think that this is something that the Merseyside contingent has to sort out for itself, and I shall not contribute further to that particular bit of in-fighting.
It may surprise the hon. Gentleman that I shall not indulge in a debate with my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman at this point. Does he believe that it would be possible, within the compass of new clause 3, to establish systems of city-wide government? If so, does he think that that would be a worthy objective?
I was about to mention city government. This is exactly the point that we are trying to make. If a settlement of the English question is to be durable, and if the decentralisation of power in England is to work, it has to start from the bottom up. It has to build on units with which people have an affinity, and with which they can identify. The purpose of new clause 3 is to put in place a consultation process, so that people can say to the Government, "It may take an extra year, but we simply cannot use these Government office regions that were created for a completely different purpose and are completely wrong for this democratic purpose, just for the sake of saving a few months." We must start at the beginning; I agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I was about to say that I know many Manchester and Liverpool Members are interested in the concept of city government as another way of approaching the decentralisation of government in England, and that is a perfectly legitimate aspiration. Even among supporters of regional decentralisation, however, there is no agreement.
I was looking—as one does—at the website of Mr. Clelland at the time of the last general election. On that Labour party-liveried website, he extols the virtues of something called the northern region to his constituents. He says:
"The Northern region would include the counties of Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and Cleveland; and, if the people of Cumbria wish it, Cumbria".
Interestingly, perhaps intriguingly, that is not envisaged in the Government's proposals, which illustrates one of the problems that they face.
"The Government intend to bring forward legislation that will enable the electorate within the regions to determine whether they want an elected assembly."
The hon. Gentleman quotes his hon. Friend as supporting the Government's proposals. We see now, however, that the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley has serious reservations, not about the principle of regional devolution but about the route that the Government have chosen, and specifically about the choice and use of the old offices of the regions boundaries.
Many Labour party members who supported the abstract notion of regional devolution had no idea at the time that they were signing up to devolution to the existing administrative regions. It is clear from the White Paper—I confirm to the Under-Secretary of State that I have studied it assiduously—that the Government envisage the offices of the regions working, as the White Paper puts it, hand in hand with the elected regional assemblies. They see an argument for coterminous boundaries. That means, of course, a beefed-up Government office of the regions standing over the elected regional assembly, ensuring that what it does complies with the Government's requirements. It means, in effect, a prefect system.
Having followed the debate in the Labour party, I suspect, more closely and for longer than the hon. Gentleman, let me tell him that for a long time the regions covered by the Government office have commanded a wide spread of agreement in the party. They are thought to be the appropriate units on which to build regional government. Regions are not prisons, however. It is perfectly possible for the north-east to co-operate with the north-west or with Yorkshire and Humberside. Rather than always seeing such arrangements as confining, the hon. Gentleman should perceive that this is a new type of politics enabling partnerships to be forged.
The right hon. Lady has underlined the fact that the consensus that existed in the Labour party has started to break down as the details have become clear.
Of course regions are not prisons. What I am suggesting is that if they are to be robust and durable, they must be built on firm foundations. I plead with the right hon. Lady and some of her colleagues from the north-east to understand this. I think they genuinely find it difficult to understand the objection of Members from regions such as the south-east and east of England, which make no sense at all. We understand that their region is probably the most coherent and has the strongest sense of identity. It is also the smallest. Why should we in the south-west, the east and the south-east face the Government's insistence on regions four times the size of the hon. Lady's, with no sense of cultural identity, no coherence and no economic, geographic or historical logic? Why can we not have an input in the process of defining the regions in which we will live and by which we will be administered?
Is not the main point about this Bill that it will give the people in those regions the option of whether they want regional government? Why is the Conservative party afraid of giving people a say in how their regions are governed?
I go back to the website of the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge. The problem is that, if this is to be a durable solution, it must be a solution for all of England, not just part of England. The hon. Member for Tyne Bridge, perhaps sticking his neck out rather a long way, says on his website with the Labour party masthead on it:
"English Regional Government is the answer to the 'West Lothian Question'. It will promote innovation and variety in the governance of our country."
In other words, it will deal with the post-UK settlement for England. If it is going to do that, it must deal with it for all of England. It must not be seen as a sectional solution that addresses the agenda only of certain parts of the country.
Scotland is a nation. No one could doubt that. London is a city. No one could doubt that, but the south-east region, my region, is nothing. No one feels allegiance to it. No one identifies themselves as a citizen of south-east England. The overwhelming majority of people would not be able to define it, unlike the constituent counties.
If a geographical region called London and the south-east were created, perhaps that would have a certain coherence and economic and geographical logic, but it would underline the problem. It would be so overwhelmingly the largest region in the country in terms of population, gross domestic product and geographical area that it would make the system unworkable. Therein lies the problem: the messy, inconvenient fact that England cannot be divided neatly into regions that have any meaning for their people unless the Government are prepared to contemplate a significantly larger number of significantly smaller—in some cases—regions.
The hon. Gentleman is making extremely valid points that imply that the Conservatives might be in favour of devolution. On the assumption that they might be, does he agree that Mr. Jones would be right if the Government gave the people a genuine vote on regions that exist, rather than on synthetic regions that do not and that are therefore destined to fail? The Government will succeed in their plan to establish regional government if they accept the type of flexibility that the hon. Gentleman recommends.
That is precisely my point. I make no bones about it. We shall vote against the Bill on Third Reading, but the purpose of Report is to try to improve the Bill. Unless the Minister deals with this issue, he will not produce a workable solution for all of England. It will be a solution that may or may not work in some of the regions—the north-east is the obvious one in people's minds—but it will not work in the south-east region or the east of England region; I do not think that even the Minister for a moment believes that it will. The hon. Gentleman is right.
The Minister will never create a durable solution that is based on meaningless lines drawn on maps in Whitehall, with as much relevance to the situation on the ground as the lines drawn by colonial 19th century treaty makers on a map of Africa. In unitary areas, the Government propose that regional government will necessarily involve the introduction of another tier of government. In existing two-tier areas, elected regional assemblies will necessarily involve the loss of the historic and much-identified-with counties. Many people will reject that model of regional devolution for a variety of reasons, but the main reason, and the reason why resistance is likely to be least strong in the north-east and greatest in the south-east and east of England, is that people do not identify with the regions that the Government are putting them into.
The hon. Gentleman says that, by necessity, unitarisation would mean the loss of shire counties, which people identify with. I agree that people identify with the shire county, for example, of Dorset, which I represent, and speaking personally, if there were a unitary structure in my area, I would favour the retention of Dorset as the unitary authority, with the abolition of districts. Nothing has been said by the Government that militates against that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again and allowing me to expand on what I said. I should like reinvigorated and re-empowered parish and town councils to represent communities in a unitary county. I am pleased that the Department is giving parish councils more power, but I should like that to be extended.
I look forward to the hon. Gentleman's elaboration of his thoughts for the counties with smaller populations when he makes his contribution to the debate. The Minister has been coy about admitting it, but for the larger and more populous counties a unitary option is unlikely to be appropriate for reasons of sheer size.
The hon. Gentleman is right. My concern is that it is not in the Government's gift to promise unitary counties, although that may be desirable in certain circumstances. The Government are prejudging the outcome and are putting the cart before the horse.
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that we have had frequent exchanges on this matter. The boundary committee will be able to resolve the appropriate and best unitary structure, based on counties or districts, or combinations of districts. The recommendation will be for the boundary committee to make. Technically, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Government will implement the recommendation, but the independent boundary committee will make the decision. That must be right.
I hoped that the Minister was rising to accept the amendment that he rejected in Committee, which would have required the Secretary of State to implement the recommendations of the boundary committee in full, if an elected assembly were established in a region. However, that is not what the right hon. Gentleman is doing. He has retained the discretion to implement the recommendations, or not, and to do so in full or in part. That provision is contained in the Bill.
I am sorry to go through this again, but the Committee dealt with this matter in detail. The hon. Gentleman has taken an intelligent and assiduous interest in the matter, and I thought that he would appreciate that the process is modelled entirely on the existing legislation passed by the previous Conservative Government. The existing procedures mean that the Government implement recommendations made by an independent body—in this case, because the structures have changed, that body is the boundary committee.
I had not realised that the Government had imposed a self-denying ordinance to the effect that they would only introduce legislation that exactly mirrored what the previous Conservative had done.
Clause 15(2) states:
That looks to me like a clear ministerial discretion to implement, or not to implement.
If the Minister wants the proposed structure to work, he must create regions with which people can identify. The Opposition will vote against the Bill on Third Reading, but we are trying to improve the Bill. If the Minister wants it to work, a necessary precondition is that people identify with the regions—all of them in England, not just one or two—that he is trying to build on.
In Standing Committee, the Minister said:
"We propose that boundaries for elected regional assemblies should mirror the existing administrative boundaries used by Government offices . . . We believe that those regions reflect a logic in terms of population, geography, economic weight and, in many cases, cultural identity."—[Official Report, Standing Committee A,
I have enough respect for the Minister not to think that he believes that for one minute. It was not sensible of him to say that: to use his term, it is clearly "guff". If the Government cannot trust the people, they should at least consult them. New clause 8 would require proposals to be gathered from representative bodies, business and professional organisations, trades unions, Churches, local authorities and political parties. It would then require the boundary committee to comment on those proposals and to make recommendations to the Secretary of State, having regard to the objectives that regions should be of approximately equal size, where possible, and that the identities and interests of local communities should be respected.
I shall not give way, because I am conscious that we are rapidly running out of time and that many other hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate.
I recognise that there is a tension between size and cultural identity, but it is not irresolvable. The second step introduced by new clause 3 is that regions defined under new clause 8, with a draft order produced, should then be put out to consultation with the people in an England-wide referendum. And before the Minister picks me up on it, that referendum includes London, and why not? This is supposed to be an England-wide solution.
The first step is that we ask people to become involved in defining what the boundaries of the region should be. The second is that we put in a referendum to the people of England essentially three questions: "Do you support the proposals for the creation of regions in England, as proposed by the Secretary of State?"—in other words, the regional boundaries that are proposed; "Do you support the idea of referendums for elected regional assemblies in those boundaries in areas where there is sufficient interest?"; and, as a separate question, "Do you support the idea of reorganising local government in those areas that go for elected regional assemblies?"—in other words, an element of decoupling of those questions.
If for example, with regard to the first question, people vote for the creation of regions, but on the second question they vote against the reorganisation of local government, is the hon. Gentleman tacitly suggesting that the Conservatives would then support, responding to the people, a four-tier structure?
If the hon. Gentleman had contained himself for a moment he would have heard me say that if there is a strong yes vote on the first two questions and a strong no vote on the third question, the Government will have to think very hard about their compulsory linking of unitarisation with elected regional assemblies. It is a messy business, but that is democracy. There is a need for a wide test of opinion on all three questions.
The Government try to insist that questions can be put on a strictly regional basis, but that is not correct. Post the United Kingdom devolution settlement, post the London government settlement, there is a need for an English settlement, which has to work for all of England. A solution that appeals perhaps only to one or two regions, or one that is built upon the sand of incoherent and unloved artificial regions, is not such a solution. New clause 3 gives a proper opportunity to test opinion England wide. It is more important to get it right than to get it quickly.
I shall very briefly touch on the other new clauses and amendments.
New clause 4 has been tabled specifically to allow an opportunity to discuss issues that were raised in previous debates about whether matters that are not proper are currently going on, in particular in relation to the north-west regional chamber. I shall leave it to other hon. Members, perhaps from that part of the country, to address that issue. The Minister was asked to look into the matter, and he says that he has. This morning he sent out copies of letters that he has sent to the relevant people in the north-west region reminding them of their obligations. But I had hoped to hear from the Minister today whether he had made any investigation of whether any of the matters that have already occurred are improper and represent spending that is not properly authorised for that purpose. New clause 4 would require the Secretary of State to satisfy himself that there is no improper behaviour going on within the regional structure before a referendum can be called.
New clause 6 was tabled by the Liberal Democrats. I regard it as the economy version of new clause 8. Having saved their money, or their drafting time, with the economy version of the new clause, they then splashed out on the bolt-on added extra of the Cornwall option. There is no provision for consultation. There is no process. There is just an order-making power for the Secretary of State. The only place that is protected is Cornwall, which would then on the face of the Bill be defined as a region. No doubt the hon. Member for St. Ives will tell us why that is so.
Amendment No. 2 provides that there shall be no regional referendum under clause 1 unless the England-wide referendum under new clause 3 has been held, and of course no England-wide referendum under new clause 3 can be held until the regional boundary-setting process under new clause 8 has been gone for.
That would take a little longer, but it would ensure that what the Government hope to build is at least built on durable foundations.
I must touch on amendment No. 26, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, before I finish. Clause 12 provides for a local government review, and the Government's intention is to require an all-unitary solution in areas that opt for elected regional assemblies. The Government's clearly stated intention is to publish the recommendations of that local government review before a referendum takes place, so that electors will be fully aware of the intended reorganisation of local government in their areas.
Amendment No. 26 quite shamefully seeks to postpone the review until after the referendum. The precondition that requires a review under clause 12 to have taken place would be replaced by a requirement only for the Secretary of State to have instructed the boundary committee to be prepared for that review.
So the Liberal Democrats, whose rhetoric is about transparency in government, have demonstrated by that amendment that the reality is that, when the truth will hurt their cause, they want to conceal it and suppress the boundary review process until after the referendum has taken place. That is typically inconsistent because new clause 7—also tabled by the Liberal Democrats—addresses what we call the pig-in-the-poke problem by deferring the implementation of the legislation until the power of elected regional assemblies has been set down in statute. [Interrupted]
I hope that I did not hear Mr. Davey say that I was deliberately misleading the House. Perhaps he would like to stand up and say that. If he reads amendment No. 26 very carefully, he will find out precisely what it does: it seeks to postpone the holding of the local government boundary committee review until after the referendum, so that electors who vote in the referendum will not know the changes that the boundary committee will propose to local government in their area when they vote. They will have been deceived.
I shall soon conclude my remarks because of the pressure of time. This group of amendments addresses some of the most serious weaknesses in the Bill. It proposes consultation on the appropriate definition of regions, and it provides for a referendum when the division of England into regions is known, and for a test of England-wide public opinion. It would introduce a proper test of appetite for an imposed local government reorganisation. I strongly recommend to the House the amendments and new clauses that stand in the name of my right hon. and hon. Friends and myself.
I should like to make one thing clear in response to the speech made by the Conservative spokesman. I voted for the Bill on Second Reading because of the Labour party manifesto commitment to give people a choice about whether or not they wanted elected regional assemblies. I have become persuaded that the detail of the Bill will not deliver what it is supposed to deliver, so it would be wrong to deny people the right to vote against having an assembly.
If the Deputy Prime Minister reaches the judgment that people in the north-west have sufficient interest and they are given the right to participate in a referendum, I hope to persuade them to vote against having an assembly. The reason for that is that this paving Bill has been wrapped up by those who support it with the view that it will somehow solve the West Lothian problem, that it will tackle regional disparities and that it will deal with the democratic deficit that those of us who live in the regions believe exists. We do not have enough say in many of the public bodies that deliver our services.
I came to believe, as we considered the Bill clause by clause in Committee, that it will not do what was outlined in the White Paper. I also do not believe the argument that there is a great deal of desire for it in my part of the world, the north-west. I share the view that the north-west is a recent fiction of the television companies. We can solve the conundrum that was posed by my hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman, who rightly commented that MORI polls and surveys conducted by the BBC give different results from those conducted by Granada. If people are asked whether they want more democracy and more say in things, by and large they say yes. That is especially so if one puts it in the context of the years of Conservative Government during which people in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire—indeed, most of the regions—were deeply resentful. People will then say, "Yes, we want less of that and more control over our own lives." To put it in a different context—this would be true in the case of Manchester or Liverpool—if people are asked whether they want more bureaucracy, more politicians, elected regional assemblies whose members represent constituencies of a quarter of a million people, or a loss of power from local authorities, they give a completely different answer.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the proposals in the Bill are not about removing powers from local authorities, but about democratising the powers that exist in an unelected manner in the regions? In particular, they deal with accountability for regional development agencies, housing investment, heritage, sports and cultural funding, and many other areas in which regional decisions are taken on a north-west basis without elected accountability.
The answer to that depends on one's historical understanding of where the money that funds the regional development agencies comes from. Much of the money that used to be in the urban programme was given to the Housing Corporation and to English Partnerships and has now appeared in the regional development agencies. We are dealing with a historical process that has taken resources from the local level and put them much further up. I do not accept the basis of my hon. Friend's position.
My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, like my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside, has a long history of supporting regional government. There is a debate to be had, and we are having it. It is certainly necessary to take some control away from the centre and to democratise many public services. However, I am deeply suspicious, given our debates in Committee and on Second Reading, because the Bill proposes unique mechanisms that, as far as I am aware, do not exist anywhere else. When the Government rightly proposed that city and district councils should have the right to decide whether they wanted an elected mayor, the electorate were given the right to campaign and petition for a referendum on that. In other instances of changes in the democratic structures, the Government have stipulated the right way to do it and imposed it. I may be wrong—one's knowledge is not always complete in such matters—but I cannot think of a precedent whereby the decision on whether to have a referendum about a regional assembly is dependent on the subjective judgment of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. When challenged in Committee, my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench were unable to give any indication of what the subjective opinion of the Deputy Prime Minister would be when he came to consider whether there was indeed sufficient interest.
When we looked at the document that was being sent out to various bodies to get information from them, we noticed that question 7 asked respondents to give not only their own subjective impression but their subjective impression of whether other people were interested. As a basis for changing the structure and seeing whether there is an interest, that is entering the land of fantasy. As I said in Committee, given my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister's commitment to this matter, the only real test that the Government will use is whether, in a particular circumstance, that referendum will be winnable.
I understand my hon. Friend's position, and I understand that some people in all regions, including the north-east, are vehemently against elected regional assemblies. But is it not a fact that the Bill will give local people the say in whether they want a regional assembly? It will not be down to the Deputy Prime Minister, or any Minister. It will be down to the people. What is he afraid of in relation to people being given a choice about whether they want an elected regional assembly?
My hon. Friend has misunderstood what I was saying and what is in the Bill. People in the north-east and the north-west will not be given the right to say whether they want a regional assembly if my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister does not think they are interested enough. The Deputy Prime Minister will have the right to say whether they have that right. My point was simply that the people of the north-east or the north-west should be able to petition to have that right to vote. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree with me on that point.
Mr. Hammond said that it was a debate in Committee that led him to present new clause 4. That is what has led to my suspicion that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister wants elected regional assemblies. We have a regional assembly: should that body funded by the Government and by local authorities be allowed to spend that public money to campaign and work for what is clearly a political end and a matter of political dispute between the parties and within the parties?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions has sent a letter to me and other members of the Committee saying that he has reiterated the legal position to those bodies: unless they are spending private sector money, they cannot campaign on those issues. I shall read just two sentences from the letter printed in the Manchester Evening News on
"it is essential for the future prosperity of Manchester and the whole of the north west that the region has the chance to elect its own regional assembly."
Some of my hon. Friends will agree with that, but it is clearly a political campaigning statement. The same applies to the following:
"The north west needs to be one of the first regions to hold a referendum and gain our regional voice."
That is something that one hears within the Labour party, but it is not the role of the chief executive of the north-west regional assembly to voice that. Presenting the information is one thing; campaigning is another. I do not know whether private funds have been given to the chief executive to use facilities to put that out in his name and the north-west regional assembly's name. I hope, however, that my right hon. Friend is sufficiently concerned to find out whether Government or public sector money has been used for campaigning.
Ministers are convinced that the north-east and the north-west should have elected regional assemblies. I think that there are other political priorities. It was a mistake for Ministers, in their Labour party capacity, to say that resources from the Labour party office should be devoted to winning this campaign. I would not want to overestimate the problem, but there is a threat from the British National party in parts of Lancashire. Our campaigning efforts would be better directed at that.
I shall conclude my remarks, as I know that many other Members wish to speak. The need for devolution exists but, unfortunately, the mechanisms in the Bill will not lead to its achievement.
It is right that the House should focus on the two key issues: the definitions and boundaries of the regions and the fact that the local government reviews, which the Government seek to link with the referendums on the regions, should be decoupled from them. People outside the House recognise that the Bill requires amendment in both regards.Liberal Democrats have led the opposition on the two issues from the start, and I am pleased that the Conservatives have realised, after the proceedings in Committee, that they are the two key issues and have woken up to that fact. Although Mr. Hammond took 30 minutes to make his points, I am delighted that he has recognised that the Liberal Democrats' agenda for opposition to the Bill is the right one.
Decoupling the local government review from the referendums is one of the key issues, and the hon. Gentleman said that Liberal Democrat amendment No. 26, which would achieve that aim, is wrong and would not allow democracy to prevail. However, it has been our policy for a long time—we have a policy; the Conservatives do not—that the regional assemblies should decide the review of local government in their region. That is the democratic way. We have tabled amendments and, although some of them have not been selected, the hon. Gentleman can read the amendment paper and see them for himself. The fact that he dealt with the Liberal Democrat case by ignoring those amendments does him no credit.
I, too, have expressed my support all along for decoupling. Although I support the idea behind the hon. Gentleman's amendment, I do not believe that it is necessary for the regional assembly then to address the issue. Regional government and local government are entirely separate and I regret the fact that there is confusion between the two in the Bill. I am keen for there to be no confusion, so I rather regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman has formulated his amendment as he has.
I accept the right hon. Lady's point. It is not the ideal formulation, and the amendments that we tabled in Committee did not take this form. However, we are trying to reach a compromise with the Government. If they are worried, we have tried to make it clear that the referendum could assure the people that the regional assemblies would consider their concerns about there being too many authorities below the regional level. If the Government had accepted the principle in the amendments that were unfortunately not selected, they would have enabled that process to take place.
I accept that the current amendment is a compromise, but I hope that the Government will accept it, as it would help the referendums to be won. If we could argue to the people who are concerned about too many tiers of government that the regional assembly would, after it was elected, consider that point without prejudging the issue, some of those understandable concerns might be allayed. I know that my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith feels strongly about that point, as do many of my right hon. and hon. Friends. They want people to have the choice about the structure of local government in their regions. They want the regional assemblies to give them that choice.
The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the comments of my hon. Friend Mr. Hammond to whom he will not now give way. We are not at all in favour of allowing elected regional assemblies to decide on the local government review. We have suggested an additional question so that the voters themselves can have their say. That is very different from the hon. Gentleman's proposal.
I think that the hon. Gentleman misunderstands me. We want the regional assemblies to consider the proposals made by the boundary committee for England and to put them before the people so that they can vote on them. So the regional assembly would consider them, which is a more devolved approach, and the people would have a choice.
No, I want to make progress.
It is vital to decouple the two issues. I hope that the other place will take that seriously and Members of all parties will co-operate to ensure that the decoupling works. It makes sense in terms not only of democracy, but of ensuring that the agenda goes ahead.
The second key issue is regional boundaries. New clauses 8 and 6 and amendment No. 15 deal with that in different ways. None of them is perfect, but they offer options. If the Minister is convinced by our argument, I hope that he accepts one of them, although my guess is that he will not. An important issue is at stake, as I think the Minister knows in his heart of hearts. Some regions, such as the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and Humber, will have boundaries that are accepted in general. There may be a few complaints about them, as we heard from one or two hon. Members in Committee and today, but that is the case in general for those three regions. However, in other parts of the country there is much debate and concern about the regional boundaries established by the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, to which the Bill relates.
As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge said, we should not accept some regions, such as the south-east. They are far too large. People do not identify with them and the boundaries need to be reviewed. I think that that is the case for all the regions except the three that I identified.
My hon. Friend says that, in his heart of hearts, the Minister understands the conundrums that the Government will face when their zones are unacceptable to the people in their so-called regions. We are not attacking the Government, but advising them. Does my hon. Friend share my fear that the Government will find themselves in a straitjacket? They need to return to chapter 6 of the White Paper and recognise the need for flexibility when considering the future of the boundaries.
My hon. Friend is right. A series of events will take place. Referendums will be held in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber. I hope that those are won and regional assemblies are established there. I predict that a future Government will then ask for a review of the regional boundaries of the remaining English regions. They will have to do that because none of the referendums in the other regions is likely to be won unless they do. People who are strongly committed to regional devolution will be unable to bring themselves to support the campaign because they cannot support a region called the south-east of England.
It would be much better for the Government to admit that and allow the Bill to contain a review of regional boundaries, even if it excludes the three regions with boundaries that I believe are acceptable to the people in those areas. That would enable the referendums in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber to go ahead so that we do not stop the movement for regional devolution. It would also allow us to put right the problems in the rest of England.
Given what the hon. Gentleman has said, does he agree that the argument made by Mr. Hammond, which was basically that because the north-east was smaller than any other region, it should have to wait until every other region, including the south-east, was happy with its boundaries before being allowed to have a regional assembly, was utterly preposterous?
The hon. Lady is right; it was preposterous. The problem for the Conservatives is that because they do not believe in regional devolution, they have no policies—they do not know what else to do. They would be happy to keep the quango state. They support regional government but just do not like any democracy in it. That is why their position is untenable.
I am keen to hear from the Minister in reply to this debate and to give him sufficient time in which to do so, so I shall quickly refer to the other amendments. Although I have some sympathy with the intention of new clause 3, it is fatally flawed because it would prevent a variable geometry—different regions going at different speeds. New clause 4 has something to recommend it. I would be worried about illegal expenditure by the RDAs or other public bodies before the referendums. I certainly oppose amendment No. 2, which is a surrogate turnout threshold amendment. We have had that debate.
The key issues before the House—we will presumably get a chance at least to vote on the decoupling issue raised in new clause 3 and, hopefully, amendment No. 26—are decoupling the local government review and the regional boundaries. If the Government gave way on those two issues, they would have an awful lot more support both in the House and throughout the country.
This is a complex group of amendments, I shall try to address all the new clauses and to respond as well as I can to the issues that have been raised.
New clause 3 enables the Secretary of State to hold a national referendum across England, including London, which would ask two separate questions. One would be on whether people supported the proposals for the creation of regions and the subsequent holding of regional referendums. The second would be on whether people supported the idea of reorganising local government into unitary authorities where an assembly is created. Amendment No. 2 would mean that no regional referendum about elected regional assemblies could be held until a national referendum had been held.
I am interested in the approach of Mr. Hammond to the people of London in these and other changes that the Conservatives have proposed. New clause 3 would give Londoners a vote on whether they were supportive of holding referendums about elected regional assemblies elsewhere in England despite the fact that there is no intention that London itself should have an assembly. It already has its own elected city-wide authority following a referendum in which the people of London voted yes. According to the Conservative party, the people of London would be asked to vote again even though, as I understand it, the Opposition have no intention of in any way changing any of the existing institutions in London. What a preposterous waste of time and money.
New clause 3 would also give Londoners a vote on whether they supported the idea of restructuring local government in two-tier areas—despite the fact that London already has wholly unitary local government. So, that proposal makes no sense at all. Under new clause 8, however, London would be specifically excluded from making proposals for changes in regional boundaries despite the fact that neighbouring local authorities outside London could do so. That illustrates the total incoherence, incompetence and inconsistency of the Opposition's approach. It tells us that new clause 3 has no serious or useful purpose. It is simply part of the official Opposition's ill-thought-out tactics to use any means to try to deliver referendums on whether to establish elected regional assemblies.
The Conservatives have made their opposition to regional assemblies clear; the hon. Gentleman stated it again this afternoon. As he will hear later, his noble Friend Lord Strathclyde made a scandalous statement yesterday in the House of Lords implying that the Conservative party in the other place would entirely ignore the views of this democratically elected House and try to stop the Bill becoming law. That comes from a party which accused us of arrogance, yet its unelected friends in the House of Lords are trying to dictate to this House which Bills should become law. That is a very dangerous challenge to our constitution, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has made some disparaging remarks about the Government this afternoon, will immediately condemn his noble Friend's outrageous position.
While the Minister is talking about the unelected and unrepresentative upper House can he confirm that it is now Government policy that the upper House should be wholly elected?
I put to the hon. Gentleman, who has no elected friends in the Chamber at all, to consider the right of Lord Strathclyde, a Member of the unelected House of Lords, to make the following point in a shameful speech last night:
"I have something to say to the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip as a word of advice and perhaps even a warning, based on what I have heard of the view of most Members of this House about the general awfulness of elections. His regional assemblies Bill? No chance."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 January 2003; Vol. 643, c. 826.]
How deplorable that an unelected House should tell the Commons what legislation should come through and that a Member of the Lords should refer to the "awfulness of elections". I hope that the hon. Gentleman will condemn that deplorable abuse of Conservative powers in the House of Lords.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the comments that he has just quoted are easy to equate with an Opposition whose Members cannot be bothered to attend this important debate and who, when in government, set up regional Government offices, clearly with the intention of wielding power in the regions without accountability to the people of the regions?
Of course I shall do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, while concurring entirely with the views expressed by my hon. Friend.
Thinking about the effect of the Conservative amendments, we would have a long debate on regional boundaries under new clause 8 and amendment No. 3. New Clause 8 would insert into the Bill a procedure for creating new regions. It would involve submissions by local authorities and other "relevant interests" on proposed new regions, after which the Electoral Commission would submit another set of proposals to the Secretary of State. Presumably, there would be a consultation, but that is not explicit in the amendment. An order would then have to be made creating new regions.
The Opposition replaced new clause 1 with new clause 8 so that they could include a provision excluding Londoners from the invitation to make proposals for regional boundaries. As I have already suggested, that is nonsense, as it would be open to people outside London to suggest changes to London's boundaries, but Londoners could not even make a proposal that London's boundaries should remain unchanged—how typical of the Opposition's incoherence. The process set out in new clause 8 could take years, given the resource implications for the Electoral Commission and the lengthy consultation that is envisaged. The consultation proposed by the Opposition would be time-consuming, expensive and unproductive. It would also, on the basis of past experience, be divisive and acrimonious, as most boundary disputes are.
That brings me to new clause 6, which was tabled by the Cornish enclave of the Liberal Democrat party. It would enable the Secretary of State by order to define a region for the purposes of the Bill, and would uniquely oblige him to define Cornwall as a region—another ill thought out proposal. In every other part of the country, the Secretary of State would have freedom to define regions. That curious aspect of the new clause probably explains why Mr. Davey did not put his name to it. It gives the Secretary of State extraordinary power to define regions everywhere else in the country—not, I think, Liberal Democrat policy—while requiring him to define Cornwall as a region.
The Minister well knows that the new clause is a probing measure as I have spoken to him about it. If the Conservatives had not spent quite as much time debating the management of time we would have had a chance to debate the issue. There are important issues about the size of regions. The Minister knows that it is not the size of the Cornwall region that is problematic, but the fact that it is politically inconvenient for him.
I accept entirely the strength of feeling in Cornwall about its historical cultural identity. We understand that very much—indeed, we supported the campaign for the recognition of the Cornish language in which the hon. Gentleman was strongly involved. We were happy to accede because it is right for Cornwall's unique cultural heritage to be respected and preserved, but that is a very different proposition from the designation of Cornwall as a region. Regions are an intermediate tier of Government between the national and local level. A significant number of functions are currently discharged at regional level, such as economic development and planning. To be effective, such arrangements must operate on a large enough scale, and must be properly differentiated from the functions of local government, which should continue to be discharged at a local level. That, we believe, is the right way forward for Cornwall—to benefit from its membership of the wider south-west region in terms of planning, transportation and economic development, while preserving and enhancing its unique qualities through the work of its local authorities, and in particular through Cornwall county council, whose excellent performance was recently recognised by the comprehensive performance assessment. In response to the new clause proposed by Andrew George, I have to say, in words that will no doubt immediately be recognised by him, na wrav kammenn. That means no way, in Cornish.
I was about to do so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I said that the Minister had learned well and spoken well, and I am grateful. However, he will ultimately find that there is no way that the people of the Government's south-west zone will accept a region on that basis. He will have to revisit the issue. I urge him not to place a straitjacket around himself from which there is no escape.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. As I said before, we have not put a straitjacket around ourselves. In the White Paper we made it clear that there is an opportunity and flexibility to look again at regional boundaries in due course. We do not believe that that is appropriate at present. It would be divisive and would prevent progress towards establishing elected regional assemblies, but there is no straitjacket.
I must make progress, as time is very short. New clause 4, although apparently a sensible proposition as the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge proposed it, is unnecessary and unworkable, and appears to be designed, like so many other Opposition amendments, to wreck the Bill. It would make it impossible for the Secretary of State to begin the process of moving towards a referendum for elected regional assemblies if any individual in either of the organisations mentioned, over which the Secretary of State has no control, should, for whatever reason, step outside their powers in the 12 months prior to the moment when the referendum is to be ordered. It is clearly a wrecking proposal.
Amendment No. 26 from the Liberal Democrats would remove the requirement for a local government review to be carried out by the Boundary Committee before an order causing a referendum was made. Rather, the committee will only have had to be directed to prepare to carry out a review. We believe that any local government review of a region should be carried out before a referendum on elected regional assemblies, so that voters are fully informed of the implications of a yes vote for local government in their region.
We also believe strongly that three tiers of government would be too many. It must be a feature of regional government that where people vote for regional government, it should be against a clear understanding that there will be a unified tier of local government, in just the same way as there is in London, Scotland and Wales. That is the precedent. We think that it is right and that it should apply in the English regions, too.
Finally, Government amendment No. 4 is a minor tidying amendment, designed to make it clear that it is by order that an order under clause 1(1) to cause a referendum to be held is varied or revoked. It therefore makes it clear that any order to vary or revoke a clause 1(1) order would also be subject to the provisions in clause 27, and that the affirmative resolution procedure would apply. I ask the House to support amendment No. 4 and to reject the other amendments.
The Minister often speaks of synthetic anger. We have seen a virtuoso display of synthetic anger from the master himself. He speaks of our amendments being wrecking amendments. They would not have been selected and they would not be on the amendment paper if they were wrecking amendments. They are sensible amendments. The Minister refers to the lack of attendance in the Chamber, on all sides. I tell him why there is a lack of attendance in the Chamber: his guillotine meant that hon. Members in all parts of the House saw that they stood no chance of being called in the debate and went off to do better things.
I am disappointed that the Minister has not listened to our arguments and has rejected all proposals to make his own structure more robust and durable, but I cannot say that I am entirely surprised. I will ask my hon. Friends to vote in support of the new clause. I shall also ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether we can have a separate vote on new clause 8, and if Liberal amendment No. 26 is pressed to a separate Division, I shall ask my hon. Friends to oppose it on the grounds—
It being Five o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker, put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Orders [