I beg to move,
That this House
notes that the Government's proposals for elected regional assemblies as set out in their White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice grant the proposed assemblies limited powers, many of which are taken from local government;
further notes that the Deputy Prime Minister has made statements suggesting that elected regional assemblies may acquire additional powers not reflected in the White Paper and that he intends that elected regional assemblies should open up the debate about the Barnett formula and public spending in the regions;
and urges the Government to publish a draft Bill and to clear up this confusion by the end of June so that Parliament can debate the proposals in good time before the summer adjournment.
The motion sets out a simple proposition—when there is a decision to be made about the way in which we are governed, the debate ought to take place on the basis of a clear indication of what is at stake; the time scale; and the powers of the institution that we are debating. That will enable debate to be clear, above board, transparent and honest. The way to achieve that is to publish legislation as early as possible. In the course of debate in the House, legislation is amended, but those amendments are themselves subject to detailed scrutiny and analysis.
At the moment, there are proposals for regional assemblies, and there is a great deal of activity in pursuit of the case for or against them. However, we still do not have proposals about what the assemblies will actually do. If the powers of the proposed regional assemblies are to be closely based on the contents of the White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice", it is difficult to see why the legislative propositions cannot be published at an early stage. If the powers are to differ substantially from that outline, the need for legislation is even more urgent, as our debate would be based on a false premise.
We may have the proposals in July, hard against the summer recess. All Governments are desperate to get their business finished before the recess. There is not exactly a panic, but there is an urgency to getting business done. We come back for some slightly token sittings in September, which tend to be taken up with statements and other matters, before going into the party conference season. The referendums are supposed to take place at the end of October or in November, so there is a genuine danger that those legislative proposals will not receive effective debate in the House before people vote.
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that in certain circumstances, if he had the right information, he would be minded to support elected regional assemblies?
Until I have the right information it is premature even to ask such a question, because there is no basis on which I can come to a conclusion. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's is likely to be no, because I cannot conceive of circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to concede to any regional assemblies the powers that would make debate worth while.
Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what powers would need to be devolved to win his support for elected regional assemblies?
No, I am going to tell the hon. Gentleman what the Government need to spell out so that people can have a debate about their proposals. I believe that that there is very good answer to the problem—pass power down to the people. Indeed, I thought that nowadays the whole political tenor was about the new localism, empowering communities and pushing power down to the people, not pushing power up to a new tier of politicians—for which the demand in my constituency, and I suspect in others, is difficult to detect.
In the past, before the right hon. Gentleman took on his current responsibilities, the Conservatives were very much opposed to regional assemblies. Is he saying that he is now open-minded on the subject because he is waiting for further information?
I want information because a debate is taking place. The Government are spending public money on inciting people to vote in referendums, and it is a good idea that they should know what they are voting about—although I realise that the Government may find that a sophisticated concept. The Government initiated the process that leads to referendums on the basis of the most derisive show of interest imaginable—in Yorkshire, about 1,200 favourable responses from a population of 5 million were interpreted as enthusiasm for a referendum. The Deputy Prime Minister issued his blatantly biased "thumbs up, thumbs down" leaflets, with the whole argument skewed in favour of one side—that campaign cost £500,000 of public money—and toured the regions setting out the Government's position in a series of one-sided debates organised by the Government offices for the regions.
The boundary committee set out preliminary suggestions for local government reorganisation in the two-tier areas, with some extremely curious anomalies. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, because it is close to home for him, it recommended a merger between the authorities of East Yorkshire and Selby—but Selby is part of North Yorkshire, which is two-tier, and East Yorkshire is unitary. So in Selby, people will have a referendum on whether they wish to join East Yorkshire, but those in East Yorkshire will not have a referendum on whether they wish Selby to join it. That is entirely anomalous; the proposals are riddled with such anomalies.
Yes and no campaigns have been established in each region. The yes campaigns, at least, have the cash to set up offices and to hire staff. The Government overruled the advice of their own Electoral Commission and ordered postal ballots in the local and European elections in June in two regions where they were specifically advised not to do so—Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. The commission said that the right conditions existed in the north-east and the east midlands, but recommended against in Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. This is clearly a dry run to whip up a vote in the referendum.
A debate is under way, although I do not think that it is a subject of everyday conversation among the crowds at Gallowgate or the Stadium of Light.
We would not have set up regional government for London. The taxpayers who now face Mr. Livingstone's precept will be interested to find out whether the Minister for Local Government is going to cap Mr. Livingstone—after all, he has threatened to cap councils with a precept lower than the one Mr. Livingstone is talking about. Few people would think that the government of London is such a riotous success that it needs to be emulated in other parts of the country.
Surely the point that my right hon. Friend is making is that if we are to have referendums, the people must be able to base their decision on the full facts. That should have applied four years ago in London, and it must apply in all the other regions if we are to have meaningful referendums that allow the people to have their say.
It may be worth pointing out that the turnouts achieved in the referendums—even in London—are not such as to suggest that the people have overwhelming confidence in what they are being asked to vote about.
My right hon. Friend speaks of the numbers involved in turnouts. Does he think that the lack of interest in the whole issue of regional government in, say, East Anglia, shows that people do not want an extra layer of government, do not want to know anything about regions, and think that this idea was dreamed up by a Government who have themselves created a democratic deficit?
I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has a dream. We are all entitled to our dreams, but the Prime Minister gives the impression that his enthusiasm is kept strictly under control as part of the process of sharing the Deputy Prime Minister's dream.
The common thread is that a debate is under way. However, the only place where there is no debate is Parliament. The debate will be without purpose until we know what the assemblies are going to do. It is a sort of blind date without Cilla Black.
Even at my age, I can think of more exciting dreams.
For the overwhelming majority of people in the three designated regions, the assemblies will mean a new layer of politicians, partly funded by the council tax. In the foreword to the White Paper, the Prime Minister wrote:
"These proposals will not mean creating more bureaucracy."
However, Unison apparently favours them, and Unison campaigning against bureaucracy seems implausible. The foreword continues:
"In regions where people vote to have an elected regional assembly we will move to wholly unitary local government to ensure that Government remains streamlined."
The notion that the Government are streamlined is curious, but I am willing to be informed about that.
The Prime Minister has lost his bearings. In Yorkshire and Humber, the only two-tier area is North Yorkshire. That means that 90 per cent. of the people who live in Yorkshire and Humber already live under unitary councils. For them, a regional assembly is a new tier of government. There is no point in pretending otherwise. The Prime Minister may even have heard of Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Kirklees and Doncaster, some of the unitary councils that make up Yorkshire.
In the north-west, two thirds of the population live in the great metropolitan areas of Liverpool and Greater Manchester. For them, an assembly will mean another layer of politicians. In the north-east, about which the Prime Minister might be expected to have an inkling, two thirds of people already live in the unitary councils of Tyneside, Teesside and Wearside. For them, too, a regional assembly means an additional set of politicians.
What sort of politicians are we considering? They will be remote figures, elected by proportional representation. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister and I can agree on our dislike of proportional representation in general. I feel that his roots may be deep enough in old-fashioned Labour to be suspicious of that method of election. The politicians will be without constituency, mandate or identity. They will embark on a sort of Mary Celeste; on political ghost ships, condemned to sail the sea in a desperate hope of finding a port where they can finally be still.
Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that is better to have an elected extra layer of politicians or an unelected layer of bureaucrats?
If it is so important to bring the quangos under political control, why will only the people of the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber enjoy the wonderful privilege of regional assemblies? Why have the Government not concluded that the quangos are so onerous and such an affliction that people should be relieved of them in the south-west, East Anglia, the west midlands and the east midlands? They have not done that and they cannot therefore be so worried about the burden of quangos. I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister's valedictory vanity is determined to impose regional assemblies on parts of the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and, indeed, Mr. Stringer, who used to be the leader of Manchester city council, that the electoral system in the north-west is almost certain to allow a British National party representative on the regional government? Would that be a good advertisement for the region?
Whenever members of the BNP stand for election, it behoves everybody to look hard at what they are saying and to refute every single point that they make. Their campaigns are based very largely on lies and exaggerations, and nothing could be more dangerous than saying that we either ignore them or give them a breath of oxygen. I think that they should be given so much oxygen that they suffocate in their lies and misrepresentations.
From our perspective in north Yorkshire, if we are to deal with parties such as the BNP, the way we do that is through all politicians calling for a maximum turnout in all elections. Will the right hon. Gentleman do so at the Dispatch Box, and ask everyone who can do so to participate in the referendums, too?
I am entirely happy to do that. All of us are concerned about the level of turnout in some elections and the disaffection with politics. That may be partly because people are fed up with the number of elections. It is crucial, however, especially in cases in which such an issue is at stake, that people express their point of view. Certainly, I want people to vote; I just want them to vote no, as a matter of fact.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, first, for the personal remark, and secondly, for the political remark. Both are matters of fact.
How will an assembly be financed? We know that it will be financed by Government grant and by a further raid on the council tax, or income tax if the Liberal Democrats were to have their way. We will have precepts for parishes, precepts for police, precepts for fire and rescue services, and precepts for regional assemblies. The public who, as we all know, are cheerfully happy to pay up the current levels of council tax imposed by the Government will get another little supplement to their council tax if they vote for these assemblies. At least with the fire and police services, people know what they are supposed to be there for.
What are the regional assemblies there for? The leaflets make them sound like powerhouses, yet how much public money do they control? It is about 2 per cent. of regional public spending. All this—with set-up costs and running costs of £30 million and £20 million a year—for sixpence in the pound. Will regions with an assembly be able to claim more money? Will they be able to change the balance of funding between the regions and parts of the United Kingdom? Will they be able to challenge—dare I say it?—the Barnett formula, because the Deputy Prime Minister has at least been giving the impression that if people vote for regional assemblies, there might be some rebalancing, to use the fashionable word, in relation to funding. I can find no evidence that that will be the case.
Will the assemblies bring power closer to the people? The answer is no. They are an out-of-date, bureaucratic, unimaginative idea. The political debate is about empowering people in their communities—the Prime Minister talks about giving them control of their lives. In this case, however, the Government seem to want to disarm the citizen, remove power from the community, and push power upward, not down. The local councils will go, and be replaced by PR politicians. How many will represent North Yorkshire? We might get two, and Northumberland will probably qualify for one.
I should be interested to know what bets the Deputy Prime Minister would lay on the level of turnout in the second set of elections to regional assemblies, if they were ever to come about. I suspect that the turnout in the European elections will be positively euphoric by comparison. People are being sold an illusion rather than the reality.
I wonder whether the Conservative party will support my private Member's Bill, to be dealt with on
I did not know about the hon. Gentleman's Bill. I am usually deeply suspicious of private Members' Bills, but I feel a sudden warmth towards this one.
"we know that in some regions, the north-east for example, many people believe that only an elected regional assembly will allow the region truly to take control of its destiny and enable it to move up the economic and social prosperity ladder."
The idea that the assemblies, with their small raft of circumscribed powers, will take control of anyone's or anything's destiny is sheer fantasy.
We were told that the regional development agencies would close the gap between the regions. I recall the Minister for Sport and Tourism, Mr. Caborn—who is present—saying at the Dispatch Box that if the RDAs did not close the economic gap between the regions, they would have failed. And have they? No, they have not. We know that they have not.
That is all very well, but how long do we have to wait for them to do it? It has not happened so far.
If destiny is at stake, why do the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdom—the south-west, the west midlands, East Anglia—not have that sense of destiny being within their grasp? And if the assemblies are needed to control the quangos, why do those regions not suffer from the burdensome oppression to such an extent that they clamour for the assemblies that will introduce a democratic mandate and relieve them of that terrible weight?
I did not realise that there had been such an avalanche of responses from East Anglia. It clearly represents a proportion of the population that might in any other circumstances be regarded as de minimis. The Deputy Prime Minister, indeed, might regard it as derisory. If it were a turnout in the poll it would be so derisory that he might even decide that the poll could not stand. But we do not know what a derisory turnout is in regional referendums, because the Deputy Prime Minister will not tell us.
The Deputy Prime Minister has drawn an analogy with Scotland and Wales. Scotland has legislative powers and a very expensive, and as yet unfinished, Parliament building. It controls health, education, a significant part of economic development, and rural policy. We see the divergences on either side of the border growing daily. I assume that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will shortly announce the way in which the single farm payment will work in England. It is entirely possible that Scotland will adopt a different route; we have already observed that Northern Ireland and Wales are likely to do so. We accept that—it is one of the consequences of devolution—but it indicates that devolution is to a body with substantive powers that can actually be measured. Whether better welfare is delivered to Scotland or Wales is open to dispute, but the possibility is there.
The Welsh Assembly can at least decide on the manner of application of national legislation. English regional assemblies will have none of the abilities that I have mentioned. So how will this manifest destiny be fulfilled? I simply do not understand how that can be done by controlling the market town initiative, or advising the cultural consortium in Yorkshire and Humberside on how it should go about its business. We all agree that the regions need better, more integrated economic development; we all agree that they need to catch up; but the idea that that will be delivered by regional assemblies is surely part of a fantasy world.
The Deputy Prime Minister has done his best to inflate the importance of regional assemblies in his regional tours, in between having cheerful altercations with some of his colleagues. We are not yet—although we seem to be not far from it—at the stage where he is telling us that the assemblies can probably declare war. The actual role that emerges from the document is described almost invariably in the language of oversight, scrutiny, advice, request, consultation, influence, co-ordination—a permanent supplication for someone else's attention. When we look at them in detail, even the few identifiable powers are very circumscribed. Everywhere, the Government look over the assemblies' shoulder.
Let us take the regional development agencies. One of the principal arguments is that the powers now exercised by the RDAs and supervised by the government offices should fall to regional assemblies. The assemblies must have regard to Government guidance in preparing their strategies. The Government will retain powers to ensure that RDAs and the assemblies address national strategies. The assembly must consult the Government on regional economic strategy. The Government can require changes and—this is the real killer—the regional assembly must consult the Government on individual board appointments to the RDA. That is the dimension of the autonomy. The regional assembly cannot even make a single appointment to the board of an RDA without consulting the Government—and that is supposed to be introducing some new democratic mandate.
It is the same story for transport. The regional assembly can advise. It has powers to make proposals. It can be consulted. The only clear competence appears to be responsibility for allocating the rail passenger partnership grant. Only in the housing sector is there a ghost of a role, in the allocation of support for capital investment.
The Government talk of new powers but when, and where from? The suspicion is that it will always be from local government and another shift upwards, not devolution downwards, of power.
The real question is: what is at stake? What is the elector going to choose between? Where will the political choices lie? How will voting make a difference? It is the oldest question in politics. Does it matter? What is at stake? Do things change as a result of the vote? How will candidates define themselves in terms of political choice, or choice in relation to issues? There is no answer to that. They will not be able to define themselves. People will not have a choice. We will end up with assembly members with no mandate, no definable constituency, no accountability and no role, permanently packing their bags for a journey they never make.
Those old stalwart watchers of the local government scene, George Jones of the London school of economics and John Stewart of Birmingham university, wrote in July 2002 at the time of the publication of the White Paper:
"While this portfolio" of responsibilities
"appears impressive, the responsibilities are only for preparing strategies rather than for taking action. Unless the regional assemblies are given considerable freedom to set their own strategies and to ensure their implementation they will merely be talking shops. The public will soon realise the assemblies have no real power and turnout will drop."
A little later, they wrote:
"The choice is between a body with strategic responsibilities but no powers of enforcement or a body with powers to enforce turning into what is effectively a supervisory body. Neither the regional advocates nor the white paper have resolved this dilemma."
Therefore we need to know what is intended. I am happy to engage in debate.
If the bodies had significant power, at least there would be a sensible debate about how Britain was managed. I have said that repeatedly. What we do not have is a proposition, or any likely proposition, that is anything other than a token gesture to regional assemblies on the basis of an entirely false premise. So this debate is an entirely false one. People are being asked to vote for a pig in a poke that will not work. If I have to choose between that and devolving power closer to people in their own communities, giving them the ability to grasp real powers locally through representative government, I would make that choice. That is a better choice for the United Kingdom.
Has my right hon. Friend noticed that in the Welsh Assembly these days the biggest talking point is whether it should acquire more powers for itself and seek more powers from Government? Is it not likely that if these shadowy new regional assemblies are ever set up, the first thing they will try to do in the early years is to acquire more powers? What possible use will that be to the people whom they are supposed serve?
They may well do so, because as it stands they will have practically nothing to do. Goodness knows how many days a week they will actually sit, what they will find to do, or how they will earn their pay. But the question is: where will they look for those powers? They will absorb them from local government, and that tier of government will become more remote.
No one denies that the questions of political structures, of how we are governed and of how we secure regional economic development are vital ones, but the debate is still taking place through a glass darkly, even though the Government have the means to bring it into the open. The way to do so is to let us have real proposals soon, and the place to do so is in this House of Commons, where MPs are elected to real constituencies through real elections, in which real choices are placed in front of the electorate.
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
"notes the Government's proposals for elected regional assemblies set out in their White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, based on the principles of increasing prosperity, pride and democracy in the regions;
further notes that the White Paper also set out the way in which the Government intends to build into its policy development the opportunities offered by the creation of elected regional assemblies to further decentralise responsibility for policy and delivery where this will improve regional outcomes;
applauds the opportunity afforded to people in the three northern regions of England to have their say about whether they want an elected assembly for their region;
commends the Government's endeavours to ensure that people voting in the referendums have information on which to base their choice;
notes that the principal confusion about the proposed powers and role of elected regional assemblies appears to be on the Opposition benches;
and condemns the continuing attempts by the party opposite both to deny people a say in how they want to be governed and to denigrate the value of that choice."
I begin by offering my congratulations, with some envy, to Mr. Curry, who has become a grandfather. I look forward to the day when that might happen to me.
I note that the Opposition's motion calls for clearing up "confusion" about elected regional assemblies. However, the right hon. Gentleman's speech was the most confused that I have heard in my 30-plus years in the House of Commons. On the one hand, he said that the proposals were not clear enough, but he then picked out what he disagreed with and spelled out what he meant. What he really meant is not that the proposals are not clear, but that he does not agree with them. On the other hand, he said that he wants more powers—he did not spell out what they were—in order to carry out the promise that he has made for many years: a promise based on his belief in regional government, if it is "effective" regional government. I have read what he has said on the subject carefully, and perhaps I might refer to it.
I am not surprised that the Conservatives are confused, because when it comes to devolution, the right hon. Gentleman does not know whether he is coming or going, as he made clear in his contribution. His approach is confusing not only for him but for his colleagues, as we discovered during interventions on his speech. It was not clear whether he was asking for more powers, or whether he supported the proposal. We will discover the answer as the debate progresses, but his approach is certainly confusing for the country at large.
The right hon. Gentleman makes similar accusations against us, but he needs to make reasonably clear what his party stands for. If he wants to debate this issue, we need to know the essence of the difference between our two parties. In 1998, he told this House the following:
"The arguments for devolution are well made . . . at Chequers"— he went to Chequers—
"I argued the case for a federal structure in the United Kingdom."—[Hansard, 6 May 1998; Vol. 311, c. 786–87.]
Two years later, in York, he said:
"In its potential to restore some vigour to local democracy, and to offer a constitutional settlement, regional government deserves real consideration."
We understand the difficulties associated with the right hon. Gentleman's current job, but if that is his position—clearly, it is—he should tell us what extra powers he wants, rather than being so critical of us. He understands what we are doing, even though he says that he is confused, but surely he should make clear his own view, which he has yet to explain to the House.
So despite the right hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the regions, it would seem that he wants to deny the people of the three northern regions the chance to vote for their own elected regional assembly and to take their own decisions. That is what this debate is about. Whatever we may say about the offer in terms of regional government, we are giving the people of the regions the chance to take a decision. The say is theirs, not ours. This is their chance to take a decision, just as the people of Wales, Scotland and London did. We are entitled to give the northern regions the same chance.
One can deploy that argument, and it has been deployed here before. We are prepared to have referendums—
May I reply to this point first? We are prepared to have referendums in respect of certain constitutional changes. We have made it clear that we think that the changes to regional government are necessary, and we will give a referendum. The idea is well established in Scotland, Wales and London, and it is exactly what we have to do for the English regions. I shall now give way to my hon. Friend Geraldine Smith.
The Deputy Prime Minister talks about giving the people of the north-west a choice. Yet only 2,900 replies were received from the whole north-west to the document people were asked to respond to. I carried out my own consultation on antisocial behaviour in my constituency and got 4,500 responses. If he can get only 2,900 from the whole north-west, is it not clear that there is no demand from the public for regional government?
No, it certainly is not. There were 2,900 responses, but many of them represented petitions, and the total number involved was 50,000 throughout three areas. I have heard people in the House claiming authority for polls conducted on just 500 people. I am glad my hon. Friend had 4,500 replies to her antisocial behaviour survey, but since she is keen on manifesto proposals, particularly on the top-ups, I have to point out that this was a manifesto proposal, too. I hope on that basis that she will join me in this debate.
No, I have given way. [Interruption.] Yes, I am.
We are saying that we should give the people in the three regions the opportunity to have a debate.
The Opposition have changed their mind so often on devolved government that we are all confused about where they stand. Let me remind the House that the previous Tory Government scrapped elected government for London, the old Greater London council. They did not consult or ask; they just nationalised it and took it over. It was the Conservative party—
That is a bit of a record, but let me just get through this.
The Conservative party fought devolution for Scotland and for Wales every step of the way. Now, it seems, they support Welsh devolution and Scottish devolution, and they have a candidate fighting to be Mayor of London, so I assume they are not going to abolish the Greater London authority. If devolved—
Give me a second.
If devolved government is good enough for the 15 million people who live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, it is surely good enough for the 2.5 million people who live in the north-east, the 5 million in Yorkshire and Humberside and the nearly 7 million in the north-west. The Conservative policy is confused and inconsistent.
What we are interested in knowing is what powers the assemblies will have. The right hon. Gentleman said, for example, when he toured the north-east, that police would be taken under the control of the regional authorities, but that has been denied by other parts of the Government. What is the answer?
That is not true. We are not putting police under regional assemblies. What we have said is that the Home Secretary is talking about having bigger police authorities because some of them are too small. There is a regional dimension, and decisions may be faced eventually, but that is not the position at the moment.
The nine English regional development agencies have been a great success.
Well, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has congratulated the Yorkshire agency on doing well, which might interest Mrs. Shephard who seems to be contesting that, too.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon can see that after three or four years of operation, the RDAs have been successful in the short term. I ask him to consider how much they reduce regional differentials. In the 1970s, we established the Scottish Development Agency, which was opposed by the Tories until they eventually came round to accepting it. The differential between the Scottish economy and those of a number of English regions has been reduced purely because—certainly, it has been an important factor—of the development agency. The Tories will keep the agency in Scotland, and they will keep one in Wales. I assume that they will keep one for London. So what is their position on RDAs? Let me quote their manifesto:
Is that still the position? They will not do that in Scotland, where they will keep a development agency. They are keeping an agency for Wales. It is only the English regions that will have their development agencies abolished. Where is the logic in that? The question is quite clear; it is not confusing. Either they do it or they do not.
I want to know exactly where they stand. Last October, Mr. Hammond said that his party no longer favoured outright abolition of the RDAs, but that he wanted to "engage" with them. That is an interesting point. Does the hon. Gentleman want to keep them, get rid of them or "engage" with them, or what? There is a clear position on the Labour Benches: we will keep the development agencies because they can play a major part in reducing differentials between economies.
If devolution for Scotland has removed the economic differential between Scotland and England, what is the argument for maintaining the Barnett formula?
The hon. Gentleman has raised the Barnett formula, so we can talk about financing. All sorts of assessments are constantly made about the financial arrangements between nations and regions, and the argument continues. If this debate were to occur in the northern regions, the Barnett formula would certainly come up because people think that it is unfair. If one examines departmental distributions and the new deal and housing programmes, however, it is not as unfair as people think.
My Department must examine the balance between the Government's contribution and a council's contributions to council tax. We constantly review all sorts of financial arrangements—indeed, the Liberal party proposes the introduction of a regional tax. The Government are constantly examining the situation and are obliged to distribute resources fairly between nations and regions. That approach is right and it will continue.
The Opposition were against the local authority-led regional chamber of assemblies, which has an important role in planning and scrutinising the regional development agencies, and proposed to abolish it. Indeed, more than 150 Conservative councillors are members of the regional chambers. However, the chairmen of the board in the South East England regional assembly and the South West regional assembly are Tories elected by majority Tory councils. It is difficult to listen to Conservative Front Benchers say that they will not co-operate. Have they agreed that the assemblies will be abolished? The Conservative party has promised to abolish them and we want to know its position because it seems confused.
The previous Government created the Government offices for the regions. When the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to quangos, I presume that he did not mean that the Government offices for the regions are quangos. The Government offices for the regions contain civil servants from different Departments and must make decisions about many things. When the Government appointed the Government offices for the regions in 1994, they recognised the need to have a regional dimension to Government decision making—they were right and I fully supported them. The trouble is that they did not add democratic accountability and the offices remained part of the civil service.
Under its previous leader, Mr. Duncan Smith, the Conservative party wanted to abolish the Government offices for the regions, but he found that he was abolished before it could be done—now he is reduced to strutting the boards of empty theatres while his replacement dreams on.
I remind the House that in 1974 the Opposition created the metropolitan county councils of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire and that they went on to create the counties of Cleveland, Humberside, Avon and Berkshire—they abolished them when they came back into government, which was confusing. A lot of trouble would have been avoided if they had consulted people first and got the right answer rather than setting them up and then abolishing them. No wonder there is confusion in the Conservative party.
The little known fact is that we have regional government in this country today—it is there; it is operating. It was established by a Conservative Government in 1994, and I was fully supportive of it. The Government offices for the regions develop strategies to deal with economics, planning, transport, culture, housing, sustainable development, waste, rural action, skills, employment and skills and the European programme. Those strategies are decided by civil servants in our regions without any democratic accountability. We will not set up talking shops to discuss strategies because they already exist. The problem is that people in the regions are not co-ordinating such strategies or getting them working. We have regional government; we do not have democratic accountability.
The White Paper does not say that because Governments will want to keep their civil servants involved in such matters. [Interruption.] We are not declaring a federal state. The framework is for the United Kingdom, and constant discussion even goes on in Scotland, Wales and London. Even if more power or more resources are discussed, we are not developing a federal government. We are developing a United Kingdom framework in which there are English regions and states, which will have their own secretariat, power and resources.
No, I will not. I notice that when the Leader of the Opposition had his press conference, he had a load of bowler-hatted civil servants in the background to show that he wanted to get rid of bureaucracy. Well, he created most of it when he was in Government, and that is without mentioning the poll tax.
I have told her that I will not give way to her.
The Leader of the Opposition has made a point about the role of the state in his statements over the weekend, in his speeches about having a dream and in an article in the Yorkshire Post, in which he wrote:
"we have a State . . . that is too unaccountable."
He should know, because he was part of the Government who created most of it. Most of the quangos and the Government offices that are not democratically accountable were created by the Leader of the Opposition and the Government he belonged to. Now he has the cheek to tell the public that he will get rid of bureaucracy. What we want is more democracy and less bureaucracy. That is not confusing: that is our clear position.
The Deputy Prime Minister has just told us that the new elected regional assemblies, if they ever come into existence, will not oversee the Government offices for the regions, so they will not deal with the democratic deficit. The people who will vote on elected regional assemblies later this year need to know what powers they will have over strategic transport, because that is an important issue.
That is an important point and I will come to it in a moment. I am not ducking it, because it is at the heart of the debate—as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said.
Just hang on a sec, because I want to finish this point. In the elected regional assemblies, the people will elect the politicians who will make the big strategic decisions that affect their lives. We do not doubt that strategic decisions will be made. I have given the House the headings of plans that are being made day in, day out. Politicians in the regions who are elected by the people should have the right to decide the issues that affect their people. That is a simple democratic principle.
Yes, I thought it was him. I have my friends: I have my enemies.
Look at the kind of decisions that the Mayor of London and the GLA make. I assume that the Conservatives do not propose to abolish the GLA. Our regions will have more powers than the GLA, as the Mayor has made clear on the issue of housing. He wants similar powers to those that we propose for the regions. The Conservatives have a candidate for Mayor, and as far as I am aware his manifesto does not suggest that the GLA should be abolished. If those powers are all right for London, why are they not all right for the northern regions? We would give them the same powers and resources and put them in the same situation.
The people in the north, where we will hold the three referendums, should have the same opportunity as the people in London. It is not my decision: if the people do not want an assembly, they will vote against it—[Hon. Members: "Yes, they will."] Well, we shall see. The Conservatives said that about Scotland, Wales and London. They used the same arguments, but in the end they had to crawl on board in agreement. Nor do they have the guts to abolish those devolved bodies. If such a system is all right for London, why is it not all right for the three northern regions? That is a simple enough question.
The House knows about the wide range of quangos that spend money in the regions. There are 180 in the three northern regions alone, at the last count—that is quite a few to look for—with more than 3,000 board members selected by civil servants. Elected regional assemblies will take power from central Government, not from local government, and they will give people a new political voice. Local authorities will continue to be responsible for local services. We are not making any changes to that situation. I notice that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that such powers should be exercised locally, which is a shifty little move away from regional government. Local government is the new locus that we talk about, and there is an argument for powers to be moved there. However, regions can make decisions that local authorities do not have the power to make, because they do not cover the whole area. That is why we end up with regional bodies. That is why we have regional civil servants, because local authorities cannot make such decisions on their own. They do not have the resources or the powers to operate outside their boundaries, and that is why we inevitably end up with a regional dimension.
The turnout in London was 36 per cent. It was 51 per cent. in Wales and in Scotland it was higher, at 60 per cent. Are there any circumstances in which the Government would set aside the result of the referendum in the northern regions because the turnout was widely regarded as derisory?
There are no such circumstances. The only time the House did that was at the time of the Scottish devolution Bill, under the Cunningham amendment, and it was absolutely disastrous. There is no doubt that when people had the chance to vote, they voted overwhelmingly for Scottish devolution. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point about the number of people who participate and that should be of concern to the whole House. That is why we want postal balloting.
Everyone knows from the evidence of the pilots that where there is a postal ballot more people turn out. Sometimes the turnout is as much as 50 per cent., which is very high. Those who say that people do not vote because they are uninterested in politics have to answer this question: why does turnout almost double, with increases of as much as 50 per cent., as soon as we change the voting method? That suggests that the answer is making the voting system more acceptable to the electorate—although not necessarily the politics.
I am sorry, I did not pick up that point, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a proper answer. In principle, as I was explaining to my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice, we are not planning to include a condition on the proportion—[Interruption.] I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire will be able to reply to the point when he sums up the debate.
If there was a threshold below which the result would not be accepted, would not that give the antis a deliberate tactic to persuade people not to vote? If more people voted, turnout would go above the threshold and the antis would lose the vote.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. George Cunningham's amendment was designed primarily to do that—it was an obstacle to deny the people of Scotland the chance to make a decision that the House would then make for them. People who suggest such provisions are usually against things, as I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Prentice would agree—he comes from the same stable.
"The regional assemblies . . . will take crucial decisions."
Who is right? I wish that the Opposition would make up their mind. Will the assemblies make crucial decisions, or not? Will they be talking shops, or will they actually make decisions? The members of the dream team on the Opposition Front Bench should get together and work out the answer, because they are causing an awful lot of confusion.
The question that the Deputy Prime Minister poses is one that many people in the business community are putting to me. They do not have doctrinaire views on the issue, but they are willing seriously to consider a regional assembly if they can be satisfied that it will make a difference on things that matter to them, such as skills—through the Learning and Skills Council—and transport infrastructure. Can the right hon. Gentleman go further and give them the assurance that the assembly will be able to do the things that they care about?
That is an important point. The assemblies will have real powers, such as planning, and I shall come to that in a minute.
The Opposition need to work out where they stand. I believe strongly that regional assemblies offer a great opportunity for bringing more jobs and growth to the north. We are offering an alternative to the status quo. Those who do not want change have to answer for the status quo. If the north had had the average growth of the English regions, it would have meant a difference of about £30 billion. Do those who defend the status quo want the regional disparities in our economy to continue to grow? They need to make that clear.
We believe that the assemblies will create extra jobs and prosperity and reduce the north-south differential. A recent publication on core cities by Professor Parkinson pointed out that a regional dimension is essential so that those cities can operate more powerfully. We tried to reflect that in the recent publication "Making It Happen—The Northern Way". We are trying to put Government social and economic investment into the development of a new growth area. We believe that we can achieve less bureaucracy and more democracy.
Regional assemblies will be small and efficient. Each will have between 25 and 35 members. And each will be elected by proportional representation. I am not in the PR camp, but I brought it in for London. I am bringing it in for a very good reason—not for the Liberals, though I understand why they might welcome it. On strategic matters, with smaller groups one needs consensus, which means having a different way of voting. That is important in big regions particularly where political representation may dominate and there may then not be the proper balance of discussion on strategic issues, which are so crucial to the region.
The right hon. Gentleman is being too modest about his conversion to proportional representation. In a speech on
"Proportional representation will bring stability and greater consensus to the system, both vital for a more strategic approach."
The right hon. Gentleman was so right, and I hope that he is converted on the case of PR more widely.
I can guarantee that if one mentions PR in the House the Liberals will jump up in their dozens wanting to say something about it.
I do not deny what I said then, and I have just repeated it. Consensus and stability, particularly on strategic decisions, are absolutely critical. I do not accept the same argument at a further stage, but I leave that aside for the moment. I am being driven bit by bit down this course. One has to do what is right, and it is my job to make a decision and be accountable for it.
There has been a great deal of talk about the cost. We have said that it will be 5p a week for each household, but there will be offsetting efficiency savings. There is a figure of £25 million at the establishment, but the figures will have to be finally decided when the boundary committee says what the organisation of local authorities will be. Some applications have been for the county to be the unitary authority. I think that is the case in Durham and to a large extent in Cheshire and Lancashire. The situation will be different if it is necessary to establish a number of unitaries. As that matter is out to consultation, we cannot say exactly what the final cost will be. We shall come out with a final cost before the referendum, so that we can say what we believe the cost of the changes will be.
The cost that we have quoted now came from the boundary committee, which has produced costs showing that there can be considerable savings. But let us come to that when we have more detailed information, which will be based on the kind of local government structure that there is to be in the first tier.
In the White Paper we set out the minimum powers that elected regional assemblies will have. They will have responsibility for regional and sub-regional issues that the local authorities cannot handle on their own. We need to take forward jobs and growth, the promotion of social justice and improving people's quality of life. Most of the decisions are directed at those areas.
The assemblies will also have specific functions to help deliver their own priorities and decisions. That is an important issue, and we should not dismiss it. They will make decisions about housing, transport, land and planning in the region, strategic issues at present dealt with by civil servants. The assemblies will produce the regions' spatial strategy, which puts all these matters together, as we have just announced in our "Northern Way" document.
The elected assemblies will also take over from Whitehall responsibility for the regional development agencies, which in the three northern regions have a budget of almost £700 million. This means that the RDAs will be business-led, which business likes, but democratically accountable, delivering the assemblies' priorities for jobs and growth and implementing the strategy that the elected members for the region decide.
I have to make headway.
The assemblies will also have an important role in improving skills by working in and with the learning and skills councils. They will take responsibility for investment in housing—this is a change that we have made—and influence the billions of pounds being invested in the northern regions under the sustainable communities plan, which we highlighted in the recent "Northern Way" programme.
Elected assemblies will make recommendations to the Secretary of State for Transport on the allocation of funding for local transport in their regions, working with the Highways Agency and the Strategic Rail Authority. The House will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport made it absolutely clear on
The situation is evolving, which will have to be reflected in the Bill when I bring it to the House. I shall come to that a little later.
The assemblies will also have responsibilities for public health and bio-diversity, as well as being responsible for regional arts, sports, museums and promoting tourism. Those powers are not set in stone. I was asked whether the situation was changing, whether I was saying in the regions things that I have not said in the White Paper. It is true that the powers have been taken further than in the White Paper, but we said in the White Paper that the assemblies would evolve over time.
Already, we have announced that the elected assemblies will be responsible for the £500 million that is spent in the north on regional fire and rescue services every year. We did not say that in the White Paper; we have learned over a period, and certainly during the dispute, that fire services should be delivered locally, but that we certainly needed a strong regional dimension to common procurement and the use of equipment, as well as when responding to major emergencies and to the responsibilities under the civil resilience programme, which deal with terrorist attack. All of that cannot be done by a local authority. Indeed, at the moment, any of those incidents are subject to a gold command procedure, where people get together and reach an understanding. That is not equivalent to a regionally agreed strategy, but it allows people to operate outside their areas of operation. To that extent, the regions will make that arrangement better.
Let me say that the assemblies will also have new power from central Government, just like the Mayor of London—again, this was not said in the White Paper, but it is policy now—to direct local planning authorities to reject planning decisions that contravene their regional spatial strategy. We will give them the power to reject that planning application. Indeed, the Mayor of London has that power. If people want to have a regional strategy and planning applications go against those regional plans, as determined by an elected authority, it makes sense that those people should have the power to veto such decisions. That power was not mentioned in the White Paper, but we have now made it clear that we will allow local planning authorities to exercise that veto.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that
"sensible Governments do not want great public debates".—[Hansard, 18 December 2002; Vol. 396, c. 905.]
Well, after his contribution today, I imagine that he would not want to get into them anyway. So he does not believe in talking to the people. Perhaps if the Conservative party had talked to the people, we would not have had to correct so many mistakes so quickly, such as the poll tax, which cost £30 billion and involved many civil servants—such confusion, such cost and an increase in bureaucracy. We will take no lectures from the Opposition on how we should handle decisions in the regions
We believe in asking the people what they think, so my ministerial team and I will hold hearings in the three northern regions over the next few months. We will discuss with the people the powers that we have proposed for the elected assemblies, and we plan to publish a Bill before the House rises in July. I take on board that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that that should happen in June, but he only said that because he believes that we already know what those powers are. As I said, an active discussion is going on with the people at the moment, and we will present and reflect those views in our Bill.
We believe that elected regional assemblies offer a great opportunity for the northern regions. We want to take power from Whitehall and give it to the people of the regions. We want greater prosperity, more growth, more jobs and more investment in our regions. Elected regional assemblies represent a new form of government, which is smaller, more focused and involves elected and non-elected stakeholders in decision making; a new vision, strengthening the prosperity of the north, increasing employment and reducing the present and continuing economic and political deficit in decision making; and a greater democratic accountability, providing more democracy and less bureaucracy. They will give the regions a greater sense of pride and a new political voice, but it is up to the people to decide. It is not Parliament's decision. It is not the Government's decision. It is the people's decision—their say, their choice. Just as we did for the people of Scotland, the people of Wales and the people of London, we are now offering that choice to the people of the north.
The Deputy Prime Minister gave a barnstorming performance today, and I look forward to campaigning with him for a yes vote in the referendums in the three northern regions. I agree with much of what he said. I was also pleased to see him in thoughtful mode today. [Interruption.] That was not meant as a backhanded compliment. He is right that we need to try to find out whether extra powers can be given to regional assemblies, and those powers should be announced before the referendums.
The Deputy Prime Minister knows that Liberal Democrat Members support regional devolution, but want a much deeper, richer form of it. I am afraid that that is why I have to tell him that, because of the careful wording that the Conservatives have proposed today, but for very different reasons from theirs, we will support their motion. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister should wait because we will support his amendment to it. [Interruption.] Both the motion and the amendment are totally supportable, and say different things. The Conservative motion says that the Government must publish their plans before the referendums. That is what we have argued for, as the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire knows, because he and I exchanged letters on that very point. He promised the Liberal Democrats in our negotiations on the paving Bill that the Government would introduce a draft Bill, and we want to ensure that that promise is honoured. That is why we can support the Conservative motion. However, the Government are absolutely right in their amendment, because we need to go much further and ensure that the false arguments that the Conservatives are raising in many other forums are dealt with. The Deputy Prime Minister made a good start on that today.
If we do not get more powers for the assemblies we will be in danger of losing the argument. As the Deputy Prime Minister knows from his discussions in the regions and with his own colleagues—as many Labour Members have made clear today—many people are not convinced by the White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice". That is why the Government need to go further. As the White Paper stands, not enough powers are coming down and too many are going up. Moreover, even the powers that the elected regional assemblies will have are circumscribed by the targets that they must meet, the Secretary of State's ability to override decisions and the absence of any executive powers for the assemblies. The fact that many of the policies and strategies that the regional assemblies will create will have to comply with national policy will circumscribe some of the powers and flexibility that they are supposed to have. We are seriously concerned about that point, and the Deputy Prime Minister must move on it.
We shall support the Government in the referendums because the current proposals are a starting point—a building block for future, richer devolution. That is important. We also support the Government because, as the Deputy Prime Minister rightly and powerfully said, we have regional government at the moment; this debate is about accountability and democracy.
Much of what the hon. Gentleman says is wrong. There are Cheshire Liberal Democrat county councillors who very much support regional devolution.
The Deputy Prime Minister's problem is that he is not enthusing the pro-devolutionists with his proposals. The pro-devolutionists in my party and his are not exactly champing at the bit over these powers. Worse than that, as my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith implied in his comment on the business communities, those people who are agnostic and non-doctrinaire about regional devolution are unconvinced. Worse still, the opponents of regional devolution are being emboldened by the strategy's weakness. The Deputy Prime Minister is in danger of giving the worst possible start to the referendums. He should move on this, and he needs to persuade his colleagues to do far more. Otherwise, we are in danger of missing a major opportunity.
What should the Deputy Prime Minister do? He began to sketch out some thoughts today, which were very helpful, and I am sure that people will want to read the record. He mentioned that the Secretary of State for Transport is beginning to think about the potential for devolution. The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned in his speech in Manchester the possibility that learning and skills councils could be devolved. He has also mentioned the three hearings that are to take place.
On learning and skills councils, I was simply trying to give an idea of how regional thinking is developing and evolving. We made it clear in the White Paper that decisions in that regard were made nationally and locally, and that we would leave that new form of organisation alone. However, it was pointed out to me when I visited one of the regions that its training and skills agency had already appointed civil servants as regional directors who had to make regional decisions. I was just making the point that there had been that development in the field of training and skills.
May I encourage the right hon. Gentleman to go even further on that? Just appointing a new civil servant at regional level and making them accountable to the elected regional assembly is not good enough. We want powers to come down from Whitehall. We need powers over skills and training to come down from the Department for Education and Skills to the regions, so that they will have real money and real executive powers. If the Deputy Prime Minister adopts that train of thought, and takes that direction, he will get much more support.
Has the hon. Gentleman heard the complaints from learning and skills councils around the country that the Government are already reluctant to devolve any power to them? The Government seem determined to hold on to the power centrally in the national Learning and Skills Council and to have no intention of giving power down to the regions.
That is right. Some of us who want to encourage the Government in the direction of more localism and regionalism feel that sometimes their moves are too superficial and that the reality does not match up to their rhetoric.
Following the last comprehensive spending review, I was pleased to see the introduction of pilots between the regional development agencies and some of the local learning and skills councils to see how the councils could work at regional level. The proposals need to go much further. The councils are to be asked to develop frameworks for regional employment and skills actions, but that is not sufficient, because they will have no executive powers, and no real thrust. There will be no real money behind the proposals.
If the Government, before they publish the draft Bill, and way before the referendums, were to get the agreement of Ministers at the Department for Education and Skills that the whole budget for the learning and skills councils would go to the regions, they would win huge plaudits. The councils would complement the role of the RDAs and they would get massive support from business. Her Majesty's Treasury has published papers about the productivity gap between the regions, and the Chancellor seems to be thinking along those lines. Given the economic analysis that lies behind a lot of the Deputy Prime Minister's thinking, this would be a logical step for him to take. I would like to encourage him and offer him support towards making that move.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand my impatience with the highly intelligent and extremely able people from business, the universities and various parts of the public sector who seem to be doing exactly what he is doing, namely waiting for the Government to come up with various initiatives? Surely he can see that this is a time for vision and for people with a real idea of the way in which the regions could develop to seize the opportunity that is being made available here, to engage with the yes campaign and to insist on more powers for the regions—
In answer to Mr. Dawson, I thought that that is exactly what I was trying to do. The Deputy Prime Minister keeps saying that things are evolving, but we are arguing for a quicker, more visionary evolution, so that we can establish these powers before the referendum. We want to win the support of the people, but at the moment they are pretty agnostic. They are thinking, "These assemblies could just be talking shops if we aren't careful." The Deputy Prime Minister talked about a whole range of strategies that the elected regional assemblies will be able to develop, but there will be no budgets behind them. The assemblies will not have any executive powers in that regard. The powers that they will have will relate to being consulted and to advising other people, not actually to doing things. I thought that government was about doing things, not just about creating strategies for other people to implement.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that a meeting took place last week at which revised housing targets were set for the east of England. As a result, the number of houses to be built in Essex up to 2021 was increased from 110,000 to 131,400, very much against the wishes of the people of Essex. That was a regional level decision. Do the Liberal Democrats support that new housing target for Essex?
The problem that we have with the regional housing boards is that they are not democratic. They cannot therefore take into account the views of the people of Essex, for example. Our argument about these regional tiers of government is that, if they were made more accountable, the people could ensure that they answered for the decisions that they took.
The hon. Gentleman is missing the point. He wants to ensure that the voice of the people of Essex is heard, but will he support an elected regional assembly in that part of the world?
I turn now to transport. The most dispiriting aspect of the White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice" was its failure to devolve powers in respect of transport. I understand that there are people in the Cabinet and at other senior levels of the Government who believe that many aspects of transport powers should be devolved. That would make huge sense, given the other economic functions involved.
The first element of transport policy that I want to look at is roads. The Highways Agency already operates and produces plans on a regional basis. It would therefore be relatively easy to reorganise the functions of its officials as part of the draft Bill. That would make sense, as the agency would then be able to link in with the regional planning boards and regional development agencies, and with the sustainable duties to be placed on the elected regional assemblies. Transferring trunk road powers from the Secretary of State to the elected regional assemblies would send a clear signal that the Government were committed to devolution.
The constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed offers an example. There, people have been fighting for many years to secure the dualling of the A1, a move that has been resisted by successive Secretaries of State here in London. An elected regional assembly with powers over trunk roads would mean that the people of the north-east would be able to get the A1 turned into a dual carriageway. That would be a good example of devolution representing the interests of a region, by making sure that the things that people want to get done do get done.
How would a region raise the money for that? Does the hon. Gentleman advocate a regional income tax as well as a local income tax? Is he arguing that there should be legislative as well as administrative devolution, on a par with what is happening in Wales?
No, I am not in favour of legislative devolution. However, my party is very much against regional council tax precepting. We think that it would be much fairer and more efficient if the money were obtained through the income tax system. We want the block grants that are spent by Secretaries of State to be given to the regional assemblies, so that they can decide priorities. That is what happens in Scotland and Wales, and it works. I presume that the hon. Gentleman supported Scottish and Welsh devolution, although, as he does not often agree with his own Front Bench, he may not have done. We believe that the block grant money could be used in the way that I have set out.
I am not following the hon. Gentleman's argument. Decisions to dual the A1 or expand the M6 have to be taken by national Government. The costs are so huge that no regional block grant would be big enough. He is therefore erroneous in saying that a regional government could decide to dual the A1.
First of all, I did not mention motorways, only trunk roads. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that dualling the A1 is the same as making it a motorway he clearly has no knowledge of road transport policy. Moreover, the costs involved are not so great as he seems to think. If the budgets come down from Whitehall to the regional assemblies, they can make decisions about priorities. That is what devolution ought to be about.
Other aspects of transport policy could be devolved in due course. I do not suggest that this is the right time to devolve the strategy governing the rail industry. The Government are in a mess on the matter, and have put the industry in turmoil, but it could happen in time. The Strategic Rail Authority is already organised on a regional basis, so it is possible that it could be properly regionalised in five or 10 years.
Other transport policy powers could be devolved to the regions. The lesson is that organising transport policy in Whitehall has not produced happy results. The Deputy Prime Minister must know that, as he had enough problems sorting out transport policy across the country. The problem is that, in many cases, Whitehall does not know best and it has too many other things to do. Giving away powers so that other elected bodies can deal with some matters would ensure that the country's transport policy was far more effective overall.
I have mentioned two matters—the role of the learning and skills councils, and the Highways Agency's potential in respect of transport—that the Government need to consider before producing the draft Bill. The environment is a third area worth looking at. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs contains a number of quangos, some aspects of whose work should be devolved, either to regional government or, at a lower level, local authorities. We know that Lord Haskins was pointing in that direction in his review. Aspects of the work of the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Agency must be prime targets for regionalisation, or even localisation.
Some of the money that is spent by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on area-based initiatives, for example, should be given to regional assemblies so that they can decide their priorities on economic regeneration. If the Government did that, how attractive would it be to people in the regions? The chances of winning a yes vote in a referendum would be massively improved.
I wish the Deputy Prime Minister well in his battles in Whitehall and his ministerial colleagues. He might be reluctant to reopen some of the negotiations that must have been held before the White Paper was published, but from his sojourns throughout the three northern regions, he will know that a real political dynamic exists and that he must reopen the negotiations to ensure that what the Government offer is richer.
I also wish the Deputy Prime Minister well in the major public hearings about which we are learning, but to take the point made by Mr. Curry, I hope that he will allow the House to debate in Government time how we should devolve more powers. I hope that we will hear in the reply that when we get an announcement on the basket of further powers to be devolved, a statement will be made in the House and a proper publication will be produced prior to, or to coincide with, publication of the draft Bill.
I thought that it was brave of the Conservatives to initiate this debate. We discovered from the Deputy Prime Minister and Labour Members' interventions that they have not exactly sorted out what they want to do. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has some problems in trying to balance his views with those of his party. His position is distinguished and well thought through, but the problem is that it is diametrically opposed to that of the party for which he speaks. When we debated the matter during the Queen's Speech debate, it was interesting that he said:
"if the regions were offered devolution in the same way as Scotland, we would be bound to consider that"—[Hansard, 1 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 247.]
The Conservative party seems to be showing an almost Disraelian attitude to regional devolution under the right hon. Gentleman. He wants to outbid the Labour Government and go even further. I hope that he will come forward with detailed policies and try to persuade Mr. Howard of that, because it really would represent a contribution to the debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman think that the matter should not be turned into a party political issue? Does he accept that there are different views on both sides of the House? I appreciate that the Liberal view is to support both sides, but that is nothing new for the Liberals.
I wish that I had not given way to the hon. Lady, just as the Deputy Prime Minister wishes that he had not given way to her. I am afraid that we have a clear position: we support much stronger devolution, and we are on the Deputy Prime Minister's side, as far as he goes, but we want him to go further. We are very much against the position adopted by the hon. Lady.
I have succour for the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon because some thinkers in the Conservative party actually agree with him.
I will name them. A gentleman called Denis Whelan wrote a policy brief for the Bow Group in May 2002 called "Devolution All Round: A Manifesto for 2005", which makes interesting reading. Its executive summary says:
"Although the Conservative party may be quick to criticise the new White Paper on regional assemblies, there are plenty of reasons why it should embrace devolution to the English regions as the centrepiece of its own campaign at the next general election. Such a change is worthwhile on constitutional grounds alone, and—much more importantly—is politically workable and consistent with core Conservative views on the reform of public services, liberty and Europe."
So some people in the Conservative party are, like the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, genuinely trying to engage in the debate. The document from the Bow Group is interesting because it suggests devolving powers to the regions on transport, and even says that policing powers could be devolved to the regional level.
Does the hon. Gentleman not think that Sir Cyril Smith, who is supporting the no campaign in the north-west, is a rather better known figure and therefore carries more weight?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now approves of my former hon. Friend, who is a powerful exponent of many views. The problem that the hon. Gentleman has is that his boss does not agree with him. We on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and in the parliamentary party are united. The Tories are totally divided on the issue, and that is why they take such an incoherent position.
This has been an interesting debate. We have seen how utterly confused the Conservatives are; they cannot tell us which powers they want to devolve, whether they want to devolve them, or what their strategy is. The Government have shown that they are still thinking, which is very welcome. They should be open-minded. The debate has misfired from the Conservatives' point of view because it has given the Government a chance to show that they are open-minded and thinking. It has given hon. Members on both sides of the House a chance to encourage the Government to think more widely and to go for outright regional devolution. If they do so, their chance of winning the yes vote next October will increase massively. All power to the Government's elbow—they should go much further, and then we can really devolve power in this country.
I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who not only made a powerful speech in favour of regional government, but has pursued the issue vigorously since the 1970s and is now—I hope—bringing it to fruition. I congratulate him on that; it is a major contribution.
I am concerned about the mass of quibbles that were the only arguments that the Conservative Opposition could mobilise against the proposals. I thought that Mr. Curry was going to bring a new decisiveness to the Opposition, but all he has done is quake more vigorously than the old Opposition. Essentially, all his points were quibbles. He said that there would be more politicians—if they were like him, that would be a bad thing. Politics is about politicians. This country has fewer politicians per capita than any other system, particularly the federal systems of Australia, Canada and Germany. We need a useful training ground for politicians, and local councils that are in tight chains and controlled from London cannot provide it.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the proposed system would cost more. Democracy does cost; that is an unfortunate fact about it. It is more expensive than a dictatorship or allowing bureaucracy to make decisions. We are about making institutions and bureaucracy that already exist accountable to the people. I therefore cannot understand the Opposition's quibbling nature. Let us have something clear-cut. They are either for the proposal or against it—not on the one hand possibly and on the other perhaps, with no decision.
I am a passionate advocate of regional government. The politics of government of this country has been dominated for far too long by London, and local government has been transformed into a system of transporting begging bowls by train or plane up and down the country—begging for decisions that should be made locally to be made out of London. The great wen has become more and more dominant in our lives, and it is right to give more powers, institutions and accountability to the regions, so that local people can control matters locally and Government can be made accountable. We should bring democracy closer to the people. There is a craving in modern society to be listened to, and the proposal is a way of satisfying that craving.
Increasingly, there is a regional basis to modern life. One has only to consider the M62, which in a sense is the village street of the new north. It unites the social, business and cultural capitals of the area into one developing corridor. Life is no longer lived locally: people travel further to work; they travel from Grimsby to Hull and Sheffield to go to the theatre; they travel all the way to Hull, Sheffield and Huddersfield to go to university; and they shop at Meadowhall. Nowadays, great regional shopping centres are an important basis of life—in the north-east, people shop at the Metro centre. It is right to recognise that, increasingly, we live on a regional basis. Regional institutions alone can manage a big enough framework, have the authority to make a difference to people's lives, and give us effective accountability and controls. We should therefore pass functions down from London to them, and make those functions more accountable to the people of the area.
I am glad that throughout the north people are working together on this issue, because that is the part of the country that I come from and am proud of. However, it has been badly treated by successive Governments, so we should give it a voice. We get a bad deal in the north and receive less public spending per capita than any other part of the country. London gets all the big spending projects, such as the Olympics and the dome—it is welcome to the latter. We have suffered far more grievous blows from the decline of our basic industries than the south has, and we have higher unemployment, and lower levels of investment, education, skills and training. All those issues have to be tackled. We need a platform from which to fight back and address the north's demands and needs.
We have seen what synergy has produced in Scotland, where the regional development agency is powered by democracy in the form of the Scottish Parliament. We need and want such development in the north, because we have seen the beneficial effects in Scotland. Given those genuine demands, the Tory position is pathetic. It is rather like the old Mort Sahl joke from the 1950s—old Republicans and, perhaps, old Conservatives believe that nothing should ever be done for the first time, whereas modern Republicans and, presumably, modern Conservatives, believe that it should be done, but not now. That stems from fear, and the Tories have a history of such behaviour—they opposed the Scottish Development Agency, Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, the London assembly and the Mayor. They oppose the introduction of such measures, then quickly accept them. They will do exactly the same with regional government for the north, unless the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon wants to tell us that they will abolish the London assembly, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the Scottish Development Agency and regional development agencies. As he does not want to do so, the same difficult learning process—the Opposition are the SEN material whom we have to teach—will take place on regional government.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that he might support regional government if it had more power to make a difference. His constituency predecessor, Mr. Watson, echoed that argument in the no campaign in Yorkshire. They say that they would support regional government if it had more powers, but I do not believe that they would. Regional government should have more power, but do they not accept that there is a case for creating regional government to which we can attach more powers as it proves itself, as the people accept it and as it creates a useful role for itself? We must build the base before we can concede those powers, and that is what the Government propose to do.
No, time is pressing, as it is for other speakers.
I am in favour of the Government's proposals, as I believe that the north needs the same powers as Scotland. I believe that we should have powers over the police, the health service, education, and learning and skills, and I should like to see the introduction of a regional tax component. I admit that that is the ultimate aim, but we must start to build the structures before we move towards a larger perspective. If the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon would support regional government with more powers, I do not understand why he is not participating in the consultation that the Government and Labour Members are holding on the powers of regional assemblies. I believe that the most convenient consultation for him is in Calderdale, and I would welcome him there. I shall hold a similar consultation in Grimsby, where he would also be welcome. He could come along and tell us what the powers should be. That would be a useful contribution to the debate, in contrast to his extensive quibbles this afternoon.
It is sensible to have regional government and to let the north lead the way, because it is an area where all three entities have a sense of regional identity and pride—perhaps not as strong overall as it is in the Geordie nation, although Yorkshire is a pretty proud county. If we are allowed to lead the way, we will set an example that the east midlands and west midlands will want to follow, and so it will spread down the country—development that progresses from north to south instead of being imposed from south to north.
The process will not be easy, because it is difficult to break Whitehall's grip on anything, or to get Departments and civil servants to transfer out of London to bring jobs to the regions. Nevertheless, we have to make the attempt, because the north needs that stimulus and those powers. This provides a platform on which to fight back. On that basis, I say more power to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and more power to the assemblies—let us support them and tell our people about the advantages that they will bring.
I must, however, challenge the hon. Gentleman's attempt to rewrite history in relation to the Conservative party, which is not, and never was, a stick-in-the-mud party. He will remember 1979 as well as I do. The start of Mrs. Thatcher's Government started the revival of the north—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends may laugh, but let me tell him that in my years of experience of this Government, the more noise Labour Members make, the weaker their case.
The revival of the north commenced as the old industries died and were replaced by the new industries that are benefiting the area today.
"You must admit that the North-East has changed dramatically for the better over the past quarter of a century and that there are sound policies in place".
That past quarter of a century includes 18 years of Conservative government.
In a minute.
I remind the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that we introduced organisations such as the Tyne and Wear development corporation that were amazingly successful—one can see the results in the city of Newcastle today—and that we did it in the teeth of opposition from Labour Members, who believed that the old local government structure was the right way to deliver improvements in the north-east, and resisted our new, modern method, which was ultimately so successful. The conservatives with a small "c" are to be found on the Government Benches, not on these Benches.
Not for the moment.
The more bluster that we hear from Government Front Benchers—today we heard some vintage bluster from the Deputy Prime Minister—the more we realise how weak is their case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in danger of presiding over another constitutional cock-up to follow the Lord Chancellor's dismissal on the back of an envelope, the muddle over the setting up of the supreme court and the muddle over House of Lords reform.
It all started in December 2002 with the first public consultation. Since then, we have had an Act of Parliament, a White Paper, regional roadshows, decisions on postal voting in the referendums, decisions about cash for the campaigns and the establishment of a boundary committee to consider how to dismantle the local government structures in, to cite my local area, Northumberland and County Durham. However, we have had no real meat in terms of details about the referendum vote in October. Having listened to the Deputy Prime Minister's speech—I shall read it very carefully in Hansard, although I imagine it will take a bit of editing—I am frankly none the wiser about what will be in the Bill in July and what will be voted on in October. Regional assemblies have been a live issue for so long that it is wrong that the public, who have to decide on the matter, have no idea where genuine power lies and how much power there will be.
If someone approached me and said that a major effort would be made to devolve powers from Whitehall to local levels, I, like many hon. Members, believe that we could have a sensible debate. However, that is not on offer. The Liberals, in their wonderfully optimistic way, appear to believe that once regional assemblies are in place, they will grab all sorts of powers, as if they would have the money and power to dual-carriage the A1 in Northumberland. They will not do that. We know perfectly well that the Home Secretary will not give up powers over the police and that the Secretary of State for Health will not put his job on the line when delivering targets to a regional government. Whitehall will not give such powers to regional assemblies.
The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned—if I understood him correctly—118 quangos in the north with 3,000 board members. He appeared to imply that regional assemblies would take power over them. Does that include national health service trusts? Will such matters form part of the so-called new regional assemblies' bailiwick? We called the debate because we wanted some information about what would be discussed and what we should campaign for between now and the autumn, when the referendum will take place. However, we are none the wiser.
The Deputy Prime Minister has travelled around the country making all sorts of promises. He hinted that regional assemblies would mean an end of the Barnett formula, which is amazingly controversial in the north-east of England because we feel that it discriminates unfairly against us. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore been whispering to people in the north-east, "'Ere mate, once you get this assembly, it'll be all right. We can scrap the Barnett formula." However, he will not say that north of the border; he had better not let Scottish Labour Members of Parliament know about it.
The Deputy Prime Minister has mentioned giving regional assemblies powers over the police. I have a letter from the North East assembly, which is called "The Voice for the Region" and is a prototype regional assembly. The letter gives a report of a meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister and business people. It states:
"Mr. Prescott also highlighted examples of moves towards devolved decision-making in both the police and fire services".
The right hon. Gentleman therefore tells local people things that he knows he will ultimately not implement because he will not have the power to do so.
The Deputy Prime Minister has also hinted that learning and skills councils will be organised on a regional basis. Our learning and skills council in Northumberland is effective and well run. We do not want to lose that local body and have it placed on a regional basis. It deals with problems in Northumberland that, in some ways, are different from those in other parts of the region. Some are unique to Northumberland.
My hon. Friend Mr. Jenkin mentioned the letter that Steve Rankin, the director of CBI North East, sent to The Journal, which decently published it, because the Deputy Prime Minister failed to invite him to the business meeting and he believed that he had to respond.
The hon. Gentleman may be a little confused. Steve Rankin was present at the business meeting that the Deputy Prime Minister conducted in Newcastle two or three weeks ago, during which some members of the business community expressed strong support for regional government.
Perhaps the article is out of date. It states:
"The CBI's invitation to the meeting must clearly have gone astray, so I shall not be there."
Perhaps Steve Rankin got an invitation as a result of the article. If it was lost in the post and he subsequently went to the meeting, I apologise. However, the article is sensible and it is worth quoting to show hon. Members the views of a leading member of the business community. It states:
"All that is on the table is the proposal for an elected regional assembly, without any convincing evidence that Ministers and Whitehall civil servants are prepared to decentralise any significant decision-making to the region. The Treasury, in particular, remains reluctant to relinquish any of its spending powers to regional bodies. So what we are left with is the democratic rump."
That sums up the views of the business community. We have structures but no sensible powers for the direction of the regional assembly.
My last point is that the campaign for regional government is causing serious collateral damage to the region, because of uncertainty about the direction in which it will go and what powers it will have. All sorts of vested interests say that the north-east has real problems to which the solution is a regional assembly. Clearly, however, these talking shops will have little ability to solve our regional problems. We should be highlighting the positive aspects of the north-east region. Whatever Labour Members say, the days of coal, shipbuilding and heavy industry have gone, and we are building a new economy in the north-east based on many local businesses that have grown up, are successful and are becoming successful. We have important companies such as Northern Rock, Sage, and a well-known national baker, Greggs. We have universities, with more than 35,000 undergraduates and more people employed in academia in Newcastle than in shipyards.
The economy is therefore changing, but what we get is people highlighting the problems all the time. There is a campaign for the learning and skills council to be taken over because we have the worst record on skills, education and training in the country. As a result, the negative things about the region are highlighted all the time. What makes me angry is that those disadvantages, which we are struggling to overcome, are being highlighted on a false premise that the solution is to set up another talking shop—in our case, a 25-member assembly—which will have the powers to put that right, when we know perfectly well that it will not.
The people of the north-east are being conned—the regional assembly will not help them, it will not help to solve the problems of the region, it will cost them a considerable amount of money, it will change the local government structure in a damaging way, taking local decisions away from people, and it will provide no benefit in the long term to the economy of the region.
It is a sad fact that the more the Conservatives talk of freedoms for local government and so on, the more they oppose those freedoms. We saw that in their opposition to this devolution of powers, and we saw it in the powers that they took away from local government when they were in office. We saw it in their opposition to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and even foundation hospitals. Now we see it in their opposition to regional assemblies.
Mr. Atkinson commented on the regional development agencies and why they were opposed by people in the north-east and the north-west. We did not oppose the idea of regional development agencies; we opposed the fact that they were not accountable to anyone in the regions in which they were set up. The whole argument about regional assemblies relates to the democratic deficit and the need to provide accountability.
I want to make it clear that I was talking not about the regional development agencies but about the regional development corporations, which were slightly different.
I agree, but that reinforces the point, because the regional development corporations were much less accountable than the regional development agencies, which at least have some accountability to the regional assemblies that were appointed.
This country's constitution is an unwritten one. One of the great benefits of that is that incremental changes can be made to it on a basis that suits the changing needs and requirements of society. I therefore welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals to allow additional powers, and I hope that the eventual Bill will include a clause that will give the Deputy Prime Minister, or whoever is the Secretary of State at the time, the ability to devolve more and more powers down from central government to regional assemblies. What we should be doing is making sure that we can prove that the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber can make a success of their powers and can move forward to gather more powers as they are more successful.
The motion shows not just that the Conservatives are opposed to regional assemblies but how old-fashioned their thinking is. They are living in a time warp in terms of the way in which powers are looked at. They seem to think that powers are as they were previously, when there was no crossover or connection between various organisations and local authorities, and no co-operation. That is not the case. The whole point about our excellent councils is that they do cross over with and talk to other organisations, both within the council and outside, which makes them much more effective. The world has moved on, and the regional assemblies will be able to be much more co-operative and partnership-orientated than they would have been in the past.
The motion does not say that the Conservative party opposes elected regional assemblies—mainly because its Front Benchers are confused about their position.
That may well be true, but no one would think, having listened to the speeches we have heard, that the Conservatives were other than opposed to the idea. Certainly all the Conservative Members from whom I have heard have been campaigning for a no vote, at least in the north-west.
Strategic bodies such as regional assemblies must consider local needs. As the White Paper says, they must take account of planning, housing, transport and so forth. That does not subvert the role of local authorities; it enhances it. Just before Christmas, I received information from the Government office for the north-west about the capital programme for council housing allocations. I do not think decisions like that should be made by bureaucratic organisations such as the Government office. I think they should be made by a body that is accountable to people in the north-west.
The point about the Government office in the north-west is not just that it is not accountable to those people. It is, in fact, accountable to Whitehall—to civil servants who are answerable to Ministers. That removes it a step further. Bureaucrats who have no idea of the difference between Wigan and Wigton, or between Stockport and Southport, are making decisions about the north-west. A regional assembly that is rooted in the north-west will understand its problems, and will be able to make decisions about priorities.
It would be wrong of me to suggest that I do not want more powers for the regional assemblies. I think that virtually everyone who supports the principle of regional government wants them to have more powers. Nevertheless, I think that we in the north-west should prove that we can make a success of things before earning those extra powers. Powers in themselves are not necessarily the important, defining issue. Manchester city council, for instance, failed in its bid for the Olympic games and was understandably dismayed, but not disheartened. It learned from its failure, realised where it had gone wrong, and made a successful bid for the 2002 Commonwealth games.
Manchester has no more powers than any other unitary district council, and has fewer resources than some. It looked beyond its own boundaries: it presented other members of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, businesses, universities and voluntary bodies with its hugely successful plan for the Commonwealth games. In that instance, it was not power but vision that was important. The council's determination to work with all its partners made the games a success.
I believe that there will be a yes vote in the north-west, for a number of reasons. We are proud of our history. Our region was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, which shows that we have the ability and the skills to ensure that we are part of the new economies. We are proud of our cities. Manchester is a hugely developing city. It is regenerating itself. Liverpool is to be European city of culture. We are hugely proud of that and of the way in which it has gone from the devastation caused in the 1970s and 1980s to the kind of city that it is now.
We have vitality. The north-west's music industry is tremendous. The arts in the north-west are bursting with vitality. We have the capacity and capability to ensure that our world-class universities, businesses, entrepreneurs and work force become leaders of the new economy, just as we were the leaders of the old economy.
More importantly, in the north-west, we have a vision. We know where we want to go. We have the determination to make that vision a reality. More importantly still, we have the confidence to ensure that we forge our future in the north-west and make it a place in which children will be proud to be brought up. The best way of achieving that is to ensure that we have the capacity and ability, through the structures of the north-west—the regional assembly—to turn that into reality.
This has been an interesting debate, not least because the interventions by the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on the Deputy Prime Minister showed that it is not a party political debate, as Government Front Benchers would have us believe. In the north-west last summer, I got together with the hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and other Labour Members to create a no campaign. Indeed, we got together with the Labour leader of Lancashire county council and other local authority leaders from the Labour party. The reason we were able to create a broad coalition, which has not been replicated on the yes side to any degree, is that people have a number of concerns about regional government in the north-west.
Some, like me, I fully confess, are against regional government. I represent a county seat in Cheshire. We do not want Cheshire to be abolished. We do not want its identity to be abolished. We do not want decisions to be taken away from the rural community in Cheshire and taken into metropolitan areas. However, the reason why the hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and for Manchester, Blackley object to the proposal is that they want to see a city government form of region for Liverpool and Manchester respectively. Indeed, some people have joined our campaign because they do not think enough powers are being devolved.
With the greatest respect, it is of no great interest to my constituents how Manchester or Liverpool govern themselves. That is an issue for the people of Manchester and Liverpool and their representatives, not an issue for the people of Cheshire.
We have come together, as a broad no coalition that is relatively well funded and organised at this early stage, to oppose the Government's plans and the yes campaign. We were prepared to have an argy-bargy with the yes campaign and to trade literature with it. We were less prepared for the extraordinary Government propaganda campaign that has started, funded of course by the taxpayer.
The campaign is exemplified by the leaflet that I have here, and I believe that similar leaflets have gone out in other northern regions. It is called "A new opportunity for the North West" and was sent to me by the director of the regional government office. It purports to be an information leaflet but it is the most biased, one-sided piece of propaganda that has been produced by a Government Department in living memory. It is extraordinary.
The picture on the front cover is of four people in Blackpool. There are two rather surly looking men with hats on with their thumbs down and two smiling young ladies with their thumbs up. That sets the tone for the argument throughout the rest of the leaflet.
For example, there is a section on a new form of government. It says:
"You could vote for a new form of elected government in the North West, a regional assembly that would:
give your region a voice".
Excuse me, but I thought that our region did have a voice—through its Members of Parliament. I am bound to say that the vast majority of those Members are Labour Members, but if the Government do not think that that has resulted in the north-west's having a strong voice in Parliament, I suggest that the problem lies within the Labour party and its Members of Parliament. I feel, as do other Conservative MPs, that we provide a strong voice for the north-west in Parliament, and I know that the Labour MPs involved in our campaign feel that they can do the same.
The leaflet continues by stating that a regional assembly would
"be more inclusive—you could get involved".
That strikes me as very interesting. How can a regional assembly be more inclusive? Under the Government's proposals, Cheshire could have just two representatives, each of whom would represent 300,000 people. In the process, the Government could abolish a system that involves 50 councillors. How can it possibly be more inclusive to have two representatives representing a third of a million people each?
The leaflet continues:
"Why have an elected regional assembly? Currently, responsibility for issues such as jobs, housing, and transport in the North West is split between many different—largely unelected—organisations . . . The Government believes that the people who have responsibility for such important issues should be democratically elected by, and accountable to, the people who are affected by their decisions."
I agree, but that accountability comes through the Minister. The Minister—like the Deputy Prime Minister and all Ministers who sit on the Government Front Bench—is responsible for such matters. They are accountable because they are elected through the House of Commons at general elections. That is accountability. It is just wrong to say that there is no accountability for regional organisations. Such accountability flows through Ministers, in the way it has traditionally done.
The leaflet also sets out some of the functions of a regional assembly. Such functions are at the heart of the reason why we have initiated this debate, because many of them remain opaque. However, let us see what the Government say those functions will be:
"Developing the economy of the North West would be at the heart of the assembly's work."
Of course I want the north-west's economy to be developed, but I do not see how having a regional talking shop will do that, and nor, indeed, do any of the regional business organisations. That is why the regional CBI has opposed it and the chambers of commerce have opposed it. [Interruption.] It is clear that there is doubt among Labour Members, so let me tell them what the Warrington chamber of commerce, in partnership with the North Cheshire, Wirral and North Wales chambers of commerce, said. They advise the Government
"to abandon this project before it wastes a great deal of money on a level of government that few people want and even less people need."
Overseeing skills will be another function of the elected assembly. I have done some research, and the results were quite interesting. The Deputy Prime Minister had a meeting with the yes campaign in the north-west in December. Unfortunately, the minutes of that meeting were leaked. They record the following:
"In terms of the additional powers over regional skills and training function, Mr. Prescott said that this is an ongoing issue as the Department for Education and Skills would like to keep skills training where it is".
What a surprise.
I was a little surprised by the argument advanced by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Wigan (Mr. Turner). In essence, the hon. Member for Wigan conceded that very few powers are currently being given to regional assemblies, but he said that we could build on them and thereby get a foot in the door. If he seriously thinks that Whitehall is going to concede more powers to regional assemblies over time, I am afraid that he is mistaken. That is not the way Whitehall works. What will happen, of course, is that the powers will be sucked up from local government as regional government establishes itself. I offer the hon. Gentleman some candid advice. If he wants to argue the case for more powers for his regional government, he should do so now—before the referendum and before the Bill—so that he can establish them now. There is no sign that Whitehall departments are going to concede those powers.
The leaflet says that housing, planning and fire and rescue services would also be the responsibility of regional government. Local government currently holds most of those powers, so this is not devolution but sucking power up. Fire services in Cheshire are currently organised by the Cheshire fire authority. Under these proposals, the powers will be sucked up into a regional assembly. There are also powers over public health, culture, tourism and sport, and the environment.
Anyone reading the leaflet would assume that the implication is that the regional assembly will have lots of money to spend on sports facilities, cleaning up the environment, health services and so on. Of course, that is not the case. There will be no more than a power to sit on consortiums and forums, to issue consultation papers and strategies and to be consulted and consult. This will not be about spending real money on real things, which is what people would expect and what, if they read this leaflet, they would be led to believe.
Lord Rooker gave the game away last year in the other place. On
Is my hon. Friend telling me that Lord Rooker's comments about no new powers and no new money have not gone into the leaflet given to the general public? Is that not an extraordinary omission from what is supposed to be a piece of Government information that dispassionately explains the facts?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I have read the leaflet from cover to cover and back again, and, for some reason, nowhere in it are Lord Rooker's comments to be found. Then again, nor do certain comments made by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire appear in it. There is nothing on the turnout issue, on which I pressed the Deputy Prime Minister. The leaflet asks how the referendums will be decided, and says that it will be by a simple majority. I can see the local government Minister nodding at that. Last year, though, when he was asked what would happen if the turnout was derisory, he said that the result would be set aside.
I never said that the result would be set aside. I pointed out that the referendums were advisory and that the Government would not be bound to implement proposals if the turnout was derisory. I stand by that.
I am delighted that I gave way. It is interesting to have that remark on the record once again. I suggest that the Minister should inform the Deputy Prime Minister of that—[Interruption.] Maybe he has, but the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem to know it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us later what he would consider to be a derisory turnout. Indeed, will he support the private Member's Bill put forward by Mr. Prentice? Perhaps the Minister thinks that 50 per cent. is too high a figure, and that that would not be a derisory turnout.
In that case, perhaps the Minister will tell us in his wind-up speech what a derisory figure would be. It would be interesting to know whether the Government would not proceed with regional assemblies if the turnout was too low, which is certainly what the Minister has just said.
The leaflet was produced at considerable public expense, costing £500,000. The chairman of the very successful yes campaign for the Scottish Parliament, Nigel Smith, told me that the entire literature budget of that campaign was, to his recollection, not as much as that. Yet the Government have already spent that, long before the referendum has arisen. Luckily, there is an organisation—North-West Says No—that brings together Members of Parliament from the Labour party and the Conservative party and local government people from the Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour parties. It also has the heavyweight support of Sir Cyril Smith, who is well known in the region. I am convinced that, as we point out that the assembly will be an expensive talking shop that does nothing to bring new jobs and investment to the region and nothing to improve transport links, but merely undermines local democracy and accountability, we will carry the day.
To listen to Mr. Osborne, one would think that regions were of no importance to the governance of our country. In fact, the importance of regions has been recognised throughout the last century by all political parties and Governments. It was, as has been said, a Conservative Government who went further than any other in recognising the importance of regions by setting up the regional offices. They recognised that they could not run all the regions from Whitehall. Our argument with that is that it was not a democratic way of running the regions. The debate is not a party political one that has simply to do with Labour's regional policy. All Governments have had regional policies of one sort or another.
Two main arguments appear to be emerging in the north-east as the campaign gets under way. First, the no campaign say, "We don't want any more politicians." I must point out to those who use that argument—I have a great deal of sympathy with the argument advanced by my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell—that compared with other democracies we are poorly represented by elected representatives in this country. Notwithstanding that, because there are more than 300 councillors in Northumberland and more than 400 councillors in Durham, if the people in the north-east vote for regional government there will obviously be a reduction in locally elected councillors, so there will be fewer politicians, not more. Those who argue that they do not want more politicians should vote yes in the referendum because regional government will result in fewer politicians.
The second argument concerns powers, and it has formed part of today's discussion. It is odd to argue against regional government because it is not powerful enough. That is like a homeless family being offered a home but refusing to move in because it does not have a porch, a conservatory and a swimming pool. When people move into a property, they wait until they feel comfortable and then they begin to add to it up, and the same is true of regional government. When regional government is set up and people see what it can do and how it can work, regional government and central Government will talk about increasing powers.
I do not share the scepticism of Conservative Members that powers will never increase because Whitehall will never let them go; the Government have already moved towards letting powers go. If people are ever foolish enough to vote for a Tory Government, they may find that powers are withdrawn from the regions and local authorities and returned to London, but some Governments—this is one of them—will devolve powers to the regions. I sympathise with the points made by some of my hon. Friends and the Deputy Prime Minister and would like to see some of the powers outlined in the White Paper extended in the draft Bill before the referendums.
It is important for my region that the learning and skills councils are brought under the purview of regional government. It is nonsense that regional government should be responsible for economic development but not have that vital link to skills, training and learning. There are problems in the region in relation to skills and training such as the skills gap and low productivity. The unemployment rate is very high in the north-east, and we have a poor culture of lifelong learning, low educational and career aspirations, skills shortages in certain areas, an underperforming labour market and low demand for higher skills. Developing higher skills is a crucial factor in improving economic growth in the north-east, and I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can tell us more in his winding-up speech than the Deputy Prime Minister told us the other day about the possibility of learning and skills councils coming under regional government.
Does that not underline our point? The hon. Gentleman is asking for information about the powers that the assemblies will have, and he has listened to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has not told him the answer. Our point is that people are not getting a clear picture of the powers that the assemblies will have.
We have a clear picture of the initial powers because they are contained in the White Paper, so there is no question about that, and those of us in the yes campaign are already campaigning on that point. We have been promised that the draft Bill will be produced before the summer recess, and it will provide a further example of how the powers might develop. Other hon. Members and I are trying to beef up the powers so that when we get the draft Bill there are extra powers over and above the White Paper, which will undoubtedly help our campaign.
I should like powers on transport to be devolved to regional authorities. Our transport priorities in the north-east would certainly be different from those of central Government and the Highways Agency. We want devolved powers so that we can tackle problems such as the A1 north of Newcastle—although I agree with Mr. Atkinson that we need to be practical and that things cannot happen overnight. However, the A1 improvements would have a much higher priority under regional government, as would the completion of improvements to the A69 and the urgent work needed to relieve congestion on the western bypass.
Of course, devolved transport powers would cover not only roads, but the rail infrastructure, buses and the integration of our transport system, which, like learning and skills, is extremely important to the developing economy of the region. I hope that the powers set out in the White Paper will be extended under the draft Bill. Even as currently proposed, they are a step forward that the country needs to take to become a more modern and vibrant democracy. The choice for the people of the regions is simple, as I shall tell the people of the north-east: do they want the concentration of power in London to continue, or do they want some of that power in their region where they can have an influence on it? The question is simple and I think that when people are given the opportunity to vote on regional assemblies, they will vote yes.
I am pleased to follow Mr. Clelland, not least because he has long been a consistent supporter of regional government. He expresses his views on the subject honestly and trenchantly.
However, the hon. Gentleman has also done much to make the argument for our proposal. He said that the initial powers were set out in the White Paper and explained that the draft Bill would shed a little more light on them. However, he then said that he hoped there would be more in the draft Bill than there had been in the White Paper, which implies that he believes it preferable for the powers of a regional assembly to develop and increase over time. That is precisely the proposition, which is, I think, irrefutable, set out by my right hon. Friend Mr. Curry at the outset of the debate: the people who, in the autumn, are to be given the opportunity—albeit not one that they particularly wanted—to vote on the question of regional assemblies ought to know exactly what they are voting on.
There was no suggestion from the hon. Gentleman that, if there was a significant change in the range of powers for regional assemblies following the referendum, he would expect a further referendum to be held. There would be no further consultation of public opinion as to whether those powers should be increased or changed.
The Government claim to be strong supporters of regional government—the Deputy Prime Minister has certainly been campaigning for it for a long time—and they are prepared to ensure that referendums are held in three regions in the autumn, despite poor expressions of interest from all three during the consultation process. However, as the Government are not prepared to give either the House or the people of the three regions any detail about what the regional assemblies would be empowered to do, we are entitled to ask why they will not give that information.
The most charitable interpretation is that the Government do not want to say definitively what the powers will be, as they might change during the passage of the Bill. The Bill that will be considered in the summer will of course be only a draft; there is no guarantee that it will even have been introduced in Parliament by the time the referendums are held. It is thus possible that, through no fault of the Government, the powers might be different after the referendum. That reason might fall into the category of Government incompetence; they do not know what the powers will be, because they cannot control the process—they have been unable to pass the legislation.
Another answer might be that the Government cannot agree among themselves what the powers should be. There is a strong suspicion that the Prime Minister is not really interested in regional government and does not support it, but is merely humouring the Deputy Prime Minister. He is getting the Deputy Prime Minister out from under his feet by sending him off on tours around the regions. That has a ring of truth about it. If it is not incompetence, perhaps the reason is confusion in the Government, and they simply do not know what they want to do or cannot agree.
There is the third and more worrying possibility that the Government know precisely what they would like the regional assemblies to do, know what their powers should be, but do not want the public to know. That would be a deliberate act of deception. I prefer to take the more charitable view, but we are left wondering.
What we have to suspect, though, is that the Prime Minister knows that he does not want significant powers to go to the regional assemblies, because that has been the pattern of his behaviour through the whole of the Government's devolution strategy, if it can be called a strategy. Their plan has been to devolve powers, whether to London or Wales, and then busily set about trying to claw them back or to make sure that they can control the people elected to run the bodies in question: throwing Ken Livingstone out of the Labour party and then taking him back in; trying to decide who should be the First Minister in Wales.
A picture of confusion emerges. The Deputy Prime Minister, in a classic performance, a great performance very much in keeping with his tradition and style, did nothing to dispel any of the existing confusion and actually sought to advance it during his speech. It was remarkable that he accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon of being confused on the subject, saying that it was the most confusing argument he had ever heard. The words "kettle", "pot" and "black" came to mind, though not necessarily in that order.
The Deputy Prime Minister has been selectively advancing the argument that the Barnett formula should be reviewed. He apparently believes that that might be one of the advantages of moving towards regional government. When I challenged him on the matter, the result of my intervention was interesting. I asked him to give an argument for keeping the Barnett formula, given that he had said that Scottish devolution had removed the regional economic disparity between Scotland and England, but he carefully refused to give me any answer. He said that the Government and his Department were constantly reviewing all kinds of financial arrangements. When I sought to intervene again to establish very clearly whether the financial arrangements that the Government were constantly reviewing included the Barnett formula, he would not take my intervention. I very much hope that in winding up the local government Minister will respond on this point: do the Government welcome a review of the Barnett formula or not?
Does my hon. Friend suspect that what the Deputy Prime Minister was trying to do was to float the idea in the north-east, generate lots of local excitement that the Barnett formula might be removed in advance of the regional referendum, and then do absolutely nothing about it after the referendum takes place?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, but I think that he is falling into the trap of imagining that this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman merely opened his mouth before engaging his brain, and the first thing that emerged was what appeared to be an argument that was popular where he was at the time.
We need to know, and people on both sides of the English-Scottish border need to know, whether the Barnett formula is being reviewed or not.
The Deputy Prime Minister also confirmed that the powers that he and the Government have in mind for regional assemblies have changed since the White Paper was published. As one example he cited the power to veto local planning decisions. Labour Members try to advance the argument that regional assemblies will increase democratic accountability, and then one of the principal changes that have taken place already, before we have the draft Bill, reduces local decision making and accountability, taking those powers away from local people to a more remote tier of government.
Of course Ministers are very fond of claiming that such change will not increase the number of tiers of government. The Minister is nodding in agreement while he sits on the Treasury Bench, yet it is absolutely certain that, for my constituents, who currently live in a single-tier metropolitan borough authority, his proposals—if he has his way—will lead to an extra, unnecessary tier of bureaucracy, costs and politicians. The fact is that that unitary authority has been able to function effectively. It worked very well, until Labour took over the administration of Trafford borough council in 1996, and it will improve again in June, when Labour loses control of the council. There is nothing wrong structurally with that unitary authority and that single tier, which works extremely well.
Obviously, colleagues who represent constituencies in shire counties are free to believe that the alternative is a better structure, and I am happy with that. Those of us who represent constituencies with unitary authorities, however—single-tier authorities—believe that they are perfectly efficient structures for local government, but, if the Government have their way, we will be faced with an unnecessary, additional tier of bureaucrats and politicians that we simply do not want.
I should like to touch on another issue briefly. During the opening speeches, my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne referred to the possible effects of using proportional representation in any assembly election and the danger that that might provide an opportunity for minority parties—some of them are particularly unpleasant, such as the British National party—to gain a foothold in the assembly. The Minister shook his head and vehemently disagreed with that suggestion, but I have not yet heard him give any reason why he is confident that the PR system, if it is put in place, will not allow for that possibility. I would welcome a response on that point. I would also welcome his comments on the danger of fraud if we opt for postal ballots, particularly given today's revelations about the integrity of the electoral roll in some areas.
We have heard Opposition Members advance some interesting arguments today, but the one that I will take away involved the image of the great Tory revival of the north. May I offer a genuine and warm invitation to Mr. Atkinson to come to Leigh at any time to deliver that speech? We will see what reaction he gets if he does. The fact that they have all glossed over is that we live in a country where health, wealth and life chances are unevenly spread, both by social class and geographically. Over the years, many people have been motivated to come to the House to do something about that. Some people have come here because they want to keep things that way. Sadly, that group has held sway.
In truth, there are complicated reasons why Britain is still an unequal country, but it is a fact that children born today in Liverpool or Manchester can expect to lead shorter, unhealthier lives than those born in towns across the south. They can expect to earn less and to have less chance of going into higher education. Whatever the detailed reasons for that, without doubt, the underlying essential truth is that, for centuries, political power and resources have been disproportionately concentrated in the south of this country, leading to a southern bias in decision making and helping to create an entrenched north-south divide.
Time is short, and other hon. Members wish to speak.
Today, we are debating a proposal to begin loosening that grip on the levers of power and to take power away from Whitehall and place it in the hands of elected people in the regions. Those who oppose that have sought to engender cynicism about politicians and politics. Opposition Members have not used them, but people on the same campaign will use phrases such as "jobs for the boys" and "gravy train"—we can hear it all now. Mr. Brady should understand that that is easy pub talk and that it is far harder to make a case for change, but we will do just that.
Tomorrow, the yes for the north-west campaign will be launched in locations across our region. Mr. Osborne said that there was no great rising up of enthusiasm and no great cross-party support. He should just wait and see. He should look in his local paper tomorrow, or watch the television when he gets back tomorrow evening. There are some serious business figures involved in that campaign.
The Liberal party is fully involved in the campaign. Let us just wait and see. I put this point directly to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, as he laughs. In arguing for the status quo, he comprehensively fails to illustrate how the systems of government and public administration of this country have served the people of the north-west—including those in his constituency—and elsewhere. The Conservatives cannot do that, because on any objective analysis, it is those structures that have created the divided country that we have today.
Let us focus on health inequalities, which are probably the best indicator of the failure or success of public policy. The determinants of health involve not only the share of health resources but—according to Donald Acheson's 1998 independent inquiry into health inequalities—education, employment, average income, housing, transport and other environmental issues.
It is 24 years since Sir Douglas Black published his ground-breaking report on health inequalities. If the system of government that we had in this country had worked properly, we would have seen a steady narrowing of those inequalities in response to that report. Instead, the chief medical officer's annual report for 2001 came to the shocking conclusion that communities in some parts of the north-west and north-east of England had death rates similar to those that prevailed in the 1950s. I do not understand how anyone advancing the case for the status quo could fail to see the importance of that statement—[Interruption.] It is to do with regional government, because every one of the responsibilities that we are proposing to devolve to those bodies—housing, skills and so on—has an effect on public health.
That shows how the country is divided at the moment. It is perhaps less the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, but people not far from there have a lower life expectancy than elsewhere, and it behoves all of us to do something about that. Those Members opposed to the proposals need to tell their constituents what plans they have to give the north-west a bigger share of the resources and a greater ability to do something about these important issues for themselves.
Every day, unelected people in Government Departments take decisions on behalf of our constituents. I would like to give the House a flavour of my time in Whitehall. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where I was an adviser, is possibly the most London-dominated of all the Departments. I remember well sceptical voices there expressing doubt about Manchester's ability to stage the Commonwealth games. In culture and the arts, London dominates absolutely. Money is given to regional projects if they fit the assumptions of the capital élite, and the view has prevailed for far too long that England's heritage lies in the pretty market towns rather than the industrial north. That view has only recently begun to change, with the extension of the blue plaque scheme to the regions. Regional programming is the strength of British broadcasting, yet the London-based broadcasters often only pay lip service to their regional commitment.
These are all examples of decisions taken in Whitehall that affect our constituents, and it is about time that they had a chance to express their views on such issues themselves. People of my generation recognise the north-west as the place that they come from; they have a growing sense of regional identity and share culture, music, humour and passions. It is about time that we let them organise for themselves the way in which they express that regional identity.
In contrast to the cynics, I believe that a regional assembly could refresh our political culture. A real problem for politicians on both sides is that our political structures are not doing their job. Our councils are sometimes seen as parochial and unable to effect change, and we are sometimes seen as being too remote from the people we represent. That has played a part in disengaging people from politics. If we get the new regional assembly, it could generate new interest in public affairs, and bring in different kinds of decision making. These proposals should go hand in hand with the reform of the House of Lords, which could be indirectly elected from regional lists. If that happened, the voice of the regions would start to boom around the country. That is exactly what a lot of people are very afraid of.
I am delighted to have a few minutes to oppose the motion moved by my good parliamentary neighbour Mr. Curry. We need a bit more white rose and a bit less Whitehall. I shall refer to two specific examples arising from the experience that I have gained as a constituency MP in the Yorkshire and Humber area. Regional government would have made a difference in both.
The hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) placed much emphasis on the economy and business. They asked whether regional government would make a difference to economic development. Interestingly, the regional organisation of the CBI in my area is neutral on the matter. It can see pros and cons, and is open to argument. That is important.
The hon. Member for Hexham mentioned the decline of the coal and steel industries. People in Selby know all about that. The first example that I want to mention has to do with the European spallation source project. It is the principal long-term project of Yorkshire Forward, and is based in my constituency. I shall not explain it in detail, but it involves a neutron scatterer. The project—a massive science park—would amount to a £1 billion investment. It is backed by Yorkshire Forward and the blue-chip institutions that make up the white rose consortium of universities.
I tried for a year to secure a meeting with a Minister about the project. I like to think that I am a reasonably assiduous MP. I vote with the Government—on the whole—and thought that a meeting would probably be granted. In the end, a Yorkshire Forward official, Tom Riordan, had to come down here. An alternative site for the project in Oxfordshire is much beloved of Whitehall civil servants. Only after Tom Riordan criticised their attitude, in the Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, did the meeting take place.
The business magazine Insider published a list of the 100 most important people in Yorkshire. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is not here at the moment, so I can tell the House that he is No. 2 on the list. The managing director of Yorkshire Forward is at the top, and Tom Riordan—that very good servant of Yorkshire Forward—is at No. 4. Not one local politician is in the top 10. I am at about No. 453. That not one local politician is considered to have influence on economic development is a terrible thing.
If we had a Yorkshire regional assembly, the meeting that I was trying for would have happened an awful lot sooner, and the case that we could have made would have been much stronger. I spent a year trying for a meeting, and the Government are now responding and considering the case that I want to press. However, the delay should not have happened. We need a body with region-wide responsibility to act in such matters.
My second example has to do with transport. The CBI in Yorkshire has pointed out that only £70 of every £100 spent on public transport in England as whole is spent in the Yorkshire and Humber area. I attended a meeting last Friday in the grand surroundings of Hull's guildhall. The company First York won the trans-Pennine rail franchise, but it has cut the service between Hull and Manchester airport. It sent its regional public relations people to tell the various Members of Parliament and council leaders who attended the meeting that the company was not about to change its mind. If we had a regional assembly with powers to make representations to the SRA, and with powers over rail passenger transport grants and local transport plans, the company would have been forced to send representatives of much higher status to the meeting.
I turn now to some of the points made in the debate. How much money would really be controlled by a regional assembly? In Yorkshire, £500 million would be controlled directly, and £1.1 billion indirectly. That sounds a lot to me, and it is much more than I have ever controlled as a politician, but the Opposition say that it is a small percentage of total public expenditure overall. We do not want to control defence in Yorkshire or transfer payments; we want to control the things that influence our economy.
The role of strategies is much mocked. My hon. Friend Andy Burnham spoke from experience about culture and sport. I wish that Yorkshire could have a regional strategy for sport, controlled by Yorkshire politicians. We love sport in the region, although we are doing terribly badly at cricket and football. The only thing that we have to boast about is Doncaster Rovers—[Interruption.] I suppose I could also mention Hull City and Bradford Bulls in that context, but a strategy at grass-roots level to rebuild Yorkshire sport would be a great help.
I could talk about the local government changes in north Yorkshire. They are as complicated in Selby as the Schleswig-Holstein question in the thirty years war or the Alsace-Lorraine question in the first world war. However, I do not have time.
In conclusion, I think that the hearings initiated by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister represent a great opportunity. Many of us will make the case for learning and skills, and a little more might be given in respect of transport. When it comes to the great northern vote, I hope that the people of Yorkshire and Humber, for those reasons of economic development above all, will vote yes. An additional reason why they will vote yes is because the last thing that we want in Yorkshire and Humber is for the north-east—the Geordies—and the north-west to have regional assemblies, and for us to be left without one.
We have had an interesting and illuminating debate, and anyone who reads it will realise why so many hon. Members have become enamoured with the idea of elected regional assemblies. They think that they can pick any failing in their constituencies and anything that has gone wrong in their region and pin their hopes on a regional assembly curing all. They say that the projects mentioned by Mr. Grogan, life expectancy, health and housing will all be cured by regional assemblies, although, according to the White Paper, they will have virtually no power at all. The debate has served a purpose by exposing the enormous gap between what people say that regional assemblies will do and what the Government's policy actually offers to the people who will participate in the referendums.
I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister with my usual care, but I thought that he got into a muddle when he complained that the Government offices were terribly undemocratic. He did not seem to understand that he is accountable to the House for the operation of the Government offices, and it is his colleagues and mine who hold him to account for that—they are, in fact, accountable. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister scoffs derisively at that comment, but he failed to give any assurance that the Government offices would be handed over to the regional assemblies. They will not be handed over; in fact, they will become more important than ever in enforcing Whitehall's will on regional assemblies and local authorities, as they are doing more and more under this Government.
I was grateful to Mr. Davey for supporting our motion, but I think that he slightly confused the situation by telling us that he would vote for the Government's amendment as well. I should point out that the amendment commends the Government on the information that they are giving voters on the subject, but our motion does precisely the opposite. I would love to be a Liberal. One could just relax and let it all hang out. One could decide whatever one wanted and go home and sleep easily at night.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his motion does not suggest that people oppose regional assemblies if they vote for it?
I am perfectly prepared to accept that because I do not think that it is the issue. [Interruption.] Yes, it is perfectly true. As my hon. Friend Mr. Atkinson pointed out, what we are worried about is the lack of clarity in Government policy. I say to the Deputy Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that we are not standing for election in the referendums, so our policy is not the issue. We are not heading for a general election in October, but referendums. If the referendums are to be a proper test of public opinion rather than just an opinion poll on which group voters in the regions specifically resent at that moment, we need clarity. The debate is not about whether we favour elected assemblies for the English regions. The real question is how much power will a regional assembly really have. The Deputy Prime Minister singularly failed to answer that question.
Let us be absolutely clear. The assemblies will certainly be nothing like the Scottish Parliament—I have not seen that cure all the ills of Scotland. They will be nothing like the Welsh Assembly. They will have even less power than the London assembly. For example, according to the White Paper, a north-east assembly would not only have no legislative powers whatsoever—not even secondary legislative powers—and control less than 2 per cent. of public expenditure in the region, but would not even be able to control appointments to the regional development agency because Ministers would still have the right of veto over the appointment of business men to RDAs. The issue is the disparity between what the Government pretend that regional assemblies will do and what is set out in the White Paper, because that is hardly a basis on which voters may make an informed and educated choice in the referendums.
Fundamentally, this debate is about the Deputy Prime Minister's failure to explain his proposals on elected regional assemblies for which Ministers are responsible. Given that there has been no public clamour—in fact, little but apathy—for elected regional assemblies, and, frankly, hostility from business, the Government are desperately thrashing around trying to sell a virtually unsaleable proposal. This debate is about Ministers' failure to be open and straightforward, and to present clear and intelligible proposals for people to vote on. The more that they attempt to explain their proposals, the more opaque they become. The Deputy Prime Minister in particular has been encouraging people to believe things about the Government's policy that have not been agreed by the Government to try to rescue the idea of regional elected assemblies. That threatens fundamentally to corrupt the referendum process, which should be an objective test of public opinion after a prolonged and informed debate.
Let the House recall the careful and meticulous way in which the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, approached the referendum for a Scottish Parliament. I did not agree with the concept of a Scottish Parliament; I fully accept that the debate was comprehensively won by the pro-devolutionists. [Interruption.] I do not deny a bit of it. [Interruption.] Is the Deputy Prime Minister finished? Just a few months after the 1997 election, Donald Dewar published a White Paper that was absolutely clear. No one voting in the Scottish referendum could have been in any doubt about what they were voting for. Let us compare that with the conduct of the Government's policy on elected regional assemblies.
Like plans for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, proposals for elected regional assemblies were included in the 1997 manifesto. That was seven years ago, and it remains astonishing that, even though the referendums in the north of England are now only nine months away, the Government have still not explained the powers to be devolved. They are spending £500,000 on an information campaign that does not explain the powers. I give my hon. Friend Mr. Osborne an assurance that we will return to the question of the Government's information campaign and its impartiality.
I discovered today that the launch of the Scottish White Paper was paid for by the yes campaign because civil servants in the Scotland Office thought that it would be wrong for the Government to spend taxpayers' money on it. It would be interesting to know whether that has been happening in the regional campaigns.
No, of course not; these people have got really sloppy.
Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister, who, as we know, is lord high everything else in this Government, went on a grand tour of the north of England to promote his proposals, and spoke at meetings in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. At all those meetings, he held out the prospect of significant additional powers for elected assemblies beyond those set out in the White Paper—powers on policing, adult education and training and even health. We know that other services such as fire services are being considered for regionalisation.
The difficulty for the Deputy Prime Minister is that the proposals in the White Paper are but a shadow of what he really wants. The reality is that, seven years after the manifesto, there is no agreement in the Government on what should be the powers of regional elected assemblies. That is why he is talking up the powers. He is haunted by the near defeat in the Welsh Assembly referendum. That is why he will not accept what the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire clarified while he was absent from the Chamber: the Government will dismiss a derisory turnout even if the vote is in favour.
Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will clarify that in his winding-up speech. The Deputy Prime Minister is determined to talk up what the regional assemblies might be going to do.
The most interesting thing that has fallen into my hands recently is an extraordinary document of the minutes, to which one of my hon. Friends referred, of a meeting between Felicity Goodey, who is the leader of the yes north-west campaign, representatives of the north-west business leadership team, and none other than the great panjandrum himself, the ever effervescent and charming Deputy Prime Minister. The meeting took place in his large office at No. 26 Whitehall, along with his ever loyal and patient minder, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire.
Most interesting are the Deputy Prime Minister's comments about the Barnett formula. The minutes say:
"Mr. Prescott emphasised the scale of public money going into the regions . . . Mr. Prescott hoped to see an increasing level of co-operation across the North of England . . . where the power of the regional voice . . . would be difficult to ignore in London. He drew comparisons with Scotland and Wales' lobbying on the Barnett formula."
The right hon. Gentleman missed the point about the Barnett formula. The Scottish and Welsh lobbies were never stronger in Whitehall than they were before they had a Parliament and an Assembly. Since devolution, the Barnett formula has been surreptitiously altered to accelerate the equalisation of spending between England and Scotland.
The minutes continue:
"He referred again to the Barnett formula, indicating even in Scotland and Wales this was not seen as fair. He felt that the introduction of additional Assemblies would provide a 'great opportunity' to open up a debate on this subject".
Is that the Treasury's policy? We know that it is not, because a menial little official immediately slapped the Deputy Prime Minister down without much difficulty. That chaos underlines the chaos of the Government's constitutional reform agenda, and it is about time that the Prime Minister clarified the situation.
The Opposition's stance reminds me all too clearly of Talleyrand's description of the Bourbons:
"They have learnt nothing, and forgotten nothing."
As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, the Opposition got it wrong every single time that the Government introduced an important devolution proposal: they opposed the Scottish Parliament, but now they accept it; they opposed the Welsh Assembly, but now they accept it; they opposed the Greater London assembly, but now they accept it; and they opposed regional chambers, which are now populated by more than 150 Conservative councillors—mercifully, not all in one place. Of course, there are the regional development agencies, which they opposed. Now, however, we do not know—more astonishingly, they do not know—what they think about them. With that track record, how can they expect their policy on elected regional assemblies to be met with anything but derision?
There is confusion about regional government, but it is the Opposition who are confused about the powers and role of regional assemblies which, for their benefit, I shall spell out in simple terms. Elected regional assemblies mean more accountable regional government. They mean less say for the Whitehall machine and more power where it belongs—in the hands of the people in the regions.
In the debate, Mr. Davey looked forward, we were pleased to learn, to campaigning with us on a referendum for a yes vote, which we welcome. However, he spoilt his announcement by saying that he would vote tonight with the Tories, who are utterly opposed to regional devolution. The nub of his argument was that the powers of the elected regional assemblies should be extended. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, we have already gone beyond the original powers spelt out in the White Paper, and he made it quite clear that this is an evolutionary process. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton welcomed the decision to hold hearings in the northern regions, and I am sure that he and his hon. Friends will want to contribute to them.
My hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell gave a forceful speech in favour of regional devolution, paid tribute to my right hon. Friend's long-term commitment to regional government and looked forward to a successful outcome.
Mr. Atkinson strained the bounds of credulity with his astonishing claim that Baroness Thatcher, whose Government probably caused more devastation to the north than any Government in history, was secretly a friend of the north. He must be bemused by the ingratitude of the people of the region, who disproportionately and stubbornly refused, with the exception of his own seat, to show their gratitude by voting Conservative.
My hon. Friend Mr. Turner welcomed the Government's proposals and argued strongly that decisions affecting the north-west should be made by people elected by, and accountable to, the north-west. He spoke proudly about the regeneration of the cities of the north-west, and looked forward to a yes vote in the referendum.
Mr. Osborne confused regional responsibilities with local council roles. For his sake, I shall spell out the difference. We regard local service delivery as the continuing responsibility of local government. There will be streamlining of local government, and I am astonished that he opposes the idea of more cost-effective service delivery. Local government will continue to deliver services locally, whereas regional government will deal with regional matters. The hon. Gentleman queried whether the referendum would be decided by a simple majority. As we made clear, there will be no threshold, because thresholds have perverse consequences, as we saw in Scotland in 1979. A simple majority is important.
No. I am answering the hon. Gentleman's questions.
As I have said, referendums are technically advisory. The Government will certainly be guided by the majority, but we are not bound to implement on that basis and we have said that we will not be so bound if the outcome is derisory. I am confident, however, that there will be a decisive vote, because we are doing everything that we can to ensure a high turnout—postal voting is part of that. Any friend of democracy will want to see a decisive outcome and a clear view expressed by the people.
My hon. Friend Mr. Clelland strongly supported the proposals for regional devolution. He argued for stronger powers because he believes that the proposals represent a good base for future development, and he welcomed the fact that the Bill will be published in July.
Mr. Brady argued, against all the evidence, that the proposals would increase local bureaucracy. Let me remind him that the figures that the boundary committee produced in its preliminary proposals show that the number of councillors in the north-west—some 1,405—could fall as low as 213 if the wholly unitary options are pursued. It was not logical of him to argue that the proposals will mean an increase in bureaucracy when all the evidence shows that that will not happen.
The hon. Gentleman was even less logical when he talked about the British National party, repeating the malicious and unfounded argument that elected regional assemblies could provide a doorway for the BNP to get elected. We all hate the politics of hatred that characterise the BNP and will do everything that we can to oppose that. However, in my experience of campaigning against the BNP in London—in Millwall—and elsewhere 10 years ago, the most decisive way to defeat the BNP is with a high turnout in a reasonably large constituency. The BNP flourishes in small areas with low turnouts; our elected regional assembly constituencies will be large, which will allow for a decisive vote against it.
My hon. Friend Andy Burnham emphasised the proud regional identity of the north and argued that the new devolution process could help to revive our political culture.My hon. Friend Mr. Grogan rightly highlighted the merits of the white rose as against Whitehall.
Mr. Curry made great play of his wish to see a Bill. We understand that, and it will be published in July. He did not say, of course, that that is a wonderfully convenient way of enabling him to keep his options open. He is a thinking person who realises the futility of the Bourbon style of opposition. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman went on the record two and a half years ago in favour of regional government. Now, he has the misfortune of serving in a Front-Bench team that is viscerally hostile to elected regional assemblies and that, even more embarrassingly from his point of view, sees the policy as a European conspiracy. No wonder he is hedging his bets: he knows that almost every other country in Europe has devolved regional government—apart from places such as the Vatican, Luxembourg and Malta, where there are obvious geographical obstacles—and that here in Britain a great deal of Government activity has a regional nature.
The current regional structures outside London are not accountable to the regions and often involve regional government by quango. Those who take the decisions are usually well intentioned, but are not answerable to the public whose lives and prosperity they are deciding or influencing. Furthermore, because they involve separate bodies that are closely focused on their own subject, they often fail to secure a joined-up and co-ordinated approach.
Our task is to give the people the option of a more accountable, more democratic, more joined-up structure with the powers to make a difference on matters that need to be dealt with at a regional level, such as jobs, housing, transport, planning and the environment. Elected regional assemblies will bring a new perspective, a new vision and a new opportunity to the regions. They will not add to bureaucracy—on the contrary, our proposals could well lead to a substantial streamlining of local democracy.
Regional assemblies are about choice, democracy, prosperity and more effective government. In summary, they are about the future. By contrast, the Opposition's position offers nothing: it is incoherent, remorselessly negative and backward looking. It is the product of a party that failed the people when it was in government and has been wrong about every devolution debate in the past decade. The Opposition have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing; the House should decisively reject their motion.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Madam Deputy Speaker forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House notes the Government's proposals for elected regional assemblies set out in their White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, based on the principles of increasing prosperity, pride and democracy in the regions; further notes that the White Paper also set out the way in which the Government intends to build into its policy development the opportunities offered by the creation of elected regional assemblies to further decentralise responsibility for policy and delivery where this will improve regional outcomes; applauds the opportunity afforded to people in the three northern regions of England to have their say about whether they want an elected assembly for their region; commends the Government's endeavours to ensure that people voting in the referendums have information on which to base their choice; notes that the principal confusion about the proposed powers and role of elected regional assemblies appears to be on the Opposition benches; and condemns the continuing attempts by the party opposite both to deny people a say in how they want to be governed and to denigrate the value of that choice.