The Northwest Development Agency would become directly accountable to the elected regional assembly rather than to central Government, but it would retain its present day-to-day operational independence. The assembly would appoint the chair and board members of the RDA, publish the regional economic strategy and set the agency's budget.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he join me in welcoming his Department's report, which was published on Monday, which recognised the contribution that our core cities strategy has made to investment and employment opportunities for cities such as Liverpool? Will he also acknowledge the role that the Northwest Development Agency has played in securing fantastic investment, certainly in my constituency, with a great impact on the sustainability of communities such as mine?
The core cities have indeed been very successful. People are returning to our cities. In 2002–03, the Northwest Development Agency created or safeguarded more than 16,700 jobs in the region. In my hon. Friend's constituency, unemployment has dropped by no less than 54 per cent. since 1997. There is, however, still much to do to reduce the economic disparities in England, and unlike the Tories, who oppose anything with the word "region" attached to it, we believe that a new elected regional assembly in the north-west will be a real champion for the people of that region, bringing them more jobs and prosperity and giving local people democratic control over decisions and resources in their area.
My noble friend Lord Rooker often speaks in the other Chamber and elsewhere forthrightly on these matters. He knows, and we know, that the powers of an elected regional assembly are widespread: they will not only have regional economic development as a major role, they will promote jobs and skills and have responsibilities for planning, housing, transport, arts, tourism, sport, fire and rescue, public health, rural regeneration, the environment, promoting the region in Europe, and sustainable development. That is the real job that regional elected assemblies will have, and unlike the Tories, we are backing them all the way.
I wonder whether my hon. Friend is aware of the magnificent contribution that the Northwest Development Agency is making both to economic regeneration around Luneside and to the development of InfoLab at Lancaster university, which will be the hub of science-based business across the north of the north-west for many years to come. Is it not imperative for all the people of the north-west, and especially those living north of Lancaster, that we have an elected regional assembly to ensure ownership of such vital developments and proper integration of those superb regeneration initiatives throughout all the urban and rural areas of the region?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the economic benefits to urban and rural areas of an elected regional assembly are there for us all to see, and we are giving the people of the north-west the choice. It seems odd to me that all the benefits that he has outlined are opposed by the Tories, who are against giving people a choice in this referendum, yet seem to wish to give them a choice in other referendums.
The Minister should listen to Lord Rooker rather more carefully. If he really wants to promote economic development in the north-west and other regions, should not more power over economic policy be devolved, for example to learning and skills councils and in regional transport policy, giving regional assemblies real power to make a difference? Is not his and the Deputy Prime Minister's timidity on regional devolution in danger of producing a no vote in the autumn referendums?
The hon. Gentleman once again ploughs this furrow. I wish his party was more consistent. The Liberal Democrats support devolution, for which we are grateful, as it gives power to the people in creating democratic institutions for the regions. We look forward to getting their support on the doorstep, backing the yes campaign—whether we in fact get it is a matter for them. I am quite clear where our party sits, and I certainly know where the Tories stand.
Mrs. Dunwoody said that there is no public demand for the proposed changes to local government resulting in the transfer of powers to regional assemblies. I feel a bit sorry for the Minister, who has to defend colleagues whose views differ from those of his Department. Does he think that she was right or wrong?
I welcome Mrs. Spelman to her post. I understand that she is leading her team, although we on the Government Benches get slightly confused about who in her party is doing what—no change there.
The choice for the people of the northern regions—the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber—is absolutely clear. Do they want their region to have a strong voice? Do they want democratic control of the resources and of the decisions made in their region? Do they want jobs and economic prosperity to come to their region through the creation of an elected regional assembly? That choice is absolutely clear, and my party supports it. I wish that the Conservative party would stand up for the north for once, rather than running it down.
As the Minister will not say clearly why he thinks that the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich is wrong, perhaps I may tell him why I think that she is right. Why should people in the north-west be expected to foot the bill for a costly new tier of politicians that they neither want nor need, and that will not result in one extra nurse, doctor or teacher? At a time when trust in Government politicians is at an all-time low, why is the answer to create yet more bureaucrats, more regulations and more politicians?
It seems that Conservative Front Benchers should talk to one another. The hon. Lady's colleague Mr. Jenkin announced on Monday that the Conservatives would scrap every single regional structure that they could find, despite the fact that Conservative councillors up and down the country are taking an active part in regional chambers and assemblies that are doing a good job. Moreover, he mentioned one or two proposals for local government, including a £2.5 billion cut in local government funding. How many nurses, teachers and police officers would that cut from front-line services? The hon. Lady needs to get a hold on her brief before she makes such an accusation in this Chamber.