Electoral Reform

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:20 pm on 17th January 2001.

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Photo of Beverley Hughes Beverley Hughes Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions) 12:20 pm, 17th January 2001

I am delighted that my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell secured this debate. It has been both enjoyable and interesting, and I welcome the opportunity to set out how much this is a key issue for the Government. As hon. Members have said, we need a wider debate, not just in the House, but in the country. I feel almost sorry for Mr. Syms. Not only does his party oppose regional development agencies, regional government offices, and any regionally focused policy, it has demonstrated today that it is not interested in being part of the debate, either in terms of the principle of devolution, or in terms of extending devolution to the English regions. I am, however, pleased to have the support of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members in this Chamber, for the principle of devolution and how we extend it to the English regions. Although I may not have time to acknowledge the contribution of every hon. Member, let me acknowledge the importance of the debate and thank hon. Members for their support.

It is important that we are aware of the context of the debate. We are talking about devolution, albeit that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby understandably wants to focus on the English regions. We came to office after a long period in which our constitution had lain in a state of abject stagnation. We set out in our manifesto the many changes that we wanted to bring about--changes that we passionately believe in--and that were essential for the democratic health of our country. It is not simply a matter of principle.

We had an over-centralised Government, a near national crisis in confidence in our national parliament, excessive secrecy and a lack of principal protection for human rights. That was the reason for change. We believe that our institutions must reflect our values and not circumscribe them. Our agenda for change was very much as hon. Members have identified it: as well as revitalising and modernising the constitution to ensure that it reflects the society we serve, giving people opportunities to become engaged in the process of governmental decision making at every level.

The intervention by Mr. Evans showed what difficulty the Tories have with that concept when he talked about the governed and the governing, as if there were a them and an us. We do not have that problem. We want to engage people in the process of decision making that affects them. However, hon. Members are right to say that there is no blueprint for change. We have sought solutions that reflect the context of each area, its legitimate needs and the popular mandate. We have tried to be flexible and pragmatic in our response. As my hon. Friend Mr. Cousins rightly said, that is important.

For good reason, our approach to decentralisation and devolution has been different for different parts of the UK, reflecting the different circumstances and histories of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London. I shall not dwell on some of the points raised about Scotland and Wales--we did not have much of a debate about Northern Ireland--except to say that what is evolving in those areas demonstrates many of the points that hon. Members have raised today about how devolution can begin to engage local people and give them a sense of ownership in respect of the decisions that affect them and the freedom to take different courses that reflect the different circumstances and needs of their areas.

As my hon. Friends have said, we must not and have not ignored the English dimension. We have begun the process of decentralisation and devolution in England. We have to be realistic about the speed--the previous Administration spent 20 years running down the regional policy. It is taking some time to reverse that but that does not indicate a lack of commitment.

It is germane, although it was not raised in the debate, that in this Parliament we have also spent a great deal of time supporting, strengthening and modernising local government, enabling it to develop strong local strategic partnerships. Whatever happens in terms of devolution to a regional level, the agencies that will have to deliver what directly elected regional bodies think is necessary, will have to operate at local level.

The issue of partnership between regional structures, whatever they may be, and locally based organisations particularly in local authorities, is also important. We have embarked on a radical process of change. The RDAs and the changes in London show how we can establish the case for further change at regional level. This is far from the end of the story. My hon. Friend Mrs. Ellman called it unfinished business. We have made an important commitment in our manifesto and that has been reiterated twice by my rt. hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, including yesterday.

We need to understand and build on what the regions themselves need and want rather than imposing something from Whitehall. The issue of self-determination, in terms of form and so on, is obviously intrinsic to the debate. Several Members raised issues that I would like to discuss.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central that the crucial issues are not history or mystique, but practicality, resources, the purpose of a directly elected regional government and how we can define those broader ends as well as seeing directly elected regional government as an essential means to those ends.

My hon. Friend also asked me about local government determination. It is more a matter of reorganisation and it is too early to say what that might mean in practice. I can tell him, however, that there is no presumption that, if there is to be any local government restructuring, it would have to come before the introduction of regional government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made that clear yesterday and I am happy to reiterate the point about no presumption.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the manifesto and the Labour party's position. My hon. Friends will know that in the Labour party's policy forum document "Building a Future for All", we have said again that we intend to move towards directly elected regional government, where and when there is clear demand for it. We have made a commitment to publishing a Green Paper or a White Paper on regional governance. My hon. Friends will understand that I cannot pre-empt what will be in our manifesto, but they can be clear that the Labour party wants to take the matter forward.

In conclusion, let me restate the Government's commitment to constitutional reform and modernisation. As well as stating Government policy, let me make three points. There are a number of key issues, including size, structure and the level of powers, but in promoting wider debate we need to concentrate on three issues: the economic case for directly elected regional government, accountability and the democratic case and the popular case. We need a clear popular mandate to take this forward, but if we can focus on the economic, democratic and popular aspects of the debate, we will do so in a productive way.