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The Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. John Prescott): We remain committed to a move to directly elected regional government, where there is support as demonstrated in referendums. While no timetable has yet been drawn up, governance in the regions is already evolving through the work of the chambers, regional development agencies, Government offices and others.
Mr. Luff: The Secretary of State has helpfully reconfirmed the Government's position on regional government, as originally set out in the Labour party manifesto at the general election. That confirmed that
Mr. Prescott: The sound of elections and county council elections is round the corner. As I have always said, I think both sides of the House are agreed that local government unitary authorities are the first tier of the local government structure. As for the second, regional tier, we shall put forward a list of options to the electorate that will be ready for the referendums for each region, and allow them to make a decision. That has always been our position, and it is the one that we shall be presenting to the electorate.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields): Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that probably the greatest feeling for regional government in England is in the northern region? Does he further appreciate that that feeling is strengthening, bearing in mind the relationship with devolved government across the Scottish border? With that in mind, will he consider the possibility that the northern region should again be reunited, and that a common region facing the Scottish border, including the north of Cumbria, should be involved in a new northern regional assembly?
Mr. Prescott: I find in my journeys around the country that there is a growing feeling for some form of regional government and that that is as strong in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside as in the northern area. There has been a long history of demands for regional government in the northern region, and I am supportive of that. We must ascertain exactly what that opinion is, and we will do that by referendum. There is the age-old argument in the north about whether the region should cover Cumbria; it is a judgment that must be arrived at later.
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the primary purpose of regional government is not to take functions from local government but to give democratic accountability for regional activities, which are mainly undertaken now by central Government, to the regions? Is he able to tell us whether we might have a referendum within two years of the general election?
Mr. Prescott: I shall leave those comments to be made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I have always believed in the regional government argument. It is important to recognise, first, that regional government should involve the decentralising of power and government functions from central Government to the regions. Secondly, we should not make the mistake of centralising in a region in the name of decentralisation. These are thoughts that we shall have in mind when we put the options to the electorate.
Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): Is my right hon. Friend aware that we welcome his first reply on the subject this afternoon? Is he also aware of the assemblies' and RDAs' lack of democratic accountability? That accountability can come only from regional assemblies, so it should be a major priority for the Government after the next election.
Mr. Prescott: I certainly believe that it should be a priority. On the form of regional government, we have made it clear that people in the regions will make that decision, and we will draw up several alternatives for them to consider in the referendum.
Mr. Prescott: I believe that the RDAs need to be represented where they can make decisions and where European decisions clearly affect their regions. As for the judgment about whether or not such offices are expensive, I do not know which one the hon. Gentleman is referring to. However, I get very suspicious of any talk from the Opposition about figures, particularly in view of the fact that they said that they would save £200 million by scrapping regional chambers, when no such commitment has ever been given; that is a black hole in the hon. Gentleman's own finances.
Mr. Norman: Most people in this country believe that is for the Government to represent us in Brussels as one country, not a nation divided into regions, each with its hand out. Is it right for the West Midlands regional development agency to have an office of up to 12 people and a budget of £1 million? Does it make sense to have five other RDAs with their own offices, and three more planning to set up offices, at great expense to the taxpayer? Is that not another illustration of the dissipation of the effort created by the RDAs and the cost to the taxpayer of unaccountable regional bureaucracies?
Mr. Prescott: What I find a little difficult to accept about the hon. Gentleman's arguments is the fact that he makes great complaint about the English RDAs, but has nothing to say about Scotland and Wales, even though he is prepared to abolish RDAs in England, yet retain them as government for Scotland and Wales. As for the role and importance of the RDAs, we have found that the RDA played an important part in Birmingham in solving the problems of Rover and the motor car industry. RDAs are playing a part now in helping to develop regional economies.
The hon. Gentleman should make it clear to the House where he stands on those matters of regional government. On Sunday 29 January, he talked about regional government on "The Westminster Hour" and said:
Mr. Prescott: I think that there is a strong history behind that inquiry. My hon. Friend is right: development agencies should be accountable to representative bodies, whether directly or indirectly, whether elected or appointed. It is for the people of a region to make their decision, and the RDAs are but a tool for the development of the region to which they should be accountable.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): The Government receive representations from a wide range of interested bodies, including the British Road Federation, regarding the level of fuel duty and transport policy. Those are considered carefully and help to inform the Chancellor's Budget judgment.
Mr. Bercow: I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his informative, comprehensive and inspiring reply. Is it not a fact that, after nearly four years of Labour Government, Britain's petrol, although among the cheapest in the European Union before tax, is the most expensive after tax?
Mr. Hill: I do not think that the House is likely to forget that the major source of the increase in fuel prices in recent years resulted from the previous Government's introduction of the fuel duty escalator. If there is any responsibility for the situation in which the underlying rate of increase results largely from the increase in oil prices, it lies with the global price increase in oil and the activities of the previous Government.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Does my hon. Friend accept that, contrary to what the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said, the price of lead-free petrol in this country is virtually identical to that in France, whereas diesel is much cheaper on the continent? People may argue about prices, but do they want to pay the extremely expensive tolls that individuals have to pay in France to drive on the autoroutes?
Mr. Hill: My hon. Friend is right. In the sometimes blinkered discussions of these matters, the total impact of various imposts on fuel are not taken into account. Notwithstanding the protestations of the Opposition, the costs of motoring are lower now than they were 30 years ago, in 1970.
Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): The Minister is aware that Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with a land frontier, and that the significant differentials in fuel duty between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic have an extremely detrimental impact on the petrol retail industry and the
Mr. Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that insight into the situation in Northern Ireland. He is aware, of course, that ministerially I have no direct responsibility for the situation in Northern Ireland, but I undertake to convey his observations to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.