Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Regional Government

11 am

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am delighted to have secured this debate and I am pleased that it has been fortuitously timed to coincide with the publication of the recent White Paper, on which I must congratulate the Government. The main theme of my contribution to the debate is taken from that paper, which is entitled "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions". The theme that I want to draw out is whose region and whose choice is at stake. I want to look at what a region is and how to make it work, rather than looking particularly at the proposed functions. I notified the Minister of several questions that I would be raising.

First, and perhaps most appropriately of all, I warmly congratulate the Government on what they have achieved so far with devolution for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Greater London Assembly. All are significant achievements and although we may argue about the powers and the processes, they are achievements and a movement in the right direction. Those changes are very welcome to Liberal Democrats and many people in other parties.

It is easier to deliver devolution to places that self-evidently exist than to other places that may not. Although the White Paper was welcome, it was a long time in coming. There were many false dawns for the White Paper. I am pleased that it has come, although I am concerned that it may be a house built on sand because it skirts over any definition of what a region is and how it has arrived at its conclusions. The paper does not deal with what a region is. A region implies internal integrity and something more than an occasional shared interest because communities happen to be adjacent to each other. Are such areas regions or are they government zones, and should we not call them government zones rather than regions? Such government zones could be designed for bureaucratic convenience and administrative ease.

In the paper, I was looking for emphasis and the basis on which regional differences were demonstrated. Chapter 1 gave a rather charming emphasis on regional differences and one could easily come to the conclusion that regional identity may be created by a better innate understanding of bodily functions—as if health inequalities were a product of geography rather than pure economics. The fact is that where there are inequalities in health provision, heart disease or other problems, they are more likely to be a function of economics than geography. The economics of an area determine the health of people in that area. I consider the argument in the paper to be rather flimsy.

I remember asking zealous regionalists who were concerned about when, how and what functions would be devolved what we would do if the region did not actually exist. The question was met with stunned incomprehension. It was as if I had asked whether we could redefine the boundaries of God.

I acknowledge that the people of Yorkshire and the north-east are, arguably, lucky. The government zone for their area appears more or less to coincide with a region with its own recognisable identity—possibly more for some than for others. However, the

15 May 2002 : Column 266WH

government administrative zone for many areas is the equivalent of a Soviet-style construct for those who are happy to be dragooned into a soulless bureaucracy without a shred of identity.

A few general questions arise from the White Paper itself. It is full of references to regions and sub-regions. How does the Minister define them? What principles underlie the Government's policy towards devolution? For example, if the Government believe that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level, how is that achieved by their approach? The White Paper chose some interesting examples of devolved or provincial structures of government in appendix E, but pretty well all of them point to asymmetric devolution—not just variable geometry but variable size and geography. Why include the appendix when the Government appear to have dismissed or ignored the lessons learned in many other countries? Have the Government abandoned asymmetric devolution for good?

For many people, it will be a shock that I have managed to speak for six minutes without mentioning Cornwall. It is because I am interested in the principle of devolution, as well as the potential effect on my own area, that I have concentrated on trying to find the principle in the White Paper. I must congratulate the Minister and the Government on achieving a headline in our local newspaper that I have been trying to achieve for some time: "Cornish home rule denied." I cannot count the number of times that I have tried to deal with the misapprehensions that arise when we talk about the modest devolution of certain powers. Some people think of border checkpoints and absurd nonsense about home rule. The Government have sent a clear message to the populace in Cornwall that that is not what we are talking about or ever have talked about. It is not what those in the Cornish Constitutional Convention have ever talked about. Therefore, I congratulate the Government on their achievement. Campaigners in Cornwall are interested in cutting Cornwall into the celebration of diversity, not cutting it off.

The Cornish campaign is an interesting one and a challenge to the Government. Arguably, it is the most popular such campaign. Fifty thousand or more people, from not only Cornwall but outside the area, have signed declaration sheets. A well-argued manifesto was published only a few months ago—the campaign is coherent as well as popular. It also provides Cornwall with an opportunity to build on the success of achieving objective 1 status, in which the Government played a significant part. The people of Cornwall played a significant part as well and Cornwall's poverty, overlooked for decades, was at last acknowledged. The statistical separation was made and Cornwall achieved objective 1 status.

We should learn lessons from the process, because we are given now the same arguments that we were given when we were arguing for the statistical split between Cornwall and the rest of the south-west region. We were told that that was an insular move, it could be offensive to our neighbours and it would give succour to nationalists. As we have found in the delivery of objective 1, although we need an administrative split, all those arguments have been proven to be entirely fallacious.

15 May 2002 : Column 267WH

A lot of people, of course, look at the case of Cornwall, which is, after all, a small place with only 500,000 people, and argue that one cannot devolve government to a place of that size. Sometimes, the arguments are the usual tiresome prejudices of which small communities are often on the receiving end, but when one considers the alternatives it is the only serious option.

One of the main arguments thrown against the Cornwall case is that Cornwall is too small, but one has only to lift one's eyes above the insular and parochial horizon of the United Kingdom to the wider world and to provincial and regional government in other places. I have visited Canada, for example, and have met the Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, which has a population roughly the same size as that of Cornwall. Those provinces are relaxed about their capability to deliver government functions to their people. When they do not achieve the necessary economies of scale on, for example, clinical governance and other such matters, they simply establish strategic partnerships with their neighbours or other provinces.

I am assuming that we are talking about grown-up devolution rather than a bunch of juveniles being in control. Perhaps, there is something in the English psyche—perhaps it is just English men—that leads them to become obsessed with size. We need to challenge the cosy assumptions that we always need a certain size to deliver certain functions.

The "can of worms" argument is well worth exploring. It concerns questions such as where devolution would leave everyone else, what it would mean for other boundaries, whether it would make a mess and whether it would result in other places with smaller populations making absurd claims for regional status. We may want to take into account the fact that no places with small populations have made such claims. We need to accept—the Government have accepted this in bravely pursuing the devolution agenda—that devolution can be messy. To do it properly, one cannot do it tidily. In conversations that I have had with the Minister, he has recognised that.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The hon. Gentleman may be interested in a quote from the Secretary of State for Wales, who reacted to the White Paper by saying:

Surely that quote supports the hon. Gentleman's case for Cornwall.

Andrew George : Absolutely. If we are looking for historical, cultural and other reasons to draw boundaries for regions, the hon. Gentleman is right.

On top of everything else, Cornwall has a distinct history and its own language and Celtic culture, which could provide the bedrock for what many people in Cornwall see as its economic salvation. Cornwall can trade on its distinctiveness and strong brand and use them for not only strategic, but economic, purposes. That case is cogently made in the manifesto and has been made by many other people. For me, however, the

15 May 2002 : Column 268WH

process through which we are going is equally important. It is equally important for people in the north-east to go through the process of achieving the devolution of power through debate, and the co-ordination of their campaign is strengthening.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although communities are important, it is geography that formed them? It is a matter of geography where coal and the major rivers are, which was what formed the communities in the north-east of England. Those communities can be diverse—for example, there are differences between Tyneside and Teesside. However, we recognise that size is important. Some argue that the north-east is too small to have its own regional government. I come from that area, but have some sympathy with that idea. We would like Cumbria to be included and to expand the north-east for reasons of community, as Cumbria has more of a connection with the north-east than the north-west.

Andrew George : The hon. Gentleman makes the point well that the dynamics and geography in different parts of the country operate differently. Many people believe that strategic transport cannot be planned in too small a region anywhere. That assumes that the boundaries between regions are frontiers. I do not believe that they are, nor do the Government intend them to be. Much transport infrastructure—road and rail—goes through the government zone of the south-west. Cornwall may be concerned about the development of the Ilminster bypass over the border in Somerset, but it is equally concerned about the A303 further up the road across Salisbury plain and Hampshire. We cannot assume that boundaries are frontiers, whether we are talking about transport or other matters. There is therefore a need for dialogue and strategic partnerships. The argument about a unilateral declaration of independence and home rule is nonsense. It is deflecting all in the north-east and elsewhere from pursuing a proper agenda. That does not help us to propose sensible solutions to the problem.

I was trying to make a point about the process, which I would enjoy as I like challenging tiresome metropolitan prejudices about small, and especially rural, areas. It would drive many of us forward. It has the capacity to galvanise the local community, as it would help us to promote our own brand and distinctiveness. It would also give us the opportunity to tell people in the wider world what we are about and why the place is so special. It would build the self-confidence of a place that has lacked it for generations.

I am disappointed that many older councillors are not especially enthusiastic about the campaign for a Cornish assembly. However, young people in Cornwall are strongly in favour of it: a recent youth manifesto made it one of their top priorities. It is interesting that it

15 May 2002 : Column 269WH

motivates young people. I wanted to ask the Minister several questions, but I do not want to detain the debate unnecessarily, as others wish to speak.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne) rose—

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) rose—

Andrew George : I will give way to the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) and then to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner).

Ms Atherton : I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate. Will the hon. Gentleman give us his views on unitary status? We should focus on that in Cornwall, as it is a prerequisite if we want to consider a Cornish assembly after we have a regional assembly in the wider south-west.

Andrew George : That is a cart and horse issue. I represent a constituency with a unitary authority on the Isles of Scilly and I appreciate the importance of configuring local government in a way that does not confuse people. The Government are right not to lay another tier of government on top of what already amounts to the confusion of parishes, districts and counties. We need a debate, and I am encouraged by the process that is beginning in Cornwall. We should make progress in a consensual way rather than take snatch decisions that we have to argue about and justify. It is important to get the regional structure right before proceeding to unitary structures below it.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): That poses an interesting question. Is the hon. Gentleman in favour of the retention of Cornwall as an entity in the form of a county council? Under the White Paper, Cornwall will go. In that case, does he view Cornwall as a unitary authority, or will it be carved up?

Andrew George : Questions of governance and administration are relevant. Local authorities largely administer Government policy. I am seeking to achieve the highest level of governance for the entity of Cornwall—and for the Isles of Scilly, if it wishes to share in aspects of its governance. My view and my confident prediction is that on the current level of popular support for a south-west regional assembly, Government policy will not succeed. The Government will have to revisit the issue of regional government in much of the south of England. I am pleased and optimistic about making progress in the north. I have demonstrated that the entity of Cornwall receives great popular support and that it makes sense to retain the highest possible governance of that region.

Mr. Andrew Turner : Time has passed since I wanted to intervene, but I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to the absence of support for a south-west regional assembly. There is certainly no support for a south-eastern one. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the enthusiasm of youth for a regional solution for Cornwall and the lack of such enthusiasm among older people. I do not know where the division arises: I suspect that youth ends two or three years older than the person

15 May 2002 : Column 270WH

who is speaking about the subject. Is it not customary for young people to be more enthusiastic about all sorts of political solutions and for older people, frankly, to be more grounded in realities?

Andrew George : That is an odd thesis. On another occasion, we could explore some of the underlying thinking and assumptions about youth and age in politics.

Last Thursday, we heard hyperbole from the Deputy Prime Minister, about trusting people and flexibility. My question to the Minister is this: how much trust are the Government prepared to place in people? If we have witnessed the largest and most popular demonstration of support for a regional assembly in Cornwall, with 50,000 people signing a declaration, how much trust will the Government place in that? If they are prepared to allow 27,000 people in Gibraltar to have a referendum to determine the constitutional outcome for that place, how much flexibility are they prepared to show in their approach to devolution?

In paragraph 6.5 of the White Paper, the Government say that, in the long term, they are prepared to revisit the issue of boundaries. What will trigger that? Will popular campaigns increase that chink of light and enable places such as Cornwall to revisit the issue?

The Deputy Prime Minister said

I entirely agree, but does the Minister agree that diversity could be greatly embraced by giving regional powers to those small regions that have a strong and diverse identity and culture, rather than submerging them into a wider region? The White Paper claims that the Government want to

but what examples can the Minister give to show that any of their agencies or quangos have in any way encouraged greater diversity than might be possible if the regions were configured to reflect diversity? Paragraph 9.4 refers to "relevant factors" that would trigger a decision by the Government to hold a referendum. An explanation of those relevant factors would be helpful.

The White Paper constitutes a brave and honourable attempt to provide regional devolution. It is not for me to say, but I am told that people in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire are supportive. Given that support, I hope that it will succeed, but if the agenda of consequential devolution is based on envy and people saying, "Well, they've got devolution, so we want it, too," that will not be a sufficiently motivating factor. If there is a lack of support and enthusiasm for the idea throughout the rest of the country, what will the Government do? Will they, as the Minister and I have discussed, allow those government zones where there is a settled will on the issue to consider other boundaries and make proposals for regional government on the basis of boundaries that the Government do not currently recognise?

The Government must answer those questions. The challenge for them is to show that they have learned to let go a little, because a control-freak version of regional devolution is destined to fail. The Government's policy

15 May 2002 : Column 271WH

of creating city mayors on their terms has made a monkey of them and it would be unwise not to learn the lessons from that.

11.28 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. The lessons of devolution in Wales have a role to play and a real relevance in the debate that is taking place in England. The people of Wales regard the people of Cornwall very much as the western Welsh. Indeed, they sometimes feel that there but for the grace of history goes Wales, so I have great sympathy for the hon. Gentleman's arguments.

It is, of course, for the people of England to decide whether they want regional assemblies and, importantly, for the people in the regions to decide what the regions should be. However, there is no doubt that following devolution to Wales and Scotland, something must be done in England, and I believe that there are only two options. The first is an English Parliament, working alongside the Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Parliament. The second option is regional assemblies in England. The Government have introduced proposals for regional assemblies, and Wales and Plaid Cymru will follow the developments with a great deal of interest. I hope that we will be able to share our experiences with hon. Members in England.

The hon. Member for St. Ives made an important point that the choice must be made at that local level. It is vital for the Government to recognise and support any region that is a clearly distinct entity, has a strong historical identity and wants to move forward, in association with the Government, on regional devolution. I must confess that although I am not Cornish, I am one of the 50,000 who signed the declaration—the hon. Gentleman admitted that it included people from outside Cornwall. I received the publication about the Cornish Constitutional Convention and read it with interest. The fact that an area in England is so proactive in seeking regional devolution should dovetail with the Government's priorities and I hope that the Minister will listen to the hon. Gentleman's comments.

One of the lessons of the European experience of regional government is that we cannot and should not impose artificial areas. It was most recently tried in Italy, where Umberto Bossi of the Lega Nord tried to make out that northern Italy had a regional or independent status. He failed to convince even the Italian regions and I am afraid that the Government will fail to convince the people of England—whose decision it is—that artificial regions can deliver the benefits of devolution.

It is also interesting to note that regional government is happening within Wales. Having had national devolution, the Assembly has looked to devolve internally. For example, it has met in north Wales and established regional committees for north Wales and other regions. That is another interesting experience that could be brought to bear in England.

There can be no doubt that there will be huge benefits for regions in England if they accept regionalisation and regional assemblies. Interestingly, the Government deal

15 May 2002 : Column 272WH

for the English regions is in some respects better than what was on the table for Wales. Like the Scottish Parliament, regional assemblies will be able to raise tax, which the National Assembly for Wales cannot do. They will also be able to borrow, which the Assembly cannot do, although we would like to. The White Paper made it clear that borrowing and a tax-raising regime within a capping limit was important for local accountability and democracy. I agree and I hope that a similar process will come to Wales in good time.

How will the regional assemblies be funded? The Minister will know that whatever formula is used will surely have an impact on the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament. Will it be a Barnett-based funding formula? Barnett is totally discredited—even by Lord Barnett himself and by all independent economists—and the need now is for a truly needs-based formula to fund the regional assemblies in England and, as long as we have the present situation, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament.

It is also interesting to note that regional assemblies are seen in England as a vehicle for delivering economic development. There is huge potential and I welcome the Government's move, but regional government does not deliver economic development if it is not allied to the right policies. Paragraph 4 on page 9 of the White Paper says clearly:

Unfortunately, under the Wales Office and now the National Assembly for Wales, the Welsh share of gross domestic product has droped from 88 per cent. of the UK level to 80 per cent. Therefore, we want to watch the experience of areas such as the north-east of England with a great deal of caution. Simply setting up regional assemblies will not deliver economic development. Co-operation between them is needed to overcome regional disparities.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): If, for example, the north-east voted in a referendum for a regional assembly but the south-west voted against, how should the funding be decided? The costs of the reorganisation for the north-east would be huge. The running costs for a regional assembly would be an additional burden on the taxpayer and the figures for other associated reorganisations would be high. Should the south-west be compensated for not going off on this hare-brained route or should it be penalised by not having equal money provided as compensation for staying with its shire status?

Mr. Thomas : I confess that I have not considered that matter. I would imagine that the key would lie in a truly needs-based formula that delivered to all regions of England their share of the nation's prosperity, whether or not they chose to have a regional assembly.

My final point is a key one. The White Paper accepts the words of the former hon. Member for Caerphilly, Ron Davies, who told the National Assembly for Wales that devolution was a process not an event. Paragraph 4.5 of the White Paper says clearly that there are likely to be further proposals for the decentralisation of responsibilities to assemblies as time goes on. I do not know whether that also applies to the National

15 May 2002 : Column 273WH

Assembly for Wales, but I understand that this is a process in England. It is also a process in Wales. We will seek to work with the experience in England and hope to benefit from it. We also hope that we can bring our experience to enrich it too.

11.36 am

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. It is significant that the two contributions that follow his speech should come from a Member from Wales and one from Scotland. It emphasises how regional government in England is of importance not just to people in England, but to those of us elsewhere in the UK who already enjoy the benefits of devolved government.

Regional government in England is a way of completing the devolution process and ensuring that it spreads to all parts of the UK. Any potential instability in the current devolution arrangements for the UK as a whole lies in the imbalance between the large and effectively unitary geographical entity of England, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have devolved assemblies. Regional government in England could rectify that and the one-sided relationship between England and the other nations of the United Kingdom.

I am pleased that the example of devolution in Scotland and Wales has encouraged movement towards devolution and regional government in England. It has been the experience in states where regional government started gradually that the regions that originally opposed devolution learned from the examples where it was granted and were anxious to follow those regions that had moved ahead faster. I think of Spain in particular.

Mr. Andrew Turner : I am surprised that a Member from Scotland or one from Wales can compare regional devolution in England with devolution to the nations of Scotland and Wales. Those are two entirely different concepts, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree. He refers to the imbalance between England and the nations of Scotland and Wales, and Northern Ireland, which I appreciate is neither a nation nor a region. In what way does he, as a Scottish Member, think that that imbalance works?

Mr. Lazarowicz : I agree that one cannot compare the nations of Scotland and Wales or the community in Northern Ireland with the English regions. The beauty of the Government's approach is that it recognises the differences between areas in England, and that devolution takes different forms in different parts of the UK. That is the way to move forward.

One cannot say that under devolution, one part of the UK benefits at the expense of another. There is potential instability where one large part of the UK has no regional government, while other parts have their own national assembly or parliament or regional government.

Andrew George : In the light of the question from the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner), does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the lessons to learn

15 May 2002 : Column 274WH

from the unfinished business of devolution in Wales and Scotland is that devolution is most successful in areas that have a strong sense of identity? Scotland and Wales are nations and there is no question where the boundaries should fall. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should build our regions on strong communities with strong identities?

Mr. Lazarowicz : That lesson can be drawn to an extent, but I will not be drawn down the same road as the hon. Gentleman. In making decisions on the most appropriate form of government structure, geographical realities and economic structure cannot be ignored. One must find the best arrangement to meet popular needs within an area, region or nation, and to reflect the economic, social and political realities. No solution will fit all. That is what is attractive about the Government's proposals.

I praise the Deputy Prime Minister for bringing forward, with other Ministers, radical proposals for regional government. I say that not as a loyal member of the Government's party wishing to praise the Deputy Prime Minister, but because he genuinely deserves praise from across the political spectrum for pressing the case for regional government. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for St. Ives for welcoming the Government's proposals.

Devolution and regional government in Wales and Scotland are good not only as a democratic principle, but because they lead to improved government. One of the problems in our state is government over-centralisation. Moving away from that will benefit people throughout the UK.

Some in Scotland have suggested that we could lose from the establishment of a regional assembly in north-east England—that it could rival Scotland for the allocation of resources or the attraction of inward investment. That may be the case, but different regions will be rivals in some cases and partners in others. Clear economic interests unite Scotland and north-east England, for example, in food and transport, where regional governments and assemblies or national Parliaments and Governments could work together to provide a focus to address problems in a way that a centralised Government could not do effectively.

I issue one warning to the hon. Member for St. Ives and some of his hon. Friends in Cornwall. I do not want to interfere in the internal politics of another part of the United Kingdom, but I ask the hon. Gentleman to consider—

Mr. Swire : As the hon. Gentleman does not wish to interfere in other regions, or zones, of the United Kingdom, does that mean that when the Bill comes before the House he and his hon. Friends in Scotland will play no part in its deliberation?

Mr. Lazarowicz : It does not. I shall be happy to debate that point with the hon. Gentleman on another occasion if he so wishes, as we have no time to do so today.

I do not want to interfere in the internal political debate. I merely observe that almost 25 years ago, when the first referendums were held on whether there should be a Scottish Assembly, some took the position that they

15 May 2002 : Column 275WH

were not against Scottish devolution or a Scottish assembly per se, but against the type of devolution on offer then. That was the argument advanced at the time by a former Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home. One reason why the result in that referendum was so close was that the various parties and interests in favour of some type of devolution fell out among themselves. Twenty-odd years later there was resounding support for the establishment of a Scottish Parliament precisely because the various interests and political and social groupings that wanted devolution, including the nationalist party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, had the same agenda and worked together.

The hon. Member for St. Ives is in danger of losing the entire show and setting back the cause of any form of regional government in south-west England for a long time to come—which would be extremely unfortunate for those who want regional government in England as part of the wider UK settlement—because he is unhappy about the type of structure that the Government propose. I make that point not only in respect of the debate in the south-west of England, but because some elsewhere in England may want a form of regional government, but not with the boundary proposed, or not at this time.

Andrew George : As I recollect, the result of the original referendum in Scotland was gerrymandered. There was a clear "yes" vote; it was the interpretation that resulted in the referendum being lost. If the hon. Gentleman's advice is that we in Cornwall should ensure that the campaign is cross-party, I assure him that the Cornish Constitutional Convention is all-party; it has representatives of all parties and of none.

Mr. Lazarowicz : As a matter of historical fact, in the referendum in Scotland in the 1970s there was indeed a majority for a Scottish assembly, but a majority of only about 2 per cent. I was against the 40 per cent. rule, which meant that the majority in favour did not result in the introduction of a Scottish assembly. However, a proportion of 33 per cent. in favour and 31 per cent. against was not a resounding victory for the forces that supported devolution, compared with 75 per cent. in favour and 25 per cent. against 20 years later. That is what the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind.

The hon. Gentleman should concentrate his campaigning in support of the Government's proposals. He can suggest ways of representing what he considers to be the special Cornish interests in the south-west regional assembly, just as in Wales there are regional committees whose structures have been set up to take account of a particular interest or of different parts of Wales. I do not want to contribute further to the internal debate in Cornwall and other parts of England about what form of regional government to support. Again, however, I emphasise that those who support it should be wary of playing into the hands of those who are against any type of regional government whatsoever.

From the experience of Scotland, I can tell hon. Members that devolution works. It brings improved government to the people and provides an opportunity to focus on the real issues and concerns of the

15 May 2002 : Column 276WH

community, which cannot be addressed by an over-centralised form of government. However, there are lessons to be learned from the Scottish experience. One is to be careful of new buildings, a lesson which I hope is taken on board by those who bring forward proposals in England. Nevertheless, devolution is popular. Hon. Members from outside Scotland might not realise that from some of the one-sided press reports that sometimes appear in the UK media. All the opinion polls since devolution have shown that the number of people who support the Scottish Parliament is as high as ever. In the latest opinion poll, the number supporting a Scottish Parliament had increased by 4 per cent. since its establishment in 1999.

When I say that devolution and the Scottish Parliament are popular, I am not suggesting that Members of the Scottish Parliament are feted in the streets. That is not in the nature of the Edinburgh character. What is special about the Scottish Parliament is that, whatever its faults—it has made mistakes, like any democratic institution—it is seen as the Parliament of the people of Scotland, as our Parliament. It may do things that the people do not like but, at the end of the day, just as before 1707, if we do not like what the Members of Parliament do we can "aye peeble them wi' stanes", as was said then. We can certainly express our dissatisfaction, as well as our satisfaction, with that Parliament.

Once again, I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives on initiating the debate. I congratulate the Government on bringing forward proposals for regional government and urge them to implement them and put them before the people and regions of England at the earliest possible opportunity.

11.51 am

Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight): I, too, am pleased that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) was able to secure the debate. As the first representative of a constituency that is incontrovertibly part of England to speak in the debate, may I say that I agree with him on several issues to which he referred? The first and most important is the sense of locality and community. I am by no means convinced that the Isle of Wight is part of the south-east of England. I am not convinced that the south-east of England exists as a geographical entity, other than in terms of lines drawn on maps by various Government bodies at various times and adopted subsequently, not least by our European masters, to ensure convenience for some of their purposes.

Were we to look at the regions in the south-east and along the south coast of England, it is extremely unlikely that we would unite Margate and Milton Keynes, yet that is what the Government propose in their White Paper. I find it astonishing that Bournemouth—which for centuries, until the intervention of Sir Edward Heath, was part of Hampshire—should be regarded as so detached from the New Forest, Southampton and the Isle of Wight as to form part of a different government region, and that it might in the future form part of a different sub-regional government.

Before there is any question of a referendum, the regions should be defined in consultation with local people, at least where there is any chance of the regional boundaries not being agreed and broadly accepted. I

15 May 2002 : Column 277WH

speak as someone born in Coventry. Coventry knows pretty well where it is—in Warwickshire, in the west midlands, in the midlands of England. That is a matter of no dispute, but there is a good deal of dispute about whether Swindon, for instance, is part of the south-west, and certainly whether Swindon and the Scillies are part of the same region. Therefore, I ask the Minister, when he responds, to reflect carefully on whether we should break up existing bodies such as Southern Arts and Southern Tourism, amalgamating them with their counterparts in what is now defined by those bodies as the south-east, simply for the sake of having a regional ballot on a region that may not exist. That is a sure way to lose what the Government want.

The second point that concerns me is that, according to the White Paper, there will be a maximum of only 35 members on each regional assembly. I am not one to elect more politicians; I would not elect those 35 politicians, given the chance; but the Minister will stand no chance of obtaining support for a regional assembly from the people of the Isle of Wight if they believe that their representative will be shared with people in Portsmouth and Southampton, or Winchester, Basingstoke or Aldershot. That is a totally unsatisfactory arrangement. I am proud to represent the Isle of Wight and pleased that it is still a single constituency. I hope that it remains so for many years to come. I am sure that the people of the island would look for separate representation on any regional assembly that is set up. I should be surprised if people in other regions with their own identity did not feel the same.

The hon. Member for St. Ives, speaking of Cornwall's aspirations, says that the fact that no other areas have come forward with similar aspirations for their area to be a region strengthens the aspirations of the people of Cornwall. I in no way diminish the aspirations of the people of Cornwall when I say that others have come up with such aspirations. Indeed, the Liberal Democrats in my own constituency did so when they minted their own coins and when they imprint on their county council writing paper, amid the garland of ghastly stars, "A region of Europe". We are not a region of Europe; we are part of England. I have had run-ins in the past with the Liberals because they feel differently, although I do not expect to do so in the future, as they have learned their lesson.

The hon. Member for St. Ives said that the process of regionalisation galvanised local communities. He explained why when he said that local authorities are largely bodies that administer government policy. Because of the dissatisfaction with the role of local authorities as bodies that largely administer Government policy, an enthusiasm for regionalisation has emerged in some parts of the country. It is precisely because Governments have for too long been bodies for administering national policy, instead of representing the aspirations, desires, wishes, aims and ambitions of their local people—I accept that a Government whom I supported did that, but to nothing like the same extent as the current Government—that regionalisation becomes a possible option. People are seeking a form of self-governance, which I would hope they could achieve as successfully through Cornwall county council, Isle of Wight council or Dorset county council as through regionalisation or by throwing their lot in with Swindon, if they are in the Scillies, or with Woking and Winchester, if they are on the island.

15 May 2002 : Column 278WH

There are two further matters on which I seek reassurance from the Minister in his reply. The first is that the strengthening of regional institutions such as development agencies, regional chambers and so on will not proceed regardless of the desires of local people. That is the implication of the White Paper, which seems to be saying, "All right, people can vote on an elected regional assembly, but we, the Government, will power ahead with our regional development agencies and our regional chambers, regardless of the fact that they do not represent regions to which people relate and that people may not have voted for, or may even have voted against, a regional elected assembly."

The second matter on which I seek reassurance is that Government funding will not discriminate against areas that choose not to elect a regional assembly. The costs of the regional assembly and reorganisation of local government that may be necessary should be met not by national taxpayers, whether in the United Kingdom or England, but from within the regions that vote for that form of upheaval and additional expense, as they would no doubt benefit from any claimed savings that may follow.

Will the Minister confirm that no unitary authority, however small—whether the Isle of Wight or the Scilly isles—will be abolished following the introduction of regional government?

Mr. Simon Thomas : The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that a similar debate took place in Wales on whether the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales would lead to a diminution of local government relevance and powers. A recent independent report concluded that the Assembly had strengthened local government in Wales.

Mr. Turner : I am pleased to hear that.

There are three players in the argument about regional and local powers. The third player is the individual. If regions or counties are sucking up power from the individual, that is a form of removal of individual power, albeit accreted to local government rather than the region, which I would not be so confident of supporting. I accept that there is an imbalance in the current arrangements. To a great extent, English people—perhaps not in the north, but elsewhere in the country—have learned to live with that. We do not envy Scotland its Parliament, although we are glad that the Scots are satisfied with it. We worry sometimes when Scottish Members of this House try to intervene in English affairs, but the solution to that imbalance is not to introduce regional assemblies that would balkanise England. England is a nation. If we are to solve the problem of the imbalance, let us do so by establishing in the House an English Grand Committee to which legislation that affects only England could be referred.

12.2 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate. He asked two questions which have not been answered, and I hope that the Minister will pay attention to them. The document does not say which region we are discussing and whose the choice will be.

15 May 2002 : Column 279WH

The unitary answer given by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) would not devolve power, but centralise it, without adding power to a given area. It would merely centralise local government administration within the area. The unitary answer does not address the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) referred to a process, not an event. I hope that he is right and that the White Paper is part of a process and not the end of the line in the Government's thinking.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) referred to the potential instability arising from the imbalance that exists in the United Kingdom between a centralised English area of some 45 million or 50 million people and the devolved assemblies of the nations and other regions. That is an important point that everyone in England should consider.

The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) made an important point about the Government's proposal that regional assemblies should have a maximum of 35 members. He said that that is too small a number to represent fully the diversity of the regions.

Why is there a need to devolve power? It is necessary because the decision-making process in this country has become too centralised and many powers have been taken away from local areas, partly as a result of internal Government machinations to centralise power, and also because of the external influences of globalisation. The different needs of the many diverse communities throughout the country cannot be reflected in that central decision-making process.

The Liberal Democrats bring to the debate the clear philosophy of the "bottom-up" approach to government, or to put it more clearly, the "bubbling-up" theory of government, rather than the "top-down" approach. Liberal Democrat principles include accountability and democracy, and the "bottom-up" approach is about allowing a local community to determine its own needs and government, while passing up to the next tier matters with which it feels it cannot deal. The opportunity to conduct root-and-branch reform of decision making in the United Kingdom has been missed. In particular, the opportunity to rationalise tiers of government, rather than add to them, has been neglected.

Some hon. Members have mentioned quangos, and I should like to spend a little time discussing them. The quangos that exist in our society spend more than local government. They are unelected and their members, who take decisions on the appointed panels, receive payments. A recent parliamentary answer mentioned three types of quango that take decisions in our regions—health authorities, regional arts boards and regional development agencies. The cost of members' remuneration is more than £51 million for health authorities, nearly £23 million for regional arts boards and £1.3 million for regional development agencies. Any fear that regional assemblies would cost money would be knocked on the head if those three functions were put under the control of regional assemblies, which would pay for themselves over and over again.

15 May 2002 : Column 280WH

Whitehall does not know best; local communities are better placed to meet local needs. Non-statutory bodies are often better able to deliver services than Whitehall, yet such voluntary bodies and charities often have to look to central Government, rather than to their region, for funding. The Government booklet on the funding of voluntary and community organisations by central Government lists bodies that are active in the regions and which take decisions on behalf of people to whom they are not accountable. The Arts Council, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, English Heritage, the English tourist board, Sport England, the Basic Skills Agency, the Equal Opportunities Commission, the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, the Countryside Agency, English Nature, English Partnerships, the housing action trusts, the National Forest Company, the regional development agencies and the Rural Development Commission are a tiny proportion of the near-500 bodies that are spending taxpayers' money on behalf of people in the regions to whom they are not answerable.

The White Paper misses the point about regional government, and the opportunity has been missed to redefine government from the grass roots up and to take under democratic and accountable control those quangos that effectively are the democratic deficit at the heart of our unwritten constitution, which was once described as not being worth the paper that it was not written on.

Mr. Lazarowicz : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Sanders : I do not have enough time, as I know that the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) wants to speak.

The democratic deficit is reflected in the growth of quangos that take decisions for which they are not accountable in the regions. Regional assemblies should be created to put that right.

12.8 pm

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) on securing the debate, which, as he said, fortuitously coincides with the publication of the White Paper. The debate has centred on the contents of that document. The White Paper is so accurate that the map on the front page, which purports to show England, includes the Scottish uplands, but I am sure that the Minister had nothing to do with that inaccuracy.

The document is ill thought out and confusing. It is more of a sop to the Deputy Prime Minister and the north-east region than anything else. The idea put forward by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) that that is comparable to devolution in either Scotland or Wales is total nonsense. The power that will be given to regional assemblies is tiny in comparison with that given to either of those examples. The powers set out in the document will actually take power away from existing local councils. Public services will not improve because a new tier of regional politicians has been created. New talking shops

15 May 2002 : Column 281WH

and extra regional red tape will not boost economic growth or help the vulnerable. The policy of the Conservative party is to get power closer to the people.

Mr. Lazarowicz : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss : I have only a few minutes left, so I shall not give way to anyone.

Genuine decentralisation should be to local government, not to regional quangos and bureaucrats. Conservatives want to save counties such as Cornwall, Durham and Kent. We oppose regional government because it will dilute political representation and it is based on arbitrary regional definitions. In his opening remarks, the hon. Member for St. Ives found it difficult to use the word "region" and instead used the expression "government zones". He has a valid point. The boundaries do not mark natural regions but are just arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

An interesting article by Christopher Booker in The Sunday Telegraph included a map that was drawn in 1971 by a Brussels official. The regions set out by the Government are nearly identical to those set out by that Brussels bureaucrat. I shall not go into the European dimension; the evidence is there for all to see, without it being necessary to draw the obvious conclusion.

Mr. Sanders : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Moss : No, I shall continue.

Labour's plans for regional government will mean less, not more, power for local communities. Labour has said that the formation of regional assemblies will require the abolition of the county councils. It flagged that up some time ago in its 1997 manifesto and again in its 2001 manifesto. We should not be surprised that part of the reorganisation will, in fact, destroy the county councils. I have done some quick calculations. If the counties and shire districts in eastern England, which I know fairly well, were replaced with sensibly sized unitaries, the number of elected members within the whole of eastern England would be reduced by about 38 per cent. That is a huge reduction in the number of representatives, at all levels of local government. The idea that the proposal will bring democracy and local councillors closer to the people is nonsense. There will be fewer representatives for the population of East Anglia and I believe that those figures and that analysis will be easily replicated for all the regions.

I picked up on an inaccuracy in the document. The Minister may care to comment on it today or write to me about it. A table on page 66, on the organisation of local government in the regions, states that the east of England has four unitary authorities out of a total of 54. However, the reference under the map on page 71 is to 20 unitary councils—a total inaccuracy in the space of a few pages. Is the number four or is it 20? I know for a fact that it is four, so why are the Minister and his Department putting 20 unitary councils down for the east of England?

We are also opposed to regional government because of the cost. Restructuring costs will be involved in reorganising the local authorities. The last reorganisation, which was of Humberside county council in, I believe, 1998, cost £53 million in one-off

15 May 2002 : Column 282WH

reorganisation administrative costs. If that is replicated throughout all 34 remaining councils in England, the total bill will approach about £2 billion.

We then have the running costs of the regional assemblies. By calculating the costs for the Greater London Authority and apportioning them on a pro rata population basis, the Local Government Association has come up with an annual cost of £300 million a year for administration alone for the eight regional government authorities.

There will also be costs associated with the government assembly buildings. The cost for the Scottish Parliament is huge—£300 million and rising. The Welsh Assembly building cost £50 million, and the Greater London Authority building will cost £120 million. If we take a reasonably low figure of £50 million for each of the regional authorities, that is another £400 million just to construct offices to house the assemblies.

On set-up costs, the White Paper blithely mentions that it will cost only £20 million to set up the north-east regional government, but £20 million is a huge amount of money and, replicated in eight regions, the total comes to £160 million. Huge costs will be involved and the Government have not yet told us how the scheme is to be funded. Perhaps the Minister will tell us, in the short time that he has to reply.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned the Barnett formula. There have been moves, certainly by the Deputy Prime Minister, to revisit the Barnett formula and perhaps money will be taken from Scotland and Wales to fund this scheme. That would not go down too well, I am sure, but it is a possibility. We have not heard a peep so far on how the Government are going to find the money and in what time scale. It is important that we learn the Government's intentions.

The White Paper suggests that going down the road of regional government will iron out regional disparities in wealth and income. There is no evidence to suggest that elected regional assemblies will provide a panacea for the problems of regional wealth and income differences. In fact, there is considerable evidence to suggest that regional assemblies will only increase regional disparities. While the present centralised system of government might not achieve economic equality across England, it is probable that the creation of regional assemblies, each pursuing its own agenda and competing with the others, will only add to existing regional inequalities.

What is the evidence from the rest of Europe, where there is regional government? It is not helpful. France and Germany possess a strong and clear structure of regional government but regional variations in income are just as great as in the United Kingdom. For example, average income in the Paris region is almost double that in the south and east of France. The economic argument that regional assemblies will act to lessen economic disparities between the regions and counter the north-south divide, as the White Paper purports, is deeply problematic.

The Government have not thought through their proposals on regional government. On the one hand, they are saying that it is a good idea, for all the reasons given in the White Paper, but on the other they are allowing local regions to decide for themselves. Coupled

15 May 2002 : Column 283WH

with the referendums on regional government will be the requirement for fairly substantial reorganisation and restructuring at district and county level. It is unclear how the Government will approach that and, again, a huge cost will be involved. The paper talks about the Minister taking soundings. Can the Minister tell us what soundings he and his colleagues are preparing to take? How can taking soundings be measured, in any terms, as a democratic input into finding out what the regions want? That will happen long before the matter is put to the ballot.

On the referendum ballot, do the Government intend to couple both questions so that as people vote for regional government they vote for a structure of unitary authorities in the same box, or will they vote in preference for both? I think that the Minister is nodding to the former. However, the new boundaries for unitary authorities will be determined, we are told, by the boundary committees. What consultation will they undertake? The last time that we attempted such a scheme, it was incredibly difficult to achieve agreement and, as a result, only a small proportion of authorities went into unitary status. In East Anglia, there are only four unitary authorities among 54, so the costs there will be enormous.

What worries me, in terms of democratic accountability, is who will control the outcome of the boundary committees. How will they arrive at a consensus for reorganising and redistributing boundaries? That is an incredibly difficult task and I think that the Government have completely overlooked the fact that it will hold up the whole proceedings. We will have piecemeal development on an ad hoc basis.

My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) raised an important question. If some regions go ahead with assemblies, and every expectation is that the north-east wants to and will do so first, will they attract additional money? Will the Government make it more attractive to go down that road because additional grant moneys are available? The Government ought to come clean. If it is such a good idea, why are they not going down the road of making sure that it happens quickly instead of having a piecemeal and ad hoc arrangement that will lead to confusion and instability in local authorities? Already in the north-east, local district councils are saying that they cannot get people to reply to job adverts—people are not prepared to work for authorities that may disappear in the next three or four years. There is a distraction and hiatus in ensuring that the normal services provided at that level work effectively.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I regret that I have very little time to respond to several important points that were raised. I would like to join other hon. Members in thanking the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for proposing the debate. It is a very good time to debate the topic.

The White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions" has just been published. I note and appreciate the support that the

15 May 2002 : Column 284WH

hon. Member for St. Ives gave to that White Paper and many things in it. I believe that it sets out our policy clearly. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that he believes that Britain cannot achieve its full potential unless all its regions share in success and drive that success. The proposals in our White Paper will give the regions of England new choices, new powers, and a new voice. That sums up the purpose of the White Paper.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) has opposed that proposal root and branch. Hon. Members will remember that during the last debate on the subject it was pointed out that regional chambers are now full of Conservatives taking part in the activities of those chambers. I recall that the Conservatives opposed the Scottish Parliament, in which they are now taking part. It is a similar situation in the National Assembly for Wales and the Greater London Assembly. I anticipate that when elected regional assemblies are up and running, there will be Conservatives present, taking full part in the proceedings.

In addition to that Canute-like opposition, the hon. Gentleman appeared to set his face against regional assemblies because he really wanted to ensure that community government was alive and well, and therefore he wanted to preserve counties, the well-known vanguards of community government throughout the country. He also opposed the whole idea of the White Paper because it would not produce a perfect outcome. That appears to be a rather strange method of opposition. Of course things will not be perfect. As hon. Members have said, the White Paper sets out a process, which will change further. The opportunity that the White Paper presents to the regions is to allow them to play a much greater role in their own strategic decision making—in how money is deployed and used in the regions. Although that is not a perfect endpoint, it is a great step forward in terms of how the regions can function best in their own interest.

The White Paper therefore sets out a series of measures to develop and extend regional policy in England and that should be welcomed throughout the whole country. Indeed, hon. Members have pointed out that it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. The regions are in the best position to address their own particular needs. Those needs will be different and the assemblies may well work in different ways. The solution that is suggested in the White Paper is different from the solutions in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. There are different circumstances and ideas for how the regions might move forward in England.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) talked about the way in which assemblies might be funded. Assemblies will have a strategic role, which is their purpose. A needs-based formula that resembles that for local government would therefore be inappropriate. The hon. Gentleman will have seen from the White Paper that essentially the money will be provided by a transfer of the funds that are already deployed in the regions, but at present they are deployed without democratic accountability. He will see on page 45 an exemplification of how that transfer of funds might work in a particular region, which was the point made by the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders). The cost of running the assemblies will largely come

15 May 2002 : Column 285WH

from a transfer of money that is already being spent by people who are taking those decisions but are not doing so on an accountable basis.

As hon. Members pointed out, assemblies will have the opportunity to issue precepts and to borrow. The cost of running the assemblies will therefore be absorbed from within the total sum of money available and the savings from transferring officials from the Government offices of the regions to the regional assemblies. I confirm for the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) that there would be no intention of discriminating on funding against regions without an elected regional assembly. The distribution of funding in the regions would remain the same. The fundamental difference would be that an elected regional assembly would have the right to determine how the funding was being used in its region through a block grant.

The White Paper builds on the successes that have already been achieved and puts the regions at the heart of policies to create a more prosperous and inclusive society. It is relevant to all English regions. Regional chambers will have new responsibilities as regional planning bodies. They will help to integrate regional strategies and improve regional co-ordination. They will enhance accountability in the regions. They will work closely with Government offices and other Government-funded bodies in the region and will be given extra responsibilities to strengthen regional decision making.

Hon. Members asked how elected assemblies would be formed. Regional assemblies are all about choice. If there is popular demand in a region for an elected assembly and most voters are in favour, it will become a reality. If not, that will not happen. The Government are not imposing regional assemblies on the regions. As with many other important regional decisions, each region must decide. We are giving people the chance to make up their own mind and to help to decide their regional future. There is no secret timetable for

15 May 2002 : Column 286WH

referendums. A decision to hold a referendum would be based on the groundswell of interest in the region and the representations made. I agree with the hon. Member for St. Ives that that is a process. The hon. Member for Isle of Wight will see what the word "process" means if he reads paragraph 4.5 of the White Paper.

Those hon. Members who opposed the White Paper's proposals mentioned several times that they wanted to preserve counties. As hon. Members know, the Government do not have an agenda to abolish counties. The boundary committee would consider a process of local government in that region before any referendum was held. People will vote with their eyes open.

Mr. Moss : Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Whitehead : No, I cannot give way.

I confirm to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that no unitary authorities will be abolished. That is stated explicitly on page 66 of the White Paper. The boundary committee will be asked to propose a process of unitary government. A county could be the unitary government.

Andrew George : Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Whitehead : I apologise, but I cannot give way as I have so little time to finish my comments.

The key question is what is a region? Under the Government's proposals, a region must create the democratic space for a function to take place and the strategic regional decision-making function is a clear level of governance that is necessary and helpful in this country.

The idea that regions simply represent historic communities and nothing else is not central to how we devolve power, accountability and decision making in England. That is the basis upon which the White Paper will proceed.

15 May 2002 : Column 285WH

15 May 2002 : Column 287WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page