White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions"

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Andrew George (St. Ives): I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside on setting the exact tone of the debate, the line of inquiry and the level of scrutiny that is necessary. The White Paper is a welcome move by the Government to establish regional government throughout England. However, questions must be asked about how it will be done. The hon. Lady has rightly raised serious issues, most of which I echo. She mentioned the well-attended meeting of the north-west campaign group in Keswick.

Although it is inconvenient for the Government and others, I must stress that 50,000 people in Cornwall and elsewhere have given their support to the campaign for a Cornish assembly, the boundary for which does not match that favoured by the Government. Although the Government and some of their supporters want to head off such a decision with a ''cart before the horse'' initiative to campaign for a single unitary authority in Cornwall, they must face up to the fact that communities and regions will not necessarily agree with their proposals. The theme of my argument is sincere. Liberal Democrats want to make sure that the Government will succeed in delivering genuine devolution to genuine regions.

The White Paper is entitled ''Your Region, Your Choice'', but people who want devolution believe that it should be re-entitled ''The Government's Region, The Government's Choice''. Throughout the White Paper, the Government seem not to have sufficiently constrained their control freak tendency. They must understand that devolution is about letting go, not hanging on. Clearly, the regions are the Government's clearly defined regions. It seems that nothing else will be acceptable. The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) rightly asked questions about people's views and whether such a debate should take place. It will be difficult; it could be messy, but such discussions would result in more effective devolution and shapes of regional government that are not envisaged at present by the Government. Such action may provide solutions to issues that will otherwise result in a stalemate and no devolution. We do not want to see that happen.

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The White Paper deals with Government zones, not regions with which people can identify and that have an internal integrity. I take off my hat to those campaigning in the north-east and the north-west. It is not for me to judge whether certain regions exist. Campaigning is taking place in Yorkshire, too.

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew George: I shall gladly give way to the hon. Lady. In a previous debate, she tried to interpret the fact that the 50,000 people who clearly supported a Cornish declaration supported a south-west regional assembly. Perhaps she will clarify her position in her intervention.

Ms Atherton: The hon. Gentleman misinterpreted what I said. I said that not everyone was aware of what they were signing up to with the Cornish assembly, but that is for a another debate.

In congratulating people who have campaigned around the country—in the north-east and the north-west—for their own regional assembly, is the hon. Gentleman aware that people in our region of the south-west are also campaigning for their own assembly? Will he also congratulate them?

Andrew George: I assume that the hon. Lady supports that campaign. I should like to know whether anyone else in Cornwall supports it as I have yet to find them. When the hon. Lady speaks later in the debate, perhaps she can elucidate on that issue.

I am aware that a general constitutional convention has been working closely with the Cornish Constitutional Convention and they are shortly to publish a joint report on joint modelling to deal with the issue of mutual respect and recognition. Their conclusions about the viability of regions, which are also addressed in the Government's paper, are interesting. If we raise our eyes above the rather insular and parochial view of the UK and look to Canada, other nations in Europe and elsewhere, variable geography and asymmetry deliver a much more chilled-out, less control-freakish form of devolution, which allows for genuine regions to emerge and manage their own affairs at an appropriate level.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is opposed to a south-west regional assembly and would campaign against one in a referendum?

Andrew George: I am pleased to hear that question. I should like the genuine will and ambition of the people of any region to be fulfilled. As the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) and those living in Gloucestershire and Dorset know, some regions do not relate to the Government zone, which is synthetic and has been set up for bureaucratic convenience. Such issues are better resolved by the people themselves. I spoke to people on the Welsh borders in Herefordshire, Shropshire and elsewhere

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who would not favour a regional assembly for the west midlands.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew George: Let me first deal with the issue raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins).

The question is whether there is internal integrity in a Welsh borders region, which would include Gloucestershire. We therefore need an opportunity to consider better-shaped, more appropriate regions with which people can identify. The South West Constitutional Convention is a very small body, which receives little, if any, expression of popular support. Unlike in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire, there is no proposal on the table—at least, no serious proposal based on strong public support—for a south-west regional assembly.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Let me try again. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, as he has already elucidated, that the Government's proposals for a south-west regional assembly stretch from the Isles of Scilly in the south-west to Tewkesbury in the north and Southampton in the east. He knows perfectly well, from the written parliamentary answers that the Minister has given, that the Government are not prepared to change those boundaries. With those boundaries, would the hon. Gentleman be in favour of or against a regional assembly? While he is answering that, perhaps he can tell us whether he is in favour of a regional income tax as well as a national and a local one.

The Chairman: Order. I remind the Committee that a number of hon. Members still wish to speak and we have less than 30 minutes left.

Andrew George: I shall do my best to answer. I was hoping that my contribution would provoke some debate and intervention and I am pleased that it has.

In paragraph 6.5, the Government make it clear that they will not necessarily stick to existing government boundaries. From my private conversations with those who have been involved in the process but are no longer, and from speaking to others involved in the process who are not in this Committee now, it has become clear to me—I am happy to wager money on this—that regional devolution is not deliverable on the present construct of the south-west. I do not believe that there is public support out there for it or that the proposal will get to the stage of a referendum. Therefore, the question of whether I would vote for it if there were such an opportunity does not arise.

I was attempting to get into my stride with my introductory comments when interventions began. On the title of the document and the questions of whose region it is and what choice there is, the first point to be made concerns what kind of choice is being offered to people, especially where the powers are concerned. In my earlier question to the Minister, I said that in my view many people who look at the White Paper will think that it is not worth breaking into a sweat about. I said that not from opposition but from

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disappointment, reflecting, I think, the views of other hon. Members. There is disappointment that the powers proposed in the document are largely those of scrutiny and quangos, not powers that could provide regional assemblies with any teeth. I imagine that many people who want regional assemblies to succeed believe that it is worth putting a great deal of effort into them. I should like to see the sort of devolution that would make that process worthwhile.

The potential for confusion over public health relating to the powers has not been raised elsewhere. The paper proposes that, as well as having strategic health authorities and primary care trusts and giving Government offices a role in health matters, there will be a public health remit for the regional assemblies. That might add to possible confusion for the public over where they should go for support, advice, answers or action to address health issues in their region.

Still on the subject of powers, there is a proposal to have high-level indicators. Although that reflects the Chancellor's theme of wanting to have control over all matters on which Government money is spent, right down to school level, it runs against the spirit of devolution because it offers a reward if assemblies meet Government targets. It will be hard for assemblies to contemplate significant innovation or policy divergence in such circumstances, especially where those indicators and rewards do not apply to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) mentioned the unitary structure and whether the statements on that in the White Paper provide a hostage to fortune for the Government. University college, London, identified that as a problem in its response, saying that those proposals could stifle regional government at birth because they would be a gift to Opposition parties—not ours—that want to campaign to save the shire counties. Why have the Government departed from their previous position of wanting predominantly unitary local government before the setting up of regional assemblies? That would seem a wiser position to take in the circumstances. Experience in Europe suggests that moving away from that is not necessarily a pre-condition of regional government, which the Government themselves show in the White Paper. France, Germany, Italy and Spain have either retained, or not found it necessary to abolish, a two-tier structure of regional government.

Boundaries, and the question of what is a region, will be the Achilles heel of the proposal, especially as we go further south in the country—to the south-east or the south-west—for reasons that I touched on earlier. That question is addressed properly neither in the White Paper nor by the Government. It was relatively easy for the Government to achieve devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland because we knew that those places existed and there was little quibble about their boundaries.

In an earlier debate, I asked the Minister whether the Government were obsessed with the boundaries that they had defined or whether they were prepared to debate them and take a more flexible line. At that stage, he said that of course they were not obsessed.

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However, the document implies that they are pretty obsessed with those boundaries, apart from a caveat in paragraph 6.5. There is an emperor's clothes question here that needs to be asked and will increasingly be asked as the process goes forward. What will we do if a region does not actually exist?

For regions such as Cornwall, the north-east and elsewhere, the process will be an object in itself and just as exciting as the actual achievement. It will be exciting for me personally because I enjoy challenging tired old metropolitan prejudices about small places, but it will also have the capacity to galvanise our community and help the promotion of our brand and distinctiveness in Cornwall. It will build self-confidence in a place where that has been lacking for a long time. Thanks to the Government, and thanks to campaigns in Cornwall, we have achieved at European level recognition of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly as a region for the purposes of the delivery of objective 1 funds. The campaign in Cornwall is popular and it is also very young. It is interesting that it is particularly well supported by young people.

Now that the Government have produced their White Paper and have the opportunity to reflect, I urge them to reflect on the scrutiny that the paper has been given in this Committee.

6.48 pm

 
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