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18 Dec 2002 : Column 894continued
I am not an expert in these matters, but I understand that by most transport links it takes an awful lot longer to get from the Isles of Scilly to Bristol than it takes to get to London. That would lead to a rather odd situation.
Jim Knight: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way for a second time. I have two questions for him. First, why does he cite Bristol as the base for the south-west, given that it is highly possible that it would be Exeter, which is certainly much more straightforward for people from the Isles of Scilly to get to? Secondly,
Matthew Green: I am slightly lost as to the meaning of the hon. Gentleman's second point. I mention Bristol only because the Government's administrative region for the south-west has its central offices there, and I believe that the quango regional assembly also meets there. I admit that another place could be chosen, but Bristol seems a reasonable assumption. However, before we get too excited about what the regions can or cannot choose to do, we should bear in mind that if the assemblies follow the terms of the Government's White Paper, they will not even be able to choose their own health advisers; they will have to accept the person that the Secretary of State appoints. Indeed, the regions may not even have the power to decide where the assemblies sit.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): Given that the assemblies will have so little power, why should they not just hire a charabanc and tour round the regions, saving us all the costs associated with the Scottish Parliament?
In other regions, boundary issues may well arise. Frankly, in my own region the people of Shropshire, of Herefordshire and of Worcestershire do not feel that they are part of the west midlands; however, the people of the north-east probably do feel that they are part of the north-east region. In my view and the view of many in Shropshire, it would probably make a lot more sense for Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, which share a common heritage, to be grouped together. Perhaps other people would say the same of their counties. My region consists of 1.7 million people, which is not that far off the population of the north-east. However, we cannot possibly consider such a grouping because the regional boundaries as laid down are sacrosanct.
Matthew Green: No, because I do not consider it not right for me to go round the country drawing lines on maps; however, the Government obviously think that they can do so. That is the point of having a reviewwe would not want to prescribe the total number of regions, or their size.
We have heard that the south-east, with a population of 8 million, is the largest region judged by those terms, but I think that all of us accept that it is probably also the region with the least well-defined regional identity. Perhaps that is why enthusiasm for regional government appears to be lowest in the south-east.
On the Conservatives' approach to this issue, amendment No. 46 wraps up with boundary reviews lots of other aspects that are perhaps undesirable. They are proceeding by way of reference to new clause 3the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge has touched on itwhich we are not debating today. It is rather odd that the new clause should refer to the desirability that all regions be of approximately equal size. I am not entirely clear whether that means in terms of population or area. Population might be the more sensible of the two; we can think of plenty of reasons why authorities being the same size in terms of area might not make sense. For example, the south-west is relatively under-populated, whereas the metropolitan areas of the west midlands are densely populated. However, even if the proposal referred to population, we would struggle to get natural communities from it. One of the reasons why we are unable to support amendment no. 46 is that the Conservatives have gone about the matter in an undesirable way.
Mr. Raynsford: I have been following the hon. Gentleman's argument with some interest and his most recent remarks with a certain amount of sympathy. Clearly he would like a major review of boundaries to be undertaken. Does he have a view on the minimum size that would make a region viable? Specifically, given the presence of his hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) in the Chamber, would he consider Cornwall sufficiently large to be a viable region in its own right?
Matthew Green: That is exactly what a review would look at. [Interruption.] I do not have a view because I do not know a lot about Cornwall and its viability as a separate region. My hon. Friend would know a lot more about that.
Andrew George: Does my hon. Friend accept that the smallest size that a region could be is no smaller than the largest tier of local government? If we raise our eyes above the level of the parish and the often insular debate within the UK and look at the wider world, we see a variety of regions of different sizes in different countries that work perfectly well. Can we not accept that there are regionsand nations in some casesin other parts of the world that have populations smaller than that of Cornwall?
Matthew Green: My hon. Friend makes his point exceedingly well and that is the sort of issue that we would want a review to look at. We believe that such a review could be concluded within about 12 months.
Mr. Hammond: The hon. Gentleman has attacked the phrasing of the new clause. Does he accept that the new clause would require the Electoral Commission to have regard to the desirability of all regions being of approximately equal size, as well as the need to reflect identities? According to the Bill's own language, that exact same requirement would be placed on the
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman is muddling up regional government and local government. Even within local government, we see different sizes of unitary authority. Rutland is the smallest of the unitary authorities now. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that Rutland should not be a unitary authority? People in Rutland should perhaps know of this new move from the Conservatives.
Amendment No. 24 would put a threshold in the Bill, but I cannot see why the Conservatives are keen on having a threshold. Frankly, the only thing they are currently good at is going around the country stirring up apathy. Given that they are led by the quiet man, it is no surprise that they want to see as little activity as possible.
The key point is that the referendums are indicative and not binding. The Ministerand, presumably, at least part of this Housemust make a decision before a regional assembly is set up, as the Minister will probably confirm when he winds up.
Setting a threshold of 25 per cent. voting in favour in a referendum is not putting a hurdle before the Minister; ultimately, it is putting a hurdle before the House's ability to decide things for itself. That is what I find strange about the amendment. The referendums are not the final say; they are indicative. Once again, we will not support the Conservatives on amendment No. 24. I only hope that when the Bill gets to another place, we might be able to find agreement on amendments on boundaries on which we can agree. It is a shame that the relevant amendments that we tabled were not selected.
Mr. Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood): I want to address my remarksreasonably briefly, I hopeto amendment No. 46, which has been spoken to by my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond). The amendment deals directly with the principle of a pre-legislative referendum. The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green), the Liberal Democrat spokesman, just said that we did not need to worry because the referendums were merely indicative and advisory. He said that a yes vote in a region would come back to the House for a decision, and that would be the decisive moment.
With respect, that ignores the effect of the political dynamic. If a referendum in a particular region resulted in a vote in favour of the establishment of an assembly, there would be a strong political dynamic to carry out the expressed wishes of the electorate of that region. It is for that reason, and because I recognise the power of such a referendum result, that it is important for the House to consider what it is being asked to agree to as a principle to be put before the electorate in one of the referendums envisaged by the Bill.