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Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Roy Beggs, David Burnside, Mr. Jeffrey M. Donaldson, Mr. Tom Clarke, Lady Hermon, Mr. Eddie McGrady, Lembit Öpik and Mr. David Trimble.
Rev. Martin Smyth accordingly presented a Bill to make provision for identification of persons in Northern Ireland with severe learning disability; to make provision for the assessment of their health, social care and other needs; to make provision for appropriate services for such persons and for independent advocates to act on their behalf; and for connected purpose: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 130].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. There is a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I appeal to Front Benchers and to all hon. Members to bear it in mind that as a result of an important statement time has been lost. I hope that some regard will be paid to the time taken in the principal speeches, so that everyone who wishes to speak will be able to do so.
The motion is not about whether we are for or against the principle of elected regional government. The Government's amendment seeks to rerun those arguments in case they can win some support, but that is not what today's debate is about: it is about how the Government have pursued their policy. Whether we are for or against the assemblies is not the point. In fact, if I were for regional assemblies I would be extremely unhappy with the way in which the Government have been pursuing their policyand there is every indication that the yes campaigns in the three regions and their supporters, including many Labour Members, are in utter despair over the sheer incompetence of the Deputy Prime Minister and his fellow Ministers. Perhaps, indeed, they have not even bothered to show up.
Let us consider the history of the Government's policy on regional administration. Proposals for elected regional assemblies were first included in Labour's 1997 election manifesto, as Labour was committed to both Scottish and Welsh devolution and needed a policy to provide some kind of answer to the infamous West Lothian question, which is really the English question. The issue was fudged; the English were to be offered a sop. However, following the near disaster of the referendum on a Welsh Assembly, when only 50 per cent. of the electorate voted and barely half of them voted in favour, the Government lost their nerve on
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referendums for regional assemblies in England. The proposals for elected assemblies were delayed, and it is only during this second term that the Government have returned to that agenda.
Labour's agenda for constitutional reform has always been a mess. It is based not on any coherent overarching vision for the United Kingdom, but on a series of disjointed measures amounting to little more than a policy designed to cement Labour ascendancy in Labour strongholds. That is why there are to be three referendums in the north of England. The regional assemblies proposed for the north are based on the same principle, and on regional boundaries that were constructed by Whitehall for its administrative convenience, not because of any intrinsic sense of their identity. They do not represent real communities with a historical identity, like Scotland or Wales. That is why the Government's consultation exercise entitled "Your Region, Your Say" received such a derisory response. There were fewer than 8,500 replies from a potential 40 million English people, although the deadline was extended twice.
Nevertheless, with the wrong concept of England's place in the United Kingdom constitution, with so-called regions that had been artificially created and with a complete lack of public enthusiasm, the Deputy Prime Minister proceeded with his White Paper on elected regional assemblies two years ago. From that document it was immediately clear that, unlike the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, English regional assemblies would be nothing but toothless talking shops. In almost every paragraph of the White Paper there is mention of "creating strategies", "influencing budgets" and "consultation with stakeholders". Nowhere do we see real devolution of power from Whitehall to regional government. The Government have made great play of the claim that regional assemblies will control hundreds of millions of pounds, but the truth is that a regional assembly would control less than 2 per cent. of public spending in any region. What sort of devolution is that?
Even those who are campaigning for a regional assembly are complaining. In July last year Lord Rooker, a Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said in another place that regional assemblies would have
"no new money, no new powers".[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2003; Vol. 651, c. 757.]
The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) said:
"The powers and functions of assemblies were set out in full in the White Paper."[Official Report, 8 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 347W.]
Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con):
Is not the situation much worse than that? Not only will there be no extra money or powers; in future, if a United Kingdom Government wanted to target further moneys at disadvantaged areas in the north-west such as Manchester or Liverpool, they would be unable to do so
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because that provision would fall under state aid rules. That would have to go through the Commission, which would decide on it. That is another example of further powers being taken away from the United Kingdom Government.
In December last year, it started to become clear that the Deputy Prime Minister regarded the policy set out in the White Paper as merely an interim negotiating position. A leaked minute from a private meeting with "yes for the north-west" and others in his Department reveals that he raised the issue of the Barnett formula and that he believed that
"the introduction of regional assemblies would provide a great opportunity to open up the debate."
How is that debate going? The Treasury quickly and comprehensively trashed the whole notion. In January, recognising the failure of the appeal of his proposals to the people of the north of England, the Deputy Prime Minister threw the Government's proposals into further turmoil. When questioned about the powers that an assembly would have, he said:
"There are battles to be had between government departments on what is included. Those are battles I am prepared for."
Perhaps the Minister will expand a little on those battles. What are they about? How are discussions going on the Barnett formula, or police authorities? On that same day, the Deputy Prime Minister said:
"Some of our police authorities are just too small at the moment. Things are changing all the time and I know David"
"has spoken about the need of maybe changing some police decision-making."
I therefore tabled a question to the Home Secretary, asking what plans he had to place police authorities under the control of elected assemblies. But who should reply? Not the Home Office, but the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who is here today. Clearly, the Home Secretary had heard nothing of those proposals and, perhaps in panic, had passed the question to the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who replied:
"The White Paper . . . sets out the powers of Elected Regional Assemblies."[Official Report, 2 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 709W.]
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