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Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): What the Secretary of State has not told us is what very bad news elected regional assemblies would be for rural areas. Is it not inevitable that a regional assembly in the west midlands would be dominated by the interests, agenda and representatives of the Birmingham conurbation, and would suck in cash and powers from the rural areas? Whatever value county councils have, at least they provide some voice for rural areas in local government, which the right hon. Gentleman is proposing to abolish. Will this not inevitably be another advance in the interests of our great cities at the expense of our countryside and market towns?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It appears that this debate will continue as it startedby reflecting the hypocrisy of the Opposition. I will take no lectures from Tories on what happens in rural areas. The facts are clear to see from their 18 years in government. Since then, we have begun to make improvements. For the first time, we have produced a rural White Paper to consider precisely how we might improve the quality of services. At least we guarantee rural areas the advance in services that has occurred in urban areas.
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland): Is my right hon. Friend aware that for those of us who, like himself, campaigned for more than 25 years for regional government, the publication of the White Paper is a cause of huge celebration? It represents a great leap forward in establishing a vigorous authentic voice for the north-east. Is my right hon. Friend also aware that we know that the White Paper would not have been published without his tenacity over the past 20 years?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: Of course I am grateful for my right hon. Friend's candid remarks. He has campaigned on this issue for a long time and, indeed, we have worked together on such campaigns. It is a special day for us because we belong to a Government who are introducing a White Paper on regional government. It is a great leap forward, as my right hon. Friend says. It will allow each region to develop a special voice, especially in the north-east. We have the opportunity to go out and sell the case and to show that there can be a more democratic way of working, which is what the White Paper does.
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I assure the hon. Gentleman that if the people do not choose to take the route of an elected regional assembly, the present local government structure will remain as it is. However, if the region that includes the Isle of Wight wishes to go for a directly elected assembly, the local authority structure will be considered by the boundary commission and included in the proposals for a referendum. It is a choice for the people in the Isle of Wight and the south-east region.
Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough): I welcome today's announcement, particularly in view of the fact that I represent a constituency in the middle of an objective 1 area which has the lowest gross domestic product per capita in the United Kingdom. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the future establishment of regional assemblies can only assist and enhance the future economic regeneration of neglected places such as Barnsley and Doncaster?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I have no doubt that that will help areas such as Barnsley, but we should also take into account Government measures before the White Paper, not least the £350 million coalfield community fund, which we introduced to help mining areas that had been destroyed, particularly by the vicious policy pursued by the previous Administration.
The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about Martin Sixsmith in response to[Interruption.]
On 26 February, I made a statement to the House concerning Martin Sixsmith. In that statement, I briefly described events that took place on 15 February. I said explicitly that the details of the events of that day were set out in the public statement made by my permanent secretary on 25 February. Both statements made it clear that discussions aimed at resolving the terms of Martin Sixsmith's departure were continuing. Those discussions were conducted without ministerial involvement. A resolution has been arrived at under which Martin Sixsmith is compensated in accordance with his employment rights, and an agreed statement was published on Tuesday of this week.
Also on Tuesday, a copy of the agreed statement was placed in the Library and reported to the Select Committee on Public Administration, which had asked my Department to clarify the position of Martin Sixsmith as part of an inquiry that it was conducting. I want to take this opportunity to explain to the House how the settlement that was reached with Martin Sixsmith and the agreed statement published on Tuesday relate to my oral statement in the House on 26 February. In particular, I want to address the concern that paragraph 2 of the agreed statement is in conflict with my statement in the House on 26 February and, as some have said, shows that I misled the House. That is simply not the case, and I want to explain why to the House.
My permanent secretary's statement of 25 February describes in detail two conversations that he had with Martin Sixsmith on Friday 15 February, which led him to inform me that Martin Sixsmith had agreed to resign. His statement also outlined how the announcement was made before it was possible to agree the detailed terms of Martin Sixsmith's resignation, and described his further meeting with Martin Sixsmith on the evening of 15 February, in which Martin Sixsmith argued that he had not resigned.
It is to precisely that sequence of events that the agreed statement refers when it says that the Department, while acting in good faith, announced that Martin Sixsmith had resigned on what turned out to be an incorrect understanding of earlier discussions that day between Martin Sixsmith and the permanent secretary. There is therefore nothing new here, and indeed nothing that was not a matter of record at the time of my statement on 26 February, which explicitly referred back to my permanent secretary's account.
Mr. Byers: I have not misled the House, as some have alleged. All my statements to the House have been based on the information available to me. That is precisely why the agreed statement with Mr. Sixsmith explicitly says that any misunderstanding over his resignation was in good faith.
While these discussions about the employment status of an individual civil servant have been taking place, Ministers in my Department have not been diverted from the real tasks that face us and the people of our country. Those tasks are to rebuild communities[Interruption.]