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Mrs. Gorman: I realise that the hon. Gentleman is new to this place. I have probably made more pleas than anyone in the House for referendums to consult people over the past three years, on the Maastricht treaty, on the single currency and in today's Bill. Will the hon. Gentleman make it clear whether he is in favour of referendums, in which case mine should fit neatly into his Bill, or agin them, in which case he may be called in to see his Chief Whip later?

Mr. Cranston: I fully appreciate what the hon. Lady has campaigned on, but she has not been successful in that campaigning. As long as she is not successful, it is not appropriate for a referendum to be held.

In reply to the hon. Lady's more general question about whether referendums are appropriate, yes, in limited circumstances they are. However, we must be careful about adopting the referendum technique too readily because it could undermine our system of representative and responsible government. I remind the hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock

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(Mr. Mackinlay) that the referendum has proved to be a very conservative instrument in many countries. Referendums are sometimes used to hinder change--particularly when moral issues are taken to the people. Therefore, the referendum is not necessarily a progressive instrument.

There has been some comment this morning about the West Lothian question. I do not believe that that is a serious issue. The Government have said that there will be no minimum number of Scottish Members of Parliament when there is a boundary redistribution some time during the Parliament. There has also been some discussion about how an English Parliament might operate. An English Grand Committee concept would impose an intolerable burden on Madam Speaker, who would have to determine whether issues should be decided by that body or by Parliament.

I fully endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) about regionalism. That seems to be the most appropriate step to take at present. We took that issue to the people in our manifesto and we secured their approval. If there are any concerns in England about the implications of devolution in Scotland and Wales--I do not believe that they are broad concerns; my constituents have certainly not raised them with me--I believe that the Government's proposals on regionalism represent the most appropriate way of addressing them.

12.36 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): The speech of the hon. Member for Dudley, North (Mr. Cranston) was one of the most remarkable in the debate to date. I find it quite extraordinary and unacceptable that a Labour Member of Parliament should say that everyone in the United Kingdom except the English can have their say in a referendum.

I must declare an interest in the debate: I am with Cecil Rhodes when he said that "being an Englishman is the greatest prize in the lottery of life". I am also proud that, through my wife's family, my children have Scottish, Irish and even Cornish blood flowing in their veins.

Some may think that a rather surprising alliance is at work today. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and I do not always see eye to eye on some issues--particularly those relating to the development of the European Union. When she asked me to be a sponsor of the Bill, I thought for a moment that she was calling my bluff. However, it is a great privilege to be associated with the Bill. I greatly regret the necessity for it, as does my hon. Friend. I do not welcome the need that has been created by the Government's tinkering with the constitution, but we must support the Bill in order to give the English people a choice. I shall explain why that is so.

For English Members of Parliament, this could be the single most important debate in this Parliament as it gives us an opportunity to discuss the most important issue facing us in our role as representatives of the English part of the United Kingdom. I have a particular perspective on this issue. I come from Worcestershire, and my constituency is to be sandwiched between the Government's "powerhouse for Wales"--that is the phrase used in the White Paper--and the Birmingham-based regional development agency. I believe that my constituents will pay an exceptionally high price economically for this Government's blundering around in the locker room of constitutional change.

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The problem with the Government is that they offer us constitutional change but do not think through the consequences. They do not have an endgame: they have no final objective. That is true of the Government's policies regarding the House of Lords, electoral reform, Europe, the regional development agencies and, above all, devolution for Scotland and Wales. The House must address the central question of where power and accountability lie in this kingdom before it does anything else. That question goes to the heart of our democracy.

The Government do not seem to understand a great deal about this democracy--they certainly do not understand their wonderful economic inheritance or the institutions of this country. In 1876, Walter Bagehot said:

It is precisely that failure of comprehension that I fear the Government are demonstrating. I fear also that this country, this kingdom, may fail as a result.

What is it that the people of this kingdom are being offered? There will be a Parliament for Scotland--quite an ambitious and wide-ranging Parliament--with significant powers. There will be an assembly for Wales, with fewer significant powers. There will be a new devolved body for Northern Ireland. I am sure that that will have its merits in the context of the Northern Ireland peace process. In the same context, there will be a council of the isles. I think that some people are calling it IONA--the islands of the north Atlantic, from which England, by definition, will be excluded. I have no objection to that exclusion. I think that the proposal is the right course for the Northern Ireland peace process to pursue.

In all of that, there is nothing for England. Actually, there is worse than nothing; there is the balkanisation of England, the splitting up into its alleged component parts. These are so-called component parts that have no history, culture or tradition. They are regional development agencies and, in due course, regional assemblies.

No real person--I exclude bureaucrats, the CBI and Labour politicians--wants regional development agencies. The exceptions are a few local councillors who see an opportunity for a power base for themselves and some business men who do not understand, or are too frightened to upset this autocratic Government.

The Government's plans for the regions are, in effect, an attack on local democracy. I plead guilty because the Conservative party, over 18 years of government, did not always respect local government as it should have done. However, the RDAs and the assemblies represent a full-frontal attack on the county council and district council within my constituency. They are also an attack on the authority of the House. They will inevitably take power from the House, just as many developments--my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay might be surprised to hear what I am about to say--within the European Union will. The House is being marginalised.

As far as I can recall, since these ideas were first floated by the Labour party when in opposition, only one of my constituents has expressed to me his desire for a regional assembly in the west midlands. I recall that he was a member of Charter 88 and certainly not a supporter of the Conservative party.

There are huge dangers in this regionalism. In representing essentially but not entirely a rural constituency, I would say that there will be rule from the

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urban centre and the sidelining of rural interests. I see in the plans a sinister agenda for the Labour party to rule the countryside of England from its urban heartlands and to seek to achieve more political domination over the countryside than otherwise would be possible.

We have new bureaucracy and a duplication of economic regeneration activities between the districts, the counties, the RDAs and the Government. Most importantly of all, probably, there is the opportunity for Europe to divide and rule in the regions. I made that point during Wednesday's debate on the Regional Development Agencies Bill and I shall not make it again at length this afternoon. I merely say that it is not necessary to be a Euro-sceptic to be fearful of the outcome.

I am more sympathetic than my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay to the EU but I have my eyes wide open and I know what it is that the EU wants to do. Anything that marginalises this place and gives Brussels a direct link to the regions will inevitably be in its interests in constructing a federal Europe, which, like my hon. Friend, I firmly oppose.

Another danger of regionalism is that there is no public support for it among ordinary people. I am not talking about those who respond to Government consultations. Regions do not exist. As I said in an intervention, they are administrative conveniences. They are not democratic concepts with a cultural tradition. People in my constituency have loyalty to their village or town, to their county and of course to their country.

I oppose regionalisation, but I must offer something to my English constituents. If the devolution Bills are passed in this Parliament, as I think they will be, and there are developments in the Northern Ireland peace process, which seem likely, English resentment will grow. There will be resentment at under-representation in the Kingdom, with no separate voice on so many issues. There will be English resentment at higher spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There will be a growth of English nationalism. I still fear--I do not predict this with 100 per cent. certainty--that the long-term result will be the break-up of the United Kingdom.

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