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Mr. Forth indicated dissent.

Mr. Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman suggests that the view in favour is not held by the great majority, but all the opinion polls show that the great majority of Londoners want a democratic regional tier of government to be re-established. They would prefer elected representatives to

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make decisions about their city rather than civil servants. On that basis, we believe that we must start by saying that we will have a greater regional authority.

Mr. Forth: I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman continues to peddle that nonsense. If Londoners support that idea, as he claims, why did they not bother to turn out and cast a vote when given the opportunity to do so in the referendum? It is one thing to ask questions in an opinion poll and, if we are to run the country by opinion polls, I will offer the deal that I always offer on such occasions to any colleague: can we have a binding poll on the return of capital punishment? If the hon. Gentleman intends to rest his case on that argument, I have no doubt that he will sign up wholeheartedly to such a poll.

Mr. Hughes: I will not be distracted by an opinion poll on capital punishment, except to say that there are differences between the way in which one settles constitutional and ethical issues--they are always entirely different.

I would argue--as a Scot, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst should understand this--that it is just as much the settled will of the people of Greater London that there should be Londonwide democratic government as it is the settled will of the people of Scotland that there should be a Parliament in Scotland. Since the Greater London council was abolished, whatever the criticisms of the GLC era--or, in smaller boundaries, of the London county council before that--whenever asked, most of the people of London have said that they want such government. I have never seen an opinion poll that has not shown that. Of course, a majority of Londoners did not go to the polling booths for the local election day referendum, but Conservatives have often been elected in local elections with small votes on small turnouts of 20 or 30 per cent. The Government rightly want to increase turnout, as we do.

One reason why there was not a massive turnout was that it was obvious from opinion polling that there would be an overwhelming yes vote. With the best will in the world, I pay tribute to the Minister. The Secretary of State turned out to play football at Wembley--not a pretty sight but he was there. I made an effort in the campaign, appearing on buses with Ministers and others. There was even a song produced. It did not take off, but we tried to get some interest going. It was so obvious that people wanted London government back that many thought that they did not need to turn out. If it had been a needle match, the number of people voting would have risen.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst argued that there was not great enthusiasm in Bromley. That may be true; Bromley is a place of lesser enthusiasm than some parts of the country. Even in his borough, the majority of those who cast votes voted in favour. Even though he is in the borough of the lukewarm, the lukewarm were in favour of Greater London.

I hope that the Minister accepts that this is a probing debate about regional government, which we favour. Why cannot London have it, and have it this year?

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and

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Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). We have two concerns. First, as he rightly noted, we are on the outer fringe of London. The position is worse than he proclaimed, because my constituents in Orpington would rather be in Kent, as they were historically, than in Greater London. Sadly, they were moved by a Conservative Government.

The Minister for London and Construction (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The hon. Gentleman was not a Conservative then.

Mr. Horam: That is as may be, but, happily, I opposed the creation of the GLC and was proved to be right because it was later abolished by a Conservative Government.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, we are concerned about the level of bureaucracy. While I admit that the representatives will be democratically elected, there will be more councillors, more bodies and all the spin-offs that will flow from that fact. It is a retrograde step, and typical of the Government, both in respect of London and of the proposals for devolution, that they have come up with dense, complicated and expensive conclusions and proposals.

Equally, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, it is fair to say that there was strong support for a voice for London. All opinion polls suggested that people were sorry that at various times, such as when bidding for the Olympic games, there was not a person or body to stand up and support a case for London in the wider scheme of things. That is one reason why people supported a new voice for London when it was put to them in the referendum in the whole Greater London area, although they did not vote for the re-creation of the old Greater London authority.

There was a way through the dilemma. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey would agree that in a sense, the case for a voice for London is an inner London case that is at its strongest in the sort of area that he represents, where there are genuine problems with education, health, transport and living standards that should be tackled on a broader basis than is possible under the arrangements that were created long ago by a Conservative Government.

4.15 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is quite right: I accept that the further out one goes, the more one sees that areas, such as the one he represents, that historically have belonged to the counties of Surrey and Kent feel less a part of Greater London. When the Committee considers voting systems, some of us will argue that we should try to group areas together in natural communities, because the people of Kent in London have a view that naturally differs from that of the people of Surrey in London.

Mr. Horam: The hon. Gentleman has anticipated my point. There is a solution to the problem which is much simpler than the one the Government have proposed: it is to group together some of the inner London boroughs, perhaps in a new borough--a single borough, without two or three tiers--covering Westminster, Kensington, parts of Southwark and Lambeth and so on. It would be a central London borough similar to what is found in Paris,

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where there is a Paris municipal authority covering not the whole of Paris as we know it, but an area that is roughly enclosed by the peripherique and which is but a small part of the total urban area of Paris. That municipal authority deals successfully with the problems of central Paris; similarly, with no extra councillors--indeed, with a reduction in the number of local authorities, because several would have been combined into one--we could have a body that could speak for London and deal with the problems of inner London.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): I speak as a former leader of Croydon council. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the strategic issues of the environment, the economy and an integrated transport system for London must embrace outer London as well as inner London? The idea of having a separately defined inner London is obviously ridiculous.

Mr. Horam: The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me, because, as has already been said, the issues to which he refers go well beyond the boundaries of Greater London. About 17,000 people a day commute into the city from my constituency, and many pass through Orpington as they come from Sevenoaks and beyond, so it is clear that we have to consider an area greater than that which will be covered by the Greater London authority. That is what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), a former Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, described as a geographical question, involving geographical balance.

Some issues affecting London go far wider than the Greater London authority area--for example, transport issues affecting road and rail networks go right to the coast--whereas questions of health and education are far narrower, with inner London issues differing from those of Bromley, Uxbridge and so on. The Government have had to solve that problem. Sadly, they have not come up with a simple effective solution, but one that is overcomplicated, over-expensive and messy.

Mr. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): The one undisputed fact is that, in the referendum, the majority either said no, or expressed no opinion. That cannot be ignored.

Mr. Geraint Davies: Is it not true that, under the previous Administration, in ballots on whether schools should opt out, the Conservatives had a rule that a vote not cast was a yes vote? Using that method, there was an overwhelming majority in favour of having a Greater London authority.

Mr. Ottaway: I have absolutely no idea whether the hon. Gentleman is right or wrong on that point.

One of the interesting features of having taken all the stages of the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill on the Floor of the House, and of having had the referendum since then, is that, now that we have reached the debate on the real thing, many of the arguments--those on the fundamental principles--already feel rather well rehearsed. Although a huge amount of the detail in the Bill before us will be debated upstairs in Standing Committee, certain key facts have emerged.

First, it has now been accepted by the Conservative party and by the Government that the Conservatives were right to abolish the Greater London council. We make no

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apology for having done so: it was in our 1983 manifesto. The current Government, in their determination not to return to the bad old ways of the GLC, have belatedly recognised that we were right and that Labour's opposition at the time was misconceived. The Government have added that to the long list of matters on which they have changed their mind. As John Maynard Keynes, whose views appear to be gaining ascendancy in the Labour party, said:

    "When the circumstances change, my opinion changes."

Many good reasons have been given for abolishing the GLC: it was bloated, over-bureaucratic, inefficient, incompetent and used as a regional power base for party politics. Its management of London's transport was so hopeless that we had to take that power away from the GLC. Its leaders called for the abolition of the monarchy and its hostility to business was an embarrassment.

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