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9.16 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I shall not detain the House for more than a few minutes, although my remarks are slightly longer than an intervention. I support many of the comments made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George). The Cornish are the west Welsh, who happen to have been cut off by an unfortunate accident of history. They lost the wrong battle at the wrong time. The Cornish are excellent engineers--they built many of the lead and silver mines in my constituency--and the hon. Gentleman must be congratulated on engineering such a long Adjournment debate on regional policy. He is a worthy successor to Trevithick in that respect.

I was concerned to hear that people in the hon. Gentleman's land--his nation, his county--using some spurious Celtic reasoning, want the kilt to be introduced. I am afraid that we have similar people in Wales, but I hope that we can form a Celtic alliance against such fashion fads and spurious ideas. The substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, however, was not spurious, nor historical forgery nor some Celtic daydreaming. What he had to say was extremely important for the future of regional policy in England, and I hope that the House will accept a few remarks from Wales on that subject.

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What is a nation and what is a region is a matter of historical accident. The European Union has set up the Committee of the Regions to look after the regions in Europe, and a number of areas that are represented, such as Lombardy and Saxony, were once kingdoms. They are now regions in the EU. Luxembourg was once nothing more than a small minor region, but for some reason it has become a nation state. To take a lesson from Wales, after the Act of Union a part of Wales called Monmouth was unfortunately included in the Oxford judicial circuit. For four centuries, there was a wrestling match as to whether Monmouth was part of Wales or not, and it was not settled until the 1960s, with the establishment of the Welsh Office.

There is a lesson there for people in Cornwall and the south-west of England. They should identify with the real regions and not allow institutions and the Government to decide for them how their institutions should be organised. If the people of Cornwall want to stand up for Cornwall as an area for regional government, their voice should be clearly heard. If the Government are trying to increase public participation in government, in local elections and in the regional government to come--I think that they are intensely serious about that--the regions that are set up must identify with the people who live in them. Those regions must also identify with the communities.

I welcome the moves to regional government in England, which can only help devolution throughout the United Kingdom and support diverse and distinct communities. I was saddened when the hon. Member for St. Ives painted a picture of the destruction of Cornish institutions. I understand that Cornwall does not have a university, and that Cornish institutions have been sucked in by greater regionalisation. In Wales, we have had a long, hard battle for the past century, starting with the battle to disestablish the Church in Wales, to have institutions in Wales that reflect what the Welsh people want from their institutions. It led in time to a greater demand for self-government. The hon. Gentleman may not be ready for that yet--perhaps in a century's time!

Institutions at the right regional level build self-confidence and pride, and economic confidence can follow. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister want to see Cornwall emerge from the situation, which Wales shares, in which we need objective 1 money to build for the future and a strengthened economy. That involves building a sense of pride into the area. One of the key steps is to have institutions at regional level that reflect and channel that pride and energy.

I welcome the debate and the comments by the hon. Gentleman, and I give him my support from across the water. Indeed, only last week, I signed the petition for a Cornish assembly, although it was sponsored by another party in Cornwall; he may not take that approach. If the Government want regional government to work, they must put the right institutions in place. They must allow regional government to reflect the way people feel in their communities, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's views will be heard by the Government.

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9.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): For a debate on Government policy on the regions, we have reached some philosophical heights tonight, and I shall do my best to respond without straying beyond my departmental brief. Feelings are obviously strong, and I acknowledge that. I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) for his courtesy in letting me know some of the areas that he wished to cover, because that was helpful. I congratulate him on obtaining the debate, which is an opportunity--at perhaps more leisure than he would normally have had--to raise some of the issues he mentioned. It is good that he has been able to do so.

The hon. Gentleman started by talking about directly elected regional assemblies, and he wanted clarification of the Government's policy. He knows that the Government's longer-term policy--reflecting our commitment to the principles and practical implementation of devolution and decentralisation, which we have already demonstrated with what we have achieved--is to provide for the establishment of democratically elected regional assemblies in the English regions, where there is popular demand as demonstrated by referendums.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): Does the Minister accept that it is possible that existing regional development agencies may respond to more than one regional assembly?

Ms Hughes: If that is a point about the existing boundaries, and whether in the future a regional development agency might cover more than one area governed by a regional assembly, I have to say that at the moment we do not have a blueprint for those assemblies or a time scale for their introduction. Those policies have not yet been drawn up. I would imagine, however, that in time the assemblies would be expected to become accountable for a range of strategic issues and bodies at the regional level. That is a point to which I shall return in responding to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives.

We may not yet have a blueprint, but I assure hon. Members that that does not mean that we are not thinking about it. For example, on regional government in England, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has produced the first stage of a review of literature and research findings, which has broadly considered the international evidence on the range of different models of directly elected regional assemblies and their functions. We are just about to publish that first research document, which will be followed by others. We are beginning our thinking by looking at provision in other countries--some of those the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and also more widely in Europe.

Mr. George: Does the Minister know whether the document will deal with the question of size and its variability? She has not yet mentioned that issue.

Ms Hughes: The document is the first stage of some longer-term research. We are looking at what exists internationally and thus considering not only different models of directly elected assemblies but different sizes of population covered and the different functions that

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have been ascribed to such bodies. When the document is published, the hon. Gentleman will see that there is much diversity in the models, range of functions and sizes of population for which directly elected assemblies in different countries are responsible. That is one of our starting points.

The hon. Gentleman asked how directly elected assemblies would work with the existing layers of democratically elected local and central government. He asked whether, for instance, a tier of government would be removed to provide for regional government. We are not in the business of adding to government specifically, but we want to make government better. I agree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that that means bringing it close to the people. There must be a democratic mandate.

If there is such a mandate for a directly elected assembly, our policy, as we have demonstrated, would be to draw down functions from the centre, not pull them in from the localities. That would be the direction of our thinking. It is too early to say what that would mean in practice for each region, but we would need to take careful note of what people in each of the regions think. Several options needs to be explored before decisions are made. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives accepts that.

Our basic starting point is that regional government not only cannot happen, but will not increase democratic participation--the hon. Gentleman made this point--without popular consensus, understanding and support among local people. To achieve that, we must be satisfied that people in the regions are absolutely clear about the aims, functions and expectations of any new regional tier, so that they feel motivated to support it.

Mr. George: In view of that, has the Department or the Minister had an opportunity to review any lessons learned from last year's European elections when, for the first time, they were based on the standardised Government regions and in which, certainly in most areas, there was concern about low turnout?


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