Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): I am most grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate, and I thank the Minister for being here. I want to expose the seemingly inexorable creep towards regional assemblies in general and for the south-west of England in particular, and the unwanted, unnecessary, unsustainable and illogical nonsense that they represent.
I do not subscribe to the argument that voters in the south-west are crying out for another tier of government. Indeed, I recently tabled a written parliamentary question to ask the Minister how many representations in favour of an elected regional assembly had been received from my constituents in East Devon. The answer, which will be of no surprise to my right hon. and hon. Friends, was none. They may share my suspicion that a similar exercise undertaken in other constituencies in the south-west would produce the same result.
The real purpose for calling this debate is to ask the Minister to spell out the Government's plans and timetable for elected regional assemblies in general and for the south-west in particular. I confess that the detailed plans are not at all clear to me and to many others with whom I have discussed them.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): Does my hon. Friend not suspect that the Government's obfuscation on that subject is rather like that on the single currency referendum? In order to fulfil an election pledge, from two elections ago, the Government have said that a referendum would be held on the subject, but they know only too well that, at this point in time, they will not get the answer that they want.
In another written parliamentary question on 20 November, I asked what changes to local government structures were planned as part of the introduction of regional assemblies, to which the Minster replied:
'provision should be made for directly elected regional government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local government is established'."[Official Report, 20 November 2001; Vol. 375, c. 211W.]
Notwithstanding that, there is considerable evidence that plans are well advancedboth in areas that have unitary authorities and those withoutand that the Government have already prejudged the outcome of local referendums.
Dr. Caroline Jackson, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament for the south-west, highlighted that in a speech on the 17 November to the Cornwall constitutional convention at Bodmin, when she pointed out, among other things, that the main task of the assembly would be to call the South West of England Regional Development Agency to account and to act as the regional planning body.
That embryonic body now has a budget of £1 million and, earlier this year, it made a successful bid for a further £500,000 from the Government; money apparently intended to strengthen regional accountability, whatever that is supposed to mean. The body has already started to send out select committees to hold hearings around the region and is apparently focusing, with Government support, on two themes; engaging social and economic partners, and sustainable development. Dr. Jackson noted that this was clearly a growth industry and that the assembly's staff complement, which is currently 11, was growing and included a full-time chief executive. It is looking for new premises in Taunton, which must come as some comfort to the citizens of Penzance, 144 miles away.
To add to the confusion immediately before the general election, the media reported that the Labour party would publish a post-election Green Paper with proposals to establish eight elected regional assemblies with the same boundaries as the regional development agencies, provided that support could be gained in a referendum. In the interests of clarity, will the Minister confirm whether that remains Government policy? If so, when is action likely?
Mrs. Browning : I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that a petition of 50,000 Cornish signatures will be handed in at Downing street today. It states that Cornwall wants to be a region in its own right in the event of any regional division. Have the Government not failed to take account of our natural regional differences? We in Devon accept that there is a clear difference between Cornwall and Devon, and the rights of the Cornish should surely be respected.
Mr. Swire : Again, I agree with my hon. Friend, who must have had sight of my speech. Her comments no doubt find favour with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Aspirations in Cornwall and in the rest of the west country are different, and I shall return to that in a minute.
A regional assembly with the same boundaries as the RDA for the south-west would cover Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Dorset, the old Avon county, Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Does the Minister understandmy hon. Friend said this more eloquently than I ever couldthat the people of those counties will feel little or no sense of identity or common purpose with such an assembly?
Mr. Swire : I do, and I do not imagine that people in the Scilly Isles would want that to happen in terms of government, although they would be far better rewarded under the Scottish Parliament than they are under this Parliament. I understand also that if one drew a line from Bristol, one would find that Bristol was further from Penzance than Brighton. The geographical homogeny of the Government's aspiration is questionable, to say the least.
Most of our constituents identify with their town or village, are deeply proud of their county and feel a strong sense of patriotism towards their country. However, they feel that they have little in common with someone from Bristol, Swindon or Gloucester, and I dare say that the reverse is true. The boundaries of a regional assembly would be artificial and would be logical only in the eyes of a Whitehall planner. Is it not significant that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said, few Cornish people in the campaign for greater decentralisation are calling for an assembly for the south-west? A pressure group is, however, arguing for the creation of a Cornish senate with the same boundaries as the current county, but with greater powers.
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I am slightly confused. The gentleman who stood against me in the general election was firmly in favour of a Cornish assembly and was a member of the campaign committee.
Mr. Swire : If the hon. Lady had listened, she would have heard me suggest that there was a clarion call in Cornwall for a Cornish senate but not for inclusion in any governmental organisation in the south-west. I cannot speak for the gentleman who stood against her, and I cannot say that I agree with him, but he is entitled to his views.
Many of the advocates of elected regional assembliesincluding, no doubt, the gentleman who stood against the hon. Ladyargue that their creation would be an important measure to address the growing sense of disillusionment with the political process. The behaviour of some members of the present Government does little to help to restore confidence in the honesty and integrity of politicians generally.
There was a marked decrease in turnout in south-west counties in the recent general election, as there was in the country as a whole. However, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the lack of a regional assembly dissuaded any electors from casting their vote. How do the Government expect a regional assembly for the south-westan artificial creation, devoid of historic or cultural tiesto foster any greater interest or enthusiasm in the electoral process? Is it not the case that the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assemblythey at least have the advantage of being institutions with which people can identifyhas not led
Mr. Swire : My hon. Friend is full of useful information this morning. The north-east of England, which is where the idea originated, feels ill-done-by after looking over the border at the Scottish Parliament. I shall be sorry if these ideas are exported from the north-east to the south-west, as that would not be appropriate.
Mr. David Drew (Stroud): We do our own thing in the south-west and go at our own speed. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he would want to stop the north-east assembly, or those in the north-west, Yorkshire and Humberside?
Mr. Swire : I am talking about the south-west this morning. No doubt others will speak about their own parts of the United Kingdom. Returning to that august body, the south-west constitutional convention, its secretary, Ms Southcott, continued:
Mr. Swire : I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. No doubt the local press will take an interest in what the hon. Gentleman says about the abolition of his shire county, and all shire counties.
The Government's latest contribution to the breaking up of the constitution of this country would be the abolition of the shire countiesfor which the hon. Member for Stroud argues so vigorouslyand centuries of our history. If the abolition of the county council system were the intention behind the new assemblies, it is surely the case that that will amount to a centralisation rather than a decentralisation of power. That is the opposite of what the Government claim to want.
Bureaucracy is growing at regional level through organisations such as the regional development agencies. With that comes a growing amount of funding. In reply to my written parliamentary question, the Minister for Employment and the Regions, the hon. Member for Hull, West and Hessle (Alan Johnson), acknowledged that the South West regional development agency's grant had increased from £44.5 million in 1999-2000 to nearly £63 million in 2000-01. The agency has a grant in allocation of £84.5 million for 2001-02.
I have some sympathy with the Campaign for the English Regions, which argues that the elected regional assemblies are necessary to hold such bodies to democratic accountability and to address the democratic deficit. A far better idea would be to abolish the RDAs and give the money directly to the democratically elected county councils.
I sometimes wonder whether anyone has stopped to consider whether this regional bureaucracy is necessary or desirable. Voters in the United Kingdom are already well served by local elected representatives. There are, on average, 2,000 people to every council member, 67,000 people to every Member of Parliament and 510,000 electors to every Member of the European Parliament. In Scotland and Wales, people have Members of the Scottish Parliament and Assembly Members as well. The south-west regional assembly, which apparently already meets four times a year at county hall in Exeter, has 117 members, none of whom has been elected to anything by anyoneat least, not to any new legislative body.
Mr. Swire : I am covered in envy at the idea of my hon. Friend attending such a talking shop. I was pointing out that none of those people had been elected to anything, to my way of thinking. That body is a talking shop, and a not inexpensive one, which is my point. The next time my hon. Friend is invited, I ask that he takes me along as well, if I have a quiet morning.
How would people be elected to a regional assembly? According to the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) in a speech in June, such assemblies will have an appointed element, like the existing RDAs, from business and trade unions, as well as an elected element that uses proportional representation. He did not say what sort of proportional representation. At least some members will be elected, unlike on the RDAs, which seem to have been filled with more than their fair share of Labour cronies.
At the recent county council network conference in Scarborough, the Minister for Local Government, the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), suggested that a south-west assembly was likely to have 15 members: 10 directly elected and five appointed by Government. He also conceded that the number could increase to 25. Each assembly would apparently nominate a regional executive and a "first minister". The mind boggles.
The assemblies would not only oversee RDAs and regional planning, but would administer housing corporations, the national health service regional executive, regional arts boards, learning and skills councils and local Environment Agency offices. They would also oversee police and emergency services. If they went ahead, county councillors would find themselves with a lot of time on their hands.
Ought we not to be debating whether those functions could be more effectively decided and implemented by existing county and district councils? If the Government were serious about achieving a genuine decentralisation of power, should there not be a wide debate on strengthening the power of existing local government institutions?
Perhaps we have stumbled on to something else altogether. Perhaps the assemblies have nothing to do with the Government wanting to strengthen our local democracy. Perhaps the agenda is tied up with the Government's European ambitions. Could the real agenda be to create a Europe of the regions in which the national level of government is all but abolished, following the ceding of some powers upwards to a centralised European Government and others to a regional tier of government? Is it a coincidence that the boundaries for the regional development agencies, and presumably those for the regional assemblies, are coterminous with the United Kingdom regions in the European Union regional model?
It may be argued by advocates of regional assemblies that the so-called regions require a voice in Europe when it comes to lobbying for EU regional money. However, the regions may be as artificial and diverse as that proposed for the south-west, with the needs of Cornwall
Mr. Swire : Our roads go everywhere. We could go from Penzance to John O'Groats if we wanted. The homogeny is artificial. Roads in my part of the country, Devon, have nothing to do with roads in Wiltshire or anywhere else.
There is one other possible reason for the agenda on regional assemblies. It could be a Government attempt to rebalance the United Kingdom's constitutional structure following the creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, which left many constitutional issues; not least the over-representation of Scottish Members at Westminster and the unanswered West Lothian question. However, the only model based on regional assemblies that would adequately address the West Lothian question is a fully federal United Kingdom, with the regional assemblies having full primary legislative powers akin to those held by the Scottish Parliament. If they have less than legislative powers, the West Lothian question will not be answered.
Do the Government intend to give elected regional assemblies such powers? What fiscal powers, if any, will the assemblies have? What will be their other sources of funding? A row is already brewing about the operation of the Barnett formula in Scotland, and there is enormous scope for arguments to escalate over funding in these assemblies. Moreover, who will pick up the cost of funding the creation of the new assemblies? The total bill will be many millions of pounds. The cost of the Scottish Parliament, which the Government assured the people of Scotland before the 1997 election would be no more than £50 million, has escalated to nearly £250 million, and the final bill has yet to be seen.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): I am very much enjoying my hon. Friend's erudite speech. However, does he not think that the Minister should tell us one more thing? Assuming that the Government deliver on their manifesto commitment to have a referendum in various parts of the country on regional
Mr. Swire : I agree with my hon. Friend, and I invite the Minister to address that point. What my hon. Friend describes would create enormous friction between the different regions. However, perhaps creating an assembly in the north-east is a way of softening up other regions to encourage them to get their noses in the trough.
The Government's drive for regional assemblies, and for the south-west regional assembly in particular, is illogical, unnecessary, unpopular and a distraction from the real needs affecting the counties of the south-west. Regional assemblies would be artificial creations, would foster no sense of common identity and would do nothing to re-engage voters with the political process. They would centralise rather than decentralise power, facilitate the creation of a Europe of the regions, would do little to address the constitutional imbalance of the United Kingdom and would be costly, diverting resources away from more important areas of spending.
In conclusion, if any Conservative Member believed that creating a south-west regional assembly would in any way benefit any of our constituents, we would support the idea as one. We do not believe that, because the south-west does not want or need a regional assembly.
Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing an important debate, although I cannot support his arguments. Those of us who support devolution should remember that the only reason why we are having the debate is because of the Labour Government's policies for devolving power to the regions. I support those policies.
Cornwall has been debating a range of issues, as the hon. Gentleman said, and I want to focus on them. Today is an important day for the county on two counts. One hundred years ago today, Marconi for the first time transmitted radio waves from Cornwall to Newfoundland. That is being celebrated in Cornwall. Also, the Cornish assembly petition, with 50,000 signatures, is being delivered to No. 10 Downing street today. It is a great petition, but I think that many of those who signed it wanted to show support for devolving power, rather than a desire for a purely Cornish assembly. We need to be clear; we must devolve power. The man in Whitehall is seen as out of touch. Physically, he is closer to Germany than to Cornwall. For better or worse, we should make our own decisions. If someone is going to get things wrong, we should prefer it to be ourselves. On the other hand, we want to get things right.
Mr. Streeter : When the hon. Lady spoke to people on doorsteps during the general election campaign, how many expressed support for a tier of regional government involving the counties of the south-west?
Mr. Gray : If, as the hon. Lady says, there is such overwhelming enthusiasm for regional devolution among her friends in the Labour party, where are her hon. Friends who represent Bristol constituencies, Exeter or the rest of the south-west; apart from her hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)? They ain't here.
Ms Atherton : I am delighted to say that many of my hon. Friends are in government. To return to the question asked by the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), the seven people to whom I referred were not Labour party people. They said independently that they wanted a regional assembly. I thought that that was quite a high number of people to be mentioning the subject; many issues are not raised in the way that they used to be.
The mantra about no one listening to Cornwall used to be true. We want to solve our own problems, and it is quite easy to blame Whitehall and Westminster for all of those. No doubt sometimes Westminster and Whitehall are the problem, but sometimes they have an answer. When we wanted objective 1 funding for our county, we got together and fought for it, but it was Westminsternotably the Prime Minister and civil servantswho did the work in Europe. When we needed matched funding for our universitysome £19 millionwe went, again, to Westminster and the Prime Minister, and got it. The first act of the regional chamber was to support Cornwall's application for objective 1 status. All seven counties, councils and chamber together, were working to support the objective 1 bid.
I am working with colleagues, as I am sure all hon. Members are, to exert pressure on our regional airlines and train companies to improve our rail and air links. However, those do not stop at the Tamar bridge. They go to and from Cornwall and through other areas.
Mrs. Browning : Roads and railways that pass out of the hon. Lady's constituency come through mid-Devon and east Devon and through my constituency. When the Government came to office in 1997, they halted road building in the south-west. Surely to goodness the hon. Lady can see that a strategic Government overview is needed of the core transport links in this country. Her party's Government stopped that and set back the west country by decades.
Ms Atherton : I do not agree on that last point. I will always work with any hon. Member from any party to improve road and transport networks in the south-west, and I will keep pushing for the dualling to which the hon. Lady referred. I was referring to the work on the A30 at Gossmoorthe critical bottleneck area in Cornwallwhich the Government are to fund.
I want to talk about the dualling of roads and railways. I hope that the hon. Lady agrees that we need not just one but two railway lines into Cornwall. As things stand, the whole of Cornwall depends on the rail track between Exeter and Plymouth not being affected by the sea coming through the barriers and destroying the railway line. Does the hon. Lady agree that the Government must ensure that there is a second way of getting to Cornwall by rail?
I agree that serious work needs to be undertaken on the Exeter line. If trains cannot pass along that line, they do not get to Cornwall. We must work on that on a cross-party basis; the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) has now been able to get his little bit in the local paper.
Businesses work and trade with one another in Cornwall. They also trade outside the county and within the seven counties. The regional supply chain is important. Boundaries are arbitrary, but opportunities in regional government are infinite. That is why I support the seven county option.
The Government have made it clear that they support regional government where there is clear local support for an assembly and where the predominant method of local government is unitary. In Cornwall today, there are three levels of local government: parish and town councils, district councils and county councils. In addition, there is the regional development agency, the Department for Education and Skills, the Government Office South Westwhich appears to be unaccountablewater companies and others. Further up the line, there is Westminster and, over the water, Brussels; quite a lot of government, some might say.
Some years ago, there was an opportunity for Cornwall to opt for unitary local government, but that opportunity was, sadly, not grasped. In recent weeks, the Labour party in Cornwall has widely consulted on how we want to devolve power. We held branch meetings, constituency meetings and a county
We said that we want to devolve power to the parish pump level. Parish and town councils are well placed to deliver economic regeneration and lead the renaissance of Cornish towns and the economy. Why do we need a souped-up county assembly? Surely the best route is to devolve power to the most appropriate and lowest level. Let us take power from unelected mandarins, but let us not leave ourselves isolated in the new century. I am not sure that the rest of England will welcome increased support to Cornwall, for which myself and others are asking, while we opt out of the rest of the arrangements.
I have no doubt that most of those who support an assembly are genuine in their support, but some are seeking complete self-government and to opt out of Britain. I know that that is not the majority view in my constituency. People want relevant devolved power, but not an opt-out. If hon. Members are unsure about what I say, I suggest that they trawl the websites on the subject, as I have done.
Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I stood as a candidate in Torridge and West Devon in the 1997 election, and what the hon. Lady says is not the case. People in Cornwall were adamant that they wanted to break away. I remember all the flags flying on the Tamar and Launceston bridges. The hon. Lady is talking about the wish of people in Cornwall to go it alone. She should address that issue, rather than considering the matter as a regional one.
Ms Atherton : The Cornish Solidarity campaigns were powerful, but they were not representative of the majority in the county. People want devolved power, but they do not necessarily want to opt out of the rest of the country. Men and women in Cornwall are saying, "Yes, we want greater self-distinction. We celebrate our culture, but we do not necessarily want an assembly." We all want Cornwall to succeed. It is wrong for those who are campaigning for an assembly to imply that we are not for Cornwall. We are, but we see different ways in which to achieve our ambitions. I want to make it clear that we have ambitions for Cornwall.
The Labour party in Cornwall announced its view of the way forward. It welcomed the devolution of power, but not a nationalistic assembly. The story made the front page of our regional daily newspaper, the Western Morning News, since when I have received not one letter setting out views for or against the proposal. That is important. The majority of people in Cornwall, as in the wider south-west, want devolved power, as appropriate. I urge the Government to give us devolved power as soon as possible.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I shall not detain hon. Members for long because many colleagues wish to speak. In presenting the debate so eruditely, my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) covered much ground. He set out the worries of Conservative Members about the formation of regional government in the south-west. I wish to add to some of the matters to which he referred.
I was the only west country Member of Parliament who was present at County hall in Exeter, when the then regional development agency chairman, Sir Michael Lickiss, oversaw a debate on regional identity. Representatives attended the regional chamber to identify what each part of the region had in common, as a result of which the RDA produced a glossy brochure with a faulty CD attached to it. The purpose of the money used, and the time taken to set up such a debate, was to ask, "Who are we in the south-west? What does the development agency believe are the common denominators in respect of the old coalfields of Gloucester, the Isles of Scilly, Bournemouth and Poole?"
My hon. Friend the Member for East Devon said that few aspects of the different parts of the region have a common denominator. The representatives who attended the debate split up into workshops in the afternoon; some talked about tourism, some discussed transport and other talked about different components. When the report of the proceedings was published, it was interesting that people said, "Let us take out all those aspects that are particular to, say, Gloucester or Cornwall and look at what is left. We could be describing any region anywhere in the country." In other words, the area was so homogeneous and watered down that it did not have a regional identity.
Mr. Steen : My hon. Friend is always fascinating to listen to; I am already in a trance. Is it not a curious phenomenon that new Labour talks the whole time about "different-sized units" and "getting closer to the people" but, in reality, the units are becoming bigger? The region is a bigger unit that is getting further away from the individual, not a smaller unit in which people are cared for and cherished.
Mrs. Browning : That is exactly right. My hon. Friend will know that that is why, when that august body identified a regional identity, it could find nothing that we would recognise as being south-west specific. The region had things in common with other regions, such as tourism and agriculture, but nothing that was distinct to the south-west. The whole exercise was bogus and, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon said so clearly, the area is an artificial chunk of England, in terms of the other regions of England and the way in which the map has been drawn.
Putting aside Scotland, the Greater London area and Walesthey already have regional identitiesthe Government have carved up what is left of England into bite-sized chunks for their own purpose, not for the purposes of the people who live in those areas. It would be easier for a Government to see off one small region of England rather than to have to deal with the voices of England assembled in our national Parliament when we need to put the case in terms of our towns, our counties and our regions.
Mrs. Browning : My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who was the Minister who introduced them, will no doubt add to my comments. There is a need for Government offices for the regions. Strategic issues concerning wider areas interlock into the national picture of, for example, rail and road infrastructures. That is leading to regional government. The Government have set up regional development agencies that are totally unaccountable to the electorate and whose finances are obscure. When the regional development agency threw £1 million at Plymouth airport, it did so without any consultation on the impact that that would have on other airports in the region. It did so without having evaluated local air transport. The agency was unaccountable. It showed largesse to one airport without taking any accountability of the impact on other airports. That is not democracy.
When we flag up our concern about the agency's lack of accountability for its decisions and spending, the answer is, "Ah, well, we can now turn the RDAs into something that is democratically accountable". The Government have deliberately created a structure that is so objectionable in democratic terms that the only solution is to take it one step further and turn it into an arm of regional government. The Government have created a problem and their solution suits their own agenda. A cynical personI am not cynicalwould say that the Government have deliberately forced the hand of the public to make them think that the only way to resolve the problem of RDA accountability is to turn it into a form of elected government to solve the problem that the Government have created.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger : I understand what my hon. Friend says. I have read the south-west RDA report, which suggests that the organisation is a shambles. Does she agree that, until Sir Michael Lickiss resigns and is replaced by someone who can run it properly, the RDA will continue to sail from disaster to disaster? It will fail and that will affect us all.
Mrs. Browning : My hon. Friend will not be surprised to know that, like many colleagues, I receive weekly complaints about the actions and decision-making of the RDA. Much needs to be done to sort it out.
Mrs. Browning : I do not know whether business organisations do. However, the party of big business, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, does not represent the people. The big Government are dealing with big business organisations. They are not interested in the little person in the cottage down the Devon lane. The people no longer matter. It is all about big organisations, corporate opinion and all those big cronies who troop through Downing street for drinks a couple of times a year. We know how the game is played, because the Government have made themselves past masters at courting big corporate institutions. They are the ones who are listening to and influencing that group. They do not care about the people; the people do not matter.
Andrew George (St. Ives): Does the hon. Lady accept that her critique requires the solution that I hope the Government will introduce; democratising the quangos that the present and previous Governments created on the regional basis, and about which she is so critical? Is not the solution that to which she is most opposed: the establishment of a democratic structure to which those quangos should be accountable?
Mrs. Browning : The hon. Gentleman's party would have acted earlier, sooner and in greater measure. Under the chairmanship of the former Liberal Democrat leader of Somerset county council, Mr. Chris Clarke, the Liberal Democrats have led the charge on the matter. They wanted to move the matter along. They and their Labour friends, with whom they do deals, have worked hard. The Express and Echo recently showed a picture of Mr. Clarke, the Bishop of Exeter and Chester Long, Labour councillor for Exeter, with a caption saying that they wanted to create a regional assembly and be involved in running it. I do not criticise personal ambition, but the Liberal Democrats cannot pretend, as they usually do, that they are interested in democracy. They are interested not in democracy but in power. They have shown by their actions towards the local regional development agency and the chamber that they are first in the queue to sign up for such developments. They are at one with Labour on this matter in the south-west.
The Government have been softening up people in order to implement the proposal. Throughout the country, including in the south-west, they have set up committees chaired by bishops in order to provide some soul and credibility. However, we can see through that. It is a matter of great regret to my colleagues and I that those committees no longer allow people to attend if they do not sign up to the philosophy to create a regional government in the south-west and to bypass current, democratically elected representatives.
Andrew George (St. Ives): Thank you, Mr. Griffiths; I shall do my best to keep within the time. I would like to take interventions, but clearly I shall be constrained. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on securing the debate. This important issue needs airing.
This is the beginning of a debate, not the end. I hope that the many Conservative Members who have attended today's debatein numbers that we have never seen before on debates on other issueswill sustain their commitment and interest, as it is important that the policy develops with an injection of constructive dialogue involving all parties.
We are pushing back the frontiers with an interesting and challenging development of policy. I have absolute enthusiasm for devolution, but we must ensure that the Government introduce it with flexibility, so that it reflects people's identities. Many Conservative Members recognise that those identities exist, but not necessarily within the constraints of the boundaries created for administrative ease in some parts of the country. Those boundaries do not necessarily reflect the identities of the people in that area. The areas may be collections of shire counties and are sometimes small and sometimes large.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): Will the hon. Gentleman reflect upon the region of Wessex, the crucible of which lies in my constituency, near the village of Eddington? That is where the Wessex region was created, more than 1,000 years ago. People feel a strong Wessex identity, and that feeling extends not just through parts of the south-west, but through parts of the south-east, too. That strong feeling simply is not there in the south-west. I think that the hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head, because there is a great miscellany of identities. The south-west is a Government-defined one, which in the long term will not work, although something like a "Wessex region" just might.
Andrew George : If the hon. Gentleman feels that way, he and those living in what he defines as Wessex must bring forward their proposals and make it clear how they believe devolution can be delivered to a Wessex region.
Andrew George : I am grateful for that point of order, which has further muddied the hon. Gentleman's clarification. Whether or not he is a Wessex regionalist, he is suggesting that there might be variations in the model of devolution according to different boundaries in different parts of the country. He made a proposal that might be taken as a variation on the devolution to the collections of shire counties that currently form the boundaries of the Government's south-west region.
Hon. Members have enunciated the Conservative position this morning, and we are hearing a variety of opinions. I do not want Conservative Members to hold back from debating the issue among themselves. Conservatives now strongly favour devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and that is healthy and helpful. Although Conservative Members clearly do not want to abolish those structures, many of them take a different view on devolution for England.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) pointed out the significance of this day. It is significant not only because of Marconi's original transmission from my constituency to Newfoundlandin which my family was involvedbut because the Cornish constitutional convention will today deliver 50,000 signed declaration sheets to No. 10 Downing street. The hon. Lady has presented a distortion of reality; the people signed a declaration that clearly indicates that they are enthusiastic about devolution and, in particular, about devolution to places with which they identify. One such place is Cornwall, which would include the Isles of Scilly, if they were to choose to join.
I am an enthusiast for devolution. However, we must devolve to places that exist in the minds of the people. If we do not do that, I fear that the Government's policy could get derailed. Some of the arguments that have been presented by Conservative Members must be taken on board. Turn-outs have been low in several recent elections. That indicates that if voters do not feel that the body to which they are electing representatives reflects the identity of the place to which they feel they belong, they will stay at home. That undermines the principle of democratic legitimacy, and all hon. Members would like that to be upheld. We want a body to be established in the south-west, and we want it to be supported; it must have democratic legitimacy.
Size is an issue that concerns many hon. Members. Cornwall is a small area, but there are many small regions in Europe, and in other parts of the world. An insular view is often taken in this country; we should lift our eyes, and take succour from the models that work in other parts of the world.
The Government should not stick to a rigid, obedient, control-freak version of devolution. Devolution must be flexible, and debate should be encouraged; those regions in the country that may seek variation, with regard to size, should express their views. Variable geometry and variable speed should be the principles that inform the way in which this important Government policy is developed in the coming years.
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I was born at 1 Penlee way, Stoke Damerel, which is just up the hill from Devonport dockyard, so I understand the south-west. I grew up in the aftermath of a terrible war, in which Plymouth was flattened; bloodied but unbowed. In 1947, I moved to Salisbury, and, subsequently, my father moved to Truro. During the 56 years of my life, the region has changed dramatically, and I want nothing more than to see it succeed.
It is a region, but it does not have an identity of its own; it never has had one, and it cannot have one. Cornwall is proud of its traditions, but it is ungovernable in traditional terms. It should have an assembly, of some sort; Trelawny knew all about that, and we should take note.
Devon, like Gaul, is divided into three parts, and it should look to its county council for salvation, rather than to Bristol, a city state in the west midlands. Bristol was born out of the need to have a focus for colonial trade. If a regional assembly were to be established in Bristol, the history of the city would inform how its inhabitants would think of the rest of the south-west.
Salisbury is on the edge of the region. Historically, culturally, spiritually and economically, it looks south, and it has about as much in common with the Isles of Scilly as they do with Gloucestershire. In 1990, when I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment, we started the process of improving the delivery of Government services from Whitehall down to local level. We achieved that by bringing together national Government Departments and regional centres. There was never any intention that those regional Government offices should have a democratic dimension, because they were already accountable to the House, through the Members of Parliament and Ministers who represented their regions. It is a grand folly to think that by creating a new tier of politicians and bureaucrats in Bristol, the people of the south-west will be better served. They will not. It will be a waste of money, and will take power from the people and put it in the hands of political parties. If, perish the thought, we had proportional representation, the people would have less and less say over decisions that were taken in their name. I hope that we never reach that point and, as Member of Parliament for Salisbury, I shall do my level best to ensure that we do not.
Mr. Sanders : Therein lies the other point. We have heard about only county councillors. However, 38 per cent. of the south-west's population live in unitary councils. They are not the same thing, by a long chalk.
There are many quangos and organisations, such as learning and skills councils, health authorities, and the Sports Council, that contain people who are often paid to sit on boards and are appointed from London. They are not accountable to the region and spend more money than the councils combined. If the Conservative party argues that all the quangos should be devolved to local authorities, does it say that the health services in this country should be brought under accountable control and devolved down to the authorities that run social services? If so, that is a radical departure from Conservative local government policy.
Such local government has been a long-standing Liberal Democrat policy. We recognise that undemocratically accountable government has been exercised in the regions for decades. When the then Conservative Government created the Government office structure, they gave only a new title to administrative offices that already existed in the regions.
Mr. Key : I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is misinformed. The whole point was that the offices did not already exist. Some Whitehall Departments had no regional presence and others had a massive regional presence, such as the Department of Transport. The policy was an attempt to bring the delivery of services together and to get Government Ministers and Whitehall Departments to talk to each other about local delivery.
Mr. Sanders : There was still top-down delivery, because the Government offices were answerable to Ministers in London, rather than to people who were elected from within the region. They delivered services
We have seen different models introduced in different parts of the United Kingdom. The models in Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland are all different from each other. It does not necessarily follow that the same model would be adopted in every region. People have to determine what their regions are, and those regions need to decide what powers they wish to draw down. The process should be driven from the grass roots, not the centre.
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): The hon. Gentleman is having the wool pulled over his eyes by his Labour allies. When the Secretary of State was asked yesterday, following the statement on the White Paper, whether he could give an assurance that the assemblies would not take any powers upwards from district and county councils, he was unable to give one. It is clear that the new assemblies will take powers upwards, away from the electors, rather than downwards from Westminster.
Mr. Sanders : That does not follow. The right hon. Gentleman's comments highlight the need for Conservatives to get involved in decisions nowto get fully involved in the partnerships emerging in the different regions, which go beyond political partiesand to influence them. The Government are responding to the agendas that they themselves are setting. If Ministers have a top-down plan, they will be vigorously opposed by those in other parties who believe in regionalism as much as they will by the Conservatives.
There are three tests for regional government. First, is it elected and accountable to the people of the area? Secondly, is it efficient, and does it save money by cutting down on bureaucracy and well-paid quango appointments? Thirdly, is it effective; not a talking shop, but a body with real power to tackle real problems? That is the agenda that we want, and those are the tests that we will apply to any regional assembly.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): Offer a Liberal three minutes, and he will take six. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) on his success in achieving this debate, and on the excellent way in which he demolished the Government's ideas and proposals for regional government, especially in relation to the south-west. His debate is timely. It is unfortunate that we have only an hour and a half, because many of my colleagues were not able to speak. Clearly, this is an important issue, which needs to be debated more fully than we have had time for this morning.
The debate is timely also because the Minister announced only a few weeks ago that it should be possible to get the first regional assembly into operation within the lifetime of this Parliament. That was the first public utterance from the Government that they expected to drive the idea of regional government through during the lifetime of this Parliament. Will the Minister confirm that a timetable has been proposed, that there will be a Bill before us next November and an Act on the statute book by 2003, and that the first referendum will be held in 2004-05?
Is not this whole process driven by political pressure, largely from within the Labour party, and especially from the north-east of England? Will the Minister confirm that he expects the first regional government to be in the north-east? When the Minister made the announcement recently, he said that it was not possible to draw a line under devolution just for Scotland and Wales, in the face of
Labour's plans for regional government will mean less, not more power for local communities; a point made on several occasions by my colleagues. It will lead to the abolition of at least one tier of local authority in those regions that adopt the assembly model. Conservative Members believe that the tier most likely to disappear is that of county councils. In 1996, the current Foreign Secretary said:
Huge costs would be involved in reorganisation. Figures have been given today in terms of the present costs of RDAs. Would the Minister like to share with us whether his Department has done any work on the possible cost of reorganisation in the tiers below the regional assemblies? It cost millions to reorganise Humberside as a county council. If that were replicated across the eight regions and shire counties involved in the process, the figure would run into billions. Has the Minister's Department done any costings? Exponentially, could not the costs run into billions of pounds?
Business groups remain extremely sceptical about regional government. The director general of the British Chambers of Commerce said that many businesses thought that the RDAs set up two years ago had yet to prove their worth. The CBI spokesman thought that the case for English devolution had not been made, saying:
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I thank the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) for raising what isI concur with the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss)an important subject that needs to be discussed widely in the future, in this Chamber and elsewhere. Regional government in England is a key part of the Government's programme for constitutional reform, and I look forward to many interesting debates on the issue. It is a credit to the official Opposition that about 10 per cent. of their Members are present for the debate. They are united in doing what they do best, which is to oppose measures.
Since we took office in 1997, we have secured far-reaching and effective constitutional changes. We have devolved power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and given London a democratically elected strategic body to promote its interests. In mentioning the Opposition's presence in numbers to oppose the measure, I was reminded of a plaque in my constituency that states:
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : If regional assemblies are so inevitable, will the Under-Secretary tell us about the inevitability of removing the shire, unitary, district or parish tier of government? It is easy to be in favour of new tiers of governmentLabour is always in favour of over-governmentbut which tier will be removed? We want to know so that we can warn our councillors that the Government want to abolish them.
Dr. Whitehead : The right hon. Gentleman is reading rather too much into what I said. I aimed to underline the foolishness that King Canute felt on that occasion, rather than the wider agenda that King Canute might have had in terms of regional government. Debates on Scottish and Welsh devolution and on the Greater London Authority probably contained speeches that were very similar to those that we have heard this morning. It is significant that Conservatives now play an active role in all those assemblies. The south-east regional chamber has a very active Conservative chairman, many active Conservative committee chairs
Dr. Whitehead : Yes, and the political circumstances and the political considerations have changed. That is exactly the point that I was attempting to make, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has underlined it. As political circumstances change, so opinions and ideas change and people adopt different positions. My point, contra Canute, is that Conservatives now sit happily in these various assemblies, in precisely the way suggested by the hon. Gentleman.
Andrew George : Does the Under-Secretary accept that Conservative Members seem to be suffering from benefit of hindsight disease, the symptoms of which are a brass neck and short-term memory loss? They seem to have forgotten that during the 18 years in which they governed the country, they sucked powers away from local authorities, created networks of quangos and did not deliver the kind of policies that they now claim they would like.
Dr. Whitehead : Yes, the hon. Gentleman makes a strong point about the born-again nature of these defenders of people in thatched cottages. In terms of things that have changed, and of selective memory, we might reflect that one of the reasons put forward for the creation of Government offices for the regions under the stewardship of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) was that most other countries in Europe had effective working regions that were able to discuss matters with Brussels, but that Britain had no such regions. The Conservative Government of the time created Government offices for the regions and made representations that those offices should be regarded as regions for the purposes of discussion with Brussels, provided that they were not elected.
Mr. Swire : I am most grateful for the revisionist historical tour that the Under-Secretary is undertaking. At some stage in the next eight minutes, will he address the question that has been asked by every one of my colleagues, namely, what tier of local government will be sacrificed if the regional assemblies go ahead?
Over and above the issues of devolution, there remains a missing link: the English regions. Why should what is good for Scotland, Wales and London be denied to the English regions, especially those that say that they, too, want more democratic accountability and greater influence over policy making at regional level? It should not. That is why our manifesto commits us to providing for directly elected regional assemblies in
The forthcoming White Paper on regional governance will set out in detail our proposals, and I shall say more about that. People in England deserve the opportunity to choose whether to have a political bodyan elected assemblywhich pulls everything together at a regional level and which has the legitimacy, the critical mass and the clout to set priorities and to speak up for the region.
Elected regional assemblies will give people in the regions the chance to have a stronger political voice and will bring decision making at the strategic level closer to the people. They can improve delivery by giving the regions the freedom and flexibility to meet their own needs and priorities within the national framework and co-ordinating the many activities and strategies that exist in the regions. They can make government in the regions more accountable to people in the regions, and provide regional stakeholders with a clearer decision-making framework.
I emphasise, for the hon. Member for East Devon, that the regions will be strategic. He is concerned about the position of local government. The idea of regions is to devolve powers and functions down from the centre, not to suck up power from the services from local government. The regions will be closer to the people in terms of strategic delivery.
It was fascinating to hear the hon. Member for Salisbury making the case against regional government. I took his words down carefully; he said that it would take power away from people and put it in the hands of political parties. I ask him to reflect on the strange practice in this House of electing people to sit for political parties to exercise a democratic function.
The debate has been strange in that Opposition Members have emphasised the idea that the Government have some fiendish plan to impose regions on a reluctant public. That is not the case. The people of each region will decide in a referendum whether and when an elected regional assembly is right for them. Let us be frank; not all regions will want to have an elected regional assembly within the next few years. Although there is a demonstrable demand in the north-east, that is clearly not the case in the south-east, for example. Some regions may never opt for a regional tier of government, which is their prerogative. That is why we are enabling different regions to move at different speeds appropriate to their particular needswhat we call the asymmetric approach.
I am aware of the claims by the Cornish constitutional convention for an elected assembly for Cornwall. One of the convention's points is that the south-west is an artificial entity, but that Cornwall represents an area with which people identify. However, the south-west region has become increasingly well known and accepted since the Government office was established in the early 1990s, and especially since the creation of the RDA. A survey carried out by The Economist in 1999, for example, found that 86 per cent. of respondents in
There is evidence from a number of countries of regions with little or no historical identity successfully developing and maintaining one. Many of the German Lander and French regions can be given as examples.
We should consider the case for Cornwall and how it might fit into a regional assembly for the south-west as we draft proposals for our White Paper. Of course, there will be a substantial debate as that White Paper is produced. Our thinking is that introducing an elected regional assembly with new powers and responsibilities to cover an area and population no greater than that of an existing county does not make a great deal of sense. Indeed, one of the main purposes of our regional arrangements should be to provide a focus for tackling problems that go beyond the existing local government units, not to duplicate the units that are already there.
Mr. Moss : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He is conspicuously refusing to answer a question that has been put to him three times. Which tier of local government do the Government expect to remove should regional assemblies come into force?
Dr. Whitehead : The hon. Gentleman seems to have missed the point that I emphasised: it will be for people in regions to decide for themselves through a referendum whether they want a regional assembly. It may be the case that, subsequent to the creation of a regional assembly, some concern will be expressed about the reorganisation of local government. The hon. Gentleman will not expect, nor should he, a blueprint to be set out this morning, when the whole basis of the idea of regional government is that people decide what they want and how they want it in their regions. Since we came to power in 1997, much has been done to strengthen the arrangements in the English regions.
Mr. Heathcoat-Amory : On a point of order, Mr. Griffiths. Is it out of order for a Minister to promise to the House to do something and then fail to deliver? The Under-Secretary promised to answer our questions about which tier of Government he would abolish; he has conspicuously refused to do so.