Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): I must say to the Deputy Prime Minister that it is the way he tells them; it really is.

I am grateful to the Deputy Prime Minister for his courtesy in giving me prior sight of the statement. His recognition of the courtesies of the House could well be a lesson to some of his colleagues. However, I also commiserate with the right hon. Gentleman. He said in his statement that he had long been an advocate of regional government, and we acknowledge his consistency in that regard. He has, we know, worked hard to battle for the White Paper. I am only sorry that, on the day of its introduction, he has been somewhat upstaged by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): Sabotage.

Mrs. May: Sabotage indeed.

We are opposed to regional government because we believe that regional assemblies will take power away from local government, lead to the abolition of county councils, and take decision making further away from local communities. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that today's measures will bring decision making closer to the people of England, but far from devolving power, they will centralise it, taking it further away from local people. The Government are simply going in the wrong direction, pulling power up to remote bodies; we want to

9 May 2002 : Column 279

push power down to local people and to local communities. We want community government, not regional government.

The Deputy Prime Minister also says that it is a matter of choice, but it is some choice for those who do not vote for a regional assembly. We learn from his statement that the regional chambers, government offices and regional development agencies of even those regions that do not vote for an assembly will be given greater responsibilities and powers, greater opportunity to take decisions affecting people's lives, and greater opportunity to take decisions away from elected local government representatives.

The Deputy Prime Minister claims to have changed one of the most centralised systems of local government in the western world. Tell that to the local councils that now have 15 per cent. of their funding ring-fenced by this Government, and who can spend it only on what this Government say they can spend it on.

The Deputy Prime Minister also tells us that, as a result of the introduction of regional assemblies, a complete review of local government will need to be undertaken in the areas concerned. That sends one clear message: it will lead to the abolition of county councils. Counties count. They are historic areas, with which people identify clearly. I wonder how many people in the north-east realise that regional government will mark the end of Durham and Northumberland county councils. How many people in the south-west realise that it will mark the end of Devon, Cornwall, Dorset and Gloucestershire county councils?

Regional government will mean that decision making is taken away from local people and given to the regions, but we must recognise that there are differing needs. In the south-east, for example, the needs of the Kent coastal towns are quite different from those of the Thames valley. Will people in Falmouth really want decisions affecting their lives to be taken in Bristol? Will people in Sunderland want Newcastle to rule their lives?

We also learn from today's statement—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The hon. Lady must be heard.

Mrs. May: Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

We also learn from today's statement that the new regional assemblies will, after all, have tax-raising powers such as the power to raise a precept on council tax. The Deputy Prime Minister presents that as a great advantage, but I doubt whether the people of London, on whom the Mayor and the Greater London Assembly have imposed a 30 per cent. precept, would regard granting such powers to regional assemblies as a good thing. We are talking about budgets of about £350 million a year, but county councils such as Essex and Kent have budgets of some £1 billion a year. Exactly what will regional assemblies be able to do?

The Deputy Prime Minister said at the beginning of his statement that this is about more democracy and less bureaucracy, but we now learn that regional assemblies will be responsible for developing joined-up regional strategies on issues such as sustainable development, economic development, transport, housing, health improvement and culture. Does that constitute less

9 May 2002 : Column 280

bureaucracy? What will happen to the existing quangos when regional assemblies are in place? How many quangos will be abolished?

In its 1997 manifesto, the Labour party pledged that regional assemblies would require

However, the reorganisation of local government is likely to cost up to £2 billion. Does the Deputy Prime Minister stand by Labour's manifesto pledge, and will he confirm that if additional public expenditure is involved, regional assemblies will not go ahead? Will the tax-raising powers for the regional assemblies be limited, as they are in Scotland, or will they be unlimited?

These regional assemblies will not provide greater opportunities for devolving power down to local people: they will raise power up from local government, destroy county councils and mean that local communities have less say in their lives and in decisions affecting them than they have today. These proposals for regional assemblies will mean less democracy, more talk and more tax. It is a centralising measure and we will oppose it.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I suppose that I could return the compliment and say that it is the way the hon. Lady tells them, but that would be flying in the face of history. I presume that the Tories are still responsible for what they did in government. Let me remind the House that they opposed Scottish devolution: they now accept it. They opposed Welsh devolution: they now accept it. They opposed the Greater London Authority: they now accept it. They opposed the Scottish regional development agency: they now accept it. They opposed the Welsh regional development agency: they now accept it. They also opposed the RDAs for the English regions, although God knows why they felt that England should not have economic agencies to deal with similar problems of jobs and investment. I shall have to treat the hon. Lady's comments with some contempt, because of the Tories' history. They oppose proposals and they shout a lot, but in the end they come to accept the new ideas. That is what will happen in this case.

The hon. Lady said that the proposals would mean more bureaucracy and less democracy, but decisions in the regions are made at present by Government offices. Who set up the Government offices? It was the previous Administration, but not all Departments were included. They are now, and that is an improvement. However, it is not sufficient for the regions to have civil servants making decisions—that is bureaucracy—when directly elected members could make the strategic decisions. If we are replacing civil servants, who are by definition the bureaucracy, with directly elected members, that will mean more democracy and less bureaucracy. Both civil servants and elected members have a part to play, but I cannot accept the hon. Lady's arguments on that point.

The hon. Lady mentioned precepts. When her party was in government, it abolished the Greater London council, but it did not consult the people of London on that. When the Conservatives came to finance its replacement, what did they use? They used a common form of precept, as the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) can tell the hon. Lady. Under all Governments, precepts have been seen as a proper mechanism for financing local

9 May 2002 : Column 281

authorities. They are used even today in the metropolitan authorities. The precept has been a proper form of financing—alongside grants, which I also mentioned—for local authorities.

We heard some hypocrisy from the hon. Lady, whose concern for quangos is touching. Most of the quangos grew up under the previous Administration, because they did not trust the elected members of the regions to make decisions. We totally reject that approach and we will provide the people with an alternative of regional elections, as proposed in the White Paper.

The hon. Lady said that the regional assemblies will take powers away from local authorities. I understand that she has not had the chance to read the White Paper, but when she does she will see how the local authorities will retain the powers that they have. The proposals involve decentralising from the Government down to the regions.

The hon. Lady mentioned counties. There are county structure plans, as the hon. Lady has mentioned in the past, but that sort of regional body is not enough. Some areas are larger than individual county councils and there can be several county councils in an area. They will now have a regional body. There is no need for a county structure plan if there is a regional planning body. That is precisely what we are proposing.

The hon. Lady spoke about county councils. We are giving people the choice to retain or reject a county council. They will be able to decide whether they want to keep the existing local government structure or move to an elected assembly. We trust the people, and we give them the choice. That is called a referendum. We are not imposing the structure.

That is why the White Paper is about choice. If people in the south-east want to retain the current structure, that is fine: let us give them the chance to decide whether they want to advance through the referendum process towards regional government. However, it is their choice. It is not for people in Newcastle to choose for people in the south-east. Each region will make its own choice about its local authority. That is called consultation and democracy. The White Paper is dedicated to that purpose.

Next Section

IndexHome Page