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Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): As one who is proud of the historical identity of the county of my birthLincolnshireand of the county of Staffordshire, an important part of which I have the privilege to represent, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to ponder for a moment? He is bent on rewriting, redrawing and destroying the map of this country as people have come to know and love it, and on putting in jeopardy the very identity of England. He is driving people forward by putting in place regional structures that will almost oblige many to think that they must vote in that direction. He is an iconoclast and he ought to be ashamed of himself.
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I must confess that I am not ashamed. I see by the smile playing on the lips of the hon. Gentleman that his rhetoric was more for the benefit of those outside this place than it was a serious contribution. There is a clear difference between us: Conservatives in opposition and in government have always imposed their solutions. We are prepared to give choicethat is what the White Paper is aboutto people in his area or to people in the north-east or other areas who are interested in the election of a regional assembly. If they take that route, they must accept that the first tier will be unitary. That is the point
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I congratulate my right hon. Friend; this is a good day for Yorkshire and Humberside and a good day for himthe culmination of the long campaign that he has waged. He might like to know that, this morning, in a vox pop on Radio Humberside, he was named as a potential First Minister for the new Yorkshire and Humberside region. May I express the hope that, even if he is not prepared to enlarge the powers at present, he will consider the proposals as a basis on which to build? What Scotland has, Yorkshire and Humberside need. The regional assembly must have more powers if people are to be prepared to vote for it and support it. What part will the Government play in the referendum process for regional government? Will they support the principle as they did for Scotland?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and kind remarks. As to whether I would consider being the First Minister, I am already First Secretary of State in this House, and I am happy with that. I do not want to feed the idea that I might be facing retirement, because those guys up in the Press Gallery will be writing about it for weeks. They rarely write the truth, but given half a chance they will make that kind of comment.
On the point about powers and balance, there are many powers in the package and we have tried to achieve a proper balance. It is different from what we did in Scotland, Wales or London. We have considered the experiences in those areas so as to establish a proper balance. We are not establishing parliaments in the regionsthat is a fundamentally different propositionwe are establishing directly elected assemblies. We think that the balance of resources and powers is right.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Deputy Prime Minister has not deployed what might be the most persuasive argument in favour of regional assemblies: they would be a system of governance of England compatible with devolution to Scotland and Wales. Instead, he has chosen to base his argument on economics. Does he accept that regional disparities in England have increased, despite the creation of regional development agencies? Why does he think that a new political structure will make that any better? Does he intend to ensure that the distribution of public finance to the regions is made on a fairer basisfor example, so that it relates to the per capita income of those regions compared with Scotland? If the benchmark is Scotland and Wales, how on earth does the right hon. Gentleman think that representative democracy, or real accountability, is served by a handful of neither nowt nor summat representatives, representing several hundred thousand electors in tiny assemblies that have no proper link with their electorate?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I accept the argument that this is part of a constitutional settlement that I believe people in England recognise as having been central to my arguments for an awfully long time. As I mentioned before, those arguments were made in the documents that we were writing in the 1980s. What people in Scotland and Wales were asking for was absolutely right, and I supported them in that campaign at the time. I also made it clear that the same demand should be made for the English regions. Indeed, I seek their support for giving people in the English regions the same kind of direct accountability, so there is that political consideration.
The economic matters are quite important of course, and many people will consider the proposals in that light. But if people consider what happened when Scotland and Wales were given their development agencies by Labour Governments, they will see that there has been a tremendous improvement in the economy of those areas. The improvement is never enough for people in those areas, but if the comparison in made, there is no doubt that the regional development agencies helped to improve their proportion of gross domestic product. That is why the difference was reduced between Scotland and Wales and the English regions.
It is right and proper that the English regions should have those bodies. People in the north-east feel very strongly about that. They want the same tools and resources to get on with the job and to improve the quality of life for our people. They define that in economic terms, but it is about more than that; it is about the environment, housing and all manner of things that make up quality of life, and the White Paper points that out. So it is right to ask me whether there is a proper balance between a constitutional settlement and the economic requirements to get greater prosperity in our regions. Yes, there is a proper balance, but both those issues come together.
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): May I thank my right hon. Friend for his long-term commitment to the English regions? I congratulate him on being so determined to secure action. I was privileged to be a member of the Millan commission, and it gives me great pleasure to see so many of its recommendations now being put into practice. The regional development agencies already make a difference, but it is certainly high time that the already existing regional tier of government is made democratically accountable and more focused.
I should like to ask my right hon. Friend whether he is satisfied that the powers now being offered, which undoubtedly open major opportunities, are sufficient to make a real difference, particularly in economic development and transport. Will he reassure us that the Government are ready to listen to the voice of elected regional assemblies? Is he ready to listen to the voice of the north-west, which will welcome this proposal, in the same way as he welcomes comments from the north-east?
The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I thank my hon. Friend for her kind remarks and for the part that she played in the Millan commission, many of whose recommendations are included in the White Paper. She was also the leader of Lancashire county council, which did a very good job in developing new innovations and ideas on economic development in a county council structure. That was goodone to be
The Government will have to take into account the fact that the assemblies will have their own pot of money and will make their own decisions, which are now made by central Government. The assemblies may say that they want more resources or more things, and the Government constantly get into debates with councils at present. I have no doubt that elected regional assemblies will make the same arguments. The one thing that I would say for directly elected regional assemblies is that they will have more influence over central Government to ensure a better and fairer distribution of resources.
Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): May I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that the civil servants currently working in the Government offices for the regions are not unaccountable bureaucrats, as he described them? They are civil servants, answerable to Ministers; and Ministers, in turn, are answerable to Members of Parliament.
I attended the consultations on defining the south-west region, and I have to tell the Deputy Prime Minister from first-hand experience that the conclusion was that Swindon, the Scilly Isles, Bournemouth, Poole and the coalfields of Gloucestershire had nothing in common that would not apply to any other region of the country. I want to put this to the Deputy Prime Minister: if, in the course of the consultation, the south-west puts a proposal to him to break into two regionsor even three regions, as Cornwall wants to go its own waywould he consider that and give it his blessing if that was what the people wanted?