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The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: It is a question of choice, which is precisely what we have put in the White Paper. I hear what the hon. Lady says about Government offices, and I want to correct the impression that I might have given on that. I am the Minister to whom the Government offices are responsible, and I think that they do an excellent job—so much so that we have broadened their representation, and more Departments are actively involved in them. Furthermore, they were an idea of the previous Administration, which I thought was excellent. My only disagreement is this: if they make recommendations to Ministers, who debate with Members of Parliament here, why cannot they have a say about the priorities of their areas? That can be achieved effectively only by an elected regional assembly—[Interruption.] I hear hon. Members' objections, but, although it might be possible to get a question or a little bit of space in a debate at Westminster, that is no longer satisfactory to people in the English regions. Even if they are satisfied, we leave it with them to make that choice. Those who are not satisfied, however, will have a directly elected assembly, which will be more democratic and less bureaucratic.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that the bleating of the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)—who is no longer in her place, so I presume she has gone to lick her

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wounds—about the continuation of county councils is nothing more than hypocrisy and cant. Why, in 1994, did Conservatives in Berkshire—the area now represented by the hon. Lady—propose the total abolition of Berkshire county council?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should be putting questions to the Deputy Prime Minister not about the Conservative party but about the policies of the Government. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister has got the drift of the hon. Gentleman's case, and perhaps he can try to reply.

Hon. Members: He was not listening.

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I heard my hon. Friend quite clearly. He was talking about more hypocrisy under the previous Administration. Indeed, he reminds us that they abolished Berkshire county council. Despite all the talk that I am hearing about keeping county councils, the Conservatives reduced the organisation in Scotland to unitary authorities and abolished the Greater London Council. All of that was without any consultation with the people in the areas concerned. The White Paper puts down a proposal and allows people to make a choice. That is the fundamental difference between the Government and the Opposition.

Andrew George (St. Ives): The White Paper talks about trusting people, flexibility and embracing diversity. In the light of that, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that, if the Government merely attempt to replace an over-centralised state with a centralised solution, the whole project will become unpicked? Given the chance, voters will simply stay home in their droves. Although chapter 6 of the White Paper refers to the possibility of flexibility about those regions, does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that the whole project will fail if the Government become obsessed with their own regional boundaries?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I do not believe that a centralised solution is being imposed on people. The Government have made a judgment, which is embodied in the White Paper. I hope that the House will have an occasion to debate the details and the flexibilities in the White Paper in the not-too-distant future. We have decided on the best form to offer as a choice. I agree that we are not keeping the local authority structure as it is—we are saying to people, "If you want elected regional representation, you must accept a unitary structure." We therefore have a boundary commission to give us recommendations on that. That is a political choice, but it is up to the people to decide whether they keep what they have or take the structure that we are offering.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the good case that can be made for democratic regional government will be all the more persuasive if the long-term and deliberate decline in the powers of local government that was brought about by the Conservative party were firmly reversed? Does he agree that the opportunity to do that and to increase the powers of local government will arise through the creation of the unitary authorities to which he has just referred?

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The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I believe that the unitary authority system is the best form of local government, and I think that the previous Administration felt the same. After all, they imposed a great deal of it throughout the country, and that was right. Such authorities have considerable powers and important decisions to make about the services that they provide in their area. However, I return to the point that we shall have a two-tier system if an area chooses to have an elected regional assembly. That option is right, and it would not undermine in any way the influence, controls and resources that the unitary authorities have. We are decentralising from the top down to the regions, and not from the local authorities.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that devolution in Scotland and Wales created for the Government a problem in the north-east and the north-west, which now feel disadvantaged? However, that is absolutely no reason to impose regional government on areas of this country that have no desire for it whatever. They will view the current plans with anger and disbelief. Is he aware that there is a strong feeling of county in Hampshire, which is based on the historic capital of England, Winchester? The county has shown itself to be sensitive to the different social and economic needs within Hampshire. Can the right hon. Gentleman try to give us an assurance that, if any area rejects the proposals, it will not be economically disadvantaged?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: That is precisely what I have been trying to say. It is all about choice. If the people in an area do not want a directly elected regional assembly, they will presumably not ask for it. If some in an area think that there should be such an assembly, the Secretary of State will come to a judgment as to whether there is sufficient demand in that area. The White Paper spells out just what he has to take into account and, in those circumstances, there either will or will not be a referendum. At the end of the day, the judgment will be whether the people in a region want an assembly.

I have heard much from Conservative Members that such assemblies are not wanted in the regions and we can all quote stories about whether they are or are not wanted. However, a BBC poll says that two thirds of the population are in favour of regional government. [Hon. Members: "Not in the south-east."] I shall come to the south-east—hang on. The big differences in support were clearly reflected geographically. In northern areas, support for regional government was more than 63 per cent.— 73 per cent. on average—and, by the way, the west midlands is included in that. In the south-east, an average of between 50 and 60 per cent. were for regional government. Therefore, the figures suggest that a substantial number of people are prepared to consider proposals for regional government.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): In contrast to the carping from some Conservative Members, may I say that I think that my right hon. Friend's announcement is of huge significance for the English regions? For my region of the north-east, it represents a great opportunity for us to pioneer the process, and I hope that we will do that. I am still an

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owner of the alternative regional strategy that my right hon. Friend mentioned and I can recommend it as reading to the Conservatives, as they need common sense on the issue.

May I press my right hon. Friend on the consultation period that he has announced? Will he use it as an opportunity to say to the regions of England, including the north-east, that the proposed organisations will have real budgets and real powers? Will he also reaffirm his message about inclusivity, because everyone in the regions—business, organisations, voluntary groups and all our communities—can benefit from these proposals?

The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State: I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. I remind the House of the role that she played in bringing about the White Paper and greater powers for the regions. She rightly tells us that the north-east is a pioneer; clearly, it has been. I shall hear more about that in the north-east later today when I am accompanied by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

I am grateful for the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) made about the alternative regional strategy. I will make it available, and I can claim that, in contrast to the Opposition, the views I held 20 years ago are consistent with what I say today. The Opposition's views are hardly consistent from year to year or from election to election, but that is the nature of the current Opposition.

We are providing real budgetary powers, real finances, real powers to get on with the job and greater democratic accountability. That is shown in the White Paper. No doubt when we have the opportunity to study it, the House will debate its details and determine whether my points are justified.

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