Governance in England

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Mr. Steen: Is my hon. Friend aware that in Torbay, Brixham, in my constituency, has always been regarded as the poor neighbour of Torquay and Paignton? There was a tremendous build up of belief there that there should be a referendum for a local town council. That referendum took place three years ago, and the general expectation was that there would be overwhelming support for Brixham town council. Less than 8 per cent. of the electorate voted, and Brixham town council no longer exists. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the case of an assembly or regional government, a high figure—over 50 per cent.—should have to vote? Otherwise, officials could vote in a regional government just by force of numbers.

Mr. Luff: I am very glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend. He has led me to my next point, which is the referendum. It is important to get that right. How will the referendums be conducted? What will the trigger mechanism be? The Minister offered few clues during the question-and-answer session. I have a problem in my constituency—I hope to discuss it during the Adjournment debate tomorrow—in that parish polls are being called, at great cost to the town council, on the wishes of 10 people out of a population of 20,000. Those polls are a complete irrelevance and a waste of time. Therefore, there must be a high threshold for trigger mechanisms.

There should be a right of veto for the shire counties around Birmingham and the black country against the creation of a west midlands regional assembly against their wishes. I can envisage a situation in which a small turnout in Birmingham votes for the regional assembly and the shire counties such as Herefordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire vote against, but the total vote brings in a regional assembly, over the heads of the people who live in my constituency and nearby.

Lawrie Quinn: Notwithstanding the important technical point that the hon. Gentleman has raised, does he believe in the principle of using referendums to establish public opinion?

Mr. Luff: It is absolutely right that those things should be created on the back of referendums if they are to be created at all.

My other worry is the cascading technique, which the Government used in Scotland and Wales. There would be no devolved assembly in Wales if the referendums had been held on the same day. The Government deliberately staggered the referendums in order to engineer the ''correct'' vote in Wales. I am fearful that the same thing would happen here. There has been a strong call for a long time for a regional assembly in the north-east—I shall explain in concluding how that can be addressed without the need to create regional assemblies. However, that area will vote, then Yorkshire will vote, and it will roll on down, and the west midlands might feel that it has to have an assembly because otherwise it will lose out. That is a gerrymandering technique. It is not honest and open; it is fiddling with democracy.

There is no call for a regional assembly in the west midlands. In my 10 years as a Member of Parliament, I have barely had a single letter asking for a regional assembly—I might have had one. People are breathless at the thought that they might be run from Birmingham; that is the fear in Worcestershire. We love Birmingham. It is a huge, dense urban core, a city of which we are proud to be neighbours, but we do not want it to run our affairs. It took 30 years to get a regional hospital in Worcestershire because the regional health service was based in Birmingham and Worcestershire was, frankly, off its radar screen. That was a problem of regionalism. It was only when we got away from that that we had a chance of building a decent hospital for the county.

We are used to working with Gloucestershire—the three-choirs festival is based on the cathedrals of the three counties Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire. There is a three-counties showground for agricultural purposes—Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Herefordshire. Naturally, we would work with Gloucestershire, but that county is to be in the south-west region. There are bits of Gloucestershire that lie to the north of my constituency.

In my constituency, Broadway sticks out like an arm into the Cotswolds. Broadway would be run from Birmingham, yet villages like Willersey, to the north, will be run from Bristol, together with Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, whose Member of Parliament is on this Committee. We need to work with Gloucestershire, not with Birmingham.

Regional assemblies might be what Labour politicians want, with their neat ideas of bureaucracies and new government structures, or what Liberals want because they think it might give them a bit more power here or there—although I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) has severe reservations as to what the implications of all this are for Cornwall—but they are not what ordinary people want. Regional assemblies will not remove confusion; they will add it. They will not create clarity; they will remove it. They will increase the numbers of politicians, and will lead eventually to the abolition of county councils.

I have a couple of radical thoughts for the Minister. If the assemblies will genuinely take powers only from this place, we should make Members of Parliament who represent those parts of the country the members of regional assemblies. That would require no extra elections. For a couple of days each week or for a week each month, we could go to Birmingham, for example—that would be the destination in my case—and sit on the regional assembly. The rest of the time, we would come down here. There would be no extra politicians. That solution offers clarity and, although it is radical, the Minister might consider it.

If regions such as the north-east want a regional assembly, they should be able to have one de facto, and be given extra powers and resources. The economic development functions exercised by RDAs should all be in the hands of county councils and unitary authorities, which could band together in whatever way they thought appropriate. Just as we have combined authorities for fire and police services, there could be an economic regeneration service.

Regions should be allowed to do that. We do not need Acts of Parliament or new levels of bureaucracy—the Government could simply give county councils and unitary authorities the money and power to gang together as they think fit. In my part of the world, we would gang together not with Birmingham but with Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. That would make an effective little unit.

11.36 am

John Mann (Bassetlaw): I am somewhat stunned by the prospect of Nottinghamshire county council being given the economic development budget of the regional development agency. I am not sure that that would be in the interests of delivery by governance.

I want to make a specific and general point. My mailbag is bulging, and so is my website—if a website can bulge—with mail from many people on many issues, but none of those communications has been an e-mail, letter or petition calling for more governance. I may not be the most popular person with my constituents, some of whom may regard me as a half-wit. In considering how best my area should be governed, to take one half-wit and add another half-wit will not create a full-wit, because a half-wit times a half-wit equals a quarter-wit.

I support the principle of regional assemblies, if that is what people want, but the crucial issue is what kind of threshold there is and how wide it should be. A constituency such as mine looks not to the east midlands but to Yorkshire; we have Yorkshire television and radio, and Yorkshire commuters.

Ministers may want to consider the history of the trade union movement when they examine the question of boundaries. There are a myriad of different regional boundaries across the trade unions in England for which regional democratic structures have existed for 100 years. The General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union, the Transport and General Workers Union, and Unison—or NUPE, as it was known—all had different regional boundaries. In my constituency, a member of Unison will be in the east midlands and a member of the TGWU will be in Yorkshire, but not Yorkshire and Humber, although someone in Peterborough—to the east—will belong to that region. Lincolnshire is in the Yorkshire region of the TGWU. For the GMB, Humberside and Hull comes under the east midlands. Those boundaries were created because of economic structures and perceptions of where trade and job links lay. Some attention should be paid in the White Paper to regional union structures, because it is an illuminating subject.

Those of us who live on the boundary of a region should have as much say as those who live in the core. Therefore, the threshold should not be simply in terms of numbers but should cross constituencies. If those in the extremities of the region felt that regional government was a step forward, I would welcome that, as strategies for control over the police, regional development agencies, fire services, transport and tourism would be far more coherent on a regional basis than on a national, district or county basis.

I turn to the role of Back Benchers. Where within the structures will Back Benchers be given the ability to scrutinise the bodies? I suggest that there should be Select Committees of the regions in this place, if not instead of regional government, perhaps in addition. The people running the various authorities could then be called together. That would benefit democracy, accountability and efficient government, and be a major step forward for delivery of Government priorities, as dictated by votes in this place.

My main point is on the question of over-governance. Instinctively, despite the reticence that I mentioned, the principle of regional government appeals to me, but over-governance does not appeal. Luckily, there are no mayors in my patch, and I hope that that remains the case—it certainly will if I have anything to do about it. However, we have parish and district councils, county councils and elections to Parliament and Europe. Some would want us to have elections to a second Chamber, although I think that that would be an election too far. I would simply scrap the second Chamber in its entirety and replace it—perhaps with a committee of the regions.

We do not want fewer and fewer voters turning out for more and more elections. Throughout the last century, the maximum number of elections was four, which was probably too many; in the final calculation, we may end up with seven or eight elections. The Minister said that there was no secret agenda to abolish county councils—indeed, it should not be secret. I support regional government, and believe that we should scrap county councils in advance of creating regional government. There is no role for both in my area. Regional governance would be a step forward only on the basis that county councils were scrapped.

We might scrap Nottinghamshire county council as an experiment, for example, in preparation for regional government. It would be a major step forward for my area to make schools directly funded and accountable, with head teachers running secondary schools and a family of primary schools.

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Prepared 18 December 2001