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19 Nov 2002 : Column 528continued
It is striking that the gap between the regions in countries with strong regional government has grown wider as the gap between the general economic performance of most countries has got less. No wonder people look to subsidies to close that gap.
Scotland has a Parliament and its public spending is 25 per cent. higher than England's, but the English taxpayer foots the bill. The north-east is likely to be offered an assembly, and the voters there may hope that public spending there may rise closer to Scottish levels, and that taxpayers in the rest of England will foot the bill. That brings me to my second question to the Deputy Prime Minister: will regions that vote for assemblies get more money from the Treasury?
I should tell the Deputy Prime that many people in the north-east are under the impression that they will get more money from the Government if they elect a regional assembly. We do not know where they got that impression. I cannot imagine that Ministers sought to mislead them, so the Deputy Prime Minister can set them right now. Will they or will they not receive extra money?
Regional government will do nothing to boost economic growth, and it could slow it. It will do nothing to slash red tape; indeed, it will increase it. Regional government will usher in a new layer of politicians, and a new layer of bureaucrats, officers, advisers, secretaries, researchers, spin doctors, budgets, expenses, allowancesand trebles all round.Let us not forget the new buildings. Edinburgh and Cardiff are committed to spending #40 million on new buildings but, from my previous role, I have the strong memory that #40 million is the least the buildings will cost. The real cost will be much more than that.Why should the regions be different? For hard-pressed council tax payers, it will be higher council taxes all round.
Above all, regional government will do nothing to give power to local people. Instead, it will take it further away. Decisions made by county councils, which are closer to local communities, will be made by regional assemblies, which are further from local communities. The truth is that there will be no counties. For example, planning decisions now made in Hereford will be taken 60 miles away in Birmingham. Decisions now made in Kendal will be taken 75 miles away in Manchester. Decisions now made in Truro will be taken 90 miles away in Exeterand all for one simple reason. This Government try to abolish anything that they cannot control.
Mr. Davis: The counties tend to vote Tory so they will be gerrymandered into what the Government hope will be Labour-run regions, even if local people want to keep their counties, boroughs and districts. That brings me to my third question for the Deputy Prime Minister: if a majority in an area vote for a regional assembly but some counties vote overwhelmingly against it, will a regional assembly be imposed on them, against the wishes of their people? Will counties be abolished even if the majority of their residents want to keep them?
Institutions must have legitimacy, and that usually takes time. Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities, established in the geography and geology, the dialects and architecture, and the customs, practices and traditions of our country. Regions will be nothing more than lines on a map drawn by the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen. They will have no legitimacy whatever, and even less if they are imposed on counties against the will of those who live in them. In England, regions went out in the dark ages. One thing is certain: we on the Conservative Benches will fight undemocratic and costly bureaucratic regional assemblies every inch of the way.
The flagship Bill of the Queen's Speech could have been one that dealt with the real pressing problems in this country. It could have made every hospital a foundation hospital, given heads the final right to exclude pupils, offered treatment to all young heroin and cocaine addicts, or extended the right to buy to all housing association tenants. Instead, the flagship Bill of the Queen's Speech will destroy our historic counties and create a new layer of government. It will employ fresh armies of bureaucrats, create new reams of red tape, impose a new tier of politicians on local people and place new burdens on business. It will not correct the democratic deficit in Britain. It will not answer the West Lothian question. It will not create a single new doctor, teacher, nurse or policeman. All it will do is waste the time of the House, consume the energy of Ministers and distract the attention of the Deputy Prime Minister which should be focused like a laser beam on the firefighters' strike.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) can go to bed early tonight. Indeed, if he hears that speech he will get to sleep much quicker.
In line with my undertaking to keep the House informed, I will briefly update hon. Members on the fire dispute. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for requesting information on that. I can say from experience that I will certainly need the best of fortune.
The House knows that we have done all we can over recent weeks to avert a fire strike, which we managed to do until the two-day stoppage last week. The House will want to thank the armed forces and the police in particular, and the other emergency services, for the great job they did last week. I also want to thank the public for heeding the safety warnings we issued. Incidents and calls were both down on normal times.
I am doing all I can to avert the eight-day stoppage planned from this Friday. If a two-day strike was unnecessary and unjustifiable, an eight-day strike is even more so. It must be the Government's goal to prevent it from going ahead. Yet again, I call on the Fire Brigades Union to cancel its eight-day strike.
Yesterday I held talks with the employers and the union, and this morning with Sir George Bain. I will continue my discussions later today. I am hopeful that the employers and the FBU can make good progress in their talks today and tomorrow. I have made it clear that any pay rise above inflation must be linked to modernisation. Sir George Bain has given us a route map to achieve that.
As I and, indeed, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have repeatedly made clear, the issues involved are relevant to the whole public sector, to people's mortgages, to their jobs and to the strength of our economy at a time of world downturn, as the Chancellor highlighted to the House yesterday. Our three responsibilities are, first, to seek to avert the strike; secondly, to make all necessary preparations should it go ahead; and thirdly, to ensure value for public money by giving a fair deal to the fire service and a fair deal to the public who fund it. I am sure that the House would want me to use all efforts to avoid a strike and its consequences, and I will keep it informed of progress.
Mr. Salmond : I saw the Deputy Prime Minister speaking on television on Sunday about his visit to his local fire station. The impression given, certainly in reports, was that some of the firefighters thought that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister were not fully at one on the dispute. How was that impression conveyed and why was it gained?
The Deputy Prime Minister: That was not the impression given; those were not the exact circumstances. I note that an FBU union official made that point, and I leave the hon. Gentleman to make judgments on that.
It was rather touching to hear the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden calling for a new localism, but we must judge that against his record. He was a member of the last Government for a long time. When he talked about giving power to local people he was certainly was not talking about giving money because in the last four years of local authority finance deals under the Tories, there was a 4 per cent. cut in real terms. Compare that with the first four years of this Labour Administration, who gave a 20 per cent. increase in resources. Resources are quite important if there is to be power, decision making and services in a local area.
The right hon. Gentleman asked us to trust local authorities and wondered why we do not do so. The previous Administration's record had nothing to do with trust. They did not give enough resources, and against the wishes of the people of London, Humberside, Berkshire and Cleveland, they abolished county councils. I can remember the arguments on the Floor of the House about people wanting to keep their local authoritiesall Tory local authorities, of course; that was why they wanted to keep them. That did not stop the then Government abolishing county councils. Yet the right hon. Gentleman now says, XLet us trust the people and listen to their views." I am afraid that his record does not bear out his claims for himself.
I am sure that we will have many debates about devolution and regional government. When the right hon. Gentleman talks of bureaucracy, he should remember that his Government set up an unaccountable regional bureaucracy. They sent a considerable number of civil servants to every regionevery Department was representedbut they could not bring themselves to make those civil servants accountable to the people of the regions. So the right hon. Gentleman should not talk to me about trusting the voice of the people in the regions. Under his Government there was no accountability whatever.
When I made my statement to the House about communities in JulyI hope to come to the House in January to complete the statement on housing provisionI said that all Governments, both Labour and Tory, had totally failed the people of this country as regards the provision of housing. Let us look at the figures. In the 1960s, there was a total of 1.2 million social housing units. In the 1970s, that figure was 1.1 million. During both those periods there were Labour and Tory Governments, so I do not seek to make the point that one was better than the other. There was a decline throughout those decades. By the 1980s, the figure had fallen from 1.1 million to 440,000, and in the 1990s it collapsed to 256,000. Social housing provision is the most important aspect of housing programmes.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the right to buy. Yes, there were about 1 million right-to-buy casessomething like 50,000 a yearbut at the same time we saw a fall of almost 1 million in the number of new houses. The right hon. Gentleman might be concerned about providing social and new housing, but the right to buy does not achieve that. We do not oppose