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19 Nov 2002 : Column 549—continued

Lawrie Quinn: The right hon. Gentleman, who is my constituency neighbour up in the top corner, mentions rural district councils. He will know of the bitterness felt in Whitby, in my constituency, about what happened in 1974, and of the bitterness still felt throughout our county of North Yorkshire about the Banham review. How does he think such issues affect our locality?

Mr. Hague: It is nice to wave to my neighbour across the Chamber and to agree with him. Obviously, we cannot go back to the 1960s structure of local government, but if we had never embarked on those changes the country would have been much better off. The same is true of more recent local government reorganisations.

Why on earth are we contemplating yet another great reorganisation with regional assemblies on the agenda? People are already sick of elections yet they are now to

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be presented with another set of elections, even if one layer of authorities is to be abolished. People in North Yorkshire will be told that they can elect a set of people in Leeds, but many of them will not vote; many will regard it as a joke. We have already seen a monkey elected mayor of Hartlepool because the electorate thought it was a joke—no doubt the Deputy Prime Minister would think that all sorts of strange creatures had been elected in Hartlepool in recent years. How many new sets of elections will we devise before we realise that the number of elections, authorities and structures is the problem in governing this country?

Mr. Edwards: The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong case against democratic devolution. As a former Secretary of State, does he—and his party—plan to abolish the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Hague: It is no longer any good asking me about the policy of my party. I am now free to criticise anybody, abandon anything that I want to abandon and adopt the role of an embryo elder statesman.

One argument against regional government is the quality of some of the debate in the Welsh Assembly. We all accept that the referendum took place. There is an Assembly and it will remain, most of us accept that: but has there been a dramatic improvement in the quality of debate or government? I am not sure about that.

In the county of North Yorkshire, part of which I have the honour to represent, our problem is not a democratic deficit. We have local democratic institutions. We have our county and district councils. Why should we have more remote government? It already seems pretty remote. People in some of the dales in my constituency think that Northallerton is a long way away, let alone Leeds, Sheffield or Hull, which are somewhere down in the midlands as far as some of my constituents are concerned.

Mr. Dawson: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: I will not give way again, because under the new modernised time limits I should lose the time that I have gained from the earlier two interventions. It is surprising how rapidly we get wise to such things.

I implore Ministers to think again about local government and at least to allow counties that do not want to be part of a new regional structure a vote to express that. If we in North Yorkshire vote not to be part of a Yorkshire regional assembly, we should not have to be part of it. We do not need a regional assembly. We have a regional identity in Yorkshire, but it comes from our cricket team and our attitude and we shall keep both of them. We do not need an assembly.

An assembly would also damage the prospects of the rural economy because the rural economy would not get a look-in under most of the regional assemblies that are being predicted, worked on and prepared for in the proposed legislation. I want to make some brief points about the rural economy in the time that remains.

First, the difficulty of providing rural services should be fully taken into account in the new calculations of local government finance allocations. So far, that has not been done. The rural services partnership has made

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some extremely good points. It is far more expensive to provide a small school in the Yorkshire dales, which may have only 20 pupils because it is miles and miles from anywhere, than to provide education in urban areas. That needs to be factored into the calculations for local government finance.

If the Government decide to move more resources away from the shire counties over the next few months, every time the Prime Minister stands at the Dispatch Box and talks about funding for this, that or the other, rural services will have been specifically and deliberately excluded and we shall point that out to people in rural areas.

Secondly, I implore Ministers to give renewed and even more urgent attention to flood prevention. That is the ultimate local issue, because it affects some people hugely but others not at all. I have seen the severe problems caused by flooding in Northallerton and Middleham in the Yorkshire dales. One of the few little bits of reorganisation that should be allowed, as a tidying-up measure, would be to clarify who was responsible for flood prevention. Currently, central Government, the district authorities and county authorities, the internal drainage board, English Nature and the Environment Agency all have a role. If that could be simplified, we could tackle flood prevention much more effectively in future.

Will Ministers give the necessary financial help? The budget was increased under the previous Government, and has been under the current one—I give them credit for that; it is needed for areas that have suffered badly from flooding during the past two years. Many of them, such as Northallerton, sadly, are in North Yorkshire.

The final thing that DEFRA Ministers must do for the rural economy is to ensure that the measures being taken to try to prevent the return of foot and mouth disease are effective and workable. The 20-day movement restriction on animals is neither. It is not merely that it is an expensive burden—it is not effective.

Last week I visited the auction mart at Hawes in Wensleydale, where I saw two sets of sheep standing next to each other, yet a farmer could take one set back to his farm but not the other. The restriction is not effective. I realise that it will be reviewed by February, but DEFRA needs to get on with that if there are to be effective domestic measures, in which people have confidence, to combat the spread of a future outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

That is what the Government should be doing for the rural economy, not implementing a hotch-potch of measures that will shut it out of consideration in large parts of our local government in future. We needed a different Queen's Speech, which is why I support the Opposition amendment.

6.9 pm

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): I very much welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate and, indeed, to follow the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I do not agree with his thesis that rural areas will be excluded from regional considerations. Indeed, I believe that regional assemblies can provide a very good focus to

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show the links between rural and urban areas and to ensure that rural proofing becomes a reality, that rural concerns are fully integrated into regional approaches, and that farming, as well as rural industries generally, can benefit a great deal from the process.

The measures in the Queen's Speech, including those being debated today, will be good for my constituency and the north-east of England. I was rather amazed to hear the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow), who is no longer in his place, describe regions as being amorphous monstrosities. I can certainly tell him that the north-east is not an amorphous monstrosity; it is a region with a very distinct identity. I believe that it will be able to make great progress because of the measures contained in the Gracious Speech.

I very much welcome the measures on housing, including those on improving housing standards and dealing with some of the problems in the private rented sector, which are considerable in my constituency. Proposals, such as those on licensing landlords, have been made strongly and convincingly by my own council in Gateshead—a very good council, which stands in stark contrast to the description of Labour councils given by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis).

I am pleased that measures on antisocial behaviour will enable action to be taken against the menace of airguns and air weapons, which have been a scourge of my constituency, other parts of the region and, indeed, other parts of the country. I very much welcome the initiative that the Government are taking.

I also welcome the fact that the Government are addressing the financial needs of local authorities. We in the north-east of England have suffered from the double whammy of the way in which the standard spending assessment is calculated and the operation of the Barnett formula, both of which need to be fundamentally reformed. I am glad that the Government are certainly prepared to address the issue of council finance.

I made my maiden speech in the debate on the Queen's Speech after the 1987 general election. I said:

Hon. Members will therefore understand that I am very enthusiastic about the Government's commitment to go down precisely that route, albeit that it is overdue. I believe that, in many ways, the measures could be strengthened. None the less, we ought to pay tribute to their commitment and, indeed, to that of the Deputy Prime Minister, who has been a consistent advocate of regional government.

In the debate last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) referred to regional government as being part of the good governance agenda, and I very strongly agree with that view. Devolution to the national territories—Scotland and Wales—was extremely important, but I have always felt that devolution should benefit all of us in the United Kingdom, irrespective of where we live. I am willing, however, to concede that there should be a large element of public choice in whatever structures are set up. For that reason, I very much welcome the fact that

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referendums will be held only in those areas where a clear demand has been shown. None the less, I have always felt that the commitment to devolution in Scotland and Wales certainly required a framework to be established that allowed for similar reforms across the United Kingdom, and the Deputy Prime Minister has felt strongly about that for a very long time.

I was disappointed by some of the criticisms that have been voiced, particularly by those of the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden. He tried to make respectable the fact that he wishes to deny a choice to the people in the regions. It makes no sense to deny that choice to people in the regions, and it will be difficult to explain to them.

I do not believe that we are talking about an extra tier, which seems to be part of the wide criticism that has been made. We are talking about democratising an existing tier and giving its ownership to people in the regions. Ironically, that tier was set up to a large extent by the previous Conservative Administration. Surely, if the comments about giving people choice mean anything at all, giving people a sense of ownership of the institutions that already exist in their region makes a huge amount of sense.

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