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19 Nov 2002 : Column 553—continued

Mr. McLoughlin: The right hon. Lady says that something that already exists is being democratised, but what already exists is unelected and not welcomed by most people in those areas.

Joyce Quin: I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman says. He seems to criticise not only what his own Government set up but any chance of anyone having a democratic involvement in and ownership of those institutions. I find his comments completely incomprehensible.

I also find it rather odd that the move towards regional government is sometimes considered as something newfangled. I think that it was a Liberal Prime Minister, Gladstone, who first spoke in favour regional devolution, as well as home rule for Ireland and the other measures that are so well known from that time. At home I have a book on regional devolution that was printed before the first world war, and I know from looking at party archives in my part of the world that there has been a great deal of interest in the issue for many years. So it is not newfangled, but I am glad that, at last, it is being properly addressed.

Obviously, the new devolved institutions are still establishing themselves, particularly in Scotland and Wales, but they have encouraged new people to become part of the political process. I very much welcome the greater participation of women, particularly in the Welsh Assembly, as well as in the Scottish Parliament.

Overall, I should like to express strong support for the Government's measures on regional devolution. I am convinced that this is an exciting and long-overdue opportunity for people in regions such as mine—the north-east—and I look forward with enthusiasm and determination to campaigning for a positive vote in the referendum.

6.17 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin).

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She and I were elected in the same year, since when she has been a consistent advocate of regional devolution. Although I have great respect for her, I will devote my remarks to trying to demolish her arguments, because we disagree on this issue.

The House may like to recall the claims for regional devolution made by the Minister for Local Government and the Regions in The House Magazine, dated 3 June this year. When writing about the White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", he said:

It should not be necessary in the House to make the point that the true tests of a democracy are its accountability and transparency. If constitutional change, devolutionary or otherwise, is to be introduced, it should be obvious that it must not be conducted piecemeal, since change to the constituent parts must inevitably affect the form and functions of the whole, sometimes unpredictably. At all times, the test of whether it enhances, and does not reduce, accountability and transparency should be applied.

Jim Knight: The right hon. Lady talks about accountability and transparency, but would she describe the Government offices for the regions, which the Tory Administration set up, as being accountable and transparent? Is not the very good reason for introducing regional government the fact that regional quangos and government offices can be made genuinely accountable to the people whom they serve?

Mrs. Shephard: The hon. Gentleman should not confuse administrative arrangements with quasi-political accountability. I hope that what I go on to say will convince him of the rightness of my argument.

Let us consider the Government's record with regard to these tests. It is not only my opinion that the Government introduced sweeping devolutionary change for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland with no thought for its effect on the parliamentary process, or on the constitution overall; it was the opinion of the Select Committee in its comments in July 1998. The Government followed a piecemeal approach to devolution, which, in the end, left a democratic deficit for England. In seeking—or so they say—to address that democratic deficit, they are again adopting a piecemeal approach whereby parts of the whole may opt for one structure, while others may prefer the status quo, which will be denied to them because of the decision of the others. As in national devolution, the effect of the decision of parts of the whole on the rest does not seem to concern the Government, but it should concern the House.

Let us consider whether the results of a similar process for London have passed the Minister's tests. Have the devolved arrangements for London governance, in his words, brought decision making Xcloser to the people" and made Government Xmore efficient and accountable" and—I would add—transparent? Londoners voted narrowly in favour of an executive

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Mayor and a Greater London Authority. It is worth reminding the House that the Act to enable those elections to take place, and other changes to be made, gave no fewer than 277 additional powers to the Secretary of State. So much for decentralisation of power. Let us allow that to pass, however, as worse is to come.

What about transparency and accountability? Londoners are now asked to vote for borough councillors, two kinds of Assembly members, the Mayor of London, Westminster Members of Parliament, and Members of the European Parliament. They must also master the functions and responsibilities of the Government office for London, the London regional development agency, the London police authority, the fire and emergency planning commission and so on. Do those individuals, bodies and structures help Londoners when they want to report, and get something done about, a hole in the road? The answer is no. That answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

Do Londoners think that London is run better as a result of having an assembly? Ask any cab driver—or anyone else—and close your ears to the language that follows. People see the increase in traffic jams, the snarl-ups on the tube, and the inexplicable street closures. What they do not see is who is to blame, as it is not clear. Not only have the twin tests of transparency and accountability not been enhanced by devolution, but because of the proliferation of politicians, bodies and quangos that have appeared in its wake, they have been further obscured.

David Burnside (South Antrim): On the small point of the normal opinion poll of London cab drivers, does she agree that London cab drivers are very much in favour of the current Administration in London because of the disgraceful hike in fares after a certain time of night, which was imposed on London by the current Mayor?

Mrs. Shephard: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman only travels late at night. It is true, of course, that that does bias cab drivers in the Government's favour. When daylight comes, however, and they see the snarl-ups and jams again, their opinion changes. The Government want to extend the principle to the rest of England, and that does not bode well.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Cunninghame, South): I am listening carefully to the right hon. Lady. Surely the basic question is whether she accepts or rejects democracy. It is for the people to determine whether they want regional government in a referendum. Surely she must accept democracy.

Mrs. Shephard: My test for whether democracy is effective is whether it is transparent and accountable. I am saying to the House, and directly to the Minister, that this pattern obscures accountability and transparency, and therefore obscures democracy, too.

The Minister claimed in The House magazine of 3 June 2002 that the White Paper is relevant to all the English regions, because, regardless of whether people opt for regional assemblies, it proposes in any case to

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enhance the role of regional chambers, devolve more powers to Government offices and give regions more say in the policy-making process. He calls that Xextending opportunities". How have the precursors of those Xopportunities" worked out so far? In the first instance, to give one early example, the East Midlands Development Agency included no representative at all from Lincolnshire, the only truly rural and largest county in the region. That did not bring the decision-making process very close to the people of Lincolnshire.

Dr. Whitehead rose—

Mrs. Shephard: In my region of East Anglia, it was only with the utmost difficulty that we managed to explain to the powers that be in the East of England Development Agency that the sugar beet industry accounted for some 10,000 jobs in Norfolk alone, and that any threat to its future as an important local product would have economic repercussions. The appointed EEDA chairman caused despair at an NFU meeting earlier this year when he explained that the agency's principal contribution to the prosperity of what he called Xthe sector" had been to make substantial grants for the marketing of pickled herring. The relevance of that claim to the situation of Norfolk farmers who have seen an income drop of 50 per cent. in the current year alone escaped all present.

More recently still, this summer, an important local vegetable processor was threatened with closure and the loss of thousands of jobs, with the attendant effects on producers, packagers, labellers and hauliers. Thanks to the vigorous efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham), the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is in his place, and with a little help from me, the situation was saved. Some days after the problem had been solved, we all received a letter from the East of England Development Agency, to tell us that they were on to the case. Small wonder that the agency's mere existence, where it is known, elicits a combination of disbelief and exasperation.

Locally, therefore, the development agency—where anything is known about its work—has not covered itself with glory. Perhaps it has been given an impossible task, however. What, after all, does rural Norfolk have in common with parts of suburban Hertfordshire, and how does the Essex coast identify with Luton? Indeed, by seeking to overlay the eight administrative regions of England with a political identity, the Government are making a basic error. I do not know a lot about the south-west, but I wonder whether the people of Cornwall would welcome losing their identity and being ruled from Bristol. I know of few common causes between the Isles of Scilly and Tewkesbury. What common identity could one claim for the huge and disparate south-east, which ranges from Milton Keynes to the Isle of Wight? It is simply not possible.

There are other deeper issues, however, concerning the electorate's sense of identity. The Government partly justified the establishment of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly by praying in aid the importance of sense of identity in Scotland and Wales, but they are now, apparently, trying to use the same arguments to submerge that same sense of identity in English counties. If the Government were logical in their

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concerns for devolution, surely they should give the Cornish Celts their own Parliament, like the Scottish Celts and the Welsh Celts.

If someone from a rural area is asked where they are from, how do they reply? Do they say that they are from the south-west or from Devon? Do they say that they are from the north-east or from Northumberland? County identity is strong, it represents people's sense of place and tradition, and it should also have an administrative and governance role that is not purely ornamental.

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