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26 Nov 2002 : Column 189—continued

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The right hon. Gentleman said that the Bill offers the same opportunities to the English regions as were offered to Scotland and Wales. Given that the Scottish Parliament has tax-raising powers and a significant degree of devolution, has he amended the proposals in the White Paper to make those same powers available to the elected English regional assemblies?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I did not say that they were the same powers. The principle of decentralising decision making has found different forms of expression in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and London. Other parts of the country are not exactly the same as, for example, the London area. We have made a judgment about what powers should be available and what decentralisation should take place in the English regions, and that is what we are putting before the House. It will help us to provide better public services and better decision making.

Our White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", was published in May this year to set out our plans for elected regional assemblies in those regions in which people wish to have them. Elected assemblies will take functions down from central Government, not up to the local authorities. They will be fit and lean, with real powers to make a difference and form a strong partnership with both the public and private sectors. We want to bring democracy to the regions, to reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it, and, above all, to provide regional accountability.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I would like to return to the Deputy Prime Minister's comparisons between these proposals and the devolution in Scotland, Wales and London. Scotland, Wales and London have delineated boundaries. What will be the constituencies for the referendums to determine whether the people in a given region wish to have an elected assembly? In some cases, those regions correspond with people's sense of identity, but in others, such as the south-east, they certainly do not. It must worry the right hon. Gentleman, as a true democrat, that it will not be easy to take the feeling of the south-east, given that there is no real sense of identity in that region, either in terms of geography or of—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The right hon. Lady must be more concise in her interventions.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Lady was in the Government who established the regional offices.

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They had no difficulty in determining the regional boundaries, which are the same as those designated in the Bill. We have done exactly the same. I do not see why she should feel differently in opposition from how she did in government. If we want to make progress on regional government, timetables are important. If we got into a debate about boundaries, it would take an awfully long time to make these decisions. That has been tried—we all know of debates about whether somewhere should be in the north-west or the north-east, for example. We intend to ensure that it is possible to introduce regional government, and to give the people in the regions the choice. We are not saying that they should have assemblies; we want to give them the choice. The measures will be based on the existing boundaries.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): Is not that the key point of this debate? Do not the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals stand in stark contrast to what happened in the metropolitan areas—North Yorkshire, Humberside and Cleveland, for example—which the Conservatives imposed on the country without any real consultation, involvement or participation of the local people?

The Deputy Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has highlighted the fact that, for the Conservatives, the rhetoric of opposition is entirely different to what they did in government, but we must take that as part of the political game. After all, they are the people who opposed the devolution of powers to London, Scotland and Wales, then quietly came round to accepting it later. I presume that that might happen in this case as well.

The Bill responds to the desires that many regions are already expressing.

Andrew George (St. Ives): On that point—

The Deputy Prime Minister: Hang on, I have not even got started on this section.

The Bill does not establish elected regional assemblies; that must come later. That was also the case for Scotland, Wales and London. It is not the case that people voting in a referendum will not know what they are voting for. The White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice", sets out our proposals. The removal of one tier of local government is an integral part of the regional assembly package. We want government to remain streamlined, and once we have received the boundary committee's local government recommendations for a region, we will publish a statement that will be put to the electorate before any referendum. That statement will cover both the proposals for any local government reorganisation and a summary of what the assembly would do and how it would work.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I will not say which region I think Cumbria should be in, but the reality is that the area that I represent is crying out for single-tier local government, whether we get regional assemblies or not. Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider that proposal?

The Deputy Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend well knows, the proposals in the Bill are for unitary

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government. We believe that if any regions want regional government or want to take a step towards it, we should test opinion with a referendum. We will ensure that the boundary committee puts in the proposals for, on the one hand, regional government and, on the other, unitary government.

The proportion of people covered by unitary government varies from area to area—it is large in the north-west—but I will not get into the argument about whether Cumbria is in the north-west or the north-east. Both have high populations under unitary government, but my hon. Friend will find that the figure for the eastern region is low. We are making it clear that we do not want three tiers of government in a region. Under regional government, where the people choose it themselves, there will be a unitary local government structure.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the Deputy Prime Minister consider the position that he has put my constituents in, although I speak as one who in principle favours the Bill that he is putting before the House? If the boundary committee decides to make local government more remote by providing single-tier county local government, people will be invited to vote against the local government system that they want to get the region that they want. To make matters worse, the decision will be taken by voters who are not affected by the proposals and who live in those parts of the region that already have single-tier government.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point, but we did not want people to be confused about what the local government structure should be. We could have a local government reorganisation recommending some kind of unitary authority and perhaps go on to a referendum on regions, but we have said that we will have the regions and that the boundary committee will take into account how the unitary structure is to work.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct: people might vote against the regions if they do not like all that and if they do not like the local government structure, but they will have the choice. That is what we are providing. We have made our decision, and we did not want to leave any doubt as to whether there would be three-tier government. The House can imagine what this lot opposite would say if we agreed that the county structure was there—[Interruption.] Yes, this lot—that will do. The House can image what they would say about the county structure, so we have chosen to strike a balance in this way.

Andrew George: I approve of the principle, and the Deputy Prime Minister's saying that he wants to challenge the XWhitehall knows best" philosophy reassures me, but he also said that the regions would be set up where people want them. On 16 October, I received an answer to a parliamentary question that states that more people from Cornwall showed support for a regional assembly than did the rest of the country put together. Surely, if he wants to deliver, he should respond to that demand now.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman knows that we are doing our best to take account of the

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Cornish interest and we recognised the Cornish language, which he welcomed. I have a long interest in regional development and I have visited the south-west many times. I must tell him that I expected considerable division there, because it always seemed to me that Cornwall hated Devon, they both hated Bristol and they all hated London. I did not think that they would get together to this extent, but, as he knows, the assemblies that they have set up—the chambers, as they are called in the south-west—have worked together. That includes Devon, Cornwall and the whole region. I am comforted by that, and I think that those areas are beginning to see themselves as the south-west region. From what I have seen in the polls, there is considerable demand for regional government, with or without the Cornish assembly.

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