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26 Nov 2002 : Column 192—continued

Several hon. Members rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have given way enough. I want to make progress.

Mr. Curry: Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman has had one go.

It might help the House if I set out the timetable that we envisage for the first referendum. Subject to parliamentary approval, we will decide whether the region or regions should undergo a local government review without delay. The relevant provisions of the Bill will be commenced on Royal Assent to allow that. We will then direct the boundary committee to conduct a review of the local government arrangements in the selected region or regions. Those reviews will take about a year to complete. We will lay an order for a referendum or referendums as soon as possible after that.

I turn to the detail of the Bill. Part 1 enables referendums to be held, including setting out what the referendum question should be. As the House is aware, the Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to comment on the intelligibility of any referendum question. This is the first time that it has been asked to do this, and I am pleased to say that it announced yesterday that the referendum question set out in the Bill meets its guidelines. The commission made some small but constructive suggestions for the wording of the preamble. We shall consider them carefully and respond in due course.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon): The Deputy Prime Minister will know that the average turnout on referendums for directly elected mayors was 29.2 per cent. If the first region to have a referendum votes for regional government with a turnout of 29 or 30 per cent., is that a legitimate vote to change the constitution of this country?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a little more than what the Tory party gets at the polls, is it not? I cannot avoid making that point, because it is a nice one to make. The votes on directly elected mayors have varied. Some have been higher than those for council elections, and some have been lower. It is right to quote the average, but some have been well over 50 per cent.,

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which is higher than is achieved for council elections. The polls in Scotland, Wales and London were high, so there was a strong endorsement for those measures. We should wait until the debate in the communities has started, and see how people respond to it. I have to take this matter into account when I agree on whether a referendum should take place in a region. All the signs are that demand and support for regional government are a lot higher than most people predicted many years ago.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister on referendums. He is aware that any Minister who brings legislation to the House must have credibility. Would he care to reflect on the fact that the Minister in the Scottish Parliament whom the Deputy Prime Minister said was innocent of attacking the firefighters has resigned in the past few minutes? In the light of that, would the Deputy Prime Minister, for his own credibility, rephrase and rework his comment that the attack on firefighters was never said?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Not in the context of this debate.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I am struggling to find the right page, but I think that the Library brief reminds us that the percentage turnout for the referendum in London was in the mid-30s. I do not think that that is a ringing endorsement. The turnout in the Welsh referendum was just over 50 per cent., and the yes vote was won by 0.6 per cent. That was when the Government were actively campaigning for a yes vote. Why will not the Government put the neutrality to which I referred earlier to one side and actively campaign for a yes vote on the English regions?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am not neutral. I am campaigning for this Bill.

Part 2 provides a power to direct the boundary committee for England before any referendum to review the structure of the existing two-tier local authority areas in a region—that is, areas that have country and district councils. We intend to implement its recommendations if people vote for a regional assembly.

Part 3 allows the Electoral Commission to give advice on the electoral areas for regional assemblies. Part 4 provides a power to make grants in respect of the activities of existing voluntary regional chambers. Part 5 covers general provisions, such as commencement and expenditure.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): I support the concept of regional assemblies. If existing unitary authorities have a strong view that they would like to be part of a new wider authority, such as Blackburn wanting to be part of

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East Lancashire under the regional concept, would my right hon. Friend allow that to be considered during this process?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would be wise not to comment on any boundary changes between council and local authorities.

Mr. Pike: But does my right hon. Friend want to?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I would still be wise not to comment at this stage.

Before a referendum is held in a region, the independent boundary committee must have conducted a review of local government in that region and made its recommendations. That is what part 2 is about. Regional assemblies would add a third tier of elected government below the national level in areas that currently have both county and district councils. We believe that that is one tier too many. It is proposed that, if people want a regional assembly, we will move to a wholly unitary local government structure.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am having difficulty getting on with my speech and answering questions. I shall give way in a few minutes, but I must make progress.

Our proposal will ensure that government remains streamlined. As I said earlier, this is about bringing democracy to the regions and reducing bureaucracy, not increasing it. The review will recommend changes only to those parts of the region that currently have both a county and district council. Existing unitary authorities will not face any structural or boundary changes.

I know that some Members are worried about the fate of counties. Let me emphasise that, contrary to some ill-founded speculation, we have no agenda for abolishing the counties—or, for that matter, the districts. It will be for the independent boundary committee to recommend the best wholly unitary local government structure for the regions.

The Government will issue guidance to the boundary committee on the local government reviews. We will publish it in draft for consultation shortly. Proposals for local government changes will be published before any referendum. Voters will know the full implications for local government when they vote. We do not intend to go ahead with the proposed reorganisation if a region rejects the idea of an elected assembly.

Matthew Green: The Deputy Prime Minister may or may not know that in Shropshire there is a growing demand, not just from Labour and the Liberal Democrats but from the Conservative party, for a single unitary authority. However, we do not want to have to wait for some referendum. There is quite a lot of opposition in Shropshire to becoming part of the West Midlands regional assembly. The Deputy Prime Minister may well find that people vote against an outcome that they actually want. Why can he not decouple the two processes?

The Deputy Prime Minister: We have made a judgment, as I mentioned earlier. The boundary committee will make the decision. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman gives the committee his views.

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Which regions will go first? That is an important question. It is about choice: no region will be forced to have an elected regional assembly, or indeed a referendum. This will be the choice of the people. They will make the decision; I will merely provide the circumstances in which they can make it.

We will sound out the level of public interest in a referendum in each region while the Bill is before Parliament. We want to hear the views of people in the regions. We also want to hear from existing regional chambers, local authorities, local MPs and MEPs and others. We look forward to the consultation. In some regions, the level of interest may be inconclusive—not high enough to clearly justify holding a referendum, but not low enough to rule it out definitely. Alternatively, so many regions may show a high level of interest that we may need to consider whether to ration the number of reviews conducted simultaneously. In such instances, we may want to take account of other factors, such as the effects on local government of conducting a review.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for giving way at last. He said earlier that the county councils were not under threat from his proposals, or at least not under threat from the Government. I noticed that he had difficulty in keeping a straight face while he said it. What is his response to the leader of Hampshire county council, Councillor Ken Thornber, who has pointed out that eight of the 10 powers listed in the White Paper for regional government would overlap with existing county council powers? Does that not show that, far from powers being drawn down from central Government towards the people, they will be taken away from the people when they are removed from the counties which, no doubt, will then be abolished?

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