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26 Nov 2002 : Column 195continued
The hon. Gentleman should bear in mind exactly what he did when his party was in power. He supported an Administration who abolished the Greater London council, Greater Manchester, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire and Merseyside. There was no referendum. There was no consultation. They just abolished those councils. It is a cheek for him to stand up today and talk about what we might be doing. We have made it clear that the issue of regional government will be decided by the people in the regions. They will know what kind of local government structure they want: it will be their choice. That is why the White Paper is called XYour Region, Your Choice".
Before I sum up, I want to say something about part 4, which creates a new power for the funding of the eight existing regional chambers. We helped to set up those chambers to contribute to the preparation of regional economic strategies by the regional development agencies. The chambers are made up of local representatives and key stakeholdersin some cases with a majority of Tory councillors, but we will
The chambers have been a success story. I take this opportunity to thank all those involved, from all political parties, for the hard work that they have put into getting the chambers up and running and working together for the benefit of their regions. They have taken on an increasingly significant role. All chambers now scrutinise the work of the RDAs, and many are involved in the production of regional sustainable development frameworks and the preparation of regional planning guidance.
Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): Before my right hon. Friend sums up, may I ask him not to undersell this measure? He may remember that in 1945, Clement Attlee said that the referendum was a device alien to all our traditions. It has now become central to them. We used to make them up as we went along. Surely the importance of the Bill is that we now run referendums coherently and fairly. Is that not a great advance?
The Deputy Prime Minister: It is. That is an important point. Knowing this to be a controversial measure on which people had strong views, I thought that it was right to have a referendum. It was in our manifesto. We have introduced the Bill to let the people make the choice. I personally would like to see regional government throughout the UK but I am prepared to let the people make the choice. I must advocate our caseI will in those circumstancesmake clear what I believe is the best way forward, and then the decision will be made in a referendum.
Five of the eight chambers have taken on the role of the regional planning body. In light of the positive responses that we have received to our planning Green Paper, we now believe that it is right for all eight regional chambers to carry out that role in the absence of an elected regional assembly.
At present, the chambers get most of their funding from local authorities. As the role of the chambers expands, in particular on planning, a more general funding mechanism is needed. That is why the funding power provided by part 4 is required.
The Bill is at the heart of our programme to modernise our constitution, to decentralise power and to deliver better public services. It is a crucial step towards establishing a democratic voice for the English regionsa voice that has been denied them for far too long. We want to give the people of our regions the right to choosethe ability to decide what is best for them. The Conservative party's amendment would deny the people in the regions that choice. It would deny them the opportunity for change.
The Conservative party does not like devolution but it eventually comes on board. Remember that it opposed on Second Reading the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill in May 1997, but later changed its mind. It opposed on Second Reading the Greater London Authority (Referendum) Bill in November 1997, but later changed its mind. It opposed
Let us consider what is happening here. In the past few years, existing regional quangos have lobbied for more taxpayers' money for their areaunderstandablyand since the quangos have been established, disparities have grown larger, not smaller, just as they have in Europe. Furthermore, the subsidies have largely funded inter-regional competition, rather than specialisation to the areas competitive advantage.
Mr. Davis: I was talking about the trend in the difference between the regions. I am not comparing old East German regions with old West German ones. I am following the CBI, which said that the differences are getting worse.
The same is true in Britain: where we have regional government things are getting worse. The Government's own preferred measure of unemployment, the labour force survey, reveals that the highest unemployment rate in the country is 7 per cent. Where? In London, where there is a new tier of government. The second highest rate is 6.5 per cent. Where? In Scotland, where there is a new tier of government.
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned London and Scotland in support of his preposterous theory. I note that he did not mention Wales. Is that because the figures do not back up his case? Given that he is not now opposing the devolution settlement in Scotland, Wales and London, is he not for once tempted to get ahead of the game and accept the principle of devolution, rather than having to play catch-up with public opinion?