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26 Nov 2002 : Column 215continued
Dr. Pugh: My hon. Friend eloquently described the Bill as a paper tiger. Liberal Democrats can support the Bill only on the assumption that it will turn out to be a Trojan horse and lead to something more.
Mr. Davey: My hon. Friend is right that we shall try to strengthen the Government's proposals in the Bill and in the accompanying enabling legislation. I am looking forward to debating with the Minister. We spent three months in Committee on the Greater London Authority Bill, which we amended more times than the India Act. I warn him that we shall table many amendments.
I do not believe that regional assemblies will happen. We will not persuade people in the regions that another tier of government will deliver measurable improvements to their lives. I am therefore a sceptic. I believe that the Government are introducing the Bill because we have always had an asymmetrical constitution and some people want to make the United Kingdom symmetrical. In Northern Ireland, we have a devolved institution with specific legislative powers. In Wales, we created a halfway house hybrid, which has no primary legislative powers. In Scotland, we have a new devolved Administration. For reasons of symmetry, we need to impose regional devolution in England.
The proposal constitutes a halfway house. If the Labour party believes in a symmetrical constitution, it should go the whole hog and federalise the United Kingdom. That is the canoe that the Liberal Democrats, who are great federalists, paddle. However, my Government claim that we can satisfy aspirations by introducing the regional devolution for which the Bill provides.
I oppose such devolution. As I said in an earlier intervention about the national health service, I believe in a strong central state that irons out imbalances between the regions, considers their needs and contributes resources to the neediest areas. I do not support a fractured, dismembered United Kingdom, where regional differences are magnified. Liberal
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that the closure of the accident and emergency department at Kidderminster hospital was a big issue in the midlands during the last election campaign. It resulted in the domination of Wyre Forest district council by a party called Health Concern, which also holds the balance of power on Worcestershire county council. It was instrumental in the election of the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor), who has one of the biggest majorities in the House, and it is probably one of the reasons for my presence here. However, none of that could change a decision that was made in London. There was no local accountability. How does the hon. Gentleman propose to make any such changes without regional government?
Mr. Prentice: I understand the point. A national health service should mean simply that. Perhaps that is an aspiration, but I hold to it and so should the Labour party. I support common standards in so far as they are possible throughout the United Kingdom.
The White Paper includes innumerable references to regional assemblies Xplanning", Xdrawing up strategies" and Xtargets". People in north-east Lancashire are not interested in that. We have the worst housing in the United Kingdom and we do not need a new assembly to tell us to plan and form strategies to deal with it. We need money from a central Labour Government to knock down crummy, crumbling housing. That would do more to transform the lives of my constituents in Pendle than setting up a regional assembly in, for example, Lancaster or Wigan.
I have pressed the Deputy Prime Minister on several occasions about why the Government will not come off the fence. If they believe that regionalising England is a good idea, why do not they advocate regional assemblies positively? They did that for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and in London. It is as plain as a pikestaff that the Government are not telling Labour Members of Parliament and members of the party outside the House that we must campaign for English regional devolution, because the Prime Minister does not believe in it. I shall tell him that when I meet him tomorrow. I have never heard him publicly advocating English regional devolution. However, the Deputy Prime Minister has been wedded to it for his whole political life. We are therefore in our current position.
Many phoney claims have been made for regional assemblies. A colleague in my area said that a regional assembly would mean no more problems with the west coast main line. That is like saying that a south-east
Mr. Beith: I am just a bit worried that the hon. Gentleman will go to his meeting with the Prime Minister tomorrow in ignorance of the Prime Minister's words on the opening page of the very White Paper that he is quoting from. The Prime Minister says that the Government's proposal
Mr. Prentice: The right hon. Gentleman has been around for a long time. To imagine that the Prime Minister's own hand signs off all these documentswhat fantasy! What a Liberal Democrat statement that was!
In the few moments that are left to me, I want to draw the attention of the House to one or two other things that have been troubling me. [Interruption.] Yes, there are many such things, but it is great to be able to unburden myself of them. It is very therapeutic. On the cost of the proposals, we have just gone through a major local government reorganisation, and we were promised that it would saveno pun intendedan arm and a leg. It has not. Our whole experience of local government reorganisation tells us that it always costs much more than people imagine.
The Library paper, which has been very helpful, tells us that the Heseltine review of local government in the early 1990s cost £669 million, and that involved only a partial reform. Looking at the legislation proposed by my own Government, I shiver when I think about all the residuary bodies and staffing commissions that will have to be set up. It is going to cost an absolute fortune. The police authorities might have to be reconfigured as well, because they are linked to the counties. The cost could spiral out of control. The Library paper also talks about the cost of devolution to Scotland, Wales and London, which is now estimated to have been between 25 and 40 per cent. higher than anticipated. Case made.
Mr. Dawson: My hon. Friend has been one of the most trenchant critics of Lancashire county council over its recent policy on services for older people. Is it not therefore absolutely essential, and in the best interest of his constituents, that we get a much more devolved form
Mr. Prentice: It would not be much of a local government if we got rid of the county tiers in the north-west and brought in a new assembly with a membership of between 25 and 35. Even if we take the upper figure, each assembly person would have a constituency of something like 240,000 people. That is not very local. In so far as there are problems with Lancashire county council, those problems have been identified by the voters. The voters therefore have the remedy in their own hands, if they wish to use it.
On resources, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) spoke earlier about the injustices and inequities of the Barnett formula. But we have had a Labour Government for six years. If the Barnett formula is so iniquitousand I think it iswhy do not my own Government do something about it? They could do something about it tomorrowliterally. When the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House, he could announce a review of the formula that could put resources into regions such as mine which have lost out over the years.
A lot of the people campaigning in my area keep banging on about European funds. A regional assembly in the north-west would have access to such funds. To put this into perspective, however, £200 million of European structural funding goes into the north-west, but the total Government spending in the north-west is £33.7 billion. So we are talking about something that is de minimis.
Perhaps the answer is to strengthen our existing system of local government and to give MPs like me the opportunity to serve on a regional Select Committee. At present, we have a Regional Affairs Committee, which is supposed to have oversight of all the English regions. Why can we not introduce a system of regional Select Committees, so that MPs like me could meet in Lancaster, Wigan or Manchesterin public and televisedto bring the quangos that we keep hearing about to account? That is a question not for this Minister but for the Leader of the House and others.