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26 Nov 2002 : Column 218—continued

6.25 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I suppose that it is ironic that we have just heard two speeches from people who have said what a ghastly Bill this is, and then declared that they are going to vote for it. I, too, am going to say that it is a pretty ghastly Bill, but I am going to vote against it. In that sense, I shall be consistent and, perhaps, break with my recent seditious tradition as far as my relationship with my party is concerned.

I would like to begin on a seditious note. There is actually a case for regional devolution, and it is silly to pretend that that case does not exist. There are two arguments in favour of regional devolution. One is that there is a serious problem with representative democracy in Britain today. We have passed power out of the hands of people who are accountable. To some

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extent, we have passed it upwards to international organisations, most of which I support. We have also passed it down, sometimes into the hands of the citizen—the school board member, the school governor—for very good reasons. We have also passed it down to a whole series of quangos, the most recent of which are the patient care trusts, which are very large organisations indeed. All the people to whom we have passed down that power have a responsibility to look after the members of their own organisation, but they are not enjoined by any accountability to the wider community. That is what I mean by a problem of representative democracy. The first test is: does the Bill deal with that problem?

The second argument for regional devolution is that, at some stage, we have to address the problem of the government of England. I happen to be passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government. I can think of nothing more destructive for the United Kingdom than a wholly imbalanced power centred in an English Government, faced with the powers of the much smaller nationalities in the United Kingdom. Devolution to regions of the United Kingdom can provide an answer to this problem. Does the Bill fulfil that purpose?

When I stack up this measure against those two possible needs, I have to ask myself: is this the answer—this mewling, puking, piddling, miserable little milk-and-water Bill? This is the sort of Bill that comes from people who put water in their red wine. It is barely worth having at all. If it is supposed to be a Trojan horse—made, I think, out of papier-mâché, if the analogy of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) is going to be correct—I have to say that it is going to take an awfully long time to disgorge its hidden contents.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): The right hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct to say that this is a puny Bill, compared with what is necessary, but many forms of life start out mewling and puking. Even he did! Sometimes they grow up to be Conservative MPs. Why should not we give the Bill the right to live, to see how it develops?

Mr. Curry: Because I had no choice but to begin life in that microscopic form. The Government do, however, have a choice about whether to begin with something more important. There is a choice in front of us, whereas my parents had no choice. There was only one way of begetting me. We may evolve in due course, but, for the moment, I am afraid that that is a restriction that is enjoined on both the hon. Gentleman and on me.

What claims are made for the Bill? The first is that it will help with economic regeneration. I recall the debate on Second Reading of the Bill that introduced regional development agencies, when the Minister in charge, who is now, improbably, Minister for Sport, said that the Government would have failed if the measure did not narrow the differential among the regions. As those differentials are widening rapidly, I wait for them to draw that particular conclusion.

Secondly, it is claimed that the Bill will help with accountability. Let us consider the problem of economic regeneration. I support economic regeneration and, perhaps unusually, I think that the Yorkshire Forward

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RDA has not done a bad job in Yorkshire and Humberside, but we should compare what it has with public spending in the region. Incidentally, part of the constituency of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) used to be in North Yorkshire and a reunification movement aims to get it back, because, understandably, being in Lancashire is a bit of a comedown after being in Yorkshire. If we are to take such figures as an indicator, the funds available are puny.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is no longer here, but he said that there is an enormous black hole at the heart of the Government's proposals—that is, there is no proposal whatever to redress the balance of public expenditure among the regions. So the dear old north-east of England, which is alleged to be the region that most wants regional government, will go in to bat against the Scots. The rationale, of course, is that it has to compete with the gravitational field of Edinburgh with puny per capita public expenditure compared with what the Scots enjoy.

The Barnett formula has been mentioned, and it is inescapable that the regions will want more power and more money if we introduce regional devolution. I look forward to seeing the Minister for Local Government and the Regions sorting that one out. Indeed, I am tempted to campaign throughout the south-west in favour of devolution just to see him handle the local government reorganisation that would necessarily ensue if devolution were introduced there.

Lawrie Quinn: On the point about more power and more money, is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that Yorkshire would not want either of those?

Mr. Curry: All I am saying is that we will not get them; people are not being offered that choice. Of course, anybody would want more power and more money. If we get a devolved assembly, the first thing it will do is engage in competition for public funds. That, inevitably, will happen.

I always enjoy listening to the Deputy Prime Minister, as it is like having presented to one for Christmas a brand new thesaurus containing all sorts of meanings of words that one never dreamed existed. He said that the Bill will give the regions opportunities similar to those in Scotland and Wales, but either the word Xsimilar" has entirely changed its meaning or there is a curious elasticity in the language, which is no doubt particular. That is a reflection either on new Labour as a philosophy or on the hon. Gentleman as a grammarian. Perhaps a combination of those problems is involved.

Let us consider what is being proposed on the question of accountability, and let me make my local point. North Yorkshire is the only part of Yorkshire and Humberside that does not have a unitary authority. If there is a vote on a regional assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside, 86 per cent. of those who determine local government reform in North Yorkshire will have nothing at stake as regards the change of structure.

If we get regional government, I shall not be afraid of three tiers. I see no reason for North Yorkshire not to be given the choice, should it wish to keep the regional and county tiers, although it should not be able to retain all

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the others as well. That is a fallacy of logic in the Government's argument—the search for such uniformity is wholly unnecessary and I hope that the Minister backs off in Committee or we shall be overwhelmed.

The assemblies are a terrible charade, and we should consider the electoral system and the size of the constituencies. The proposal is to abolish one tier of government—it may be good, bad or indifferent, but it at least represents a limited number of people—and to replace it with another that will represent over 250,000 people, topped up by proportional representation. If turnout in the European elections is an indicator of the success of that system of government, I must say that the Government are in for some rapid disillusionment.

We should consider the powers in the Bill. I refer to the Local Government Chronicle—an estimable journal that pays me a modest sum to write for it each month. George Jones, professor of government at the London school of economics, and John Stewart, professor of local government at Birmingham university's Inlogov, have a regular column in which they have disembowelled the Bill. Under the headline XToothless Wonder", they point out all the issues on which a regional assembly will be able to

The only thing they will not be able to do is decide. The assemblies will be able to decide nothing. There will be nothing on which they can draw up a strategy and execute it. They will spend their time importuning others to do things. If that is a recipe for achieving a good turnout, I am astonished.

When people go to the polls, they ask themselves, XWhat is at stake?" If the answer is nothing, they will not vote. The new system in London has not necessarily given us such astonishing confidence in the transformation of the quality of our public life—says he, having just applied for his congestion charge licence—that we should be confident about its roll-out, to use a word that the Government love, to the rest of the country.

We must also consider the trigger: what will decide that there is to be a referendum? Are we to test the crowd as they come out of St. James's Park, the Stadium of Light or Tesco, or will the usual clutch of councillors, parsons and academics get together to say that the proposals are a good wheeze? In Committee, we need to be told on what basis that test will be undertaken, as it is important. The powers will rest entirely with the Secretary of State. It is all very well saying that the people will decide, but they will not decide whether they want a referendum. There will be lobbies, and the groups that bay the loudest will get the referendums, because, increasingly, that is how our society works.

I am obliged to conclude, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If this is a new dawn, it is a misty, clammy, foggy, chilly November dawn with extremely limited visibility, not merely on the motorways, but on the side roads. The Bill seeks to address a genuine problem—the lack of representative accountability—but the way to do that, which, across the Chamber, we have been reluctant to use, is to give powers back to existing local government, consider the funding, trust people and give them a stake

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in their local government. We should see whether that will bring a renaissance in the process of accountability and representative democracy in Britain, which we have all conspired to remove and to which the Bill will bring no improvement whatever.

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