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26 Nov 2002 : Column 225—continued

6.50 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): I do not envy the Minister the job of piloting the Bill through Committee. He will have a really difficult time.

My tutor at university, K.B.S. Smellie, wrote the then seminal textbook X100 Years of English Local Government". It was a fairly short book; but the Deputy Prime Minister has told us of years of neglect. We have had the Local Government Acts 1963, 1972, 1985 and 1992, as well as the Greater London Authority Act 1999. We have, in fact, experienced an extremely unsettling series of changes. It has been a case of for and against, round about and over the hill.

I am puzzled by all this. The Deputy Prime Minister tries to elevate his plans to the status of a grand programme of constitutional reform; but, in truth, does it consist of any more than yet another reorganisation of local government, providing even fewer powers than those held by the existing institutions—some of which have endured for a very long time, and command considerable sentiment in our nation? I do not represent a county constituency, but the counties are among the oldest political units in western Europe. They have a remarkable history.

Mr. Dawson: I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the history of counties, but are they not a form of local government that simply does not work any more? Should not some of their functions be devolved to a lower level, and are not others—connected with planning, transport and economic development—meaningful only at regional level?

Mr. Shepherd: I was reflecting on the constant change that we have experienced over the past quarter of a century or so, and on whether it has established any of what the Governments involved wanted to initiate. This is what puzzles me. If the Bill represents no more than a stab at some form of local government reform, why does

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it not follow the normal statutory process? We do not need referendums; we have all the Acts that I mentioned earlier. Important arrangements, which in some measure are constitutions, have been established by a simple Act of Parliament. What Parliament made, it can unmake.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said something that, in a sense, was very important. He wanted a strong central state because it could end what he saw as a disparity. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) said that he wanted the regions to be able to perform certain functions, but who can best do that? This is why new Labour is constantly denigrated. The House of Commons is the central institution in the land, and if we have a will it can return to the institutions of local government the powers that it historically gained. I am thinking of the history identified by K.B.S. Smellie—the gradual great municipal developments of the 19th century that brought about the life and standards of our people.

Lawrie Quinn: The hon. Gentleman has obviously spent much time studying these matters. He says that the House of Commons is the appropriate place to effect such scrutiny. I agree with him, but, as a member of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs for England, may I ask him how effective that Committee has been in scrutinising the matters that he says we should be scrutinising?

Mr. Shepherd: If the hon. Gentleman really wants to know, I think it is an absurdity. The Modernisation Committee looked at it. The Government do not want it. I do not know what it is about. But it could be given life if the House had a will.

The ability to make settlements and adjustments, and to revitalise local government, lies in our hands. There is a great hunger out there among the existing local authorities, whose members ask what is their purpose. There has been a regional attempt at a constitutional convention, whose research papers have identified important findings. Other Members may cite their own areas, but I can say that the west midlands—whatever they may be—receive £1,000 per head less than Scotland. That central point was made, in part, by the hon. Member for Pendle.

I know as well as the Minister that the west midlands have not a chance in hell of suddenly having £5 billion or so cast in their direction. What is being set up is fanciful and, in a sense, phoney. Do people want it? The Deputy Prime Minister speaks of democracy, but it lies in his hands to determine whether there is a local interest and whether the vote will be for or against.

I can conjure up any number of possible tests. Two people wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister, and on that basis he knows there is a groundswell. Well, the tests cannot be quite as fanciful as that. We in the west midlands had always assumed that we did not want this, until the BBC commissioned a poll. Apparently, not one region in England and Wales does not want regional government, and in the west midlands the figure is no less than 73 per cent. On that basis, the Deputy Prime Minister should be signing the documents that will bring about a referendum almost immediately.

Once the Deputy Prime Minister has his referendum, what is the test? There is no test. We do not believe in thresholds any more. I understand why new Labour

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does not believe in them: it would not have secured any of its supposed constitutional changes with them. There was once a body corporate. Something that affected one part of this island affected us all. The flow of money to Scotland affects the flow of money to Cornwall and Wales; no one can doubt that. There is only one pot, and it is we who give legitimacy to the system. The regional authorities that are envisaged will not raise the money to support the ambitions that are dangled before the people of this country.

I reflect on what we have experienced already. As I observed to my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), when a free people have been asked whether they want change, in no case has the figure been anywhere near 50 per cent. except in Scotland, where it was just under 50 per cent. Does that demonstrate a real will? Are we not just creating yet another political class?

Huge costs will be involved. People should realise that. What about the ambitions of Wales? Is it to have an overarching county council? If only 25.2 per cent. voted for change in Wales, where a free people were urged to go out and express their will for change, that means that 74.8 per cent. did not want change. It is on such a slender basis that the Government trumpet that this is what Wales wants. Never has a minority of votes cast among the electorate been construed as an authority for the introduction of change.

Why do I say that? Let us consider the rules of any club. I know of no club in my constituency that would permit fundamental rule changes on the basis that one in four members wanted them. The Government have put no threshold in the Bill, which is why they could not secure—as the hon. Member for Pendle said—their ambitions for one important, powerful Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, in respect of this nonsense.

The Liberal Democrats say that they want regional government, but it is currently incoherent. Scotland is different from Wales, which in turn is different from other areas. This was once a symmetrical country; to that extent, I disagree with the hon. Member for Pendle. What was so for a man or woman in Cumbria was so for us in what was once Staffordshire. Aldridge-Brownhills never wanted to be in Walsall. It is a nightmare. Such misalliances are repeated across the country. The Government are dedicated to casting those misalliances of arrangements against the grain, so to speak. We have to forget our history to accept measures such as this.

7 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I want to try to redress the balance in the debate, which has been far too dominated by Lancastrians and by quibblers arguing against what could and, I hope, will be the basis of a very good and necessary decentralisation in this country. It is a small step to what has been a lifetime's ambition of mine: to have greater decentralisation, and to give more power to the regions and to the people where they live, interact and function in a modern society.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. He has fought for that over the years in the Labour party against a good deal of opposition and now he is fighting for it in government. When we get these regional assemblies—and, I hope, eventually regional governments based on them—it will be his monument in modern Britain.

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I have to make a confession: I started on this journey believing in home rule for Yorkshire. It is a simple proposition. When I became MP for Great Grimsby, I included Humberside in that rubric, otherwise I would have been executed. There is no love lost between Tykes and Grimbarians.

It seemed that Yorkshire had had a bum deal from the nation. It was said of President Hoover that in four years he drained, damned and ditched the United States and it seemed that London had done the same with Yorkshire and the great industrial regions of the north that created this modern society. I wanted to give Yorkshire the ability to fight back and control its own destiny.

Like the Deputy Prime Minister, we all get more moderate as we get older. I duly resiled from that enthusiasm for home rule, but I still believe in the basic principle of the Bill, which is bringing government closer to the people. It is creating not a new level of bureaucracy but a new level of democracy. We already have regional institutions and they are not accountable; a long list of them has been given in the debate. The Bill is dedicated to making them accountable to the people in that region. As I said, it is a first step to regional government. Why do we need it? This country is manifestly over-centralised. It is more dominated and controlled by central Government than any other society I know. Even France, where Paris is supposedly dominant, has gone in for regionalism and decentralisation on a scale that we have not thought of in this country.

All career ladders seem to finish in London. Most of the best and brightest sixth formers in my children's school in Grimsby have gone to London. Industries in the north have been damaged, or ruined in many cases by economic policies dictated by London. Even now it is going on. London house prices are rocketing, so the rest of the country has to bear higher interest rates than are appropriate to a manufacturing area. London is dominant.

Local government has been shackled by London. The greatest skill in local government now is to transport begging bowls up and down the railways to London or, increasingly, to Brussels. No wonder we complain that local government does not attract ability: its basic job is the handing round of begging bowls. The media are dominated from London. House prices are dominated from London. Think of the kind of wealth that will be inherited in London when the houses are sold and people go to live in Grimsby more economically with a great bonus. People from Grimsby cannot go the opposite way.

Devolution and the Bill are about taking power back to the people to help them to get a better deal and not to be dependent—to get them off their knees. In this nation, there should not be a political class as a dominant group in London, with the rest living on handouts and increasingly dependent on London. People should be equal and have the same power over their destinies everywhere.

Complaints have been made about the direction of public spending. Yorkshire and Humberside gets £926 a head less a year than Scotland gets for devolved services, and £850 less a head a year than London.

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We need regional government not only to give people the power to fight back but because we now live regionally: regions are the basis of life now. As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) said, they are the basis of identity in the north-east, the Geordie nation. It is not as good as in Yorkshire. Perhaps we are more xenophobic, although that is now a crime in Europe and Yorkshire, but there is a feeling of pride and identity.

Look too at travel to work. My dad used to walk down the road to the mill but now people travel considerable distances. The M62, which I use a lot, is choked with people travelling to work from east and west Yorkshire to Leeds, or they take the M1 to Sheffield. Those motorways are imposing a new pattern of life based on regions, a new scale in people's thinking.

Our culture is becoming increasingly regional. People go to the West Yorkshire playhouse, the Crucible in Sheffield, the theatre in Hull. We have Opera North in Leeds and the Northern Ballet. All those are regional cultural institutions. Even the multiplex cinemas serve bigger regions than the locality. There are great regional shopping centres such as Meadow Hall, the Metro Centre or Trafford Park, which is the newest and best; I am afraid to say that as a Yorkshireman. They have given a new focus to economic activity.

Most organisations have regional structures. The TUC, the CBI, the parties and sport are all run regionally. I am glad to say that, since 1997, we have had a proliferation of regional bodies, for which we need to provide coherence through measures such as this. The problems include planning, development and promoting the region. There are important institutions such as Manchester airport. Transport and housing need to be treated regionally and on a regional scale; those problems are regional rather than strictly local.

We need accountable institutions to deal with all that. The way to make them accountable is to have regional assemblies and eventually a regional government. I welcome the measure because it transfers power to our people where they live, and the people want it. Much has been said about the BBC poll, but it showed strong support for regions, particularly in the north-east, the north-west, Yorkshire and the west midlands, which is also pushing for regional government.

The Economist poll in April 1999 asked people what they most identified with. Forty-four per cent. said local government but 49 per cent. said the region and only 41 per cent. said England: more people identify with the region than with the country. We must have regional institutions, or the constitution would be unstable. We have devolution for Scotland and for Wales. Why should England be treated as one great lump? We cannot have an English parliament—it would be an elephant in a cuckoo's nest—so we have to have regions developing towards equality of status and power. The Conservatives are against it, but then they are against all change until it actually happens. It reminds me of the old definition in the 1950s, when it was said that the Republicans believed that nothing should be done for the first time, but the new Republicans believed that it should be done, but not now.

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That is precisely the Conservative position on regional government, as it was on devolution to Wales and on regional development agencies. They accept the regional institutions that are already running. The regional assemblies—the re-named chambers of the development agencies—have many Conservatives on them: the south-east assembly has 34, dominating it; east of England, 13; south-west, 20; and west midlands, 23. They are using regional institutions, and no doubt they will play their part on the new bodies.

Why not let the people decide, as the Bill does? It is true that the south is less enthusiastic than the north, but we could have variable geometry institutions, as in Spain, where the system works very well, with regions choosing how many powers they want, some taking a lot and some having only minimal powers. That is a perfectly feasible future for us.

The ballot should certainly say Xdirectly elected", because we already have elected assemblies, in the sense that many of the councillors on the existing regional assemblies are elected. The suggested preamble for the ballot is far too long. It is incomprehensible, and people would die of boredom by the time they got to the end of it.

The Liberals argued for including abolition of the counties in the requirement for regional government. I know that the Tories wax lyrical about the counties as traditional institutions, although they waxed slightly less lyrical when they abolished the metropolitan counties. They abolished Humberside for party political reasons, because Labour was in power there, and—

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