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26 Nov 2002 : Column 230—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

7.12 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will be very disappointed if regional government ever happens, because his idea that there will be some kind of new exciting democracy is a load of rubbish. If he reads the Bill, the White Paper and the guidance, he will see that there is to be an organisation with a single block grant, with very limited powers other than general powers about making some kind of observation about the region. The power simply will not be there.

I agree absolutely with the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). It was a joy to listen to him. I would be happier, as he would be, if he came over to the Conservative Benches, with all the sound sense that he has, just as I would suggest that some of my hon. Friends would be far happier where he is. We would welcome someone like him, who believes in a sensible way of spending public money and in the retention of democracy.

What worries me is the extent to which local government has already happened without people being aware of it. I was horrified when I had to inquire into the possibility of getting all these ridiculous Euro-grants for my constituency—although it worked out very well, because we are the only place in the whole of Essex to get objective 2 money. I was told always to remember a place called Hertfordshire, which got substantial sums for unemployment and deprivation, even though there was little unemployment or deprivation there.

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I had to find out about regional government in my quest for funding. It horrified me to discover how much there was, and how much was being spent. I spoke to a gentleman called Mr. Riddell, a very nice man, who was the regional director of the Government office for the east of England, which is located in Cambridge and Bedford and was formed from regional council officers from Departments such as the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Department of Trade and Industry. He told me that the running costs of the organisation were £6.5 million and the programme budget £330 million, which involved regional selective assistance, smart grants and other funds, and that the single regeneration budget money had now gone to the RDA.

Then there was something called the East of England Development Agency, which I was told was an NDPB. Clearly, if I had been living in the real world, I would have known what that was—but I still do not know. I found out that its offices were in Norwich, Bury St. Edmonds and Bedford, that it had 12 board members appointed by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, that it had a budget of £4.4 million and a programme budget of £27 million, and that its primary task was to produce a regional economic development strategy.

Then there was the East of England Investment Agency.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the proposals in the White Paper for the directly elected regional assemblies would give them specific powers over the regional development agencies for general economic development as well as for the allocation of European funding? Would not that deal with some of the problems that he identifies?

Sir Teddy Taylor: If the hon. Lady investigates further, she will find that that is not the case. The assemblies do not allocate European money. They simply tell people to send in six application forms, which I did. They do not make the determinations. To believe that we are going to have elected people doing what people who are appointed to the boards by the Government do is living in cloud cuckoo land.

I discovered that the East of England Investment Agency was based in Cambridge. Its budget was only £900,000. Then there was the East of England assembly, which was just about to appoint a full-time secretary. There were also two regional planning organisations in the east of England, apparently called SERPLAN and SCEALA, and there was a possibility that they might merge.

There is a huge amount of regional government already, and the idea that we are simply planning for the future should worry us. Is it right to be moving towards more regional governments, when the sense that we get from the people of Britain is that they want to move away from larger organisations to smaller ones? That is what I found in my constituency, when it was part of a county called Essex. People felt that Chelmsford was too far away and that they were neglected until we became a unitary authority. The idea of saying to my people that, now they have escaped from Chelmsford, they would be better off being run by Cambridge is ridiculous.

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There is no enthusiasm for regional government in England, except perhaps in the north-east and in Cornwall, where people are rather unusual. The sole reason that people in the north-east have for supporting more regional government is that they think it will mean getting some of the huge amounts of extra money that people get in Scotland.

Joyce Quin: As a north-east Member, I know that that is not the sole reason why we support regional government. We believe that it gives us an opportunity to influence events in our region, and a single pot of money, whether limited or not, allows a region to decide priorities for itself in a way that we cannot do at present.

Sir Teddy Taylor: I do not know the area as well as the right hon. Lady, but I visit it often. I go to a place called Durham and other places, and the impression that I get is that people are not interested in having more politicians or more government and simply want to know whether they will get more money.

The Government should make it abundantly clear in the referendums what the actual position is. Do not let us mislead people into thinking that there will be extra money if there will not. The Government should also think carefully about the ridiculous electoral system that they are proposing, which is exactly the same as the one used for the Scottish Parliament. If people think that regional government is a great idea, they should go up to Glasgow and ask what people think about the devolved Government there.

Under the proposals, there will be some directly elected people and others who are there simply on the basis of a party list. There will be the ridiculous situation that obtains in Edinburgh, where the majority of Members of the Scottish Parliament have constituents who keep them busy, sending them letters and invitations, but there is another group—sadly, an awful lot of them Conservatives, as we have only one elected Member there—with no constituents and no answerability to anyone. All they have to do is to keep their party happy, so that they stay high on the list. It is ridiculous to have a group of MSPs with no constituency responsibilities, to whom no one phones or writes. That does not create equality, and it is not the type of democracy that we want.

I hope that, during these referendums, the Government will tell people what is to happen to unitary authorities. In Southend-on-Sea, people are happy with their unitary authority. We think that a great deal of money has been saved and that we are providing better services—although only time will tell.

Under the new arrangements, it is proposed to set up even larger unitary authorities. I am told that one plan under consideration is to merge some of the district councils with unitary authorities. It would be extremely dangerous to put people under unitary authorities that they do not want without giving them information about them. For example, I know that Rochford district council, which is in my constituency, certainly does not want to join with any other authority and the last council that it would want to join is Southend-on-Sea. It is dangerous to develop such ideas before thinking them through.

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Under the Government's proposals, what will happen to the EU Committee of the Regions? Will only countries with elected regional authorities have the right to send representatives to the Committee? I have always been suspicious about this ridiculous Bill, whose proposals are not wanted by anyone. Indeed, part of the pressure may come from Europe where most countries have regional government.

The thing that should worry politicians most of all is the fact that the public are switching off from politics. I recently had the pleasure of speaking at a university in Scotland, but I was horrified when only one person in an audience of 300 said that they were actively involved in politics. When I was at university, everyone was involved in politics, either as a member of a political party or some other organisation.

There is a terrible danger that people in Britain, especially young people, are switching off. They are not interested because there are too many elections and too many public representatives. The Government seem to be planning to offer people not merely elections for the House of Commons, but for the House of Lords and for regional councils, but instead of getting better democracy we shall no longer have any democracy at all. It is not democracy when only 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. of the people vote.

Our democracy would be far more effective if we had effective councils with real powers answerable directly to the people. The Bill will not proceed because the people will reject it. They do not want more government or more politicians; they simply want to hold on to our basic democracy.

It is sad to be talking about how we can spread the powers of this Parliament down to regional authorities when a huge quantity of power is going away from this place already. Almost every day, more power goes to Europe because of decisions taken there. There are so many issues that we should be discussing in the House of Commons—sometimes we do—but in respect of which our powers have gone, so what is the point of setting up more assemblies and councils and handing around more democratic rights when our democracy is largely dying because our decision-making powers are being taken away?

I would love the Government to take a real interest in fighting for democracy, but this Bill is not the way. It will not help anyone. It will cost a lot of money and people do not want it.

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