Previous SectionIndexHome Page

26 Nov 2002 : Column 233—continued

7.24 pm

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): I greatly welcome the Bill. I have campaigned for many years for regional government, so it gives me great pleasure to speak in the debate.

When I became a Member in 1997, I mentioned my enthusiasm for regional government to one or two long-standing Members. They told me that it would not last long and that after a few years I would go native, as many regional government enthusiasts had done in the past. There is something about this place that makes us feel important and weakens our belief that decisions should not be made only in Parliament.

26 Nov 2002 : Column 234

I have always argued strongly in favour of regional government. One of the best ways to explain my reason for doing so is to describe what happens when I talk to top juniors in schools in my constituency about what an MP does. I tell them that we sit around in Parliament and discuss laws; we talk about where we get money from and what it should be spent on and decide on the priorities. From my perspective in the north-west of England, the key question is whether many of the decisions made in this place and in Whitehall would be better made by men and women who live and work in the north-west, represent people in the north-west and go back every night to their homes in the north-west. My answer has to be yes.

I do not necessarily want to remove huge tranches of work from this place, but much of our necessary scrutiny and decision making is not done very well because it involves complex detail, such as whether a bit of money should be spent in one local area or another or whether a particular road scheme should go ahead. During the past few months, I have chaired a couple of meetings in my constituency about a road scheme. They have included representatives from Lancashire county council, South Ribble borough council, the residents group and the Highways Agency in Manchester—although it is a national body. We discuss what is, in essence, a regional and local issue: whether a road scheme should go ahead and the priorities involved. That is not a national issue. It should be perfectly possible for decisions to be made by men and women based in the north-west, not by people in London. I should not have to discuss the details of the scheme with the Minister for Transport—they should be sorted out in the north-west. That is why I am in favour of regional government.

The Bill would not give us regional government; it sets up the mechanism by which regional government can be established. Much of the debate has focused on what is in the White Paper, and I shall deal with that later. However, at some point in the future, the proposals in the White Paper need to be turned into a Bill that will set up regional assemblies. This Bill does not do that; it deals with some constitutional issues relating to the referendums on regional assemblies.

I am not sure that unitary authorities need to be dealt with in the Bill. I represent an area where there is two-tier local government. I am strongly in favour of both the abolition of Lancashire county council and the establishment of unitary authorities. When Lancashire was being considered in the review of the early 1990s, I was the leader of Preston council. I vigorously opposed unitary status for Preston because I thought that the town was too small and that unitary areas should be larger. That remains my view, although we still need unitary authorities in Lancashire. That is my perspective both as an MP and as someone who has been politically active in Lancashire for a long time. People in other parts of the country may have a different view on whether the abolition of two tiers is right.

Lawrie Quinn: Does my hon. Friend welcome the principle in the measure that there should be independent assessment of the needs of local government, so that in North Yorkshire, for example, we could put right the wrongs perpetrated after so-

26 Nov 2002 : Column 235

called commissions such as the Banham review, when councils were abolished with no reference to local people?

Mr. Borrow: I agree with my hon. Friend in many ways. One of the difficulties of previous local government reorganisations was that Parliament decided that Parliament could decide, and that such decisions were not really a matter for local communities.

One can argue that the Bill is not perfect, but it is a damn sight better than a lot of the previous legislation that has dealt with the abolition of local government and the creation of new local authorities. I have concerns about Lancashire and wonder whether the commission should consider how the existing boundaries of Blackpool and Blackburn would fit, but we may need to consider those issues in more detail in Committee.

I want briefly to tackle the thresholds issue. Previous generations of hon. Members have taken many decisions that affect the constitutional position of this country's citizens without even asking them. The House voted to take us into the Common Market and to abolish the Greater London Council and the metropolitan county councils without asking the British people. So it is a bit rich for those hon. Members who were involved in that to claim that it is democratically important to set a threshold for the referendums to set up regional assemblies.

We made it clear in the Labour party manifesto last year that we were in favour of setting up this mechanism to establish regional assemblies. We could have included in the manifesto a promise to establish regional assemblies without holding referendums, but simply by pushing the legislation through. The fact that we agreed to hold referendums is a sign of our belief in asking people in each area whether they want such constitutional change.

The argument to make that move even more difficult by stepping in and saying that there should be a high threshold often comes from those who have often ignored the wishes of the electorate in making constitutional changes in the past, so I seriously question their motives.

Mr. Peter Atkinson: May I remind the hon. Gentleman that in 1978 a Labour Government instigated a referendum in Scotland with the threshold of 40 per cent. saying yes?

Mr. Borrow: There are occasions when the Labour party gets things wrong. The 1997 election was won overwhelmingly and the parties that were in favour of devolution won every seat in Scotland, so it was clearly the will of the people in Scotland that they should be given a referendum without a threshold to establish the Scottish Parliament, which is what they did. Despite their concerns about that Parliament's performance in some areas, all the signs are that they would not wish to see it abolished and to go back to where they were.

The second part of the debate is not about the Bill, but about the constitutional Bill that would need to be introduced shortly after the first successful referendum campaign. The powers in the White Paper and implemented in the constitutional Bill leave a lot to be

26 Nov 2002 : Column 236

desired. Before the first referendum takes place, it is absolutely crucial to have at the very minimum a draft constitutional Bill that lays down the powers that the people can expect if they vote in favour of a regional assembly.

We should look fairly closely at the number of members of a regional assembly. In a region such as mine—the north-west—to start by talking about having only 25 or 35 members is total nonsense. The scale of the constituencies is totally over the top, and it will take the regional assembly away from people, rather than making it locally accountable.

We also need to look at the powers that exist. Transport has been mentioned, and I certainly question why the Highways Agency should come to my constituency, as in the example that I cited. That would still happen under the White Paper because the regional assembly would have no power over the Highways Agency, so transport needs to be considered. If employment and economic policies are important, why should all the skills and learning matters still be largely governed centrally rather than regionally? Those issues need to be re-examined to find out whether we can get them right.

I shall try to be a bit optimistic. One of the things that I have learned about politics is that institutions can have certain powers. They can spend money, take certain decisions and make certain appointments, but successful politicians and institutions use that as the springboard to develop leadership in their communities. What I want to see in the north-west is an elected assembly that operates not along narrow party lines, but reaches out to the broader community, gives leadership to the north-west and provides a vision for the region.

We should recognise that the idea of a party operating on the basis of 50 per cent. plus one, which often happened in local government—it still happens now in certain places—is nonsense because it is not civic leadership. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) is not in his place. He mentioned a whole list of things in opposing the principle of regional government, but I should have thought that Manchester city council under his leadership epitomised that civic leadership. As an authority and institution, it accepted a wider responsibility than simply delivering services; it accepted a role in the broader community to make things happen.

If the politicians elected to regional assemblies do not have that wider vision and the ability to bring a broad range of people with them, they will fail. If they can do that, they succeed and will be seen to succeed. They will encourage those parts of the country that do not get regional assemblies early on to follow their example, and I certainly hope that my region will be in the first tranche.

Next Section

IndexHome Page