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26 Nov 2002 : Column 236—continued

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Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) made a thoughtful speech. He and a number of other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), set out the vision of the people who have long been committed to creating regional assemblies in those regions that want them.

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That is very distant from the carping, narrow and limiting approach of the people who try to deny us the opportunity to make decisions in our own region and produce the kind of political leadership from all parties that can make a real difference to the lives of the people in the regions.

I do not want to dwell too much on that general case, which has been so very well made, but instead to contribute some points from the perspective of the northernmost part of the northernmost region in England. By definition, it is the furthest region from London—it seems further from London than many parts of Scotland—and it has a very strong regional identity, to which my constituency contributes a great deal. The region has a very strong cultural identity, expressed in music, dialect and drama, and my constituency contributes enormously to those things.

There is a great sense of pride in the Newcastle-Gateshead bid to be the capital of culture and in other things that are going on in the centre of the region. It is interesting that it is a Newcastle-Gateshead bid because, for years, the two communities on opposite sides of the river were nothing but rivals and ignored each other to an extraordinary extent, but we now have co-operation in what is recognised as the main urban centre of the region. It is not the only urban centre in the region, but it is the largest and some very exciting developments are happening there.

Those who represent an area so far from London as the one that I represent are immediately conscious of the feeling that people have that decisions are taken too far away from them to reflect their own concerns, by people who do not understand or know about their area and problems. It is almost impossible to visit those people in a day's journey, in the way that people in areas closer to London can. It is rare for me to get large parties of people or school children to come to the House of Commons because they have to come for several days to accomplish such a visit. London is a long way from the area that I represent, so there is a genuine interest in taking decisions closer to home.

Of course my constituency covers a large area and the northern part of it is on the Scottish border. There are two different perceptions of the regional issue in my constituency. People close to the Scottish border ask, XWhy can't we have what they have got?" They look over the border and they see a lot more money—I shall come to that in a moment—and the Scottish Executive can make decisions about where its priorities lie. It can make decisions about the A1 and other matters because it has the power in its own region. My constituents want that sort of power to be exercised in our own region and at a place that is a reasonable distance away, so that they can make effective representations. So the sense in the northern part of the region is that Scotland has something that we are being denied.

To the southern part of my constituency, however, many more people travel to Newcastle or Tyneside to work because they must look for employment opportunities there. They make extensive use of what are essentially regional facilities based in Tyneside, and are particularly conscious of being located within a north-eastern region. That is a region in which regional government clearly already exists. The idea that the Bill

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will create regional government is misleading—we have had it for years. Currently, it takes the form of the Government office for the north-east, the regional development agency and the plethora of quangos and other bodies that were described earlier. It is there but it is not accountable to the region. When I or others go to the Government office for the north-east we are always conscious that however helpful the individual servants are, and however much they want to advance the interests of the region, their paymasters are in London, and they are looking over their shoulders to decisions that are taken in London. They will put a case to London, where the decision will be made.

Lawrie Quinn: I recognise that, like me, the right hon. Gentleman serves on the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. Can he reflect briefly on his experiences, which may be shared, of that attempt to scrutinise and hold to account the current state of affairs?

Mr. Beith: My memory goes back further to the first attempt to set up a regional affairs Committee, which once had a debate about the north-east of England. First, no Conservative Members could be found to attend the Committee, until my good friend Lord Elliott was eventually found—he was usually the only Conservative who could be induced to appear on such occasions. Subsequently, not enough Labour Members could be found to get a quorum for the Committee. Even in its more recent incarnation, it is a virtually non-existent body. I cannot remember when I was last summoned to it, or when it ever did anything. Manifestly, it is the wrong sort of body even to oversee decisions, which should be overseen within the region. Many Members have argued—I do not want to add to those arguments in my limited time—that we need to develop the powers of a regional assembly so that it can fulfil those functions and satisfy those aspirations. We will not get that unless we create the body and build from there. As critical as I am of the limitations of these proposals, we must start, put the body into existence and demonstrate that it needs more power and can make good use of more power.

Although I believe that it is worth creating even a limited regional assembly and building on its powers, I also want to win the referendum. If Ministers also want to win the referendum, and want to be in a position to say to people in the region who have looked closely at these matters that they are offering something worthwhile, they must understand this point. Business people in the north-east are not intrinsically hostile, but their first question is: can the assembly deliver things that will help us in our business in the region? Can it provide better infrastructure or ensure that that is provided? Can it make decisions nearer to us? If Ministers cannot give positive answers to that, they will not get backing from sections of the community who are prepared to be sympathetic if they see that a regional assembly is capable of delivering things that matter to them.

Of course, people in the region also feel strongly about Government finance and the whole issue of the Barnett formula. That issue will not go away, because it is clearly recognised in the north-east that we are not given the same financial opportunities to tackle

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problems that have been available to Scotland to tackle the very same problems: the decline of major industries, rural depopulation and so on. We have not had a comparable basis for dealing with those problems.

The other issue that I want to address is local government, which many Members have mentioned. If we go into a referendum campaign having been offered a single-tier Northumberland covering the whole current area of Northumberland as the only local government body, that will make it extremely difficult to persuade people in my part of the region to accept and vote for the regional assembly that they might otherwise want. That is a separate question. At the very least, people should be able to make that decision separately on the voting paper. The only votes that should count on that question should be those of the people who live in the area affected. People in Newcastle and Redcar do not want to decide what the local government system in Northumberland should be, and they should not be given the opportunity to do so. That is a decision for people in Northumberland. If the Government want to demonstrate that they feel that the two issues are related, they should at least give people the opportunity of a second question. Ideally, however, the matter should be decoupled completely. That will be felt most strongly in Northumberland—I refer only to our position—if we are offered a local government unit that is simply too large to deal with local housing questions, too large for people to identify with, and dominated by its south-eastern urban corner to the detriment of rural areas.

When Conservative Members talk about our historic counties, their argument is often bogus. Who can claim that a County Durham that does not contain Darlington, Gateshead, South Shields or Hartlepool is the historic County Durham? That is simply not so. Indeed, my constituency, which is a long way from Durham, contained outposts of the historic county of Durham—Islandshire in the north of Northumberland was part of County Durham. That suited the prince bishops of Durham, and it survived long after they had gone, but it did not make administrative sense. A number of the historic counties simply did not make administrative sense. Some of them were ruthlessly abolished regardless of their administrative merits. Hereford and Worcester was bundled together by a previous Conservative Government. The royal county of Berkshire was totally removed by a Conservative Government—it does not exist in administrative terms. In some areas, the case was strong; in other areas, it was weak. The idea that the counties can be erected as the alternative to a system that recognises and makes accountable the regional government that already exists, however, is unreal.

These issues should be decoupled. The region in which I live, part of which I represent, would benefit from being able to make decisions through an elected regional assembly. I want people to vote for that regional assembly, and I do not want us to be handicapped in that process by Ministers offering less to the region than they could do, or by confusing the issue with a vote about local government, which is a wholly different matter.

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