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26 Nov 2002 : Column 240—continued

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West): It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I must say that I strongly agreed with his speech. Perhaps it is a surprise that I should be in such strong agreement with a Liberal Democrat, but I am comforted in that thought by the fact that we are both part of the north-east constitutional convention and of the embryonic yes coalition—yes to regional government—that is under way in our part of the world. I strongly agreed with the right hon. Gentleman's comments about the sense of identity in the north-east, and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) also made the point that, in England, and within Britain, we can identify strongly with our region. Growing up in the north-east of England, I always felt that I was part of the region as well as being British. All of us have different levels of identity that can sit comfortably together. That is an important part of the debate on regional government.

Opinion polls in the north-east of England show a strong sense of identity with the region, although I concede that they currently show a less strong feeling in support of formalised regional government. That is simply because much of the argument is still to be made, and much of it is still to be won, in terms of the powers and responsibilities that regional government will have, and the real difference that I firmly believe it will be able to make.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) made much today, as he did in the debate on the Gracious Speech, of the fact that people are being asked to vote without a precise formulation of the powers of the regional authorities. The process is identical, however, to that which was followed in Scotland, Wales and London. To make so much of it in relation to regional government in England does not therefore seem justified. In addition, the White Paper, XYour Region, Your Choice" describes in detail the powers that the Government expect the regional authorities to have.

Although there are shortcomings in the powers outlined in the White Paper, they make a good start in launching the regional government process in England. Page 12 of the White Paper says that regional government is a process. Once it is set up, it will be possible to consider whether new powers should be devolved to the organisations that have been created. I very much accept the starting point for regional government that is outlined in the White Paper. It provides us with a positive message that we can take to the people of the regions when we fight the referendum.

Mr. Brady: The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the Liberal Democrats have been very clear. They see these proposals as a starting point for regional government and they believe that the process will end up with regional government having tax-raising powers of its own and powers over expenditure. Does the right hon. Lady share that vision?

Joyce Quin: We obviously need to discuss where we think the end point of the process could be. It is probably too soon to say exactly where regional

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government will end up. It will have to prove itself. I very much hope that, on the basis of the Government's proposals, it will do that. Modest powers to raise tax exist already, given that is possible to raise extra money from the council tax. We can argue about whether that is the best approach, but a tax-raising element already exists. We should not get too exercised about that issue at this stage.

If everything is to be based on people's consent—this process is, and I approve of the fact that it gives choice to people in the regions—we will be able to respect people's ultimate decision. In Scotland, people were given a two-part question that gave them a say in the finance-raising possibilities of the Scottish Parliament.

Much has been made in the debate of the views of business. I accept that there is much scepticism on the part of business, and those of us who are enthusiastic about the process need to discuss it with business. However, I hope that it will seize the opportunities available to it in the White Paper proposals and get involved. There are a number of ways in which business can make its voice heard. It is interesting that the submission that many of us received from the TUC shows that it has seen the possibilities of taking part in the civic forums, in the committee work and in the policy council work of the regions. It wants to make its voice heard. I urge business to do the same.

Several of the business community's worries about red tape are exaggerated. Red tape tends to emanate from national and European regulations. There is a real need to ensure that it is simplified and reviewed wherever possible, but the powers for regional assemblies proposed in the White Paper are unlikely to be a source of red tape. In any event, the process is inclusive enough to offer business a real opportunity to make its voice heard. Again, I urge it to do that.

Many contributions have focused on the link with local government reform. On that, I agree with some of my hon. Friends and with the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is unfortunate that the two issues are linked, partly because that sends out the message that regional government has something to do with local government when it does not. Regional government is about decentralising from the centre. That is the essence of the message that we should seek to convey.

Mr. Dhanda: Some of us who live in areas that do not have as strong a regional identity as the north-east wish that they had it. We see the mechanism as an opportunity to move towards unitary authorities. What does my right hon. Friend think of the idea of having unitary authorities in regions that will not even vote for a regional assembly?

Joyce Quin: It is important to give people the opportunity to move to unitary authorities. I understand the rationale behind that. However, I believe these proposals could mean that unitary areas—most of my area is unitary already—impose a solution on areas that are two-tier at present. I would much rather that the people in those areas could choose for themselves. However, there is a strong argument in favour of unitary

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authorities, and I wish my hon. Friend well in his attempts to establish a good structure in his region that will provide a successful way forward for the future.

How we engage people in the vote is another important issue. Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), have lamented the low turnouts in elections. Although that may sometimes have something to do with people's disinterest in elections, I was very struck by what happened in my local authority area of Gateshead. In a local election in which there were no particular burning issues and in which there was an all-postal ballot, the turnout went from the normal average of 25 per cent. to 60 per cent, which is higher than the general election turnout in my area. I spoke to people about postal ballots and they said that they fitted in very well with today's lifestyles and, particularly, with those of people who work long hours. It might also be worth considering moving elections from Thursdays to the weekend, but people thought that the postal ballot system that was operated allowed them to cast their vote without the pressure of trying to fit it into their working Thursday. Many people find that difficult. We should consider full postal ballots for the regional election.

We should also consider ways of combining the regional election with other elections. People would not have to vote on different occasions, and combining elections that were important to people would create more interest. I also urge the Government to consider the submissions made by organisations such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind and Mencap, which have said that, whatever system we use for electing regional government, it should be as widely accessible as possible.

There are many ways in which we can make a positive case for regional government. I do not accept the argument that regional government has not been an economic success. For example, the history of Germany since the second world war shows that extremely successful efforts on technology have been made in areas such as Baden-Würrtemberg. Furthermore, the way in which North Rhine Westphalia managed the transition from older to newer industries shows that economic successes have taken place. Interestingly, the areas that I have mentioned did not have great historic identities; they were largely created by the allies after the second world war. None the less, they have been economically very successful.

The Bill is an important step forward for the economy and our political system. I welcome the fact that Labour and Liberal Democrat Members are firmly grasping the opportunities for the people of our regions. I hope that we will make a success of devolution not just for the benefit of the regions but for the health of the democracy of the United Kingdom as a whole.

7.59 pm

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury): I shall not vote for the English regions smoke-and-mirrors Bill. This has been a remarkable debate, because everyone who has spoken has had something important to say. Many of them have a great deal of experience, and the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) spoke with great authority. I worked closely with him when he was the leader of a city council and I was a local government finance Minister. We addressed jointly many of the issues that he described.

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One issue that we had to address was that of the Government offices for the regions. Michael Heseltine and I, as his junior Minister, had a good reason for deciding that that should go ahead in principle. It was implemented later by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). We decided that there had to be joined-up government with those Departments that had a regional presence, but less than half of them had a regional presence and the others, such as the Home Office, probably never would. There was never any suggestion that establishing the Government offices was a precursor to regional government. That is the myth that is being put about and it needs to be scotched.

I referred to the legislation disparagingly as the smoke-and-mirrors Bill, and I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has read his White Paper, let alone his Bill. When he said that people in the English regions would have opportunities similar to those available to the people of Scotland and Wales, he was extremely wide of the mark, because no such thing is mentioned. The right hon. Gentleman also said that we have made a judgment of what powers will be available. He may have made a judgment, but he has not told us about it. It is not in the White Paper or the Bill. We want to know what it is. I agree wholeheartedly with those hon. Members who said that it is absurd to go into a referendum without knowing for what one is voting. I hope that that will be addressed.

I recognise the strength of the argument made by the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). I recall a Friday debate in the House a decade ago when I stood at the Dispatch Box as the Minister and she was on the Opposition Benches. We were on the same sides of the argument then. Although more progress has been made down her route, we shall have to wait and see what happens.

As a local government Minister and someone who presided over both the council of the Isles of Scilly and Warkworth parish council, I am in no doubt of the important differences in our region. The problem is how those are to be recognised. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) is right to champion the cause of a Cornish assembly. I wholeheartedly agree with him. Cornwall is very different. It needs special treatment and special opportunities to meet the challenges.

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