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26 Nov 2002 : Column 243—continued

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is in the same Government zone—I cannot call it a region—as I occupy. Indeed, my constituency includes the Isles of Scilly. As the hon. Gentleman has experience of setting up Government zones, does he agree that the purpose of a region is to have an area with internal integrity, shared interests and shared identity? The Government zones do not.

Mr. Key: Yes, that is the point. It is about the delivery of Government services from the centre to local people, and about the voice of individual local people being heard and acted on. Government by focus groups is the most phoney thing we have seen in this country for many years.

What do we do about it? Last Saturday I went to a meeting of the south-west constitutional convention, which hon. Members know is a pressure group designed

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to encourage everyone to vote in favour of regional assemblies. It was a remarkable experience. I think that I was the first Conservative MP to have set foot in that viper's nest. It was disrupted by a lot of unpleasant people who decided that the meeting was part of a conspiracy. They did not want to debate the issue properly and wandered around with placards saying that we were quislings and traitors and other charming epithets. Nevertheless, the meeting was brilliantly chaired by the Bishop of Exeter, who I am glad to say took a great deal of flak and abuse—as did his staff, which was unjustified. The bishops must be part of the process. They are part of the constitution. They vote and speak in the other place and should be part of the debate. I have no difficulty with that.

As someone who was born in war-ravaged Plymouth; who moved to Salisbury in 1947 at the age of two; who went to Truro in 1960; and who relocated back to Wiltshire, I have a deep love and understanding of regions, especially my region. One problem we face is whether we have a democratic deficit or voter fatigue. I think we have voter fatigue, and creating another tier will not help. Hon. Members on both sides of the House referred to the representation that would result from that, with elected assembly men and women looking after, in theory, about 200,000 electors each. What would they be for? This place engages us in policy making, in the legislative process, in voting on a range of issues, including tax and spending, and in holding the Government to account.

Lawrie Quinn: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Key: Of course. The hon. Gentleman has intervened on everyone else, so why not me?

Lawrie Quinn: The hon. Gentleman has made an extensive study of the proceedings of the House and has experience as a Minister. Does the Regional Affairs Committee do a good job? Is it effective and does it meet the demands of scrutiny, which is the high test that he places on it?

Mr. Key: I have no view on that because I had forgotten that the Committee existed.

Let us consider the financial problem. The Government tell us that an elected assembly will cost about £25 million a year to run and the direct budget responsibility of a regional assembly will be about £300 million. The rest of the annual public spend for the south-west is about £20 billion. That would remain with central Government. The pocket assembly that we would create would increase the potential for party strife, institutional inertia, delay in decision making, departmental and local government turf wars and paralysis of good government. It would add in spades to the very problem that we are trying to solve. The notes of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister say that there will be no new bureaucracy, stating that, XBy providing stronger scrutiny and improving co-ordination between existing bodies, elected regional assemblies should reduce bureaucracy." Believe that and you'll believe anything.

What we actually have here are scrutiny, influence, patronage, consultation and co-ordination, but no new regional policy making, no new power and no new

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money from London, although there may be a rise in the council tax—just the functions that already belong to the indirectly elected south-west regional assembly, minus its social and economic partners, plus endless duplication and second-guessing of existing delivery systems in, for instance, health and culture. The Bill does not offer us regional government. I accept that it is merely an enabling Bill, as the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) explained. Nevertheless, it is hugely important that we recognise that we are not being offered regional government on the same terms as Scotland or Wales.

It is no good thinking that the experiment will work if we do not have cohesive regions in which people believe. The south-west is not a region. Cornwall is, and it should have its own assembly. Wiltshire, my county, is part of Wessex. Bristol is a city state, ranking with its neighbour Birmingham. But all the other counties are just that.

The south-west was created during the second world war as a convenient administrative unit. It is a creature designed by committee. It has no heart and no soul, and people down the ages would not have risked their lives for it. It would not have done Henry V much good at Agincourt if he had cried, XGod for Harry, the south-west region and St. George"—or even St. Endellion.

We have to face the English question, which has been touched on. The creation of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly stripped Scots and Welsh Members of Parliament of their responsibility for devolved issues. Yet they still come to Westminster and vote on issues that affect my constituents on which they have no responsibility to their electors. That is widely seen as unfair, unjustified and undemocratic. It is accelerating the disintegration of the United Kingdom and fragments good government. We do not need a regional assembly. Instead, we need a Parliament at Westminster which works for England and the English regions. I do not believe for one moment that we need a separate English Parliament.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: As I argued earlier, that would be an elephant in the cuckoo's nest. It would also increase the dominance and overweening power of London in what will be a smaller population when Scotland and Wales do not count as part of it.

Mr. Key: That would not be the case if the rest of my argument is applied. It is important for us to look through the correct end of the telescope, which we are not doing at the moment. Our constituents are not impressed by the Government rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. We need to strengthen local democracy and restore faith in the work of our parish councils, district councils and county councils. We need to ensure that they are properly funded, which in the south-west they are most certainly not compared to everywhere else. The Barnett formula is also part of the problem.

We should strengthen our democracy and we should recognise the shift that has taken place in the burden of taxation from central to local. If we measured council tax against the retail prices index, fuel prices or

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electricity prices, we would be amazed at the shift that has taken place over 15 years. A local income tax is certainly not the answer.

We need to give the Government renewed confidence to deliver what their citizens want. As we know, local authorities are judged against more than 200 annual targets and performance indicators. They have to agree up to 46 plans from Whitehall and they are monitored by four different inspection regimes. That is death by red tape and it is mad. The answer is certainly not another tier of bureaucracy.

We have to consider other ways of strengthening local democracy. I take great interest in the proposition that we should consider electing more public officials, not only mayors. Perhaps we need to consider education—I do not know; I am speaking for myself.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) spoke of the importance of having a regional Select Committee. I suggest instead having elected senators in an upper House to replace the existing House of Lords, and I would give them regional responsibilities. That would provide a regional aspect independent of this House which would be worth having.

I finish by simply pointing out that democratic institutions must have legitimacy. Our counties have legitimacy because they are organic communities; they are part of the geography and the geology, the dialect and the architecture, and the customs, practices and traditions of our country. Local government, in district councils such as Salisbury, is built on the rock of our nationhood. My fear is that since regions are lines drawn on a map, regional governments as proposed would be castles in the sand which would be washed away as the first tide of history rose up the ancient shores of the west of England.

8.11 pm

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak after such a clear reference to the beauty of the coastline and the seaside.

As the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, I am particularly pleased to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). Many people in my part of the world remember his role as a former Minister. He was the man from Whitehall who came to Malton and scotched, probably for a generation or more, the possibility of improving the key transport link in the area, the A64 from the A1 to the Yorkshire coast, thereby denying us something that central Government had promised us. I mention that to demonstrate why we need to take a regional and more strategic approach in key areas such as transportation. I am sure that my local newspapers will remember that the key—if I may use that word—to our failure was the man from Whitehall.

I have said that I agree with the Bill in principle. It is an enabling Bill for an important process; it does not achieve the end but it begins to will the end. Like many Labour Members, my first acquaintance with this policy goes back to my involvement in the regional Labour party in Yorkshire. I recall that in the late 1980s, when there was a centralising Government down in London, we realised that we were disconnected from the decisions that would affect our locality.

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I shall concentrate my remarks on what I am pleased to refer to as Yorkshire and the Humber because it has become a clearly identified region. If we compare it with a European nation state, such as Denmark, we find that there are clear parallels in the size of the population and in the economy, except that Yorkshire, as usual, comes out on top. Yet we do not have a mechanism for determining our future prosperity.

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