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26 Nov 2002 : Column 247—continued

Mrs. Ellman: Does my hon. Friend agree that for his region, as for the other English regions, the Bill and the legislation that hopefully will follow concerns economic regeneration and the introduction of accountability to the regional organisations, the quangos, which already exist in every region?

Lawrie Quinn: I strongly agree. My hon. Friend gives the lie to some of the contributions by Conservative Members. They talk about extra money and extra costs, but we already have this stream of government. Earlier we almost had an acceptance by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) that we already have a form of regional government. However, it is not accountable and it cannot be influenced by the feelings and contributions of local people, particularly in my area, which is on the very periphery of the region.

Mr. Key: The argument about regional chambers, or in our case the south-west regional assembly, not being representative is wrong. Every tier of local authority, including unitary authorities, is represented on that body by councillors, who make up some three quarters of the membership, in addition to the social and economic partners. It is an indirectly representative body, and those councillors, as elected representatives, are working their socks off for us.

Lawrie Quinn: I do not deny that those individuals are making a contribution to the life of the region, but the key point for Labour Members is that they are not accountable. They do not face the key test of the ballot box. All of us in the Chamber have been elected on an equal basis in a pure and simple form of democracy. That is the acid test. I know that when I go before the people of Scarborough and Whitby, representing my party and my propositions, I stand the chance of being sacked if they do not agree with me. That is democracy, and people want that umbilical cord link between representatives and significant public expenditure. At the moment, there is no ballot box to test whether they are representing the view of communities, and without that acid test our system is not accountable.

I turn now to concerns about the Bill, and I hope that there will be an opportunity to deal with them in Committee. I agreed with many of the contributions from hon. Members on both sides of the House, most notably my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). They pointed out that we need draft legislation to indicate what will follow the test of the referendum. I hope that Ministers will give further consideration to that during, if not before, the Bill goes into Committee.

Many hon. Members have referred to unitary local government, and I decided to test the proposition that they put forward not only in relation to my parish

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councils and my borough council, but among the many North Yorkshire county councillors who represent Scarborough and Whitby. The clear message is that it is unnecessary to separate the two arguments because that would lead to confusion. The wreckage left in North Yorkshire by the Banham commission proposals was forced on the people without any test, any referendum or any consultation. I remember spending many nights in a room in the Shambles in York trying to argue the case for the Labour party in North Yorkshire to the commission. On one occasion, Sir John and the rest of us were locked in the room, and we had to escape by ladder. However, there was no escape from the horrendous piece of legislation forced on the people of North Yorkshire. To this day, the people of Whitby remember the early 1970s, when rural district councils lost the right to decide what was appropriate for an area. I almost received a grudging acceptance of that point in the debate on the Gracious Speech from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who has great experience of North Yorkshire affairs. The people of Whitby would like a big apology from the Conservatives for what they perpetrated for many years.

The people of Whitby would like a say in their destiny and what happens to them, particularly as the town is one of the most peripheral communities in our region. To many people in Whitby, Northallerton is the other side of the moon and London is a quantum distance away.

Mr. Lansley: I am rather confused. Is it not the Government's intention in clause 2 to impose unitary status where it does not currently exist in regions that vote that way? The people of Whitby will be so heavily outvoted by the unitary authorities in Yorkshire and Humberside that they will have no say in the matter.

Lawrie Quinn: The hon. Gentleman is welcome to visit Whitby any time. I am sure that the people who frequent Baxtergate would tell him that they were most offended by the fact that the Conservative Government did exactly what he has just suggested. At least this time, the people of Whitby, Scarborough and Yorkshire will have an opportunity to have a say in resolving that important question and will have the right to determine their future. The Bill makes that proposition and is a piece of enabling legislation.

There is a feeling that the number of regions allowed to hold a referendum would be restricted by the resources of the boundary committee. I hope that that would not be an unnecessary stumbling block, preventing regions such as Yorkshire and the Humber from having an early opportunity to test the question.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be sensible for the north-west, Yorkshire and the north-east to go together as the proud north in one referendum?

Lawrie Quinn: That proposition is very attractive. In Yorkshire and the Humber, 89 per cent. of people already live in unitary authority areas. The 11 per cent. in the rump of North Yorkshire, forced on us by previous Conservative Administrations, would have an opportunity to sort out that mess.

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Finally, I hope that in Committee we can spend some time considering the wording of the ballot paper, especially the preamble. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) covered that in his speech. The preamble sounds long, complex and perhaps even rambling—some Members may think that it is similar to my speech—but we should pay close attention to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby talked about the great cultural reputation of Yorkshire and the Humber, but in his list of theatres he failed to mention the Stephen Joseph theatre, the pre-eminent theatre in our region, and Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

I hope that the Bill receives a fair wind on Second Reading, and I wish to express my willingness to serve in Committee.

8.25 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): May I tell the hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) that his speech was by no means rambling? We listened to it with interest but, sadly, he is plain wrong about the people of Whitby having a say. They will not—they will be so heavily outnumbered by people in unitary authorities in Yorkshire and Humberside that their vote will be totally irrelevant. That also applies to my constituency, where the same situation arises.

I listened with great interest to the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). I am sorry that she has just left the Chamber, as I wanted to pay her a compliment. No doubt if she reads Hansard she will pick it up. I can let Members into a secret which, as I am mentioning it in the Chamber, will doubtless remain a secret. If there is to be an independent regional assembly in north-east England, the right hon. Lady is tipped to be First Minister. I hope that there will be no regional assembly in the north-east, but if there is—and if there is not a Conservative First Minister, and if there is not a monkey which we would like to elect in the north-east—I hope that the right hon. Lady will be the Labour First Minister. Her interest in regional government goes back many years and although I completely disagree with her, we should all compliment her on her long-term pursuit of regional government for the north-east.

We would all agree with the Bill much more if the Government proposed real devolution, but that is not on offer. If it suggested giving more power back to local authorities, I would be more inclined to support it. If it proposed to give much more power back to individual schools and hospitals, I would certainly support it. If it proposed getting rid of the dreaded Barnett formula, which discriminates against the north-east of England and, now I hear, the south-west, I would support it, but that is simply not on offer. Speaker after speaker on both sides of the House has said that the proposals are for a pygmy assembly with no real power. Those such as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and my neighbour, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), and others who say, XVote for what is on offer tonight, because it is only a small beginning, and it will be a beginning", should have listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). He made clear the Government's true agenda.

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If one is a socialist—I take it that there are one or two socialists left on the Government Benches—one believes fundamentally that whether one gets good treatment in hospital or adequate benefits should not depend on where one lives. The welfare state should be based on need, not area. I think I am right in saying that that is what Labour Members believe. The very idea of regional assemblies being given full powers over health and education, as the Liberal Democrats want, will mean disparities between one region and another. I am sure that that is what the Prime Minister believes. That is why nothing more will happen. If we have some regional assemblies in this country, that is as far as it will go. The Bill will not be the start of a process that will lead to anything like proper devolution.

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