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26 Nov 2002 : Column 250—continued

Mr. Austin Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman should not slur the new Labour party with the taint of socialism. That is a shocking attack, particularly when he misinterprets what socialism is about. Socialism is about democracy, which requires the provision of good universal standards, and the freedom for regions and the authorities accountable to the people to vary and improve the standards that they choose for their purposes.

Mr. Atkinson: The term Xuniversal standards" is the clue. That is what the hon. Gentleman wants. On this side, we believe in competition. I would favour competing regions with independent hospitals and independent schools, all trying to provide the best service for their people. That is what I believe should happen. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he believes in the universality of services and benefits and the welfare state, a fully devolved regional system in this country would work contrary to that.

I believe that the Bill will go no further. Hon. Members should have listened carefully to the hon. Member for Pendle, and they should read carefully what he said, because he was telling the truth about what will happen. I believe, too, that the reason there is to be a question about local government reform in the referendum is that it was inserted by the Prime Minister. We know, and it has been confirmed again tonight, that the Prime Minister is not in favour of regional assemblies. The Deputy Prime Minister might be, but we suspect that the question about local government reform was intended to sabotage the proposal.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions points to the Prime Minister's preface to the White Paper, but the Minister was not in the Chamber when that was mentioned to the hon. Member for Pendle, and he should hear the response from the hon. Member for Pendle—XIf you think the Prime Minister wrote that, you must be joking—he probably never even read it." I agree again with the hon. Member for Pendle. It is essential that hon. Members do not think that by voting for what is on offer tonight, they are opening the door to something more. It will not happen.

I shall deal with one point that affects my part of the United Kingdom, the north-east of England, particularly the county of Northumberland, which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed mentioned. Perversely, if there is to be a Boundary Committee review in that area, it is not the county that will be abolished, but the district councils.

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In 1994 the Boundary Commission on Northumberland, after much argument, came down in favour of the two-tier status quo. One of the proposals at the time was that there should be three unitary authorities in the county of Northumberland. The Boundary Commission considered that, and concluded that because the total population of Northumberland is just over 300,000—apart from the Scilly Isles, it has the smallest population, although it is huge in area—and about 200,000 of those live in the urban south-east of the county, the remainder of the county would have too small a population and too small a rate base to support unitary authorities.

What will happen if the boundary committee is forced to introduce a unitary authority there? The only conclusion is that there will be county government in that area. At present there are six district councils that cover vast areas—my own district council is the biggest in England, with over 800 square miles. Decision making will be taken away from that local level. Some of it will be moved to county level, and in the case of Northumberland, that will mean that county hall is many miles away from many of my constituents. Some decision making will be moved up even further, to the regional level.

What the people of Northumberland will gain from that is decisions being made far, far away from where they count. How is local democracy served by that? I suspect that when the matter is put to the people of Northumberland and they realise that they will lose their district councils, they will have a very different attitude. That is why support for regionalism in the north-east of England is beginning to decline.

The Deputy Prime Minister made the point that the reason why the Government are choosing the regions for referendums as they are now is that that was a legacy left by the last Conservative Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) mentioned that. The regions were designed for administrative convenience. The north-east region has nothing to do with an area for which people feel an affection. Regions can exist only if people have a cultural affinity with them, or an emotional or historical attachment to them, as in counties. People go on about Germany, Italy and other devolved countries, but they are largely made up of traditional former states. There is a cultural and historic connection.

The north-east of England does not have that. It is not a unified area. The people up in Berwick on the Scottish border have nothing in common with the people down on Teesside. The people on Teesside do not want to be ruled by a Geordie parliament based in Newcastle. The people south of the Tees want to be in north Yorkshire. Perversely, the people of north Cumberland, who were traditionally part of the northern region, want to be part of the north. If there were a northern region, they would like to be included in it and not placed alongside Manchester.

I hope that more Labour Members who have spoken against the Bill will join the Opposition in the Lobby. The Bill will not help local democracy, but damage it, so it is right that the House should reject it.

8.35 pm

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): It is a pleasure to take part in what has been a very good debate, especially as a Northumbrian following a

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Northumberland MP and a fellow Northumbrian. I must ask the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), but I would like to be known as an adopted Lancastrian as well. As a strong supporter of the mighty Sunderland in the premier league and the almost as mighty Lancaster City in the UniBond premier league, I am a strong supporter of the idea of north-east and north-west going hand in hand in the first phase of a referendum on regional government.

I strongly support the Bill because I think that regional government is in the interests of the people whom we represent. We have heard some extraordinary arguments against it, one of the most peculiar of which was the suggestion that people do not want regional government or understand what it is about. People who come to my surgeries and contact me speak about issues of democracy, powerlessness and strategic planning and the feeling that they have no effective voice. They also speak about transport and economic development, and complain that the county council, which I think is an archaic form of local government, is remote from their lives. The county council cannot properly engage with crucial functions at a district level or with the health service because of its size and the weight of bureaucracy that is present in all such councils, and it does not properly engage with the voluntary, private or community sectors, which are vital to the development and reconstruction of our democracy.

The issue is about democracy and the people whom we represent having genuine involvement in the powers that are currently devolved at a regional level, but are operated by people who are unelected, even though they are doing a good job in many cases. In the city of Lancaster, we are seeing the tremendous work of the North West Development Agency coming to some fruition. Only last week, the Infolab development at Lancaster university was approved. That will provide a sustainable base for the science-based business of the future in the northern half of the north-west region. Major efforts have been made at regeneration, including the development of brownfield and riverside sites and the reconstruction and re-use of old buildings for new forms of business, housing and development that are fit for the 21st century.

I think that regional government is government for the 21st century. It will not merely be government in which county councils are writ large or the sort of municipal local government that developed during the 19th and 20th centuries. I believe absolutely the words of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that it would be a lean and fit form of government. It will focus on specific, vital functions. It is essential that it be allowed to do that before we consider the further development of the regional assembly. We are at the beginning of a profoundly important, democratic, developmental and inclusive process.

People who weave a fantasy about regional government being a vast, overweening bureaucracy in large regions, and those who complain that there will not be many more elected members or powers overlook some crucial factors. Regional government must engage positively and creatively with the business community and work flexibly with the voluntary and the private sectors. It must engage positively with existing forms of

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democracy such as parish councils, which are developing powers over planning and transport, and unitary authorities.

Mr. Brady: The hon. Gentleman mentions the importance of engaging positively with the business community. Why did the north-west CBI become so disenchanted with the regional assembly that it withdrew from it?

Mr. Dawson: I cannot speculate about that. We do not currently have an elected regional assembly. I have held several discussions with the business community and I am sometimes surprised at the scepticism that it displays. I am also surprised by the Opposition's scepticism. It has already been said that we can confidently expect the Conservative party to fall into line with the democratic structures of regional government in time. We are considering democracy and it is vital to have a democratic voice in powerful and important functions such as planning, transport and economic development.

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