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26 Nov 2002 : Column 256—continued

Mr. Dawson: Tomorrow is Lancashire day, and people will declare their allegiance to the real county of Lancashire.

Mr. Brady: As a Lancastrian by birth, I welcome that enormously. It may be one of the few occasions on which I permit myself to wear a red rose in celebration of that fact. The hon. Gentleman makes the point that there is a real affinity with the county of Lancashire. There is no affinity with the north-west as a geographical region, which is entirely artificial.

If we went down the road that the hon. Gentleman and one or two others would like us to go down the costs would be huge. The cost of the referendum would be the

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smallest part. There would be the massive cost of reorganisation: the costs of a new bureaucracy, new buildings, new politicians—that is surely the last thing people want–secretaries, researchers, press officers and a whole bureaucracy to support the regional structure. Nothing positive would be added for the people whom we represent. There would be only a huge cost and a huge extra bureaucracy.

Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the possible constitutional and financial imbalance if one region voted for an elected regional assembly and others did not? Would that not create a nightmare that would far outweigh the unfairness of the Barnett formula?

Mr. Brady: Indeed, and it could do so in a number of ways. If we had the arrangement to which the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) referred, or a tax-raising regional assembly in one part of the country, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested, that could work in my hon. Friend's favour. If we had an assembly in the north-west of England that raised higher levels of taxation, all our businesses would flock down to the south-west to get away from it. Perhaps he should not be too concerned, as it could work either way.

My hon. Friend is right, except that there is an assurance in the White Paper that significant resources would not be provided even if regional government were to proceed. That point was raised at the outset of the debate. In the first instance, there would be more costs with no benefit and no real change. If regional government were to develop, my hon. Friend's point would be valid.

I should like the Minister to deal with the issue of the use of public funds in this process, because I do not think there is any direct reference to it in the Bill. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he is not neutral on this matter and will campaign strongly for regional government to be adopted as we go through one or more referendums. We know that there are at present various regional conventions or assemblies that combine local authorities. I would like a clear assurance from the Minister that public resources could not be used to promote the idea that there should be a referendum or to campaign on one side or the other in a referendum. I hope that he will make it clear that that would not be allowed, and that strict action would be taken to prevent that.

Let me end by returning to the central point. I do not think the Bill has any real support in my region or from my constituents, and according to comments attributed to Labour Members representing Manchester in yesterday's local press they do not believe it is even supported by most of their colleagues with seats in the north-west.

I hope that when the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has his tête-à-tête with the Prime Minister tomorrow—which he advertised in his speech—he will make it clear that the Bill has no support from Conservative Members representing the north-west, no support from the majority of Labour Members

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representing the north-west, or so we are told, and certainly no support from the people whom we represent.

9 pm

Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I think that there is one thing that we might have got right constitutionally five years ago. Surely, if we create Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish Parliaments or Assemblies, the least we can do is create an English Parliament, and make the upper House a House of representatives of the four constituency Parliaments. We missed a trick there.

A case that I encountered illustrates all the problems and confusions raised by what we are debating. A steel mill went broke. It was partly in Cardiff and partly in Sheerness. The part located in Cardiff had the support of Members of the Welsh Assembly and the Secretary of State for Wales. We in the south-east of England have no Assembly, no Parliament, no Minister for the south-east and not even a Select Committee dealing with the south-east. My constituents, therefore, are not treated as fairly as they ought to be.

I was going to make the point made by the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire). Let us assume that the north-east or the north-west has a referendum first. I note that I am the only Member present who represents a constituency in the south-east. This issue is of no interest in the south-east, because no one in Milton Keynes connects with anyone in Margate or Portsmouth. The south-east is a complete fallacy of an area, and we will never vote for this proposal.

If a regional assembly is set up, who will my constituents go to? They cannot go to the north-east. There is no south-east parliament or assembly. There will be no Minister or Select Committee for the south-east. They will come here, and that is absolutely wrong. It is unfair and unreasonable. The whole constitutional issue is brought into question. As I have said, we missed a trick by not having four constituency bodies with an overarching House of representatives connecting them.

Fortunately, my favourite saint is St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. I feel passionately that we have got this completely wrong. Why has not government for the south-east worked? Why has the South East England Development Agency not worked? It is because it is not accountable here. It is not accountable to a Select Committee for the south-east, or even to a Minister for the south-east—and if such institutions are not accountable, they will create more and more quangos and spend more and more of our money, quite obscene amounts. It is a pity that the Bill is not stronger.

Even if I have to vote with the Government this evening, there is an issue that I cannot resolve. My constituency has no unitary authorities. There is one unitary authority in Medway, which is too small. It does not work. It was approved on the basis of a single vote at a meeting. If we want a unitary system, my constituency will have to decide whether to go up the river to Dartford, Medway and Sittingbourne. But how will that be done? We cannot possibly have a vote, because we have no unitary authority. There are no unitary authorities in Kent apart from Medway, although Kent is the largest county council in England.

I am thinking of all the things that we believe in, such as local democracy. I want local democracy. I am sick of the system of centralisation. Nothing will change for us,

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though, because we will not vote for a regional assembly. My constituents will be worse off in every way.

I repeat that this is a constitutional problem with which we have not really wrestled. I leave it with the House.

9.4 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): I follow the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt) in making a similar point about the regions. During the referendum in Scotland, there was no debate about what was or was not Scotland. It was the same with Wales. In Northern Ireland, the whole debate is about what is Northern Ireland, where the boundary is and where people's allegiances lie.

We have regions in our country, some of which have some affinity but many of which, particularly those in the south-west and south-east, have very little in common. That is a great difficulty. People have a sense of community and of allegiance. I do not believe that most of my constituents have any feeling for the south-west.

Under the Bill, the Secretary of State must consider the level of interest in a region before he sets the process in motion, yet there has been no way of setting out what that means, how it is weighted or what the tests for a level of interest are. Is it Members of Parliament or local authorities making representations, petitions, a letter- writing campaign, or a self-selecting group that has a particular role in lobbying a Minister? It would help the debate if the Minister, who I know is a details man—I have served with him on several Committees that considered Bills—set out a little more about how the level of interest in a region will be defined.

The Secretary of State must consider under clause 1(6) whether there is interest to start the process but subsection (8) says:

As I read that, it means that the Secretary of State must publish why he is not going to proceed with a referendum but not why he is going to proceed with one. Nothing in the Bill says that he must publish information that has been sent to the Ministry if he proceeds.

I notice that the Bill contains provision for the Secretary of State to change his mind. I suspect that the Secretary of State will get lobbied, he will say that there is interest in a region, he will announce it, and all hell will break loose as people suddenly start to say that they are not interested and make further representations to him, so it is important for the Minister to make clear what the tests are. Will it be a formalised procedure with a beginning and an end where everyone knows consultation has taken place, or will it be informal—just letters, petitions or whatever coming in on an ad hoc basis? We need to know. That will be critical, as will how the Government weigh up the competing claims of regions in terms of referendums. How will the interest in the south-west, say, be weighed against the interest in

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the north-east? A lot of that is not in the Bill. Since it is not, it will largely be up to the Secretary of State to state the position, which is a pity.

It is important that we know what the tests are and what the Secretary of State defines as a level of interest. Whether we have referendums or not, it is important that the information that goes to the Secretary of State is published.

The regions are not natural areas. I hope that, where referendums are held, votes will be counted on a local authority basis, not on a total regional basis, so that one can see, whatever the overall result in the region, what the level of support is in the constituent parts. Some concern has been expressed on behalf of people in Northumberland, people on the fringes of conurbations that have single unitary authorities at the moment and those on the fringes that have a two-tier system. It will be interesting to see the different levels of support for changes as they are proposed.

Under clause 5, if there is a referendum and it is lost, another referendum cannot be held for five years and a day. If one were being fair, there would be a provision saying that, if a referendum were won, those who lost the referendum would have the opportunity to have a re-run after five years. It is rather like those European referendums where, if the referendum is lost, they keep having a vote until they get the right answer.

I have some concerns about the Electoral Commission under clause 8. It seems to be required to give information, but one person's information is another's propaganda. The concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) about what public moneys are going into the process and what the overall cost will be is entirely appropriate. Several of my hon. Friends have spoken about the cost of reorganisation into new tiers of local government and of the assemblies themselves. Experience in Scotland and Wales has shown that the costs of devolved government often end up much greater than originally anticipated.

My constituents bring local issues to me. We have problems in Poole with social services, which is overspent by £1 million. A centre used by disabled and disadvantaged groups is about to be closed. My constituents would be far better pleased if the resources were given to the local authority to undertake its important tasks rather than being used to create a new class of politician or bureaucrat at some remote regional centre with which they feel no affinity.

The electoral system is not the brightest, given that having 25 to 35 members for regions of such a size will mean having vast constituencies. I remember the debate here when we abolished first-past-the-post European constituencies because, apparently, they were too large for one person to do anything with, and it was much nicer to have a list. When we moved to the list system, the argument was made almost immediately that the Euro constituencies were too large. Then we had London regional government with large twin-borough constituencies. Now we seem to be setting up very large constituencies in the regions, with populations of 200,000 or 250,000, and a list.

My main concern is about the level of interest. In the Bill and the notes on clauses, the Government have not provided answers about what will be considered

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sufficient to trigger this whole process. Perhaps the Minister will fill in some detail about the procedure, especially because, given that the Secretary of State has to gather the information and start the process rolling, and the review of local government may take a year, circumstances may change in the meantime. If a process is started and it is clear that it does not have public support, it is wrong that the Government should not have an opportunity to think again.

I cannot support the Bill. We have spoken about the regions not being natural. A few years ago, I went as a guest of the Federal Republic of Germany to study its federal system. Of course, the Lander are not ancient. They are amalgamations, and they were amalgamated by military occupation—they could not have been amalgamated without it. I suspect that the Government, who sometimes display some of the characteristics of a government of military occupation, will not wish to open up the question of the boundaries of regions, because frankly, we would never get agreement. I see the Minister nodding at that.

The proposals are a mistake. I was at school in the city and county of Bristol when it became Avon, and people never reconciled themselves to being in that new county. We have heard a lot about Conservative Governments getting rid of Humberside and Avon without much debate, but the real reason was that people had no real affection for those counties. They had an affection for Somerset, Gloucestershire and the city and county of Bristol. Governments who tamper with ancient loyalties and affections do so at their peril. I rather suspect that, if the Government get this wrong, major campaigns to reverse the changes will bedevil politics for a long time to come.

We are a very conservative nation and we still argue about what was wrong or right about local government reorganisations that took place 20 or 30 years ago. It is easy to propose constitutional change and to institute referendums, but if we get it wrong, it can cause endless misery and campaigns.

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