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26 Nov 2002 : Column 264—continued

Mr. Key: The hon. Gentleman might like to know that at the south-west convention, the head of the

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Government office for the south-west, when asked whether it would be possible to have a Cornish assembly, smiled sweetly and made it clear that Ministers had decided that under no circumstances would there be one.

Andrew George: It will be found that the south-west is undeliverable—people have prayed in aid the BBC poll, which, having looked at it, would make a statistician's eyes water—as there is no basis for the belief that people will vote for something that is based on a synthetic place that has been created purely for administrative convenience. The Government need to recognise that. In Cornwall, more people have demonstrated in response to the White Paper that they support a Cornish assembly than in the whole of the rest of the country put together. Fifty thousand people signed a declaration that was delivered to Downing street and to the Minister, demonstrating that they support a Cornish assembly. It is not a Trojan horse for Cornish nationalism, and it is not about cutting Cornwall off. It is about cutting Cornwall in to the celebration of diversity. People understand that in Cornwall, and I am sure that they understand it in all other places, too.

It is not that I am opposed to the development of assemblies in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire. Where there is support for regional assemblies, we should allow them to go ahead. However, they are undeliverable in much of the rest of the country. If the Government think that they can get away with this, it will be the triumph of Xplacelessness" over place and identity. If they and their control-freak tendency are not sufficiently constrained and they do not understand that devolution is about letting go rather than hanging on, they could become seriously unstuck. They will succeed only if they chill out a bit, let go and perhaps get out a bit more.

9.30 pm

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). He is most robust on the issue of regional assemblies, but he pulled his punches today. I have a quote from him that appeared in the Western Morning News on 8 June 2000. He dubbed those pushing for the idea of a regional assembly as

I do not know what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) is—a minor empire builder or an anorak. Perhaps, on occasions, he is both.

The Government have managed to achieve what many would have thought impossible at the beginning of the debate. They have managed to obtain a degree of consensus in the Chamber. Whether we vote for or against the Bill, there appears to be unanimity that it is a load of pusillanimous nonsense. A couple of speeches were made in favour of the Bill, but as those speeches developed it became pretty clear that they were about an entirely different Bill.

If the Bill is taken to its logical conclusion, it will commit the spending of £2 billion, which is a lot of money in anyone's terms. Two billion pounds make the

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sums needed from the Government by the employer's side to settle the firefighters' strike seem small beer. Two billion pounds makes the mobilisation of our armed forces for war seem cheap. One would expect considerable benefits from the commitment of £2 billion of the public's hard-earned cash—perhaps more teachers, more nurses or more police officers. But no, regional government will create not a single new teacher, nurse or police officer. If the Government get their way, the remaining 34 county councils will be abolished. Two billion pounds seems a lot of money to provide a cosy bolthole for regional politicians who did not make it to this Chamber or Strasbourg or who have grown weary of the inconvenience of being responsible to their local electorate.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) said at the beginning of the debate, there is a crisis right across Europe on regional policy. He produced figures that demonstrated the increase in the disparities between the prosperous and the poor. A regional assembly would be a toothless commentator on those events. There is a clear need for a regional policy from the Government to address those disparities, but a regional assembly would not do that. A bit of window dressing is no substitute for a policy and a collection of gimmicks do not make a single policy.

As the Confederation of British Industry said in a brief prepared for the debate, its members believe that regional assemblies will not improve decision making in the regions, enjoy the business community's confidence, strengthen democracy or be value for money. The British Chambers of Commerce has said:

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation put it:

We have already heard from the hon. Member for St. Ives about his Xanoraks". Little wonder that the business community has withdrawn from the unelected regional assemblies in the north-west and the east of England. It was not the assemblies' lack of a direct mandate that made the business community walk away, but the fact that they were a complete waste of time.

Mr. Lansley: My hon. Friend and I come from what is termed the east of England. Did he observe that no one on the Labour Benches from the east of England cared to speak up for regional government? Those who spoke on behalf of the south-east and the south-west acknowledged that regional governments would never be established there. Members from the west midlands and east midlands did not appear on the Labour Benches, and opinion was strictly divided in the remaining three regions. So it seems—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has brought his intervention to a close.

Mr. Pickles: I somewhat regret the fact that my hon. Friend did not get an opportunity to participate in the debate. His memory is correct. We come from the same region. Obviously, I have enormous affection for him,

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but our constituencies have little in common. We do not share economic or planning interests. That can be said of constituencies across the eastern region—[Interruption.] I hope that I am not going to be heckled into submission.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said that a regional identity exists in his constituency, but he had to admit that the paymasters remain in London. The Bill will not change that.

The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who is meeting the Prime Minister tomorrow to tell him a few home truths about regional policy, made a courageous and important speech. He explained that the north-west has no regional identity. He also rightly told his hon. Friends that a regional assembly will not deliver on a number of things. For instance, it will have virtually no impact on the west coast main line. He spoke most eloquently about money and the Barnett formula, which is what the debate is really about.

Mr. Lloyd: I understand that the hon. Gentleman is from a different side of the Pennines, but for my whole life I have been aware of certain differences between Yorkshire and Lancashire. We have got a bit beyond that now, but the idea that there is no north-west identity betrays his origins as someone who comes from Yorkshire.

Mr. Pickles: My entire life has been one of co-operation between Yorkshire and Lancashire because I married a Lancashire girl. After the hon. Gentleman left the Chamber, we had a decent discussion about the difference between Manchester and Leeds and how those cities co-operate across different regions. There is a commonality of needs along the M62 and the regions are a side issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) exposed the charade of regional inefficiency. He was right to talk about the need to revive democracy. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) made an excellent speech in which he clearly demonstrated the diversity in Northumberland. Few of us will forget the description of his district council, which is about to be abolished. It represents 800 sq m and is to be replaced by a more remote local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) rightly talked about the needs of his constituents. He said that the people of Cheshire have nothing in common with people in the rest of the north-west.

Mr. Dawson: Is not the hon. Gentleman compounding the error made by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) in referring to the remoteness of Northumberland county council? Surely he is undermining the arguments of the rest of his hon. Friends about county councils being wonderful, viable democratic institutions.

Mr. Pickles: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands what we have been saying, particularly about the need for a two-tier system of district and county councils.

The referendum proposed in the Bill lacks quality, transparency and openness. People are being asked to vote without knowing what they will receive. The

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question will be difficult to frame, and as we have seen the Electoral Commission has already had problems with definitions of single tiers of local government.

If the majority of citizens in a county vote against regional government, their county can still be destroyed because of the way in which the Government impose regional boundaries. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) that 86 per cent. of Yorkshire and Humberside is governed by unitary authorities. Why should 86 per cent. decide the fate of the good people of North Yorkshire? He was right to say that we would give local authorities additional powers.

The abolition of long-established boundaries needs a clear mandate; it should not, to quote the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George), be done by a trickle of minor empire builders and anoraks. The Government ultimately have the power to pick and choose when and where referendums are to be held. They are vague about when the trigger for a referendum will be reached. Threats of continuous periodic referendums will lead to instability and a reduction of long-term planning. The Government should have the courage of their convictions and let all the regions decide on the same date, instead of having a trickle of referendums. If there is a need for regional government, as Labour Members have said, let us have it now. Let us have referendums and test their case.

The people of England do not live in regions; they live in counties, towns and villages. Their allegiance is to the immediate community of their country. Between county and country there are no intermediaries. I was born in Yorkshire, not Yorkshire and Humberside. Where I was born has nothing in common with north Lincolnshire. I now live in Essex, not in the eastern region. Brentwood has nothing in common with Cromer or Cambridge. The creation of an elected regional assembly will not create affection for a region that exists only on paper.

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