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26 Nov 2002 : Column 268—continued

Mr. Austin Mitchell: The hon. Gentleman is becoming what Spiro Agnew would have described as one of the negative nabobs of nattering negativism. Has it occurred to him that exactly the same negative quibbling was used in the argument put forward by one of his Front-Bench predecessors against devolution in Scotland and Wales? Is he imitating that speech?

Mr. Pickles: I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's trip down memory lane in his earlier contribution, but when he was talking about regional affinity he kept moving from one region to another without understanding that he was talking about different regions.

There is a case for co-operation between authorities along the M62 corridor, but that is not a pan-regional matter. There is a case for co-operation between authorities around the M25, but that is not a pan-regional matter. There is a case for co-operation between authorities along the southern coast, but that is not a matter of regions; it is common sense. The regions proposed by the Government are too rigid.

Let me give the House an idea of the way in which regional assemblies try to garner support for regional pride. The south-east assembly had the opportunity to meet in various locations, including Aylesbury, Canterbury, Dover, Guildford and Windsor, to

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demonstrate the wonders of the region. However, it decided to meet in London, which best represents that great region, the south-east of England, and is more convenient than anywhere else in the south-east. I commend it on that decision—it was more honest than any other regional assembly and demonstrated better than any other regional assembly that the assemblies will be the Government's poodles. They will be the Government's representatives in the regions and will see that the Government's will is carried out, not the will of the people of the regions.

9.45 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have had an interesting, varied and, at times, frustrating debate on one of the most significant issues that we will deal with during the course of this Parliament.

The Bill represents an important further step towards the modernisation of our constitution following the measures already enacted to devolve power to Scotland, Wales and London. It reflects the commitment and determination of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister to give the people of England the choice of devolved regional assemblies. For decades, the needs and aspirations of the English regions were at best neglected and at worst ignored. The approaches of the past were either laissez-faire or XWhitehall knows best", and created a widening economic divide and a regional democratic deficit. The Government have been working hard to decentralise power, to make our politics more open, accountable and inclusive. The Bill is a major step forward in that process.

We have had a variety of contributions. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), speaking for the official Opposition in a curiously muted speech, started by claiming that there was something wrong with devolution because unemployment in the UK was highest in areas with new tiers of government. Let us consider that curious concept. Not only did the right hon. Gentleman forget his party's shameful record of rising unemployment, which stained its period in government; he forgot that under the present Government unemployment has reduced to historically low levels in comparison with all our major competitors. If there is a connection between unemployment and devolution—the principle on which the right hon. Gentleman based his argument—devolution, where it has been introduced in this country, shows clearly that we can take action to tackle unemployment. That is our party's commitment—[Interruption.] I was laughing at the right hon. Gentleman, who proceeded to try to build a case for opposition to regional devolution on some curious comments from representatives of the CBI, effectively ignoring the fact that the CBI itself has a regional structure and is organised on a regional basis. Its director general, Digby Jones, at a fringe meeting at the Labour party conference at which I was speaking, made it perfectly clear that the CBI strongly supports regional devolution.

The right hon. Gentleman then got into deep water by arguing that if about 25 per cent. of people voted in favour of a referendum, that was a technical basis for

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making that referendum valid—a point which his hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) effectively demolished. Finally, he was silent on the issue that he spent a lot of time raising in the House last week—the concept that the Government should hold referendums in every region on the same day. What happened to that policy? The right hon. Gentleman appears to have forgotten what he was arguing just last week. It is a typical case of the Opposition not knowing what they are doing.

Mr. Pickles: I know that time is getting on and that the right hon. Gentleman has stayed up late. However, may I politely remind him that I raised that matter about five minutes ago?

Mr. Raynsford: I remind the hon. Gentleman that I was referring to the right hon. Gentleman who leads for the Opposition.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), in a passionate speech, made it clear that we are considering one of the most important constitutional developments in our lifetime. He properly made a distinction between affection for historical county identities—in his case, he spoke about Lancashire—as against effective administrative structures. I strongly agree with his contributions.

Speaking for the Liberal Democrats in a thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) indicated his commitment to regional government and democratic accountability, and rightly criticised the Conservative Opposition for their opposition to extending democratic accountability. He believed that our proposals did not go far enough, and gave us an entertaining list of quangos that he would like to see abolished. He also asked a number of questions, not all of which I am able to answer this evening owing to lack of time. He asked specifically whether we would publish a draft Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. We are not necessarily opposed to that idea, but there are timetable issues that will determine whether that option is feasible. We will keep that under consideration.

The hon. Gentleman asked what research we had undertaken on the ballot question in clause 2, and whether we had used focus groups. We did not use focus groups. We tried to use common sense, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 gives a specific role to the Electoral Commission to test the intelligibility of questions. That is why we prepared a draft question and submitted it to the Electoral Commission, which has given its views. We will give those views careful consideration.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) announced at the start of his speech that he would not need 12 minutes to say what he had to say, although he ended up taking the full time to indicate that he was opposed to devolution and remained a fierce centralist. I differ with him wholeheartedly on that issue.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who passed me a note to apologise for the fact that he cannot be present for the winding-up speeches, in a speech full of graphic images made a case for regional devolution—even if he differed from the

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views contained in our Bill and our White Paper. He said that he thought the Bill was produced by people who water their red wine. That, I thought, was rather typical of the right hon. Gentleman. He might have suggested that it was a Bill produced by people who water the workers' beer, but there was no such image. Instead, he described it as a Xmewling and puking" measure. As my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman clearly started life on that basis.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): In the absence of my right hon. Friend, will the Minister explain to the people of North Yorkshire why, if they vote in favour of the retention of North Yorkshire county council, the rest of the people of Yorkshire should overrule them?

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman had been present throughout the debate, I might have had more sympathy for his intervention. [Hon. Members: XAnswer!"] I will deal with the question when responding to a North Yorkshire Member who raised questions during the debate and was present throughout the debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) questioned the existence of a north-west identity. He argued that no one can agree on boundaries because there are no natural boundaries. I disagree. I believe that we have a natural tendency to disagree about boundaries, whether they are at regional, county, constituency, local government or ward level, and such disputes rarely contribute to progress. We believe that we need to make progress on the Bill, and we do not want to be caught in a morass of boundary disputes.

My hon. Friend also argued that the electoral system would give a platform to extremist parties such as the British National party. The 5 per cent. threshold contained in the provisions, as in London, is an important safeguard against unrepresentative extremist parties gaining representation on a small percentage of the vote.

The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), in a nostalgic speech, celebrated the great municipal developments of the 19th century, but seemed a little less comfortable with the current manifestations of them on his own patch. On his point about a threshold, he will recall the unfortunate example of Scotland, where the existence of a threshold in the 1978 legislation resulted in the people of Scotland being denied an opportunity for devolution, even though a clear majority had voted in favour, thereby deferring the process of devolution for almost 20 years. I think that that is the strongest argument against thresholds.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby argued passionately about home rule for Yorkshire.

The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) characteristically saw a European plot behind our proposals. I can assure him that there is no such plot.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) believes that decisions can be more effectively made at a regional level. I agree wholeheartedly with him.

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The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) expressed concern about the powers available under our proposals, but supported the principle of regional assemblies. He was worried about the consequences of unitarisation of local government. I shall return to that issue in a moment.

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