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[5th Allotted Day—First Part]

Regional Assemblies

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): We now come to the fifth allotted Opposition day. Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

4.1 pm

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): I beg to move,

The motion sets out a simple proposition—when there is a decision to be made about the way in which we are governed, the debate ought to take place on the basis of a clear indication of what is at stake; the time scale; and the powers of the institution that we are debating. That will enable debate to be clear, above board, transparent and honest. The way to achieve that is to publish legislation as early as possible. In the course of debate in the House, legislation is amended, but those amendments are themselves subject to detailed scrutiny and analysis.

At the moment, there are proposals for regional assemblies, and there is a great deal of activity in pursuit of the case for or against them. However, we still do not have proposals about what the assemblies will actually do. If the powers of the proposed regional assemblies are to be closely based on the contents of the White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice", it is difficult to see why the legislative propositions cannot be published at an early stage. If the powers are to differ substantially from that outline, the need for legislation is even more urgent, as our debate would be based on a false premise.

We may have the proposals in July, hard against the summer recess. All Governments are desperate to get their business finished before the recess. There is not exactly a panic, but there is an urgency to getting business done. We come back for some slightly token sittings in September, which tend to be taken up with statements and other matters, before going into the party conference season. The referendums are supposed to take place at the end of October or in November, so there is a genuine danger that those legislative proposals will not receive effective debate in the House before people vote.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab): Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that in certain circumstances, if he had the right information, he would be minded to support elected regional assemblies?

Mr. Curry: Until I have the right information it is premature even to ask such a question, because there is

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no basis on which I can come to a conclusion. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's is likely to be no, because I cannot conceive of circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to concede to any regional assemblies the powers that would make debate worth while.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): Can the right hon. Gentleman tell the House what powers would need to be devolved to win his support for elected regional assemblies?

Mr. Curry: No, I am going to tell the hon. Gentleman what the Government need to spell out so that people can have a debate about their proposals. I believe that that there is very good answer to the problem—pass power down to the people. Indeed, I thought that nowadays the whole political tenor was about the new localism, empowering communities and pushing power down to the people, not pushing power up to a new tier of politicians—for which the demand in my constituency, and I suspect in others, is difficult to detect.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): In the past, before the right hon. Gentleman took on his current responsibilities, the Conservatives were very much opposed to regional assemblies. Is he saying that he is now open-minded on the subject because he is waiting for further information?

Mr. Curry: I want information because a debate is taking place. The Government are spending public money on inciting people to vote in referendums, and it is a good idea that they should know what they are voting about—although I realise that the Government may find that a sophisticated concept. The Government initiated the process that leads to referendums on the basis of the most derisive show of interest imaginable—in Yorkshire, about 1,200 favourable responses from a population of 5 million were interpreted as enthusiasm for a referendum. The Deputy Prime Minister issued his blatantly biased "thumbs up, thumbs down" leaflets, with the whole argument skewed in favour of one side—that campaign cost £500,000 of public money—and toured the regions setting out the Government's position in a series of one-sided debates organised by the Government offices for the regions.

The boundary committee set out preliminary suggestions for local government reorganisation in the two-tier areas, with some extremely curious anomalies. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, because it is close to home for him, it recommended a merger between the authorities of East Yorkshire and Selby—but Selby is part of North Yorkshire, which is two-tier, and East Yorkshire is unitary. So in Selby, people will have a referendum on whether they wish to join East Yorkshire, but those in East Yorkshire will not have a referendum on whether they wish Selby to join it. That is entirely anomalous; the proposals are riddled with such anomalies.

Yes and no campaigns have been established in each region. The yes campaigns, at least, have the cash to set up offices and to hire staff. The Government overruled the advice of their own Electoral Commission and

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ordered postal ballots in the local and European elections in June in two regions where they were specifically advised not to do so—Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. The commission said that the right conditions existed in the north-east and the east midlands, but recommended against in Yorkshire and Humberside and the north-west. This is clearly a dry run to whip up a vote in the referendum.

A debate is under way, although I do not think that it is a subject of everyday conversation among the crowds at Gallowgate or the Stadium of Light.

James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab): Does the right hon. Gentleman support regional government for London, and if so, why is it not good enough for the north-west and Yorkshire?

Mr. Curry: We would not have set up regional government for London. The taxpayers who now face Mr. Livingstone's precept will be interested to find out whether the Minister for Local Government is going to cap Mr. Livingstone—after all, he has threatened to cap councils with a precept lower than the one Mr. Livingstone is talking about. Few people would think that the government of London is such a riotous success that it needs to be emulated in other parts of the country.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): Is the right hon. Gentleman telling us that if the Conservatives ever got into power they would abolish the Greater London authority?

Mr. Curry: The question was: would we have set it up? The answer is no. We will make our position clear when it comes to the election.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): Surely the point that my right hon. Friend is making is that if we are to have referendums, the people must be able to base their decision on the full facts. That should have applied four years ago in London, and it must apply in all the other regions if we are to have meaningful referendums that allow the people to have their say.

Mr. Curry: It may be worth pointing out that the turnouts achieved in the referendums—even in London—are not such as to suggest that the people have overwhelming confidence in what they are being asked to vote about.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk) (Con): My right hon. Friend speaks of the numbers involved in turnouts. Does he think that the lack of interest in the whole issue of regional government in, say, East Anglia, shows that people do not want an extra layer of government, do not want to know anything about regions, and think that this idea was dreamed up by a Government who have themselves created a democratic deficit?

Mr. Curry: In my surgeries, I have not been overwhelmed by people making spontaneous demands

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for regional government. The idea has been dreamed up by the Deputy Prime Minister. The Prime Minister's enthusiasm for the process is palpably weak.

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott): I have a dream.

Mr. Curry: I am glad the right hon. Gentleman has a dream. We are all entitled to our dreams, but the Prime Minister gives the impression that his enthusiasm is kept strictly under control as part of the process of sharing the Deputy Prime Minister's dream.

The common thread is that a debate is under way. However, the only place where there is no debate is Parliament. The debate will be without purpose until we know what the assemblies are going to do. It is a sort of blind date without Cilla Black.

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