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The Deputy Prime Minister: Another dream.

Mr. Curry: Even at my age, I can think of more exciting dreams.

For the overwhelming majority of people in the three designated regions, the assemblies will mean a new layer of politicians, partly funded by the council tax. In the foreword to the White Paper, the Prime Minister wrote:


However, Unison apparently favours them, and Unison campaigning against bureaucracy seems implausible. The foreword continues:


The notion that the Government are streamlined is curious, but I am willing to be informed about that.

The Prime Minister has lost his bearings. In Yorkshire and Humber, the only two-tier area is North Yorkshire. That means that 90 per cent. of the people who live in Yorkshire and Humber already live under unitary councils. For them, a regional assembly is a new tier of government. There is no point in pretending otherwise. The Prime Minister may even have heard of Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Kirklees and Doncaster, some of the unitary councils that make up Yorkshire.

In the north-west, two thirds of the population live in the great metropolitan areas of Liverpool and Greater Manchester. For them, an assembly will mean another layer of politicians. In the north-east, about which the Prime Minister might be expected to have an inkling, two thirds of people already live in the unitary councils of Tyneside, Teesside and Wearside. For them, too, a regional assembly means an additional set of politicians.

What sort of politicians are we considering? They will be remote figures, elected by proportional representation. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister and I can agree on our dislike of proportional representation in general. I feel that his roots may be deep enough in old-fashioned Labour to be suspicious of that method of election. The politicians will be without constituency, mandate or identity. They will

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embark on a sort of Mary Celeste; on political ghost ships, condemned to sail the sea in a desperate hope of finding a port where they can finally be still.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Does the right hon. Gentleman believe that is better to have an elected extra layer of politicians or an unelected layer of bureaucrats?

Mr. Curry: If it is so important to bring the quangos under political control, why will only the people of the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humber enjoy the wonderful privilege of regional assemblies? Why have the Government not concluded that the quangos are so onerous and such an affliction that people should be relieved of them in the south-west, East Anglia, the west midlands and the east midlands? They have not done that and they cannot therefore be so worried about the burden of quangos. I suspect that the Deputy Prime Minister's valedictory vanity is determined to impose regional assemblies on parts of the United Kingdom.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree with me and, indeed, the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), who used to be the leader of Manchester city council, that the electoral system in the north-west is almost certain to allow a British National party representative on the regional government? Would that be a good advertisement for the region?

Mr. Curry: Whenever members of the BNP stand for election, it behoves everybody to look hard at what they are saying and to refute every single point that they make. Their campaigns are based very largely on lies and exaggerations, and nothing could be more dangerous than saying that we either ignore them or give them a breath of oxygen. I think that they should be given so much oxygen that they suffocate in their lies and misrepresentations.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): From our perspective in north Yorkshire, if we are to deal with parties such as the BNP, the way we do that is through all politicians calling for a maximum turnout in all elections. Will the right hon. Gentleman do so at the Dispatch Box, and ask everyone who can do so to participate in the referendums, too?

Mr. Curry: I am entirely happy to do that. All of us are concerned about the level of turnout in some elections and the disaffection with politics. That may be partly because people are fed up with the number of elections. It is crucial, however, especially in cases in which such an issue is at stake, that people express their point of view. Certainly, I want people to vote; I just want them to vote no, as a matter of fact.

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): On the question of the BNP, is it not the case that the only other political party, alongside the Conservative party, that opposes regional government is the BNP?

Mr. Curry: That is one of the daftest remarks that I have heard in this Parliament for a long time. It is not

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worthy of the hon. Gentleman. I will take no lessons from him in opposing the BNP or anyone who is fundamentally anti-democratic.

Mr. George Osborne: May I clarify the point that the no campaign in the north-west is the only campaign supported by Labour MPs, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives? It is an all-party campaign supported by all the parties in the north-west. What the hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was saying is therefore completely erroneous.

Mr. Curry: It is erroneous. It is true that the no campaign in the north-west has all-party support, and I believe that the Deputy Prime Minister had a little altercation with the former leader of Manchester city council when he was debating in that great city.

Mr. Edward Davey: First, I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on becoming a grandfather yesterday. Secondly, in relation to the previous intervention, I know from meetings at which I have been present how hard he and some of his colleagues are working against the BNP. That should be put on the record.

Mr. Curry: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, first, for the personal remark, and secondly, for the political remark. Both are matters of fact.

How will an assembly be financed? We know that it will be financed by Government grant and by a further raid on the council tax, or income tax if the Liberal Democrats were to have their way. We will have precepts for parishes, precepts for police, precepts for fire and rescue services, and precepts for regional assemblies. The public who, as we all know, are cheerfully happy to pay up the current levels of council tax imposed by the Government will get another little supplement to their council tax if they vote for these assemblies. At least with the fire and police services, people know what they are supposed to be there for.

What are the regional assemblies there for? The leaflets make them sound like powerhouses, yet how much public money do they control? It is about 2 per cent. of regional public spending. All this—with set-up costs and running costs of £30 million and £20 million a year—for sixpence in the pound. Will regions with an assembly be able to claim more money? Will they be able to change the balance of funding between the regions and parts of the United Kingdom? Will they be able to challenge—dare I say it?—the Barnett formula, because the Deputy Prime Minister has at least been giving the impression that if people vote for regional assemblies, there might be some rebalancing, to use the fashionable word, in relation to funding. I can find no evidence that that will be the case.

Will the assemblies bring power closer to the people? The answer is no. They are an out-of-date, bureaucratic, unimaginative idea. The political debate is about empowering people in their communities—the Prime Minister talks about giving them control of their lives. In this case, however, the Government seem to want to disarm the citizen, remove power from the community, and push power upward, not down. The local councils will go, and be replaced by PR politicians. How many will represent North Yorkshire? We might get two, and Northumberland will probably qualify for one.

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I should be interested to know what bets the Deputy Prime Minister would lay on the level of turnout in the second set of elections to regional assemblies, if they were ever to come about. I suspect that the turnout in the European elections will be positively euphoric by comparison. People are being sold an illusion rather than the reality.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I wonder whether the Conservative party will support my private Member's Bill, to be dealt with on 27 February? It proposes the setting of a 50 per cent. threshold for turnouts. If a turnout were below that, the referendum result would not be valid.

Mr. Curry: I did not know about the hon. Gentleman's Bill. I am usually deeply suspicious of private Members' Bills, but I feel a sudden warmth towards this one.

In his foreword to the White Paper, the Deputy Prime Minister wrote:


The idea that the assemblies, with their small raft of circumscribed powers, will take control of anyone's or anything's destiny is sheer fantasy.

We were told that the regional development agencies would close the gap between the regions. I recall the Minister for Sport and Tourism, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Central (Mr. Caborn)—who is present—saying at the Dispatch Box that if the RDAs did not close the economic gap between the regions, they would have failed. And have they? No, they have not. We know that they have not.


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