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If destiny is at stake, why do the citizens of the rest of the United Kingdomthe south-west, the west midlands, East Anglianot have that sense of destiny being within their grasp? And if the assemblies are needed to control the quangos, why do those regions not suffer from the burdensome oppression to such an extent that they clamour for the assemblies that will introduce a democratic mandate and relieve them of that terrible weight?
Mr. Curry: I did not realise that there had been such an avalanche of responses from East Anglia. It clearly represents a proportion of the population that might in any other circumstances be regarded as de minimis. The Deputy Prime Minister, indeed, might regard it as derisory. If it were a turnout in the poll it would be so
The Deputy Prime Minister has drawn an analogy with Scotland and Wales. Scotland has legislative powers and a very expensive, and as yet unfinished, Parliament building. It controls health, education, a significant part of economic development, and rural policy. We see the divergences on either side of the border growing daily. I assume that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will shortly announce the way in which the single farm payment will work in England. It is entirely possible that Scotland will adopt a different route; we have already observed that Northern Ireland and Wales are likely to do so. We accept thatit is one of the consequences of devolutionbut it indicates that devolution is to a body with substantive powers that can actually be measured. Whether better welfare is delivered to Scotland or Wales is open to dispute, but the possibility is there.
The Welsh Assembly can at least decide on the manner of application of national legislation. English regional assemblies will have none of the abilities that I have mentioned. So how will this manifest destiny be fulfilled? I simply do not understand how that can be done by controlling the market town initiative, or advising the cultural consortium in Yorkshire and Humberside on how it should go about its business. We all agree that the regions need better, more integrated economic development; we all agree that they need to catch up; but the idea that that will be delivered by regional assemblies is surely part of a fantasy world.
The Deputy Prime Minister has done his best to inflate the importance of regional assemblies in his regional tours, in between having cheerful altercations with some of his colleagues. We are not yetalthough we seem to be not far from itat the stage where he is telling us that the assemblies can probably declare war. The actual role that emerges from the document is described almost invariably in the language of oversight, scrutiny, advice, request, consultation, influence, co-ordinationa permanent supplication for someone else's attention. When we look at them in detail, even the few identifiable powers are very circumscribed. Everywhere, the Government look over the assemblies' shoulder.
Let us take the regional development agencies. One of the principal arguments is that the powers now exercised by the RDAs and supervised by the government offices should fall to regional assemblies. The assemblies must have regard to Government guidance in preparing their strategies. The Government will retain powers to ensure that RDAs and the assemblies address national strategies. The assembly must consult the Government on regional economic strategy. The Government can require changes andthis is the real killerthe regional assembly must consult the Government on individual board appointments to the RDA. That is the dimension of the autonomy. The regional assembly cannot even make a single appointment to the board of an RDA without consulting the Governmentand that is supposed to be introducing some new democratic mandate.
It is the same story for transport. The regional assembly can advise. It has powers to make proposals. It can be consulted. The only clear competence appears to be responsibility for allocating the rail passenger partnership grant. Only in the housing sector is there a ghost of a role, in the allocation of support for capital investment.
The real question is: what is at stake? What is the elector going to choose between? Where will the political choices lie? How will voting make a difference? It is the oldest question in politics. Does it matter? What is at stake? Do things change as a result of the vote? How will candidates define themselves in terms of political choice, or choice in relation to issues? There is no answer to that. They will not be able to define themselves. People will not have a choice. We will end up with assembly members with no mandate, no definable constituency, no accountability and no role, permanently packing their bags for a journey they never make.
Those old stalwart watchers of the local government scene, George Jones of the London school of economics and John Stewart of Birmingham university, wrote in July 2002 at the time of the publication of the White Paper:
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman, having reminded himself of those remarks, would like to confirm that that is also his view. Was it not he on the Radio Four "Any Questions?" programme who said that if these bodies had more power, he would be more sympathetic?
Mr. Curry: If the bodies had significant power, at least there would be a sensible debate about how Britain was managed. I have said that repeatedly. What we do not have is a proposition, or any likely proposition, that is anything other than a token gesture to regional assemblies on the basis of an entirely false premise. So this debate is an entirely false one. People are being asked to vote for a pig in a poke that will not work. If I have to choose between that and devolving power closer to people in their own communities, giving them the ability to grasp real powers locally through representative government, I would make that choice. That is a better choice for the United Kingdom.
Mr. Curry: They may well do so, because as it stands they will have practically nothing to do. Goodness knows how many days a week they will actually sit, what they will find to do, or how they will earn their pay. But the question is: where will they look for those powers? They will absorb them from local government, and that tier of government will become more remote.
No one denies that the questions of political structures, of how we are governed and of how we secure regional economic development are vital ones, but the debate is still taking place through a glass darkly, even though the Government have the means to bring it into the open. The way to do so is to let us have real proposals soon, and the place to do so is in this House of Commons, where MPs are elected to real constituencies through real elections, in which real choices are placed in front of the electorate.
I note that the Opposition's motion calls for clearing up "confusion" about elected regional assemblies. However, the right hon. Gentleman's speech was the most confused that I have heard in my 30-plus years in the House of Commons. On the one hand, he said that the proposals were not clear enough, but he then picked out what he disagreed with and spelled out what he meant. What he really meant is not that the proposals are not clear, but that he does not agree with them. On the other hand, he said that he wants more powershe did not spell out what they werein order to carry out the promise that he has made for many years: a promise based on his belief in regional government, if it is "effective" regional government. I have read what he has said on the subject carefully, and perhaps I might refer to it.
I am not surprised that the Conservatives are confused, because when it comes to devolution, the right hon. Gentleman does not know whether he is coming or going, as he made clear in his contribution. His approach is confusing not only for him but for his colleagues, as we discovered during interventions on his speech. It was not clear whether he was asking for more powers, or whether he supported the proposal. We will discover the answer as the debate progresses, but his approach is certainly confusing for the country at large.
The right hon. Gentleman makes similar accusations against us, but he needs to make reasonably clear what his party stands for. If he wants to debate this issue, we need to know the essence of the difference between our two parties. In 1998, he told this House the following:
So despite the right hon. Gentleman's enthusiasm for the regions, it would seem that he wants to deny the people of the three northern regions the chance to vote for their own elected regional assembly and to take their own decisions. That is what this debate is about. Whatever we may say about the offer in terms of regional government, we are giving the people of the regions the chance to take a decision. The say is theirs, not ours. This is their chance to take a decision, just as the people of Wales, Scotland and London did. We are entitled to give the northern regions the same chance.