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Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Curry: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if people should have a choice on a matter so relatively small as the regional assemblies, the country ought to be given a choice in respect of a new European constitution?

The Deputy Prime Minister: One can deploy that argument, and it has been deployed here before. We are prepared to have referendums—

Geraldine Smith: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: May I reply to this point first? We are prepared to have referendums in respect of certain constitutional changes. We have made it clear that we think that the changes to regional government

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are necessary, and we will give a referendum. The idea is well established in Scotland, Wales and London, and it is exactly what we have to do for the English regions. I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith).

Geraldine Smith: The Deputy Prime Minister talks about giving the people of the north-west a choice. Yet only 2,900 replies were received from the whole north-west to the document people were asked to respond to. I carried out my own consultation on antisocial behaviour in my constituency and got 4,500 responses. If he can get only 2,900 from the whole north-west, is it not clear that there is no demand from the public for regional government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, it certainly is not. There were 2,900 responses, but many of them represented petitions, and the total number involved was 50,000 throughout three areas. I have heard people in the House claiming authority for polls conducted on just 500 people. I am glad my hon. Friend had 4,500 replies to her antisocial behaviour survey, but since she is keen on manifesto proposals, particularly on the top-ups, I have to point out that this was a manifesto proposal, too. I hope on that basis that she will join me in this debate.

Geraldine Smith: Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No. Sit down, and let me get on with it.

Geraldine Smith: On that point.

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I have given way. [Interruption.] Yes, I am.

We are saying that we should give the people in the three regions the opportunity to have a debate.

The Opposition have changed their mind so often on devolved government that we are all confused about where they stand. Let me remind the House that the previous Tory Government scrapped elected government for London, the old Greater London council. They did not consult or ask; they just nationalised it and took it over. It was the Conservative party—

Several hon. Members rose—

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is a bit of a record, but let me just get through this.

The Conservative party fought devolution for Scotland and for Wales every step of the way. Now, it seems, they support Welsh devolution and Scottish devolution, and they have a candidate fighting to be Mayor of London, so I assume they are not going to abolish the Greater London authority. If devolved—

Mr. George Osborne : Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Give me a second.

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If devolved government is good enough for the 15 million people who live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, it is surely good enough for the 2.5 million people who live in the north-east, the 5 million in Yorkshire and Humberside and the nearly 7 million in the north-west. The Conservative policy is confused and inconsistent.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): What we are interested in knowing is what powers the assemblies will have. The right hon. Gentleman said, for example, when he toured the north-east, that police would be taken under the control of the regional authorities, but that has been denied by other parts of the Government. What is the answer?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is not true. We are not putting police under regional assemblies. What we have said is that the Home Secretary is talking about having bigger police authorities because some of them are too small. There is a regional dimension, and decisions may be faced eventually, but that is not the position at the moment.

The nine English regional development agencies have been a great success.

Mr. Streeter : What?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Well, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon has congratulated the Yorkshire agency on doing well, which might interest the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) who seems to be contesting that, too.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon can see that after three or four years of operation, the RDAs have been successful in the short term. I ask him to consider how much they reduce regional differentials. In the 1970s, we established the Scottish Development Agency, which was opposed by the Tories until they eventually came round to accepting it. The differential between the Scottish economy and those of a number of English regions has been reduced purely because—certainly, it has been an important factor—of the development agency. The Tories will keep the agency in Scotland, and they will keep one in Wales. I assume that they will keep one for London. So what is their position on RDAs? Let me quote their manifesto:


Is that still the position? They will not do that in Scotland, where they will keep a development agency. They are keeping an agency for Wales. It is only the English regions that will have their development agencies abolished. Where is the logic in that? The question is quite clear; it is not confusing. Either they do it or they do not.

I want to know exactly where they stand. Last October, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) said that his party no longer favoured outright abolition of the RDAs, but that he wanted to "engage" with them. That is an interesting point. Does the hon. Gentleman want to keep them, get rid of them or "engage" with them, or what? There is a clear position on the Labour Benches:

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we will keep the development agencies because they can play a major part in reducing differentials between economies.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): If devolution for Scotland has removed the economic differential between Scotland and England, what is the argument for maintaining the Barnett formula?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman has raised the Barnett formula, so we can talk about financing. All sorts of assessments are constantly made about the financial arrangements between nations and regions, and the argument continues. If this debate were to occur in the northern regions, the Barnett formula would certainly come up because people think that it is unfair. If one examines departmental distributions and the new deal and housing programmes, however, it is not as unfair as people think.

My Department must examine the balance between the Government's contribution and a council's contributions to council tax. We constantly review all sorts of financial arrangements—indeed, the Liberal party proposes the introduction of a regional tax. The Government are constantly examining the situation and are obliged to distribute resources fairly between nations and regions. That approach is right and it will continue.

The Opposition were against the local authority-led regional chamber of assemblies, which has an important role in planning and scrutinising the regional development agencies, and proposed to abolish it. Indeed, more than 150 Conservative councillors are members of the regional chambers. However, the chairmen of the board in the South East England regional assembly and the South West regional assembly are Tories elected by majority Tory councils. It is difficult to listen to Conservative Front Benchers say that they will not co-operate. Have they agreed that the assemblies will be abolished? The Conservative party has promised to abolish them and we want to know its position because it seems confused.

The previous Government created the Government offices for the regions. When the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to quangos, I presume that he did not mean that the Government offices for the regions are quangos. The Government offices for the regions contain civil servants from different Departments and must make decisions about many things. When the Government appointed the Government offices for the regions in 1994, they recognised the need to have a regional dimension to Government decision making—they were right and I fully supported them. The trouble is that they did not add democratic accountability and the offices remained part of the civil service.

Under its previous leader, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith), the Conservative party wanted to abolish the Government offices for the regions, but he found that he was abolished before it could be done—now he is reduced to strutting the boards of empty theatres while his replacement dreams on.

I remind the House that in 1974 the Opposition created the metropolitan county councils of Merseyside, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear,

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West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire and that they went on to create the counties of Cleveland, Humberside, Avon and Berkshire—they abolished them when they came back into government, which was confusing. A lot of trouble would have been avoided if they had consulted people first and got the right answer rather than setting them up and then abolishing them. No wonder there is confusion in the Conservative party.

The little known fact is that we have regional government in this country today—it is there; it is operating. It was established by a Conservative Government in 1994, and I was fully supportive of it. The Government offices for the regions develop strategies to deal with economics, planning, transport, culture, housing, sustainable development, waste, rural action, skills, employment and skills and the European programme. Those strategies are decided by civil servants in our regions without any democratic accountability. We will not set up talking shops to discuss strategies because they already exist. The problem is that people in the regions are not co-ordinating such strategies or getting them working. We have regional government; we do not have democratic accountability.


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