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Mr. Jenkin: Does the White Paper say that the Government offices will be handed over to regional assemblies? No, it does not.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The White Paper does not say that because Governments will want to keep their civil servants involved in such matters. [Interruption.] We are not declaring a federal state. The framework is for the United Kingdom, and constant discussion even goes on in Scotland, Wales and London. Even if more power or more resources are discussed, we are not developing a federal government. We are developing a United Kingdom framework in which there are English regions and states, which will have their own secretariat, power and resources.

Geraldine Smith: Will the Deputy Prime Minister give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I will not. I notice that when the Leader of the Opposition had his press conference, he had a load of bowler-hatted civil servants in the background to show that he wanted to get rid of bureaucracy. Well, he created most of it when he was in Government, and that is without mentioning the poll tax.

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

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have told her that I will not give way to her.

The Leader of the Opposition has made a point about the role of the state in his statements over the weekend, in his speeches about having a dream and in an article in the Yorkshire Post, in which he wrote:

He should know, because he was part of the Government who created most of it. Most of the quangos and the Government offices that are not

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democratically accountable were created by the Leader of the Opposition and the Government he belonged to. Now he has the cheek to tell the public that he will get rid of bureaucracy. What we want is more democracy and less bureaucracy. That is not confusing: that is our clear position.

Mr. Streeter: The Deputy Prime Minister has just told us that the new elected regional assemblies, if they ever come into existence, will not oversee the Government offices for the regions, so they will not deal with the democratic deficit. The people who will vote on elected regional assemblies later this year need to know what powers they will have over strategic transport, because that is an important issue.

The Deputy Prime Minister: That is an important point and I will come to it in a moment. I am not ducking it, because it is at the heart of the debate—as the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Just hang on a sec, because I want to finish this point. In the elected regional assemblies, the people will elect the politicians who will make the big strategic decisions that affect their lives. We do not doubt that strategic decisions will be made. I have given the House the headings of plans that are being made day in, day out. Politicians in the regions who are elected by the people should have the right to decide the issues that affect their people. That is a simple democratic principle.

Mr. Prentice: Will my right hon. Friend give way on that point?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Hang on, I shall give way in a minute to whoever it is—

Mr. Prentice: On that point—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The Deputy Prime Minister will give way when he is ready to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

The Deputy Prime Minister: Yes, I thought it was him. I have my friends: I have my enemies.

Look at the kind of decisions that the Mayor of London and the GLA make. I assume that the Conservatives do not propose to abolish the GLA. Our regions will have more powers than the GLA, as the Mayor has made clear on the issue of housing. He wants similar powers to those that we propose for the regions. The Conservatives have a candidate for Mayor, and as far as I am aware his manifesto does not suggest that the GLA should be abolished. If those powers are all right for London, why are they not all right for the northern regions? We would give them the same powers and resources and put them in the same situation.

The people in the north, where we will hold the three referendums, should have the same opportunity as the people in London. It is not my decision: if the people do not want an assembly, they will vote against it—[Hon.

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Members: "Yes, they will."] Well, we shall see. The Conservatives said that about Scotland, Wales and London. They used the same arguments, but in the end they had to crawl on board in agreement. Nor do they have the guts to abolish those devolved bodies. If such a system is all right for London, why is it not all right for the three northern regions? That is a simple enough question.

The House knows about the wide range of quangos that spend money in the regions. There are 180 in the three northern regions alone, at the last count—that is quite a few to look for—with more than 3,000 board members selected by civil servants. Elected regional assemblies will take power from central Government, not from local government, and they will give people a new political voice. Local authorities will continue to be responsible for local services. We are not making any changes to that situation. I notice that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that such powers should be exercised locally, which is a shifty little move away from regional government. Local government is the new locus that we talk about, and there is an argument for powers to be moved there. However, regions can make decisions that local authorities do not have the power to make, because they do not cover the whole area. That is why we end up with regional bodies. That is why we have regional civil servants, because local authorities cannot make such decisions on their own. They do not have the resources or the powers to operate outside their boundaries, and that is why we inevitably end up with a regional dimension.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Is my right hon. Friend ready to give way?

The Deputy Prime Minister indicated assent.

Mr. Prentice: The turnout in London was 36 per cent. It was 51 per cent. in Wales and in Scotland it was higher, at 60 per cent. Are there any circumstances in which the Government would set aside the result of the referendum in the northern regions because the turnout was widely regarded as derisory?

The Deputy Prime Minister: There are no such circumstances. The only time the House did that was at the time of the Scottish devolution Bill, under the Cunningham amendment, and it was absolutely disastrous. There is no doubt that when people had the chance to vote, they voted overwhelmingly for Scottish devolution. However, my hon. Friend makes a good point about the number of people who participate and that should be of concern to the whole House. That is why we want postal balloting.

Everyone knows from the evidence of the pilots that where there is a postal ballot more people turn out. Sometimes the turnout is as much as 50 per cent., which is very high. Those who say that people do not vote because they are uninterested in politics have to answer this question: why does turnout almost double, with increases of as much as 50 per cent., as soon as we change the voting method? That suggests that the answer is making the voting system more acceptable to the electorate—although not necessarily the politics.

Mr. George Osborne: Last year, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire said

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that if the turnout in the referendum was derisory he would set aside the result. The Deputy Prime Minister seems to be contradicting him. Can he explain that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sorry, I did not pick up that point, so I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a proper answer. In principle, as I was explaining to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), we are not planning to include a condition on the proportion—[Interruption.] I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire will be able to reply to the point when he sums up the debate.

Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston) (Lab/Co-op): If there was a threshold below which the result would not be accepted, would not that give the antis a deliberate tactic to persuade people not to vote? If more people voted, turnout would go above the threshold and the antis would lose the vote.

The Deputy Prime Minister : My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. George Cunningham's amendment was designed primarily to do that—it was an obstacle to deny the people of Scotland the chance to make a decision that the House would then make for them. People who suggest such provisions are usually against things, as I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) would agree—he comes from the same stable.

On 18 December last year, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon told the House that the assemblies would be able to do practically nothing and he confirmed that in his speech today. However, at the weekend, the Leader of the Opposition, in one of his "dream" speeches said:

Who is right? I wish that the Opposition would make up their mind. Will the assemblies make crucial decisions, or not? Will they be talking shops, or will they actually make decisions? The members of the dream team on the Opposition Front Bench should get together and work out the answer, because they are causing an awful lot of confusion.

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