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Mr. Davey: I will name them. A gentleman called Denis Whelan wrote a policy brief for the Bow Group in May 2002 called "Devolution All Round: A Manifesto for 2005", which makes interesting reading. Its executive summary says:

So some people in the Conservative party are, like the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, genuinely trying to engage in the debate. The document from the Bow Group is interesting because it suggests devolving powers to the regions on transport, and even says that policing powers could be devolved to the regional level.

Mr. Jenkin: Does the hon. Gentleman not think that Sir Cyril Smith, who is supporting the no campaign in the north-west, is a rather better known figure and therefore carries more weight?

Mr. Davey: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman now approves of my former hon. Friend, who is a powerful exponent of many views. The problem that the hon. Gentleman has is that his boss does not agree with him. We on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench and in the parliamentary party are united. The Tories are totally divided on the issue, and that is why they take such an incoherent position.

This has been an interesting debate. We have seen how utterly confused the Conservatives are; they cannot tell us which powers they want to devolve, whether they want to devolve them, or what their strategy is. The Government have shown that they are still thinking, which is very welcome. They should be open-minded. The debate has misfired from the Conservatives' point of view because it has given the Government a chance to show that they are open-minded and thinking. It has

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given hon. Members on both sides of the House a chance to encourage the Government to think more widely and to go for outright regional devolution. If they do so, their chance of winning the yes vote next October will increase massively. All power to the Government's elbow—they should go much further, and then we can really devolve power in this country.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I must remind the House that Mr. Speaker has imposed a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.25 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) (Lab): I start by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who not only made a powerful speech in favour of regional government, but has pursued the issue vigorously since the 1970s and is now—I hope—bringing it to fruition. I congratulate him on that; it is a major contribution.

I am concerned about the mass of quibbles that were the only arguments that the Conservative Opposition could mobilise against the proposals. I thought that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was going to bring a new decisiveness to the Opposition, but all he has done is quake more vigorously than the old Opposition. Essentially, all his points were quibbles. He said that there would be more politicians—if they were like him, that would be a bad thing. Politics is about politicians. This country has fewer politicians per capita than any other system, particularly the federal systems of Australia, Canada and Germany. We need a useful training ground for politicians, and local councils that are in tight chains and controlled from London cannot provide it.

The right hon. Gentleman said that the proposed system would cost more. Democracy does cost; that is an unfortunate fact about it. It is more expensive than a dictatorship or allowing bureaucracy to make decisions. We are about making institutions and bureaucracy that already exist accountable to the people. I therefore cannot understand the Opposition's quibbling nature. Let us have something clear-cut. They are either for the proposal or against it—not on the one hand possibly and on the other perhaps, with no decision.

I am a passionate advocate of regional government. The politics of government of this country has been dominated for far too long by London, and local government has been transformed into a system of transporting begging bowls by train or plane up and down the country—begging for decisions that should be made locally to be made out of London. The great wen has become more and more dominant in our lives, and it is right to give more powers, institutions and accountability to the regions, so that local people can control matters locally and Government can be made accountable. We should bring democracy closer to the people. There is a craving in modern society to be listened to, and the proposal is a way of satisfying that craving.

Increasingly, there is a regional basis to modern life. One has only to consider the M62, which in a sense is the village street of the new north. It unites the social,

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business and cultural capitals of the area into one developing corridor. Life is no longer lived locally: people travel further to work; they travel from Grimsby to Hull and Sheffield to go to the theatre; they travel all the way to Hull, Sheffield and Huddersfield to go to university; and they shop at Meadowhall. Nowadays, great regional shopping centres are an important basis of life—in the north-east, people shop at the Metro centre. It is right to recognise that, increasingly, we live on a regional basis. Regional institutions alone can manage a big enough framework, have the authority to make a difference to people's lives, and give us effective accountability and controls. We should therefore pass functions down from London to them, and make those functions more accountable to the people of the area.

I am glad that throughout the north people are working together on this issue, because that is the part of the country that I come from and am proud of. However, it has been badly treated by successive Governments, so we should give it a voice. We get a bad deal in the north and receive less public spending per capita than any other part of the country. London gets all the big spending projects, such as the Olympics and the dome—it is welcome to the latter. We have suffered far more grievous blows from the decline of our basic industries than the south has, and we have higher unemployment, and lower levels of investment, education, skills and training. All those issues have to be tackled. We need a platform from which to fight back and address the north's demands and needs.

We have seen what synergy has produced in Scotland, where the regional development agency is powered by democracy in the form of the Scottish Parliament. We need and want such development in the north, because we have seen the beneficial effects in Scotland. Given those genuine demands, the Tory position is pathetic. It is rather like the old Mort Sahl joke from the 1950s—old Republicans and, perhaps, old Conservatives believe that nothing should ever be done for the first time, whereas modern Republicans and, presumably, modern Conservatives, believe that it should be done, but not now. That stems from fear, and the Tories have a history of such behaviour—they opposed the Scottish Development Agency, Scottish devolution, Welsh devolution, the London assembly and the Mayor. They oppose the introduction of such measures, then quickly accept them. They will do exactly the same with regional government for the north, unless the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon wants to tell us that they will abolish the London assembly, devolution in Scotland and Wales, the Scottish Development Agency and regional development agencies. As he does not want to do so, the same difficult learning process—the Opposition are the SEN material whom we have to teach—will take place on regional government.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon said that he might support regional government if it had more power to make a difference. His constituency predecessor, Mr. Watson, echoed that argument in the no campaign in Yorkshire. They say that they would support regional government if it had more powers, but I do not believe that they would. Regional government should have more power, but do they not accept that there is a case for creating regional government to which we can attach more powers as it proves itself, as the

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people accept it and as it creates a useful role for itself? We must build the base before we can concede those powers, and that is what the Government propose to do.

Mr. George Osborne : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell : No, time is pressing, as it is for other speakers.

I am in favour of the Government's proposals, as I believe that the north needs the same powers as Scotland. I believe that we should have powers over the police, the health service, education, and learning and skills, and I should like to see the introduction of a regional tax component. I admit that that is the ultimate aim, but we must start to build the structures before we move towards a larger perspective. If the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon would support regional government with more powers, I do not understand why he is not participating in the consultation that the Government and Labour Members are holding on the powers of regional assemblies. I believe that the most convenient consultation for him is in Calderdale, and I would welcome him there. I shall hold a similar consultation in Grimsby, where he would also be welcome. He could come along and tell us what the powers should be. That would be a useful contribution to the debate, in contrast to his extensive quibbles this afternoon.

It is sensible to have regional government and to let the north lead the way, because it is an area where all three entities have a sense of regional identity and pride—perhaps not as strong overall as it is in the Geordie nation, although Yorkshire is a pretty proud county. If we are allowed to lead the way, we will set an example that the east midlands and west midlands will want to follow, and so it will spread down the country—development that progresses from north to south instead of being imposed from south to north.

The process will not be easy, because it is difficult to break Whitehall's grip on anything, or to get Departments and civil servants to transfer out of London to bring jobs to the regions. Nevertheless, we have to make the attempt, because the north needs that stimulus and those powers. This provides a platform on which to fight back. On that basis, I say more power to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and more power to the assemblies—let us support them and tell our people about the advantages that they will bring.

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