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5.35 pm

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham) (Con): I agree with one thing that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said—it is very difficult to make Whitehall let go of powers. Any optimism about being able to grab such powers in future is therefore utterly misplaced.

I must, however, challenge the hon. Gentleman's attempt to rewrite history in relation to the Conservative party, which is not, and never was, a stick-in-the-mud party. He will remember 1979 as well as I do. The start of Mrs. Thatcher's Government started the revival of the north—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends may laugh, but let me

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tell him that in my years of experience of this Government, the more noise Labour Members make, the weaker their case.

The revival of the north commenced as the old industries died and were replaced by the new industries that are benefiting the area today.

Mr. Jenkin: Did my hon. Friend read what the director of CBI North East, Steve Rankin, wrote in an open letter to the Deputy Prime Minister in The Journal? He said:

That past quarter of a century includes 18 years of Conservative government.

Mr. Atkinson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did read that, and it is completely true.

Mr. Neil Turner: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Atkinson: In a minute.

I remind the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that we introduced organisations such as the Tyne and Wear development corporation that were amazingly successful—one can see the results in the city of Newcastle today—and that we did it in the teeth of opposition from Labour Members, who believed that the old local government structure was the right way to deliver improvements in the north-east, and resisted our new, modern method, which was ultimately so successful. The conservatives with a small "c" are to be found on the Government Benches, not on these Benches.

Andy Burnham: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Atkinson: Not for the moment.

The more bluster that we hear from Government Front Benchers—today we heard some vintage bluster from the Deputy Prime Minister—the more we realise how weak is their case. The Deputy Prime Minister is in danger of presiding over another constitutional cock-up to follow the Lord Chancellor's dismissal on the back of an envelope, the muddle over the setting up of the supreme court and the muddle over House of Lords reform.

It all started in December 2002 with the first public consultation. Since then, we have had an Act of Parliament, a White Paper, regional roadshows, decisions on postal voting in the referendums, decisions about cash for the campaigns and the establishment of a boundary committee to consider how to dismantle the local government structures in, to cite my local area, Northumberland and County Durham. However, we have had no real meat in terms of details about the referendum vote in October. Having listened to the Deputy Prime Minister's speech—I shall read it very carefully in Hansard, although I imagine it will take a bit of editing—I am frankly none the wiser about what will be in the Bill in July and what will be voted on in October. Regional assemblies have been a live issue for

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so long that it is wrong that the public, who have to decide on the matter, have no idea where genuine power lies and how much power there will be.

If someone approached me and said that a major effort would be made to devolve powers from Whitehall to local levels, I, like many hon. Members, believe that we could have a sensible debate. However, that is not on offer. The Liberals, in their wonderfully optimistic way, appear to believe that once regional assemblies are in place, they will grab all sorts of powers, as if they would have the money and power to dual-carriage the A1 in Northumberland. They will not do that. We know perfectly well that the Home Secretary will not give up powers over the police and that the Secretary of State for Health will not put his job on the line when delivering targets to a regional government. Whitehall will not give such powers to regional assemblies.

The Deputy Prime Minister mentioned—if I understood him correctly—118 quangos in the north with 3,000 board members. He appeared to imply that regional assemblies would take power over them. Does that include national health service trusts? Will such matters form part of the so-called new regional assemblies' bailiwick? We called the debate because we wanted some information about what would be discussed and what we should campaign for between now and the autumn, when the referendum will take place. However, we are none the wiser.

The Deputy Prime Minister has travelled around the country making all sorts of promises. He hinted that regional assemblies would mean an end of the Barnett formula, which is amazingly controversial in the north-east of England because we feel that it discriminates unfairly against us. The right hon. Gentleman has therefore been whispering to people in the north-east, "'Ere mate, once you get this assembly, it'll be all right. We can scrap the Barnett formula." However, he will not say that north of the border; he had better not let Scottish Labour Members of Parliament know about it.

The Deputy Prime Minister has mentioned giving regional assemblies powers over the police. I have a letter from the North East assembly, which is called "The Voice for the Region" and is a prototype regional assembly. The letter gives a report of a meeting between the Deputy Prime Minister and business people. It states:

The right hon. Gentleman therefore tells local people things that he knows he will ultimately not implement because he will not have the power to do so.

The Deputy Prime Minister has also hinted that learning and skills councils will be organised on a regional basis. Our learning and skills council in Northumberland is effective and well run. We do not want to lose that local body and have it placed on a regional basis. It deals with problems in Northumberland that, in some ways, are different from those in other parts of the region. Some are unique to Northumberland.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) mentioned the letter that Steve Rankin, the director of CBI North East, sent to The Journal, which

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decently published it, because the Deputy Prime Minister failed to invite him to the business meeting and he believed that he had to respond.

Joyce Quin: The hon. Gentleman may be a little confused. Steve Rankin was present at the business meeting that the Deputy Prime Minister conducted in Newcastle two or three weeks ago, during which some members of the business community expressed strong support for regional government.

Mr. Atkinson: Perhaps the article is out of date. It states:

Perhaps Steve Rankin got an invitation as a result of the article. If it was lost in the post and he subsequently went to the meeting, I apologise. However, the article is sensible and it is worth quoting to show hon. Members the views of a leading member of the business community. It states:

That sums up the views of the business community. We have structures but no sensible powers for the direction of the regional assembly.

My last point is that the campaign for regional government is causing serious collateral damage to the region, because of uncertainty about the direction in which it will go and what powers it will have. All sorts of vested interests say that the north-east has real problems to which the solution is a regional assembly. Clearly, however, these talking shops will have little ability to solve our regional problems. We should be highlighting the positive aspects of the north-east region. Whatever Labour Members say, the days of coal, shipbuilding and heavy industry have gone, and we are building a new economy in the north-east based on many local businesses that have grown up, are successful and are becoming successful. We have important companies such as Northern Rock, Sage, and a well-known national baker, Greggs. We have universities, with more than 35,000 undergraduates and more people employed in academia in Newcastle than in shipyards.

The economy is therefore changing, but what we get is people highlighting the problems all the time. There is a campaign for the learning and skills council to be taken over because we have the worst record on skills, education and training in the country. As a result, the negative things about the region are highlighted all the time. What makes me angry is that those disadvantages, which we are struggling to overcome, are being highlighted on a false premise that the solution is to set up another talking shop—in our case, a 25-member assembly—which will have the powers to put that right, when we know perfectly well that it will not.

The people of the north-east are being conned—the regional assembly will not help them, it will not help to solve the problems of the region, it will cost them a considerable amount of money, it will change the local

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government structure in a damaging way, taking local decisions away from people, and it will provide no benefit in the long term to the economy of the region.

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