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5.46 pm

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan) (Lab): It is a sad fact that the more the Conservatives talk of freedoms for local government and so on, the more they oppose those freedoms. We saw that in their opposition to this devolution of powers, and we saw it in the powers that they took away from local government when they were in office. We saw it in their opposition to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the London Assembly and even foundation hospitals. Now we see it in their opposition to regional assemblies.

The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) commented on the regional development agencies and why they were opposed by people in the north-east and the north-west. We did not oppose the idea of regional development agencies; we opposed the fact that they were not accountable to anyone in the regions in which they were set up. The whole argument about regional assemblies relates to the democratic deficit and the need to provide accountability.

Mr. Atkinson: I want to make it clear that I was talking not about the regional development agencies but about the regional development corporations, which were slightly different.

Mr. Turner: I agree, but that reinforces the point, because the regional development corporations were much less accountable than the regional development agencies, which at least have some accountability to the regional assemblies that were appointed.

This country's constitution is an unwritten one. One of the great benefits of that is that incremental changes can be made to it on a basis that suits the changing needs and requirements of society. I therefore welcome the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals to allow additional powers, and I hope that the eventual Bill will include a clause that will give the Deputy Prime Minister, or whoever is the Secretary of State at the time, the ability to devolve more and more powers down from central government to regional assemblies. What we should be doing is making sure that we can prove that the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber can make a success of their powers and can move forward to gather more powers as they are more successful.

The motion shows not just that the Conservatives are opposed to regional assemblies but how old-fashioned their thinking is. They are living in a time warp in terms of the way in which powers are looked at. They seem to think that powers are as they were previously, when there was no crossover or connection between various organisations and local authorities, and no co-operation. That is not the case. The whole point about our excellent councils is that they do cross over with and talk to other organisations, both within the council and outside, which makes them much more effective. The

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world has moved on, and the regional assemblies will be able to be much more co-operative and partnership-orientated than they would have been in the past.

Mr. Edward Davey: The motion does not say that the Conservative party opposes elected regional assemblies—mainly because its Front Benchers are confused about their position.

Mr. Turner: That may well be true, but no one would think, having listened to the speeches we have heard, that the Conservatives were other than opposed to the idea. Certainly all the Conservative Members from whom I have heard have been campaigning for a no vote, at least in the north-west.

Strategic bodies such as regional assemblies must consider local needs. As the White Paper says, they must take account of planning, housing, transport and so forth. That does not subvert the role of local authorities; it enhances it. Just before Christmas, I received information from the Government office for the north-west about the capital programme for council housing allocations. I do not think decisions like that should be made by bureaucratic organisations such as the Government office. I think they should be made by a body that is accountable to people in the north-west.

The point about the Government office in the north-west is not just that it is not accountable to those people. It is, in fact, accountable to Whitehall—to civil servants who are answerable to Ministers. That removes it a step further. Bureaucrats who have no idea of the difference between Wigan and Wigton, or between Stockport and Southport, are making decisions about the north-west. A regional assembly that is rooted in the north-west will understand its problems, and will be able to make decisions about priorities.

It would be wrong of me to suggest that I do not want more powers for the regional assemblies. I think that virtually everyone who supports the principle of regional government wants them to have more powers. Nevertheless, I think that we in the north-west should prove that we can make a success of things before earning those extra powers. Powers in themselves are not necessarily the important, defining issue. Manchester city council, for instance, failed in its bid for the Olympic games and was understandably dismayed, but not disheartened. It learned from its failure, realised where it had gone wrong, and made a successful bid for the 2002 Commonwealth games.

Manchester has no more powers than any other unitary district council, and has fewer resources than some. It looked beyond its own boundaries: it presented other members of the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities, businesses, universities and voluntary bodies with its hugely successful plan for the Commonwealth games. In that instance, it was not power but vision that was important. The council's determination to work with all its partners made the games a success.

I believe that there will be a yes vote in the north-west, for a number of reasons. We are proud of our history. Our region was the birthplace of the industrial revolution, which shows that we have the ability and the skills to ensure that we are part of the new economies.

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We are proud of our cities. Manchester is a hugely developing city. It is regenerating itself. Liverpool is to be European city of culture. We are hugely proud of that and of the way in which it has gone from the devastation caused in the 1970s and 1980s to the kind of city that it is now.

We have vitality. The north-west's music industry is tremendous. The arts in the north-west are bursting with vitality. We have the capacity and capability to ensure that our world-class universities, businesses, entrepreneurs and work force become leaders of the new economy, just as we were the leaders of the old economy.

More importantly, in the north-west, we have a vision. We know where we want to go. We have the determination to make that vision a reality. More importantly still, we have the confidence to ensure that we forge our future in the north-west and make it a place in which children will be proud to be brought up. The best way of achieving that is to ensure that we have the capacity and ability, through the structures of the north-west—the regional assembly—to turn that into reality.

5.56 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): This has been an interesting debate, not least because the interventions by the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) on the Deputy Prime Minister showed that it is not a party political debate, as Government Front Benchers would have us believe. In the north-west last summer, I got together with the hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and other Labour Members to create a no campaign. Indeed, we got together with the Labour leader of Lancashire county council and other local authority leaders from the Labour party. The reason we were able to create a broad coalition, which has not been replicated on the yes side to any degree, is that people have a number of concerns about regional government in the north-west.

Some, like me, I fully confess, are against regional government. I represent a county seat in Cheshire. We do not want Cheshire to be abolished. We do not want its identity to be abolished. We do not want decisions to be taken away from the rural community in Cheshire and taken into metropolitan areas. However, the reason why the hon. Members for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East and for Manchester, Blackley object to the proposal is that they want to see a city government form of region for Liverpool and Manchester respectively. Indeed, some people have joined our campaign because they do not think enough powers are being devolved.

Mr. Dawson: Can the hon. Gentleman please explain to me, as one Member from a rural constituency to another Member from a rural constituency, what the particular advantages of city government for Liverpool and Manchester would be for the people whom we represent?

Mr. Osborne: With the greatest respect, it is of no great interest to my constituents how Manchester or Liverpool govern themselves. That is an issue for the people of Manchester and Liverpool and their representatives, not an issue for the people of Cheshire.

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We have come together, as a broad no coalition that is relatively well funded and organised at this early stage, to oppose the Government's plans and the yes campaign. We were prepared to have an argy-bargy with the yes campaign and to trade literature with it. We were less prepared for the extraordinary Government propaganda campaign that has started, funded of course by the taxpayer.

The campaign is exemplified by the leaflet that I have here, and I believe that similar leaflets have gone out in other northern regions. It is called "A new opportunity for the North West" and was sent to me by the director of the regional government office. It purports to be an information leaflet but it is the most biased, one-sided piece of propaganda that has been produced by a Government Department in living memory. It is extraordinary.

The picture on the front cover is of four people in Blackpool. There are two rather surly looking men with hats on with their thumbs down and two smiling young ladies with their thumbs up. That sets the tone for the argument throughout the rest of the leaflet.

For example, there is a section on a new form of government. It says:

Excuse me, but I thought that our region did have a voice—through its Members of Parliament. I am bound to say that the vast majority of those Members are Labour Members, but if the Government do not think that that has resulted in the north-west's having a strong voice in Parliament, I suggest that the problem lies within the Labour party and its Members of Parliament. I feel, as do other Conservative MPs, that we provide a strong voice for the north-west in Parliament, and I know that the Labour MPs involved in our campaign feel that they can do the same.

The leaflet continues by stating that a regional assembly would

That strikes me as very interesting. How can a regional assembly be more inclusive? Under the Government's proposals, Cheshire could have just two representatives, each of whom would represent 300,000 people. In the process, the Government could abolish a system that involves 50 councillors. How can it possibly be more inclusive to have two representatives representing a third of a million people each?

The leaflet continues:

I agree, but that accountability comes through the Minister. The Minister—like the Deputy Prime Minister and all Ministers who sit on the Government Front Bench—is responsible for such matters. They are accountable because they are elected through the House of Commons at general elections. That is accountability. It is just wrong to say that there is no accountability for regional organisations. Such accountability flows through Ministers, in the way it has traditionally done.

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The leaflet also sets out some of the functions of a regional assembly. Such functions are at the heart of the reason why we have initiated this debate, because many of them remain opaque. However, let us see what the Government say those functions will be:

Of course I want the north-west's economy to be developed, but I do not see how having a regional talking shop will do that, and nor, indeed, do any of the regional business organisations. That is why the regional CBI has opposed it and the chambers of commerce have opposed it. [Interruption.] It is clear that there is doubt among Labour Members, so let me tell them what the Warrington chamber of commerce, in partnership with the North Cheshire, Wirral and North Wales chambers of commerce, said. They advise the Government

Overseeing skills will be another function of the elected assembly. I have done some research, and the results were quite interesting. The Deputy Prime Minister had a meeting with the yes campaign in the north-west in December. Unfortunately, the minutes of that meeting were leaked. They record the following:

What a surprise.

I was a little surprised by the argument advanced by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) and for Wigan (Mr. Turner). In essence, the hon. Member for Wigan conceded that very few powers are currently being given to regional assemblies, but he said that we could build on them and thereby get a foot in the door. If he seriously thinks that Whitehall is going to concede more powers to regional assemblies over time, I am afraid that he is mistaken. That is not the way Whitehall works. What will happen, of course, is that the powers will be sucked up from local government as regional government establishes itself. I offer the hon. Gentleman some candid advice. If he wants to argue the case for more powers for his regional government, he should do so now—before the referendum and before the Bill—so that he can establish them now. There is no sign that Whitehall departments are going to concede those powers.

The leaflet says that housing, planning and fire and rescue services would also be the responsibility of regional government. Local government currently holds most of those powers, so this is not devolution but sucking power up. Fire services in Cheshire are currently organised by the Cheshire fire authority. Under these proposals, the powers will be sucked up into a regional assembly. There are also powers over public health, culture, tourism and sport, and the environment.

Anyone reading the leaflet would assume that the implication is that the regional assembly will have lots of money to spend on sports facilities, cleaning up the environment, health services and so on. Of course, that

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is not the case. There will be no more than a power to sit on consortiums and forums, to issue consultation papers and strategies and to be consulted and consult. This will not be about spending real money on real things, which is what people would expect and what, if they read this leaflet, they would be led to believe.

Lord Rooker gave the game away last year in the other place. On 28 April, he said there would be no new powers and no new money for regional government. That is the truth. What there will be, of course, are extra costs.

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