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Mr. Jenkin: Is my hon. Friend telling me that Lord Rooker's comments about no new powers and no new money have not gone into the leaflet given to the general public? Is that not an extraordinary omission from what is supposed to be a piece of Government information that dispassionately explains the facts?
Mr. Osborne: My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I have read the leaflet from cover to cover and back again, and, for some reason, nowhere in it are Lord Rooker's comments to be found. Then again, nor do certain comments made by the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire appear in it. There is nothing on the turnout issue, on which I pressed the Deputy Prime Minister. The leaflet asks how the referendums will be decided, and says that it will be by a simple majority. I can see the local government Minister nodding at that. Last year, though, when he was asked what would happen if the turnout was derisory, he said that the result would be set aside.
The Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I never said that the result would be set aside. I pointed out that the referendums were advisory and that the Government would not be bound to implement proposals if the turnout was derisory. I stand by that.
Mr. Osborne: I am delighted that I gave way. It is interesting to have that remark on the record once again. I suggest that the Minister should inform the Deputy Prime Minister of that[Interruption.] Maybe he has, but the Deputy Prime Minister did not seem to know it. Perhaps the Minister will tell us later what he would consider to be a derisory turnout. Indeed, will he support the private Member's Bill put forward by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice)? Perhaps the Minister thinks that 50 per cent. is too high a figure, and that that would not be a derisory turnout.
Mr. Osborne: In that case, perhaps the Minister will tell us in his wind-up speech what a derisory figure would be. It would be interesting to know whether the Government would not proceed with regional assemblies if the turnout was too low, which is certainly what the Minister has just said.
The leaflet was produced at considerable public expense, costing £500,000. The chairman of the very successful yes campaign for the Scottish Parliament, Nigel Smith, told me that the entire literature budget of that campaign was, to his recollection, not as much as
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): To listen to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), one would think that regions were of no importance to the governance of our country. In fact, the importance of regions has been recognised throughout the last century by all political parties and Governments. It was, as has been said, a Conservative Government who went further than any other in recognising the importance of regions by setting up the regional offices. They recognised that they could not run all the regions from Whitehall. Our argument with that is that it was not a democratic way of running the regions. The debate is not a party political one that has simply to do with Labour's regional policy. All Governments have had regional policies of one sort or another.
Two main arguments appear to be emerging in the north-east as the campaign gets under way. First, the no campaign say, "We don't want any more politicians." I must point out to those who use that argumentI have a great deal of sympathy with the argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell)that compared with other democracies we are poorly represented by elected representatives in this country. Notwithstanding that, because there are more than 300 councillors in Northumberland and more than 400 councillors in Durham, if the people in the north-east vote for regional government there will obviously be a reduction in locally elected councillors, so there will be fewer politicians, not more. Those who argue that they do not want more politicians should vote yes in the referendum because regional government will result in fewer politicians.
The second argument concerns powers, and it has formed part of today's discussion. It is odd to argue against regional government because it is not powerful enough. That is like a homeless family being offered a home but refusing to move in because it does not have a porch, a conservatory and a swimming pool. When people move into a property, they wait until they feel comfortable and then they begin to add to it up, and the same is true of regional government. When regional government is set up and people see what it can do and how it can work, regional government and central Government will talk about increasing powers.
I do not share the scepticism of Conservative Members that powers will never increase because Whitehall will never let them go; the Government have already moved towards letting powers go. If people are ever foolish enough to vote for a Tory Government, they may find that powers are withdrawn from the regions and local authorities and returned to London,
It is important for my region that the learning and skills councils are brought under the purview of regional government. It is nonsense that regional government should be responsible for economic development but not have that vital link to skills, training and learning. There are problems in the region in relation to skills and training such as the skills gap and low productivity. The unemployment rate is very high in the north-east, and we have a poor culture of lifelong learning, low educational and career aspirations, skills shortages in certain areas, an underperforming labour market and low demand for higher skills. Developing higher skills is a crucial factor in improving economic growth in the north-east, and I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister can tell us more in his winding-up speech than the Deputy Prime Minister told us the other day about the possibility of learning and skills councils coming under regional government.
Mr. Jenkin: Does that not underline our point? The hon. Gentleman is asking for information about the powers that the assemblies will have, and he has listened to the Deputy Prime Minister, who has not told him the answer. Our point is that people are not getting a clear picture of the powers that the assemblies will have.
Mr. Clelland: We have a clear picture of the initial powers because they are contained in the White Paper, so there is no question about that, and those of us in the yes campaign are already campaigning on that point. We have been promised that the draft Bill will be produced before the summer recess, and it will provide a further example of how the powers might develop. Other hon. Members and I are trying to beef up the powers so that when we get the draft Bill there are extra powers over and above the White Paper, which will undoubtedly help our campaign.
I should like powers on transport to be devolved to regional authorities. Our transport priorities in the north-east would certainly be different from those of central Government and the Highways Agency. We want devolved powers so that we can tackle problems such as the A1 north of Newcastlealthough I agree with the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) that we need to be practical and that things cannot happen overnight. However, the A1 improvements would have a much higher priority under regional government, as would the completion of improvements to the A69 and the urgent work needed to relieve congestion on the western bypass.
Of course, devolved transport powers would cover not only roads, but the rail infrastructure, buses and the integration of our transport system, which, like learning and skills, is extremely important to the developing economy of the region. I hope that the powers set out in the White Paper will be extended under the draft Bill. Even as currently proposed, they are a step forward that the country needs to take to become a more modern and vibrant democracy. The choice for the people of the regions is simple, as I shall tell the people of the north-
Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), not least because he has long been a consistent supporter of regional government. He expresses his views on the subject honestly and trenchantly.
However, the hon. Gentleman has also done much to make the argument for our proposal. He said that the initial powers were set out in the White Paper and explained that the draft Bill would shed a little more light on them. However, he then said that he hoped there would be more in the draft Bill than there had been in the White Paper, which implies that he believes it preferable for the powers of a regional assembly to develop and increase over time. That is precisely the proposition, which is, I think, irrefutable, set out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) at the outset of the debate: the people who, in the autumn, are to be given the opportunityalbeit not one that they particularly wantedto vote on the question of regional assemblies ought to know exactly what they are voting on.
There was no suggestion from the hon. Gentleman that, if there was a significant change in the range of powers for regional assemblies following the referendum, he would expect a further referendum to be held. There would be no further consultation of public opinion as to whether those powers should be increased or changed.
The Government claim to be strong supporters of regional governmentthe Deputy Prime Minister has certainly been campaigning for it for a long timeand they are prepared to ensure that referendums are held in three regions in the autumn, despite poor expressions of interest from all three during the consultation process. However, as the Government are not prepared to give either the House or the people of the three regions any detail about what the regional assemblies would be empowered to do, we are entitled to ask why they will not give that information.
The most charitable interpretation is that the Government do not want to say definitively what the powers will be, as they might change during the passage of the Bill. The Bill that will be considered in the summer will of course be only a draft; there is no guarantee that it will even have been introduced in Parliament by the time the referendums are held. It is thus possible that, through no fault of the Government, the powers might be different after the referendum. That reason might fall into the category of Government incompetence; they do not know what the powers will be, because they cannot control the processthey have been unable to pass the legislation.
There is the third and more worrying possibility that the Government know precisely what they would like the regional assemblies to do, know what their powers should be, but do not want the public to know. That would be a deliberate act of deception. I prefer to take the more charitable view, but we are left wondering.
What we have to suspect, though, is that the Prime Minister knows that he does not want significant powers to go to the regional assemblies, because that has been the pattern of his behaviour through the whole of the Government's devolution strategy, if it can be called a strategy. Their plan has been to devolve powers, whether to London or Wales, and then busily set about trying to claw them back or to make sure that they can control the people elected to run the bodies in question: throwing Ken Livingstone out of the Labour party and then taking him back in; trying to decide who should be the First Minister in Wales.
A picture of confusion emerges. The Deputy Prime Minister, in a classic performance, a great performance very much in keeping with his tradition and style, did nothing to dispel any of the existing confusion and actually sought to advance it during his speech. It was remarkable that he accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon of being confused on the subject, saying that it was the most confusing argument he had ever heard. The words "kettle", "pot" and "black" came to mind, though not necessarily in that order.
The Deputy Prime Minister has been selectively advancing the argument that the Barnett formula should be reviewed. He apparently believes that that might be one of the advantages of moving towards regional government. When I challenged him on the matter, the result of my intervention was interesting. I asked him to give an argument for keeping the Barnett formula, given that he had said that Scottish devolution had removed the regional economic disparity between Scotland and England, but he carefully refused to give me any answer. He said that the Government and his Department were constantly reviewing all kinds of financial arrangements. When I sought to intervene again to establish very clearly whether the financial arrangements that the Government were constantly reviewing included the Barnett formula, he would not take my intervention. I very much hope that in winding up the local government Minister will respond on this point: do the Government welcome a review of the Barnett formula or not?