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Mr. George Osborne: Does my hon. Friend suspect that what the Deputy Prime Minister was trying to do was to float the idea in the north-east, generate lots of local excitement that the Barnett formula might be

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removed in advance of the regional referendum, and then do absolutely nothing about it after the referendum takes place?

Mr. Brady: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, but I think that he is falling into the trap of imagining that this was a deliberate strategy on the part of the Deputy Prime Minister. I think that perhaps the right hon. Gentleman merely opened his mouth before engaging his brain, and the first thing that emerged was what appeared to be an argument that was popular where he was at the time.

We need to know, and people on both sides of the English-Scottish border need to know, whether the Barnett formula is being reviewed or not.

The Deputy Prime Minister also confirmed that the powers that he and the Government have in mind for regional assemblies have changed since the White Paper was published. As one example he cited the power to veto local planning decisions. Labour Members try to advance the argument that regional assemblies will increase democratic accountability, and then one of the principal changes that have taken place already, before we have the draft Bill, reduces local decision making and accountability, taking those powers away from local people to a more remote tier of government.

Of course Ministers are very fond of claiming that such change will not increase the number of tiers of government. The Minister is nodding in agreement while he sits on the Treasury Bench, yet it is absolutely certain that, for my constituents, who currently live in a single-tier metropolitan borough authority, his proposals—if he has his way—will lead to an extra, unnecessary tier of bureaucracy, costs and politicians. The fact is that that unitary authority has been able to function effectively. It worked very well, until Labour took over the administration of Trafford borough council in 1996, and it will improve again in June, when Labour loses control of the council. There is nothing wrong structurally with that unitary authority and that single tier, which works extremely well.

Obviously, colleagues who represent constituencies in shire counties are free to believe that the alternative is a better structure, and I am happy with that. Those of us who represent constituencies with unitary authorities, however—single-tier authorities—believe that they are perfectly efficient structures for local government, but, if the Government have their way, we will be faced with an unnecessary, additional tier of bureaucrats and politicians that we simply do not want.

I should like to touch on another issue briefly. During the opening speeches, my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) referred to the possible effects of using proportional representation in any assembly election and the danger that that might provide an opportunity for minority parties—some of them are particularly unpleasant, such as the British National party—to gain a foothold in the assembly. The Minister shook his head and vehemently disagreed with that suggestion, but I have not yet heard him give any reason why he is confident that the PR system, if it is put in place, will not allow for that possibility. I would welcome a response on that point. I would also welcome his comments on the danger of fraud if we opt for postal ballots, particularly given today's revelations about the integrity of the electoral roll in some areas.

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6.27 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab): We have heard Opposition Members advance some interesting arguments today, but the one that I will take away involved the image of the great Tory revival of the north. May I offer a genuine and warm invitation to the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) to come to Leigh at any time to deliver that speech? We will see what reaction he gets if he does. The fact that they have all glossed over is that we live in a country where health, wealth and life chances are unevenly spread, both by social class and geographically. Over the years, many people have been motivated to come to the House to do something about that. Some people have come here because they want to keep things that way. Sadly, that group has held sway.

In truth, there are complicated reasons why Britain is still an unequal country, but it is a fact that children born today in Liverpool or Manchester can expect to lead shorter, unhealthier lives than those born in towns across the south. They can expect to earn less and to have less chance of going into higher education. Whatever the detailed reasons for that, without doubt, the underlying essential truth is that, for centuries, political power and resources have been disproportionately concentrated in the south of this country, leading to a southern bias in decision making and helping to create an entrenched north-south divide.

Mr. Brady: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andy Burnham: Time is short, and other hon. Members wish to speak.

Today, we are debating a proposal to begin loosening that grip on the levers of power and to take power away from Whitehall and place it in the hands of elected people in the regions. Those who oppose that have sought to engender cynicism about politicians and politics. Opposition Members have not used them, but people on the same campaign will use phrases such as "jobs for the boys" and "gravy train"—we can hear it all now. The hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) should understand that that is easy pub talk and that it is far harder to make a case for change, but we will do just that.

Tomorrow, the yes for the north-west campaign will be launched in locations across our region. The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said that there was no great rising up of enthusiasm and no great cross-party support. He should just wait and see. He should look in his local paper tomorrow, or watch the television when he gets back tomorrow evening. There are some serious business figures involved in that campaign.

Mr. George Osborne: It is cross-party.

Andy Burnham: The Liberal party is fully involved in the campaign. Let us just wait and see. I put this point directly to the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, as he laughs. In arguing for the status quo, he comprehensively fails to illustrate how the systems of government and public administration of this country have served the people of the north-west—including those in his constituency—and elsewhere. The

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Conservatives cannot do that, because on any objective analysis, it is those structures that have created the divided country that we have today.

Let us focus on health inequalities, which are probably the best indicator of the failure or success of public policy. The determinants of health involve not only the share of health resources but—according to Donald Acheson's 1998 independent inquiry into health inequalities—education, employment, average income, housing, transport and other environmental issues.

It is 24 years since Sir Douglas Black published his ground-breaking report on health inequalities. If the system of government that we had in this country had worked properly, we would have seen a steady narrowing of those inequalities in response to that report. Instead, the chief medical officer's annual report for 2001 came to the shocking conclusion that communities in some parts of the north-west and north-east of England had death rates similar to those that prevailed in the 1950s. I do not understand how anyone advancing the case for the status quo could fail to see the importance of that statement—[Interruption.] It is to do with regional government, because every one of the responsibilities that we are proposing to devolve to those bodies—housing, skills and so on—has an effect on public health.

That shows how the country is divided at the moment. It is perhaps less the case in the constituency of the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West, but people not far from there have a lower life expectancy than elsewhere, and it behoves all of us to do something about that. Those Members opposed to the proposals need to tell their constituents what plans they have to give the north-west a bigger share of the resources and a greater ability to do something about these important issues for themselves.

Every day, unelected people in Government Departments take decisions on behalf of our constituents. I would like to give the House a flavour of my time in Whitehall. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, where I was an adviser, is possibly the most London-dominated of all the Departments. I remember well sceptical voices there expressing doubt about Manchester's ability to stage the Commonwealth games. In culture and the arts, London dominates absolutely. Money is given to regional projects if they fit the assumptions of the capital élite, and the view has prevailed for far too long that England's heritage lies in the pretty market towns rather than the industrial north. That view has only recently begun to change, with the extension of the blue plaque scheme to the regions. Regional programming is the strength of British broadcasting, yet the London-based broadcasters often only pay lip service to their regional commitment.

These are all examples of decisions taken in Whitehall that affect our constituents, and it is about time that they had a chance to express their views on such issues themselves. People of my generation recognise the north-west as the place that they come from; they have a growing sense of regional identity and share culture,

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music, humour and passions. It is about time that we let them organise for themselves the way in which they express that regional identity.

In contrast to the cynics, I believe that a regional assembly could refresh our political culture. A real problem for politicians on both sides is that our political structures are not doing their job. Our councils are sometimes seen as parochial and unable to effect change, and we are sometimes seen as being too remote from the people we represent. That has played a part in disengaging people from politics. If we get the new regional assembly, it could generate new interest in public affairs, and bring in different kinds of decision making. These proposals should go hand in hand with the reform of the House of Lords, which could be indirectly elected from regional lists. If that happened, the voice of the regions would start to boom around the country. That is exactly what a lot of people are very afraid of.

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