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6.34 pm

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I am delighted to have a few minutes to oppose the motion moved by my good parliamentary neighbour the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). We need a bit more white rose and a bit less Whitehall. I shall refer to two specific examples arising from the experience that I have gained as a constituency MP in the Yorkshire and Humber area. Regional government would have made a difference in both.

The hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) placed much emphasis on the economy and business. They asked whether regional government would make a difference to economic development. Interestingly, the regional organisation of the CBI in my area is neutral on the matter. It can see pros and cons, and is open to argument. That is important.

The hon. Member for Hexham mentioned the decline of the coal and steel industries. People in Selby know all about that. The first example that I want to mention has to do with the European spallation source project. It is the principal long-term project of Yorkshire Forward, and is based in my constituency. I shall not explain it in detail, but it involves a neutron scatterer. The project—a massive science park—would amount to a £1 billion investment. It is backed by Yorkshire Forward and the blue-chip institutions that make up the white rose consortium of universities.

I tried for a year to secure a meeting with a Minister about the project. I like to think that I am a reasonably assiduous MP. I vote with the Government—on the whole—and thought that a meeting would probably be granted. In the end, a Yorkshire Forward official, Tom Riordan, had to come down here. An alternative site for the project in Oxfordshire is much beloved of Whitehall civil servants. Only after Tom Riordan criticised their attitude, in the Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee, did the meeting take place.

The business magazine Insider published a list of the 100 most important people in Yorkshire. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is not here at the moment, so I can tell the House that he is No. 2 on the list. The managing director of Yorkshire Forward is at the top, and Tom Riordan—that very good servant of

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Yorkshire Forward—is at No. 4. Not one local politician is in the top 10. I am at about No. 453. That not one local politician is considered to have influence on economic development is a terrible thing.

If we had a Yorkshire regional assembly, the meeting that I was trying for would have happened an awful lot sooner, and the case that we could have made would have been much stronger. I spent a year trying for a meeting, and the Government are now responding and considering the case that I want to press. However, the delay should not have happened. We need a body with region-wide responsibility to act in such matters.

My second example has to do with transport. The CBI in Yorkshire has pointed out that only £70 of every £100 spent on public transport in England as whole is spent in the Yorkshire and Humber area. I attended a meeting last Friday in the grand surroundings of Hull's guildhall. The company First York won the trans-Pennine rail franchise, but it has cut the service between Hull and Manchester airport. It sent its regional public relations people to tell the various Members of Parliament and council leaders who attended the meeting that the company was not about to change its mind. If we had a regional assembly with powers to make representations to the SRA, and with powers over rail passenger transport grants and local transport plans, the company would have been forced to send representatives of much higher status to the meeting.

I turn now to some of the points made in the debate. How much money would really be controlled by a regional assembly? In Yorkshire, £500 million would be controlled directly, and £1.1 billion indirectly. That sounds a lot to me, and it is much more than I have ever controlled as a politician, but the Opposition say that it is a small percentage of total public expenditure overall. We do not want to control defence in Yorkshire or transfer payments; we want to control the things that influence our economy.

The role of strategies is much mocked. My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) spoke from experience about culture and sport. I wish that Yorkshire could have a regional strategy for sport, controlled by Yorkshire politicians. We love sport in the region, although we are doing terribly badly at cricket and football. The only thing that we have to boast about is Doncaster Rovers—[Interruption.] I suppose I could also mention Hull City and Bradford Bulls in that context, but a strategy at grass-roots level to rebuild Yorkshire sport would be a great help.

I could talk about the local government changes in north Yorkshire. They are as complicated in Selby as the Schleswig-Holstein question in the thirty years war or the Alsace-Lorraine question in the first world war. However, I do not have time.

In conclusion, I think that the hearings initiated by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister represent a great opportunity. Many of us will make the case for learning and skills, and a little more might be given in respect of transport. When it comes to the great northern vote, I hope that the people of Yorkshire and Humber, for those reasons of economic development above all, will vote yes. An additional reason why they will vote yes is because the last thing that we want in

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Yorkshire and Humber is for the north-east—the Geordies—and the north-west to have regional assemblies, and for us to be left without one.

6.40 pm

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): We have had an interesting and illuminating debate, and anyone who reads it will realise why so many hon. Members have become enamoured with the idea of elected regional assemblies. They think that they can pick any failing in their constituencies and anything that has gone wrong in their region and pin their hopes on a regional assembly curing all. They say that the projects mentioned by the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), life expectancy, health and housing will all be cured by regional assemblies, although, according to the White Paper, they will have virtually no power at all. The debate has served a purpose by exposing the enormous gap between what people say that regional assemblies will do and what the Government's policy actually offers to the people who will participate in the referendums.

I listened to the Deputy Prime Minister with my usual care, but I thought that he got into a muddle when he complained that the Government offices were terribly undemocratic. He did not seem to understand that he is accountable to the House for the operation of the Government offices, and it is his colleagues and mine who hold him to account for that—they are, in fact, accountable. [Interruption.] The Deputy Prime Minister scoffs derisively at that comment, but he failed to give any assurance that the Government offices would be handed over to the regional assemblies. They will not be handed over; in fact, they will become more important than ever in enforcing Whitehall's will on regional assemblies and local authorities, as they are doing more and more under this Government.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) for supporting our motion, but I think that he slightly confused the situation by telling us that he would vote for the Government's amendment as well. I should point out that the amendment commends the Government on the information that they are giving voters on the subject, but our motion does precisely the opposite. I would love to be a Liberal. One could just relax and let it all hang out. One could decide whatever one wanted and go home and sleep easily at night.

Mr. Edward Davey rose—

Mr. Jenkin: I shall briefly give way to the hon. Gentleman because I feel that I owe it to him.

Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that his motion does not suggest that people oppose regional assemblies if they vote for it?

Mr. Jenkin: I am perfectly prepared to accept that because I do not think that it is the issue. [Interruption.] Yes, it is perfectly true. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) pointed out, what we are worried about is the lack of clarity in Government policy. I say to the Deputy Prime Minister and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that we are not standing for election in the referendums, so our policy is not the issue. We are not heading for a general election

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in October, but referendums. If the referendums are to be a proper test of public opinion rather than just an opinion poll on which group voters in the regions specifically resent at that moment, we need clarity. The debate is not about whether we favour elected assemblies for the English regions. The real question is how much power will a regional assembly really have. The Deputy Prime Minister singularly failed to answer that question.

Let us be absolutely clear. The assemblies will certainly be nothing like the Scottish Parliament—I have not seen that cure all the ills of Scotland. They will be nothing like the Welsh Assembly. They will have even less power than the London assembly. For example, according to the White Paper, a north-east assembly would not only have no legislative powers whatsoever—not even secondary legislative powers—and control less than 2 per cent. of public expenditure in the region, but would not even be able to control appointments to the regional development agency because Ministers would still have the right of veto over the appointment of business men to RDAs. The issue is the disparity between what the Government pretend that regional assemblies will do and what is set out in the White Paper, because that is hardly a basis on which voters may make an informed and educated choice in the referendums.

Fundamentally, this debate is about the Deputy Prime Minister's failure to explain his proposals on elected regional assemblies for which Ministers are responsible. Given that there has been no public clamour—in fact, little but apathy—for elected regional assemblies, and, frankly, hostility from business, the Government are desperately thrashing around trying to sell a virtually unsaleable proposal. This debate is about Ministers' failure to be open and straightforward, and to present clear and intelligible proposals for people to vote on. The more that they attempt to explain their proposals, the more opaque they become. The Deputy Prime Minister in particular has been encouraging people to believe things about the Government's policy that have not been agreed by the Government to try to rescue the idea of regional elected assemblies. That threatens fundamentally to corrupt the referendum process, which should be an objective test of public opinion after a prolonged and informed debate.

Let the House recall the careful and meticulous way in which the former Secretary of State for Scotland, Donald Dewar, approached the referendum for a Scottish Parliament. I did not agree with the concept of a Scottish Parliament; I fully accept that the debate was comprehensively won by the pro-devolutionists. [Interruption.] I do not deny a bit of it. [Interruption.] Is the Deputy Prime Minister finished? Just a few months after the 1997 election, Donald Dewar published a White Paper that was absolutely clear. No one voting in the Scottish referendum could have been in any doubt about what they were voting for. Let us compare that with the conduct of the Government's policy on elected regional assemblies.

Like plans for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, proposals for elected regional assemblies were included in the 1997 manifesto. That was seven years ago, and it remains astonishing that, even though the referendums in the north of England are now only

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nine months away, the Government have still not explained the powers to be devolved. They are spending £500,000 on an information campaign that does not explain the powers. I give my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) an assurance that we will return to the question of the Government's information campaign and its impartiality.

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