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Mr. George Osborne: I discovered today that the launch of the Scottish White Paper was paid for by the yes campaign because civil servants in the Scotland Office thought that it would be wrong for the Government to spend taxpayers' money on it. It would be interesting to know whether that has been happening in the regional campaigns.
Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister, who, as we know, is lord high everything else in this Government, went on a grand tour of the north of England to promote his proposals, and spoke at meetings in Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle. At all those meetings, he held out the prospect of significant additional powers for elected assemblies beyond those set out in the White Paperpowers on policing, adult education and training and even health. We know that other services such as fire services are being considered for regionalisation.
The difficulty for the Deputy Prime Minister is that the proposals in the White Paper are but a shadow of what he really wants. The reality is that, seven years after the manifesto, there is no agreement in the Government on what should be the powers of regional elected assemblies. That is why he is talking up the powers. He is haunted by the near defeat in the Welsh Assembly referendum. That is why he will not accept what the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire clarified while he was absent from the Chamber: the Government will dismiss a derisory turnout even if the vote is in favour.
The most interesting thing that has fallen into my hands recently is an extraordinary document of the minutes, to which one of my hon. Friends referred, of a meeting between Felicity Goodey, who is the leader of the yes north-west campaign, representatives of the north-west business leadership team, and none other than the great panjandrum himself, the ever effervescent and charming Deputy Prime Minister. The meeting took place in his large office at No. 26 Whitehall, along with his ever loyal and patient minder, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire.
There is confusion about regional government, but it is the Opposition who are confused about the powers and role of regional assemblies which, for their benefit, I shall spell out in simple terms. Elected regional assemblies mean more accountable regional government. They mean less say for the Whitehall machine and more power where it belongsin the hands of the people in the regions.
In the debate, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) looked forward, we were pleased to learn, to campaigning with us on a referendum for a yes vote, which we welcome. However, he spoilt his announcement by saying that he would vote tonight with the Tories, who are utterly opposed to regional devolution. The nub of his argument was that the powers of the elected regional assemblies should be extended. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, we have already gone beyond the original powers spelt out in the White Paper, and he made it quite clear that this is an evolutionary process. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton welcomed the decision to hold hearings in the northern regions, and I am sure that he and his hon. Friends will want to contribute to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) gave a forceful speech in favour of regional devolution, paid tribute to my right hon. Friend's long-term commitment to regional government and looked forward to a successful outcome.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) strained the bounds of credulity with his astonishing claim that Baroness Thatcher, whose Government probably caused more devastation to the north than any Government in history, was secretly a friend of the north. He must be bemused by the ingratitude of the people of the region, who disproportionately and stubbornly refused, with the exception of his own seat, to show their gratitude by voting Conservative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) welcomed the Government's proposals and argued strongly that decisions affecting the north-west should be made by people elected by, and accountable to, the north-west. He spoke proudly about the regeneration of the cities of the north-west, and looked forward to a yes vote in the referendum.
The hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) confused regional responsibilities with local council roles. For his sake, I shall spell out the difference. We regard local service delivery as the continuing responsibility of local government. There will be streamlining of local government, and I am astonished that he opposes the idea of more cost-effective service delivery. Local government will continue to deliver services locally, whereas regional government will deal with regional matters. The hon. Gentleman queried whether the referendum would be decided by a simple majority. As we made clear, there will be no threshold, because thresholds have perverse consequences, as we saw in Scotland in 1979. A simple majority is important.
As I have said, referendums are technically advisory. The Government will certainly be guided by the majority, but we are not bound to implement on that basis and we have said that we will not be so bound if the outcome is derisory. I am confident, however, that there will be a decisive vote, because we are doing everything that we can to ensure a high turnoutpostal voting is part of that. Any friend of democracy will want to see a decisive outcome and a clear view expressed by the people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) strongly supported the proposals for regional devolution. He argued for stronger powers because he believes that the proposals represent a good base for future development, and he welcomed the fact that the Bill will be published in July.
The hon. Gentleman was even less logical when he talked about the British National party, repeating the malicious and unfounded argument that elected regional assemblies could provide a doorway for the BNP to get elected. We all hate the politics of hatred that characterise the BNP and will do everything that we can to oppose that. However, in my experience of campaigning against the BNP in Londonin Millwalland elsewhere 10 years ago, the most decisive way to defeat the BNP is with a high turnout in a reasonably large constituency. The BNP flourishes in small areas with low turnouts; our elected regional assembly constituencies will be large, which will allow for a decisive vote against it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) emphasised the proud regional identity of the north and argued that the new devolution process could help to revive our political culture.My hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) rightly highlighted the merits of the white rose as against Whitehall.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) made great play of his wish to see a Bill. We understand that, and it will be published in July. He did not say, of course, that that is a wonderfully convenient way of enabling him to keep his options open. He is a thinking person who realises the futility of the Bourbon style of opposition. As my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister pointed out, the right hon. Gentleman went on the record two and a half years ago in favour of regional government. Now, he has the misfortune of serving in a Front-Bench team that is viscerally hostile to elected regional assemblies and that, even more embarrassingly from his point of view, sees the policy as a European conspiracy. No wonder he is hedging his bets: he knows that almost every other country in Europe has devolved regional governmentapart from places such as the Vatican, Luxembourg and Malta, where there are obvious geographical obstaclesand that here in Britain a great deal of Government activity has a regional nature.
The current regional structures outside London are not accountable to the regions and often involve regional government by quango. Those who take the decisions are usually well intentioned, but are not answerable to the public whose lives and prosperity they are deciding or influencing. Furthermore, because they involve separate bodies that are closely focused on their own subject, they often fail to secure a joined-up and co-ordinated approach.
Our task is to give the people the option of a more accountable, more democratic, more joined-up structure with the powers to make a difference on matters that need to be dealt with at a regional level, such as jobs, housing, transport, planning and the environment. Elected regional assemblies will bring a new perspective, a new vision and a new opportunity to
Regional assemblies are about choice, democracy, prosperity and more effective government. In summary, they are about the future. By contrast, the Opposition's position offers nothing: it is incoherent, remorselessly negative and backward looking. It is the product of a party that failed the people when it was in government and has been wrong about every devolution debate in the past decade. The Opposition have learnt nothing and forgotten nothing; the House should decisively reject their motion.