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Mr. Raynsford: Once again, the hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. If he reads the White Paper, he will see clearly that we propose a single pot for the elected regional assemblies, not ring-fenced funds. Perhaps he would like to reflect on the fact that, once again, he has got his facts wrong. If he had bothered to do more research into what we are doing, he would recognise that we are engaged in reversing many of the centralising actions of the last Conservative Government. The new prudential borrowing regime, which has been introduced this year for local authorities, ends the pernicious regime introduced by the Conservative Government under which all local authority borrowing decisions were subject to central control. A little more humility on his part about the failures of the Conservative party in government would be appropriate.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: No, I will not give way. I want to make some progress.

A little more humility on the consistent failure of judgment that the Conservative party has shown on the regional issue would also be appropriate. The Conservatives have now been obliged to concede the case for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London authority. If devolved government is appropriate for the 15 million people who live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, why is it not appropriate for the 2.5 million people in the north-east, the 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humber or the 6 million people in the north-west?

The policy of the Conservatives is confused and inconsistent. They opposed regional chambers, but now they support them. The regional chambers are now populated by more than 150 Conservative councillors—indeed, Conservatives chair two of them. Of course, they opposed the introduction of regional development agencies, but now we do not know what they think. In October 2003, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who is also sitting on the Conservative Front Bench, said:

Does that mean that the Conservatives would abolish RDAs or keep them? How would they address the democratic deficit? Would they engage with RDAs centrally or regionally? We look forward to hearing how the official Opposition intend to resolve those issues, because we have received no answers to date.

The previous Conservative Government created the Government offices for the regions in 1994 at a time when they recognised the need for a regional dimension to the machinery of government. The Conservative
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party is now not sure whether to discount its own legacy, as some of its Back Benchers clearly would like it to, because the UK Independence party claims that regional policy is a European conspiracy—we heard a touch of that earlier in the debate. What a sad example of the decline of the Conservative party from a party of government to a confused rabble, marching to the drum of the anti-European fanatics who increasingly determine its policy, and sacrificing principles and consistency for shameless opportunism. By contrast, the Government have shown a clear and consistent regional policy: to take power from the most centralised system of government in the western world and give it back to the people in Scotland, Wales, London and now the English regions.

Mr. Curry: While the right hon. Gentleman is pursuing such a noble cause as devolution, will he give us an insight into whether the balance of funding review of local government is likely to give significantly greater power back to local government and rebalance the relationship between central and local Government?

Mr. Raynsford: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good try, but he will know that our first responsibility after the completion of the balance of funding review will be to report to the House, which we will do. I cannot anticipate the results today.

It is our responsibility to extend democracy so that decisions that ultimately affect the English regions are taken in the English regions by people elected by each of the English regions, and to create jobs, growth and a better quality of life for all our people.

Elected regional assemblies will lead to more accountable regional government. They will take power from central Government, not local government, and give the people a new political voice. They will tackle the big strategic issues that need to be handled, and are already handled, at the regional level, such as planning for homes, land, jobs and transport, consideration of the environment and the promotion of arts, sports, public health and public safety throughout the regions. Through elected assemblies, people will have control and influence over how significant proportions of central Government money are spent in their region. That represents a clear opportunity for devolution to the English regions, but it is up to people who live in regions to choose in a referendum whether they want an elected regional assembly. No region will be required to have an elected assembly if it does not want one—it is entirely a matter of choice. The Conservative party claims to support such choice until we come to proposals for regional referendums.

Mr. Edward Davey: Will the Minister confirm here and now that there will be referendums on elected regional assemblies this coming autumn?

Mr. Raynsford: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment, I shall deal with that specific issue and give him the detailed answer that he wants. However, I would first like to cover other points that have been raised on the powers of assemblies and the way in which they will work.

Mr. Pickthall: The Minister might know that I am a 100 per cent. supporter of regional government.
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Unfortunately, the campaign in which we are engaged shackles that to changes to local government. How would my right hon. Friend advise me to deal with the situation in my constituency, in which the proposals for changes to local government that are consequent on the regional campaign are universally despised? I can almost guarantee that 74,000 electors in my patch will vote against regional government, not because of regional government itself but because of what is happening to their local authority.

Mr. Raynsford: We think it is right to streamline existing two-tier local government structures where there is an elected regional assembly, to avoid the proliferation of bureaucracy. As my hon. Friend knows, we are continuing to consider specific proposals from the boundary committee for England that were submitted to us about five weeks ago, so we will not be in a position to give a definitive answer for a further week. However, my hon. Friend will know that his local authority has made substantial representations about the possible impact of the boundary committee's proposals on West Lancashire, which we are examining closely. He will understand that I cannot say more at the moment because we are in the consultation period, but we will clarify the issues when we lay the appropriate orders before the House.

We believe in giving people a choice. The Conservative party claims to support choice, but does not believe in it. It does not believe in devolution. It is devoid of creative ideas and is opposing just for the sake of it. Conservative Members claim that there is confusion about the powers to be devolved to elected regional assemblies, but they have no proposals to clarify or extend their powers—they are simply making an opportunistic attack.

Our White Paper made it clear that elected assemblies will have powers to make a difference in key areas such as jobs, planning, housing, transport, culture and the environment in the regions. Elected regional assemblies will set the economic development agenda for their regions and work with regional development agencies to enhance regions' competitiveness and economic performance. They will also have a powerful influence on quality-of-life issues within regions. Those were always key elements of our proposals for elected regional assemblies, but as we said in our White Paper:

Mr. Jenkin: The phrase from the White Paper that the right hon. Gentleman cites is simply code for saying, "We cannot agree in the Government what the powers of these elected regional assemblies should be, and we are still arguing about it." Our point is that there is a split in the Government on regional assemblies, and there is now a split on whether the referendums should be held at all.

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