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Regional Referendums

4.30 pm

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott) rose—[Hon. Members: "Hooray!"] Here today, gone tomorrow.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to report to the House on the regional referendum in the north-east, held last Thursday. May I first congratulate Ged Fitzgerald, the chief counting officer, and his staff across the north-east, who ran such a well-organised poll and count? I also want to thank the police, the Post Office and the Electoral Commission for their co-operation during the referendum.

Turnout, at nearly 48 per cent., was a great deal more than many people expected and has shown that all-postal voting can be extremely successful when the ground is well prepared. This ballot was conducted successfully, without witness statements, and the turnout has increased considerably. It was higher than the 42 per cent. turnout in the European elections in the north-east, higher than the 34 per cent. in the London referendum and similar to the 50 per cent. in the Welsh referendum. I am sure that the Electoral Commission will want to reflect on that.

Throughout the referendum, the Government have made it absolutely clear that the decision whether to have elected regional government rests with the people. It is their choice and their say. Our policy of devolution, set out in our manifesto, means giving power to people in our nations and regions so that they can set their own priorities and make more decisions that affect their lives. As a result, London now has city-wide government and a Mayor powerful enough to run a global city. The Scottish Parliament enables the people of Scotland to make key decisions without recourse to Westminster for the first time in hundreds of years. The Welsh Assembly has given the Welsh people a powerful new voice to create jobs, prosperity, and social justice. Each of these new bodies was voted for by the people and has since proved to be very popular.

It is worth remembering that proposals for Scottish and Welsh devolution failed to win public support in the first referendum in 1979, only for the situation to be reversed 20 years later in a new referendum. On 4 November, we offered the people of the north-east the chance to benefit from an elected regional assembly. Last Thursday, voters in the north-east decided by a margin of 78 per cent. to 22 per cent. that they did not want that, and of course we abide by their decision.

I confirm to the House that the result of the referendum means that the Regional Assemblies Bill will not be introduced in the coming Session of Parliament; under existing legislation, there can be no further referendum on regional assemblies in the north-east for at least seven years; and—let me make it clear—despite press speculation, there will be no reorganisation of local government in County Durham or Northumberland arising out of this referendum result. Indeed, I hope that the two councils can now get on with delivering effective services for their people.

The decision now raises the question as to whether to proceed, as we previously intended, with referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber. We
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have reflected on the outcome of the referendum in the north-east, as promised. We have also made it clear that referendums in the north-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber would have to wait until the Electoral Commission had completed its work on the "new foundation model for voting." That is not due to be published until the end of March 2005.

The Electoral Commission has also said that there should be no electoral pilots using the new model until at least September 2005, but in the meantime, under the legislation, our ability to hold referendums based on the current soundings exercise runs out in June 2005. We would, therefore, need to conduct a new soundings exercise and bring orders to call the referendums before both Houses of Parliament under the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003. All that would result in a long period of uncertainty for local government in the two regions, and we do not think that is acceptable. I will not, therefore, be bringing forward orders for referendums in either the north-west or Yorkshire and the Humber. If and when, in the future, a region wants to move ahead with a referendum, the House will have plenty of notice of that event.

I do not want to underplay the importance of last week's decision, but the House should remember that elected regional assemblies are just one part of the wider programme of devolution and decentralisation in England. For a decade or more, it has been recognised that there are issues that must be dealt with at regional, rather than national, level, but which need to be co-ordinated over an area larger than any single local authority—[Hon. Members: "Why?"] Members should look at a map if they are in any doubt.

That is why the Conservatives established the Government offices for the regions in 1994, and rightly so. We have since strengthened the Government offices to include more departments. We also created, in 1998, the regional development agencies as economic powerhouses for their regions; the Conservatives opposed them, but I believe that they have now changed their minds.

In the last two years alone, the English RDAs have created or safeguarded more than 160,000 jobs and have played a major part in reshaping our regional economies. The House will be aware that in 1998 every English region was given the choice of having a voluntary regional assembly composed of representatives from local government, business, trade unions and the wider community. All eight regions—all of them—chose to have one of those voluntary regional assemblies. All parties are represented on them, and some are even chaired by Conservative councillors.

Those voluntary assemblies have an important influence on housing, planning, transport, economic development and skills and training in their region. Those regional bodies play a co-ordinating, strategic role with the full involvement of local authorities and other representatives in the regions. The successful northern way initiative, launched in February this year, is a good example of the benefits of that co-operative approach.

The RDAs and their partners in the three northern regions are working together to create more jobs, more prosperity and greater justice. The northern way has
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been warmly received, and has energised people in the three northern regions—that includes representatives of all political parties. It is one example of how, across the country, regional structures and initiatives will continue to work for the benefit of the regions with the full support of the Government.

Our continuing agenda of reform and devolution to local authorities is equally important. That was evident in July, when we launched our document, "Local Vision", beginning an extensive consultation about the future of local government. It means allowing more decisions to be made in local communities. Along with the modernisation and reform of local government, we have taken several steps to devolve decision making to local authorities. We have removed the restrictive controls on local authority borrowing. We have given local authorities greater power to promote the well-being of their communities and the freedoms and flexibilities to deliver better services, and we are piloting local area agreements that will streamline funding from Whitehall so that spending can better reflect local priorities, determined locally. All those measures—every one of them—have been warmly welcomed by all local authorities.

Our agenda for reform, change and modernisation means that we will continue to decentralise and devolve power wherever we can. We have already done a lot, and there is a lot more to do. We have already brought economic stability, lower unemployment and lower inflation; and our commitment to delivering the best possible future for all the regions remains as strong as ever.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I commend the right hon. Gentleman for coming to the House and making a statement at the first opportunity, and I associate the official Opposition with his thanks to the returning officer and his staff.

Will the Electoral Commission carry out a full evaluation of the referendum? The right hon. Gentleman is on record as having expressed surprise at the scale of the defeat, but how can the result have come as such a surprise? Was he not listening when the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn), said:

He should know; after all, 90 per cent. of Darlington's voters said no to a regional assembly, the highest proportion in the north-east. People understood, loud and clear, that the assembly would not put one more doctor, teacher, nurse or policeman into service.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they were not surprised by the defeat. No sooner was it clear that they were on the losing side than they withdrew their support for the Bill. They might as well have the slogan, "Never knowingly missing a bandwagon".

It is quite clear that the decisive "No" vote in the north-east has serious consequences for the Government's entire regional agenda. Will the right hon. Gentleman stick to the promise that he made to the people of the north-east on 19 October, when he said:

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What exactly did his long statement mean? Will he now say, loud and clear, that the regional agenda is dead? In broader terms, what does this humiliating defeat mean for the Government's whole regional agenda?

What of the powers that have been stripped from local authorities and handed over to expensive, unelected regional chambers? The right hon. Gentleman criticised our participation in regional chambers, but our participation simply reflects the fact that core powers have been stolen from local government. He talks of a choice for the regions to have unelected regional assemblies. That is Hobson's choice. Given that the regional chambers now have no prospect of any democratic mandate, will the right hon. Gentleman abolish them? Will he return the crucial powers of housing, planning fire and rescue services to democratically elected local councils? Why not fill the vacancy in the Queen's Speech where a regional assemblies Bill would otherwise have appeared with a Bill to return the powers that have been stripped from local authorities? Or does he share the view of the Secretary of State for Education and Skills in seeing

This is an urgent question; it cannot be fudged or kicked into touch. People up and down the land are living under the threat of huge house-building targets proposed by unelected regional housing boards. Is the right hon. Gentleman not duty bound to get rid of those housing boards as well? [Interruption.]

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