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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The House listened to the Deputy Prime Minister with politeness; those on the Government Front Bench should do the same for the hon. Member who is speaking for the Opposition.

Mrs. Spelman: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

What about the cost of this whole sorry saga? The Government have ploughed tens of millions of pounds into the campaign for a regional assembly that only 20 per cent. of voters wanted. The whole exercise has been humiliating for the Government and expensive for the taxpayer. Is the right hon. Gentleman really serious about more soundings, throwing more money after bad? I am not going to ask him to resign because he will not, but the nation is owed an apology for the tens of millions of pounds wasted in pursuit of a pipedream that is very definitely history now—and, if the House is honest, so is he.

The Deputy Prime Minister: They must be joking.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks at the beginning of her contribution, which I appreciated, and I can answer some of her questions. It is proper to ask about the Electoral Commission. I think that it has made a statement and there should be an analysis of the postal ballot. The all-postal ballot was very successful, without any talk of witnesses' statements or any problems whatsoever—that should make the Electoral Commission think about things. The commission will analyse the result and publish a report in—I think—the summer.

On people's choice, I shall never apologise for giving people the opportunity to say whether they agree with   something on occasions other than the general
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election—I thought that the Conservative party was demanding referendums on the European constitution and the euro to give people choice. But referendums cost money. People need to be provided with information and leaflets so that they may make proper decisions, but that costs money, albeit not the tens of millions that the hon. Lady was talking about. The actual cost of running the referendum was £2.9 million—[Interruption.] I am just saying that if hon. Members look at the cost per capita of the referendums in London, Scotland and Wales, they will see that the recent referendum was cheaper. I must admit that the cost is a reality, but the alternative would be to do what the Conservative Government did. They abolished 18 councils and the Greater London council without any consideration whatsoever. They held no referendums, and the people eventually had to demand the right for a local authority. I will take no lectures from the Tories about abolishing local authorities.

The hon. Lady put forward the argument that the assembly would have created not one teacher, nurse or doctor more, but that was never the intention—that was never in the White Paper. This Government have produced thousands upon thousands of doctors, teachers and nurses, but that was not the intended role of the assembly, although it does relate to one of the arguments that was put forward during the campaign.

At the end of the day, we must consider the effect on the regional agenda. I said in my statement that I believe there is still a strong argument for a regional dimension, otherwise things will be left to unelected quangos and civil servants.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con): Scrap them.

The Deputy Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman shouts, "Scrap them", but he was a member of the Government who set them up. The regional government civil servants were set up in 1994 for one good reason: decisions had to be taken on a regional basis, so the Conservatives set up the regional Government offices. We came along and established the regional development agencies, but the hon. Lady did not say   whether the Conservatives are for or against them.   Although the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) says that they have not said that they are against the RDAs, their manifesto made it clear that they would abolish them. They say that they have had a change of heart, so perhaps she will tell us whether they will get rid of the RDAs.

We will keep regional Government offices and regional development agencies, and as for the regional assemblies, we will keep them also. They are not as good as assemblies with directly elected members, but people are directly appointed to them. Elected councillors serve on them, so they can make decisions about regional priorities instead of the unelected members of quangos. I think that that is right. That dimension will continue and we will support it, working with local government.

If the Tories are against regional assemblies, it would be useful to hear why they do not tell all their councillors to resign from them—they joined them voluntarily. If
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the Tories do not want them, they can get off them. If they want to be honest, that is what they should do. We will keep the regional assemblies, the regional development agencies and regional government. The regional dimension will form an essential part of this Government's policy to correct the economic differential between the north and south of this country. Let us be clear that that is our intention.

I was a bit surprised that the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) was asking the questions, because we were all waiting for the big man to come in—the hon. Member for North Essex. He was the guy who said that if turnout in the vote got anywhere near 50 per cent., he would eat his hat. I believe that he has eaten it already, so on that he was wrong—just like everything else that the hon. Lady said.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and agree about the professionalism of the officials and police during the process. He knows that Liberal Democrats share his disappointment at the outcome of the referendum, but equally believe that all democrats need to respect the voice of the people, especially when it is spoken so clearly.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister worried that with elected regional assemblies off the immediate political agenda, a growing democratic deficit remains in our regions which needs to be tackled in another way? There are quangos that he inherited from the Conservatives, as he told the House, and quangos that Labour Governments have created and they need to feel the heat of greater accountability. Will he therefore revisit his decision to force through the House and the other place, against Liberal Democrat and Conservative opposition, the taking of strategic planning powers away from county councils? Is not planning one example of powers that can quickly be handed down and given back to local government? Will he set up a cross-departmental review of all elements of Britain's regional bureaucracy to consider how democratic accountability and efficiency can be improved in the absence of directly elected assemblies, especially through stronger local democratic input?

The Deputy Prime Minister knows that from the White Paper on, the Liberal Democrats felt that the regional devolution he was offering was too weak and the package of local government reorganisation too confusing to ensure that the "Yes" vote was maximised. Given that he has come to the House so quickly to discuss the defeat and to tell the House his position, will he at least admit that the Government were wrong on powers and wrong on the linkage with local government reorganisation?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments in support of the people who were involved in running the ballot. I am also grateful that he took part in the debate and for the statement and visit by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy), in support of the regional assembly. I am bound to say, however, that I did not find many more Liberals beyond them who were in favour of it. The others on the ground melted away, so there was no
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great Liberal support. [Interruption.] Well, in the last week of the election you made the statement that you would kill the Bill—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The Deputy Prime Minister must be careful to use the correct parliamentary language.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I must get my procedure right.

In the last week of the election, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) made the front-page statement:

Quite frankly, that is the kind of support I could do without. I had the feeling that the Liberals were with us one moment and against us the next. It is the Liberal flip-flop in British politics, and I should have got used to it by now.

The hon. Gentleman talked about quangos established by us. That is true: the regional development agency is a quango. When I introduced the idea of regional development to the House, I said that we had not yet introduced democratic accountability. That was the purpose of the assembly: to have an elected assembly that subjected those quangos to that accountability.

As for whether there are sufficient powers, those arguments will go on. There has to be an agreement in government about the distribution of powers from Whitehall to the regions. That is inevitable. I gave the best negotiated position that I thought was sufficient. I note that Mayor Livingstone of London came to the area and said that he wished that he had the same powers that we were proposing for the north-east. I just comment on that, him being the mayor of Livingston—I mean Mayor of London.

We will analyse what caused the emphatic defeat, and it was an emphatic defeat, of the idea of a directly elected assembly. Not many Conservatives campaigned against it, however. They were all kept down here, their mouths quiet, and were never involved in the election. I must make it clear that the defeat was not the result of one thing. If one issue did run through the campaign, however, it was that the people felt that it would mean more politicians. I was constantly challenged about that. In fact, there would have been 500 fewer because of the abolition of the councils.

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