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Mr. Pickles: They did not believe you.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I am just giving the facts. The people decided that they did not like the idea of more politicians. Perhaps the council tax played its part in that, even though it would have meant a £12 million saving, with 10 more councils abolished. [Interruption.] I accept their decision, but I can have a different view. That is why I introduced the Bill. However, the people have spoken and I am now reacting to that. I accept their decision and I am reporting it to Parliament.

Sir Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough) (Lab): The House will welcome the statement by the Deputy Prime Minister that there will be a continuing agenda of reform and devolution for local government. He referred to powers that we have given back to local
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authorities to promote the well-being of their communities. Does he recall his visit to Middlesbrough with the Prime Minister, when he saw a community in action at a community council, where the people told him that those powers had given power back to the people, and that their community had been enormously improved as a result? Will he reiterate that there will be a continuing decentralisation and devolution of those powers to local communities so that they can all benefit from the actions of a Labour Government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I certainly can. I well remember my visit and the meeting that I chaired with my hon. Friend, where there was great support for the proposal. The reality is that the decision was still 8:2 against us and, whether I like it or not, I must face up to that. However, I can assure him that decentralisation and reform of local government will continue. The democratic point, albeit important, was only one part of modernisation and reform. I do not know—eventually, people may come round to accepting that unelected individuals should not make decisions for them, and decide that they want elected individuals. However, the people have spoken in the north-east, and at this stage they do not want a regional assembly. If politicians are to be worth anything they must take that into account.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the people of the north-east the hearty congratulations of their neighbours in North Yorkshire, who would have voted no in equal or even greater proportions if the referendum there had gone ahead? Does he accept that one reason for the public rejection of those ideas is that, except where whole tiers of government have been abolished without replacement, people's experience of local government reorganisation under successive Governments is one of vast expenditure with very few benefits to show afterwards? Could he not do a great deal for long-term respect for local democracy and civic pride in local institutions, as well as enable councils to get on with the job in the way that he described earlier, by declaring the whole era of local government reorganisation to be well and truly over?

The Deputy Prime Minister: No, I do not accept that   for one moment. It was under the previous Administration, who abolished 18 councils, that costs became really extraordinary. Most people who speak about the evidence of reorganisation of local government refer to the way in which it was done under a past Administration, when 18 councils were abolished without any consideration. I therefore do not accept that we have reached an ideal stage in local government. We stand for unitary authorities, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. [Interruption.] Well, it is our policy and we believe in unitary authorities. Curiously, the Tories in England say that they do not like unitary authorities—they want to keep the counties—so why did they force them on Scotland without any consultation whatsoever or even leaving the issue to be decided by the Scottish Parliament or an assembly? As for the right hon. Gentleman's point that the vote would be bigger in Yorkshire, I do not know whether that would be the case. However, in the Welsh referendum in 1979, there was an even bigger defeat for people who
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wanted devolution. Twenty years later, however, they came back and voted for it when they realised its full benefit.

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby) (Lab): May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement? Returning to the issue of scrutiny that should be afforded Parliament, the Regional Affairs Committee meets very infrequently. Does he foresee the possibility of looking at arrangements for that Committee, and perhaps extending them to allow Select Committee-type powers for areas such as Yorkshire and the Humber, the north-east, the north-west and other English regions to make sure that Parliament scrutinises those regional bodies?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. I have been a Member of Parliament for over 30 years, although some people want me to go now, and have witnessed demands in the House and the Chamber to set up various regional committees. I have always supported those demands, but the House does not have a very good record of providing much influence or power to Members, and we are told that there is no time for debate. The last regional debate was on the northern way, when one Tory turned up. Despite demands for Parliament to deal with regional affairs, the evidence, I am afraid, is against such a role. I am supportive of my hon. Friend, but the pressure of time on this legislature is one reason why people in the regions should make their own decisions. We have neither the time nor frankly the inclination to debate regional matters in the Chamber.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that one of the unbridgeable problems in the referendum was the colossal gap between the rhetoric that was used to describe the proposed devolution and the powers that would have accompanied it? Was not that because the Government—least of all the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister—never made up their mind on what powers they wanted to devolve, so the Deputy Prime Minister spent the last few days of the campaign scratching around for any powers that he could beg, borrow or steal to make the proposals look substantial? Is not the lesson that, with future policies, the Government as a whole need to make up their mind on what they want and to concede to people substance, not shadows?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The House recognises that the right hon. Gentleman is a fair man in his appraisal of these matters and knows a great deal about local authority and regional issues. In fact, he was one of the few Conservatives to say that, if the assembly had more powers, he would vote for it. That was certainly his position, if not that of his Front Benchers. The powers were clearly set out in the White Paper and the question whether they were enough was constantly debated in the House. We went further than the White Paper on fire, planning arrangements and transport. Some might argue that the assembly should be a parliament with the powers that we have. That is fair enough. We tried to
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strike a balance between local authorities, Whitehall and Westminster, and that is what we tried to explain to people. However, the question of powers was not the main issue. To be honest, people were mostly concerned about whether they wanted another layer of the decision-making process. The question that constantly came up was, "Does this mean that there will be another tier, that we are going to pay for it and that there will be more politicians?" It did not matter that I could show that that was not so, because they had reached their conclusion and that was it—they thought that it would be a white elephant.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on his work on this over the years. His quest to extend democracy is an honourable one, and he should be congratulated on it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, as recently as this morning, constituents have contacted me to ask for more democratic control of local services privatised by the Conservatives? Is not there still a case for extending democracy to the regions and localities, and can we look for other ways of doing that?

The Deputy Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks. I noted that, immediately after the result was announced, even the no campaign was saying, "We still need to find ways to deal with this issue", and that has continued. I have even heard voices calling for national conventions, which is precisely what happened in Scotland and Wales. I do not support that, but I would sooner hear what people have to say about it. The no campaigners have started to wonder whether they have missed an opportunity. They voted against it, but now they are saying, "Can we have something, albeit different, after all?" I have to ask whether they are whistling in the wind.

We will continue to reform the local government structure. We will devolve more powers downwards by strengthening regional development agencies, regional government and assemblies. For the moment, that will have to be the way forward for the north-east.

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