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The Deputy Prime Minister: No.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, while this particular proposal might be dead, the principle of devolution most certainly is not. We on this side of the Chamber need take no lectures from the Conservatives on devolution, because when they last occupied the Government Benches, they were the most centralising Government this country had ever seen. When the dust has settled, will my right hon. Friend consider introducing either a White or Green Paper to examine a new constitutional settlement for this country, based on the principle of devolution, to address the regional democratic deficit and to examine the transfer of significantly more powers to local government, including the right to regulate local public transport?

The Deputy Prime Minister: Of course, those were some of the powers that we were considering that the assemblies should have, particularly on a regional basis. I know that my hon. Friend was a little critical of our proposals, but he now wants to renegotiate and discuss them. Fine. I hope that the debate will continue, but I think that the opportunity has been lost. That argument has taken place in the north-east, to a certain extent, although in my view this will still come, in the north-east as well as in Yorkshire and Humberside. In the
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meantime, however, my hon. Friend is right to say that we should now ensure that our local government structure delivers in the best way. The councillors who sit on local authorities already sit in the regional assemblies so, although they are not directly elected to them, they are indirectly elected. That will give them some authority, as opposed to the quangos and civil servants in regional government who make the decisions at the moment.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con): The decision not to proceed with the referendum in the north-west is very welcome and is, in part, a tribute to the North West Says No campaign, which was enthusiastically supported by many Labour MPs. The Deputy Prime Minister has ruled out a referendum in the north-east for seven years. Is he also ruling out a referendum in the north-west for seven years?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The ruling out comes from the statutory obligation that the House imposed on us, but that does not apply to the north-west or to Yorkshire and Humberside, because they have not had referendums. Had they done so, and said no, it could apply. It is therefore possible that if a particular view was developed and assessments were made in the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside, they could still have a referendum. The legislation is there for them to do so if they so wish.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): May I say to the right hon. Gentleman, in the most friendly way, that he will wait a darn sight longer than 20 years to get a yes vote out of Devon and Cornwall? He is into hell freezing over territory there. If he is not going to abolish those unelected bodies that are spending money on our behalf, will he please have a referendum in the south-west? I promise him that he will have good news at that Dispatch Box about the turnout—it will be really high.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I fear that the hon. Lady might be eating her hat as well. She puts Cornwall and Devon together, but if the vote on the decision were held solely in Cornwall, I wonder whether she would be so confident about the result.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): In Wokingham we have a unitary council, thanks to the previous Government, and we would like that council to make the crucial housing and planning decisions that affect our lives. Now that the Deputy Prime Minister has shown that even he cannot push the vote out for elected regional government, will he get rid of the unelected junta in Guildford and give the powers over planning and housing to my local elected councillors, who would do a good job with them?

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about the unelected junta, but it is staffed by many Tories, I understand. Out of 100, 44 Conservatives sit on it. I just make the point that they seem to be actively participating—[Interruption.] There are 44 Tories sitting on it, right? All I am saying is that if the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) looks at the decisions on these regional matters of
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housing and planning—all of them have a regional dimension—he will see that the local authorities, whether unitary or county, are not sufficiently wide to take the regional dimension into account. That is why the Government set up the regional offices to deal with these matters and to find a regional decision. They were right on that and we are right to add democratic accountability to it. I look forward with interest to see how many Tories are going to resign from these assemblies.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): Will the Deputy Prime Minister promise to take seriously the implications of what may be unexpected, but is a substantial and clear expression of opinion by the people? Is he in particular willing to give the people of Scotland and Wales the opportunity to have another referendum to ask whether they wish to retain their devolved Administrations, bearing it in mind that I gained a clear impression from my visits there that people are fed up to the teeth with the cost and bureaucracy of those organisations? Is he willing to give the people of Scotland and Wales a chance to say whether they wish to keep their devolved government?

The Deputy Prime Minister: That matter is something that the people of Scotland and Wales have the choice to develop themselves, if they wish. I note that when devolution was opposed by the Tories, that effectively destroyed the Tory party in Scotland.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Following this excellent expression of common sense by the people of the north-east, and indeed the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), will the Deputy Prime Minister consider giving the people of London a further referendum so that they can express their view on whether they think that this outrageously expensive assembly and Mayor are worth the money spent on them or whether it is time to lay them quietly to rest?

The Deputy Prime Minister: What an absolute cheek from somebody who supported the abolition of the Greater London council with no consideration whatever for the people and now advocates a referendum. Is not the cost a consideration? Is not the democratic mandate? It is hypocrisy we expect from those on the Tory Benches and we get it.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): The Deputy Prime Minister will know that many provisions in a number of recent Government Bills have transferred powers of one sort or another upwards to the regional authorities. There was the expectation or hope—the word can be chosen—that directly elected regional assemblies would be a reality, but now that it is apparent that they will not be a reality for some time, will he, where possible, consider those recently enacted measures and not activate those provisions, which would take power from directly elected local authorities of one sort or another and give it to unelected regional authorities?

The Deputy Prime Minister: First, I am not readily accepting, because there has been one decision in the north-east, that we will not move towards a regional dimension, and eventually an elected one.
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Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman can.

The Deputy Prime Minister: I have accepted the decision and I am giving my judgment. I am entitled to do that; I am still a person with a political view. I am not giving up what I have believed for 30 years, which will eventually come about, as it did in Wales and Scotland.

With regard to the point about powers being taken away from local authorities and some going to the regions, whether they are on planning and the regional dimension, housing, transport or the fire and emergency services, where it is felt that the local authority boundaries are not sufficient to deal with the region-wide considerations, there are regional decisions for which the local authority boundaries are inadequate. I have to say, because the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) was a member of the Government who did it, that the regional government civil servants and the Government offices were set up to deal with that problem because of the inadequacy of the boundaries and powers of local authorities.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise that, if a referendum were held in the east of England in general, and Hertfordshire in particular, it would be defeated not by 4:1 but by 40:1? Does he realise that that is because people resent the transfer of power that has already taken place from local authorities to a more remote and distant regional authority and the efforts by that authority to impose housing targets on Hertfordshire that are wholly unwelcome to its residents? Previously, when Hertfordshire had the opportunity to take such decisions, and a Lib-Lab county council tried to impose building on the green belt, we were able to defeat it at the ballot box and change the policy. We want those powers back at county level, so that we can determine our own future.

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