HC Deb 15 June 1999 vol 333 cc145-6
8. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

If it is the policy of the Government to plan for directly elected regional assemblies in England. [85786]

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)

We remain committed to directly elected regional government in England where there is demand for it. Meanwhile, the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom continue to be properly covered by the present organisation of the United Kingdom Government.

Mr. Cousins

Is it not plain that once the people of regions such as the north-east, Yorkshire, the north-west and the south-west see assemblies in Wales, Scotland and, in due course, London discussing their needs and budgets with central Government, the demand for directly elected assemblies in their own regions will be very strong? It is a time for leadership; there must be leadership, and the Government must indicate clearly what plans and what sort of timetable they are considering, so that we can ask our people to support the proposals in a referendum.

Mr. Caborn

I am sure that my hon. Friend knows the Government's position. We have set up regional development agencies, which are there to address the economic deficit that, unfortunately, exists in our English regions. We are now establishing regional chambers, which, in the main, will be in the public sector. The legislation governing regional development agencies will mean that they must cross-check with the regional chambers, and that proper consultation must take place.

We believe that we are managing the changes involved in devolution very effectively. I hope that the RDAs and the regional chambers will gain the confidence of people in the regions, and that when those people are given an opportunity to say whether they want further devolution, they will say that they do.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

How far has the Government's enthusiasm for regional assemblies been diluted by the disastrous turnout in the European elections?

Mr. Caborn

Not at all.

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

Not only is this positively my last appearance, but it must be clear to the House that this afternoon I am on borrowed time.

I am glad to take the opportunity to wish the Minister for Transport well in her new post. I also thank the Secretary of State for his generous remarks to me during the last Environment questions, and for the impeccable way in which, throughout the past year, he has observed the parliamentary procedures and courtesies. I wish him interesting encounters with my successor, who will respond to today's statement on London Transport.

Do the Government intend a system of proportional representation to be used to elect regional assemblies? Given that, if a first-past-the-post system had been used in the recent European elections, the Labour party's performance would have been even more disastrous than it was, do not the Government face a dilemma? Would they not be better advised to abandon their ill-conceived notion of imposing on the electorate yet another reason for Labour voters not to turn out?

Mr. Caborn

We have no reason to go back on the decisions that were made, which the British electorate supported at the 1997 general election. We will come through. We are not a "here today, gone tomorrow" party, moving around the political spectrum as some Opposition Members do. We do not know what their policies are, because they alter them from day to day, let alone from week to week. We will manage the change—a change that we believe to be in the country's interests, because it addresses both the economic and the democratic deficits.

I wish the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) well. I think, however, that not a new face but a very old one will be taking over from her.