HC Deb 08 February 2000 vol 344 cc111-2
12. Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

When he will set a date for a referendum on the setting up of a regional assembly for the north-east of England. [107318]

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Ms Hilary Armstrong)

The Government are committed to moving to directly elected regional government in England, demonstrated in a referendum. The north-east is strengthening its regional presence through the work of ONE NorthEast, the north-east regional assembly, and other regional stakeholders.

Mr. Beith

Does the Minister recognise the need for those bodies to have some democratic accountability, and the desire of people in the north-east to have a strong regional voice, which can press for the sort of funding that Scotland receives for its public services? Am I to conclude from the fact that she, not the Deputy Prime Minister, is answering the question, that the right hon. Gentleman is believed to have gone too far over the top in insisting that the Prime Minister has not gone off the idea and that we will have a referendum on a Parliament for the north-east in a reasonable period of time?

Ms Armstrong

There is no division between us. We, as a Government, are determined to move forward with regional policy. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we established the Northern Development Company and our own regional assembly in the north-east more than 10 years ago. We did that in the face of opposition by the previous Tory Government. It would be interesting to know what the Tories would do in the north-east, where the institutions that I mentioned were developed by people in the region. Conservative Members continue to say that they will get rid of them. Will they really do that?

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's repetition of the pledge that we are moving towards democratic government in the north-east and, hopefully, other regions. People like me have campaigned passionately for that for more than 20 years because we want to tackle the long-term economic, health and education inequalities of our region. We do not do it because we want to break Britain up, but because we want to bring it closer together.

Ms Armstrong

I know that. I have campaigned alongside my hon. Friend for many years for a decent regional policy. The Government are committed to that. We shall continue to develop our policy because we want the regions of this country to have the sustainable growth that will enable the whole country to develop steadier and more sustainable growth. That will mean that all people, wherever they live, will get the opportunities that they deserve.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Will the Minister explain the impact of that wholly unnecessary layer of government on traditional and existing local government?

Ms Armstrong

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman has not recognised or realised that local government very much supports regional development and the Local Government Association is holding hearings on precisely that issue. Indeed, 105 Tory councillors are involved in regional assemblies and many of them are also involved in regional development agencies. They support it; their party does not.

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