HC Deb 21 June 2000 vol 352 cc421-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Allen.]

8.50 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am delighted to have secured tonight's Adjournment debate on the Government's policy towards the regions and I am pleased to open the debate earlier than many of us had anticipated. When I was preparing for this debate, a number of hon. Members asked me to mention Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. In view of their requests and by popular demand, I shall not disappoint hon. Members who may read the debate tomorrow, or may indeed be following it elsewhere.

My purpose tonight is to probe the Government's plans for the devolution of power to the regions, particularly in relation to Labour's manifesto commitments. There will, be no surprises for the Minister because, in the spirit of constructive dialogue, I have done my best to ensure that she is aware of the issues that I intend to raise. Do the Government plan to establish regional assemblies and if so, what timetable will apply to them? How do any such proposals relate to discussions here and elsewhere about the appointment of city mayors? What plans do the Government have, if it is perceived that the establishment of regional assemblies would result in too many layers of Government, and which layers, if any, should be removed?

Will there be an opportunity to debate the Government's definition of the regions? I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate in April 1998 and I should like to pursue some of the questions that I raised then. What factors will be considered in such a debate? I intend to probe the Government's intentions, raise a few technical questions about objective 1 regions and encourage the Government to engage in an agenda that is all about the celebration of distinctiveness, and to welcome difference across this diverse land which is the United Kingdom.

A brief trip to Iceland last year with the Select Committee on Agriculture brought into sharp focus my growing concern about Cornwall's slide over the precipice into extinction. Icelandic people are proud and distinctive. Their pride and distinctiveness is the bedrock from which they can concentrate on their priorities and on success. Since achieving independence from Denmark in 1944, this relatively poor island has become one of the wealthiest nations on earth. It has a higher gross domestic product per person than not only the United Kingdom, but France, Germany and Japan. It has achieved low inflation and a high standard of living. It has one of the highest life expectancy levels in the world and enviable economic prospects for the future. Yet the population of Iceland is only 270,000—little more than half the population of Cornwall, which is about 500,000. Places such as Cornwall should learn lessons from this, but Cornwall seems to be drifting in the other direction.

I am not suggesting that Cornwall should declare independence—that would be absurd, unrealistic and patently unobtainable. However, Cornwall and Scilly might learn that, through being clear about our strengths, knowing what we want to achieve, standing up for ourselves and going out there determined to succeed, we might be taking destiny by the scruff of the neck instead of sleepwalking into oblivion with our cap in our hand.

As a Cornishman, I have always respected the noble art of self-deprecation. Some say that it is a chronic and untreatable condition, brought on by centuries of deference to the Saxons, since King Athelstan drew a line at the River Tamar between England and Cornwall in 936.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)


Mr. George

The hon. Gentleman says "Shame", but it is a historical fact. Perhaps the king concluded at that point that the Cornish were not worth the effort of inevitable annihilation.

But perhaps it is time to turn self-doubt into self-belief. Once honourably distinctive, Cornwall now runs the risk of becoming indistinguishable. It faces the paradox of being one of the most distinctive regions in the United Kingdom while its services are more merged with others than anywhere else.

The record of recent years shows that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food office has moved to Exeter, the Camborne police operations room is to move to Plymouth, and the Cornwall careers service, magistrates court and learning and skills council have all merged with services in Devon. The Government have plans to merge Cornwall's probation service, and there are fears that the fire service will go the same way. A number of Labour party spokespeople who came to Cornwall during the election campaign supported the call for a Cornish development agency, but in fact, when the agency came, it was for a standardised region of the south-west.

The worry is what will happen next. Will education, social and health services be merged and amalgamated as well? If so, that would leave Cornwall as little more than a souped-up parish council. The contrast with Iceland could hardly be more stark. While a country with a population half that of Cornwall forges on relentlessly to greater and greater success, Cornwall cannot even plan its own training for post-16s, manage its magistrates court, advise its young people on their future career, manage its police service, plan the development of its economy, organise support for its farming and fishing industries or manage a whole range of other subordinate services.

The conventional arguments against a place such as Cornwall thinking, planning and acting for itself, even on these relatively insignificant matters, are that it is too small, it does not have the clout in the corridors of power, and it cannot achieve the economies of scale. As time goes on, such justifications ring more hollow. It is the modern equivalent of the emperor's new clothes—justifications are repeated, mantra-fashion, as the unquestioned and accepted wisdom of the day.

I need to make it clear that the people of Cornwall absolutely love the people of Devon and the wider south-west. They are wonderful people, and Devon is the most beautiful county in England. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) will be pleased to hear me say that. It is unquestionably true that there is love and strong regard there, one for the other.

I am not saying that Cornwall should not co-operate with other areas on a project-by-project basis. If I may continue with the metaphor of human relationships, the occasional liaison with other areas, Devon or elsewhere, can bring renewed vitality, but an enforced marriage can kill off any lust to succeed, and usually ends in tears.

Whether it is the Government's intention gradually to merge Cornwall into extinction, or whether it is not intentional, it is only right that we have an opportunity to debate it rather than having things slip away over time. It is not that I believe that we in Cornwall should join the tiny handful of certifiable people who want Cornwall to be cut off from the rest of the world—quite the opposite. It is time for Cornwall to cut itself in on the action happening around the United Kingdom, Europe and elsewhere. Cornwall has much to contribute to the celebration of diversity in Britain, in Europe and in the wider world.

Naturally, I welcome and applaud the Government's devolution achievements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London. I also welcome the recent establishment of the campaign for the English regions. I hope that exciting development will prosper. I am pleased that the north-east constitutional convention and the campaign for the north-east seem to represent the settled will in that area. The campaign for Yorkshire and the Humber and the west midlands and north-west constitutional conventions are unquestionably exciting developments and should be encouraged. I hope that the Government will do what they can to promote them.

I am concerned, however, that uncritical acceptance of the Government's standardised regions could ultimately undermine those initiatives. I have just received a letter from the campaign for the English regions in Newcastle, inviting me to the inaugural meeting of the south-west constitutional convention steering group. In Cornwall, the routine and resounding uninterest and apathy with which the general populace of that standardised region respond may serve only to encourage such initiatives.

If we explain to people the prospects of devolving power—which the majority of people in the House and in the country would support—in the existing regions rather than in standardised regions, we stand a rather greater chance of success. In Cornwall, most normal folk demonstrate a degree of enthusiasm and patriotism for the standardised Government region of the south-west that extends to being able barely to stifle a yawn at the merest hint of the subject.

It is interesting that, as an enthusiastic decentralist, I attended the recent House of Commons launch of the campaign for the English regions in order gently to point out what was unfortunate in an otherwise good cause. At that launch, we were presented with some magnificent achievements, mainly in the north of England, which we all welcome. However, the pressing questions were about when the assemblies could be set up, what powers they would have and how they would relate to local government, quangos and so on. It was exciting stuff.

I was concerned that we were getting carried away. I felt like the boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. I did not want to be churlish, but I had to ask: What do we do if the region doesn't actually exist? The question was met with stunned incomprehension. To many people, it was tantamount to asking whether we could redefine the boundaries of God—a question that one does not ask.

I felt that the question needed to be asked. I have to acknowledge that the good people of Yorkshire are lucky. The Government region defined for bureaucratic convenience happened to coincide, more or less, with a region that had its own recognisable identity. It was the same in other areas to a greater or lesser extent. For Cornwall and Scilly, however, the so-called south-west is a Soviet-style construction for people who are happy to be dragooned into a soulless bureaucracy without a shred of identity.

The campaign enthusiasts thought that I should be asking how soon a south-west campaign could be started. However, it would not make sense. Why destroy a region that has a unifying identity—Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly—only to create a synthetic region without an identity? It simply does not make sense.

Those of us who are concerned about the increasing apathy and low turnouts at elections have a double reason to give the creation of standardised regions not a single crumb of comfort or encouragement. The pathetically low turnouts at the latest local elections and the poor turnout at the European elections will surely be eclipsed by new heights of lethargy among an unimpressed electorate faced with bland, uniform and characterless regions. Electors would stay at home in droves if we went ahead with the standardisation of devolution in that way. I am not against decentralisation, but it must be done correctly.

If we were to decentralise powers from an over-centralised state, we should give them to places and regions that actually exist—to territories that people give a damn about. We should ensure that in the enthusiasm to decentralise, we do not simply replace a uniform state with bland and uniform regions purely for bureaucratic convenience.

For Cornwall, the only region is Cornwall—and Scilly, if it were to choose to come on board and have its distinctiveness respected. However, that idea faces such established misunderstandings that it is difficult to take so-called conventional wisdom much beyond a mindless "base camp". The first criticism is always one that dismisses and diminishes the concept. The argument goes, "Don't be silly. You can't be serious," but if one considers the alternatives, the idea is the only serious option available.

Secondly, we are told that such a notion is inconvenient; it is too late, and would cause too many problems—and where would it leave everyone else? However, that argument fails to recognise that decentralisation in its proper form can be untidy. A settlement that reflects community identity and idiosyncrasy does not fall neatly into uniform bureaucratic patterns.

The third criticism—and the one most often made—is that Cornwall is too small. It has a population of about 500,000 when, according to the Government, standardised regions are supposed to have populations 10 times that size. Our problem is that we in the UK have become too insular in our outlook. If we lift our sights above the narrow horizons of the UK, we need only look at regions in Europe and elsewhere to see that regions and provinces vary in size.

A recent brief visit to Canada demonstrated that point to me. Provinces such as Prince Edward Island with a population of 138,000, New Brunswick with one of 755,000, Newfoundland with a population similar to that of Cornwall, and Nova Scotia with a population of 939,000, all have the same powers as Quebec and Ontario, which have populations of 7.3 million and 11.5 million respectively. When service delivery, such as specialist medical services, requires economies of scale or a large critical mass, that presents no problem. Administrators in Canada say that the problem is easily overcome by co-operation between the provinces.

Even the criticism that a Cornish region would be too insular does not stand up to analysis. Any such initiative would open up opportunities for Cornwall in a wider world. Instead of cutting it off, it would enable it to cut itself in—to the celebration of diversity that I mentioned earlier.

The primary downside is that such an initiative might give succour to a handful of people with dubious and certifiable views about Cornwall and the Cornish as a race. Such people are few in number and there would be no tolerance of such views. The prospect of compulsory kilt wearing and constant reference to genealogy would soon become tiresome.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), agrees with the proposal. Our party policy is that we should not have a set size for regions and that it is acceptable to have variable speed, variable powers, variable geography and variable size. That would help to create a distinctive relationship with the centre—the relationship between a place and central Government. We do not always need to use the same format and the same uniform approach. There is significant support for that view in Cornwall.

In recent weeks, 1,600 people in my constituency alone have signed documents, written letters and lobbied on this matter. Since I was elected, not one person in Cornwall, or in the Isles of Scilly, which are in my constituency, has lobbied me or written to me demanding that a standardised south-west regional assembly be set up.

Cornwall has opportunities. It has achieved European objective 1 status, and all those involved in securing that, especially the Government, must be congratulated. That result was also due to a popular campaign in Cornwall, and those who were in the area when it was at its height would have seen thousands of people supporting it. That required a statistical, but amicable, divorce from Devon, which allowed the distinctiveness of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly to win through. The Government must be congratulated on that.

We now have an opportunity to build on our geographical strengths and our distinctiveness so that we can establish our own brand identity, culture and community, which are necessary to sell Cornish produce. However, we can do that only if our distinctiveness is properly recognised.

As the Minister knows, I want assurances from her. I accept that the Government genuinely intend to simplify the processes involved, but objective 1 regions are finding it difficult to achieve a simplified approach. Ideally, there should be a single point of entry and a single application form for the objective 1 programme, which has been achieved in Ireland and Brittany.

The separate budget heads mean problems of accountability, both in the UK and in Europe. Objective 1 partners are meant to implement joined-up government policies on the ground, but there are four structural funds in Europe, for which four commissioners are responsible. That is not the Government's fault, but within the UK, six Government Departments have an interest in the objective 1 regions. The Department of Trade and Industry even has separate silos of funding in its own department. What is the Government's thinking about the move towards simplification and the empowerment of partners in objective 1 regions?

Since they secured objective 1 status, Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have realised that their own distinctiveness must be grasped and enhanced, and their agenda must be taken forward in a positive celebratory way that uplifts and inspires the community and the economy, and that process must be inclusive. We should be taking advantage of the opportunity to make our case, rather than having it dismissed, patronised or undermined. If that distinctiveness is not harnessed for good, it could be driven down and diverted for bad.

In recent months, for example, there has been concern in Cornwall about the vandalism and daubing out of signs and logos on the roadside and at some heritage monuments. The sign of the English rose for tourist destinations and the English Heritage sign have been affected. The two organisations responsible for those logos perhaps need to recognise that Cornwall is passionate about its distinctiveness, and many of its heritage sites were lived in and vacated long before Athelstan drew the line at the Tamar.

There is a great opportunity to develop the sense of distinctiveness in Cornwall, rather than having people express their frustration negatively through vandalism. We want to be inclusive, but we also want that distinctiveness to be recognised and harnessed, and it would not take a lot for the Government to do that. We want to unlock the door to a positive future. We want to build on the opportunity of distinctiveness rather than see it submerged in uniformity.

Perhaps the Minister will accept that the Government, certainly in recent months, have been susceptible to being criticised for control freakery. They have a chance to change that by loosening up and allowing communities and wider society to engage in a debate about diversity. In the spirit of constructive dialogue, I implore her to accept and support our agenda. We should recognise that standardisation does not help and that diversity is a good thing—something we can celebrate.

9.16 pm
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I shall not detain the House for more than a few minutes, although my remarks are slightly longer than an intervention. I support many of the comments made by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George). The Cornish are the west Welsh, who happen to have been cut off by an unfortunate accident of history. They lost the wrong battle at the wrong time. The Cornish are excellent engineers—they built many of the lead and silver mines in my constituency—and the hon. Gentleman must be congratulated on engineering such a long Adjournment debate on regional policy. He is a worthy successor to Trevithick in that respect.

I was concerned to hear that people in the hon. Gentleman's land—his nation, his county—using some spurious Celtic reasoning, want the kilt to be introduced. I am afraid that we have similar people in Wales, but I hope that we can form a Celtic alliance against such fashion fads and spurious ideas. The substance of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, however, was not spurious, nor historical forgery nor some Celtic daydreaming. What he had to say was extremely important for the future of regional policy in England, and I hope that the House will accept a few remarks from Wales on that subject.

What is a nation and what is a region is a matter of historical accident. The European Union has set up the Committee of the Regions to look after the regions in Europe, and a number of areas that are represented, such as Lombardy and Saxony, were once kingdoms. They are now regions in the EU. Luxembourg was once nothing more than a small minor region, but for some reason it has become a nation state. To take a lesson from Wales, after the Act of Union a part of Wales called Monmouth was unfortunately included in the Oxford judicial circuit. For four centuries, there was a wrestling match as to whether Monmouth was part of Wales or not, and it was not settled until the 1960s, with the establishment of the Welsh Office.

There is a lesson there for people in Cornwall and the south-west of England. They should identify with the real regions and not allow institutions and the Government to decide for them how their institutions should be organised. If the people of Cornwall want to stand up for Cornwall as an area for regional government, their voice should be clearly heard. If the Government are trying to increase public participation in government, in local elections and in the regional government to come—I think that they are intensely serious about that—the regions that are set up must identify with the people who live in them. Those regions must also identify with the communities.

I welcome the moves to regional government in England, which can only help devolution throughout the United Kingdom and support diverse and distinct communities. I was saddened when the hon. Member for St. Ives painted a picture of the destruction of Cornish institutions. I understand that Cornwall does not have a university, and that Cornish institutions have been sucked in by greater regionalisation. In Wales, we have had a long, hard battle for the past century, starting with the battle to disestablish the Church in Wales, to have institutions in Wales that reflect what the Welsh people want from their institutions. It led in time to a greater demand for self-government. The hon. Gentleman may not be ready for that yet—perhaps in a century's time!

Institutions at the right regional level build self-confidence and pride, and economic confidence can follow. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the Minister want to see Cornwall emerge from the situation, which Wales shares, in which we need objective 1 money to build for the future and a strengthened economy. That involves building a sense of pride into the area. One of the key steps is to have institutions at regional level that reflect and channel that pride and energy.

I welcome the debate and the comments by the hon. Gentleman, and I give him my support from across the water. Indeed, only last week, I signed the petition for a Cornish assembly, although it was sponsored by another party in Cornwall; he may not take that approach. If the Government want regional government to work, they must put the right institutions in place. They must allow regional government to reflect the way people feel in their communities, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman's views will be heard by the Government.

9.21 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

For a debate on Government policy on the regions, we have reached some philosophical heights tonight, and I shall do my best to respond without straying beyond my departmental brief. Feelings are obviously strong, and I acknowledge that. I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) for his courtesy in letting me know some of the areas that he wished to cover, because that was helpful. I congratulate him on obtaining the debate, which is an opportunity—at perhaps more leisure than he would normally have had—to raise some of the issues he mentioned. It is good that he has been able to do so.

The hon. Gentleman started by talking about directly elected regional assemblies, and he wanted clarification of the Government's policy. He knows that the Government's longer-term policy—reflecting our commitment to the principles and practical implementation of devolution and decentralisation, which we have already demonstrated with what we have achieved—is to provide for the establishment of democratically elected regional assemblies in the English regions, where there is popular demand as demonstrated by referendums.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

Does the Minister accept that it is possible that existing regional development agencies may respond to more than one regional assembly?

Ms Hughes

If that is a point about the existing boundaries, and whether in the future a regional development agency might cover more than one area governed by a regional assembly, I have to say that at the moment we do not have a blueprint for those assemblies or a time scale for their introduction. Those policies have not yet been drawn up. I would imagine, however, that in time the assemblies would be expected to become accountable for a range of strategic issues and bodies at the regional level. That is a point to which I shall return in responding to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for St. Ives.

We may not yet have a blueprint, but I assure hon. Members that that does not mean that we are not thinking about it. For example, on regional government in England, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has produced the first stage of a review of literature and research findings, which has broadly considered the international evidence on the range of different models of directly elected regional assemblies and their functions. We are just about to publish that first research document, which will be followed by others. We are beginning our thinking by looking at provision in other countries—some of those the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and also more widely in Europe.

Mr. George

Does the Minister know whether the document will deal with the question of size and its variability? She has not yet mentioned that issue.

Ms Hughes

The document is the first stage of some longer-term research. We are looking at what exists internationally and thus considering not only different models of directly elected assemblies but different sizes of population covered and the different functions that have been ascribed to such bodies. When the document is published, the hon. Gentleman will see that there is much diversity in the models, range of functions and sizes of population for which directly elected assemblies in different countries are responsible. That is one of our starting points.

The hon. Gentleman asked how directly elected assemblies would work with the existing layers of democratically elected local and central government. He asked whether, for instance, a tier of government would be removed to provide for regional government. We are not in the business of adding to government specifically, but we want to make government better. I agree with the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) that that means bringing it close to the people. There must be a democratic mandate.

If there is such a mandate for a directly elected assembly, our policy, as we have demonstrated, would be to draw down functions from the centre, not pull them in from the localities. That would be the direction of our thinking. It is too early to say what that would mean in practice for each region, but we would need to take careful note of what people in each of the regions think. Several options needs to be explored before decisions are made. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives accepts that.

Our basic starting point is that regional government not only cannot happen, but will not increase democratic participation—the hon. Gentleman made this point—without popular consensus, understanding and support among local people. To achieve that, we must be satisfied that people in the regions are absolutely clear about the aims, functions and expectations of any new regional tier, so that they feel motivated to support it.

Mr. George

In view of that, has the Department or the Minister had an opportunity to review any lessons learned from last year's European elections when, for the first time, they were based on the standardised Government regions and in which, certainly in most areas, there was concern about low turnout?

Ms Hughes

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is trying to draw me into a debate on some form or other of proportional representation as a means of increasing democratic participation, but I shall not be drawn down that route. He will know that the aim of increasing participation in local, European and, indeed, national elections concerns us. Turnouts in local elections and, in some areas, European elections are of great concern. We need to address that issue because as politicians we cannot feel that we have much of a mandate unless more people participate in elections.

The hon. Member for St. Ives briefly raised the question of how regional government might relate to our proposals for city mayors. I welcome the opportunity to comment on that. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Local Government Bill provides for strong mayors—possibly city mayors—based on existing local authority areas and functions. That raises some interesting questions. We share the public's belief, revealed in a number of surveys, that mayors offer a good prospect of rejuvenation of local democracy in some areas. City mayors have the potential to be important players on the regional scene.

Debates about regional governance have to engage with the local agenda. Through the Local Government Bill and the opportunities it provides, we are deliberately attempting to create the potential for greater plurality and fluidity in the democratic landscape at regional and sub-regional level. We have started from the belief that if we can infuse some diversity into our democratic arrangements, we are likely to arrive at different arrangements in different areas which are more likely to engage local people. We are approaching a state of fluidity.

Through the Local Government Bill, we are attempting to strengthen local authorities and give them a power of well-being and some strategic responsibilities, and to enable the establishment of elected mayors. In all of that, we are trying to change the stultified and unified form of local democratic structures. The implications for the future of regional government are that different arrangements will unfold in different regions. To the extent that that was the thrust of the argument advanced by the hon. Member for St. Ives, I agree with him.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I would recommend the Spanish model. That country had to learn how democracy functions very quickly; it did so by allowing its different regions to develop at different speeds. It is no use asking the Spanish how it works: their response would be, "It works." Rather than look at all the concepts and theories, they simply allow their democracy to flourish.

Ms Hughes

My hon. Friend makes a very valid point, citing an extremely interesting example.

With devolution at a higher level in Wales and Scotland, and our efforts to strengthen local government and create fluidity, a climate is generated in which we cannot foresee the way in which the political landscape at regional and sub-regional level will pan out. We are providing for difference and diversity. Perhaps the end result will not be what the hon. Member for St. Ives wants, but we are creating the potential for different arrangements to be arrived at according to different time scales in different parts of the country. We shall have to wait and see how that works out. A key element in any future arrangement will be local people's perception of what is right for their area.

We have begun by creating regional development agencies to address urgent economic and regeneration issues in the regions. They are beginning to have a considerable impact, both individually within each region, and collectively to even out performance as between the regions. People will want take into account the RDAs' impact if and when they decide whether they want to go further and establish directly elected assemblies. The extent to which a local RDA has an impact will have a bearing on the formulation of local people's views on that issue.

In addition, we now have chambers in all the eight regions. It is important to mention those, as they are widely inclusive partnerships of all the stakeholders. They are not directly elected, but they comprise the elected representatives of the constituent authorities. They are developing an interesting role in different parts of the country and they are certainly adding value in many areas. The south-west of England regional chamber, in particular, has worked closely and constructively with the South West of England regional development agency on economic strategy and is working on planning guidance. The agencies have a real role to play.

One of the core arguments of the hon. Gentleman's speech concerned what he referred to as the Government's "definition" of the regions. When we drew up the boundaries of the regional development agencies, we decided to base them on the areas covered by Government offices for the regions. Obviously, there were administrative and common-sense reasons for doing so. The boundaries already existed and had become familiar building blocks to constituent institutions, such as local authorities, and the areas offered population levels at which it was felt that regional economic strategies could make a difference.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman's comment about the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster), who leads for the Liberal Democrats on policy in this area—the hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friend was now convinced that regions could be of different sizes and have different boundaries from those of Government offices and RDAs. One of the key points in a paper produced by one regional Liberal Democrat party in January on directly elected regional assemblies was that such assemblies would take over from the RDA and the Government office. That implies a clear acceptance of the existing regional boundaries.

I accept politically all that the hon. Gentleman said about celebrating diversity and difference and about that being an important part of our national heritage and cultural life. I would add another argument to his analysis, however, as I do not think that that celebration necessarily requires that all the administrative and strategic structures should be coterminous with the area one thinks has a clear coherent cultural identity.

Another question that we need to ask, in terms of a democratically elected institution, or an organisation such as an RDA, for example, is what the regional structure is for. There are questions about the sort of strategic decision making and the area for which it is sensible to think about that—whether it is for transport, economic development and regeneration or whatever. What sort of area is it sensible for the institutions to cover to have the scope to make the sort of strategic decisions that will have an impact on the people who live there?

Mr. George

I do not know where the paper to which the Minister referred came from, but I spoke to the Liberal Democrat party's official spokesman before this debate and party policy is certainly clear, as I set out.

On the subject on which the hon. Lady was elaborating, does she accept that there is a potential conflict? I mentioned branding. Clearly, a place with a distinctive identity could use it for economic purposes and gain. However, if a region without an identity surrounds it and wants to establish its own identity, there could be a conflict. It would be far better to establish a region that recognises cultural diversity because there are clear economic as well as administrative benefits.

Ms Hughes

In response to the hon. Gentleman, I am minded to cite my region in the north-west. The regional development agency, and any future directly elected assembly, will cover the north-west region. The organisations involved in the convention are not discussing any boundary other than the existing north-west Government office boundary as a suitable boundary for any future directly elected assembly.

Within that area, there is no difficulty with Manchester, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, Liverpool and parts of Cheshire and Lancashire having, for other purposes, under the umbrella of the north-west region, their own clear branding and institutions of their own to market and propagate that branding for inward investment purposes. From my experience, there does not seem to be a contradiction. Sub-regions may have distinct identities and may perform certain functions and yet be part of a larger region that might be necessary for other strategic purposes. It may make sense to have the scale of population, area or resources of the larger region, to bring about the changes that will benefit all the people in all the sub-regional divisions.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I know that he comes to the debate with a great deal of feeling. I acknowledge that, but I point out to him another argument. Noting and celebrating cultural diversity does not necessarily mean that the area that is culturally distinct must, for all purposes, have its own directly elected body or administrative agency. The celebration of diversity and difference is entirely compatible with a wider regional identity for other strategic purposes for which that makes sense.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned objective 1, the control of bureaucracy and red tape, and the possibility of a single point of entry as a means of overcoming problems that existed in the past. The Government office will provide a single point of entry for project applications, although discussion is still taking place with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. There are still issues to be resolved, but the Government office is working hard to achieve a single point of entry.

I am delighted that Cornwall and Scilly have secured objective 1 status. As the hon. Gentleman knows, that will bring in a substantial amount of additional money over the next seven years. That will offer an important opportunity to help to turn around Cornwall's economy. There is great potential for the local partners to have a say in the programmes and projects through which the money will be spent and change will be achieved.

In the various initiatives that we have taken, particularly the new deal for communities, and continuing through the strategy for neighbourhood renewal, it is a hallmark of this Government that we have learned the lessons of the past. Such projects and programmes are not sustainable unless they are owned by the people whom they affect, and unless the people feel that they have a real stake in what is done and the way in which it is done. Through the priority management groups and the programme monitoring committee, which is made up of representatives of the various sectors within the region, the local partners will have a substantial say.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government seem intent on the gradual extinction of Cornwall, but we have no such objective. We certainly do not want Cornwall to become extinct. We want it to continue to celebrate its many strengths and to build on those to the benefit of its people. For the reasons that I have outlined, I cannot say here and now that, in future, Cornwall will have its own directly elected assembly; but the Government are not into control freakery. We want the communities in the regions to engage in the process of enhancing democratic participation and to feel that they have a stake in the future of their area, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the Government are doing a great deal to achieve that. We shall support Cornwall in future in any way we can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Ten o 'clock.