HC Deb 23 October 2001 vol 373 cc137-8
7. Mr. Gordon Marsden (Blackpool, South)

What proposals he has to test public opinion for elected regional assemblies in England. [5573)

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

We are committed to testing public opinion, through referendums, before setting up elected regional assemblies. No region will have an assembly unless it votes for one.

Mr. Marsden

I thank the Minister for that reply, but given public opinion surveys and the evidence of conventions on the ground that show support for regional assemblies—particularly in the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and the west Midlands—does he agree that it would be sensible and, indeed, prudent to make allowance in the White Paper that the Secretary of State has just announced for a permissive process of referendums as soon as possible, so that if public opinion is in favour we might have regional assemblies in those areas by 2004?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend will be aware, given the Secretary of State's announcement, that we will set out our detailed proposals in the White Paper, which we intend to publish early next year. I can confirm that that will create a permissive framework, whereby those regions that wish to hold a referendum will be able to do so. The precise timing and other details for the holding of referendums and the creation of regional assemblies and their powers will be spelled out in more detail in the White Paper.

Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Does the Minister accept that many people view regional assemblies as just a Government gimmick and that people actually want existing local services to be decently and properly funded? This year, Oxfordshire faces cuts of £3.5 million in its social services budget. I have to tell the Minister, who is a caring Minister, that that will undermine services, such as foster services, and reduce residential and nursing facilities throughout the county. People in Oxfordshire do not want regional assemblies; they want the county's existing social services to be properly funded.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman made two points, the first of which concerned local government expenditure. He is assiduous and he looks at the figures, so he will be aware that over the four years in which the Government have been in power there have been real terms, year on year increases in local government expenditure. By contrast, when the Government whom he supported and of whom he was a member were in power in the 1990s, there were year on year reductions in local authority expenditure. We will therefore take no lessons from the Conservatives about local government funding.

The Opposition have a deplorable record on regional assemblies. They abolished the Greater London council and removed Londoners' right to have their own democratic regional assembly. We gave that right back, and our decision was endorsed by the people of London in a referendum. We intend to follow exactly the same procedure for the English regions, to give them the right to have a democratically elected regional assembly if they want one.

Mr. Tony Clarke (Northampton, South)

Given that one test of public opinion is the way in which the public have already responded to unitary local government in England, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a severe injustice in the east midlands, where all the shire county towns, with the exception of Northampton, have already achieved unitary status? In 1996, the previous Government accepted that a review was necessary because of that injustice. Therefore, before any test of public opinion on regional assemblies, will my right hon. Friend agree to review the fact that Northampton is not unitary, as we seem to have fallen behind?

Mr. Raynsford

I am well aware of the concerns that my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Members have voiced about the case for unitary authorities in their areas. However, those of us who remember the review unleashed by the previous Government under the chairmanship of Sir John Banham will not necessarily want to repeat that experience, which involved a great deal of time being spent on extremely argumentative processes that diverted the attention of local government from the proper concern of raising standards of service and acting as effective leaders of their communities. Our focus as a Government will be on improving standards of service and encouraging local government to act as effective community leaders, rather than diverting their energies into fruitless squabbles and disputes about the respective powers of different tiers of government.