HC Deb 23 October 2001 vol 373 cc127-9
1. Rosemary McKenna (Cumbernauld and Kilsyth)

What recent representations he has received on regional government. [5567]

The Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Stephen Byers)

My ministerial colleagues and I have received a number of representations on this issue.

Rosemary McKenna

The Secretary of State will be aware of the success of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly in delivering local solutions to local problems. The case in point in Scotland—how foot and mouth was handled—is clear. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the next logical step is elected regional government in England?

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend makes an important point about the success of devolution through the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. A number of powers have been devolved to regional level because we have had an active regional policy in England since 1997. The difficulty and the real problem that we must now face is that decisions are being taken regionally with no democratic accountability. There is a democratic deficit in the regions of England [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] That does not meet with the approval of Conservative Members. We know their views on the regions. They neglected them for 18 years and did nothing about them. The Labour party in government has begun the process of devolving power to the regions, and in the new year we will produce a White Paper that will show how we can deliver on that commitment.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Does the Secretary of State not understand that it is the function of Members of Parliament from the regions to ensure democratic accountability for decisions that are taken in the regions? Will he accept that, given the derisory turnout in referendums in London and Wales, it would be an appalling and absurd waste of money to embark on referendums in the English regions?

Mr. Byers

The hon. Gentleman may want to deny people their voice, but if the people of the English regions want an elected assembly we should provide them with the opportunity to vote on that. If they choose not to have a regional assembly, that will be their decision. The important point is that decisions are currently being taken regionally in England by unelected bodies. Conservative Members are not involved in those decisions. We need to ensure that there is an element of democratic accountability. We believe that the English regions could be a powerhouse for the future. We want to ensure that they have the democratic accountability to deliver those policies.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government have not ruled out the possibility of one or more of the English regions having an elected assembly by the end of this Parliament?

Mr. Byers

I can confirm that progress is being made on the White Paper that the Deputy Prime Minister and I will publish in the new year. Regional elected assemblies could be voted on by the time of the next general election, depending on when it is called. We are making progress. I share my hon. Friend's desire for effective regionally elected bodies, and we are putting in place the measures that will see that in action.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

In that case, how seriously should we take the Deputy Prime Minister's suggestion that that policy may not be delivered in the second term of a Labour Government, and may, heaven forbid, require a third term? What possible reason could there be for not giving the people of regions such as the north-east the opportunity to decide whether to have a regional assembly within the lifetime of this Parliament?

Mr. Byers

A third-term Labour Government will need to address many pressing issues, and we look forward to that. As the Deputy Prime Minister said clearly in his speech on Saturday, one of them will be the delivery of a constitutional settlement. That does not prevent progress from being made during this second term in English regions such as the north-east, which perhaps have a greater desire for a regional assembly than other parts of England. They can make progress more quickly, and I certainly want that to happen.

Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East)

May I urge my right hon. Friend to proceed with his policy on this matter with some caution? I do not detect a strong desire from the electorate in the north-west of England for yet another elected tier, which, in my view, does not have a clearly defined role in our political system.

Mr. Byers

My hon. Friend touches on two or three issues that will have an important bearing on how we carry forward the debate about elected regional bodies. The White Paper must say what the powers, the responsibilities and the functions of a regional assembly will be, and how we can ensure that it has popular support in individual regions in England. If we do not address those issues, people will not vote for the establishment of regional assemblies. That is why there needs to be clarity and precision. People need to know exactly what they are voting for when we put the issue before them.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire)

When the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, he promised in 1997 that regional assemblies would go ahead only if independent auditors certified that no overall increase in public spending would ensue. Do the Government stand by that pre-election manifesto pledge, or are they determined to bury our shire counties through vindictive political dogma?

Mr. Byers

I stand by the 2001 Labour party manifesto. [Interruption.] Unlike the Conservatives, who set policies based on dogma in stone and never change them, we are prepared to listen to people's views. We want to act on the demand in some regions for elected assemblies. However, we have said that they will be introduced in areas of predominantly unitary authorities. We will thus overcome the problem that an additional tier of government would cause, and thereby ensure that public expenditure implications are limited.