HC Deb 20 November 2002 vol 394 cc627-31
5. Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

When he expects to consult the English regions to determine which ones will be first to hold referendums on regional government. [81542]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

We will be taking soundings in all regions about the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill when it is before Parliament. The purpose of those soundings will be to determine the level of interest in each region in holding a referendum on whether to establish an elected regional assembly.

Mr. Dawson

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply. Does he realise that the city of Lancaster is at the geographical and historic heart of the north-west region, and that the good folk of Lancaster desperately need a directly elected regional assembly to match the superb regeneration and investment in the future industry of the city provided by the Northwest Development Agency?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It was said that nobody was interested in regional issues and that they were not controversial. It will be controversial to suggest that Lancaster should be the centre for a regional assembly; no doubt my hon. Friend has started the debate. I have heard similar arguments for Durham in the north-east, but I shall not enter into that argument. My hon. Friend's question shows that many people in the regions do wish to be considered for an elected regional assembly, and the Bill will give them that opportunity.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that the views of many in the south-east flow contrary to those expressed by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson)? Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the "Keep it local" campaign in West Sussex, which commands all-party support? The desire in the area is to keep county council government, which is closest to the people, and not to have a regional assembly.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Polls indicate that in the south-east support for an elected regional assembly is about 49 per cent., which is one of the lowest recorded. We are giving people the chance to make the choice. If the south-east does not want an elected assembly, it will not apply for a referendum. If the referendum does not take place, the south-east can continue with the existing county council structure. It has the choice.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge)

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on the work that he has done on the issue. Is he aware that those of us who will be working hard for a yes vote in the referendum may be at some disadvantage in promoting an assembly whose powers have not yet been established? Will he undertake to publish a draft Bill on the constitution and powers of a regional assembly well in advance of a referendum, so that we can have a more informed debate, with a successful outcome?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend will recognise that our White Paper spelled out exactly what the functions and powers will be. By next week we will have had an opportunity to debate the referendum Bill, so that the debate can begin.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

If we held a general election in the same way as the referendums are to be held—on different dates in different parts of the country to suit the Government's judgment on the likelihood of victory for their point of view—nobody in his right mind would consider that fair or democratic. Why will the Government not hold all the referendums on one day?

The Deputy Prime Minister

It is a matter for me—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Listen to the arguments. It is for me to make a decision about whether there is sufficient interest to hold a referendum in an area. Such decisions could be taken at different times. We shall start the consultation at the same time in all areas, but we may get different views at different times. Decisions as to when we hold referendums will depend on that judgment.

David Davis

The Deputy Prime Minister gave the game away when he tried to sidestep the question by saying that there would be different views at different times. He must realise that his answer makes him, and the Government, sound weak and muddled. I shall ask him again: if he really believes in regional government, why does he not have the courage of his convictions and put the question to the whole of England at the same time?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Having a regional question means that the matter will be decided in each region. If a region does not want to have a referendum—in the exchange on the previous question, the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) made it clear that people in the south-east did not want a vote on the matter—that is a decision for the people who live there. That is fine: they do not have to ask for a referendum. It is a question of choice, something Opposition Members never worry about. The right hon. Gentleman asked us yesterday to trust the electorate. If we are to do that, we must leave the choice and the request to them. I shall listen to people's requests.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Christopher Chope.

Hon Members

Where is he?

6. Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

What discussions he has had with the Confederation of British Industry on regional assemblies. [81543]

The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

I met the director general of the CBI shortly before the publication of the White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice" in May this year. CBI representatives have also met Ministers and officials at regional events since then. The CBI responded to the White Paper in September.

Mr. Chope


Hon. Members

There he is.

Mr. Chope

I am not used to the speed at which questions are now answered by the Government, Mr. Speaker. That was an excellent answer, but will the Deputy Prime Minister accept that British industry considers regional assemblies to be irrelevant to the needs of the economy?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I do not think that this afternoon is the only time when the hon. Gentleman has been asleep. He must have been asleep for months, during which time the CBI and other representatives of industry have made it clear that they are supportive of the proposals. The CBI has been worried about bureaucracy, and its criticism has centred on that. It would prefer not to have bureaucracy in the regions, but it was the previous Administration who established the present bureaucratic regional government structure. We aim to return accountability to the bureaucracy in the regions.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Is it not a fact that the CBI recognises that the key decisions affecting strategic matters such as transport and communications, which are so crucial for industrial investment in local areas, will, under the Government's proposals, be taken at regional level, and be accountable at that level? Is there not a lot to be gained for business in that? If the CBI examines the proposals in more detail, is not it more likely to support what the Government are trying to achieve?

The Deputy Prime Minister>

Leaders of the CBI, the regions and various business groups have made it clear in a number of quotations—I shall not use any of them today—that they want more decisions to be made in the regions, and that they support the policy.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

When the Deputy Prime Minister listens to the voice of business, will he pay special attention to the voice of business in the region in question? In particular, will he pay attention to business organisations that have polled their members on this matter? The British Chambers of Commerce and the Institute of Chartered Accountants have done so, and found that their members are in favour of the proposals.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Those organisations have indeed made it clear that they are in favour of the proposals. I certainly want to listen to the regional voices; that is a matter of supreme consideration. Those voices will play an important part in the consultations that will be held. We are also taking account of the assemblies in the regions. In many cases—especially in the south-east—they are Tory councils.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Might I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that a preliminary question should be put on a county-bycounty basis before a referendum is held? That question would ask whether the people of a particular county wanted to be in a designated region, or remain outside it. The people of Lincolnshire do not want to form part of an east midlands region.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I would be more impressed with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question if the previous Administration had given people a referendum on abolishing their counties before doing so. That is exactly what the Tories did to the Greater London council, too. They did not ask the people of London whether they wanted it to be abolished—they simply abolished it. We are prepared to consider the voice of the regions. That will include the county structures in the consideration, and the boundary commission will judge which local authority structures shall prevail within the regional area.