HC Deb 16 June 2003 vol 407 cc21-39 3.30 pm
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. John Prescott)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the referendums for establishing elected regional assemblies in the English regions.

First, however, I should like to apologise to the House for the stories that appeared in the press over the weekend and this morning. There has been intense speculation about which regions will move forward to a referendum, but the source of the stories over the weekend appears to have been a leaked Cabinet Committee letter. I can assure the House that that letter was not released on anyone's authority and I can only apologise once again for the leak that has occurred. It is unacceptable and I do everything that I can to stop such leaks but, frankly, this is outside my control and I can only apologise to the House.

In 1997, this Government inherited one of the most centralised systems of government in the western world, and the House knows that we have reversed that legacy. During the past six years, we have carried out a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change. We have decentralised government and transformed our political system through devolution to Scotland and Wales. We are continuing our reforms of the House of Lords and modernising local government. We have restored democratic citywide government to London. All those things were opposed by the Opposition, who eventually came round to accepting them. We have set up strong regional development agencies in England, which have helped to increase investment and employment in all our regions to record levels. We have strengthened regional policy and helped to create a network of eight voluntary regional chambers.

In May 2002, we published our White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice". It set out our plans for elected regional assemblies in those regions where the people wanted them. It contained proposals for a new regional tier of government that would take powers and responsibilities from central government and not local authorities. The White Paper said that regional assemblies would make a real difference with powers over economic development, jobs, investment, transport, planning, housing, culture, arts and sport. Elected regional assemblies will bring greater democracy and a new political voice to the regions. They will reduce bureaucracy rather than increase it—[Interruption.] The bureaucracy was the regional government offices established by the Opposition when they were in government, with no democratic accountability whatever. That is what we believe was bureaucracy, but we are going to introduce regional accountability and greater democracy.

Last month, the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 became law. Today, I am taking the first steps under that Act to deliver our undertaking to hold the first regional referendums during this Parliament. We have no intention of forcing elected regional assemblies on any region, but it is clear to me that there are some regions where voters want that opportunity, and I intend to give them that choice. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act sets out what must happen before I can call those referendums. First, I must consider the level of interest in the region in holding a referendum. Secondly, the boundary committee for England must have made recommendations on options for unitary local government in parts of the region that currently have two tiers of local authorities.

On 2 December 2002, we started a sounding exercise in the eight regions outside London. We gave the soundings document a wide distribution and asked for responses by 3 March. The House will recall that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill was amended in the Lords in April to allow for a second question in the referendums on the option for unitary local government. The soundings exercise was extended to take that into account, and we asked for further responses by 16 May. In assessing levels of interest, I have considered all relevant responses. I have today published a summary of the responses and other evidence that I have considered. The document, "Your Region, Your Say", has been placed in the Library and made available in the Vote Office. In total, we estimate that at least 50,000 people were involved in the soundings exercise—a lot more than in the typical opinion poll often quoted in the House.

More than 7,000 direct responses were from individuals. The rest came from organisations or individuals responding in a representative capacity—for example, through surveys or petitions. Although those responses represented the views of many hundreds of individuals, they were each recorded as a single response.

It will not be a surprise to the House that levels of interest in a referendum vary between the different regions of England. In some regions interest was low. In the west midlands, only 16 per cent. of respondents said that that they wanted a referendum. In the east and south-east of England, about 35 per cent. said that they wanted a referendum, and in the south-west and the east midlands the figure was about 40 per cent. Taken together with other views, information and evidence, those figures show that there is insufficient evidence in the west midlands, the east of England, the south-east, the south-west and the east midlands to justify holding a referendum now. I am therefore not directing the boundary committee to undertake local government reviews in those regions.

The picture is quite different in the three northern regions. In the north-east and the north-west, more than half of respondents wanted a referendum. In my own region, Yorkshire and Humberside, almost three quarters said yes—although I am aware that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) registered his minority "no" vote. In all three northern regions, there was significant and widespread interest in holding a referendum from the business community, trade unions, local authorities and the voluntary sector. Taking all that evidence together, I am satisfied that interest in a referendum is high in all three regions. I am therefore pleased to announce to the House that it is my intention to hold referendums at the first opportunity in the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber. I expect that opportunity to come in the autumn of 2004.

Today, I directed the boundary committee for England to carry out a local government review in each of the three regions. Those reviews will cover the existing two-tier areas of Durham, Northumberland, Cheshire, Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire county councils. The boundary committee will recommend at least two options for structural change in relation to each area, and voters in those areas will be given a choice as to which unitary option they prefer. Reviews in the three northern regions will begin shortly. Copies of the guidance to the boundary committee have been placed in the Library.

Building on the proposals in the regions White Paper, we intend to publish a draft Bill setting out the powers and functions for elected regional assemblies in those regions that want them. If people vote yes in the referendums, we could have the first elected assemblies up and running early in the next Parliament—which clearly will be under a Labour Government. That will be another significant step on the road to regional government for England. It will take forward the Government's commitment to develop a strong regional voice in all eight regions. The regional chambers, the regional development agencies and the Government offices will all continue to ensure that there is a distinctive regional voice from every region, irrespective of whether there is an elected regional assembly. This Government remain committed to a strong regional policy that will benefit the country as a whole.

We are offering the people of the three northern regions an historic opportunity: an opportunity that we offered to the people of Scotland, Wales and London before them; an opportunity for the northern regions to choose how they are governed, to strengthen democracy and to reduce bureaucracy; an opportunity to gain a new political voice and to secure greater prosperity, for more growth, more jobs and more investment; and an opportunity for those regions that have the desire for change to determine their own future. Today's announcement is good for democracy, good for the English regions and good for the whole of the UK. I commend this statement to the House.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for making his statement and for giving me prior sight of it. I, for one, accept his apology for the leaked letter. I commend him for realising that a matter of such constitutional importance requires a Minister to come to the House to announce it. For once, perhaps, the Prime Minister should take a lesson from his deputy.

The events of the past two weeks have shown just how much the Government believe in consulting before introducing major constitutional change. It was apparent with the euro, the European constitution and the strange events of last week. All those matters show a Government at odds with the people whom they govern. To date, they have held 34 referendums on a range of subjects, but how do they choose the issues on which to hold a referendum? Clearly, they do not do that on the basis of constitutional importance or what matters to the public. They choose on only one basis: when they believe that they can win. However, today, they may have got that judgment wrong.

We believe that the Deputy Prime Minister has instigated referendums in the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside that will deeply embarrass him and the Government. Such a measure will do little more than pour millions of pounds of taxpayers' cash down the drain as the Deputy Prime Minister blindly chases his obsession with what will undoubtedly become an expensive white elephant. Rather than a solution, it is a symptom of Labour's failure to deliver decent public services. It is a desperate attempt to create legitimacy for an idea for which there is no argument, advantage or appetite. As Lord Whitty said, elected regional government is not an issue in the pubs and clubs of the north.

The Government received a dismal total of 8,000 replies nationally to their consultation on whether referendums were needed—surely even the Deputy Prime Minister could take the hint. That was after the Government extended the deadline for submitting replies from March to May because of lack of interest in the exercise. In March, they had received 5,500 replies—fewer than the number of people who voted for the Monster Raving Loony party at the last election. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister had received a mere 7,000 replies. However, when my office rang last week, we were told that 8,000 replies had now been received. It appears that the cut-off date for the replies has been extended yet again in a desperate attempt to stimulate interest. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that? Is it now Government policy to leave the polls open until they receive a result that they like? Eight thousand replies after three attempts from a population of 42 million is a pathetic figure. The Deputy Prime Minister's dream appears to put everyone else to sleep.

Let us put the issue in context. The Daily Mail sells 2.4 million newspapers every day and has received well over 1 million votes for a referendum on the European constitution in only one attempt. The Deputy Prime Minister's sounding exercise had a derisorily low turnout, yet he has announced that he intends to plough ahead regardless, despite promises from the Minister for Local Government and the Regions that the Government wouldn't feel bound to proceed if the turnout was that low. Let us consider the document. Is it right that, in Yorkshire and Humberside, only 833 people out of a population of 5 million wanted a referendum and got it? Is it correct that, in the north-east, more individuals were against than for a referendum, yet they still got one? Is it true that, in the north-west, all the county councils that replied opposed a referendum but still got one? What would have constituted a response that was too low? What is a minimum "yes" vote in a referendum that will legitimise an assembly?

The people of my constituency in the north, like those around them, work hard, pay their taxes and expect a fair deal in return. Instead, the Government will waste their money on another pet project. Will the Deputy Prime Minister state precisely how much the Government intend to spend on promoting those ideas? Will he undertake to provide an equal amount to promote the other case in the referendum campaigns? Will he comment on the allegations that the north-west and north-east regional chambers have been using taxpayers' money illegally to promote an elected assembly and on other political campaigns? Will he detail the steps that he is prepared to take to ensure that such misuse of public funds does not continue during a referendum campaign?

People do not have any idea what a regional assembly will mean for their locality. Many people support a regional assembly only because they believe that it will mean more money for their region. Yet the Minister for Local Government and the Regions stated: Regional assemblies won't get preferential treatment. The funding will be the same as for those without them. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that? Is the Minister of State right to say that regional assemblies will mean not one extra penny for the people of the north of England? Can the Deputy Prime Minister also guarantee that, before the first referendum is held, he will have not only published the Bill but taken it through Parliament, making it clear what the final powers of the regional assemblies will be?

The Deputy Prime Minister tries hard to represent regional assemblies as a decentralising measure, yet recent polls conducted by the Local Government Chronicle and the Local Government Association show that more than three quarters of those in local government believe that regional assemblies would strip powers away from councils, which would get nothing significant in return from national Government. Are they right or wrong? The Government have still not satisfactorily answered the West Lothian question, yet today they have created a new constitutional problem—what we might call the North Yorkshire question. How will the Deputy Prime Minister stop the metropolitan majority in one part of a region dominating the interests of another part? For example, if a massive majority of the people of North Yorkshire vote against the plans for a regional assembly, will he still force them to join?

I come now to the cost of the regional assemblies. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Mayor of London is hitting council tax payers with bills five times larger than the Government estimated? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he estimates the extra cost to taxpayers in the regions will be as a result of the regional assemblies? He has sought to represent regional assemblies as a mechanism for encouraging economic growth, yet the Confederation of British Industry believes that they could actually damage regional economic growth, and the Institute of Directors says that they will only add another layer of bureaucracy. Are they right or wrong? The fact is that the assemblies will not bring extra money to the regions; they will only take extra money from local residents. At a time when residents and businesses want less tax and less bureaucracy, the assemblies will only bring about the opposite: more tax and more bureaucracy. At a time when the regions should be unleashing their potential, they could he held back by a monster of the Deputy Prime Minister's own making.

Many of the people of the north of England will be surprised that the Government have now apparently placed regional assemblies at the top of their agenda, particularly at a time when people's real concerns lie with issues such as health, education and crime. The regional assemblies will not deliver one extra teacher, one extra nurse or one extra police officer: not one extra nurse in the north-west, when hospitals such as the Liverpool Women's hospital have seen the number of patients waiting for admission rise by more than 40 per cent; not one extra teacher in the north-east, when one in three 11-year-olds leave primary school in the area unable to read, write or count properly; and not one extra police officer in Yorkshire and Humberside, where robbery has risen by more than 40 per cent. in the last year alone. People want public service reform, not public sector proliferation.

Regional assemblies are an answer in search of a question, a solution in search of a problem and a policy in search of someone to love it. This misuse of referendums is an attempt to give a false legitimacy to a fraudulent idea. The people of the north are yet again being asked to pay more for less. Just as the Prime Minister's attempt last week to pass off botched institutions to members of his Cabinet failed, this attempt to do the same in the north will also fail. This is no way to treat the people of the north of England. They deserve better; they deserve a fair deal. That is why we will fight the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals every inch of the way. They are a payback for politicians and a burden for the people, and when the people of the north are presented with the proposals, we are confident that they will give the Government the very same hand gesture that we have come to expect from the Deputy Prime Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister

Pathetic! I think I prefer the quiet man. The right hon. Gentleman asks why we should do this. Let me make it clear: it was in our manifesto. I have been involved with this question, rightly or wrongly, for more than 20 years. We have debate after debate in which we decide things in our party. We then put the proposals in an election manifesto, and at the last two elections we made those commitments.

As I understand it, we had overwhelming victories in those elections. These proposals were part of our promise, part of our agreement and part of our manifesto, and I am delighted to be here carrying out that promise.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about promises and says that we have never put forward a referendum that we lost, but I am bound to say about entry to the Common Market that—unhappily at the time, as I opposed Britain's entry—we lost that one. However, we gave the people of this country the chance to make a decision on probably the most important constitutional issue facing Britain: whether we were to be a member of the Common Market. The Tories, when they were in government at that time, refused to have any referendum or consultation with the people. We gave the people that choice and they made it. They wanted to be part of Europe.

A lot has happened since then and an awful lot of agreements were passed by the previous Administration—treaties that have affected the laws of this land—although there was never a referendum. In fact, referendums were refused by Governments of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member, so it is a bit hypocritical to come along here and lecture our party, which believes in consulting people. This is one of the processes of consultation—a referendum to give the people a choice—that we put in our manifesto.

The arguments are not unique and I think that the right hon. Gentleman has been reading up on some old speeches—they are all the same. The Tories have said, "It costs too much, it is not legitimate, it is not the talk in the pubs, the people don't want it." He said all that today, but he said it about Scotland, he said it about Wales, he said it about London and he said it about the regional development agencies, but each time the Tories have come round to accepting it once it has been done. What hypocrisy!

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the regional vote and asks what people will do in North Yorkshire. Has not North Yorkshire county council agreed to have a referendum? His own Tory council in North Yorkshire has said that it would like a referendum. Basically, it is the only Tory council in North Yorkshire and it wants a referendum.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

There is only one.

The Deputy Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman means the county council, but others are involved. That is what the county council has to say.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) reels off all those people who are against the proposals, but I have some of the polls here—for example, a MORI poll of March 1999—and many people accept their authority when the results come out. One says that 52 per cent. wanted a referendum, and the BBC poll of 2002 said that 72 per cent. wanted one. Indeed, the County Councils Network—the very county councils that are opposing the proposals—set up a review in their own areas and 70 per cent. of the people said that they wanted a referendum. That is the county councils themselves: they paid for that review and more than 70 per cent. said that they want a referendum, so I am a little cautious when I hear the right hon. Gentleman talking about them.

In all these referendums, Cheshire—[Interruption.] Well, it was part of the County Councils Network. [Interruption.] I know that Conservative Members do not like the results, but that is what happened. In all those areas, we have shown that people—trade unions, businesses, organisations and individuals—have called for a referendum. That has persuaded me to hold a referendum in the three northern areas that I have mentioned, and properly so.

There is considerable evidence to be taken alongside that which I have placed before the House today. As for the abolition of the county councils and the point that the right hon. Gentleman made, he must be aware that the Tory Government abolished more county councils than the Labour Government, and did not even ask them. He knows that those county councils were abolished by the Tories, and I should remind the Opposition of them, as everyone on their Front Bench was involved in it. We find that Humberside, which is my own area, as well as Avon, Cleveland and Hereford and Worcester were all abolished by the previous Government without any consultation. The Greater London council was abolished without any consultation, so I will not take any of this hypocritical comment.

Regarding whether there will be greater economic prosperity, I must tell the right hon. Gentleman to look at the regions and the economic data, whether for jobs or investment, for 1997 and compare them with those for now. He will see that there has been a remarkable turnaround in every one of those regions.

The highest levels of employment and investment have occurred under the regional development agencies that we established during the first two years of a Labour Government.

As for whether the CBI is right or wrong, it is wrong. It is also divided on the issue. As anyone in any of the northern regions will confirm, its members are not completely united; but they are not all against the proposal. Those who think that it is damaging are wrong.

Finally, there was the claim that the Daily Mail was conducting a survey. Well, the Daily Mail—the Tory rag, the Tory propaganda paper—would not know truth if it stared it in the face. So, it is carrying out a poll and we will see what it says tomorrow. Of course, there are international observers from The Guardian who will report on whether the poll is legitimate.

At the end of the day, we promised the people a referendum. We promised to give them a choice and allow them to make their decision. We are acting on that promise now.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister not just for his statement, but for his performance. I welcome the news that the three English regions can now choose between regional democracy and a regional quango state. This is a good day for democracy. Devolution supporters can now combine to campaign for a "yes" vote, and to kick-start a vital constitutional reform. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm, however, that his noble Friend Lord Falconer will not be in charge of regional devolution, despite the establishment of a Department for Constitutional Affairs?

Does the Deputy Prime Minister realise that he could have given the "yes" campaign an even bigger boost had he proposed a far richer devolution than is proposed in the White Paper? Voters in the regions would be much more impressed by him if he could assure them that his regional devolution is about reducing Government control freakery, about cutting Whitehall down to size, and about voter power rather than ministerial power. Unfortunately, he cannot do that.

Why is the right hon. Gentleman not prepared to allow regions to hold the Environment Agency, the Highways Agency or the learning and skills councils to account? Why do the Government on the one hand support devolution, and on the other try to reduce the power of regions to negotiate at Brussels for regional support? Why do they support the so-called repatriating of structural funds, which will deny new regional assemblies a chance to win extra cash for their own communities?

The Deputy Prime Minister failed to mention that an amendment tabled in the House of Lords won a second referendum on the question of local government reorganisation. It was, in fact, a Liberal Democrat amendment. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the second referendum not only gives voters more choice, but improves the chances of success for a "yes" vote?

When does the Deputy Prime Minister expect to publish the draft Bill on powers for regional assemblies? Can he confirm that it will be published before the referendums? Today's statement marks an important if modest start on the road to regional devolution. While Liberal Democrats would drive a faster, more well-built model, we are glad that the Deputy Prime Minister has, on this occasion, overcome the obstacles placed in the way by the Prime Minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his response and, indeed, his support. I have always felt that we need a credible Bill and a proper consensus across Government. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I could agree on a good deal more about how the powers might be extended, but this will be a dynamic development, like those involving Scotland and Wales. Those who are elected will have a regional voice, which will give them more power over central Government. They will have to deal with, and negotiate with, central Government. I present the Bill knowing full well that those in the regions may expect more than it contains, but they will have a framework within which to negotiate and make their case.

Although I readily accept that there is a legitimate argument in favour of much of what the hon. Gentleman has said, he should not underestimate the assemblies' ability to conduct hearings and hold regional bodies to account—including the Highways Agency and the Environment Agency.

I think that rubbing two fingers together means money—although I had better keep off the subject of two fingers. We highlighted where the resources would come from in that matter and we await future events. That is the nature of political development between us.

An amendment was mentioned, and I properly record that that was a Liberal amendment tabled in the House of Lords, and that it made the Bill much better. It was important to bring the Bill before the House in time to start the process, and I am grateful for the support that we received. The people will now have a greater choice in respect of what they believe should be the unitary choices within a county council area. They alone will take the decision. The Bill is the better for the amendment, and I readily agree that that came from the Liberals. As to the publication of the Bill, we hope to be able to publish it before the referendum.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement and his long-standing commitment to transfer powers to people in the regions in order to give them a stronger voice. I urge him, particularly if this turns out to be a five-year Parliament, to examine the possibility of bringing in regional government before or around the time of the next election. Does he agree that if we are to build on people's loyalty towards their own region, it is important to conduct a concerted campaign across government to give people all the detailed information that they will need before casting their votes?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks and support. She has been an acknowledged campaigner in this sphere for many years, and I recall both of us campaigning together in support of regional government. I think that we are both pleased about the statement that I made today, and the debate will now start. I want to make it clear to people in regions that we assume that they want regional government, and that this will be the acid test. If they fail the test, frankly, this will not come about. I believe that it will, but the test lies in the choice that we are giving the people. As for whether the Bill can be introduced before the date of the next election, it is highly questionable when that event will come—we all know about the problems of timetables in Parliament. We will certainly do our utmost to conduct the referendum, and I am committing myself to doing so. The timetable seems a little short in view of the fact that I have to bring a Bill before the House, but we will do all that we can to make as much progress as possible.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether the referendum that he proposes will be binding on the Government? Will there be a minimum threshold—a minimum number of people who would have to take part in the referendum before it could be deemed valid?

The Deputy Prime Minister

All referendums, as is quite common, are advisory on these matters. That is clear from every referendum that has been held. As to whether there should be any limitations in respect of the number of people who vote, we have no intention to introduce any at this stage.

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

I, too, congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister, even though I disagree with him, on bringing this policy so far. I know that he has expounded the virtues of regional government for many years, but does he accept that any close analysis of the consultation exercise would reveal that regional government is a preoccupation of the nomenklatura rather than the people—certainly the people in the north-west? Will he at least keep his mind open to the possibility of adding a third question to the ballot paper for the north-west—whether it would be better to have a Greater Merseyside authority, along the same lines as the Greater London Authority?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Personally, I do not agree with my hon. Friend's proposition. We agreed that regional government should cover all regions. There are very powerful city regions such as London and Merseyside—and we would all want to congratulate Liverpool on being European city of culture—but we do not intend to change along the lines that my hon. Friend suggested. There will be a regional body and all the people in the region will decide. It is for the people to decide; we are giving them a choice.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

The Deputy Prime Minister said that there was no case for an elected assembly in the south-west. How long is he prepared to allow the current quango—unelected, unaccountable and spending public money—to stay in place before he decides that there is no case for it at all?

The Deputy Prime Minister

In some areas of the south-west—Cornwall, for example—there is a strong demand for independence or regional government. However, insufficient evidence has been provided for me to justify holding a referendum there. As for the quango that the hon. Lady mentions, yes, we would like it to be democratically accountable. That is precisely what we are trying to achieve. If Conservative Members believe that regional bodies in the south are quangos, they have the opportunity not to join them.

The Tories are the majority on some of the assemblies in the south-east, since the elections in which they began to increase their vote. Conservative Front Benchers say that they want nothing to do with the assemblies, but their people are flocking on to them, controlling them and chairing them.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I offer my right hon. Friend my most sincere congratulations on his statement. Does he share my bemusement—and that of my constituents who are concerned about the crucial issues of planning, including housing development on green fields—at hearing the Tory spokesman declare that he does not want democracy? He does not want local people to have a say in the fundamentally important issues that affect their lives. This is an historic occasion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be a role for the great historic cities of the north—York, Durham and Lancaster—in the forthcoming elected regional assemblies?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his congratulations. Under the elected regional governments, important regional cities such as York, Lancaster, and, indeed, Hull, will continue to play an important part in their regions. Those cities have their responsibilities and resources and the unitary authorities will get on with their jobs. The regional governments will add a regional dimension. The people in the regions have shown that they want regional government, but we will know the answers after the referendums. If the people want regional governments and we set them up, would the Tories get rid of them?

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Given the fact that fewer than 400 individuals in the north-east responded to the sounding exercise by the first deadline of 3 March, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what final percentage of the electorate of 1.9 million responded? That is a simple question.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I cannot do the quick calculation—[Interruption.] I can only give the answer to the question, whether the hon. Gentleman accepts it or not. The report is in the Library and the hon. Gentleman may make his own calculations. As I have tried to show when presenting the argument today, I am satisfied that, by any measure, an overwhelming case has been made for the three northern areas to hold a referendum.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement this afternoon. Regional assemblies will certainly enliven and refresh our governing powers. They will ensure that voluntary bodies, commerce and business, as well as political parties, will be involved in the governance of their localities. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if we are to achieve that refreshment, a proportional voting system will be necessary?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. The White Paper makes it clear that we wish to achieve proper representation. We recognise that we need a form of proportional representation—[Interruption.] I have spent most of my time opposing proportional representation, but I recognise that in some areas of the country the 25 or 30 members of the regional assembly would otherwise come overwhelmingly from one party. That would not be good for democracy or for the regions themselves, which will need consensus on regional matters. That is why we have adopted the system described in the White Paper.

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth)

Speaking as someone who represents the historic heart of Yorkshire, which—as everyone knows—is around Wakefield, I assure my right hon. Friend that he has the warm congratulations of the people whom I represent. We will return a majority when the referendum comes, because the people of Yorkshire fully understand that an over-centralised state—some 150 quangos still hold sway in Yorkshire—is not tolerable. We have had 100 years of a two-speed economy, in which the gross domestic product per head for knowledge-based industry is only 76 per cent. in Yorkshire and the Humber area, whereas in the south-east it is 130 per cent. That two-speed economy, and the over-centralised and unaccountable state, surely cannot be allowed to continue. I know that my right hon. Friend will campaign with me and many others for the election of the regional assembly.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks and congratulations. He made an important point about differences in gross domestic product between regions. There has been growing disparity over a decade or so, but just a small change—0.5 per cent.—would create millions of pounds that could be put to good use in a region. One purpose of the development of RDAs is to improve regional accountability, productivity and prosperity. The evidence is that improvement has happened in Scotland and Wales, and it is about time that the English regions caught up and had the same opportunities.

I take my hon. Friend's point about quangos. No major dent has been made in the number of quangos established over a long time under the previous Administration—and I must concede that there have been a few set up during our time too. Governments tend to set up such bodies because there is no directly elected body to deal with matters regionally. We hope to change that, which will make a difference to the quangos largely created by the previous Administration.

One further point needs to be made. The previous Administration rightly established the Government offices for the regions, seeking integration in the regions. It was proper for them to do that, and I cannot understand why the Tory party now opposes making those offices democratically accountable to the regions.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

The Deputy Prime Minister has stressed the importance of consultation. When the consultation, which was extended twice, produced a derisory result, he fell back on what he described as his party's manifesto commitment. Is he aware that there will be not one penny extra for the regional governments that he intends to set up? There will be the same amount of money, but a top-slice will be taken off for those who want to get into the trough. There are too many such people. As I have already said to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, rural areas will lose out, and democracy has nothing at all to do with regional government.

The Deputy Prime Minister

As far as democracy is concerned, would it not be fair to let the people make a choice? Why does the hon. Gentleman assume—

Sir Nicholas Winterton

What about the Convention?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Take a grip of yourself, sunshine.

In fact, there is representative democracy, and we all support it. There is evidence of that. I cannot see why people should not make their own decisions, and referendums will give them that opportunity. That is what we are trying to do.

As for the proposals being dismissed for the north-west, about 3,500 people participated, and concluded—

Sir Nicholas Winterton

Out of 7 million!

The Deputy Prime Minister

I am just trying to—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) is a Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall, and I expect better behaviour from him.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I am incensed!

Mr. Speaker

Order. Calm yourself.

The Deputy Prime Minister

I always feel better when I incense Tories.

Basically, people can make a decision. At the end of the day, it is up to them, and that is right. As for dismissal of the influence and control that there will be over resources in the north-west, the budget there will be £730 million, and if the influence that there will be over other budgets is taken into account, the region will have a say in the spending of roughly £2.1 billion. That is an awful lot of money by any standards.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill is currently before the House. Its provisions give sweeping new planning powers to regional authorities. In the interests of democracy, may I have his agreement to one simple proposition: will he assure us that those powers will not be given to the regional authorities unless and until they elect regional assemblies?

The Deputy Prime Minister

As the hon. Gentleman will know from the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill, the regional assemblies will have those powers. By the hon. Gentleman's own analysis, the elected regional assemblies will legitimately be able to deal with planning. I cannot accept that other regions should be denied that possibility simply because they do not have an elected assembly. On regional spatial planning, the Bill will give a number of powers to the regional assemblies, and we think that correct.

Mr. Peter Mandelson (Hartlepool)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his welcome statement on behalf of my constituents and others in the north-east who simply want the right to vote either way, which is an opportunity that the Conservative party would deny them. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the aim of devolution is not to replicate the role of local authorities at regional level, but to create a genuine strategic role for the regions? Does he further agree that the system to be created will not be narrowly party political, but will be inclusive of all regional partners, including the business and voluntary sectors?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. There is no doubt about the regional dimension, and I certainly agree that the people should be given the choice. That seems to be the difference between us and the Opposition: we will give the people the chance to make a choice, while the Opposition would deny people that choice, as they did for Scotland, Wales and London, only agreeing about it afterwards. However, we have to go through this process because that, I assume, is how they play opposition.

On the involvement of other stakeholders, my right hon. Friend will be aware that the White Paper proposes a civic forum, such as those in Scotland and Wales, which would mean that many more people, other than elected members, would be involved in making decisions. The White Paper proposal would mean that the assembly was a more strategic body, which allowed many more people to make decisions about their region.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that declaration of the results of a referendum will take place at constituency or local government level, so that we may differentiate between the turnout and the vote in each part of the region, and if North Yorkshire's vote is significantly less, or different from, that in the rest of the region, we shall know and draw our own conclusions? Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why he so badly misled the House when describing the powers of the assemblies? In his statement, he said that they would have powers over economic development, jobs, investment, transport, planning, housing, culture, arts and sport. He knows that his document talks about the vaguest of strategic powers. If the powers are real, why can a wholly unaccountable body of between 25 and 35 people, partly elected through proportional representation, be held to be doing the job?

The Deputy Prime Minister

No more than the regional governments who make those decisions now. We just want to make the assemblies democratically accountable, and I am doing that against a great deal of opposition. It is the Government who are asking for greater democratic accountability; we hope that that will come to every English region, but we have accepted that the regions must make that decision. We have to recognise that some regional assemblies may be non-elected while others are elected. We do not want to disadvantage non-elected regional assemblies, so we need to find a careful balance; they will not all be the same because the powers of a directly elected accountable body have to be greater. We shall deal with that when we come to the legislation.

As for elections, we shall be talking to the Electoral Commission about some of the proposals, and will bear the right hon. Gentleman's comments in mind. If he wants to write to me with his recommendations, I am prepared to consider them. We have not yet started our discussions with either the Electoral Commission or the boundary committee; I had to make my statement to the House before I could begin that process.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Although I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision, I should have welcomed it much more if Cumbria had been with the north-east. However, that is not the reality at present.

The effect of a yes vote will be to reorganise local government. Can my right hon. Friend tell us whether the boundary committee will be able to look beyond county council boundaries to form the new unitary authorities?

The Deputy Prime Minister

Because of my years of dealing with regional matters, I am well aware that there is great contention about whether Cumbria should be in the north-east or the north-west, so I tread carefully when drawing conclusions about that. As my hon. Friend rightly said, it has been decided that it should now be within the north-west regional area.

I have been asked whether county boundaries would stay the same when considering electoral areas. The areas do not have to be defined by the county boundaries. We want to achieve a proper balance between the rural and urban areas, and the committee will take that into account. I shall give the committee guidance notes—I think that they are available in the Library—which confirm what I have said to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk)

The people of Norfolk will be relieved that, for the time being, a referendum will not be foisted on them. How long will that decision remain in place, however, and what does "for the time being" mean? Can we now scrap the unloved regional development agency? The Deputy Prime Minister is obviously aware that people in Norfolk greatly value the work done by the local county council and parish councils, so why does he use every opportunity to undermine county and parish councils?

The Deputy Prime Minister

That flies in the face of the Conservative Government's activities some years ago. They scrapped county councils. I have not scrapped one yet, and all that I propose to do is to allow people to decide whether they want to keep their county councils, or whether they prefer to have regional government in a unitary structure, so that we have two-tier government, not three-tier government. I do not know whether people in Norfolk want that, but they are not faced with that position at present. I do not readily accept for a moment that people in Norfolk want to abolish the RDAs. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman campaign on that at the next election; I suspect that he did not have anything about it in his manifesto. I believe that, like every other part of the United Kingdom, the eastern region wants the RDAs.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I warmly welcome the statement, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on it. May I remind him that part of the proposal will involve reorganising local government, and that the existing local government work force will have concerns about that reorganisation? Safeguards for the work force have been included in previous reorganisations. Can he confirm whether those safeguards will exist when the new changes take place?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. Not only the work force, but others, will be very much affected by the changes when we embark on the referendums, and if they lead to a positive yes for regional government. That will involve considerable changes, particularly in the local structure, and my hon. Friend can be assured that we will give every consideration to the concerns that arise.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

During the Deputy Prime Minister's statement, he used the following sentence to justify a referendum in the north-west: in the north-east and north-west, more than half of all respondents wanted a referendum. Will he confirm that he aggregated the figures for the two regions to produce that result, and that he missed out the word "each" in front of the north-east and the north-west? Will he give, from his file, the breakdown of figures for those who support and those who are against referendums for Cumbria, Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Cheshire? Will he confirm that the majority in Cheshire are absolutely against a referendum, and against regional government in the north-west?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I think that the document is available, and the hon. Gentleman can check the validity of my answers. Of course there was a majority in the north-west. The figure was not aggregated in that sense. I have the figures before me at the moment, and they show that more than 50 per cent. of those in the north-west agreed that they should have a referendum. [Interruption.] No, the figures are right. They are aggregated for the region itself. It is true that a vigorous campaign was conducted in Cheshire, but, as I see from the county council network that I referred to, even the people in those areas wanted to have a referendum. We have conducted this on a regional basis, and I have given the judgment to the House. How different groups in a region voted can be seen in the report, and overall it justifies my decision to hold a referendum.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. He has had a lifelong commitment to regional government, and this is a great day for all of us, certainly for Labour Members. However, may I tell him that if regional government is to succeed, the two tiers of local authority have to work and campaign together for a speedy resolution? I have bitter memories of what happened in the 1990s, when county and district councils clashed with one another and there was fighting left, right and centre. Will he instruct local authorities to work together and co-operate for the greater good?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and the Regions advises me that he has written today to urge councils to do that—and I say, "Good luck," because we all know the difficulties of telling individuals with strongly held views about these matters what they should do. I hope that they will have respect for one another's arguments. The yes campaigns and the no campaigns will cut across political parties—I am sure that they have done so already—and moneys can be available through political funding, although limitations are placed on that. We will now start consulting on that, and I will keep the House informed about how such things can be achieved. I hope that the issues will be debated with good humour, because the decisions are worth taking.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the population of North Yorkshire accounts for 11 per cent. of the total region of Yorkshire and the Humber. In the event that the people of North Yorkshire vote to keep the county council and the district, and against a regional Parliament, will their views as expressed in the referendum be respected?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The results will be determined in the regions, but, as I have already said, North Yorkshire council has asked for the referendum.

Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell)

From the perspective of a Member representing Leeds, which is the economic and enterprise capital of Yorkshire and the Humber—if not of the north—I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. What hangs the three areas together is that they have the highest levels of deprivation in England, which, I suspect, is why there is such a high demand for more powers for the regions. I will argue the case in the campaign for a yes vote, on the grounds that if we have regional assemblies we will have a greater say in getting resources from Government. Does my right hon. Friend approve of that line?

The Deputy Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. As for his last comment, I have always believed strongly that the Government of this country is too centralised, and that the regions have not had sufficient powers in such matters. If regions can get together, they form a tremendous countervailing power to decisions made by central Government. Why should that not happen? All too often, regions have no influence in some of those decisions, and I believe that elected authorities of this kind will have that effect. I note what my hon. Friend says about his approach during the campaign, and I note further his bid, which is the first that I have heard since my announcement, for Leeds—a powerful and prosperous city in my area of Yorkshire—to be the centre not only of Yorkshire but of the north. I leave him to argue that out with his colleagues.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

I have had more in common with Derbyshire county council since this Government were elected than I ever did when I sat on the Government Benches. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me what will be the impact of his announcement on the Peak District national park, which has parts of four regions within its borders: the east midlands, the west midlands, the north-west and Yorkshire? Today he has announced referendums in some parts of it but not in other parts. What impact will that have on the national park?

The Deputy Prime Minister

To be honest, I do not fully know what will be the effect of that. Clearly, some of the regional areas cross boundaries—in the Thames gateway area, three or four regional development agencies are actively involved, and they come together, co-operate and make decisions. The referendums will be conducted within the boundaries that exist. If there is to be a vote in one region, that will be the case regardless of whether the dale extends into another region. I am afraid that I cannot offer any further comfort about what will be the consequences. I do not think that the impact will be great, but the main consequence will be that the people of the area make a choice.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I am particularly pleased that he has ignored the comments of the county councils in the north-west, which, to a certain extent, speak with a vested interest because of the element of conservatism in local government that is always resistant to change. On my real question, much discussion took place during the passage of the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill about the White Paper and the terms of it that did not form part of the legislation. That White Paper will inform part of the Act that will set up the regional assemblies. We have not yet had the opportunity to debate the fine detail of the White Paper, and much criticism has been made of many of its provisions. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that once the people of the north-west have voted for a regional assembly, there will be an opportunity for the House to decide exactly what will be the terms and powers of that regional assembly?

The Deputy Prime Minister

The obvious point is that the Bill will come through this House, and the agreement of the House will be necessary before we can proceed with it. I hope, however, that there will be an opportunity to discuss some of the draft Bill before the referendum, for which a number of Members have asked, and which we will do our best to provide. Ultimately, however, none of the proposals can be effected without the permission of the House and discussion by Members of the House.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

This morning on the radio, the Minister for Local Government and the Regions said that if the turnout was derisory in one of the referendums, the plans would not go ahead. Given that in the north-west there was a turnout of 0.0005 per cent. in the soundings exercise, which the Deputy Prime Minister describes as a high level of interest, what is his definition of derisory? [Interruption.]

The Deputy Prime Minister

I think that somebody said that it would be two Tory MPs in the Chamber. Members will recognise that if there is a derisory turnout of the kind that the hon. Gentleman is talking about—zero, zero, zero something—it would be difficult to say that that represented the will of the people. I do not think that that will happen, but we will have to make a judgment on the basis of the propositions that are put to us, and how many participated in the vote. Clearly, putting a figure on that at the moment would be influential, but we do not propose to do so. I believe, however, that many people will take part in the vote. They want the vote, as we found in the consultation exercise, and I have no doubt that an awful lot of people will vote.

Mr. Stephen Hepburn (Jarrow)

If regional government becomes a reality in the north, will the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that no powers will be transferred to it from existing metropolitan authorities?

The Deputy Prime Minister

My hon. Friend must be aware, if he considers the current housing strategy, that in some cases we are transferring powers—from counties, for example. We have to make a judgment and the Bill will contain exact provisions for what we will do, so I ask him to wait for that.