HC Deb 30 June 2004 vol 423 cc306-66
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of 361the Prime Minister. There is a 12-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. I appeal to Front Benchers and to all hon. Members to bear it in mind that as a result of an important statement time has been lost. I hope that some regard will be paid to the time taken in the principal speeches, so that everyone who wishes to speak will be able to do so.

1.45 pm
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con)

I beg to move, That this House deplores the continuing confusion surrounding the Government's regional policy; notes in particular that the disagreement about all-postal voting between the Government and the Electoral Commission has thrown into doubt plans for the referendums in the autumn on the Government's proposed elected regional assemblies in the North of England; further notes the continuing splits in the Government over the powers that the proposed assemblies may be granted; regrets a similar lack of clarity relating to the projected costs of the proposed assemblies and of local government reorganisation; further notes that the Government's information campaign on elected regional assemblies fails to resolve any of this confusion; demands that the draft Bill, setting out in detail the proposed powers of elected regional assemblies promised by the Government, be published in good time to be debated by this House before rising for the summer recess and that Government time be provided for such a debate; and further demands that any referendums should be conducted by a system that restores the voters' choice to vote in person and in secret at polling stations on polling day, rather than by all-postal ballot. The motion is not about whether we are for or against the principle of elected regional government. The Government's amendment seeks to rerun those arguments in case they can win some support, but that is not what today's debate is about: it is about how the Government have pursued their policy. Whether we are for or against the assemblies is not the point. In fact, if I were for regional assemblies I would be extremely unhappy with the way in which the Government have been pursuing their policy—and there is every indication that the yes campaigns in the three regions and their supporters, including many Labour Members, are in utter despair over the sheer incompetence of the Deputy Prime Minister and his fellow Ministers. Perhaps, indeed, they have not even bothered to show up.

Let us consider the history of the Government's policy on regional administration. Proposals for elected regional assemblies were first included in Labour's 1997 election manifesto, as Labour was committed to both Scottish and Welsh devolution and needed a policy to provide some kind of answer to the infamous West Lothian question, which is really the English question. The issue was fudged; the English were to be offered a sop. However, following the near disaster of the referendum on a Welsh Assembly, when only 50 per cent. of the electorate voted and barely half of them voted in favour, the Government lost their nerve on referendums for regional assemblies in England. The proposals for elected assemblies were delayed, and it is only during this second term that the Government have returned to that agenda.

Labour's agenda for constitutional reform has always been a mess. It is based not on any coherent overarching vision for the United Kingdom, but on a series of disjointed measures amounting to little more than a policy designed to cement Labour ascendancy in Labour strongholds. That is why there are to be three referendums in the north of England. The regional assemblies proposed for the north are based on the same principle, and on regional boundaries that were constructed by Whitehall for its administrative convenience, not because of any intrinsic sense of their identity. They do not represent real communities with a historical identity, like Scotland or Wales. That is why the Government's consultation exercise entitled "Your Region, Your Say" received such a derisory response. There were fewer than 8,500 replies from a potential 40 million English people, although the deadline was extended twice.

Nevertheless, with the wrong concept of England's place in the United Kingdom constitution, with so-called regions that had been artificially created and with a complete lack of public enthusiasm, the Deputy Prime Minister proceeded with his White Paper on elected regional assemblies two years ago. From that document it was immediately clear that, unlike the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, English regional assemblies would be nothing but toothless talking shops. In almost every paragraph of the White Paper there is mention of "creating strategies", "influencing budgets" and "consultation with stakeholders". Nowhere do we see real devolution of power from Whitehall to regional government. The Government have made great play of the claim that regional assemblies will control hundreds of millions of pounds, but the truth is that a regional assembly would control less than 2 per cent. of public spending in any region. What sort of devolution is that?

Even those who are campaigning for a regional assembly are complaining. In July last year Lord Rooker, a Minister of State in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said in another place that regional assemblies would have no new money, no new powers".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2003; Vol. 651, c. 757.] That is the benchmark of the policy.

The Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) said: The powers and functions of assemblies were set out in full in the White Paper."—[Official Report, 8 December 2003; Vol. 415, c. 347W.] That seems to be perfectly straightforward.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con)

Is not the situation much worse than that? Not only will there be no extra money or powers; in future, if a United Kingdom Government wanted to target further moneys at disadvantaged areas in the north-west such as Manchester or Liverpool, they would be unable to do so because that provision would fall under state aid rules. That would have to go through the Commission, which would decide on it. That is another example of further powers being taken away from the United Kingdom Government.

Mr. Jenkin

My hon. Friend makes her own point in her own way extremely effectively.

In December last year, it started to become clear that the Deputy Prime Minister regarded the policy set out in the White Paper as merely an interim negotiating position. A leaked minute from a private meeting with "yes for the north-west" and others in his Department reveals that he raised the issue of the Barnett formula and that he believed that the introduction of regional assemblies would provide a great opportunity to open up the debate. How is that debate going? The Treasury quickly and comprehensively trashed the whole notion. In January, recognising the failure of the appeal of his proposals to the people of the north of England, the Deputy Prime Minister threw the Government's proposals into further turmoil. When questioned about the powers that an assembly would have, he said: There are battles to be had between government departments on what is included. Those are battles I am prepared for. Perhaps the Minister will expand a little on those battles. What are they about? How are discussions going on the Barnett formula, or police authorities? On that same day, the Deputy Prime Minister said: Some of our police authorities are just too small at the moment. Things are changing all the time and I know David"— meaning the Home Secretary— has spoken about the need of maybe changing some police decision-making. I therefore tabled a question to the Home Secretary, asking what plans he had to place police authorities under the control of elected assemblies. But who should reply? Not the Home Office, but the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who is here today. Clearly, the Home Secretary had heard nothing of those proposals and, perhaps in panic, had passed the question to the Minister for Local and Regional Government, who replied: The White Paper. sets out the powers of Elected Regional Assemblies."—[Official Report, 2 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 709W.]

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Coop)

The tenor of the hon. Gentleman's comments suggests that he thinks that the proposed powers for the directly elected regional assemblies are not strong enough. Will he, therefore, support the battle to bring in stronger powers for the assemblies?

Mr. Jenkin

I am pleased that the hon. Lady has confirmed that there is a battle going on; it is called a split, and I shall be talking a great deal more about it.

The yes campaigns is urge that assemblies be given greater transport powers, so I tabled a question to the Transport Secretary The reply said:

The transport powers of elected regional assemblies were set out in the White Paper".—[Official Report, 3 February 2004; Vol. 417, c. 825W.] So, after months of bluster and false promises about extra powers for regional assemblies, we are back to the hopeless White Paper that no one can sell. The Home Secretary, the Transport Secretary and the Treasury are clearly much better prepared for battles in Whitehall than the Deputy Prime Minister.

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab)


Mr. Jenkin

I am going to make some progress.

What about the Education Secretary? The Deputy Prime Minister went into battle again. In Manchester, at a public debate hosted by the Manchester Evening News in January, the Deputy Prime Minister stated that the proposals in the White Paper were "not fixed in concrete", adding: And there are obvious candidates like Learning and Skills Councils. The following day, he added at a meeting in Newcastle: I certainly think that the Learning and Skills Councils should be answerable to the region rather than nationally. What could be clearer than that?

Clearly, the Deputy Prime Minister was shaping up for the mother of all battles with the Education Secretary, because when I asked the Education Secretary what plans he had to transfer powers and responsibilities to elected regional assemblies, the reply said, "None". My hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) then wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister demanding clarification over the powers that the assemblies were intended to have. The reply said: The draft Bill will reflect the proposals set out in the White Paper. Understandably wanting to clear up public confusion, my hon. Friend then issued a press release stating that the Government had clarified that the powers set out in the White Paper would be the powers that regional assemblies would have. However, that was immediately contradicted by an anonymous spokeswoman in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who said: Nothing is definitely ruled in and nothing is definitely ruled out. The debate is still ongoing. In the meantime, the Education Secretary himself went north to explain that he opposed "major structural reform" such as handing the control of learning and skills councils to regional assemblies.

The situation is a farce more ridiculous than anyone could have made up. The Education Secretary has come clean about where responsibility for the control of learning and skills councils will lie; will the Minister for Local and Regional Government now admit to this House that elected assemblies, if they come into existence, will not control learning and skills councils or police authorities? The Deputy Prime Minister might well be having "battles", to use his word, but in Whitehall, as everywhere else, his pet proposals for regional assemblies are met with abject apathy. He and his little vision are the contempt of his colleagues. The truth is that he has lost every single one of his battles.

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con)

My hon. Friend's point about the learning and skills councils is doubly important because, as he knows, they control the funding for all post-16 education, including sixth forms in schools. The proposals to which he has alluded, if they came to fruition, would therefore hand to regional assemblies a significant proportion of the education powers currently wielded by local education authorities and central Government.

Mr. Jenkin

As my hon. Friend accurately describes, that is centralisation within the region, not devolution.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

One person who could clear up any confusion that may exist in the Government is the Prime Minister. Does the hon. Gentleman have any quotation from the Prime Minister that sets out his view on elected regional assemblies?

Mr. Jenkin

I must have missed that. I regret that I shall have to fail the hon. Gentleman on that, apart from the fact that, by convention, it is the Prime Minister who puts certain policies into his own White Paper. He represents a constituency in one of the regions concerned, and I presume that he visits it and attends public engagements there, but there is nothing on the recent record that shows any significant enthusiasm for these proposals.

The only powers that have been added to those proposed for the assemblies in the White Paper are those that the Deputy Prime Minister continues to steal from local government. This is Labour's real agenda: centralisation within each region. We know from the White Paper that assemblies would suck up powers from local government over planning, housing and transport, and produce strategies in those fields as well as on waste, culture, environmental health and spatial planning, all of which are currently local government responsibilities in respect of which local government has not previously faced interference. The Government have made great play of the powers that have been handed to regional assemblies since the publication of the White Paper, such as fire and rescue services and planning, which are currently county and district based. However, that is just the taking of more powers from local authorities, another centralising measure. The key point is that this truly is fake devolution.

There is significant confusion about the cost of regional assemblies and the reorganisation of local government. It is astonishing that just five months before the referendums are due to be held, the Government have still not given any clear indication of the likely cost of restructuring local government. Let me give the House not my estimate, but that of the leading authority in the country on this issue, Professor Michael Chisholm of Cambridge university. He estimates a cost to residents in two-tier local authority areas of at least £110 per resident. That is based not on optimistic ministerial predictions but on the hard evidence of past reorganisations.

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Past reorganisations?

Mr. Jenkin

Yes, past reorganisations.

Mr. Raynsford

Tory ones.

Mr. Jenkin

Oh, I can hear the Minister sneering, but on his present form, and given the state of his own Department, he cannot possibly be the judge of what is done well or badly. I prefer to rely on academic research. If I am wrong about past reorganisations, let the right hon. Gentleman name one local government reorganisation that has both hit the budget in terms of the cost of reorganisation and yielded the anticipated savings.

Mr. Raynsford

I have the greatest of pleasure in responding to the hon. Gentleman's challenge. Of course, all the reorganisations took place under the previous Conservative Government. They certainly did not meet any targets, which was a result of their incompetence.

Mr. Jenkin

How very convenient for the right hon. Gentleman, but I have a horrible feeling that he might be heading for some of the same experiences that he watched from the Opposition Benches. It is a sad thing when people cannot learn from the mistakes of others, let alone from their own.

We have also yet to hear a realistic estimate of the cost of actually running an assembly. In the White Paper, the Government presented the figure of just £25 million a year, but what evidence is there to back such optimism? The London assembly has just 25 members and cost £60 million to run in 2003–04. That is three times the original Government estimate. An elected assembly would have between 25 and 35 members. Given that personnel costs tend to constitute the highest proportion of any organisation's budget, can the Minister explain how it is that a regional assembly with up to one third more elected members than the London assembly would have half the running costs of the London assembly?

The Government are also completely incapable of justifying their estimate by giving a breakdown of the £30 million. Astonishingly, the Minister has admitted that there are no savings to be made from the abolition of the non-elected regional chambers. I asked him what estimate he has made of the costs of abolishing regional chambers … where an elected assembly is established; and how those costs would be met. He replied: It will be for the voluntary regional chambers to decide whether they should abolish themselves."—[Official Report, 8 March 2004: Vol. 418, c. 1228–9W.] [Laughter.] My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) has got it. The Government claim that elected assemblies are about reducing bureaucracy, but there could be two regional assemblies in every region. So many of the important questions surrounding the Government's regional agenda remain unanswered.

Yesterday, I received a letter from the Minister, in which he said—presumably while trying to keep a straight face—that the priority is for people in the regions to have all the information they need to make their choice and use their vote. So why will he not give us that information? What have the Government got to hide?

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar) (Con)

Where is the Bill?

Mr. Jenkin

Where is the Bill, as my hon. Friend asks? Unfortunately and predictably, the Government's so-called information campaign is about giving out anything but clear answers to all the questions that I have raised.

The Government are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on an information campaign that does almost nothing to give the public real information on what the powers will be. It does nothing to inform them of the real costs, or to allay the confusion that surrounds every aspect of the debate. That campaign is not just a total waste of taxpayers' money; it is clearly intended to distort public opinion ahead of those referendums.

We have taken counsel's opinion on the question of compliance with the guidelines in respect of the Government's information campaign. Not only does that campaign fail to inform the public; we are advised that the "Your Say" leaflets produced earlier this year are clearly intended to promote a yes vote in a referendum. They are therefore in breach of the Government's own guidelines on the work of the Government Information and Communication Service. [HON. MEMBERS: "Take them to court, then."] Unfortunately, this is not a legally enforceable matter. The guidelines are not statute, so they are not enforceable by a court of law. The basic conventions of those guidelines state that activities of the GICS should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical; should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, party political". They continue: The emphasis is on the factual basis and exposition of Government policies rather than on partisan argument.

I have in front of me a copy of the "Your Say" leaflet for Yorkshire and Humber. Those on the front cover with their thumbs up are smiling, and those with their thumbs down are straight-faced. It hardly seems logical for people to smile at the thought of paying a new regional council tax. However, that point is not explained in the leaflet.

Kali Mountford

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jenkin

If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will finish this point. If we look inside the leaflet, we find a series of questions: Will the elected assembly make a real difference to your life? The unequivocal answer given is yes. The next question is: Would it represent the whole region? The answer given is yes. A further question is: Would the assembly work for the whole region, not just the cities? The answer given is yes. Another question is: Would an elected assembly work well with local government? The answer given is yes. And finally: Will elected regional assemblies reduce bureaucracy? The answer given is yes.

The Government's guidelines on the GICS state that the Government must ensure that the presentation of arguments and counter-arguments take account of the need to avoid criticism that public funds are being used to disseminate party political propaganda". Where are the counter-arguments?

Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mr. Jenkin

If the right hon. Gentleman will answer that question, I will give way to him.

Mr. Raynsford

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Perhaps I can give the counter-argument that he himself will have read from the counsel opinion to which he referred. When asked to give an opinion as to whether the leaflets were tendentious and pursued party political grounds, the learned counsel whom the Conservative party consulted said: In my opinion, however, the leaflets do not play on any association between the Labour party and the benefits of regional assemblies nor advocate the policy in favour of regional assemblies on party political grounds. Will the hon. Gentleman now with draw?

Mr. Jenkin

No, I will not; I will continue, because the right hon. Gentleman did not answer my question. Where are the counter-arguments? The Government still have no idea what the constituencies of assembly members would be. Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that people in Middlesbrough and Teesside fear that an assembly for the north-east would be dominated by Tyneside? Is he not aware that people in Northumberland fear that metropolitan interests would dominate the rural agenda? The Government's assurances that an assembly would represent the whole region are clearly polemical and tendentious.

As for regional assemblies reducing bureaucracy, we need only look to the London assembly, the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament employs more officials per head of population than any other Parliament in the world. The number of press officers has more than doubled since devolution—from 30 to 72; the number of Ministers has increased from four to 12; and the number of special advisers has increased from two to 11. In the three English regions, two thirds of the population of each region currently live under single-tier local government, so a regional assembly would certainly represent an extra tier of bureaucracy—of paid politicians and bureaucrats. This hardly matches the claim that elected assemblies will reduce bureaucracy. The Government have failed to spell out the arguments in favour of regional assemblies as advanced in these leaflets, and the arguments against.

However, there is a subtle but highly significant distinction to be made between official Government policy—that regional assemblies should be established in those regions where the people have voted in favour of an assembly at a referendum—and the Government's intended outcome, which is a party political position: that people in the three northern regions vote yes in the referendums.

I sent our legal advice—from the leading chambers in this field—to the Cabinet Secretary, which is why the Minister has a copy. Today, I received Sir Andrew Turnbull's reply, which the Minister will also doubtless have. In it, Sir Andrew disputes counsel's opinion, from which the Minister has just quoted. Sir Andrew wrote: The suggestion that such explanation should eschew the fact that the Government is in favour of regional assemblies seems rather artificial. That is not a very strong statement. He continues: However, contrary to what seems to be suggested at paragraph 25 of the opinion, we do not consider there is a requirement for Government publicity to explain both the case in favour of regional assemblies and the case against it. If I may, I shall quote again from the guidance that the Cabinet Office is meant to enforce: In such cases, subject matter, presentation and handling are again crucial, particularly when publicity deals with issues on which there is no consensus. There is no consensus. It continues: The presentation of arguments and counter-arguments take account of the need to avoid criticism that public funds are being used to disseminate party political propaganda. Nothing could be clearer than that. That is the point of the opinion with which the Government disagree, so it is invidious and misl—I am sorry; I should not use the word that I was about to use. It is invidious and not correct for the Minister to claim the opinion in support of his position. It is clearly a criticism of the Government's position.

Mr. Raynsford rose—

Mr. Jenkin

The right hon. Gentleman will have time to reply in due course. I am sure that he is going to take a little snippet out of the opinion, but the fact is that he should explain why it was necessary for Sir Andrew Turnbull to dispute the legal opinion with which he was presented.

How all that contrasts with the scrupulous way in which Donald Dewar approached the Scottish referendum in 1997! Nothing better demonstrates how Labour is at the heart of the corruption of our constitution. Sadly, there is no legal redress here, but it serves to underline how desperate the Government are to try to fix the results of these referendums.

Lately, I have seen the new TV adverts, and they are even more biased than anything yet seen. If the Government believed in truth, fairness and properly informed debate, they would halt the information campaign now—but there is no hope of that.

The latest twist in the web of confusion is over the conduct of the ballot itself. The Electoral Commission is due to deliver its report and recommendations on the recent all-postal pilots in September. However, in last week's debate, the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) announced that if the Electoral Commission were to conclude that all-postal voting was unsafe, the referendums would have to be postponed. Yesterday, the Minister for Local and Regional Government was reported as saying: If there were to be a delay it would mean putting the thing back beyond a General Election. How convenient that would be for the Government. He added: If there were to be a suggestion that some new regulations were required, then a delay would take place. That is what he said. That, Mr. Deputy Speaker, seems like a foregone conclusion.

Last year, reporting on the pilot schemes at the June elections, the Electoral Commission recommended changes to the legislation such as individual voter registration and an extension of police powers to arrest people at any location on reasonable suspicion of impersonation. That would require changes to legislation. After the postal pilots earlier this month, it is inconceivable that the commission would not issue similar, if not more stringent, recommendations in the report later this year.

We know that the Electoral Commission would prefer the Government to wait until its report is published before laying the orders for the referendum in Parliament, although the Minister has sought to deny that. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, stated quite clearly earlier this week: The commission believes that there would be benefit in Parliament having available to it the Electoral Commission's evaluation reports on the June pilot before taking a decision on whether to approve the orders specifying the form of the referendum."—[Official Report, 28 June 2004; Vol. 423, c. 16.] Yet again, the Government have ignored the advice of the very commission that they set up to advise them. However, to appease their critics, they have thrown open the question of whether the referendums will actually take place at all.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire) (Lab)

In praying in aid what the Electoral Commission may or may not be saying, how does the hon. Gentleman square what he said with the remark of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) in this place last week: I do not care what the Electoral Commission said."—[Official Report, 22 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 1208.]

Mr. Jenkin

It is quite clear. We did not support the establishment of the Electoral Commission. We think that these decisions should ultimately be taken by Parliament. The Electoral Commission is a quango, but a quango established by the hon. Gentleman's Labour colleagues to advise the Labour Government on policy. It is extraordinary that, having set up such a body, the Government consistently ignore its advice—and at taxpayers' expense.

Irrespective of whether the referendums will actually take place, the announcement last week will have been of grave concern to those campaigning both in favour of and against regional assemblies in the north of England. As the Minister will know from his Department's propaganda campaign, advertising space and leaflet printers have to be booked weeks in advance of publication. However, if there is no guarantee that the referendums will actually go ahead, how can the yes or no campaigns commit to contracts and liabilities for their forward campaigns? Will the Government underwrite those commitments, so that designated organisations will be compensated if the referendums are cancelled? Under what legislation would the Government have the power to do that?

If the referendums are postponed after the official campaigns have been designated, will the Government confirm that they will not seek to recover the grant given to those campaigns? We know that the Electoral Commission has floated the idea of reimbursing the designated campaigns for expenditure incurred before they receive the grants, but would that still happen if the referendums were to be postponed before the grants were issued?

What is the Government's real agenda behind all this mess? Is it merely to take account of a report from the Electoral Commission—a quango that they created but have so often ignored—or is it to use the Electoral Commission as a convenient alibi for cancelling the referendums, if it is convenient to do so? We know, as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) pointed out, that the Prime Minister is less than enthusiastic about these referendums. After suffering a record humiliation at the local elections, he is no doubt even less inclined to receive another kicking—to use the Deputy Prime Minister's words—before the next general election.

We know that many in the Government are opposed to holding the referendums. Andrew Marr of the BBC reported that three senior Ministers to whom he had spoken believed that the Government would lose all three. We know that the Labour Party is split on the issue. We know that Lord Haskins, chairman of the yes campaign in Yorkshire, has told Labour MPs in Yorkshire that the referendums should indeed be postponed. We have even had a Yorkshire Labour MP saying that the Prime Minister was "scared to tell John"—the Deputy Prime Minister—that he has to "pull the plug".

The Deputy Prime Minister was due to meet Labour MPs in the three northern regions yesterday to discuss whether the Government should continue with the referendums. Well, what happened? Perhaps the Minister would like to inform the House of the outcome of those discussions because they clearly have a bearing on the public interest. [HON. MEMBERS: "It's tonight."] Oh, the meeting is tonight, so perhaps we will have a statement tomorrow. I will table a question to elicit an answer.

It is all too clear that, if the Government look likely to lose the referendums by the time the Electoral Commission is due to report in September, they will cancel them. Perhaps the Minister will assure the House that whatever is decided will apply to all three referendums. It would surely be invidious for just one or two of the referendums to be allowed to go ahead because they were deemed to be politically convenient for the Government.

Our position on the referendums is clear. The people in the north of England have been promised a referendum on regional assemblies. We should make sure that that promise is kept. There are two simple steps that the Minister can take to reduce the confusion surrounding the Government's policy and to ensure the referendums are held on schedule.

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

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can clarify. I understood the Conservative position—it has certainly been expressed in the House—to be that the people of the north of England should not have a referendum in which they would be entitled to choose whether to have a regional assembly. Is the hon. Gentleman now insisting—if so, I welcome it—that they should have such a referendum?

Mr. Jenkin

The simple fact is that the Government have announced that the referendums are going ahead, and the legislation has been passed A promise has been made to the people of the north of England, and it is reasonable for politicians to want to keep other politicians to their promises. If I may say so, I certainly understand if the right hon. Gentleman is joining some of the other yes campaigners in hoping that the referendum will not go ahead. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman himself whether he believes that the referendums should go ahead?

Mr. Beith

I put a question to the hon. Gentleman. Is he now prepared to say that the people of the north of England should have the opportunity to vote on whether or not they want a regional assembly? The last time that question was addressed from the Conservative Front Bench, the answer was that they should not be given that opportunity. My view is that they should.

Mr. Jenkin

This far down the track, a promise having been made to the people of the north of England that they will have their say, I say let the people speak.

The Minister could reduce the uncertainty and confusion by taking two steps. First, the Government must publish the draft Bill detailing the powers that the elected assemblies would have, so that we could put an end to the endless battles in Whitehall, in time for debate in both Houses before the summer. Secondly, the Government must restore the option of voting in person at the ballot box for the regional referendums. That would not only obviate the need to wait for the Electoral Commission's report in September—there is one reason—but restore public confidence in the voting system for the referendums.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab)

I do not believe that anyone should second-guess what the outcome of the Electoral Commission's work will be. However, one of last year's pilots in the May local government elections was held in my constituency. The report that was produced in July said that there was no difference at all between all-postal votes, any other form of postal votes or anything else. It seems likely to me that the Electoral Commission will give the go-ahead.

Mr. Jenkin

I have already explained that the Electoral Commission is unhappy with the current state of the legislation on all-postal voting. I should have thought that the experience of the large-scale postal pilots would be as evident to the right hon. Gentleman as to everybody else: there were lots of problems.

A new problem is likely to arise in all-postal referendums: the possibility of massive vote harvesting. The Government must abandon the principle that ballot papers should be sent out in the post to anybody and everybody whether or not they have requested them. That is a recipe for electoral fraud, and it invites the misuse of those ballot papers. If interest and party—[Interruption.] The Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope) says, "If you can't win the vote, fix the electoral system," but it is his party that is fixing the electoral system. If ballot boxes were good enough for the Scottish and Welsh referendums, why are they not good enough for the people of the north of England? That is the tried and tested voting system that people want; they do not want new-fangled ideas.

The danger of vote harvesting is that the unscrupulous will make use of the ballot papers of the disinterested. We know that apathy as regards elected regional assemblies is rife, and that turnout is likely to be well below 50 per cent. In that case, ballot papers are likely to be floating around in bins and skips all over the place. It is a recipe for chaos, confusion and mismanagement of the electoral process.

Kali Mountford

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, as I consider it an outrageous slur. Does he have any evidence to prop up that slur and the allegations he has just made? What possible objection could he have to an election turnout of more than 50 per cent.—not ballot papers in bins, but ballot papers counted?

Mr. Jenkin

The Electoral Commission wants individual voter registration, which requires provision in legislation. In place of that, however, Parliament decided that for the electoral pilots there should be witness declarations of voter identity.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

Does my hon. Friend agree that a further simple step to reduce fraud would be for postal votes to be issued only to those people who request them? After all, that is the system at present.

Mr. Jenkin

I fully agree with my hon. Friend; that is the only safe way to conduct elections. Without individual registration, and having no provision in legislation for the declaration of identity to be witnessed, there is no way that the authorities will be able to tell the scale of any fraud.

England is the mother of Parliaments. The democratic institutions in this country used to set the standards for countless democracies throughout the world. The English constitution was the inspiration of Locke and Montesquieu—the philosophers who in their turn were the inspiration of the founding fathers of the American constitution. Our Parliament here at Westminster has established countless constitutions for new nations around the world, yet now, after centuries of nurturing and developing the world's benchmark for democracy, we are faced with constitutional chaos, which the Government have created in a remarkably short period.

Earlier this month, we saw a collapse in public confidence in the voting system unprecedented in modern times. In the style of a dictatorship, the Government declared the all-postal pilots to have been "successfully completed", and less than five months away from referendums on significant constitutional change, we are told that they may never take place. If they do, they are likely to be a farce.

No wonder politics is becoming the despair of voters across the country. If the Government are truly interested in raising turnout at elections, they should look more closely at the way in which they conduct the government and stewardship of our constitution, rather than seeking short-term increases in participation through the use of voting gimmicks.

2.24 pm
The Minister for Local and Regional Government Mr. Nick Raynsford)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: welcomes progress the Government is making in implementing its proposals for elected regional assemblies set out in the White Paper, Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, based on the principles of increasing prosperity, pride and democracy in the regions; applauds the opportunity afforded to people in the three northern regions of England to have their say about whether they want an elected assembly for their region; welcomes the decision to hold the referendum by all-postal ballot while noting the Government's preparedness to give a clear undertaking not to proceed with all-postal referendums as planned if the Electoral Commission produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so; welcomes the Government's decision to have one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 electors, giving the choice as to whether to return their vote by post, to deliver it by hand, or to vote at a place supervised by electoral officials; further notes the Boundary Committee's estimates of the savings from local government restructuring in regions which choose to establish an elected regional assembly; looks forward to the publication of the draft Bill which would establish elected assemblies, once the date for the referendums has been set by Parliament; commends the Government's endeavours to ensure that people voting in the referendums have information on which to base their choice; and notes that the principal confusion about regional policy appears to be on the Opposition benches.

The Opposition claim that there is confusion in regional government policy, but after listening to the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) there can be little doubt in the Chamber that it is the Opposition, and the hon. Gentleman in particular, who are confused.

When we last debated elected regional assemblies, on 11 February, the spokesman for the Opposition was the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), and I am delighted to see him in the Chamber this afternoon. He had given, as is his wont, serious thought to the issue. In a speech in 2000, he said: In its potential to restore some vigour to local democracy, and to offer a constitutional settlement, regional government deserves real consideration. Two years later, he added a further acute observation: There is actually a case for regional devolution, and it is silly to pretend that that case does not exist. There are two arguments in favour of regional devolution. One is that there is a serious problem with representative democracy in Britain today. We have passed power out of the hands of people who are accountable … The second argument for regional devolution is that, at some stage, we have to address the problem of the government of England. I happen to be passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government. The hon. Member for North Essex referred to the English Parliament; it was probably a slip of the tongue, so I hope that he will correct it. This is the British Parliament. I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon who is passionately opposed to the idea of an English Government.

Mr. Jenkin

I said that England is the mother of Parliaments.

Mr. Raynsford

When the hon. Gentleman checks Hansard tomorrow, I think he will see that his reference was to an English Parliament, but I leave him to make the subsequent correction.

I shall continue quoting from the speech made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. He said: I can think of nothing more destructive for the United Kingdom than a wholly imbalanced power centred in an English Government, faced with the powers of the much smaller nationalities in the United Kingdom. Devolution to regions of the United Kingdom can provide an answer to this problem."— [Official Report, 26 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 318–19.] The right hon. Gentleman of course had some difficulties in reconciling his entirely sensible approach with the mindlessly negative approach that the dominant forces in his party had adopted on regional assemblies. How it must have reminded him of debates about Europe when he had comparable difficulties with the Eurosceptics. He sought to square the circle by arguing that he was not opposed in principle to regional devolution but that he could not support the Government's proposals because they did not give the regions sufficient powers.

While that undoubtedly helped the right hon. Gentleman out of the difficulty of reconciling his views with his party's, I am not sure that there was any solid basis for claiming that the Tory party wanted more devolution to the regions. No doubt had he continued in his post, we would have seen proposals for extending the powers of elected regional assemblies and enjoyed a constructive debate about them. Sadly, he no longer speaks for his party and in his absence there have been no proposals—none—from the official Opposition to give more powers to elected regional assemblies.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)


Mr. Raynsford

Of course I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Curry

I had a feeling that the right hon. Gentleman might give way.

I rescind not one jot of what I said. If we look to some sort of regional devolution to balance the distribution of power within the United Kingdom as a whole, it follows that there must be an analogy between the powers devolved to places such as Scotland and, to a lesser extent, Wales and those devolved to English regions. If that were to happen, sensible people would want to see whether it could be made to work. But that is not on offer. What is being offered to the English regions is a hollow echo even of what was offered to Wales, so sensible people will not want to follow a course that merely submits to the Government's agenda of pure tokenism.

Mr. Raynsford

As I pointed out to the right hon. Gentleman, he made a perfectly sound case for giving more powers to the regions and I put it to him that what is on offer to the English regions is broadly comparable to what was offered to the people of London who voted in favour of it and now have their city-wide authority, which fulfils most of the same functions that are proposed for the English regional assemblies. I hear what he says; if he is sincere in his objective, what representations has he made to his party to advocate greater powers for elected regional assemblies and why does he think that the current Opposition Front Benchers appear so lacking in interest in extending the powers of elected regional assembles?

Mr. Curry

The right hon. Gentleman will have observed the London elections and noted the turnout. He will also have noted the turnout at the referendum on whether to have a London assembly and the turnouts in Scotland and Wales even with the relatively substantial powers of the Parliament and the Assembly. What does he think the turnout would be for the Yorkshire and Humber regional assembly, on the basis of the powers set out in the White Paper, at the second set of elections to that assembly? Would it be above or below 10 per cent?

Mr. Raynsford

The turnout at the recent election in London—the first re-election of the Greater London authority—showed an increase on the turnout at the previous such election. That may or may not support my case, but it certainly does not support the right hon. Gentleman's. We have a genuine and serious issue in encouraging turnout and participation in the democratic process, not just for the GLA or the Scottish Parliament, but for English local authorities and, indeed, for the British Parliament. The 59 per cent. turnout at the last general election is not something about which any of us can feel comfortable, so we have issues to address, but the intelligent and serious debate that I looked forward to having with him when he spoke on this subject for the Conservative party is very much the way forward; the current mindless opposition to proposals for regional devolution is not.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

In answer to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), the Minister said that the powers on offer to the English regions are broadly similar to the powers given to the Greater London authority. I have to tell the Minister that that is completely incorrect. The GLA's powers over transport in relation to the roads that the Highways Agency used to maintain in the capital, buses, the London underground and the police are completely and utterly different. If he is now saying that those powers will be included in the draft powers Bill. that is a major statement, but if he is trying to say that the powers are broadly similar, he is simply incorrect.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman served on the Committee that considered the Greater London Authority Bill and he has taken a close interest in this issue, but I remind him that the powers in relation to economic development, the oversight of the regional development agency, strategic planning, public health and supporting the overall development of culture in the area are all broadly comparable. I entirely accept that transport is an exception because London has its own unique transport body, Transport for London. That is not replicated in the English regions, but, under our proposals, they will have rather greater powers than the GLA in relation to housing capital allocations. Yes, there are some differences, which is why I used the words "broadly comparable", but I rest my case on the fact that, in terms of broad comparability, we are talking about strategic powers to govern the whole region, not becoming involved in day-to-day service delivery, which rests with the local authorities. We have followed that model both in London and the English regions.

I want to pose a question to the hon. Member for North Essex who, in the absence of the elusive hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), is speaking for the Conservatives now.

Mr. Jenkin

The reason why my hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) is not here is that, when she put herself forward for this debate, it was expected that the Deputy Prime Minister might come to answer for his policy. He did not have the courage to do so.

Mr. Raynsford

That is particularly cheap. The Deputy Prime Minister has never had the slightest hesitation in speaking in the House and elsewhere in defence of his policy, but he is not always able to attend every debate. We work as a team, and I have spoken frequently on this subject and will continue to do so. I was simply observing the absence of the hon. Lady.

Do the Conservatives want more powers to be devolved to elected regional assemblies or are they totally opposed to regional devolution? Answer comes there none. That is a classic illustration of the confusion at the heart of the Conservative party, and I fear that we will not get any clarification.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

Was my right hon. Friend struck, as I was, by the complete absence from the speech of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) of any plan by his party to regenerate or empower the regions, and by the fact that he proposed no strategy whatsoever?

Mr. Raynsford

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: the Conservatives have nothing to offer. Indeed, they have an appalling track record in the line that they have adopted on devolution over the past seven years. They have got it wrong every single time that an important constitutional and democratic advance has been made in this country over the past seven years. They opposed devolution to Scotland. They were wrong. They eventually had to change their minds. They opposed devolution to Wales. They were wrong. They eventually had to change their minds. They opposed devolution to London. They were wrong. They eventually had to change their minds. Today, we have witnessed another U-turn, prompted by the rather sharp question from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). They previously opposed holding referendums in the north, but they now say that they want them. With such an appalling track record for changing their tune, who would trust what they have to say about any proposal for devolution?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

May I ask the Minister about something for which he is responsible and about which he is supposed to be talking today, which is not Opposition policy? On 5 May 2004, he gave me an answer that shows that the maximum chamber budget is £2.5 million in the north-west and that the rest of the budgets are somewhat less than £2 million. Will he say something about the elected regional assemblies' budgets? Are we talking about that sort of sum? He has almost spent such a sum on the campaign, let alone all the parliamentary time and political trouble that we are having. If the budgets will be of that order, what on earth are we all doing?

Mr. Raynsford

If the hon. Gentleman had read the White Paper and the literature that we have been publishing as part of the "Your Say" campaign, he would know that the money that will be deployed by the elected regional assemblies will be approximately £300 million for the north-east, approximately £700 million for Yorkshire and Humber and approximately £1.1 billion for the north-west. Those are the direct spending figures. In addition, there will be considerable influence over other matters. We are talking of substantial sums. He is wrong to draw a comparison with the current chambers, which are voluntary associations and supported by the Government to perform co-ordination functions in relation to regional strategic planning and to the work of the regional development agencies. Those roles are very different from that of elected regional assemblies.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am glad that the Minister gave those figures, because they are still tiny in comparison with what the Government offices for the regions control. Will he say something about the relationship between the elected regional assemblies and the Government offices? Will the assemblies have any control over those budgets, or will they still be controlled directly from Westminster?

Mr. Raynsford

As has been explained on many occasions, some of the functions will transfer from the Government offices, but it is implicit in our proposals that service delivery should essentially remain a local function—the responsibility of local authorities—and it is right and proper that expenditure on items such as education should continue to be local. The amounts discharged by regional bodies will not be vast in relation to the overall sums spent in the regions, because much of that will be spent by local authorities. My understanding of the Conservatives' position is that they do not want powers to be taken from local authorities and handed to elected regional assemblies. We do not either. That is why we are distinguishing the strategic role of elected regional assemblies from the service delivery role of local authorities. The inevitable consequence is that large sums will continue to be spent in the regions by local authorities that are not within the remit of the regional assembly.

Mr. Jenkin

I am glad that the Minister confirms my assertion that less than 2 per cent. of public money will be spent by regional assemblies. Will he also confirm that that money will be ring-fenced and subject to Government targets, as is stated in the White Paper— unless he is changing that as well? Will he also bear it in mind that the alternative policy to setting up regional assemblies, which represent centralisation within the regions, is for Whitehall to give some of its powers back to local government, which is where people really feel those powers belong?

Mr. Raynsford

Once again, the hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. If he reads the White Paper, he will see clearly that we propose a single pot for the elected regional assemblies, not ring-fenced funds. Perhaps he would like to reflect on the fact that, once again, he has got his facts wrong. If he had bothered to do more research into what we are doing, he would recognise that we are engaged in reversing many of the centralising actions of the last Conservative Government. The new prudential borrowing regime, which has been introduced this year for local authorities, ends the pernicious regime introduced by the Conservative Government under which all local authority borrowing decisions were subject to central control. A little more humility on his part about the failures of the Conservative party in government would be appropriate.

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

No, I will not give way. I want to make some progress.

A little more humility on the consistent failure of judgment that the Conservative party has shown on the regional issue would also be appropriate. The Conservatives have now been obliged to concede the case for the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Greater London authority. If devolved government is appropriate for the 15 million people who live in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, why is it not appropriate for the 2.5 million people in the north-east, the 5 million people in Yorkshire and Humber or the 6 million people in the north-west?

The policy of the Conservatives is confused and inconsistent. They opposed regional chambers, but now they support them. The regional chambers are now populated by more than 150 Conservative councillors—indeed, Conservatives chair two of them. Of course, they opposed the introduction of regional development agencies, but now we do not know what they think. In October 2003, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), who is also sitting on the Conservative Front Bench, said: we realise that business communities in many regions recognise that RDAs do a worthwhile job. I have talked to representatives of RDAs and told them that we would expect a Conservative Government to engage with them to consider how to address the issue of democratic deficit. We are not committed, as we were previously, to their outright abolition. We will engage with them."—[Official Report, 16 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 178WH.] Does that mean that the Conservatives would abolish RDAs or keep them? How would they address the democratic deficit? Would they engage with RDAs centrally or regionally? We look forward to hearing how the official Opposition intend to resolve those issues, because we have received no answers to date.

The previous Conservative Government created the Government offices for the regions in 1994 at a time when they recognised the need for a regional dimension to the machinery of government. The Conservative party is now not sure whether to discount its own legacy, as some of its Back Benchers clearly would like it to, because the UK Independence party claims that regional policy is a European conspiracy—we heard a touch of that earlier in the debate. What a sad example of the decline of the Conservative party from a party of government to a confused rabble, marching to the drum of the anti-European fanatics who increasingly determine its policy, and sacrificing principles and consistency for shameless opportunism. By contrast, the Government have shown a clear and consistent regional policy: to take power from the most centralised system of government in the western world and give it back to the people in Scotland, Wales, London and now the English regions.

Mr. Curry

While the right hon. Gentleman is pursuing such a noble cause as devolution, will he give us an insight into whether the balance of funding review of local government is likely to give significantly greater power back to local government and rebalance the relationship between central and local Government?

Mr. Raynsford

The right hon. Gentleman makes a good try, but he will know that our first responsibility after the completion of the balance of funding review will be to report to the House, which we will do. I cannot anticipate the results today.

It is our responsibility to extend democracy so that decisions that ultimately affect the English regions are taken in the English regions by people elected by each of the English regions, and to create jobs, growth and a better quality of life for all our people.

Elected regional assemblies will lead to more accountable regional government. They will take power from central Government, not local government, and give the people a new political voice. They will tackle the big strategic issues that need to be handled, and are already handled, at the regional level, such as planning for homes, land, jobs and transport consideration of the environment and the promotion of arts, sports, public health and public safety throughout the regions. Through elected assemblies, people will have control and influence over how significant proportions of central Government money are spent in their region. That represents a clear opportunity for devolution to the English regions, but it is up to people who live in regions to choose in a referendum whether they want an elected regional assembly. No region will be required to have an elected assembly if it does not want one—it is entirely a matter of choice. The Conservative party claims to support such choice until we come to proposals for regional referendums.

Mr. Edward Davey

Will the Minister confirm here and now that there will be referendums on elected regional assemblies this coming autumn?

Mr. Raynsford

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me for a moment, I shall deal with that specific issue and give him the detailed answer that he wants. However, I would first like to cover other points that have been raised on the powers of assemblies and the way in which they will work.

Mr. Pickthall

The Minister might know that I am a 100 per cent. supporter of regional government. Unfortunately, the campaign in which we are engaged shackles that to changes to local government. How would my right hon. Friend advise me to deal with the situation in my constituency, in which the proposals for changes to local government that are consequent on the regional campaign are universally despised? I can almost guarantee that 74,000 electors in my patch will vote against regional government, not because of regional government itself but because of what is happening to their local authority.

Mr. Raynsford

We think it is right to streamline existing two-tier local government structures where there is an elected regional assembly, to avoid the proliferation of bureaucracy. As my hon. Friend knows, we are continuing to consider specific proposals from the boundary committee for England that were submitted to us about five weeks ago, so we will not be in a position to give a definitive answer for a further week. However, my hon. Friend will know that his local authority has made substantial representations about the possible impact of the boundary committee's proposals on West Lancashire, which we are examining closely. He will understand that I cannot say more at the moment because we are in the consultation period, but we will clarify the issues when we lay the appropriate orders before the House.

We believe in giving people a choice. The Conservative party claims to support choice, but does not believe in it. It does not believe in devolution. It is devoid of creative ideas and is opposing just for the sake of it. Conservative Members claim that there is confusion about the powers to be devolved to elected regional assemblies, but they have no proposals to clarify or extend their powers—they are simply making an opportunistic attack.

Our White Paper made it clear that elected assemblies will have powers to make a difference in key areas such as jobs, planning, housing, transport, culture and the environment in the regions. Elected regional assemblies will set the economic development agenda for their regions and work with regional development agencies to enhance regions' competitiveness and economic performance. They will also have a powerful influence on quality-of-life issues within regions. Those were always key elements of our proposals for elected regional assemblies, but as we said in our White Paper: the Government is keen to further decentralise responsibility for policy and delivery where this will improve regional outcomes… There are likely to be further proposals for the decentralisation of responsibilities to assemblies as time goes on.

Mr. Jenkin

The phrase from the White Paper that the right hon. Gentleman cites is simply code for saying, "We cannot agree in the Government what the powers of these elected regional assemblies should be, and we are still arguing about it." Our point is that there is a split in the Government on regional assemblies, and there is now a split on whether the referendums should be held at all.

Mr. Raynsford

I regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman because he added nothing to the debate by repeating the entirely inaccurate allegations that he made in his speech.

It is important for the debate to have a proper and serious tone, so let me explain the three main new policy developments affecting assemblies' powers that have been made since the regions White Paper was published. First, the June 2003 White Paper on fire and rescue services announced that responsibility for fire and rescue services will transfer to a regional level in regions that choose to have an elected assembly. That mirrors the effective arrangements that already exist in London and will help to ensure that fire and rescue services are properly equipped to respond to the many new challenges that exist, not least those posed by international terrorism that require co-ordination beyond the level of existing fire authorities.

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)

The Minister repeated that regional fire authorities will be created where there are elected regional assemblies, but the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's business plan, which appeared earlier this week, says that regional fire and rescue structures would be imposed only where elected regional assemblies were created and elsewhere to promote an effective regional dimension". Will the Minister confirm whether regional fire and rescue authorities will be imposed under any circumstances where elected regional assemblies have not been created?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Committee that debated that at enormous length, so he knows perfectly well what the arrangements are.

Mr. Hammond

That is different.

Mr. Raynsford

No, it is not. My explanation is exactly the same as the one I gave in Committee, and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has forgotten it. The clear commitment that we have given time and again is that where people vote for an elected regional assembly, it is right that there should be a regional fire and rescue service that is democratically accountable to that assembly, as is the case in London. Otherwise, regional management boards will be brought together by the existing fire and rescue authorities to deal with matters that need to be handled at a regional level, including resilience planning, anti-terrorist arrangements, procurement and so on. The hon. Gentleman knows all that—it is exactly what we have always said, and it remains our policy.

Mr. Hammond

Is the ODPM business plan wrong when it sets an objective of delivering regional Fire and Rescue Authorities in regions voting for an Elected Regional Assembly, and elsewhere to promote an effective regional dimension"? Are those words wrong?

Mr. Raynsford

The wording is designed—and I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is having difficulty with this—to support the creation of regional fire and rescue authorities in areas where there is an elected regional assembly.

Mr. Jenkin

That is not what the business plan says.

Mr. Raynsford

Would the hon. Gentleman contain himself and listen to the reply that I am trying to give the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge?

Elsewhere, the aim is to have appropriate structures to ensure that things that need to be discharged at a regional level are so discharged. That has been explained time and time again. I know that the hon. Member for North Essex does not want to believe it because he has a conspiracy theory about regionalisation. He is wrong and, as on so many issues, the Opposition are showing that they do not understand the policy of devolution.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD)

I was not here for the beginning of the right hon. Gentleman's speech, but people would be more convinced that the Government were in favour of regional governance if regional authorities were given the same powers in relation to regional fire authorities as the Welsh Assembly. A number of regional assemblies will cover areas bigger than Wales but will have fewer fire protection powers than the Assembly.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman made that point in Committee. The model that we have broadly followed is the model used the London assembly, with the distinctions that I highlighted in response to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). We envisage a strategic authority in the English regions. London is to all intents and purposes an English region, and it is appropriate that other English regions should have broadly comparable arrangements.

I was speaking about changes to the fire service. We announced in February 2004 that we would strengthen the powers of elected assemblies in respect of regional planning. The third new development concerns the involvement of stakeholders—business, trade unions, the voluntary sector, faith communities, representatives of rural areas, young people and ethnic minorities, and other interest groups—in the work of elected regional assemblies. Following consultation, we concluded that elected regional assemblies should be subject to a duty to introduce proposals for involving stakeholders in their work. How they do so will be for them to decide—that is the nature of devolution—but they cannot ignore the concerns of stakeholder groups. That is all part of the new, more inclusive approach towards arrangements for governance that we are putting in place.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford

No, I should like to make progress as I have given way many times.

From the outset, we made it clear that our proposals are designed to add value and minimise bureaucracy, which is why we have proposed small, streamlined bodies consisting of 25 to 35 members. At the same time, we made it clear that three tiers of Government below the national level—regional, county and district—are too many. We therefore insisted that if people voted in a referendum for an elected regional assembly in their region, that must be accompanied by unitary local government throughout the region, which follows the pattern in Scotland, in Wales and in London. The boundary committee has now completed its review and set out options for unitary local government in Cumbria, Lancashire, Cheshire, Northumberland, Durham and North Yorkshire. The residents of those two-tier counties will have a say on their preferred option in the referendum, which is another advance in letting people express their preferences—something that the Opposition never did when they imposed wholesale reorganisation on local government in the 1990s.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

We know that there will be fewer local authority councillors in the new local government configuration proposed by the boundary committee, but can my right hon Friend estimate the number of councillors that we will lose?

Mr. Raynsford

As my hon. Friend knows, that will depend on the proposed configuration, but as I said in response to our hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), we are not in a position to give figures until there has been a proper consultation on the committee's proposals. However, we will do so, and my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) will know that the boundary committee's proposals involve a significant reduction of the existing 50 local authorities in the six northern counties to a total of between seven and 19.

Mr. Francois

I thank the Minister for his courtesy in giving way. A few minutes ago, he mentioned regional planning, which is intimately connected to the issue of housing and regional housing boards. He knows that that is extremely controversial in Essex, where the Government's attempts to increase the amount of housing is a principal reason for the effective slaughter of the Labour party on 10 June. It even lost Thurrock, which it has held for decades. Why does the Minister think that the Labour party was slaughtered in Essex on that day?

Mr. Raynsford

I regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because this is a debate about devolution and elected regional assemblies. To the best of my knowledge, he has not shown any interest in having such an assembly in Essex, so I should like to get back to the agenda and talk about elected regional assemblies in those parts of the country where referendums will take place.

I should like to say a few words about the way in which the referendum is conducted. During the parliamentary passage of the Bill that enables the referendums to be held, many concerns were voiced about turnout, and we agreed that it was vital to do everything possible to encourage participation. We have, as hon. Members know, conducted an extensive programme of electoral pilots at local government elections that demonstrated very clearly the scope of all-postal ballots in achieving dramatic increases in participation, in many cases doubling the number of voters in traditional ballots. In its evaluation of the 2003 pilots, the Electoral Commission concluded that, subject to certain safeguards, all-postal elections should be adopted as the norm for future local government elections. Against that background, we concluded that it would be sensible to use all-postal balloting in the three northern referendums. We announced our decision last autumn and it was welcomed by the Electoral Commission. That is the basis on which we have been proceeding, with the agreement of the Electoral Commission.

Following the June 2004 elections, we held further discussions with the Electoral Commission, which once again will conduct an evaluation of the electoral pilots that must be completed by 13 September. In those discussions, the commission suggested that we delay laying the orders necessary to allow the referendums to be held until after its evaluation of the June pilots was published. We in turn pointed out that because of the specific commitments already given to Parliament about the referendum period and the provision of information to all electors, it would not be possible to hold the referendums this autumn if the orders were not agreed before the summer recess. In seeking a sensible way forward to try to meet both concerns, we gave an undertaking to the House last week, which I am happy to repeat today. To enable the autumn timetable to be met we need parliamentary approval of the orders in July, but we undertake not to proceed with the all-postal referendums as planned if the Electoral Commission's evaluation of the 2004 pilots produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so.

Mr. Edward Davey

I thank the Minister for clarifying that safeguard, but when he and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), gave that explanation to the House last week, there was no suggestion, as I recall, that the laying of orders went against the initial advice of the Electoral Commission. Why did Ministers not make it clear to the House that the commission had advised against proceeding with the laying of orders?

Mr. Raynsford

The position is exactly as I have described. I had discussions about the matter with Sam Younger, who hoped that we would delay the referendums until after the evaluation. He said so on the basis of advice from his chief executive that it would be possible to hold referendums in autumn even if the orders were not approved by the House in July. I pointed out to him, after taking advice from my officials, that that was not the case. Our figures suggested that if there were a delay and the orders were not agreed by the House before Parliament rises in July, the later timetable would mean that the election period would straddle Christmas. It is not sensible for a referendum to be held in the last two weeks of December and the first week of January, and I explained to Mr. Younger that in the circumstances the sensible way forward was the one that we announced to the House last week and which I have repeated today. The orders need to be agreed to allow us the certainty to proceed, and to satisfy the timetable that we have pledged to honour. At the same time, we will not proceed if the report that the commission will publish on about 13 September makes it clear that it would be unsafe to do so.

That seems to me the sensible way forward that balances both concerns: the concern to avoid unnecessary delay and prolonged uncertainty, which are not good things for people in local authorities affected by reorganisation, or in the northern regions that are keen to get a decision one way or the other on elected regional assemblies. Prolonged uncertainty would not be in their interest. We do not see an argument in favour of unnecessary delay. We do see an argument for allowing an opportunity to take stock, consider the Electoral Commission's report and then act accordingly.

Joyce Quin

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the explanation that he has given. If, by any chance, the Electoral Commission said that it would be unsafe to proceed, would it be possible to go ahead with the autumn timetable under the ballot box system, rather than the all-postal system?

Mr. Raynsford

My right hon. Friend raises some interesting questions, but the situation is more complex. There are a number of possibilities. The hon. Member for North Essex suggested the possibility of a requirement for the individual registration of all electors. That would require legislation and would take a long time, so it would be impossible to meet the timetable. If there were some administrative changes to give greater safeguards against the possibility of fraud, those might be introduced in a way that allowed all-postal ballots to take place according to the timetable agreed. Equally, there might a case for reverting from an all-postal to a traditional ballot, but that would require different orders, and time would be needed to take them through the House.

All those factors indicate that the sensible course of action is not to prejudge the outcome, but to allow an opportunity to reflect on the Electoral Commission's report, as and when it comes out, and to enable us to proceed as we originally proposed and as was agreed by the commission if it does not produce convincing evidence to suggest that it would be unsafe to do so. That is the sensible way forward.

Mr. Hammond

The Minister has twice used the phraseology that the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), used last week, saying that there would be a delay if the Electoral Commission declared that it would be "unsafe to proceed". That is a very high test to set. The right hon. Gentleman is reported in the Yorkshire Post yesterday as having said: If there were to be a suggestion that some new regulations were required then a delay would take place. A suggestion that new regulations may be required is very different from a declaration by the Electoral Commission that it would be unsafe to proceed. Can the Minister tell the House which is the test that he will apply?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I was referring to exactly the point that I was making in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). The outcome will depend entirely on what particular proposals—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked a question. I hope he will contain himself while I try to answer it.

There are a number of possibilities. There could be suggestions that safeguards would require legislation or regulations. There could be suggestions that certain administrative arrangements might be necessary to enhance the security of the poll. I do not want to anticipate or prejudge the outcome of the Electoral Commission's report I want to be able to consider it thoughtfully when we have seen it and to reach an informed judgment as to whether or not there is convincing evidence o suggest that changes should be made—and if so, the necessary changes that ought to be made to the arrangements.

Mr. Curry

Assuming we go ahead with a postal ballot, the right hon. Gentleman states, and it is stated in the Government amendment, that there will be one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 electors. In Leeds, Bradford or Sheffield, two or three square miles may well embrace 50,000 electors. In the whole of Craven in my constituency there are not 50,000 electors, so somebody could find themselves 40 or 50 miles away from the single ballot point. Will the right hon. Gentleman take sparsity into consideration and reconsider the proposal in the light of geography rather than population?

Mr. Raynsford

The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, but he will recall that the proposal was made against a background where the number of assistance and delivery points attracted criticism in the House when we debated the matter last week. In response to concerns, we have significantly increased the number of assistance and delivery points. It is never possible to provide a single point for the convenience of every community—[Interruption.] Would the hon. Member for North Essex like to intervene?

Mr. Jenkin

Why does the Minister not provide the certainty that everybody wants by going back to polling stations, which offer a convenient location for everybody to vote in person and would provide certainty about the process and certainty that the referendums would take place? He will not do so because he knows that if he goes back to the ballot box system, which was good enough for Scotland and for Wales, the turnout will be a humiliation for him and the Government.

Mr. Raynsford

Once again, I rather regret giving way. The hon. Gentleman has added nothing to the debate. He knows perfectly well that there is substantial evidence that all-postal voting increases turnout substantially. He may not want people to exercise their democratic rights, but we do. It is right that people should be given greater opportunities, but it is also right that people who expressed a wish for more assistance and delivery points should have their concerns met. That is why we have responded by increasing the provision of assistance and delivery points, while continuing with the recommendation that was supported and endorsed by the Electoral Commission to hold the referendums by all-postal ballots in order to ensure the maximum level of participation.

Mr. Barron

The hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said earlier that a postal vote should be available only to people who had applied for it. Upstairs in my office I have a letter of complaint from a constituent of mine whose mother received a two-page letter from the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) that could be only described as party political propaganda, saying that if she wanted an application form, that would be arranged for her so that she would be able to have a vote. I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House do that, although I have never done it in my 21 years as a Member of the House. It is a lot safer for somebody to have a ballot paper sent to them through the post than to be prompted in the way that my constituent's mother was prompted down in Folkestone.

Mr. Raynsford

The point that my right hon. Friend highlights is the Conservative party's extraordinary propensity to say one thing in the House and do something quite different elsewhere. The hon. Member for North Essex might do the House a service if he placed a copy of that letter in the Library of the House, so that Members could see how the Conservative party behaves in relation to postal voting.

Mr. Edward Davey

I am keen to get the Minister to be clear about the timing of the final decision on the date for the referendums. As I understand it, the Electoral Commission must, in law, report by 13 September on its review of the all-postal pilots last June. How soon after that do the Government intend to reply to the Electoral Commission and give their decision on whether voting in the referendums will be by all-postal ballot or at polling stations?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman asks a good question. He will know that the September parliamentary Session is due to come to an end on, I think, 15 September, which is why it would not be possible, as the Electoral Commission had hoped, for us to take orders through in September, after it had published its report. There simply is not time for that. The orders would have to be taken through the House in October, which would lead to the consequence that I described—a polling period over Christmas, which would be thoroughly undesirable.

We aim to reach a decision as soon as possible after seeing a copy of the Electoral Commission's report. I cannot give a precise date at this stage, but clearly that would be our aim, and it is necessary that we do so, because a few days after that would be the point in time at which the Electoral Commission would agree the registration of yes and no campaigns, and the referendum period and process would be under way. So a fairly quick decision would be needed in response to the commission's report, and we would certainly endeavour to give that response.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Is it not very regrettable that the orders are to be taken through the House by the end of next month and we will be voting on them without the benefit of the advice from the Electoral Commission? When that advice is published, the decision will be made not in the Chamber or by anyone in Parliament, but by the Executive. That must surely be wrong.

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend must not have been listening when I spoke earlier about the need to reconcile the two timetables. If he wants a long period of uncertainty in his region, what he is advocating might be the right way forward, because it would simply cause delay, but I do not think that his constituents and most people in his region and the other northern regions want a prolonged period of uncertainty. They want the referendums, which they have been expecting for a long time, to be held this autumn. That is our intention and we intend to keep to the timetable.

Of course, different considerations apply to a referendum as against an election. The absence of candidates both eases the timetable for printing ballot papers and, in many commentators' view, greatly reduces the likelihood of fraud, as no one has a personal interest in being elected. We should not assume a straight read-across from what may or may not have happened in the June council elections to the autumn referendums. We should also bear it in mind that several of the allegations that have been made about abuse of postal ballots related to regions that did not have all-postal pilots.

Having said that, we are absolutely committed to maintaining the integrity of the balloting process, and we want to look carefully at the Electoral Commission's conclusions in its evaluation of the June pilots before confirming that we will proceed with the all-postal referendums as planned. The commitment that I have given allows that, while at the same time avoiding what would otherwise be an inevitable delay in the referendum timetable.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

I have been listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman, but because of the importance of ensuring the integrity of the electoral process, will he accept that it is the Department for Constitutional Affairs that deals with electoral matters, not the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, and it should be the Department for Constitutional Affairs that considers the Electoral Commission's report and responds to it, not the right hon. Gentleman?

Mr. Raynsford

The responsibility is shared between the Department for Constitutional Affairs, which has responsibility for national elections, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which has responsibility for local government elections and for the referendums. However, we work closely with the Department for Constitutional Affairs. The Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), is here and we have worked together closely.

We believe that elected regional assemblies offer a great opportunity for the northern regions. We want to take power from Whitehall and give it to the people. We want greater prosperity, more growth, more jobs and more investment. Regional assemblies mean a new form of government—smaller, more focused, involving elected and non-elected stakeholders in decision making; a new vision, strengthening the prosperity of the north; and greater democratic accountability. That will give the regions a greater sense of pride and a new political voice. Our principles for devolving power to elected regional assemblies are clear. A vote for regional government means more democracy, more growth and better government. That is the choice that we are offering the people of the north, but it is ultimately for the people of each region to take the decision in the referendums.

The House should reject the Opposition motion and in doing so affirm its commitment to democracy, to devolution and to choice.

3.12 pm
Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)

The Liberal Democrats come to the debate with a great deal of sympathy for the Government's regional devolution programme. We supported the paving Bill during its passage through the House; indeed, Liberal Democrats in the other place helped the Government with some constructive amendments that they accepted, which we believe have made the process far more acceptable.

We also agree with the Government in their criticisms of the Conservative Opposition. In government, the Conservatives had little regional policy, and that is why many parts of our country suffered so badly under 18 years of Conservative government. We have heard today from the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman that they still have no regional policy; they are still confused. The Minister quoted their former spokesman, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who had a very different view from that of current Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen. In previous debates, the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) has often spoken about the people of the north-east having an aspiration for self-government, but he has never elucidated how he would recognise and implement that. There is huge confusion on the core principle of regional policy among Conservative Members, so we must take their criticisms with a pinch of salt.

The Government have acted on aspects of devolution and we have supported them with respect to Wales, Scotland and London. We did not agree with all the details; we thought that some aspects of devolution were far too limited and should have gone further. Nevertheless, it was a step in the right direction. Equally, the proposal to set up elected regional assemblies is weak—it is limited in the powers that are being devolved—but it is a step in the right direction, and it would be wrong not to give the people the chance to vote for that. If we got in the way of that, we would put back the potential for regional devolution many years.

The Government are right to act on devolution, and we saw that today with the publication—

Andy Burnham (Leigh) (Lab)

Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrats in the north-west will fully engage with the yes campaign for a north-west regional assembly?

Mr. Davey

We believe in devolution within our own party. [Interruption.] It is interesting that Conservative Members laugh. They just do not understand that devolution is about pushing power down. The national Liberal Democrat party will not tell the regional Liberal Democrat parties what to say. The regional Liberal Democrat party in Yorkshire and Humber has had a conference and voted to support the yes campaign; the regional Liberal Democrat party in the north-east has had a conference and voted to support the yes campaign; and the regional Liberal Democrat party in the north-west is about to have its conference. I do not know what it will vote. I will not tell it which way to vote because it is its decision. That is what devolution is about. It is interesting that the Conservatives have not understood that. That goes to the heart of the debate.

Mr. Beith

If the Conservative party had acted on the basis that there should be no devolution in political parties, its Members of the Scottish Parliament would have spent the first few years of that Parliament campaigning for its immediate abolition, which they did not do.

Mr. Davey

As usual, my right hon. Friend puts his finger right on the button. The Conservative party is confused even now between its English party and its Scottish party.

Alistair Burt rose

Mr. Davey

I am keen to take the hon. Gentleman's intervention, because I am sure that he is confused too.

Alistair Burt

Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman advances an interesting proposition about the devolution of party policy and the way it is put together. Is he honestly telling the House that his party has no national policy on whether it supports regional assemblies? If so, will he explain some other areas of devolution in party policy, because that might explain why leaflets in Liberal areas in different parts of the country give completely different stories in relation to a variety of policies?

Mr. Davey

On the last point, the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense. Across the country, we campaign strongly on issues such as post offices, pharmacies, council tax, Iraq and many others. The hon. Gentleman is clearly absolutely confused. I simply say to him that it is quite in order for a national party to believe in elected regional assemblies, but to give the decision on whether to support that to the regional party. That is completely logical and it is called devolution.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab)

The south-west is an interesting case in point. If Liberal Democrats in Cornwall argued for a Cornish assembly, would the hon. Gentleman support that?

Mr. Davey

We have made it clear on many occasions that we believe that there should be a review of regional boundaries. We do not believe that the administrative boundaries of the Government office for the south-west constitute sensible boundaries for the south-west. During the passage of the paving Bill we argued for a review of regional boundaries to cover the sort of point that has just been made.

The Government were right to move on devolution and today we saw a report from the university of Sheffield explaining how the division between the north and the south has got significantly worse, despite efforts by this Labour Government to redress that. It has not been getting worse simply during the last few years, but for decades. When one stands back and tries to analyse why the trend has occurred, and whether it has something to do with industrial change or other economic forces, one sees that the fundamental reason why the problem has occurred in Britain but not in other western democracies is political centralisation. We are the most centralised country in the western world and because of that we have financial and economic centralisation, and all the forces of power in the country go into that central political power. Until we break that up, until we have regional devolution and have centres of political power across the UK, we will not see the reversal of that trend, which has been going on for decades. Such a change must be made if we are to tackle problems in the north. There can be other types of regional policy—indeed, we have seen them in the past. There have been economic incentives and grants, and the garden city initiative launched by Lord Heseltine in Liverpool, which did not work. Those types of regional policy did not work because they were not underpinned by political devolution. That is why the Government are right to take the direction they are taking, and why the Tories are utterly misguided yet again in opposing it.

Mr. Heath

May I ask my hon Friend not to add credence to the concept of a single north-south divide? The divide is actually between London and the home counties, and the rest of the country. The west country is just as disadvantaged as the north and needs just as much the opportunities for regional government.

Mr. Davey

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The north-south divide is a simplification. There are people in Kingston and Surbiton who would say that the constituency is homogenously prosperous, but it is not. Parts of the royal borough of Kingston, which is usually considered a prosperous area, are very poor. Of course, these debates are based on generalisations and simplifications, but there is still a general truth in the idea that there has been a north-south divide, with demographic and economic shifts, and that we need to reverse the trend through political action.

Mr. Gordon Prentice

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey

I am afraid I want to make progress.

Although the Government are right to go down the path of regional devolution, there has been some confusion in aspects of the way in which they have handled the matter. I wish to deal with three of them in turn: first, the current debate about all-postal voting; secondly, the powers that the draft powers Bill may or may not contain; and, thirdly, the future course of devolution after the three referendums.

The Liberal Democrats support the general proposition that the referendums should be conducted with all-postal ballots, primarily because the problems that arise with such ballots in local elections will not arise in an event such as a regional referendum. The incentive for individual candidates to defraud the system and their ability to try to harvest votes—an issue mentioned by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin)—are much reduced because of the scale of the vote. Furthermore, the logistics of an all-postal ballot over a whole region are much simpler. Many of the arguments against all-postal ballots in local elections do not apply to regional referendums.

Mr. Jenkin

I accept some of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, but there is a real problem in respect of vote harvesting. Turnout in the referendums is likely to be low, and there will be many multiple occupancy homes or blocks of flats where the mail is left on the doorstep. Large numbers of ballot papers may simply be left in that way, and it would be easy for any organisation to collect and use them. If such fraud occurs, its scale will be almost impossible to detect. What is to prevent an unscrupulous organisation or indeed an unscrupulous party—and there are one or two—from destroying the process by organising the use of unused ballot papers? There is a very serious danger that there will be enough such activity seriously to distort the result.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not want to stifle debate, but interventions must not be too long. We are rapidly running out of time. I am not being unfair to the hon. Gentleman, but the Front Benchers have taken an awfully long time so far.

Mr. Davey

I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Essex, because he made a serious point. Of course there remains the possibility of vote harvesting, but it is less likely to arise than in a local election ballot. That is my major point, but I am concerned that the Government, in the orders that they have laid before the House, are moving from including the declaration of identity on the all-postal ballot form. I know that the declaration was unpopular with some Labour Back Benchers, but we felt that it was one device for ensuring scrutiny and defending the integrity of the all-postal ballot system. The Government's proposals on alternative security arrangements seem flawed.

Mr. Raynsford

Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Electoral Commission recommended that the separate confirmation and scrutiny of identity was not a particularly sensible way forward? Will he consult the Electoral Commission on the issue and assess its view?

Mr. Davey

The Electoral Commission was keen on a voter registration system as the better way of proceeding. We are keen on such a system in the longer term, when it can be set up. In the meantime, before it is set up, as we and the Electoral Commission want, we think that the declaration of identity is the best interim proposal for guaranteeing the integrity of the postal ballot.

The reason we are in this position and why we have to wait for the Electoral Commission's review of the June elections is that the Deputy Prime Minister did not listen to the commission in the first place. All the problems that we saw on 10 June and in the run-up to the elections could have been avoided if he had listened to Sam Younger and his colleague on the Electoral Commission, and also listened to this House. This House and the other place were strong in setting out arguments to the Government and trying to get them to think again. The Government failed, and they caused the problems by doing so. As those problems have had to be reviewed and scrutinised, we now have to wait for a decision on the all-postal ballots and whether the referendums will occur. The delay is the Deputy Prime Minister's fault, and he should apologise.

Andy Burnham

As we had three pilots—it was the nature of the exercise that they should be pilots—in the three northern regions, is there not a much better chance that the referendum process will run smoothly?

Mr. Davey

There were four pilots, and they were very different beasts from what is proposed for this October.

I am afraid that the problem is even greater than I have suggested so far. A lot of public confidence has been undermined by the shenanigans that we saw in the run-up to 10 June. Some members of the public feel that the all-postal ballot system is not secure, and they have less confidence in it as a result. That is a great shame, and it is something that the Electoral Commission and this House will have to consider. Such people may be wrong, and the Minister may say that the press have created a misperception, but it is still a fact that people feel that way. As we go ahead in trying to use all-postal ballots in events such as the referendums, we will have to walk carefully. There is some confusion in the way in which the Government have gone about conducting the process, and I very much regret that they were not more open with Parliament last week about the fact that the Electoral Commission had given advice on the matter.

The other area of confusion is the powers that the elected regional assemblies will have. That is an important point in relation to whether the referendums occur. As the hon. Member for North Essex said, there is a suspicion—I am sure that the Minister will deny that this is the case—that the Electoral Commission report that will be published in September will be convenient for the Government, as it will give them a chance to think about whether they want the referendums in the first place, whether they can win them and whether their own party is happy to proceed with them. The reason they have got to that position is that they know that what is on offer in terms of regional devolution is weak. Even the devolutionists in their party are concerned about that. The Government must reflect carefully on that point before they publish the draft powers Bill. If they were to devolve many more powers, they would change the tone of the debate both within their own party and within the three northern regions. That would galvanise the referendum campaigns and allow the Government to proceed with the referendums with greater certainty and confidence after they receive the Electoral Commission report in October or November.

Mr. Hammond

Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that a new delay in the publication of the draft powers Bill is slipped away in the last few lines of the Government amendment, which states that the draft powers Bill will be published once the date for the referendums has been set by Parliament"? The draft powers Bill will be published only after Parliament approves an order that has not been laid yet, and only three weeks of this Session remain.

Mr. Davey

That will not be a problem because the orders setting the dates for the referendums will be published within the next week or two, and the draft powers Bill will be published before the recess. Will the Minister confirm that time scale?

Mr. Raynsford

I am happy to confirm that, as we have always stated, we intend to publish the Bill before the summer recess. The orders must be agreed first, because the referendums cannot occur without them, in which case there would be no need to publish a Bill for people to scrutinise. We have indicated our intentions and the sequence of events. I remind hon. Members that this is the first time that a Bill will be published to allow people to receive information about proposals before a referendum. That did not happen in Scotland, Wales or London, and the Government, who seek to give the public more information, have taken a major step forward.

Mr. Davey

I am glad that the Minister has confirmed the timetable, and I hope that he will abide by his intention to publish the draft powers Bill before the recess. We discussed that issue in private, on the Floor of this House and in an exchange of correspondence when we considered amendments to ensure that the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill went through both Houses. The publication of the draft powers Bill should launch enthusiasm for the referendums, and if the Bill contains more powers, it will change the tone of the debate.

Today, the Minister discussed powers concerning stakeholders, fire services and planning. If those are the only extra powers over and above those mentioned in the White Paper "Your Region, Your Choice" enthusiasm for the referendums will not be fired. Stronger powers, such as powers over the Highways Agency and other aspects of transport policy, should be devolved and included in the draft powers Bill. Powers relating to the Learning and Skills Council should be devolved, because they form a vital part of the economic development agenda in the regions. Powers over the many quangos that currently make up regional government should also be devolved.

One argument for regional devolution is that it will make regional government accountable to the people. We currently have many quangos, particularly in the sphere of environmental policy. They already operate on a regional basis, and surely they are candidates to be accountable to elected regional assemblies. I hope that the Government will clear up the confusion on future powers for the regional assemblies when they publish the Bill in the next few weeks.

Finally, boundaries are a key issue to which people keep returning, and the Minister may not be able to deal with it in his winding-up speech—I touched on it earlier. Outside the three northern regions, the boundaries of which were not contested except perhaps in the case of Cumbria, huge contention exists about whether the boundaries set by the previous Conservative Government for administrative purposes make sense for political purposes. It is in the Government's interest to make it clear as soon as possible that those boundaries will be reviewed. If they want to roll out regional devolution across England—we believe that they should—they must do it with the wax and wane of the political culture in the different regions, but the administrative boundaries bequeathed by the Conservative Government will not allow that to happen. We know from debates in this House that the Government understand that point, and the sooner they clear it up, the better.

Richard Younger-Ross

Does my hon. Friend accept that a review of those boundaries is needed urgently? At the moment, fire authorities in those regions are establishing one control room for each region. We could end up in a situation in which the regional fire boundaries restrict the review of administrative boundaries.

Mr. Davey

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. That goes to show why the Government should have listened to us when we debated the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. If that review had taken place earlier, the Government would not have got into such a mess not only on fire services, but on other aspects of public policy.

We will not support the Conservatives in the Lobby tonight, because parts of the motion are defective; that is why we tabled our own amendment. Furthermore, it is a bit rich for the Conservatives to criticise the Government about confusion on regional policy when they do not even have a policy and are internally divided. However, the Government cannot take my party's support for granted. We will argue, through the orders, the passage of the draft powers Bill and the referendums for more powers for regional government. If the Government do not listen, they will regret it.

3.35 pm
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

I am grateful to be given the opportunity to speak in the debate and to follow the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), whose commitment to regional government I very much welcome, although there were parts of his speech, particularly on postal ballots, that I shall attempt to refute.

The hon. Gentleman is right to be as surprised as I was when I heard that the Opposition had chosen as their theme the confusion in Government ranks over regional policy. That is a classic case of motes and beams, as the Opposition have themselves been very confused over their regional policy. I will not repeat the arguments that my right hon. Friend the Minister advanced to demonstrate that. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) mentioned another aspect of the Conservatives' confusion—their view on whether referendums should be held.

I, too, have noticed an element of confusion. At business questions last week the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) accused the Government of rushing the regional government process, whereas the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) has conceded that it was part of the Government's manifesto way back in 1997, and again in 2001. In fact, for many of us it has seemed a rather leisurely process—we are grateful that we have reached this point and hope that there will be no slippage in the timetable that the Government envisage.

Mr. Hammond

Since we are all aware that the right hon. Lady does not intend to stand for re-election to this House, can she confirm whether she intends to stand for election to a north-east regional assembly should one be voted for in a referendum this autumn?

Joyce Quin

I am not tempted to pre-empt the judgment of the people of the north-east in the referendum, but I have certainly said that given my long-standing commitment to regional government I would very much like to be involved in it. I hope the hon. Gentleman is not implying that I speak out of some kind of self-interest, because if he looks at my maiden speech to the House in 1987, he will see that I called for a regional government for the north-east at that time. He cannot accuse me of inconsistency, even if he does not agree with my views.

I do not believe that the Government are confused on this issue, because they made their commitment to regional devolution clear from the outset. The White Paper was a good beginning, and they were right then to embark on a series of consultations in the regions, which, certainly in the north-east, were well attended and gave the Government further food for thought as to how the process might develop. Indeed, page 12 of the White Paper clearly stated that regional government is a process and that further powers would be likely to be devolved in due course. That is welcome.

I hope that in their draft powers Bill the Government will strengthen the powers that are envisaged for regional assemblies. However, we must be honest and admit that these issues are discussed within Government. When I was a Minister, different views were expressed in different Departments about how many powers should be devolved in the general devolution process. I am sure that animated discussions are continuing, but I urge the Government, in view of their undoubted commitment to devolution, to press as far as they possibly can for additional powers, because the more powers the bodies are seen to have, the more obviously credible and relevant they will seem in the minds of voters when they come to cast their votes.

However, I stress that what is on offer is a useful beginning and that creating a public, democratically accountable voice is important. When talking to colleagues from Scotland and Wales about the advantages of devolution, I have been struck by the fact that they do not initially speak of it in terms of the specific powers of their respective Parliament and assembly, but of the public debate that it has wrought in those territories about the needs, problems and opportunities there. That can be true for the regions of England.

Devolution will help people in the regions to have better access to decision makers. When I was the Minister responsible for prisons and probation, I spent a couple of days with the Scottish prison and probation services. I was struck by the way in which the scale of the operation in Scotland meant that one could get all the relevant people around the table and devise a common strategy. It is much more difficult to do that in England, with its huge population and large area.

The devolved assemblies have shown especially to the business community but also to others that devolution can make decision making accessible to those who are affected by the decisions. That has also happened in London, especially in economic development and the involvement of the business community in the London assembly's decisions. They are useful examples on which we can reflect.

The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton rightly referred to the work of academics in Sheffield on the continuing regional disparities in our countries. It is important to tackle that. Setting up a regional tier allows a focus on the distinct economic needs of our regions that has not previously existed. My region of the north-east has a higher proportion of manufacturing industry than other regions. Regrettably, it has a lower staying-on rate post-16 at school. It has a higher dependency on the European Union market than any other UK region—approximately 76 per cent. of our exports go to the rest of the EU. Wales comes next, with 71 per cent.

Our regional economy has distinct regional features, which the one-size-fits-all economic policy from central Government to which we have become accustomed does not tackle. It is important to focus on the challenges and the ways in which regional government, with its single pot that will allow it to order spending priorities to some extent, can deal with them. Regional governments will consider many important issues.

The Sheffield study shows the brain drain in the UK economy. It is staggering to examine the figures for the number of graduates who are trained in universities in Yorkshire and Humber and the north-east but travel out of those regions to look for work. A brain drain is statistically evident from the Sheffield information and we should be perturbed about it and consider methods of tackling it. Although the Government's proposals are modest, they are at least an important step forward.

Let me briefly consider the electoral system for the regional referendums. I urge the Government to continue to support all-postal ballots for those elections. I strongly disagree with the Liberal Democrats about that. The tactics that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members of both Houses adopted were tantamount to sabotaging the all-postal pilots. I am dismayed that so little account was taken of the experience of some of us in our local areas. In Gateshead, some wards had experienced three consecutive years of all-postal ballots, with no requirement for a witness declaration and no evidence of fraud. It was also exasperating to read some of the press accounts of the process, because so much of the press seems to have assumed that this was the first experiment in all-postal ballots. It simply was not. Again, the press failed to look at the beneficial experiences of areas such as mine.

This time round, the experiment was less successful, because of the uncertainties that remained almost right up to the election date as a result of the way in which proceedings in both Houses had taken place, and because of the disincentive effect of the witness statement requirement. It was not that voters were dishonest; it was simply that some voters living on their own found the witness statement rather intrusive, given the fact that they had not had to cope with such a requirement in the previous three years. They also had to deal with two envelopes instead of one, and there was extra paperwork involved. We came across examples of people being unable to find their second envelope, so they could not cast that vote. This was not a helpful way forward. I agree with what the Minister said when he referred to the Electoral Commission's view of the process.

This week I received a letter from a constituent saying that it was the first time he had not voted in an election, and that that was because of the witness requirement, which he found perplexing and intrusive. He has instructed me to raise with the Prime Minister directly the need to abandon that particular feature. Also, when I took a taxi from my home to Newcastle central station on Monday, the driver asked me why we had had to have a witness declaration in the recent elections when we had never had one before. He pointed out that the system had worked perfectly well before. It is frustrating that so little account was taken in the House and in the press of the experience gained from the very successful trials in my area.

Mr. Edward Davey

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that, in areas that did not have all-postal ballots, there has always been a requirement for a witness statement? In the rest of the country, they are not a new thing.

Joyce Quin

I can confirm that what the hon. Gentleman says is right. When people have applied for postal votes, they have gone through that procedure. However, the sudden introduction of the requirement caused a great deal of confusion in an area that had successfully piloted all-postal ballots for three years without witness declarations. It also caused irritation, because some people felt that perhaps they were not now trusted with a postal ballot, although they had voted in that way without any difficulty in all the previous all-postal experiments.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Can the right hon. Lady confirm that there were indeed problems in her area? Her area has been all-postal for some considerable time, yet the turnout this time was 7 per cent. lower than at the previous local election. Can she also confirm that 18 public libraries had to be opened to take postal ballot papers because the ballot papers had been delivered late despite the fact that her area has been an all-postal pilot area for several elections?

Joyce Quin

Indeed; I believe that the drop in turnout was related to the witness requirement, which had not operated in the past, and to changes that were imposed on the local authority at the last minute and which it tried heroically to deal with. On the hon. Gentleman's point about ballot boxes, the council has actually provided ballot boxes in libraries and other locations at every all-postal election, so that—contrary to what the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman said about people being forced to vote by post—people would have the option of going to their town hall or elsewhere to vote in person if they so wished. That is a very satisfactory way of doing things, because it allows people who want to vote in person the chance to do so. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.

I would have liked to make many other points, but my time has run out. I shall conclude by saying that, while previous Governments have attempted with varying degrees of success to devise effective regional policies at national level, what the present Government are doing is perhaps unique. That is because they are endeavouring to combine an active national regional policy with an active policy of devolution of power, empowering the regions to make more decisions themselves in the light of their own needs, problems and opportunities. It is my strong belief that, in adopting such an approach, the Government deserve our full support.

3.49 pm
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington. West (Joyce Quin), whose speeches are consistent and who has represented her area extremely well. She made a speech that indicates why the House will miss her when she eventually moves on and stands down. She gave a cogent explanation.

Having listened to the right hon. Lady, to the Minister for Local and Regional Government, and to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), however, I am not persuaded. I recognise that there is a regional element to the United Kingdom and to its governance, but I am not persuaded that this is the best way to deal with the expression of regional opinion. I represent North-East Bedfordshire. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), I represent an area that has taken a decision not to have a referendum and not to be subjected to a regional assembly. I resent the petulant way in which the Minister dismissed my hon. Friend, who sought to intervene on the basis that we were not having a referendum for a regional assembly. We are either ahead of the curve in deciding not to do so, or behind it. It is our country, too, however, and our views on regional government are just as valid as anyone else's. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the way in which he dealt with my hon. Friend.

I go back to first principles. What government is all about is providing the clearest connection between the voter and those who are elected. One of the problems that has emerged in our society is that people feel, for all sorts of reasons, that that relationship has become stretched and strained. They therefore become resentful of it. I am not convinced that adding this tier of representation will do anything to deal with that particular problem.

My experience has been varied. As many Members of the House know, most of my life has been spent in the north of England, where for a number of years I represented Bury, North—a metropolitan area, where all the services were provided through one form of unitary authority. For a period, I was also sponsor Minister for Manchester, Salford and other areas in the north-west, so I had an understanding of the work of the regional office and the regional programme, which the previous Conservative Government put in place. I would say to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, who has probably not spent too much time outside his area, that the improvements made in Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle—the extraordinary growth and development in the late 1980s and 1990s, through a variety of programmes—have helped to make those cities the modern cities that they are today.

Having come to Bedfordshire, I now have experience of parish, town, district, borough and county. I am not convinced that extra tiers of government necessarily make governance any better. I am not convinced that an extra tier of regional government will clarify for people what they expect from their regional assemblies and local authorities.

I have not heard any real clarification from the Minister today. We do not know precisely what will be done by the assemblies. For instance, we did not get an answer as to whether learning and skills councils will be taken under the control of the regional assembly, as the Deputy Prime Minister apparently wants, or not, which appears to be the preference of the Department for Education and Skills. Which is it to be? Until those things get answered, constituents in the areas affected are entitled to understand—

Mr. Dhanda

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alistair Burt

Only once, because a lot of Members want to speak.

Mr. Dhanda

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman giving way. He makes the point about the various tiers of government, and says that adding one would only make things worse. He also describes some of the real developments in the north-west, where there have been unitary authorities. Does he not agree that by taking out the district and county authorities, as this structure will do, and having a single unitary authority, we are reducing the number of tiers of government by having a regional assembly?

Alistair Burt

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but it is not mine. My point was that the activity of a Government who were really interested in those cities, combined with the local authorities that were there, made sure that the investment took place and that changes were made that produced the modern cities that we see today. Regional government was not necessary to achieve that.

What evidence is there that larger, more regional tiers of authority deliver better services, and that, were they not there, things would be worse? In my experience, we had the creation and then abolition of the Greater Manchester council, which the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) will remember well. When the abolition of that council, which covered a wide area, was proposed, there were complaints from politicians that services would deteriorate and that nothing would ever be the same again. From the population, however, there was not a peep. As far as I am aware, when the council was abolished there were no proposals to bring it back. If those who represent the unitary metropolitan authorities in the area wish to do so, the House would like to hear from them. In any case, I do not think it can be proved that better services are delivered when a tier of authority covers a wider area.

When the European constituencies changed from single-Member to regional, was there any evidence that constituents identified more closely with those who represented them? No. Most of us have just been through the horrific experience of the European elections—going around with candidates in areas where they were barely known, and where there was no relationship between them and the electors. The percentage of people voting in those elections has continued to fall. I see no evidence that the regional relationship has improved the relationship between voters and those for whom they vote. A Labour MEP in the eastern region, Eryl McInally, resigned her seat before the elections, citing as one of her reasons the lack of connection between the region and her electors. I think that the same problem is likely to occur in regional assemblies and governments.

It is tempting to believe that a Government known for their centralising and rather authoritarian tendency have found a new way of casting some of their problems on to the proposed assemblies. Most of us would agree that one of the most difficult things with which our local areas deal—by and large we do not deal with it, for which we are grateful—is planning. We know of the problems that planning generates. The Government have asked Bedfordshire to take 51,000 extra houses by 2021. The local authorities have been bypassed; this is a Government decision. At least that means that the Government will ultimately be responsible, and that electors can express their opinion at the ballot box. Regional assemblies, however, will prove convenient to the Government, who will be able to slip proposals over to them. The real accountability for decisions will move, and the Government will not take the hit that they deserve to take.

It is a convenient dodge to move the planning function from those who are most responsible for it at local level, and who know most about it. If the Minister suggests in his winding-up speech that there will be no such dodge, I shall be very interested; but most people think otherwise. We cannot imagine that a Government who have been as centralising and authoritarian as this really want to hand anything down. They talk of powers moving from the centre to local government. Chapter 4 of the White Paper suggests that regional assemblies will have responsibility for issues such as investment and regeneration, improving housing and public transport and developing tourism. It claims that functions are generally not being taken from local government, which will continue to focus on local service delivery and community leadership". Most of those functions are handled at local level, but most local councillors want to make decisions rather than being responsible only for delivery, which is what they have become over the years.

What will happen surely, is that the regional bodies will make the decisions and expect the delivery to be handled by local councillors. What, then, is the point of local councillors? And if all regional assemblies are to do is have influence with others, what is the point of being on a regional assembly? The assemblies will have power, but if they take power from anywhere it will come not from here but up from local level.

I could be completely wrong about regional government, of course. I might have been carried away by my own party's policy and my experiences over the years. I could be alone in my view. I took the precaution of asking the Deputy Prime Minister, through a written parliamentary question, how many letters he had received from individuals supporting an elected east of England regional assembly. I wanted to test my opinion. Had I got it terribly wrong? Did thousands of people think differently?

The eastern region—consisting of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and the jewel in the crown, Bedfordshire—has a population of 5.4 million. Can the House imagine how many of those 5.4 million people rallied to the side of the Deputy Prime Minister by writing to him in support of his proposal for a regional assembly? One. One individual, out of 5.4 million, thought that what the Government were coming up with was a good idea. In all fairness to the Deputy Prime Minister, in the light of that response the ODPM decided not to propose a referendum on an elected assembly in the eastern region.

That is marvellous, but the hunt is on. Who was that one person in the six counties? I am announcing today a search to find that one individual in the six-county area who stood shoulder to shoulder with the Deputy Prime Minister. Is it a relative? Is it a friend? Who it is we do not know, but there are a lot of Labour MPs in that area, and they obviously did not write in. Whoever it was, we need to find them.

The serious question is this: at the end of the day, will regional assemblies and regional government provide what the people are asking for? Will there be one more policeman on the beat because of a regional assembly, one more nurse in a ward, one more bus on the road or one more train on the track? We all know the answer. There will be more politicians, more money and no answers to the problems that people want solved. That is why regional assemblies are a bad idea, whether in Bedfordshire, which has already said no, or in other places, which I hope will say no very soon.

4.1 pm

Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab)

May I first say how much I have enjoyed the consultation meetings that the Government have carried out in the north-west, where their objective is to give information? I enjoyed debating with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government in front of the St. Helen's chamber of commerce. As ever, he was courteous and knowledgeable, and we had a good debate. We argued and disagreed, and my right hon. Friend put his points forcefully, as he regularly does. but that was not an information-giving session. Similarly, it was not an information session when the Deputy Prime Minister came to Manchester and used the opportunity to show his knowledge of expletives in response to my view. The Deputy Prime Minister was being passionate, as he always is, and that was clearly not a cool, information-giving session.

I have listened carefully to the debate. I recall a great deal about the 1980s, when I suppose my party went a little mad and the electorate noticed and did not vote for us very much. When I listen to this debate, I think that the party has gone a little mad again, but that no one has really noticed. When I sit down and coolly analyse what we are offering the people of the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humber, I realise that we are telling them, "Yes, you can pay more council tax. You will get no more money—no more resources will be reallocated from the centre, but you will have the costs of running a new regional assembly and the costs of a local government reorganisation. You might even, if you are foolish enough to vote for a regional assembly, have a body that the Government will not cap if it decides to impose unlimited council tax." The White Paper says explicitly that the Government are considering removing their own right to cap regional assemblies.

That is a particularly unattractive proposal to put to the people, and it is certainly not regional government. My right hon. Friend the Minister made a mistake when he talked about regional government. What is on offer is regional assemblies. The Government offices for the north-west and the other Government offices will carry on delivering their business, and the regional assemblies will have no control over them. There will not be regional policy. Virtually every penny that will be spent by the elected regional assemblies will have come, via some path such as a quango or a more direct route, from local government.

I never thought that I would sit here with Conservative Members, some of whom were part of the Government who took those resources and powers from local government to put them elsewhere, and listen to my own Government saying that they will not give those powers and resources back to local government but will give them to a regional assembly.

Deep in the heart of this debate there is a lack of a real concept of what local democracy and local government are about. Regional assemblies certainly do not constitute an improvement in democracy. People elected to such assemblies in the north-west will represent a third of a million people—in some cases, nearly 7 million people—and replace elected councillors.

What would a real regional policy look like? A real regional policy requires active discrimination and intervention in favour of those regions that have suffered from economic and social disparities. I do not have time to go through the figures on income, death and morbidity, which are far worse in the regions than in London and the south-east, but to deal with such issues we need to intervene and to transfer resources. Yet nothing in this package transfers resources to the north-west or elsewhere. In fact—Opposition Members will not agree with this—our national policy is really a regional policy for the south-east. On looking at the real causes of regional disparities, one finds that huge quantities of money are being spent in the south-east disproportionately on transport and cultural issues.

In the north-east, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) talked about, 6p is spent per capita on cultural services such as museums and art galleries, yet the figure for London is £10 per head. Is that fair? Could it possibly be one reason why we have the economic and social disparities that these proposals will do nothing to address?

We need to put civil servants and resources into the regions. I welcome the BBC's decision, announced today, to put some of its resources into Manchester and the regions, but why has it taken so long? The BBC has introduced two new television channels and three new radio stations, but now, because it is under pressure as a result of a number of mistakes, and because it wants to review the licence fee, it is saying, "Yes, we remember the regions and we will look to provide some support."

Andy Burnham

I agree with my hon. Friend's analysis of regional disparities, but surely a no vote in a referendum in the north-west would send the message that we are happy with the status quo and with London domination of our public life and resource allocation. Even if the proposal is not everything, as the Liberal Democrats are suggesting, surely it is better to accept it and build on it.

Mr. Stringer

People would conclude from a no vote that we had rejected a proposal that offers no improvement on what is currently on offer; in fact, it offers something worse. The pressure that Members can bring to bear on various issues would in fact be diminished if we had a regional assembly. The case for more money would not be made any better. The Government would say, "We've not given you any more money and we've given you very few powers, but you can get on with things now." The arguments that we have been advancing will be dismissed and we will be told, "Go to your regional assembly and deal with such matters there." That is my worry.

The other argument, following the line of thought of my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), is that a regional assembly will provide one powerful voice that the Government will listen to. I do not accept that either, for one simple reason. My right hon. Friend the Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Prime Minister and other Front Benchers know the various facts and figures, but there is nothing new here. For whatever reason, the spatial distribution of expenditure as determined by the Government is staying as it is. They would learn nothing new as a result of having a regional assembly. As has been suggested, it is much more likely that there will be a greater disarray of voices, rather than one voice.

Let us consider what will happen if the regional assembly's policy disagrees with that of Liverpool, Blackburn or Manchester. Is the leader of Liverpool city council—currently a Liberal Democrat—going to say, "We think that your planning policies for Liverpool are right"? Of course not. They will go to the Government with a completely different story, and I do not blame them. The same is true for Manchester. An extra voice is created and local government resources are centralised. It makes it easier for the Government to say that the regional assembly says one thing, Chester says another, somewhere else yet another—so the Government will carry on doing what they want. I do not accept the arguments in favour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh understands.

I shall conclude, because I know that other hon. Members want to contribute. When the figures on how much money goes into London and how much into the regions are discussed, it is sometimes said that London is subsidising the rest of the country. I find that offensive. It would be good for London if less were spent on things that could be done elsewhere in the country. Every time we look for a new amelioration—affordable housing, London weighting and so forth—we are subsidising congestion. It makes life in London more difficult and life in the country more difficult. What we need is a fairer balance that would enable London to do what it is best at—it is a great world city, a financial capital of Europe and has an enormous amount going for it—but that would even out the money to help the regions. That would be better both for London and the regions. I do not believe that what is on offer deals with the fundamental problems of the regions.

Joyce Quin

I do not disagree with my hon. Friend when he makes the case for central Government to take regional issues seriously and take regional needs into account in the allocation of spending, but it is not an either/or issue. Surely it is possible to have an elected regional assembly while also having an active national regional policy adopted by the central Government.

Mr. Stringer

That brings me back to my earlier point about whether having a regional assembly amounts to a step forward. I know that many Government Members genuinely believe that it is a step forward, but I believe that it is more likely to prove a step backwards by cementing into place unjust spending patterns. That is why I have come to the conclusions that I have outlined.

I often see my hon. Friends asking for extra support, but it is difficult to get the Government to respond to regional issues. Let us consider the Government response to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning and Local Government Committee report on regional disparities. Every time a suggestion was made, the Government basically said that they had national priorities rather than regional ones.

I often raise airspace policies with the Government. We know that the skies over London are congested and that there is capacity in regional airports, so we could open up the skies and more aeroplanes could use those airports. That does not happen because of vested interests in the south-east, which is where civil servants and the headquarters of BAA are based. At the present time, Pakistan International Airlines could run services from Pakistan via Manchester to New York, but it is prevented from operating that flight by the vested interests of the south-east.

Andy Burnham

Can I put this further point to my hon. Friend? I understand his argument about why it may be harder to secure resources in the regions, with the Government perhaps saying, "There is your regional assembly; now get on with it." However, the experience of London clearly shows the opposite. Since the Greater London authority was set up, we have seen, for example, the Olympic bid and congestion charging. London's issues have become national issues—housing shortages for key workers is another example—and under the GLA we have probably seen resources brought into London rather than taken away.

Mr. Stringer

I know quite a lot about the decision to make an Olympic bid. It was a decision taken by the GLA and the Government, which Ken Livingstone supported only afterwards. It was wrong that everyone else was excluded. London has been doing well because the central Government are putting more money into London than Ken Livingstone can spend, as he told the Select Committee at a recent hearing on the congestion charge.

I do not support the Government's proposals, because it will be bad for the Labour party when they are rejected. I hope that the Government will not hold the referendums but if they do, I am sure that the people of the north-west will reject them.

4.14 pm
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Manchester Blackley (Mr. Stringer) who ran one of the great metropolitan cities of the United Kingdom and knows a great deal about what he was telling us.

This morning, I picked up The Daily Telegraph, which is not something I do lightly, and saw a curious map in which greater Grimsby appeared as a London suburb. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) may be perturbed by that revelation. I was relieved to find that I was just outside the band of London influence, but the map served to concentrate the mind on some of the real regional development issues that we should consider. We should be testing the regional assembly proposals against such an assembly's capability to address some of the issues that we all acknowledge.

I do not want to spend a great deal of time talking about the assemblies. That is familiar territory. The Government's proposals for new political structures are irrelevant to most of the development needs of the English regions and I cannot think of a single criterion for regional development that would be met by the existence of an assembly, or of anything that could be delivered that could not be delivered without one.

I recently attended a debate in the Baltic Exchange—unfortunately, the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) has left the Chamber—and looked down at the river. When I worked in Newcastle, there was dereliction on both sides of the river. There has been an amazing regeneration in that area, and it has been delivered without a regional assembly. Indeed, with a regional assembly, it would probably have cost twice as much, gone heavily over budget and taken three times as long to deliver.

What is the key marketing purpose of the regional assemblies? The weaknesses of the proposals have been well rehearsed. Even with whatever last-minute enhancements the Government are likely to come up with, there will be a new tier of government for most of the people in the three regions where single-tier, metropolitan authorities exist already. Members of the assemblies will lack any mandate of the sort understood by Members of this Chamber.

The assemblies will not replace existing bodies. As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley has just said, the Government offices for the regions will not disappear and will not be subservient to regional assemblies. Indeed, regional assemblies will have to refer to the Government offices for the regions for authorisation to do most of what they want to do—even to make nominations to regional development agencies. They will be unable to nominate anyone without reference to the Government, so the tutelage of the Government offices for the regions will remain.

Furthermore, despite the three additional points to which the Minister for Local and Regional Government referred, the amount of public expenditure that will come directly within the purview of the assemblies will be less than 3 per cent. of public expenditure in the regions. That is small beer by anybody's standards. If those bodies are so vital and will open the doors to so many opportunities, it seems almost criminal of the Government not to extend that remarkable opportunity to people in the south-west, for example, who would no doubt jump at the chance to write their own destiny—to use the enthusiastic words of the Deputy Prime Minister.

As the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, the key point is that the Government propose no rebalancing of expenditure. Let us compare public expenditure per capita in the north-east with that for Scotland, and then consider income, or wealth, per head in those two regions. They are in inverse proportion, because of the famous Barnett formula. If I were in the north-east and felt that my regional assembly would enable me to address that imbalance and that I would gain some of Scotland's advantages, I might be tempted. However, I am not tempted, because no one has mentioned that. Occasionally, over cups of tea around the country, the Deputy Prime Minister has mumbled about what a terrible thing the Barnett formula is, but I am not aware that any political party is seriously committed to redressing its injustice, which seems to be increasing.

The Government are confused about their wider regional agenda. There are proposals for regional assemblies in some areas and for unitary councils. The Government made a mistake when they said that there could be regional government only with unitary councils. Large parts of Europe have much more local government than us. Local councils are much, much closer to the people—for example, in France about 2 per cent. of the entire population are elected in some shape or form—so we should be cautious about galloping towards the idea that size always means efficiency. Sometimes, for democracy, we might have to pay a little price in efficiency just to be closer to the people. Sometimes, the Government's proposals might appear terribly logical, but they are counter-intuitive in relation to the democratic process.

The Minister is tempted by the idea of unitary authorities, although I have no doubt that he will reaffirm his commitment that, if the vote is no, the unitary proposals die. The Government have proposals for city mayors and prescribe various mechanisms for the management of our local authorities, but they are bound by the enormous gendarmerie of inspection and control that the Government have erected.

To return to a question that I asked the Minister, it is interesting that the balance of funding review is due virtually this month, before Parliament rises for the summer. If the Government are serious about decentralisation, no doubt there will be bold proposals to return business rates to local councils. I believe in doing that: it does not involve the danger or spectre that the business community believes it would. There is a lot to be said for buying the business community into the democratic fabric of local communities. I do not imagine that that will be included in those proposals. I suspect that we will see a bit about business paying more because its percentage has been decreasing. We will probably see a bit about regional banding. We will probably hear one or two remarks suggesting what could happen sometime in the future and that perhaps we ought to keep in sight local income tax, but I would be amazed if anything fundamental happened in that review.

What would be my personal formula? I think that executive mayors are a good idea. I would like to see the great cities of the north run by executive mayors and demanding more powers. A personality is very important to give direction and to project a city externally. Whether or not we like the present Mayor of London or approve of his policies, we cannot deny that he has projected a personality about London in his period as mayor of that city.

We need to consider the regional development agencies. I am sympathetic to the idea that skills at any rate ought to be combined with the discharge of major economic development functions. Perhaps those in the RDAs are the people to do that, but they have tended recently to become too diverse in their activities. They need focusing on the core economic development issues, so that they do not spread themselves too widely. I would like them to be called back to order in that regard.

In my region and, indeed, in the north-west, the universities are a colossal asset. There are some world-class universities, and they are co-operating closely to create almost a trans-Pennine university campus that will attract investment and research facilities. That is the region's greatest asset. If we address the skills issue, which is obviously at a lower level, we will have the education infrastructural framework that we need. I should like the trans-Pennine links to be developed. I am not convinced by the Government's proposal to stretch an arm up towards the north-east, right through the Vale of York. I do not see the logic in that; I would much rather remain with the trans-Pennine core, as an effective development area.

We need improved transport links, but not just in the region; what really matters are the transport links to London. There is no point in pretending that London does not exist or in regretting the dominance of London in our national life. People want to get to and from it quickly. The more easily they can get to London, the more likely they are to establish their business out of London.

Not least, we need to assert the cultural identities of cities. Sport and cultural activities have been demonstrated to be powerful regenerators of our cities. People identify a city by its cultural and sporting activities, as well as by its business climate and culture. Those roles are best performed by cities. Our culture has grown out of an urban culture. Our civilisation itself has tended to grow out of our cities. Cities are the motors for regional development and they are not readily compatible with the sort of regional assemblies that the Government are talking about. The assemblies are an irrelevant distraction. They enable nothing, they facilitate nothing, they invigorate nothing, and quite frankly, it would be better if they were nothing.

4.24 pm
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab)

I see I have been left with one minute in which to speak, despite the fact that I had a long and interesting speech to make—too bad. Let me make one point in the 60 seconds available to me. The whole issue has become over-personalised because people associate the regional agenda with the Deputy Prime Minister. Leaflets circulated by the Conservatives in my area do not condemn Labour's regional assemblies, new Labour's regional assemblies, or even Blair's regional assemblies, but read, "Say no to Prescott's regional assemblies".

If my party is serious about winning the referendums, I wish the Prime Minister would make his position clear. His current position is rather opaque and I do not think he is convinced by the idea at all. The Deputy Prime Minister has set the agenda, but that has alienated the opinion not only of a lot of Opposition Members, but of some Labour Members. The Deputy Prime Minister will be speaking to my colleagues from the three northern regions in about 35 minutes.

The regional assemblies are a complete diversion, and I agree with the thoughtful speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer). I fear that having been given a good kicking by the electorate on 10 June, we will get another good kicking in October. Before I entered the Chamber for the debate, a colleague from the House of Lords said to me, "Gordon, we are inventing new elections to lose." That is our problem.

4.26 pm
Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con)

I am delighted that the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) managed to speak, albeit briefly.

Conservative Members support the principle of decentralisation—moving decision making to the lowest appropriate level based on coherent accountable units close to the people affected by decisions. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) pointed out earlier, the Government's proposed elected regional assemblies will not represent a genuinely decentralising measure. In the words of Lord Rooker, there will be "no new money" and "no new powers" will flow to them. They will suck powers up from local authorities instead of down from central Government. We are already seeing that happening with housing, planning and fire and rescue services.

As my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) said, we are being offered expensive and largely toothless talking shops with more politicians, more bureaucrats and more red tape. Decisions will be made further away from people, rather than closer to them. The assemblies will have no new powers other than those sucked up from local authorities. They will represent more big government that will spend more precious taxpayers' money without delivering a single extra doctor, policeman, teacher or social worker, and without offering real solutions to the genuine issues arising from the massive structural economic change that has occurred throughout the three northern regions over the past two and a half decades.

Andy Burnham

The hon. Gentleman says that regional assemblies will lead to more politicians. With the abolition of county councils, can he be absolutely sure that that will happen? Surely the proposal would lead to fewer elected politicians.

Mr. Hammond

The hon. Gentleman knows that the north-east, for example, is already overwhelmingly made up of single-tier local authorities, so an assembly would impose an additional tier of government.

It is little wonder that outside the narrow confines of the political class, the Deputy Prime Minister's obsession has signally failed to grip the imagination of the people who are supposed to be enthused by it. It is little wonder that the evidence points to a growing sentiment in all three northern regions, especially Yorkshire and Humber and the north-west, that the proposed extra tier of government is simply not the answer to the regions' problems and that the Government's proposal reflects Labour's tired philosophy that more government equals better government, and that constant change equals progress.

As is so often the case, Labour is hedging its bets. Ministers talk about the importance of allowing the electorate to decide whether to have regional government in referendums, but they have already embarked on an agenda of reallocating responsibilities and functions from local government to regional forms of government, irrespective of whether elected regional assemblies come into being. The Government's amendment congratulates them on their endeavours to ensure that the electorate are well informed about regional assemblies. In truth, however, it is the Government, in the name of spreading clarity, either deliberately or through incompetence, who have created confusion and uncertainty about the extent of the powers, responsibilities and costs of elected regional assemblies.

The Minister's typical response to any criticism is to wrap himself in the mantle of democracy and proclaim that he merely wishes to allow the people in his selected regions to have a choice. It is clear that that commitment to choice is subordinate to Downing street's fear of another debacle on the scale of 10 June and the parliamentary Labour party's blind panic in the face of looming defeat and the damage that the Deputy Prime Minister's agenda could do to its chances at the general election. The champions of democracy proclaim that the people must decide, but it is apparent that they will only be allowed to do so if it is to Labour's electoral advantage.

Our debate has demonstrated that if the people are to decide, they must have clear and accurate information about the question that is put to them; they must be allowed to express their decision through a fair and effective voting system and they must know the costs of the proposals that they are asked to judge. They are entitled to honest and impartial information, not Government propaganda. The Government appear to be distancing themselves from the holding of referendums before a general election, but if they go ahead it is clear on the available evidence that the last thing they are seeking is an objective test of the mood of the population in those three regions. They are instead attempting to manipulate the process with all the powers at their disposal to achieve the outcome that they desire.

I fully recognise the Minister's problem—with just four months to go, in the analysis of the British Chambers of Commerce, there is a lack of interest in and awareness of the prospect of elected regional assemblies. The more people know about elected regional assemblies, the less they like the idea. It will be difficult for the Minister to rise to the Deputy Prime Minister's challenge of delivering a yes vote in the regions and achieve a turnout that gives some credibility to the whole process. He is torn between those two objectives, and his efforts to increase turnout are likely to pull against his objective of securing a yes vote. Sadly, in his pursuit of a resolution to the dilemma, the principal victims are clarity and transparency. Genuinely open and informed debate has been sacrificed to his overriding need to achieve a yes vote on a half-reasonable turnout. That is the opposite of the genuinely democratic process advanced in ministerial propaganda and the self-congratulatory Government amendment.

The soundings exercise was intended to determine whether there was any genuine interest in the holding of a referendum. It was not objective, and was conducted at the discretion of the Deputy Prime Minister, who managed to determine on the basis of 833 positive responses from a population of 5 million in Yorkshire and Humber that there was a desire to hold a referendum in the region. The electoral system itself gives rise to problems. The Minister conceded early on that the Government would not impose elected regional assemblies on people if turnout was "derisory", although he has resisted all attempts to pin down what constitutes such a turnout. The Government therefore concocted the idea of all-postal referendum ballots in the hope that that would achieve a turnout that was not derisory. They are therefore in the absurd position of seeking to lay orders for an all-postal ballot before the post-mortem on the 10 June fiasco is complete. They have had to build in a reverse gear to enable them to cancel or postpone the ballots if the Electoral Commission report is damning or if it suits them to interpret it in that way.

There is a perfectly good solution at hand—it was identified by the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) in an early intervention—that will allow certainty about the date of the referendums, will prevent the result of the ballot being tinged by doubts about the integrity of all-postal voting, and has the benefit of being familiar to the electorate at large. It is the traditional system of ballot box voting, but the Government will not adopt it because they want to keep open the option of backing out of their commitment to the referendums if they decide later in the year that it is electorally advantageous to them to do so.

Having fudged the consultation on the level of interest and rigged the balloting system, the third prong of the Deputy Prime Minister's approach has been a propaganda campaign at the taxpayers' expense under the guise of information dissemination—a total waste of money, pushing a dud idea to an indifferent audience without even, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) described to the House, paying lip service to making an attempt at a dispassionate presentation of the arguments. The Deputy Prime Minister has been running around the country sowing confusion and obfuscation in all directions and, every time he is challenged, retreating behind the mantra that the powers will be as per the White Paper, only to sally forth the next day flying more kites and creating more confusion and doubt.

The truth, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex pointed out, is that there is a battle royal going on within the Government. Despite the big talk earlier of interdepartmental battles to be waged by big John, it seems that it was little Jeff who was right all along—at the end of the day, there will be no new powers and no new money.

Will the Minister confirm to the House, as many hon. Members have asked him to do in his winding-up speech, that the draft Bill will be published before the end of the Session, and that it will contain precise powers and not be structured simply as an enabling Bill, so that when the electorate go to the polls in October they are clear as to the powers and the costs of the regional assemblies if they vote for them? Will the Minister further confirm that the Bill will published at a time and in a manner that enables a debate to take place in Government time in this House and the other place, ideally before the recess, but if not in the September session, so that the important issues that will be raised by the detail of the draft Bill can be fully debated and reported in the regional press? Only in that way will the democratic process be properly conducted to the benefit of the country and the whole of its electorate.

4.37 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister Phil Hope)

The debate should be renamed. It has not shown confusion in the Government's regional policy, but it has shown a great deal of confusion in the Opposition's regional policy. They voted against Scottish devolution, and then had to accept it; they voted against Welsh devolution, and then had to accept it; and they voted against the Mayor and the Assembly in London, and then had to accept it.

The Opposition opposed regional chambers, in which there are now 150 Conservative councillors sitting in active support. The Opposition opposed regional development agencies but now want to engage with them, although I am not sure what that means. We discovered in the debate today that although the Opposition opposed the referendums in the first place, they now insist that they take place—a damascene U-turn if ever I saw one. They do not seem to want more politicians but they oppose unitary structures. The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) seemed to suggest that up to 2 per cent. of people in this country should become councillors. That would be about 1 million councillors—rather too many, I think.

Mr. Curry

I was merely pointing out that the United Kingdom is relatively light on elected representatives, compared with almost every other country in the European Union, so we should not be frightened by the idea that we have people to represent the citizen, rather than always assuming that the only way to go is towards fewer councils covering larger areas.

Phil Hope

Opposition Front Benchers complained throughout the debate that they do not want more politicians at regional level. The Opposition cannot have it both ways.

The Opposition's attitude to regional policy is as confused as the membership of their Front-Bench team. It is one of our favourite pastimes on the Government Front Bench to try to guess which of the eight members of the Opposition Front-Bench team will bother to turn up at various debates on regional government. I led a debate on the Northern way in the Regional Affairs Committee, at which the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) represented the Conservatives—in fact, he was the only Conservative present.

The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who is one of the sponsors of the motion, cannot be present. We understand that she is in Birmingham campaigning in the by-election. I hope she reminds people there of her commitment to reintroduce the poll tax, and the shadow Chancellor's proposals to cut £57 million from Birmingham city council's budget if the Conservatives were ever to return to power.

The Liberal Democrats have their own internal confusions, which we have heard about today, so there is no change there. More worrying is the proposal of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) that we should have a boundary review. Nothing would delay elected regional assemblies more than having a boundary review. The consultation would result in inordinate delay.

As the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) and the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said, this debate, as highlighted by the Sheffield university report, is all about bringing economic development, democracy and accountability for public spending to the regions. It is about developing regional policy.

The first generation of regional policy was essentially the ambulance work of getting Government help to the regions in the early 1930s. The second generation, in the 1960s and 1970s, was all about large capital and tax incentives, about which we heard something this afternoon, to get people to locate in the regions. Both those approaches were inflexible and top-down. Neither did enough to close the gap between areas of high unemployment and areas of low unemployment—regional disparities, as the Sheffield university report shows, continue to grow.

We are now in the third and new generation of regional economic policy measures that seek to strengthen the indigenous sources of growth in the regions.

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

My hon. Friend is now on some interesting territory. He, like me, supports the Greater London authority, which is, in effect, a city region. If a city region model is appropriate for London, why should it not be appropriate for conurbations such as Merseyside and Greater Manchester?

Phil Hope

The report shows the value that the core cities give to economic regeneration in the regions, but the point about the Greater London assembly, which was made in today's debate, is that it provides the model for the regional assemblies for the north-west, north-east and Yorkshire and Humber. It has been particularly successful in standing up for London, and we want similar assemblies to stand up for the northern regions, to attract investment, to create democratic accountability and to sponsor the regional economic growth that is so important.

We are committed to a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change and devolution. We have been transforming this country from what it was in 1997—one of the most centralised in the western world.

A number of different points have been made about powers. I cannot go through all the details, but it was interesting how in today's debate even Front-Bench spokesmen, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton and others on both sides of the argument were all saying that what we want is stronger devolution; we want more powers and more spending to be devolved to the regions. This is the start of that exact process. This is the opportunity for those regions to grab back central Government's power, to stand up for themselves, and to start this process, going forward into this third generation of regional economic development, which both sides of the House appear to support—even my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), who seemed to be arguing for more discrimination for the north. This is not about discrimination; it is about handing power back so that people in the north can have the resources and the powers that they require.

Time is running out, but I assure the House that we will be introducing a Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local and Regional Government said in his opening remarks. We are on course to publish it in July once the dates for the referendums have been set, and we will ensure that those votes will be held in a postal referendum because the people deserve the opportunity to have their say, and postal voting, as we have seen from the experience in June, increases turnout. We have made the commitment not to proceed with all-postal referendums, as planned, if the Electoral Commission produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so. That is the proper reaction of a Government who are committed to encouraging participation in the democratic process, but who are equally committed to protecting the integrity of the balloting process as well.

Opposition Members made a number of points about the information campaign, and we even had a quote from a QC on which the Tories waited a lot of money. Sir Andrew Turnbull, the Cabinet Secretary, has replied to the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, saying: I am entirely satisfied that the Your Say campaign does not break any of the principles set out in either the legislation or the guidance.

The Government have made a clear commitment and the regional development agencies have already achieved much in boosting the regional economies. It is time to go further. We believe that elected regional assemblies can further improve regional economies, offering democratic joined-up government and a new perspective, vision and opportunity to the regions. The Opposition's motion is incoherent and backward looking. It reflects the confusion of a party that has got it wrong in every devolution debate in the past decade and that would deny the people of the northern regions a choice.

It will be for the people of the regions to choose in a referendum whether they wish to have a regional assembly. Our policy for elected regional assemblies is about choice—a choice for the people, and a choice to provide a better future for the north.

Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—

The House divided: Ayes 119, Noes 320.

Division No. 209] [4:45 pm
Amess, David Forth, rh Eric
Ancram, rh Michael Francois, Mark
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E) Gale, Roper (N Thanet)
Baldry, Tony Garnier, Edward
Baron, John (Billericay) Gibb, Nick (Bognor Regis)
Beggs, Roy (E Antrim) Gillan, Mrs Cheryl
Bellingham, Henry Goodman, Paul
Beresford, Sir Paul Gray, James (N Wilts)
Blunt, Crispin Grayling, Chris
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Green, Damian (Ashford)
Bottomley, rh Virginia (SW Surrey) Grieve, Dominic
Gummer, rh John
Brady, Graham Hague, rh William
Brazier, Julian Hammond Philip
Browning, Mrs Angela Hawkins, Nick
Burns, Simon Hayes, John (S Holland)
Burnside, David Hermon, Lady
Burt, Alistair Hoban, Mark (Fareham)
Butterfill, Sir John Hogg, rh Douglas
Cameron, David Howard, rh Michael
Cash, William Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Jack, rh Michael
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Chope, Christopher Jenkin, Bernard
Clappison, James Johnson, Boris (Henley)
Clarke, rh Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Knight, rh Greg (E Yorkshire)
Conway, Derek Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Cormack, Sir Patrick Leigh, Edward
Cran, James (Beverley) Letwin, rh Oliver
Curry, rh David Lewis, Dr. Julian (New Forest E)
Davies, Quentin (Grantham & Stamford) Liddell-Grainger, Ian
Lidington, David
Davis, rh David (Haltemprice & Howden) Lilley, rh Peter
Loughton Tim
Djanogly, Jonathan Luff, Peter (M-Worcs)
Dorrell, rh Stephen McIntosh Miss Anne
Duncan Smith, rh Iain Mackay, rh Andrew
Fallon, Michael McLoughlin, Patrick
Flight, Howard Maples, John
Maude, rh Francis Spicer, Sir Michael
Mawhinney, rh Sir Brian Spink, Bob (Castle Point)
Mitchell, Andrew (Sutton Coldfield) Spring, Richard
Steen, Anthony
Murrison, Dr. Andrew Swayne, Desmond
Norman, Archie Syms, Robert
O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury) Tapsell, Sir Peter
Osborne, George (Tatton) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Ottaway, Richard Taylor, Sir Teddy
Page Richard Tredinnick, David
Paice, James Trend, Michael
Paterson, Owen Trimble, rh David
Pickles, Eric Turner, Andrew (Isle of Wight)
Portillo, rh Michael Viggers, Peter
Prisk, Mark (Hertford) Waterson, Nigel
Randall, John Watkinson, Angela
Redwood, rh John Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Robathan, Andrew Wilshire, David
Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry) Winterton, Ann (Congleton)
Roe, Dame Marion Winterton, Sir Nicholas
Ruffley, David (Macclesfield)
Shepherd, Richard Yeo, Tim (S Suffolk)
Simmonds, Mark Tellers for the Ayes:
Smyth, Rev. Martin (Belfast S) Hugh Robertson and
Soames, Nicholas Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown
Adams, Irene (Paisley N) Campbell, rh Sir Menzies (NE Fife)
Ainger, Nick
Ainsworth, Bob (Cov'try NE) Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)
Allan, Richard Caplin, Ivor
Anderson, rh Donald (Swansea E) Casale, Roger
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale & Darwen) Caton, Martin
Cawsey, Ian (Brigg)
Armstrong, rh Ms Hilary Chidgey, David
Atherton, Ms Candy Clark, Dr. Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Austin, John
Bailey, Adrian Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Baird, Vera Clarke, rh Tom (Coatbridge & Chryston)
Baker, Norman
Barnes, Harry Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Barron, rh Kevin Clelland, David
Beard, Nigel Clwyd, Ann (Cynon V)
Beckett, rh Margaret Coaker, Vernon
Begg, Miss Anne Coffey, Ms Ann
Beith, rh A. J. Connarty, Michael
Bennett, Andrew Cook, Frank (Stockton N)
Benton, Joe (Bootle) Cook, rh Robin (Livingston)
Best Harold Corbyn, Jeremy
Betts, Clive Corston, Jean
Blackman, Liz Cotter, Brian
Blizzard, Bob Cousins, Jim
Bradley, rh Keith (Withington) Cranston, Ross
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Crausby, David
Bradshaw, Ben Cruddas, Jon
Brake, Tom (Carshalton) Cryer, Ann (Keighley)
Breed, Colin Cunningham, rh Dr. Jack
Brennan, Kevin (Copeland)
Brooke, Mrs Annette L. Cunningham, Jim (Coventry S)
Brown, rh Nicholas (Newcastle E Wallsend) Cunningham, Tony (Workington)
Darling, rh Alistair
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Davey, Edward (Kingston)
Browne, Desmond Davidson, Ian
Bruce, Malcolm Davies, rh Denzil (Llanelli)
Bryant, Chris Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)
Buck, Ms Karen Dean, Mrs Janet
Burgon, Colin Denham, rh John
Burnham, Andy Dhanda, Parmjit
Burstow, Paul Dobbin, Jim (Heywood)
Byers, rh Stephen Dobson, rh Frank
Cable, Dr. Vincent Donohoe, Brian H.
Cairns, David Doran, Frank
Calton, Mrs Patsy Dowd, Jim (Lewisham W)
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Drown, Ms Julia
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey) Kilfoyle, Peter
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston) King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green & Bow)
Edwards, Huw
Ellman, Mrs Louise Lammy, David
Ennis, Jeff (Barnsley E) Laws, David (Yeovil)
Etherington, Bill Lazarowicz, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim Lepper, David
Fitzsimons, Mrs Lorna Leslie, Christopher
Flint, Caroline Levitt, Tom (High Peak)
Foster, Don (Bath) Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Foulkes, rh George Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Francis, Dr. Hywel Linton, Martin
Gardiner, Barry Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
George, rh Bruce (Walsall S) Llwyd, Elfyn
Gerrard, Neil Love, Andrew
Gibson, Dr. Ian Lucas, Ian (Wrexham)
Gidley, Sandra Luke, lain (Dundee E)
Gilroy, Linda McAvoy, Thomas
Goggins, Paul McDonagh, Siobhain
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) MacDonald, Calum
Griffiths, Win (Bridgend) McDonnell, John
Grogan, John MacDougall, John
Hain, rh Peter Mclsaac, Shona
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) McKenna, Rosemary
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McNamara, Kevin
Hancock, Mike Mactaggart, Fiona
Hanson, David McWalter, Tony
Harman, rh Ms Harriet McWilliam, John
Harris, Tom (Glasgow Cathcart) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Harvey, Nick Mann, John (Bassetlaw)
Havard, Dai (Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Marshall, David (Glasgow Shettleston)
Healey, John
Heath, David Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Martlew, Eric
Hendrick, Mark Meacher, rh Michael
Hepburn, Stephen Michael, rh Alun
Hesford, Stephen Milburn, rh Alan
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia Miliband, David
Heyes, David Miller, Andrew
Hill, Keith (Streatham) Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Hinchliffe, David Moffatt, Laura
Holmes, Paul Mole, Chris
Hood, Jimmy (Clydesdale) Moore, Michael
Hoon, rh Geoffrey Moran, Margaret
Hope, Phil (Corby) Morgan, Julie
Hopkins, Kelvin Morley, Elliot
Howarth, rh Alan (Newport E) Morris, rh Estelle
Howarth, George (Knowsley N & Sefton E) Mountford, Kali
Mudie, George
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford & Urmston) Mullin, Chris
Munn, Ms Meg
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Hurst, Alan (Braintree) Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Illsley, Eric Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Ingram, rh Adam O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Jamieson, David Olner, Bill
Jenkins, Brian Organ, Diana
Johnson, Alan (Hull W) Osborne, Sandra (Ayr)
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Owen, Albert
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Picking, Anne
Jones, Kevan (N Durham) Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Lynne (Selly Oak) Pike, Peter (Burnley)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Plaskitt, James
Kaufman, rh Sir Gerald Pollard, Kerry
Keeble, Ms Sally Pond, Chris (Gravesham)
Keen, Alan (Feltham) Pope, Greg (Hyndburn)
Keen, Ann (Brentford) Pound, Stephen
Kelly, Ruth (Bolton W) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Kennedy, rh Charles (Ross Skye & Inverness)
Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Prescott, rh John
Khabra, Piara S. Price, Adam (E Carmarthen & Dinefwr)
Kidney, David
Primarolo, rh Dawn Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Prosser, Gwyn Stoate, Dr. Howard
Pugh, Dr. John Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Purchase, Ken Straw, rh Jack
Purnell, James Stringer, Graham
Quin, rh Joyce Stuart, Ms Gisela
Quinn, Lawrie Stunell, Andrew
Rammell, Bill Sutcliffe, Gerry
Rapson, Syd (Portsmouth N) Tami, Mark (Alyn)
Raynsford, rh Nick Taylor, rh Ann (Dewsbury)
Reed, Andy (Loughborough) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Rendel, David Thomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Roche, Mrs Barbara Thomas, Gareth (Harrow W)
Rooney, Terry Timms, Stephen
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W) Touhig, Don (IsIwyn)
Roy, Frank (Motherwell) Trickett, Jon
Ruane, Chris Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton Kemptown)
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Turner, Neil (Wigan)
Russell, Ms Christine (City of Chester) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Ryan, Joan (Enfield N) Tyler, Paul (N Cornwall)
Salter, Martin Tynan, Bill (Hamilton S)
Sanders, Adrian Vis, Dr. Rudi
Sarwar, Mohammad Ward, Claire
Sedgemore, Brian Watts, David
Shaw, Jonathan Webb, Steve (Northavon)
Sheerman, Barry White, Brian
Sheridan, Jim Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Shipley, Ms Debra Williams, rh Alan (Swansea W)
Short, rh Clare Williams, Betty (Conwy)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S) Williams, Hywel (Caernarfon)
Singh, Marsha Williams, Roger (Brecon)
Skinner, Dennis Willis, Phil
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Wilson, Brian
Smith, rh Chris (Islington S & Finsbury) Winnick, David
Wood, Mike (Batley)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Woodward, Shaun
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Worthington, Tony
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Wright, David (Telford)
Soley, Clive Wright, Tony (Cannock)
Southworth, Helen Wyatt, Derek
Spellar, rh John Younger-Ross, Richard
Squire, Rachel
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis Tellers for the Noes:
Steinberg, Gerry Gillian Merron and
Stevenson, George Charlotte Atkins

Question accordingly negatived.

Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.

MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.

Resolved, That this House welcomes progress the Government is making in implementing its proposals for elected regional assemblies set out in the White Paper Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions, based on the principles of increasing prosperity, pride and democracy in the regions; applauds the opportunity afforded to people in the three northern regions of England to have their say about whether they want an elected assembly for their region; welcomes the decision to hold the referendum by all-postal ballot while noting the Government's preparedness to give a clear undertaking not to proceed with all-postal referendums as planned if the Electoral Commission produces convincing evidence leading to the conclusion that it would be unsafe to do so, welcomes the Government's decision to have one assistance and delivery point per 50,000 electors, giving the choice as to whether to return their vote by post, to deliver it by hand, or to vote at a place supervised by electoral officials; further notes the Boundary Committee's estimates of the savings from local government restructuring in regions which choose to establish an elected regional assembly; looks forward to the publication of the draft Bill which would establish elected assemblies, once the date for the referendums has been set by Parliament; commends the Government's endeavours to ensure that people voting in the referendums have information on which to base their choice; and notes that the principal confusion about regional policy appears to be on the Opposition benches.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you know, Solicitor-General's Question Time takes place tomorrow at 12.20 pm. I was in the Lobby earlier and have just received a letter from the Solicitor-General's secretariat to say that my question has been transferred. I appreciate that the transfer is not your responsibility, but such short notice is surely a discourtesy not only to me but to the work of the House of the Commons. Furthermore, the Solicitor-General is responsible for prosecutions, with which the question deals, yet she has transferred it. Will you advise me on that?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord)

As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, that is not a matter for the Chair. However, he has registered his concern, which will now be on the record.