HC Deb 17 January 2001 vol 361 cc95-117WH

11 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I am recorded as wanting to debate devolution, which is, in fact, a subterfuge for the real issue of the debate, on which I wish to concentrate. It was suggested to me that one could not raise the subject because it demanded legislation from Government. My real preoccupation is regional government in the best part of this country, which is Yorkshire and Humberside, the Geordie nation and the north-west, and the prospects and effects of devolution on them.

I am not a critic of devolution. The Government have made a brave start and were right to do so. It is a system that is beginning to cause tensions. We cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs and there are bound to be conflicts. Such conflicts are good—they are democratic and involve people. I welcome devolution as a recognition of the new politics that we need in a country that has always been too centralised on London in terms of population, careers, government, and in every other respect. London is the great wen. Bureaucracy is centralised and decisions are taken and then handed down to the supplicant rest of the country. London has always been too dominant. It is more dominant in our system than any other country's capital city. People are reacting against that centralisation and dominance.

Last year's surveys on the state of the nation were interesting. There is widespread feeling that this country is not more democratic, that it is too centralised, and that people do not have enough involvement. We face a society now in which people have had a taste of power and have power as consumers. They are taking decisions as consumers all the time. People are waiting to serve them as consumers. They do not have the same power, influence, or ability to control their destinies as citizens as they do as consumers. That is an imbalance in their lives that they would like rectified. they want power and influence as citizens, and they want to be heard—[Interruption.]—like the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), who I will not hear for the moment, if he will forgive me. People want to be listened to, and a machine that is centralised on Londoners, that does not have regional government, that has devolution only for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, cannot listen to them. They want government brought closer to them, and that is the basic argument for devolution. After all, it is a universal trend—it is going on in most European Union countries. There is even decentralisation in France which is, traditionally a very centralised society.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Mitchell

No, because my hon. Friend is going to make some petty, pedantic point about Europe.

There is a universal human and governmental trend to establish regional government, which has happened in France, Spain and Italy, and was already there in Germany with the system of the Länder. We should follow that natural instinct and respond to the new politics. I have been criticised by my Euro-sceptic friends—I have some Euro-sceptic friends—who argue that regionalism and decentralisation or devolution are a European plot to cut out the middle man of central Government and create a direct relationship between Brussels and the regions. That has nothing to do with devolution, which is absolutely right in its own right.

Mr. MacShane

Will the hon. Gentleman give way on that point?

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not heckle.

Mr. MacShane

I support my hon. Friend in not referring to the European Union, which has nothing to do with the argument. We should look to America, the world's richest country, with its 50 regional assemblies, governors and state administrations. On the other hand, we might look to Switzerland, which is Europe's richest country, has a population similar to Yorkshire's, has 24 regional parliaments, Ministers, assemblies and so on.

Does my hon. Friend share my regret that the Yorkshire Post, our regional newspaper, supports entirely the Tory view that everything should be centralised in London and that devolution to Yorkshire should not be on the political agenda? When will our main regional newspaper speak up for Yorkshire in this matter?

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. May I give the hon. Gentleman an admonition? Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful for that sagacious, intelligent and smart intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), although it was not exactly what I had expected. However, it raises an important and valid point. It is a tragedy and a betrayal that the Yorkshire Post is taking the position to which he referred. It used to be part of the Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company Ltd., which is no doubt why it takes such a position. It is wrong to do so because it does not represent the feeling of the region.

The present matter has nothing to do with the argument for or against Europe; I do not understand European intentions, because I am not an expert on abnormal psychology. Devolution is right in itself and we should proceed with it. It has made a brave beginning, so we should go on and extend the benefits of devolution to the north, where it is much needed.

Being a northerner rather than an Englishman, I would say that the north is the best part of the country, but a disadvantaged part. It was always the manufacturing heartland—the area that made things, the powerful producer. The south had the job of manipulating money. People from the south went into professions—to be barrow boys, or whatever—but not into production as northerners do. That gave us a world standing, an independence, a confidence and a pride.

The manufacturing base in the north has been destroyed, partly by the dominance of southern money, manipulation and financial interests, and partly by the incompetence of Governments. That process of destruction continues, with the manufacturing heart still shrinking because of the over-valued pound, which strikes a vital blow at the dominance of the north. Our society has become dependent because our industry has been destroyed, which means higher unemployment and lower earnings and gross domestic product per capita.

A begging-bowl mentality has been forced on us because the job of local government is no longer to regenerate the areas but to go to London and shuttle up and down with begging bowls. The only increase in business that that causes is for the railways. Local government must beg for projects, grants, action areas and all the things that the Government provide. We are dependent and, in that situation, we need to be able to do more for ourselves, take control of our own destinies and fight back against the trend that has knocked the heart out of the manufacturing north. Once it was the most dynamic and richest part of the country—now it is the part with the greatest social problems.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Again, the hon. Gentleman paints the picture of devolution as the panacea for all the ills facing the north, just as it was supposed to be for Wales—although it has certainly not proven to be the case. He says that people want to be listened to. That is true, but they do not want to be overgoverned—and they will be governed at the levels of Europe. Westminster, county council, district council and parish council. Are they not being over-governed? In many cases they just want politicians off their backs, so that they can carry on their businesses.

Mr. Mitchell

I knew that I should not have given way to the hon. Gentleman. The European issue is irrelevant in this context. We are not talking about that. People want to be heard and to influence the people who are taking the decisions that will affect their lives, whether in Europe or Britain. Bringing government closer to people gives them that influence. Devolution—[Interruption.]

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) should not heckle. I have warned hon. Members about that.

Mr. Mitchell

I am grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam.

Devolution affects us because it increases competition for public spending and provides the development that attracts the footloose industries that we need. Devolution provides Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London with a powerful platform from which to argue for a better deal, and they will do so—they are arguing the case already. It also makes those areas more competitive in attracting industry and development. They have not only the regional development agencies that other areas have, but the synergy, drive and dynamism of democracy pushing those agencies on.

Those areas will be powerful competition to the parts of the country that we represent. I do not begrudge them higher levels of public spending and the centre should help them in that way, but we need the same platform. I want English regions to compete effectively and to have the same power that they have in Scotland.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

London is the decisive new area that we are confronting. Does my hon. Friend feel that his constituents are expressing concern about the fact that the financing of the London underground system is now an important issue of national politics, whereas important regional issues in the north of England do not register in the same way—because London has devolution?

Mr. Mitchell

Yes, there is that type of hostility. Everyone is demanding more for London—more for people who have enough already. Spending must be boosted at all levels, but we want to compete. We want our case to be put as effectively as possible. We should get our share and have a greater ability to raise money for ourselves and tackle our own problems.

Devolution is a big boon, but it creates problems for the rest of the country and destabilises the constitution. We now have an unbalanced constitution. That needs to be rectified—not only so that we can solve the west Lothian problem, which is traditionally asked in this context, but so that we bring the rest of the country up to the level that has been created in Scotland. There are various ways of doing that. The proposal of several Conservative Members is for an English parliament. That is no solution at all. It would be an elephant in a cuckoo's nest—a cuckoo's nest is perhaps the wrong image. It would increase the dominance of London within England. England has a population of about 50 million and Scotland about 5 million—that is unbalanced. The idea of an English parliament is ludicrous.

The proposal of Labour Members, as representatives of the English regions, must be regional government. The process towards regional government should start with the three northern regions. We have a clear and proud regional identity. I am alienated from all the arguments that attempt to define the English and the British because I feel that I am a northener. I keep quiet about the fact that I am a Yorkshireman in Grimsby, because it is in Lincolnshire, but my real identity is that of a northener. We have talked of the Geordie nation. All those areas have their own identity.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The hon. Gentleman is strongly against an English parliament. Given his theme of regionalism, will he tell us how such areas would legislate? Would they come to the House of Commons to do so? The Welsh Assembly must wait for legislation to go through the House of Commons. With further pressure from the other regions of England, this place will become unmanageable.

Mr. Mitchell

I agree that the Welsh Assembly does not have adequate powers and that the centre is choking up, as it is the focus of too many decisions for other areas that should be delegated to those areas. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's basic hypothesis; I will deal with the powers later.

We have a regional identity in the north. We are ready for regional government. All three regions have regional assemblies. A regional convention has been held in the north-east and the north-west, and we have had the first stage in Yorkshire. We want regional government. Evidence collected by opinion polls for the Kilbrandon commission as long ago as 1970, showed that there were strong feelings of isolation from London and a sense that decisions were taken there and imposed on us. There was a feeling of alienation—[Interruption]—but it was not stronger than that in Cornwall. I concede that to the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George).

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am glad that I have obliged the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat for a moment. He is making a strong point in principle and most hon. Members present agree with him, but what happens if the region itself does not exist? The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Kilbrandon commission report, which makes a strong case for regional identities that do not coincide with the boundaries as defined by the Government. If we want to make regional assemblies work, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should base them on regions that exist, not on synthetic regions based on bureaucratic convenience?

Mr. Mitchell

I am sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman's argument—perhaps I should call him an hon. Friend, after our labours together on behalf of the fishing industry. His comments highlight a problem that affects Cornwall's relationship with the south-west, rather than the three regions to which I referred.

All three regions have a clear identity, pretty clear boundaries and strong support for regional government, as the Kilbrandon report showed. In some respects, the report showed a stronger sense of regionalism in Yorkshire and the north-east than in Scotland and Wales. Up-to-date public opinion surveys show that a majority of people are in favour of regional government in the north-east and the north-west. There is a fairly even division in Yorkshire, which surprises me. I should have thought that feeling would be stronger there, but the issue is only becoming salient and the majority will build up.

The first priority of the next Labour Government must be regional government and those three regions must lead the way. Counter-arguments are sometimes put—for instance, that the desire for regional government is not uniform throughout the country. I accept that in Hereford, Hereford and Hampshire, regionalism hardly happens, and of course there is no problem in the south-east and London.

However, there is clearly a desire for regional government in the three northern regions, which are the focus of my proposals, and there is no reason why areas that do not have the same instincts and feelings should hold back other areas. We can proceed to regional government on a variable geometry basis, by allowing those areas that have built up a case for regional government, developed regional conventions and drawn up proposals to go ahead.

Spain is a pioneer of such an approach—it is obviously sensible. Regions that want stronger powers and more effective democracy take it, and the ones that do not want that stay as they are. Catalonia and the Basques have pushed much further than other parts of Spain. Why should not the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire do the same in this country? We should show the others the way.

Given that regional government will be successful, the same pressures will build up in other parts of the country for the same advantages, just as the pressures have built up in the north-east because of the benefits to Scotland. Those areas should start first. They should not be held back by the fact that others are more laggardly. Why should the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire not do the same in this country? We should be showing others the way. Devolution in the northern regions should not be diluted to some common, unimportant level. We should go for the maximum powers.

No doubt we will hear from the Conservatives the criticism that there will be another layer of bureaucracy, but that is obviously nonsense. We are already developing a regional bureaucracy: in fact, it is already there. We have regional government offices, rightly, as they bring government closer to the people—good on the Government, who introduced them. There are regional development agencies, which are a powerful development tool that is right in principle and that I welcome with open arms, even if the one in my area has the title Yorkshire Forward. I represent a constituency in Lincolnshire, which is not happy with that name. However, the principle is right and the development agency is doing a good job.

There are other bureaucracies as well, such as a regional national health service bureaucracy, the Environment. Agency, a bureaucracy on health and safety, the arts bureaucracy and those of other Departments. Each region has many bureaucracies already, but it does not have accountability or democratic control from the region. We are not compounding the problem of bureaucracy, but simply providing a logical accountability and structure of democracy for a bureaucracy that is already in place. If we do that successfully, we will have joined-up government in the regions through co-ordination of the efforts of all those independent bodies. I therefore do not accept that argument.

There is the question of powers. Do we want to be as weak as the Welsh Assembly? No. Wales has had a raw deal. The devolutionary programmes are a basis on which to build. Powers will increase and expand and we should learn from what has happened in Wales. One reason why the majority in the referendum there was so low was that the Assembly was not important enough to grip people, as it did not have enough powers. Therefore, in the northern regions, I want the sort of powers that will fire the imagination, persuade people that they want those powers controlled from their area, and bring those people out to vote. We should go for the maximum.

Should we transfer functions from local government? That question produced problems in Wales and my broad answer is no. Some functions—roads and transport planning, for example—are better handled on a regional basis. In the main, the functions of the regional government and assembly should be functions transferred from London, where central Government are choking under the weight of decisions that would be better taken locally.

There will be arguments and differences of opinion. I went to a meeting of the boy scouts in Grimsby on Friday. They asked why they had to pay for searches on the police computer for certificates for scout leaders when that was free in Scotland. I had no answer. It is one of the divergencies of democracy. I welcome such differences, but we need the power to make our own differences and to take our own decisions. We will have that power if functions are transferred from central Government, who should not and cannot decide everything in London. They cannot help the areas by simply doling out more projects and tied specific funding. Rather than using such controls, they need to give us freedom to handle things in our own way. I want the maximum powers handed down and some ability to raise money locally for local purposes, as in Scotland, although, again, it is inadequate.

I am proud of what Labour has done—of the regional development agencies, the building up of unified Government offices in the regions and the better financial deal that we have received. I hope that that will be expanded and improved, but now we have to go on from that. Ours is not a hand-out society. We must bite the bullet. Regional governments are the next step towards re-empowering the northern regions and transferring power to the people, so that we can do things for ourselves, tackle our own problems and get the synergy of democracy behind the development that we need. My conclusion is that what Scotland has, we now want.

11.25 am
Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I shall be extremely brief as I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak. I must explain that I find the conventions of this Chamber rather obscure. I am sat behind a nationalist, which for the purposes of the debate is perhaps appropriate.

Mr. Llwyd

What is the hon. Gentleman saying?

Mr. Cousins

I intend the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) no harm whatsoever.

The issue is serious and practical. We are not discussing castles and cathedrals, history and mysticism; we are discussing the practical issues of resources that are beginning to make the people of the English regions, particularly the northern ones, extremely restless. As a result of the Government's programme, we are seeing the strong benefits of devolution. In the north-east of England, which I represent, we see at close hand the benefits of Scottish Government in the programme for warm homes, the decision to deal with long-term care on a different basis from that in England, and in terms of student finance and the important issue of teachers' pay. Not all of that may be deliverable, it may not all work out, but there are real practical benefits to people just over the border.

People just to the south of the border are bound to want to be cut in as well. We want the ability to do some of those things for ourselves. We want to have the same block grant system and the same ability to generate local flexibility about where we apply finance as the Scots, the Welsh and people in Northern Ireland have. That is a political issue that cannot be forever kicked into touch. It is a serious issue that will surface in the next Parliament and will need to be addressed.

I welcome the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions in the House yesterday, when he reiterated his personal commitment to regionalism. In a significant move forward, my right hon. Friend de-coupled the issue of local government reform from the movement toward regional government. That is an important new statement of the Government's intentions. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to expand on that. It is a real step forward and clears away one obstacle.

We are not engaged in some constitutional experiment. Mention has already been made of the West Lothian question. If, as a result of pushing for directly elected, democratically accountable government in the northern English regions—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for St. Ives represents a constituency in the south-west, but he does not seem sure where the southwest is, and that is the essential starting point.

Mr. Andrew George

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind that there is a movement both in the southwest and in Cornwall. On Monday, the front page of The Western Morning News—which is different from that of the Yorkshire Post—reported 20,000 people supporting the Cornish assembly, including the captain of the local rugby team. There was strong feeling about the campaign and we are very clear about where the boundaries are.

Mr. Cousins

I shall leave that issue, and 20,000 Cornishmen will know why.

Boundaries are an issue to be dealt with by regions. The northern English regions are not burdened by that question. We are clear about where and who we are, and what we want to do. The work on those questions has been done. I am concerned not about the West Lothian question but about the west Newcastle question. The west Newcastle question concerns an area where health and educational experience are among the worst in Britain and where until May 1997 not one major decision that could correct those historic inequalities was being taken, whether in west Newcastle, Newcastle or the region. That is what we want to put right.

The Government have taken a significant forward step in the creation of the regional development agencies. However, it is just the first step along the road. We have had to fight hard even to achieve flexibility in the various streams of money that come to the regional development agency. That will not happen until next year. We are only at the beginning of the argument for a block grant enabling the people of the region, in a democratic assembly, to decide how the resources are to be used, and to choose different courses of action from those taken in other English regions and the rest of Britain. The issue is a practical one of resources and their use, rather than a question of local government reform or broader constitutional issues; it involves giving people the power that they do not yet have to make decisions about what happens to their communities, and to tackle long-term inequalities.

We have seen the example of Scotland, and the positive benefits to the Scottish people that are flowing from what happened there. It cannot be reasonable to expect the people of the north-east of England to be patient for ever, with that example north of the border; indeed, it is already affecting their decisions about where to make a home and plan their futures. Many people in the north-east have such choices and mean to take advantage of the Scottish system. The issue will not go away.

I know that in this morning's short debate there is not time to explore all the issues. However, I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that we are discussing a practical matter of importance, which is already creating a strong echo among the people whom we represent. They are beginning to ask questions about all the matters that I have raised. They are beginning to use the example of London as well as Scotland. I hope that the manifesto on which we shall go to the people at some time in the next 12 months will contain a strong, clear commitment to enabling regions to create a democratically elected regional government if they choose to do so.

I hope that those democratically elected regional governments will be able to command resources and begin to take their own decisions—not just in the area of economic development. They should be able to couple those decisions to others affecting education, training, health and social inequalities, so that we can be given the responsibility for dealing with our historic problems. That will put us in charge and will give our people responsibility to sort out their own future, as well as the rights and freedoms that go with such responsibility.

11.34 am
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd, Nant Conwy)

May I start by dealing with the West Lothian question? It is simple really. The answer is to give the National Assembly for Wales legislative powers, and I shall be off to catch the next bus home.

The Conservatives' response to what has been said this morning will be to complain about the creation of another layer of bureaucracy and so on. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) will remember that during the Maastricht debates the clarion call of the Conservatives was subsidiarity. The right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) frequently came home claiming to have secured something on the basis of subsidiarity. Devolution is a similar concept. It is about bringing democratic control down to the lowest reasonable level. It is entirely appropriate for any part of the UK.

We have taken a step forward in Wales, but I am afraid that, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, the Assembly is not a good deal for Wales, because we have to depend on the House to make any changes. There is already too much work for the House, anyway, and that is another reason for devolution, if it is to have any meaning for our constituents and for the areas that we represent.

Like the right hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Davies), I believe that devolution is a process, not an event. He said that these things develop and have their own momentum—Catalonia is one example. A twin-track approach is necessary, whereby some areas can have more powers and move faster than others, and others do not even sign up to devolution. That is entirely appropriate in terms of a Europe of the regions and it is the way in which we should be approaching the matter. I will not say any more about Europe, because I know that if I do, the hon. Member for Great Grimsby will jump up and down and shout. We do not agree on that.

On the benefits of regionalism, Merseyside has a strong case for having its own authority. I hope that it gets one in the not-too-distant future, because there are problems endemic to Wales and Merseyside that we need to sort out. The problems are often different, and there is a difference of emphasis and degree of difficulty and so on.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that Merseyside is pleased to be part of the north-west region and is fully involved in campaigning for a north-west assembly. Is he aware that one of the benefits of our current position on devolution is that the north-west development agency has linked up with Liverpool city council, English Partnerships and others to form Liverpool Vision, the first urban regeneration company? That shows some of the benefits of devolution that have already accrued to us.

Mr. Llwyd

I did not know that. I sometimes go to Anfield to watch football, but that is all. I know a little about football, but not much. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has put that on the record, because it is important. It shows that the more power is devolved locally, the more likely it is that the solution appropriate to a given area will be found. That bolsters the theme of the debate.

However, the way in which the National Assembly for Wales has been put together is flawed. If the Assembly decides that it wants legislation, it must then rely on the Secretary of State for Wales to push for that in Cabinet and obtain parliamentary time for an exclusively Welsh Bill. It may have happened last night, but it will not happen often. Clearly it will not happen in the context of the regional chambers that are the theme of the debate.

It is obvious that we need greater powers for Cardiff. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that similar powers have been given to Scotland. The Scottish Parliament can make a greater difference than the Welsh Assembly, and it has done so. The Assembly now deals with statutory instruments, which used to be dealt with by the Wales Office and by Westminster, and of which there is a backlog. That is a good step forward and brings the process closer to the people. However, people did not foresee devolution in terms of an Assembly dealing only with statutory instruments.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that people in this Chamber would be enlightened to discover that there is only one Bill in the Queen's Speech that is specific to Wales? That Bill only extends the powers of the Children's Commissioner, and it received a Second Reading last night. That is snail's pace democracy and it must change. I am sure that he will agree.

Mr. Llwyd

I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman has been campaigning for a long time for strong devolution, and I fully accept what he says, but it underlines the basic problem—only one Bill has come from the Welsh Assembly.

Another problem is that the Secretary of State is bound by his Cabinet responsibilities. What happens if he is urged to act on behalf of the Assembly and its declared intention puts him in conflict with the Cabinet? The ideas of the Assembly are obviously thrown out of the window, as we saw with the creation of the Strategic Rail Authority in the Transport Bill. The Assembly had a firm view about the membership of the SRA, believing also that it should have a Welsh office, but none of those ideas went anywhere. The Secretary of State should have batted for Wales; perhaps he did—we do not know—but he certainly did not win.

The point at issue is whether devolution in Wales will make a difference, but the current situation is a recipe for confusion and complexity because of a build-up of bad feeling. First, the Assembly requires proper legislative power. The model can be adapted and, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby said, it will develop at its own pace in due course, but many experts now believe that devolution in Wales was flawed. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final words, when he said that we should go for as much power as we can get and that we should go for the Scottish model.

I am pleased that we have devolution in Wales, but it is only one step forward and more needs to be done. I shall give some examples. For instance, my party, Plaid Cymru, said that the Assembly should decide what should happen with regard to hunting in Wales. On objective 1 funding, the Assembly and the Welsh Affairs Select Committee called on the Government to take further action to ensure matched funding, but Westminster ignored the plea. The Assembly decided that Wales should be GM-free, but Westminster would not allow it. Wales decided on special action with regard to beef, but Westminster told us that we could not do that.

It is no use giving us devolution and then slowly winding it back. Bills now going through the House of Commons are winding power back to Westminster rather than devolving it to Wales. That was the subject of a debate at the Welsh Assembly in which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Livsey), I and other members of the Welsh Assembly took part. It is vital that we are careful, otherwise devolution will become a sham. Yes, I am pleased that we have devolution, but I stress that it is a process, not an event.

11.42 am
Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this important and timely debate. I support devolution to the English regions in general, and particularly to the north-west. Devolution to the English regions is the unfinished business of devolution in the United Kingdom. It is unacceptable that, as part of an on-going process suited to their needs and requirements, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and now London should have devolution while the remainder of England is ignored. However, we have come a long way during the past three or four years.

The Government clearly recognise the importance of English regionalism in a way that was not accepted before. The importance of regional devolution to economic development has been recognised and we have started to act upon it. We now have regional development agencies. Their existence, their funding, the flexibility now being awarded to them and the requirement placed on them to draw up regional economic strategies show how it is possible to consider the needs and potential of all regions, including urban and rural areas, and I how they can be developed.

Devolution is a powerful tool in dealing with the economic disparities between regions, particularly in gross domestic product. London is still at 145 on the standard scale of 100 for the UK; but it is unacceptable that the north-west is at 88.2, the north-east 78.8 and Yorkshire and Humberside 87.8, particularly as those disparities are widening.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central)

Will my hon. Friend comment on a statistic that shows that there are greater regional disparities in the United Kingdom than in any other European country except Germany, where there are particular reasons for that relating to the inclusion of east Germany? Britain has the least devolved system. Those two facts may be connected.

Mrs. Ellman

I agree with my hon. Friend. Those facts are indeed connected. We need regional devolution to enable the regions to examine the potential of their economies. It must take place in such a way that it influences national decisions and European decisions that have a bearing on regional areas. It is not only a matter of GDP, but of increasing disparities and the concentration of factors that bring success to the south-east. London and the south-east are again at the top of the recent competitiveness index; the northern regions are towards the bottom. The population drift is continuing. It is anticipated that more people will leave the northern regions for the already over-heated south-east, and such a problem can be dealt with only by investment and regional devolution.

Over the past four years, we have started to recognise the importance of regional representation, but not only for reasons of economic regeneration. Regional chambers and assemblies have been set up. In the north-west, our regional assembly is strong; it brings together elected local authority councillors with universities, colleges, trade unions, the private sector, the cooperative movement, the voluntary sector, the national health service, the Environment Agency and other bodies. It is an important building block. However, we have a long way to go and what is missing is a clear accountable regional remit. The elected element in our regional assemblies comes from local authorities—[Interruption.]

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. Someone has a mobile telephone in the Room. Will those who have devices that make a noise please switch them off?

Mrs. Ellman

Elected councillors have a remit relating to their local authority area. No one is elected with a remit for the whole region. The regional structure lacks clear, democratic accountability. Yes, the regional development agencies are required to consult the regional chambers and assemblies—and most of them do that extremely well. However, they are responsible to the Minister, not to the region. There is no structure whereby we can have accountability for regional quangos in higher and further education, the environment, the arts, health and elsewhere. There is no open forum in which regional consumer interests can be articulated and considered. Would it not be a good thing if the regions could call the regional management of Railtrack to account for its action? Would it not be good if the regions could call the regional structures of the utilities to account for their actions? The region is an important level in many areas, yet it cannot act in the public interest.

As we do not have an elected accountable regional tier, that tier does not have the regional clout that is needed to affect decisions taken at Westminster and in representations in Europe. Will the Minister give thought to two issues of particular importance to the north-west that show the need for elected regional authorities? If we had had an elected assembly in the north-west, would the decision have been taken to move £500 million worth of investment from the Daresbury high-technology laboratory in the north-west to Rutherford in the south-east, in Oxfordshire? I doubt it. Does she agree that it was because of the outrage over that decision, that all public, private and educational sectors in the north-west have come together in a way that has never happened before? I praise the Government for reacting to that, but they must recognise that the decision was unlikely to have been taken had we had a strong, elected, accountable north-west body.

There is a real and current issue regarding economic investment in the north-west and elsewhere. We are struggling with the impact of new definitions of state aid decided by the competition directorate in Brussels. Those definitions have already stopped gap funding, which was important to the north-west, as it was to other regions, and major parts of the European objective 1 programme in Merseyside are now threatened. No doubt that is also the case in other areas. There are now grave delays and possible cancellations in public-private sector partnerships, including one for a proposed business centre in Toxteth, in my constituency.

Based on information given to me by my hon. Friend the Minister, I understand that the Welsh Assembly has taken up the problem, and that progress has been made, while the Government have apparently been unable to make any progress. That leads me to believe that the Welsh Assembly—with powers that its Members wish to be extended—has already shown that it can deliver for Wales in a way that, until now, the Government have not been able to deliver for the north-west and other regions.

This is a time of change. Devolution is a process, not simply an event. We are at a time when changes can be made. In the review of the second chamber, the Wakeham commission recognised the importance of regional representation for the first time. Constitutional conventions have now been set up in Yorkshire and Humberside, the north-west, the north-east and the midlands, and will soon be set up in the south-west. We need elected regions, and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to give us a commitment that this Government or the following Labour Government will give us the opportunity to make that happen.

Mr. John McWilliam (in the Chair)

Order. In order to include Front Bench spokesmen and give the Minister adequate time to answer, we need to start Front Bench speeches by noon. I shall call the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington), but I ask him to remember that admonition.

11.52 am
Mr. Tony Worthington (Clydebank and Milngavie)

I am grateful to you, Mr. McWilliam. I speak as an enthusiastic supporter of devolution in Scotland where it has been recognised that devolution is working well and has given a vigorous boost to political life. Every area of political thought now has a focus that did not exist before, and I look back with horror to this place, where major themes such as primary, nursery or further education can go for decades without a debate—that is no exaggeration.

That is now behind us. Every aspect of Scottish life is now focused and there is a recognition of the separateness of Scottish life. On tuition fees, for example, there has been a different solution in Scotland. If that causes embarrassment to some centralists, that is tough. They have to live with it. We had to live with the decision to impose a system without any input from Scottish political thought.

The only people who do not recognise that success are centralists or those in the media who mistake differences for a row. However, we must recognise that there cannot be devolution in some parts of the United Kingdom without there being implications for other parts. We have an unbalanced constitution.

Probably the greatest devolution that has occurred in the UK, to which hon. Members have not referred, is in Northern Ireland. The powers of its 1.6 million people are greater, were one to add them all up, than those of the Scots. Indeed, if one adds them all up, the powers to be different are greater than for any other part of the UK.

Devolution has, however, led to some very strange situations. In Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, there is not a single Conservative Member—out of 140 Members, there is not a single one from the official Opposition. I doubt whether that will change much at the next election. It means that the Conservatives will start 140 Members behind in England in terms of gaining a majority in the UK. That is very welcome to my party, but anyone who believes that that will not cause problems in the future—although I do not want to return to cuckoos—is living in cloud-cuckoo land.

Distressingly, the only aspect of devolution that is reasonably high on the manifesto agenda is the House of Lords. It would be utterly foolish to proceed with reform of the House of Lords without taking into account the English regional issues that have been raised today. The House of Lords is already largely English, not in terms of its membership—there are Scots peers, Welsh peers and so on—but in terms of its business. Finance matters are not dealt with by the House of Lords, and it is rare for defence Bills or foreign affairs Bills to be considered there. There is no second chamber for the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly, and there is no discernible demand that there should be. When foxhunting is banned in Scotland, there will be no charade about the Bill going to the House of Lords. The elected representatives of Scotland will have decided, as they have in relation to section 28.

Scottish Bills and Northern Ireland Bills—although they may be for smaller populations—are every bit as complicated, in terms of their implications for the citizenry, as English Bills, but they are dealt with more intelligently. I ask hon. Members to consider the Queen's Speech in relation to Scotland. According to the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), it contains 16 Bills, only five of which apply to the United Kingdom. Eleven apply to England or England and Wales, and I accept fully that Wales is bound to proceed to having its own legislative power. The strange thing is that the 140 Members can vote on all Bills, which is untenable.

I point out to my party that the revenge of the people of Scotland for England deciding on Scotland's government was to expel the Tories from the land. Scotland was made a Tory-free zone, which continued until we introduced the assisted seats scheme in the Scottish Parliament.

Important issues must be resolved. The debate this morning about English regional issues has been fascinating. However, there are also important questions about how we relate to the European Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred to the need to have a second chamber in the European Parliament. I do not want to comment on that, although it is an important issue, because we must first decide the role of the House of Commons. We can then decide about the House of Lords, Europe and so on. We cannot go on thinking that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution does not have implications for democracy. I hope that that will give us time to abandon the belief that we can have democracy without elections.

The proposal to have an appointed House of Lords is very strange. Were I to look around the House of Commons to see who will be going to the House of Lords, I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that, although he has added much to the gaiety of life in all of this century and much of the last, he has not constructed his curriculum vitae in order to reach the House of Lords. However, he, and people like him, should be in the House of Lords. An appointed House of Lords, which would favour all those who have constructed their CVs in order to reach it, is not the way ahead.

I welcome the debate, but it is too short. The interest is clear, and the issue has many dimensions. We cannot ignore the phrase that has been repeatedly used about devolution being a process and not an event, because we have many solutions to find, and devolution is at the heart of those solutions.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair)

Order. I draw hon. Members' attention to the time. The Minister and the Opposition spokesman have both agreed to take about 10 minutes. Three more Members wish to speak, and to be fair to everyone, I suggest that the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) takes about six minutes to allow the other two a couple of minutes each. That will enable everyone who wants to participate to do so. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) for finishing when he did.

12 noon

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Thank you, Mr. Hancock. I shall endeavour to conform to that. This good debate can, must and will be held on the Floor of the House. It needs to be full and extended.

The dynamic that we forecast that devolution would create is now evident. As a founder member of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, I find it invigorating that our debates about change in Scotland are now spreading out across the United Kingdom. Although it is 10 years later, I genuinely welcome that and the spirit in which hon. Members representing the regions have come here to argue the case to extend devolution. I am sure that they have the full support of all hon. Members who currently represent Scotland, and that may continue to be true after the next election, as the hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) suggested.

The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) highlighted some positive aspects of devolution. One is that, apart from bringing government closer to the people, it allows a genuine diversity of policy options to be tested. In her heyday, one of Mrs. Thatcher's great slogans was, "There is no alternative." It is the most damning indictment of a democracy to say that there is no alternative. Lively democracy involves exploring alternatives. Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London can now experiment—and, perhaps, make mistakes—with different policy options without the permission or authorisation of the House or Whitehall. That is a fundamentally healthy development. It clearly alarms centralists in the Conservative party, but it exhilarates most people, and it will do a great deal to reconnect voters with both the decision-making and the general political processes. I therefore believe that this debate is good and positive.

I also believe that, as several hon. Members said, debate on devolution will open up the idea of rounding off constitutional reform. The debate relates to how we elect hon. Members to this place, determine policies and share decision making. The dynamic involved must lead to more change.

Some of my constituents are still slightly sceptical of devolution. They are worried that it is the first step towards the break-up of the United Kingdom and the creation of independent states, and that in Scotland it will lead to the domination of the central belt decision-making process over the peripheral regions of Scotland. Both those anxieties are wrong and will not be realised, but it is important to face up to them.

I have no quarrel with people's right to campaign democratically for an independent Scotland or an independent Wales, but they can justify that only if they win the hearts and minds of the people. One of the reasons that we had to secure a fair and democratic voting system in Scotland was to avoid the possibility of a minority of votes securing a majority and creating a crisis to break up the United Kingdom. I do not believe that there is or is likely to be a majority for Scottish independence, provided that devolution proceeds sensitively, and I certainly would not support it, respect it though I may. On the contrary, devolution is more likely, ironically, to loosen the ties but strengthen the Union by its diversity.

The problem of central belt dominance can be tackled. I am not being divisive, but many of us who do not live in the central belt felt that the decisions taken in Edinburgh were dominated mainly by civil servants, who focused on the central-belt perspective. They are now confronted with an elected Parliament that will make them recognise that decisions appropriate to Edinburgh may not mean the same in Aberdeen or Galashiels. The Scottish Parliament has the time to debate such matters and, in a small way, we have seen some evidence of that even in the local government settlement, which has acknowledged that some peripheral and rural areas have not always been treated fairly. A modest step has now been taken to do something about that.

Devolution is beginning to reconnect people. Given the political process, that will take time. People are realising that there is more opportunity to debate and to make representations, and that issues that were not previously dealt with can now be considered, whether they be land reform or the restructuring of education and health in Scotland. I was encouraged to hear Labour Members speak so vigorously about the need for their party to take the matter forward. As the party in government, Labour is under an obligation to do that.

I suggest to the Government that there is a common cause to gain popular support behind the campaign for the English regions. I say to the Conservatives who worry about the English dimension that the way to resolve the problem is to hand power to the regions and to accept that there is a gap in English decision making. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) said, we must not clog up this place with unnecessary legislation that can be devolved to the regions. Such action will open up the House of Commons so that it can debate those issues that are of common interest to all the citizens of the United Kingdom, rather than it dwelling on the argument about who should vote on what. All right hon. and hon. Members are equal; we should debate everything on an equal footing and the appropriate decisions should be taken at the appropriate place.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair)

I thank the hon. Member for Gordon for keeping within the time limit.

12.7 pm

Mr. Desmond Browne (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I am grateful to have the opportunity to make an all-too-short contribution to this all-too-short debate. As one who supports devolution, I welcome a better opportunity to celebrate its achievements and to look forward with other hon. Members to the completion of the devolution project. Over time, I am convinced that it will lead to better governance for all United Kingdom citizens. A significant part of our legislative programme has been devoted to constitutional reform. We ought to remind ourselves that the delivery of the programme of modernisation was formulated in consultation with and in opposition to other political parties, but, most importantly, with the civic society in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have achieved much during the lifetime of this Parliament but, to paraphrase the late John Smith, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) did, there is still unfinished business and we must complete it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) said, it does no harm to remind ourselves of where we were prior to May 1997. Scotland is a consequence of the distortion of the Union under the centralising Governments of Margaret Thatcher and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). Two matters became inseparable: the future of social democracy and the future of the constitution. When successive Conservative Governments began to move away from consultation with the people of Scotland, from permitting Scottish. distinctiveness and from an inclusive and coherent approach to social policy, the clamour for home rule became deafening. The Scottish Constitutional Convention responded to that noise, which was the basis of the White Paper that led eventually to the Scotland Act 1998. The success of devolution in Scotland and the benefits that it is delivering for the people of Scotland should be judged by those measures.

12.9 pm

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I agree that the time we have for the debate is all too short. The arguments for devolution and further decentralisation have been well made. Some issues of powers have been addressed. I agree with the proposal that further powers should be devolved. The relationship between regional assemblies and existing bureaucracies in the regions has also been discussed, but what should we do if the region that has been defined by central Government does not exist? That question needs to be addressed. It is a bull whose horns need to be yanked.

There is a common implication of derision, which was expressed by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) this morning, whenever reference is made to the idea of variable geometry—or geography— as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) referred to it. He was concerned that other places should not hold back areas that want regional assemblies. Exactly the same applies in respect of those who want to consider how one identifies a region. If devolution is to be a success—and I believe that it needs to be a success— it has to be based on regions that people identify with and it has to have democratic legitimacy.

People should be concerned about the increasingly low turnouts at elections. The low turnouts at the European elections would surely be eclipsed by very low turnouts at regional assembly elections in areas where people have no sense of regional identity. People would stay home in their droves, if they did not identify with their region. Rather than destroying existing regions such as Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, simply to create synthetic ones, we really do need to address that issue. There is a great opportunity, but we need to approach it with an open mind.

12.11 pm
Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

We have had a good debate and I congratulate the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) for bringing it to Westminster Hall. I also agree that it should be taken on the Floor of the House. When we debate first principles—and this is a very important first principle that concerns our constitution—all hon. Members should have the opportunity to participate. There have been some good speeches, and as I have disagreed with almost all of them, I shall be expressing the Conservative and Unionist view.

We have a problem in that we have a different size of nations within the United Kingdom. England represents 84 per cent. of the UK. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby was perfectly correct to say that England represents an elephant in relation to the other states. We established the Union so that the smaller countries could be represented in Parliament. The devolution settlement that we have had so far has changed that. There is a degree of unfinished business. The hon. Member for Clydebank and Milngavie (Mr. Worthington) has said in the House that there is an English dimension and there is a problem. That problem may grow if the balance of the House of Commons changes, and English representation changes.

I should correct the hon. Member for Great Grimsby. We are not committed to an English Parliament, although it is odd that people should glory in the Scottish Parliament, but say that the English should have something different. We are committed to English and Welsh votes within the House of Commons on issues that directly affect England and Wales and we have concerns about Scottish Members casting their vote on matters for which they have no responsibility in Scotland and changing the balance in the rest of the UK. When we vote on hunting later today, it will be interesting to see how many Scottish Members who cannot vote on that issue north of the border, will be voting to determine what happens in my constituency and other constituencies throughout southern England.

There is a problem with the way in which we proceeded with devolution, partly because it is a process and not an event. When we undertake constitutional change, we never quite get agreement for the boundaries of that change, but once it has been effected, people have to make it work. If we have a process, however, we are bound to have recurring argument. For example, the Welsh nationalists are dissatisfied with the settlement for Wales and are pushing for more powers. They look at the Scottish example and believe that they too should have more powers.

There is an endemic problem with the Scottish settlement in that the logic of devolution has not been followed through with the financial arrangements in that tomorrow the Treasury has to agree a limit for the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, there is a very limited amount of additional taxation, which the Scottish Parliament does not actually take. Those issues are likely to produce a degree of argument between Edinburgh and London and between Cardiff and London, and as a Unionist I am concerned that that could cause problems.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his example of Scottish Members voting on hunting? Will he contrast that problem with the position in the House of Lords, where people who are not elected by anyone, but who overwhelmingly represent London, as most of them live in London, should determine what the whole of the United Kingdom should do? Which is the greater wrong?

Mr. Syms

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I would have preferred to leave the House of Lords as it was before the Government started reforming it. However, there is an overwhelming logic in my personal view, although it is not necessarily my party's view, for an elected upper House. That point was made earlier in the debate and it is curious that the Government have backed away from the that.

I believe that we should continue to have two Chambers. I do not favour a unicameral system, as they have in New Zealand. Once we start to unpick the House of Lords, we have to look for means to give it some legitimate representation so that it can exercise its views.

Some hon. Members pre-empted my arguments about additional tiers. Additional tiers of elected politicians in local government, national Government and the European Parliament give people the choice of many more politicians to write to, but may not improve accountability. Furthermore, there will be the additional costs of salaries, back-up and offices. I notice in newspapers north of the border and, indeed, in Cardiff, arguments about the cost of headquarters, parliaments, buildings and so on.

The hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George) raised the issue of boundaries. In England, the current boundaries were set up for Governmental Offices for the Regions. I do not believe, in most cases, that the first time people heard of them was when the Government introduced regional development agencies, which we are committed to abolish.

Most of us do not feel that we are in the right region. I am in the same region as the hon. Member for St. Ives. Most of my constituents look to Southampton and the M3. When we wanted to make representations about our council tax, we were asked to go to Bristol. However, it is quicker to get to London from Poole than it is to get to Bristol because the roads are not very good. The issue of boundaries needs to be addressed. I acknowledge that there may be more regional feeling in Yorkshire, but I think that throughout most of England there is not. Most of us look for an English dimension.

Nobody mentioned Barnett and the issue of funding. When we discuss such arrangements, everyone seems to think that a local regional assembly will have additional resources. Those resources will come from two possible sources, either from the taxpayer in London or from some locally raised taxation which will result in differential tax rates in England. There is always the assumption that there is a pot of gold somewhere and those pushing for some sort of assembly always seem to think that everyone will be better off because there will be more money. However, there is a finite amount of money within the United Kingdom, so inevitably there cannot be more money.

When I listened to the arguments relating to Wales and indeed Scotland, it was interesting to hear that most of those who spoke had shopping lists for their countries or, indeed, their constituencies. It will be difficult to meet people's aspirations. The resources within the United Kingdom will be the same, and adding another tier, which is expensive, will not result in more money.

Mr. Desmond Browne

I put the point to the hon. Gentleman that the recent Scottish experience suggests that within that finite pot of money within the existing Barnett formula, devolution allows the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive to determine different priorities and that is important.

Mr. Syms

The hon. Member makes that point, but of course the Barnett formula does mean that public spending north of the border is one fifth higher than throughout most of the United Kingdom. Some of those that understand these matters better than I, say that over a 10-year period that will unscramble and matters will change with population changes, but the Scottish Parliament can, of course, determine its own resources.

There is a danger that devolution could top-slice local government too, and I understand that there has been some tension between local government and the Scottish Parliament. Underlying this constitutional argument is the keen issue of how resources are divided in the UK. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby made an enjoyable speech, but did not specify how additional resources would be allocated to Yorkshire or the north—whether they would be raised from areas without devolution, or indeed whether there would be a higher tax rate. If he had to tell his constituents that if they had devolution, they would pay additional taxes I wonder how popular it would be.

I have covered quick points concerning boundaries and resources. I do not believe that there is an appetite for regionalism. I know that there is a legitimate English dimension.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair)

Before I call the Minister I should say that my only disappointment in that speech was to hear that people in Poole did not look straight to Portsmouth rather than Southampton.


The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) secured this debate. It has been both enjoyable and interesting, and I welcome the opportunity to set out how much this is a key issue for the Government. As hon. Members have said, we need a wider debate, not just in the House, but in the country. I feel almost sorry for the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms). Not only does his party oppose regional development agencies, regional government offices, and any regionally focused policy, it has demonstrated today that it is not interested in being part of the debate, either in terms of the principle of devolution, or in terms of extending devolution to the English regions. I am, however, pleased to have the support of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members in this Chamber, for the principle of devolution and how we extend it to the English regions. Although I may not have time to acknowledge the contribution of every hon. Member, let me acknowledge the importance of the debate and thank hon. Members for their support.

It is important that we are aware of the context of the debate. We are talking about devolution, albeit that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby understandably wants to focus on the English regions. We came to office after a long period in which our constitution had lain in a state of abject stagnation. We set out in our manifesto the many changes that we wanted to bring about—changes that we passionately believe in—and that were essential for the democratic health of our country. It is not simply a matter of principle.

We had an over-centralised Government, a near national crisis in confidence in our national parliament, excessive secrecy and a lack of principal protection for human rights. That was the reason for change. We believe that our institutions must reflect our values and not circumscribe them. Our agenda for change was very much as hon. Members have identified it: as well as revitalising and modernising the constitution to ensure that it reflects the society we serve, giving people opportunities to become engaged in the process of governmental decision making at every level.

The intervention by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) showed what difficulty the Tories have with that concept when he talked about the governed and the governing, as if there were a them and an us. We do not have that problem. We want to engage people in the process of decision making that affects them. However, hon. Members are right to say that there is no blueprint for change. We have sought solutions that reflect the context of each area, its legitimate needs and the popular mandate. We have tried to be flexible and pragmatic in our response. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins) rightly said, that is important.

For good reason, our approach to decentralisation and devolution has been different for different parts of the UK, reflecting the different circumstances and histories of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London. I shall not dwell on some of the points raised about Scotland and Wales—we did not have much of a debate about Northern Ireland—except to say that what is evolving in those areas demonstrates many of the points that hon. Members have raised today about how devolution can begin to engage local people and give them a sense of ownership in respect of the decisions that affect them and the freedom to take different courses that reflect the different circumstances and needs of their areas.

As my hon. Friends have said, we must not and have not ignored the English dimension. We have begun the process of decentralisation and devolution in England. We have to be realistic about the speed—the previous Administration spent 20 years running down the regional policy. It is taking some time to reverse that but that does not indicate a lack of commitment.

It is germane, although it was not raised in the debate, that in this Parliament we have also spent a great deal of time supporting, strengthening and modernising local government, enabling it to develop strong local strategic partnerships. Whatever happens in terms of devolution to a regional level, the agencies that will have to deliver what directly elected regional bodies think is necessary, will have to operate at local level.

The issue of partnership between regional structures, whatever they may be, and locally based organisations particularly in local authorities, is also important. We have embarked on a radical process of change. The RDAs and the changes in London show how we can establish the case for further change at regional level. This is far from the end of the story. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) called it unfinished business. We have made an important commitment in our manifesto and that has been reiterated twice by my rt. hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, including yesterday.

We need to understand and build on what the regions themselves need and want rather than imposing something from Whitehall. The issue of self-determination, in terms of form and so on, is obviously intrinsic to the debate. Several Members raised issues that I would like to discuss.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central that the crucial issues are not history or mystique, but practicality, resources, the purpose of a directly elected regional government and how we can define those broader ends as well as seeing directly elected regional government as an essential means to those ends.

My hon. Friend also asked me about local government determination. It is more a matter of reorganisation and it is too early to say what that might mean in practice. I can tell him, however, that there is no presumption that, if there is to be any local government restructuring, it would have to come before the introduction of regional government. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister made that clear yesterday and I am happy to reiterate the point about no presumption.

A number of hon. Members have mentioned the manifesto and the Labour party's position. My hon. Friends will know that in the Labour party's policy forum document "Building a Future for All", we have said again that we intend to move towards directly elected regional government, where and when there is clear demand for it. We have made a commitment to publishing a Green Paper or a White Paper on regional governance. My hon. Friends will understand that I cannot pre-empt what will be in our manifesto, but they can be clear that the Labour party wants to take the matter forward.

In conclusion, let me restate the Government's commitment to constitutional reform and modernisation. As well as stating Government policy, let me make three points. There are a number of key issues, including size, structure and the level of powers, but in promoting wider debate we need to concentrate on three issues: the economic case for directly elected regional government, accountability and the democratic case and the popular case. We need a clear popular mandate to take this forward, but if we can focus on the economic, democratic and popular aspects of the debate, we will do so in a productive way.