HC Deb 24 June 2003 vol 407 cc223-50WH

2 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)


Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I and a number of colleagues were almost late for this debate because we now have to take a tortuous route to this Chamber. There did not seem to be a lot of activity in Westminster Hall, so I wondered why the ordinary route for Members of Parliament should be closed. Could you clarify with the authorities what route we should take and could some clear signs be put up to show how we are supposed to go round the lift to get here?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook)

I shall do my best to satisfy the hon. Gentleman's curiosity, having had a similar experience this morning. However, having had considerable experience on construction sites and being conscious of health and safety requirements, I know that it is important that potentially hazardous areas be rendered inaccessible to Members. The incident that caused attention to the roof of Westminster Hall happened some time ago and there has been activity for some time. The route is fairly well marked and I found it easy to follow. I am sure that other Members who were here before me this afternoon also found it easy.

Mr. Osborne

I was able to find my way here, so the debate can begin.

I welcome this early parliamentary opportunity to discuss in greater detail the Government's proposed referendum on regional government in the north-west. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister told us all that there was a high level of interest in the north-west region in his proposals, I am sure that the Minister, who is new to his job, is brimming with confidence that our every word will be followed in the living rooms and workplaces of the north-west today. I wish that were so, but, sadly and as we all know, the truth is that there is no enthusiasm or excitement and precious little interest in the referendum in the north-west or anywhere else in England.

Many of us suspected that, but we now know for certain because the Government have helpfully provided us with the document, "Your Region, Your Say", which tells us just how uninterested people really are. Of the 7 million people in the north-west who were asked whether they wanted a referendum on regional government, just 3,947 responded, more than 43 per cent. of whom said no. In fact, just 0.03 of 1 per cent. said yes. That is three in every 10,000 and that is what the Deputy Prime Minister described last week as significant and widespread interest in holding a referendum".—[Official Report, 16 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 22.] His response reminds me of the East German Government who said after one bad election result that they needed to elect a new people.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth)—he is not present today, but I spoke to him before this debate and have a high regard for him—spoke for many of us when he said of the statement last week that any close analysis of the consultation exercise would reveal that regional government is a preoccupation of the nomenklatura rather than the people—certainly the people in the north-west".—[Official Report, 16 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 30.]

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that in Merseyside, more than 80 per cent. of those who replied were in favour of a referendum and that not a single local authority in the whole of Merseyside supports the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East?

Mr. Osborne

Perhaps the hon. Lady could help me by telling me how many people in the Merseyside area responded, and what proportion that was of the total number of people who were able to respond in the Merseyside region. I suspect that that number was extremely low.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

MORI has conducted a significant poll. There are weaknesses in any sampling technique used in polling, but those represent only plus or minus a few per cent. What are the weaknesses in the MORI poll methodology that lead the hon. Gentleman to believe that it was wildly wrong in its assessment?

Mr. Osborne

I made a previous career out of pointing out weaknesses in MORI polling, although as the general opinion polls change I have become less keen on that line. In Cheshire, the county in which the hon. Gentleman sits as a Member of Parliament, more than 80 per cent. of the people who responded said no to the proposal—in fact, the overwhelming number of replies were from Cheshire. One is therefore left wondering whether there was any point to that costly consultation charade, if the Government had no intention of paying attention to the result. However, that is now in the past, because the referendum will take place next year, whether we like it or not. It is therefore important to ask the Government some basic questions about that referendum and what is being offered to the people of the north-west.

The first thing that we need to establish is the ground rules for the referendum. Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it would be held "next autumn." That could mean any time from September to December, if one were to stretch autumn a little. The boundary commission has already written to Members of Parliament in the north-west, saying that it plans to complete its work by 25 May 2004. Can the Minister give us a similarly precise view on when the referendum will be held? I assume that the civil service has already pencilled in a day in the Minister's diary, so why does he not tell us what that day is, either now or in his response at the end of the debate?

As part of establishing the ground rules, could the Minister also tell us something about the framework within which the "yes" and "no" campaigns in the referendum will operate? Does he know what the spending limits for the different campaigns will be? Moreover, since we now have a rough idea of when the referendum will take place, can the Minister tell us whether those spending limits are now in operation and, if not, when they come into force? Will they come into force when he tells us the date of the referendum? What will be the role of central and local government in the campaign? Will the Government be using taxpayers' money to promote the "yes" campaign and, if so, will local authorities be able to use such money to promote a "no" campaign? That last question will be of interest to many people.

There is also the question of turnout. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003 does not specify a minimum threshold for turnout, because the Government are not that stupid. However, the Minister for Local Government, Regional Governance and Fire said that if the turnout were "derisory", the Government would not proceed with an elected assembly even if the vote were "yes". Even the most ardent supporters of regional government are not expecting a high turnout in the referendum, so the question of what is "derisory" becomes very important. Would 10 per cent.—or 15 per cent.—be considered "derisory"? It is in the Government's own interests to set the hurdle now to avoid argument and controversy when the referendum takes place.

That brings me to the second point that I wish to raise today: the role of the existing north-west regional assembly. As the Minister may be aware, considerable concern has been expressed by all parties about the way in which that assembly has engaged in the debate so far. Last year, it conducted what it called a special … enquiry looking at the views of people in the North West about the future of our region. It then published "Soundings", a series of glossy leaflets—I assure hon. Members that they were glossy, although I have only photocopies to hand—on the results of the inquiry.

Even the assembly's supporters would be hard pushed to call that "special enquiry" a model of balance. It was more like reading reports of tractor production in the Urals. I shall read some examples of its investigative journalism. For example, a splash headline screams, "Economic and Social Partners back directly Elected Assembly." However, when I investigated further, I found that the economic partners had said that regional assemblies were more of a distraction than a help. That, however, is not reported. Moreover, when the CBI in the north-west came out against regional government, the headline in the north-west regional assembly's supposedly impartial document was, "CBI's London Focus Just Won't Wash in the North West." The document continues: Parochial and provincial—that was the judgement of the North-West Regional Assembly—not on the regions, but on the London-centric views expressed by the CBI. Then we have my favourite, "Accountants back assembly"—an exciting story until I discovered that it was based on a poll of 69 chartered accountants. The important thing to note is that all this propaganda has been paid for out of public funds. Labour-run Lancashire county council is so concerned that it has withdrawn funding from the north-west regional assembly on the grounds that it is illegally spending taxpayers' money. The council leader said: To continue our funding would leave us in a vulnerable position and the legal position is clear—it is an incorrect use of public money to run a campaign on what amounts to a political issue.

Mr. Miller

Could the hon. Gentleman tell us who funded Cheshire county council's anti campaign?

Mr. Osborne

Local authorities of all political persuasions made their views clear. The point is that the north-west regional assembly is prohibited from engaging in this sort of activity.

I wrote to the Minister's predecessor, the former Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie), to express my concern. In his reply on 14 March, he confirmed what I just told the hon. Gentleman: The Government has spelled out to Regional Assemblies the distinction between assessing the regional appetite for a referendum and campaigning for an elected regional assembly … Following suggestions in the House that this distinction had not been observed, the Government wrote to the leader of the North West Regional Assembly asking for reassurance that this was not the case. That assurance has been forthcoming. Where is that assurance? I should like to know why the Minister believes that he has been assured and why Lancashire county council believes that it has not.

If the Government are not to be the custodians of probity on this issue, we must turn to other organisations. I wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General, and received a reply late last week that makes it clear that the National Audit Office will now investigate this. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) wrote to the Audit Commission, from which he received a similar assurance. We may receive answers, but it is a shame that we must turn to those organisations.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Is my hon. Friend aware of comments by David Jennings, the district auditor. In a telephone conversation in May 2003, he said:

"So far as I can see, some of the publicity issued by NEA could be seen to be contravening Part II of the Local Government Act 1986 and DoE Circular 20/88 Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity".
Mr. Osborne

I saw that comment, which confirms my concerns. I suspect that this is one of those things that will play out in the months and years ahead as steamroller organisations, such as the Audit Commission and the National Audit Office, do their job.

I ask the Minister to confirm today that the northwest regional assembly can have no role in promoting one side or the other in the forthcoming campaign. Furthermore, could he give us the commitment that if the people of the north-west vote no in the referendum, we can get rid of this unloved and unwanted north-west regional assembly once and for all?

The third area that I want to discuss is the cost and the powers of the proposed elected regional assembly. The Government say that they will publish a draft Bill that sets out the powers and functions of the assemblies before people are asked to vote for them. However, the preamble that could appear on the ballot paper has already been written into legislation. It states: You can help to decide whether there should be an elected assembly in the north-west region. An assembly would be responsible for a range of activities that are currently carried out mainly by central government bodies". I emphasise the latter part of that sentence: carried out mainly by central government bodies". We have seen precious little evidence that that is the case. Indeed, when the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Hepburn) asked the Deputy Prime Minister last week to give an assurance that no powers would be transferred to regional assemblies from existing metropolitan authorities, he replied: My hon. Friend must be aware, if he considers the current housing strategy, that in some cases we are transferring powers—from counties, for example. We have to make a judgment and the Bill will contain exact provisions for what we will do".—[Official Report, 16 June 2003; Vol. 407, c. 39.] That answer confirms what many of us, including the Local Government Association, have feared all along: when it comes to the crunch, Whitehall will not give up real powers to these assemblies, and such powers that they have will come from local government. In short, it will be an act of centralisation not devolution.

If the Bill's exact provisions make it clear that several functions that local authorities currently perform will be transferred to regional assemblies, will the Minister assure us that that will be spelt out to people, and that there will be no misleading statement on the ballot paper that says that the … assembly would be responsible for a range of activities that are currently carried out mainly by central government bodies"?

Turning from power to money, will the costs of elected regional government also be spelled out to people before they cast their vote? In a comprehensive and candid letter written to me last year, the Minister's predecessor, the hon. Member for Shipley, told me about the likely cost of establishing and running an elected regional assembly in the north-west. He estimated that it would cost up to £30 million to set up the assembly, which I understand central Government will pay, and about £25 million a year to run it. He says that £5 million of those running costs would be directly offset by staff transferring from other bodies such as the Government office for the north-west, but that the remaining £20 million would be new expenditure arising each year from the costs of staff to support assembly members, pay of the members, accommodation costs and provision for assembly elections". In other words, £20 million of new money will have to be found to pay for the new politicians.

If we accept for one moment that the Government estimate is correct, where will that £20 million come from? The hon. Member for Shipley said in his letter to me: Most of these running costs will be met from the assembly's general government grant. However, the Minister of State for Housing, Planning and Regeneration, said: There will be no new powers, no new money for regional assemblies. There will simply be a different way of scrutinising the vast amounts of government expenditure".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 April 2003; Vol. 647, c. 482.] Let us get this straight, so that it is clear to everyone. The £20 million running costs of the assembly will mostly be met by general government grant, but there will be no new money in that grant to pay for it. In other words, it will come from existing money going to the north-west. That is not money currently being spent on administration: the Government have already subtracted £5 million to take account of that. It is £20 million that is currently being spent on other things such as public services, which will now be spent on politicians.

Not all the money will come from general government grant. The previous Minister also wrote to me saying: We believe that people in any region with an elected assembly should make some contribution towards its running costs. The contribution of council taxpayers to the running costs of an assembly would be equivalent to around 5 pence per week for a Band D council taxpayer". That 5p precept on council tax bills is separate from the power being given to the regional assembly to raise its own money and increase its own taxes. Will that precept to pay for the administration be set by central Government, taking into account the grant that they give in any year? Will the assembly have any say in what the precept will be?

The previous Minister also mentioned in his letter to me accommodation costs, an innocuous phrase, but one that should set the alarm bells ringing for anyone who has followed events in Scotland and Wales since devolution. We all know that the new Scottish Parliament building will cost 10 times what the people of Scotland were told it would before their referendum. Have the Government made any provision for a new building for an elected north-west regional assembly? Will that be a decision for the assembly to take? Where will it sit to begin with, if it decides to have a new building?

The cost of all the new regional politicians—their staff, their accommodation, their pensions and their salaries—will be paid for by extra taxes and money being spent on other things in the north-west. Will that be spelled out to people before they are asked to vote for it? What will the cost be of the local government reorganisation that takes place? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) continually points out to us, the one-off cost of abolishing Humberside county council was £53 million. What is the estimated cost of abolishing Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria? Cheshire county council reckons that its costs alone will be £60 million. Do the Government agree? What about the rest of the region? Will local taxpayers have to foot the bill? The Government must have done their sums, so perhaps the Minister can tell us today what they are today.

I wish finally to ask the Minister about the assembly's democratic accountability. The Government say that a north-west regional assembly will bring government closer to the people, but will the Minister confirm that the county of Cheshire may have just two representatives in the assembly, each representing about a third of a million people? No wonder an organisation such as the National Farmers Union has warned today: There is every reason for the farming and rural community to fear that its voice will be swamped".

I do not know whether the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) will raise again a point that he raised earlier. Will the electoral system being considered almost guarantee, as he fears, the British National party representative a place on the regional assembly? It is something that I suspect no member of the Committee would want to see, and I urge the Minister to take a hard look at that problem.

When the people whom I represent are asked where they come from they say Knutsford or Wilmslow, or they may say Cheshire. If they are abroad, they may say England or Britain. However, none of them would ever say that they were from the north-west administrative region. I suspect that the same is true of the people represented by other hon. Members here today: they are Mancunians, Liverpudlians, Lancastrians or Cumbrians, not north-westerners.

Mrs. Ellman

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a recent MORI poll showed that in fact there was over 90 per cent. identification of north-west people with their region?

Mr. Osborne

Given that the people of Cumbria cannot even decide whether they are in the north-west or the north-east, I do not think that those polls are entirely reliable. In the next couple of years, we will be happy to consider opinion polls and issues such as trust and voting intention, but all the evidence that I have seen shows that people do not identify themselves as north-westerners. The north-west administrative region exists only on maps in Whitehall. It does not exist in the hearts and minds of the people who live in the north-west, and it is foolish, if not dangerous, to build political structures on the shifting sands of administrative convenience.

Government, local and national, should be rooted in the existing identities and loyalties of people, and those loyalties are clear. The loyalty of the people whom I represent is to the county of Cheshire—one of the oldest political identities in the western world. The loyalty of other people in the north-west is to cities such as Manchester or Liverpool. If we care about bringing government closer to people, we should be taking powers from Whitehall and giving them to county councils and city councils, not creating a costly, bureaucratic and undemocratic new tier of regional government.

The people in the north-west did not ask for a referendum on regional government, but they are going to get one. They deserve to know in advance how much that new talking shop for politicians will cost, who will pay for it, where it will get its powers from, how the referendum campaigns will be paid for, how we will prevent the BNP from getting a seat, whether the existing north-west regional assembly will survive a no vote, what counts as a derisory turnout and when the polling day is. We expect some answers from the Government today.

I shall end, a little unusually, with an appeal to my own party. I know how passionately opposed most Conservatives are to regional government in the north-west, and we could be tempted to fight that battle alone, but that would be a huge mistake. We must build as broad a coalition of support as possible. We have powerful allies in other political parties, especially in the north-west Labour party. We must draw together those people, who may oppose the Government's plans for their own perfectly legitimate reasons with which we do not agree. Some may feel that the plans do not go far enough. That is not important. We are being asked to vote on the Government's plans as put before the people.

We must bring trade unions, businesses, voluntary groups and local councils together in that referendum coalition. We must share platforms and make common cause, as I did the other day with a Liverpool Labour MP and a Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate. We have the arguments on our side. Our opponents have to persuade people in the north-west to vote for more politicians, higher taxes, more bureaucracy, less accountability and the abolition of our counties. If we cannot win that campaign, I do not know what campaign we can win.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Chair already has six firm notifications of a desire to contribute to the debate, to which I see a further two have been added. I remind hon. Members that it is customary practice in a 90-minute debate to commence the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before termination of the debate. That means that we have 37 minutes left for open discussion. I appeal to all hon. Members seeking to participate actively to bear that time constraint in mind when they make their comments, which should be clear and pertinent. I hope that hon. Members will also consider that time constraint when making or accepting interventions.

2.23 pm
Mr. Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing time for this important debate about the referendum for a regional assembly in the north-west. I do not know whether he has done the arithmetic, but present at the debate are about a quarter of 1 per cent. of all hon. Members in the House of Commons, which is a considerably higher turnout than that for the response to the consultation in the north-west and anywhere that that took place.

I will try to curtail my remarks, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I should like to refer back to the 2001 Labour party manifesto. I guess that most people do not read that very often, but I looked it up this morning and it was quite interesting. It states: In 1997 we said that provision should be made for directly elected regional Government to go ahead in regions where people decided in a referendum to support it and where predominantly unitary local Government is established. This remains our commitment. It was that commitment in the 2001 election manifesto that led to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003. That is an imperfect translation of the manifesto commitment, which talked about regional government and did not talk about going out and testing the water. It referred to a commitment.

We have had a rather bizarre exercise in which people were asked whether they thought other people were interested in a regional assembly. It was truly pathetic to get about 4,000 responses—both for and against—in the north-west when we have had the regional assembly spending money in an ultra vires fashion. The Government have a responsibility to take more action than they have done, and I have written to Ministers about that. Money has clearly been spent unlawfully on campaigning. It should not be left to other hon. Members to bring in accounting officers to deal with that.

With all that activity and hon. Members from different parties campaigning in favour, all we got were 4,000 responses: 2,200 in favour and 1,700 against. That is not any basis on which to hold a referendum in the north-west. The referendum is taking place, as was said repeatedly in the Committee of the Bill that became the 2003 Act, because my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister believes he can win referendums in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humberside. I think that he is wrong. When the 6 million people in the north-west of England understand what is being offered to them, they will reject it.

I think I have the answer to some of the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) about why opinion polls give the answers they do. People have a strong distrust and dislike of the south-east in the north-west. They believe that they do not get a fair deal from central Government in London. We should get a fair deal. I share that feeling with many of my constituents, but that is not reflected in what we are getting. First of all, what is wrong, Mr. Cook—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I would be remiss in my duties were I not to remind the House that when it took the decision to hold sittings here it decided that the occupant of this Chair should be referred to as Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Stringer

I do apologise, Mr. Cook. [Interruption.] I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You are labelled as such, as well.

I was explaining what was wrong with what is proposed. I return to my campaign against the abolition of the Greater Manchester county council between 1983 and 1985. In Greater Manchester we would have liked a referendum on that issue, and my guess is that people would have voted to keep the county council at that stage. We were not given that choice. None of us campaigning against that abolition asked for the people of Cheshire, Lancashire or anywhere else to have a say on it.

Although the Bill was improved so that there is now a choice on the ballot paper between two different forms of local government reorganisation where there are two tiers of local government, the effective decision on how 42 councils will be changed—whether they will be abolished or amalgamated—will he taken by the 60 per cent. of the people who live in unitary authorities. I should have thought that it was wrong in 1984 to give people outside the area a definitive say in whether local government was reorganised, and it is wrong in 2003. That is wrong in principle, but that point probably will not persuade a lot of people because it is principled, democratic argument.

Mr. Miller

If my hon. Friend is going to go back in history, will he go as far as to suggest that the parts of Cheshire that are now in Greater Manchester should be returned and decisions taken on that basis? Surely that is a ridiculous argument.

Mr. Stringer

I do not think it is a ridiculous argument; it is about abolishing authorities. The major local government reorganisation in 1972 created a uniform system of two tiers throughout the country. Although some smaller authorities disappeared, there was a consensus between both parties that there should be changes. Most of us in the Labour party objected to the abolition of the GMC; we would not have wanted people outside the area to vote on a proposal that would have the potential, effectively, to abolish councils in Cumbria, Lancashire and Cheshire. That is wrong, and it is wrong for the other 60 per cent. of people—

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)


Mr. Stringer

I am mindful of your advice on the matter, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will give way one more time.

Mr. Turner

Does my hon. Friend agree that those of us in the Labour party who campaigned against the abolition of the GMC campaigned against how it was being abolished, not in favour of the structure of the GMC? In 1972–74, when the measure was being introduced, we argued for regional government and unitary authorities throughout the country.

Mr. Stringer

I accept what my hon. Friend says, but my point was about who should have had a say in whether the county was abolished, not about the alternatives to abolition at the time.

The next issue, which will interest people, is whether the formation of an elected regional assembly will put right the wrongs caused by the country's huge and growing regional disparities. Will there be money in it? It is interesting to compare the White Paper that set up the Scottish Parliament with the present White Paper and Ministers' comments on it. The White Paper on the Scottish Parliament guaranteed that the Barnett formula, which puts lots of money into Scotland, would continue.

There is no such guarantee in this White Paper, which I shall quote again for the record. Ministers have stated that regional assemblies will not get preferential treatment, and that funding will be the same as for those without them; there will be no extra money. My constituents will not be happy about that; they believe we should get more money, and that 80 per cent. of the money in the transport budget should not be spent in London. There is no guarantee that there will be a redistribution of civil servants; there are more civil servants in the south-east now than there were in 1997, but fewer in every other region. That is wrong.

People in the north-west will not be happy when they realise that a proposal that is supposed to bring elected representatives closer to them will mean one or two elected representatives for the entire city of Manchester. That will not bring the representatives closer to the electorate; it will take them farther away. People with whom I have debated the matter in the Labour party and elsewhere are shocked that there will be so few representatives and that the elections will be by a system of proportional representation. That will almost certainly guarantee that several small minority and extremist parties will be represented on the regional assembly. It is possible that the BNP and other extreme bodies may hold the balance of power.

Mrs. Ellman

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stringer

Yes, for the last time.

Mrs. Ellman

Does the drift of my hon. Friend's comments mean that if the assembly was much larger and the voting system was different he would support it?

Mr. Stringer

No. If my hon. Friend had been listening she would know that my argument is not just about the election system, which is bad, but the fact that an elected regional assembly would give no added value. Even if it were 10 times as large, it would not bring extra resources to people in the north-west. The key issue is whether the new body would make us wealthier and improve the north-west. The simple answer is no.

We do not know precisely what functions the new elected regional assembly will have because we do not have details about its structure, which is a mistake in the run-up to what is likely to be a major campaign. Let us consider what the regional assembly is likely to deal with: transport, housing, economic development, and planning. Those functions have traditionally been part of local government and should stay part of it. The change would represent a centralisation and would not bring government closer to the people.

If an elected regional assembly were to go ahead—I hope that it will not and I will campaign to stop it—it would be likely to take government further away from people. It is—I suspect that this is why the Liberals are so keen on it—anti-Manchester and anti every single unitary authority. Most of the unitary authorities that get by carrying out the functions that they have at present do not have Liberal majorities. On a body that will never be controlled by one political party, the Liberals will be given an interest in all the different districts and cities and will interfere. The assembly will make governing Liverpool, Manchester, the Wirral and Salford that bit more difficult, because when it comes to really difficult decisions such as whether to bid for the Commonwealth games or whether to have a second runway at Manchester airport—the most important economic decision taken in the north-west—it will be difficult to achieve consensus across a body with so many political parties and so many different interests.

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

I will not take up much time because I was not present at the beginning—I had other pressing engagements elsewhere. Does my hon. Friend agree that the new entente cordiale between Manchester and many of us on Merseyside is based on the very principles that he has just been setting out? Does he also accept that people do not identify themselves as being from the north-west, which is just a point on the compass? People identify with towns, villages and cities.

Mr. Stringer

I very much agree with that last point. If we had an elected regional assembly, we would get lowest common denominator politics that would not concentrate resources where they are most likely to be beneficial to the region. That is what happened when it came to the second runway at Manchester airport. The region split. That is most likely to happen in relation to big decisions in future. Those big decisions—whether they are about ports in Liverpool or something in Preston or Manchester—are better taken by local authorities and ratified or otherwise by central Government. A region would get in the way of that.

Is an elected regional assembly a step forward? Will it be helpful in putting right the regional disparities from which we all suffer? No, it will not. I have heard the argument that we must go for an elected regional assembly or there will be nothing else on offer that will help to change those regional disparities. That is not the case. This is a step backwards. It is likely to make the north-west less economically powerful and to move elected representatives further from the people. It is altogether a bad idea.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. There are only 22 minutes left. I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to be considerate of their colleagues' need to participate.

2.38 pm
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I do not disagree with the general thrust of either of the two speeches that we have heard so far. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on the elegant way in which he summarised the key arguments. The results of the soundings exercise follow from a false premise. The false premise was that those who were invited to take part did not know all the things that are now emerging about—

2.39 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

2.53 pm

On resuming

Mr Jack

I was arguing that the vote on the soundings exercise was based on a false premise. I suspect that if people had been fully informed of all the facts, they would have been even less in favour and more against. The number is interesting and represents around 5 per cent. of the people who go to watch Manchester United at Old Trafford. That tiny tail has wagged the dog of the whole Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I have received no letters in favour in my constituency postbag and there has been no campaign in favour. People have no desire for and I can find no organisations that want another unnecessary layer of regional government.

Mr. Cook—

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Jack

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I apologise.

The proposition shows the Government's arrogance in thinking that this is the only show in town. I am aware that the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) has ideas about some form of city representative government for Merseyside and other hon. Members may have their own models. In a longer debate, I would like to argue for a Select Committee of the House for the north-west to which we could summon witnesses and discuss matters. After all, we are accountable individuals.

There may even be a third way—something that was once popular. One could examine mechanisms to make the existing structures, such as the Northwest Development Agency, work more closely together. None of those ideas is available. The only show in town is an elected regional assembly. I believe in choice and diversity, and the Government were wrong in not allowing a debate about better ways of running the north-west of England before they settled on one model, which is beloved by nobody.

One of my worries is the effect that the proposals will have on local government. Examining the guidance issued with the boundary committee's work, I am confused about the precise objectives. I should be grateful if the Minister would try to enlighten us on the preferred alternative structure for local government, because it has not been thought through properly.

The document shows that the committee must take two models into account: existing district council functions being carried out by larger local government units including as appropriate a unit of a size comparable to the existing county council", which would mean reconstituting county councils, or county functions being undertaken by smaller units but at least of a size that, on the basis of current experience of English local government, would have the capacity to deliver effectively the full range of county functions". The options are vague and woolly. There is no sense that local government is being allowed to work out its own salvation. The presumption is that the replacement for what we have got must, by definition, be bigger units. The idea that, for example, authorities might co-operate in common purpose is not seemingly an option.

I asked our new council leader in Fylde what he had been told.

Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Jack

I do not want to give way because I shall finish in a few seconds to give others a chance to speak.

My local council leader was given the impression that the organisation in the Fylde area was almost a done deal. He thought that Fylde would be merged with either Blackpool or Wyre or that a Greater Lancashire authority would be formed. There were only two models. Is that "choice" and "diversity"? Is that listening to the people? Is that providing better local government? We have not had a debate in which all those issues, which are central to the effectiveness of a referendum, can be decided. It is fundamentally wrong that the solution before us, with which I disagree, is the only show in town.

Regional government is not required. At a recent meeting, the Central and West Lancashire Chamber of Commerce lobbied Members from my part of the world. It said: We are uneasy about the use of referenda and believe that the Government will not ask the question until it is sure it will get the answer that it wants —'manipulating the outcome'. It has got that in one. The Government have manipulated the outcome by offering one choice. They are trying to fix how the boundary committee does its work, which is no choice, and they have a minority interest in the north-west. There are many other models, which we should debate. We should not regard the proposal as the only show in town.

2.58 pm
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan)

I do not understand why Conservative Members are so opposed to elected regional assemblies—I stress the word "elected". We currently have regional government in the form of the Government office for the north-west, which was set up by the Conservatives. That organisation of civil servants is not answerable to the north-west but they make decisions about the north-west for the north-west.

If there is any doubt about that, I shall recount a brief tale from when I was a member of the Public Administration Committee and went to the Government office for the north-west to see how it, the local authorities and the agencies organised themselves. I asked the head of the Government office for the northwest, "To whom are you responsible?" His answer was clear: he is responsible to his civil servant superiors in Whitehall. I think it is indicative that he is responsible not to Ministers or Westminster, but to unaccountable civil servants in Whitehall.

Mr. George Howarth

Can my hon. Friend confirm that ultimately all civil servants are accountable to Ministers?

Mr. Turner

Of course they are in principle, but that is not the case in practice. My hon. Friend knows that that is not the case; he has worked in Government. He knows that a lot of decisions were made in the Northern Ireland Office at a lower level, which came to him. He nodded them through, signed for them, but he did not get the kind of detail that he should have had. He could have had that detail if the Northern Ireland Assembly, which he helped to set up, had dealt with those decisions. My hon. Friend helped to set up a regional assembly in Northern Ireland, but he does not seem to want one for the north-west. I do not quite understand the logic behind that, but presumably he will be able to explain in due course.

I will be brief because others want to speak, but I want to return to the point about the principle of the matter. There seems to be some misunderstanding because people think that what we are being offered will be set in stone. I do not see that. The very fact that we are arguing about the constitution today shows that the constitution of this country is a live thing. It changes as society changes, and as people's needs and moods change. That is why we have a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly. They were answers to the way in which the people of Wales and Scotland changed. We are already seeing that Scotland and Wales want more powers to be devolved from central Government. That will happen in the north-west. I am afraid that if we follow the line of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) we will end up in an Australian situation. The majority of people want regional government in the north-west, but because none of us can agree on the type of government that we want, or the powers that should be devolved, we shall end up as they did in Australia when the majority of people wanted a republic, but voted for a monarchy because they could not agree on the type of republic that they wanted.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

Is it not a fact that when chambers of commerce and the public see exactly what powers are going to be given to the regions and their effect on strategic issues such as investment, jobs and employment, they will be convinced that this is the right way to progress?

Mr. Turner

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That is exactly the point. If we ever wanted an example of when the north-west regional assembly could have been influential in securing investment in the north-west, we simply need to look at the Daresbury situation. If we had had an assembly arguing for the north-west, able to counter the arguments put forward from Oxford, I do not think that the decision made over Daresbury would have been the one taken.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the Chamber about Daresbury. The fact is that Oxfordshire did not want the synchrotron. The Government wanted to send it to Oxfordshire. That was nothing to do with competition from other regions, and a north-west assembly would have made no difference.

Mr. Turner

The hon. Gentleman may be right about the facts of the situation, but if we had had a regional assembly there would have been more focus, and we would have been able to put our arguments to the Government in a more focused way. The Government would have realised—as they did after their decision—the strength of feeling in the north-west. That situation would not have occurred.

On the British National party, if we tried to gerrymander a situation in which the BNP was excluded from electoral success, that would do democracy no good whatever. The way to beat the BNP is to point out the vileness of its policies and to argue a case, as we did with the Liberal Democrats in Burnley a week ago. We stopped the BNP in its tracks there. Unfortunately from my point of view, the Liberal Democrats got the benefit of that, but that happened because we argued the case against the BNP. That is the way to do it. If we try to gerrymander the situation, those people who already feel excluded and want to vote for the BNP will feel more excluded, and people will vote for the BNP in bigger numbers. The way to defeat it is by argument and political organisation.

3.4 pm

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I respect the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), but I think that he completely understates the vital role, importance and success of existing local government in the United Kingdom, whether it be the city of Manchester, the city of Liverpool, the county of Cheshire or the borough of Macclesfield. It works well, and it is close to the people.

Mrs. Ellman

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Nicholas Winterton

I will not give way. I do not intend to give way during my speech because of the time constraint.

I am incensed by the Government's plans for an unwanted and unnecessary elected regional assembly in the north-west of England. The Government stated in the recent soundings exercise that it is intended by the Government that the primary factor in determining which region(s) will undergo a review will be the level of interest in holding a referendum in each region. However, the Deputy Prime Minister revealed that the level of interest—those who responded to the consultation process on which the Government based their decisions to hold a referendum in the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and Humberside—was only 0.01 per cent. of the population of the English regions.

As we heard earlier, only 0.06 per cent. of the total population of the north-west responded to the Government's consultation. Only 0.03 per cent. of the population called for a referendum, and not all those people were in favour of an elected regional government. In other words, 9,997 people in 10,000 either did not want a referendum or were insufficiently interested to express an opinion. Only three people in 10,000 voted in favour of holding a referendum. In total, 2,202 people in the north-west want a referendum, out of a population of nearly 7 million.

In Cheshire, about 20 per cent. of respondents supported the idea of a referendum, and about 80 per cent. said that they did not want one. That contrasts with Cornwall, where 50,000 people signed individual declarations calling for a fully devolved Cornish regional assembly, but Cornwall is not having a referendum. Will the Minister tell me why that is so?

An ICM poll on 12 June on the new European Union constitution found that 88 per cent. of people polled wanted a referendum on that constitution, with only 12 per cent. against. However, as we are aware, there are no plans to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, which is vital to the future of the UK as a free and sovereign nation.

The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) showed great experience and wisdom and spoke much sense about regional assemblies. He was right to say that regional assemblies will take power away from local people. In the north-west, I understand that there would be only 35 members representing a population of precisely 6.73 million. Where is the democracy in that situation? The people of the north-west will be asked to pay more in their council tax, but will receive less democracy. That is a fair deal for no one.

England already has enough politicians. Public services in my own borough of Macclesfield will not be improved by creating yet more politicians and fiddling with the tiers of local government. I totally support Cheshire county council's opposition to elected regional assemblies in England. The proposed parallel introduction of unitary authorities would bring about yet another unwanted and costly upheaval for local government. We have known for some time that the Government plan to scrap England's shires and to spend up to £2 billion on restructuring local government throughout the country. I am sure that that money, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said, would be better spent on public services.

There is no evidence that an elected regional assembly and a reorganised local government structure would improve the future delivery and quality of vital Government services such as education, health, social services, transport, and law and order. Taxpayers will have to pay for setting up an elected north-west regional assembly. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), whom I congratulate on securing the debate, quoted the Government as saying that the assembly would cost about £25 million per annum, but we know that such estimates have proved unreliable, as with the Scottish Parliament building. I am utterly opposed to such wasteful, undemocratic proposals, which will do nothing for democracy or the delivery of public services.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. We have only six minutes left. I call Mr. Andrew Miller.

3.9 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

First, we must deal with what the public want, and the public want service.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Briefly, please.

Mr. Miller

The question is whether we can improve the delivery of services to the people whom we represent. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I lived for a long time in my adult life on the south coast. When living there, I was not convinced by any argument in favour of devolving power to the regions. I just thought that we had a nice cosy relationship with the City of London. I could pop up here, deal with major institutions and drop into the Palace of Westminster to lobby my MP and see Ministers. That is part of the normal relationship when someone lives on the doorstep, and it is because of the concentration of power in the City of London that the south-east has flourished so much during our lifetimes.

However, that was in stark contrast to my experience when I moved to the north-west in 1977. I suddenly realised just how different the relationships between the Government and the regions were. My previous perspective of that was completely false. I respect the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), but it is based on a narrow picture of the world, and that is why we must change. We must empower people in the regions so that they can influence the things that directly impact on their lives.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) talked about the need to make the regional government in the north-west accountable. The north-west regional assembly must be accountable. What better vehicle is there for that than scrapping the county councils—anachronistic organisations that have no role in a modern democracy—and replacing them with all-purpose unitary authorities that directly service my constituents and, through the regional assembly, deal with the major strategic issues of inward investment, employment, jobs and so on? Those are the reasons why the House should support wholeheartedly a regional assembly in the north-west.

3.12 pm
David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

The only speeches that I have made in the last two years have been very short. They usually follow the form, "I beg to move, That the Question be now put," and very popular they have been, too. I shall ask the Minister only a few quick questions on Cumbria, because there may be a chance for another colleague to speak.

If only 2,000 people in the north-west voted in favour of having a referendum, how many in Cumbria voted? Can the Minister give us the figures for those who participated in Cumbria—those who were for a referendum and those who were against?

Mr. Neil Turner

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

David Maclean

There is no time. The hon. Gentleman spoke for slightly longer than I intend to, and I must be selfish on this occasion.

The north-west is an artificially created region, as are all our regions, but Cumbria sits ill in the north-west region. As my hon. Friends have pointed out, Cumbria often cannot decide whether it is in the north-east or the north-west. In truth, it is in neither. Cut off by the Pennines on one side and by the Lake District mountains to the south, Cumbria is a large county on its own. However, if the Government dragged us into a north-west regional assembly, there would be only two representatives for the whole of the county of Cumbria. The problem is not only that rural areas would not have a voice, but that Carlisle, Workington and other places would have very little voice. Indeed, with only two representatives from our gigantic county in such an assembly, everyone in Cumbria would have very little voice. We have an electorate of only 400,000 all told, but reducing those voices by having just two representatives in a north-west regional assembly would be inappropriate and disgraceful.

I have another question for the Minister. If the referendum goes ahead, may we have a count on a county basis, so that we know how many people from Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria—how many people in our counties—voted for a north-west assembly? If there is a clear majority in Cumbria for being dragged into a regional assembly, we will accept it. However, if there is no majority, I will say that the Minister has no right to drag the people of Cumbria into a region with which they have no particular affinity, an assembly that they do not want and an enormous cost structure for which they do not want to pay.

Will the Minister tell us how much reorganisation will cost Cumbria if we have a regional assembly, and have to discard our county councils, amalgamate our district councils or make some dog's breakfast out of the two?

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall return to my usual pattern of not speaking again for another two years.

3.14 pm
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I appreciate that other colleagues would have liked to participate in this extremely lively debate. Some strongly held views have been presented very articulately.

I commend the Deputy Prime Minister for his decision to go ahead with the referendum in the northwest. It will give all those who have spoken so eloquently against the referendum the opportunity to campaign and to vote against it, and it will encourage others to do the same. It will also give those like me who are in favour of it the opportunity to campaign for the referendum, and to encourage colleagues to vote for an assembly.

The somewhat belated decision to hold a double referendum in the two-tier areas was a good one. I hope that the Minister will confirm to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) that only the two-tier areas will take part in that referendum, so that it will not be imposed on them from the outside in any way. None the less, there are problems with the arrangement of that referendum, which I shall discuss briefly in a moment.

The north-west region should have the responsibility for taking decisions that affect it, and the powers to do so. The hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) spoke the truth when he said that we already have the people who are taking these decisions: it is just that they are not accountable to elected politicians from the north-west or to the community of the north-west. A north-west regional assembly is a way of getting better public service delivery in the north-west. It will be better for wealth generation in the north-west and for the environment in the north-west.

Plans for the referendum have focused minds on key issues, which the debate has starkly highlighted: the exact functions and powers that the regional assembly will have, and the need to underline strongly that the important thing for many of us is to take back decision making from Westminster and, more particularly, from Whitehall. The assembly is not about taking powers from existing local government and existing local government units.

The number of representatives to be appointed or elected is another key issue. If the number is to be the smaller one of the numbers discussed, it will not be easy, geographically or politically, to get proper representation throughout the north-west, which is diverse and has many different aspects that need proper representation. Linked to that is the system of election, which the hon. Members for Manchester, Blackley and for Wigan briefly mentioned. The problem is not whether one attracts extremist candidates for election. The reality is that extremists did not get elected in Scotland or in Wales, although that depends on one's view about the socialist party in Scotland. As the hon. Member for Wigan said so clearly, the way to defeat extremist parties is to contest their views with the electorate and to win the election where they stand.

The Government have made the task of those of us who want elected regional government much more difficult by linking it with local government reorganisation. As some hon. Members know, I served on Cheshire county council and on Chester district. Many of my former colleagues have views about the efficacy of local government in that area, and are very concerned that it might be lost in the process of reorganisation.

The pledge to publish the draft Bill is welcome. Will the Minister assure us that it will be published in short order? We need time to absorb those proposals and to base our campaign on them, not on some notional assumption about what is available. The same is true of the proposed alternative boundary options for those areas that will be reorganised. Depending on the form of the reorganisation, I suspect that the degree of support or opposition may vary quite widely in those areas of Cheshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. The Minister should do what he can to encourage the Electoral Commission to proceed briskly, and, more to the point, to ensure that his Department delivers a draft Bill in very short order.

When one considers what the referendum will test and what those who have to decide whether to vote yes or no have to take into account, one realises that the functions and powers of the new assembly will be of great importance. We want the Minister to reassure us that all the functions of the Government office for the northwest will be brought into the compass of the assembly and that the estimate of the budget that will be saved—the offsetting amounts of money that were mentioned by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack)—will be subject to some critique of its validity so that we can assess the net extra cost that might be in the Government's mind when making the proposals.

If there is improved accountability and better delivery, and we get more bangs for our buck in relation to public services such as health and, particularly at present, transport, and in relation to developing the economy of the north-west, it might well be £25 million well spent. It might not. We need those facts and figures before us as the debate unfolds.

Voters in the referendum will need to know what sort of representation they are likely to get. Is it the case that the borough of Stockport, which currently has three and a half constituencies in it, would be lucky to have one representative? That clearly raises questions about democratic legitimacy. That kind of Hobson's choice makes considerable demands on those of us who want to vote yes.

There are also issues about local government reorganisation, which is perhaps particularly a matter for Members from two-tier areas—my own area is unitary. However, I do not want the Minister to think, having listened to the debate, that all is doom and gloom. There is a real sense of north-west identity. I say that as the Member of Parliament for Hazel Grove, which has other regions on two of its boundaries. The so-called east midlands region is next door. The Yorkshire and Humberside region is only five or six miles up the road. I am jammed in the south-east corner of the north-west, yet the residents of Hazel Grove are quite clear that they live in the north-west. I have to say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley that they are absolutely certain that they are not residents of Manchester.

We have a good start in terms of community identity and opportunities to deliver better public services. I hope that the Minister can give those of us present and the 6 million residents of the north-west the reassurance that we need to have a strong campaign for a yes vote.

3.22 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

I am pleased to be contributing to what has been a good debate and delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) managed to secure it. I was even more delighted to be present when my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean) broke his two-year vow of silence. May I urge him to break it a little more often? He spoke in an impassioned way and with a great deal of common sense. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) and my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) made excellent contributions. It seemed that, on the Labour Benches, there was a majority against an unknown and unwanted region.

Page 73 from the White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice" shows that the vast, unknown region extends from Cumbria in the north—no one is quite sure whether Cumbria wants to be in the north-west or the north-east, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border has made clear—to the south of Cheshire in the south. I am told reliably by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton that if one gets in a car and drives from the Scottish borders to London, more than half the time is taken up driving through the region of the north-west. It is a vast region with no real community of interest stretching from the people at the top to the people at the bottom. It has a population of 6,880,500. As has been said, the soundings exercise showed that there was little interest in having a regional assembly. I will not read out the figures again.

What we want from the debate is answers to the six questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. First, what are the ground rules for the referendum? Secondly, will the boundary commission report next May? Thirdly, what will be the date of the referendum; will it be next autumn? Fourthly, what framework will there be and what will be the spending limits for the campaign? Fifthly, will central and local government be able to contribute to it? Sixthly, what would be considered a derisory turnout? If we can get the Minister to answer those questions today we will have achieved a great deal.

There is much divided opinion on the issue. Many Labour Members in the north-west are against the proposal; for example, the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) said, "My argument, as someone representing a Merseyside constituency, is that Merseyside does not fit neatly into the fictional north-west." [Laughter.]

Mr. Miller

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

No. I know that the hon. Gentleman is going to cause mischief. I must have inadvertently said north-east when I meant north-west. The hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth) said, "I will be pressing for the map to be redrawn so we are included in the north-west." Not only do Labour Members oppose the region per se, they oppose the boundaries too.

In pressing the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton, I ask the Minister to turn to page 66 of the White Paper and tell us what criteria the local government boundary committee take into account. As the White Paper says, a third of all the people in the north-west region will be "re-boundaried" in the local government boundary reorganisation. The White Paper states that the local government boundary committee will have to take into account what appeared to it to be desirable, having regard to the need 'to reflect the identities and the interests of local communities to secure effective and convenient local government"'. What on earth does that mean? Will the Government publish guidelines to the local government boundary committee in good time, so that we know exactly what they say?

Mr. Pike

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I cannot, because I do not have much time.

I want to turn to the matter of expenditure. Much has been made of expenditure and, again, the White Paper has something to say about it. Page 44 states that an assembly in the North West would have a say on around £1.3 billion of expenditure plus the block grant of £2.1 billion. That seems to be sophistry, as the next page continues: In future, where a region has an elected assembly, its level of funding will continue to be determined in the same way"; in other words, it will not get extra funding. Indeed, Lord Rooker said: It is true that, compared with regions without elected assemblies, assemblies will not receive any additional money other than what we have outlined".—[Official Report, House of Lords, 7 April 2003; Vol. 123, c. 101.] The question for the Minister is, will any other money be available?

May we have some more information about the referendum? Will all three referendums for the regions be on the same day? Will there be a preamble to the referendum, and if so, what will govern the wording? Can the Minister give us an idea what the question will be? Will there be more than one question? Will there be restrictions on the promotional material that central and local government can issue in the 28-day campaign?

There are many differing opinions on the matter and there is no less doubt about the expenditure involved and the cost of setting up the regional assembly, which many of my hon. Friends have mentioned. I have an additional question for the Minister: what does he think will be the cost of setting up the regional assembly? The original estimate of the cost of setting up the Scottish Executive was £152 million, but this year the cost is estimated to be £208 million. Those are not my figures; they come from a CBI press release. The situation is even worse in Wales; the original cost of setting up the Welsh Assembly was estimated to be £72 million, but it is now estimated to have cost £148 million, which is considerably more.

We estimate that it would cost £2 billion to set up all the regional assemblies and £3 million to run them. That is equivalent to 30 new hospitals, 400 extra schools, 6,000 new policeman and 12,000 new teachers. Yet the proposals will not improve public services one iota; they will not result in one extra teacher, nurse or policeman, at a time when the Liverpool women's hospital has seen the number of patients waiting for admission rise by over 40 per cent. It is yet another example of a Labour Government wasting precious resources.

In case anyone is in any doubt that the north-west regional assembly is not wanted, I shall close by quoting my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith). Writing in the "Municipal Journal", he said: Putting the power of the centre before the needs of communities is nowhere more evident than in the Government's plans to abolish counties in favour of a regional tier of government. Counties are a tangible part of British identity and history. People who live outside the Metropolitan areas come from counties; only statistics come from regions. Counties exist in our hearts and minds; regions exist only in bureaucratic categorisation. Counties are part of our nation; regions are part of the state. How can we have a referendum on this unwanted region and yet not have a referendum on perhaps the most important issue facing us today—an EU constitution?

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

I thought that we were going to get through the whole debate without a mention of Europe, but unfortunately the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) spoilt his track record.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) on securing the debate. He finished his eloquent speech with the interesting hostage to fortune that if the Conservatives cannot win this campaign, they cannot win any campaign. I have a suspicion that another campaign will come up in a couple of years' time that they may also look forward to losing.

The debate has been marked by the exceptional contribution from the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean). After two years of silence, we heard him again today. He now goes back into the box of the Opposition Whips Office. I shall try to answer later some of the points that he raised, given the short time available to me.

The Government are rightly committed to a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change and devolution, transforming this country from what it was in 1997—one of the most centralised in the western world. We have devolved power to Scotland and Wales, we have restored citywide government to London and now we are offering the chance of devolved power to the English regions. On each occasion, the Opposition have initially opposed the proposals on the table and on each occasion they have backtracked and now accept our achievements.

Mr. George Howarth

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new responsibilities. Does he agree that if citywide government is good enough for London, it should be good enough also for Merseyside and Manchester?

Phil Hope

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I shall address the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) later, when I discuss the importance of regions as distinct from other forms of local government, particularly in relation to economic regeneration across the UK and achieving fairness of economic regeneration between the north and south.

Once again the Opposition are opposed to allowing people to choose how they are governed at the regional level. The only question is: when will they do a U-turn on this proposal?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley pointed out, we are meeting our manifesto commitment to allow referendums on establishing elected regional assemblies in the regions that want them. My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) explained clearly why we want elected assemblies. The main functions to be transferred to them are those currently carried out by central Government and their agencies in the region or by unelected public bodies. Those powers will make a huge difference in vital areas, such as job creation, employment and skills, regional spatial strategies, housing strategies, transport funding, transport strategies, the cultural strategy and the regional tourist boards. The directly elected assemblies would be responsible for a long list of important functions; they would be elected by people in the regions and be accountable to them. They will thus democratise that existing layer of regional government, bringing decision making closer to the people in the region and making strategic regional decisions more accountable.

Mr. Miller

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on his new post, although I regret losing a tennis partner. I hope that his office can sort that out.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the long list that he has read out is the reason why there is now a strengthening of opinion in favour of the Welsh Assembly, for example?

Phil Hope

Well, indeed. When we give democracy to people, they grab it and use it as a power base for their area. We have seen that in local government and the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, and we shall see it in the English regions when they have democratically elected assemblies.

Sir Nicholas Winterton

The hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. The responsibilities that he is talking about, and which are held by the Government office for the north-west, will be looked after by some 35 people in a regional assembly. Will he tell the House how many Members of Parliament there are for the north-west? All those responsibilities are looked after by the Members of Parliament for the north-west area who sit in this House.

Phil Hope

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point, but in the existing regional assemblies around 250 Conservative councillors take an active part in those regional chambers. They recognise the importance of taking part in democratically elected structures and the importance of a regional driver for economic regeneration, and when the referendums are held they will recognise the importance of creating newly elected regional assemblies that will take forward the interests of those regions, not just in the north-west but in the north-east, including Yorkshire and Humberside.

Mrs. Ellman

I add my congratulations to the Minister on the vigorous way in which he is addressing this important brief.

Does the Minister think that the Opposition's suggestion that they should, as MPs, run the regional quangos would take power and decision making far away from people on the ground and that the answer is to have a directly elected regional assembly so that people who are responsible for the north-west arts, tourism, economic development, heritage, further education funding and many other issues will be accountable to the people on the ground, not to MPs?

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Phil Hope

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) on her campaigning zeal on such issues. She is a well known advocate of a regional assembly in the north-west and I am delighted to see her in the Chamber. It is a pity that the shortness of the debate does not allow everyone to contribute. I want to put on record our gratitude for her work in championing the interests of the north-west.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Will the Minister give way?

Phil Hope

I will, but time is short and I shall be unable to cover all the questions that hon. Members are asking, rightly, and to which I want to respond.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and welcome him to his new job. Does he disagree with the then Minister for Local Government and the Regions, his right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), when he cited a range of responsibilities that the regional assembly would have—I chose the example of road transport schemes because he raised it—and said: Financial responsibility will remain with central Government"—[Official Report, Standing Committee A, 17 December 2002; c. 298.] and, therefore, the House? Yet the Minister said today that transport will be with the regional assemblies. Which is right?

Phil Hope

I regret that the hon. Gentleman has obviously not read the Government's White Paper, which spells out the proposals as to which powers will lie at a regional level and clearly describes in detail which transport matters will be regional and which will be local. I suggest to him that without a regional elected assembly there will not be the sort of democratic involvement that so many hon. Members for the north-west are keen to see when making such important regional decisions.

This debate is about a referendum and about riot imposing our views, but allowing people in the English regions to have a choice and to decide. Through the soundings exercise, we have determined in which three of the eight regions there is support for a referendum, where we shall proceed, and the five where there is less support.

Opposition Members seem to think that the soundings exercise is the same as a referendum. When they quote their statistics about turnout for a soundings exercise it is as though we should have a referendum to have a referendum. That is nonsense. The purpose of the soundings exercise was to identify in which regions we should go forward to a referendum. That is when we can start to argue about turnout; I shall come to that in due course. My point is that the statistics being thrown about in this Chamber by Opposition Members show that they fail to understand that a soundings exercise is not a referendum. We shall engage in that referendum wholeheartedly.

In the north-west, the soundings exercise showed that 56 per cent. of respondents want a referendum. Although the county councils expressed opposition, perhaps for obvious reasons, 22 of 31 local authorities that responded are in favour, including more than three quarters of district councils and unitary authorities. Some 55 per cent. of respondents in the north-west think that the overall level of interest is strong or very strong. The region had the largest number of responses and six opinion polls in the north-west all showed a clear majority in favour.

Mr. Pike

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new ministerial responsibilities. Does he recognise that many district and borough councils made representations supporting regional assemblies because they believed that the Banham reforms under the Conservative Government were a half-baked exercise that did not solve the problems facing local government?

Phil Hope

My hon. Friend is right to point out some of the mistakes of the past. I shall not dwell on those, but we want to get it right in future. We have made it clear from the outset that we believe that three tiers of government below the national level would be one too many. That reflects one of the points made by the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack). Last week the Secretary of State directed the independent boundary committee for England to carry out a local government review in each of the three northern regions. I point out that it is the boundary committee that is doing that, not the boundary commission.

While I am on that point, I was helpfully passed the policy and procedure guidance to the boundary committee for England, the publication of which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked about. It was published on 16 June. I am sure that he will enjoy reading it. He also asked what would be in the referendum as if it was some great mystery, or as if there was some skulduggery lurking behind the bushes. I am glad to say that we have already decided that matter in the House. In the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, the question is Should there be an elected assembly for the (insert name of region) region? That is the question that will be put to the electorate, so I hope that I have put that point to bed.

It is important that we give voters a choice and a say in the structure of their local government. The boundary committee for England is already asking people in the north-west about their views on restructuring the county areas of Cheshire, Cumbria and Lancashire. That point was raised by other Opposition Members. The committee will make recommendations, including at least two options for the restructuring of each county area to the Deputy Prime Minister by 25 May. It will be people living in those county areas who will have an opportunity to vote on whether they want an elected assembly and on which option for local government they would prefer. That confirms the point made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell).

Given that I have practically no time left, I shall try to deal with the specific questions of the hon. Member for Tatton on the date, cost and so on. I have to tell hon. Members that neither we—including myself as the newly appointed Minister—nor the civil service have pencilled in a date for the referendums. We have said that they might take place in autumn 2004. The boundary committee for England will make its recommendations by 25 May. The Deputy Prime Minister cannot lay an order for referendums until six weeks after that date. The referendum can then not be held until 10 weeks after both Houses approve the order, and hon. Members know what a busy time July is in both Houses. It would not be sensible to set a date until nearer the time when we know that we can deliver it.

I might add that under the terms of the framework, the referendums will take place under the provisions of the Political Parties (Elections and Referendums) Act 2000, with interested organisations applying to the Electoral Commission to be the designated "Yes" or "No" campaign. The commission has to designate the body for each side, or none at all; it may make a grant of up to £600,000 to each, but it has not yet decided how much that grant will be. Financial limits under the PPER will apply to permitted participants in the campaigns, who must register with the Electoral Commission. I hope that that deals with some of the points about the cost of running the campaign.

Setting-up costs for the new elected assemblies will vary, but the hon. Member for Tatton is right: we expect it to be about £30 million in each region, which includes the assembly accommodation. It is impossible to give an accurate estimate of local government reorganisation costs, but we expect to see recommendations and savings from different regions in different ways. He was right to say that each assembly would cost about £25 million a year to run, but about £5 million of that cost will be offset because staff will transfer from existing bodies.

I shall move on rapidly, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the question of thresholds, it is fair to say that the fairest and simplest approach is to decide solely on the basis of votes cast. That is a fairly old-fashioned view, I guess. It would be undemocratic if people who did not vote could in effect veto a decision by those who did. If we announced a precise figure on the question of a threshold, we would create a perverse incentive to wreck the referendum by not voting rather than simply opposing the proposal. That answers that particular point.

The debate is coming to a close, but I could make many other points.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We must turn our attention to the next topic.