HC Deb 12 November 2003 vol 413 cc101-25WH

2.5 pm

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)

We have had to start late because of the Division in the House and I understand that there may be another shortly. If so, I will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes. That, however, is injury time—it will not eat into the debate, but will be added on at the end.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as you are my constituency neighbour. I welcome the opportunity to introduce the debate, which is timely given last week's launch by the Deputy Prime Minister of the Government's information campaign on regional government. Given that referendums on the question of establishing elected regional government are to be held next year in the three northern regions of England—the great north vote, as it is aptly described—it is important that the issue is widely debated in Parliament and outside. By the time people vote, they should feel that they have been provided with the information and detailed arguments to help them make their judgment.

Referendums such as these are about giving people a choice on the proposed changes to our government and constitution. Those changes could have political and economic effects. When such policies are proposed, it is right that people have their say, and one of the disappointments of Conservatives' reaction in opposing the referendums is that they seek to deny people that choice.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the right hon. Lady comment on the issue of choice? If all the people who live in the unitary authorities voted, they would be able to outvote those who live in the two county council areas. Those county councils might then be abolished against the wishes of those who live in those areas. Is that choice?

Joyce Quin

I welcome the fact that the Government gave people in the existing two-tier areas a choice about which form of unitary local government they would prefer. That means they will not be overridden by those living in the already unitary areas, as they would have been before the amendment of the Regional Assemblies (Preparation) Act 2003. However, I believe that regional government is different from local government and, although I strongly support a move to unitary local government, I wish that the two issues had not been confused with each other.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The problem is that there will be a huge debate over the restructuring of local government and little debate about the plans for the regional assembly. Questions about what resources and structure the regional assembly will have will be overshadowed by the reorganisation of local government—the real debate will not take place.

Joyce Quin

I do not accept that. In areas such as the north-east, where 70 per cent. of people already live in unitary government areas, the issue of whether people want regional government is already clear. Many in the north-east are strongly attached to their regional identity and are well aware of regional issues. I do not believe that they will be unable to see those regional issues clearly when the referendum is held.

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

The hon. Lady is making a strong and cogent case. Perhaps she will confirm that a Liberal Democrat amendment led to the second question being on the ballot paper.

Joyce Quin

I am happy to confirm that, but the hon. Gentleman will find that I proposed tabling such an amendment on Second Reading—before it was mentioned by any Liberal Democrat Member. I am grateful to him for allowing me to place that on the record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that my constituency neighbour is a right hon. Lady.

Joyce Quin

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I stress that the debate is about elected regional government, because there is already a form of regional government in the English regions, but it does not involve the people—the electorate, who are our constituents—and few people are very much aware of it. I am referring to the Government offices for the regions and the many regional bodies and quangos, which, although they do important work, operate largely behind closed doors and away from the public gaze and public scrutiny.

Far from being about creating more bureaucracy, as opponents of regional government frequently claim, the proposal is to democratise an existing bureaucracy and give the north-east as well as other regions a public and democratically accountable voice and therefore a public focus on the economic, political, environmental and cultural challenges that confront us.

I was interested to see the media reaction to the Government's information campaign, which was launched last week. In many cases, it was disappointing if not surprising. Many national newspapers seemed to fail to understand that there is a sense of regional identity in an area such as the north-east, and simply decried the proposed regions as artificial. That charge is impossible to substantiate for the north-east. Indeed, many people who might oppose the proposal for a regional assembly in the north-east would none the less concede that there is a strong sense of identity in the region. There is a strong shared cultural heritage, which goes back many centuries to the days of the kingdom of Northumbria. That region was a centre of learning and civilisation, and it was epitomised in the dazzling Lindisfarne gospels, which, unhappily, are not housed permanently in our region, although many of us would like to see them housed there.

There is also a strong shared industrial heritage, which goes from Tweedside in the north to Teesside in the south and which was built around the industrial revolution and the important industries of coal, steel, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. Today, that heritage brings together economic actors throughout the north-east, which are all concerned about the future of the region's economy.

It is good that the past inspires important cultural and economic initiatives today. I was interested to see a report in the press today on the drive to make St. Bede's, and the sites associated with the Venerable Bede, the third of the north-east's world heritage sites. It is significant that Tyneside and Wearside, which are not always allies, have joined together in a determined bid to promote that site, which is based around Jarrow and the Bede church in Monkwearmouth in Sunderland.

There are strong feelings of regional identity in England, particularly in the north-east, so it is depressing that the national media sometimes fail to recognise that. However, I also argue, perhaps more controversially, that regional identity is not always necessary for effective regional government. Let us consider the history of Germany after the second world war. Whereas some regions had strong historical identities, others did not, yet some that did not have been economically successful at devising regional strategies and making the various parts of their regions work together on, for example, technology transfer in Baden-Wurttemberg or on adapting and moving away from older industries, as in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Another press claim was that we would not be talking about regional government, even in the north-east, were it not for the existence of the Scottish Parliament. Again, I beg to differ. Forms of regional government were being suggested as long as 100 years ago, and perhaps the Liberal Democrat spokesman will confirm that Gladstone was also committed to the idea. I know from reading historical records of the Labour party in the north-east that there has been interest in the idea of regional government for many years—long before the Scottish Parliament came into effect. In the past, it was not easy to obtain central Government support for regional government, which is the key difference between then and now. Happily, we now have a Government who are committed to devolution and decentralisation, which can make all the difference.

Another red herring in the regional government debate, which surfaced many times in the press during the Deputy Prime Minister's information campaign launch last week, is that what we really want is effective local government. Of course we do, but we are not talking about a choice between effective local government and effective regional government. There are many cases in which one should have both. I certainly want that for our country.

It has also been said that what we really want is for central Government to have an effective regional policy at national level. This is a false choice because, in reality, we need both. Happily, we have a Government who are strongly committed to the regions and to regional policy, but it is also true that regional government works successfully in countries where it is backed up by an effective policy at national level. In no way does the establishment of a regional assembly absolve national Government from also pursuing policies to help the regions.

I welcome the report published in July by the Select Committee on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which contained many useful recommendations on how the Government might reduce regional inequalities. It is important for Government policies to mainstream regional issues so that the Government can examine the need to reduce regional inequalities and consider what the effect of their policies will be on those inequalities.

The ODPM Committee's report also referred to the funding formula—the Barnett formula—and called for a review of total funding allocations as well as a review of the formula itself. The debate is not primarily about the Barnett formula, but I strongly believe that it is indefensible to voters in the north-east of England in its current form. I also believe that we need a formula that can be reviewed regularly and that takes into account the changing nature of the economic performances of the nation and the regions of the UK. It should also include elements such as the sparsity criterion, which is particularly important in Scotland. I urge the Government to consider this formula, because it is much easier to produce such a formula when economic times are good but much harder to do so when they are difficult.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The right hon. Lady has been very generous in giving way and is making a cogent case, although I do not agree with it. If she agrees that the Barnett formula needs revising, does she therefore agree that the people of Scotland, the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire should all receive the same amount per head?

Joyce Quin

Certainly not. The Government need to consider the different economic situations of different regions, as Germany does in its regular funding reviews. Germany has an equalisation mechanism to help regions that are in the greatest difficulty. The matter is quite complicated and needs a great deal of thought. The approach suggested by the hon. Gentleman would not work at all, as the question is much more profound that his proposal seems to indicate.

The ODPM Committee report also referred to other regional disparities. An area that worries me, which also worries the CBI in the north-east of England, is the public sector spending on research and development. As the ODPM Committee report stated: If public sector investment in research and development in the UK as a whole is low, then the North East's share is pitiful". The statistics bear that out.

The devolution process introduced by the Government has so far benefited Scotland and Wales and led to policies being adopted in those countries that their people feel suit their needs. I welcome that. However, when I asked Scottish and Welsh colleagues about the benefits of devolution, I was struck by the fact that, rather than talk about policies or powers, often the first thing that they mentioned was the way that it had allowed a public and democratic focus on the needs and opportunities of those territories and the challenges facing them. That argument applies just as much to the Government's proposed regional assemblies in England as it does to Scotland and Wales.

I know that the Government propose to introduce a draft powers Bill on regional government in England. I urge them to consider strengthening the powers in certain areas, particularly learning and skills, and transport, both of which are crucial to a region's economic development. We know that devolution is a process, and the Government recognise that in their White Paper. Indeed, in Wales, the Assembly's powers are already being reviewed. This is a process, but the Government's proposals are an important step along an important road for the regions of England.

I am glad that economic development is at the heart of the proposals and I believe that the single pot of money will help the region to prioritise and spend on what it believes is most important. The north-east of England has a distinct economy. We are more heavily reliant on the manufacturing sector and exports to the European Union market than anywhere else in the UK. In schools, we have a lower staying-on rate, which needs to be addressed, and a lower start-up rate for small businesses. We also have particular skills needs. All those areas of distinction cry out for a regional focus, regional strategies and regional solutions.

I am glad that the press in different parts of the north-east have recognised that. This Monday's Northern Echo editorial states that only by working for a future together can the region start to redress the balance between bad news and good news on the jobs front. The press have recognised that regional strategies are about jobs, industry and the health and future of the economy. The influence that the regional assemblies will have on regional appointments and the ability to focus on matters publicly will be important in getting public support and creating an awareness, which the present system is unable to do.

Will the Minister respond positively to concerns that have been raised by business in the north-east? He was present at the launch in Durham a week ago, so he knows that there was a positive response to the proposals from the business men who were present. However, they had concerns, many of which have been produced in 10-point programme, that are worthy of serious consideration and can provide the basis for a constructive dialogue with industry.

Aspects of devolution in Scotland and Wales have not received the warmest publicity, and although we can learn from the positive aspects of what has happened elsewhere, we do not need to do everything in the same way. For example, I do not see any justification for new, expensive buildings in the north-east, particularly given the modest size of the proposed assembly. We must also be sensitive over the location of any assembly—I am glad that the Yes campaign for the north-east has established its headquarters in Durham and that the Deputy Prime Minister held the launch there last week.

There are worries that need to be addressed, and although other hon. Members here can better comment on those in the south of the region than I can, I believe that there is a great sense of unity in the north-east. The fact that the Teesside and Tyneside chambers of commerce joined to form the North East chamber of commerce is a good example of how people feel the need to operate regionally in the north-east. Those areas in the region that look south as well as north know that if a regional government is established in Yorkshire and the Humber, the two regions will be able to co-operate on many issues. The idea is to co-operate, rather than imprison people in geographical confines in which they feel uncomfortable, and to introduce an enabling, empowering structure that will stand the regions in good stead.

There are also worries in the rural areas, so I welcome many of Lord Haskins' proposals, which are very much along the lines of devolution and will effectively integrate the rural and urban areas in a common cause for the well-being of the region. I am particularly exercised on this point, as I was a Minister in the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I also have a lot of contacts with the rural world and I know of the concerns there about marginalisation if the structures are not right.

I shall bring my comments to a close, because a number of hon. Members wish to contribute. Regional government can mean huge gains for the north-east, but it would be foolish to say that it will solve all problems. In the modern world, the economy of a region can be greatly affected by economic events thousands of miles away and we must recognise the national, European and international contexts in which we work. However, regional government is the missing link in our democracy and in our system of economic management—in that sense, it can add real value. I am convinced that if anywhere in England can make a success of devolution, it is the north-east. We are being given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to give regions a powerful voice in our nation's affairs, to address regional needs and priorities, and to allow regions such as the north-east, with its pioneering industrial past, to pioneer a new form of democracy for England.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I call Mr. Atkinson, I tell the Chamber that because of the disorganisation caused by the timing of the vote in the House, on this occasion I shall not take lateness into account as a factor in deciding whether to call an hon. Member.

2.27 pm
Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

I am grateful for that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, I missed the start of the speech by the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin), because I was voting in support of a ten-minute Bill that would give the British people the power to have a referendum on such an important issue as the European constitution. I suspect that quite a lot of Labour Members who intend to call for a referendum on regional government were trooped through the No Lobby to vote against the Bill. However, I shall not intrude on the Labour party's private grief.

The right hon. Lady and I agree on many things. For instance, I entirely share her view on the importance of a regional focus and regional identity, and I fully support what she said about getting the Lindisfarne gospels back to the north-east. However, I disagree fundamentally that we need an expensive and costly elected bureaucracy to do that, and that is where the difference lies. We are sceptical about whether a regional assembly will do what is claimed of it, and whether it will be a minimalist organisation. As it turns out, we think that a regional assembly will be extremely costly.

I refer those who argue that an assembly will solve all the problems of the north-east to what Lord Rooker said in the House of Lords: "No more power, no more resources." People who actually believe that setting up a regional assembly will produce more money and power for the north-east of England are living in cloud cuckoo land.

The North East chamber of commerce reflected such a view in its recent session on the subject. It said that among its members, who are from the business community in the north-east, views on regional government range from scepticism to hostility. If the right hon. Lady and her supporters of regional government are to convince those people, they will have to answer some tough questions. So far, those questions have not been answered.

By promoting the idea of a Geordie parliament, its supporters are appealing to people through their sense of regional identity. It is an emotional appeal. However, we do not have the answers to the hard questions that need to be asked and answered so that the people of the north-east can make a proper decision when they come to vote.

Ms Dari Taylor (Stockton, South)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take back the unfortunate statement that he just made to the House, claiming that it will be some kind of Geordie parliament. There are Teessiders here, and we do not want to be deprecated or left out.

Mr. Atkinson

The hon. Lady makes my point about one of the problems with the regional assembly. We talk about the Geordie parliament, because where we come from, on Tyneside, people refer to it as that. That is where the problem lies. We will have one part of the region against the other, and the hon. Lady makes my case perfectly.

Vera Baird (Redcar)

I am terrified about the hon. Gentleman's geography, as he clearly thinks that Hexham is on Tyneside.

The appalling history of the Conservative Government was to starve our region, particularly the sub-region of Teesside, of any resources. If the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to the idea, what alternatives does he advocate to the large resources that are available and their democratic control?

Mr. Atkinson

I get cross when Members from the north-east say, "What has the Conservative party done for the north-east of England?" I will tell the hon. and learned Lady what it has done. She should visit the quayside at Newcastle and the developments at Teesside that Mrs. Thatcher and Michael Heseltine started. Over the years, the Conservative Government committed millions of pounds to the region when they hardly had a single north-east MP—only four MPs. Now we have a fistful of Cabinet Ministers from the north-east, and the region has less investment than during those days.

I shall not take any lectures from north-east Members about the Conservative record. I am proud of the Conservative party's record, and when I walk along the quayside at Newcastle, I say, "This is what a Conservative Government have done for the region."

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)

The hon. Gentleman should remember what the Conservative Government did to my constituency, North Durham. They decimated the coal industry and closed down the shipbuilding industry on Teesside, Sunderland, Wearside and Tyneside. I must also correct the hon. Gentleman—the Tyne and Wear development corporation squandered millions of pounds on schemes that did not come through. Today's regeneration of the quayside is actually down to the tenacity of Gateshead and Newcastle city councils.

Mr. Atkinson

I do not think that we would agree with that. As for the history of the Durham coalfields, I suspect that a gentleman named Wedgwood Benn closed most of the pits. The hon. Gentleman is probably too young to remember that.

However, I do not want to go on about the past—this is becoming a bit like Prime Minister's Question Time. We should look towards the future, and deal with the concerns that we and the people of the north-east have about the regional assembly. We do not have the detailed answers that we need to our questions.

People in the north-east should look to the example of the London Assembly. That is the nearest equivalent that we have to a regional assembly. We were told that the regional assembly for London would do wonders, and would be an economic organisation that would stamp a true London identity on the city. The right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West will know that the cost of the Greater London Authority on the London boroughs has risen by 29 per cent. this year, and that Ken Livingstone—who I believe may be the Labour mayoral candidate, or not—moved into brand new headquarters on the Thames, in a building of fine architectural quality. Within a few months, it seems that there is not enough room for the staff, which has expanded to a greater extent than anticipated. That is a warning to the people of the north-east.

The right hon. Lady mentioned the Scottish Parliament, the cost of which is up from £40 million to £400 million. If the people of Scotland were asked to vote again on whether they wanted devolution I doubt that there would be overwhelming support. That certainly would not apply in Wales.

The people of the north-east deserve some honest answers. The Deputy Prime Minister came to Durham last week to launch the referendum road show. It seemed merely a propaganda vehicle for the Yes campaign. I asked the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the cost of the campaign. The people of the north-east should know that that launch last week cost £25,000. It could have been done for £200. The budget for this information campaign until the end of this financial year is £500 million. I warn the people of the north-east that this is where the regional assembly is going. If you want an assembly, you should watch your pockets and count your silver spoons.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. When the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) says "you" he is referring to me. As I am in the Chair I have no view on the matter.

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

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing the debate. This is a good moment to hold it because, as she said, last week the Deputy Prime Minister launched the campaign to raise awareness and generate debate about Labour's plans for elected regional assemblies in the north-east, the north-west, and Yorkshire and Humberside.

I want to say a few words about what regional devolution will mean for Teesside and how the new assembly can make a difference to the people of the north-east. I intend to show that we have a different perspective from the picture of doom and gloom painted by the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson). The north-east is the furthest English region from the centres of power in Westminster, the ministerial offices in Whitehall and the large institutions that shape our lives such as the City of London, the finance industry, the national media and the permanent secretaries of the civil service. The north-east is all too often ruled by quangos and career civil servants. That is not a wilful criticism of those who run public affairs in the north-east.

Mr. Kevan Jones

The hon. Member for Hexham mentioned the Tyne and Wear development corporation. Does my hon. Friend agree that two institutions that needed public accountability and exposure were the Teesside and the Tyneside development corporations set up by the last Tory Government?

Dr. Kumar

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As hon. Members are aware, the Teesside development corporation finished up before the Public Accounts Committee because some £8 million was missing. The hon. Member for Hexham and his Government failed to provide the necessary accountability.

Those who run public affairs in the north-east have the interest of the region at heart, and believe strongly that we need to modernise our regional institutions and to iron out regional inequalities. However, they are all directly appointed by Whitehall, and their final accountability has to be to the people who appointed them. That is wrong. I am proud to say that our Government recognised this from day one.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West mentioned devolution in Scotland and Wales and the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. I agree with her that they are now part and parcel of our everyday institutions. I recall that the Conservative party opposed both those institutions until they were set up. They were wrong then, and they are wrong to oppose them now.

Institutions need dreams. Labour Members have a dream for an assembly in the north-east. A regional assembly would give the people of the north-east the power to set their own priorities, and the ability to take decisions to solve the problems that they want solving. I have been amazed at how strongly the people of the north-east identify with their region. My right hon. Friend mentioned the solidarity and support that have existed for a long time.

I want to turn to the role of Teesside in a new regional assembly. Teesside is still the industrial powerhouse of the region. It is one of the UK's—indeed Europe's—biggest producers of chemicals, including products that are a staple part of our everyday life in our homes, our clothes, our cars, our food and our medicines. Many of the greatest chemical companies in the world, such as BASF, Amoco, Huntsman, Du Pont and BP, are found in Teesside. Their managers are experienced in working in a global environment that has Teesside at its heart.

Teesside also has a great steel-making tradition going back 160 years. It has Britain's second biggest port by volume of cargo handled, with all the transport and infrastructure needed to support it in place along the river. Those key industries are supported by many small, local firms with strong sectoral strengths. Teesside is home to one of the UK's biggest concentrations of process industry technology, and marine and offshore engineering. Such strengths mean that Teesside must be central to the economic development policies of a regional assembly.

A good regional economic strategy will bring great benefits to Teesside. It will help Teesside airport to become the international airport that we need to cater for business people from all over the world who have made Teesside their manufacturing home. It will help us to work with the port authority to develop Teesport into one of the UK's great maritime centres for the new markets and trade patterns that will follow the accession of countries such as Poland and the Baltic states to the European Community. It will allow the new centres of excellence within the chemical sector to flourish, permitting a move from relatively low-value bulk chemicals to higher-value intermediate and finished goods. I strongly believe that it will act to help an iron and steel-making company such as Corus realise its ambition to make the Redcar and Lackenby steel complex Europe's largest and best supplier of bulk steel products.

However, in common with the whole of the northeast, Teesside has needs as well as achievements of which to be proud. It must ensure that people are fully trained to take part in the new skills revolution that is transforming work. It needs to improve further the performance of our schools. It has to build on the existing strengths of our regional universities and colleges, including the university of Teesside and the new Stockton campus of the university of Durham. It must improve its infrastructure; I have mentioned the airport, but road and rail improvements are still needed. We should build a new mass transit system for the Tees valley that is now a lot closer, following the recent announcement of a possible start in Middlesbrough.

In short, Teesside needs a renaissance, and a regional assembly could be the focus for it to achieve that. However, a regional assembly can do more—not just for Teesside, but for the north-east.

Despite the efforts of the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister, we still live in a country that is economically unbalanced. Of all the regions and nations that make up the UK, only the south-east is wealthier than the current European Union regional average. The problems of the south-east are of overdevelopment and overheating, whereas those of the north-east are of relative underdevelopment and spare capacity, both physical and human. The economic deficit is but one result of a long history of an over-centralised state.

There is also a democratic deficit. An over-centralised state is prone to fall into the trap of making decisions inappropriate to regions such as the north-east, because it tries to square the circle by making the same rules apply to both the south-east and the north-east. Such a one-size-fits-all approach can make the regional disparities wider. Great disparities still exist, despite the Government's good work over the past six years, of which I am proud.

The Minister may have seen the Institute for Public Policy Research report, which stated that, since 1992, the economic prosperity gap between the south-east and the north-east has widened from around 30 per cent. to nearly 60 per cent. That is alarming, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

We in the north-east still have too many wards in the top 10 per cent. of the index of multiple deprivation. Although only 8.8 per cent. of people of working age in the south-east are claiming state benefit, the equivalent figure for the north-east is 20.3 per cent. In 2002, 31 per cent.—almost a third—of workers in the south-east had a degree, whereas only 19 per cent. of the north-east's work force possessed a similar level of qualification.

We also need to examine the levels of employment in the north-east. We still have a long way to go. The figures from some of our travel-to-work areas show that the numbers in work are low compared with the national average. In my local Middlesbrough and Stockton travel-to-work area, only 66.4 per cent. of people are in work; in Sunderland and Durham it is 67.2 per cent.; and in Newcastle, the figure for Tyneside is 69.3 per cent. Those figures should be seen against the national average of 74.6 per cent., and the European Union Lisbon treaty floor target of 70 per cent.

I said that much has been done since 1 May 1997 to reverse that trend. The work of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister in tackling regional issues by setting up the regional development agencies is a credit to him. I hope that the next comprehensive spending review will carry on building on that programme of work. I also hope that the Government will examine the possibility of setting targets to reduce economic and social disparities and inequalities, and will seek to put flesh on the bones of the idea of dispersing Whitehall departments and agencies to the regions of England.

As well as looking to the structured programmes to replace European regional development funding which, as a result of the accession of the new nations to the Community, will taper off from 2006, we want to go one step further. Good deeds in Whitehall are one thing, but we want the ability to make our own future. We want autonomy and the ability to manage our own affairs. We need management by the people of the north-east for the people of the north-east. A regional assembly will give us that power.

That is why I, with all my regional colleagues, will be campaigning next year for a resounding yes vote in the north-east. I want the people of the region—from Berwick to Boulby—to show that we are proud, talented and ambitious. A regional chamber will give voice to our people and expression to that pride, talent and ambition.

In conclusion, I shall quote the Deputy Prime Minister because the project is his baby, he has championed it for a long time, and I think that he has got it right. He said: People in the north have a great opportunity to establish a new form of government that brings choice, democracy and opportunity to their region. I concur with him wholeheartedly.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. There is little time remaining for speeches from Back-Bench Members, but if hon. Members are brief, I shall do my best to call them all.

2.50 pm
Mr. Derek Foster (Bishop Auckland):

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to her campaigning skills, both for a regional development agency and for regional government. I also pay tribute to the Deputy Prime Minister. I first worked with him on these issues in 1980, and over the intervening years he has maintained his vision and determination, and has persistently pursued the objective. We would not be having this debate without his work.

I was first persuaded that we needed a regional development agency and regional government in 1974, when I was the chairman of the North of England Development Council, which was the job-hunting agency, and we were competing against the Scots and the Welsh. That was 1974 and they already had a powerful RDA, a Secretary of State in the Cabinet and their own Question Time. They already had a Grand Committee and were later to have a Select Committee. Those were all superb vehicles for focusing the minds of busy Ministers and officials on the problems of Scotland and Wales. As a young MP, the first thing that I noticed was that we had no research or body of authoritative opinion at our disposal to pursue Ministers and officials as the Scots and the Welsh could.

My political life, regionally and nationally, stretches over 30 years. Most of my experience has confirmed my view that the man or woman in Whitehall does not know best. Despite some of their superb qualities, they need to create a learning organisation, which should be a partnership with regions such as our own, to draw from our experience, abilities, commitment and knowledge of regional problems. That is where an RDA and regional government can help.

It was kind of you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to call me. I wanted to say much more, but I will give my other colleagues the opportunity to speak.

2.52 pm
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)

I will be similarly brief. It is a great pleasure to take part in the debate, albeit from the perspective of someone who has moved 150 miles from where he was born. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing the debate, and on the way that she has led it.

When I leave Parliament at the next general election, "gaan hyem" to Northumberland, I trust, hope and believe that the people of the north-east will have overwhelmingly voted yes to an elected regional assembly. The north-east has an identity and the commitment of its people. The region has a passion, which is often expressed in the rivalries of the football teams. I always want Newcastle to do well, as long as Sunderland beat them in the cup final and they come second to us when we get back into the premier league.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to draw me into that controversy.

Mr. Dawson

I will quickly steer away from that subject, but we need to ensure that that passion is diverted to the interests of the whole region. I believe that the people of the north-east will choose an elected regional assembly, because they know exactly what the north-east needs—democracy. It needs the people of the region to be empowered and involved in the huge decisions that a regional assembly will make on the issues that are fundamental to their lives—such as jobs, major land use issues and transport—and on how the whole region is run and, in particular, regenerated. An elected assembly will provide a tremendous opportunity for the people of the north-east to play a much bigger part in the regeneration of the United Kingdom, and for the north-east to develop its own solutions to its problems, rather than being merely a supplicant to the national Government and a power base located a long way away.

An elected assembly will engage all the people and communities of a diverse and interesting region in the new future of the north-east. It provides an opportunity to throw off the old clichés and persuade young people born in the north-east that they have a future there. I am part of a generation of people who left the north-east because there was not enough for them there. For many people, there was nothing in that region. An assembly will provide an opportunity to convince young people coming to the region—to some of the excellent higher education institutions, for instance—that they have a future and a life there if they will only stay.

An elected assembly will provide an opportunity for the region to build links with the other regions of Europe—across, for instance, a North sea community—and to create a wider community than that of the European Union. I hope that it provides an opportunity for the north-east region to work properly with a devolved assembly in the north-west and in Yorkshire and Humberside on a renaissance of the north. This is the tremendous opportunity that we have.

I am delighted to hear about the prospect of an elected regional assembly being based in Durham. The great historic cities of the north have a remarkable part to play in the future. Durham, York and Lancaster are the right centres for devolved regional assemblies—a modern idea in an ancient and historic setting. This is the future. It is one of enterprise, imagination and a new energy that can be brought into the north-east and all the regions of northern England. I hope that many people, seeing the opportunity of a devolved regional assembly and a new future for the north-east, will, like me, decide that it is time to go home.

2.58 pm
Vera Baird (Redcar)

I have about two and a half minutes to speak, so I will cut out all the fancy bits and cut to the chase—not that there was ever anything very fancy in my speech.

People will be well aware that the five boroughs of the Tees valley have a combined population of about 650,000, and our larger and, as we have perceived it, more prosperous neighbour, Tyne and Wear, has a population of about 1 million. Historically, the Tyne has seen stronger economic growth because of its larger population and bigger cities, such as Newcastle, which is an established cultural and arts centre. The Tyne's voice has sometimes been—or been believed to be, from a Teesside vantage point—stronger than our own.

A concern voiced in the Tees valley is whether a regional assembly for the north-east will represent the whole region. Clearly, there will be proper democratic representation, but people remain a little apprehensive. I shall briefly say why I think that that argument is completely wrong and why I will be out canvassing for the great north vote, as our great north Deputy Prime Minister calls it, and especially campaigning for a regional assembly for the north-east.

What is key is that there is more in common between the twin riverside conurbations of the Tyne and the Tees than there are differences between them. Those twins, if not identical, have had pretty near identical problems historically, and certainly the same general profile. The current generations on both the Tees and the Tyne have, after all, been brought up in the same environment: economic decline, a reduction in labour-intensive industry, dependence on the manufacturing sector which vacillates, unemployment, inner urban deprivation, and living in the midst of tracts of derelict land. That hard rearing has also brought to those twin riverside conurbations similar cultural outlooks. They are a little shocked at the economic blows of the past; inherited skills and ways of life are less valued, and they are not always confident and enterprising.

However, nurturing from this Government's regional policies in the last six years has made a cataclysmic difference to those attitudes. The regional development agencies have increased budgets and the single-pot concept is removing the earmarking of funds and freeing them to be applied locally and wisely. Under that nurturing, both twins are starting to realise their potential, and as a person who has lived in Tyneside and in Teesside I can sense powerfully what a success our regional policy has been so far. It has been a huge focus for this Government, and I will say again, even though the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) is not present, that this Government's focus is in rank contrast to the total neglect, especially of Teesside, by the last Government. This Government have started to bring new investment, to persuade people to take up new skills and to revive this pair of very similar economies.

I am truncating my speech, as I am aware of the time, but it is very important at this stage to be aware of the sensible decision that has already been taken to have the regional capital in Durham. Otherwise, the worry in Teesside, which is a real one, is that we would lag just that little bit behind, as Newcastle benefits now from being, de facto, the regional capital. It has the RDA, One NorthEast, the Government office for the northeast, the Pension Service headquarters, the Highways Agency and all the other regional trappings of government. The same argument was used to advocate regional devolution, with which I agree, in the first place. London-based power means that significant aspects of national policy function as unacknowledged regional policies for the south-east. The same applies to the impact of a regional capital.

As long as Teessiders can be shown that that is a major reason why Tyneside has appeared to be more dominant than it truly is, and as long as Teessiders can easily understand the prospect of a capital for the new region being elsewhere, they will vote in droves for regional devolution, because they have already seen the huge benefits of locating the RDA, with its large budget, in the region. One NorthEast was the first RDA to devolve much of its funding to sub-regional purses—even closer to the ground—so that people have been able to make judgments and to invest and attract industry that is entirely fitting to the needs of the region. Teessiders are able to understand that, and the more they see, first of the RDA then of the sub-regional partnership, and the closer to the people the investment and decisions become, the more they will understand that making the process democratic will increase the region's power even further. I think that the days when Teesside hesitated about this are long past.

I am grateful to the hon. Members who have yet to speak for allowing me to encroach into their time by a few minutes.

3.4 pm

Matthew Green (Ludlow)

Although I suspect that I will shortly be interrupted by the Division Bell, I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing this timely debate, which has been good, although perhaps marred a little by the disparaging remarks from the hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) on the strong case for the north-east having a regional assembly. However, we heard excellent speeches from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). Indeed, I was intrigued that the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre was able to put in a bid for Lancaster to host the northwest regional assembly.

I want to make it clear from the outset that the Liberal Democrats have long believed in regional government and that we are fully behind the yes vote for the northeast. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who unfortunately cannot be here today, summed it up when he said that the northeast already has a large proportion of such a tier of government in the shape of various unelected officials and government agencies that make decisions that people cannot influence. Those unelected bodies should be replaced by elected representatives. He added that key decisions that affect us can be made in the North, by the North for the North. My right hon. Friend put the case better than I could.

3.5 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.21 pm

On resuming

Matthew Green

I was saying that the Liberal Democrats are fully behind the Yes campaign in the north-east and that one of the reasons why the regional assembly will prove so popular in the north-east is that the area has a strong sense of regional identity. That was clear from the consultation exercise. The reason why the three northern regions are going ahead is that they have the greatest sense of regional identity. When the Government consider the possibility of referendums in other areas, they may have to change the boundaries of some other regions to achieve the sense of regional identity that exists in the north-east.

I am delighted to say that we were able to get the second question on to the ballot paper, thanks to the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. This matter was raised on Second Reading by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) and, I agree, by the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West. Unfortunately, the Government were not persuaded in Committee, but our persuasive powers were slightly more successful in the House of Lords. The second question removes the problem, which would have existed, of constituents of the single-tier areas being able to decide local government change in two-tier areas. They now have the choice of at least two forms of unitary authority, which we are very glad about.

I want to talk about the powers of the regional assembly because in many ways, although we are firm believers in regional government and will be fully behind a yes vote, this is not the full loaf. I shall be kind—it is three quarters of a loaf.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)

Half a loaf.

Matthew Green

I was being generous and keeping to the spirit of cross-party co-operation on the yes vote. A major reason for our support is that the proposal becomes a vehicle for adding greater powers. However, the Government have the opportunity to add greater powers at an earlier stage, because they have not yet published the draft powers Bill. When they do so, they will have the opportunity to consider several ways of increasing powers. I want to talk about a few, one of which relates to transport.

The regional assembly will have the power to decide regional priorities, but the Secretary of State will still decide which priorities are funded. In effect, therefore, this is not a real power, as it is one of persuasion rather than of decision. The Government still have the opportunity to hand that power down to regional government to allow it to make real choices in the northeast about the transport arrangements affecting, say, the A1 or other major transport infrastructure developments in the region.

Secondly, the Government seriously need to consider the role of the learning and skills councils. If the regional assemblies are to deliver on anything, they should deliver on jobs and the economy. Learning and skills councils are a vehicle for delivering funds for skills, which are key to jobs and the local economy. Decisions about funding should be democratically accountable and should be taken in the north-east. The Government still have the time and the opportunity to make that change and to make the learning and skills councils regional and accountable to the north-east regional assembly.

Thirdly, regional development agencies are still not accountable enough to the regional assembly, which the Government could do more to address. They could give more power to locally elected people who are responsible to their local electorates, rather than still appointing the boards of RDAs. There has been a step forward and we support it, but there is still more to do.

I am baffled by the Conservatives' opposition to the referendums. This is about giving the public a choice. The Conservatives want a referendum on the European constitution, as we do, but they do not want a referendum on whether there should be an elected regional government in the north-east. That is very strange. There will be a referendum and the Conservatives' arguments will be seen to be as weak as they have made them.

Mr. Atkinson

I believe that I made it clear in my opening remarks that I am fully behind the idea of a referendum to give people the choice. I voted against the Bill as I believe that the whole thing is a waste of money, but I have no objection to people in the north-east having a choice.

Matthew Green

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made it clear that he does not agree with his party's Front-Bench spokesman on the matter. Once again, the show of unity among the Tories has lasted less than a week.

Another concern is taxation. Regional assemblies will have the power to impose a precept on council tax, which we support. We support their ability to raise money, but not, however, through council tax. The Government may decide in their balance of funding review to consider other forms of taxation such as local income tax, which are based on ability to pay. I realise that the Minister will not promise anything that the Prime Minister has already ruled out, which is unfortunate for his colleagues in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister as they are clearly considering such a form of taxation in the balance of funding review. Will he confirm, however, that any changes made to the method of local government will be extended to regional government, and that if a local income tax is imposed it will be extended to the regional level and will replace council tax throughout? We would certainly welcome that as a way forward.

We will be fully behind the yes campaign. As the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West said, there has been long-standing demand for a regional assembly in the north-east from the Labour party and from the Liberal Democrats. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will be closely involved in the entire campaign.

3.28 pm
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold):

This has been a good-tempered and moderately constructive debate. I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of my questions, because it has become a custom in this Chamber for Ministers to answer the soft questions from their own side and none from the Opposition. That is an especially unfortunate trend. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on securing the debate and welcome the Minister to his new post. His two predecessors, however, fell into the category that I have just described.

I start on a discordant note, because although I hope that this will remain a good-tempered debate, I must disagree with most of the speeches that we have heard today, with the exception of the excellent contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson).

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) always tries deliberately to mislead the Chamber about what Conservative Members say, and I want to clarify one point. It is untrue that the Conservatives are opposed to a referendum on the matter. We are democrats and believe in referendums; it is just that we will campaign strongly for a no vote.

Matthew Green

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

The hon. Gentleman would only cause mischief, so I will not.

Joyce Quin


Mr. Clifton-Brown

I happily give way to the right hon. Lady.

Joyce Quin

Is it true that the Conservatives voted and argued against the legislation to allow regional referendums?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

As my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham ably explained, we do not believe in regional assemblies. We believe that they are undemocratic and, as I will demonstrate in a minute, will take power away from local people, rather than empowering them.

The Deputy Prime Minister made a little visit up north on 3 November. He made some extraordinary statements, and I will quote one of the most extraordinary: At the moment, people come in a delegation to London and make a case to a minister but what difference does it make? He is admitting that his own friends, MPs and councillors can go to see him, but it will not make any difference. If he does not listen to them now, how do Labour Members expect a regional assembly to help them any further?

I quote The Journal report on 5 November by the excellent Paul Linford and David Higgerson, his colleague who is sadly not here: Mr. Prescott is known to privately favour the scrapping of the Barnett Formula"— I intervened on the right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West, and she said the same— which awards Scotland £537 per head more than the north-east, £938 per head more than the north-west, and £1,166 more than Yorkshire. If the right hon. Lady is in favour of scrapping the Barnett formula, that automatically means that she is in favour of giving less money to the Scottish people and more to those in the north-east. However, the soon-to-become-Labour Mayor of London is in favour of more money being kept in London and less going to the north. If northern Members think that they are going to get more resources, they are in for a great surprise.

Matthew Green

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

In a minute. The hon. Gentleman is trying hard, and I will give him a little opportunity to decide whether to be mischievous.

A key caveat in the new Labour manifesto was that regional government would happen only if the total cost to the public purse of local and regional government would not increase as a result. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham quoted Lord Rooker, who said exactly the same thing. If people in the north-east think that they are going to get a huge pot of money from this venture, they are in for a sad surprise.

The hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird) said that huge resources had gone into the northeast regional development agency. Of course they have, but who set up the north-east RDA? The last Conservative Government, and a great deal of money is going into the north already.

Vera Baird


Mr. Clifton-Brown

Sorry. I have been corrected by my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham. The northeast development corporation was set up by the last Conservative Government. I apologise to Members, as that was a slip of the tongue.

The last Conservative Government secured a great deal of inward investment for the north-east, and that is another key point. Toyota went to Washington, Tyne and Wear, and created a huge number of jobs.

Vera Baird


Mr. Clifton-Brown

It was Nissan. I am glad that I have my tutor beside me. There are problems when one speaks in a debate outside one's area.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is just as well the hon. Gentleman has a tutor, because otherwise I might have to do that job.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At least we are keeping up the humour. Nevertheless, the principle is correct. I suggest that the only way to increase prosperity in the north-east is to encourage inward investment. If we break up this country into strong regions, do the people of the north-east honestly think that the south-east, the south-west, the west midlands and the east midlands will not fight as hard, or possibly harder, for the scarce inward investment that is likely to come to the country? Instead of a national Government looking at the whole of the United Kingdom, one region will compete with another and waste a huge amount of resources.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Clifton-Brown

I shall give way first to the Liberal Democrat spokesman and then to the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster).

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman can give way to only one person at a time, and must say something in between speakers.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am busy trying to say something, but Labour Members are trying hard to silence me. They will not succeed.

A great deal of money will be squandered not only in setting up regional assemblies, but afterwards. Let us consider the Scottish example. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has said that the Scottish Parliament building was originally to cost £40 million; today, it will cost £400 million. I suspect that each region will want an expensive building and staff in Brussels so that they can try to get European funds directly.

Mr. Dawson

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

No. I am in danger of straying out of order.

Matthew Green


Mr. Clifton-Brown

I give way to the Liberal Democrat spokesman.

Matthew Green

I thank the hon. Gentleman. At the risk of encouraging him to dig his hole a little deeper, can he say whether the Conservatives want to review the Barnett formula? Would they keep it the same or change it? If they changed it, who would gain and who would lose?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I knew that the Liberal spokesman was going to cause difficulties. He knows perfectly well that we have just had a successful reshuffle. We now have a perfectly good spokesman for Scotland who can stand up and ask that question in a Scottish debate. I shall not answer a question on behalf of one of my colleagues, as that lies outside my responsibilities. If the Liberal spokesman thinks that I am that green, he should look again.

Mr. Derek Foster

Are we now clear about the fact that the only regional policy of a possible Tory Government would be to increase inward investment within the regions? How does the hon. Gentleman answer the problem of international inward investment reducing for all regions and of the northern region being a good deal less competitive now that Yorkshire and Humberside includes a region with objective 1 status?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Between the mirth, the right hon. Gentleman might have missed what I said. I chose my words carefully, and referred to the minimal amount of inward investment. He is right to say that that inward investment is shrinking in this country, largely because of this Government's policies. Increasing the prosperity of the north-east is not our only policy—one need only look at our major cities to see what the former Member for Henley did for many of our inner cities. The centres of Glasgow and Leeds as well as docklands have seen innovative urban regeneration schemes, which the last Conservative Government came up with.

I have 10 questions for the Minister from the North East chamber of commerce. I would be grateful if he responded to some if not all, but if he cannot perhaps he will write to us. What will the remit of the north-east regional assembly be? Fears exist among voters that they are buying a pig in a poke because they will not have the detailed Bill until after the referendum. Perhaps the Minister could exemplify the point raised by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland: how will the regional assembly strengthen economic performance? The regional assembly must demonstrate how it can improve economic performance; we need details.

How will the Minister ensure that a business-led regional development agency prospers in the future? What say will the north-east regional assembly have over the RDA's spending of its money? Will an RDA be required if the referendum goes in favour of an assembly?

Will the Minister say something about the cost of the whole venture? What will it cost to set up an assembly? My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham has already said that the campaign has cost £25,000, and we know that £500,000 has been allocated up to April. By the time we get to next autumn, perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us the total cost of the campaign. Is the "Your Say" campaign really an information campaign or is it propaganda? Are the Government or the Labour party paying for it?

Perhaps the Minister could also say something about the effectiveness of expenditure. The running of the new regional assembly will be costly. How will it be paid for? How much will it cost? It is no good the Deputy Prime Minister saying that it will be paid for by the abolition of the county councils, because he is prejudging the vote of the people on whether they want to abolish their county councils.

I wish something to be said about the speed of decision making because Ministers have trumpeted throughout the land the fact that this system will be more locally democratic. It is going to take powers away from local people, however, and before some Member on the Labour Benches intervenes, I will demonstrate how. What if there is no new money coming into this assembly? We already know that considerable powers are being taken away from the unitary councils by the planning and housing Bills. Those are now to be regional functions. What used to be local functions have already been taken away. The Government have demonstrated that they are happy to take powers away from the unitary authorities, but are they going to give any real powers back, or is this regional assembly going to be another tier of bureaucracy taking decision making away from local people?

How will business be engaged? What will the partnership approach be? Business is the main agent of wealth creation in the region. Ultimately, the only way that the region will prosper is by generating its own money and wealth. It cannot prosper indefinitely on huge handouts from the national Government.

What will be the support for, and legitimacy of, the regional assembly? The Government have said that they will look carefully at the result if there is a derisory turnout. What do they regard as a derisory turnout? If there is a 25 per cent. turnout and the winning margin is one vote, will that be satisfactory? If there is only a 20 per cent. turnout and the margin of victory is 200 votes, will that also be satisfactory?

The Government might tell us that there is no potential disadvantage. However, there is a danger that the Government could devolve more powers and duties to the regions without providing the necessary budget. We have seen that with a vengeance with this Government and the powers that they have given to local authorities—powers over recycling are not properly paid for, and there are numerous other such powers.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman give his questions to the Minister in writing. The Minister now has only nine minutes.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

I am happy with that as I have asked my last question. I wanted to get it on the record and I have done so. I hope that the Minister does his best to answer my points.

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

This has been an inspiring debate. It has been a privilege to be present with so many north-east Members of Parliament standing up proudly to proclaim the attributes of the north-east and to support the "Your Say" campaign. Many of them support a yes vote in the referendums.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) on the powerful case that she put. We have had a parade of talent from the north-east this afternoon. As well as my right hon. Friend, we have had, either present in the Chamber or contributing, my right hon. Friends the Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Foster), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), and my hon. Friends the Members for North Durham (Mr. Jones), for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar), for Stockton, South (Ms Taylor), for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell) and for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam)—which is you, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although I know that you cannot take part in the debate, I did not want you to feel left out. It has also been good to see Members from other regions joining the debate: my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) even got in a crafty bid for the regional assembly for his area—the north-west—to be in his constituency. I congratulate him on that. The hon. Member for Hexham (Mr. Atkinson) was a brave and lonely voice from the north-east opposing the proposal, and I will say more about that later.

The Government are rightly committed to a far-reaching and radical programme of constitutional change and devolution. We are transforming this country, which was one of the most centralised in the western world in 1997. We have devolved power to Scotland and Wales, we have restored city-wide government to London and now we are offering the chance to devolve power to the English regions—we are meeting our manifesto commitment to allow referendums on establishing regional elected assemblies in the regions that want them.

This is about choice. We are not imposing our views; we are allowing the people in each region to decide. We have listened to their views in selecting the regions that should move to a referendum first—the north-east, the north-west and Yorkshire and the Humber—and the people will decide the result of those referendums.

When we asked the north-east if it wanted a referendum on an elected assembly, the responses reflected the views of thousands of people and the answer was yes. We are now beginning the process of allowing them that referendum. As was remarked earlier, the Conservatives opposed devolution in Scotland, Wales and London, and they even opposed regional development agencies, as hon. Members recalled. They got it wrong, and now they support the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. During an Adjournment debate a few weeks ago, I discovered that they now support RDAs. We know what is going to happen. When we have run the campaign, when the votes come in and the regional assemblies are created, we will see another somersault by the Conservatives—this time in support of regional assemblies. We will ensure that the people in the north-east know what an assembly will mean for them.

Last week, I was with the Deputy Prime Minister in Durham. It was good to be with some of my hon. and right hon. Friends at the launch of the "Your Say" publications. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked what would be the powers and responsibilities of the new regional assemblies. Without wishing to ask him to do too much work, perhaps he could just read the leaflet, in which we spell out in detail what regional assemblies will mean for the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside. This is an information campaign to raise awareness about the referendum, all the powers the assembly will have and the future structure of local government in Durham and Northumberland.

The contributions of hon. Members from the northeast and north-west, and from the Liberal Democrats—the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green)—were positive, upbeat and inspirational. However, the contributions of the two Conservatives, including the Front-Bench spokesman, were negative, mealy-mouthed, scaremongering, confused, misunderstood—it was more of the old Tory democratic centralism that we have come to know. The best we got was a contrast based on whether we should have a referendum on the European constitution—they are in favour of one taking place. They are not, however, in favour of a referendum for the local people of the north-east to decide on local decision making.

Having voted against our Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry)—the new boss of the hon. Member for Cotswold—described it as little more than mewling, puking, piddling… milk-and-water". —[Official Report, 26 November 2002; Vol. 395, c. 219.] That sums up the Tories' attitude to the people of the north and tells us everything we want to know about their attitudes to giving local people a local choice. Instead of asking questions of detail. which I am prepared to answer—although I must do so later, because I do not have the time now —perhaps Opposition Members could start to realise that regional assemblies are about jobs and prosperity, pride and a voice, and democracy and local decision making for local people in the north-east. Instead, the Conservative party tells us about disinvestment.

I saw wry smiles and heard groans from hon. Members from the north-east when a Conservative Member of Parliament described the benefits for the north-east of a Tory Government in the 1980s. That took my breath away. It is beyond me how anybody could make such points. We know the pain, suffering, misery, despair and hopelessness that the people in the north-east experienced under the Tories. We are bringing back hope and opportunity for the north-east through the new elected regional assemblies.

The Tories do not stand for jobs—they stand for disinvestment; they do not stand for a voice for and pride in the north-east—they stand for running it down at every opportunity. They do not want to give people the chance to have their say. They opposed the referendum and they will vote no to an assembly that will give people a local voice and local democratic decision making over local powers.

Many hon. Members focused on the importance of economic development, jobs and investment.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No point of order is available. The Minister is not giving way—that is his choice.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is no point of order available.

Phil Hope

This is about jobs and the economy. We can see from the quality of the debate that rather than focus on the future and what is important to those in the north-east, people end up making procedural points and points of order, which undermine the ability of those in the north-east to capture, hold and take forward their ambitions.

We see a positive future for the north-east. The referendums and the "Your Say" awareness campaign will let people know that our proposal is about jobs and prosperity as well as pride and a voice in the north-east—it is about ensuring that investment comes its way. It is also about democracy, with local people having not just control and a say over £350 million of direct Government spend through quangos, but influence over some £1 billion of investment and opportunity. That is a prize worth fighting for and we are giving people that opportunity, so I say to them, "Go out there and campaign for what you believe in—support for the north-east."

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. May I make a few remarks to the Chamber? The Standing Order is quite plain on the matter: if Members, whether Ministers or not, are not prepared to give way they do not have to, regardless of whether the other hon. Member does not like it.

May I ask hon. Members who do not wish to stay for the next debate to leave quickly and quietly please?

Mr. Clifton-Brown

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would you please explain the rules on whether it is permissible to make a point of order in Westminster Hall?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The rules are that it is perfectly permissible to make a point of order, except that the Chair has a view as to what the point of order could be about. As the Minister was not giving way, the only possible point of order was that the Minister was not giving way.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You did not hear my point of order. so you did not know what it was going to be.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The Chair does not have to explain its rulings, but on this occasion, as I was listening to the debate, the only thing that could have driven the hon. Gentleman to his feet was the Minister not giving way. Therefore, there was no point of order. However, the matter is now finished.

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