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Regional Government (North-West)

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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If he will make a statement on plans for regional government in the north-west of England. [112945]

We have asked for further responses by 16 May to our soundings exercise on the level of interest in each English region in holding a referendum on an elected regional assembly. We will announce shortly after that date which region or regions will proceed first towards referendums.

While I am grateful to the Minister for his reply, is he aware that polls suggest that 78 per cent. of people in the north-west know "not very much" or "nothing at all" about the Government's proposals for regional authorities, and that only three out of 10,000 have responded to the soundings? Does that make it clear to him that the north-west is not interested in regional government? We do not want more bureaucracy. People identify with their districts, boroughs or counties, and I repeat that we do not want regional government and all the expensive bureaucracy that goes with it.

I am always a little suspicious of polls and I prefer to look at the evidence of individuals who have responded. The hon. Gentleman will probably be interested to know that we have so far had 2,535 responses from the north-west region and 1,530 of those come from his county of Cheshire. [Interruption.] He may have had something to do with that. We will consider the responses carefully after the deadline, which is this Friday, and then my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will make his decision.

Fond as we are of Macclesfield on Merseyside, does my right hon. Friend agree that a Greater Merseyside authority would make far more sense than a north-west authority?

We believe that the people of the region should take the decision, and that is why we are engaged in the soundings exercise. We will make an announcement on the basis of the soundings on whether referendums will take place and, if so, in which regions. It will then be for the people of each region to decide whether they want an elected regional assembly. That is democracy and choice, and we think that it is a good idea.

Does the Minister realise that the level of interest in the northwest is such that the only people who turned up to a recent meeting organised to discuss the issue were a chief executive of a council and his wife? That is not my idea of a good night out. Does he recognise that business, industry and voluntary organisations are pulling away from the existing regional assembly, and does he agree that this is a solution in search of a problem?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be familiar with meetings with a derisory attendance from his experience of Conservative party meetings. We are seeking the views of people via various options, including letters, meetings—if people choose to hold them—and other responses to the soundings. We will take account of the total response. Clearly, if only two people attend a meeting, it would not be given much weight in the assessment of the level of interest.

Part of the confusion in the minds of the people in Cheshire, including the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), is caused by the misinformation that has been put out by Cheshire county council. Will my right hon. Friend tell the people of Cheshire that the proposals for regional government would not create a further tier of government, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but an alternative and much better structure of government?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have always been clear that there must be no question that any additional tiers of government or bureaucracy will be created. That is why we have made it clear that, when there is a vote in favour of an elected regional assembly, local government in that region must be reorganised to a wholly unitary structure. Through an amendment in the other place to what is now the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Act 2003, we have recently provided that people in those two-tier areas will have a say in a second vote on their preferred form of unitary local government. Once again, the Government are giving choice to people in respect of efficient and streamlined administration, and better local government.

The Minister said that he would look at the level of interest in a region. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), he said that he had received 2,000-odd responses from the north-west. What proportion of the total population of the north-west is that?

The hon. Gentleman will know that other people often undertake similar exercises. For example, the Liberal Democrat party and its Focus leaflets will probably get a derisorily small number of responses, compared with what we are receiving. Getting 2,500 responses from people represents a very good level of response—[Interruption.] We look forward to seeing what they say. We will analyse the responses, and take decisions accordingly.