§ 4. Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)
If he will make a statement on his methods for assessing levels of demand in each English region for the introduction of regional Government. 
§ The Minister for Local Government and the Regions(Mr. Nick Raynsford)
We plan to say more about this in the next few weeks, but I can say now that we will strongly encourage people in all the regions to come forward with their views about the level of interest in holding a referendum in their region during this Parliament. This will be the main factor in our decision on where referendums should be held first.
§ Mr. Brady
The White Paper said that the Government would explicitly seek the views of key stakeholders on this issue. I do not know whether the Government include Members of Parliament in that category, but perhaps I can start the ball rolling, as an elected representative from the north-west of England, by telling the Minister that, in the last five years, I have never met a single member of the public—[Laughter]—a single member of the public who believes that we should have regional government in the north-west of England. Furthermore, most people in the north-west of England would regard a referendum on regional government as a ludicrous distraction from the real challenges of improving standards in public services for the people whom we are meant to represent.
§ Mr. Raynsford
The hon. Gentleman's admission of his lack of contact with the public is an interesting indication of the extent to which he is in touch with public opinion. We recognise that there are variations between individual regions in their appetite for an elected regional assembly. That is exactly why we are setting up a permissive framework, under which those regions with the greatest appetite will be able to move quickest to holding referendums. That is a policy based on choice and 212 I advise the hon. Gentleman to wait and see the views of the British people in each of the regions when the choice is put to them. He might be in for a surprise.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that the last thing people want is yet another layer of salaried politicians and a hugely disruptive local government reorganisation? But if we go down this path—I do not think there is a demand out there for it—does my right hon. Friend agree that the number of Members of Parliament here in this House would have to be reduced drastically, perhaps by 40 per cent.?
§ Mr. Raynsford
We believe that if a regional tier of government is introduced, there should be a rationalisation of two-tier local government so that there is not an unnecessary number of tiers. That is a logical approach and we are adopting a pragmatic way forward because we accept entirely my hon. Friend's concern that a wholesale reorganisation of local government, as undertaken by the previous Government, is unnecessarily disruptive; we do not wish to repeat the experience of the Banham years. We want efficient government working well at a regional level as well as at the local level.
§ Mr. Don Foster (Bath)
Will not the level of demand for regional government be weakened significantly by the inexplicable linking of the referendum question on regional government with plans to reorganise local government? Does not the Minister accept that the democratisation of the plethora of regional quangos demonstrates that we have regional governance already? We are not adding an additional tier. Whatever the merits of the reorganisation of local government, it will weaken his proposal to get regional government on to the statute book. Does he really want to win this one, or not?
§ Mr. Raynsford
We certainly do not accept the hon. Gentleman's first premise. In the delightful environment of the Liberal Democrats' party the proliferation of tiers of government may seem a welcome activity, but we take a rather more sensible view. We believe that three separate tiers of government below the national and European level would be one too many. That is why we say that, where an appetite for regional government exists, there should be a rationalisation of the existing two tiers of local government. That sensible framework is set out in the White Paper, and will guide the way forward. Most people who are concerned about efficiency and effectiveness will welcome that, although I understand that the Liberal Democrats are far away from that position.
§ Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is quite difficult to secure support among local councillors while a degree of uncertainty exists about the structure of councils under regional government? That issue is likely to reduce support for regional governance, if he cannot get local councillors on his side.
§ Mr. Raynsford
I have had discussions with councillors and advocates of regional government in all parts of the country, and my experience is that those who understand the importance of introducing regional government will remain wholly supportive of our 213 proposals. I fully accept that there are concerns—no councillor will welcome the prospect of their council perhaps ceasing to exist—but we must take a broader view and recognise that, in the interests of efficient administration and of the public, there is a need to avoid a proliferation of local government tiers where a regional tier of government is introduced. That is the basis of our proposals.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
Does the Minister accept that not a single one of the many thousands of representations from constituents that I have received in the past two years asked for more expensive government at a south-east level? Is he not merely trying to carry out the will of Brussels against that of the British people?
§ Mr. Raynsford
The right hon. Gentleman was interestingly quiet when the county of Berkshire was abolished by the Administration in which he served, so I am not sure that many people would regard him as a suitable guide of public opinion. However, we recognise that variation exists between different regions in the appetite for regional government, and we accept that there is a lot less enthusiasm in the south-east than in some other regions, such as the north-east. That is exactly why we are introducing the permissive framework, which will allow the introduction of elected regional assemblies in regions that wish to have them, but not in others.