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STRAW SETS OUT REASONING FOR 'ROLLING PROGRAMME OF DEVOLUTION'

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Labour has adopted an organic approach to the establishment of democratic regional government which will ensure tha...
Labour has adopted an organic approach to the establishment of democratic regional government which will ensure that those regions which have the 'strongest sense of identity, the most developed regional institutions and the clearest consensus about boundaries will be able to steam ahead', shadow home secretary Jack Straw said today.

Speaking to an Association of Metropolitan Authorities conference on 'The City and the Regions' in Leeds today, Mr Straw said Labour's consultative document 'A Choice for England' had already succeeded in nailing the 'ludicrous charge' that Labour was intent on establishing a further additional tier of bureaucracy.

'What our document proves beyond doubt is that such a bureaucratic tier of regional government in England already exists - and has been substantially extended by the present administration.'

He said that the directors of government regional offices administer, direct or advise on the spending of £6bn of public money on housing and urban regeneration projects, training and education programmes, the single regeneration budget and training and enterprise schemes.

'The directors of these regional offices may not be household names but the budgets they supervise exceed those of most of the elected council leaders in their patch.'

Mr Straw said that Labour's criticism of the government is not that is was wrong to develop a regional tier of government, 'but that it was wrong to do so by stealth and without adequate democratic accountability.'

He said that in drafting his party's proposals he had to take account of two apparently conflicting trends. One was the patent need to swiftly make the existing system of regional government more responsible and accountable, and against that was the fact that the support for directly elected assemblies varies across the country.

Mr Straw emphasised that the party proposes three 'safeguards' on regional assemblies. Firstly a plan would be drawn up by a regional chamber - indirectly elected bodies of not more than 40 members drawn from an electoral college of councillors. 'It seemed to us far better that it should be drawn up by democratic representatives in the region, than for example, by some unelected commission or by Whitehall.'

The second safeguard would be parliamentary approval. 'Our intention is that this would be by parliamentary order, after a short debate, under powers provided by the principal Act establishing the concept of regional assemblies. It is firmly not our intention that there would have to be primary legislation for each regional assembly.'

The third condition would be the need to establish popular consent 'possibly by a region wide referendum'.

'Personally, I think that this has significant advantages for those regions which want to get ahead quickly. Our plans for devolution in England will be attacked, both by the Tory opposition and by those who suddenly discover a vested interest in defending the status quo.

'Without a clear test of popular opinion, the establishment of these bodies could get bogged down in impossible-to-resolve arguments about whether the public really wanted them. If the argument about whether they were needed carries on past their establishment, the assemblies might then have an air of impermanence about them, and in turn fail to attract the best of elected members and officers. The prophecy could then be self-fulfilling.'

'On the other hand, if there is a clear test of popular opinion, the argument about whether the public want an elected assembly is very easy to resolve, and is conclusive. Assuming a yes vote, the assembly would get off to a flying start.'

Moving on to the issue of unitary authorities, the Labour home affairs spokesman said that the party had consistently - for over 20 years - argued that two-tier local government could not in general co-exist alongside elected regional assemblies.

'But we have not sought to set this point in stone,' he said. 'We accept that in some very sparsely populated counties there may have to be exceptions to the general rule of unitary local government. He said two of the counties that were considered as exceptions in the 1992 manifesto were Northumberland and Cornwall.

Mr Straw said that his plans for regional government would work, unlike previous ones, because they did not have a 'statist' view which said that everything had to be done almost all at once, and everywhere in England.

The result of those schemes was that 'next to nothing was done'.

'We have drawn on the experience of other countries, not least Spain, which has had a rolling programme of devolution.

'What this means it that those regions which have the strongest sense of identity, the most developed regional institutions, the clearest consensus about the boundaries will be able to steam ahead.'

He said he did not want to provoke a competition between different regions.

'I know for example that there is a good deal of evidence for example which points to strong popular support for an elected assembly in the north.

'The beauty of the scheme proposed in 'A Choice for England' is that, given these regional strengths, the north does not have to ask anyone else for permission about where it is in the queue for an elected assembly. It can push itself to the front to the queue as I hope, with the north west and the south west, it does.'

'Consent is the touchstone of out policy for English regional government.' he said.

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