Labour treads softly on devolution

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The Independent Online
LABOUR has ruled out directly elected assemblies for the English regions in a move designed to convince voters that the constitution is safe in its hands.

Jack Straw, Shadow Home Secretary and chairman of Labour's democracy committee, has drawn up a minimalist plan under which elected councillors would sit on regional bodies.

This softly-softly approach is aimed at helping to persuade voters that the constitution is not about to be torn up by Labour - whatever John Major claims. Reform should be tackled sensitively and should not run ahead of the popular mood, party leaders believe.

They argue that the clamour would have to be loud indeed for Labour to proceed towards directly elected assemblies.

The Opposition's policy formation has been accelerated by the continuing debate in Scotland over the relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. Labour is committed to a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly, although Mr Straw's minimalist vision does not envisage tax-raising powers for the Welsh assembly.

In a paper likely to be ready in June, Mr Straw will put forward proposals for regional tiers of government. But instead of proposing costly regional assemblies, Labour will outline moves for the new tier to take over regional offices of government departments which already have substantial powers over urban regeneration and training. Around 10 bodies already exist, serving regions of the North-west, Yorkshire and Humberside, the North- east, the West Midlands, the East Midlands, Merseyside, the Eastern region, the South-west, the South-east and London.

Labour plans to democratise these bodies, by putting them under the control of nominated councillors, and to bring quangos within their ambit.

Mr Straw is expected to point out in a television interview today that bodies of nominated councillors already sit as English regional associations to discuss strategic issues in their areas.

These bodies, which have operated since the Second World War, could be the building blocks from which the new regional tier is constructed.

Labour's new approach to regional government is intended to combine the "top down" growth of government administration at regional level, with the "bottom up" structure set in place by elected councillors.

Some Labour figures believe the new regional bodies should include business representatives, an argument supported by Howard Davies, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry.

Supporters of the more cautious approach to constitutional reform say it was endorsed by a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party last week.

However, it will disappoint the ardent backers of regional government, who believe elected assemblies with tax-raising powers would revitalise political life.

Other senior Labour figures have argued for a simpler solution: stronger local government.

Members of the Shadow Cabinet were alarmed at the ferocity of the Conservative Party's attack on constitutional issues over the new year, when Mr Major called Labour's proposals "teenage madness" and "one of the most dangerous propositions ever put before the British nation".

However, Labour now believes that John Major's pitch for the English nationalist vote helped the Opposition by highlighting the issue early, thus giving time to formulate policy.

Earlier this year, the Tories also highlighted the so-called "West Lothian Question" first posed by Tam Dalyell in the 1970s when he was MP for the constituency. He asked why a Scottish MP at Westminster should be unable to vote on many Scottish matters once power was devolved to an Edinburgh Parliament, but could still vote on issues affecting England.

Mr Dalyell has outlined his objections to devolution but is reconsidering his position following pressure from party members.