Prescott asked to apologise for referendum

John Prescott faced taunts in the Commons that he was "history" yesterday after he was forced to shelve plans for elected local assemblies across England.

The Deputy Prime Minister was jeered as he admitted defeat for his long-standing vision of a network of assemblies following his crushing defeat in the North-east, where his plans were rejected by a margin of 78 per cent to 22 per cent.

Admitting they had delivered an emphatic verdict, he announced that plans to hold referendums in the North-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber were being abandoned.

Caroline Spelman, the shadow Local Government Secretary, said the whole exercise had been humiliating for Mr Prescott and the Government and expensive for the taxpayers. She said: "I am not going to ask you to resign because you won't.The nation is owed an apology for the tens of millions wasted on a pipedream that is very definitely history now, and if the House is honest, so are you."

With Tony Blair at his side, Mr Prescott confirmed that the Government would now drop a Bill, which would have featured in this month's Queen's Speech, to set up assemblies.

But he argued that Scottish and Welsh devolution was initially rejected before being approved and was now proving very popular.

After reflecting on the North-east result, Mr Prescott said, the Government had decided not to go ahead with polls in the North-west and in Yorkshire and the Humber to avoid "a long period of uncertainty for local government in the two regions which we do not think is acceptable".

The proposed referendums were put on hold two months ago, with the Government citing worries over the security of the all-postal ballot as a reason, although critics believed ministers were awaiting a "yes" vote from the North-east in the hope it would create a "domino effect" elsewhere.

The Deputy Prime Minister, who admitted the case against the North-east Assembly had been "all summed up" in the white elephant chosen by its opponents as their campaign symbol, has been bruised by his spectacular rebuff in the North-east. He has privately rebuked Cabinet colleagues for not campaigning harder for a "yes" result in Thursday's vote.

In the Commons, he insisted regional assemblies were just one part of the Government's "wider programme of devolution and decentralisation".

Bodies such as the regional development agencies and appointed assemblies would continue to play important roles and councils would be given more freedom, he said.

"Our vision for reform, change and modernisation means we will continue to decentralise and devolve power wherever we can."

He insisted there was still a "very strong case" for elected assemblies because otherwise the regions would be relying on unelected quangos.

Mrs Spelman said of the result: "People understood loud and clear that the assembly would not put one more doctor, teacher, nurse or policeman into service."

The vote had left a serious question mark over the Government's entire regional agenda and challenged Whitehall to restore "core powers that have been stolen from local government", she said.

Ed Davey, the local government spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, who supported the assembly, said there was a "growing democratic deficit in our regions" as a result of the vote.

William Hague, the Tory MP for Richmond in Yorkshire, said his region "would have voted 'no' in even more numbers".

Gordon Prentice, Labour MP for Pendle in Lancashire, said the referendum would have been "lost most certainly" in the North-west.

David Curry, a former Tory local government minister and the MP for Skipton and Ripon, said there had been a "colossal gap" in the North-east between the rhetoric about devolution and the limited powers the assembly was being given.

He accused the Government of failing to decide what it wanted to devolve. "You therefore spent the last few days of the referendum scratching around for any powers you could beg, borrow or steal to make the devolution look substantial," he told Mr Prescott.

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