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House of Commons

Wednesday 11 July 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Queen's Speech (Answer to Address)

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported Her Majesty's Answer to the Address, as follows:

I have received with great satisfaction the dutiful and loyal expression of your thanks for the speech with which I opened the present Session of Parliament.


Greenham and Cookham Commons Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

To be further considered on Wednesday 18 July.

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Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State was asked—

Better Regulation Task Force

1. Paul Clark (Gillingham): What plans he has for the future operation of the better regulation task force. [1869]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Deputy Prime Minister has asked me to apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for his absence today. I know that he has written to you and to the hon. Members for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and for Winchester (Mr. Oaten). He is currently undertaking a series of meetings abroad on climate change on behalf of the Prime Minister and is today meeting the Japanese Prime Minister.

We are determined that regulation should be necessary and fair and should impose the minimum burden on business. The better regulation task force will continue to provide Government with high quality, independent advice on how to achieve this aim.

Paul Clark: I thank my hon. Friend for her response and welcome her and the Parliamentary Secretary to their new posts on the Front Bench and wish them all the best. I draw her attention particularly to regulations that impact on public services. She will know from visiting schools and the police service in her constituency the common and justifiable complaints about the burden of form filling, paperwork and unnecessary bureaucracy. What steps does she plan to take, and when, to reduce that burden on the teachers in our classrooms, the nurses on our wards and the bobbies on the beat?

Mrs. Roche: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words of welcome; we are very pleased to be here. When we talk about regulation, we do not discuss frequently enough its impact on public services. That is why the Government have responded positively to the task force report on the effect of red tape on head teachers, for example. The public sector team in the Cabinet Office has produced real cuts in public sector paperwork and bureaucracy that will save GP hours. It will save 200 hours a year in a typical school and will save the police 187,000 hours a year. It is very important that we reduce the burden of form filling on our police, our teachers and our doctors, enabling them to deliver the service that all our constituents need.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I, too, congratulate the hon. Lady and her ministerial colleague on their new appointments. Although nobody can accuse the Deputy Prime Minister of discourtesy to the House this afternoon, it is a pity that he did not reorganise his priorities because it is the prime duty of a senior Minister

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of the Crown to be in this House and respond to questions. What is the precise target for the reduction of regulations? What figure does the Minister have in mind?

Mrs. Roche: On the hon. Gentleman's first point, of course my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister takes very seriously the absolute duty to be accountable to the House, as do all members of the Government. The opportunity to meet the Japanese Prime Minister came up at the last moment. The Opposition and Mr. Speaker were informed and, given the importance of climate change, it was felt that the House would understand why the meeting was necessary.

As for targets, we aim to reduce regulation where we can and to make sure that there is a proper framework for business so that it can remain competitive. Of course, a very good benchmark of that is today's announcement that inward investment into this country is at record high levels.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): I add my congratulations to the Ministers on their new posts.

I am glad to hear that the task force is to continue its work. Recently, a small business in my constituency complained that it could not take on graduates and give them the necessary training because of the stifling effect of regulations. I seek an assurance that the task force will investigate that and ensure that it does not happen in future.

Mrs. Roche: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Small businesses are the life-blood of this country. I was formerly the Minister responsible for the small business sector and I retain an active interest in it. Small businesses now employ a record number of people and we must give them every support. It is very important for them to be able to recruit highly skilled, highly motivated graduates, and I will certainly bring that to the attention of the task force and the unit.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Government regulations over the past five years cost businesses about £10 billion. Is the Minister in a position to say that the figure will come down in the coming five years?

Mrs. Roche: I have seen many very different figures from different organisations, so I would dispute that figure. Most regulation does not add to the burden—quite a lot of it is there to ease administration. It is important to scrutinise every extra piece of legislation to ensure that it is helpful. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising some of the measures that we introduced to improve people's pay and working conditions, such as the minimum wage.

Government Policy (Co-ordination)

2. Hugh Bayley (City of York): What initiatives are being taken by Government offices for the regions to improve the co-ordination of Government policy. [1871]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): Government offices bring together in the regions the activities and interests of many different Departments.

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They work with a wide range of local organisations involved in regeneration, competitiveness and social inclusion.

Hugh Bayley: York suffered major problems during the flooding last November, but a major catastrophe of water breaking through the defences was avoided because of good planning by the local authority and excellent leadership by the police of the Silver command, which brought together the local authority, the emergency services, the Army and other bodies involved in York's flood defences. I pay tribute to the role that the Deputy Prime Minister himself played, coming to York twice in those 10 days and responding within an hour at the weekend to my phone call asking for more sandbags—he arranged for 50,000 extra sandbags to be delivered.

Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Yorkshire regional office uses York's success in averting catastrophe as a case study of what planning and the good co-ordination of Government and private agencies can achieve, and further ensure that those lessons are learned and used by others facing major disasters?

Mrs. Roche: I am certainly aware of the effects that the winter floods had on York, and I absolutely agree that Government offices throughout the country have a very important role to play in coping with emergencies. Co-ordination between local authorities and the police is extremely important.

I thank my hon. Friend for the support that he gave to the defence team. It is very important, when emergency workers are dealing with such situations on the ground, that local Members of Parliament—I know that this applies right across the House—take part and provide support. That is why we are spending a further £51 million on flood defence aid. We definitely need to see what lessons can be learned, as my hon. Friend said, to see how we react and to spread good practice through the rest of the Government offices and other agencies as well.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I, too, welcome the Minister to her new responsibilities.

The regional context of policy is of course set by the Government's intentions in relation to regional government, and throughout the last Parliament the Government had a manifesto commitment to legislate on referendums for directly elected regional government but at no stage timetabled any such referendum or introduced any associated legislation. Is it the Government's intention to legislate for referendums on directly elected regional government in this Parliament?

Mrs. Roche: First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy in welcoming my appointment and that of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Front Bench. That is greatly appreciated. The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister answered a written question on 2 July, saying that a White Paper would be produced on this issue.

Mr. Lansley: I am grateful to the Minister, and I have seen that reply, but it does not even tell us whether the Government intend to repeat their commitment from the 1997 manifesto, which was to legislate for

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referendums on directly elected regional government. Perhaps the hon. Lady will answer that point. Further to that, the Government said in the manifesto that referendums should go ahead in regions where people supported directly elected regional government or where predominantly unitary local government was established. Does she know where the latter requirement has been met? Are there any regions, in her view, where predominantly unitary local government has been established? If not, where is she proposing to make changes in local government to make that so?

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman raises genuinely interesting questions about issues that will be the subject of the White Paper. They will need to be addressed, but the purpose of having a White Paper is to ensure that issues are considered and, in due course, presented to the House for consideration.

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