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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
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 pathI do not think there is a demand out there for itdoes 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
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.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Our comprehensive agenda for reform of the local government finance system was set out in last December's White Paper. Our finance reforms will give councils more space to innovate, and to respond in ways that are appropriate to local circumstances, by providing local authorities with significant new freedoms to borrow, invest, trade, charge and set their own spending priorities.
Mr. McCabe: My hon. Friend is doubtless aware that one constant criticism of local authorities is the rising level of ring-fenced grants. Will he take an early look at that difficulty, which impacts on local authorities' room for manoeuvre and on local working partnerships? Will he try to introduce some early proposals to address that problem?
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point, and the Government are discussing this very matter with the Local Government Associationnot least in the context of the forthcoming spending review. The local government White Paper spells out clearly our aim gradually to restrict ring-fenced grants to genuinely high-priority areas.
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): The Minister will be aware that the review of standard spending assessments is reportedly reaching a conclusion. As the Government prepare to issue a consultation document on their findings, I ask them to ensure that authorities that are part of the
Mr. Leslie: The hon. Gentleman is right and consultations are due to begin shortly. On the question of the grant distribution, there are no easy solutions. Many difficult and competing pressures from local authorities must be faced, but I will take his comments as an early submission.
Mr. Neil Turner (Wigan): Can my hon. Friend confirm that when the review comes out it will be based on the principles of transparency and, more importantly, fairness, to take account of the needs of local authorities and their abilities to raise resources from all sources?
Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes an important point. I believe that the fairness and simplicity of any grant formula is crucial. Competing pressures include deprivation and the recruitment and retention of staff, and all those matters will be addressed in the options for the future consultation document.