Governance in England

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Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck): Recent analysis has suggested that it would require an extra £1.4 billion of public expenditure to raise the level of public spending in the north-east to match that of Scotland. Once the White Paper has been produced, does the Minister of State plan to discuss reforming regional finances to, if possible, extend the Barnett formula to the English regions?

Mrs. Roche: We have no plans to revisit the formula, but I well understand the views on regeneration that have been advanced in the north-east. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and I recently spent time there discussing the issue with business people, local authorities and people in the universities. They told us that what they saw as regional governments were key economic drivers, which co-ordinated strategies in the region and should speak up for it. That is why there is a strong argument in the north-east for regional assemblies to take the agenda forward.

Andrew George: How obsessed are Ministers with their boundaries? To someone looking in from the outside, the north-east and Yorkshire appear to enjoy a settled will, and there is some satisfaction at the fact that they have internal integrity and a sense of identity. The boundaries seem to be more or less contiguous with community-defined boundaries. However, how obsessed are Ministers with the issue? Are they prepared to push it to the point where the whole devolution agenda fails because they are too inflexible to accept that other solutions might be more appropriate? Communities from Government-defined region might suggest a solution, and there could be a settled will within its boundaries and mutual recognition for separate regions that were prepared to work together. Would the Minister for Local Government prefer to a have a solution or to be presented with a problem?

Mr. Raynsford: We are always interested in solutions—our primary objective is to find effective and successful solutions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are neither obsessed with boundaries, nor inflexible. He will recognise, however, that opening up the issue of boundaries could lead to a long debate about precisely where they should be drawn, which would jeopardise the progress of the agenda to give regions the opportunity to elect their own regional assemblies. We must take a pragmatic approach to the issue.

Discussions that I have had about Cumbria in the north-west illustrate my point. Some elements in Cumbria feel a greater sense of identity with the north-east, but others, particularly in the southern part of the county, feel a greater affinity with the north-west. That encapsulates the problem. Opening the issue up could lead to an attempt to redraw a boundary within an individual county, and matters would begin to become complex. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind the difficulties and pitfalls of pursuing the issue too enthusiastically, but I assure him that we shall approach it sensibly and pragmatically and that we are not inflexible or in any way obsessed.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): The East Midlands development agency is pursuing a business-led, sub-regional partnership model. It is specifically changing the proposed number of elected councillors to create partnerships that are dominated by business. Is the Minister of State as comfortable as I am with that model?

Mrs. Roche: Yes, if it works. It is important that members are engaged in those partnerships. The regional development agencies are developing and creating an overall regional strategy and, as my hon. Friend said, partnerships at a sub-regional level. We know from our constituencies that different parts of the area that we represent will need different economic remedies and solutions. We have made it clear that the business element and leadership of RDAs is important.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Which Department is taking responsibility for producing and promoting the White Paper? Is it the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions or the Cabinet Office? Given that an early draft of the White Paper must have been produced, will Ministers share their developing thinking on how directly elected regional assemblies will be funded and elected? Will they also share their view as to whether it may be possible for different directly elected regional assemblies to take on a different range of powers? Will variations in powers be possible between one assembly and another?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the publication of the White Paper for full answers, because we are only developing our thinking at this stage. However, in response to his interesting and significant questions, I can tell him that the responsibility to which he refers will lie with the Deputy Prime Minister, although it is an overall Government responsibility. The Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry all have important roles to play. The White Paper will reflect the united view of the Government.

We shall set out our proposals on the funding arrangements, as we did in relation to Scotland, Wales and the city-wide government in London. Similarly, we shall propose a framework for election methods.

The issue of differential powers is interesting. As the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) will recognise, a degree of asymmetry is implicit in our proposals. We propose that regions should have the option of having an elected regional assembly if they choose to do so through a referendum. Some may chose to do so—we expect that they will—while others may choose not to. It is inherent that a pattern may develop whereby some regions have an elected regional assembly, while others do not. Arrangements must ensure, therefore, that suitable systems are in place so that those regions that do not have elected regional assemblies can continue to benefit from various Government programmes through the existing machinery of the Government office for the regions.

However, to ask whether there should be differential powers for different regions that choose to have an elected regional assembly is to go a bridge further. As the hon. Member for Bath will recognise, that might cause difficulties in terms of differential opportunities in various regions, and the matter needs our careful thought. As I assured the hon. Gentleman, we shall make clear our proposals in the White Paper.

Joyce Quin: Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman), will my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Cabinet Office consider carefully the responses she receives about the size of regional governments? Does she agree that such bodies will need to be able to perform both executive and scrutiny roles, so that people will feel that the business of regional government is being monitored on their behalf? Does she also agree that, although the parallel with London is interesting, the debate actually relates to some large territories throughout the country, the geographical parts of which will need to feel involved in the regional government process? Finding ways of co-opting people and having an inclusive approach to regional government will be important.

Mrs. Roche: I understand the important points that my hon. Friend makes. Being inclusive will be important, and all parts of regions must feel involved. That is why we are undergoing the essential process of listening to right hon. and hon. Members' comments, of which today's debate is an important part.

Mr. Steen: The Minister for Local Government said that the Government were in the business of finding solutions, but he must realise that it is no good having solutions until one knows what the problem is. When he explained how many Ministers would be involved in regional government, I realised what the problem was: with so many Ministers involved, it is like the Tower of Babel.

The whole thing is simple: the Government want to get off the hook by handing down money and jobs for the regions, without specifying exactly their aims. By handing over a whole chunk of money and responsibility to the regions and creating another huge layer of bureaucracy to manage it, Ministers in Westminster will have an easier time, because they will have much less to do. Is that the Government's thinking? It would be helpful to Committee members with limited intelligence if they were given such a simple answer.

Mr. Raynsford: The simple answer is no. I shall elaborate briefly. We are interested in finding solutions to the problems, the first of which is the sense in several regions that decision making is too remote and that people do not have a sufficient influence on matters of predominantly regional concern. Secondly, several of the bodies discharging responsibilities are quangos that are in no way answerable to regional communities. There is a case for creating a more democratic and accountable framework in which people in the regions can have greater influence.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State alluded to the fact that some people in the regions believe passionately that the economic performance of regions can be improved by a greater focus and a co-ordination of those policies relating to economic development, planning and transportation and other relevant issues that need to be considered together to ensure effective regional development policies. It is certainly our objective that the creation of elected regional assemblies will help those processes. We do not intend to offload responsibility; we are a listening Government, who seek to respond to the legitimate aspirations of those in different regions who want more regional control over regional decision making.

Lawrie Quinn: I want to develop an earlier question for the Minister of State. The Regional Affairs Committee is established under Standing Order No. 117, which allows us to meet with regularity and urgency. Almost six months have passed since we last met—I believe that we met on the eve of the general election, although I may be wrong about that. Given that the Minister is limited by her brief, it might be appropriate in the new year for her colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry to discuss with the Committee their view of the work being done on regional government. If she agrees, will she make those representations to her colleagues in the DTI?

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Prepared 18 December 2001