Governance in England

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Mrs. Roche: We all have similar examples from our own constituencies. It is important to return to our earlier discussion and the points made by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government. We approach the issues sensibly. Whatever the regional boundaries, it will be essential for people to discuss such issues across them, because issues such as an airport or an economic development strategy do not necessarily stop at the regional boundary. It is important that such an approach is adopted after any regional government is established. It is also important to implement sub-regional economic strategies, which can sometimes straddle areas.

Andrew George: As the theme of my questions so far has been obsessions, does the Minister share my obsession that the introduction of regional government should be triggered by a referendum? If so, what is required to trigger a referendum? For example, 50,000 people in Cornwall have signed sheets calling for such a referendum. They have been sent to the Minister for Local Government and the Regions and verified in the local records office. What percentage of the population will have to call for a referendum in order to trigger one to bring about regional devolution?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. No decision has been taken and we shall set out our conclusions in the White Paper. There are several possible options. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the petition submitted by people from Cornwall. One option would be a requirement for a certain proportion of the population of a region to submit a petition to trigger a referendum. Another would be for one of the bodies that already exist in the regions—probably the chambers that have been brought into existence to monitor and oversee the work of RDAs—to submit a proposal for a referendum, possibly after a defined form of consultation to ensure that views within the region had been canvassed. We are considering other proposals and our response will be based on the principle that there must be a demonstrable wish within a region for an elected regional assembly for that to happen. That is why we require a referendum. We do not wish to start the process on a whim, without clear evidence of a wish to proceed to a referendum that will determine the will of the region.

The Chairman: Order.

Regional Governance in England

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee has considered the matter of regional governance in England.—[Mr. Raynsford.]

11.2 am

Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Hood. It is an unexpected pleasure. I apologise to you and to the Committee that I have to leave shortly to attend to other responsibilities in the House. As the time for questions has come to an end, may I use this opportunity to make a few points? Although I shall not be able to hear the Minister's response, I am sure that my hon. Friends will.

I was disappointed in the use by the Minister for Local Government of the word curmudgeonly, not because it may not have been deserved, but because my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) and I have been attempting to spell it and find that we are unable. We shall look with great interest at the Official Report for clarification. I see that the Minister is now having a go.

The Minister, his team and the Government share the view of Liberal Democrats that regional government is of vital importance for England. Its time has come and it is important to proceed in a way that has genuine popular support in each of the regions where it is to be established. We agree on the broad principles. I know that one of the key arguments of many who are critical of the development of regional government is the notion that the introduction of regional government would produce a huge additional tier of bureaucracy and cost. I hope that the Minister shares my view that that is an erroneous position. The introduction of regional government will not only solve the obvious problem of the democratic deficit, in that many regional decisions are being made over which people in the regions have no control; many unelected bodies are responsible for making those decisions, underpinned by a huge range of bureaucratic procedures and run at considerable cost. We very much hope that the many quangos will be swept together into regional government, and that that will significantly reduce costs and bureaucracy. The argument used by some people that regional government constitutes an additional tier of bureaucracy and cost cannot be proven.

In developing the White Paper, I hope that the Government will give serious thought to the future role of the Government offices for the regions. I know that some people, including some in my party, believe that once regional government has been introduced, there will be no need for Government offices for the regions. I believe that once we have established what the powers of regional government will be, it will still be helpful to have a body of government at regional level to act as the point of contact between regional and central Government in respect of several national Government powers. Therefore, the powers and responsibilities of the Government offices for the regions will clearly change, but I hope that the Ministers will agree with me that those offices should continue but with different powers and responsibilities.

Neither of the Ministers was prepared to give us their views about the method of election for regional government. However, it has been the view of the Labour Government that there should be a system of proportional representation—a fair voting system—in Wales and Scotland, as already exists in Northern Ireland and in the regional government for London. I hope that when we eventually see the White Paper, it will contain proposals for proportional representation as the basis for the election of members to the regional assemblies. It would be interesting to hear what sort of size the Government envisage that the elected bodies will be. I am sure that the Ministers and I share the view that they should be large enough to fit the purpose but no larger, but that still leaves the difficulty of deciding on a number. We will shortly produce our own White Paper on that very issue, so the Ministers will have to wait to see what figure we recommend. I suspect that our White Paper will be published sooner than the Government's.

It is also important to deal with the issue of funding, and it is disappointing that the Government have said nothing so far about that. I presume that, in the early stages, some form of block grant will be considered based on needs, perhaps involving the development of the Barnett formula to cover all the regions and nations of our country. Presumably, in addition, there will be other sums of money from various quangos in a region. In due course, we will be interested to discover whether the assemblies will have tax-raising powers.

As I said, I have to go in a few moments—

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes): Good.

Mr. Foster: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is keen to see me depart sooner rather than later, although given the demise of the Conservative party in the south-west, he is unlikely to see my demise through the electoral process.

The importance of regional government cannot be stressed too much. It is disappointing to many people that we have had to wait so long for progress. We are delighted that at last the Government appear to want to pursue the matter with greater speed than has been apparent in the past five years. Although we may disagree about some of the details—which we hope to have opportunities to discuss in the next few months—we assure the Government of our full support for driving forward the principle of regional government, provided that, first, they stick rigidly to their commitment that it will not be imposed on the people of any region, but will be based on their wish for it, and, secondly, that it will, as the Minister for Local Government has said, take on powers devolved downwards from central Government and not taken up from local government.

11.10 am

Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): It is a pleasure, Mr. Hood, to see you presiding over these important discussions. Your predecessor, Mr. McWilliam, did a sterling job, although too briefly. I hope that we shall see you frequently in the Chair, and have many opportunities for illuminating debate and questions such as we have had this morning.

I notice from the monitor that my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Mr. Wyatt), who is unable to attend the Committee today, is continuing the important debate on regionalism. A debate on the Barnett formula is under way in Westminster Hall as we speak. If anything underpins my enthusiasm for progress on regional government and improvement in the economic dimension of regionalism, it is the long history of the Barnett formula. There is a desire in the north-east for redress as to the distribution of funds and facilities to enable our communities to be developed, reinvented and regenerated.

I think that the time is right for regional government and I welcome the comments of the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster); it is a pleasure to follow him. In a previous debate I followed the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The similarities in our approach to regional government are reflected in the types of communities that we represent. If this place is to be relevant and advance in the new century it must be seen to be relevant and to produce results for the communities that we serve.

The important town of Whitby is the second largest community in my constituency. It is 40 miles from anywhere. It is isolated and—particularly on account of the 18 years under the Conservative party—was left very much to its own devices. Little progress was made and there was little opportunity for development in the key matters of training and education, or for a reinvention or regeneration of the principle infrastructure of the town. The fishing industry failed. The best that Whitby could offer was exported. Many children, on reaching 18, were forced to leave Whitby forever.

The agenda that I hope regional government will pursue will enable people to fulfil their aspiration to stay in Whitby and lead a good, useful and economically beneficial existence there, and I look forward to that. Above all else, as the hon. Member for Bath pointed out, that can be delivered only with the will of the people, alongside the key proposition. That is why the key element of the White Paper—at least, as how I understand it, although it has not been revealed to the Committee—is to conduct a referendum to test regional opinion. When the time is right, each region will move on. I firmly believe—this is important not least for the aspirations and hopes of the people of Whitby—that my region of Yorkshire and Humber will be one of the first to use the blueprint that will emerge from the ongoing debate on regional government. If there is no feeling of stakeholding and no public support for this important programme of regional government, the whole project will be damaged.

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