Governance in England

[back to previous text]

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Hood. I believe that this is the first sitting of the Committee for some time, probably more than a year. That might suggest that the subject matter of our debate hardly attracts the attention of hon. Members. Many hon. Members have confirmed that the issue is hardly a burning one in their constituencies. The debate, although welcome, has hardly progressed the argument, and we look forward to the response of the Minister for Local Government. Perhaps he will shed light on some of the many questions that have been posed, but I suspect that he will not before the White Paper.

The Government seem lumbered with a policy that was thought up at the time of devolution for Scotland and Wales. To cover their back, perhaps someone made a commitment in the manifesto that the English should have some devolution as well. The Government are slightly reluctant to give clear and unequivocal leadership on selling the idea of regional government. We have heard today about the problem of defining regional identity and the fact that there has been no discussion on the boundaries of the regions, which appear to be set in stone.

The hon. Member for St. Ives made some points about Cornwall. He may have stopped short of advocating its independence, but it is clear what his local papers will cover tomorrow and the day after. There is no perfect solution for the delineation of regions. We heard of the Spanish experience as an example. There will be winners and losers, as the Minister more or less admitted in our question time. Until there is clear agreement on boundaries and definitions, this dog's dinner of a proposal will stagger from mini-crisis to mini-crisis.

The Government insist that they will be pragmatic, but if they deem regional government to be in principle beneficial, a more efficacious way to deliver services and—they trot out the belief frequently—more accountable to the electorate, why do they not have the courage of their convictions and set a clear blueprint for regional government and all that follows from it, in terms of other tiers of government for England? Instead, the Government are allowing certain areas, through local plebiscites and referendums, to decide whether they want regional government. If the boundaries of the region have not been defined in the first place, what right have they to ask people in a delineated area whether they want regional government?

In some respects, that is putting the cart before the horse. Do the Government not share our concern, which was extremely well put by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire? My hon. Friend cogently made our argument against the concept of regional government, which is that a multi-layered model of local government would lead to confusion among the electorate. The hon. Member for Bassetlaw rightly said that we already have too many elections. Adding another will lead to confusion between the various tiers of local government about who is doing what, and who is responsible for this or that. Starting new structure on an ad hoc basis, some having the new tier and others not wanting it, will create more confusion.

Some regions may opt not to go for regional government, and the unlikely example of the south-east region was used, which makes no sense to us. However, if some do not accept regional government, who will then deliver the responsibilities that the Government want to devolve to regional government? Will the budgets that would otherwise have been given to regional governments be somehow devolved to existing tiers of local government such as county councils, metropolitan boroughs and the like; or will they be retained centrally so that the Government can deliver the services?

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire spoke ably about referendums taking place at different times in different parts of the country. If there is a move in the north-east and Yorkshire towards regional government, other regions will think that unless they, too, go for it, they will lose out. Unless the Government say clearly where that budget money is to go, the other regions will face substantial pressure to go for it; otherwise they may believe that they will lose out because the resources allocated to their regions will go either to regional government or to existing tiers of local government. Does the Minister not believe that regions that do not opt for regional government will be at a disadvantage? What does he think might happen in those circumstances?

The crucial question, put by the hon. Member for Bath, was whether the powers that the Government want to give to regional government will be devolved from central Government or taken from the lower tiers of government. There seems little point in regional government if it is simply a glorified way of delivering services currently provided reasonably well by existing tiers of government, particularly by county councils and metropolitan boroughs. If the only additional responsibility is for economic development and regeneration, it could surely be added to the existing responsibilities of the various tiers of councils without going to the massive cost and trouble of reorganisation.

The hon. Member for Scarborough and Whitby spoke of what took place in Humberside. It cost £53 million or thereabouts to reorganise Humberside county council. If that is replicated across the country, if all the shire counties go for regional government, reorganisations costs will come to £1.8 billion. What is the point, unless real advantages can be gained from the change?

Lawrie Quinn: I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman. If he believes that to be so, why did the previous Conservative Administration abolish Humberside and Cleveland, and generally cause chaos in my part of the world?

Mr. Moss: There was always a strong case for reorganising Humberside county council, because it did not work, and people in north Lincolnshire will tell anyone that they hated the concept. However, my point is that reorganisation will involve a massive cost, which must be justified by the benefits. Conservative Members have made it clear that the Government have not given a clear commitment or focused clearly on what the benefits will be.

That brings me back to my first point, which is that the Government are not giving proper leadership. They are stuck with the policy and are in drift. We look forward to the White Paper, but it will not answer the key questions that have been posed today and on other occasions.

Lawrie Quinn: On a point of order, Mr. Hood. I regret having to ask this, but could you seek clarification from the House authorities about the Committee's future work and about how it might return to certain regional matters in due course? I say that, in particular, because the White Paper will be published in the new year, and there will be great regional issues for the House to consider, as numerous hon. Members have said.

The Chairman: That is a matter not for the Chair, but for the Government.

12.16 pm

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford): We have had a useful and interesting debate, which has covered a range of subjects relating to our proposals for the introduction of elected regional assemblies in regions that opt for them. It is entirely appropriate that we have heard a range of different views, because the whole purpose of such a Committee is to act as a forum for hon. Members to discuss their experiences and views and for the Government to listen and learn. That is very much what we have sought to do, and I shall try to respond to the many questions that have been raised.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby talked movingly about Whitby's isolation and its economic decline, which is associated with the decline of the fishing industry. He mentioned the need for more effective measures to revive and develop the economy, and we hope that a regional assembly with a strong focus on economic development in the Yorkshire and Humberside area would help to develop the economic proposals and related infrastructure investment that would reverse the downward trend. Whitby has several great advantages because it is an attractive location with strong literary associations and cultural qualities, and I have no doubt that it will, with the right support and the able involvement of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, enjoy a renaissance in the years ahead.

I support my hon. Friend's tribute to Jane Thomas and to the work of the Campaign for Yorkshire. I noted that he supported the Government's proposition that regions that choose to have an elected regional assembly should be able to have one. I had a most useful meeting in Yorkshire a couple of months ago with representatives from all parts of the region, including North Yorkshire, and I was impressed by the extent to which they wanted to work across political divisions. Not only politicians, but representatives of the business community and cultural organisations, trade unionists and others wanted to work together in the interests of the whole Yorkshire and Humberside region. That augurs well for the region.

The hon. Member for Bath apologised that he was unable to stay for the rest of the debate and took issue with me over my use of the word ''curmudgeonly'', although he had some difficulty spelling it, which was a somewhat alarming revelation from a former teacher. I am pleased to say that I was able to supply him with a suggested spelling with which he seemed to agree.

The hon. Gentleman emphasised the importance of regional government and supported the proposition that it should be made available to those regions that expressed a wish for it, rather than being imposed on all regions. That theme has come up throughout the debate, although it has been expressed in different terms. It is important to stress that if people believe, as the Government do, that regions should have the option to have an elected regional assembly, the necessary consequence of that is that there will be variations. Some regions will have elected assemblies, others will not. One cannot allow a regime based on consent and not accept the consequences.

The Opposition may feel that that is not ideal, and the hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) stressed that in his view the Government should lay down the blueprint and impose it everywhere, but I do not accept that proposition. The view expressed by the hon. Member for Bath more accurately reflects the wishes of the people of this country, that those who wish to have an elected regional assembly should have one and those who do not should be free not to. The Government are proceeding on the basis that people should not have the measure imposed on them.

I would like to respond to some of the other points raised by the hon. Member for Bath. We strongly believe that there is a democratic case for making unaccountable bodies more accountable to the regions. We agree with him that there is a future role for Government offices. I note that he said that some Liberal Democrats believed that there would be no need for a Government office once an elected regional assembly had been established. The fact that the Liberal Democrats cannot agree on that puts us in familiar territory. I have no doubt that they will debate the matter at great length, but our view is that Government offices will continue to have a role, though a reduced and changed one, which is what happened in London. There is still a Government office there, but its role has changed since the creation of the Greater London Authority.

On methods of election, the hon. Member for Bath referred to the precedents of the proportional systems used in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. I will say no more about that. We will examine those precedents when considering what proposals we will put in the White Paper. Those proposals will be revealed when we publish the White Paper.

On the issue of size—to stress the key theme—the hon. Member for Bath thought that the Liberal Democrat White Paper, when published, would opt for larger assemblies than the Government's proposals. I have never known a Liberal Democrat who did not want more opportunities for talking shops where people can gather and talk incessantly. However, as I suggested earlier, our view is that the assemblies should be fit for the purpose and should be streamlined bodies capable of delivering value for money, rather than talking shops.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire made it clear that he did not support the creation of elected regional assemblies. I accept that Worcestershire may have no interest in the idea of an elected regional assembly. I hope that he will take comfort from the fact that we have no intention of imposing an elected regional assembly on those regions that do not express a wish to have one. The policy is permissive.

However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there are strong feelings in some regions, particularly in the north, where people want a greater degree of devolution and the opportunity to control matters relevant to their region. It would be wrong to deny them that opportunity on the grounds that people in other parts of the country did not feel the same pressing need for such a programme.

The hon. Gentleman expressed concerns about some of the existing regional bodies, which he suggested should be abolished or made accountable to counties or unitary authorities, and he accused the Government of seeking to abolish counties, claiming that we were doing so by progressively stripping them of their planning powers and threatening them in all sorts of ways.

There is a degree of inconsistency in the hon. Gentleman's arguments. If he argues, as he did, that the regional assemblies risk creating another tier of government, it is difficult for him to argue against the proposals in our planning Green Paper that there are too many tiers of planning powers. There are regional, county and district tiers, and possibly a local tier as well. He can take one option or the other. Either he opts for streamlining and cutting out tiers and accepts the argument that there are too many tiers in planning, or he can say that he wants all those tiers, in which case his argument against regional assemblies is not very convincing. I simply ask him to be consistent.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 December 2001