White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions"

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Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): At least eight hon. Members wish to contribute to the debate, so I assure the Committee that I shall be brief. I am sure that the Minister would agree that the key to this issue is whether regional devolution gains the acceptance of the British people. Therefore, the way in which the process is brought about is very important. The Conservatives believe that, as far as possible, local services should be delivered locally and power should be devolved down to the lowest possible level.

Will the Minister tell us exactly how the referendum will be funded, especially in the run-up from now onwards? I gather that a regional chamber called the north-east regional assembly is devoting funds to try to ensure that a yes vote is obtained in a referendum for a north-east assembly. In a democratic process, it is wrong that taxpayer's funds should go towards trying to influence an outcome either way, and I should like reassurance from the Minister about that. Once a referendum has been announced, who will be able to contribute funds to support each opposing side, and how much will they be allowed to contribute? Will there be a floor to the number of people who turn out for a referendum and vote for it? It would be wrong if, as happened in Wales, the eventual outcome were influenced by only about 4,000 people in a population of about 2.5 million. Safeguards must be built in in relation to either the number of people who vote in the referendum or the eventual majority accepted. I believe that in the Scottish referendum, originally, Jim Callaghan insisted on a two-thirds majority.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): Just to reinforce my hon. Friend's figures, the turnout was 50.1 per cent.; 49.7 per cent. voted no, and 50.3 per cent. voted yes, so the figure was 0.6 per cent.. There was no procedure for a recount. Dividing that between 40 constituencies, there should have been a recount, which we were denied in Wales.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Whatever the outcome of a referendum, it must be seen to be fair by the people who participate in it. In both national parliamentary elections and local government elections, turnouts are increasingly dropping. To any democrat, that must be a concern. We want answers from the Minister about how the referendums will be conducted.

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) made a good point about planning. To what extent will the elected regional assembly be able to dictate to the unitary authorities, and in what areas? That is a particular concern in planning. Will it be able to hand down specific house-building targets to each unitary authority, or will each unitary authority be able to draw up its local plan and be allowed some autonomy in the matter? In what other areas will it be dictated to by the regional assembly?

I, and, I believe, the Minister, was in the east midlands participating in a conference this week with

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my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). Concern has been expressed in the east midlands that other stakeholders, such as businesses and trade unionists, would not have a sufficient consultative role in regional assemblies. How can other stakeholders be involved? If they are not properly seen to be, and do not feel to be, involved, regional assemblies will not work.

Considerable concern has been expressed that smaller, especially small rural, areas will be dominated by large urban areas. For example, areas of Cumbria might be worried about being dominated from Liverpool and Manchester, or Cornwall and Gloucestershire might be worried about being dominated by Bristol and Exeter. We need regional assemblies to have real democratic accountability and to be responsive to smaller areas.

There are so many issues that I could raise, but I return finally to cost. The White Paper states that the administrative costs will be about £25 million each—that is, £200 million for the eight regional assemblies. Are we sure that those budgets are realistic, or shall we find those administrative budgets spiralling out of control? On a capital basis, when the Deputy Prime Minister's authority was reorganised, for that one authority the cost involved was £53 million. If that is translated to the rest of the country, the cost of reorganisation would seem to be about £2 billion. We should like to hear more from the Minister. The Welsh Assembly building cost £50 million, and the long-term lease on the London Assembly building is £120 million, so large costs are being built up.

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford) indicated dissent.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister shakes his head, but those are actual costs that have been incurred by those bodies. He must explain what the capital costs will be.

The bodies will no doubt have to have premises in Brussels. The Minister brushed that aside, saying that their existing lobbying arrangements may be suitable, but you can bet your bottom dollar that once people are in post, with all their civil servants, they will want buildings in Brussels. What will that cost?

What scrutiny powers will the House have over regional assemblies? Will we find the same as happens in relation to Welsh and Scottish questions, whereby we, elected Members of Parliament, are completely debarred from asking questions on a raft of policy issues in those regions? That would be unacceptable.

Will elected regional assemblies put a single policeman, teacher or social services worker on the ground, or will they cost the people of this country a huge amount of money for very little gain?

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Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I welcome the White Paper and congratulate the Government on the seriousness with which they have addressed the issue of regional devolution. The proposals in the White Paper build on the important work of RDAs and the growing work of the existing regional chambers and regional assemblies.

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I also welcome the Government's recognition that devolution in the United Kingdom is not to be confined to Scotland, Wales and, in England, only London, and, of course, Northern Ireland. This is an opportunity for the English regions. It is important that the White Paper is considered properly and that the Minister and the Government give full consideration to all the comments made.

There are three major ways in which the White Paper should be addressed. The first is to examine economic disparities to find out whether regional devolution will enhance the work of RDAs, whose remit is to consider the economic potential of the entire region, including both rural and urban areas. The second relates to the democratic deficit. Many bodies that already operate at a regional level are not accountable to people in the regions.

Mr. Evans: Does the hon. Lady agree that people feel closer to their district and county councils than they would to a regional government? Does she believe that people voting for regional government should know what the local government at the lower level will be?

Mrs. Ellman: It is a grave error to assume that regional devolution is about taking over local government powers. It must not do that, and the proposals do not suggest that. Regional devolution is about giving people in the regions greater power and control over bodies that already operate regionally where local government does not have any influence and where regional strategies and matters of regional significance are considered that will work in tandem with, I hope, stronger local government.

The third area that should be addressed in considering regional devolution relates to enhancing the power of people in the regions to influence Government decisions taken at a national level that will have a regional impact. Those must include matters that relate to central Government, allocation of resources and the development of European Union policies that will influence the regions.

I draw the Minister's attention to several areas of concern in the proposals in the White Paper. The first is the number of elected representatives that the Government consider appropriate. The Government are correct in wanting to ensure that elected regional government does not mean new bureaucracies, but I ask them to think again about whether the upper figure of 35 members is adequate for a region such as the north-west that comprises just under 7 million people. It is important that people in the region identify with the elected regional assembly. Might further consideration be given to that?

Secondly, in considering economic disparities and democratic deficit, the proposals in the White Paper for bringing accountability to the regional development agency are welcome. They strike the right balance. It is correct that an elected body should appoint the board of the development agency and decide its strategy. The regional development agency, as an operational body, should remain private-sector

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led and be free to implement that strategy. It is important that ways are devised in which the agency has continuous consultation with the elected assembly to ensure that that strategy is being implemented and can deal with emergencies and new issues that arise in the normal course of events.

I worry about the democratic deficit in general and how that is dealt with in the White Paper. I note the Minister's earlier comments that often those in Opposition find it easy to be against quangos, but that Governments sometimes find it easier to live with them. The proposals for regional quangos should be tightened up in the White Paper. Paragraph 4.2 on page 34 refers to elected assemblies having responsibility for

    ''investment in regeneration, improving housing and public transport, and developing tourism.''

However, there is not great detail in the White Paper about how that responsibility can be exercised and how accountability can be brought to the regional quangos that already operate in the regions. If they are not to disappear, will they be accountable to the regional assembly, if only in a reporting sense? Will they be allowed to carry on as they are, with the regional assembly simply noting that they exist? Will the decisions taken by regional quangos be brought more into focus? Will they be forced to work together more closely and report to the assembly? Will the assembly have an input?

What will happen to the Learning and Skills Council, to which reference was made earlier? If we are considering the development of the economy, the development of training and the acquisition of skills are absolutely essential aspects to take into account. How will the council relate to the elected assembly? When considering important areas such as regeneration and the arts, how will the fact that the Government have now decided to bring more centralisation to the arts by abolishing regional arts councils relate to the wish to have more regional devolution? The existing regional cultural consortiums are nebulous. Regional arts, the spending that goes with that and the regeneration impact of that linked to the work of English Heritage, which already operates regionally, must be dealt with by an elected accountable body. I see little reference to that in the White Paper. There are certainly no firm proposals about such connections.

On page 34, the White Paper refers to elected assemblies having responsibility for issues such as

    ''improving housing and public transport''.

How can such matters be dealt with and how can the elected assembly be responsible for them if it has either no powers over such matters or extremely nebulous powers? Powers are not dealt with in the White Paper, although the word ''influence'' appears many times.

Public transport is clearly mentioned in the White Paper, and it is accepted as a major issue. What will be the relationship between the elected regional assembly, the Strategic Rail Authority and Network Rail when considering rail systems? Will those bodies, and, indeed, the Highways Agency, be required to consult the regional assembly? Will the assembly's views on

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transport to be taken into account when national transport plans are drafted? Is it envisaged that an elected regional assembly should be able to plan regional rail services? There is much closer knowledge at a regional level about what is required within that region than there could ever be nationally. I am concerned that such issues are touched upon in the White Paper, but there are no firm proposals about the powers to be vested in an elected regional body.

One of the key issues that must be resolved if regional devolution is to be successful is how the directly elected regional bodies will be able to influence central Government decisions. Housing investment has already been mentioned. I hope that regional assemblies will have an influence on the Government's formulae for allocating regional investment. Until very recently, the national formulae used to allocate investment funds for housing at a regional level were based much more on the interests of the south-east, especially the problem of homelessness, which took precedence over the need for regeneration in the north and the midlands. That is now being redressed, but only because there is much greater regional consciousness and the Government are listening to regional issues that have been brought to them. However, such issues must be dealt with nationally and there must be a regional influence.

Another area of concern in relation to national decisions that affect the regions, which is of particular interest to the north-west at the moment, is spending on research and development and Government influence on that, or where Government allocated funds for research and development actually end up. I was pleased to hear in my hon. Friend the Chancellor's statement earlier this week that there are to be major new funds for science and research and a major new allocation to the Office of Science and Technology, but who in that office will decide where to allocate the research spending? The north-west is still reeling from the shock of losing the massive investment in Diamond Synchrotron that went from Daresbury to Oxfordshire in the south-east. We still await news of where the Centre for Science, Imaging and Medicine project will be located—hopefully it will be at the Daresbury laboratory in the north-west, which has essential links with the university of Liverpool. That would have a massive impact on Liverpool and the north-west in general.

The allocation of funds for research projects will be decided through bodies such as the Office of Science and Technology. As the Government increases funding, how are we to ensure that there is a regional influence on where funds are allocated? With no regional input, and if the elected regional assemblies have no influence, funds may increasingly be allocated nationally with no guarantee that the impact of regional need and opportunity will be taken into account by officials in their recommendations and decisions.

I welcome the White Paper. I assume that some time will elapse between its publication and the passing of the necessary legislation to make the proposals a reality. I hope that Ministers will use that time to strengthen those proposals, because those of us who

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support regional devolution want to ensure that assemblies are not talking shops—even ones with influence. They should have the power to make a difference.

Last Friday, I attended the annual meeting of the north-west regional assembly which was held in Keswick, Cumbria, along with more than 600 other delegates from a wide variety of organisations, including local authorities, the private and voluntary sectors, trade unions, universities and the national health service. The meeting demonstrated yet again the strength of feeling in the north-west, from a wide variety of people from many different sectors, about the need for a regional voice. I want to ensure that the White Paper gives us that regional voice. We should also increase regional influence and give the north-west and other regions the power to develop their potential, develop what people want to see within their regions, and influence the Government to make their lives better.

6.30 pm

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