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19 Nov 2002 : Column 557—continued

Mr. Dawson: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Shephard: No, I will not give way any more.

My next set of arguments concern the effects of piecemeal reform, which we have already seen in national devolution. It has simply not worked, and it has made more problems than it has attempted to solve. In proposing these changes, the Government will find themselves, in the end, with completely different kinds of local government across the country. Their wish to devolve power from the centre will result in confusion, heavy costs, administrative change for the sake of it, and, worst of all, obscured accountability and transparency—a denial of what democracy should be about.

6.29 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I particularly wish to welcome the measures in the Queen's Speech that are designed to enhance the process of democratic accountability in this country and to devolve power to its appropriate level. My hon. Friends have already mentioned them, but I am particularly pleased to see in the Queen's Speech a Bill to prepare for regional assemblies and a local government Bill designed to give local authorities more freedoms and more flexibility.

This is not a mere academic issue. The centralisation of power in Great Britain has long been a wonder of the world. Yet a mature democracy needs to have its mode of governance at all levels working well, being held to account for the action of government at each level, and engaging the public in the process of accountability. That has spin-offs. Active healthy communities lead to better civil engagement, that leads to better government, and that leads to healthy communities. It is a real issue with real benefits. The Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill will bring that accountability to a tier of government that has long been the preserve of the quango and the ill-defined regional body. It will allow regions to speak up for themselves, and to engage in their own economic development and in the planning of how the regions work.

The local government Bill will give local authorities greater freedoms to trade and use their own resources as they feel is most appropriate for their local circumstances. It will sweep away the machinery of central second-guessing about many things, such as the shape and the nature of a local authority's capital programme.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Many of my constituents in Poole work in Southampton, and they tend to look east towards Winchester and Hampshire. However, we are

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in the south-west region, although many of us think that we should not be part of that. Does the hon. Gentleman have any sympathy for those of us who think that we are in the wrong region?

Dr. Whitehead: Perhaps we can discuss the issue on another occasion, but I have some sympathy for that view.

Andrew George (St. Ives): The hon. Gentleman's knowledge of this subject is much respected. We know that he is one of the architects behind the Government's White Paper. However, as he has already demonstrated sympathy for the view expressed by the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), is he prepared to comment more generally on the settlement of the boundaries of regional assemblies? Does he believe that regional assemblies with their present boundaries are deliverable in the south-west?

Dr. Whitehead: In the fulness of time, we could engage in a debate on how the boundaries in the south-west and the south-east might be formulated if and when a referendum takes place in those areas. That is my personal belief, but my personal belief only.

The proposals will lead to real advances for local freedoms and for accountability. In the process, they redefine the relationship between the centre and the local. However, it is important that they are seen as milestones along the way, not as the end of the road.

Regional assemblies have the potential to incorporate and place within the sphere of democratic accountability a range of regional bodies that administer substantial funds on behalf of the population, affecting the lives of people in those regions to a considerable degree. However, those bodies do not possess a shred of accountability through the democratic process for what they do. Contrary to what those on the Opposition Front Bench suggest, we are not talking in the main about new funds, but about the transfer of funds from the sphere of non-accountability to the sphere of accountability in the regional assemblies.

I hope that the emergence of the regional assemblies across England will be followed by their establishment as a true repository of democratic accountability for regional decisions. The Bill paves the way for such choices to be made. Once that process is under way, a second Bill, setting out the powers and detailed arrangements for each assembly, will be necessary. I hope that the process of incorporating regional decisions into a framework of accountability is evident at that stage—sooner rather than later. I also hope that the powers acquired by those regions will be drawn down from the centre and not sucked up from the local level. We have that statement of intent in the White Paper on the regions, and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister reiterated it today. I am sure that the intention will become a reality.

The Opposition have made much of the alleged Xsucking-up" of powers that they consider will take place if counties, even after a popular referendum has been held, are in any way changed in function or even abolished as a result of the changes. I have to confess to smiling to myself when I see shire counties suddenly

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reinvented as micro-level community champions, by councillors who previously did not have much time for that concept. I could understand it if the defence of counties as quasi-regional planning authorities were mounted, but that argument is, I guess, less cute and appealing. Therefore, we suddenly have counties as communities. What meretricious nonsense. A proper division between which level of government plans and which level of government provides local services would unerringly settle on districts and towns for the latter, and regions, and perhaps some counties, for the former.

I am also wryly amused by the Opposition's sudden conversion to localism. As someone who spent many years trying to make a local council function for its communities in the face of unrelenting central diktats from the then Government, I hope that I will be forgiven my wry smile. What a localism we now see. According to the Opposition, local authorities should be able to decide whether to have any, some or no new housing in their area, and everyone else can go hang. The centre will hand the money out and shut up, and there will be a string of right-wing local soviets across the country.

It is vital that we understand the proper relationship between the centre and the local. It must be one of spheres of, for example, national or regional responsibility for some framework decisions, and full trust in local government for other decisions. It must be a framework, not the mess suggested by the Opposition's plans—and the two Bills will add up to such a framework.

There is a further consequence. Sooner or later, the centre will need to look at itself as the changes kick in. Let us look at the centre from the other end of the telescope, for example. Responsibility for local government and the presence of the state at local level is dissipated among a number of ministries, one of which—the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister—has some influence, but by no means a decisive influence. Education is in the hands of the Department for Education and Skills, which also oversees the unelected bodies providing for training and lifelong learning through the local learning and skills councils. Yet the local leader of the council will speak on education, along with his or her chair of education.

Social services matters will also rank highly in the letters that the leader of a council receives. To obtain redress for the concerns raised in those letters, he or she must write not to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister but to the Department of Health. There is also the often vexed question of who collects the rubbish and what is done with it. Surely that is a very local issue, so is it not one that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister should discuss with the local authorities? No. This time the route of dialogue is with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Of course, the rubbish bins in a block of flats might have been set alight by local hooligans, who might need a form of community remedy to require them to desist from such activity, and to occupy their time more positively. Is that a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister? No. This time it is a matter for the Home Office.

Local roads may need new signs to help the community to get about, and this time, it is a matter for the Department of Transport. Local people may be

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concerned by the way in which local elections work and how they might help community involvement and communication. The obvious port of call in such cases is the Lord Chancellor's Department. However, in the recently published consultation paper on the way in which local government should be funded—and, if the enabling and supporting role is to be made real, how communities will be supported—the appearance is that everything is the responsibility of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. However, in reality, such a document has to be negotiated between four or five Departments—even if the Treasury's keen interest in the overall shape of the outcome is to be discounted for the moment. XNegotiated" might be a kind word to use, because the position of those Departments vis-a-vis local services and communities can amount almost to a veto.

This state of affairs illustrates, as other ways of describing the situation could not, that there is an urgent need for the centre eventually to address its relationship with the local if we are to make anything like a reality of the new form of the centre-local relationships. Such a fractured system not only serves to dissipate and confuse the efforts of local communities and their elected representatives to work locally in a consistent manner, but seriously compromises the idea of anyone being seen to be accountable for what happens locally, and of communities being provided with straight answers when questions are asked. Now, it simply seems that the Department nominally responsible for local government is actually responsible for it.

The Bill will help us down the road to recovery in the tortuous relationship between the centre and the local, and will go a long way towards building trust and confidence in that relationship. However, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, there is a lot done, and a lot more to do.

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