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26 Nov 2002 : Column 208—continued

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge): And nor will they be.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman says that under the Government's proposals, those bodies will not become democratic. That is part of the problem with the proposals: the Government need to go much further to reduce the quango state. But the hon. Gentleman should be careful—it was his party that set up large tracts of the

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quango state. It was disappointing that we did not hear the Conservative spokesman arguing the case for democracy.

There is another key argument in principle for elected regional assemblies, and it concerns efficiency. The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden argued that if the new organisations were set up, they would create more bureaucracy. If one starts looking at the quango state, one sees bureaucracy writ large. The quangos are chaotic, having been up by Government after Government and Minister after Minister, with no co-ordination among them at all. The quangos duplicate each other's bureaucracies and are ineffective because there are so many of them. When one adds up the expense of setting them up, their offices, their management boards, their non-executive directors, their staff, their pension funds and so on, the cost is huge. There can be no doubt that democratising and rationalising the position under regional assemblies makes huge financial sense.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): The hon. Gentleman knows that even if we have regional assemblies, there will still be a tier of quangos, which will simply report to Bristol or Exeter rather than London. That will not improve the situation.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. Many of those organisations could become part of the regional assembly, just as Government Departments and agencies are answerable to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of State is answerable to the House. We can de-quangoise Britain's polity through the process.

The Conservatives often speak—rightly—about accountability. The point of elected regional assemblies is to make those bodies accountable and to use accountability to drive through value for money. I have been disappointed by some of the ways in which the House tries to hold the Government to account on financial matters. We have almost no ex-ante scrutiny of the Budget. We have three days on the estimates, during which we do not actually debate them—something I have always found rather odd. We do better on ex-post scrutiny, but even our audit processes in the House leave a lot to be desired.

Part of the problem is that across the whole United Kingdom the public sector is too large for Whitehall and Parliament to get to grips with it. If we make sure that elected regional assemblies and the members who serve in them have real powers to scrutinise the way in which the money is spent and to make sure that there is proper audit and accountability, we can get much better value for money for the taxpayer.

There is another way in which elected regional assemblies could promote efficiency. In their fullest form, they are about better policy delivery. We on the Liberal Democrat Benches see the assemblies as key to deep, meaningful reform of the public services. At our recent conference we passed a document that envisaged many aspects of the public services being run and funded by regional assemblies. I shall come to that in due course.

The Government's proposals for the key policy area for elected regional assemblies relate to economic development. Although I have some problems with their

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proposals, the Government are right to see assemblies as key to promoting economic development in the regions. I say that as a London MP. One of our problems is that the capital is overheating. In Scotland and Wales, devolution has acted as an economic spur. It has led to development, and to organisations getting better advice and working more closely together. Devolution to the English regions could be part of the solution to London's overheating problem—obviously, only part of it, but hopefully it could ensure that there is more managed economic development across the country.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would clarify what he just said. Is he proposing that there should be a recession in London? I am sure that that would go down well with his electorate and others. What is happening with the London assembly and Ken Livingstone is that he is damaging London, not helping it.

Mr. Davey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about Mr. Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London. I am no supporter of his strategies. However, if people reread my remarks, they will not take from them the meaning that the hon. Gentleman took. We have a huge problem in London. The population forecasts, even adjusted for the latest census figures, will pose a huge challenge for public sector investment in our infrastructure and our public services. I hope that as the London economy goes from strength to strength, it will be able to meet some of that. We must rise to the challenge. I believe that Londoners support the idea of spreading economic prosperity across the country. Let us not forget that many Londoners come from the regions and the nations of the British Isles, and they support devolution and economic prosperity in their home regions.

Mr. Iain Luke (Dundee, East): With regard to Scottish devolution, does the hon. Gentleman accept that Edinburgh is becoming overheated? The real issue for regional government in England and devolution in Scotland is the decentralisation of the civil service, to allow the refocusing of the civil service from London and Edinburgh to the regions of England and the various areas of Scotland.

Mr. Davey: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. He made my point rather more eloquently than I managed to.

Although we agree with elected regional assemblies and will support the Bill, I want to make it clear to the Deputy Prime Minister that his version of elected regional assemblies is rather weak and timid. For a start, the Government's vision is far too centralist. They want to keep far too much power for Whitehall and Westminster. They are giving away far too few powers and dismantling far too few quangos. They are putting planning up to regional chambers, even before those regional chambers are accountable to anyone or are elected. That is a bizarre way of going on. As power is given away, it is already gradually being brought back: the Government are proposing centrally imposed targets—public service agreement regimes and so on. That is not devolution. If they intend to trust the people, they should not trust them a little; they should trust them fully. I do not understand why the Government are so timid.

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When we examine the details of the White Paper and the powers that regional assemblies will have, we begin to see how the Government sometimes speak with forked tongue. On page 39 of the White Paper, in the section on economic development, under the heading XTraining and skills", the Government proudly state:

From such a ringing declaration, we think that we are about to see numerous powers relating to training and skills being devolved to regional assemblies—but no. Further down, we read:

that is, Learning and Skills Council—

and that

There is no control over learning and skills councils or over the policy that is going to elected regional assemblies. It is all right for them to be consulted, but that is froth. It is meaningless. They ought to have control. The national Learning and Skills Council should be abolished and real power over an important aspect of economic development given to the regional assemblies.

A similar problem arises in respect of transport. The White Paper proudly states:

What does that mean? It means responsibility for advising central Government on the allocation of funds. We in the House and people outside advise the Government about the spending of money, so elected regional assemblies do not seem to have many responsibilities in that regard.

Mr. Beith : I can give my hon. Friend a vivid illustration. On the Scottish side of the border, the Scottish Executive can decide whether to concentrate resources on dualling the A1. On the English side of the border, London is still answerable for that decision and it will not be in the region's power to make it. Surely, that is one of the ways in which the regional institution needs to be strengthened.

Mr. Davey: That is a very vivid example. I know that my right hon. Friend has campaigned on that issue for some time and must be very disappointed about the lack of powers specified in the Government's proposals.

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