Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Hammond rose—

Mr. Swire rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I see the lemmings rising as one to rush over the cliff in their Europhobia.

Mr. Hammond: I am stunned that the Minister has gone off at a tangent on a completely different subject. I was rising simply to ask him whether he would be good enough to acknowledge that the Government office regions were created for an entirely different purpose, and that no one ever asked whether they would be the most appropriate unit for the delivery of an operational fire and rescue service.

Mr. Raynsford: As the hon. Gentleman knows only too well, the Government office regions were established by the previous Government on the basis—as I have quoted his right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal as recognising—that they were a compromise that fitted most of the Departments that then had regional organisations. Since then, they have developed considerably. They have taken on new functions, and

15 Mar 2004 : Column 94

new institutions have been created, such as regional development agencies, that follow the same regional boundaries. We are seeing a consolidation of arrangements within those regional structures and, most importantly, regional resilience is being organised on that basis. We have had the regional resilience forums for almost a year now. They are based in the Government offices, and it would be wholly counterproductive now to suggest alternative boundaries for one element—one emergency service—with an important contribution to make to that overall resilience.

Mr. Hammond rose—

Richard Younger-Ross rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge and then to the hon. Member for Teignbridge.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister says that we are seeing a consolidation of regional functions within those regional boundaries. A moment ago he denied that any regionalisation by stealth was taking place, but we see that consolidation as being precisely such regionalisation by stealth.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman must not confuse two matters. He will recognise that there has been administrative regionalisation, which his party, when in government, introduced on a substantial scale and which this Government have consolidated. A separate issue is the introduction of elected regional assemblies to allow a democratic—

Mr. Hammond: What about RDAs?

Mr. Raynsford: I have already said that we introduced regional development agencies, which consolidated the arrangements operating on a regional basis that the Conservative party set up. The Conservatives seem absolutely hellbent on disowning their own legacy, the things they thought appropriate when in power. That is an interesting insight, but I tell the hon. Gentleman once again that there is no agenda to impose elected regional assemblies by stealth. If people vote for them, there will be elected regional assemblies; if they do not, there will not be. What a marked contrast that is—

Mr. Swire rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman at the moment, because I have already said that I will give way to the hon. Member for Teignbridge. I shall give way to him later, but I just want to make this point. As the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge would do well to remember, his party did not give people any choice. It abolished regional tiers of government such as the Greater London council and some county councils, giving people absolutely no say. This Government are giving people choice. If they vote in favour of the regional assemblies, that will be their choice, and it is quite right that we should honour it.

15 Mar 2004 : Column 95

8.15 pm

Richard Younger-Ross: I shall not get drawn into the regional assembly argument at the moment. The Minister mentioned delay, and said that he opposed the Conservative new clause 5 and amendment No. 3 because they would cause a delay in forming combined fire authorities. Is there something that the Minister needs to tell us? If he is talking of a delay, that must mean that he is thinking of combining fire authorities now. Is that the case, and which fire authorities is he thinking of combining?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman has got that wrong. I have already made it quite clear that the only circumstances in which we would use the clause 2(2)(b) powers—I said this about 10 minutes ago—would be in the interest of public safety where there had been a failure to put in place adequate arrangements to ensure regional resilience. That is an issue of public safety, and in those circumstances, we clearly could not delay while there was a long-drawn-out debate about the optimal regional boundaries. There would be an overriding priority to provide effective arrangements to ensure that the resilience that we have been talking about was in place. I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that.

Richard Younger-Ross rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I have undertaken to give way to the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire), but I shall give way once more to the hon. Member for Teignbridge.

Richard Younger Ross: I am sorry, but the Minister has mentioned delay. New clause 5 calls for a review of the boundaries within 12 months. The Minister appears to be saying that he can envisage a circumstance in which the resilience is deemed not to be in place and, within 12 months, he will therefore be forcing a combination of authorities.

Mr. Raynsford indicated dissent.

Richard Younger-Ross: The Minister is shaking his head. If that is not the case, he cannot use the excuse that the proposal in new clause 5 would delay the process.

Mr. Raynsford: No, I am afraid to say that the hon. Gentleman is getting more confused. We have said clearly that we will use the powers in clause 2(2)(b) only in the interests of public safety where there has been a failure to put in place arrangements that guarantee resilience. Those are the only circumstances in which we will use those powers, and if we have to use them, it is important that we should do so reasonably swiftly. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would agree with that. The amendment and new clause, however, would essentially mean that no progress could be taken until the body that was carrying out the independent review had not only been set up but had reported. As the new clause allows only that that would be set up within 12 months of the Bill's receiving Royal Assent, there could be years of delay during which there were inadequate public safety arrangements in a

15 Mar 2004 : Column 96

particular region. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman is seriously advocating that we should tolerate that position.

Mr. Hammond rose—

Mr. Raynsford: I have undertaken to give way to the hon. Member for East Devon, but I shall then give way to the hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge.

Mr. Swire: I am grateful, and I shall try to be quick. The Minister is entirely right in saying that people will be consulted democratically on whether they want regional assemblies, and I do not take issue with that. However, he does not say whether, if people vote against having elected regional assemblies, the Government will give them the option of disbanding the existing unelected regional assemblies. Will he assure us that, should people not vote for elected regional assemblies, there will be an option of doing away with the unelected regional assemblies?

Mr. Raynsford: That question is very wide of what we are debating tonight, and I think that you would call me to order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I moved into that territory. We have already made it quite clear that we will follow the views of the electorate on elected regional assemblies and that there will not be an assembly if the electorate vote against it. There will then be a continuation of the status quo.

Mr. Hammond: The Minister has been very generous in giving way. Given that he has been prepared to state categorically that he will use the powers in clause 2(2)(b) only in the event of a failure of regional resilience, how has he been able to give an unequivocal undertaking that if an elected regional assembly is created in any region, he will create a combined fire authority for that region? He cannot know in advance that the hurdle set by clause 2(2)(a) will be cleared.

Mr. Raynsford: No, but as I was intending to say to the hon. Gentleman later, the power to create a regional fire and rescue authority in the event of an elected regional assembly coming into existence will be provided in the relevant legislation—in the elected regional assemblies Bill. He will recall that in just the same way, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority—LFEPA—was established under the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which created the Greater London authority. That is the appropriate way of establishing such bodies, but it would not happen under these powers.

I hope that that puts the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest. I realise that he is living in a realm of paranoia because of the word "region" and the effect that it has on his party, but I assure him that there is clear logic behind our proposals, and that they fit together consistently.

Next Section

IndexHome Page