Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Local Government Consultation

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger accordingly presented a Bill to provide a statutory framework for full public consultation by local authorities in England whenever major developments are proposed by such authorities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 11 November, and to be printed [Bill 56].

12 Oct 2005 : Column 300

Opposition Day

[6th Allotted Day]

Emergency Services (Regionalisation)

Mr. Speaker: We now come to the first debate on Opposition motions. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

12.42 pm

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House notes the overwhelming rejection of regional government in the referendum held in the North East in November 2004; regrets the ongoing transfer of powers to unelected regional quangos since the result, taking power away from democratically accountable local councils; rejects the proposals for the regionalisation of the fire service and the imposition of distant Regional Fire Control Rooms; expresses concern at the possibility of police forces being structured on a Government Office Region level, making the police less responsive to local people, and voices similar concerns over the restructuring of NHS ambulance trusts; disagrees with the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals for the regionalisation of emergency services as being a desirable, legitimate or necessary tier of governance; and demands that the Government dismantles the unwanted and unaccountable regional administration of emergency services.

The House may recall that, almost a year ago, on 4 November 2004, a referendum was held in the north-east on elected regional assemblies. The result was an emphatic no to regionalisation. Twelve months on, I am sure that colleagues are as surprised as me that the people of the north-east are still paying for a regional assembly, which 80 per cent. of them said that they did not want. Then again, everybody is paying for the roll-out of the Government's regional agenda. The difference is that in other parts of the country, people were not given the opportunity to reject assembles.

However, regional assemblies, the unelected and unaccountable quangos that have leeched power from local people, are merely the most obvious manifestation of a tide of regionalism, which is fundamentally changing the way that we are governed. The most recent and disturbing example is the regionalisation of emergency services.

The manner in which the regionalisation of emergency services was slipped out in the press during the summer recess shows just how sheepish the Government are about the announcement. I am sure that colleagues from all parties will, like me, have received many letters from people who are rightly concerned about the implications of the latest experiment in restructuring. From the signatures to early-day motion 229, it appears that at least 219 colleagues agree with those concerns.

It started with the regionalisation of fire control rooms. Now ambulance trusts and police forces are to be morphed into an unwieldy regional structure. Regionalism is such an abstract concept—even the word "regionalisation" smacks of bureaucracy and administrative jargon. The Government's concept of regions pays scant regard to the geography of our country and people's sense of identity. It fails the Simon Jenkins test—the Marbella test. When we bump into someone walking along the beach in, say, Marbella, and
12 Oct 2005 : Column 301
we ask them where they are from, it is hard to imagine someone from Banbury saying that they are from what the Government call "the south-east". Similarly, people in Scunthorpe would never say that they came from Yorkshire and the Humber. This just shows how artificial, contrived and arbitrary these Government-defined regions really are.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What people in Banbury will say is that this regionalisation has practical implications. The emergency fire control rooms have to be kept going until 2009. When I went to the control centre the other day and met the staff, they said that over the next four or five years they were going to go and find other jobs. How are these things going to work? That is what people in Banbury are concerned about, not this daft regional experiment. They want to know what is going to happen when they dial 999 over the next few years.

Mrs. Spelman: No one is better placed than my hon. Friend to speak on behalf of the people of Banbury, and he entirely anticipates what I was about to say. Making an announcement such as this is bound to result in people looking for other jobs.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): It is interesting that the hon. Lady mentioned the great Simon Jenkins just now. I should like to remind her that he wrote a book a few years ago which denounced the record of the previous Conservative Government for their ferocious centralisation and for what he called the "nationalisation of Britain". Is the hon. Lady recanting that part of her party's past along with everything else?

Mrs. Spelman: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might like to read one of Simon Jenkins's more recent publications, "Big Bang Localism", in which he roundly denounces the Government's plans for regionalisation. He is a fierce defender of the traditional structures of our country with which people truly identify.

Sarah Teather (Brent, East) (LD): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Spelman: I should like to make a little more progress.

The mechanics of regionalisation will sideline our counties and shires in favour of governmental units, which are not only culturally alien but undemocratic. In regard to emergency services, the measures will be hugely damaging. As no statement has been made to the House on these changes, I have had to rely on press reports. They seem to suggest that the number of fire control rooms is to be cut from 46 to nine, the number of ambulance trusts from 31 to 11, and the number of police forces from 43 to 23. There is not even any consistency across Whitehall on how to structure the regions. One of the lessons that we have all learned from New Orleans is that overlapping and confusing tiers of administration compromise our ability to respond in an emergency.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): My hon. Friend said that there had been no public statement on these
12 Oct 2005 : Column 302
matters. Worse than that, there has been precious little, if any, public consultation. The Government who gave us the stealth tax are now introducing the stealth axe. Many of our services are being cut without any consultation whatever. England's biggest county, North Yorkshire, which stretches the same distance as that between London and Bristol, is going to have fire service control rooms out of county, a police force that will probably be run from West Yorkshire, and Lord knows where the ambulance service will come from, but it will also be cut under these plans.

Mrs. Spelman: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I could not have put it better myself, but he puts it well on behalf of the people he is elected to represent, and I am sure that they will appreciate his raising these concerns in the House on their behalf.

In practical terms, we learned only yesterday that huge tracts of the country from Banbury to Folkestone were to be served by only one fire control room, in Fareham. When people in Gloucester call the local fire brigade, they will be speaking to an operator in Taunton, and the regional fire control room for the whole of the north-west, stretching right up to the border with Scotland, will be in Warrington.

At Prime Minister's questions, we heard the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins)—one of the Government's own—voicing her concern that one ambulance trust for the whole of the west midlands region would be unlikely to deliver a better service. Such views have been echoed by the chief executive of the Staffordshire ambulance trust, Roger Thayne, who said that there was

The Government would do well to listen to one of their Members and to front-line practitioners in those services.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): In reference to the fire control centre in Quedgeley, Gloucester, my hon. Friend might be interested to know that there is not

Those are not my words but those of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), who sits on the Labour Benches, in 2004. My hon. Friend is perceptive in picking up that many Labour Members are concerned about such moves locally, but no doubt they will sit silently, as the hon. Member for Gloucester will, as their Government steamroller through these plans.

Next Section IndexHome Page