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Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): I welcome the abolition of regional assemblies and the transfer of powers and resources to local democracy,
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but I remind my hon. Friend that almost all the powers and resources of the scores of regional bodies came originally from local government. Would not it make sense to go the whole hog and abolish all the regional quangos and thus empower the electorate instead of other parts of the quango state?

John Healey: I know that my hon. Friend, a former leader of Manchester city council, is a leading advocate for that city and for city regions led by city local authorities. However, I must correct him: the arrangements that we have put in place and which we are looking to take further involve some devolution of powers and decision making from the centre. My hon. Friend follows transport policy very closely, and I remind him of what took place in the most recent funding allocations. In that process, £700 million of what would otherwise be determined entirely centrally was allocated according to the priorities set by the regions, and about which they had advised the Secretary of State.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I welcome some of the proposals that the Minister has outlined, and especially his recognition that communities of interest, such as the seven counties in the south-west, exist at levels below the Government’s regional architecture. Will he take seriously the aspirations of the people of Cornwall to have a greater say over their affairs, especially given the ambitious proposals for a unified structure of local government in the area? Also, will he look again at the case for a locally accountable Cornish development agency, in light of the important convergence funding from the EU?

John Healey: Cornwall still faces some significant economic challenges. It has been greatly transformed by the objective 1 funding that it has received, and by some of the measures that the South West of England regional Development Agency has put in place. I take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as another late representation to be considered as part of my work on local government restructuring.

Gwyn Prosser (Dover) (Lab): I warmly welcome the Minister’s statement, and his announcement that the regional assemblies will be abandoned. I am especially pleased that the South East England regional assembly will go, as it never understood housing policy or the needs of the east Kent ports such as Dover and Deal. Does he agree that the new devolved structure will reach out to such areas and allow the voices of deprived parts of Kent to be heard? In the past, they have been drowned out by the prosperity of the wider region.

John Healey: Indeed it will, and it is important that those areas that do not shout the loudest or have the strongest clout are at the centre of our policy concerns, as they are in our regional-level planning. My hon. Friend may be interested in the proposals set out in the review for a more concentrated allocation of regeneration funding, and for ensuring that mainstream funding from central Government agencies does more to support local regeneration efforts in the most deprived areas.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I assure the Minister that all my constituents will hear the promises made today to re-empower local
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government? Will he confirm that that will mean that the 18,000 new homes that have been imposed on my local community are dead in the water and that they will not go ahead if the local authority continues to object?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman will know that all the regional assemblies are engaged in revising their regional spatial strategies. With the exception of the West Midlands regional assembly, all regional assemblies are due to complete the process by next summer. Under the new proposals, local authorities will be involved in taking the first steps in preparing the regional strategy. They will set out their vision for the sustainable development of their areas, just as 40 towns and cities have raised their levels of housing growth under our growth points programme. The system will reinforce our ability to meet the need for housing, jobs and infrastructure development.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): I welcome today’s statement, and remind him that the regional policy adopted by Conservative Governments of the past was very unfair, based as it was on the premise that success should go to the successful. If we are to build a genuinely one-nation approach, we must make sure that there is a regional process that delivers to the people whom this Government want to represent. However, people in my constituency will not know that the regional assemblies are to go, as they do not offer the accountability that we need. Will he guarantee that the Select Committee and local authority approach will mean that regional institutions are properly accountable to local people?

John Healey: The plans we are setting out today for stronger public scrutiny and accountability within the region of the work that the regional development agencies and other regional agencies may do will improve public understanding and public challenge of the work being done in the region on the public’s behalf. Clearly, Parliament can reinforce that for the first time, through regional Select Committees, and I hope MPs on both sides of the House will play the most active possible role in making sure that the Select Committees are a success.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Minister agree that infrastructure is the key to local growth and regeneration, and that building before the infrastructure is put in causes damage to local economies? Will he tell my constituents, who want to hear from him today, how the changes will get Canvey Island its much needed additional access road?

John Healey: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I have mentioned that we are considering options for a supplementary business rate and the review also lays out plans for reforming the business growth incentive we introduced just over two years ago for local authorities. In addition, it confirms that we are considering innovative funding methods, particularly to raise early investment capital for local authorities and local areas to develop infrastructure to support growth in the future.

Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab): I welcome the abolition of regional assemblies and the contribution that will make to lessening global warming by reducing
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the amount of hot air and strategy papers they produce. I also welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to sustainable development, but in County Durham the regional spatial strategy outlined at present will actually stop development, so will he go one step further and bin the strategy, which has more to do with Soviet central planning than with a modern dynamic north-east economy?

John Healey: Of course the elements of the spatial strategy as a whole, about which my hon. Friend is so concerned, will be subject to independent examination and public scrutiny and, ultimately, to formal statutory sign-off by the Secretary of State.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It would be far better were powers transferred back to county districts and boroughs, but if we are to persist with some form of regional quangocracy what consideration has the Minister given to establishing a region called Milton Keynes and the South Midlands? At present, that absurd sub-region, involving three parts of three different bigger regions, is meant to control all the housing expansion in Northamptonshire but simply does not provide the transport infrastructure that local people require.

John Healey: I have given no consideration whatever to the creation of a new Milton Keynes region.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe) (Lab): I welcome the generality of my hon. Friend’s statement, especially the enhanced powers for local authorities in 14 to 19 provision and in economic development, and the flexibility in allowing city regions to develop at their own pace, which is very important. As well as extra powers for local authorities, will he also consider extra mechanisms to enable economic development to take place, and especially, as recommended by the all-party group on urban development, enhancing the ability to enter into public-private partnerships and to use tax increment funding whereby future income streams can be brought forward to enable capital infrastructure to be put in at an earlier date?

John Healey: I respect deeply my hon. Friend’s experience both as a Sheffield city leader before he entered the House and in his work on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government. He is right to identify the fact that public money must be used to leverage in much greater private sector investment to help with regeneration and development. He will want to look particularly closely at the passage in the review on our work on innovative funding mechanisms, including possible options for regional infrastructure funds, better use of local authority assets and reliable revenue streams against which local authorities may be able to borrow to fund the infrastructure development needed in the future. We will report back on that work by the pre-Budget report this year.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, but I have a concern about the use of private consultants. For too many years, there has been widespread use of private consultants in local economic development. They have been expensive, incompetent and unaccountable. Will
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he urge all local authorities to do the job in-house, with directly employed public servants, and not to use private consultants?

John Healey: I thought that I had moved from the Treasury, where I had to deal with questions like that over the previous five years. My hon. Friend is right in general terms to challenge the way in which local authorities and other agencies may use their resources. I hope that he will play a part in doing just that on the regional Select Committee that will serve his region. However, sometimes it is important that expertise that may not rest within a local authority can be brought in so that local authorities can do a better job of analysing the economic circumstances of their area and plotting and planning priorities for the future.

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Ministers for Women (Priorities)

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Will Members who are not staying for this Statement please leave as quickly and quietly as possible? Thank you.

4.26 pm

The Minister for Women (Ms Harriet Harman): I would like to set out to the House how my hon. Friend the Member for Stevenage (Barbara Follett) and I intend to take forward our work as Ministers for Women. We are publishing today a paper setting out our priorities. The Women's National Commission has agreed that it will take forward a consultation outside the House on the priorities and I am grateful to it. Our work in government will focus on three issues: first, helping families who care for older and disabled relatives, as well as those bringing up children; secondly, tackling violence against women and improving the way in which we deal with women who commit crimes; and, thirdly, empowering black and Asian women to help them as a force for good in their communities and as they build bridges between communities.

Families need to have enough time and money to care for older and disabled relatives, and to bring up their children in the way they want. They need proper support from good local services for both older relatives and children. As Ministers for Women, we will build on the strong foundation of support for families which the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices about how they live their lives. On this, we will be working alongside our ministerial colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Treasury, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

This first strand of work will also include pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap between men and women—a gap that is not only unfair in principle, but which plays such a large part in the unequal division of labour in the home, preventing fathers from playing a more active role in their children’s early years and preventing women from fulfilling their opportunities at work. As Ministers for Women, we will also work with Ministers in the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Department for Communities and Local Government on how health and other local services can better support families who care for older and disabled relatives.

The second strand of our work will be about women who are victims of violent crime and women who are offenders. Domestic violence still results in two homicides every week. It not only harms women but has a devastating impact on children. Human trafficking takes many forms and blights the lives of men, women and children in many different continents. Britain is a major focus for the global trade in the sexual exploitation of women by traffickers, who trick or abduct young women and force them into prostitution. We have done a great deal to step up action against domestic violence, sexual offences and human trafficking, but there is more to do. We need to ensure that the substantive law is right and make it clear beyond doubt that domestic and sexual violence against women, and human trafficking for prostitution, will not be tolerated. We will be working alongside
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Ministers in the Home Office and with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General to tackle this.

On women who commit crimes, my noble Friend Baroness Corston found that many of the women in prison are there for minor, non-violent offences, and that many of them have mental health problems, or problems to do with drug or alcohol abuse. On women offenders, we will work with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice on taking forward the agenda so ably mapped out by Baroness Corston. We can and will do more to ensure that women who have offended are rehabilitated, and that women who are at risk of offending are prevented from doing so. As Baroness Corston outlined, we will do so through ensuring effective services for drug and alcohol addiction, and for mental health problems.

Thirdly, we will work on the issue of empowering women in black and Asian communities. Women play a crucial role working together in their communities, whether they are working to reduce crime in their area, like Mothers Against Guns, or working to improve local services by taking part in tenants and residents associations, school governing bodies and parent teacher associations, or whether they are Asian women, like Southall Black Sisters, working to support other Asian women. We want to do more to support and empower those women as they tackle problems within, and build bridges between, communities.

We will work closely with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to take our agenda forward. We will also work with Ministers from across Government to ensure that black and Asian women have fair opportunities to work and take part in wider public life, including by becoming councillors and Members of the House of Commons. I hope that we can take that work forward with the support of local government, and supported by, and working with, Members of the European Parliament. We will also work alongside voluntary organisations, women’s organisations such as Women’s Aid and the Women’s Institute, trade unions and employers. We want to work not just with our ministerial colleagues, but with hon. Members, both women and men, on both sides of the House.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for coming to the House to make her statement today. I certainly welcome the sentiment behind what she has said, and I look forward to working constructively with her, as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) did with the Minister’s predecessor, to improve the lives of women in Britain. However, I am disappointed by the lack of ambition that has been shown in an area where there is still so much to be achieved. Will she confirm that not a single part of today’s statement is a new policy? I have to ask why, after 10 years in power, the Minister is only launching a consultation on the important issues that were mentioned.

We live in a time of rapid social and economic change. Even in the 10 years since 1997, the workplace and the world beyond it have changed remarkably. Government policy relating to women has to keep pace with that change, but it has not always done so. The issues confronting women are diverse and complex, so instead of having a one-size-fits-all idea of how women
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should lead their lives, Ministers must pursue a policy based on choice for women who are free and empowered to make their own decisions.

The right hon. and learned Lady said that she would focus on helping families, tackling violence against women, and empowering women in black and minority ethnic communities. Those are laudable aims, and when she comes up with new policies, we will support her if she gets them right, but as usual, the rhetoric exceeded the reality by some distance. She said “the Government have already delivered to ensure that all families have real choices”, but what about the 90 per cent. of families who use a relative or neighbour to care for a child? They do not get the support that is available to those who use Government-approved child care. What about women’s pensions? One in four single women pensioners lives in poverty, yet the Minister did not even mention pensions in her statement.

The Minister said that she will be “pressing forward with the Government’s commitment to tackle the pay gap”, but that implies that the Government are already making progress, and they are not: women who work full time earn 17 per cent. less than men. Does she accept that progress on equal pay has stalled? She mentioned violence against women. The Government have indeed acted on the issue of domestic violence, but does she agree that we need further action—and, I suggest, a change to police attitudes—on stalking, an issue on which the Government have so far done little? The Minister said, “We have done a great deal to step up action against...human trafficking”. The Government signed up to the convention on action against trafficking in human beings, but it still has not been ratified. In questions to the Minister for Women on 5 July, I asked when it would be ratified and what specific policy changes have been made as a result of signing the convention. The right hon. and learned Lady did not answer. Will she do so now?

The Minister said that she will work with the Justice Secretary to address problems with women in prisons. We know his answer to problems in prisons—he tends to let people out—but the crisis caused by the lack of prison capacity exacerbates the problems experienced by female prisoners. In the outside world, women are three times less likely than men to commit suicide; in prison, they are twice as likely to do so. Women prisoners are twice as likely as men to be held more than 50 miles from home. How can the right hon. and learned Lady reconcile the hope of improving the lot of female prisoners with the reality of overcrowded jails?

Today’s statement betrays the problem behind the Government’s approach to women’s issues—a problem that goes all the way back to 1997. While some changes are indeed welcome, there is no coherent philosophy or joined-up strategy that underpins that policy. That needs to change. I welcome the fact that the right hon. and learned Lady has set out priorities for women today, but I do not welcome the fact that there is so little substance in her statement. Women of all types and in all circumstances—mothers with children who are juggling their work-life balance, women in pensioner poverty, and vulnerable women—are looking to her for more than fine words. When she returns to the House to make her next statement on women’s issues, we expect substance, not style.

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