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Ms Harman: I will give way a couple more times, but I would like to speak as briefly as possible in order to give hon. Members [ Interruption . ] They said that this is a short debate, so it will not take long for them to listen to my comments and then make their own.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): If the regions are characterised by masters of the universe with multi-billion-pound budgets, why is the Leader of the House prescribing Select Committees that are recommended not to meet very often and will clearly be pale imitations of the real Select Committees of this House?
Ms Harman: I will develop my argument about how these Select Committees will fill the current gap in accountability. The Government have made major increases in investment in the regions, including the establishment of regional development agencies, which we need to hold to account for what they do in each region of England.
Graham Stringer (Manchester, Blackley) (Lab): My right hon. and learned Friend clearly identifies a democratic deficit, but would it not be more sensible to break up some of these regional bodies and put their resources back into local democracy, from whence they came, instead of setting up expensive, unnecessary and remote Select Committees?
Ms Harman: There has been big investment in these regional bodiesstrategic health authorities, highways agencies and learning and skills councilsbut this investment is additional to the extra funds that have gone to local government.
In our current economic climate, it is even more important that we ensure that taxpayers money is being used in the most effective and efficient way possible in every region. The regional Committees that we propose plug the accountability gap and provide this House with a means to conduct effective investigations and to make clear recommendations for change, but with the flexibility to meet the differing needs of each of the regions. The motions propose that we should establish regional Select Committees to examine regional strategies and the work of regional bodies. There is no need for a list of bodies that fall within their remit. The key principle is that they should look at the development and implementation of policies where there is a regional aspect to decision making or deliverythat is, where funding or priorities are set regionally or where bodies are organised on a regional basis.
Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): Given that the right hon. and learned Lady is saying that it is important that regional accountability is preserved and that bodies operating regionally are held accountable, how can it be right that Members from outside those regions sit on, or perhaps even chair the Committees? How can that deliver effective regional accountability? It is a travesty.
Ms Harman: I hope that hon. Members will not feel that it is a travesty when we have regional Select Committees that allow this House to hold those regional organisations to account, as well as regional Grand Committees that involve all Members from the region.
Concern has been expressed about the scope for overlap between the work of the regional Committees and the work of the departmental Select Committees. In order to minimise that, the motion invites the House to endorse the expectation that regional Select Committees will meet less frequently than departmental Select Committees and provides for only one of the regional Committee Chairs to serve on the Liaison Committee. We propose that each Committee should have up to nine members, nominated by the Committee of Selection in the usual way. As with all Committees of the House, their membership will reflect the composition of the House. That is the long-established practice of the House in relation to Select Committees of all kinds, including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees.
John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for giving way, which prevents me from having to make a substantive speech. In light of the Governments decision to pack the regional Select Committees with Labour Members from outside those regions, and given the problems of obtaining a quorum for many Select Committees, what guarantee can she give that those Labour Members will turn up?
Mr. Jim Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab):
I welcome the regional Select Committees. Given that the motion says that they will come into effect from 1
January 2009, may I invite my right hon. and learned Friend to treat as a matter of urgency the calling of the Scottish Grand Committee, which has not met for some time and needs to meet to discuss some very important issues concerning Scotland? I look forward to seeing that on the Order Paper in the new year.
We propose that these new regional Select Committees should be able, if they wish, to link up with local authorities. The motion therefore gives regional Select Committees the power, if they so wish, to invite local councillors to participate in their meetings but not to move any motions or amendments, vote, or count towards the quorum.
While the motions to establish regional Select Committees present the House with an opportunity to provide for detailed investigations into and reporting on agencies and action at regional level, we want to ensure that all Members in a region can be involved in greater regional accountability. We therefore propose that as well as the regional Select Committees, we establish regional Grand Committees to include all Members from the region. The regional Grand Committees will be a forum to consider the state of the region and would meet annually, or twice a year if the need arose. As with regional Select Committees, we expect that they will generally meet in the region, taking Parliament out of Westminster and into the regions.
Regional Grand Committees will be able to hold wide-ranging debates and statements on regional issues, and provide Members in that region with an opportunity to put oral questions to regional Ministers to hold them to account for their work in fulfilling the responsibilities set out in the Governance of Britain Green Paper. That will meet our commitment that they should be directly accountable to Parliament in that role. The resolution we are considering today, and the Modernisation Committee
Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I totally disagree with the idea of any of these regional Committees, but given that the Leader of the House, like me, is a London Member, what is the rationale behind the Governments thinking that there should not be a London Committee? There will be Committees for all the other regions, and we already have Committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Ms Harman: I take the hon. Gentlemans point that as a London Member he opposes the idea of a regional Select Committee in London. None the less, he is complaining that it is not on the Order Paperpresumably, so that he could vote against it. I will say something about London in a moment.
The resolution that we are considering, and the Modernisation Committee inquiry, covers only the eight English regions. It does not cover Scotland, Wales or London, each of which have different governance
arrangements. Scotland and Wales already have Grand and Select Committees tailored to each. London has different governance from the eight English regions, and I intend that following on from this resolution, we should turn our attention to London and get on with making arrangements for deepening the scrutiny of pan-London organisations, such as the strategic health authority. Following consultation, we will bring forward proposals to the House early in the new year.
The proposals we are putting to the House today strengthen regional accountability to this House. They will provide every hon. Member who represents a constituency in the English regions an opportunity to participate in the scrutiny of regional policy and regional expenditure, alongside more detailed scrutiny by regional Select Committees. The resolution establishes these regional Committees only for the lifetime of this Parliament, at the end of which there will be the opportunity to review them and see how they have worked. I commend them to the House.
approves the proposals for regional grand committees for each English region set out in the response from the Government contained in the White Paper, Regional Accountability (Cm. 7376); and considers that.
I will speak to the motion and the amendments, including the one standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). I am conscious of the desire of many Members to make their voices heard in this debate, so I will aim to restrict my remarks. I will not address the issue of whether the regions in question are the right ones, or whether some of the regional bodies that the Select Committees are due to hold to account should exist in their current forma matter about which I have severe doubts. I also will not address the fact that the hole in regional accountability that the Government seem to think needs fixing is there only because of the way in which they have consistently set up new regional bodies to take responsibilities from this House and local authorities.
I will address whether the way forward is through regional Select Committees. Before I do that, it is important to set the matter in context. We need to remember that regional Select Committees were first proposed in a statement made to the House in July 2007 by the Prime Minister. That statement was accompanied by a Green Paper, The Governance of Britain, from the Ministry of Justice. It proposed regional Select Committees as a means of achieving formal and consistent parliamentary scrutiny, not only of regional policy but of regional Ministersnew posts created by this Prime Minister. I shall not go into great detail on that issue. Suffice it to say, I believe that regional Ministers should be held to account for what they do, through oral questions regularly either in this House or in Westminster Hall, not through oral questions to regional Grand Committees that take place only twice a year, as proposed by the Government. We need to be able to hold those Ministers to account in a better way.
As was referred to in the previous debate, the issue was discussed at considerable length in the Modernisation Committee, and as a member of that Committee, I sat through evidence from regional bodies, the House authorities and Chairmen of existing Select Committees. It was absolutely clear that no case was made for regional Select Committees as the answer to the problem of the need for increased regional accountability. There was no consensus on the move to regional Select Committees, and the Modernisation Committee, in its report, raised severe doubts about the impact of regional Select Committees. It referred to
practical challenges in their creation, including: the risk of disrupting existing departmental select committee business; the potential to distract public bodies and agencies working in the regions from their core activities and central lines of accountability; the possibility of duplicating scrutiny work already being undertaken in the regions; the additional burden on Members time and workload; increased demands on House resources.
Given the reservations of the Modernisation Committee, it is all the more important that the House knows that this proposal, which originated from a policy proposal of the Prime Minister and the Government, was pushed through the Committee on the Chairmans casting votethe Chairman being, of course, the Leader of the House. There was no consensus for change. You may call me old-fashioned, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I happen to think, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said during the earlier debate, that when we are changing the structure of the House, Select Committees or other matters relating to the House, the Leader of the House should aim for consensus among the parties, so that there is general acceptance of the proposals in this House.
Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): Did my right hon. Friend notice that, far from aiming at consensus, the Leader of the House ignored the fact that the majority of Back Benchersthose not paid on the Committeevoted against the proposition? She got it through not only by her own vote, but by the vote of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is now her assistant.
Mrs. May: My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I would add that the Government, in order to get the vote through, had to change the membership of the Select Committee the night before the vote to ensure that one Labour Member, who presumably was unable to attend, was taken off the Committee, and that a Member who was able to attend was put on to it. That Member was not present for any of the evidence sessions taken by the Committee, but voted on those proposals.
Mr. Redwood: Does my right hon. Friend understand that the Labour Government seem to have this awful fear of England? They devolved power to Wales and to Scotland, but they will not devolve any power to England. Instead, they want to break it up.
Mrs. May: My right hon. Friends point leads neatly into my next comment, which is that the unwritten intention behind the Prime Ministers proposal was to find a solution to the West Lothian question. The message we should send clearly to the Leader of the House is that whatever else the expensive new structure will do, it will not answer the West Lothian question.
the proposals for regional select committees is critical for full accountability and...a step change in service delivery.
What will these regional Select Committees actually do? Are they to scrutinise Government regional policy, such as what the Government are telling the regional development agencies to do? If so, that role is already being carried out by existing Select Committees. Regional development agencies are accountable to the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise, which is ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). Moreover, the Select Committees hold a significant number of their meetings in the regions. If the regional Committees are not to scrutinise Government policy, which is already scrutinised by existing Select Committees, what will they do? Will they allow hon. Members to question decisions taken by regional bodies in their area? A better way of doing that would be in regional Grand Committees, where all Members can be present to discuss the issue, and not in a Select Committee, where a limited number of Membersnot all of whom will be from that regionwill be present.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Did the Modernisation Committee have the opportunity to reflect on the original role, under a previous Standing Order, of the Regional Affairs Committee, which was presumably established to provide the level of scrutiny that the Government said that they required at that stage? It has not sat since 2004on the day of the north-east referendum, in fact. Is that not a test of the Governments sincerity in their wish for regional scrutiny?
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. One could argue that the Governments proposal is more about creating positions and chairmanships for Labour Back Benchers than proper regional scrutiny.
Mr. Curry: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real reproach to regional Select Committees is that they are, to use a Yorkshire expression, neither nowt nor summat? They are not fully fledged Select Committees, but a sort of imitation of them. They must co-opt councillors by an unspecified methodGod knows how we would choose them. They are enjoined specifically to meet only now and again. Is that not bizarre? Should the Government not make up their mind about whether committees are a good or bad idea, and then we could make a decision about something real?
The evidence that we took in the Modernisation Committee cast genuine doubt on the value of regional Select Committees and their ability to do the job that the Government claim that they can do. In his evidence,
my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, as Chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee, said:
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