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12 Nov 2008 : Column 833

We want to appeal to the public out there. We do not want to increase disillusionment. However, I believe that what the Modernisation Committee is proposing, mainly on the basis of the casting vote of the Leader of the House, will increase disillusionment. For instance, in this debate we are being allowed a mere five minutes in which to express our opinions on fundamental changes to the House. I repeat that my whole purpose is to return to this House some independence and integrity from the Executive, so I hope that, even at this late stage, the Leader of the House will be prepared to think again on some of these proposals. They are ill-judged, they will serve the House badly and they will not restore public confidence in this place and our role as representative Members of Parliament.

3.55 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I rise to speak to the amendments standing in my name, which are supported by 14 London Members in total and particularly address the London dimension. I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House discussed that in her opening remarks, and I am grateful for the constructive discussions that we have had over the past couple of days to try to resolve the position of London.

London is the biggest region; it contains 7.2 million people and is growing. It is different from the rest of the country; it has the Mayor and the Greater London authority. There remains a major role for central Government to play; there are a large number of non-devolved areas and a large number of areas where they work in partnership with other agencies. There is an overwhelming need to ensure proper co-ordination of Government key programmes, and that can be done effectively only through parliamentary scrutiny provided by a London Select Committee. There will be no difficulty with political balance in a London Committee, because London is one of the few regions that has plenty of Members from all the parties, which will ensure that we can staff it ourselves. Our area has the Government office for London—other regions have similar bodies—which also ought to be accountable to Parliament. We have our own Minister for London, and he ought to be accountable to us, as should his two assistant Ministers.

London is different: it accounts for 16.7 per cent. of the UK’s economic output; and economic difficulties, such as those facing us now, have a particularly severe impact on the City and financial services jobs. In many ways, the downturn’s impact in London is different from that in the rest of the country. We also need to address the issues associated with deprivation in London. Four of the top eight—or the bottom eight, depending on how one looks at this—most deprived authorities in England are in London. The city has serious child poverty; 50 per cent. of children in inner London are in low-income households. The benefits regime operates very differently in London, because of the high cost of living, the way in which housing benefit works and the low take-up of tax credit. The Government office for London programmes, the new deal for communities, the delivery of decent homes and neighbourhood renewal and regeneration are all issues on which we should have a say.

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The issue of health also needs to be considered. London has its own regional strategic health authority— NHS London—and the Government office for London examines inequalities in life expectancy and infant mortality. What is contained in the huge change that NHS London is introducing must be subject to detailed scrutiny. The Darzi review deals with issues of general practitioner access, the controversial polyclinics, the reconfiguration of hospital services, the potential separation of elected and acute services, and the possible controversial closures of certain general hospitals. We must also consider the joint commissioning being organised among the primary care trusts and the, unfortunately low, take-up of some of the immunisation programmes. The PCTs have local authority scrutiny panels, but we do not have a similar arrangement at the strategic, London-wide level, which a London Select Committee could provide.

Transport for London deals with buses and the tube, but the enormous £5.5 billion Thameslink modernisation programme comes under the Department for Transport, not TFL. There is a new, enormous involvement from central Government in the Crossrail programme to consider and, of course, only yesterday we debated a third runway at Heathrow—that central Government policy decision will have a major impact on London across the board. Then there is the Olympics to consider, in which the Government have a major role to play. We have our own Minister for the Olympics, who ought to be accountable to Parliament through a Select Committee arrangement.

The case for a Select Committee for London has been strongly made. A London Committee does not have to follow exactly the same model as the other Committees, and it is thus right that we should consider it in the context of devolution to London. Special problems face London, and I hope that the Leader of the House’s consultation on this matter will be short and sharp. I hope that she will be able to come back to the House in the early new year with concrete proposals to ensure that London gets the representation and the scrutiny of the Minister, of the Government office for London and of all the other bodies that we should be able to achieve for London Members in this House.

3.59 pm

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): I am pretty sceptical about whether the arrangements will work, and that will no doubt be reflected in the way in which I vote tonight. However, I commend the Government for recognising that we have a problem and for at least attempting to put it right.

In the county constituency of Salisbury, we tend to take the long view. The first Members of Parliament were sent here from Salisbury in 1265, in 1346 eight Members of Parliament represented the area that I now represent and until 1832 we still had more than one MP—the democratic representation of my area has changed.

One or two things have been imposed on the area. The first is the strange and arbitrary idea of where the south-west starts and ends. Indeed, all the regional boundaries are pretty artificial. They were a world war two attempt to divide up the country for administrative reasons, and I regret that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), when he was
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Deputy Prime Minister, did not decide to rearrange the regions. I, for example, feel myself to be a man of Wessex rather than of the west country. I have always regarded Bristol as being in the west midlands —[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friends laugh, but that is the whole problem. Those who represent the south-west, like me, and who know it well fully understand how remote it feels to be in Penzance while life-affecting decisions are taken in Bristol, which could be on the moon as far as most people are concerned. We have a problem.

Having been born in Plymouth, having lived in Salisbury and Truro and having spent the larger part of my life in Salisbury, I understand that even within our regions there are huge variations in how our services from central Government are delivered, what expectations we have and what our people have to offer the nation. One thing that is absolutely clear is that we should make every possible attempt to ensure that this House remains the Parliament of England. I do not wish to see any other Parliament established anywhere calling itself an English Parliament. That would be appalling and would go against 1,000 years of our history.

We have to try to work out a way of ensuring that there is a greater sense of identity and empowerment and better delivery of services. I recognise that, when I was a local government Minister, my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, as Secretary of State, invented the idea of regional Government offices. My right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who are sitting beside me, know more about that than me, because they had related responsibilities. However, there was never any intention that there would be elected regional assemblies. I regard what is happening today as a sort of revenge for the fact that the regional assemblies did not work.

We have to be very careful that we do not cause more trouble than it is all worth. I am keen to see that we give a fair wind to some of these ideas, if only to prove that they are wrong. We must somehow recognise, as a large number of right hon. and hon. Members from all parties have suggested, that there are real problems with our identity. We cannot devolve responsibility for matters such as fire and rescue services upwards to a regional body from our local authorities without having local accountability for them, which is just one example of many.

I am sceptical whether this proposal will work, but it is an attempt that we should not completely write off. Unless we have a better suggestion, we should perhaps be a little cautious in our approach.

4.3 pm

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield) (Lab): It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), not least because I have discovered for the first time that Bristol is part of the west midlands, something that had passed me by until now.

I broadly welcome the proposals, for many of the reasons that my hon. Friends have given. I want to offer a word of reassurance and to raise a couple of matters of concern. The welcome that I would like to give the proposals follows on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Plaskitt) said. I get the impression that my constituents think
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that I have three roles that they want me to take up. The first is as a local advocate—a local champion in the local area. That works in some cases, not in others, but it is generally clear. The second is a national role, whether it involves raising their concerns on a national stage or participating in the national formulation of legislation, national scrutiny and so on. The element that is missing is the regional and sub-regional issues that affect my constituents, in which the local MP has an unclear role, at best. That is where there is a gap.

In the past, that was occasionally changed by force of circumstance. For me, the gap was partly bridged a few years ago by the Rover crisis at the Longbridge plant in my constituency. A taskforce was set up that involved stakeholders in the region and local MPs, and that began to bridge some of the gaps that I have identified.

I think that the creation of regional Ministers—and now the councils of regional Ministers, and so on—has also begun to bridge some of those gaps, although there is still a gap in accountability at regional level. That is a problem. The regional Select Committees cannot be the only remedy, but they will help to address the problem.

It is important that we retain the Select Committee principle, because they will need the inquisitorial approach that such Committees can bring to bear. I do not think that they should be an alternative to the Grand Committees—I believe that it is quite a good idea to have both structures—but we should not lose the inquisitorial approach.

There are some issues that I want to flag up, but first I want to reassure the House about the question of duplication between the roles of different committees. Yes, there will be duplication, but I am not scared of that. By our nature, we already duplicate all sorts of things. Overlaps exist—regionally and locally, regionally and nationally and even between Departments.

I am a member of the International Development Committee, whose job overlaps with that of the Foreign Affairs Committee and, increasingly, with that of the Defence Committee. Issues to do with the Post Office affect the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and often the Department for Work and Pensions as well. Another example would be the way in which issues to do with climate change and energy overlap Departments. In addition, we already have the Public Accounts Committee, which by its very nature is cross cutting and overlaps the work of other Committees. Therefore, we should not be too cautious about this proposal. Will the result be messy sometimes? Yes, absolutely—but that is because politics and what we have to deal with are often messy.

I have two areas of concern. First, I am uncomfortable—for practical reasons and for reasons of principle—with the idea that regional Select Committees should have a majority of people from another region. That is a problem, and I am not sure that it will work. If we go ahead with the experiment, I hope that it will be reviewed as soon as possible. I am uncertain that it will work, and in that I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay).

However, I disagree with my hon. Friend about the question of inclusion, which is my second concern. We should not be too precious about restricting the involvement of the regional Select Committees to MPs alone. While it may be right to restrict the membership to MPs, I
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agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) that the committees should also be outward looking and involve local authorities and other stakeholders in the regions.

We know that people up and down the country are disengaged from politics. If we can do something about that by creating these Committees, we should seize the opportunity.

4.8 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am aware of the time pressures on contributions to the debate, and I hope that the Leader of the House will reflect on them and on the dilemmas faced by Back Benchers as a result. I believe that, in future, Back Benchers should be given a protected opportunity to question a Minister—or, in this case, the Leader of the House—according to a procedure similar to that used by the European Scrutiny Committee.

We have not had that opportunity today. Like other hon. Members, I have wanted to intervene on the Leader of the House on many occasions today, only to find that she would not accept an intervention. Having voted the proposals through as Chair of the Modernisation Committee, she is clearly responsible for the policy that we are debating. I believe that we need to be able to scrutinise the matter far more than we have been able to do so far.

I also want to query the Government’s sincerity in bringing forward these proposals. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) explained earlier, we were assured that the creation of the Regional Affairs Standing Committee would fill the gap left by devolution to Scotland, Wales and London. However, it was within the gift of Ministers to decide when that Committee would be called and what subjects would be debated, so in the end the full opportunity that the Committee offered was never properly used.

In fact, the Government had a perfect opportunity immediately after the north-east referendum to reflect on why their plan and approach at that stage had failed so catastrophically. However, they failed to learn the lesson from that that devolution is all about letting go, not about holding on for dear life. What the Government in effect did in the north-east was say, “We’ve decided the boundaries of these places. We’ve decided what powers. We’ve decided the timetable. We’ve decided everything about this. Now do you want it or not?” Such an impatient, centralised approach—demanding from the Government-created zones of the country and expecting them to acquiesce to centralised diktats—clearly demonstrated why the Government had failed.

These regions are not regions in the sense that they have internal integrity and a community of interest. They are Government zones set up for administrative convenience. The Government should loosen up a bit and allow the localities around the country to bring forward their own proposals for the management of all the services that are controlled from central Government. This monstrous and inept policy failure, and the fudge and distasteful abuse of power of the creation of these regional Select Committees, is the inevitable product of a Government who do not want to listen to the regions they have created.

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Many hon. Members have pointed up the clear—albeit, perhaps, entertaining—absurdity of what is likely to happen in the Government zone of the south-west. It has been well articulated by my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Labour Members from outside the area will be dragooned into sitting—whether or not as willing volunteers. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to reflect on the fact that several Labour Members from outside the Government zone have come to me and said, “We look forward to being appointed to the Government zone for the south-west Select Committee, because we have enjoyed many holidays in the area and we can go down there and reflect on our holiday experience.” That highlights a problem we have to fight against constantly. We always have to punch our way through the impression that the south-west is merely a holiday zone. I hope that the Leader of the House will reflect on that.

4.13 pm

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): Even in this era of bank bail-outs, the £2.3 billion spent every year by regional development agencies is a very substantial sum. In addition to the money that they have spent in the past on economic development and regeneration, the Government are rightly giving RDAs responsibility for spatial planning, to give better co-ordination at regional level to that work. In addition to the RDAs, on which we have all focused because they are such significant spenders, work on the arts, sport, health and transport is all rightly organised on a regional basis to give an appropriate balance between the strategic overview and local insight and knowledge.

All this work is currently nominally accountable to Parliament through Ministers, but we all know that the reality is very different, and that in fact the RDAs and the many other bodies that organise on a regional basis are not effectively accountable to Parliament, certainly not through Ministers via the sort of questions we are able to ask here, and in many cases the work they do alongside each other is not properly joined up.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Peter Soulsby: No, I am sorry but I do not have time to give way. I must press on.

The Modernisation Committee had five evidence sessions. In all those sessions, we heard overwhelming evidence about the accountability gap to which the Government are responding in their proposals. Nobody doubted that. It was probably the regional development agencies and other regional bodies that said most strongly that they felt that they were not held to account adequately. They felt that it would be good for their governance if they were better held to account.

I welcome the Government’s proposals, particularly on regional Select Committees. Given the evidence that we heard, and the arguments that we engaged in with witnesses, I am firmly convinced—I say this without any arm-twisting from the Whips or persuasion from the Leader of the House—that regional Select Committees are the only effective mechanism by which we can hold a focused inquiry on the work of the many regional
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agencies, and hold them properly to account. Those Select Committees will be able to set their own agenda, establish their own inquiries, work flexibly and, of course, publish reports. Those reports will be the subject of debate in the regional Grand Committees, on the Floor of the House, or in Westminster Hall.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Sir Peter Soulsby: I would like to, but I have a few more points to make. I will make them, and then see whether I can give way. The Government have wisely brought forward proposals for both regional Select Committees, which I favour, and regional Grand Committees. The Grand Committees may prove a more effective way of holding regional Ministers to account, but both types of Committee may have ongoing value. I suspect that it will be the regional Select Committees that turn out to have enduring value, to be of more interest to Members, and to be more effective in holding regional bodies to account. However, it may be that both types of Committee prove to be long-term solutions.

I have listened to the debate carefully, and many of the protests that we have heard are way out of proportion to the nature of the proposals before us. What is being put before us is an experiment that is to take place up until the next election, which is less than 18 months away. The experiment is quite modest in its costs, which are well under £2 million—the figure is £1 million or £2 million. That is barely a tenth of 1 per cent. of the expenditure of regional development agencies alone, never mind all the other regional bodies. That seems a small price to pay in the search for effective regional accountability.

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