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Like the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), I, too, pay tribute to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He quite often comes up with reports that I profoundly disagree with—he did so when I was on his Committee, albeit briefly. However, he and the other Select Committee Chairmen who are here this evening show the strength of the system. I believe that once regional Select Committees are up and running, they will be effective. They cannot, however, be
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up and running without members. We have obviously been unable to table names from those on the Opposition Benches this evening, although as I have said, we would be happy to do so. Indeed, we stand ready to do so if a damascene conversion happens in the next few days—I am looking at the shadow Leader of the House to see whether any such conversion is likely.

Alan Duncan indicated dissent.

Chris Bryant: What a shame. The hon. Gentleman lets us down every time.

We have, none the less, proposed names in order to fulfil the will of the House, as expressed last November, that in order to enhance the parliamentary scrutiny of regional bodies, their policies and expenditure should be accountable to regional Committees of the House. I will not go through each of the names that we have tabled. I merely note that there is considerable experience embodied in each Committee. There are two former Cabinet members, several prominent former local councillors and the admirable former Chairman of the Select Committee on Health, who I am sure knows, even if the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) thinks that I do not, how the Select Committee process works. I am sure that they will do an admirable job.

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Will the Deputy Leader of the House explain how the following conundrum in the south-west will work in practice? If all the parties propose Members, it seems entirely reasonable that Cornwall should be represented on the Committee for the south-west. However, all the MPs in Cornwall are Liberal Democrats. Under his structure, therefore, only one member of the south-west Committee would be a Liberal Democrat, despite the fact that the Liberal Democrats are the second biggest party in the region. Does that not strike him as a strange state of affairs?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is simply going back to the point that I have already made to two of his hon. Friends, namely that he disagrees with the decision of 12 November. That decision was that we would have Committees that were composed in proportion to the political composition of the whole House, because we believe that the process is not about regional scrutiny, but about parliamentary scrutiny of the regions. We should follow the convention that the House has adopted heretofore in relation to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and have Committees in proportion to the whole House. That means that it would be enormously helpful—and a good idea for the people of Cornwall—if the Liberal Democrats were prepared to propose a member of that Committee. [ Interruption. ] I can assure the hon. Gentleman that two Liberal Democrats will never provide more interest and excitement than one.

The Select Committee system has been an immense success. We have seen the fruits of the system in recent weeks, through the work of the Select Committee on Treasury. [ Interruption. ] Now that I have started on the Liberal Democrat theme, the other point is that we would have two completely different views on the same issue if we had two Liberal Democrats—and probably two different views in the same hour from the same hon. Member.

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Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD) rose—

Chris Bryant: We are now going to have a third view from the Liberal Democrats.

Sir Robert Smith: Does the Deputy Leader of the House agree that the suspicion that his members would be under some kind of Whip is being fulfilled by his point?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Touché.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): On having two views, the Deputy Leader of the House mentioned that he sometimes disagreed with the unanimous all-party reports of the Public Accounts Committee. However, I was quite surprised a while ago to see his name on a list as a Committee member, because in my seven years on the Committee I never saw him turn up once. Can he say how often he was there?

Chris Bryant rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Much as the Minister might want to defend himself from that intervention, I think that he ought now to get down to the motions before us.

Chris Bryant: I think that I probably ought to be sitting down fairly soon, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I believe that the new Committees will play an important role in improving the scrutiny and democratic accountability of the public agencies and public bodies that operate in the English regions. We have enjoyed that in Wales.

Peter Luff rose—

Chris Bryant: I will give way finally to the hon. Gentleman, as long as it is a nice comment.

Peter Luff: I will try to make it nice. Earlier the Deputy Leader of the House invited me to suggest some names of Conservative Members from Worcestershire and Hereford who might serve on the relevant Committee. The trouble is that one is a Whip, while I am a Chairman of a Select Committee who does not have the time, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) is already on two Select Committees, because of the pressure of spaces. Requiring them to serve on yet another Committee would undermine the Select Committee system of which the Deputy Leader of the House speaks so warmly. He speaks in favour of the Select Committee system, but those nominations would undermine the process that he praises.

Chris Bryant: All I would say is that the Labour Members who have been prepared to put their names forward—there was competition in the Labour party to serve on the Committees—believe that the process is a priority, and they want to make it a priority. I completely understand—the hon. Gentleman made this point when he appeared before the Modernisation Committee—that there is intense pressure on right hon. and hon. Members’ time. It is sometimes difficult to manage Public Bill
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Committees and duties in the House and elsewhere. However, it is quite simply wrong that more than £2.3 billion should be spent by, for instance, regional development agencies, without any parliamentary scrutiny. We need to address that. Finally, without members, the Committees cannot exist and cannot do their work. I therefore urge hon. Members to support the motions before us.

6.58 pm

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for talking us through the supposed merits of the motions before us. I somehow feel that he cannot believe in his heart that what he is advocating is a good thing. The truth is that this is a pretty sorry moment for the House, and I am afraid that he will now be required to hear this pip squeak a little further on the matter.

What is before us this evening is a pretty mucky attempt to resuscitate a policy that is on the way out—in fact, I am not really sure that it was ever properly on the way in. This Government’s regional agenda is in complete disarray and chaos. The motions this evening are the fag-end of the fag-end of the fag-end of a policy that will never properly get off the ground.

It has become obvious in the course of this Parliament that the Government’s regional agenda was doomed from the outset. It arose out of the Government’s document, “The Governance of Britain”. I do not particularly admire that document; it contains some pretty simplistic, childish views, and one of its elements was the regional agenda.

Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab) rose—

Alan Duncan: I have hardly got off the ground, but I will give way.

Mr. Clelland: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He suggested that the regional agenda was dead. If that is the case, why has his party appointed him to be a regional representative in the north-east?

Alan Duncan: I am not a regional—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am prepared to allow the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) some introductory remarks, because the Minister did exactly the same, but I hope that he will come back to the precise motion before the House before too long.

Alan Duncan: I am happy to concentrate exclusively on the motion. I hope that the hon. Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland) will therefore forgive me if I write to him on the matter that he has raised.

We have before us the culmination of a process that was launched by the Leader of the House, who was initially against the regional Select Committees, but who was somehow, miraculously, persuaded to be in favour of them. Indeed, it was on her casting vote that the whole episode was launched. As many hon. Members have said today, this process has not enjoyed cross-party consensus from the start. The structure is enshrined in the motions before us, which nominate only Labour Members of Parliament to the Select Committees that are being set up.

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None the origins of the structure has been accepted by the House in a unified way. In fact, most of the evidence involved was against it. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) has clearly stated that most of the responsibilities to be considered by the Committees are already covered by our existing Select Committee system. Covering the regions with Select Committees is an extension that makes no logical sense. It will involve responsibilities that are cross cutting and messy, and it will place a strain on House resources. Let us take the north as an example. The hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Tony Lloyd) has now gone, but he was arguing that Ministers needed somehow to be held to account. The north—and the north-east in particular—is crawling with Labour Members, and if they cannot hold their own Ministers to account, they need to examine their own effectiveness as Members.

On the back of this agenda, the Government appointed regional Ministers, but no one really knows who they are, and we know even less about what they do. They were originally to be questioned in the House, but that has never happened. What are they doing anyway? In which Department do they sit? For what are they responsible? The document, “The Governance of Britain”, says that regional Ministers, who are supposedly to be held to account by these Select Committees, do all sorts of important things. It sets out their responsibilities, stating that they “represent”, “facilitate”, “champion” and again “represent” various things in the document. But do they decide anything? No, they do not. These Ministers are fictitious Ministers, supposedly joining up the various tentacles of government and somehow making a Minister in one Department tie his or her decisions in with those of a Minister in another Department. The people who should be held to account, if that is necessary, are the Ministers who take those decisions, not these supposed facilitators who have no executive responsibility whatever. They are faux Ministers—false Ministers—and they do not really exist as Ministers at all.

In addition to the nonsense of regional Ministers, we have seen the collapse of the regional assemblies—another part of the great regional apparatus falling to bits. We are also seeing, as the shadow Leader of the House has said—

Chris Bryant: No, you’re the shadow Leader of the House.

Alan Duncan: I meant the Deputy Leader of the House, although actually—no, my modesty has suddenly overcome me.

There is also disarray in the regional development agencies. Those bodies were originally business-led organisations set up to assist economic development, but they have gradually been seized by the Government and become an apparatus of government. Our proposal is to give a lot of their powers—15,000 houses to be built here and there, for example—back to the county councils as the proper planning authorities. At the moment, however, they are largely answerable to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, the Business and Enterprise Committee. The accountability of these various organisations is therefore already enshrined in the apparatus of the House.

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Peter Luff: I am happy to endorse what my hon. Friend is saying, and it might be helpful for him to know that, this morning, my Committee agreed a report on the regional development agencies, which will be published shortly.

Alan Duncan: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because it illustrates powerfully the absurdity of the Select Committee structure proposed in the motion.

I should like to seek an assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House. Given that the proposed Select Committees are to be manned—or personed, or whatever the term is—only by Labour Members of Parliament, will he assure us that they are not simply going to go off on regional jaunts to seek regional headlines to assist the incumbency that they enjoy at the moment? We cannot have a Select Committee system like that, enjoying a budget and going off on jollies when its efficacy is being seriously challenged.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Does he accept that, in the south-east—a non-region that evokes no loyalty or sense of regionalism—we want to see the quangos abolished and any sensible powers and money given to elected local government, where an accountability structure is already in existence?

Alan Duncan rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I say again that these matters have already been decided by the House? This evening, we are simply talking about the membership of the Committees before the House.

Alan Duncan: We are against supporting the nomination of Members to the Committees because we do not accept the structure to which they are being nominated. Indeed, it would be far better to have regional Grand Committees to which anyone who is elected in a region could go to argue their case. That would provide a far better structure than having five or nine Members holding a region to account.

Andrew Mackinlay: One of the reasons why I did not put my name forward goes back to the question that I raised earlier: when and where will the Committees meet? Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I invited you to join an organisation, you might say, “Andrew, I’d love to, but when does it meet?” That is the logical question, and unless or until someone knows—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that it has already been explained to the hon. Gentleman that those decisions would have to be taken by the members of the Committee. They cannot be taken until the Committee has its members, which is what is being decided tonight.

Alan Duncan: The creation of Select Committees to hold the Executive to account has been a positive development in the House. However, the original model was designed to ensure that the structure of a Select Committee shadowed, matched, mirrored and scrutinised a particular Department. So, for each Department of State, running through the ranks of Secretary of State and Minister and all the civil servants in that Department, there was a Select Committee to which those people
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would be accountable through investigations and reports. The structure of the regional Select Committees, however, fires off in all sorts of directions and is a complete administrative mess. To appoint Members of Parliament to the Committees, as is proposed in the motions, would be to enshrine an absolutely chaotic structure. They will not shadow any Departments, and they will fire in all sorts of directions in ways that will never come together.

When there is an imbalance in the House, as there is now—although I hope that it will swing the other way in due course—it is difficult for the Opposition, and particularly for a smaller party such as the Liberal Democrats, to find sufficient numbers of people to cover the ground, alongside all the other Select Committees and responsibilities involved. It is therefore unreasonable to have the number of Select Committees growing like Topsy, yet this measure would add eight to the existing number. It looks like a job creation scheme for Labour Members who seem not to have enough to do. At least the House took the decision not to pay the Chairmen.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am certainly following the hon. Gentleman’s argument, and I support a great deal of it. However, his point about the Committees not being responsible for a particular Department, bearing in mind the kind words said about the Public Accounts Committee, seems a little wide of the mark. Surely it is proper for a Committee to look at all the areas of responsibility that fall within its domain.

Alan Duncan: But I do not think it would have the scope or resources to do that. The Public Accounts Committee has a large staff looking at the whole apparatus of Government and it can choose what to focus on, whereas a regional Select Committee has, let us say, 20 or so Government Departments to scrutinise. The idea that it can properly scrutinise all of those Departments in the interests of the region is, I believe, utterly fanciful.

Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab): It is not that we Labour Members do not have enough to do; it is more that we do not have second jobs and outside interests that take up so much time, which prevent some MPs from doing their parliamentary duties in this House properly. It is those duties that MPs should be concentrating on—not on their outside interests.

Alan Duncan: One starting point to deal with that suggestion would be to see more people in this Chamber, doing their job, particularly on the Labour Benches, which are invariably empty. This Chamber is the central focus of central Government scrutiny, not some great structure of regional Committees that are spread so thinly as to be ineffective.

I shall not detain the House much longer. We think that this is a farce and, quite frankly, we do not want anything to do with it. We would be fully justified in voting against all eight motions consecutively this evening; we are sorely tempted to do so, but we are mindful of the business that follows, so we will not go the full distance. However, we certainly intend to test the feeling of the House in a Division.

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