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25 Jun 2009 : Column 970

Ms Harman: If the hon. Lady will bear with me, that is exactly what I intend to do as I set out the case for a Regional Select Committee for London.

As I have said, when public bodies spend public money in the public interest, they need to be publicly accountable through this House to the region they serve. In the face of a global economic crisis affecting every region, the work of Regional Select Committees is even more important so that we can ensure that public policy to take action to protect businesses and jobs is effective, and so that we can be sure that taxpayers’ money is being used in the most effective way. Without Regional Select Committees, there is an accountability gap at regional level.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I will. However, I know that the hon. Lady’s party is refusing to take part in any of the Regional Select Committees, so it will not surprise me—although it will be disappointing—if she, too, joins the voices against a Regional Select Committee for London.

Susan Kramer: The right hon. and learned Lady entirely anticipates my view. Will she explain why the accountability gap cannot be filled by using the existing bodies, rather than creating yet another Committee, as too many cooks are the best way to ensure that real accountability fails?

Ms Harman: If the hon. Lady will let me get on with my speech, I shall answer that question.

On 12 November 2008, the House agreed that there should be a Regional Select Committee for each of the administrative regions in England, except for London. London has been treated differently because London has different governance from the other regions, including different levels of accountability to elected representatives. I point out to London Members that Wales and Scotland also have Select Committees and Grand Committees in addition to their devolved Assemblies.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): They also have Welsh questions and Scottish questions, so why not fill the accountability gap with London questions?

Ms Harman: If a London Grand Committee is established in addition, it will certainly be possible to hold the Minister for London to account. Indeed, it is possible for all London Members to ask questions of Government Ministers about London issues—whether those Ministers are in the Home Office or the Department of Health—and they do.

We took the view that the different governance arrangements in London warranted further consideration in the light of the experience of the other Regional Select Committees. We felt that that consideration and further consultation should take place before we came to the House with this proposal. Before and during the debate, Members, as well as those outside the House, made representations to me for a London Select Committee and I committed to bringing forward proposals to the House, following further consultation.

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Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab): I welcome this initiative. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is important that a Regional Select Committee should not attempt to cover the same ground as the Greater London authority, which has an important scrutiny role in relation to the Mayor? London has some very definite regional characteristics relating to its public services and labour market, and it is very important that we should be able not just to question the Minister, but to do some in-depth work to investigate these problems and to make representations about regional interests.

Ms Harman: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Select Committee needs to fill that accountability gap. Of course, we support the work of the London boroughs and they should be working actively on the economy and employment issues that she mentioned. We set up the Greater London authority and we brought forward the legislation for a Mayor for London. Far from undermining their roles, we want to strengthen accountability in London. There remains a gap, and the Select Committee will fill it.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): Will the right hon. and learned Lady give way?

Ms Harman: I will press on with my speech, if I may.

Since March 2009, Regional Select Committees have been undertaking their work. Following the agreement of the House, all the Committees have been set up, they have members and they have selected Chairs. All have announced their first inquiries. All are considering some aspect of the recession’s effect on the regional economy, and the response of Government and agencies to that. They have completed the written evidence stages and are now hearing oral evidence. By the summer recess, the Committees will have held some 20 public evidence sessions.

One important aspect of the work of these Committees is their capacity to take evidence from a wide range of stakeholders in the specific region, achieving important locally focused engagement. Meetings have taken place across the English regions under the purview of the Regional Select Committees—for example, in Barnsley, Liverpool, Reading, Gateshead and Swindon.

Many regional organisations, such as the regional branches of the Federation of Small Businesses, the regional organisation of the CBI, the citizens advice bureaux and the learning and skills councils, together with representatives of industry and banking, have appeared before the Regional Select Committees to offer their expert opinions on how their region is coping with the downturn, the effectiveness of public policy in the region and what is needed to support the recovery in that region. Key Government agencies with a role in delivering the Government response to the recession, such as the regional development agencies and Government offices, and regional Ministers, have also contributed to the investigations undertaken by the Committees.

We look forward to the reports from the Regional Select Committees in the coming weeks and months, and to considering how the relevant lessons learned from across the country can help to ensure effective accountability of both policy and spending in the face
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of the current economic difficulties and that, for the people in each region, the necessary effective action is delivered.

In the light of the experience of the Committees, it is now right to bring forward the motion to establish a Select Committee for London. We propose that the London Select Committee should have the same powers and composition as those of the other Select Committees for the regions. As I said, there are different governance arrangements in London, such as an elected Mayor and the London assembly. Some of the regional bodies, such as Transport for London and the London Development Agency, are accountable to the Mayor and subject to scrutiny from the assembly. However, there are many important areas of national policy on public services that impact on London—including health, and crime reduction—and are the responsibility of Ministers as well as the London boroughs.

The Government retain considerable responsibility for delivery by many key agencies and non-departmental public bodies operating in London, including NHS London, the learning and skills council, Jobcentre Plus and Her Majesty’s Courts Service and Prison Service. Although we acknowledge the differences between London and other regions, London should not be denied the opportunity afforded to other regions to hold such bodies to account, on Londoners’ behalf, through their Members of Parliament.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): A very good example of that is the current review of acute stroke and major trauma services going on within NHS London, in which the boroughs are advancing different positions. It is a regional issue that is below the radar of the Select Committee on Health, but is it not an ideal example of how a London Committee could do some value-added work to hold NHS London to account and check whether those proposals are indeed in the interests of Londoners?

Ms Harman: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. As a Member of Parliament for a London constituency, I know that there are issues on which London MPs, working through a Select Committee, could achieve greater accountability on my constituents’ behalf. Health issues, for example, inevitably cross constituency boundaries. They do not fall within the purview of the London boroughs and are not the responsibility of the assembly. On their own, they would justify the work of a Regional Select Committee, so I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.

The motion has been subject to consultation with hon. Members, the Mayor of London and his office, the London assembly and the London boroughs, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for London, whom I am glad to see is here for the debate. It is clear that there is no consensus about the value of a London Select Committee, even though it would not duplicate the scrutiny that already exists. Instead, it would complement that scrutiny by focusing on the impact of Government policies in London, including the work of the Government office for London and the regional bodies.

The motion establishes the Committee only for the lifetime of this Parliament. At the end of that time, there would be an opportunity to review the London Committee—if we set it up, which I hope we will—and
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all the other Regional Committees to see how they have worked. Opposition Members are being intransigent if they are not prepared to allow the Regional Select Committees to be established even on an experimental basis until the end of the Parliament.

I hope that hon. Members will reflect on the matter and support a Regional Select Committee to hold Government organisations to account on behalf of Londoners. I commend the motion to the House.

1.21 pm

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The motion returns us to a subject—the establishment of Regional Select Committees—that the House has debated at some length already. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is no longer in his place, but we heard his concerns about how these proposals are being rolled out. I do not want to reprise the earlier debate about establishing Regional Select Committees across the rest of the country, as I want to focus on London, but I shall give a brief rundown of the various concerns expressed.

The first concern was that Regional Select Committees would cost a lot of money and that there were better alternatives. Secondly, concerns were expressed about their composition and the fact that there was no mechanism allowing MPs not from a particular region to be on that region’s Committee. The same concern has been expressed in respect of London, but people were worried above all that the Regional Select Committees’ work would duplicate the important work done by the 41 Select Committees that already exist. We have similar concerns about a London Regional Select Committee.

The Leader of the House said that the objective was to fill an accountability gap. We all recognise London’s unique devolution settlement, and we agreed that there was an accountability gap in other parts of the country, but we did not believe that that problem could be solved by setting up a new Regional Select Committee to go alongside the unaccountable regional development agencies, regional assemblies and all the other quangos that we have at regional level. We believe that the solution is to make sure that all the decisions taken by those bodies should be taken further down in local government. Regional Select Committees would not then have to look at those matters, as they would be scrutinised and decided at a much more local level than is currently the case.

As the Leader of the House said, London has a unique devolution settlement. We are now on our second directly elected Mayor, and the London assembly has its own elected members. They must feel that the move to set up a London Regional Select Committee is a vote of no confidence by Ministers in the assembly’s ability to scrutinise London and its Mayor.

Ms Buck: We have spent the past few weeks in an intense debate about how to strengthen the scrutiny role of Members of Parliament and this Chamber. I fail to understand how the hon. Lady’s objections to the proposed Committee square with the desire of her party leaders to ensure that Members of Parliament can be more active in holding Ministers and those who run public services to account.

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Justine Greening: I suppose that I have two responses to that. First, Back Benchers can hold Ministers to account: as an Opposition Back Bencher, I think that I can hold Ministers to account on London issues such as Heathrow as well as anyone. Secondly, although the hon. Lady is right that we need more accountability, why can we not get that through having London questions? Why spend several hundred thousand pounds on a Regional Select Committee for London when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) said, people want not another talking shop but direct and immediate representation, with hon. Members being able to ask questions and get answers? Surely we should be trying that first to see whether it works.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): An example was given earlier about health and London’s stroke services. Does my hon. Friend agree that the people best placed to scrutinise such matters would be the health committees of the London boroughs? They deal with such matters daily, in liaison with Members of Parliament. Surely they would be best placed to scrutinise what is going on.

Justine Greening: I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Lady mentioned having a London Question Time, but she will be aware that in such sessions a Member asking a question gets only one supplementary, and that only two or three supplementary questions will be asked from around the House on any particular matter. A good contrast to illustrate the point is provided by the Liaison Committee’s questioning of the Prime Minister. Instead of the half-hour bun fight that we have on Wednesday afternoons, the Liaison Committee gets the Prime Minister for two and a half hours, which means that we can develop themes in great detail and question him at length. We simply could not do the same in a London Question Time.

Justine Greening: Approximately 60-plus MPs will not be able to be part of any London Regional Select Committee because it will have only nine members. A London MP who does not belong to that Regional Select Committee will not have the same opportunities as would be provided by a London Question Time.

If the objective is to scrutinise policy as it affects London, that is already fulfilled by existing Select Committees, as some of the reports undertaken over the past five years or so demonstrate. For example, the Transport Committee has produced reports on the London congestion charge and the performance of London Underground, while the Culture, Media and Sport Committee has done one on the London Olympics. The former Education and Skills Committee did a report on skills in London, while the Home Affairs Committee has produced a report on counter-terrorism and community relations in the aftermath of the London bombings. Only a couple of weeks ago, we were in this Chamber debating the report from the Home Affairs Committee on knife crime that had a clear resonance for London. There is nothing to prevent Select Committees from looking at London issues where they are of real importance, and they do that already.

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Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Does not the intervention by the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) illustrate the Government’s wrong-headed approach to the proposal for a London Regional Select Committee? Mention has been made of having a London Question Time, but should not any concern about scrutiny be addressed by the London assembly, which should ensure that its structures and procedures in that regard are robust? If scrutiny in areas such as health needs to be improved, should that not be devolved to the London boroughs?

Justine Greening: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is another option for tackling the problem that the Government say exists, but is not the Mayor already accountable to Parliament? He is directly accountable to Londoners, of course, and he is also scrutinised by the London assembly, but he is also summoned here regularly to be held to account by Select Committees. Even the previous Mayor was up in front of Select Committees seven times in eight years, when he was asked about a whole range of issues. The new Mayor has been in place for just over a year, but in that short period he has already appeared before five Select Committees. Clearly, therefore, MPs can scrutinise what the Mayor is doing through topical investigations by existing Select Committees, and they can also question him directly.

People in city hall will probably look at this debate and feel that it is a little top down. A lot of debate goes on here about issues that really matter to London, and yet the assembly and the Mayor must wonder why they cannot summon MPs. For example, we voted here about post office closures after Londoners had made it clear that they wanted the closure programme to end. The Mayor and London assembly must wonder why they cannot summon MPs and relevant Ministers about such matters, or why the Secretary of State for Transport cannot be summoned to explain the decision to go ahead with the expansion of Heathrow, even though it goes against what Londoners want.

Why are Ministers trying to undermine the London assembly? As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) says, one of the options should be further to strengthen the London assembly, but we hear no discussion of that—everything is top-down.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): One of the arguments that the hon. Lady makes about a London Committee is based on the inaccurate information she has just given about post office closures across London. If we had had the opportunity to scrutinise such proposals as a London-wide body, we might have had more success in protecting post offices. Is she seriously saying that as a London Member of Parliament she does not want a say on strategic issues that involve a number of Departments, and possibly the Mayor and city hall as well, and to come up with reports to try to guide the Government and the Mayor in the direction the people we represent want us to take?

Justine Greening: The hon. Gentleman seeks to create a mish-mash of democracy where MPs would be attempting slightly to play the role of London assembly members. London assembly members are unable ultimately to scrutinise all the matters that affect London, but what we need to do is make the existing structure work better.
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Those are not my words but those of London Councils when they were consulted. The Leader of the House was right when she said that there had not been consensus. London Councils said:

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