|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge): I rise in my place with some trepidation, having just emerged from the murky shadows of the Government Whips Office. Therefore, I have some sympathy for those with a maiden speech to make. The hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) need have no such fears, however; he gave a confident and a competent parliamentary performance. He did not entirely follow the expected convention of being uncontroversial, but he need not be too concerned about that as exactly the same criticism was levelled at me by Sir Giles Shaw from the Dispatch Box 15 years ago. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has a difficult act to follow, as he observed--following a party leader who is still a prominent national figure--but he shows all the signs of being a credit to his predecessor and I am sure that he will also be a credit to his constituency.
I welcome the Loyal Address and in particular the stated intention to improve further our health and education services, as well as public services in general. There is much in the speech to celebrate, but there are also some omissions, not least of which is regional government, a subject to which I will return.
First, I must mention some specifics to which I hope the new Government will pay urgent attention when they introduce legislation. I hope that a system of licensing and regulation of the private rented housing sector will be introduced. Too many people have their daily lives disrupted, their environment damaged and scarred and their quality of life destroyed because of the antisocial behaviour of a minority of tenants. Councils have some remedy for that and take action from time to time to deal with the problem, but I hope that the Government will find ways to help councils to deal even more effectively with such people. Similarly, housing associations try--not too hard, I often find--to influence matters under their control. If the Government can do more to encourage effective intervention by those organisations, I am sure that thousands of tenants will be grateful.
Private absentee landlords are a different matter, however. Some of them are fine and they try to run their properties responsibly, but too many are content to sit back and count the rent that is coming in--often from housing benefit--and do not care two jots about the behaviour of their tenants, the condition of the property and the effects on the local community.
I hope to see the introduction of properly regulated tenancy agreements, which all private landlords must provide when letting and which they must be responsible for enforcing. I want agreements that would oblige tenants to act reasonably towards their neighbours and to keep the surroundings of the property in reasonable condition--agreements to prohibit the dumping of rubbish in gardens or the curtilages of the property and the putting out of waste in unsuitable containers that dogs and cats can tear open and scatter about the neighbourhood. I also want local authorities to be empowered and resourced to ensure that rented property is kept in reasonable condition--inside and out--and that landlords are meeting their obligations under the regulations and in accordance with the tenancy agreement.
Local government was another glaring omission from the Gracious Speech. Incidentally, I am not saying anything here that I have not said inside the tent, as it were, which may go some way towards explaining why
Although the general structure, duties, responsibilities and overall expenditure of councils are, of course, legitimate areas for Parliament and the Government to decide, the extent of interference by Whitehall in what should be local matters and the patronising finger wagging by Ministers--of all Governments--are sickening. Ministers would do well to be a little more humble in their dealings with people who are also elected and who know their area, their duties and their responsibilities.
I suspect that hon. Members on both sides of the House will have found, as I did, during the recent election campaign that local councillors were the people on whom we most relied to organise and to help. We would do well to remember that and to appreciate the vital contribution that local government makes to our democracy and to the standard and quality of life of our fellow citizens on a daily basis. I also hope that we will soon take a new look at how local government is financed. I regret that the Loyal Address made no mention of that.
The current system of standard spending assessments--another Tory brainwave--is discredited and unfair. The population basis of calculations is too simplistic and fails properly to take into account the different needs and demography of an area. We have to look at new ways of financing local authorities, which will give them the flexibility to respond to local needs and demands and which properly recognise the values of locally based and accountable services.
I well remember my days as leader of Gateshead council--a position that I was proud to hold. I remember the relationship between the council and the private sector. There is nothing new in councils engaging private sector companies to do sometimes major works. Local authority relationships with private companies led to many problems in the past, but the way in which the relationship is being dictated by the Government now is undermining morale among councillors and public sector workers. It seems to some that the old adage "Public sector good, private sector bad" is being turned on its head by the Government. The Government should gan canny on this, to use a familiar Tyneside expression. Efficiency must not mean cheapness or cuts in wages for low earners, which is all too often the result of private sector involvement in the delivery of services, as opposed to capital investment.
With the proper safeguards, there can be a healthy relationship between the public and private sectors, but the Government have yet to show that they fully appreciate the strength of feeling on the matter, let alone the dangers to the public services involved. Public services will not improve if staff and local representatives are undervalued and demoralised.
Regional government was touched on by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin). I much regret the absence of any reference in the Queen's Speech to devolution, save for the curious statement:
It is the case, of course, that the Gracious Speech does not contain the entirety of the Government's intentions over the whole Parliament or even the whole Session, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out. Other speeches will be forthcoming and, as Her Majesty put it:
Indeed, there is a need for much clarification on regional policy--not least the division of responsibilities between Ministers and Departments. If, as I hope, regional government remains on the Government's agenda, who will be in overall charge of taking it forward? Which Department will be responsible for which aspects of policy and policy development? We need early answers to those questions. The issue will not go away, and the regions of England will not be sidelined, and certainly will not be ignored.
All Governments have recognised the administrative advantages of dividing England up into regions. For example, regional structures were put in place during the first and second world wars, and regional economic planning councils were put in place by the Wilson Government in 1964. The Kilbrandon report in 1973 recommended the creation of regional co-ordinating and advisory councils, part-elected and part-nominated. A previous Conservative Government set up regional offices to co-ordinate the activities of the regional arms of Government Departments, headed by a single civil servant with considerable power and influence. Labour has, of course, retained regional offices and supplemented them with regional development agencies, and encouraged regional chambers made up of community leaders to provide a quasi-democratic element.
Now that major constitutional reforms are in place, with the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and a new Assembly for Greater London, it is time to move on. The new Government must complete the work. The reconstitution of the Standing Committee for the English Regions is welcome, but by no means a substitute for regional government. We shall have to wait to see how often the Committee is to meet and to what extent it is able to influence regional issues. Perhaps an all-party group on regional government, independent of the Executive, would be better placed to give vent to
The new Government must take early action to correct the anomaly that devolution has created. There can surely be no justification now for Scotland and Wales having their own Secretary of State sitting in the Cabinet, influencing things on their behalf, when they have their own assemblies. One Cabinet Minister for the nations and regions would suffice and I hope that that will be forthcoming soon. As long as the current system remains, the English regions, especially regions such as the north, are further disadvantaged.
I do not intend today to call for the immediate abolition of the Barnett formula, although I believe that in due course the system of financing the nations and regions will have to be reformed. Some of those who call for the abolition of the Barnett formula, or the provision of a Barnett formula for the north, are joining those who make the rather simplistic assumption that abolishing the formula would somehow benefit the north or that the Government are likely to extend it to one region and not the rest. I want what is right for the north, not what is right for Scotland, Wales or London. That must be based on a proper assessment of needs and resources, not on petty jealousy of what some other area gets.
I have no doubt that such an assessment would benefit the north-east, but the general quality of life is good in our region. We have a lot to offer and to be proud of and, given the resources and the flexibility to use them to our best advantage, we can go a long way to resolving our own problems and extending quality living to all our citizens. The Labour party in the north has long campaigned for regional government in England. The proposal from some that there should be an English Parliament flies in the face of cultural and historical development and would leave northern regions dominated once again by the more wealthy and highly populated south.
Governments past and present have accepted the wisdom of creating and maintaining a regional structure in England that recognises the cultural and economic development of distinctive areas of the country. The time is right for that to manifest itself in properly accountable regional government that will not take powers away from local government nor be conditional on the restructuring of local government within its area. However, after the regional structure has become established, there could be a duty on the new regional government to report to Parliament within a specific time scale on the structure of local government within the region. It must be government with teeth, with the powers and resources to make a real impact on the economic and structural problems that the region faces.
Regional government in the north would give us direct influence in Europe and a strong, collective voice to promote our virtues and enhance our image in a way that central Government and local authorities cannot. It would give us the ability to pursue regional priorities that fit with regional aspirations, not the priorities as they are perceived in Whitehall.
Those who oppose regional government often say that it will be yet another tier of government, that it will be costly or that it will provide more jobs for the boys. I refute all those arguments. We are the most under-represented country in Europe. The 1974 local government changes cut the numbers of elected councillors by half. The previous Tory Government abolished metropolitan counties and the Greater London council. The introduction of regional government--a common form of government in the rest of Europe and throughout the world--will go some small way to redressing the cuts in democratic representation.
The truth is that our people are now ruled by quango--small groups appointed by and accountable to the centre. Regional government can replace much of that, so it need not place substantial additional financial costs on the taxpayer. Indeed, there are real opportunities for cost savings through regional government. Furthermore, as much of the responsibility of the regional tier will be transferred from existing central Government responsibilities, there should be no additional costs arising there either.
The "jobs for the boys" point should be directed at quangocracy, the little huddles of the great and the good who sort out who will be chairman of this or member of that--posts that often bring generous salaries for very little work. Such people are completely unaccountable to the local people whom they are supposed to serve.
We are proposing a big change; these are matters that deserve detailed debate and discussion on both sides of the House. The time is right for us to move forward to the next phase of devolution. English regional government is at least part of the answer to the West Lothian question. It will promote innovation and variety in the governance of our country. It is right for the UK and it is certainly right for the north.
Devolution is a process for the whole of the United Kingdom. It cannot be implemented in part or in a piecemeal fashion if it is to work efficiently and to full advantage. That is why regional government is a natural and necessary next step, but it can be only part of a holistic approach to modern government. It should be complemented by and associated with another constitutional change that will also be crucial to the development of efficient and modern government in the United Kingdom: the completion of reform of the House of Lords. Thankfully, that was mentioned in the Gracious Speech.
The House of Commons is directly elected by the people and so must reign supreme. The second Chamber must be accountable and representative yet remain a "second" Chamber. For that reason, I oppose a directly elected second Chamber. Direct elections would confer
How then can we create a second Chamber with legitimacy and authority that would contribute to good government? How can we create a second Chamber that would have weight, would command respect and would have the confidence to challenge Government but, in the final analysis, not be able to frustrate the mandate on which the Government were elected? Just as the House of Commons represents the people, by direct elections, the second Chamber should represent the structure of society, by indirect elections. To the second Chamber, or perhaps the "House of Representatives", would come the representatives of business, trade unions, religious organisations, the voluntary sector, regional assemblies, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament, local government and other appropriate sections of society.
Such a structure would create a House of representatives with wide experience and expertise--an assembly of men and women from a broad cross-section of society, accountable to their sponsoring organisations, and who could properly scrutinise legislation without pursuing an overtly party political agenda. Such a House would complement and enhance the policy of devolution. It would be a House finally free of the hereditary principle and of prime ministerial patronage. A second Chamber so constituted would command the confidence and respect of the British people; it would have a proper, useful role and would be an efficient and welcome addition to our constitution.
I have already gone on longer than I intended. No doubt that is a result of four years of purdah in the Whips Office. I spent six years in all in the Whips Office and that taught me about the frustrations of hon. Members when one Member drones on ad nauseam--I think I am getting close to that point. However, I hope to return to these and other issues in due course. In the meantime, I welcome the opportunity to return to the Back Benches.