Governance in England

[back to previous text]

Mrs. Roche: Of course, it would be impertinent for me to tell the Committee what its business should be, and which Ministers it should invite. I am sure that any of my right hon. and hon. Friends would be delighted and extremely willing to take part in its proceedings.

Andrew George: How obsessed are the Government with size? The English might be a little obsessed with it. Whenever the issue of boundaries and size arises, it is treated almost as though boundaries have been preordained by God. The right hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Joyce Quin) suggested that the matter should be open to scrutiny, and I agree. The reflection of identity by devolved assemblies is surely a matter of such paramount importance that it should be included in the equation.

To what extent have the Government considered models in other countries? I know that they have done so. Have they recognised that such models are successful not only where there is asymmetry, but where the relevant Government take a flexible approach and acknowledge that devolution cannot be established on a uniform and sanitised basis?

Mr. Raynsford: We are no more obsessed with size than with any other issue, as I made clear to the hon. Gentleman earlier. The elected regional assemblies should be fit for purpose. That is the key criterion. He made a perfectly reasonable and sound case—my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West also made the point—for ensuring adequate representation of a region that contains diverse areas. That is one consideration, but the other side of the coin relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Totnes, who accused us of possibly creating bureaucracy on a huge scale.

One person's representative body is another person's bureaucracy, and we must judge what is the right size for an assembly to enable it adequately and properly to reflect the communities that it represents, without creating an overly large bureaucracy and talking shop. We shall approach that balance in a pragmatic and sensible way, and listen carefully to the views expressed. I hope that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) will recognise that we are not obsessed; we want to find the right solution.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned models from other countries. We are considering them. He referred to asymmetry, and we are conscious that the Spanish model for devolution has an extremely asymmetric pattern, and some parts of it have been successful. Most people would recognise that the creation of a devolved framework for Catalonia has greatly helped relations between it and the rest of Spain, while, sadly, the Basque province has not been a happy model of successful devolution. We shall try to learn from other countries without aping any specific model. We want to do what is right for this country and to create structures that will work well here.

Lawrie Quinn: My right hon. Friend the Minister recently visited my constituency for a conference, so he will know how important transport connections are to it and other peripheral areas around regions. In terms of the regional governance proposed, will there be an element of devolution in transport policy, so that there can be local and regional prioritisation? If so, perhaps the A64 could be sorted out at last, which my constituents would welcome.

Mr. Raynsford: I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that I visited his constituency by train rather than by the A64. I enjoyed the particularly beautiful journey from York, through the lovely valley with abbey ruins, and on from Malton to Scarborough. It was a delightful rail journey, and I am pleased to say that the train was punctual.

The hon. Gentleman raises an important matter. It is certainly our intention that elected regional assemblies should be involved in transport matters. Transport planning is crucial to economic development and to the well-being of communities. It will ensure that areas that currently do not benefit from the economic opportunities that they might otherwise enjoy have links with other areas, which will help transform their economies and make it easier for people to move within regions. However, for full details my hon. Friend will have to wait for the White Paper.

Mr. Don Foster: I congratulate the Minister on his sensible use of public transport. However, I am slightly critical of both Ministers. They have both said that our meeting today is an important part of the consultation being undertaken in preparation for the White Paper. So far, we have been told that boundaries are important but that opening them up could jeopardise progress towards regional assemblies. We have been told that the idea of variable powers is interesting, but that to pursue it could be a bridge too far. We have been told that we must wait for the White Paper to discover the Government's thinking on funding, and we have been told to wait for the White Paper for their thinking on election arrangements.

Given that both Ministers have said that this Committee is an important part of the consultation process, would they at least speculate with us on what they think might possibly be included in the White Paper in respect of any one of those four issues? I leave it to them to choose which of the four they want to speak about.

Mrs. Roche: The hon. Gentleman offers every temptation, but I shall not be so discourteous to Parliament as to speculate. I am sure that, on serious reflection, the hon. Gentleman would not do so either.

Of course, the White Paper is important, but it is also important that my right hon. Friend and I listen to the serious questions being put about size, functions, powers and economic regeneration. That is why we are extremely pleased to be part of the proceedings.

Joyce Quin: Both Ministers have been asked a number of questions about boundaries. Do they agree that the boundaries proposed are useful, but that they are not meant to be prisons; that there is no reason why neighbouring regions should not co-operate with each other on issues such as transport links; and that there is no reason not to have sub-regional strategies to deal with areas with a distinct identity or distinct problems?

Mrs. Roche: Once again, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. Government offices are already working together on issues that cross the boundaries between them. In the same way, local authorities are increasingly working together to tackle common problems. The point that my right hon. Friend makes is extremely valuable.

Mr. Steen: First, I thank the Ministers for their frank and helpful answers. They have been informative and useful. The shape of the Committee is a useful precedent; indeed, it could be written into the White Paper that it might a good way to run regional government.

I have two small questions. First, I used to be chairman of a group of Conservative Members who represented seats in the west country, an area that stretches from Swindon to Penzance in the west and to Bournemouth in the south. That area has no community of interests. Swindon does not feel part of the south-west, and Penzance is very different from Bournemouth. How big a region is, and what is included in it, is much more significant than the Minister may want to admit.

Secondly, will we have regional Ministers? Will we have eight regional chief executives? Will we have sub-Ministers for each Department? Will we have a huge new structure of Ministers and sub-Ministers, giving us sub-Ministers for the west country? Is that the idea?

Mr. Raynsford: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about the contributions of my hon. Friend the Minister of State and myself. I agree that the Committee is a useful forum and I appreciate his appreciation of our answers. By contrast, the hon. Member for Bath was a bit curmudgeonly in his attitude. I well understand the concern of the hon. Member for Totnes if he has to deal with the identity crisis of the Conservative party in the south-west.

There is a growing sense of the south-west region. In my earlier answer, I said that the Government recognise that there are certain elements in the region with a distinct sense of separate identity. However, I referred to polling evidence that implied that between 80 and 90 per cent. of the population of the region saw themselves as living in the south-west region.

Steps are being taken through regional development agencies and other initiatives to help economic development in the region. We intend to be sensitive to concerns about separate sub-regional identities and the need for a framework. My hon. Friend the Minister of State made exactly that point in response to earlier questions. We are not approaching the matter in a rigid way; we are working with the building blocks that are already in place. The Government office regions exist for the purpose of exercising government, and it would be odd to start without considering that as a basic building block.

Mr. Steen: What about sub-Ministers?

Mr. Raynsford: I am sorry, I did not respond to the hon. Gentleman's final point about Ministers and sub-Ministers. It is not our intention that such offices should proliferate. Our purpose is to extend the opportunity to have a directly elected assembly to those regions that wish to have one. That assembly would then become a body with an important function in relation to such regions. As I said, the framework is permissive—some regions are likely to opt for it, but others may not. We shall need a machinery of government that ensures that there can be proper relationships between the Government and the regions, whether or not they have regional assemblies. That will be part of the subject matter of our White Paper.

John Mann: I want to return to the question of cross-border issues. An example is the proposed Finningley airport, the site for which is 400 yd from my constituency in Yorkshire, and which has been opposed vehemently by the majority of people in the east midlands. I live 15 minutes from Finningley airport and one and a half hours from east midlands airport. The second example is the strategic health authority. My health authority is lumped in with Yorkshire, rather than with the east midlands. How will such issues be handled in the White Paper?

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 18 December 2001