Governance in England

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Mr. Don Foster: I agree that the hon. Gentleman's region is likely to be one of the first to go, but does he agree that it is important that the model that emerges from the referendum is determined in some measure by his region's constitutional convention? Does he acknowledge that the constitutional conventions in his region and in mine may produce rather different models, which may lead to welcome variations in arrangements in the different regional assemblies?

Lawrie Quinn: I am grateful for that intervention, which brings me to a point that I was going to make later. I pay tribute to Jane Thomas and the Campaign for Yorkshire, which has done such sterling work on the convention approach that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am pleased to have been part of the debate on that issue over the years, along with members of other political parties in the region, including, I have to say, the Conservatives. Voluntary groups have also been involved. The will of the people of Yorkshire has been manifested in those important debates, and the campaign has produced what it refers to as a white paper, which discusses the needs of Yorkshire.

To return to the main string of my argument, Whitby was affected by the awful scourge of foot and mouth. It is the largest market town in a large hill farming area where agricultural businesses typically have margins of £6,000 to £7,000 a year. Local communities were particularly badly hit by the effects of—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I must ask hon. Gentlemen to stop their conversations while others are addressing the Committee.

Mr. Steen: I apologise, Mr. Hood. We were discussing the quality of the hon. Gentleman's contribution and making helpful comments to each other. However, we shall stop because the hon. Gentleman's contribution has changed slightly for the worse.

The Chairman: The best way to help the Committee is to be quiet while others make their contributions.

Lawrie Quinn: I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Hood. I invite any hon. Member to intervene if they think that the quality of my contribution is not up to the Committee's standards and requirements. Whenever I have been in a Committee with the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen), it has felt like Groundhog day because I have heard the same points over and over again. The Committee is about taking the agenda forward, not going backwards. My constituents in Whitby and Scarborough will read Hansard and reflect on the attitude that the hon. Gentleman so clearly expressed. They will be reminded of why they so earnestly turned their backs on generations of Conservative representation. Typically, Conservatives in my part of the world have not listened to the community, which is why I am here trying to put its case.

I return to the important issue of the damage that foot and mouth has done to communities around Whitby, especially in the Esk valley. That relates not only to agriculture, but to tourism in such tightly drawn communities. Foot and mouth was more than a plague, as it damaged the important sense of community. My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) recently secured an Adjournment debate that reflected on the damage done to youth hostels in areas with national parks, such as my constituency.

Farmers and people with small businesses in my constituency have reflected on the responsiveness of the national framework to foot and mouth in Scotland, especially in the Scottish borders, and on the ability of mechanisms of governance in Scotland. The Scottish Parliament is a more tightly drawn form of Government. My constituents feel that the problem was on the doorstep of the Scottish Executive, which was why the scourge of foot and mouth was clamped down on far more effectively and quickly in the Dumfries region than in Cumbria and North Yorkshire.

Mr. Don Foster: With my tongue firmly in my cheek, I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that those improvements might relate to the fact that the Minister responsible for agriculture in that area was a Liberal Democrat?

Lawrie Quinn: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman makes that point. I make another point more earnestly: in my view and that of my constituents, the fact that the veterinary service was effectively closer to border areas meant that the response was far quicker. That is important to not only agricultural problems, but the rural tourism agenda. My constituents have suggested that if the approach in Yorkshire had been on the basis of regional government, the veterinary and tourism services might have been able to respond more effectively and the problem would not have gone on so long. I do not want to go on so long either, so I shall bring my contribution to a close soon, as I know that colleagues want to speak.

The issue is crucial for many communities such as Whitby that are peripheral to the rest of the nation. Something like £18 billion is spent in the Yorkshire and Humber region through national Government and Government offices, which is the traditional approach. We have made a considerable step in the establishment of Yorkshire Forward, the RDA.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister of State on the work that she and her predecessor have undertaken in establishing a more regional identity through the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber in Leeds. People from that office come to our communities, and are discernibly involved in trying to solve problems such as those about the recent and unfortunate proposed closure of the Plaxton bus factory in Scarborough. The quality of input from the civil servants of that office added to the recovery plan and gave a strong grounding on the type of work that could be achieved with a more focused regional approach.

All I ask for is a greater opportunity for people in region such as that of Yorkshire and the Humber to feel that they have a complete stakeholding in what is done on their behalf. I want a transparent approach. I want the people of Whitby to have the same opportunity to approach their local member of the regional assembly—or whatever the people of Yorkshire choose to call it—as they do to approach their Member of Parliament. The need for scrutiny is crucial, as is the need to ensure that regional government not only considers the real problems, but attends to them. If, in the few months following the Christmas recess, we undertake the exciting approach that I look for in the White Paper, not only my constituents in Whitby but even the constituents of the hon. Member for Totnes will feel that Parliament is at last attending to business, and sorting problems out rather than creating them.

11.25 am

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I am grateful to have caught your eye, Mr. Hood. I am not a member of the Committee, but I am glad to have the chance to exercise my right to speak here.

Both Ministers will be aware that I am a profound opponent of regionalism. It is directly contrary to the interests of my constituents, and I am fearful of what the Government might propose in the White Paper. The Ministers are not only honourable Members; they are also likeable, decent and intelligent human beings. However, they both come from London, so the debate has taken on a London focus. I can understand that London should have a coherent identity, and I can understand it for Yorkshire or the north-east, but the way in which they are trying to fit the rest of the country into that arbitrary model frightens me.

If the answer to a question is more politicians, then the wrong question has been asked. That is exactly what is proposed. In my part of the world, we shall have six tiers of government. They range from the parish and town councils, which are hugely important, to district and county councils, a regional assembly, Parliament and the European Parliament. My constituents are already confused about where they should go to get particular issues dealt with; how much more confused they will be if this wretched idea comes to pass.

The idea has been floated that the bodies already operating at regional level will come under the control of the regional assembly. I say either that those bodies are already accountable to us in Westminster or that they should be abolished because they serve no useful purpose. We do not have them under control; their functions need to be farmed out again.

West Midlands Arts is a dreadful organisation that spends more money on glossy annual reports and consultants than on helping the arts in the west midlands, and every arts body that I know of in the area would dearly love to see the back of it. It does not need to be made accountable; it should disappear. The same applies to Advantage West Midlands, the regional development agency. Despite the fact that it is now under better management, the powers exercised by that RDA should be exercised by the county councils and unitary authorities that already operate in the west midlands, and not by the wretched new bureaucracy that operates from offices in Birmingham. We should abolish those organisations and give their powers and resources—in other words, money—to the unitary authorities and county councils. Those latter bodies are already in place and are the true communities of interest in my part of the world.

The Minister assured us about the future of counties. He seduced some Conservative councillors in Worcestershire into believing that his reassurances can be trusted, but I do not believe him. The Government are already stripping counties of their planning and education powers. Post-16 education has already gone to the wretched learning and skills councils, which are in a state of administrative chaos in my part of the world. The funding for those councils is causing huge problems for the Government; the money is being taken from local education authorities and distributed to the new councils, but it has been done clumsily, which has resulted in additional money being paid to Worcestershire to compensate for the top-slicing. The learning and skills councils are now moving on to post-14 education and will take over vocational GCSEs—again, from LEAs.

LEAs are being abolished by stealth. Planning authorities are already going as part of the Government's declared plans. Social services, the other major function of county councils, are being merged into health authorities—that function, too, is being killed by stealth. A case could be made for that—it may be sensible—but the incoherence between health and social services has been a real problem, which has prevented the delivery of quality in that public service. If planning, education and social services go, what will be left for the county councils to do?

It is a two-stage process. The people of the west midlands will be offered a referendum on the basis that they can keep the county councils; but a few years later, when the county councils have withered on the vine, they too will be scrapped. We should be under no illusion that the Ministers' promises cannot be relied on.

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