Governance in England

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Lawrie Quinn: Given that we are at a festive time of year and that the general philosophy is that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, has the hon. Gentleman shared his views with his colleagues on the county council in Nottingham? I draw attention to what Ministers said about the proposed model going ahead when there were unitary authorities in local government. Luckily, in Yorkshire some 89 per cent. of the population are covered by such unitary authorities. Should the hon. Gentleman not be debating that matter?

John Mann: I am very familiar with the situation in Yorkshire. The case for regional government is exemplified by the fact that, had there been regional government in Yorkshire, there might have been a decent national cricket ground in the north before now.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn), I have raised the issue with county councils, much to their disgust. The issue is fundamental. More governance will not be better governance; it will not mean more delivery. We want delivery, which is what determines the Government's second-term agenda, and rightly so, but that will be hindered by an additional layer of government. I appeal to the Government to bite the bullet: let us scrap county councils if we are to move towards regional government—if that is the wish of the people—but let us do so in advance and not afterwards. We must demonstrate that leaner government is more effective than fatter government. That is my creed.

11.45 am

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. It is important because, although we are not being told much about the contents of the White Paper, there must be an opportunity for scrutiny of the Government's policies towards the regions. That is why I am disappointed that the Committee, being part of the unfinished business of the devolution of Scotland and Wales, has not sat more often. I gave the example earlier of the Department of Health's proposals to establish regional strategic health authorities. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw showed, that clearly impinges on the way in which subsequent decisions are made about the boundaries, functions and modus operandi of regional assemblies.

It is important that we do not see the Committee as merely a sounding board for Government policy on the establishment of regional assemblies. There are many other issues affecting the delivery of services in the regions, which are often provided out of regated budgets, perhaps by quangos, as in the case of health provision. Primary care trusts and strategic health authorities are non-elected quangos, but they have an impact on the delivery of services in the regions.

Ensuring that those regated bodies and authorities work in concert is important and the Committee should consider those issues as well as the proposed devolution of very limited powers to regional assemblies. I would like the Committee to meet more often to scrutinise and examine such issues and bring them together. If the Government want joined-up government, let us help them to achieve that by having a joined-up Committee.

Mr. Luff: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. Is he suggesting that the Government should, for example, have brought the debate about strategic health authorities to the Committee?

Andrew George: Yes, absolutely. Earlier on, before the hon. Gentleman arrived, I raised that very point. The issue of strategic health authorities should have been debated in this Committee, as should several other issues. Government Departments other than that which happens to include regions in its title should also bring issues of policy development to the Committee.

Lawrie Quinn: I expected the hon. Gentleman to make a salient point, particularly bearing in mind that, like mine, his constituency has a coastal location. That is a bad pun.

With regard to Standing Order No.117, which established the Committee, has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to how members of the Committee could establish the agenda in terms of who would appear before the Committee and on what basis? Does that Standing Order need to be reviewed, so that members of the Committee could have such a facility? Perhaps it is for the Chairman to allow its members to devise the agenda.

Andrew George: That is an interesting point. I do not have Standing Order No. 117 in front of me, but I am aware that in the setting up of the Committee it is both pertinent and appropriate that hon. Members who have not been appointed to it are able to attend and speak in it. Clearly, if there is a need for Committee members to consider the wider agenda outside Committee sittings—an informal structure could be used for setting agendas and applying pressure on the appropriate Department with a view to bringing policy issues to the Committee—that should happen. The Committee is not being used enough. If we are debating a motion on regional government for England, we are surely considering the whole issue of regional government, and the way in which it is to be brought about in the regions of England. That is not simply the question dealt with in the necessarily narrow parameters of the forthcoming White Paper.

Given that our debate is primarily about the forthcoming White Paper it is, despite what I have said, a vital one, dealing with an important part of the Government's unfinished business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bath has made clear, the Liberal Democrats broadly support the principle of devolution to Scotland, Wales, London and Northern Ireland, and we have engaged constructively in that. Daily, we experience the failure of quangos and, despite what has been said, the unelected chambers that operate in the regions. The powers and budgets of the quangos really need to be brought within the orbit of democratically elected authorities.

There has been little discussion in the debate so far of the powers that will be offered to regional assemblies. I hope that Ministers will take on board—assuming that the ink is not yet dry on the White Paper—the idea that regional assemblies should be offered a menu of powers. Most people acknowledge the north-east and Yorkshire as foremost among the regions that have—from my reading of the situation—an apparently settled will on the matter, and where it may be that a robust case is being made out for drawing down the maximum possible powers from a menu of what is available. In other regions communities might make a case for a process of devolution, taking powers from the menu over time.

Not only should there be a menu, which might result in variable implementation, but the Government should have in mind that this should be a process rather than an event. Their legislation should enable devolution to happen. Devolution should not require a repeated process of primary legislation; it should be possible to develop it through regulation, which would allow established regional assemblies, eventually, to make out a further case—the business case, the democratic case—to the Government for taking on further powers. I hope that as the Government pursue their proposals, they will consider, and take into account, the fact that we are entering uncharted territory. For that reason, the enabling legislation should be appropriate to a process, not an event.

As an enthusiastic devolutionist I want the project to achieve the maximum possible popular support. However, I am not certain that it will, for reasons mentioned already by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw and others. I am concerned about the increasingly low turnout for elections. There were disastrously low turnouts at the last regional election, which was for the European Parliament. My worry is that voters will stay home in their droves if we establish a regional government that is based on regions for which they feel no great enthusiasm. The authority of regional assemblies would be neutered as far as people in those so-called regions were concerned. If we are going to do what we say, it is important that we do it properly, effectively and well.

It is also important that we take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and do not simply heap more politicians on the fire in dealing with the problem. I therefore support the Government when they make it clear that there should be a predominantly unitary system below each assembly. It will sometimes be difficult to set such systems up, but it is important that the Government insist that there are plans to do so.

My main theme, which was reflected in my questions to Ministers earlier, is that the Government's policy must reflect popular communities. If the Government establish regions simply on the basis of bureaucratic convenience, they shall create sanitised, synthetic regions, for which people have no feeling. They will not be supported by democratic legitimacy, and I fear that the whole project of devolution will be derailed.

I am enthusiastic to hand powers and democratic authority down to people in places with which they identify, but I genuinely fear that the Government are satisfying their control-freak tendencies. They will fit up England for regional assemblies, but not—where there are difficulties—offer the regions the power to define themselves and to establish a settled will. They will not enable them to introduce proposals, which they may not initially like and which may not suit the tidy bureaucratic minds that are highly concentrated in the Whitehall community. Those proposals might, however, be far more successful in reflecting the popular will and delivering genuine services.

My thesis is that the whole project will be derailed if the Government establish a control-freak version of devolution, which their obedient subjects must accept without scrutiny and which does not reflect identities. Matthew Arnold once said that it was the desire of a centralised state to render its dominion homogenous. If the centralised state wants to deliver a centralised-state version of devolution in uniform chunks of about 5 million people and to score the lines between the regions to satisfy its bureaucratic requirements, it will simply replace the bland uniformity of a centralised state with the bland uniformity of a centralised system of regional government for which people feel nothing. Ministers must assure us that they are not control freaks, obsessed or inflexible. The Minister said earlier that devolution would best be achieved by accepting the current administrative boundaries, and that paying too much attention to boundaries would derail the whole process. I understand the Minister's resistance to opening up the issue, but even on the most optimistic view of what is happening in southern Britain, there is no way that communities in the south will accept regions based on the boundaries proposed by the Government, especially in the south-east with the polo effect of London.

It is not for me to meddle in the affairs of the people of the south-east; they must resolve the issue for themselves, but although some may want to establish a constitutional convention and a campaign for the south-east, I cannot see how that will be achieved. It is clear that there is not yet a settled will in the Government-defined south-west for devolution either. However, I am pleased to be able to report that there are increasing signs of a settled will between the south-west constitutional convention and the Cornish constitutional convention, and a settled will may result from a modelling exercise funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and further negotiations. That should be welcomed. If Cornwall and the south-west were to form such a settled will and propose a solution to what would otherwise present a significant problem, I hope that the Minister would welcome that solution, as he indicated earlier that he might, and not simply try to impose a different solution and create another problem in the process.

As I said earlier, I do not know why the English are so obsessed with size, but it seems to me that, in setting up regional assemblies, we need to be cognisant of the fact that people in other countries are not so obsessed with the dimensions of their regions or provinces. The Canadian province of Newfoundland, with which I have many connections through fishing, last week's Marconi centenary celebrations and other matters, has a population roughly the same size as that of Cornwall, yet it has many powers. Other provinces have lower populations. For example, Prince Edward Island has a population of about 120,000. Where there are problems over economies of scale or the strategic delivery of services such as transport or health, they shrug their shoulders and say, ''Easy. Where we need to achieve economies of scale, we overcome those problems by co-operating with our neighbours in other provinces.'' That is the step-up approach of regional devolution; giving the power to the people and, assuming that they are adults rather than juveniles—as they certainly are in Cornwall—they will co-operate in the way that is required.

I hope that the Minister will accept that there is no bickering in the south-west. An enormous effort is being made to resolve the issues. We want to devolve power to places with which people identify and we want the project to succeed. Therefore, if the south-west, Cornwall and other places want devolution, let us get on with it and stop bickering. The issue is not the same in relation to Cornwall and to Cumbria. Cornwall does not want to cut itself off; it wants to cut itself into the celebration of diversity. It is not about closing opportunities, but about opening them up to explore the future in a way that has been made possible—thank goodness—by the Government's support for its case for objective 1 status. It is proving a great success and will continue to do so.

An argument is often made about a lack of clout. That makes us ask whether more clout would be given by distinctiveness or size. Cornwall would have far greater clout, in a wider world, if it were recognised as a distinct place rather than subsumed into a large sanitised region for which it had no feeling.

We do not want to get even, but to get on. We do not want to cut ourselves off, but to cut ourselves in to the celebration of diversity. We do not want to divide the community, but to bring it together into the future of the process. If the Government do not offer a settlement but attempt to fix one in control-freak fashion, I warn that the process will be derailed. I am sure that they have learned lessons over the London Mayor and the First Minister of Wales, so they will no doubt reflect on them and take a flexible and non-obsessed approach.

12.6 pm

 
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Prepared 18 December 2001