Governance in England

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Mr. Luff: The Minister said that regional assemblies would be established only where there were predominantly unitary authorities. The counties in the west midlands have mostly two-tier authorities, so how could there be a regional assembly there?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that one of the issues is whether there should be some reorganisation before or following the creation of a regional assembly, in order to meet the condition that such assemblies should be in a predominantly unitary framework. That is a more acute issue in the west midlands, the south-west and other regions than in the Yorkshire and Humber region, where 89 per cent. of the population live in unitary areas. That key issue will be addressed. We entirely accept the importance of there being no proliferation of tiers of government. It is right that the process should be logical and rational but, equally, we do not want to unleash a destructive process of local government reorganisation.

The most honest way of assessing what happened in the Banham review of the early 1990s was that many local authorities spent disproportionate time, energy and effort arguing about boundaries, functions and division of responsibility, compared to what they put into high-quality service delivery, which we believe should be the priority. A balance must be achieved.

Mr. Moss: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Raynsford: I cannot give way.

Mr. Moss: My intervention would be on that point.

Mr. Raynsford: If I am to respond to the points that the hon. Gentleman made, I have no time to take an intervention. I must respond to the points made by the hon. Member for St. Ives, who raised several issues about the powers of regional assemblies, which we will spell out in the White Paper.

The hon. Member for St. Ives suggested that regions be offered a menu of powers and choose those that suited them. That may sound attractive, but it has an obvious down side. A decision taken at one time about powers available to a region may not conform to the view of members of that regional assembly a few years later. If they were bound by an earlier decision, they could resent the fact that they had fewer powers than another region. To allow them to change the powers would be a recipe for confusion, and for chopping and changing, so the proposition is not as easy as he might suggest.

We do not want a proliferation of politicians, which is why we have set the predominantly unitary objective. I agreed with the hon. Gentleman's observation about Matthew Arnold and the desire of centralised states to render their territory homogenous. The Government have been keen to do exactly the opposite, and devolve power to the regions and nations to create a more diverse but stronger union.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire raised several issues to which I will try to respond. If I have a moment, I will give way to him. I was slightly misled by the traditional clock, which implied that my time was virtually up. I see that it is two minutes ahead of the electronic ones, so there may be a chance to let him intervene.

I agree that there is no perfect solution for the delineation of boundaries, but a wholesale review of boundaries would almost inevitably delay the process. We do not intend to be rigid. We will not impose some blueprint uniformly without any consideration, but it is right to start from the building blocks of the existing Government office regions. That allows orderly and sensible progression and debate. We intend to be sensitive. The hon. Member for St. Ives rightly raised concerns about Cornwall, of which we are conscious. We want to take full account of them and the views of the constitutional convention.

The hon. Member for North-East Cambridgeshire asked whether regions that did not opt for an elected regional assembly would be disadvantaged. I thought that I had answered that in my responses to questions, when I said that the White Paper would spell out the precise arrangements that we proposed for regions that did not opt for such assemblies, to ensure that they did not lose out as a result. There must be mechanisms for channelling funds for the needs of regions that do not have regional assemblies. There will be assemblies in some areas because of the permissive approach that we are adopting.

We made it clear that our objective was to devolve powers from above, rather than for them to be taken from below. We want local authorities to continue to focus on the key task of local service delivery, and have no intention of taking the relevant powers away.

Mr. Moss: If that is the case, does the Minister agree with Lord Falconer, who said that if regional government were introduced, a tier of government below it would have to go? The Minister suggested that that might not be the case.

Mr. Raynsford: No. We have said clearly that we want to introduce our framework within a pattern of predominantly unitary local government. As I said, that will require us to consider how reorganisation would apply in areas that wanted a regional assembly. That is not the same as wholesale reorganisation or the abolition of whole tiers of government, and there is no truth in the claim that we are keen to abolish the counties.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the matter of regional governance in England.

Committee rose at half-past Twelve o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Chairman)
Ellman, Mrs.
George, Mr. Andrew
Lamb, Norman
Mann, John
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Quinn, Lawrie
Steen, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 117(3):
Foster, Mr. Don (Bath)
Levitt, Mr. Tom (High Peak)
Luff, Mr. Peter (Mid-Worcestershire)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire)
Quin, Joyce (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)
Roche, Mrs. (Minister of State, Cabinet Office)
Raynsford, Mr. (Minister for Local Government)

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Prepared 18 December 2001