White Paper, "Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions"

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Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): In welcoming the Minister's statement and the White Paper, I speak for the vast majority of people in one of the most peripheral parts of England, the Yorkshire coast, who have felt somewhat out of it with regard to the allocation of resources.

I should like to ask the Minister about what appears on pages 68 and 69 of the White Paper regarding process. The current regional assembly for Yorkshire and the Humber has taken some successful road shows into the community and they have attracted a lot of attention and debate. Can the Minister say how far that type of enhancement to the consultation process will be taken, not only in response to the White Paper, but also in regard to the soundings that he mentioned?

Secondly, the chart on page 68 details the various procedures towards establishing an elected regional assembly. Can the Minister put a time scale to that, in order to give the Committee some idea about how he would fulfil his objective of delivery of a regional assembly within the term of this Parliament?

Mr. Raynsford: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those questions. Before I answer, I must apologise to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) for my failure to respond to his second question about European money and to add a brief comment on that. Those funds are earmarked for specific purposes and it will be necessary for the elected regional assembly to ensure that they are used for those purposes. That reinforces my point about the need to get the correct balance between earmarking funds and allowing flexibility.

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On the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Lawrie Quinn) about the timetable and the process, we are dependent on the Queen's Speech. If we are given clearance to proceed with legislation, a Bill will be introduced in the next Parliament—the earliest that it could be introduced. We should then be in a position to consider by this time next year whether an appetite for elected regional assemblies exists in individual regions, assuming the passage of legislation. Beyond that, there is a Boundary Committee examination of the structure of local government in the region. As I told the hon. Member for Cotswold, that might take up to a year, so we are talking about a relatively long period of time. This will not happen quickly, although I suspect that once the process begins, people in each region will see things progressing and become involved in other activities related to the promotion of the concept of elected regional assemblies.

As I said in my response to an earlier question, we have been sounding out opinion informally. On Friday, I spoke at a meeting in the west midlands that was held by the regional assembly. There was considerable representation from the business community, the voluntary sector and local government. I was impressed by the degree of unanimity across the sectors and political parties. There was some disagreement, but people in that region clearly want to explore the potential benefits for the west midlands. The more that people read the prospectus and consider the possibility of securing real opportunities for enhancing the economic competitiveness of their region and helping to achieve long-held regional objectives, the more the enthusiasm that I detected in Birmingham on Friday will be seen elsewhere. As I said, we will consult later in the summer on how we intend to take the soundings, and we certainly welcome responses from all those with an interest in these issues. People should not feel hesitant about giving us their views before the Bill is published. As I said, we will take full heed of what is said this afternoon when we consider how we present our proposals for taking soundings.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk): Like my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives, I welcome the start of a debate on the creation of a regional tier of government. My concern is that if that is done in the wrong way and is not effective in decentralising power, it will create a head of steam against the whole concept of decentralisation. With reference to some of the examples in annexe E, is it not self-evident that the proposals are much more timid than those of many other countries in Europe? In his reply to the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, the Minister talked about allowing elected regional assemblies discretion at the margins. However, the proposals are very timid and will not amount to a real decentralisation compared with the decentralisation of power to Scotland and Wales. Power will continue to reside at the centre, especially as tax raising is still focused much more at the centre than in any other European country.

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If the process of introducing unitary authorities is tied to reform of local government, will that not create the opportunity for opponents of the whole concept of decentralisation of power to build up a head of steam for preserving the shire counties, and make it much more difficult to set up regional assemblies throughout the country?

Mr. Raynsford: If I may distil the hon. Gentleman's questions, they boil down to a fear that our proposals will encourage the opponents of regional devolution, as they will appear to be too timid or the processes will appear to allow too many objections. I take the opposite view. We start from the recognition that the appetite for regional devolution varies from region to region in England. We do not believe that it is right to impose something on a region that is not wanted. The hon. Gentleman may think that that is timid, but I believe that it is pragmatic and sensible, and that the cause of regional devolution will be damaged much more by proposing a wholesale devolution to regions where there no appetite for it. Proceeding pragmatically where there is interest is a much more sensible, and British, way of doing things, than imposing—continental style—some Napoleonic blueprint on every region irrespective of its wishes.

I disagree, equally, that the proposals are timid. A Government who have extended devolved power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have considerable claim to bravery in their policy on regional devolution, of which the proposals are a further step. The measures are well designed to extend opportunities for devolved power, while recognising that people want some issues to be handled nationally.

The country is relatively small and people still look to this place and to Ministers, whichever party is in government, to deliver on certain objectives. I receive an extraordinary number of letters from people who want me to deal with small-scale matters that are usually dealt with by local government. Letters to Ministers are an indication of the aspirations of people in this country for responses from Westminster. We seek a balance between the natural concern that Westminster should continue to have a significant role in many areas of policy, and devolution on matters that are best dealt with at a regional level. That is why we are not proposing the wholesale devolution of powers that are devolved in a more federal country. Many European countries have a federal constitution, but we do not. We still have a unitary Government, but we are devolving power.

Our pragmatic and sensible approach will do more to defuse opposition and to disarm opponents of devolution than an alternative approach, which, frankly, would frighten many people and might result in the defeat of the whole agenda of regional devolution.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside): I would like the Minister clarify his statement that all regional assemblies will become regional planning bodies. What powers will they have and will unelected people on the assemblies be able to vote on planning? I would also like him to clarify his comment on the national health service, which he stated would remain a national service. Does that mean that he is ignoring the regional

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aspects and interests in the NHS, especially as the White Paper makes specific reference to the importance of public health and the role of the director of public health in the regions?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend makes a couple of important points. As she will know, there is already a structure for regional planning, which is a necessary part of the current planning process to define regional planning guidance. Under existing arrangements, there are linkages between all local authorities in those regions to produce regional planning guidance. It seemed sensible to use the opportunity to extend that to all the new regional assemblies, many of which already fulfil that function, as they represent local authorities and other interests. Local authority representatives are substantially in the majority on the existing regional assemblies, and it is right and proper for regional planning guidance, which is currently prepared by similar bodies, to be prepared by regional assemblies.

Members of the public expect the NHS to be a national service and health care to be provided on a similar basis throughout the United Kingdom. They look to Ministers to ensure that that happens and expect standards to be maintained everywhere. There is a concern for national delivery. However, as my hon. Friend rightly said, there is a regional dimension, and there should be a regional input through the role of the director of public health, which is analogous to what has been created in London. The national health service remains the responsibility of central Government, but the Mayor and London Assembly have a director of public health who is successfully highlighting specific issues of concern. That role can link with other factors that affect health policy. Whether we are talking about poor housing, environmental concerns, employment or transport—all of which can significantly affect the health of a community—it is right that there should be an integrated approach involving an elected regional assembly. At the same time, the maintenance of standards will continue to be the responsibility of Ministers.

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002