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

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Mr. Steen: The Minister talked about a reward grant, which sounds like a supermarket loyalty scheme. He said that there was no pressure on regions but if they voted for an assembly, they would get some extra bonus points. It is not entirely a free-for-all; there will be some financial manipulation for regions that agree to assemblies. Will he explain how big and attractive the rewards will be?

The White Paper says that the regional assemblies will be democratic and not bureaucratic—heaven forbid that they should be bureaucratic—but the annual budget will be only £350 million. That is less than Devon county council's budget, so what will the assemblies do? Will they just co-ordinate everyone, or will they have teeth?

Norman Lamb: Talking shops.

Mr. Steen: The hon. Gentleman's party does not think that.

The White Paper says also that the assemblies will be responsive, with only 25 members. Some will be

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elected by the additional member voting system, which no one outside, or even inside, London really understands. Why are the Government trying to confuse everyone by having small regional authorities with a £350 million budget, 25 members elected by the additional member voting system and the supermarket-style bonus schemes? Does the Minister really think that that is the way to make regional government a success?

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman, in his inimitable way, has managed to cram about six different questions into his quota. I shall try to deal with them all.

The reward grant has been tried in experiments with local government during the past 18 months and has been extremely successful and popular.

Mr. Steen: Bribery.

Mr. Raynsford: It is not bribery. The local authorities that have signed up to local public service agreements, which are entirely voluntary, see them as an appropriate way of getting additional freedoms and flexibilities. If they meet stretched targets, they get additional resources. Everyone gains from that: the public get higher standards of service delivery, and the authorities receive additional finance for other things. Having spoken to several local authorities about their PSAs, I know that they have encouraged co-operative working with other bodies, which have shared some of the financial benefits. I do not share the hon. Gentleman's pejorative view. Most people in local government who have been involved would agree that it has been a success, and it is not inappropriate to suggest a similar framework for regional assemblies. We must remember, though, that these are early days and we are discussing only outline proposals.

The hon. Gentleman then questioned whether 25 members would be sufficient for an elected regional assembly. There will be variations among regions and we are speaking about numbers in the range of 25 to 35, which will allow proper representation in each region. People will be represented by constituency members in each significant element in the region—no county will lack an individual representative and some will have more than one—while additional members will ensure that the overall composition of the assembly is proportionate to the votes cast. We have established that in Scotland, Wales and London, and it has worked well. It has ensured representation of all interests and a better representation of women and ethnic minorities than is the case in more traditional structures. That may be a by-product, reflecting the actions taken by political parties, but it is nevertheless a valuable and important contribution in establishing a more inclusive form of government. Furthermore, our experience in London is that having only 25 members represent a city of 7.5 million is not a disadvantage. The views of different parts of London have been adequately represented.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the budgets and quoted the illustrative figures for the north-east. That is the smallest region and the figures would be larger in other regions. We have given illustrative figures for another region in the White Paper, so he should not

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see £350 million as the flat figure for all regions. The figure provides the correct balance by ensuring that the region has a significant ability to influence decisions not only through working with and influencing others, but by being able to take financial important decisions.

It would be misleading if I did not say that an elected regional assembly should not take all the powers and try to resolve all the issues in its region by itself. We believe strongly in partnership working, which has been successful in many other parts of life. Local authorities working with public agencies and the private sector have been able to achieve more than bodies simply working on their own, and elected regional assemblies should work with local authorities, the private and voluntary sectors and community groups. Those partnerships will achieve more than a single body disposing of a budget and thinking only of what it can do.

I would not see assemblies as falling into the pejorative description of a ''talking shop''. They will have considerable influence on outcomes in regions and are the right way to achieve results in a non-bureaucratic way—a lean body with proper democratic representation delivering value for money.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. I intend to take two more questions, which should be brief.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): I want to press the Minister on how he would like to take soundings.

Mr. Steen: On a point of order, Mr. O'Brien. I am sure that the Minister did not mean to overlook it, but I asked him a specific question on the additional voting system.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman had a fair crack.

Mr. Cousins: How will the Minister take soundings? The Government want responses to the White Paper, which I welcome, by the end of August. It is important that the method of testing opinion is clarified in the next few days to inspire and galvanise people into responding. Also, do the proposals in the comprehensive spending review, which was recently announced, mean that we need a revised version of the regional budgets? Considering regional development agencies, housing and the learning and skills councils, should the budgets not be substantially larger than the indicative budgets in the White Paper?

Mr. Raynsford: Before I respond to my hon. Friend's question, I remind the hon. Member for Totnes that I gave a detailed description of the additional member voting system, which provides for representatives of individual constituencies and top-up members—

The Chairman: Order. I want to move on, and the hon. Member for Totnes had a fair crack. Will the Minister answer the next question?

Mr. Raynsford: Thank you, Mr. O'Brien, and I shall immediately move on to the questions of my hon.

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Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins). He asked how we will take soundings about interest in elected regional assemblies and whether budgets will be revised following the spending review.

On the latter, he is absolutely right. The figures were published two months ago, prior to the spending review, and we were not able to reflect its figures. Revisions are needed, and in many cases they will involve significant increases in the sums available to the elected regional assemblies.

On the soundings, I can only repeat that we are already encouraging people to give us views and comments on many aspects of the White Paper, including how the stakeholders can be best represented and how we can best gauge opinion. We shall be setting out further proposals for consultation later on, but that should not preclude anyone giving us their views in the course of the next few weeks leading up to the period in which we have requested responses to the White Paper. It is a continuing process in which, as I have already said, it will be some time before we reach the stage of taking soundings, because legislation is required before a referendum can be considered. The referendum would be preceded by the Boundary Committee's consideration of local government re-organisation.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Which legislation will take precedence—that required for the election of mayors or this legislation? In Mansfield, the mayor's authority extends over a district. If the Boundary Committee recommended that the unitary authority should be the county, the district would be abolished. I know that the Minister will want to give precise details. Will he define the minimum size of a regulatory authority? Does he think that it is likely to be 100,000, 250,000 or 500,000?

Mr. Raynsford: My hon. Friend asked about possible conflict between this and other legislation. There is no potential conflict. If a review takes place, any existing district or county council will be subject to that review whether or not they have a mayor, cabinet or other structure of local government. From the soundings that I have taken so far however, I have not detected the strongest interest in the idea of an elected regional assembly from his region. The mayor of Mansfield will probably have a long time in office before the issue is considered.

Although issues of efficiency may suggest a case for a minimum size, I have been careful not to prescribe one at this stage. We will consider the matter further and make our views known in due course.

The Chairman: Order. We now come to the debate. I want to include as many members of the Committee as possible, but we must leave a maximum of 15 minutes and a minimum of 10 minutes for the Minister's winding-up speech. I should be grateful if hon. Members would keep contributions short and refrain from repeating points that have already been made.

White Paper ''Your Region, Your Choice''

Motion made, and Question proposed,

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    That the Committee has considered the matter of the White Paper 'Your Region, Your Choice: Revitalising the English Regions' (Cm. 5511, May 2002).—[Mr. Raynsford.]

6.7 pm

 
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