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

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Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey): I apologise, but I may have to leave early because I have a speaking engagement elsewhere.

I put on the record that my father-in-law is Alan Willet, chairman of the South East England Development Agency. I have said before that I think it wrong of the Government to appoint relatives of MPs to positions of authority in the same areas as their constituency boundaries. It has caused my family real and deep heartache that my own father-in-law has been in charge of my area. That will become apparent during my short speech.

I support regional government, but I also think that constitutional reforms in the United Kingdom are muddled. If we could start again, I think that Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland should have their own Assemblies or Parliaments, but so should England. By definition, that would make the House of Lords into a house of representatives, and we could then develop a further system underneath that in England. I recognise that very few people in the House share my views, but that seems to me the logical development from granting devolution to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

Can the Minister confirm that it is in accord with UK human rights law for a regional assembly to be set up in a separate part of England and that if there were one in one place and not in another, people would not be able to bring a case that they had been disenfranchised? Has the Minister looked into that?

On the regional government map itself, I have some empathy with the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and the Basque republic regarding whether it can be redrawn. If I obtained 150,000 signatures from the Thames gateway region and delivered them to the

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Electoral Commission, saying that we wanted an elected assembly but not on the current map, I wonder what its reaction would be.

Can I tease the Minister a little more on the question of universities? Although we exchanged some light-hearted comments, the fact of the matter is that the bay area in San Francisco is the tenth largest economic area in the world. That powerhouse has derived from Stanford university at one end and Berkeley at the other. Stanford gave us Hewlett-Packard, venture capital, Sun Microsystems—''Sun'' stands for the Stanford university network. They are among the top 50 companies in the world. Recently, it has given us Yahoo. Interestingly, venture capital funds have been given not to regions, but to universities. Therefore, there will be more spun-off businesses in universities in the bay area than anywhere else because they are sharper and the universities act as the economic engine.

In any regional area, there are many universities fulfilling different functions—some are excellent and some are rubbish. We cannot allow that system to continue. Will the Minister look at it again? We have national museums and galleries, and we have allowed regional arts councils to look after regional arts strategies with the regional museums. We also have global universities—six, seven, eight or nine—and we have to allow the regional assembly to set its own structure for its own universities. My only concern is that we seem so nervous about letting people decide what they would like best locally. We are letting them have five things, but not 10. It is as though we do not trust them to take hold of their own lives and destinations.

Other hon. Members have raised this point, but I wonder how the regions will be accountable to us. Do the Government intend to have a Minister for the Regions, or a Minister for each region, or will there be a Select Committee for the Regions or Select Committees for each region? I wonder how we are thinking about the accountability of the regions in our system. That would seem sensible if we are going to give the regions responsibility on some elements of health, education and planning. It is confusing. We are the Members for those areas, and at some stage it would be nice if we could work together and ensure that we are accountable to one another, while developing a relationship.

The Minister has been opaque about the Barnett formula. I understand that because it causes the Government huge embarrassment. However, the reason why Scotland can afford health care and free higher education is that for 27 years or more, it has received substantially more money per citizen than the English regions. If there is to be a fairer way forward after the three-year comprehensive spending review, we have to resolve a new Barnett formula over the next 10 years. It would be unfair not to. I suspect that that will require a commonwealth of meetings between the four bodies. I do not know who would represent the English bodies. Would it be each of the regions, then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? The sooner

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that vehicle is created, then the sooner we can talk about that.

Last Wednesday, a company in my constituency went into receivership. At least 400 jobs were lost immediately, and perhaps another 400 will be lost. Who does one ring first? I did not ring SEEDA, the Government office for the south-east or the assembly. I rang the Secretary of State and asked what the hell was going on. In fact, SEEDA, GOSE and the assembly had not bothered to ring me. That goes to show that if we want the bodies to be economic generators but we are not careful and only give them some powers, it will lead to huge confusion. We must be certain what the powers will be.

The Chairman: I appeal for brevity in the next speeches.

6.55 pm

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): I shall not emulate earlier contributors and I shall be brief.

The reason why I am here is straightforward. I do not want necessarily to be destructive about the proposals; I want to speak in support of local government. I shall not repeat the questions of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside, but she and the hon. Member for St. Ives expressed, in different ways, disappointment in the proposals because they felt that they were not sufficiently radical or positive about regional government. My problem is that the proposals are regional window dressing and will draw to a regional level powers that are at present the responsibility of local government, while not giving assemblies many of the real powers that are exercised in the regions by central Government.

Mrs. Ellman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley: I cannot be brief if I am to be interrupted, but I am happy to give way.

Mrs. Ellman: Will the hon. Gentleman note that my comments welcomed the proposals and wanted them to be stronger on regional aspects? I did not cast any aspersions about local government.

Mr. Lansley: The hon. Lady has a record in local government so I shall not dispute what she says. However, it may have helped if she had realised what were contained in the proposals before asking some of her questions.

For example, the hon. Lady asked questions about transport, but she should consider what is in the White Paper relating to transport. One question was how much money will be disbursed by the regions for transport—I am old fashioned enough about government to think money should be tracked—and the example from the north-east states that £1 million will be disbursed to the regional passenger partnership fund.

Another question relates to the influence of the regional assembly on transport. The assembly will not be spending money, or have the powers of the Highways Agency, the Strategic Rail Authority or Network Rail, as the hon. Lady proposed it could and was disappointed that it would not. Those powers will

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lie in the regional transport plan. Will regional assemblies be exercising Government power? No. The regional transport plan will be passed to the Government and Ministers for them to make decisions. The power that will be exercised by regional assemblies will effectively be that currently administered by local authorities in local transport plans. For the east of England therefore, Cambridgeshire's local transport plan will be substantially second guessed by a regional transport plan, and Cambridgeshire, or whatever structure of local government may exist, will be overtaken. That is not devolution, but window dressing.

It was perfectly obvious, when we were asking the Minister questions, that there are a number of high-level targets, so regional assemblies will not really be free to do as they want.

I am afraid I must return to the money. Some £350 million will be available for the north-east, which is the smallest region with probably the largest proportion of Government expenditure in the hands of the regional assembly. The Government figures state that that is 5 per cent. of central Government net expenditure for social security in the north-east; a similar figure applies to the north-west. In practice, assemblies are supposed to have responsibility for those budgets. The White Paper states that assemblies

    ''will have . . . freedom to spend their grant as they judge best''

but we know that that is not true. Let us look at the paper bit by bit. It states that the

    ''Regional Development Agency . . . will retain its present day-to-day operational independence'',

which will include the single pot. The RDAs will be able to allocate their funds from the single pot, and not according to the regional assembly. Business support budgets will be subject not to control, but to consultation. The learning and skills councils budgets will be the largest over which the assemblies have influence, but they will have only a consultation role and no control. EU structural funds will be subject to regional delivery within a ''clear national framework'', and the Minister has confirmed that there is no scope to move money out of the European programmes.

There is an opportunity to allocate money for housing at a regional level, but I suspect that that will overtake what might be called local devolution, or devolution to upper-tier authorities. On transport, we know that there is no money, so there is no real control. On arts, tourism and sport, money will be devolved, but

    ''in a way which protects strategic national priorities.''

I imagine that, if I read it correctly, for the England rural development programme too, money will be controlled by that programme and administered and influenced, rather than controlled, by the regional assemblies. The net result will involve 5 per cent. of central Government expenditure in the north-east of England and probably 1 or 2 per cent. in the south-east and east of England. Is that worth it and is this the right way to achieve the aim?

I shall not go on at length but it seems that of the powers that the regional assemblies will take under this

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structure, those that will matter most in practice are planning powers—the planning powers of local authorities. I see no evidence here that the planning powers of the Secretary State will be devolved to the regional assemblies. There may be powers and budgets for housing here, but could those not be more effectively devolved to local authorities than to the regional assemblies? The powers involved in the transport strategies could be devolved to local authorities through their local transport plans. There is absolutely nothing to say that local authorities cannot come together, as they do in the planning conference, to create a regional transport plan.

On regional development agencies, I shall not get into a long debate over whether they are a good or a bad thing, but if they are doing their job well—for the sake of argument, let us say that in one or two regions, they are—will they welcome the assemblies in this form? They will no longer be able to have regional business representatives in the form in which they have had them up till now. There will be business people on them, but they will be chosen by the regional assemblies, not nominated by the business community in any real sense. Regional development agencies should be a real partnership between local authorities and the business community, not a product of the decisions of a regional assembly.

Devolution could happen, and could happen far more effectively. It ought to happen, but it ought to happen through local authorities and, conceivably, different regional structures. For example, the Devon and Cornwall development corporation would have been a perfectly acceptable basis on which to structure regional development in that part of the south-west, without having to have a full regional development agency. We had development corporations in the north-east before we had One NorthEast. It would have been perfectly possible to build on that. We want different structures in different parts of the United Kingdom, substantially based on local authorities that can come together at different geographical levels to deliver services.

The Government are not only imposing regional window dressing, as the hon. Member for St. Ives said, but imposing, perversely, a structure on local authorities as a consequence. It is complete nonsense and logical absurdity for the Minister to say that there will be no change in local authorities' powers but that, nevertheless, the structure of local authorities must be radically changed as a consequence of the proposal. In practice, there will be a change in their powers. If an area such as the east of England has a regional assembly—although I do not think that it will—it will mean, for the vast majority of the public, a change in the form in which local government is delivered.

If the Minister wants devolution, he should go about it in a different way. I want devolution, but I want it based on local authorities. If there is a case for it, as there might be, for example, in the north-east, I have a suggestion for the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central and for Liverpool, Riverside. When the time comes, they should not accept proposals of this kind, but argue for aspects of local government to come together. If the north-west and

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north-east want regional bodies, they can easily create them by bringing together the Members of Parliament in those regions. If the north-east wants 30 elected individuals whose job it is to represent that region and who have the potential to speak for it and influence the choice of strategies, why do not the Members of Parliament for the north-east—30 of them—just sit down and do that job, rather than having £25 million spent on bureaucracy?

 
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