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

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Mr. Cousins: In welcoming the White Paper, I acknowledge the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers).

What a pleasure it has been this afternoon to welcome the neo-Hobbits of the Conservative party! How sweet and gentle the Conservative party is when it has no power, and what a recommendation that is for keeping things that way. The truth of the matter is that we have regional government, which was largely invented by the Conservative party. It was powerful, fragmented, unelected, invisible, unaccountable, wielded huge sums of money, took enormously influential decisions and no one had control over it. That was not enough for the Conservatives, however—they even abolished the regional health authorities, which were already not up to much, and replaced them with a regional health executive entirely under the control of Government. The Conservative party has to face up to the fact that it invented regional government. The question is whether we continue with that regional government without democratic control and accountability or introduce democratic control and accountability.

The White Paper is not perfect. We would all want to go further. Indeed, I firmly believe that once regional assemblies are in place, they will go further. They will take up the regional agenda in the comprehensive spending review, which includes regional factors in its plans for education, housing, skills training, the labour market, police, security, tackling crime and building productivity.

Regional assemblies will take up that agenda. The task now is to bring them into being and make the existing regional government more accountable. That is the crucial first step. If some parts of the country do not want to do that, that is fine, as long as no one has a veto over those parts of the country that want to take that first step. In my own region, the north-east, we do. We shall say to our people, ''Take that first step and vote yes in the referendum, because you will not be asked twice whether you want democratic accountability for regional government that already exists.''

7.21 pm

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): This has been a good debate covering a range of issues. It has helped to identify some of the obvious priorities for the implementation of the proposals in the White Paper. I shall try briefly to refer to the specific issues raised by Members before making a few general observations.

The hon. Member for Cotswold presented an interesting contradiction between his opening remarks and his concluding remarks. Opening the debate, he said clearly that he and his party believe that services should be delivered at local level. At the end, he criticised our proposals, saying that they would not put a single policeman, social worker or nurse on the ground. Of course they will not, because the assemblies will not be responsible for those services, which are rightly discharged at a local level.

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The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that social workers should no longer be the responsibility of local authorities but of regional assemblies. That would be an effective way of taking power away from local government, but we are not proposing to do that. The hon. Gentleman needs to think rather more clearly about his and his party's position on these issues. I shall come back to that when I deal with the issues raised by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley).

The hon. Member for Cotswold raised the question of a floor, asking whether there would be a minimum level of participation in the elections. He spoke about the relatively tight margin in Wales. He also mentioned the referendum in Scotland in the 1970s. That could not provide a better example of the problem of having a floor. The people of Scotland voted for devolution in the late 1970s, but it was denied them because there was an artificial floor. It took another 20 years to give them what they wanted. We do not believe that a floor is satisfactory.

We want to encourage participation. The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that turnout at elections is appalling. There was a higher level of turnout at the local elections in May this year than at the equivalent local elections four years before. It was not good enough, as it was up by only 5 per cent., but the figures are at least going in the right direction.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the involvement of stakeholders. We set out proposals in the White Paper and we invite comments on the matter. I referred to that in my earlier speech.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside spoke warmly in welcoming the proposals in the White Paper, and highlighted one or two areas of concern. First, she rightly emphasised that the assemblies would not take power from local government but would address the democratic deficit and ensure greater regional influence, all of which we agree with and endorse.

My hon. Friend expressed concern about the numbers. In response to her question about whether 35 assembly members would be adequate for the north-west, a region with 7 million people, I cite the example of the Greater London Authority, which is doing pretty well with 25 members for a city of 7.4 million people. It should be possible, with a maximum of 35 members, to ensure adequate representation for every region in the country, none of which has a greater population than London. My hon. Friend asked whether quangos would be accountable, and they will be.

The White Paper refers specifically to the Housing Corporation's role. The budget that it currently decides will become the responsibility of the elected regional assembly, which is a significant shift.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the arts. Paragraph 4.42 of the White Paper states:

    ''Where an elected regional assembly is established, our guiding principle will be that accountability and funding for the arts and sports which are regional in character will be devolved to the assembly''.

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There is therefore a clear commitment to devolution and to passing quangos' powers to elected regional assemblies in several instances.

The hon. Member for St. Ives appeared to share some of the confusion that his party demonstrates over this and many other issues. At one point, he made it clear that the Liberal Democrats were absolutely committed to regional devolution. Later, however, he astonished me by saying that he did not know where the regions were or, indeed, whether they existed. His party is therefore committed to devolving powers to regions that he does not appear to believe exist.

As for giving people throughout the country the opportunity to decide in which region they should be, that is the kind of recipe for chaos that Liberal Democrats love. Such an approach would prevent progress, because there would be endless debates and wrangles about boundaries and there would be no focus on action, which is what the Labour party believes in. It is a complete travesty to describe us as a control-freak party, when we have devolved power to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. We shall to do the same for those English regions that want power, and we are in business to do so practically and effectively.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey asked whether the White Paper proposals were compatible with human rights, and we are satisfied that they are. I am sorry that he is upset about the person who chairs SEEDA; he obviously does not want to keep that role in the family. My hon. Friend is not here to hear me say this, although I may see him subsequently, but the chairman of SEEDA is not, to use my hon. Friend's words, in charge of the region. Indeed, if the south-east has an elected regional assembly, it will be in charge of the region. I shall pass over the other issues that my hon. Friend raised and respond to other hon. Members.

The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire also revealed a degree of confusion, although this time it was in Conservative party thinking. He advocated that powers should be devolved to local authorities—that seemed to be the main thrust of his speech. Towards the end of his speech, however, he came up with the fascinating suggestion that a committee of Members of Parliament should represent each region. That is a classic illustration of confusion over roles. Hon. Members are here to deal with matters that affect the country as a whole, while local authorities are elected to deal with local matters. Between the two are

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issues that are best dealt with by elected bodies operating at the regional level, and that is the focus of our proposals.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) expressed concern about being on the boundary, but we have not yet been able to find a way of devising boundaries that does not leave someone on the edge. I am afraid that that is the nature of democracy.

I have great sympathy for my hon. Friend's concerns about Worksop, which I visited as a Minister a few years ago. He is quite right about the appalling conditions there and about the need for action, and we are certainly trying to ensure that effective action is taken there and in other areas. The budget powers of elected regional assemblies, combined with a significant influence over housing, could be important in ensuring a sensitive response to each region's needs.

Although I am originally from Northamptonshire, there is no plan to locate the headquarters of the east midlands elected regional assembly there. They might just as well be in Bassetlaw as anywhere else, although I hasten to add that that is not a promise.

My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Ms Atherton) rightly focused on the issue of devolving power, rather than on boundaries.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central made a lovely contribution and noted how sweet and gentle the Conservatives were when they had no power. Amen to that! They are not in power, and we can proceed as my hon. Friend wishes by ensuring that people in the regions have the opportunity to have elected regional assemblies that operate for their benefit.

The Government's record on devolution is a proud one, and our proposals take it further. The White Paper takes a pragmatic approach and it ensures that we concentrate on results, not rhetoric. As its name suggests, it gives people in the regions a real choice, and I commend it to the Committee and the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

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

Committee rose at half-past Seven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Brien, Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Atherton, Ms
Ellman, Mrs.
Evans, Mr.
George, Andrew
Lamb, Norman
Mann, John
Pearson, Mr.
Quinn, Lawrie
Steen, Mr.
Wyatt, Mr.

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The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 117(3):
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey (Cotswold)
Cousins, Mr. Jim (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)
Gilroy, Linda (Plymouth, Sutton)
Lansley, Mr. Andrew (South Cambridgeshire)

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Norris, Dan (Wansdyke)
Raynsford, Mr. Nick (Minister for Local Government and the Regions)

 
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Prepared 17 July 2002