Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Third Report


1  Introduction

1.  In July 2007, the Prime Minister put forward proposals for improved democratic accountability and scrutiny of the delivery of public services in the English regions, as part of The Governance of Britain Green Paper. The paper followed the appointment of ministers for the English regions for the first time. It states, "The Government believes that Regional Ministers should be accountable to Parliament. Both they and the Government's regional policy should be subject to formal and consistent parliamentary scrutiny".[1] It goes on to suggest that "one means of achieving this scrutiny could be the establishment of nine regional select committees,"[2] asking the House, and specifically the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, to give further consideration to this proposal.

2.  The Committee announced its inquiry into Regional Accountability on 24 October 2007 as part of a series of inquiries into the Governance of Britain agenda. We invited evidence on possible models of accountability; the role of the House in regional accountability; and the level of resources that would be needed to make regional accountability work in the House of Commons. Our call for evidence generated significant interest in the regions and we received a substantial number of written submissions, which are appended to this report. We held five public oral evidence sessions with representatives of local authorities, Regional Assemblies, Regional Development Agencies and other agencies and public bodies active in the regions, select committee chairmen, and government ministers and officials. We are grateful to all those who gave evidence, both in person and in writing.

3.  We welcome the interest and engagement in our inquiry from those active in scrutiny in the regions. Their evidence has been extremely valuable in informing the findings of this Report. We do not, however, consider it our place to comment on local scrutiny arrangements. The remit of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons is "to consider how the House operates and to make recommendations for modernisation".[3] Our key focus has therefore been the desirability of establishing new structures within the House of Commons to improve regional accountability and scrutiny in Parliament. Clearly, any new Parliamentary structures would need to complement local scrutiny arrangements and we have borne this in mind when formulating our conclusions and recommendations. It may well be that these local arrangements are themselves in need of reform, but this is a matter for our colleagues on other select committees to consider.

Background

4.  The current structure of regional accountability dates from 1999, when three 'pillars' of regional governance were established. Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) were set up to improve economic performance in the regions and to reduce disparities both between and within regions; Government Offices for the Regions were tasked with carrying out civil service functions; and Regional Assemblies were created with a strategic oversight and scrutiny function.[4] This structure was intended to fulfil the Government's twin aim of raising the economic performance of the English regions and introducing a more devolved form of regional governance. However, a review of this structure was initiated when the Government's proposal to establish an elected regional assembly in the North East was overwhelmingly rejected in a trial referendum.[5]

New arrangements for regional accountability

5.  Since the result of the North East referendum, a number of papers have put forward proposals for taking forward regional government. In March 2007, the Communities and Local Government Select Committee published its Report, Is there a future for Regional Government? The Committee concluded that "there should be more thorough and consistent scrutiny of the regions at Westminster"[6] and its Report is cited in The Governance of Britain in support of the proposal to establish a system of regional select committees.[7] The Committee added that any new Parliamentary arrangements would not act as "a substitute for the scrutiny carried out by the Regional Assemblies, but as an adjunct to it, making use of the different powers which Westminster committees hold for examining central government activity and linking it to the realisation of policy at the regional level". [8]

6.  In July 2007, the Government published its Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration (the 'Sub-National Review' or SNR).[9] This consultation paper was the result of a policy review led jointly by HM Treasury, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and their predecessor departments, considering how to strengthen economic performance in regions, cities and localities throughout the country. The Sub-National Review proposes a number of changes to regional scrutiny and accountability arrangements, including abolishing Regional Assemblies and expanding the remit and powers of RDAs by giving them strategic oversight of transport, planning and housing matters currently dealt with by the Assemblies. Local authorities would be encouraged to establish effective scrutiny of regional matters, in particular the work of their RDA, and Parliamentary accountability would be strengthened (the document states that the Government will "work with Parliament" to determine how this might be achieved).[10] The Sub-National Review suggests that these new structures will be in place by 2010. Our evidence shows that many regions are already implementing transitional arrangements in the expectation that its proposals will be implemented.[11]

7.  Although the proposals for regional committees contained in The Governance of Britain have not yet been implemented, the Prime Minister has created ministerial posts for the regions. The Green Paper defines their role as follows:

Regional Ministers are responsible for providing a clear sense of strategic direction for their region. Regional Ministers also give citizens a voice in central government, ensuring that government policy takes account of the differing needs of the nine English regions. Regional Ministers will make central government more visible in the regions, helping to raise its profile and generate awareness of the political system.[12]

It goes on to give some examples of the functions that Regional Ministers should undertake, including "advising the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the approval of regional strategies and appointment of RDA Chairs and Boards" and "facilitating a joined up approach across government departments and agencies to enable the effective delivery of the single regional strategy". The Green Paper also notes that Regional Ministers "will be able to take questions in Parliament on the work of regional bodies, and on regional strategies".[13] This procedure has not yet been implemented, and written Questions about the work of Regional Ministers are answered on their behalf by other Ministers.


1   The Governance of Britain, Cm. 7170, paragraph 119. Back

2   IbidBack

3   Appendix to Standing Orders. Back

4   For a fuller discussion, see Communities and Local Government Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Is there a future for Regional Government?, HC 352-I (2006-07). Back

5   More than three quarters of those who voted in the referendum voted 'No'. Back

6   Communities and Local Government Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Is there a future for Regional Government?, HC 352-I (2006-07), paragraph 112. Back

7   The Governance of Britain, Cm. 7170, paragraph 119. Back

8   Communities and Local Government Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2006-07, Is there a future for Regional Government?, HC 352-I (2006-07), paragraph 113. Back

9   HM Treasury, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and Department for Communities and Local Government, Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration, July 2007. Back

10   Ibid., paragraph 6.107. Back

11   For example, Ev 61. As Regional Assemblies are voluntary bodies, Ministers have no formal powers to abolish them. They are, however, recognised as formal representative bodies for two pieces of legislation: the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998, which allows them to be consulted by RDAs and to scrutinise RDAs, and the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which recognises them as official regional planning bodies.  Back

12   The Governance of Britain, Cm. 7170, paragraph 118. Back

13   IbidBack


 
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