HC Deb 15 February 1995 vol 254 cc992-3
15. Mr. Denham

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he has to make the Government offices of the regions more accountable to the people living in those regions.

Mr. Gummer

Government offices are already directly accountable to Parliament through me and the other Ministers to whom they report.

Mr. Denham

Is the Secretary of State aware that the decision last year to refuse a partnership bid to bring improved heating and insulation to the 1,000 people on the Holyrood estate in my constituency was taken, to all intents and purposes, by unelected and unaccountable officials working in the Government office of the south-east? Is it not the case that those officials are only part of a pattern of regional English government that spends and allocates nearly £6 billion a year and influences far more? As we have English regional government, is it not high time that English regional government was made accountable to the people that it serves?

Mr. Gummer

First of all, all decisions are advised by civil servants but agreed by Ministers, including the decision relating to Southampton. Secondly, as I understand it, the hon. Gentleman is asking for a bit more clarity from the Labour party. He has fought for a unitary authority for Southampton; now he wants to take that unitary authority away and have a regional government.

I understand also that the difficulty for Conservative Members is that the Opposition spokesman has one policy on regional government, the previous spokesman had another policy, and it is difficult to discuss English regional government in the House when the person who makes the decisions is not here, but speaks to the television and radio, saying that the Opposition have now put off regional government, because they have suddenly discovered that it would mean five tiers of government for large numbers of people, which people do not want and do not want to pay for.

Mrs. Lait

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the south-east there are already improved communications between local bodies and central Government? Is he further aware that the regional office now has a much clearer picture of local needs than it did, and is hence much more likely to match the needs with grants? Does he agree that a regional assembly or, even worse, control by local councillors, would be the last thing to generate the growth that is needed in the south-east of England?

Mr. Gummer

First, I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that the Labour party supported the idea of bringing together the various local offices of Government, so that we had a common view throughout a range of things, and there was a holistic answer and not individual sectional answers.

Secondly, it is a very odd world, is it not, where the Labour party is now telling its supporters in the counties that, if Labour returned to power, it would cancel, ban and stop all county councils. The Labour party has decided on the abolition of the county councils, irrespective of the fact that all the county councils controlled by the Labour party are fighting for their continuance.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister agree that the Government cannot have their cake and eat it? A few questions ago, the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, West (Mr. Jones), gave a favourable and sympathetic answer to the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), who called for local accountability—in effect, devolution. The Secretary of State then poured scorn on those of us who believe that a much more efficient and just administration can be provided with a much greater level of devolution than that which the Government are prepared to consider.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is suggesting to the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) that, far from getting the local accountability which comes from unitary authorities, Southampton should turn it down in favour of a new tier of local government which is called regional government. People in England do not want regional government, and people in Scotland and Wales do not want regional or national government.