HC Deb 21 June 1995 vol 262 cc332-5
3. Mr. Dunn

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment what representations he has received asking him to move responsibility for certain services from local councils to regional assemblies. [28029]

Mr. Gummer

Since last October, we have had more than 30,000 letters about local government from members of the public, and we cannot trace or remember any that demanded regional assemblies.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Regional assemblies are not local government.

Mr. Dunn

Does my right hon. Friend accept that there is no popular demand whatsoever in England for the setting up of unnecessary, expensive and socialist regional assemblies and that the people of Kent have no desire to have their local government affairs run from Woking or Reading? They believe that local government must remain local to Kent.

Mr. Gummer

I think that my hon. Friend received his answer from the Liberal local government spokesman, who said that regional assemblies are not local government. That is the whole point: regional assemblies are, in fact, utterly alien to Britain because they are not close enough to the people. People do not see themselves as living in regions and there are no natural boundaries to regions. The idea of the Labour party in the south-west, for example, saying that people in Cornwall should have their fire services organised in Bristol, or that people in Wiltshire should have their affairs run from Bristol, is entirely alien to the concept of local government. The idea that the counties, which fought for the independence that they have now been given since the changes, should have their powers taken away from them by a future Labour Government is anathema to most people.

Mr. Betts

That is one of the most nonsensical answers that I have ever heard the right hon. Gentleman give in the House. Does he not accept that the important point is that the Government have transferred powers, not to regional assemblies, but to quangos and have centralised more local government functions than any other Government in history? Economic regeneration, transport, housing and other matters are currently run by faceless officials in regional offices, but it is those things for which local people want elected councillors to have responsibility at a local level so that they can have a say. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will deal with that point.

Mr. Gummer

I can understand why a former leader of Sheffield city council would want someone else to run his city, given the disastrous position in which he left it and the debts that he ran up for it. The hon. Gentleman seems to think that parents are quangos and that people who run their own affairs are quangos. In fact, schools are now run by parents, teachers and governors on behalf of pupils. It is not only such matters that would be given to a regional assembly: it would, it appears, be responsible for economic development, the environment, planning, water and transport, all of which are currently run by local government. The idea that we have taken powers away from local government, when responsibility for something such as community care—one of the most important social services—has been given to local government, reveals just how empty the hon. Gentleman's rhetoric is.

Mr. Harris

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the document to which he refers—Mori. MEMBERS: "Which document?"] The Labour party's document for regional government in the south-west which puts forward the concept of a regional assembly covering an area stretching from the Isles of Scilly in my constituency, right up to Swindon. As my right hon. Friend says, that would not only be anathema to the people of Cornwall, but would make absolute nonsense of the whole concept of local government and the provision of local control over those services.

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right. The document, which has now received welcome publicity, is a recent publication by the Labour party in the south-west. My hon. Friend is right to say that the only problem with the geography of the document is that the map on the front includes Berkshire as part of the south-west. I wonder whether the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) would like Newbury to be run from Bristol, for example. The difficulty for the Labour party is that it is in a party political mess. It needs regional government to justify having Scots in this House to vote on English matters without English Members voting on Scots matters. That is its only reason for regional government. It has nothing to do with the people of England.

Mr. Rendel

In relation to the powers of local government, what is the Secretary of State's reaction to the final report from the Commission for Local Democracy which was launched this morning? What is his reaction in particular to three of its recommendations that, first, there should be a single transferable vote system of elections for local government; secondly, that we should as a country ratify the European charter for local self-government; and, thirdly, that there should be a power of general competence for local government, except where prohibited by statute?

Mr. Gummer

I note that the question is about regional government. The first thing that that body said was that regional government was not a sensible policy for England. That was one of the few important things that it said—many of the other things that it said suffered a fundamental gap. It did not talk about the connection between who gave the money and who decided on the policy. The trouble with the whole issue of local democracy is this: if the money is supplied by the national taxpayer, it is difficult to have a kind of local democracy which enables people to pre-empt the decisions of central Government and have access to taxpayers' funds, without any kind of responsibility for the way in which those funds are spent.

The difficulty for the Commission for Local Democracy is that it failed to address that central issue. The document does not properly address that issue because none of the people concerned with the Commission for Local Democracy has had any history of trying to make sense of the reality of having to account for the money spent.

Mr. Thomason

Does my right hon. Friend find it in the least surprising that the majority of my electors in Bromsgrove are appalled at the prospect of their area being run by regional government in Birmingham? Does he find it ironic that Labour Members have been campaigning for the abolition of county councils for the past few years and yet, suddenly, they are arguing for the creation of super county councils in the form of regional assemblies?

Mr. Gummer

If that were so, it would be much easier. The Labour party is really campaigning for five levels of government. It wants Britain to become the most over-governed nation in Europe. It is very deeply concerned. It wants parishes, districts, counties, regions and the national Government. It wants all that—[Interruption.] Well, some of them want that and others do not want it. Above all, the trouble is that the person who speaks on the subject occasionally is not the man who will make the decision—he cannot be trusted with it. The hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) is entrusted with that.

Mr. Salmond

Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be highly appropriate if a Scottish assembly had powers over oil and gasfield decommissioning? Do not the Government have a huge financial interest—up to £1 billion—in deep-water disposal as opposed to onshore dismantling? Was the Secretary of State consulted yesterday by the President of the Board of Trade before he made his sabre-rattling comments about denying—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That was a game try, but it was not relevant to the question.

Mr. Nigel Evans

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people in the Ribble Valley were deeply disappointed when Lancashire county council, which is controlled by the Labour party, was not scrapped, but that they totally oppose handing powers away from themselves to a body that they would regard as even more remote and out of touch than the current county council?

Mr. Gummer

But those people would be supported in that by several members of the Labour party who are desperate to get rid of Lancashire county council. One of the problems with regionalism in the north-west is that although nobody outside the Labour party has asked for a regional assembly, many Labour party members, such as the hon. Member for Blackburn, see the prospect as a means of getting rid of the Labour leader of the county council, whom they are desperate to get rid of by one means or another.

Mr. Trimble

Is there not already a significant amount of administration that is regionally based, and would it not be better if such administrative regional devolution from Whitehall were subject to democratic control, rather than being run by quangos, as at present? Is not the Secretary of State right to say that there is no threat to the future unity of the United Kingdom from a uniform system of regional devolution, but does not the real threat lie in having devolution for one region alone, as the Government propose?

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman may recognise that the issues raised in one part of the United Kingdom are particular and difficult, and I have no intention of being drawn on that subject here. However, one of the reasons why there now appears to be a bias towards female-only lists has been revealed. I have discovered that there is another way of getting rid of the leader of Lancashire county council. Is there no end to the Labour party's desire to attack her?