HC Deb 29 July 1997 vol 299 cc133-5
4. Mr. MacShane

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will ensure that the English regions are not excluded from forthcoming decentralisation legislation. [9351]

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)

A Bill to provide for regional development agencies was announced in the Queen's Speech and will be introduced in the autumn. That will be a first step towards decentralising decision taking in the British regions.

Mr. MacShane

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. Is he aware of the welcome in the country for Labour's moves towards handing some power back to the people, after the years of corrupt Tory rule during which the Conservative party treated the state as its private property, ruled from London? As a fellow South Yorkshire Member of Parliament, is the Minister aware that, in a year or two, when we have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a mayor in London, the 7 million people of Yorkshire might say, "What about us?" What plans does he have to continue the process of ensuring that the voice of the British regions is heard, and that they have more accountability and more control over the decisions that affect their daily lives?

Mr. Caborn

I thank my hon. Friend for the due modesty that he always shows in asking supplementaries. I assure him that we fought the election and won it handsomely on a major constitutional change; we shall follow that through. As I said in my answer, the first step is to get regional development agencies into being and then to encourage the formation of chambers. We shall then move towards elective regional assemblies when that has been determined by the people in the regions.

Opposition Members are obviously living in the past. I can assure them that the Confederation of British Industry, the chambers of commerce, the Trades Union Congress, local authorities and academia, through the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom, all support the move towards regional development agencies. I suggest that the Opposition should come into the 20th century, let alone the 21st century.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I recognise the importance of local government and I am personally sad that many duties and responsibilities were removed from local government in recent times. I speak as somebody who served in local government, and that is why I am so supportive of it. It is, however, important that government functions be taken as close to the people as possible because what affects people is government functions and responsibilities. Is it not right, in decentralising and moving in the way that the Minister has suggested, to tell people how much the change will cost and what existing local authority levels or authorities are likely to be reduced or abolished in the movement towards what the Minister described as regional agencies and regional assemblies?

Mr. Caborn

The hon. Gentleman has asked an interesting supplementary. We are dealing here with regional development agencies. I know that the hon. Gentleman is extremely interested in manufacturing.

Mr. Paice

That is not an answer.

Mr. Caborn

There are three parts to the question which I have answered already, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened.

The regional development agencies are intended to address the weaknesses in the competitive base of this nation. I know that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) understands that as well as I do in terms of the northern region. We shall bring the local authorities together—we have made that clear commitment in our manifesto—but we shall move to regional assemblies only when that change has been determined by a referendum in each of the English regions. Those referendums may take place at different times. That is the commitment we gave in our manifesto, and that is what we were elected on.

Mrs. Ellman

Will the Minister consider giving official recognition to regional chambers that already exist through voluntary means? In the north-west five years ago, for example, the public, private and voluntary sectors came together to form the North-West Regional Association and the North-West Partnership, which have brought public, private and voluntary sectors together to develop strategies for the region. Will my hon. Friend consider giving official recognition to such bodies pending the setting up of new ones?

Mr. Caborn

We shall look carefully at the consultation document. As my hon. Friend knows, it went out a few weeks ago and it will conclude on 5 September. We shall reflect on all the 10 English regions in response to the document and we shall then give a considered reply. I hear what my hon. Friend said, and her point will be taken into consideration when we review the position.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I say to the Minister, the Secretary of State and their team that the Liberal Democrats greatly welcome the honouring of the manifesto commitment to produce a Green Paper on London government. We look forward to others for the other regions of England.

Will Ministers make two points clear? First, will they ensure that the policies and finances of regional government are made much more important than the personalities? In other words, we should not get into personality politics, but should concentrate on the policies. Secondly, Ministers should make it clear that the Government have an honestly open mind in terms of ensuring that we have electoral systems for the regions that make sure that, once we establish them, no Government who are against them can take them away.

Mr. Caborn

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. It is a bit rich for Opposition Members to protest when we are honouring manifesto commitments, but I know that they have great difficulty in understanding that we are doing so.

Finance is one of the matters considered in the discussion document, and we shall reflect on that point after 5 September. The electoral system will be discussed when we decide to have a referendum, which will be some time down the road before we move to regional assemblies. The electoral system will be a point of discussion before we enter that debate.