HC Deb 03 February 1998 vol 305 cc832-4
8. Mr. MacShane

If he will make a statement on the democratic accountability of the regional development agencies. [24895]

Mr. Caborn

Regional development agencies will be non-departmental public bodies and as such they will be accountable to Ministers. However, RDAs will be responsive to regional views and will be required to give an account of themselves to those who have an interest in their work.

Mr. MacShane

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that one of the clear signals from last year's election was that people want a complete rejection of the centralising "Whitehall knows best" mentality of the Conservative party. The previous Government ran the most centralised party machine since the holy Roman empire. As a former Sheffield steelworker, the Minister will know the importance of not creating quango outposts of Whitehall. I invite him to go part of the way towards the full monty by saying that we need real, democratic accountability for RDAs. Their members will take important decisions, and they must be connected democratically to the regions from which they come. We should start finally to dismantle the centralised Tory state that has done so much damage to our country.

Mr. Caborn

I thank my hon. Friend for, as usual, a forthright question. I again assure him that it was set out in the manifesto on which we fought the 1 May election that we would set up regional development agencies in the English regions. There will consult the chambers that are being set up in all nine English regions, and in the fulness of time we shall give the people of the regions through a referendum or other such mechanism, the opportunity to state whether they want a directly elected regional assembly. As my hon. Friend rightly reminds the House, we were overwhelmingly elected on the basis of our manifesto.

Mr. Baldry

Does not the Minister's answer confirm that regional development agencies will lead to less accountability, more bureaucracy, considerable duplication of effort and much local authority confusion? They are a sop to Labour leaders in boroughs such as Gateshead and others in the north-east. What might be suitable for the north-east is not necessarily suitable for other large parts of the country. Very few people want such bodies, and they will not be of any real benefit to the people of Britain, will they?

Mr. Caborn

If regional development agencies are such bad models, I cannot understand why the Conservative Government kept them for 18 years. It was in 1975 that a Labour Government introduced the Scottish and Welsh development agencies, and the previous Administrations kept them. If I remember correctly, it was Prime Minister Thatcher who used those models to set up a body in Northern Ireland. We are giving England the same good institutions that exist in Scotland and Wales. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there were 1,500 responses to our consultation and almost universal acceptance of the concept of regional development agencies.

Mrs. Ellman

Does the Minister agree that the effectiveness of regional development agencies can be maximised by them working closely with regional chambers? It is in the chambers that policies on transport, the environment and further and higher education can be developed and linked to essential economic development.

Mr. Caborn

My hon. Friend has tremendous experience in the matter. As she clearly said, the partnership and bottom-up approach that regional development agencies will use in creating regional partnerships will address issues such as a weak competitive base and create more wealth for our nation. The Government will endeavour to create such an approach by ensuring that the Bill—if Conservative Members will allow us to get it through the House—is an enabling measure that brings together all the partnerships to bear down on the serious issues confronting the regions.