HC Deb 28 November 2001 vol 375 cc955-7
5. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

What recent assessment his Department has made of the delivery of public services in the regions in England. [15973]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

Delivering improved local public services across all regions of the country is our top priority, and the Cabinet Office is working to ensure that Government offices for the regions play a key role in helping to deliver results.

Mr. Pike

My hon. Friend will know that the Deputy Prime Minister visited Burnley and east Lancashire twice recently. He will also be well aware of the problems that that north-west region faces, in particular the large number of empty private sector houses and the heavy dependence on manufacturing sector jobs. More than 30 per cent. of the work force are employed in manufacturing, which is experiencing major problems following 11 September. Will my hon. Friend make it clear that the RDA will play a key role in the regeneration of that part of the north-west and in the delivery of public services and jobs?

Mr. Leslie

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work and efforts to rebuild the community, especially that in his constituency. He voices important concerns about the need to tackle crime and housing problems, and it is essential to rebuild the local economy. The Deputy Prime Minister considered such matters during his visit. The task force chaired by Lord Clarke will publish its report in December and is considering the issues that my hon. Friend raises.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

Does the Minister understand that if he closed down the hapless Government regional office in the south-east tomorrow there would be no tears in Bracknell or elsewhere in the region because we think that it creates unnecessary extra Government bureaucracy and is a huge waste of taxpayers' money?

Mr. Leslie

If the regional office in the right hon. Gentleman's area is such a waste of time why did his Government set it up in the first place? The Government offices for the regions need to be enhanced and supported so that we ensure that they work not just on traditional housing and regeneration issues, but on planning, environment and anti-crime measures. The area-based initiatives—not least those started by the right hon. Gentleman's Government—need to be properly reformed so that they make a difference on the ground. [Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Once again, I call for quiet in the Chamber. It is only fair to the Minister and to those who are asking a question.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

May I say how pleased I am to hear that the Minister is taking joined-up thinking so seriously? Some months ago I was promised someone on secondment from the Cabinet Office to assist with urban regeneration in Burslem. Will he consider whether those resources can now be made available to assist with the regeneration that is so urgently needed in north Staffordshire?

Mr. Leslie

It is important that there are secondments from central Government to localities where extra efforts are required. I shall certainly endeavour to look further into the case that my hon. Friend mentioned. We should not only focus on regeneration at the grass roots but delegate people from central Departments to areas where it matters most.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

Does the Minister agree that the efficient delivery of public services can be disrupted and delayed by extended staff absences? Will he initiate an in-depth analysis to determine whether Departments and public services need to put in place arrangements to prevent such disruption and delay?

Mr. Leslie

I am responsible for overseeing the day-to-day running of the civil service, and I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that attention to sickness and absence levels throughout public services is central to ensuring good performance by a happy and healthy work force. I shall continue to try to monitor those important factors.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the Minister agree that the effective delivery of high quality public services depends less on the grand panjandrums of Whitehall and more on the morale and enthusiasm of the civil servants who work directly with the public throughout the country? To that end, does he agree that there is a need for a civil service Act and a national framework for civil servants' pay?

Mr. Leslie

The Government are certainly committed to introducing a civil service Bill when parliamentary time allows. On a national framework, my own feeling is that departmental managers need the flexibility to incentivise good performance in their own Department. We are in discussion with civil service unions and others about these issues.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Is it an aim of Government regional policy to reduce the north-south gap?

Mr. Leslie

There are differences within regions just as there are differences between them, and we have to ensure that each has an opportunity to develop its economic strategies in as fair and equal a manner as possible. There are serious issues that require attention. Of course, making sure that the most deprived areas of our country get the assistance that they need is a priority, and one which I would hope the hon. Gentleman shares.

Mr. Collins

It was a very simple question and it needed only a yes or no answer. Is it Government policy to reduce the north-south gap, or not? I have to say that if it is, Government policy is failing because the latest independent figures show that the gap is widening. Would the Minister like to try again? Is it his policy to reduce that gap—yes or no?

Mr. Leslie

Well, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the policy is as simple as saying that the north is poor and the south is wealthier, I really think that he needs to get a grip. There are significant pockets of poverty and deprivation in the south of England, just as there are wealthier areas in the north of the country. We need to take a more sophisticated approach to the whole question.