HC Deb 19 May 2004 vol 421 cc961-3
1. Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con)

If he will make a statement on the estimated costs of regional assemblies. [173979]

The Minister for Local and Regional Government (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

An elected regional assembly will cost around £30 million to set up, including the costs of referendums and elections, and around £25 million a year to run.

Mr. Bacon

Given that the Welsh Assembly cost £55 million—four times more than planned—and that the Scottish Parliament cost £430 million, which was 10 times more than planned, is it not likely that the proposed regional assemblies will turn out to be simply another way of squandering money that people would prefer to be spent on teachers and nurses?

Mr. Raynsford

No, it is not. The first point on which the hon. Gentleman might reflect is that our proposals for elected regional assemblies are for small, streamlined bodies, which will focus on delivering services and developing strategic approaches to policy that the Government and quangos currently discharge. That will restore democratic control to the regions and add value. Secondly, he knows that, next week, when the boundary committee presents its proposals for local government reorganisation, there will be considerable scope for reducing bureaucracy and making savings through cutting out unnecessary tiers of government.

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the figures that he gave represent an excellent deal for democracy? He is a much more patient and tolerant soul than me, but does he not occasionally get irritated at the ridiculous scaremongering from Conservative Members, who have neither the vision nor the enterprise to recognise the important moment for regional devolution that is almost upon us?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes a valid point and some kind remarks. I am a tolerant soul, but I have witnessed the Conservative party opposing devolution in Scotland and subsequently changing its mind; opposing devolution in Wales and then changing its mind; and opposing devolution in London and changing its mind. I look forward to Conservative Members changing their minds and recognising that it is right to bring democracy to the English regions.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) (Con)

The no campaign in the north-west is a cross-party campaign that includes many Labour Members of Parliament. Will the Minister allow its representatives to speak at Government-sponsored public meetings that he and the Deputy Prime Minister attend so that the public can hear both sides of the argument? Does he not want to share a platform with Labour Members of Parliament?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman knows that there is provision for funding the yes and no campaigns at a later stage in the process so that they can present their case to the electorate. That is right and proper. However, the Government are currently exercising their responsibility to ensure that the public are properly informed. Last night, I was speaking in north Lincolnshire at a hearing that was welcomed by people who want information and welcomed the presence of a Minister to answer questions factually and informatively. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman objects to that.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend revert to the theme of cost? Will he calculate or speculate on the money forgone by the northern regions when successive Tory Governments underfunded health, industrial investment and education there to prop up their electoral base in the south of England?

Mr. Raynsford

My hon. Friend makes an important point because our purpose in extending democracy to the regions is to allow each region to maximise its potential strengths and economic development opportunity. It is sad that, in the past 80 or so years, there has been a disparity in the economic development rates of different parts of this country, with the northern regions failing on the whole to share the high growth rates that some southern regions achieved. We are working hard, through the creation of regional development agencies, the Lyons review and other measures, to redress that balance. The Conservative party shows no concern for assisting some of the more deprived parts of our country to improve their economic performance.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con)

I refute that last claim. The Minister may recall that the 1997 Labour manifesto pledged that regional assemblies would require … confirmation by independent auditors that no additional public expenditure overall would be involved.

Does he stand by that manifesto pledge?

Mr. Raynsford

We have made it absolutely clear—[Interruption.] Yes, the hon. Lady should pay attention to this. We have made it absolutely clear that we will publish the full costs. Those costs will include the potential savings from local government reorganisation, which we are not able to publish until we have the proposals from the boundary committee. The committee will present to us its estimates of the best options for wholly unitary local government in those parts of the three northern regions that currently have two tiers of local government. Until we have those estimates, we cannot produce full costings, but I assure the hon. Lady that, as and when we have them, we will produce those costings. I suspect that she will be surprised when she sees the scope that exists for making savings by cutting out unnecessary tiers of government.

Mrs. Spelman

The fact is that the vast cost of these regional assemblies will end up having to be met by council tax. The Minister has clearly not seen the latest research from Cambridge university showing that abolishing counties or district councils will add £110 to the council tax bill of every resident. Has he not heard the pain expressed up and down the country about the level to which the council tax has risen under this Labour Government?

Mr. Raynsford

I have two points to make to the hon. Lady. The first is that the Government have taken effective action against excessive council tax increases. If Conservative councils had been as successful as Labour councils in keeping their council tax levels down, there would be a lower average rate of council tax this year.

Secondly, on local government reorganisation, the hon. Lady is living in a time warp. She is recalling the figures from the period when her party was in power, and when local government reorganisation led to substantial additional costs because of the bungled way in which the Banham review approached the matter. The hon. Lady should not anticipate the conclusions of the boundary committee. Any sensible, serious analysis will depend on figures that have yet to be produced, so I would say to her and to the academics whom she is quoting that theoretical arguments are all very well, but they should wait to see the actual recommendations. We shall then be able to do proper costings, and we shall do so.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab)

Did my right hon. Friend note the very encouraging poll in Newcastle'sThe Journal at the beginning of this week, which showed that those intending to vote yes in the referendum greatly outnumbered those intending to vote no? Did he also notice, however, that the support would be even greater if the Government were to strengthen the role of the assemblies in the draft powers Bill? Will he take that message to heart?

Mr. Raynsford

My right hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for regional devolution for many years, and she will have been heartened, as all those who care about the issue will be, to see the evidence of growing support in all the northern regions and, obviously, in the north-east. In the course of the hearings that have been held over recent months, we have discussed the powers set out in the White Paper and any possible changes that might be made to them. We shall obviously bear my right hon. Friend's points in mind before final conclusions are reached and we publish a draft Bill, which we intend to do later this summer.