HL Deb 09 May 2002 vol 634 cc1257-9
Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to transfer more government work from London and the South East to other parts of the United Kingdom with lower employment opportunities.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, individual departments and agencies are free to make their own decisions about location and facilities on the basis of operational requirements and value for money. However, the existing dispersal of many Civil Service functions across the UK has worked well, and the Government believe that the administration of public service benefits from that national and regional diversity. The Government will continue to keep the matter under serious consideration and review.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. In the past, governments faced with problems of recruitment and retention and housing shortages for civil servants have been prepared to undertake major reviews to identify blocks of work that could be shifted to the provinces to ease those problems. Have the Government considered doing that? If not, why not.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to say that, in the past, there were fundamental reviews. There has been a marked shift away from Civil Service employment in London and the South East region since 1976. The Government take such matters seriously, and I have no doubt that the noble Lord will be encouraged by some of the comments contained in today's White Paper on the development of our regions. We keep the matter under careful review all the time.

Lord Elliott of Morpeth

My Lords, does the Minister agree that modern communications technology has substantially removed the old distance problem? Does he also agree—I am sure that he will—that the North East benefited enormously from the movement by government and business to that region during a period of severe industrial change.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord has anticipated my reply: we recognise those benefits. Modern communications make it much easier for outposts and departments located in other parts of the country to connect with headquarters departments located at the centre. There are economic benefits to be had from a policy of dispersal; those benefits have been widely appreciated over the past 25 years.

Lord Carlile of Berriew

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the slowness of British Telecom in taking broadband technology to rural parts of England and Wales is a serious inhibition to the transfer of high-value employment to those regions? Will the Government take steps to kick BT into spreading broadband technology at a faster rate.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord has made an interesting contribution to the debate, even if he went a little wider than the Question. I am sure that what he said is relevant, and we take careful account of such matters.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, there was a row over the establishment of the national cattle traceability centre in Cumberland in 1998, when civil servants opposed the move. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker—then an agriculture Minister—overturned the recommendation made by the civil servants and moved the centre to Cumbria. Does not that show that, sometimes, civil servants' objections must simply be overruled.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the wisdom of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is widely appreciated in the House. I am sure that he was entirely right in what he did. Of course, operational considerations must be assessed in making such important decisions.

Lord Newby

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the state of the regional economies varies considerably? There is overheating in the South East and spare capacity in other regions. Although the RDAs and the proposals for regional government may be welcome for many reasons, one of the consequences of that policy is that every region looks to maximise its own growth. There is a lack of co-ordination in the dispersal of government functions throughout the country, and little thought is given at the centre of government to balancing regional economies.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I cannot agree that there is a lack of co-ordination. Our policies demonstrate that we are well co-ordinated. The noble Lord made the important point that regions are keen to promote themselves and ensure, rightly, that they get a fair share of the action and a fair slice of the cake.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, asked, "Why not?", in his supplementary question? The Minister does not appear to have answered the question.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought that I had answered the question. I apologise to your Lordships' House if I have not. My noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe made an important point about a matter that the Government consider carefully, in the light of operational needs and the pressures on each department.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, notwithstanding the Minister's assurance that the matter is kept assiduously under review, is it not the case that, on 9th January, the Deputy Prime Minister insisted that, no assessment has been made, of the scope for relocation of the executive functions of government departments.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my reply was not inconsistent with that. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister was speaking wisely, as he does at all times.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, will not the proposals in today's White Paper make it more difficult to disperse work to different parts of the country? Each part that has a regional assembly, including London, will jealously guard its own employment.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, reading the runes of government policy is something that we all do. In the light of the debate about regionalism and the importance of the regions, the noble Lord must reflect that the announcements made today will probably make things easier, rather than harder.

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