Access to Meetings etc. of Regional Development Agencies

Orders of the Day — Regional Development Agencies Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:07 pm on 1st April 1998.

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'.—(1) In the Schedule to the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, there shall be inserted— (1) regional development agencies.

(2) In subsection (1) of section 100J of the Local Government Act 1972, there shall be inserted— (g) a regional development agency".'.—[Mrs. Ballard.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 20, in clause 7, page 3, line 27, at end insert— '(1A) In formulating a strategy under subsection (1), a regional development agency shall have regard to regional planning guidance for the agency's area.'.

No. 21, in page 3, line 27, at end insert— '(1B) In formulating a strategy under subsection (1), a regional development agency shall have regard to local authority development plans for the agency's area'.

No. 29, in clause 9, page 4, line 17, after '9', insert— '( ) It shall be a duty of a regional development agency to set an annual budget before the beginning of every financial year.( ) An annual budget shall be set under subsection (Al) only after the regional development agency concerned has consulted each local authority within its area.'.

No. 30, in page 4, line 20, after 'the', insert 'other'.

No. 2, in page 4, line 36, leave out 'him' and insert 'the local authorities in the region concerned.'.

No. 3, in clause 10, page 4, line 40, at end insert— '(2) No grant shall be made under this section in any financial year in which the standard spending assessment of any local authority in the region of the regional development agency concerned has been or is proposed to be reduced.'.

No. 17, in clause 18, page 8, line 19, at end insert— '(5) As soon as reasonably practicable after a public meeting has been held for the purposes of subsection (2), the regional development agency concerned shall publish a record of that meeting, setting out how it will take account of points raised at the meeting in its activities in the following year, and shall send a copy of the record to the Secretary of State, who shall lay it before each House of Parliament.'.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

The new clause would add regional development agencies to the list of public bodies in the schedule to the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960 and to the appropriate section of the Local Government Act 1972. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are about the need for RDAs to have regard to regional planning guidance and to local authority development plans.

The Liberal Democrats voted for the Bill on Second Reading and broadly welcome it, but we have always had some concerns, which we voiced in Committee. They include the constitution of the boards, the need for RDAs adequately to represent rural areas, which we have just debated, the link with local authorities and regional chambers and the need for openness in the work of RDA boards.

Accountability has informed every one of our concerns. New clause 3 and our amendments attempt to deal with that issue by ensuring that RDA board meetings are as open as possible, given the need to respect commercial and individual confidentiality, and that RDAs have regard to the views and policies of people with a local mandate in planning matters. No one who wants RDAs to succeed—as the Liberal Democrats do—would wish them to come into conflict with the aims of local communities. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would ensure that the chances of that were reduced.

New clause 3 is important in ensuring that RDAs pay real regard to openness. The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), said: Different RDAs may have different ways of reporting back to their regions; some may want much closer contact with the population."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 10 February 1998; c. 255.] That is not good enough. RDA boards may decide that they do not need to consult regional chambers or local authorities to any meaningful extent.

That is why we believe that it is important that the public should be entitled to attend board meetings when appropriate. It is a small measure of openness, but its presence in the Bill would signify that RDAs should pay regard to the principle of accountability and openness in advance of the Government's introduction of a freedom of information Act.

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The new clause does not mean that RDAs would be unable to conduct confidential business without an audience of local people and the press. The Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act makes it clear: A body may, by resolution, exclude the public from a meeting (whether during the whole or part of the proceedings) whenever publicity would be prejudicial to the public interest by reason of the confidential nature of the business to be transacted or for other special reasons stated in the resolution". What is important is that there is a presumption that meetings should be open. If the new clause is not accepted, the opening of RDA board meetings will be in the gift of board members, and local electors could do nothing to change the composition of a board that might be unnecessarily secretive. People have a right to know about decisions that are taken by a body that spends public money and which is not directly democratically accountable, but which will have a significant influence on their region's development.

In opposition, the Labour party opposed quangos—we still do—because of their secretive nature, the difficulty of finding out what they were up to, not knowing how appointments were made to quangos and, above all, their lack of a democratic mandate. I know that the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has expressed his new-found enthusiasm as a member of the Government for quangos. He said: There is nothing wrong with quangos."—[Official Report, Standing Committee E, 29 January 1998; c. 71.] I am surprised at the speed of his conversion.

Photo of Richard Caborn Richard Caborn Minister of State (Regions, Regeneration and Planning), Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions

I hope that the hon. Lady will quote what I went on to say in Committee—that we were proud to put on the statute book in 1975 both the Scottish and Welsh Development Agencies, on which we are modelling RDAs. In the early days, they were also quangos until we were to get an elected Scottish Parliament and Welsh assembly; well, I hope that we shall get them. It is in that context that I said that quangos were useful. We did not misuse them, as the previous Administration did, by making them political toys.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

I shall come to political toys in a moment.

There is a precedent for non-elected public bodies to hold meetings in public. Indeed, the Secretary of State for Health has already signalled that hospital trust boards should hold their meetings in public. If they should, why not regional development agency boards? I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what he thinks is the radical difference between the two.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 concern the RDAs' impact on the planning system. Again, they are concerned with the accountability of RDA boards. The Bill as originally drafted would have allowed RDAs to assume planning powers that usurped the role of democratically elected local councillors. Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Minister's damascene conversion in Committee, and we are pleased that clauses 24 to 27 will be consigned later this evening to the ministerial bin, but I hope that it will not be the recycling bin. However, Liberal Democrats are still worried that proposals for RDAs could seriously disturb the plan-led system.

In their response to the report of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, the Government said that there would be no hierarchy between Regional Planning Guidance and RDAs' regional strategies and that, apparently, they will be parallel and complementary regimes, the one influencing the other in an iterative way". The Government also said that it will be open to Ministers to issue guidance or directions". What form will that guidance take, and will such guidance address the potential for conflict if RDAs promote sites for development that do not conform to policies in regional planning guidance?

Despite lacking a statutory framework in which to develop, regional planning guidance has established some consultation with local people and local representatives. There is a danger that the policies of RDAs—which have not established and demonstrated their accountability to local people—will destabilise that system.

As I said, regional planning guidance has developed through practice rather than a statutory framework. I am concerned that it could be vulnerable to tensions caused by the establishment of RDAs. Amendment No. 20 is designed to address that issue. Today, I should like to hear from the Minister the Government's view on the issue. How will the Government ensure, in their guidance to RDAs, that those potential conflicts do not occur? Do Ministers plan to put RPG on a statutory footing?

Amendment No. 21 deals with the RDAs' potential for conflict with local authority development plans. The Council for the Protection of Rural England has given examples of problems in the north—where, it says, inward investment agencies have promoted sites for economic development with no regard to the agreed regional or local planning framework. Those sites have included green-belt and green-field sites.

RDA regional economic strategies, regional planning guidance, structure plans and local authority development plans each serve different purposes, which means that the potential for conflicting with one another may be even greater. Reliance on "having regard to" or "informing each other" may not ensure compatibility or consistency.

I live in hope that the Government will accept new clause 3 and our two amendments. If not, I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the plan-led system will not be overridden by secretive, unelected RDA boards.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I very much agree with the spirit of the comments made by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard). Two issues are raised by the new clause and the amendments in this group, tabled by the Liberal Democrats and by ourselves. The first issue is the openness of meetings and the matter of accountability, and the second is the position of local authorities, particularly in financing RDAs.

As the hon. Member for Taunton said, accessibility and accountability are the crucial issues. RDA members will be appointed by the Secretary of State. We do not have to go into all the arguments on that, but that is the position. RDAs will not be elected or directly accountable to the public. If a member of an RDA board is a councillor, for example, he will continue as a board member even if he loses his council seat. Even those who support RDAs deplore the "democratic deficit" implicit in them.

Opposition Members are not convinced by the arguments to establish RDAs. Nevertheless, because of the Government's majority, we accept that the Bill will be enacted. However, if we are to ensure that RDAs are directly accountable—as councillors are to their own electors—it is vital that every opportunity is taken to ensure that the agencies' proceedings are as open and transparent as they can be.

The public have an absolute right to know what is going on in the RDAs, for two reasons. First, RDAs are being financed by public money. It therefore must be right that the public should receive the maximum information about what is being done with their money and in their name. Secondly, RDAs' entire purpose is to serve the public in the regions, not to serve the Secretary of State or the Government—although all the levers of power seem to be exercised by the Government. We want to monitor the agencies' success as they develop.

We have tabled amendment No. 17 in an attempt to ensure that there is some accountability in RDAs' public meetings. We ask that, after a public meeting has been held, the RDA concerned shall publish a record of that meeting, setting out how it will take account of points raised at the meeting in its activities in the following year, and shall send a copy of the record to the Secretary of State, who shall lay it before each House of Parliament.

Now, we also have new clause 3, which deals with section 100 of the Local Government Act 1972—which is particularly well known, especially to anyone in local government. Section 100 enables openness in local government, and information to be given to the public and the press—which will disseminate the information to a wider public. As an hon. Member and as a journalist, I support both those objectives.

Section 100 is basically about the right to information in local government. One of our objections to the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill is that it will curtail section 100. The House requires a Second Reading debate on that Bill, so that the issue can be dealt with.

We support new clause 3 because of its effect on regional development agencies. If RDAs are to be appointed bodies—which they will be, at least for the lifetime of this Parliament—they should act openly. Their real responsibility should be not to the Secretary of State but to the public in the regions, which will require the maximum in openness, frankness and accessibility.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

Given Ministers' support for the principle of a freedom of information Bill, does my right hon. Friend think that it would be sensible for Ministers—in the spirit of openness, transparency and freedom of information—to accept new clause 3?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I rather hope that, like us, they will accept new clause 3. It would be perfectly sensible for them to do so. If Ministers were still in opposition and we were in government, they—like many Labour Back Benchers, I suspect—would be urging us to accept it. I very much hope that, in the spirit of openness, Ministers will sustain and accept our argument.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) made a serious point. Regional development agencies are bodies appointed not locally but by the Secretary of State, Whitehall and the Government. It is therefore incumbent upon the Government to make RDAs' proceedings as open to the public as possible. If they do not, not only accountability but openness in RDAs' proceedings will be denied.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Labour/Co-operative, Liverpool, Riverside

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have had a draconian change of mind. No public access was allowed to the quangos established by the previous Government, which were shrouded in great secrecy. I ask him directly—after his comments, with which I agree, on the importance of regional development agencies in serving the people of the regions—whether he would support direct elections either to the agencies or to the chambers that will hold those agencies to account.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

This discussion is going far beyond the scope of the new clause. We have already stated our opposition to the agencies. I am arguing that if we are to have agencies, which we clearly are, given the Government's majority, they should operate as openly as possible. The Government have made it clear that they will do nothing during this Parliament to alter the position. That enables us to monitor closely the agencies' success, which is what we shall do.

Amendments Nos. 29, 2 and 3 seek more definition from the Government of where the money for the agencies will come from. The fear that lies behind the amendments is that elected local authorities' resources will be top-sliced to finance the agencies, which should be separately and discretely budgeted. We are anxious to underline the primacy of local authorities in that respect. It would be wrong for local authorities, and therefore the public, to suffer because the RDAs were taking money away from them. That would disadvantage local people and the regions that the RDAs are meant to serve.

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Amendment No. 29 would ensure that, before RDAs set their budgets, they consulted their local authorities. Amendment No. 3 would ensure that no grants were made to RDAs in regions where the local authority's standard spending assessment had been reduced that year. The amendment is basically designed to protect the interests of local government, which the Bill threatens in any event. The work carried out by local government will be reduced if the agencies use resources that would otherwise be used by local government. This year, more than 80 local authorities are having their provision cut in cash terms, yet the Government are introducing a new layer of unelected quangos.

Photo of Dave Watts Dave Watts Labour, St Helens North

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, when he was in government, he supported top-slicing and quangos meeting outside the public gaze with no record of their meetings, but has now changed his mind on those issues?

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

This is a new proposition about which I am sceptical. If the hon. Gentleman wants to join us in voting against regional development agencies on Third Reading, I should be happy to see him in our Lobby. We are starting from the premise that the Government are introducing regional development agencies. I am never impressed by such an argument. Now that the Labour party is in government, it has perpetuated certain issues that it opposed when in opposition. For the past 18 years, we have not had regional development agencies—had we had them, the Bill would not have been necessary. We had a better system, which brought a record amount of inward investment into this country.

This discussion may go a little beyond the scope of the new clause and amendments. I am happy to continue it, or to return to the matter on Third Reading. Before the hon. Gentleman crows about RDAs, he should recognise the Conservative Government's tremendous achievement in bringing inward investment to this country.

The amendments aim to get clear guidance on the financing of the RDAs. Do the Government accept that RDAs should not be financed at the expense of local authorities? We are not the only ones to be interested in the answer to that question; local authorities and the general public are interested.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

I see consultation taking place on the Government Front Bench, so I shall give way to my hon. Friend and allow it to go ahead.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have been at pains to suggest that the RDAs would not simply take unto themselves the responsibilities of local authorities? Does not it follow that they should not take the money from local authorities? I presume that local authorities' responsibilities remain unchanged, and that their financial requirements therefore remain unchanged.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

That is exactly what I am trying to get a clear statement about on the Floor of the House. It is a matter of concern in local government and on the part of the general public. If the Minister can make a clear statement that under no circumstances will local government suffer financially and say precisely where the money will come from, everyone will be reassured. It is a double-barrelled question.

The amendments have two themes: first, the financing of the RDAs and the position of local authorities along the lines that my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) described; and, secondly, the arrangements for the openness of RDAs. Over the years, many people have taken tremendous steps in making local government more open, not least the noble Lady Thatcher when she introduced a series of reforms. We should like to see the spirit of that openness in regional development agencies.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

As a former joint chief executive of a regional development company, I have taken a great deal of interest in the Bill's progress through the House, although other commitments meant that I could not serve on the Standing Committee.

Although the Bill is not as far-reaching or radical as I or some members of the Government would have liked, it is a much-needed, solid piece of legislation, which will help to bring about a more strategic approach to economic development in England's regions, and it must be widely welcomed. Nobody who has seen the activities of Scottish Enterprise or the Welsh Development Agency in the past 20 years or more can deny the impact that they have had. In 20 years' time, people will find it unimaginable that the Conservative party could have opposed the establishment of regional development agencies in England.

In my region, the west midlands, all the leading business organisations, local authorities and voluntary organisations have warmly welcomed the Bill. We are now in the business of getting on with making the legislation a reality. Last month, we had a major conference, at which more than 300 organisations were represented. I am doing all I can to ensure that the west midlands has an effective regional development agency.

I share the sentiments behind new clause 3, as it is important that RDAs are seen to be open and accountable. However, I remind the House that RDAs will still have to conform to the code of practice for public bodies. I hope that a freedom of information Bill will be enacted later this year. Other means of accountability are stipulated in the Bill, particularly in clause 18.

I do not want RDAs to be transformed into the equivalent of local authority economic development sub-committees. They should be fleet-footed, commercial, entrepreneurial organisations. They need to be accountable, because they are spending public money, but there are sufficient safeguards in the Bill and the directions and guidelines that Ministers can offer.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the fact that a meeting is open to the public and the press will not stop those involved being fleet-footed and efficient in the conduct of their business? Will the Government's proposed legislation on freedom of information come into force before the RDAs are up and running?

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

The timing of Government legislation is not a matter for me. We are debating whether there should be a requirement in the Bill, or whether it should be left to RDAs and ministerial guidance. The latter is the preferable route.

The White Paper says on page 54 that some board meetings will be held in open session. It is clear from the White Paper and what was said in Committee that Ministers lay great emphasis on the need for partnership, accountability and consultation. I do not see the problem. Inserting a specific requirement in the Bill is overly restrictive. When they are up and running, RDAs will have a number of open meetings, including open board meetings, but they might also want to hold closed board meetings in which they deal with confidential business. The new clause would create barriers to that.

Photo of David Ruffley David Ruffley Conservative, Bury St Edmunds

How would the freedom of information Bill or the provisions set out in the White Paper deliver transparency and openness? The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that that legislation will take into account what we are asking for.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

The freedom of information Bill, the requirements in this Bill and the code of practice that public bodies must adhere to will provide sufficient accountability even for the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

Local authorities are also governed by legislation on openness for meetings. Would the hon. Gentleman be content with simple generalisations of good will for them, with only an aim for openness that was not governed by legislation?

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

That is a spurious question. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about completely different organisations. I have absolute confidence that Ministers will be extremely vigilant in ensuring that the public get the information they need on the operation of RDAs, bearing in mind the policy directions and guidance that are issued to other public bodies.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

Not at the moment. I have already given way three times, and the time available for debate is limited.

Liberal Democrat amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would require RDAs to have regard to regional planning guidance and local authority economic development plans. That is a statement of the obvious. It is almost the equivalent of saying that night follows day.

It is an insult to any economic development professional working for an RDA to remind them to take notice of local authorities or regional planning guidance. The Bill is based on partnership. The RDAs will work closely with other regional bodies and local authorities. The planning process will be iterative. I hope that RDAs will influence local authorities' planning processes, and perhaps local authorities will influence RDAs' planning processes.

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Conservative amendment No. 17 is similar. It would require a record of a public meeting following an annual report to be published and laid before Parliament. I hope that every RDA will adopt consultation procedures to keep Members of Parliament informed of its activities regularly. We might consider setting up regional Select Committees in the House.

The amendment is unnecessary, and misses the point, which is that we are decentralising. Accountability mechanisms should focus primarily on the regional and local level. I am sure that Members of Parliament will want to know what RDAs do.

The other four amendments relate to money. Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 also state the obvious. They would require an RDA to consult local authorities before setting its budget. We want a partnership approach. Of course local authorities will be consulted. We do not need such a requirement in the Bill.

Amendment No. 2 provides for the unlikely circumstance of an RDA producing a capital or revenue surplus, which a Minister decides should be transferred to the Government.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

In a minute. Let me explain to the hon. Gentleman what the Conservative amendment says. It says that a surplus of an RDA may be transferred—not back to the Government, which provided the money in the first place, but to local authorities.

That may be a convenient peg on which to hang the whinge of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) about local authorities, but it is bare-faced cheek for a party that spent 18 years trampling on the interests of local authorities to have the gall to say that any RDA surplus should go to local authorities. That is a pathetic attempt to show that the Conservatives are interested in local government when they clearly are not.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

Talking of pathetic attempts, the hon. Gentleman has talked about trusting the Minister and being sure that he will not do anything wrong. What is the point of having a Bill? Why do we not give complete power to the Minister? If no provisions should be added to the Bill, what is the point of the debate? What is the point of trying to protect people's freedom?

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of Parliament longer than me. I am sure that he knows that primary and secondary legislation and policy guidance and directions from Ministers are part of the way in which this country is governed.

It is our duty as Members of Parliament to scrutinise legislation. We must be confident that legislation is robust and transparent, and that it has proper mechanisms of accountability. That is true of the Bill as it stands. The hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting otherwise. The amendments merely state the obvious. They are wrecking amendments.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

Not at the moment.

Amendment No. 3 demands that the Government should not give RDAs any money if, for whatever reason, any standard spending assessment of any local authority has to be reduced. I understand the debating point behind the amendment, but I cannot imagine that, as a Minister, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield would ever have countenanced such legislation.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

I shall finish my point, and then I will gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman, if he persists.

SSAs could conceivably change over time for a number of reasons. There might be changes in SSA methodology or in local authority boundaries and responsibilities. To put such a requirement in the Bill would—

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

No, the issue is that such a requirement would shackle an RDA if any Government—this one or any subsequent one—changed the SSA funding formula or local authority boundaries and responsibilities. The whole basis of legislation for grant-aiding and funding RDAs would fall. That is obviously ridiculous.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

The hon. Gentleman's argument against the amendments comes down to one word: partnership. Does he not understand that there are circumstances in which the RDA may be in conflict with local authorities in its area? That is why we want to lay statutory duties on the RDA to consult on, for example, its budget. Does he not understand mat we want to do so because we want to regulate relationships between different statutory bodies?

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

It is quite true that RDAs may, from time to time, fall out with local authorities, just as local authorities, from time to time, fall out with each other. That does not mean that the requirement to consult, which will be in ministerial guidelines and is already in clause 18, or the code of practice for public bodies will suddenly disappear. There are sufficient mechanisms for consultation to reassure even the most sceptical Conservative Member.

In the west midlands, we have been competing head to head as a region with Baden-Wũrttemberg in Germany and Emilia-Romagna in Italy. In comparison, our gross domestic product per head has declined. They now have a 40 per cent. advantage over us. We stand at 90 per cent. of the EU regional average. That is not good enough; it is an appalling legacy of 18 years of Conservative neglect of the regions. This Government want to change that. I have no doubt that the Bill will play a major part in helping to narrow the gap between GDP in the west midlands and other English regions and our European competitors. I commend it to the House.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

If anyone else mentions an iterative process in this debate, I shall take an early recess. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] The Minister and I may be the only two people in the House who are not quite sure what it is. All I can say is that it is not much used in Yorkshire, and I hope that it will not become much used in the House. Management-speak has crept into the Chamber. Why does not the hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) say "discussion" instead of "iterative process", if that is what she means?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) was correct to raise the issue of local authority funding and its relationship with regional development agency funding. The RDAs, as such, will have very little money; the funding streams diverted to them are relatively small. Therefore, unless they are able to work as part of a broader strategy with local authorities, their impact will be quite minimal. It follows that there needs to be some stability in funding flows, from wherever they come.

There is a great deal of uncertainty at the moment about local authority funding, over both how and in what shape it will be delivered. We all know the basic facts about what is happening. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friends are right in saying that there has been a diversion of funding effectively towards northern metropolitan local authorities.

In fact, however, funding has been diverted from inner London as well. That is due to adjustment in economic factors and indicators for elderly residential care and social services. That has meant—we debated this in relation to the countryside—in North Yorkshire, for example, a 13.4 per cent. increase in band D council tax bills. If the Government raise the capping limit but do not provide the money to follow, as night follows day council taxes will increase.

Local government finance is very much at a watershed at the moment. The Government have issued a series of papers on the future of local government. Three more papers—a slightly ambitious trilogy—were published at the beginning of this week, the most important of which was about the future of funding and the Government's decision in practice to fund capping. They are proposing to make no change to SSA methodology for two years and to divert staff resources into a more fundamental view of the way forward in SSAs. That opens the way eventually for some quite radical changes in the way in which funding is directed toward local government, which are bound to have an effect on the way in which strategies can be delivered between local government and development agencies.

We are supposed to have regional chambers in order to monitor, work in partnership and keep an eye on RDAs. We will have a regional chamber in London if the people of London vote for a mayor and an authority. The Government say that, in future Parliaments—if they are still in a position to do so—they will introduce regional chambers elsewhere, but for the moment, such regional chambers will effectively be quangos at one remove from the electorate.

Two other Government policies are crucial. The first is that the Deputy Prime Minister wants us to develop on what we can no longer call brown-field sites—we must use some more euphemistic expression. If he is to be logical about that, he must recognise that it costs a great deal more to develop an inner-city brown-field site than a suburban or green-field site. There would be intellectual and financial logic in funding flows that reflect that increase, because it is bound to have an enormous impact on the relative distribution of funding in, for example, Yorkshire, Humberside and the north-east in comparison with the south-west, simply due to the geographical positions of those regions.

The second policy concerns the fact that the Government, like their predecessors, have spent much time trying to solve the riddle of the area cost adjustment. If they were to do so, it would have a significant impact on where money is directed in local government. It would, for example, cause a tremendous cut in resources—I use the word "resources" although I prefer the word "money" because it is more direct—going to Cornwall, which would be a major sufferer. That would impact on the ability to deliver the regeneration programmes of the partnerships about which we are talking. The degree to which RDA spending and local government complement one another is important.

The pattern of local government expenditure in the shires is fairly consistent. Local authorities tend to underspend on highways, which is, after all, quite an important development matter, but tend to spend above their SSA on education, simply because many choose that as a priority. Many of us would not quarrel with that.

In addition, there is not only a review of local government expenditure and a review of regeneration policy expenditure—the Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning, who is in charge of that, is no longer in the Chamber—but a fundamental spending review. That review will have an impact on the funding available for other parts of local authority expenditure that, although they do not flow through the revenue support grant, are none the less crucial to regeneration and to the broader development process. Housing expenditure, including funding for the housing benefit system, is one example.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield is therefore correct to say that one cannot discuss the development agencies in their own right as autonomous bodies, without reference to their immediate hinterland in terms of governmental and financial institutions. They must work under a common strategy, yet there is much uncertainty associated with local authority funding now, and a real possibility of quite a radical change.

There may well be justification for a change; I do not condemn it in advance. There may be a good argument for redirecting the flows of local authority funding. However, the regional development agencies would then be set up on a foundation that could begin to change almost immediately they were established. The House needs to take note of that possibility, and I am grateful to my right hoh. Friend for tabling an amendment that has enabled us to do so.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar 6:30 pm, 1st April 1998

The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) made an interesting speech. At a certain stage of our political careers we all go through a toady phase—although I would like to think that even when I was going through mine I would not have made such a speech. I do not mean that rudely, but the hon. Gentleman would have been wise to duck out of the Tea Room when the Whips were looking around for a Labour Member to make a speech.

The hon. Gentleman's arguments were the same as those that were used to support the idea that local authority and health authority meetings should not be open to the public. The essence of the argument is, "Trust the Minister; he will do no harm," but I do not favour that argument. [Interruption.] I see that my Whip is leaving the Chamber.

There is much criticism in the press these days about the role of the Chamber and the new presidential style of government. People say that the House of Commons does not matter any more. If the House is to mean anything, we must be able to hold the Executive to account. Therefore, we must be able to put things on the face of the Bill.

We should not start from the proposition that we may occasionally have the odd open board meeting, with members of the public being brought in, given a cup of tea and allowed to sit down and listen to our deliberations, like an open day at a hospital or school. It is not acceptable to say that we can take care of the democratic deficit in that way. We should not start from the idea of holding meetings in secret but with certain exceptions, when meetings will be held openly. We should turn the argument around and say that meetings will be open to the public unless there is a compelling reason why people cannot observe them.

What could those compelling reasons be? Commercial confidentiality is obviously one, but a sensible authority could organise business so that the discussion about economic regeneration would be held in public, while the names of the firms were kept private. What other reason could there be? There could be a need to protect the rights of individuals and to keep confidential information private—but in a sensible process, that too could be planned for, so that the substantial discussion could take place in public, and private matters concerning individuals would be dealt with in private.

A few years ago, when I was a councillor, I, with others, started the experiments that eventually led the Government to legislate on opening our deliberations to the public. Now there is a tendency for local authorities to rest on their laurels and to try to ensure that, as well as the official power structure through the committees, there is another power structure inside local authorities.

Most people looking at the structure of a council would see the full council on the top, with the various committees and sub-committees underneath. Section 100 of the Local Government Act 1972 provides that members of the public can almost always attend the sub-committees, the committees and the full council. As my right hon. Friend said, one of our concerns about the experimental local government arrangements is that they will deny the public access to deliberations.

However, inside local authorities, as is the case inside most political parties, there exists an informal power structure whereby, by the time matters arrive at a sub-committee, they are already determined and set in concrete, so the sub-committee has no chance of making a substantial change. We believe that it is time to open up regional development agencies and local authorities to ensure that the public have access to wherever the informal discussions take place.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's proposals for modernising local government, with the talk of Cabinet government and of different structures of government, may, depending on how they are managed, tend towards more closed government rather than more open government?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

My right hon. Friend is right. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said that we should have a Second Reading debate on the Local Government (Experimental Arrangements) Bill, so that such matters could be discussed on the Floor of the House as a matter of principle.

Photo of Doug Naysmith Doug Naysmith Labour/Co-operative, Bristol North West

I agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about opening up meetings and open government, but as he mentioned health authorities, may I ask him whether he protested when a previous Government introduced changes into the health service that had the effect of closing meetings of health authorities and trusts?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

Yes, I did. That is a matter of public record; I have a record of supporting freedom of information, and I believe that it is important. Just because a Conservative Government had approved something, I would not stand up when we were in government and say, "Trust the Minister; he is a nice person; he will do nothing wrong." That essentially is the argument that Labour Members have advanced.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

My hon. Friend did not have, as I had, the privilege and honour of serving on the Standing Committee. Is he aware that the Government originally took a different position on some parts of the Bill? Is not the fact that Ministers and the Government have changed their minds on key clauses a prime reason to ask why on earth, if they cannot make up their minds and settle on a policy while the Bill is in the process of going through Parliament, we should trust such a Minister?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

My hon. Friend is right. We cannot rely on individual Ministers' discretion to look after everything. There are individual rights. After all, the Government are about to legislate on the declaration of human rights. If they do not think it important to enshrine rights in law, perhaps we should simply go back to the proposition supported by the hon. Member for Dudley, South, and simply trust the Government.

Photo of David Clelland David Clelland Assistant Whip

Why not table an amendment to that effect?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

As the Whip, from a sedentary position, says, no doubt the Government would welcome an amendment to that effect. Every clause would simply say, "This House unreservedly trusts the Government to do the right thing." There would be no scrutiny and no consideration of individual rights.

Yet contained within the Bill are immense powers over economic affairs, and powers to take away individuals' property. Those powers should be out in the public domain. Public bodies should be open. We are setting up what will probably be the most powerful quangos ever set up by the House, yet essentially they will be poodles of the Secretary of State. Moreover, we shall soon see regional assemblies that are also poodles of the Secretary of State.

Photo of Mr Stephen Day Mr Stephen Day Conservative, Cheadle

My hon. Friend has hit upon an important point, closely bound up with the new clause. The truth about the Bill, which came through to me strongly in Committee, is that, rather than being based on the idea of creating new development in different areas, it is an excuse for foisting regional government on this country. The Bill is a blind, designed to hide the facts from the people of this country. Is that not what it is all about?

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

After the sensible decision to remove the planning powers and some of the provisions on employment and education, little is left in the Bill—the measures will have to operate through other players. All that is left is a form of regional government.

Photo of David Curry David Curry Conservative, Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend suggested that the RDAs would be mighty quangos, but I suggest that he has not read the proposals for the Food Standards Agency. If he were looking for a position of real power, he might choose to serve on that body.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

My right hon. Friend is right to tick me off. As soon as the debate is through, I shall read up on the Food Standards Agency—perhaps he will spend some time taking me through the major points. I shall rephrase what I said: the RDAs are the most powerful quangos of which I was aware. However, I do not think that it matters whether they are the most powerful or the second most powerful—they are still powerful.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) made a particularly important point about the appointment of members to the agencies—that they will rely on the Secretary of State's good will. If elected councillors who are members of the agency are defeated at an election, they can remain as members.

I have some experience of such situations; regardless of how diligent or conscientious councillors are, their primary purpose in serving on a board—to represent their electors or their authority—disappears when they lose an election. I believe that a defeated councillor should step down. It is ridiculous to trust the Minister to decide whether such a person should remain in power.

Open government is also important in this instance, because we are establishing new quangos. RDAs should be set up on the basis of good principles—on the presumption that their meetings will be open to the public. As we are starting something, we should at least get it right.

The relationship between economic regeneration and planning will be anomalous. The various planning conferences will, we are told, have a much longer planning horizon than the RDAs—they will have to look 10 to 20 years ahead. The RDAs will operate under them, and the local authorities will operate more practically under the RDAs. If the regional planning and local authority meetings are open, why should RDA meetings, which lie in the middle, be held in secret, especially as RDAs will have enormous powers over individuals in terms of compulsory purchase and land assembly?

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield said, we should also be clear where the money will come from. I think that top slicing has already occurred; the money for shire and district authorities has been reduced. I hope that the Government will accept new clause 3, to ensure that the RDAs are put on a proper democratic footing.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

I want to deal with some of the points made by Labour Members about openness. The hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor) said that Conservative Members' concerns about the Bill were belated. As a new Member of Parliament, my concern is not belated—I have a genuine concern for the present and for the future.

My constituency will be part of the new West Midlands regional development agency, but I have not detected unmitigated public enthusiasm for the new body. As a participant in the West Midlands Regional Economic Consortium, which has acted almost as a precursor to the RDA, I have seen evidence that has given me real grounds for concern.

6.45 pm

I draw the attention of the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) to a document produced by the WMREC, which illustrates the source of my concern. The document is an interpretation of the integrated transport system—another Government initiative—in our region. It concludes that the need for improved rural transport in the west midlands is of "lesser concern". I represent a constituency with a mix of rural and urban areas, so that gives me great concern about what will happen when decisions pass to the regional tier and the rural interest is diluted by the majority concern of the urban areas.

The document also expresses the WMREC's support for the expansion of Birmingham International airport. My constituency is part of the Solihull borough, in which the airport also falls. The hon. Member for Dudley, South will perhaps know that the carefully drawn development plans for the airport—which I concede is of regional significance—were born of hard-won negotiation about the erosion of the green belt. I know that the Solihull local government representatives are greatly concerned that their minority view will be subsumed under the urban-dominated RDA.

Photo of Ian Pearson Ian Pearson Labour, Dudley South

The hon. Lady has set a number of hares running, and I think that I should correct her on some points. First, the West Midlands Regional Economic Consortium is committed to ensuring that the integrated transport system has an effective rural dimension; indeed, it flagged it up as an issue on which to lobby. It also wanted the RDA to be stronger. Proposals for Birmingham International airport have gone, and will always go, through the usual planning process. The WMREC identified nothing in the Bill that would change that in any way.

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

The meeting about the airport was an important guide to where the priorities lie. My constituents and the Solihull local government officers fear that they will have a minority voice in an urban-dominated RDA; nothing that I have heard has allayed my present and future concerns.

That is why I strongly endorse the new clause, which would formalise a process of consultation, which is one of the only securities that elected officers in local government have at present to ensure that the views of the local community that they represent are adequately taken account of by the new RDA.

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

Would my hon. Friend be happy for deliberations on priorities for local areas to be held behind closed doors, or would she prefer to ensure that her electors can hear the discussions?

Photo of Caroline Spelman Caroline Spelman Conservative, Meriden

I am grateful for that intervention, because I have grave concerns about the lack of openness in creating a powerful quango comprising a board of 12 members including, as the Secretary of State assures us, only one representative to take account of rural interests. That quango, meeting in camera, will have to respond adequately to the proper democratic process, which can be expressed only at the ballot box.

As the legislation stands, the only way in which my constituents can manifest their concerns about the newly created quangos is indirectly, through local government and parliamentary elections. The Bill does not ensure adequate accountability so that the views of my constituents and others in the borough will be taken into account in extremely important decisions.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley Conservative, South Cambridgeshire

Sometimes, when a group of amendments is under consideration, one singles out one and commends it, while perhaps damning the others with faint praise, but this is not such an occasion, because the new clause and the amendments would all, in their various ways, improve the Bill.

I intend to be brief, because we have heard no coherent argument from Government Members against the propositions severally advanced in the new clause and the amendments, so we must give the Minister time to accept them, or to explain more cogently she he should not do so.

We all know that there are circumstances in which non-departmental public bodies have to exercise their functions without full public accessibility, and the same will no doubt apply to regional development agencies. I know from personal experience at the Department of Trade and Industry that it would be impossible to undertake the necessary negotiations on inward investment, for example, in a publicly accessible body.

There will certainly be circumstances, however, in which the agency does not undertake an executive or administrative task, for which policy is established by others, but is itself a policy-making body, establishing what may be a more significant policy for its region than some of those determined in county council chambers, which are rightly open to the public. The desire for an agency's meetings to be accessible to the public is entirely consistent with that.

When an agency is formulating its strategy, we should not simply rest on clause 7 and the guidance to be issued by Ministers, but set that alongside the views of local authorities as expressed in their development plans. There is an inherent danger that the guidance offered by the Secretary of State will be strategic and of general application, whereas in many instances it will have to be implemented alongside the specific considerations of individual districts or even smaller areas, as laid out in development plans.

For example, regional development agencies will often want to bring specific projects to their region and they may do that by designating in their strategy certain areas where it would be desirable for such projects to go. It would be inherently undesirable for an agency to specify a project that it wants to attract, and to designate some areas where that project should go, in pursuance of departmental guidance but in contradiction to some of the underlying principles either of the regional planning guidance or, more particularly, of local development plans.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning may shake his head and say that that will not happen, but we will go on to debate some of the issues, and I suspect that there will be circumstances in which the regional development agency tries to pre-empt the local authority's development plans and impose some of its own strategic ideas. It would be much better for the agency's intentions to take explicit account of the local authority's democratically determined development plans.

If the regional development agency is to pursue functions that are additional to those of local authorities and to add value—the Local Government Association questioned whether it would add value, and I confess to being sceptical on the subject—it should do so on the back of a budget that does not detract from the value of local authority activities.

The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) spoke about the difficulties of standard spending assessment methodology, but that is not a great problem. It is a requirement laid on the Government to compare SSAs on an equitable basis, year on year. In counties and shire districts such as South Cambridgeshire, where the SSA has been reduced by £350,000, reductions have taken place even when the demands laid on the local authority have increased.

My constituents may well wonder of what value it is to them to have their services cut to provide money for a regional development agency that will simply devise strategies and leave it to the local authority to try to implement them. They would regard that as unacceptable. New clause 3 would, quite rightly, lay on the Government an obligation not to proceed down that path and set budgets for regional development agencies while undermining local authorities by cutting their grant.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

We have had an interesting debate about the accountability and openness of regional development agencies and their relationship with local authorities, and about local authority lead strategies, including planning guidelines. There has been some confusion between economic and land use planning, which are entirely distinct and have different systems attached to them.

It is important for the Government to get the balance right between the devolutionary principles that lie behind the Bill—taking powers down to the regions—and turning round and being terribly prescriptive about how the powers are used. We do not want to resort to the bad old ways and be over-prescriptive about how the devolved powers are used. We had many interesting discussions about that in Committee.

The Government are as keen as ever to move quickly to implement our manifesto commitments on the regional agenda in England. We know that the interests of the English regions have been neglected for too long and we aim to reverse that neglect. Our first step is to establish regional development agencies to provide for effective co-ordination of economic development and social regeneration, in partnership with local organisations.

Some Conservative Members have wrongly suggested that we want to convert regional development agencies into a form of local authority. They are economic development agencies, with the five core aims that are set out in clause 4. They are similar to Scottish Enterprise and the Welsh Development Agency, and I did not hear the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), when his party was in government, complaining that the meetings of those bodies were not open to the public. He must not mix up local authorities with what are essentially economic development agencies. Later, I shall explain how the Bill gives far more provision for openness than any Bill before it.

7 pm

Photo of Eric Pickles Eric Pickles Conservative, Brentwood and Ongar

If the Scottish and Welsh bodies had had any effect on Essex, I would have taken enormous interest in them being open to the public. The Minister seems to believe that some RDA meetings should be open. Will she define which should be open and which should not?

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

We do not want to be too prescriptive at a national level, but I shall come to that in due course.

RDAs and their links with regional chambers, and our proposals for reform of the regional planning process are a first step in an evolutionary process which will lead to the English regions being able to choose a greater measure of decentralisation.

There is a lot that we believe we can do now within the present democratic structures to build up the voice of the regions by building on the informal structures that the regions themselves are setting up. Local authorities are already coming together with businesses and other partners to form regional chambers to create a more integrated regional voice. Progress is being made in all regions. Only last week, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was present at the launch of a regional chamber in Yorkshire and the Humber.

RDAs will be required to take full account of regional interests. Organisations representing such interests—and, above all, the democratically elected local authorities— can expect to contribute to the work of the RDA. We intend that regional chambers should provide a mechanism for meaningful consultation.

The Bill provides a framework within which the RDA will have regard to views expressed by the chamber in the formulation and review of its economic strategy, and it will allow the RDA to consult the chamber on the exercise of its other functions, to provide information, to answer questions and to give an account of itself to the chamber. This, we believe, will give the chamber not only a powerful voice in the regions, but influence over the work of the RDA itself. Chambers provide a mechanism for the representatives of local government—who will be in the majority in the chamber—to exercise this influence.

The hon. Member for Taunton (Mrs. Ballard) mentioned that the Secretary of State for Health recently announced that health authority meetings were to be in public. He did not do that by putting it in a Bill in primary legislation—he merely announced it. This is what we are doing with the RDAs.

Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 would place a requirement in the Bill for the RDAs to have regard to regional planning guidance, which we propose will still be within a local authority framework. There has been some misunderstanding that somehow RDAs will have direct planning powers. By removing clauses 24 to 27, we have taken all planning powers away from RDAs. They do not have those powers, which rest with the democratically elected local authorities—where they will stay.

One might have gained the impression from listening to some of tonight's speeches that, somehow, RDAs could run roughshod over local authorities and proceed without planning permission. That is not the case. They will need planning permission for any regeneration project. The hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar went on about this, but his Government's record in this matter was not ausplcious. The urban development corporations had planning powers, were not open to the public and were anti-democratic. They were a creation of the previous Government.

One of the core functions of the RDAs will be to develop and implement a regional strategy in relation to its five purposes, and clause 7 provides for this. In many respects, this process of developing and implementing their regional strategies will be the main role of RDAs. Although there has been much good economic work done in our regions for many years—such as the development of regional competitiveness strategies—no one body has been charged with pulling together all the various strands, co-ordinating, in a way that commands consensus across the whole region, the effort that people are devoting to economic development initiatives. We want the RDAs to do this.

It will be essential that there is a close relationship between the RDAs' regional strategies and other strategic work at the regional level, including regional planning guidance, which sets the regional strategic framework development plans.

Regional planning guidance and the RDAs' strategies will clearly have to be related, but they have different purposes. It is important that the messages of both are compatible and consistent. However, the relationship will not be hierarchical. RDAs' regional strategies will have to have due regard to regional planning guidance. That is the structure within which they will work.

In turn, through the work and the advice they will be able to give, RDAs will have a vital input in the review of regional planning guidance. It is right that the planning framework should remain in the democratic process— where it will stay—but it would not be sensible for RPG, approved by the Secretary of State, to ignore the economic needs of a region as identified in the regional strategy. Thus, integration of these two areas of work is vital, but neither will have predominant importance. They will be parallel and complementary regimes. Those developing strategic thinking will need, on both sides, to have regard to the views and needs of the other—a slightly different way of working, but one which we believe will be more effective.

The relationship between RPG and the RDAs' regional strategies is an important one to get right. I understand the concern that has been expressed that, in the absence of a formal hierarchical arrangement, there is a danger that the two strategic documents will not be consistently drawn up. However, as in the case of the other areas in which the work of the RDA will have to take account of national policies—such as skills policies—it will be open to us to give guidance or directions to RDAs, if needed, about how they should take account of RPG in developing their regional economic strategies.

I should point out that we have not put a specific list in clause 7 about matters to which RDAs should have regard in drawing up their regional strategies. We do not want to do this; however lengthy and wide-ranging the list might be, it could limit flexibility to respond to new policy developments. This is a matter that we can deal with through subsection (2), which allows for the Secretary of State to give guidance and directions if necessary.

Amendment No. 21 refers to the relationship between the RDAs' regional strategies and local development plans. We do not believe that it is necessary to have a statutory requirement for RDAs to have regard to local development plans in devising their regional strategies.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions)

I have hardly any time left, and I want to deal with all the amendments if I can.

At present, a local planning authority is required by statute to have regard to the local development plan and decisions are to be made in accordance with the plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise". The RDA, like any developer, will have to apply for planning permission as appropriate. It follows that an RDA will not only have regard to local development plans; it will have to comply with them if its economic strategy is to succeed. Amendments Nos. 20 and 21 are unnecessary, as the provisions that they propose are either already in place, or will be covered better by guidance.

Amendment No. 29 would place a new duty on RDAs to produce an annual budget and to consult local authorities on it. This amendment is unnecessary. As non-departmental public bodies, RDAs will be required to produce a corporate plan which will be agreed by the Government. The annual budget will be presented to Parliament in the Department's annual report and will be monitored by Ministers.

We must not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, the corporate plan is a working document between central Government—who will be providing the RDA with its funds—and the RDA. It is therefore a document that will primarily be a matter for them to determine. None the less, the corporate plan will reflect the RDA's economic strategy, which will be determined by the RDA in full consultation with the region and the chamber.

The Bill provides a framework within which we expect the RDA to consult the regional chamber on its corporate plan. We do not propose to extend this to local authorities in the area, as it is our intention that those authorities, along with other regional partners, will be represented— indeed, predominant—in the chamber. If, however, it became apparent that a suitable chamber was not to be established, we could issue guidance and directions on the RDAs' consultation with regional interests—including local authorities—on both its corporate plan and economic strategy.

Amendment No. 30, which is consequential upon amendment No. 29, is also unnecessary.

Clause 9 allows the Secretary of State to set the financial duties of the RDAs and to recover surplus money from RDAs. The same power is available to the Secretary of State in respect of English Partnerships— again, Conservative legislation—but it has never been used. I hope that the power in clause 9(4) as drafted would also not need to be used in respect of RDAs.

RDAs will be non-departmental public bodies, which normally receive grant in aid from the Government each month to ensure that they do not carry large amounts of public funds at the start of the year which the Government could use for other purposes, and that public funds are used in the most efficient way. Despite that, however, a body could still acquire surplus funds, if, for example, a large project was delayed or more receipts than expected were collected. In such circumstances, the most efficient use of funds is to return them to the centre to be used for other programmes.

Amendment No. 2 would require surplus funds to be paid to the region's local authorities, which is simply not appropriate. RDAs will receive funding from central Government, and it is right and proper that it be repaid to the Government if it is not used.

Clause 10 enables the Secretary of State, with the approval of the Treasury, to pay RDAs grant in aid, which will be their main source of income.

Amendment No. 3 would provide that the Secretary of State could not pay grant in aid to an RDA if the standard spending assessment of a local authority in the region had been or was proposed to be reduced. The hon. Member for Taunton perhaps seeks an assurance that we shall not reduce central Government funding for local authorities to increase the budgets of RDAs. We are happy to give such an assurance. Local authority funding is a separate issue: RDA funding comes from the single regeneration budget, from the budget for English Partnerships, and from the budget for the Rural Development Commission. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) should not confuse them.

Unlike the previous Government, we are only too pleased to give assurances to local government. The budgets of RDAs will, like the programmes, be inherited from Government offices for the regions; they will not come from funding for local government. A standard spending assessment is the Government's view of net revenue expenditure which it is appropriate for a local authority to incur to provide service consistent with that across all local authorities. It is calculated by formulae which use objective measures. The amendment would mean that no funding would be paid if SSAs went down because of population change, which would cause anarchy. I am surprised that the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield is suggesting anarchy—but times are strange.

New clause 3 and amendment No. 17 cover the openness with which RDAs should operate. The Government want greater openness, better accountability and improved effectiveness in the conduct of the business of non-departmental public bodies, as we made clear in our consultation paper "Opening up Quangos"—we want RDAs to lead the way. We have also published our proposals for ending secrecy surrounding government in our White Paper, "Your Right to Know".

We are sympathetic to the intention behind new clause 3, but it is not appropriate for it to be in the Bill. The matter will be dealt with in the usual way by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, and our proposed freedom of information Bill will apply to all legislation. We shall also issue guidance saying that RDAs should be as open as possible—we hope and expect that they will be—but we shall not put that in the Bill.

Photo of Mrs Jackie Ballard Mrs Jackie Ballard Liberal Democrat, Taunton

This has been an interesting debate. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), it could even be described as an iterative process.

Liberal Democrat Members welcome the support of the official Opposition, who have said that they shall vote in the same Lobby as us on new clause 3. I shall be careful to make my points without upsetting them so much that they do not join us, but the road to Damascus has been incredibly busy recently.

In government, the Conservatives set up many non-departmental public bodies, or quangos, which were not accountable to local people and did not have to meet in public. My local training and enterprise council has placed the minutes of its meetings in public libraries and sent them to local people such as the Member of Parliament only since the change of Government, although it still does not meet in public.

Although we are delighted to accept the support of Conservative Members on new clause 3, we are most disappointed that the Conservative party and the Labour party have swapped sides on this issue. We had hoped for better from a Government who say that they are committed to openness and democracy. We should have anticipated the Under-Secretary saying, "The Government are sympathetic to new clause 3, but."

The hon. Member for Dudley, South (Mr. Pearson) mentioned reasons for not including certain matters in the Bill, which boiled down to something being blindingly obvious or too restrictive. In an idle moment, I studied the Bill. Clause 14 states: A regional development agency shall—keep proper accounts". I would have thought that that was blindingly obvious.

I must wrap up, so I shall be brief. New clause 3 would put RDAs in the same category as other public bodies with respect to admission to meetings, and in the same category as local authorities with respect to openness of proceedings, which would have to take place in public unless commercial or confidential matters were being discussed.

I am disappointed that the Government are unable to accept a simple new clause on openness and democracy, and I hope that some Labour Members will change their minds at the last minute and join us in the Lobby.

It being fifteen minutes past Seven o'clock, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order [27 March] and the Resolution [this day], put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 163, Noes 283.

Division No. 241][7.15 pm
AYES
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Brady, Graham
Allan, RichardBrake, Tom
Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelBrazier, Julian
Arbuthnot, JamesBreed, Colin
Ashdown, Rt Hon PaddyBrooke, Rt Hon Peter
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Browning, Mrs Angela
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Baker, NormanBruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Ballard, Mrs JackieBurnett, John
Beith, Rt Hon A JBurns, Simon
Bercow, JohnBurstow, Paul
Beresford, Sir PaulButterfill, John
Blunt, CrispinCable, Dr Vincent
Body, Sir RichardCash, William
Boswell, TimChapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)
Chidgey, DavidLuff, Peter
Chope, ChristopherMacGregor, Rt Hon John
Clappison, JamesMcIntosh, Miss Anne
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)MacKay, Andrew
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Maclean, Rt Hon David
Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Clifton-Brown, GeoffreyMcLoughlin, Patrick
Collins, TimMaples, John
Colvin, MichaelMates, Michael
Cormack, Sir PatrickMaude, Rt Hon Francis
Cotter, BrianMawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Cran, JamesMay, Mrs Theresa
Curry, Rt Hon DavidMichie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Davey, Edward (Kingston)Moore, Michael
Davies, Quentin (Grantham)Moss, Malcolm
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Nicholls, Patrick
Day, StephenNorman, Archie
Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenOaten, Mark
Duncan, AlanÖpik, Lembit
Duncan Smith, IainOttaway, Richard
Evans, NigelPage, Richard
Faber, DavidPaice, James
Fabricant, MichaelPickles, Eric
Fallon, MichaelRandall, John
Fearn, RonnieRedwood, Rt Hon John
Flight, HowardRendel, David
Forth, Rt Hon EricRobathan, Andrew
Foster, Don (Bath)Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanRoss, William (E Lond'y)
Fox, Dr LiamRowe, Andrew (Faversham)
Gale, RogerRuffley, David
George, Andrew (St Ives)Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Gibb, NickSt Aubyn, Nick
Gill, ChristopherSanders, Adrian
Gillan, Mrs CherylShephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Gorman, Mrs TeresaShepherd, Richard
Gray, JamesSimpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)
Greenway, JohnSmith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Grieve, DominicSoames, Nicholas
Hague, Rt Hon WilliamSpelman, Mrs Caroline
Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir ArchieSpicer, Sir Michael
Hammond, PhilipSpring, Richard
Harris, Dr EvanSteen, Anthony
Harvey, NickSwayne, Desmond
Hawkins, NickSyms, Robert
Hayes, JohnTapsell, Sir Peter
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Heald, OliverTaylor, John M (Solihull)
Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon DavidTaylor, Matthew (Truro)
Horam, JohnTownend, John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)Tredinnick, David
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)Trend, Michael
Hunter, AndrewTyler, Paul
Jackson, Robert (Wantage)Tyrie, Andrew
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)Wallace, James
Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)Walter, Robert
Key, RobertWardle, Charles
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)Webb, Steve
Kirkbride, Miss JulieWiddecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Kirkwood, ArchyWilletts, David
Laing, Mrs EleanorWillis, Phil
Lait, Mrs JacquiWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Lansley, AndrewWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Letwin, OliverWoodward, Shaun
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)Yeo, Tim
Lidington, David
Lilley, Rt Hon PeterTellers for the Ayes:
Livsey, RichardMr. Andrew Stunell and
Loughton, TimMr. Donald Gorrie.
NOES
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Armstrong, Ms Hilary
Anger, NickAshton, Joe
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)Atherton, Ms Candy
Alexander, DouglasAtkins, Charlotte
Allen, GrahamAustin, John
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Banks, Tony
Barnes, HarryFisher, Mark
Battle, JohnFitzpatrick, Jim
Bayley, HughFitzsimons, Lorna
Beard, NigelFlint, Caroline
Begg, Miss AnneFlynn, Paul
Benn, Rt Hon TonyFollett, Barbara
Bennett, Andrew FFoster, Rt Hon Derek
Bermingham, GeraldFoster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
Blackman, LizFyfe, Maria
Blears, Ms HazelGalloway, George
Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidGardiner, Barry
Boateng, PaulGerrard, Neil
Bradley, Keith (Withington)Gibson, Dr Ian
Bradshaw, BenGilroy, Mrs Linda
Brinton, Mrs HelenGodman, Dr Norman A
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Godsiff, Roger
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)Goggins, Paul
Browne, DesmondGolding, Mrs Llin
Buck, Ms KarenGordon, Mrs Eileen
Byers, StephenGrant, Bernie
Caborn, RichardGriffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Campbell-Savours, DaleGrocott, Bruce
Canavan, DennisGrogan, John
Cann, JamieHain, Peter
Caplin, IvorHall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Casale, RogerHall, Patrick (Bedford)
Caton, MartinHamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)Hanson, David
Chisholm, MalcolmHealey, John
Church, Ms JudithHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
Clapham, MichaelHepburn, Stephen
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Heppell, John
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)Hesford, Stephen
Hinchliffe, David
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Hodge, Ms Margaret
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hoey, Kate
Clelland, DavidHome Robertson, John
Clwyd, AnnHoon, Geoffrey
Coaker, VernonHope, Phil
Coffey, Ms AnnHowarth, Alan (Newport E)
Cohen, HarryHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
Coleman, IainHowells, Dr Kim
Connarty, MichaelHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Cooper, YvetteHumble, Mrs Joan
Corbyn, JeremyHurst, Alan
Corston, Ms JeanHutton, John
Cranston, RossIddon, Dr Brian
Crausby, DavidJackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Jamieson, David
Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Jenkins, Brian
Cummings, JohnJohnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Cunliffe, Lawrence
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)
Darling, Rt Hon AlistairJones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)
Davidson, IanJones, Helen (Warrington N)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)Jones, Ms Jenny
Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)(Wolverh'ton SW)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)
Dawson, HiltonJones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Dean, Mrs JanetKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Denham, JohnKeen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)
Donohoe, Brian HKelly, Ms Ruth
Doran, FrankKennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Dowd, JimKhabra, Piara S
Drew, DavidKidney, David
Drown, Ms JuliaKilfoyle, Peter
Dunwoody, Mrs GwynethKing, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)
Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)Kingham, Ms Tess
Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)Kumar, Dr Ashok
Edwards, HuwLadyman, Dr Stephen
Efford, CliveLawrence, Ms Jackie
Ellman, Mrs LouiseLaxton, Bob
Field, Rt Hon Frank Lepper, David
Leslie, ChristopherRuane, Chris
Levitt, TomRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Lewis, Terry (Worsley)Salter, Martin
Liddell, Mrs HelenSavidge, Malcolm
Linton, MartinSawford, Phil
Livingstone, KenSedgemore, Brian
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)Shaw, Jonathan
Love, AndrewSheerman, Barry
McAllion, JohnSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
McAvoy, ThomasSimpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McCabe, SteveSkinner, Dennis
McCafferty, Ms ChrisSmith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)
McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McDonagh, SiobhainSmith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
McIsaac, ShonaSoley, Clive
McNulty, TonySouthworth, Ms Helen
McWalter, TonyStarkey, Dr Phyllis
McWilliam, JohnSteinberg, Gerry
Mallaber, JudyStevenson, George
Marshall, David (Shettleston)Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Stinchcombe, Paul
Marshall-Andrews, RobertStoate, Dr Howard
Martlew, EricStott, Roger
Maxton, JohnStrang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin
Meale, AlanStringer, Graham
Merron, GillianStuart, Ms Gisela
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Miller, Andrew
Mitchell, AustinTaylor, David (NW Leics)
Moffatt, LauraThomas, Gareth (Clwyd W)
Moonie, Dr LewisTimms, Stephen
Moran, Ms MargaretTipping, Paddy
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)Todd, Mark
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)Touhig, Don
Morley, ElliotTrickett, Jon
Mudie, GeorgeTruswell, Paul
Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
Naysmith, Dr DougTwigg, Derek (Halton)
Norris, DanTwigg, Stephen (Enfield)
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)Vaz, Keith
O'Neill, MartinVis, Dr Rudi
Osborne, Ms SandraWalley, Ms Joan
Palmer, Dr NickWard, Ms Claire
Pearson, IanWatts, David
Pendry, TomWhite, Brian
Perham, Ms LindaWhitehead, Dr Alan
Pickthall, ColinWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Pike, Peter L
Pond, ChrisWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Pope, GregWilliams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
Pound, StephenWills, Michael
Powell, Sir RaymondWilson, Brian
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)Winnick, David
Prosser, GwynWinterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Purchase, KenWise, Audrey
Quin, Ms JoyceWoolas, Phil
Radice, GilesWray, James
Rapson, SydWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
Raynsford, NickWyatt, Derek
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Robinson, Geoffrey (Covt'ry NW)Tellers for the Noes:
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)Mr. Clive Betts and
Roy, FrankMr. John McFall.

Question accordingly negatived.