The amendment would abolish the Regional Affairs Committee. Colleagues could be excused for not knowing that there was one. Standing Orders require one to be established, but the Government have not done so in this Parliament. Week after week at meetings of the Committee of Selection, we wait for the Government to propose members of the Committee, yet nothing happens. The Government clearly must feel that the Committee serves no useful purpose, so I hope that they will accept the amendment.
"We believe that such a forum will add usefully to the procedures of the House".—[ Hansard, 11 April 2000; Vol. 367, c. 295.]
The Committee has been so useful that it has not met since April 2003, which indicates that it is a wholly dispensable part of our constitution. The amendment would simply put it out of its misery.
That is relevant to today's debate, because it shows that the Government have form in coming up with the wrong answer to the regional question. We told the Government eight years ago that it would not work. In a powerful speech, the then shadow Leader of the House—me—said that the Government had come up with the wrong answer. That debate ended in the small hours of the morning of
"Consideration of changes to the way the House of Commons operates is ultimately a matter for the House itself".
However, if we turn to page 42 of the Modernisation Committee report, what do we find? It states:
"Draft Report (Regional Accountability), proposed by the Chairman, brought up and read."
Who is the Chairman? The Leader of the House is the Chairman. We can see on page 52 that the Committee tied, and that the Chairman declared herself for the Ayes. That does not strike me as leaving the matter to the House to decide. Rather, it strikes me as the Government obliging the House to accept something that it does not want.
We then have the ultimate of absurdities, the Government response, which begins:
"The Government welcomes the report from the Modernisation Committee on Regional Accountability".
Who presented this report to Parliament? It was none other than the Leader of the House—it is straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan. Frankly, it is an abuse of the Select Committee procedure. Every other Select Committee is chaired by a Back Bencher and contains no Ministers, because Select Committees are instruments of the House to hold the Government to account. The Modernisation Committee is an instrument that the Government are using. That could weaken our ability to hold them to account because of the impact on existing Select Committees, which brings me to my third and final point.
A little-read document, "Sessional Returns", shows how the existing pressure on the time of colleagues affects their attendance on Select Committees. The average attendance for the most prestigious Committee—the Public Accounts Committee—for the last year for which figures exist, was 47.2 per cent. So, for most of the meetings, most of the members were not there. I say that not in a spirit of criticism of colleagues, but as a statement of fact. There is a lot of pressure on our time because the Government have packed everything into two days of the week. The Regulatory Reform Committee manages 42.3 per cent. attendance, and five of the 14 members attended no meetings at all in the last Session for which there are records. The figures for the Environmental Audit Committee are 44.5 per cent. and for the Trade and Industry Committee 50.2 per cent. For the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committees—those most like the new regional Select Committees—the figures are 56 per cent. and 52 per cent. Where, then, are the folk sitting on these new Select Committees coming from; and if they turn up, what will happen to the existing ones?
I, too, read in The Guardian that the Government Chief Whip is going punish those who vote against the Government by refusing to put them on Select Committees. He has got it exactly wrong: the punishment is being put on a regional Select Committee, and for voting against the Government twice, it is being put on a regional Select Committee for a region other than the one the Member represents! Many other arguments cut across existing Select Committees, and regional Ministers do not have responsibility for the all the budgets or all the issues. The propositions before us are a nonsense, and I hope the House throws them out at 4.18.
The Leader of the House and my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt made a very good case for having regional Select Committees on the grounds that they will scrutinise the work of Government regional bodies. The case was well made, but there is another important issue that is too easily forgotten. The agenda of bringing our regions closer together—for example, making it possible for the north-west and the west midlands to have the same "gross value added" as London and the south-east—is very important. To make that regional agenda happen means more than looking into regional bodies, quangos and other Government agencies, as it is also about looking into business, the voluntary sector and the whole community in the regions concerned. I believe that regional Select Committees have an important job to do in bringing all those elements together, ensuring that we have a coherent and cohesive tale to tell. That would help to bring the GVA of our region, currently below the national average, up to it.
Mrs. May spoke about the £2 million cost. It is easy to look at the costs, but what about the benefits? With an increase of merely 0.1 per cent. in the GVA of the north-west, that £2 million would pale into insignificance. As we scrutinise these various bodies, we need to ensure that they become better and take better decisions. The likelihood is that, as a result of better scrutiny, the regional development agencies, the learning and skills councils and other local bodies that my colleagues have mentioned will actually perform better.
No, I do not think it would. It would be too large and unwieldy, unable to do the job properly.
We are sometimes seen as being out of touch, which makes it important that regional Select Committees meet in their respective regions. It is essential that we take Parliament out of here and to the people; let us have meetings there, so that people can properly see the work we do and value it that much more.
Another positive factor is that these regional Select Committees are non-departmental. We all know that health problems, economic problems, transport and skills problems impact on each other. It is important to avoid the silos of Departments, which can detract from our ability to look across at the issues and come up with the solutions. The regional Select Committees, in being non-departmental, will have that ability to look across the region and provide solutions that involve all the people of the region—the quangos, the outside bodies, businesses, the trade unions and so forth. That is an important innovation, and once we have some experience of these regional Select Committees up and running, we can think about extending the concept further. We could look more into scrutinising issues rather than Departments.
Finally, let me say that the regional Select Committees must be proactive. We should not just consider what has been done and the decisions that have been made. The regional agenda is so important that the Committees will need to be involved with the issues at the heart of it. They will need to be proactive and involve people, so that we can put everything together and establish a regional agenda that includes what the region needs for the future.
Let me establish straight away that I intend to vote against regional Select Committees but to support regional Grand Committees, and that I think the Modernisation Committee should have supported them in its report to the House. That might, as the Leader of the House would say, have constituted only a halfway house towards what—for whatever purpose—she wishes to achieve, but I believe it would have indicated whether or not Committees of this kind were required.
I can tell Andrew Mackinlay that I shall certainly support his amendments. They are sound: he is a House of Commons man, and he has given considerable thought to them. I also supported the speech of Simon Hughes, which I thought extremely balanced; and of course I supported every word—without exception—uttered by my right hon. Friend Sir George Young.
Let me say to the Leader of the House that I only wish some Labour Members—particularly the right hon. and learned Lady herself and her deputy—would take account of some experience. Perhaps I cannot claim much experience myself, but, like my hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack, I have been in the House for more than 37 years, and I have served on Committees since 1975, so I do have some.
I chaired the Select Committee on Health and suffered as a result of the actions of my own party, but I make no play of that during this debate. I have also been the founder Conservative member on the Modernisation Committee, which the Leader of the House now chairs, and for two Parliaments I chaired the Procedure Committee. I therefore hope the Leader of the House will accept that I have an understanding of the way in which the House operates and also of its procedures.
My position is nothing to do with a party-political position. I have one objective for the remainder of my time in the House, and that is to restore to the Floor of the House and to Back Benchers greater authority over the way in which the House operates and spends its time. I am therefore deeply unhappy about what the Government have proposed.
I have to say, using a rather unfortunate word, that I believe that these proposals are a sheer abortion. I believe that they constitute an abuse of the House. I believe that little thought has been given to the membership of the regional Select Committees and to all the problems raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock, in his excellent speech, relating to the addition of councillors to the Select Committees. And how are the Committees to be comprised, given that political parties have very few Members in particular regions?
Let me say to the right hon. and learned Lady, who holds a number of positions, that I believe that these matters have not been thought through and clearly should have been thought through, not only by her and those who advise her but, to a greater extent, by members of the Modernisation Committee.
Does my hon. Friend agree that in many regions, such as my own in the east of England, almost every Labour Member is already an office-holder? We shall have a whole lot shipped in from the north-east, while others from elsewhere will not be made Committee members because they are not of a suitable kind.
I am inclined to agree with my right hon. Friend.
We want to appeal to the public out there. We do not want to increase disillusionment. However, I believe that what the Modernisation Committee is proposing, mainly on the basis of the casting vote of the Leader of the House, will increase disillusionment. For instance, in this debate we are being allowed a mere five minutes in which to express our opinions on fundamental changes to the House. I repeat that my whole purpose is to return to this House some independence and integrity from the Executive, so I hope that, even at this late stage, the Leader of the House will be prepared to think again on some of these proposals. They are ill-judged, they will serve the House badly and they will not restore public confidence in this place and our role as representative Members of Parliament.
I rise to speak to the amendments standing in my name, which are supported by 14 London Members in total and particularly address the London dimension. I am pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House discussed that in her opening remarks, and I am grateful for the constructive discussions that we have had over the past couple of days to try to resolve the position of London.
London is the biggest region; it contains 7.2 million people and is growing. It is different from the rest of the country; it has the Mayor and the Greater London authority. There remains a major role for central Government to play; there are a large number of non-devolved areas and a large number of areas where they work in partnership with other agencies. There is an overwhelming need to ensure proper co-ordination of Government key programmes, and that can be done effectively only through parliamentary scrutiny provided by a London Select Committee. There will be no difficulty with political balance in a London Committee, because London is one of the few regions that has plenty of Members from all the parties, which will ensure that we can staff it ourselves. Our area has the Government office for London—other regions have similar bodies—which also ought to be accountable to Parliament. We have our own Minister for London, and he ought to be accountable to us, as should his two assistant Ministers.
London is different: it accounts for 16.7 per cent. of the UK's economic output; and economic difficulties, such as those facing us now, have a particularly severe impact on the City and financial services jobs. In many ways, the downturn's impact in London is different from that in the rest of the country. We also need to address the issues associated with deprivation in London. Four of the top eight—or the bottom eight, depending on how one looks at this—most deprived authorities in England are in London. The city has serious child poverty; 50 per cent. of children in inner London are in low-income households. The benefits regime operates very differently in London, because of the high cost of living, the way in which housing benefit works and the low take-up of tax credit. The Government office for London programmes, the new deal for communities, the delivery of decent homes and neighbourhood renewal and regeneration are all issues on which we should have a say.
The issue of health also needs to be considered. London has its own regional strategic health authority— NHS London—and the Government office for London examines inequalities in life expectancy and infant mortality. What is contained in the huge change that NHS London is introducing must be subject to detailed scrutiny. The Darzi review deals with issues of general practitioner access, the controversial polyclinics, the reconfiguration of hospital services, the potential separation of elected and acute services, and the possible controversial closures of certain general hospitals. We must also consider the joint commissioning being organised among the primary care trusts and the, unfortunately low, take-up of some of the immunisation programmes. The PCTs have local authority scrutiny panels, but we do not have a similar arrangement at the strategic, London-wide level, which a London Select Committee could provide.
Transport for London deals with buses and the tube, but the enormous £5.5 billion Thameslink modernisation programme comes under the Department for Transport, not TFL. There is a new, enormous involvement from central Government in the Crossrail programme to consider and, of course, only yesterday we debated a third runway at Heathrow—that central Government policy decision will have a major impact on London across the board. Then there is the Olympics to consider, in which the Government have a major role to play. We have our own Minister for the Olympics, who ought to be accountable to Parliament through a Select Committee arrangement.
The case for a Select Committee for London has been strongly made. A London Committee does not have to follow exactly the same model as the other Committees, and it is thus right that we should consider it in the context of devolution to London. Special problems face London, and I hope that the Leader of the House's consultation on this matter will be short and sharp. I hope that she will be able to come back to the House in the early new year with concrete proposals to ensure that London gets the representation and the scrutiny of the Minister, of the Government office for London and of all the other bodies that we should be able to achieve for London Members in this House.
I am pretty sceptical about whether the arrangements will work, and that will no doubt be reflected in the way in which I vote tonight. However, I commend the Government for recognising that we have a problem and for at least attempting to put it right.
In the county constituency of Salisbury, we tend to take the long view. The first Members of Parliament were sent here from Salisbury in 1265, in 1346 eight Members of Parliament represented the area that I now represent and until 1832 we still had more than one MP—the democratic representation of my area has changed.
One or two things have been imposed on the area. The first is the strange and arbitrary idea of where the south-west starts and ends. Indeed, all the regional boundaries are pretty artificial. They were a world war two attempt to divide up the country for administrative reasons, and I regret that Mr. Prescott, when he was Deputy Prime Minister, did not decide to rearrange the regions. I, for example, feel myself to be a man of Wessex rather than of the west country. I have always regarded Bristol as being in the west midlands —[ Interruption. ] My hon. Friends laugh, but that is the whole problem. Those who represent the south-west, like me, and who know it well fully understand how remote it feels to be in Penzance while life-affecting decisions are taken in Bristol, which could be on the moon as far as most people are concerned. We have a problem.
Having been born in Plymouth, having lived in Salisbury and Truro and having spent the larger part of my life in Salisbury, I understand that even within our regions there are huge variations in how our services from central Government are delivered, what expectations we have and what our people have to offer the nation. One thing that is absolutely clear is that we should make every possible attempt to ensure that this House remains the Parliament of England. I do not wish to see any other Parliament established anywhere calling itself an English Parliament. That would be appalling and would go against 1,000 years of our history.
We have to try to work out a way of ensuring that there is a greater sense of identity and empowerment and better delivery of services. I recognise that, when I was a local government Minister, my noble Friend Lord Heseltine, as Secretary of State, invented the idea of regional Government offices. My right hon. Friends the Members for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who are sitting beside me, know more about that than me, because they had related responsibilities. However, there was never any intention that there would be elected regional assemblies. I regard what is happening today as a sort of revenge for the fact that the regional assemblies did not work.
We have to be very careful that we do not cause more trouble than it is all worth. I am keen to see that we give a fair wind to some of these ideas, if only to prove that they are wrong. We must somehow recognise, as a large number of right hon. and hon. Members from all parties have suggested, that there are real problems with our identity. We cannot devolve responsibility for matters such as fire and rescue services upwards to a regional body from our local authorities without having local accountability for them, which is just one example of many.
I am sceptical whether this proposal will work, but it is an attempt that we should not completely write off. Unless we have a better suggestion, we should perhaps be a little cautious in our approach.
It is a great pleasure to follow Robert Key, not least because I have discovered for the first time that Bristol is part of the west midlands, something that had passed me by until now.
I broadly welcome the proposals, for many of the reasons that my hon. Friends have given. I want to offer a word of reassurance and to raise a couple of matters of concern. The welcome that I would like to give the proposals follows on from what my hon. Friend Mr. Plaskitt said. I get the impression that my constituents think that I have three roles that they want me to take up. The first is as a local advocate—a local champion in the local area. That works in some cases, not in others, but it is generally clear. The second is a national role, whether it involves raising their concerns on a national stage or participating in the national formulation of legislation, national scrutiny and so on. The element that is missing is the regional and sub-regional issues that affect my constituents, in which the local MP has an unclear role, at best. That is where there is a gap.
In the past, that was occasionally changed by force of circumstance. For me, the gap was partly bridged a few years ago by the Rover crisis at the Longbridge plant in my constituency. A taskforce was set up that involved stakeholders in the region and local MPs, and that began to bridge some of the gaps that I have identified.
I think that the creation of regional Ministers—and now the councils of regional Ministers, and so on—has also begun to bridge some of those gaps, although there is still a gap in accountability at regional level. That is a problem. The regional Select Committees cannot be the only remedy, but they will help to address the problem.
It is important that we retain the Select Committee principle, because they will need the inquisitorial approach that such Committees can bring to bear. I do not think that they should be an alternative to the Grand Committees—I believe that it is quite a good idea to have both structures—but we should not lose the inquisitorial approach.
There are some issues that I want to flag up, but first I want to reassure the House about the question of duplication between the roles of different committees. Yes, there will be duplication, but I am not scared of that. By our nature, we already duplicate all sorts of things. Overlaps exist—regionally and locally, regionally and nationally and even between Departments.
I am a member of the International Development Committee, whose job overlaps with that of the Foreign Affairs Committee and, increasingly, with that of the Defence Committee. Issues to do with the Post Office affect the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and often the Department for Work and Pensions as well. Another example would be the way in which issues to do with climate change and energy overlap Departments. In addition, we already have the Public Accounts Committee, which by its very nature is cross cutting and overlaps the work of other Committees. Therefore, we should not be too cautious about this proposal. Will the result be messy sometimes? Yes, absolutely—but that is because politics and what we have to deal with are often messy.
I have two areas of concern. First, I am uncomfortable—for practical reasons and for reasons of principle—with the idea that regional Select Committees should have a majority of people from another region. That is a problem, and I am not sure that it will work. If we go ahead with the experiment, I hope that it will be reviewed as soon as possible. I am uncertain that it will work, and in that I agree with my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay.
However, I disagree with my hon. Friend about the question of inclusion, which is my second concern. We should not be too precious about restricting the involvement of the regional Select Committees to MPs alone. While it may be right to restrict the membership to MPs, I agree with my hon. Friend Mr. Turner that the committees should also be outward looking and involve local authorities and other stakeholders in the regions.
We know that people up and down the country are disengaged from politics. If we can do something about that by creating these Committees, we should seize the opportunity.
I am aware of the time pressures on contributions to the debate, and I hope that the Leader of the House will reflect on them and on the dilemmas faced by Back Benchers as a result. I believe that, in future, Back Benchers should be given a protected opportunity to question a Minister—or, in this case, the Leader of the House—according to a procedure similar to that used by the European Scrutiny Committee.
We have not had that opportunity today. Like other hon. Members, I have wanted to intervene on the Leader of the House on many occasions today, only to find that she would not accept an intervention. Having voted the proposals through as Chair of the Modernisation Committee, she is clearly responsible for the policy that we are debating. I believe that we need to be able to scrutinise the matter far more than we have been able to do so far.
I also want to query the Government's sincerity in bringing forward these proposals. As Sir George Young explained earlier, we were assured that the creation of the Regional Affairs Standing Committee would fill the gap left by devolution to Scotland, Wales and London. However, it was within the gift of Ministers to decide when that Committee would be called and what subjects would be debated, so in the end the full opportunity that the Committee offered was never properly used.
In fact, the Government had a perfect opportunity immediately after the north-east referendum to reflect on why their plan and approach at that stage had failed so catastrophically. However, they failed to learn the lesson from that that devolution is all about letting go, not about holding on for dear life. What the Government in effect did in the north-east was say, "We've decided the boundaries of these places. We've decided what powers. We've decided the timetable. We've decided everything about this. Now do you want it or not?" Such an impatient, centralised approach—demanding from the Government-created zones of the country and expecting them to acquiesce to centralised diktats—clearly demonstrated why the Government had failed.
These regions are not regions in the sense that they have internal integrity and a community of interest. They are Government zones set up for administrative convenience. The Government should loosen up a bit and allow the localities around the country to bring forward their own proposals for the management of all the services that are controlled from central Government. This monstrous and inept policy failure, and the fudge and distasteful abuse of power of the creation of these regional Select Committees, is the inevitable product of a Government who do not want to listen to the regions they have created.
Many hon. Members have pointed up the clear—albeit, perhaps, entertaining—absurdity of what is likely to happen in the Government zone of the south-west. It has been well articulated by my hon. Friend Mr. Heath. Labour Members from outside the area will be dragooned into sitting—whether or not as willing volunteers. Perhaps the Leader of the House would like to reflect on the fact that several Labour Members from outside the Government zone have come to me and said, "We look forward to being appointed to the Government zone for the south-west Select Committee, because we have enjoyed many holidays in the area and we can go down there and reflect on our holiday experience." That highlights a problem we have to fight against constantly. We always have to punch our way through the impression that the south-west is merely a holiday zone. I hope that the Leader of the House will reflect on that.
Even in this era of bank bail-outs, the £2.3 billion spent every year by regional development agencies is a very substantial sum. In addition to the money that they have spent in the past on economic development and regeneration, the Government are rightly giving RDAs responsibility for spatial planning, to give better co-ordination at regional level to that work. In addition to the RDAs, on which we have all focused because they are such significant spenders, work on the arts, sport, health and transport is all rightly organised on a regional basis to give an appropriate balance between the strategic overview and local insight and knowledge.
All this work is currently nominally accountable to Parliament through Ministers, but we all know that the reality is very different, and that in fact the RDAs and the many other bodies that organise on a regional basis are not effectively accountable to Parliament, certainly not through Ministers via the sort of questions we are able to ask here, and in many cases the work they do alongside each other is not properly joined up.
No, I am sorry but I do not have time to give way. I must press on.
The Modernisation Committee had five evidence sessions. In all those sessions, we heard overwhelming evidence about the accountability gap to which the Government are responding in their proposals. Nobody doubted that. It was probably the regional development agencies and other regional bodies that said most strongly that they felt that they were not held to account adequately. They felt that it would be good for their governance if they were better held to account.
I welcome the Government's proposals, particularly on regional Select Committees. Given the evidence that we heard, and the arguments that we engaged in with witnesses, I am firmly convinced—I say this without any arm-twisting from the Whips or persuasion from the Leader of the House—that regional Select Committees are the only effective mechanism by which we can hold a focused inquiry on the work of the many regional agencies, and hold them properly to account. Those Select Committees will be able to set their own agenda, establish their own inquiries, work flexibly and, of course, publish reports. Those reports will be the subject of debate in the regional Grand Committees, on the Floor of the House, or in Westminster Hall.
I would like to, but I have a few more points to make. I will make them, and then see whether I can give way. The Government have wisely brought forward proposals for both regional Select Committees, which I favour, and regional Grand Committees. The Grand Committees may prove a more effective way of holding regional Ministers to account, but both types of Committee may have ongoing value. I suspect that it will be the regional Select Committees that turn out to have enduring value, to be of more interest to Members, and to be more effective in holding regional bodies to account. However, it may be that both types of Committee prove to be long-term solutions.
I have listened to the debate carefully, and many of the protests that we have heard are way out of proportion to the nature of the proposals before us. What is being put before us is an experiment that is to take place up until the next election, which is less than 18 months away. The experiment is quite modest in its costs, which are well under £2 million—the figure is £1 million or £2 million. That is barely a tenth of 1 per cent. of the expenditure of regional development agencies alone, never mind all the other regional bodies. That seems a small price to pay in the search for effective regional accountability.
I do not even have five minutes. Let me make three points. First, we have artificial regions in this country, as many people have said. Secondly, the burden that the Select Committees will put on the workings of the House, and the clashes and conflicts with existing Select Committees, have not been properly thought out. Thirdly, I am totally opposed to drafting on to a Committee Members who have no connection with the region in question; that is grotesque. It is an appalling suggestion. The Grand Committees could be made to work, as long as Members from other regions are not drafted in. It is a good idea for all the Members who represent a designated region to meet once or twice a year, and to have Ministers before them; I accept that. However, to add on regional Select Committees, to pay the Chairmen of those Committees—
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion, Mr. Deputy Speaker put the Question already proposed from the Chair, pursuant to Order [this day].
Question accordingly negatived.
Mr. Deputy Speaker then proceeded to put the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.
Amendment proposed: (a), in line 6, after '(Cm 7376)', insert
'except that Chairmen of regional select committees shall not be paid.'. — [Andrew Mackinlay.]
Question put, That the amendment be made:—
The House divided: Ayes 239, Noes 237.
Question accordingly agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Third Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons on Regional Accountability (HC Paper No. 282); approves the proposals for regional select and grand committees for each of the English regions set out in the response from the Government in the White Paper, Regional Accountability (Cm 7376), except that the Chairmen of regional select committees shall not be paid; accordingly endorses the clear expectation that the regional select committees should meet significantly less frequently than departmental select committees; and considers that the combination of select committees providing opportunities for inquiries and reports into regional policy and administration together with opportunities for debate involving all honourable Members from the relevant region will provide a major step forward in the scrutiny of regional policy.