I thank the hon. Gentleman for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) for securing this debate. Although the sentiments behind the levelling-up fund are laudable at first glance, it has a profound and far-reaching effect on the devolution settlements and the democratically elected Governments of each of the devolved nations. Alongside the UK shared prosperity fund, which also breaches the devolution settlements and UK Government promises, the way in which the levelling-up fund is to be administered encroaches on devolved areas in unconstitutional and unacceptable ways.
It is all very well for the UK Government to huff and puff and protest that the devolved nations should shut up and be grateful for the boundless munificence of their paternalism, but funding should not be tied to riding a coach and horses through the democratically elected Governments of these nations, and nor should it be designed to undermine the democratically established Parliaments in each of these nations.
For the UK Government to reject that analysis plays to the agenda not of levelling up but of exerting undue power and influence over democratic instructions, the very existence of which is due to democratic support for them. These Parliaments in Wales and Scotland were designed, in part at least, to address the democratic deficit that has existed between those nations and Westminster Governments. How does attempting to circumvent, undermine and emasculate those institutions address that democratic deficit?
Yesterday the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government gave the game away, because he accepted that there is no formal requirement for local authorities to work with the Scottish Government on devolved policy areas, and that this levelling-up fund is
“about local authorities and communities working directly with the UK Government”.—[Official Report,
Given that this work goes to the heart of devolved powers, that is quite an admission. The idea that each different local authority will submit bids for much-needed funds does not in any way negate the cynicism and political opportunism in the way in which this fund is being distributed, as indicated by my hon. Friend Alan Brown. This is piecemeal stuff, with no strategic thinking whatsoever.
The Scottish Government expected £400 million in consequentials from this fund, but that is now to be decided by the UK Government sitting in Whitehall. How that money will be deployed across local authorities is a nonsense and offensive. There will be no opportunity for a regionalised, Scotland-wide approach. The competitive nature of this process will set authority against authority, while we know that the most effective way of boosting local economies requires collaborative working.
Why does the Minster believe that Ministers and civil servants in Whitehall, with little or no detailed knowledge of Scotland or her local authority areas, are equipped to judge the merits of competing bids? If levelling up was truly the agenda, why would they not build into that process the strategic expertise of the Scottish Government and local MSPs? Funding should be allocated by formula instead of competitive bidding. That would improve transparency and guarantee support for those places most in need, as pointed out by Liz Saville Roberts, representing Plaid Cymru.
As it stands, bids will be at the mercy of the whims of this Tory Government and which local authorities are able to submit the best bid—not those most in need. Given the towns fund, will the bids be judged according to which are considered to be the best—whatever that means? Who knows? There is every reason to fear that the bids may be subject to the same pork barrel politics that we have seen in all its glory in the towns fund.
Despite the fact that the Tories have a majority on the Public Accounts Committee, it has delivered a damning verdict on the Tory towns fund, saying that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has
“not been open about the process it followed and it did not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns” for funding. Despite the Government’s refusal even to acknowledge that and other damning verdicts and concerns about the Tory towns fund, we are now expected to believe —and, better still, trust—that the levelling-up fund will be shiny, new and bright and we need not worry about transparency because, as the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government said in the main Chamber yesterday:
“The answer to that is that it is all published on gov.uk and it has been for months now.”—[Official Report,
I do not know about you, Sir Edward, but if it is published on a website, I am certainly reassured.
The fact is that this Government have shown that they cannot be trusted to deliver this funding in a transparent way and it has been deliberately designed to undermine the devolved Parliaments. The good people of Scotland and Wales are not so easily fooled as the Tory Government seem to think, which is why they reject Tory Governments repeatedly—at every opportunity. Since the Brexit vote took place, this Government have taken to themselves the power to take decisions on spending, economic development, infrastructure, culture, sporting activities, domestic educational and training activities and educational exchanges, and this fund will further allow the UK Government to bypass devolved decision making and override the democratic process for allocating spending in Scotland. That means that more than £100 million a year could be spent in areas that are usually devolved to the Scottish Parliament.
In this Government’s ham-fisted attempt to undermine devolution, they are in fact cementing support for independence in Scotland. If devolution is indeed the opportunity to do things differently, that opportunity is being eroded bit by bit by this Government, who seem desperate to govern devolved areas in Scotland. They could govern those devolved areas if only they could win an election in Scotland, but they have given up on that, and we see now an agenda to undermine the very institution that the people of Scotland will not vote to permit them to control—the Scottish Parliament.
Of course, every local authority will wish to bid for levelling up funding. Why on earth would they not? But the towns fund shows that we are wise to be concerned about the transparency of this process. We know that the real agenda on the devolved nations is cynical, to say the least. Any local authority in Scotland and Wales receiving money from this fund will be expected to doff its cap in gratitude for the munificence and benevolence of the UK Government, but the UK Government need to understand that riding roughshod over our democratic institutions, which have huge support from those living in the devolved nations, cannot be excused by fanfare about funding that is not new. We are not so easily bought, and our democratic institutions, including our Scottish Parliament, cannot be so easily bought. Nor can trust in this Government be bought. Some things, such as democracy and trust, are not commodities; they are values and principles, and this Government would do well to remember that.