Sir George attacks Government policy on the regions
12 Apr 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): The good news about the motion before the House tonight is that the Government have at last recognised that post-devolution there are some unresolved questions relating to England. The Leader of the House confirmed that in her remarks. The bad news is that the Government have come up with the wrong answer. I want to explain why the proposal before us is, first, inconsistent with the Government's manifesto commitments for devolution in England; secondly, an inadequate response to the so-called West Lothian question; and, thirdly, one that cuts across the work of existing institutions of the House, especially the Select Committees and the recently established Westminster Hall.

The proposal for this new Standing Committee has not been put to the House with the approval of the Select Committees on Modernisation or on Procedure--the preferred way of changing how the House works--but comes from the Government.

A year ago, the Modernisation Committee reflected on this proposition, which had been put to it by the Leader of the House. After discussion, the Government decided--rightly--not to pursue it, so we heard no more for nearly a year. The week before last, in a great hurry, the proposition was taken off its dusty shelf by the Government, following some adverse press coverage of the Government's lack of progress in setting up regional assemblies.

The proposal appeared on the Order Paper shortly after the Prime Minister gave a speech on Britishness on 28 March. His speech generated some adverse comment:

"PM rules out home rule for the regions . . . the move will be seen as a bruising rebuff to regions such as the North East and North West."

That was in the Daily Mail on 29 March. [Interruption.] I thought that the Daily Mail was most important to the present Labour party.
How about The Times? On 29 March, it stated:

"Blair back-pedals on regional assemblies . . . Tony Blair rebuffed John Prescott's demands for the creation of regional assemblies in England yesterday."

On the next day--30 March--the Leader of the House announced the initiative at business questions. That is the background.
The motion is not a considered response by the House as to how its procedures might be improved. It does not fit into a coherent philosophy of devolution; it is a political gesture, made by the Government to head off criticism of yet another of their ill-considered constitutional changes.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): The right hon. Gentleman is twisting history somewhat. He should acknowledge the arguments that were primarily about the fact that the House was trying to achieve a consensus on the establishment, in Westminster Hall, of a Chamber in which such issues could be debated--as my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has just pointed out. That is why the proposal was made.

Sir George Young: I am not sure whether the hon. Lady sustained her initial accusation that I had twisted history. However, she was able to insert her interpretation of events into my speech. I hope that she can catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There are three reasons for my view that this proposal is not the best way forward. First, the new Committee would sit uneasily with other institutions of the House, especially the Select Committees and Westminster Hall. Since 1978--the last time that the Standing Committee met--there have been major changes in the operation both of the Government and of the House, which dramatically weaken the case for the Standing Committee.

We have a major Department--the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions--which has responsibility for English regional affairs. That Department is shadowed by an active and effective Select Committee--as one would expect of a Committee chaired by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich(Mrs. Dunwoody).

The DETR annual report for 1999 on regional responsibility lists the Department's achievements in 1998 as follows: Royal Assent for the Regional Development Agencies Act 1998; the establishment of eight RDAs on 14 December; and the appointment of the chairmen, members and chief executives of the RDAs. The work in progress included the further development of RDAs; encouraging the development of voluntary regional chambers in each region; contributing to the development of the new assisted areas map; and improving relationships with Government offices.

That major Department of State has responsibility for regional affairs. Within it, there is a Minister with responsibility for the English regions--I am delighted that the Minister for Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Ms Armstrong), is in the Chamber tonight. There is also an Under-Secretary with responsibility for the regions, namely the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes).

The House monitors the Government and holds them to account on regional matters through a Select Committee. That is exactly what the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has been doing. It produced reports on regional air services on25 July 1998, regional Eurostar services on 26 January 1999 and regional development agencies on 25 May 1999. It must remain the principal means of monitoring the Government on regional affairs.

We also have other departmental Select Committees that cover other subjects. For example, if the House wanted to examine agriculture in the south-west, fishing in the north-west or the motor industry in the north-east, those subjects come under other Select Committees. The proposal for a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs risks short-circuiting the existing Select Committees, assuming, of course, that the House could find Members to take an active part on it, given the difficulty that confronts many Committees in maintaining a quorum and a good turnout.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: The right hon. Gentleman has missed a crucial point. Any Member of the House of the Commons--not only members of the Select Committee--will under this proposal be able to ask detailed questions of Ministers and secure answers. He simply does not understand that point, but it is why the change is so important.

Sir George Young: If the hon. Gentleman considers the way the agenda is constructed, he will find that the Government, not the Committee members, will set it. I shall refer shortly to Westminster Hall, which is an appropriate forum for some of these issues.

Mr. Garnier: I wish to follow up the point made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). All sorts of Members representing English constituencies may be able to go to the Committee, question Ministers and make speeches, but, whatever the views expressed by those attending, the Government will be able to pack the vote. They will have the majority on the Committee.

Sir George Young: Indeed, and the majority will reflect not the balance within England, but that within the United Kingdom as a whole. I shall discuss the relevant amendment shortly.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) rose--

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) rose--

Sir George Young: I want to make a bit of progress, and then I shall give way.

The agenda of the Standing Committee, unlike thatof a Select Committee, will be dominated by the Government and not by its members. The House may have considered paragraph (6) of the motion. The matters referred to the Committee, the period for discussion and the location and the duration of the discussion will all be decided by the Government. The normal powers available to a Select Committee will not be available to the Standing Committee, which is further evidence of the Government's ability to talk the language of devolution, but to retain central control.

The House is familiar with the debate about Westminster Hall. One of the concerns about establishing a forum that did not meet in the Chamber but that potentially had a large membership was that it might shift the centre of gravity away from the Chamber and take Members out of it. The jury is out on that issue because Westminster Hall is still an experiment. However, a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs must accentuate that risk.

Dr. Ladyman: I wanted the right hon. Gentleman to give way before he moved too far away from his remarks on Select Committees. Does he not accept that those of us who sit on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee are not able to proselytise on behalf of our own regions? The advantage of the Standing Committee is that we shall be able to represent our regional interests on it.

Sir George Young: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what has just been said, he would have found out that he will not have that freedom. He can proselytise on any subject only if the Government decide that it is a subject that the Committee can discuss. The whole terms of trade are weighted in favour of the Government, not the House.

Mr. Leigh: On the point that the voting in the Committee will reflect party strength in the United Kingdom as a whole and not just England, does my right hon. Friend recognise that the project may be considered by some to be an embryo--if an inadequate one--for an English Parliament? If that is so, does he accept that it is a rare case where an early abortion of the project would be a great kindness?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend has used rather violent language. We should not make progress with the Standing Committee for the reasons that I have set out, and its membership is one of them. If the proposal is being sold to English Members as an English solution of some sort, the Committee should reflect the balance in the House of Members from England and not the United Kingdom. I shall say a word shortly about the amendment that addresses that problem.

The Procedure Committee suggested that the Grand Committees should be suspended while we wait to see what happens with Westminster Hall. Its Chairman may catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If his Committee wanted the existing Grand Committees to be suspended, it is difficult to see that it would want a new one to be established.

Westminster Hall already provides opportunities for debates on English regional matters, answered by Ministers. Subjects for debate included, on 16 January, shipbuilding on the Clyde; on 14 March, housing in Norfolk; on 21 March, housing in Hampshire; on22 March, NHS provision in Oxfordshire and the economy of the east midlands; on 29 March, the Diamond synchrotron and science in the north west; and, on 4 April, prospects for shipbuilding and related industries on the River Tyne. All those subjects are chosen by Members of the House and the Speaker, not by the Government.

Mrs. Beckett: I gently remind the right hon. Gentleman that although as a member of the Modernisation Committee, which recommended the experiment in Westminster Hall, he rightly and honourably voted for that proposal, the vast bulk of the Members sitting behind him voted against it, and now apparently will vote against this one. Where does that leave their claim to want a forum for English Members?

Sir George Young: The proposal for Westminster Hall came to the House from the Modernisation Committee, which approved it. This proposal has not come from the Modernisation Committee with the approval of a Committee of the House; it has come directly from the Government.

As I said earlier, my first reason for believing that this proposal is not the best way forward is that it does not make sense within our rules and procedures. Last May, the Procedure Committee published an excellent report entitled "The Procedural Consequences of Devolution". This proposition was not one of its proposals, nor indeed did it feature in the Government's response.

That brings me to my second reason. The motion in no way responds to the imbalance created by devolution. The House should tonight be implementing the Procedure Committee's unanimous recommendation that Madam Speaker should identify Bills that apply only to one part of the UK. That would begin to be a coherent response to the English question, as it would open up the way to a new procedure for English or English and Welsh Bills.

"The Procedural Consequences of Devolution", which we debated on 21 October, contained key paragraphs--23 to 27--which responded to the current inequity that affects English MPs and our constituents better than the proposal before the House. Paragraph 25 began:

"However, the current Standing Orders do not deal satisfactorily with legislation relating exclusively to England, Northern Ireland or Scotland . . . No provision at all is made for Bills relating exclusively to England."

The next paragraph took the argument a stage further. It said:

"The main point of principle to be considered is whether it is appropriate to retain special procedures for Bills relating exclusively to one of the constituent countries of the UK, as currently apply to Bills relating exclusively to Scotland or Wales. On balance, we believe it is."

That led the Committee to its recommendation in paragraph 27, which said:

"We recommend that the provision allowing the Speaker to certify Bills as relating exclusively to Scotland be transferred to a new Standing Order and adapted so that the Speaker may certify that a Bill relates exclusively to one of the constituent parts of the UK."

That was the unanimous view of a Committee consisting of nine Labour MPs, three Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats. That is what we should be debating this evening.
That recommendation was rejected by the Government, who in their response asserted:

"If . . . it were possible to identify some bills as relating exclusively to England, it is not clear what benefit this would have for the House. "

The whole debate on the West Lothian question had gone straight over their head. It is not that they disagreed with the solution; they had not even seen the problem. The unanimous recommendation of the Procedure Committee would pave the way for the solution proposed by my party to the West Lothian question, and if the Government had tabled that as a motion today, they would have had our support.
The Standing Order would not allow the Committee to deal with Second Readings. The Procedure Committee also recommended that the Standing Order be lifted which requires Standing Committees to reflect party strength, so that the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs could reflect party strength in the constituent part of the UK. Again, the Government have not accepted that. The Government's proposal will perpetuate the inequity rather than solve it. An amendment has been tabled which would require the balance in the Committee to reflect the position in England rather than that in the UK. That strikes me as an amendment worth supporting if we are to have the Committee, but we do not believe that the Committee is the right answer to the post-devolution issues that concern many hon. Members.

My third and last reason is that the proposition does not even fit the Government's agenda. Here we are, approaching the end of this Parliament, and the sad epitaph to the bold claims about regional devolution that we heard from Labour Members a few years ago is this Standing Committee. Elected regional assemblies have disappeared and, as a sop, we are to have a Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. The commitment to hold referendums on regional assemblies has gone the same way as the commitment to hold a referendum on electoral change.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to deal with the question of Scotland and Wales--especially Scotland and the West Lothian question--it is necessary to adjust the Standing Orders to ensure that those who will otherwise vote twice are not allowed to do so.

Sir George Young: That was indeed the logic of the unanimous recommendation of the Procedure Committee that was put to the House last year.

At the general election, the Labour party pledged

"legislation to allow the people, region by region, to decide in a referendum whether they want directly elected regional government."

The Home Secretary has also promised that

"devolution to Scotland and Wales, to Greater London and to the English regions, greater responsibility to local authorities, far better accountability for quangos, will decentralise and devolve power across Britain and give people a say where one is denied today."

Regional government was intended to break up Britain and create a Europe of the regions. As Labour argued before the election:

"The regional chambers would become each region's voice in Europe and would co-ordinate regional bids for EU funding."

Despite that initial enthusiasm, Labour's attitude appears to have cooled. The Minister for Local Government and the Regions recently described regional government as a "diversion", claiming that few of her north-east constituents were interested. That was reported inThe Guardian on 4 August.
It appears that the motion we are debating is all that remains of the Government's bold pledge to devolve power to the regions. As is so often the case with the Labour Government, they are all mouth and no delivery. We do not support the idea of regional assemblies, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) will explain why. They would be wasteful and bureaucratic and they do not attract significant support in the country. In my part of the country, when people talk of Wessex, they mean Sophie and Edward, not a regional assembly.

What Labour Members really want is elected regional assemblies, especially in the north-east, to which decision making is devolved from Westminster. However, the motion pulls in the opposite direction. The Campaign for Yorkshire's background paper states:

The Campaign for Yorkshire is not asking for yet another body, but looking for the RDA to be made into an elected assembly.

The Local Government Association's letter about the proposal states:

"though we welcome greater scrutiny of RDAs by Parliament, the Association favours increased scrutiny by the region itself. If the RDAs are to be a genuine step towards increased decision making in the English regions, the Committee must recognise that RDAs should ultimately be accountable to regional interests themselves."

The motion is yet another example of the Government thrashing around in a constitutional vacuum, starting a reform that they have no idea how to finish, responding to some bad press with an ill-thought-through response. We do not believe that it should be supported and I invite my hon. Friends to register their opposition in the Lobby.
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