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Regional Ministers

Volume 470: debated on Tuesday 15 January 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Ms Diana R. Johnson.]

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to introduce this important debate on the role of regional Ministers. When the announcement was made in summer last year, I was quite pleased with the concept of regional Ministers. Not everybody agreed with me, but I felt that it was a good idea, because inevitably one sometimes has to deal with issues that are not specific to one’s own constituency, but involve many other parts of the region in which one’s constituency is situated. In our case, one of those problems is, of course, flooding. Regrettably, Shrewsbury floods regularly, but it is not alone: many communities all along the River Severn are affected. I thought that having a regional Minister would give me the opportunity to work with other Members of Parliament and the Minister responsible as a team to lobby the Government more effectively on a cross-party basis.

With that in mind, I immediately—on 2 August last year—sent a letter of congratulation to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) in which I invited him to Shrewsbury. I have sent repeated letters and e-mails and made telephone calls asking him please to fulfil his role as the Minister for the West Midlands and come to Shrewsbury.

At this point, I have to say something nice about the Labour party: my experience of meeting Ministers has been very good. When I wanted to see the former Prime Minister, the opportunity arose straight away, and I could take constituents to see him. The same is true of the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence. Labour Ministers have been most accommodating about meeting me, so why has it been so difficult for me to meet the regional Minister—the Minister responsible for the west midlands and, ultimately, for Shrewsbury?

On 3 August, in The Birmingham Post, the Minister for the West Midlands was quoted saying that he wanted to

“set about a 150-day consultation for an action plan”

for the west midlands. That was a good idea. The hon. Gentleman has a business background, as do I, and I think that the first thing a Minister should do in such a role is set about producing an action plan, in order to lobby on the region’s behalf. However, I have spoken to the chief executives and the leaders of Shropshire county council and Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council and been told that nobody in either council has had any interaction with the Minister for the West Midlands. I put it to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), how can one have a 150-day consultation to decide the priorities of the west midlands without any interaction with the chief executives and leaders of the councils of Shropshire, which is one of the most important counties—my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) will agree with me that it is the most important county—in the west midlands?

The Minister for the West Midlands has not even come to Shropshire to discuss those issues. Regrettably, on the one occasion that he did come to the county, he did not inform me of his visit. He came in the week we all expected a general election—on 1 November—and he was photographed in the Shrewsbury Chronicle with the Labour candidate and Labour councillors.

My hon. Friend is making an important and cogent speech. I wrote to the Minister for the West Midlands and for Borders and Immigration on 13 November, inviting him to Worcestershire to explore an issue relevant to both the hats he wears. I have had no reply to that letter. However, last Saturday he was in Worcester addressing a seminar of the Worcester Labour party. A pattern may be emerging.

I absolutely concur with my hon. Friend. I believe that the announcement of regional Ministers was yet more Labour spin. They are an opportunity for the Labour Government to have a regional Labour party co-ordinator or Labour party supremo, who will ensure that everything is done for the Labour constituencies and that as much publicity as possible is generated in Labour marginals in the west midlands and other regions. From now on, I shall be watching like a hawk and asking many questions about our regional Minister—where he is going and who he is meeting—so that the role of regional Minister does not become political but becomes what it is meant to be.

I know that you, Mr. Speaker, and many others feel passionately about the scrutiny that takes place in the House. We Back Benchers have a responsibility to provide that scrutiny, and our constituents feel passionately that we must hold the Government to account. Regrettably, none of the procedures allowing us formally to scrutinise the regional Minister has been put in place. We were promised regional Select Committees and regional questions, but they have not been introduced. Seven or eight months down the line, there are no mechanisms in place for holding a regional Minister to account in the Chamber. How on earth can we hold Ministers to account if no safety mechanisms have been put in place, and if it is extremely difficult to get hold of the Ministers?

We should have quarterly meetings with the regional Minister. We were not called to see him when he took up his position. When I was in business, when someone became a manager of a company, the first thing that they did was call in their sales force, set out objectives, and get to know the team on a professional and personal basis. None of us has had a team meeting. Many hon. Members present hold west midlands seats; we have not had a single meeting in the House of Commons with the regional Minister to discuss the priorities for the west midlands.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me in my capacity as shadow Minister with responsibility for Birmingham; I have a specific interest in the issue. He is making an extremely important point—

Order. This is an Adjournment debate, and shadow Ministers do not get called in Adjournment debates. This is a Back Bencher’s debate. The hon. Gentleman can speak as a Back Bencher, if he wishes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to mention Birmingham. Shropshire Members are concerned about the fact that Birmingham always gets priority in the west midlands. The Minister for the West Midlands represents a Birmingham seat—Birmingham, Hodge Hill. The BBC’s politics website tells us what his priorities are, and they all seem to be focused on Birmingham. When will Shropshire get a look-in?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. He will have noticed that no fewer than 14 Conservative Members from the west midlands are attending this important debate. We in Birmingham cannot flush the regional Minister out, either. To try to find out what he was doing, I tabled a question asking

“what proportion of his working week the Minister for the West Midlands spent carrying out his regional responsibilities in the latest period for which figures are available.”

I received a response that can only be described as insulting. I was told:

“Time spent on regional duties very much varies from week to week.”—[Official Report, 10 January 2008; Vol. 470, c. 770W.]

That is not an acceptable answer, and I will table more questions. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that we want to see the Minister doing the job with which he was charged, and we want him to be accountable to the House and the west midlands.

I concur with my hon. Friend. I want meetings to be held, at least quarterly, for all west midlands Members of Parliament, in which we can scrutinise the Minister and get to know him on a professional and personal basis.

The Minister for the East Midlands is equally invisible. Perhaps a pattern is emerging. Could the posts possibly be just a gimmick, and not a reality?

Regrettably, I concur with my hon. Friend. There was a great fanfare when the role was announced, but given the lack of scrutiny Committees and regional questions, I fear that the Government are not serious about introducing the role properly. I genuinely want us all to work on a cross-party basis. All the west midlands Members of Parliament and the Minister for the West Midlands should meet in the region, and hold public meetings from time to time, so that members of the public can see us working together on a cross-party basis, debating the priorities for the west midlands. I am sure that it would help us to engage more with members of the public, rather than deciding the priorities of the west midlands in secret meetings in the House or according to the Minister’s own agenda.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially after his appeal for a debate on a cross-party basis. Which of the departmental question days would he sacrifice for regional questions? Will he inform the House, to guide the Government?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it is not my responsibility to define the appropriate time. The Government announced regional Ministers, and as he knows, it is the responsibility of the Government to find the appropriate time.

In a moment.

The Minister for the West Midlands has been described as the most important man in the west midlands by BBC Politics. If he is indeed the most important man in the west midlands, by golly, I want him in Shropshire, and I want him to understand the key issues affecting Shropshire. That is why I feel so angry that he has not been to Shropshire in an official capacity and he is not interacting with my council.

I give way to my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson).

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Will he make the simple point to the Minister on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), that he is not the Minister for the West Midlands, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne)? The Minister for the West Midlands is not interacting with this cross-party debate in the House of Commons to discuss his ministerial role.

Indeed. When I was interviewed, I tried to raise the point with The Birmingham Post and to say how concerned I was about the matter and that I would call a debate. In reply, the Minister said in the major Birmingham newspaper that he would welcome such a debate because he would want to highlight my shortcomings as an MP—[Hon. Members: “Short?”] The Minister said he would discuss my shortcomings as an MP and suggest that Shrewsbury would be better off represented by a Labour politician. Nobody feels more passionately about Shrewsbury than I do, and I will continue to fight for the people of Shrewsbury with all my heart and passion for as long as they allow me to do so. Having refused to see me for the past six months, what does the Minister for the West Midlands know of my shortcomings?

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity of holding this debate, which has finally given me the chance to scrutinise the Minister. This is Parliament in action. A Member of Parliament cannot get hold of the Minister, who repeatedly refuses to reply to letters, phone calls and e-mails, so I am grateful to you for allowing me to highlight my concerns on the record.

Because the Minister knew that the debate was to take place, by some strange, lucky coincidence I finally managed to have a meeting with him yesterday—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”]—in the Pugin Room for half an hour over a cup of tea. [Hon. Members: “ Who paid?”] I do not recall; I think that the Minister paid for the tea. As a result of that meeting, the Minister promised to come to Shrewsbury and meet all the Members of Parliament from Shropshire, as well as our county council and all the district councils in order to evaluate the priorities of Shropshire and to work closely with us. My hon. Friends will be displeased with what I am about to say. I found the Minister to be a charming man, clearly professional, highly educated, and one of those rare entities in the Labour party—somebody who has been in business. I was impressed with that, because he spoke as a business man, with that sense of professionalism. I was fuming before he arrived, but when he left after half an hour I was somewhat pacified and much more relaxed. I very much hope that he will fulfil his obligation—

I ask, please, for no barracking from my own side.

I hope that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill will now play his role, be an effective Minister for the West Midlands and help me look after Shropshire. I quite like him as an individual; I think that he has been let down by the system. Frankly, the Government are not treating the role of regional Ministers properly and I want to hear from the Under-Secretary about the concrete steps that he will take to make sure that we, as Members of Parliament in the west midlands, can hold the Minister responsible to account.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate. I have often taken part in Adjournment debates and usually there are only a couple of us here. It is terrific that at least a dozen of the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues are here with him. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for ringing me at my constituency office as well as at the Department on Friday. He said that he wanted this to be a moderate, measured and positive debate, with no knocking. I am delighted to hear of the new relationship that he has forged with his regional Minister in the past 24 hours. Long may that continue.

Part of the reason may be that although the focus of the points made by the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham was on the west midlands and his regional Minister, the title of his debate is about the role of regional Ministers. That is why I am here—to talk about the role across the board, and not just in respect of that specific regional Minister.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Government have long been committed to strengthening regional and local institutions, in Shrewsbury and elsewhere—whether through our modernisation of local government so that it is better able to lead and provide key services for the communities that it serves, or through creating regional development agencies to improve regional economic performance and to ensure that every part of our country benefits from the sustained economic growth that we have seen in recent years. Regional Ministers are a further example of that commitment to devolution and decentralisation.

The plan to have a Minister for each of the nine English regions was announced last June. The remit for each of my nine colleagues is to be both an advocate for the region and a representative of central Government in the region. That is an important new development in the Government’s empowerment of the English regions, and a further recognition that not every decision can or should be taken within a mile of Westminster. Having regional Ministers complements the Government’s approach to local freedoms and flexibilities set out in last year’s local government White Paper. It is also in accord with the recommendations of the review of sub-national economic development. That will improve the effectiveness of regional governance and regional economic performance in particular. The hon. Gentleman will want me to get on to the issue of governance and accountability, not least to answer some of the questions raised in interventions; I shall try to get to that bit as quickly as I can.

Regional Ministers are already contributing to the leadership of their regions and influencing Whitehall on their regions’ behalf. In the west midlands, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) is doing an excellent job representing the region in Government and Government in the region. He is working closely with local government and other civic leaders to ensure that people in the region have access to good-quality jobs and affordable homes.

I hear what the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham said about Shropshire. I am pleased to hear that my hon. Friend will be visiting, and that he met the hon. Gentleman for half an hour. I am sure that that will be the first of many meetings. My hon. Friend is providing leadership of the implementation of the sub-national review in the west midlands and has taken an active interest in the renewal of Birmingham New Street station—a project of regional and national importance, and one that is important to all of us.

Similarly, in my own region and constituency the support and influence of the Minister for the South West, my hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), was a great help when we had flooding problems similar to those that the hon. Gentleman experienced. I am almost afraid to mention the word “flooding” tonight, because I fear that very many of my own constituents are concerned for their homes at the moment. The system has been a help around the country, where regional Ministers have been able to engage with such difficulties and to support local constituency Members of Parliament.

Those are just two examples, but in every other region regional Ministers are helping to galvanise regional institutions and to improve the delivery of local public services. The appointment of regional Ministers as regional champions also creates a new opportunity to strengthen the regional voice within Government. They channel regional and local views into central Government policy development at the most senior levels.

I will give way briefly to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), but if I give way again after that, I would rather do so to the hon. Gentleman whose debate this is, because we are very short of time.

I am deeply grateful to my hon. Friend. I fully accept and support all his arguments; the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has also made powerful arguments. Is not the concept of Her Majesty appointing a Minister that he or she is accountable and has to explain his or her duties to Parliament? [Hon. Members: “Then where is he?”] No—the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has raised an important point in a non-partisan way. Will my hon. Friend indicate if there is any thinking as to whether at any stage these Ministers might be accountable here?

Indeed. I am coming to the issue of accountability to Parliament, which is the thrust of Members’ questions, and rightly so.

Last summer’s floods and foot and mouth outbreaks are good examples of regional Ministers’ role out in the constituencies. Regional Ministers representing the worst affected regions were in close touch with the relevant Ministers and agencies to ensure a concerted, coherent response in the immediate aftermath. As well as individual representations, that work is co-ordinated through a regional Ministers network jointly chaired by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—my Department—and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform.

The role of regional Ministers is described in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain”, published on 3 July. They will: be a visible presence in the region; provide leadership in relation to specific issues; promote national policies regionally; maintain close relationships with relevant regional stakeholders such as regional development agencies; promote achievement of the Government’s regional economic performance objectives; and advise my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on the approval of regional strategies and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on RDA board appointments.

The hon. Gentleman is making a case, but it is literally incredible. The Minister for the West Midlands added nothing to the debate about flooding in the west midlands. His Cabinet colleagues and Ministers in other Departments did, but he did nothing whatever. He does not even reply to letters from Members. He is not accountable and he is adding no value. The system that the hon. Gentleman is describing does not exist in practice, and I wish that he would realise that.

I think that the hon. Gentleman is being unfair. I do not personally like hon. Members in any part of this House talking in those terms about others who are not here to defend themselves.

Order. Let me get one thing straight for the record. It is not the case that any particular Minister should be here. It is the Government’s right to put up a Minister to answer the Adjournment debate. There is a Minister here, everything is in order, and it has been good-natured so far.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was accused of attacking an hon. Member in his absence. I was not doing that; I was attacking the system, not the individual.

I shall make only one intervention. I know that the Minister is coming to the important point raised by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) about accountability in this House. But one day the Minister will find himself a Member of Parliament under a Conservative Administration, and when we are in office I am sure that he will want the same effective access to a regional Minister that he has at the moment under a Labour Government. Will he assure me that shire counties, particularly those with Conservative local authorities and Conservative MPs, will not face a second-class service from regional Ministers compared with that enjoyed by our Labour colleagues?

As the Member representing Gloucester, in a shire county, I can say that we have had a good response and good support from our regional Minister, and I believe that that is the case in the other regions as well.

The Government have not sought to micro-manage the role of regional Ministers. It is for regional Ministers to decide how they can contribute most effectively to their region. I know that all regional Ministers have had an extensive series of visits and meetings with key players in their region, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s meeting yesterday will prove useful for him and for what happens in his county. My hon. Friend the Minister for the West Midlands has visited 14 constituencies since he was appointed. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the North East has visited 20 constituencies, and he finds time to be the deputy Chief Whip as well, so it important to mention him. Regional Ministers have used their knowledge, combined with their own substantial experience of their region, to develop their priorities and their own regional style.

Parliamentary accountability of regional Ministers has been the subject of some speculation. In “The Governance of Britain” we make clear the Government’s view that regional Ministers should be accountable through parliamentary questions and scrutiny by parliamentary Committee. In common with last year’s Communities and Local Government Committee report on regional government, the Government believe that one means of achieving such scrutiny could be the establishment of nine regional select committees. Furthermore, in the sub-national review, we also made clear our support for greater parliamentary scrutiny of regional institutions and regional economic policy. That process too could be Committee-based, on either the Select Committee or the Standing Committee model. I would be interested to hear the views of the hon. Gentleman, and those of Members throughout the House, as to the best way of doing that.

The Government have made clear their position on greater scrutiny of regional institutions. The exact details are now a matter for Parliament, and I hope that hon. Members who are genuinely interested in this debate will take the opportunity to articulate their views. I welcome the Modernisation Committee’s announcement in October of its inquiry into regional accountability. The Government will be submitting their evidence in due course. I have no doubt that the Modernisation Committee will also consider whether there should be any changes to the current position on parliamentary questions put to regional Ministers, which are at present answered on their behalf by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, although such questions do go through a process of being seen by regional Ministers as well. I look forward to the Committee's inquiry—

The motion having been made after Ten o’clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Eleven o’clock.