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Regional Accountability

Volume 482: debated on Wednesday 12 November 2008

Before I call the Leader of the House, I should say that Mr. Speaker’s selection of amendments has been published and is available to all Members. I do not intend to read out those amendments. All questions on the motions and amendments selected for Division will be put at the end of the debate.

I beg to move motion 3,

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); 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.

With this we will consider the following:

Amendment (c) in line 3, leave out from ‘282)’ to ‘opportunities’ in line 10 and insert—

‘approves the proposals for regional grand committees for each English region set out in the response from the Government contained in the White Paper, Regional Accountability (Cm. 7376); and considers that’.

Amendment ((a) in line 6, after ‘(Cm 7376)’, insert—

‘except that Chairmen of regional select committees shall not be paid.’.

Motion 4—Regional Select Committees

That the following new Standing Order and amendment to temporary Standing Orders be made, with effect from 1st January 2009 until the end of the current Parliament—

A. New Standing Order

Regional select committees

(1) Select committees shall be appointed to examine regional strategies and the work of regional bodies for each of the following English regions:

(a) East Midlands

(b) East of England

(c) North East

(d) North West

(e) South East

(f) South West

(g) West Midlands

(h) Yorkshire and the Humber.

(2) Each committee appointed under this order shall consist of not more than nine members; and, unless the House otherwise orders, all Members nominated to a committee shall continue to be members of that committee for the remainder of the Parliament.

(3) A committee appointed under this order shall have power—

(a) to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House, to adjourn to any place within the United Kingdom, and to report from time to time;

(b) to appoint specialist advisers either to supply information which is not readily available or to elucidate matters of complexity within the committee’s order of reference;

(c) to invite—

(i) Members of the House who are not members of the committee but represent constituencies within the region in respect of which it is appointed, and

(ii) specified elected councillors from the region in respect of which it is appointed

to attend and participate in its proceedings at specified meetings (but not to move motions or amendments, vote or be counted in the quorum).

B. Amendment to Temporary Standing Order of 13th July 2005:

Liaison Committee (Membership)

At end add—

(4) In addition to the members appointed under paragraphs (2) and (3) of this order, one Member who is for the time being the Chairman of a Regional Select Committee shall be a member of the Liaison Committee.

(5) The question on a motion in the names of the chairmen of all the Regional Select Committees to nominate a member of the Liaison Committee under paragraph (4) shall be put forthwith and may be decided after the moment of interruption.

Amendment (a), in line 16, at end insert—

‘(i) London’.

Amendment (b), in line 18, after ‘members’, insert—

‘who represent constituencies within the relevant region’.

Amendment (c) in line 20, at end, insert—

‘(2A) In nominating Members to the Committees under this order, the Committee of Selection shall have regard to the proportion of Members of each party representing constituencies in the relevant region;

(2B) Notwithstanding paragraph (2A), the Committee of Selection shall nominate at least one Member from each of the three largest parties to each Committee.’.

Amendment (d) in line 31, leave out from ‘appointed’ to end of line 33.

Motion 5—Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees

That this House expresses the opinion that the Resolution of the House of 30th October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2) should be amended by inserting after ‘(Select committees related to government departments)’ the words ‘or Standing Order (Regional select committees)’.

Motion 6—Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees

That the Resolution of the House of 30th October 2003, relating to Pay for Chairmen of Select Committees (No. 2) be amended by inserting after ‘(Select committees related to government departments)’ the words ‘or Standing Order (Regional select committees)’.

Motion 7—Regional Grand Committees

That the following new Standing Orders be made, with effect from 1st January 2009 until the end of the current Parliament—

A. Regional grand committees

(1) There shall be general committees, called Regional Grand Committees, for each of the following English regions:

(a) East Midlands

(b) East of England

(c) North East

(d) North West

(e) South East

(f) South West

(g) West Midlands

(h) Yorkshire and the Humber

which in each case shall consist of those Members who represent constituencies within the region and up to five other Members nominated by the Committee of Selection, which shall have power from time to time to discharge the Members so nominated by it and to appoint others in their place.

(2) A motion may be made by a Minister of the Crown providing for—

(a) a Regional Grand Committee to sit on a specified day at a specified place in the region to which it relates or at Westminster;

(b) the time and duration of such a sitting; and

(c) the business as provided in paragraph (4) to be conducted at it.

(3) The question on a motion under paragraph (2) shall be put forthwith and may be decided after the moment of interruption.

(4) The business of the committees may include—

(a) questions tabled in accordance with Standing Order (Regional Grand Committees (questions for oral answer));

(b) statements by a Minister of the Crown, in accordance with paragraph (5) below;

(c) general debates on specified matters.

(5) The chairman may permit a Minister of the Crown, whether or not a Member of the House, to make a statement and to answer questions thereon put by members of the committee; but no question shall be taken after the expiry of a period of 45 minutes from the commencement of such a statement.

35 (6) If the House has resolved that the business at a sitting of a committee shall be concluded at a certain hour and it has not otherwise been concluded before that time the chairman shall, at that time, adjourn the committee without question put and any business then under consideration shall lapse.

B. Regional Grand Committees (questions for oral answer)

(1) Notices of questions for oral answer in a Regional Grand Committee by the relevant regional minister, on a day specified in an order made under paragraph (2) of Standing Order (Regional grand committees), may be given by members of the committee in the Table Office.

(2) Notices of questions given under this order shall bear an indication that they are for oral answer in a specific Regional Grand Committee.

(3) No more than one notice of a question may be given under this order by any member of the committee for each day specified for the taking of questions.

(4) On any day so specified, questions shall be taken at the time provided for in an order under paragraph (2) of Standing Order (Regional Grand Committees); no 50 question shall be taken later than three quarters of an hour after the commencement of the proceedings thereon; and replies to questions not reached shall be printed with the official report of the committee’s debates for that day.

(5) Notices of questions under this order may be given ten sitting days before that on which an answer is desired save where otherwise provided by a memorandum under paragraph (8) of Standing Order No. 22 (Notices of questions, motions and amendments), provided that when it is proposed that the House shall adjourn for a period of fewer than four days, any day during that period (other than a Saturday or a Sunday) shall be counted as a sitting day for the purposes of the calculation made under this paragraph.

Amendment ((a), in line 1, after ‘made’, insert

‘and Standing Order No. 117 (Regional Affairs Committee) be suspended’.

Amendment ((b), in line 13 at end insert—

‘(i) London’.

Amendment (c), in line 15 leave out from ‘region’ to end of line 18.

Today, I bring to the House the Government’s proposals on regional accountability, to put in place an effective and visible improvement in the scrutiny and democratic accountability of the public agencies and public policies that operate in the English regions. The reality is that in every region in England there are important public agencies, with budgets of billions of pounds. The decisions that they make, and how they put those decisions into practice, shape the future of the regions and profoundly affect those who live and work in them.

At regional level, those agencies are much bigger than—and are beyond the accountability of—any local authority in the region. The regional development agencies, the strategic health authorities, the Learning and Skills Council and the Highways Agency are big regional beasts. Their regional directors and chief executives are regional “masters of the universe”, with huge budgets. However, they are public bodies spending public money in the public interest, and it is right that they should be publicly accountable through this House to the region that they serve. Both in Parliament and within Government it has been recognised that there is the problem of an “accountability gap” in the regions; now we are seeking to do something about it.

What part of “no” does the Leader of the House not understand following the referendum result in the north-east on elected regional government? Does she not understand that the people of England do not want to be balkanised and regionalised at their own expense?

The right hon. and learned Lady is talking about accountability to the regions. She knows how unhappy many of us in the south-west are about the composition of the south-west regional Select Committee. Will she give me a guarantee that no hon. Member from outside the region will sit on that Committee and that every county in the south-west will be represented on it?

On the composition of the Select Committees, about which I hope to develop an argument if I can proceed with my comments, I can say that they will be Committees of the House and their composition will reflect that of the House.

Speaking as Member of Parliament for a constituency in the north-east, does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that big organisations often set priorities that my constituents neither have any involvement in nor feel that they are a part of, and they believe that through a Select Committee—through me—they have a chance of being heard?

May I take the Leader of the House back to the central question asked by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)? Would not the membership of all these regional Committees have a Government majority, which would inevitably mean that many regions would need to have Members drafted on to them from outside those regions?

The composition of the Committees will be as for all Committees of the House, including the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chaired by the hon. Gentleman.

I will give way a couple more times, but I would like to speak as briefly as possible in order to give hon. Members—[Interruption.] They said that this is a short debate, so it will not take long for them to listen to my comments and then make their own.

If the regions are characterised by masters of the universe with multi-billion-pound budgets, why is the Leader of the House prescribing Select Committees that are recommended not to meet very often and will clearly be pale imitations of the real Select Committees of this House?

I will develop my argument about how these Select Committees will fill the current gap in accountability. The Government have made major increases in investment in the regions, including the establishment of regional development agencies, which we need to hold to account for what they do in each region of England.

My right hon. and learned Friend clearly identifies a democratic deficit, but would it not be more sensible to break up some of these regional bodies and put their resources back into local democracy, from whence they came, instead of setting up expensive, unnecessary and remote Select Committees?

There has been big investment in these regional bodies—strategic health authorities, highways agencies and learning and skills councils—but this investment is additional to the extra funds that have gone to local government.

I will press on with my comments, if I may.

In our current economic climate, it is even more important that we ensure that taxpayers’ money is being used in the most effective and efficient way possible in every region. The regional Committees that we propose plug the accountability gap and provide this House with a means to conduct effective investigations and to make clear recommendations for change, but with the flexibility to meet the differing needs of each of the regions. The motions propose that we should establish regional Select Committees to examine regional strategies and the work of regional bodies. There is no need for a list of bodies that fall within their remit. The key principle is that they should look at the development and implementation of policies where there is a regional aspect to decision making or delivery—that is, where funding or priorities are set regionally or where bodies are organised on a regional basis.

Given that the right hon. and learned Lady is saying that it is important that regional accountability is preserved and that bodies operating regionally are held accountable, how can it be right that Members from outside those regions sit on, or perhaps even chair the Committees? How can that deliver effective regional accountability? It is a travesty.

I hope that hon. Members will not feel that it is a travesty when we have regional Select Committees that allow this House to hold those regional organisations to account, as well as regional Grand Committees that involve all Members from the region.

Let me press on with my explanation of our proposals.

Concern has been expressed about the scope for overlap between the work of the regional Committees and the work of the departmental Select Committees. In order to minimise that, the motion invites the House to endorse the expectation that regional Select Committees will meet less frequently than departmental Select Committees and provides for only one of the regional Committee Chairs to serve on the Liaison Committee. We propose that each Committee should have up to nine members, nominated by the Committee of Selection in the usual way. As with all Committees of the House, their membership will reflect the composition of the House. That is the long-established practice of the House in relation to Select Committees of all kinds, including the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees.

I thank the Leader of the House for giving way, which prevents me from having to make a substantive speech. In light of the Government’s decision to pack the regional Select Committees with Labour Members from outside those regions, and given the problems of obtaining a quorum for many Select Committees, what guarantee can she give that those Labour Members will turn up?

I absolutely refute the idea that the Committees will be packed with Labour Members from outside the regions concerned.

Perhaps I will not give way again if it is merely an opportunity for hon. Members not to need to make their own speeches, which I am sure that the House wants to hear.

I welcome the regional Select Committees. Given that the motion says that they will come into effect from 1 January 2009, may I invite my right hon. and learned Friend to treat as a matter of urgency the calling of the Scottish Grand Committee, which has not met for some time and needs to meet to discuss some very important issues concerning Scotland? I look forward to seeing that on the Order Paper in the new year.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will certainly consider bringing that forward.

We propose that these new regional Select Committees should be able, if they wish, to link up with local authorities. The motion therefore gives regional Select Committees the power, if they so wish, to invite local councillors to participate in their meetings but not to move any motions or amendments, vote, or count towards the quorum.

While the motions to establish regional Select Committees present the House with an opportunity to provide for detailed investigations into and reporting on agencies and action at regional level, we want to ensure that all Members in a region can be involved in greater regional accountability. We therefore propose that as well as the regional Select Committees, we establish regional Grand Committees to include all Members from the region. The regional Grand Committees will be a forum to consider the “state of the region” and would meet annually, or twice a year if the need arose. As with regional Select Committees, we expect that they will generally meet in the region, taking Parliament out of Westminster and into the regions.

Regional Grand Committees will be able to hold wide-ranging debates and statements on regional issues, and provide Members in that region with an opportunity to put oral questions to regional Ministers to hold them to account for their work in fulfilling the responsibilities set out in the “Governance of Britain” Green Paper. That will meet our commitment that they should be directly accountable to Parliament in that role. The resolution we are considering today, and the Modernisation Committee—

I totally disagree with the idea of any of these regional Committees, but given that the Leader of the House, like me, is a London Member, what is the rationale behind the Government’s thinking that there should not be a London Committee? There will be Committees for all the other regions, and we already have Committees for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point that as a London Member he opposes the idea of a regional Select Committee in London. None the less, he is complaining that it is not on the Order Paper—presumably, so that he could vote against it. I will say something about London in a moment.

The resolution that we are considering, and the Modernisation Committee inquiry, covers only the eight English regions. It does not cover Scotland, Wales or London, each of which have different governance arrangements. Scotland and Wales already have Grand and Select Committees tailored to each. London has different governance from the eight English regions, and I intend that following on from this resolution, we should turn our attention to London and get on with making arrangements for deepening the scrutiny of pan-London organisations, such as the strategic health authority. Following consultation, we will bring forward proposals to the House early in the new year.

The proposals we are putting to the House today strengthen regional accountability to this House. They will provide every hon. Member who represents a constituency in the English regions an opportunity to participate in the scrutiny of regional policy and regional expenditure, alongside more detailed scrutiny by regional Select Committees. The resolution establishes these regional Committees only for the lifetime of this Parliament, at the end of which there will be the opportunity to review them and see how they have worked. I commend them to the House.

I beg to move amendment (c) to motion 3, in line 3, leave out from ‘282)’ to ‘opportunities’ in line 10 and insert—

‘approves the proposals for regional grand committees for each English region set out in the response from the Government contained in the White Paper, Regional Accountability (Cm. 7376); and considers that’.

I will speak to the motion and the amendments, including the one standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara). I am conscious of the desire of many Members to make their voices heard in this debate, so I will aim to restrict my remarks. I will not address the issue of whether the regions in question are the right ones, or whether some of the regional bodies that the Select Committees are due to hold to account should exist in their current form—a matter about which I have severe doubts. I also will not address the fact that the hole in regional accountability that the Government seem to think needs fixing is there only because of the way in which they have consistently set up new regional bodies to take responsibilities from this House and local authorities.

I will address whether the way forward is through regional Select Committees. Before I do that, it is important to set the matter in context. We need to remember that regional Select Committees were first proposed in a statement made to the House in July 2007 by the Prime Minister. That statement was accompanied by a Green Paper, “The Governance of Britain”, from the Ministry of Justice. It proposed regional Select Committees as a means of achieving formal and consistent parliamentary scrutiny, not only of regional policy but of regional Ministers—new posts created by this Prime Minister. I shall not go into great detail on that issue. Suffice it to say, I believe that regional Ministers should be held to account for what they do, through oral questions regularly either in this House or in Westminster Hall, not through oral questions to regional Grand Committees that take place only twice a year, as proposed by the Government. We need to be able to hold those Ministers to account in a better way.

As was referred to in the previous debate, the issue was discussed at considerable length in the Modernisation Committee, and as a member of that Committee, I sat through evidence from regional bodies, the House authorities and Chairmen of existing Select Committees. It was absolutely clear that no case was made for regional Select Committees as the answer to the problem of the need for increased regional accountability. There was no consensus on the move to regional Select Committees, and the Modernisation Committee, in its report, raised severe doubts about the impact of regional Select Committees. It referred to

“practical challenges in their creation, including: the risk of disrupting existing departmental select committee business; the potential to distract public bodies and agencies working in the regions from their core activities and central lines of accountability; the possibility of duplicating scrutiny work already being undertaken in the regions; the additional burden on Members’ time and workload; increased demands on House resources”.

Given the reservations of the Modernisation Committee, it is all the more important that the House knows that this proposal, which originated from a policy proposal of the Prime Minister and the Government, was pushed through the Committee on the Chairman’s casting vote—the Chairman being, of course, the Leader of the House. There was no consensus for change. You may call me old-fashioned, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I happen to think, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) said during the earlier debate, that when we are changing the structure of the House, Select Committees or other matters relating to the House, the Leader of the House should aim for consensus among the parties, so that there is general acceptance of the proposals in this House.

Did my right hon. Friend notice that, far from aiming at consensus, the Leader of the House ignored the fact that the majority of Back Benchers—those not paid on the Committee—voted against the proposition? She got it through not only by her own vote, but by the vote of her Parliamentary Private Secretary, who is now her assistant.

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point, and I would add that the Government, in order to get the vote through, had to change the membership of the Select Committee the night before the vote to ensure that one Labour Member, who presumably was unable to attend, was taken off the Committee, and that a Member who was able to attend was put on to it. That Member was not present for any of the evidence sessions taken by the Committee, but voted on those proposals.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that the Labour Government seem to have this awful fear of England? They devolved power to Wales and to Scotland, but they will not devolve any power to England. Instead, they want to break it up.

My right hon. Friend’s point leads neatly into my next comment, which is that the unwritten intention behind the Prime Minister’s proposal was to find a solution to the West Lothian question. The message we should send clearly to the Leader of the House is that whatever else the expensive new structure will do, it will not answer the West Lothian question.

The right hon. Lady said that no case had been made. I put this view to her:

“the proposals for regional select committees is critical for full accountability and…a step change in service delivery.”

That view comes from the West Midlands Business Council. Why does she disagree with the top 23 business organisations in the west midlands?

If the hon. Gentleman would like to wait a while, I shall come on to why I think that Select Committees are not the answer.

What will these regional Select Committees actually do? Are they to scrutinise Government regional policy, such as what the Government are telling the regional development agencies to do? If so, that role is already being carried out by existing Select Committees. Regional development agencies are accountable to the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise, which is ably chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). Moreover, the Select Committees hold a significant number of their meetings in the regions. If the regional Committees are not to scrutinise Government policy, which is already scrutinised by existing Select Committees, what will they do? Will they allow hon. Members to question decisions taken by regional bodies in their area? A better way of doing that would be in regional Grand Committees, where all Members can be present to discuss the issue, and not in a Select Committee, where a limited number of Members—not all of whom will be from that region—will be present.

Did the Modernisation Committee have the opportunity to reflect on the original role, under a previous Standing Order, of the Regional Affairs Committee, which was presumably established to provide the level of scrutiny that the Government said that they required at that stage? It has not sat since 2004—on the day of the north-east referendum, in fact. Is that not a test of the Government’s sincerity in their wish for regional scrutiny?

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point. One could argue that the Government’s proposal is more about creating positions and chairmanships for Labour Back Benchers than proper regional scrutiny.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the real reproach to regional Select Committees is that they are, to use a Yorkshire expression, neither nowt nor summat? They are not fully fledged Select Committees, but a sort of imitation of them. They must co-opt councillors by an unspecified method—God knows how we would choose them. They are enjoined specifically to meet only now and again. Is that not bizarre? Should the Government not make up their mind about whether committees are a good or bad idea, and then we could make a decision about something real?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point and highlights one of the problems at the heart of the Government’s proposals.

The evidence that we took in the Modernisation Committee cast genuine doubt on the value of regional Select Committees and their ability to do the job that the Government claim that they can do. In his evidence, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire, as Chairman of the Business and Enterprise Committee, said:

“It is very important we plug the gap in a way that does not actually undermine the role of mainstream departmental select committees. Their policy oversight role must not be compromised by new committees, whatever form they take”.

My fear is that their policy oversight role will be compromised. When the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), was Chairman of the Liaison Committee, he added to that point by saying that,

“what we are worried about is the problem of overlap, conflict for resources and priority of access to witnesses”.

Experienced Members expressed serious doubts about the ability of regional Select Committees to operate in a way that would not damage work that the House is already doing. The Government and the Leader of the House should heed the warnings of those with experience in such matters.

The right hon. Lady refers to some of the evidence that the Select Committee heard, but does she recall the considerable volume of evidence that called for the establishment of regional Select Committees, not least from the regional development agencies? They felt that they were not being held adequately to account and that regional Committees were needed for their good governance as much as for our scrutiny of their work.

Evidence from the regional development agencies was not universally in one direction about the sort of body that should be established. They identified a problem of regional accountability, but not all said that regional Committees were the answer. The hon. Gentleman, who sat on the Modernisation Committee and heard the evidence, may cite the regional development agencies, but Members with experience of the operation of Select Committees cast genuine doubt on the ability of regional Select Committees, albeit meeting only a few times a year, to conduct their business in a way that did the job that the Government claim they could do.

I should like to make a little more progress because I am conscious of the time, and I do not want to sit down before I have made a point about the strain that regional Select Committees will put on the House. That is important. There is already difficulty in finding people to fill existing Committee posts, yet we propose the creation of 72 new posts. Problems with filling vacancies will not be helped by the proposal. Indeed, there is a danger that the Committees could find themselves in the farcical position of not having enough members or being inquorate, and that would have an impact on witnesses and perceptions of the House.

We also need to consider the House’s resources. The Management Board has made it clear that there would need to be new staff. Existing Clerks could take up some of the work load, but many new staff would need to be recruited, hired, trained and so on.

That brings me to cost. We are told that the annual running costs of the Committees could amount to just over £1 million. I suspect that it would be considerably higher. Together with the outlay on regional Grand Committees, which the Government also propose, the bill will fast approach £1.5 million if not £2 million a year. That money could be rather better spent.

To plug the regional accountability gap, we need go no further than setting up regional Grand Committees, which would give every Member in a region the opportunity to make their views known about what was being done by bodies in their region. Every part of a region would be represented, and we would avoid the position that could arise with the regional Select Committees, whereby people from outside the region may be included to maintain the Government’s majority. The Grand Committees would not need to meet so often, and their running costs would be significantly lower than those of the regional Select Committees.

Let me consider the amendments that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) tabled. Select Committees should comprise Members, not members of local authorities co-opted on to them. If the hon. Gentleman pressed that, I would support him. I also support amendment (a) about Chairmen’s pay. It is proposed to pay them in the same way as the Chairmen of other Select Committees, which would meet much more frequently and have a far greater work load. The House should reject that.

Is it not slightly curious that Members of the European Parliament, who have, by definition, a regional mandate and deal with many issues that are relevant to the regions, are not among those who could be co-opted on to a regional Select Committee?

As a former Member of that august body, my right hon. Friend has much experience of the input of Members of the European Parliament in the regions.

Regional Select Committees would duplicate the work of existing Committees and risk disrupting the work of departmental Select Committees. They would duplicate the scrutiny work that already takes place in the regions, significantly increase the demands on House resources and place a greater burden on Members’ time, taking more Members away from the Chamber. They are not the collective wish of the Modernisation Committee. The Government are introducing them for their own ends, not in the House’s interest, and the House should reject them.

Order. I remind hon. Members that Mr. Speaker has placed a five-minute limit on Back Benchers’ speeches, which operates from now.

I greatly welcome the proposal to introduce regional Select Committees for two simple reasons: they will plug a clear gap in accountability and oversight, and they will help Members of Parliament in the regions to serve our constituents more effectively.

Many issues come to us as regional Members of Parliament that we cannot easily tackle at a regional level. If issues that are unique to our constituencies arise, that is fine—we have easy access to the public authorities that deal with them. If national issues arise in our constituencies, we can raise them here. However, many issues are regional, and we do not have the means through Parliament, or our role as Members of Parliament, to hold regional organisations to account.

Members of Parliament are not the only ones to want access to regional organisations; many regional organisations want the opportunity to meet regional Members of Parliament and would welcome the introduction of regional Select Committees. They cannot bring together Members of Parliament from the regions, but a forum such as that the one the proposal envisages would provide an opportunity to do that.

Cross-departmental co-ordination is essential. The Government are therefore right to appoint regional Ministers, but, to complete the circle of accountability, those Ministers should also appear before regional Select Committees.

A considerable gap exists. The regional authorities in the west midlands spend tens of billions of pounds. Parliament could spend a small amount of money to help secure proper accountability for a vast amount of public spending. The structure of who does what in the regions can be difficult for Members of Parliament to navigate. Parliamentary oversight might help achieve greater co-ordination between the different organisations that work in the regions, and even some rationalisation.

If the organisations in a region are keen to be scrutinised in the way in which the proposal suggests, perhaps we should consider whether asking poachers what sort of gamekeeper they would like to monitor them is a good idea. If regional organisations are so keen on regional Select Committees, its is perhaps because they do not believe that those committees will scrutinise them and hold them to account effectively.

The hon. Gentleman underestimates the ability of parliamentary Select Committees to get to grips with an issue. Experience shows that they are adept at getting to the heart of issues, and he should not underestimate their abilities.

If we take the main players in the west midlands as a case in point, we will see the scale of the gap that this proposal seeks to plug. Advantage West Midlands has a £300 million pound budget, and is running 2,500 projects. It recently launched the west midlands economic strategy, which will run until 2011 and is designed to plug a £10 billion output gap in the region. Why should not the region’s MPs be involved in the oversight and delivery of that strategy, which is critically important to our constituents? It involves skills, enterprise, innovation, transport and economic inclusion issues, which are not easy to grasp in a group, other than through the creation of these Committees.

There are six sub-regional regeneration zones, with 19 different organisations involved. We need a regional Select Committee to give us, the region’s MPs, the chance to get to grips with that array of bodies. The Government office for the west midlands joins 10 different Departments in the region and grapples with major issues of planning and transport, and the region’s MPs need better oversight of it. The learning and skills council for the west midlands has a large budget and a strategy involving employers, young people, adults, colleges and providers. The council also addresses 12 sector skills areas that are also of critical importance to the businesses in the region and another reason why we need the ability to scrutinise it. Incidentally, the learning and skills council has six local offices, each with an economic development team.

All other aspects of regional structure are in place. Local government has its regional assembly. The MEPs, as has been mentioned, have a regional role defined by their constituencies. The Departments have the Government office for the west midlands, and Ministers have an oversight within the region. Parliament is the missing bit of the jigsaw, but it should be holding all the others to account. That is what we must put right, in the interests of ensuring proper parliamentary accountability of the Executive in all their manifestations. We must do that in the interests of better helping us to represent our constituents and, in the interests of making our region and all those working in it, operate for the benefit of the people whom we represent in this Parliament.

This is an important debate, which is why it is a disgrace that we have only an hour and a half for it. Many Members will not have the say that they want to have, and should have. I ask the House to accept amendments (b) and (c) to motion 4, and amendment (c) to motion 7, tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The Government are in their present difficulties because they have never properly grasped the need to address devolution in England. They honourably and rightly—if eventually and under pressure—realised that devolution was necessary for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. I note that devolution to those places gave them proportional representation for their Parliaments and Assemblies, so that they are representative of the people whom they represent. London also has a degree of devolution, introduced by this Government, that is representative of the people of London and provides an element of accountability. But this Government have never understood the need for devolution in England. Until they understand that, they will not command the necessary support in this House for their proposals.

There are different views about how to achieve that devolution for England. Some of my colleagues would prefer a form of regional government, but that was tried—and clearly did not succeed—in the north-east. Some of us believe in an English Parliament, but that suggestion requires constitutional deliberation on how to complete devolution across the United Kingdom. In the absence of such structures, it is right to have a way of holding to account regional bodies, including the quangos and strategic bodies that are not held to account at present. The Government have further failed to grasp the central obligation that follows from that—that those bodies should be held to account by representatives from each region who are chosen by the people of that region.

My party would argue that those representatives should reflect the votes in those regions, but in three regions the Government came second or third in share of the vote at the last general election. Even if we do not win that argument, the Government should at least propose Select Committees that reflect the balance of political representation in each region, which differ hugely from each other. The Committees should also reflect the differences between the regions, but the Leader of the House—as she confirmed earlier in an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—has failed to accept that.

We propose that the same principle should apply that—it could be argued—currently applies to the Scottish and Welsh Committees. Scotland and Wales have a majority of Labour Members, and so do the Committees. Northern Ireland has never had the benefit of a fair system: there are nine MPs from the Democratic Unionist party and nine others, but that balance is not reflected on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

It is now proposed that the Government should have a majority on the regional Committee for every one of the eight regions of England. At the last general election, the Government did not win the largest share of the vote in the east, south-east or south-west of England. Indeed, they came third in the south-east and the south-west—regions with millions of people. The Government are trying to impose their majority in all of England, when they do not have a majority in every region. Worse, they are trying to fiddle the system so that they can bus in colleagues from other regions to make up their majority. They are insisting that the Grand Committees, made up of all the Members from every party, should have up to five other nominated members. Not content with corrupting the balance on the Select Committees, the Government also want to pervert the balance of the Grand Committees. The Leader of the House must understand that that is causing the greatest offence and suggests great disrespect to the people in many of the regions, some of whom already think that their region is an artificial creation or difficult to accept. They are being told that not only do they have to accept those artificially created regions, but that they will have imposed on them a Government majority, no matter how they have voted in the past.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Leader of the House is wrong to make a direct comparison with other Select Committees? They are subject-based and therefore properly represent the whole of the House of Commons. The new Committees would be regionally based and, therefore, should represent those who have an interest in that region.

The right hon. Gentleman is right. That is why we have also argued that the Chairmen of the new Committees should not be paid the same as the Chairmen of a UK-wide subject-based Committee. Eight new Committees are proposed, so we suggested that the Chairmen should be paid an eighth of what the other Chairmen are paid. If that is not accepted, we share the view of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that, at least to start with, those posts should not be remunerated. Otherwise, we will just be accused of creating more jobs at public expense.

May I make a point to endorse what was said by the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May)? We have 41 Select Committees. If we agree to this proposal, there will be 49. There will then be a Speaker’s Conference, with the same powers as a Select Committee, which makes 50. There will be 72 more members of Select Committees as a result of such a decision being taken today, and more as a result of there being a Speaker’s Conference, which we are to appoint later.

At the moment, 159 colleagues serve on more than one Select Committee, eight serve on as many as four and I have to tell you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you are not aware of it, that many Committees struggle to achieve an adequate attendance. It does the credibility of the House no good to have a small and sometimes inquorate number of colleagues on Committees sitting to take evidence from whomever we call. That is not good for our reputation and it is why we ask the Leader of the House, before adding another range of Select Committees to our armoury, to defer all these debates until we can review the workings of Select Committees generally.

I remind my hon. Friend that we are looking at establishing regional Select Committees to replace the regional assemblies, which many people in my constituency considered far too remote, indirectly elected and unaccountable to the needs of their local area. Does he share my consternation in relation to how a regional Select Committee, which might contain Members who do not even represent part of the region concerned and which will have no direct democratic accountability, might be considered preferable by any of my constituents? I sincerely doubt that they will consider it satisfactory.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friends from the south-west have the strongest reasons for objecting to the way this is going to work out. The south-west stretches from Tewkesbury in the north and Swindon in the east down to the Isles of Scilly. At the last election, Labour won 13 seats, we won 16 and Conservatives won 22, so Labour has the least number of seats, but it is now being proposed that, instead of the regional assembly, Labour colleagues will dominate a Committee representing an area of that size. By definition, that means that Conservative and Liberal Democrat Members cannot be chosen to represent Somerset, Cornwall, Devon, Gloucestershire and the other areas—it cannot happen. The people of those regions and the organisations of those counties will look to a Select Committee to look after their interests, but that cannot be done because, as anyone in the House knows, the interests of Cornwall might be different from those of Gloucestershire.

Friends often make the point to me, which I think is correct, that the population of that region is bigger than that of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe that the area is bigger geographically than two of those three countries, and the distance—I am often reminded—from Scilly to Bristol is greater than that from Bristol to Scotland. I hope that I am indicating that a common, one-size-fits-all answer is entirely inappropriate.

I want to make three last points.

No, I am conscious of the time. I respect the hon. Gentleman’s interest, but will he please bear with me?

The regions are hugely different too. The north-east, which has 30 MPs, has fewer than half as many as the south-east, yet we are saying that the Committee must have the same structure, the same number of MPs involved and, yes, the same blessed Labour majority.

I thank my fellow member of the Modernisation Committee for giving way. Does he not accept that the strength and credibility of Select Committees are enormously enhanced by the fact that when they are critical of the Government, as they often are, either directly or indirectly, that happens despite them having a Government majority? [Interruption.] I am making a serious point. Does he not accept that if they are seen as being merely partisan, which they will be if they have majorities of the sort that he suggests, they will easily be dismissed by the Government in a most unfortunate way?

I have heard disingenuous arguments, but that is about the most disingenuous I have ever heard. No, I do not accept that for a moment. The worst thing is that, having set up this structure, which we support in principle, we will end up losing all credibility, because it will distort political representation. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what makes things worse. He will have read the reports; I have one here, written by Patrick Wintour in The Guardian of Tuesday this week. The headline is, “Chief whip plans to punish rebellious Labour backbenchers”, and the report states:

“The government was under fire last night after it emerged that the new chief whip, Nick Brown, is proposing that any Labour MP voting against the government in the past year will not be recommended to sit on all-party parliamentary select committees.”

There are different views around the House as to whether that is a bribe or a punishment, but the point is that Select Committees should have the independence of mind to have on them the people who will form a view in the interests of those whom they represent. The Government are abusing that, first, by ensuring that there is a Government majority and, secondly, by then saying that they will put on the Select Committees, if they can find them, only people who will support the Government.

This is a very sad day: when we could have been working out together—in good time and with consensus—a way forward to achieve proper regional accountability, we have, in the end, the Government using the steamroller of their majority and the payroll vote.

I have a final postscript. I share the Leader of the House’s view that it is not appropriate to deal with London today, although that is the only issue on which we share common ground. London has some devolved government and the London assembly. It is therefore appropriate that London should be dealt with on a different occasion and in a different way.


As for the rest, I hope that colleagues will vote for many of the amendments on the Order Paper. At least then we can rescue the Government from their mistakes. Otherwise, we will be completely abusing the opportunity that we have to provide decent regional accountability.

I have tabled three amendments. The first draws attention to the fact that there is an injunction, as it were, that the Committees should not meet very often. That is absurd. If I were serving on such a Committee, I would not be constrained by that request—or, rather, hope—but would want to stretch the envelope to the maximum to ensure that the Committee was at least of some value. The proposal is nonsense and shows that the idea has not been fully thought through. I will not divide the House on that amendment, but I mention it to highlight my other amendments. If I am right in my judgment that the envelope will not be stretched, why should we pay the Chairmen of those Committees the same as we pay the Chairmen of departmental Select Committees? The idea is simply bonkers.

In addition, there is the high payroll vote, which has already been referred to—I discovered in 2005 that 144 hon. Members were not on the basic MP’s pay, and the figure must be a lot higher now. I urge hon. Members to reflect on that, because it is very unhealthy to say the least. There is also the paradox of the Deputy Leader of the House, who is not paid a bean for his ministerial role, advocating that Chairmen should be paid. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his salary for his friends. The growth of the payroll vote and the patronage that goes with it is very unhealthy.

I hope to divide the House on my amendment dealing with that issue, because, even if I am wrong in my judgment that those Chairmen should not be paid at all, if the House accepts my amendment, there can be a period of reflection. Perhaps they should be paid a per diem, but not on the same rate as the Chairs of the departmental Committees. I hope that I will take the House with me on that.

My second concern of substance is the provision in the proposed Standing Order that would allow a regional Committee to invite

“specified elected councillors from the region in respect of which it is appointed…to attend and participate”.

Have we no pride? I fought hard to get elected to this place. It was five general elections before I got elected. I am proud to be a Member of Parliament and my duties as a Member of Parliament are indivisible. Councillors’ jobs are very important, but we should not blur the issues by bringing the two together. I urge hon. Members to stand up for Parliament and be jealous of their rights and privileges.


Privileges are important, because what happens under parliamentary privilege? I can be admonished by the House if I abuse parliamentary privilege. We are self-regulating. How can you deal with someone who is not a Member of this House, but who abuses parliamentary privilege, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Will we have a separate register of interests for these people? The idea has not been thought through, which is why I hope that we will reject it, if for no other reason than that.

When I was a young councillor, I would have been proud to serve on a parliamentary Committee—I would have given my right hand to do so—but I was very partisan and saw it as my mission to get elected to this place. We can imagine the councillors coming in, taking on the Minister here and the official there, but that will diminish what I hope we try to do, which is to leave our party allegiances at the Committee Room door. I do not know whether there are any Scottish or Welsh Members in the Chamber, but if having elected councillors is good for me in Essex, I shall similarly be proposing that some people from Scottish local authorities and assemblies should serve on the Scottish Affairs Select Committee, too. What is being proposed really is mad, so I ask hon. Members to join me in the Lobby against those two proposals.

My final point is about Members of Parliament who are not from the region concerned serving on, say, the south-west regional Committee. I have asked myself, “Could I possibly do this?” In my judgment, I would have to be stark staring bonkers to go and serve on a Committee covering a region of which my constituency formed no part. Surely we are all busy. I must say that those who sign up will do so with full knowledge and consent, and will be subject to criticism by their electors. Their electors will ask: “What the devil are you doing focusing on that region and not ours?”

Earlier, one of the Whips muttered to me, “What about Ireland?” That is a different situation, because the question of Northern Ireland is demonstrably, because of its history, a United Kingdom matter. However, when people go from one region to another, they will be subject to criticism. They must remember that they have to agree under Standing Orders to serve on a Committee, so they cannot blame the Whips or hide behind them, or excuse themselves. They will have signed up, so they can be subject to criticism.